The speech made by Mick Whitley, the Labour MP for Birkenhead, in the House of Commons on 17 May 2022.
In my constituency and in similarly deprived areas around the country, the Government have been remarkably silent about what they intend to do about the cost of living crisis in their legislative programme for the coming year. While some on the Conservative Benches have advised the poorest in our country to take up cookery lessons or scour the shops for the cheapest brands, the Government have offered little more than scraps from their table. A £200 loan here and a £150 rebate there—such measures give little comfort to people whose housing benefit has been frozen since 2020 while rents have skyrocketed. They offer no long-term solution to those whose benefits and pensions have been cut and pegged back, nor do they help those in work who face soaring prices and falling wages.
Family budgets are at breaking point, and two in five people are now buying less food because of the cost of living crisis. In April, 2 million adults skipped a day’s eating to try to save money. The Resolution Foundation predicts that almost 1.5 million people, including half a million children, will fall into absolute poverty next year. This is what food inflation of 9% and rising means for millions, and it is what energy costs heading for a 54% increase are inflicting on the poorest and most vulnerable people in this country. It is a Sophie’s choice of heat or eat.
The cost of living crisis is a war on the poor, and it is the scourge of countless working families. It is scandalous that the chief executive officer of Tesco has just pocketed a pay packet of almost £5 million for one year’s work. A customer assistant at Tesco would have to work for 267 years to earn the same as the CEO got for 12 months’ work. That should be a badge of shame.
A Government who care about their people should be working towards both short-term and long-term solutions in their plans for the year ahead. Sadly, this Government plan for very little beyond their own self-preservation. In the short term, we can help people by introducing a windfall tax on the profits of the fuel giants. Two big oil companies coined in more than £12 billion in the first three months of this year. Let us tax them to help those who cannot afford to heat their home. Even top directors such as the CEO of Asda are calling for it now. Let us restore the £20 universal credit uplift to prevent the poorest from sliding into irreversible food and fuel poverty, let us immediately provide extra funds to hard-hit pensioners through extra warm home and winter fuel payments, and let us set a real living wage at a level on which people can really live.
In the long term, we need to address the economic problems at the heart of our economy that are the legacy of industrial vandalism by the Conservative party over many years. We need to stimulate inward investment by recasting our economy through a green industrial revolution that can provide hundreds of thousands of well-paid jobs and can create industries, including vibrant, publicly owned ones, that meet our energy needs on a clean and green basis, helping to save our planet while overcoming the chronic failings of the current supply chain. We need a progressive wealth tax, and we need to close the loopholes that enable the rich and the corporations to evade the taxes they rightfully owe. Fair taxation can pay for the uplift and reform of the benefits system, which currently punishes the poor. Benefits and pensions must be substantially increased and inflation-proofed.
Finally, where the Government control wages, they must scrap the miserly below-inflation pay limits that are really pay cuts. These cuts took, on average, £845 away from NHS workers last year. We clapped their efforts during lockdown, and then the Government slashed their wages during crackdown.
These are the answers to the cost of living crisis, and they should be in the legislative programme for this year.