The speech made by Ed Miliband, the Labour MP for Doncaster North, in the House of Commons on 17 May 2022.
I beg to move an amendment, at the end of the Question to add:
“but respectfully regret that the Gracious Speech fails to announce a windfall tax on the profits of oil and gas producers, in order to provide much-needed relief from energy price increases for households.”
The cost of living crisis is the biggest issue facing our country, which is why we have chosen it as the subject of today’s debate, and I welcome the Chancellor’s participation. We should start by being sober about the unprecedented social emergency our country faces. According to a report that has just been published by the Food Foundation, 2 million of our fellow citizens went without food for a whole day in the past month because they could not afford to eat; 7 million families had to skip a meal, and that was true of nearly half of those on universal credit. This is not just about families out of work; it is about families in work too. This is a social emergency and it is also a looming economic threat, depriving our economy of the spending power it needs. The question at the heart of this debate is whether this Gracious Speech, this Government and, yes, this Chancellor are up to the challenge this emergency represents.
The Chancellor wants us to believe that his measures in response are the best we can do, but they are not—not by a long shot. The cost of living crisis is driven most of all by what is happening to energy bills, so let us look at the three chances he has had in the past seven months to act on energy bills. Last August, nine months ago, the first energy price rise was announced—this was a £139 increase in the price cap. So way back then he knew what was happening. Then in October he delivered the Budget. Wholesale energy prices were rocketing and the warning signals were flashing, but the Chancellor did nothing. He should re-read that Budget speech, because I think it would make even him wince. It is a model of complacency. He had drunk his own Kool-Aid. He told the country back then that “wages are rising”, that we have “growth up” and that on inflation we have
“a Government…ready and willing to act”—[Official Report, 27 October 2021; Vol. 702, c. 275.]
He said that the “plan is working”.
Where are we now? On wages, the Office for Budget Responsibility is this year forecasting the biggest fall in living standards for 45 years. Growth turned negative in March, with the Bank of England suggesting that the economy is going to shrink through the winter. We are now set for the highest level of inflation for 40 years. The plan is not working; it is failing.
Several hon. Members rose—
I will make some progress but then give way later.
The Chancellor did not act when he could have done. In February he had another chance, as the largest energy price rise in our history, at 52%, was announced. He could have responded in a way commensurate with the crisis—[Interruption.] Members say that he did, but let us look at this. What was his grand offer to the country? It was a £150 council tax discount based on outdated property values, which missed out hundreds of thousands of the poorest families, and of course there was his £200 “buy now, pay later” loan scheme. This is a loan scheme that he risibly claims is not a loan, although it has to be paid back, and it does not even come in until October. What are families supposed to do in the meantime while they wait for his loan? It is almost as though the Chancellor is so out of touch that he does not realise that 10 million families in our country have no savings at all.
Aaron Bell (Newcastle-under-Lyme) (Con)
The £150 that was given out by Newcastle-under-Lyme Borough Council was gratefully received on the doorsteps, as was the money given out by Westminster City Council. Perhaps the right hon. Gentleman should speak to his council leaders in Barrow, Hyndburn, South Derbyshire and Bassetlaw, all councils that failed to get that £150 out into people’s bank accounts. If he is so concerned about the cost of living, why are his council leaders holding that money in their bank accounts instead of returning it to the people?
The hon. Gentleman anticipates a later part of my speech. That is the Conservative party today: it will blame anyone else and never take responsibility. The hon. Gentleman should have been supporting our measures, because in his constituency 11,353 people would get our combination of a VAT cut and the warm home discount of £600. If he votes against us tonight, he will have to explain to them why he is denying them the help they need.
Caroline Lucas (Brighton, Pavilion) (Green)
The right hon. Gentleman is making a powerful speech. I wonder whether he shares my anger at the news this week that the Government have underspent their net zero budget by a staggering quarter of a billion pounds, at exactly the same time as our constituents are struggling to keep their homes warm and deal with accelerating fuel poverty.
I completely agree with the hon. Lady. At every step of the way, the Government have had the chance to act, and they have not done so.
Jim Shannon (Strangford) (DUP)
The figures for Northern Ireland are very interesting: 241,000 people—13% of people—in Northern Ireland are in poverty. Some 17% of all children, 14% of all pensioners and 11% of the whole working-age population are in poverty. Those figures scare me; do they scare the right hon. Gentleman?
The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right. I have been around politics for a long time, as the House knows, but I cannot remember—nobody in the House can remember—facing the kind of emergency that we do currently.
The spring statement was the most recent chance for the Chancellor to redeem himself; it was just days before the April energy price rise came into effect. It was apparent to everyone across this House and in the country that what he had offered was woefully inadequate. People were literally pleading with him to do more on energy bills, but he just doubled down on his failure. He has had three chances in the past seven months, and none of his responses has been equal to the emergency. The truth about this Chancellor is that at every step of the way he has been in denial, slow to act and wholly out of touch in his response.
