Cost of Living and Food Insecurity

– in the House of Commons at 1:36 pm on 8th February 2022.

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Photo of Jim McMahon Jim McMahon Shadow Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs 1:36 pm, 8th February 2022

I beg to move,

That this House
is concerned that households are bracing themselves for the biggest drop in living standards in thirty years;
notes that the cost of living crisis includes steep price increases in everyday and essential food items, making the situation worse for the 4.7 million adults and 2.5 million children already living in food insecurity and risking more people experiencing food insecurity;
regrets that the Government is making the cost of living crisis worse through tax hikes, low growth, falling real wages, and a failure to tackle the energy crisis;
condemns a decade of Conservative-led governments for leaving Britain uniquely exposed to a global gas crisis and failing to create high paid, secure jobs;
and calls upon the Government to set out a national strategy for food including how it intends to ensure access to high quality, sustainable, affordable food for all and meet the United Nations goal to end hunger by 2030.

Members on all sides are hearing more and more from desperately worried constituents who are concerned about rocketing household bills and the cost of food, but where is the Secretary of State? Where is the Cabinet Member responsible for this Department? The person who sits around the table with the Prime Minister and the Chancellor has not even bothered to turn up to this debate. That is absolutely scandalous. Is it that they do not understand the real-life consequences of food poverty and rocketing bills? The darkness of poverty is not just not being able to turn the lights on; it is being driven into debt and despair because you cannot afford to live. And the darkness is not just at night time: it is during the day when the curtains are closed because you are fearful of the debt collector knocking on the door. That is the darkness of poverty. That is what is clearly not understood by this Government, who are too busy saving the job of one person, the Prime Minister, instead of getting on with the job of running the country—Operation Shaggy Dog in full force—and I think that is absolutely outrageous. While the Government are putting all their energies into desperately trying to save the Prime Minister, they are hitting hard-working families with a triple whammy.

Photo of Jerome Mayhew Jerome Mayhew Conservative, Broadland

I do not think the operation was called Operation Shag a Dog, but perhaps the hon. Gentleman would care to correct the House.

Photo of Nigel Evans Nigel Evans Deputy Speaker (Second Deputy Chairman of Ways and Means)

I heard shaggy dog. I am sure everybody heard shaggy dog.

Photo of Jim McMahon Jim McMahon Shadow Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

I am happy to clarify the record. I am, of course, referring to the Dulux dog, my favourite being Digby, although everyone has their own favourite.

Let us return to the real task in hand, because as much as we talk about the fun of Parliament and the Prime Minister’s latest crisis and turmoil, this debate is about the people of this country. The people of this country are being ignored while Downing Street is in despair: first, there is the cost of living crisis on food, energy bills and goods; secondly, the universal credit cut, cutting the income of 6 million families; and, finally, putting up taxes on working people and businesses, leaving us with the biggest tax burden for 70 years.

Photo of Chris Stephens Chris Stephens Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Fair Work and Employment)

Is not part of the reason why the Secretary of State is not here perhaps that some of us will ask why the Department has been sitting for 18 months on a report on food bank use and ask what is driving that?

Photo of Jim McMahon Jim McMahon Shadow Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

There is that, but I have no idea what the Environment Secretary does. I remember going up to Durham at the height of Storm Arwen, when families were disconnected from electricity for two weeks and more. The Environment Secretary, who sits around the Cabinet table with the Prime Minister, did not even turn up, and that matters to people.

Photo of Jim McMahon Jim McMahon Shadow Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

I will make some progress. The cost of everyday and essential food items, on which millions of low-paid families depend, are soaring even faster than the headline rate of inflation. As campaigner Jack Monroe explained on “Good Morning Britain”, the cheapest rice at one supermarket was 45p for a kilogram this time last year and it is now £1 for half that. That is a 344% increase, hitting the poorest and most vulnerable households the hardest. A can of baked beans has gone up by 45% and bread by 29%. All those are the staple of a household cupboard.

Photo of Jim McMahon Jim McMahon Shadow Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

I will make some progress. As oil and gas giants are seeing more profits than the whole of the Treasury corporation tax take combined, Labour has been clear that a windfall tax should be levied on companies that are profiting, cushioning rocketing household energy bills and helping hard-working families here in Britain.

