Social Inclusion

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The Chairman: I should like to be able to call every Member to speak this morning, but that will obviously depend on contributions being brief.

11.13 am

Mr. Ian Davidson (Glasgow, Pollok): Thank you, Miss Begg, for that introduction. I start by saying that social inclusion is largely related to poverty. Although the Government have done a great deal, I echo the election slogan that many of us used—much done, much still to do. There is undoubtedly a tremendous amount still to be done. The male unemployment figures in my constituency show that more than 15,000 or 11.4 per cent. are still unemployed. That figure compares dramatically with those in the constituencies of Liberal Democrat Members, some of whom represent the more prosperous areas of Scotland. In West Aberdeenshire and Kincardine it is 1.5 per cent. and in Gordon, 1.6 per cent. Both of those constituencies are larger than mine, but male unemployment in the two of them combined is less than half that in mine. The Government have not adequately tackled that disparity. Undoubtedly, a great deal has been done for individuals across the board, but there has not been the necessary area focus. While I am glad to say that unemployment in my constituency has fallen considerably—by 38.7 per cent.—in the past five years, in West Aberdeenshire it has fallen by 48 per cent., in Gordon by 47 per cent. and in neighbouring Eastwood by 38 per cent. Unemployment is falling more slowly in the areas that have the highest unemployment than it is in those where it is already lower. The danger is that if there is a turndown, the areas that are worst off and have been improved least will take the brunt of any difficulties before others. That is why we need to focus on particular geographical areas.

I listened to the youth unemployment figures given by the Secretary of State. My area, like others, has displayed a tremendous decrease in youth unemployment, but I do not believe that that represents a movement of young people into employment. The figures register those unemployed and claiming benefit. There is a vast, unregistered, under-group of youngsters who have turned to a variety of illicit means of bringing in cash, or who have dropped out of the economy altogether, are not picked up by the official statistics and are ignored by the existing system.

John Robertson (Glasgow, Anniesland): My hon. Friend is talking about people caught in the benefit trap. Does he agree that there are people who were caught in it in the late 1980s and early 1990s who have never managed to get a job?

Mr. Davidson: I shall come on to those caught in the benefits trap. The national minimum wage,

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particularly at the level at which it is set for young people, is an insufficient incentive for many young people in my area to choose work and legitimate enterprise as distinct from crime, drug dealing and other nefarious means of making a living. The income that can be gained from drug dealing is far higher than that which can be obtained by working on the minimum wage.

Mr. Frank Roy (Motherwell and Wishaw): Can my hon. Friend give us a figure that he thinks would encourage drug runners to work? If he is not satisfied with the minimum wage, what limit should it have?

Mr. Davidson: I welcome that intervention. I would start off with a universal £5 minimum wage, as called for by the Transport and General Workers Union. I would have that right away for all those who are entering employment and I hope that my colleagues would see fit to support it. The road into drug dealing does not start with the BMW, it starts with small-scale dealing, making petty change, and with drugs being seen to be a more attractive financial option than the small amounts of money that are available via gainful employment. We should look at ways in which we can provide adequate role models for young people in areas of deprivation, and the Government should do a number of things in that regard.

I return to the problems mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow, Anniesland (John Robertson). The poverty trap is far more substantial in Glasgow than elsewhere, because of the balance between the wages that people are likely to get on the existing minimum wage and their deductions. Once they start paying their council tax and their rents they earn less, because rents and council tax are far higher in Glasgow.

The city bears an unfair share of the public services burden in the west of Scotland and has been inadequately supported by central Government and now by the Scottish Parliament for some considerable time. The surrounding local authorities do not contribute towards services in Glasgow, but their citizens use them. Until such time as the Government manage to devise a system that overcomes the penalty of high rents and high council tax faced by residents of Glasgow when seeking work, I fear that we will be unable to make the drastic reduction in unemployment that areas such as my own need.