Laura Trott (Sevenoaks) (Con)
It is right that we debate what more we can do, but does the right hon. Gentleman accept that the measures that we have put forward on the national living wage and universal credit, and the national insurance threshold changes, add up to more than he is suggesting?
No, I do not accept that, and I can tell the hon. Lady that 8,014 families in her constituency will benefit from the changes we are suggesting if she votes for them tonight. Let me tell her and the House what the Chancellor’s failure means in reality. This year, the basic level of universal credit for a single person aged over 25 is £334 a month. The Chancellor’s measures this April were so feeble that someone on that benefit will be expected to find as much as £50 or more a month simply to cover the increase in their energy bills. That is leaving aside the soaring costs of food and other goods. That £50 is around 15% of their income, so what are they going to do? They will not be able to afford to pay their bills, they will get deeply into debt and they will go without food. It is already happening to millions.
On Friday, in the citizens advice bureau in my constituency, I met someone who is in circumstances similar to those I described. Let me be honest: I have no idea how I would cope in those circumstances. Does any Member of this House? Maybe the Chancellor can tell us what somebody in those circumstances is supposed to do. If he cannot answer that question, it should tell him something—that he is failing in his duty to the people of this country who most need his help.
What makes the Chancellor even more culpable is that something that could help is staring him right in the face. It is something on which the case has become unanswerable, and on which the Government have run out of excuses, while oil and gas producers are making billions: a windfall tax. It is so hard to keep track of the Government’s position on a windfall tax that I have given up, but I think the Chancellor has said he is prepared to look at the idea. Honestly, the British people cannot afford to wait for him and his dithering anymore, or for his hopeless excuses.
I want to go through the hopeless excuses, because this is an important argument that this House and this country need to have. What are the Government’s excuses for not applying a windfall tax? First, they said in January that the oil and gas companies were, in the words of the Education Secretary, “struggling”. BP has its highest profits for a decade, Shell has its highest profits ever, and the boss of BP, Bernard Looney, describes the price hike as a “cash machine”—and these people say the companies are struggling. Perhaps we can have a show of hands: does anyone on the Government Benches still believe that those companies are struggling? What is the Government’s next excuse? They argue that a windfall tax will hurt investment—
Andrew Bowie (West Aberdeenshire and Kincardine) (Con)
Oh, it will, says the hon. Gentleman from a sedentary position. Right, here we go. The problem is that the companies themselves say that is nonsense. BP’s chief executive officer, Bernard Looney—whom I take as more of an authority than the hon. Gentleman—was asked two weeks ago which investments he would not proceed with if a windfall tax was levied. What was his answer?
“There are none that we wouldn’t do.”
Even BP does not buy the Tory arguments against a windfall tax on BP.
Will the right hon. Gentleman give way?
No; I will make some progress. The final excuse—[Interruption.] I want to come to this because it is important, and I am perhaps anticipating the Chancellor. The final excuse is that it is somehow anti-business to levy a windfall tax. Let us dispose of that argument, too. I strongly recommend that Members who believe that argument read an article that I have with me—I am happy to put a copy in the Library of the House—by Mr Irwin Stelzer, a long-time confidant of Rupert Murdoch. This is the first time I have quoted him in the House. A few days ago, in an article entitled, “Now is the time for a windfall profits tax”, he wrote:
“People who believe in capitalism believe that private sector companies should be rewarded for taking risks…not be rewarded for happening to be around when some disruption drives up prices, producing windfalls.”
That is the point: these profits are unearned and unexpected, and the British people are paying for that windfall. These companies are profiting not from decisions they have made, risks they have taken or wealth they have created, but from a global spike in prices to which Britain is badly exposed—a spike exacerbated by Putin’s invasion of Ukraine.
What is the principle that the Government are defending here? What is their hill to die on? Is the principle that they really wish to defend that oil and gas companies should pocket any profits, however bad the geopolitical instability? Is that however large the crisis and however gigantic the windfall, taxation must not change? That proposition was rejected by Margaret Thatcher, Geoffrey Howe and George Osborne—remember him?—all of whom levied windfall taxes. Who else do we see supporting a windfall tax today? I have to say, it is a pretty big tent: John Allan, the guy who runs Tesco; Sharon White, the woman who runs John Lewis; Lord Browne, the guy who used to run BP; and Lord Hague, the guy who used to run the Conservative party—the usual leftie suspects.
The truth is that the Government have run out of excuses and, amid the chaos and confusion about their position, I think a massive U-turn is lumbering slowly over the hill. I say this to the Chancellor: “Swallow your pride and get on with it.” Every day he delays is another day when the British people are denied the help they need. Millions of families are having sleepless nights because the Chancellor will not act. What is he waiting for? As proposed by the shadow Chancellor, my hon. Friend the Member for Leeds West (Rachel Reeves), the Chancellor should come to the House with an emergency Budget that has a windfall tax, gets rid of VAT on energy bills, increases the warm home discount to £400, includes an emergency plan to insulate 2 million homes this year, and cuts business rates.