Photo of Lilian Greenwood Lilian Greenwood Opposition Deputy Chief Whip (Commons)

My hon. Friend is making a really important point. Last year, the Meadows food bank, just one of the food banks in my constituency, gave out 38 tonnes of food and fed 40,000 meals to over 2,000 households. Does he share my concern that, with rising food and energy prices, those numbers will be even higher in 2022?

Photo of Jim McMahon Jim McMahon Shadow Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

My hon. Friend shows us the contrast of an excellent local MP highlighting the work of the Meadows food bank, because we know the difference that it makes. Frankly, I find it sickening to see Conservative MPs carrying out the same visits. They are in government, and the job of Government is to make sure that there is not a need for food banks, not to turn up for a photoshoot.

On top of the cost of living crisis, the Government are making the situation even worse. The national insurance rise in April will cost the average household £600 a year more. The freeze in the personal tax allowance will cost £78 and petrol will be up £250 a year, with real wages and pensions set to fall further. This is firmly a bills bombshell and it is made straight at the door of Downing Street.

Photo of Jim Shannon Jim Shannon Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Human Rights), Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Health)

I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on the clear points that he is making. In Northern Ireland, 13% of people—241,000 people—are in poverty, with 17% of children and 14% of pensioners in poverty. With the 5% increase that the chief executive officer of Tesco said yesterday would happen to food prices, those in poverty are unfortunately facing a perfect storm that will mean they are in even worse poverty. Does the hon. Member agree that, for those reasons, this Labour motion should be supported?

Photo of Jim McMahon Jim McMahon Shadow Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

I thank the hon. Member so much for that. Northern Ireland is a beautiful part of the world, but that is partly because it is so sparsely populated and rural. On top of the premium related to poverty, there is also a rural premium, where many energy-efficient homes are more expensive to heat and, in many cases, gas oil has to be transported in rather than piped in. That has a significant premium that is felt acutely by many communities.

Photo of Jim McMahon Jim McMahon Shadow Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

I will make some progress.

We have heard that food bank use has rocketed significantly, and it cannot be right that so many food parcels are given out. It is right that volunteers step up, but we are one of the richest countries in the world and it should not be needed. I am proud of the efforts of the British people in supporting one another, and many of us have stood shoulder to shoulder with them, while at least one Government Member was earning £1,400 an hour helping tax havens to take on the UK Government. Volunteers up and down the country rallied, including groups in Oldham such as Mahdlo Youth Zone, where I volunteered to deliver sandwich packets during the school holidays, and the REEL project, where food parcels were being given out. [Interruption.] Let me tell the hecklers on the Government side the reality of this: those food parcels, made up by volunteers, were being given out to people after work—people in care uniforms and NHS staff were coming to collect those food parcels. This affects a lot of people in the community, and it is an absolute scandal that, instead of accepting that, the best we hear from the Government Benches is heckling.

Photo of Jim McMahon Jim McMahon Shadow Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

I want to make some progress. As chair of the Co-operative party, I am proud that food justice has always been fundamental to our movement. Today, we have co-operative retail societies leading from the front in supporting the great efforts of Manchester’s son Marcus Rashford to ensure that kids do not go hungry. Our food justice campaign has highlighted that the Government signed up to UN sustainable development goal 2, which is to end food hunger by 2030, but they do not seem to realise that that is in just eight years’ time. Where is their sense of urgency in making sure we meet our international obligations under that SDG?

The Government will also know that this country is deeply unequal. Their own figures show that the north-east and the north-west of England have the highest level of food insecurity in the country, yet ensuring access to a healthy diet does not feature at all in their levelling-up agenda. Let me tell the Government that they can’t level up when people are going hungry.

Central to this is how we support the amazing work of farmers and British producers, who produce some of the best-quality produce in the world. Britain should be a beacon for quality, high standards, ethical treatment of animals, lower carbon production and environmental protections, but at every turn they are undermined or sold out by this Government, who are more interested in bankers in the Shard than farmers in the shires.

Photo of Craig Williams Craig Williams Conservative, Montgomeryshire

Will the hon. Gentleman join me in calling on the Welsh Labour Government to work with farmers? At the moment, there is a target for tree planting, which is all well and good but it needs to respect farmers’ knowledge of grade A agricultural land, so that we have a secure future for farming in Wales.

