Families (Scotland)

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 11:51 am on 21st March 2001.

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Photo of Ian Davidson Ian Davidson Labour/Co-operative, Glasgow Pollok 11:51 am, 21st March 2001

Following on from the speeches of my hon. Friends, I take up the theme that there is much still to do. I thought that Mr. Tynan took the biscuit--as he does, on occasion--by covering every area in which the Government have made improvements to date. Although we have done enough to be proud, and to justify re-election with larger majorities, we must recognise the need to tell people where we intend to go next. We cannot stand still. I want to focus on areas where there is still work to be done.

Unemployment in my constituency has dropped by more than 30 per cent. since the last election, but that drop is smaller than in many constituencies where absolute unemployment was lower to start with. Everybody is rising up, but the constituencies that were at the bottom remain there. If anything, the gap is widening. Glasgow has such concentrated difficulties and deprivation that it contains six of the 10 Scottish constituencies with the highest unemployment. There must be a greater area focus on Glasgow, perhaps with tax breaks, or additional funding, direct from No. 11. Additional cash must be spent on Glasgow if it is to share in the increasing prosperity that the Labour Government have brought to Scotland as a whole.

A major difficulty in my constituency--and, I am sure, in similar constituencies--is the scale of poverty of ambition. In a considerable number of families in my constituency, a tradition of unemployment and low wages has persisted for three, four, five or six generations. Such families believe that they are never likely to rise above the lowest income level. They do not look for improvement because they think that to strive is to be rejected. They must be given the opportunity to break out of the cycle that some of my colleagues mentioned: poverty, unemployment, low-paid jobs and then back to poverty. I can see no reason why the children of the poor in my constituency should not have the same access to the best jobs as those from wealthier backgrounds. I recognise that the hardest target--the poorest--will cost the most to lift to the standard of the rest. That is a price worth paying. As a Labour Government, we should make it clear that in our next term, and the term after that, we intend to make a concerted effort to deal with the problems of the most deprived in our society.

Some of my hon. Friends mentioned education, which offers a way out of poverty. Some of the schools in my constituency and in the city of Glasgow reflect the legacy of capital underspending over generations. When I was chair of education in Strathclyde, we received enough capital allocation from the Government to replace primary schools every 400 years. When schools and educational establishments are allowed to fall into decay, whereas pubs, bookies, bingo halls and other kinds of centres in the community are built to the highest standards, that inevitably sends to our youngsters a message that education is not valued by society.

More cash for staffing must be given to schools in the poorest areas. It has always been absurd that the head teachers and promoted posts who got the most money tended to be those in the most prosperous areas, because their schools were generally larger and salaries were paid on a per capita basis. That created a financial incentive for people to move out of poor areas into better-off areas, effectively moving away from the hardest tasks to easier tasks. The Government must try to find ways of reversing that process.

Although I recognise that many of these problems are now the responsibility of the Scottish Parliament, we at Westminster have the same responsibility to Scots in poverty as to all those in poverty across the United Kingdom. There are ways in which we can take helpful action from the centre.

I turn to the plight of families living in poor housing in my constituency. Again, I recognise that much of that is now the responsibility of the Scottish Parliament, and I regret that it is one of the areas in which it has not moved forwards as quickly as I should have hoped. However, we do have responsibility for housing benefit. For many people in my constituency, the operation of the housing benefit system acts as an enormous disincentive to taking work. They are caught in the trap of council tax benefit, housing benefit, low wages and part-time work, and are often unable to calculate what the benefits of work will be--notwithstanding the advantages of the working families tax credit and similar measures, which I applaud. We need to do more to ensure that the operation of the housing system no longer serves as a disincentive to self-advancement.

The thrust of the Government's policy, as dictated by Treasury rules, is to privatise council housing. That ideological obsession about removing housing from local authorities is a diversion from the main task of providing first-class housing to all. I am sure that, like me, the tenants in my constituency have no objection to genuine competition between alternative providers. However, they find it unfair when the scales are rigged and the balance is weighed so overwhelmingly in favour of privatisation, because that takes the choice out of their hands. A choice between a change of ownership and a continuation of dilapidation is no choice at all.

Pensioners are an important part of families, and under the previous Government pensioner poverty was a blight on our society. I applaud the Government for introducing the minimum income guarantee. I also applaud the five churches in my constituency that last week distributed to their entire congregations a leaflet that was drawn up by myself and the Benefits Agency to publicise the minimum income guarantee and to urge pensioners to take it up. Another seven churches distributed the leaflet to all their parishioners during the previous week, and three more will do so this weekend. Such partnership between church and state, acting in the interests of the poorest in our society, is greatly to be applauded. However, the issue of free television licences enables us to draw attention to the enormous difference in life expectations. It is anticipated that 50 per cent. of people in my constituency will live to the age of 75, and that in Mr. Murphy more than 66 per cent. will reach that age. In some constituencies in England and Wales, the estimate exceeds 75 per cent. I see no reason why constituents of mine should not aspire to the life expectations of those in the most prosperous areas.

I believe that the measures that I have outlined are affordable. Millions--indeed, billions--of pounds will be flung at the current agricultural crisis, just as billions were flung at BSE. The crisis of poverty among many of my constituents and those of my colleagues is equally deserving of money, and we should pledge to spend money on them in the next term of this Labour Government.