Social Inclusion

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Mr. Peter Duncan (Galloway and Upper Nithsdale): I commend the hon. Member for West Renfrewshire (Jim Sheridan) on keeping his remarks short.

First, I thank the Secretary of State for her kind birthday wishes. Naturally, a Scottish Grand Committee sitting on 10 July was in itself present enough. It is always a pleasure to witness the robust opposition provided by the Liberal Democrats on such occasions, as demonstrated by the quite incredible consensual opening remarks of the hon. Member for Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross (John Thurso). These have indeed been 37 hard years on me and I am wearing terribly badly. My other birthday present was the arrival of so many Tories at the start of the sitting. However, I realised that that was caused by a Room change that had gone wrong.

This is a debate on social inclusion, but I would have entitled it ''Social Exclusion'', because I want to make certain specific remarks about those who are excluded. The Government's social inclusion unit has defined social exclusion as

    ''a shorthand term for what can happen when people or areas suffer from a combination of linked problems such as unemployment, poor skills, low incomes, poor housing, high crime environments, bad health and family breakdown.''

Responsibility for social inclusion crosses the devolution divide, a point with which the hon. Gentleman struggled valiantly at the start. The Scottish Executive are accountable for many policy areas that impact on poverty and social exclusion, such as health, education and housing. However, responsibility for social security benefits, taxation and the Employment Service lie with this House. This is a suitable subject for discussion here, given that the Westminster Parliament has a crucial role to play in key policy areas that can significantly reduce social exclusion.

The Scottish Conservatives, as I know hon. Members are aching to hear, have now correctly identified the crucial role of the community and community-based organisations, thus creating a framework that embraces all people in areas suffering from social exclusion.

The extent of poverty in Scotland is alarming. The Scottish households survey conducted in 2000 shows that an incredible 42 per cent. of households have no adults in work and that 20 per cent. of unemployed adults have been so for more than five years. As we have heard, the gap between the top and bottom 10 per cent. in our society is growing. Some 52 per cent. of households in Scotland have a net annual income of less than £10,000, which is less than half the average United Kingdom income. While households with families on council estates are the likeliest to be in the lowest income bracket, many single-parent households worry constantly about money issues.

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John Robertson: How would the hon. Gentleman sum up the Thatcher years as regards social inclusion. Would he say that they were a success or a failure?

Mr. Duncan: I was disappointed to lose in the lottery—it was 24 minutes before 18 years was mentioned. However, I will take entries for the next sitting.

Surely the lesson is that all the aspects of deprivation are interlinked and we ignore them at our peril. In 2000, the Scottish Affairs Committee was told that Scotland faced huge challenges and that in rural areas more than 350,000 people were living in poverty, and issue that I addressed in my Adjournment debate in Westminster Hall last autumn.

Mr. Foulkes: If the hon. Gentleman will not address the failures of the past, will he address the future? How does he reconcile his arguments with the fact that the leader of the Tory party has decided to abandon all the pledges given at the last election to match the spending of the Labour Government? How on earth does he reconcile his concern about poverty with his leader's unwillingness to match our commitment to spend?

Mr. Duncan: To answer the right hon. Gentleman's point, which I accept that he makes in good faith, I point out that whatever the party in charge in the past 50 years, all policies have failed, with the result that 350,000 people are living in rural poverty. We must review those policies and move on to ones that will work in future.

The Government's approach to social inclusion is too centralised: time and again, targets of agendas for social inclusion are urban-centric and fall far short of the task of addressing rural problems. Although rural communities suffer similar problems to urban ones, such as crime and poverty, the solutions required differ significantly. In my constituency, the average incomes in Galloway are the lowest in the United Kingdom; there are significant pockets of stubborn unemployment, to which the job losses at Stena Line in Stranraer, at West Freugh, and at Aprilia at Castle Kennedy have added significantly in the past six months. In rural communities, small numbers of job losses can create huge pockets of significant unemployment that cause great difficulties.

