The effects of low pay on people’s lives is something which politicians rarely address. They talk a lot about welfare benefits, but it sometimes seems that those who are in work but on a low wage level can look after themselves. I think that’s a wrong approach, and an event I attended on Monday in the unlikely and comfortable setting of the Holbrook House hotel in Wincanton confirmed my instincts.
The event was organised by an organisation called the Resolution Foundation. They work on issues of low pay, and have set up a number of panels in constituencies across the country, where a sample of people of different ages from the local community are asked to discuss the problems and barriers they face in trying to get by without a lot of money coming in. I was invited as the local Member of Parliament, along with representatives of the other political parties. Quite why the Somerton & Frome constituency was selected I’m not sure, but even chatting to the London-based organisers before the meeting, they were struck by how some of the issues for people living in our sort of area differ from their equivalents in a city.
I won’t say that I was surprised by the responses I heard, because they told a story I’m very familiar with, but I hope the lessons will be learnt elsewhere. Key issues? Transport, because you can’t just hop on a bus to work or for an interview. Housing, because, as I wrote last week, finding affordable accommodation is a real struggle. Training and skills, because it costs money in getting to a college course, if you can get there at all, and if a small business employer is able to let you go. Advice and support, because they simply aren’t readily available in rural areas
But the key message is that policy-makers in London shouldn’t be fooled by the chocolate box image of the west-country. Behind the comfortable idea of the country cottage with roses round the door lies a rather more bleak reality for many, and that’s why the glib assumption that issues of poverty and social deprivation are only matters for the inner-cities is so wrong. The session convinced me that if there is one thing we ought to do in the next parliament it s to make the tax burden fairer and lift a lot of the low-paid out of income tax altogether. It simply doesn’t make sense for someone on the statutory minimum wage to pay, as they do, up to a thousand pounds a year in tax, while others who are immensely wealthy salt their income away overseas and avoid paying their share.
One of the key issues for the south west as a whole over the next few years is whether we can shout loud enough to ensure that we are not left out when it comes to the key infrastructure that means we are able to grow our economy and no longer be poor relations to other regions of the country. This was brought home to me in three ways over the last week – roads, railways, and technology.
Firstly, the roads. I was delighted to see the A303 re-opened after the road-works at Mere a week and a half earlier than scheduled. The Highways Agency deserve our thanks for really getting on with the work. It still doesn’t excuse, in my book, the original plans to close the road entirely for thirteen weeks in the summer, a plan that would have gone ahead had I not gone to see the Transport Minister and told him in no uncertain terms what I thought of it. But the revised arrangements have meant four weeks of diversions and closure, and that has been quite enough. What is unforgivable is that all that has been achieved, necessary though it was, is essential repairs. How much better it would have been if we had seen the improvements some of us have been arguing for over the years. But with the local authorities in the region, predominantly conservative, and the labour MPs on the so-called south west regional select committee apparently agreeing that the A303 is a low priority, how can we expect rapid progress?
Then there was the announcement in the house of commons of the multimillion pound high speed rail service from London via Birmingham to the north and Scotland. I don’t begrudge other parts of the country investment, but how come we never get a look-in in the south west? The west-coast mainline is already vastly superior to anything we have down here, and I’m afraid Brunel’s GWR, “God’s Wonderful Railway” as it used to be called, is anything but nowadays. I asked the minister to at least give a date for the electrification of the London-Bristol mainline, but I also asked about the route through Frome and Castle Cary to Devon & Cornwall. It seems to be forgotten about at the moment, and that won’t do.
Lastly, there is IT, and specifically high-speed broadband. There are some who say internet is nothing to do with them; don’t use it, don’t want it. Well, it’s got everything to do with maintaining our local economy. High-speed broadband will in the future be every bit as essential to business as transport links, and yet at the moment rural areas are losing out big-time. There are many who criticise the present government’s plans, and I certainly think they are less than ambitious. But at least they make sure that areas like ours will be connected. The alternative, of letting the market determine what happens, simply won’t work, and we risk being left in the dark ages yet again.