My Lords, I, too, thank the noble Lord, Lord Liddle, for securing this debate. I begin by declaring my interest as a commissioner on the Equality and Human Rights Commission.
There is a group of people who I do not think a single Member of your Lordships’ House has mentioned in the debate so far and whose positive contribution to reducing inequalities and incredible generosity so often goes unacknowledged. I want to thank them today for the inequality reduction measures that they fund, including measures to reduce regional and national inequality across the UK. Who are these wonderful anonymous individuals? They are the great British taxpayer. Their generosity knows no bounds. They are already asked for so much of their hard-earned income—yet still the shadow Chancellor demands more from them. Some may look longingly towards the land of McDonnell make-believe, but the patronising promises of more money are simply a mirage—an illusion, concealing increased debt interest payments, which are the very payments that would impoverish our people, imperil our welfare state and exacerbate inequalities.
I do not live—indeed, as a stakeholder in a sustainable welfare state, I cannot afford to live—in the land of McDonnell make-believe. Back on planet earth, with UK debt at around 88% of GDP, I ask myself: “Where is our buffer—our capacity to absorb the inevitable shocks of the economic cycle?”. This is the contextual reality that I say we cannot divorce from discussions about longed-for largesse—as if the Government themselves owned any money. My noble friend Lord Tebbit, who is not in his place today, often reminds your Lordships’ House that taxpayers own their money and give it to the Government in trust. I feel we need to remember that.
When we consider how to address regional and national inequalities, I also believe it is essential that we recognise the immense inherited financial constraints within which the Government are operating. It is therefore to the Government’s credit that, despite the lasting legacy of debt bequeathed by the last Labour Government, such a significant amount has been and is being done in this area. I am particularly heartened by the renewed focus on a one-nation vision, which has informed Conservative policy and practice for the last seven years. As we have already heard from other noble Lords, the former Chancellor, George Osborne, played a pivotal role in putting the northern powerhouse centre stage and empowering local government. That is to his enormous and lasting credit. Now this Government are building on that work, including with up to £1.8 billion announced by the Chancellor in his Autumn Budget, as well as devolution deals so that devolved powers and funding can be exercised at the appropriate level.
Surely we can all welcome the fact that the Government are investing more taxpayers’ money to improve transport connections across the north—more than any Government in history. Similarly, the devolution deal agreed between the Government and the West Midlands mayor and combined authority to address local productivity barriers includes £5 million for a housing delivery task force, £5 million for a construction skills training scheme and a £250 million allocation from the Transforming Cities fund to be spent on local intercity transport priorities. Is this not further proof of a Government who have put addressing regional inequalities high on their agenda and are committed to using taxpayers’ money responsibly to make sustainable progress?
I also welcome the fact that the Government are focusing on areas of the country with the greatest challenges and fewest opportunities, including by investing £72 million in 12 opportunity areas. While continuing to provide the pupil premium, worth around £2.5 billion this year, they are also investing £137 million through the Education Endowment Foundation to expand the evidence base on what works in education for disadvantaged pupils.
I could go on, but the fundamental point in all this is that the right delicate balance is being struck between encouraging enterprise, spending taxpayers’ money responsibly and in a sustainable way and, crucially, addressing inequalities. That combination surely is the best guarantee of what every noble Lord wants—a more equal society.