Westminster Hall Debate on cross-departmental strategy on social justice

Last week, Margaret Greenwood MP who is also a part of the Shadow Department for Work and Pensions team, spoke at a Westminster Hall Debate on cross-departmental strategy on social justice.

As Margaret stated, there are almost 1 million zero-hours contracts in our society, as well as high housing costs, insecure rental contracts and insecure work, all of which create a great deal of instability in the home and for families so this debate on such a relevant issue affecting so many across the UK was important.

You can read Margaret’s speech in full below:

“It is an honour to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Dorries. I congratulate the hon. Members for Enfield, Southgate (Mr Burrowes) and for Congleton (Fiona Bruce) on securing this important debate.

I welcome the genuine concern focused on the poorest families by the hon. Member for Congleton. However, as she said, while family breakdown is a key driver of poverty—Steve Double made much the same point—poverty is a key driver of family breakdown, and it is important that that remains in the frame. There are almost 1 million zero-hours contracts in our society, as well as high housing costs, insecure rental contracts and insecure work, all of which create a great deal of instability in the home and for families. A Government who are focusing on tackling social justice should take note of that.

Jim Shannon spoke compellingly of the community groups in his constituency, which work hard to make lives better. He did say that he had never seen food banks as a negative. I have to disagree with him on that: I see the sharp rise in food banks in our country, one of the richest nations on Earth, as a stain on the reputation of this Government.

Andrew Selous spoke very clearly and importantly on the role of education in helping people in prison—helping them to become better fathers, mothers and so on and aiding their rehabilitation. He also spoke about the importance of improving access to psychological therapies.

Angela Crawley raised the important issue that universal credit is paid only to one person in a couple. That raises the problems that particularly women in abusive relationships can face, and I ask the Minister in particular to address that point.

The hon. Member for St Austell and Newquay also called for family hubs, but I have to say that in my constituency Government cuts are putting our family hubs in jeopardy. Dr Whiteford, whom I absolutely agree with, pointed out that low income is a core driver of deprivation.

The hon. Member for Congleton spoke with pride about the social justice narrative of Mr Duncan Smith. I have to take exception to that, because we of course have to bear in mind the record of what he achieved while in office. We saw the slashing of social security support and a failure to ensure the levels of high-quality, well-paid and secure jobs that would prevent an additional 800,000 children from being in poverty by 2020.

The hon. Lady and I can agree on one thing: the need for an interdepartmental approach to enable social justice to thrive, and to counter social injustice. Where we may disagree is on the interpretation of how to achieve that. I would point to whole swathes of Government policies and previous coalition Government policies as drivers of deprivation. The Institute for Fiscal Studieshas shown that the Budget has left people on low and middle incomes proportionately worse off as a result of tax and social security changes. Regressive economic policies whereby the total tax burdens fall predominantly on the poorest, combined with low levels of public spending, especially on social security, are key to establishing and perpetuating inequalities. Is that really social justice?

Is it socially just that 3.7 million sick and disabled people will have approximately £28 billion-worth of cuts in social security support from theWelfare Reform Act 2012? That does not include the cuts to employment and support allowance work-related activity group support due to start next, or cuts to social care. Is it socially just that in addition to facing the misery and hardship of poverty, the children affected have greater risks to their future health and wellbeing? One witness to the recent inquiry by the all-party parliamentary group on health in all policies into the effects of the 2016Welfare Reform and Work Bill on child health told us that

“as children’s lives unfold, the poor health associated with poverty limits their potential and development across a whole range of areas, leading to poor health and life chances in adulthood, which then has knock-on effects on future generations.”

There is even increasing evidence that poverty directly impacts on how neural connections develop in the brain. In particular, the hippocampus, which is key to learning, memory and stress regulation, and the amygdala, which is linked to stress and emotion, have weaker connections to other areas of the brain in children living in poverty compared with children from more affluent homes. Those changes in connectivity are related to poorer cognitive and educational outcomes and increased risk of psychiatric illness for nine to 10-year-olds; that includes depression and antisocial behaviours.

The inequalities that the people of our country face at the moment are reminiscent of the Victorian age. The International Monetary Fund has described income inequalities as

“the most defining challenge of our time”.

In the UK, 40 years ago, 5% of income went to the highest 1% of earners; today it is 15%. Unless we address that, we cannot get to grips with all the other issues talked about in this debate. Of course, this is not just about income. The Panama papers revealed the shocking extent to which the assets of the richest are kept in offshore tax havens, where tax is avoided and evaded. According to the Equality Trust, in the last year alone the wealth of the richest 1,000 households in the UK increased by more than £28.5 billion. Today, their combined wealth is more than that of 40% of the population. While the wealth of the richest 1% has increased by 21%, the poorest half of households saw their wealth increase by less than one third of that amount. I could go on.

Of course, social injustices are not confined to tax and social security policies. There is inadequate funding for nursery schools, so we are seeing them struggle to provide the expertise that can make a real difference in early-years development—something very pertinent in my own constituency. What about the impact of the Government’s decision to bring forward the equalisation of the state pension age for women born in the 1950s, the so-called WASPI women—Women Against State Pension Inequality? What about the restrictions in access to justice through legal aid and the fees charged for employment tribunals? What about the reducing of access to education by trebling tuition fees and scrapping the education maintenance allowance? What about the cuts to local authority budgets—they have been very high indeed in my constituency—leading to cuts to Sure Start and threatening vital adult social care?

Cuts to the police authorities mean that we are seeing increased problems with social cohesion, creating real anxiety at all levels of society, with people in certain areas afraid to go out of their houses. There is the threat to the social housing sector, such that people do not feel that they have a secure home to live in, through the Government’s right to buy, bedroom tax and 1% annual cut to social rents. Those are all combining to threaten the social housing sector.

This Government and the previous coalition have facilitated exploitative labour markets with poor-quality jobs and zero-hours contracts, the number of which is heading towards 1 million, and have further contributed to maintaining power within an elite. Where is the social justice in that?

Governing is about choices. The amount of revenue lost to the Exchequer each year as a result of tax fraud is £16 billion—the same as we spend on disabled people through disability living allowance and personal independence payment. If the Government truly believe in social justice and fairness, they need to reflect that in their policies across the board. They need to clamp down on tax fraud and ensure that the most vulnerable in society are looked after properly and not plunged into poverty or worse, and that opportunities are there for all.”

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