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My Lords, under this Government, income inequality is down. We believe that having a strong economy and welfare system that helps people into work is the only sustainable solution to disadvantage. I am proud that there are 400,000 fewer people in absolute poverty before housing costs, compared to 2010, and that the lowest paid have seen their wages grow by 8% above inflation—the fastest of any group since 2015.
My Lords, over the past nine years we have seen a huge rise in the number of food banks across the United Kingdom. The Trussell Trust’s figures on this are just frightening. If the Government truly wanted to end the widening inequality, they could begin by tackling the ever-increasing poverty across the UK. Can the Minister justify to the House why 4 million children in Britain are now at risk of malnutrition as a result of living in poverty? More importantly, what are the Government’s plans to reduce inequality and poverty across the UK?
My Lords, I was a nutritionist before I went into politics. Some people on low incomes might find the suggestion that their children were necessarily malnourished to be insulting—in fact, rich people may well be malnourished. Malnutrition and undernutrition are two different things. Malnutrition obviously correlates with inadequate diet, but not necessarily with poverty.
The 4 million figure to which the noble Lord refers is for the number of children living in low-income households, relative to the population as a whole. There is no evidence to suggest that there are 4 million children in food-insecure households. However, I accept his point about food banks. As he will know, the reasons for that are many and varied. I also accept that the initial rollout of UC led to some of the proliferation of food banks.
My Lords, is it possible to accept the fact that we would be able to ride a coach and horses through those figures over the next five or 10 years if we did something about the 35% of children who we fail at school? Let us put education first. When you look at that 35%, they are the people who have all the cheap jobs and are the long-term unemployed, as well as filling up our A&Es.
I could not agree more with the noble Lord that education is absolutely key to good nutritional status and prospects for employment in future life.
My Lords, is not one of the best ways to meet the concerns of inequality, which are certainly evident in society today, to turn more earners into owners? That would bring future wealth to millions of households, giving them the dignity and status that some kind of savings and ownership provide. Is that not the best way to advance ownership by the public in a genuine sense, rather than in the bogus sense of the past?
As always, my noble friend speaks great sense. Ownership is not just the key to future prosperity. It has huge benefits to people through their well-being. I totally agree with him.
My Lords, much of what the Minister says sounds reassuring. Can she therefore perhaps explain why the ONS is reporting a large fall in life expectancy for women living in the most deprived areas, in contrast to continued increases in life expectancy for women living in the least deprived areas? In its own words:
“This has led to a significant widening in the inequality in life expectancy”.
Should the Government not be a little less complacent?
I think the noble Baroness will know that I am not complacent at all. I take the point she makes about life expectancy. It is not just women; it is the population as a whole. Certainly, in Trafford, people’s life expectancy in its more affluent areas is something like nine years higher than for their neighbours in less affluent areas one mile away. This is due to a variety of reasons, as she will know, but it is not something that the Government are not concerned about. Of course prevention in many areas, such as smoking, is key to some of the outcomes for those people.
I was the Minister responsible way back when, but I think that role has now been taken by the noble Viscount, Lord Younger.
My Lords, Newcastle was one of the pilot areas for the rollout of universal credit. It also has one of the largest food banks in the United Kingdom. I have warmly welcomed the changes to universal credit that have ameliorated some of the terrible things that happened in the beginning. However, is anything being done to help those people who were the guinea pigs, who were plunged into poverty and have not managed to come out of it? I would be grateful to know whether anything is being done.
I say to the right reverend Prelate that we are working with areas such as Newcastle that have food banks. We are also working with the food banks more closely to better support those people who, as she says, might initially have fallen into that pit, perhaps, of the ever-increasing sets of problems that arose from that initial problem with UC.
My Lords, does the Minister agree with the findings of the Social Mobility Commission that one of the great perpetrators of inequality in the UK is our twin-track education system, which sees 7% of young people benefit from an education resourced at three times the level of the other 93%? As we know, this 7% are more likely to go on and earn top salaries in top jobs. Can she tell the House when we can expect the further detailed recommendations promised in the commission’s last report on what can be done to spread more equitably the benefits that accrue from private education?
Again, going back to a previous life in Trafford, we have no private secondary schools at all and we are one of the top-performing LEAs in the country. I do not think we can say either that private education is good or state education is bad. The standards and performance in schools are key to a child’s future. We should look to areas of very good practice, such as in Trafford, to see how we can improve our state education system.