John McDonnell MP
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Leeds East (Richard Burgon) on introducing this debate. It is extremely timely and is given justification what our communities are experiencing.
I want briefly to run through a statistical portrait of our country. I have looked at some hard facts about the situation in our country. My hon. Friend has emphasised the importance of redistribution in tackling some of the real problems that many working people face. I have looked before at issues relating to poverty and I will reiterate some of the stats. There are 14.5 million people living in poverty and 4.3 million children growing up in poverty. According to the Institute for Fiscal Studies, there are 700,000 more children in poverty than there were a decade ago. The people who seem to be hit the hardest are families with children, and households with someone who has a disability. Interestingly, two thirds of children growing up in poverty are in households where someone is in work. What does that say about wages overall?
I have also looked at the issue as it relates to pensioners. Despite improvements—which I have welcomed, particularly that with regard to the triple lock, even though it was deflected this year—there are still 2.1 million pensioners living in poverty. There is no need for me to mention the massive increase in the use of food banks. A recent survey and report about children demonstrated that even children are skipping meals because their family cannot afford to feed them on a daily basis. An estimated 2.6 million are skipping meals in some form, and going hungry.
On fuel poverty, National Energy Action estimated that price rises would result in the number of households in fuel poverty increasing by more than 50% in April. The language has changed—we have not experienced until recent years—from a discussion about poverty into one about destitution. There are 2.4 million people who have experienced destitution, including 550,000 children. Destitution is the inability to provide the basics in life: a warm coat, shoes, heating and, of course, eating. That is what they are experiencing at the moment.
The housing figures are startling. On rough sleeping, 64,890 households are assessed as being homeless or facing the threat of being homeless. There are now 1 million on housing waiting lists. The figures on health inequality and poverty are staggering. The gap in life expectancy between our poorest and richest areas is 27 years.
As my hon. Friend said, the increase in the number of millionaires and billionaires is staggering. I looked at The Sunday Times rich list. Britain’s super-wealthy have grown their combined fortunes by a record £710 billion in just the past 12 months. As my hon. Friend said, there has been a nearly 30% increase in City bonuses. In March alone, £6 billion was paid out in bonuses.
Wages are facing the longest squeeze in modern history since Napoleonic times. The research published this morning demonstrates that wages are falling behind again, because of the high rate of inflation. One of the key elements of all of this is the insecurity that that engenders. We now have 1 million people on zero-hours contracts. That is not a society that any of us should be living in or should want to live in.
Somehow, we have to find a mechanism to address the grotesque levels of inequality that our community is now facing. Unless we shape up to that challenge, we will potentially have a change in the nature of our politics, as people get angrier and angrier. We know who exploits that anger: usually it is the far right more than anyone else. In addition to that, we will be ashamed of ourselves for not acting urgently on this matter.
Therefore, how do we ensure urgent action? Of course, I agree with all the policies to ensure that there is a long-term investment plan to get people into jobs that are high-skilled, highly productive and so on, but the link between people having a job and lifting themselves out of poverty has unfortunately been broken, particularly because of low wages. We have also seen the degeneration of our public services because of austerity over the last 12 years, and those public services are therefore no longer available to many people who once depended on them.
We have to introduce an emergency programme of measures to lift people out of poverty and secure long-term investment in our public services, and the redistributive element of a one-off wealth tax, which my hon. Friend the Member for Leeds East has put forward, is one component of the emergency programme that we desperately need. That way, we would be able to use resources directly to lift people out of poverty, to restore some of the cuts that have taken place with universal credit, and to make sure that people get properly funded, particularly if they are providing the public services that we desperately need at the moment. They must have decent wages.
Now is the time to consider all these options. I have always thought that the best mechanics for taxation in this country have been Tory Chancellors. If you look back on the decision to level up capital gains tax with income tax under Nigel Lawson, I think that was the right thing to do then, and it is the right thing to do now. It could give us anything between £17 billion and £24 billion, which would be more than was included in the national insurance increase. It could have covered the social care and health costs for which we need an injection of funds.
Rab Butler introduced an excessive profits tax in this country during the Korea war. It was not just a windfall tax on one sector; it was across the economy for anyone who was profiteering, and the money was put back into funding our public services and helping people out of poverty. All those measures are available to us.
In addition, we need to look at the City of London, because it is obscene the bonuses that are being paid out. Therefore, we need either a tax on those bonuses or a financial transaction tax, so that we have a regular income and the City pays its way. Because of the appalling levels of inequality, the drift towards higher levels of poverty, and the implications that it has for so many within our community, the argument for a one-off wealth tax on that scale—affecting 1% of our population but supporting 99%—is unarguable at the moment. Therefore, there needs be a proper consideration of it.
This is a Westminster Hall debate, but I hope that it extends beyond this debating Chamber and into the main Chamber, and that it becomes a feature of some of the demands in the run-up to the November Budget—the emergency Budget that we now need to tackle the real suffering that our community is experiencing at the moment.