Photo of Jim McMahon Jim McMahon Shadow Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

I am glad that the hon. Gentleman takes me on to the Welsh Government, who are leading from the front on this. We look on in England and see residents in Wales being given better access to welfare, school meals and prescriptions than people in England. But I share the fundamental concern that corporations in the City of London are buying farmland across the UK for carbon offsetting. That is not right, and it has the implications of undermining British farming production, rewilding and nature. It is really important that this Conservative Government come forward with a UK strategy to deal with that.

Photo of Tim Farron Tim Farron Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs), Liberal Democrat Lords Spokesperson (Communities and Local Government), Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Housing, Communities and Local Government)

The hon. Gentleman is making a series of good points. Does he share my concern that the Government’s plans for environmental land management schemes provide an incentive for landowners to clear off their tenants from the land, take big loads of cash from the taxpayer and leave those farmers without work, wrecking not only the local environment but the rural economy, and massively reducing our ability to produce our own food, thus increasing food prices in the process?

Photo of Jim McMahon Jim McMahon Shadow Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

Absolutely. We all welcome the fact that we bring in produce from all over the world, as it gives variety and helps maintain consumer price. But it is really important that we do not undermine British produce in that process, and that we understand the importance of seasonality and of food security. If we allow food production here in the UK to be eroded and diminished, the time will come when we cannot feed our own population. That will be the real risk. The Government are watching this now and are allowing wealthy landowners on big estates to get rid of tenant farmers in favour of rewilding, and the Government are paying them for that. It is outrageous.

Photo of Jim McMahon Jim McMahon Shadow Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

I am going to make some progress for a moment and then I will take the intervention, depending on the time. Food processors and farmers face steeply rising energy, fuel, carbon dioxide, fertiliser and other costs. Because of the Government’s failure to plan, our food supply chains are missing crop pickers, meat factory workers and lorry drivers. In addition, crops are wasting in the fields and there are gaps on supermarket shelves. Immorally, we have seen the cull of 35,000 pigs because the butchers were not available to send them to our supermarkets.

But the Government are not just standing by; they are actively making matters worse. Only yesterday, the Government had to issue another notice, warning of devastation in the pig industry caused, in part, by labour shortages. What an absolute waste. It is immoral to see people go hungry in this country while food is wasted. What is more, whether it is the Prime Minister, the Chancellor or the Governor of the Bank of England, every decision and every action must pass this simple test: does it make life better for working people, or does it continue to put more and more pressure on living standards?

Photo of Debbie Abrahams Debbie Abrahams Labour, Oldham East and Saddleworth

Is my hon. Friend as concerned as I am that Oldham Foodbank is having to feed more than 1,000 people a month, as he knows? As the cost of living squeeze increases, those generous Oldhamers who have been helping source food for the food bank will get fewer and fewer, because it will not just be the people on the lowest incomes who are affected; it will span middle income groups too. What does he have to say to that?

Photo of Jim McMahon Jim McMahon Shadow Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

Like my hon. Friend and neighbour, I think the work that our volunteers do at Oldham Foodbank reflects the work done in food banks up and down this country. They are the very best of us. They make sure that people do not go hungry, but they rely on the charity of our neighbours, and if our neighbours are struggling to put food in their own cupboards, that will have an impact on what they are able to donate to the local food bank. That is the reality, but where is the Government’s plan for that? How are we going to tackle the cost of living crisis and ensure that the safety net is in place? We just do not see it. That is a real issue that we need to address.

Photo of Hywel Williams Hywel Williams Shadow PC Spokesperson (International Development), Shadow PC Spokesperson (Work and Pensions), Shadow PC Spokesperson (Defence), Shadow PC Spokesperson (Cabinet Office), Shadow PC Spokesperson (International Trade), Shadow PC Spokesperson (Foreign Affairs), Shadow PC Chief Whip

Will the hon. Gentleman congratulate the Welsh Labour Government and Plaid Cymru on coming to a historic 46-point agreement for the next three years, which includes such matters as free school meals for primary school children? Will he also commend the fact that the agreement stiffens Labour’s resolve to turn its fine words for many years into real action now?

Photo of Jim McMahon Jim McMahon Shadow Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

This is my point—words into action is important in politics. People are so fed up with politicians saying one thing and doing another, and making promises that are not kept, that when they see a Government in power who do exactly what they say they are going to do—on free school meals, the natural environment and those issues that matter—people begin to rebuild trust in politics. I think we have seen that during the pandemic and how people viewed the Welsh Labour Government in power and making that real difference.

