Inequalities - Motion to Take Note

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 4:30 pm on 30 November 2017.

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Photo of Baroness Pinnock Baroness Pinnock Liberal Democrat Lords Spokesperson (Communities and Local Government) 4:30, 30 November 2017

My Lords, I draw the House’s attention to my interests as a councillor in the borough of Kirklees in West Yorkshire and as a member of the governing body of the University of Huddersfield. This has been an excellent debate highlighting the challenges and potential solutions from noble Lords across the House, and I thank the noble Lord, Lord Liddle, for initiating it.

We have heard graphic descriptions and definitions of regional and national inequality but less about what it means for individuals and families. I live, as you have heard, in West Yorkshire, which has some urban areas where evidence of inequality is stark. Much of the cheaper housing is of poor quality, health inequalities are pronounced and the majority of local jobs are low paid. Those conditions have a knock-on effect on the wider community—shops are limited to low-cost goods and the high street is full of betting shops. Those who can leave do, and so the spiral continues in a downward direction.

The noble Lord, Lord Liddle, drew attention to an area—I think he was referring to Carlisle—where the majority of the money, some 83%, was spent on welfare where it ought be focused on regeneration. He made a good point—with which I agree—about how we need to turn over the way we focus our public money, with less going into welfare support and more focus on regenerating jobs and lives.

Successive Governments have made efforts to address inequality, though often in a piecemeal fashion. They have targeted one element of the problem and made some improvement but what is needed, as this debate seeks, is a comprehensive approach. Several noble Lords across the House, including the noble Lord, Lord Liddle, and my noble friend Lord Shipley, have referred to the industrial strategy that was published last week and the report of the Social Mobility Commission. Economic regeneration has a long history—some of it very successful. One of the schemes under City Challenge—an initiative of the noble Lord, Lord Heseltine—was in Batley, the town adjacent to mine, and evidence of what it did there is still obvious. That was followed by the New Deal for Communities and the regional development agencies. I know from my experience on the board of the regional development agency, Yorkshire Forward, that change is possible. In partnership with the private sector, to which my noble friend Lord Shipley referred, some of these schemes have had long-lasting effects. Investment by Yorkshire Forward in Siemens in establishing a wind turbine manufacturing base in Hull and the amazing advanced manufacturing park in Rotherham have both brought high-skilled employment to areas of high unemployment. However, that has not been sustained everywhere.

The second element for addressing inequality is connectivity, which has been referred to across the House, and currently the focus is on improving rail connectivity and broadband, investment being a key to economic revival. I served on the predecessor to Transport for the North, which was then called the Northern Way. The evidence then pointed to the importance of a fast and effective rail link from Liverpool to Hull—HS3 was the answer. Only this week, the Secretary of State for Transport has made the first tiny footsteps in that direction. Businesses saw HS3 as at least of equal importance to improving the economic productivity gap in the north as HS2, linking the ports of Liverpool and Hull. Yet successive Governments have lamentably failed to deliver on a project as basic as the electrification of the trans-Pennine line and now the Government intend to fob off the north with bi-modal trains. That unfortunately gives us a flavour of what has happened in successive attempts to do something.

Bringing superfast broadband to all parts of the country is vital. The Government need to consider access to broadband and mobile as an essential utility—such as electricity, gas, energy supplies and so on—and enable the costs of the services to be subsidised where people in poor communities are unable to afford them, as this is yet another instance where lack of access will worsen inequalities.

The third element of tackling inequalities, as my noble friend Lord Scriven so graphically stated with his example, is through education, skills and learning: it is the route out of poverty. A couple of initiatives that successive Governments have taken have done something to improve this. The university technical colleges have had mixed success; some of them have done very well but some had have to close. Apprenticeships, as we know, have seen a steep decline in numbers when what we needed to do as a country was to continue to put as much effort as we could into persuading young people to go into those areas of learning skills and accessing employment.

The fourth element of tackling inequalities is political leadership. We have heard much from the noble Lord, Lord Richard, and others about how important it is. Devolution is in many forms now and we have a fair patchwork of approaches to devolution across the country. None of it will work unless there are two factors present. One is that the Government have to loosen the purse strings and the tight grip they have on central funding and let a thousand flowers bloom by releasing the energy, skills and vision that people elsewhere in the country have for their areas. The second part of that is having political leadership of a quality that sees the importance of vision and strategy above wheeler-dealing for the sake of political fortunes. Those are the essential ingredients of tackling inequality across the country, but people who suffer from sustained inequality above all lack hope. That is what I see when I visit the places near me where inequalities are so obvious. They have lost hope that anything will ever improve. So as well as all the things that I have said, they are simply being left out of access to opportunities that others are taking for granted.

In this context, the Government have an enormous duty to consider the impact of Brexit, if it indeed happens, on the economic prospects of people already suffering inequality. For example, the town near where I live, Batley, is the bed manufacturing centre of the country and exports the vast majority of its beds to Europe. These companies are already telling me that they are very concerned about the impact on their businesses and they are fearful that the imposition of tariffs will make their products uncompetitive.

There are four elements that we need to think about and the Government need to address if we are ever to tackle inequalities. It needs to be comprehensive—that is the word I liked the most in the debate—to be sustained, to have high-quality political leadership and, above all, to provide hope for people for whom hope has not been part of their lives for too long.