HC Deb 29 November 1999 vol 340 cc17-8
15. Miss Julie Kirkbride (Bromsgrove)

If he will make a statement on the gap between the rich and the poor, as measured by household income. [99077]

The Minister of State, Department of Social Security (Mr. Jeff Rooker)

The gap between rich and poor widened dramatically in the 1980s. We are, as a Government, serious about creating a fairer society—an aim that I hope the hon. Lady shares. We want all our citizens to have the opportunities to maximise their potential and we want to create a society in which all can share in the growing prosperity of the nation. The facts on poverty and social exclusion in this country are absolutely shocking; we intend to address them.

Miss Kirkbride

As usual, the hon. Gentleman did not answer the question. Before the election, the Labour party made great play of the fact that the gap between the rich and the poor was widening. That is still true under this Labour Government and it must increasingly be true while state benefits—some people will always rely on state benefits—increase according to inflation and the market increases salaries by a greater percentage. Is it not one of the great Labour lies that his Government will do anything to reduce the gap between the rich and the poor?

Mr. Rooker

I regret that the hon. Lady takes that approach. It is a fact that we have taken hundreds of thousands of children out of poverty, have introduced the working families tax credit so that no one else will ever be better off on benefit than in work—that must make a substantial difference—and are the first Government to produce a poverty audit of this country. In effect, that was an audit of the legacy of the previous Government, for which we are prepared to be accountable year in, year out. Between 1979 and 1995 –96, the share of income received by the bottom 20 per cent. of the population went down from 9.8 per cent. to 6.7 per cent. while the share of the top 20 per cent. went up from 35 per cent. to 41 per cent. I do not know how the hon. Lady had the brass neck to ask her question.

Mr. David Winnick (Walsall, North)

Would it not be appropriate for every Tory Member in the Chamber to apologise for the appalling poverty into which so many people—my constituents and others—were forced as a result of Tory policies during their 18 years in government? Does my hon. Friend expect any such apology to be made by any Tory Member from the Front or Back Benches?

Mr. Rooker

I expect it, but I suspect that it will not happen.

Dr. Julian Lewis (New Forest, East)

Will the Minister depart for a moment from ploughing through his set text to answer the question asked by my hon. Friend the Member for Bromsgrove (Miss Kirkbride)? She referred to the increasing gap between the rich and the poor under this Government. Is it not a fact that the latest survey of households on below average income shows that the gap between rich and poor is increasing under this Government? Will he nominate—or will he even take a flier at guessing—which year the Government will succeed in closing that gap rather making it wider?

Mr. Rooker

I answered the question that I was asked. I was asked to make a statement on the gap, and, as I said, it is too wide. Although I thought that the hon. Gentleman was bright enough to do so, he cannot take on board the fact that, as everyone knows, for the first two years of this Administration we kept to the spending limits of the previous Government —

Mr. Eric Forth (Bromley and Chislehurst)

It was the Government's choice.

Mr. Rooker

Yes, it was our choice. We kept to those spending limits and the policies of the previous Government will permeate for some time to come. There is no doubt about that. Everything—[Interruption.] I am telling the truth. Everything cannot be solved in 32 months.