Leading Article: Cold outside the big tent Opportunity for the few

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The Independent Online
Opportunity for all is supposed to be the theme of John Major's Government, the ground on which he will stand for re-election. He doesn't mean opportunity just for "some people", he tells us, but opportunity for everyone, "to open up an avenue of hope in their lives". We can all stand tall in what his strategists (see page 8) call the "big tent" of modern Conservatism.

Really? Is there room in this tent for the homeless and the destitute in the doorways of our capital city, for the hundreds of thousands of young people in the dole queues, for those in Edinburgh or Glasgow or Liverpool who are in such despair that the only avenues they can find in their lives involve drugs or prostitution? Oh, them again. It is a measure of how British politics has changed that, in all the carefully stage-managed speeches of the past three weeks, the poor and the deprived are scarcely mentioned. If they make an appearance, it is usually only in a different guise - as the criminal, the feckless, the welfare scroungers, the drug-addicted - so that they may be prepared for another "crackdown".

Inside Mr Major's tent are the 120 investment bankers for NatWest who, it emerged last week, stand to earn an average of pounds 2m each. (These people, it should be noted, are not wealth creators, starting new businesses and stimulating the job market. They are not even entertainers or footballers, adding to the stock of public pleasure. They just shuffle money around.) Outside the tent are the 10,000-plus employees of NatWest branches - earning between pounds 10,000 and pounds 13,000 a year - who are to be made redundant over the next three years. Inside the tent is Rupert Murdoch's BSkyB television company which has to pay no taxes at all. Outside are the young single parents who cannot afford a television licence and are jailed because they cannot afford the fines either. Inside the tent are shareholders who have Mr Major's promise that capital gains tax will be reduced and then abolished. Inside, too, are the children of the rich who can look forward to the abolition of inheritance tax. Outside are the 40,000 inhabitants of Glasgow's Greater Easterhouse estate where a third of the working population is unemployed and more than half are on benefits.

Easterhouse was featured last night in a Channel 4 programme. Channel 4 set up a Commission on Poverty which spent four months taking evidence and visiting deprived areas in Britain and, for comparison, the Netherlands. Though chaired by Professor Peter Townsend, of Bristol University, a veteran anti-poverty campaigner, the commission also included Prue Leith, the caterer and restaurateur, and Sir Stephen Tumim, neither of whom can be described as rabid socialists. They came to the following conclusion: "There need to be redestributive changes to the tax system with the better off paying more and the poor less. We believe that if Britain wants to be a more competitive and civilised society, we must be prepared to pay for it." This may seem a very banal conclusion. But it is impossible to imagine anybody on either the Government or the Opposition front bench saying anything like it.

The Commission had another simple idea. It was unable to agree on the merits of a statutory minimum wage. (No, indeed, these were not rabid socialists.) It did agree that poverty among working people might be alleviated if companies or industrial sectors were encouraged to adopt a maximum wage policy, whereby the best-rewarded person in any enterprise could not be paid more than, say, 10 times the salary of the lowest paid person. The advantages are obvious: if the bosses wanted higher wages, they would first have to improve pay for the minions. Again, for all the huffing and puffing about fat cats, it is difficult to think of a leading politician who would wish to be associated with such an idea.

The Channel 4 Commission, like Mr Major, was concerned about opportunity. It said that, in designating official measures of poverty, the Government should set, as well as a subsistence level (enough money not to go hungry or barefoot), an "opportunity level". The latter would ensure that people did not live on income so low "that they are isolated from engaging in the normal activities of society". The Commission concluded that at least 14 million Britons live below that level. So not a very big tent, Mr Major. Not a very big tent at all.