Inequalities - Motion to Take Note

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 3:00 pm on 30 November 2017.

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Photo of Baroness O'Cathain Baroness O'Cathain Conservative 3:00, 30 November 2017

My Lords, when I was asked whether I would take part in this debate I blanched, solely because I knew it was to be opened by the noble Lord, Lord Liddle. I have the highest respect for the noble Lord but I am terrified by his intellect. I am terrified by the things he has suggested in the past, particularly on Europe, because I have nearly always agreed with him. That has happened again today, although I am no longer terrified because I believe that we are more or less singing off the same hymn sheet in many areas. I remember his contributions on EU matters in the good old days when I was either the chairman or a member of our EU Committees—oh, happy days. Those were days of cementing understanding and friendship with our closest neighbours on the land-mass of Europe, but life must go on and there is much to do on our own patch and even more on establishing solid links through new trade encouragement. This is something I look forward to.

Yes, there are huge regional and national inequalities, but the growth in economic activity is not limited solely to the south-east and London. I have been astonished recently, in the last 12 months, as I have visited Birmingham, which is completely unrecognisable from five or six years ago, Manchester, and towns in the north-east about which I had always felt, “Oh, don’t stop here”, and seen that the imbalance in economic activity is being changed. Furthermore, the noble Lord made reference to the various reports we have had recently. They have all encouraged me to think that the Government really are doing something—I see that the noble Lord is nodding—and that gives me great faith. Whereas they have to do the analysis, and we all know that we are in great danger of being paralysed by analysis, there are gems in these reports, not least the railways report and the industrial report. Indeed, the Autumn Budget speech by Philip Hammond showed that there is not much between us in striving to eliminate inequalities. In fact, I am sure that there is not much between any of us in recognising the necessity of eliminating inequalities.

I can assure the House that in the last few weeks I have felt submerged by different analyses of this; each one requires a lot more work, but we have to get the message across that it is not good enough to have huge inequalities. Whereas we are doing very well in some areas, we have to realise that something has got to be done with the younger people in this country. There are glaring omissions—some of them have been mentioned—not least in skills and education. Connecting People: A Strategic Vision for Rail has just been published. I believe that this is one of the major areas of development which will bear fruit and be very positive in reducing inequalities in areas north of London. Britain needs to have faith in the Government’s ability to eliminate the poverty of low aspiration, to eliminate the poverty of weak determination and to eliminate the poverty of low self-worth. It is a tall order but we can do it.

I always remember the fact that we are, after all, the fifth-largest economy in the world. That has given us some push and influence. Not only that, our language is the best language, or at least the most used language in the world—other than Chinese, I suppose—and it is immensely in our interest to use these sorts of plus factors when selling ourselves to our own people, saying that we can get much more work out of people and that people need to develop their skills. We are also treated as one of the most financially competent countries in the world, which should bear us fruit as we develop these new trades.

I suspect that a high proportion of Members of this House have scant knowledge of what is happening now in the rebalancing of our economy, I know that Hastings, Stoke-on-Trent and Ipswich were regarded to some extent as basket cases, but the amount of work that is going on even in Hastings, where I have been recently, is quite exhilarating. Certainly, social mobility is happening and will probably happen further. I am told that the Department for Education has designated these three places—Stoke-on-Trent, Ipswich and Hastings—and will encourage them to get more investment and to beef up their skills.

The skills that we need were dealt with by the Chancellor of the Exchequer in the Autumn Budget. I was very taken by his statement:

“Knowledge of maths is key to the high-tech, cutting-edge jobs in our digital economy, but it is also useful in less glamorous roles such as frontline politics. So we will expand the Teaching for Mastery of Maths programme to a further 3,000 schools”.

This is terribly important, because maths is still regarded as too difficult, too out of touch and not likely to help in getting a job. What is not likely to help in getting a job is no knowledge of maths and we all ought to try to do something about that. I think of the success of ad hoc committees in the House of Lords: perhaps we should ask for an ad hoc committee on the teaching of maths. I do not know if that is too narrow a subject but I think not, because it embraces so many other subjects. The Chancellor of the Exchequer went on to say,

“we will provide £40 million to train maths teachers across the country”.—[Official Report, Commons, 22/11/17; col. 1050.]

Investment is planned on an all-Britain basis, with the northern powerhouse—that is an exception, of course, except that is part of an all-Britain process—and the transforming cities fund. Elected metro mayors are gearing up to change their areas and LEPs have done very good work in Birmingham. Those should be held up as beacons for people to imitate. Giving hope, encouraging action and, above all, having faith in this great country sums up what is needed to rebalance the economy and reduce inequalities. What is not needed is beating ourselves up.

On the subject of HS2, I can inform the noble Lord that there is movement on the next stage—HS2a is going before the House of Commons, I think, within the next few weeks. I agree with him that although a lot of people say it is a dreadful project, it is just what we want at the moment, particularly when you consider those who are taking the initiative of developing learning hubs and academies along the route to encourage more construction engineers and architects.

I am not anything like as downhearted as the noble Lord but I do agree with some of his points and wonder whether we should actually do something about it.