To conclude, Labour has a five-point plan to tackle Britain’s obesity crisis: restrictions on junk food advertising; promoting healthy food choices in supermarkets; clearer calorie and nutritional information; a ban on the sale of energy drinks to our children; and public health weight management programmes to support people to live healthier lives. But we want to go even further and to realise real food justice. Let us compare that with the Government. More than six months on, the Secretary of State is incapable of agreeing his food White Paper.

Labour is committed to fixing Britain’s broken food system. Fundamentally, we should live in a country where working people earn enough through their work to put food on the table. In short, that means putting food justice at the heart of Labour’s contract to deliver security, prosperity and respect for the British people. After 11 years, the Government stand on a shameful record of high taxes, low growth and rocketing bills. It is clear that they have run out of ideas, and the British people have run out of patience.

Photo of Victoria Prentis Victoria Prentis The Minister of State, Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs 1:53 pm, 8th February 2022

I start by paying tribute to all those who work around the clock to keep the nation fed, whether that is in fields, processing plants, factories, wholesalers or stores, and those who move our goods around. The pandemic has reminded us that domestic food production really matters. Our production-to-supply ratio remains relatively high, judged against historical levels. If we look at the foods we can produce here, it remains healthy at 70%, and that has been stable for the past 20 years or so. We are close to 100% self-sufficient in poultry, eggs, carrots and swedes, for example.

The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs is responsible for food security, including household food security, and monitoring it.

Photo of Victoria Prentis Victoria Prentis The Minister of State, Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

I would be delighted to give way to the hon. Lady. She and I have discussed these issues many times.

Photo of Kerry McCarthy Kerry McCarthy Labour, Bristol East

We have indeed. Both the current Secretary of State, during the Committee stage of the Agriculture Bill, and the former Secretary of State, Michael Gove, when he spoke with me at the Oxford real farming conference, made a pledge to support more county farms and peri-urban farming, so that cities such as Bristol could produce food locally. We were promised funding, but it does not seem to have appeared. Can the Minister tell me what the Department is doing on that front?

Photo of Victoria Prentis Victoria Prentis The Minister of State, Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

It is always a real pleasure to talk to the hon. Lady about these matters, because she has really leant into them over the years, and the work of her all-party parliamentary group on the national food strategy has been very helpful. I should be delighted to meet her again to talk about what we can do for county and peri-urban farms. We are putting together a new entrants strategy as part of our environmental land management plans. We have not quite finalised that work, but I think it would be a good idea if I could meet her so that she can feed into the work that we are doing.

Photo of John Redwood John Redwood Conservative, Wokingham

Does the Minister agree that there is no reason why we should not produce 100% of the temperate food that we need? We lost a huge amount of market share when the common agricultural policy was introduced, and some of us want to get that back now that we are out of the CAP. Is it not better to cut the food miles and rely on local jobs and local production?

Photo of Victoria Prentis Victoria Prentis The Minister of State, Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

It is also a pleasure to talk to my right hon. Friend about these matters. I have also spoken to him many times, in this instance about his plan to boost horticulture, particularly fruit and vegetable production, in his constituency and, indeed, across the nation. Fruit production has fallen to 16% of what we consume nationally, and fruit is one of the very few foodstuffs whose price has risen in comparative terms over the last 10 years when the price of most other foodstuffs has fallen.

Photo of Victoria Prentis Victoria Prentis The Minister of State, Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

If the hon. Gentleman does not mind, I will just finish this point.

It is very much part of our strategy and our future plans that we should do our best to boost innovation and investment in ways of growing those horticultural products in a way that we can do in this country. My Secretary of State is extremely keen on that.

Several hon. Members:

rose—

Photo of Victoria Prentis Victoria Prentis The Minister of State, Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

If Members do not mind, I will make a little progress now, because otherwise we shall be here all day.

Our Agriculture Act 2020 committed us to reporting to Parliament on food security in the UK at least once every three years. I have with me the excellent report that we published shortly before Christmas, and I commend it to colleagues. It is not a political document; it was compiled by Government statisticians, and it contains information about food security that will be extremely useful to Members in all parts of the House.

