Poverty — Debate

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 2:48 pm on 22nd July 2010.

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Photo of Lord Touhig Lord Touhig Labour 2:48 pm, 22nd July 2010

My Lords, it is a great pleasure to follow my noble friend Lord McFall. I welcome him to your Lordships' House and congratulate him on his maiden speech. I extend my congratulations to my noble friends Lord Boateng and Lady Donaghy, and to the noble Lord, Lord Shipley, on their excellent contributions today. My noble friend Lord McFall and I have known each other for 20 years, and in that time I have come to hold him in very high regard indeed. We have seen from his contribution to this debate why he was such a successful chairman of the Treasury Select Committee in the other place. With great skill he held the Government to account while at the same time preserving the unity of his committee. He was relentless in conducting his inquiries into the banking crisis, and many a banker did not look forward to appearing before him when he sought to hold them to account, exposing their greed and ineptitude which brought the world economy to the brink of collapse. My noble friend served in the Whips' Office for some time, and in the Northern Ireland Office. Many in the Province will remember him for his compassion and his cool head on the day of the Omagh bombing, when he was the only Minister in Northern Ireland.

Yet my noble friend has one shortcoming, and I hope he will forgive me for revealing it. It is that he and good timekeeping are not close companions; indeed, some would say they are total strangers. His extraordinary work rate, running from one engagement to another, is the reason for it. I well remember a few years ago arranging to meet him and other friends for dinner. We all arrived at the appointed restaurant at the appointed time and waited and waited and waited for my noble friend. Eventually, after half an hour of putting off an eager waiter who wanted to take our order, we surrendered our table to other diners who were very hungry indeed. My noble friend did not arrive for a further half an hour and we had to queue to get our table back. I regret to say that I am not sure that his timekeeping has greatly improved, but I have no doubt that we will welcome his further contributions in this House. As our debates are carefully timetabled, I am sure that that will do much to improve his timekeeping.

The two poorest and most disadvantaged groups in our society are at the extreme end of the age spectrum: children and pensioners. During the past 12 years, a Labour Government did much to redress this with the record increase in child benefit, family tax credits and the child trust fund, all aimed at helping families with young children. We also saw the introduction of pension credits, free bus travel, free television licences, all improving the quality of life of pensioners. But these significant advances may now be reversed by what Paul Krugman has called "ideologically fixed deficit hawks". Only on Monday, we saw this Conservative/Liberal Democrat Government begin their assault on child trust funds. We know that they will freeze child benefit and, with massive cuts in public services predicted, every family with children and every pensioner needs to be concerned about the future.

The Conservative/Liberal Democrat Budget of a few weeks ago heralds a major attack on public services which support the most disadvantaged in Britain-public services that we have built up over years and make us a civilised society. What this Government have forgotten is that public service is labour intensive. We cannot sack police officers and put CCTV cameras on every street corner and call it policing; we cannot sack teachers and sit every child in front of a computer screen and call it teaching; and we cannot sack social workers, give every pensioner a microwave and call it home care. I have no doubt that we on these Labour Benches will need to be vigilant in these coming months if we are to defend public services on which so many of our vulnerable citizens depend and which the two parties opposite seem determined to put to the sword.

I shall confine the rest of my remarks to the plight of disabled people in general and those with autism in particular. Research conducted by Leonard Cheshire Disability found that 30 per cent of disabled people live below the poverty line. That is one in three and a terrible indictment of Britain in the 21st century. The National Autistic Society says that the lack of support that people with autism receive means that they and their families experience extreme financial difficulties. Some people with autism are able to live independent and fulfilling lives with very little support, but we all know that others will need support throughout their lives. The vast majority of people with autism want to work, and we need to do more to help them to do that. But as a dear friend of mine, a now retired GP, Dr Dipak Ray, said to me only last week: "Suddenly, creating jobs is out; inflicting pain is in". That seems to be the message that we have had from this Budget.

Only 15 per cent of adults with autism are in full employment. Some 66 per cent of adults with autism are not in any kind of employment. Almost 80 per cent of those are on incapacity benefit. Six out of 10 adults with autism survive only with family and parental financial support. Caring for a child with autism is a full-time job. According to the National Autistic Society, 68 per cent of carers it surveyed said that their caring responsibilities exceeded 70 hours a week. The same survey revealed that only 41 per cent of carers had jobs, while almost 70 per cent gave up work to carry out their caring responsibilities.

More than half of families with disabled children borrowed money from family and friends to pay for essentials. According to a recent Contact a Family survey, one in four families is going without heating in their homes, one in seven is going without food and nine out of 10 said that financial worries are having severe impact on family life.

I believe that noble Lords on all sides of the House will find these circumstances unacceptable and will want to challenge any Government who plan to introduce cuts in public services for the disabled. Disabled people, especially those with autism and their families, will be forced into greater poverty and financial dependence on family and friends if we do not take steps to protect them.

The Prime Minister said recently that the third sector was really the first sector. He was right in that we esteem that sector, but I hope that his remarks were not code for plans to offload the responsibilities of the state on the voluntary sector. The voluntary sector in Britain makes a huge contribution to the quality of life of millions of our citizens. Many voluntary groups are hard pressed. With massive public spending cuts in the offing, this will cascade into the voluntary sector.

The government programme states that the main burden of the deficit reduction will be borne by reduced spending rather than increased taxes. It also states that people needing care deserve to be treated with respect and dignity. I hope that the Government recognise that, without funding for services for the disabled, there can be no respect and certainly no dignity.