My Lords, I too pay tribute to the gracious Speech. It was of course delivered at a testing time for us all, but especially for those involved in the terrorist attacks and the fire at Grenfell Tower. In years to come, how will we remember that tragic fire? Will the Government at last recognise that management of the economy based on the principles and the models of austerity comes with a price? This debate on the economy therefore provides an opportunity to look at the price of austerity, which we debated on the Statement earlier today.
We have all asked how this tragedy could happen in 2017, in the richest local authority in the United Kingdom, one of the richest countries in the world—a country strong in its democratic liberalism. But the local community is best placed to answer that question. Some 90% of the residents at Grenfell Tower signed a petition asking for an investigation into the organisation that runs the building, but they were treated as troublemakers. Residents tried to obtain legal advice over safety concerns but were prevented from doing so. Why? They were priced out of justice by the cuts to legal aid. Many lost their lives as a result.
We have yet to discover whether financial cuts to local authority budgets affected the quality of management, repairs and the upkeep of the properties owned by Kensington and Chelsea Council. Last week the Government ordered safety checks on 600 high-rise blocks in England. On Sunday we were told that the 34 tower blocks tested so far in 17 council areas had failed their safety tests. Although we do not yet know whether existing building regulations were broken, as building inspections are ongoing, we know that three consecutive Governments, as a cost-cutting exercise, failed to introduce changes to the housing regulations. According to a BBC report, although there are hundreds of high-rise buildings in London, no appliance is currently owned by the London fire service that can ascend beyond 32 metres. The fire service had to borrow a 42-metre aerial platform from the Surrey Fire and Rescue Service so that it could meet its needs, which were for a nearly 70-metre high tower. Why? I suspect that austerity and deregulation is the answer.
The newly elected MP for Kensington, Emma Dent Coad, who was for 11 years a councillor in Kensington, recently described the disdain with which many of her constituents were treated. Emma described the slow but determined programme of privatising public assets in the area such as schools, libraries and community public space. This is a shared experience across the country. Similarly, the Government’s economic policies, driven by austerity, mean that public sector workers are required to work longer hours in order to provide essential services while suffering severe pay restraint at less than cost-of-living increases. Is there anyone here who does not recognise that the economic cost of austerity falls on the poorest in our communities?
In 2016, the United Nations Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights found reason to criticise the coalition Government as being in breach of their human rights obligations. The House will remember that it was the coalition Government who initiated the austerity programme in 2010. The UN committee said that it was “seriously concerned” about,
“the disproportionate adverse impact that austerity measures”,
were having on disadvantaged and marginalised individuals and groups. It also emphasised problems with welfare reform, saying that it was “deeply concerned” about,
“the various changes in the entitlements to, and cuts in, benefits”,
including the reduction of the household benefit cap, the four-year freeze on some benefits and the reduction in child tax credits. A year on from the report, the social outcomes of austerity today mean that the use of food banks, child poverty and homelessness are increasing. Yes, our economy has changed. We have changed from the casino economy to the gig economy, obviously with insecurity and the costs of poverty. We must and can do better.
The tragedy of Grenfell Tower and the years leading up to it have drawn attention yet again to the divisions in our country between those who exercise power and those who are marginalised by the abuse of that power. I, for one, hope and pray that the Government will come to their senses and recognise the damage being done to a large percentage of our fellow citizens by their one-sided austerity measures. Let us be clear: when we are told that cuts are essential, in reality that means tax cuts for the rich and benefit cuts for the poor. As we have seen, the socioeconomic tool of austerity has a price tag. Sadly, too often the price of austerity is the lives of our fellow citizens.