Public Expenditure

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 8:24 pm on 9th February 1989.

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Photo of Hilary Armstrong Hilary Armstrong Shadow Spokesperson (Business, Innovation and Skills), Shadow Spokesperson 8:24 pm, 9th February 1989

I am happy to accept the Chief Secretary's assessment of what happened, but other people will have their own assessment and history will decide.

It is clear to the Opposition that priorities have not been assessed in a clear, cool way, in which it is decided what the needs are and what is the most effective way for a civilised society to meet those needs. An example is the way in which the Government have responded to the crisis in the Health Service. Some of my hon. Friends were concerned that the review of the Health Service had been created by the Opposition and by the rather painful experiences that the Prime Minister had at the Dispatch Box at the end of 1987 and the beginning of 1988. As a result of very unequal decision-making processes, we have, therefore, an unequal and divided society.

Our society is divided between north and south and between those who are doing well under the Government's economy and those who are not. For the Government not to acknowledge that substantial numbers of people in our society are paying a very dear price for the successes of the economy is staggering; that is what I was angry about earlier this evening.

Often, what is seen as efficiency by the Government is experienced as real deprivation by the people who happen to be at the other end of it. I shall give an example. It was decided to close small unemployment benefit offices in villages in my constituency. The Government have done that as a matter of efficiency, and they are saving the magnificent sum of £2,000 a year. The cost to those unemployed people, just in bus fares, is about £11,000 a year. That means that those individuals will have to pay additional bus fares out of their benefit. A bus fare of £1·50 will not kill the Chief Secretary or myself, but if one is on unemployment benefit, the loss of that money every week or fortnight is significant. The Government are telling us that they are being efficient and saving money, but the cost to the individual is substantial. There is also a cost to the local economy and, therefore, to the ability of the local economy to regenerate and build up. It may be short-term efficiency for the Government, but in terms of the economy overall, it is a short-sighted, puny and vindictive measure.

We have heard something about squalor. I am not so interested, in this case, in the litter problem. I am interested in the squalid society that we seem prepared to tolerate. I have spent my lunchtime talking to people from the National Children's Home and Dr. Barnardo's and we talked about those young people who have left care and who are trying to live in the community. If they are not on a youth training scheme, they are entitled to nothing from the state and they are the victims. It is not their fault that they have ended up in care. Most of them ended up in care for a series of reasons over which they have little control, but they are being punished now. They are being punished in a way that I, as a politician, am ashamed to even have to discuss with them because I find it completely indefensible in a society that proclaims itself to be successful and prosperous.

Of course the economy of the north has been growing and changing. It has been changing significantly, and we welcome many of the changes. We welcome the diversity in the economy and we welcome an economy that is moving towards not being dependent on one industry; but I would also argue that we could have moved towards diversification without destroying some of our industries and without destroying the skill base. We have benefited from the drip-down effects of prosperity elsewhere, but the effect is that in my constituency the level of skills is lower than it ever was. There has been investment through the Manpower Services Commission and the youth training scheme. The Chief Secretary will know that there has been a relatively high proportion of investment through the MSC in my constituency, but we have not ended up with the quality of training and the quality of skill that we should be demanding of any training programme that we are developing in this decade or century.

In my constituency, the level of wages is significantly lower than it was 10 years ago. Conservative Members may be confused by that, so I shall give an example. A man who was a labourer in the steelworks is today earning what he earned eight years ago. He is now a foreman in one of the new factories and his take-home pay is exactly the same. No hon. Member can tell me that that is prosperity. What is the role of public expenditure in that? We have been arguing consistently with the Government that the economy is not at a stage where it can take off in the north.