United Kingdom (Inequalities)

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 1:25 pm on 8th July 1994.

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Photo of Jeremy Corbyn Jeremy Corbyn , Islington North 1:25 pm, 8th July 1994

The Group of Seven industrial leaders are meeting today and over the next few days in Naples and I should like to think, although I suspect that it is a faint hope, that they will leave the conference hall for an hour or two to visit the slums of Naples, to see what inequality is about in what is supposed to be a successful western European economy. I also hope that, in their deliberations, they will think about some of the effects on the poorest people in other parts of the world of the policies pursued by a very small number of industrial countries—the way in which poverty is visited on sub-Saharan Africa by the GATT deal and the imposition of poverty wages on countries that are trying to get out of the debt crisis.

The debate is about inequality in Britain and I suppose that we have seen the two faces of the Tory party. The hon. Member for Teignbridge (Mr. Nicholls) is a sort of Old Testament figure in political thinking. He positively glories in inequalities between the rich and poor in the country. Then there is the rather more sympathetic approach of the Minister. But the two faces add up to exactly the same thing, because they have supported a Government and their policies which have deliberately created further divisions in the country in the past 15 years. There is no mistake about that.

When I leave the House at the end of this debate, I shall go to my constituency, I shall hold my weekly advice surgery and I shall see a sense of desperation on the faces of those people who come to see me. Will they ever manage to get out of a one-bedroom flat where they are trying to live with three children? Will the council ever be able to offer them another flat? Will they get a transfer to a housing association place? Like councillors and others, I shall do my best to try to help them, but I know that, at the end of the day, the chances of many of them ever being able to get out of their problems are very slight because no houses are being built for rent. The private rented sector is simply closed to them because the rents have been decontrolled and a one-bedroom flat costs at least L150 a week in a poor area of London. They are in the ghetto trap; they are in the poverty trap.

In my surgery, I shall also be able, as could any other person, to look at the health inequalities which exist. Why do children from poor working-class families tend to have more bronchial problems than children from middle-class families? Why is the life expectancy of a company director 10 to 15 years greater than that of someone who sweeps the roads or who collects the refuse from our homes? Why is there a growth of inequality in our society? When I intervened earlier on the speech of the hon. Member for Teignbridge on the question of the people sleeping on the streets of London, all he could say was that a lot of hostels are being built, so that those people may be taken off the streets of London. Frankly, it was due to the embarrassment of the Government that those people were taken off the streets of London—it was nothing to do with solving the housing crisis. We have a terrible housing crisis and a terrible sequence of inequality of living in our society at the present time.

There are other areas of inequality—not only in health or housing, but in education and expectations. Anyone who goes, as I do, around schools often, will meet children of eight, nine, 10, 11 and 12 years old who are full of optimism, hope, ideas and expectations. They want to be doctors, lawyers, vets, meteorologists, physicists, engine drivers, bricklayers or carpenters—they want to do all sorts of things in their lives. In other words, they want to achieve. Similarly, their parents want them to achieve. When these youngsters reach the age of 14, 15 or 16, they find themselves living in a community where at least a fifth of the working population is registered as unemployed and where many others are not even allowed to be so registered. It is then that the sense of despair and hopelessness begins to set in.

The ideas are formed that perhaps there will not be a job, that perhaps they will not be able to afford to receive a university or polytechnic education, that perhaps that sort of life will not be available for them. There starts the spiral of decline and despair. That is followed by a rise in crime generally, drug addiction and prostitution. Anyone who lives or works in an inner city area, or represents one, is aware of that and understands it only too well.

The complacency with which the Government present their case is breathtaking. They are entirely out of touch with the reality of life for so many people, who are leading a worse and worse existence with higher and higher levels of unemployment.

What are the prospects for those who get jobs? They are faced with the deskilling of the economy. We have lost so many skilled jobs, including jobs in engineering, over the past 15 or 20 years. The privatisation programme has made British Steel a phenomenally successful private enterprise company. But who is paying the costs of unemployment? Who is paying the costs of redundancy? Who is paying the social costs? We all know the answer—the rest of the community.

The Government talk about incentives. Apparently, the heads of the privatised industries require phenomenal salaries to do their jobs. They need the incentive of being able to earn £300,000 a year plus share issues, performance bonus payments, a free car and a free home. They probably do not even pay their water rates. Such people need incentives to work and produce.

On the other hand, there are those who sweep the streets for a local authority, cook meals in a school canteen or old people's home and provide the necessary care assistance for disabled people. Apparently, the incentive of high wages is not for them. Instead, they face the stick of compulsory competitive tendering, which means that their job is sold to the lowest bidder—some spiv company—every four or five years, when local authorities are forced to put out their services to competitive tendering.

Conservative Members may smile and think that it is all rather funny. They should try to understand the feelings of someone who has given a lifetime of work in a local authority garden, for example, or tending a cemetery, looking after an old people's home or working in a hospital. Such people have given a great deal. Indeed, they meant to give a great deal. They want to continue to do so. Instead, they are told, "Sorry, you are dispensable. Your job is on sale. We shall see if anyone is prepared to do it for less than you." So the cycle of despair and decline continues.

How would Conservative Members feel if they had to suffer that indignity after they had given 20 years' service to a local authority or health service? It is an indignity. It is a disgrace. A disgusting process is being implemented. Incentives for the rich, sticks for the poor. That is the argument that Conservatives advance.

The Government tell us that high economic growth is achieved through a process of inequality. There is no evidence anywhere to sustain that argument. In Britain, employers pay less in tax and social contributions than most other employers in Europe. Wage levels are lower than those in most other countries in Europe and unemployment is high and rising.