Public Responsibility For Social Justice

Part of Orders of the Day — Opposition Day – in the House of Commons at 5:12 pm on 10th March 1997.

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Photo of Mr Russell Johnston Mr Russell Johnston , Inverness, Nairn and Lochaber 5:12 pm, 10th March 1997

I am grateful to my hon. and learned Friend, whose sharp legal brain seizes the right words so solicitously.

Professor Galbraith said: There is a further matter on which liberals take an adverse view of current ideological fashion"— it is still current for the Secretary of StateAs always, we seek an economic world in which all can participate and from which all have a decent return. We want progress towards a greater equality of return; we see this as a broadly civilizing tendency in modern society. In support of this goal we stand firmly for the principle of effectively progressive taxation and for income and other welfare support to the disadvantaged and the poor.Here we encounter another ideological aberration of our time. That is not a personal remark about the Secretary of State, although it could be. Professor Galbraith continued: That is the effort to make increasing inequality socially respectable. It is not permissible in the modern democratic polity ever to legislate explicitly for the rich. Accordingly, there must be a cover story, however implausible; what is wanted cannot be admitted. We have had, in these last years, large reductions in the effective rates of income tax on the very rich. Professor Galbraith was referring to the United States, but his comments are relevant to Britain. He continued: And also a powerful crusade against the welfare services to the poor. The rich, it is held, need incentives to greater economic effort; the poor need release from the debilitating effect of welfare; they must, in the words of one exceptionally convenient contemporary philosopher, have 'the spur of their own poverty'. The rich have not been working because they have too little money; the poor have not been working because they have too much. That is the nonsense that has underlined the Government's economic approach over the years and has done so much damage.

The hon. Member for Moray was fair and generous in speaking of the commitment of the great majority of hon. Members to solving the problems of their constituents and the search for general betterment.

We argue a lot about ways and means and the effect of specific policies. We also argue about intention and motivation. It can be said absolutely fairly that, in 18 long years, the Government have not demonstrated any drive to reduce poverty or inequality.

The hon. Lady also spoke about the fear of poverty. According to Shelter, last year there were 31,000 homeless people on the streets of Scotland. We had a small exchange on the figure; the hon. Lady said that it was 75,000. I do not know which is correct, but it is still awful. The responsibility for that lies cross the Floor of the House.

I shall read one further quote from Galbraith. It is only short, but it is good stuff: There are some matters on which the market is in inescapable default. In no industrial country does it supply good housing to people of moderate income or below. Nor does it supply medical and health services and care to the least advantaged people. Or good mass transportation in the cities. Or needless to say, education of the required universality and quality. These things the market does not do. The hon. Member for Moray referred to education. The Liberal Democrats have said clearly that we would support an increase in taxation to improve educational provision. The public response has been positive; Labour's response has been silence. We are committed to arguing for the removal of nearly 500,000 of the lowest earners from income tax by increasing tax on earnings above £100,000 a year. That would be a practical contribution to the alleviation of poverty and a redistribution of wealth, as is our concept of low-income benefit.

The hon. Lady deserves our gratitude for raising an important set of issues in a very reasonable way. Sadly, the Secretary of State did not exactly follow her example. In his speech and his approach, the Secretary of State epitomises what is wrong with British politics. He is interested only in point scoring. He is very good at it, but it is a superficial, nihilistic exercise. Rational debate and calm reflection are concepts that are alien to him, as are consensus and co-operation. The hon. Member for Cunninghame, North (Mr. Wilson) has vanished, but he spoke about team work. Those qualities characterise so many successful countries in continental Europe, but they are ideas that the Secretary of State simply does not understand. He thinks that politics is about fighting. It should not be about fighting. I fear that his style will dominate the forthcoming general election. Let us hope that some will not follow him, but will try to maintain higher standards.