Alan Brown (Kilmarnock and Loudoun) (SNP)
Will the right hon. Gentleman give way on that point?
I will not for the moment. The Government’s position on the windfall tax is part of a wider problem with this Chancellor and this Government. Just look at the political choices he is making: he leaves non-doms shielding their millions while millions of families and pensioners face a cut in their incomes; he whacks up taxes on tenants and lets landlords off the hook; and he makes young people at work pay more, but those getting money from capital gains pay not a penny extra. Wrong, unfair, unjust, out of touch—that is who he is.
Several hon. Members rose—
I will not give way. Of course, being this Government, they always try to blame someone else, as we heard earlier. It is hard to keep track, but this is the roll call of people who the Conservative party have tried to frame in just the past few days: the Bank of England; civil servants working from home; and, shamefully, the British people for being unable to cook properly. That, apparently, is the cause of food banks. Yesterday, there was also the ludicrous suggestion from a Minister that people were not working enough hours. The Chancellor, of all people, is also at it. Who does he blame for the massive cut to benefits? He blames the IT system—the dude from Silicon Valley. Who is he trying to kid? If he had got his act together early enough, of course he could have raised benefits properly. The thing I do not get is this: he found it perfectly possible to cut universal credit by £20 in the middle of the year—in September. It is not a case of “Computer says no”; it is “Chancellor says no.” It is not that a computer system is not up to it; the Chancellor is not up to it.
The story of the past few months is this: crypto has crashed, and so has the Chancellor—and how similar they are. The Chancellor and cryptocurrency came out of nowhere. The value surged, and it looked like the future, but it has all turned out to be one giant Ponzi scheme. The Chancellor has just been found out. He has been rumbled. Let us be honest, his colleagues all know it. He is out of touch with what is happening in the country. He is out of ideas when it comes to doing the right thing. He is out of his depth when it comes to the challenges that this country faces.
The problem, of course, is that today’s cost of living crisis does not stand alone; it comes on top of a decade of failure. That is why families and our economy are so vulnerable. Over the past 12 years, growth has averaged just 1.4%—the worst record of any Government since the second world war. This is the worst decade for living standards since the 1920s, according to the Institute for Fiscal Studies. Indeed, wages would be £7,000 higher on average if wage growth under this Government had matched the rate of growth under the last Labour Government. Taxes are at their highest level since the 1950s. Public services are struggling. Never have so many paid so much for so little. Twelve years of Tory economics have failed, and what does the Chancellor offer in the future? More of the same: anaemic growth at just 1.7%, and squeezed wages as far as the eye can see.
This is the plan for growth that we need: we should tackle the cost of living crisis, so that people have more money in their pockets. We need to put in place an industrial strategy, so that we have good jobs in the industries of the future; that is what Governments all around the world are doing. We need a plan to give people proper rights, to boost wages at work, and to make our economy fair. Where is the employment Bill? It was promised in 2019, but it is still not here. When it comes to being on the side of the workers, Conservatives may mouth the words, but their actions tell the real story.
Mr Mark Harper (Forest of Dean) (Con)
I am glad that the right hon. Gentleman mentioned jobs, particularly as today unemployment has fallen to its lowest level. The number of people out of work is now lower than the number of vacancies in the economy. He has just made an extraordinary number of unfunded spending commitments at the Dispatch Box. I want to highlight the big difference between the Labour party and the Chancellor. I remember the spring statement; the shadow Chancellor made a commitment to raising benefits early, because, she said, it would cost no money. It would actually have cost £24 billion across the spending period. There was no sense of how to pay for it. That is Labour from start to finish.
It is good to see that the right hon. Gentleman has clambered back onto the career bandwagon. I thought that he was no longer a loyalist. The truth is that it was the Resolution Foundation that pointed that out, and I can give him the reference.
I will wind up now. I have mentioned the basics of a modern economy, and this Government are failing on all of them; they have no cost of living plan, no growth plan, and no plan for rights at work. They have not learned from the mistakes of the past decade, and they are condemned to repeat them. The truth is that this Gracious Speech does not remotely rise to the short or long-term challenges that the British people face, but this House can make a difference tonight. I say this to Conservative MPs directly: we have all heard from our constituencies what families are facing. This is an emergency for millions of people. A windfall tax could make a difference.
Mike Wood (Dudley South) (Con)
Will the right hon. Gentleman give way?
No, I will not. Conservative Members should use this opportunity to tell the Chancellor to act. It is the right and fair thing to do. The case is unanswerable. If they do not act, they will have to explain to their constituents why they refused to support help that could make a difference now. I urge Members to vote for our amendment tonight to help tackle the social emergency that our country is facing.