Photo of Stephen Kinnock Stephen Kinnock Shadow Minister (Home Office) (Immigration)

Research from the House of Commons Library shows that in my constituency, electricity and gas prices are up by £741 a year, the petrol price is up by 22%, and food costs have risen by £100 a year. Does the Minister really think that this is the time to be hiking national insurance contributions by 1.25%?

Photo of Victoria Prentis Victoria Prentis The Minister of State, Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

I will come to that point later, if I may. At this stage, I want to say more about the food security report.

As I was saying, the first of these reports was published in December. It examines past, current and predicted trends. Food prices fluctuate in any given year. They depend on a range of factors, including food import prices, domestic agricultural prices, domestic labour and manufacturing costs, and exchange rates, all of which fluctuate over time. Some of these factors are influenced by our trading arrangements with other countries. Most food sector businesses are accustomed to fluctuations in supply chain costs, and they do not necessarily pass them on to consumers. Negative food inflation rates were recorded for much of late 2020 and early 2021, as we were in the earlier stages of the pandemic. We know now that, sadly, energy costs are rising substantially, and we are of course monitoring the effects of that on prices of products for consumers extremely carefully.

We carry out annual surveys looking at household expenditure on food, and we monitor that closely as well. Spending among the poorest 20% of households has been broadly stable for the last 14 years. Since 2008, between 14% and 17% of the expenditure of the poorest households has been on food and non-alcoholic drinks, while the average household has spent between 10% and 12% of its income on food.

Photo of Hilary Benn Hilary Benn Labour, Leeds Central

Bearing in mind that we are the sixth richest country on this planet, what explanation would the Minister offer for the fact that a growing number of my constituents in Leeds Central are having to go up to a complete stranger at a food bank and ask them for help to feed their families because they do not have enough money to feed them themselves?

Photo of Victoria Prentis Victoria Prentis The Minister of State, Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

I hope that in the course of my remarks I will be able to answer the right hon. Gentleman more fully, but in brief I would like to say that we clearly have increases in the cost of living. The Chancellor came to this House to talk about them in detail last week and I know that there have rightly been many debates on this important subject—

Photo of Victoria Prentis Victoria Prentis The Minister of State, Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

If I may finish my remarks, I will.

There are many pressures on household budgets, the two top ones being broadly, usually, housing costs and fuel costs. There is very little give normally; there are very few other sources available to help families with those two important pressures. Food, as I am just outlining, is often a smaller part of the household expenditure pot. Because there are sometimes food charities to help with expenditure, it is a part where other help can be sourced. If I may, I will make some progress.

The average household has spent between 10% and 12% on food, so that is relatively low. Compared with EU countries, for example, it is the lowest. There has been a gradual decrease in expenditure as a percentage both for the lowest 20% by income and for all households. Back in the 1950s, the spend on food would have been about a third of income.

Of course, we work hard alongside other Departments in Government—for example, the Department for Work and Pensions, which is responsible for the welfare system and supporting those with particular challenges in their lives at any point. During the pandemic, we put in place a £170 million covid winter grant scheme, with 80% earmarked to provide support with food and bills. I chaired the food to the vulnerable ministerial taskforce, which was set up in spring 2020, and we put in place support for the most vulnerable individuals.

Photo of Victoria Prentis Victoria Prentis The Minister of State, Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

No, I will make some progress, if I may.

We put in place and then expanded the holiday activities and food programme, which helped to ensure that children are provided with and really learn about healthy food during the holidays. We increased the value of healthy start vouchers to support pregnant women and those with children under four on low incomes, and we put in place £32 million of direct Government giving to food distribution charities, including FareShare.

There have also been some excellent private sector initiatives to help people who are struggling to afford food. Last year, Waitrose announced a trial that supported struggling families through the pandemic by linking farms that supply them with the food distribution charity FareShare. That was the first time a supermarket had covered the basic costs for farmers to divert surplus food directly from their farms to families who need it.

Photo of Victoria Prentis Victoria Prentis The Minister of State, Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

I am going to make some progress.

As we look to our recovery from the pandemic, we are supporting those on lower incomes, including spending over £110 billion on welfare support for people of working age. We know that people are facing pressures with the cost of living, which is why we are taking action to help them, which includes targeting support. Something we learned again and again in the pandemic, not least in my taskforce, is that, if we target support to the most vulnerable and low-income households, we can do the most good. Such targeted support includes the warm homes discount scheme, winter fuel payments and cold weather payments. Vulnerable households across the UK are also able to access the £500 million support fund to help them with essentials, including food.

