The speech made by Anne Marie Morris, the Conservative MP for Newton Abbot, in the House of Commons on 17 May 2022.
What do we mean by the cost of living? Well, we really mean the cost of housing, utilities and food. The argument has been put that they are all out of the Government’s control because they are driven by international pressure, but housing is a domestic competence.
I am concerned that the Levelling-up and Regeneration Bill has missed an opportunity. Certainly in my part of the south-west in Devon, finding affordable housing is well neigh impossible and social housing is almost invisible, and that is because there is nothing in the planning system to, first, ensure that “affordable” really means affordable—there is no regionalisation of the term —or, secondly, stop the argy-bargy between the developer and the planning authority, which means that the sum set aside for affordable and social housing is, in effect, tiny. Local authorities need more power, and they need to be able to hold the line so that we get the affordable property we need, not what the developers want.
Of course, we also have to deal with those problems that, while not generated by domestic drivers, none the less affect every man and woman on the street, and we have to provide help and support, as the Chancellor did very effectively during covid. The support that has already been provided to the poorest in society is very welcome, but I sometimes think that the Treasury does not recognise that everybody is hurting. We need only look at the statistics provided by the Office for National Statistics to see that everybody needs some support. Pensioners on fixed incomes and those who have done the right thing and invested in a home cannot just move or change their mortgage and utility supplier; they are struggling with the same issue of trying to meet the costs of housing, utility and food bills. They need some help. We should not reject solutions just because they impact on and benefit more people than just the poorest.
I am not a great believer in increasing tax; I am a great believer in reducing it. As I have said on a number of occasions, we could move forward by cutting VAT on energy bills. Now that we are renegotiating the Northern Ireland protocol and looking at talking to Brussels, it cannot be right that the VAT on residents across the United Kingdom is not under the Government’s control. That would be a sensible way forward. Tinkering with having MOTs every second or third year, rather than every single year, will not really cut it.
There would effectively be a windfall on the Treasury, which is more appropriate than a windfall on those who provide productivity and general growth in our country. However, the Government need to make ends meet, so there needs to be a thorough look at the various spending commitments and projects. We talk about HS2, but it is only one of many projects in which there is so much vested interest. I recommend that the Government ask the National Audit Office to set up a commission specifically to look at which projects we can and should cut. They may be nice, but they are not necessary.
There is one area that we have not touched on, which is causing a lot of grief. We rightly say, “Isn’t it wonderful that unemployment is at a low level?” But there is a reason for that: the fundamental reshaping of the labour market that has caused a number of people to fall out of employment. In Devon, a number of people in their 40s and 50s are out of the market, meaning that we have a 25% shortfall in that age group. Something is not working. I have talked to employers in my constituency. Unless we fix the issue, we are not going to help them to survive, and we need them to survive in order to carry on paying wages.
We need to look at what is causing the problem. There are at least two things, but there might be more. One is our benefits system. My right hon. Friend the Member for Chingford and Woodford Green (Sir Iain Duncan Smith) did a grand job and the Government have implemented much of that work, but the market has changed, so the system needs to be reviewed. It seems that what is stopping people is the challenge of losing housing benefit and childcare. We have addressed this to some extent, but there is more work to do. I suggest that the Government ask my right hon. Friend to set up a taskforce to look at that issue, at the whole structure of employment and at how we can attract people from overseas to work in our markets.
The Gracious Speech has many factors to commend it, but addressing the cost of living is not one.