TUC Conference: Government `not tough enough on poverty'

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THE GOVERNMENT was yesterday accused of presiding over a "brutal" state pension scheme while harbouring the same "prejudices" towards the unemployed as Conservative administrations.

A TUC resolution, passed unanimously, said the review of the welfare state of undermined the fundamental principles on which it was based. "Congress believes the Government should now be as tough on the causes of crime such as poverty and social exclusion, as it has been on crime itself."

Proposing the motion, Bill Morris, general secretary of the Transport and General Workers' Union, demanded that social provision be financed on the basis that the more taxpayers earn the more they should pay.

Mr Morris called for an end to the upper limit on national insurance contributions and warned against any opt-out to private provision by the middle classes.

The Government should aim to eliminate social exclusion, redistribute wealth and provide equality of opportunity and outcome. The ultimate goal should be the elimination of poverty.

Analysis released yesterday by the TGWU showed that seven million workers were paid less than pounds 5 an hour. On Monday, delegates called for substantial increase in the national minimum wage of pounds 3.60 an hour, in line with half male median earnings.

The conference urged ministers to increase state pensions by 33 per cent for a single person and 50 per cent for a couple. The Government should link payments to average earnings according to the motion.

Mick Rix, general secretary of Aslef, the train drivers' union, said pensions now stand at 16 per cent of average income, compared with 27 per cent in 1978. He said previous Conservative governments had behaved with brutality towards pensioners.

"You don't expect a Labour government - not even a `New' Labour government - to behave in the same disgraceful and heartless fashion. Brutality to the pensioners remains on the agenda.

"If this government has a reserve war chest to finance bombing Kosovo, it has the finance to help the pensioners many of whom suffered the terror of Nazi bombing and fought to defeat fascism in the Second World War." Ahead of a TUC debate today on transport, the three big rail unions yesterday urged the Government to "think again" over its plans for a public-private partnership at London Underground.

Leaders of the RMT, Aslef and TSSA unions called for an independent inquiry into the feasibility of the Tube network remaining under public ownership and control with the right to raise money for investment through bonds.

A Harris poll commissioned by the union found that two thirds of passengers wanted the Underground to be funded by the public sector. Ministers were warned they faced a "voter backlash" at next May's elections for Mayor of London.

The poll found a majority of Labour candidates for the Greater London Assembly wanted the Government to find other options. Rail union leaders were last night meeting John Prescott, Deputy Prime Minister, in Brighton to make clear their views.

Today ministers will encounter more friendly fire from the Labour Party's union affiliates on plans to halve the Post Office's monopoly from pounds 1 to 50p packages, on the private finance initiative in public services and on state-sector pay.

And in anticipation of expected tensions at the party's annual conference later this month, there is also expected to be a clash today between unions supporting the European single currency and those who are more sceptical.