Impact of provisions of section 5 on child poverty and equality

Part of Finance (No. 3) Bill – in the House of Commons at 3:15 pm on 8th January 2019.

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Photo of Debbie Abrahams Debbie Abrahams Labour, Oldham East and Saddleworth 3:15 pm, 8th January 2019

It gives me great pleasure to speak to new clause 5, which is in my name and those of colleagues. As I have previously stated, I declare an interest as chair of the all-party group on health in all policies, and as a fellow of the Faculty of Public Health, following 20 or so years of national and international work in this field.

Under new clause 5, the Chancellor

“must review the public health and poverty effects of the provisions of this Act and lay a report of that review before the House of Commons within six months of the passing of this Act…A review…must consider…the effects of the provisions of this Act on the levels of relative and absolute poverty in the UK”.

There has been a lot of talk about absolute poverty levels, and we would of course welcome any reductions in absolute poverty levels. Those are the most severe levels of poverty, when people are unable to meet basic physiological needs, such as for food, water and shelter. However, relative poverty is a really important measure that we must reflect on, so I want to stress that the review would look at both relative and absolute poverty in the UK. I also want the review to assess

“the effects of the provisions of this Act on life expectancy and healthy life expectancy in the UK, and…the implications for the public finances of the public health effects of the provisions of this Act.”

Yesterday, the Government announced their new 10-year plan for the NHS. In his statement to the House, the Health Secretary talked about the importance of reducing health inequalities—absolutely, I could not agree more—and how we need to reduce the demands on health services. I do hope that the Government will take new clause 5 seriously as an opportunity to ensure that their policies actually meet the objectives they have set out, because it will help to do exactly that.

As important as the 10-year NHS plan is to improve our nation’s health, overwhelming evidence shows that the most important thing we can do is to reduce the poverty and inequality that too many of our citizens face today. The most effective way to do that is to focus upstream by assessing policies, as they are developed, for their effects on poverty, inequality and, ultimately, the health of our citizens. That was why I tabled the new clause.

As the UN special rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights said recently, the cuts and reforms introduced in the past few years have brought about misery and torn at the social fabric of our country. There are 14 million people living in relative poverty in the UK, 8 million of whom are working. That is the highest level ever—I advise those who may not be familiar with the most recent data to refer to the Joseph Rowntree Foundation report published last month. Two thirds of the 4 million children living in poverty are from working households. How are young people who are living in extreme poverty and who are hungry going to excel at school?

What about disabled people? They are twice as likely to live in poverty as non-disabled people, because of the costs associated with their disability. As we heard from Labour’s Front-Bench spokesman, policies on not just taxation but public spending and particularly social security are having a devastating impact on disabled people, and that includes universal credit. More than 4 million disabled people are living in poverty today. They are increasingly isolated and confined to their homes, and I am afraid that the situation is going to get worse, because we have had no real confirmation from the Government of how they will protect disabled people in relation to universal credit.

As analysis from the Institute for Fiscal Studies and others has shown, the lowest income decile has lost proportionately more income than any other group since 2015 as a consequence of personal taxation and social security changes. Last autumn’s Budget had only marginal impacts on the household income of the poorest, while reducing the number of higher rate taxpayers by 300,000. The Government’s regressive measures have done nothing to reduce the gap between the rich and poor.

Last week’s Fat Cat Friday heralded the fact that top executives now earn 133 times more than their average worker; it was 47 times more in 1998. In the first three days of January, FTSE 100 bosses earned what an average full-time worker will earn in a year. That is the unequal society that this Government have allowed to run rampant.

When cuts to household incomes are combined with the cuts to public spending and services, the impact is even more dramatic. We have seen disproportionate cuts in Government funding to towns and cities across the north. The effects of all this on life expectancy are now being seen, with gains made over decades falling away. Life expectancy has been stalling since 2011 and is now flatlining, particularly in older age groups, for older women and in deprived areas.

The regional differences in how long people live reflect the socioeconomic inequalities across the country. People may be aware of these figures, because I mentioned them when I spoke in November, but life expectancy for men in the Windsor and Maidenhead local authority, which covers the Prime Minister’s constituency, stands at 81.6 years, while in my Oldham and Saddleworth constituency, it is 77 years.

Even within those areas there are differences in how long people will live. In Windsor and Maidenhead, the life expectancy gap is 5.8 years for men and 4.8 years for women, while in my constituency there is an 11.4-year difference for men and a 10.7-year difference for women. We should really concentrate on those figures. Those health inequalities are reflected across the country.

Inequalities in life expectancy are mirrored by inequalities in healthy life expectancy—how long somebody can be expected to live in good health. Healthy life expectancy at birth across local authority areas varies by 21.5 years for women and 15.8 years for men. In addition, according to the Office for National Statistics, women’s healthy life expectancy at birth decreased by three months between 2009 and 2011. How have the Government responded? They have actually increased the state pension age: people are living shorter lives, and living shorter lives in good health, but we are increasing the time they will be expected to work.

The gains Labour made in reducing health inequalities are now being reversed. The recent Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health report showed that infant mortality has started to increase for the first time in 100 years. Four in 1,000 babies will not reach their first birthday in the UK, compared with 2.8 in the EU. Those are the unacceptable consequences of austerity.

Last month’s report by Public Health England investigating these inequalities in life expectancy confirmed what many of us have been saying: austerity has wrought misery and poverty, and has ultimately brought an early death for too many. If the Prime Minister is committed to tackling burning injustices and ending austerity, she needs to commit to her policies being independently assessed for their effects on poverty, inequality and public health, as my new clause outlines.

Reducing the gap between rich and poor benefits not just those who are lifted out of poverty. As the International Monetary Fund’s report five years ago showed, if we increase inequality, we reduce growth, and if we reduce inequality, we increase growth. Trickle-down economics has been shown not to work. As evidence from totemic reports such as “The Spirit Level” shows, society as a whole benefits from decreased inequality, with increases in life expectancy, educational attainment, social mobility, trust between communities and much more. Fairer, more equal societies benefit everyone. Inequalities are not inevitable; they are socially reproduced. They are about political choice, and they can be changed.