Social Inclusion

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Ann McKechin (Glasgow, Maryhill): I very much welcome today's debate on a subject that has been central to the Government's policies since the 1997 election. As has already been stated today, the Labour Government have a proud record of achievement, especially on unemployment, the most important area of social exclusion. The Government have the ambition and commitment to achieve full employment and raise the standard of living for the very poorest in our communities. For the first time in many years, the gap between the richest and poorest in our country has stopped widening, which is no small achievement.

Many of the measures introduced by the Government are specifically targeted at the lowest income groups. Steps, such as the introduction of the minimum wage, the new deal schemes, the tax credit scheme for working families and increases in child benefit, together with the success in providing a stable economy and increasing investment in public services, have borne fruit. With the national minimum wage and the integrated tax and benefit scheme—here I take a slightly different view from that of my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow, Pollok (Mr. Davidson)—we are moving away from a welfare system to a system of entitlement, whereby those who have a child receive the same amount of assistance, whether they are in work or not. That gives us the structural building blocks to maintain social progress and achieve lasting change.

The changes in my constituency in the past five years have been dramatic. I am proud to say that we have had the biggest drop in unemployment of any west of Scotland constituency. In the past year alone, the number of unemployed claimants fell by 17 per cent. In the past five years, the number of unemployed people in Glasgow has fallen by more than 15,000.

As I am sure the Minister would agree, this is not a time for complacency. In Glasgow and other socially deprived areas of Scotland, the legacy of the wasted years of the 1980s and 1990s is still all too apparent. The challenge now is to build on the advances that we have made, to use the new opportunities that arise from economic growth, particularly in areas such as Glasgow, and the significantly higher public investment for the benefit of the poorest in our society, and to tackle the problems that afflict so many of them.

In sizeable areas of Glasgow—I make no apology for mentioning Glasgow again—the majority of the adult population are not in work. They are either on the unemployment register or, more commonly, on some other form of benefit. In some areas, that group comprises as much as 70 per cent. of the local population. Glasgow has more incapacity benefit claimants than any other city outside London, including Birmingham and Manchester. That is the nub of the problem in Glasgow, where the employment rate is 55 per cent., compared with a Scottish average of 51 per cent. The Scottish Council Foundation published an interesting report last month, which said that for Glasgow to achieve the average figure for employment in Scotland, an

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additional 40,000 jobs would have to be created in the city. That is why I welcome the Government's proposals to merge the Employment Service and the Benefits Agency into Jobcentre Plus, to offer the increasingly personalised service that claimants require and, in particular, to target the hidden unemployed in such areas and offer them opportunities to get back into work.

We realise that, as we tackle those problems, more public funding will be required if we are to assist people back into work. Many suffer from chaotic lifestyles, drugs and alcohol abuse, as my hon. Friend rightly stated. Many have no direct family experience or work routine. Most suffer from low competence, poor communication skills and low educational standards. If we are to beat the spectre of depressed soulless housing schemes, people need to see work going on around them. Even in my constituency, which suffers from the eighth highest unemployment rate in Scotland, there is a shortage of small industrial units for private firms or traders and a shortage of space for community-run industries. We need to focus on spreading job opportunities throughout our communities, not only in city centres. It does not suit every worker to travel to work, especially if they have dependants, young or old. Many women require the convenience of living near their workplace.

We also need to ensure that our public transport system supports our workers, and not just in rural areas. In Glasgow, which has a high dependency on public transport, more services across Greater Glasgow are needed rather than routes revolving around the city centre. There is no easy fix and that is why we have to ensure that all appropriate agencies, whether in the public or the voluntary sector, work together effectively.

To give an example, Glasgow city council recently announced a new and imaginative project to address some of those very problems. In three low employment areas it will actively promote a full employment initiative, giving a three-year job guarantee to applicants, with the aim of permanently raising the overall employment level. Already, through the good efforts of my colleagues in the Glasgow group of MPs, the Department for Work and Pensions has visited the city to determine whether the proposal can be developed on a national basis.

