Carol Monaghan – 2022 Speech on the Future of the UK

The speech made by Carol Monaghan, the SNP MP for Glasgow North West, in the House of Commons on 16 May 2022.

In this Queen’s Speech, I would have expected to see some radical interventions that are urgently needed to tackle the cost of living crisis, to tackle climate change and to properly support our elderly community, including elderly veterans, but there is a real lack of ambition in the speech, and this Government have done the absolute opposite of making Britain the best place to grow up and grow old. While they have lined the pockets of their cronies, they have limited the opportunities of young people. They have caused and then ignored the cost of living crisis, which has left many children and elderly without enough to get by, and delayed action on climate change, which arguably will have the biggest impact on our younger generations.

For us in Scotland, this is a tale of two Governments. The Scottish Government are determined to make Scotland the best place in the world to grow up and grow old, regardless of household income or social demographic, but only as an independent nation will Scotland have the levers, the decision-making powers and the full fiscal autonomy to see that ambition fully realised. [Interruption.] There is heckling from those on the Government Benches. I would have thought that the results of the elections two weeks ago would have shown them something—perhaps they would have learned some lessons. People in Scotland more and more are waking up to this.

Let us compare the two Governments. A woman in Scotland who is expecting a child is given a baby box filled with essentials for her baby—clothes, books, teething toys, blankets. The message is clear: your baby is important, your baby is valued and your baby is welcomed. At the same time as the baby box was introduced in Scotland, the UK Government introduced a two-child limit on child tax credit and universal credit. It is apparently okay to have up to two children. Beyond that if you are a low-income household your baby is neither welcomed nor valued by this Tory Government.

The British Pregnancy Advisory Service said that over half the women it surveyed who had an abortion in the coronavirus pandemic and knew of the two-child limit said that that policy was important in their decision-making around whether to continue the pregnancy. That is pretty damning evidence. It is no surprise that, since 2016—since mothers have been expecting babies who would be born after that policy came into force—there has been a sharp increase in the number of abortions. Women are choosing abortions because they cannot afford to have a baby. The best place to grow up?

In Scotland, the Scottish Government have introduced the Scottish child payment—£20 a week for every eligible child and that will be rising to £25 a week—and that is mitigating some of the worst impacts for families. Frankly, the progressive policies of the Scottish Government must be matched with similar interventions from Westminster.

Last week, we were treated to the comments of the hon. Member for Ashfield (Lee Anderson), who said that people were only using food banks because “they cannot budget” and

“cannot cook a meal from scratch.”—[Official Report, 11 May 2022; Vol. 714, c. 185.]

Today, Gareth Mason, head chef at Absolute Bar & Bistro in Westhoughton, has said that the hon. Member’s comments were “tone deaf” and “insulting”. He has set about proving this by cooking seven everyday meals, such as spaghetti Napoli, beans on toast, baked potato—

Madam Deputy Speaker (Dame Rosie Winterton)

Order. Can I just check that the hon. Lady has informed the hon. Gentleman that she was going to refer to him? That is perhaps just a reminder that that is what she would do.

Carol Monaghan

Madam Deputy Speaker, I have not. I was not making a point of order; I was referring to something that was said in a debate and has been said in the press.

The chef, Gareth Mason, said:

“I’ve come to the conclusion it’s a load of rubbish. These meals I’ve done, as soon as you put any protein or dairy into them, it’s not feasible to do it for 30p. If you eat beans on toast for every meal, it might work, but even if you did cheese on toast, the cost of cheese would be more than 30p on its own”,

and that is before considering the cooking cost of the food.

Dr Luke Evans (Bosworth) (Con)

My hon. Friend the Member for Ashfield (Lee Anderson) was very clear that he offered anyone on the Opposition Benches to go and join him down in Ashfield. Given the problems the hon. Member has outlined, is she planning on going down to see what happens in Ashfield and how that food bank functions?

Carol Monaghan

I would love to do that, but more than that, I look forward to the cooking book from the hon. Member for Ashfield, because I am sure that will be a really popular volume. I will even buy some copies for my own food bank if we think we can be making meals for 30p a day—incredible!

The fact is that people on low income or on benefits are far superior with managing their finances because they have to be. According to Jack Monroe, the bootstrap cook who gave evidence to the Work and Pensions Committee, the impact of the cost of living crisis on

“millions of children living in poverty in Britain today”

is

“going to be, in some cases, fatal”.