The Conservative route to fighting poverty is work. Just last week, my right hon. Friend the Work and Pensions Secretary announced a new jobs mission to get 500,000 more people into work.

Photo of Victoria Prentis Victoria Prentis The Minister of State, Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

No. We have 1.2 million vacancies to fill, and our message to jobseekers is clear: we will support you to help you into work.

I am really keen to start a national conversation when it comes to food, and I am delighted that we will shortly be publishing our promised food strategy. It is a once-in-a-generation opportunity.

Photo of Victoria Prentis Victoria Prentis The Minister of State, Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

I would be delighted to give way to the hon. Gentleman, with whom I have discussed these matters previously.

Photo of David Linden David Linden Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Work and Pensions)

I wonder what it says about the Government’s global Britain image around the world when they send Ministers away on their £500,000 jets. Do they go abroad to talk to people about the fact that they have all these taskforces? On that point, is the taskforce still meeting? Surely the Minister will understand that, yes, there are pressures in terms of exporting and prices, but the fundamental reality is that people just do not have enough money in their pocket at the moment, and that the pandemic just highlighted pre-existing problems that this Government must get a grip on.

Photo of Victoria Prentis Victoria Prentis The Minister of State, Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

The food to the vulnerable ministerial taskforce was set up at a particularly frightening time for our country right at the beginning of the pandemic, when, for the first time, we were dealing with people’s access to food not just in terms of paying for it but in terms of physically going out to buy it. The Government had to deal with a whole range of problems that, frankly, I could never have predicted. I am very proud of the work that we did. We worked closely with the devolved Administrations, who were very much part of that taskforce, and we were able to provide help to the shielding and to people who felt unable or were unable to leave home. We also worked closely with retailers at a time when they were under enormous strain.

Photo of Victoria Prentis Victoria Prentis The Minister of State, Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

No, I am going to conclude now.

The food strategy will be published shortly and I am very much looking forward to bringing the White Paper before the House. We are working on the final draft at the moment, and I very much expect it will be here in weeks, rather than months. It is a once-in-a-generation opportunity to create a food system that feeds our nation today and protects it for tomorrow. It will build on existing work across Government and identify new opportunities to make the food system healthier, more sustainable, more resilient and more accessible for people across the UK.

Photo of Nigel Evans Nigel Evans Deputy Speaker (Second Deputy Chairman of Ways and Means)

Just to give everyone an indication, a lot of people are trying to catch my eye and I anticipate that we will start the wind-up speeches no later than 4.10. There will be 10 minutes then for each Front Bencher, and the switch-over for those wanting to take part in the next debate should be no later than 4.30, but those outside the Chamber should please keep an eye on the monitors, as that could come earlier. There will be a five-minute limit on Back-Bench contributions immediately after Peter Grant.

Photo of Peter Grant Peter Grant Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Europe), Shadow SNP Deputy Spokesperson (Treasury - Chief Secretary) 2:07 pm, 8th February 2022

I commend the Labour Front-Bench team for tabling this motion, and I commend Jim McMahon for setting out succinctly and forcefully the impact on real human beings of the failures of this Conservative Government. It was so farcical as to be really comical, if it was not so tragic, that John Redwood, who is no longer in his place, asked the Minister to agree that cutting food miles was a good idea, yet a Minster from the same Department a couple of weeks ago thought it was brilliant that we had arrived at a new trade deal with Australia and that we should be trying to cut food deals. What better vignette could there be to illustrate the inconsistency and chaos of this Government? They have torn up the best trade deal we will ever have with our nearest neighbours and replaced it with a deal with people who are literally on the other side the world, yet they have the cheek to tell us that the way to deal with food shortages in Britain is to cut food miles.

Just to put into context the scale of what we are facing here, the Bank of England has increased interest rates to try to control increasing inflation, but it is warning that it could reach 7.25% in April. Very few of our constituents will get a pay rise that comes within a mile of 7.25%, and most will be lucky to get anything. Data released by the Food Foundation charity shows that, in January this year, 4.7 million adults had experienced food insecurity, and National Energy Action estimates that 6 million households in these islands will be living in fuel poverty: that is not having to cut back slightly, but being unable to keep themselves warm enough to be safe and healthy, or to feed themselves and their families enough to keep healthy.

