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In the House of Commons on Thursday, Claire Perry, who has stepped into Michael Ancram’s shoes in Devizes, explained the damage done to rural Britain under the Labour Government:
“I live in a small Wiltshire village, so I have seen at first hand the damage to rural Britain that was caused by the last Government—possibly the most urban-minded Government that Britain has ever seen. Our farmers have struggled with mountains of red tape, unchecked animal disease and an indifferent Government who were not interested in buying British food or dealing with the dishonest food labelling regime. We have had multiple grandiose regional spatial strategies in Wiltshire, but we still lack affordable housing, transport links and the broadband infrastructure that is so important for building a living and working countryside. A shocking legacy of the previous Government is the NHS quangocracy, which means that my constituency has the worst ambulance response times in the region and no minor injuries unit.
“However, the lacklustre state of the rural economy and embedded rural poverty trouble me most. Employment in my constituency—that great driver-out of poverty—is still weak, and unemployment has more than doubled in the past five years. As the former Government’s rural adviser said, there are huge traditional barriers to gaining employment in rural areas: poor public transport, less training and less guidance provision—a bit of new Labour gobbledegook that means that we do not get as many jobcentres per head of the population in rural Britain.
“There is genuine poverty in rural Britain, and it is often well hidden behind a chocolate-box façade. Examples of that hidden poverty include the pensioner who is too proud to claim benefits; the family travelling 40 or 50 miles on poorly maintained roads with high petrol prices to get to work; the unskilled labourer laid off when the nearest job is 40 miles away, and the single mother who came to my surgery who is sleeping on her parents’ sofa because she cannot get on the housing list. We need to tackle those issues, and I know that my constituents do not feel that the previous Government listened to them. This Government will not overlook them.”
George Hollingbery, MP for the new seat of Meon Valley in Hampshire, raised the plight of pensioners who may seem asset-rich but are income-poor:
“Among my constituents there are a great many people who, to their enormous surprise, find themselves in challenging economic circumstances. Most of them are in their 70s. They often own an asset, in their own homes. They have saved and accumulated pensions, but rarely are any of them more than modest in scope. Over the past several years, through a combination of low returns on savings, the lack of eligibility for state help, rising energy bills and, particularly, the cost of ever-increasing council tax, many of them are finding it very difficult to get by. Yes, they could sell their homes, but most of them already live in small dwellings and cannot practically downsize without moving away from their friends and family. Yes, they could use equity release schemes and enjoy a modestly increased income from capital, but many of them now struggle to find such products or, in fact, are scared of using them.
“These people may seem asset-rich, but they are certainly income-poor. The asset that they strived so long and hard to obtain is now an impediment to getting any kind of help. We now face a future where many of those whom we would all regard as model citizens and who have paid much of the tax that allows the Government to function regard doing the right thing as a poor piece of advice to give to their children and wider families. That, surely, is something that we should be very concerned about."
And Harriett Baldwin, who replaced Sir Michael Spicer in Worcestershire West, also wanted to talk about pensioner poverty:
“Before coming into Parliament, I was a pension fund manager. One of the many scandalous legacies of the outgoing Government is the way in which they destroyed our private pension system, which used to be the envy of the world. However, the unfunded liability of the public pension system has increased enormously. We are all living longer, so the current situation is completely unsustainable. A pensioner in my constituency on modest savings who has lived responsibly and within her means all her life has to face an annual increase in her council tax, which is often due to the need for the local council and local police to make an ever greater provision for their future pension entitlements.
“That results in real poverty for pensioners who have a small amount of savings and are thus unable to claim pension credit. These days, very few people in the private sector are saving enough for their greater longevity either. We are storing up terrible pensioner poverty for the future in this country. The Government have made a welcome start on tackling the fiscal deficit, but I hope that they and this Parliament can also begin to address the long-term pensions savings deficit in this country.”