The Government’s central mission is to level up the UK by spreading opportunity more equally across the country. In February we published our levelling up White Paper, which provides a clear plan to level up every corner of the UK. It will address regional disparities across the country, put more money in the pockets of those who need it the most, and transform our economy by generating higher paid jobs and new investment.
Regional inequalities exist even within large counties such as Devon, so what is my hon. Friend doing to tackle those disparities? For example, Ilfracombe in my constituency has the lowest life expectancy in Devon—10 years lower than Kingskerswell, which has the highest. Child poverty in Heavitree, Exeter, stands at 8.1% compared with 20.3% in Ilfracombe West.
Ilfracombe has been awarded more than £3 million to deliver a marine leisure centre at Larkstone cove, which will provide community facilities for local clubs and groups. More broadly, North Devon has been awarded £9.8 million of levelling-up funding to date. My hon. Friend will be pleased to know that the UK shared prosperity fund will also support our ambitions on levelling up, and that will provide £2.6 billion of new funding for local investment by March 2025.
In places such as the east midlands, we sometimes feel that we fare slightly less well than other areas. Can my hon. Friend tell me what the Government are doing to make sure that levelling up is genuinely driven by data and evidence?
My officials are delivering the equality data programme, which is examining how access to opportunity is affected by a range of factors, including geography and socioeconomic background. For example, an employee in Wales, Northern Ireland or the north-east of England earns more than £3 less every hour than a similar employee in London, and this geographic pay gap exists even when the cost of living is accounted for. Data from this programme will support our levelling-up agenda, and we encourage Departments to take focused, evidence-based action on those findings.
I welcome the Government’s move to improve access to cash in the Queen’s Speech. It is an issue that affects regional imbalance, as, sadly, more rural banks close. Will the Minister act to ensure that cash is more accepted more widely after the pandemic, as it is still the preferred option for many older people and, more importantly in my constituency and I am sure in others, for carers who are spending their clients’ cash?
My hon. Friend is right to raise that issue. We do understand how difficult the trend away from cash and towards cards and digital payments can be. I have seen that in my own constituency with repeated closures of rural bank branches, which force vulnerable customers into more difficult situations, so I thank him for raising it. The ability to transact cash remains important to millions of people. We cannot force the rural branches to remain open, but we will legislate to protect access to cash. The Government plan to introduce legislation in the Financial Services and Markets Bill to support the continued use of cash in people’s daily lives, but he will be pleased to know that it will also help local businesses to continue accepting cash by ensuring access to deposit facilities.
My constituents will have listened with bewilderment to the Minister’s replies to other Members. This Government have been in office for 12 years now. She talks about tackling regional inequalities. Over those 12 years, child poverty has increased, pensioner poverty has increased, the gap between the richest and the poorest has increased, and life expectancy has stalled and in some areas gone backwards. Which of those achievements is she most proud of?
I am proud of this Government’s achievements. The hon. Gentleman has been very selective in picking data that requires a different baseline of years. I am afraid to say that he is wrong. We have been levelling up the country, and, as we announced in the levelling up White Paper, the Government will continue to do so—for example using the £1.4 billion global Britain investment fund to attract major investments, such as the new £2 billion Britishvolt gigafactory in Northumberland. We are doing a lot across the country to level up and we will continue to do so.
I thank the Minister very much for her responses. When it comes to regional inequality in Northern Ireland, I have some concerns over the geographic pay gap to which she referred. In discussions with the Northern Ireland Assembly, what specifically can be done to ensure that the wages that ladies get here on the mainland are reflected in the wages offered to those in Northern Ireland?
Yes, it is disappointing to see those figures. They do in fact take into account the cost of living. When the data programme is finished, we expect that proposals will be put forward to address those specific issues. I would be very keen for the hon. Gentleman to provide any particular insight that he has from his own constituency, because we do need MPs to bring their regional knowledge into the policymaking agenda.