New analysis by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation warns that the energy price cap will have the harshest impact on the poorest families. We knew that anyway, but JRF has given the evidential backing to it. The poorest families will spend 18% of their income on energy bills after April. Can hon. Members imagine spending 18% of their £80,000-a-year salary on fuel bills? This place would be in uproar if that happened. Why is it acceptable for low-paid folk to pay a bigger chunk of their income when it would not be acceptable for Members of Parliament? The Office for Budget Responsibility forecasts that average real wages will still be lower in 2026 than they were at the start of the financial crisis in 2008.

If all that was being said about a poor economy, a poor country or a poor collection of countries, we would think it was shameful, but it is being said about one of the richest places on the planet, as Hilary Benn mentioned earlier. Fuel poverty and food poverty—people literally living on the edge of starvation and hypothermia—are happening not because of necessity but because of a deliberate sustained political choice. It has certainly been the political choice of Conservative Governments since they were elected under the former Prime Minister David Cameron.

Photo of Patrick Grady Patrick Grady Scottish National Party, Glasgow North

Does my hon. Friend, like me, remember that, in 2014, the Labour party and the Conservative party said to Scotland that, if we voted for independence, freedom of movement to Europe would end, supermarket shelves would be empty of food and energy prices would go through the roof? Does he agree that they have quite a bit of explaining to do?

Photo of Peter Grant Peter Grant Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Europe), Shadow SNP Deputy Spokesperson (Treasury - Chief Secretary)

It is a valid point. Every so often, I go back through all the scare stories that have been pushed through my letterbox—mainly from the Labour party, because we do not really have a Tory presence in my constituency, or certainly not in my part of it. When we go through all the horrible things that they say will happen if Scotland becomes independent and leave them for two or three years, we find them happening anyway. It started with the closure of the naval base in Rosyth and it is still happening today with the end of freedom of movement and increasing food prices.

It is estimated that 1 million adults, equivalent to more than 3.5% of the UK population, are having to go without food at least once a month because they cannot afford to eat. About 640,000 people in Scotland cannot afford their energy bills, and that is before they got put up by 50%. That is in a country that has more energy than it needs and that, most years, exports energy to England and other countries because it cannot use all the energy it produces.

Where else in the world would we find any commodity in surplus that is, at the same time, priced beyond the affordability of its own citizens? What on earth is wrong with the way that Scotland is run that means that the people who produce almost more energy per head of population than anywhere else in the world cannot afford to pay their bills, keep their homes heated and keep their families healthy?

The Chancellor’s response is better than nothing but it is woefully inadequate. He is basically offering a payday loan: “We’ll give you the money just now to pay off your fuel bills and we’re going to hope and pray that they come back down again in the next few years.” If they do not, what on earth happens? The Scottish TUC has said that the Treasury’s buy now, pay later loan

“comes nowhere near tackling the problem…It is nothing short of shameful that people are being forced to choose between food and heat.”

If emergency loans are such a good idea to tackle the problem of increasing energy prices, why not go to the source of the problem and give them to the energy companies? They are struggling because of many global factors that have been covered in other debates. At least that way, the Government would be giving the loans to people whose shareholders should be able to meet the cost. Why give the loan to somebody who will not be able to afford to pay it back next year, the year after or the year after that?

Given that the decision has been made to give that money directly to citizens, the SNP says that it should be turned into a grant. People should not be made to choose between taking the money now and not being able to pay it back later. The Chancellor must also cut VAT on energy bills, which is within his gift. Why has he not done it?

As well as giving emergency loans to the energy companies, the Chancellor should have ruled out a rise to the energy price cap—he simply should not have allowed it, or Ofgem should not have allowed it. He could also reintroduce the £20-a-week universal credit uplift that the Tories cancelled recently. None of that by itself will solve the problem completely, but at least it would give an indication that we are dealing with a Government who care, whereas, quite clearly, we are dealing with a Government who could hardly care less.

Photo of Margaret Ferrier Margaret Ferrier Independent, Rutherglen and Hamilton West

Single young parents under the age of 25 face lower universal credit payments despite being the sole breadwinner for their child and despite, naturally, facing more barriers to work. Does the hon. Member agree that it is unacceptable for the Government to allow children to live in poverty based only on the age of their single mother or father?