That is an excellent example of how different strands of both local and national Government can work together to bring new solutions to those who need the help most. We have achieved much in the past five years and I am sure that this Government will continue their commitment in the years to come to achieve high levels of employment for all our communities.

12.30 pm

Mr. Mohammad Sarwar (Glasgow, Govan): I am grateful for the opportunity to speak in such an important debate. We often discuss injustice and abject poverty elsewhere in the world, but our calls for action overseas will mean little if we tolerate injustice and lack of opportunity in our own constituencies. The welcome and thoughtful

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contributions to this debate clearly demonstrate the strong commitment of right hon. and hon. Members to tackling poverty in Scotland. Social inclusion should rightly be at the heart of policies enacted in this place. We should always strive to end poverty, aiming to give everyone a warm, secure home and every child a decent start in life. We must also fight for jobs and make work pay, bringing full employment and dignity at work to communities all over Scotland.

The strong record of this Labour Government demonstrates a clear commitment to tackling social exclusion in Scotland. In my own Govan constituency, more people are in work than ever before. Local unemployment is down by 37 per cent. since the Tories were voted out in 1997 and youth unemployment is down by 87 per cent. I welcome the keen interest of the hon. Member for Perth (Annabelle Ewing) in the affairs of Glasgow and I hope that she will seek representation in Glasgow in the coming elections.

Annabelle Ewing: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Sarwar: I am sorry, two of my colleagues still want to speak, so I must make some progress.

More than 2,000 hard-working local parents are also now guaranteed a decent take home pay for their families every week thanks to the working families tax credit. The new tax rate of 10p has helped people off benefit and back to work while families have the lowest tax burden for 30 years.

In my constituency, 3,100 pensioners receive the minimum income guarantee. Some 4,000 pensioners have potentially benefited from the free TV licence for those aged 75 or over, and some 10,200 pensioners aged 60 and over received a winter fuel payment of £200 per household.

We are also beginning to see the real benefits of partnership with the Labour-led Scottish Executive to fight poverty and bring social justice to communities across Scotland. Nursery places are being provided for all 3 and 4-year-olds, but there is also extra support for families in difficult circumstances.

I must praise the work of Homestart Pollokshaws and the Govan initiative. Homestart offers practical help to parents with young children in and around Pollokshaws. Its work has developed radically in recent years, as significant numbers of families fleeing persecution overseas have been housed in the area. It is fitting that the practical support offered by Homestart is based in Pollokshaws, once home to the renowned red Clydesider, Jimmy Maxton.

Govan has also benefited greatly from the social inclusion partnership set up as a direct result of this Government's commitment to tackling poverty. Substantial funding has been allocated by Scottish Ministers to make Govan a better place for everyone who lives there. As one of 48 social inclusion partnerships across Scotland, it is receiving a share of over £190 million of Government funding. The local community can set its own priorities in deciding how to allocate the money on the ground and is backed by

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strong support from Government and public agencies in promoting social justice.

Employment opportunities should be the cornerstone of social inclusion. We all define ourselves by what we do in work. Creating jobs and making work pay must always be at the heart of our agenda to fight poverty in Scotland. The Govan initiative has been active in bringing jobs to an area that suffered industrial decline in previous decades. Will the Minister assure me that the Government will continue to look imaginatively at ways of encouraging businesses to locate in the communities that have the greatest need for job creation?

The national minimum wage is perhaps the greatest single achievement of this Labour Government. The Conservatives and other opponents said that it would cost 100,000 jobs in Scotland, but the reality is that more than 120,000 low-paid workers have been lifted out of poverty. Of those, 90,000 are women. Will the Minister reaffirm the commitment to increase the minimum wage in future years and maintain a threshold of decency for every worker in Scotland?

In five years, we have seen a great deal of progress in promoting social inclusion throughout our country. Our Labour Government is tackling poverty to end exclusion in our communities. The opportunity to work for a fair day's pay must always be at the heart of that vision.

12.36 pm

 
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Prepared 10 July 2002