It is excellent news that in a place such as Whithorn, people can attend a benefits check and have their working families tax credit worked out for them, as we have heard. I compliment the Jobcentre Plus network for the work that it is doing in that regard. When the nearest benefits agency is 40 miles away and there are no buses after 6 o'clock at night or before 10 in the morning, it is a logistical nightmare to have one's benefits checked, especially given the ever more complicated benefits system.

Mr. Tynan: I wish the hon. Gentleman a happy birthday, although this must be a terrible way in which to spend it. Has not the deregulation of buses created enormous problems, and is that not the real reason why buses do not run after 6 o'clock?

Mr. Duncan: Absolutely. However, if I could draw the hon. Gentleman's attention to the point that was made earlier, although we have the lowest average

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incomes in the United Kingdom in Galloway, we have some of the highest percentages of car ownership, because there is no alternative to the car. People with very low incomes are driving cars that they cannot afford to fuel. That point has not been addressed in the past five years. [Interruption.] If these Scottish Grand Committees are to mean anything, speeches need to be short so that Back Benchers can contribute. I should like to make some progress.

That kind of exclusion sounds a direct warning for all politicians. Recent elections have shown a decline in turnout throughout the electorate. The whole population is disillusioned with the political process, but the trend is particularly acute among the most disadvantaged. When almost half the households in Scotland are not engaged in the economic process of our country, is it any wonder that they turn their backs on politics?

While dealing with social exclusion, we must encourage civic engagement—before the apathetic and the disengaged become the majority. It is depressing that a substantial part of Scotland's population continues to be excluded from the mainstream of society, struggling in communities whose key public services are in crisis, despite five full years of the Government's promised good intentions.

The national press has rightly reported in detail my right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition's highly-publicised visit with David McLetchie to the housing estates of Easterhouse in Glasgow. The visit exposed the Labour party's failure over many generations to use its dominance in such communities to achieve anything but a continuing cycle of decline, while shining a light upon small local projects—often run by the voluntary sector—which make a huge difference to people's quality of life.

That accords with my experiences in similar estates in my constituency where the communities of, for example, Stranraer and Kelloholm continue—

Mr. Mohammad Sarwar (Glasgow, Govan): Is the hon. Gentleman aware that Glasgow city council made various representations to the previous Conservative Government to write off huge debts against housing, and every time the request was turned down? That is one of the reasons for poverty and bad housing in Glasgow.

Mr. Duncan: I would certainly acknowledge that. I would also take the opportunity to welcome the vote in Dumfries and Galloway that was announced a few days ago. Council tenants have voted by 66 per cent. to 33 per cent. to take their housing stock into the private sector. That is an imaginative move. We shall press for them to hold true to the promises that they have made during the voting process. We need to trust communities a lot more and to lose our obsession with policies only being deliverable by major Government Departments. We must give more power to communities, families and independent institutions; that is the best way of making Scotland a better place for all in society.

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The Conservative party believes that strong independent local institutions are far more likely than the central state to improve the quality of life in our cities and in our countryside. The innovation, commitment and flexibility of local bodies are better than monopoly provision and central direction. The Government should work hand in hand with local communities.

Key to all of this, however, will be the Scottish Executive's delivery of public service improvements. Our community's most vulnerable depend on it. The failure of the Executive's law and order policies is less of a problem for those who can afford to move away from those communities most blighted by street crime or drugs. Its failure to tackle the waiting lists in our hospitals is not an issue for those able to buy their way into private health plans. Its abject failure to take seriously rural transport matters least to those with company cars and most to those in isolated communities and thus least able to access transport links.

The solution to Scotland's persistent social exclusion problems lies in the ability of us all to find a solution to our key public service issues. We will continue to fail until we trust our communities a lot more and our spin doctors a lot less.

12.8 pm

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Prepared 10 July 2002