Social Inclusion

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Mr. Russell Brown: Perhaps the hon. Lady will answer a question that has caused me some concern for the past 12 months. We have heard about the poverty and plight of farmers, and about incomes being as low as £2,000 a year. She will know that foot and mouth blighted my area and the neighbouring area of Galloway and Upper Nithsdale last year. People lost their livestock, which gave them the opportunity to look long and hard at their future. If the farmers had gone through such a bad time in previous years, why did they all go back into the business?

Annabelle Ewing: I am sorry that the hon. Gentleman did not take the opportunity to apologise for the Secretary of State's reference to farmers as welfare dependants. Foot and mouth was a terrible crisis for farmers across Scotland, but the problems that face the rural economy were there long before it. The crisis simply exacerbated the situation.

Time and again, our fishermen have been sold down the river by Brussels because successive Governments have happily traded away our vital fishing interests for deals that were not in Scotland's best interests.

The hon. Member for Glasgow, Pollok made an excellent contribution, but I should like to add a few

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words. How has Labour fared in our inner cities? The hon. Gentleman criticised many Government policies; we, too, would like to look at some of the Government's policies in this area.

Not all of those hon. Members who represent Glasgow constituencies have attended the debate. Those who are here will be aware that Glasgow features prominently among the poorest constituencies in the United Kingdom. As a Glaswegian, I know only too well the stranglehold that Labour has had in the city for decades at local and parliamentary level. The question that must be asked is this; what has been the net benefit of total Labour dominance, decade-in, decade-out, during the previous century and this? The answer, I am sorry to say, is continuing poverty and deprivation on a truly shaming level.

John Robertson: I thank the hon. Lady for baiting me, a Glaswegian who has lived in the city for many years. I ask her to pay a visit to Glasgow and then tell us that it is not a great city.

Annabelle Ewing: I invite the hon. Gentleman and the hon. Member for Glasgow, Pollok—

John Robertson: Has the hon. Lady been to Drumchapel?

Annabelle Ewing: I have been there. I know Glasgow well. As a Glaswegian and a Scot, it shames me that the city should suffer such terrible poverty and deprivation.

Glasgow has the second highest rate of households in the United Kingdom with no earner in the family, and some 40 per cent. of the city's population live in an area of deprivation. In Glasgow, the scourge of drugs blights many communities. We see increasing homelessness in the city, and people there are struggling to survive day by day. That shames me, a Scot, and it should shame every hon. Member here today—[Interruption.] Clearly, in light of Labour's laughter, it does not.

What has Labour done for cities such as Glasgow? The Government have set a target for the eradication of child poverty; and by what date are we to see this? Not until 2020. What a limited ambition we see around us in this so-called mother of Parliaments. That truly dismal target means the consigning of a further generation of children to an upbringing of poverty. Labour has presided over massive job losses and increased unemployment. The Government have retreated on their target for dealing with people sleeping rough on our streets. The 2002 target has become a 2003 target, and a further postponement can doubtless be anticipated.

In short, Labour has talked a lot about poverty for 50 years, but has done very little about it. In 1997, Labour pledged to reduce means testing of benefits, but what has happened? They are about to extend massively the means testing of pensioners by way of the State Pension Credit Act 2002.

Mrs. Liddell: Will the hon. Lady give way?

Annabelle Ewing: No. I have given way several times, and I wish to make progress.

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The Government have massively extended means testing at a time when some 750,000 pensioners do not claim the means-tested benefits to which they are entitled. The Government provide benefits on the one hand, and take them away with the other. The operation of the working families tax credit is one example of that; it is not interlinked with council tax benefit or housing benefit, which creates and enhances the poverty trap that faces many citizens.

With respect to benefits for disabled people, we see a Labour Government forcing people to go through the hoop for benefits to which they should be entitled. I am thinking in particular of the shambles that is the disability living allowance. Some Labour Members are shaking their heads, but if they got out more and spoke to their constituents they would be hard-pressed to find one who had had a good experience of applying for disability living allowance.

