It is an absolute pleasure, Mr Hollobone, to serve under your chairmanship.
I am very grateful indeed to Richard Drax for giving us the opportunity to discuss the very real financial implications for the next generation of this Government’s continuing austerity policies.
We have had eight years now of claims that we have to tighten our belts for the sake of the future. Where has it got us? We are simply storing up problems for the future by destroying the public services on which so many people depend. Last month, the United Nations sent its special rapporteur on poverty to the UK and one of the evidence sessions was held in my constituency. I was there, and I have to say that it was really hard to sit and listen to that evidence. We heard about mums whose young children were not learning to crawl because they were confined to a bed in a small, rat-infested room; the mums could not let the children on to the floor. We heard from parents who had to move their children many times in a single year, from hostel to hostel, preventing friendships and bonds from being created in any community, and forcing the children either to move schools, which would severely disrupt their education, or to face hours of travel every morning and afternoon to get to school and back.
We also heard from vulnerable mums who had survived violence inflicted by people they were living with; they were forced to stay where they and their children were, although they were at significant physical risk, because they simply had nowhere else to go. The services that they needed had simply been cut.
What kind of physical, emotional and developmental problems are we storing up for these children’s future? For me, it is obvious that this kind of poverty is an absolute calamity for their life chances. And it is not just me who is saying that; it is what the UN rapporteur concluded. He noted that 14 million people in the UK are living in poverty today, and that 1.5 million people in the UK are utterly destitute, unable to afford essentials such as shelter, food, heating or clothing. These essentials keep a body and mind healthy and productive, but 1.5 million people—including 365,000 children—do not have access to them.
As we all know, health is extremely important to life chances. The Food Foundation has shown that the poorest quarter of households in the UK would have to spend more than 25% of their disposable income to follow the Government’s “Eatwell” guidelines. That is a quarter of their disposable income going just on food, and more than half of the households that are deprived of food include children.
Let me tell a story from my constituency. I met a young girl at an event where food was provided. Her plate was piled high, and I looked at her and said, “Whoa! That’s an awful lot of food for a small person!” “Yes,” she beamed. “It’s not my turn to eat tonight.” She was young and she had adapted, so for her such circumstances were normal. How will she and all the others in the same desperate situation feel when they realise that it is not everybody’s “normal”?
Some families are struggling to eat, let alone eat healthily; the increasing reliance of so many families on food banks is clear evidence of this. The Trussell Trust has released figures showing substantial increases of take-up of food banks year on year on year, and it is predicting bumper usage this Christmas.
When families cannot afford to eat, it has an impact on their health. Poor physical health or poor nutrition in childhood impacts upon a child’s physical, mental and educational growth. As a basic, how can a child concentrate in school if they are hungry? How can they make the most of their education? How can they develop the skills that they need for a prosperous adulthood? And how can they provide the skills that we need for a prosperous economy?
A sickly or malnourished child takes health risks and medical risks into their adulthood, costing the NHS much more than if they had been given a decent start in life. Reducing support to children today is a false economy; the state of tomorrow will have added costs because of it. The title of this debate is absolutely right—the next generation faces a financial threat from today’s austerity policies. That is one of the reasons why Labour is committed to universal free school meals, so that no child goes hungry in term-time, and it is also why we are committed to a real living wage and a social security safety net that keeps families out of poverty.
Let us have a quick look at the Government’s investment in the future economy through schools, further education and adult education, to give the next generation the skills and opportunities that they will need for the future. Investment in further and adult education has been cut severely. Spending per student in FE colleges is 21% lower than in 2010; the number of adult learners has fallen by a million; and overall spending on skills for adults has been cut almost in half. Now, 60% of small and medium-sized enterprises say that poor skills are their biggest challenge, and eight in 10 FE college leaders say that funding cuts are preventing them from filling that skills gap.
So there is a skills crisis and it is already affecting productivity and growth, but in the October Budget the word “college” did not appear once. I say again—how can this Government claim to be investing in future generations when they refuse to invest in the skills that businesses are demanding?
Let us face it: schools are faring badly. The Chancellor’s gift of £400 million in the Budget for some “little extras” was frankly insulting in the context of billions of pounds of cuts. If the Institute for Fiscal Studies is right, capital spending on schools has fallen by £3.5 billion—a 41% real-terms cut. I can see it in my constituency every time I visit a school. They are struggling, and they are also struggling to keep their students safe from grooming and crime at a time when young people’s services are disappearing, again due to cuts. Violent crime is rising and destroying the futures of increasing numbers of young people in my constituency, but the Treasury’s only response is to announce £170 million for our neighbourhood police services. That sum would cover less than 40% of the police pensions black hole, so it is unlikely to stop the fall in the number of officers on our streets. Reports suggest that half of that £170 million will have to come from elsewhere in the massively overstretched Home Office budget, so what will be cut to make up for it? Will it be firefighters? Will it be Border Force?
The next generation will not thank us if we leave them more vulnerable to fire, crime and terrorism. The cuts to councils have ensured that children’s services are under threat. Sure Starts and libraries are closing. We are charging for sporting activities in communities that help keep children healthy. There is not enough money to employ the youth workers that we need to teach my children resilience against the groomers.
Since 2010, the Government have claimed that austerity is working to bring down the debt and make spending sustainable, but that is simply wrong. They have missed every deficit target they have set themselves. They said they would eliminate the deficit by 2015, but now the Office for Budget Responsibility says that even eliminating it by 2025 will be challenging with the current approach. To the extent that the central Government deficit has reduced, much of that has been done by passing debt and problems to the future, where they will require more spending to fix. The Government are passing problems into the lap of our underfunded schools, hospitals, local councils and police forces. That does not make the next generation more secure or our public debt more sustainable.
Future generations are not being protected by austerity; they are being harmed by it. We need public investment to repair the safety net, to improve the public services that underpin the life chances of the many and to drive growth that benefits the whole country. In fact, we need a Labour Government to rebuild Britain.