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Cost of Living: Energy and Housing

Part of Bills Presented — Finance Bill – in the House of Commons at 3:25 pm on 5th June 2014.

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Photo of Barry Gardiner Barry Gardiner Shadow Minister (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs) 3:25 pm, 5th June 2014

I was fascinated yesterday when the Leader of the Opposition, my right hon. Friend Edward Miliband, began his remarks in response to the Gracious Speech. He sought to widen the debate from the usual Punch and Judy knockabout that goes on in this Chamber and the party political points. What was remarkable to me was the way in which, on the Government Benches, that was met initially with shock. That is the best way to describe it. There was silence and clear attention. After a few minutes my right hon. Friend’s speech achieved a response of baying, and things went downhill from there, but what he was trying to get across was fundamentally important.

Many of the speeches today have picked up on that theme and have handled sensitively the issues facing us as politicians in this Chamber about how people outside view politics, mistrust politicians and are concerned about how they feel that we in the Chamber have the capacity to influence events that are important in their lives.

I want to try to continue that theme today. I begin by isolating three elements. It is no longer the case, thank goodness, that the Gracious Speech is delivered in Norman French, as it used to be, but it struck me that there are three principles that France can still bring to our debates to elevate them. Those are liberté, égalité, fraternité. On the first—here I want to sound a note of welcome—Members in all parts of the House are delighted to see the modern slavery Bill being brought forward. I am sure it will be well supported by Members across the Chamber. That speaks to liberty, which is fundamental in any democracy. It is absolutely right that the Government are seeking to introduce that Bill and I hope that Opposition Members will give it fair wind before the next election—I am sure we will.

The next principle is égalité —equality. Here there are things that concern me and my constituents in Brent, who experience the second highest rate of low pay in London. Newham is the borough with the highest rate of low pay at 34%. In Brent 30% of people in employment earn below the living wage. That is of real concern to me because it means that 30% of my constituents look at the rest of society from a position of disadvantage and see the widening of the gap between where they are and where they perceive other people can legitimately aspire to reach. That is not good for society. Of course, it is not good for my constituents either. It means that they are struggling to put food on the table and to do right by their children and their wider family.

People are facing additional pressures because the local government settlement and the settlement put in place for clinical commissioning groups appear to be differentially disadvantaging communities like my own that are already more disadvantaged. Let us look at the funding for CCGs across the country. In Brent in north-west London, we have the highest incidence of tuberculosis and of diabetes in the United Kingdom, and yet £54.98 million is being taken from our CCG, NHS Brent, in this settlement. I looked down the list of all the other local CCGs to try to find a comparable figure, and thought I had—it was for NHS Coastal West Sussex CCG. The figure was £56.51 million, but when I looked again I noticed that there was no minus sign. I do not know what the particular health problems of people in coastal West Sussex are, but I am absolutely clear that their receiving a £56 million increase at a time when my constituents, in some of the most deprived wards in the capital, who have the highest levels of key diseases not just in the capital but in the country, are suffering a £54.98 million reduction does not speak to the principle of equality. I charge the Queen’s Speech with failing my constituents on that count.

I mentioned the local government settlement. The budget in my local authority is about £330 million—or was, I should say, because £104 million is being taken out of it. That is a cut of about 30%. My constituents, who rank second highest in London for lowest pay, are not just suffering in their wage packets. They are suffering because the services they would usually hope could pick up their families when they disintegrate, provide additional care for their elderly parents, and provide additional support from social services will not be there because local government is no longer able to provide them.

In the London borough of Brent we have just had the local elections. I am delighted to say that of the 63 council seats in Brent, of which my party used to have 41, we now have 56—a fantastic result. How quickly that will become bitter when those 56 enthusiastic, dynamic, determined people find that they are having to implement a 30% cut in services to the people they have aspired to represent and protect. That is what has happened to equality in this country. It is not just about low pay, although that is absolutely cancerous, or zero-hours contracts; it is also about the wider support that one used to be able to look to and expect to receive from one’s community but is no longer there.

Let us turn to fraternity. Another key missing ingredient from the Queen’s Speech was the issue of immigration. As my hon. Friend the Chairman of the Communities and Local Government Committee has said, there are key issues related to immigration that are about not race and ethnicity, but fairness. Nowhere is that more clear than in housing.

A mother in my borough who has been on the housing waiting list for 19 years came to me and said, “Mr Gardiner, when I first went on the housing list, I was told that, as a single young woman without any children I was not considered to be vulnerable and therefore I was not a priority. My daughter is now 18 and last month I was told that because she is now 18, I have no children and am not a priority. What’s going on?”

The point is that many boroughs allocate housing simply in accordance with need. Of course, medical and other needs such as overcrowding are important, but we do not understand that there are forms of entitlement other than need. The fact that someone who has been waiting for 19 years in their community—paying their dues, working hard, paying tax and being a good citizen—still does not have an entitlement to the security of a home is deeply corrosive of the principle of fraternity. It undermines social solidarity. That is the unfairness. It is similar to the unfairness in wages that immigration can bring in, because people come in and undercut wages. The principle is not one of race or ethnicity at all, but one whereby people say, “You are being unfair,” because the Government have a responsibility to ensure that people are being paid the minimum wage.

This Government have started doing that, but they need to do more, because the three principles of liberty, equality and fraternity must underpin our democracy. In this Queen’s Speech, they do not.