My hon. Friend makes a good point about the amount of money NHS trusts are having to pay for agency workers. It is scandalous that NHS staff are being made redundant and the spaces created are having to be filled by agency workers. The problem is also caused by the stress that is now caused to NHS staff, as so many NHS staff are off sick with stress that yet again the gaps are having to be filled by agency workers.
To get back to Heywood and Middleton, none of my constituents is coming to see me to tell me how much better off they are now than they were in 2010—quite the opposite, in fact. As TUC general secretary Frances O’Grady said,
“The Chancellor’s Britain, where happy people skip to their secure jobs to celebrate their rising living standards, is not one that many will recognise.”
Last week, the Prime Minister was falling over himself to tell me that the claimant count in Heywood and Middleton was down, in answer to a question I had not asked. The reality that he does not see is that constituents come to see me in dire financial straits because of benefits sanctions when their benefits are withdrawn for minor reasons, such as being a few minutes late for an interview. That leaves them penniless and forced to seek help from one of the biggest growth industries under this Government—food banks. Yes, the food banks do wonderful work and I for one am very grateful that so many people give freely of their time and energy to help those less fortunate than themselves, but I have yet to talk to a single volunteer at a food bank who does not express regret that such a thing should have to exist.
Cuts to taxes on savings do not mean much when there is no money to save. In my constituency, 40% of local workers are paid less than the living wage, with women workers particularly badly affected. Sadly, my constituency features in the top 10 worst areas of the UK for payment of the living wage. When I asked the Prime Minister about those figures he responded on the subject of the minimum wage, yet the minimum wage has risen by just 70p under this Government and is set to rise by 20p in October. Those meagre sums will go nowhere near far enough to meet the Government’s objective of ending in-work poverty.
Enforcement of the minimum wage is lacking in resources and the HMRC team responsible comprises fewer than 200 staff across the whole country. At least 100 more national minimum wage compliance officers are needed to ensure that workers get what they are due. Although workers have an alternative means of pursuing the minimum wage by applying to a tribunal, the imposition of fees for applications to employment tribunals mean that workers who might have taken that route will approach HMRC instead, generating yet more work for an already under-resourced work force.
Today, we have the evidence of five years of Tory-led austerity, with wages driven down, damaged public services and devastated lives. In the Budget, the Chancellor has reminded us that he is either incapable of or uninterested in building an economy that works for the good of all. Perhaps only the cuts to beer, cider and spirits will be of comfort to public sector workers, who might want to drown their sorrows at the prospect of even more cuts in their living standards to come.