This is first and foremost due to the rise in the cost of everyday essentials, not because families on low incomes cannot budget or cannot cook a meal from scratch.

But it gets worse. The Minister for safeguarding—the Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department, the hon. Member for Redditch (Rachel Maclean)—said on Sky News today that people struggling with the cost of living should just “take on more hours” or “get a better-paid job”. This shows how detached this Government are from the lived reality of so many people in our communities that we represent. Hunger impacts on the ability of children to learn. As one Member has said, they cannot concentrate and they cannot think. I know of teachers who are keeping cereal bars and snacks in their desk drawers to give to children to make sure they have something in their tummies.

In his opening remarks, the Secretary of State talked about extracurricular activities, and I think every Member here understands the importance of these. But for families who are just about managing—they are just about managing to pay bills and to feed their children—the things that will go are the little extras. These are the sports clubs, the activities, the birthday parties, the days out, the holidays—in fact, all the little things that together make childhood so special, and that enrich their experience and their ambitions.

It is good to hear the Secretary of State also talk today about the importance of teachers. As a former teacher myself, I know the difference that good teachers can make to young people. It is good to hear him talking about his ambition to make the starting salary for teachers £30,000 a year. That will only be £3,000 below what Scottish teachers currently start out on, with £33,000 a year.

In Scotland, we want to create a more equal society. One way we aim to do that is through widening, rather than restricting, the opportunities for our young people once they leave school. The Scottish Government’s young person’s guarantee ensures that every young person from 16 to 24 has a chance to go to university or college with no tuition fees, or has a chance to secure an apprenticeship or high-quality job. It is significant that, of anywhere in the UK, Scotland has the highest proportion of young people with positive destinations post school.

Time and again, we see this Tory Government undermining progress towards a better society for our young people. They talk of untapping aspiration, yet just a couple of weeks ago the chair of their Social Mobility Commission said that fewer girls than boys are studying physics because they dislike “hard maths.” That perpetuates outdated and harmful gender stereotypes about girls, particularly in science, technology, engineering and maths, which is close to my heart. That is no way to untap aspiration or ambition.

Students in England are considering their career and whether they are willing to take on a lifetime of debt. The Government’s equality analysis found that their student finance reforms will likely have a negative impact on graduates from disadvantaged backgrounds, while benefiting those who are already more privileged. The reforms will not, in fact, increase social mobility. This Government are making policy decisions that will hinder opportunity, to the obvious detriment of so many young people.

I could talk about Brexit and our lack of mobility across Europe, and about the international collaborations that have been lost, but I want to speak a little about our elderly community. According to the Centre for Ageing Better, one in five pensioners—more than 2 million people—is living in relative poverty. Worse than that, many are living in abject poverty. This represents an increase of more than 200,000 in just the last 12 months, and the problem will only get worse.

The report also presents a stark picture of up to a 10-year difference in lifespan between wealthy pensioners and poor pensioners. Pensioners have been abandoned by this Government, who scrapped the pension triple lock. Pensioners will be among the hardest hit by the rising cost of living; some already have to resort to spending the day on buses or eating one meal a day just to keep warm, as we heard last week. “The best place to grow old”?

Many UK citizens abroad, including a significant number of veterans, are living in poverty because of the freeze in overseas pensions. Their pension is frozen at the point at which they moved. Countries such as Canada have formally requested a reciprocal arrangement to cover pension uprating, but this UK Government have declined.

Our pensioners include veterans who have given the very best of themselves through their service. We have a duty of care to them, and I will talk briefly about one particular group that I know has support from both sides of the House—the nuclear test veterans. Their numbers are dwindling and they have had a lifetime of health issues, yet they have received neither a medal, recognition nor compensation. This is the only country not to have compensated its nuclear test veterans. Surely we can do better for this small group.

The SNP Scottish Government are doing what they can to support households during these difficult times—fully mitigating the bedroom tax; mitigating council tax; doubling the Scottish child payment; providing free tuition, free prescriptions and free school meals for all primary schoolchildren—but just as Scotland tries to mitigate the worst excesses of this Tory Government, the Scottish Government are suffering from budget cuts by them. A lack of powers for the Scottish Government means that we can only really deal with things around the edge—with the symptoms of poverty, not the deep-rooted causes of inequality in our society that deliver child poverty and pension poverty. Only with full independence can we realise our ambition for our children, our young people and our pensioners.