Inequality and Social Mobility

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 6:48 pm on 12th June 2019.

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Photo of Lyn Brown Lyn Brown Shadow Minister (Treasury) 6:48 pm, 12th June 2019

We have heard some really impressive speeches in this debate, including those from my hon. Friends the Members for Kingston upon Hull West and Hessle (Emma Hardy), for Bradford South (Judith Cummins), for Birmingham, Edgbaston (Preet Kaur Gill), for Leigh (Jo Platt), for Battersea (Marsha De Cordova), for Oldham West and Royton (Jim McMahon), for Glasgow North East (Mr Sweeney), for Mitcham and Morden (Siobhain McDonagh), for Bedford (Mohammad Yasin) and for Ellesmere Port and Neston (Justin Madders). They were cracking speeches all, and I am so proud to be included in their number this afternoon.

In April, the Social Mobility Commission told us that social mobility had stagnated, and it is going to get worse without change. This was yet another wake-up call to a catatonic Government so consumed by the disaster of their Brexit that they cannot seem to do, frankly, anything.

Poverty and inequality in this country are dire. In the G7, only Trump’s America is more unequal. Last month, Human Rights Watch told the story of Allie from Hull, who was transferred on to universal credit when she 18, as she became pregnant. She had exceptionally severe morning sickness almost every day for months. She would call the jobcentre and throw up while on the phone, but she was still fined £60 a week from the money that she needed to live, for two whole months. After sanctions and bills, she had £10 left. She was stuck in the flat on her own, lonely, ashamed to go out and suffering from depression. At her time of need, our Government, by their actions, got her into debt with her rent, council tax and water. They left her with so little money that she would wake up hungry with nothing to eat in the House.

For Allie, there was no safety net; it had been cut away. Just think about it, because actually it is worse than that. She was 18 years old. Many of us would not consider that to be a fully grown adult in our own families. We would not want our 18-year-old child to be living on £10 left over each week, especially when they were pregnant. That £10 will not buy Allie or her baby the nutrition that they need. What will happen if Allie’s troubles do not end here—if, like 900,000 others, the only job that Allie can access while her baby is growing is one with zero hours? What if, like so many jobs, it has no security, no workplace training, no progression and simply not enough hours to keep her away from the food bank and out of debt? What impact will that have on the life chances of Allie and her child?

Some 4.5 million children are already in poverty, and 70% of them are in families where at least one parent is in work. The fact is that in-work poverty is rising faster than employment. When the Government are faced with damning research or analysis, whether from the UN, Human Rights Watch, think-tanks that are respected across the House or child poverty charities, they do not even bother to respond. We have had the Chancellor denying that there are 14 million children in poverty in this country, but that is what the Joseph Rowntree Foundation says, it is what the Social Metrics Commission said and it is what the Government’s own statistics say. When it comes to poverty and inequality, frankly this Government are a bit like Millwall: “No one likes us, we don’t care!” When we talk about our children’s life chances, they should care.

Through all this, the Conservative party has had the gall to talk about opportunities. The Government cannot say that opportunities are increasing for children in my constituency: 50% of them live in poverty. They cannot say that opportunities are increasing when 120,000 children were homeless last Christmas. They cannot say that opportunities are increasing when Human Rights Watch states that their policies are “cruel and harmful”, or when they have been told that they are depriving children in this country of their simple right to food. As the UN rapporteur said last month, it is about the glue that holds our society together being

“deliberately removed and replaced with a harsh and uncaring ethos”.

It is simply shocking.

Hard work is essential—obviously—but there is no shortage of hard work in this country. On average, Britons work more hours a year than they did a decade ago, and for a lower real wage. Talent is essential, but there’s no shortage of that either. We all see it every time we visit a school. The truth is that we are able to create better lives when Governments invest. We need a Government who will focus on this agenda now, target the real divisions in our society and offer a joined-up strategy to tackle them. This Government cannot offer that vision, but Labour will.

We understand the simple truths. We do not want a grammar school society in which we get a better chance only if others get a worse one. That is not socially just. We do not want a society as horribly unequal as ours, where the richest 1,000 individuals have more wealth than the entire bottom 40% of the country. Since the 1970s, our country has become massively and increasingly unfair. The benefit of the little sustainable growth that there has been has gone to a narrow elite: the share of national income going to the top 1% has almost tripled since 1980.

Our economy does not work for the many. Huge efforts are needed to change that, but I really do not think that the Conservative party gets it. It will never ensure that the elite pay their fair share—it ain’t gonna bite the hand that feeds it—but Labour will make that commitment; it is who we are. That is why we will change the Social Mobility Commission, so that it investigates the fairness of our society across every policy area, from class inequality to regional inequality, and creates fair opportunities for all. We will match that by creating co-ordination on social justice across a Labour Government.

Cutting poverty and increasing life chances will be core goals. We will assess every policy to make sure that it plays a part in cutting child poverty and creating a fairer country. We will look at pay gaps, and at the responsibility on every part of government, from parish councils to Whitehall offices, to increase social justice. We will look at new ways of tackling class discrimination and all other forms of inequality—and we will not mark our own homework; our policies and statistics will be trustworthy because they will be checked from the outside.

A Labour Government will rebuild public trust in politics, and will rebuild the public services that give our children a fair starting point in life: social homes, public buses and trains, regional and national public banks to fuel hundreds of billions of pounds of investment, a national education service providing the skills that our economy needs, and a flourishing NHS. A Labour Government will work tirelessly to end child poverty. A Labour Government will be a Government for the many, not the few.