As I said before, we need an increase in the national minimum wage for a variety of reasons. A substantial number of people in my area are in receipt of tax credits of one sort or another and they find the system enormously complicated. The means-tested system is far too complicated, is inadequately understood by many of our citizens and, perversely, does not provide an incentive to work, because many of the people involved do not understand how well off they would be if they were in work. They are often happier once they are in work and receiving the benefits than they thought they would be when considering whether to take work, because we do not adequately explain the position to them.

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David Cairns (Greenock and Inverclyde): My hon. Friend makes an important and valid point, so will he join me in welcoming the practice adopted in Jobcentres Plus in areas such as my constituency? Whenever anybody is offered a job, their entire benefit entitlement, including whatever tax credit they might be entitled to, is explained to them in detail. Does that go some way to addressing the problems about which my hon. Friend spoke?

Mr. Davidson: Yes, I am aware of that practice and it goes some way towards overcoming the difficulties—once somebody is in the position of being offered a job. But many people in my constituency shy away from being forced into a job. The mechanism needs to be simpler, more easily understood and more information should be made available from an earlier stage.

In addition, the tax credit system is not helping us politically, because it is seen by many of my constituents, and I am sure by many others, almost as an act of God rather than as something that a Labour Government have deliberately decided to provide in order to make them better off. There is a contradiction in that we are spending huge amounts of money and getting little political benefit in return. That is not just a partisan point, because it also relates to perceptions of the role of the state in generating employment and prosperity.

Rosemary McKenna (Cumbernauld and Kilsyth): My hon. Friend said that it was difficult to get people into work. The Government have done a great deal to make it easy for people to access jobs. I represent an area with low unemployment, and I do not think that other local authorities are doing enough to improve the transport links into those areas where there are jobs. Does he agree that local authorities, as well as the Government, have much responsibility to improve the situation and allow people access to jobs by improving the transport infrastructure?

Mr. Davidson: I welcome that instructive point on a topic that I was intending to move on to later. In an area such as my constituency, there are no adequate bus services after certain hours of the night and at weekends. For those of my constituents who have to work in the more antisocial jobs in terms of hours and conditions, public transport does not exist. They frequently find themselves unable to take up such jobs when they are offered. They are also unenthusiastic about taking the jobs because they do not appreciate how much better off they will be through the tax credit system, because they do not understand it. Therefore, they do not get as far as being made offers and having the system explained to them.

A low minimum wage acts to subsidise bad employers. Labour shortages are developing in several areas of the economy, so to encourage employers to hoard labour or use it inefficiently by making it cheap is not necessarily the best approach for the country.

Mr. Bill Tynan (Hamilton, South): Would my hon. Friend agree that those in employment, who are not even on the minimum wage but receive working

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families tax credit, receive a tremendous boost to their incomes and are removed from poverty? The best way to overcome his constituents' problems is for people who are benefiting from that system to pass on the information by word of mouth to colleagues and friends. If the minimum wage were set at £5, would it not create problems of employment for smaller companies, which might not be able to raise their wages to that level?

Mr. Davidson: I do not accept my hon. Friend's point about the perils of raising the minimum wage to £5, although I understand that he is making it in a constructive fashion. That rate is the minimum that we should consider in the short term. I accept that the tax credit system provides gains and benefits, but the figures demonstrate unequivocally that it is not working effectively in my constituency. More needs to be done. Given that the system does not work for an area such as mine or for several other areas of Glasgow, simply reiterating the present solution is an inadequate response. We must consider other possible improvements that could be made.

I come to the question of social inclusion and health. A major issue of fairness arises from inequalities in life expectancy. In my constituency, the latest figures show that less than 50 per cent. of my constituents are expected to live until 75, while in neighbouring Eastwood that figure is more than 70 per cent. and in some areas of the south of England is more than 75 per cent. It is simply unfair that life chances should depend on where one happens to live and be brought up.

The Government should consider the issues of nutrition, food and diet. The system of food production is deliberately designed to keep food prices high and keep the quality of food consumption low for the poor. Schemes have been set up with Government funding that are deliberately designed to provide cheap fruit and vegetables, while the overall strategy is designed to drive up those same prices. If we want joined-up Government, we must operate a system of agricultural support that is designed not to keep food prices high and create welfare dependency but to drive prices down and make produce available at world rates.

 
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