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Amendment of the Law

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 4:22 pm on 19th March 2015.

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Photo of Debbie Abrahams Debbie Abrahams Labour, Oldham East and Saddleworth 4:22 pm, 19th March 2015

I will deal with the closing remarks of Chris Heaton-Harris later in my speech.

The rhetoric from both parties in the Government has been breathtaking. It certainly has not matched the reality for my constituents in Oldham East and Saddleworth and for constituents across the country. For them, all is not rosy. As we have already heard, most working people on average earnings are £1,600 a year worse off than they were in 2010. According to the Institute for Fiscal Studies, families are on average £1,100 worse off if we take into account tax and benefit changes. That is important to consider. We know that our NHS is at breaking point, with A and E targets and cancer targets all being missed on this Government’s watch. Trying to get access to a GP is a challenge, and frail older people have to fend for themselves after being isolated and left alone because of the £2.7 billion cuts to social care.

The sick and disabled are vilified for needing support from the state, and are made to go through dehumanising assessments and told to take up their bed and walk, as this Government will have cut £24 billion in support for them by 2018. Food banks provide subsistence to people left poverty-stricken through benefits sanctions and from just being in a low-paid job. Young people feel as though they have been thrown on the scrapheap even before their working lives have started. This is just as I remember it in the 1980s, when my first job was with community groups and I worked specifically with unemployed young people. Small businesses struggling with late payments from contractors and cash-flow issues are being driven to the brink, with no thanks to the Government for doing so little to help them. This is Britain in the 21st century, the sixth wealthiest country in the world, under this Tory and Liberal Democrat Government.

After what has been said by Government Members crowing about their economic performance, let me take them back to an economy that was growing at the end of 2010. It then flatlined for three years, and, yes, we have seen a little bit of growth, and every bit is welcome, but we know from the International Monetary Fund that it is all going downhill from now, despite what the Government have said. We have had the worst recovery in 100 years, and they have squandered the growth that was given to them at the end of 2010. We have the second lowest level of productivity in the G7 and we are 19th lowest in terms of average productivity—the worst figure since 1992. The total annual value of UK exports decreased by 3.9% in the year ending 2014. As we have heard, the Government are borrowing £219 billion more than they estimated in 2010. How about that for economic incompetence? Just this year, they will be borrowing £91 billion as opposed to the £37 billion they said they would be borrowing.

On unemployment, the jobseeker’s allowance figures look positive, but evidence from eminent academics has shown the effects of benefit sanctions on JSA claimants. One in five JSA claimants will be sanctioned, and 43% of them will leave JSA, 80% without getting a job. What is being reported in official statistics is not reflected in what is really going on. We have had the biggest rise in self-employment in 40 years—an increase of 15%. For many, that is a positive thing and a good way of working, but the average income of self-employed people is £10,000. We have already heard about zero-hours contracts and the levels of under-employment. The picture is not all rosy.

On the inequalities that this Tory and Liberal Democrat Government have presided over, according to the IFS, families on low incomes, particularly families with children, have lost proportionately more of their income than any other group as a result of tax and benefit changes. There is clear evidence that parental income affects a child’s cognitive and social development as well as their health. This Government are condemning another generation before they have even got started. House of Commons Library figures show that after housing costs have been taken into account, 4.1 million children are living in absolute poverty—half a million more than in 2010, a figure that will increase to about 1.1 million by 2020, according to the Institute for Fiscal Studies.

The net effect of the Government’s fiscal policies has been to favour the rich at the expense of the poor. It does not stop at family incomes. Shockingly, as many hon. Members have said, the evidence shows that the link between public spending and life expectancy is not being recognised, and the Government have decided to cut resources allocated to the public sector in the most deprived areas. One can only draw the conclusion that the Chancellor is on some kind of evangelical mission. The Secretary of State for Work and Pensions wants to restrict child benefit to the first two children in a family to instigate what he calls behaviour change, which is code for wanting poor families to have just two children, and perhaps the Chancellor is of a similar mind.

We are already seeing the effects of these cuts in the dire circumstances that people are finding themselves in. We have seen a surge in the number of food banks, with nearly 1 million food parcels delivered last year. In my home town of Oldham, we never had a food bank until 2012. Last year, it delivered meals to 5,000 people, including 1,500 children. We have a level of malnutrition that we have not seen since the ’30s, as well as increases in rickets and scurvy—and this is 2015. After decades of decline, suicide rates are going up, with more than 4,500 male suicides in the UK in 2012—three and half times the figure for women. Again, this is exactly what happened in the 1980s.

At the same time, we have more billionaires per capita than anywhere else in the world. The wealth of five families is equivalent to that of the poorest 20%—in other words, 13 million people—and boardroom pay has rocketed. According to the High Pay Commission, FTSE 100 chief executive officers earn 185 times the salary of their average employee, and that does not reflect performance. As I have said, incomes have fallen by £1,600. In my own town, one in three people are paid below the living wage.

The Government have done nothing about those damaging inequalities. I am sure that some Government Members still believe the discredited theory that inequalities are good for motivation, but that and the theory of trickle-down economics have been disproved. Overwhelming evidence now shows how bad inequality is for the economy and for society as a whole. The IMF has come out in support of Joseph Stiglitz’s analysis that inequality is a drag on growth and can also make growth more volatile. The OECD has also rejected trickle-down economics and said that the resulting inequality has slowed growth, not increased it, through negative effects on human capital. The Equality Trust estimates that the UK loses £39 billion a year as a result of inequalities, and the work of Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett has described how reducing the gap between rich and poor can increase not only life expectancy, but social mobility, educational attainment and happiness, while reducing crime.