The Tories abandoned the basic principle of discretion in the benefits system, and new Labour has refused to reintroduce it. Discretion is a basic principle of natural justice in any administrative system, and it is shocking that new Labour has decided to stick with the Tory policy. The lack of discretion has resulted in misery for many thousands of people, who have found themselves caught up in the mindless bureaucracy of the social security system. It has taken away the dignity of people such as a young constituent of mine, who has been in and out of hospital and who is now trying to stand on his own two feet. His income is a few pounds above the basic income support level, and he receives incapacity benefit. He applied for a social fund grant to help furnish a small flat that he had managed to obtain with local authority help. The Department for Work and Pensions told him on 23 May 2002 that he could have the princely sum of £379 to furnish his flat with basic items. He was told that he could have a cooker and a bed, but not a washing machine and a chair. What kind of society are we living in, when such situations arise? That is the reality of new Labour's policies, and it is unacceptable to my party and me.

How can we justify paying asylum seekers less than the basic income support level? If income support represents a basic level of income, below which no one should fall, how can we justify giving asylum seekers less? Why do the UK Government intend to exclude asylum seekers' children from mainstream schools? Whey do the Government lock asylum seekers up in places such as Dungavel? Why do they not allow asylum seekers access to the employment market so that they can contribute positively to the society in which they find themselves?

I could go on all morning, but I am conscious of the fact that other hon. Members want to speak. I conclude by reiterating what I said at the beginning of my remarks. Real social justice has not been achieved in Scotland, and Labour has not delivered and cannot deliver for Scotland. It is instructive that 16 Labour Back Benchers have not even bothered to turn up to this important debate on social justice. The only way to secure real social justice in our country is

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to equip ourselves with the necessary tools. Those include control over our resources, which will allow us to grow our economy and create wealth. In short, we need the powers of a normal and independent Parliament.

The Secretary of State said in her opening remarks that achieving social justice in Scotland would be a long haul, but the fact is that Labour has had its time. It has presided over continuing poverty and decline and it has treated the people of Scotland with utter contempt. Labour's time is now up.

The Chairman: I again repeat my entreaty to hon. Members that they keep their speeches short.

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Jim Sheridan (West Renfrewshire): Having once been told that there was no such thing as society, I find today's debate refreshing and welcome. We face many challenges today, but none is more important than raising the living standards and the aspirations of those who sent us here.

Living and working in a diverse constituency, I see tangible evidence of the gap that remains between the most affluent and influential people in our society and those who live in deprivation, and we must deal with that. I firmly believe that the Government have put in place a structure for creating a more equal and fair society. Their measures include the new deal, pension improvements and, more importantly, the creation of the right environment for businesses and people in communities to prosper.

At the risk of incurring the wrath of my hon. Friend the Member for Motherwell and Wishaw (Mr. Roy), I must admit that I have some sympathy with my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow, Pollok on the contentious question of the level of the minimum wage. I do not think that it is over-ambitious to propose a figure of around £5. That would not deter people from becoming drug dealers and drug runners, but it would certainly improve the quality of people's lives.

That is why social inclusion can be achieved only by partnership between employers, trade unions and Government. However, with social inclusion come social responsibilities. I welcome the consultation on entitlement cards. There are people in our communities, including my own, who take advantage of the most vulnerable in our society whose lives are ruined by financial difficulties, and I welcome the Proceeds of Crime Bill that is making its passage through the House.

Through the trade union movement and other voluntary organisations such as the children's panel, and subsequently through my interest in politics, my quality of life has greatly improved. That is why we must make every possible effort to engage our young people in constructive dialogue. There are far too many in our society who feel left out and consider that they have nothing to offer. Nothing could be further from the truth, and unless and until we convince our electorate that their participation in every aspect of our life is valuable, social inclusion will be even harder to deliver and the social misfits will win the day.

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The only obstacle to progress on social inclusion is the unthinkable return of a Conservative Government at Westminster. Even more worrying is the unthinkable thought of the nationalists gaining any influence whatever at Edinburgh.

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Prepared 10 July 2002