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I am very pleased to have an opportunity to speak in the debate. I wish that I could talk about the Gracious Speech, but in truth I do not believe there is very much to talk about, although I must say that I welcome the announcement of action on plastic bags.
My constituents cannot afford another year of complacency. They cannot afford another year of a Government who do not understand their situation and simply tinker at the edges. They cannot afford a year in which the Education Secretary proceeds with his plans to take our schools back to the 1950s, and in which the Government ignore the cost-of-living crisis faced by the people of Bolton West and do nothing to ensure that having a job means that people can afford to live, nothing to tackle the abuse of zero-hours contracts, nothing to address the widespread concerns about immigration, nothing to stop care workers being exploited, nothing to stop the privatisation of the national health service, the scandal of people being unable to see their GPs or the scandal of missed cancer and waiting-time targets, and nothing to freeze energy prices.
The Gracious Speech did not even include Bills that the Government have already produced in draft, such as the Wild Animals in Circuses Bill and the Bill to prevent smoking in cars. And what has happened to the legislation to regulate the taxi industry following the inquiry that the Government asked the Law Commission to undertake? Commentators have described this as a zombie Government, and I think that perhaps they have a good point. Government Members who spoke yesterday welcomed the next 11 months of lots and lots of general debates, but, much as I welcome the opportunity to discuss issues that are really important to the people of Bolton West, such debates are pointless if no action is taking to deal with those issues.
Members on the other side of the House talk proudly of the actions taken by their Government. They seem to think it is OK for there to be food banks in the fifth richest country in the world, and that it is OK to talk about jobs that are being created without any acknowledgement or understanding of the fact that they include unpaid jobs provided through Government schemes, jobs involving zero-hours contracts, jobs that have been transferred from the public sector, jobs that were created and then failed, and jobs in which people are self-employed. The fact that 30% of people who use the Atherton food bank in my constituency are in work provides evidence of the quality of some of those jobs. It shows that the quality of a job is important, rather than merely having a job.
Government Members make claims that they cannot back up with reliable evidence. Five million workers—one if five of us who are lucky enough to have a job—are paid less than the living wage. That is an increase of 400,000 in the last year alone. The situation is not just bad for those people, but bad for the rest of us. It costs the Exchequer £3.23 billion a year in in-work benefits and tax losses to support employers who do not pay their employees a living wage. Low pay is bad for the economy, and it is bad for the taxpayer as well. However, the Government have no plans to improve the national minimum wage.
One group of workers who are caught by both zero-hours contracts and abuses of the minimum wage are care workers. People who are doing one of the most precious jobs in our country, and whom we entrust to look after our elderly and disabled loved ones, are treated appallingly. Studies show that between 160,000 and 220,000 care workers are unlawfully paid less than the minimum wage.