Photo of Peter Grant Peter Grant Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Europe), Shadow SNP Deputy Spokesperson (Treasury - Chief Secretary)

Absolutely. My hon. Friend—I hope that I can continue to call her a good friend and colleague—has, as always, made a very valid point.

One of the most iniquitous and downright evil things about the crisis that we are now facing is that the people who get the hardest hit will be those who are least able to afford it. If we all had to take a 20% hit to our living standards, none of us would enjoy it, but all of us would manage. Most of my constituents cannot afford to take that scale of hit to their standards of living and they are the ones who are being hit the worst.

I want to look briefly at some of the things that have been done by the Scottish Government, using their limited powers to mitigate this crisis. The Scottish Government have a much more progressive income tax system than the rest of the UK. It is often attacked by Tory Back Benchers who are interested only in the wellbeing of high earners, but the fact is that, in 2021-22, 54% of people in Scotland—the lower paid 54% of people in Scotland—are paying less income tax than they would if they lived in England. There is also fact that Members of Parliament for Scotland pay a bit more income tax than our colleagues in England. I do not mind that if the money is going into essential services.

Last year, the Scottish Government invested around £2.5 billion to support low-income households, nearly £1 billion of which went directly to children living in low-income households. They have committed more than £3.9 billion to benefit expenditure in 2022-23, providing support to more than 1 million people. That figure of £3.9 billion is £361 million above the level of funding that we get from the UK Government, so while again the Tories will demand guarantees that all of the money that comes to Scotland be used for its intended purpose, the Scottish Government are spending almost 10% more than they are receiving for that purpose.

The reaction of the Child Poverty Action Group was that this was

“a hugely welcome development on the path to meeting Scotland’s child poverty targets... a real lifeline for the families across Scotland who are facing a perfect storm of financial insecurity as the UK cut to universal credit bites, energy prices soar and the wider costs of living rise.”

It said that on 29 November 2021. The British Government did not seem to wake up to the problem until about 29 January 2022.

My hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow—

Photo of Peter Grant Peter Grant Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Europe), Shadow SNP Deputy Spokesperson (Treasury - Chief Secretary)

Glasgow North. I do beg my hon. Friend’s pardon. I love the city of Glasgow, but I can never remember the constituency boundaries.

My hon. Friend has raised the impact that Brexit is having. Brexit has had a disastrous effect on our economy, and it has not finished. The OBR estimates that we still have three fifths of the way to go. Most of the damage from Brexit has still to be done. Every single person on these islands faces a cost of around £1,200 as a result of Brexit, and we know who will be hit the hardest. Make UK, the organisation that represents 20,000 manufacturers, has said that Brexit changes will undoubtedly add to soaring consumer costs in 2022.

Photo of Alexander Stafford Alexander Stafford Conservative, Rother Valley

I am listening carefully to the hon. Gentleman’s argument. I believe that he is making the point that Brexit is leading to some other cost of living issues. If that is the case, why are we seeing even greater levels of inflation and unemployment in other countries inside the EU? Rising costs and rising inflation are clearly a global issue, and nothing to do with Brexit.

Photo of Peter Grant Peter Grant Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Europe), Shadow SNP Deputy Spokesperson (Treasury - Chief Secretary)

Is it not remarkable how—in this great global superpower, this global leader of the free world, this super global economy—every time that anything goes wrong it is global’s fault? “It was not me. A big global done it and ran away.”

I did see one figure at the weekend—that the price of energy in France is going up by about 4%. Here it is going up by 10 times that, even more than 10 times that for many people. Going back to the hon. Gentleman, I am only quoting figures from the Government’s own Office for Budget Responsibility. If the Government do not trust the OBR, perhaps it is because the number of people trusted by the Government is as few as those who trust the Government.

Let us not forget what promises were made before the Brexit referendum—I know that some people want to say that that is all water under the bridge and that we can forget about it. The present Prime Minister told us in 2016 that an upside of Brexit would be the freedom to scrap the unfair VAT on fuels. Now he says that removing VAT would be a “blunt instrument” that would not direct help towards those in most dire need. The Leader of the House, who I gather has just been promoted to the Cabinet, promised us in 2016 that the price of food would go down if we left the European Union. What has happened to those promises now, and where are the people who made them? Why are they not here to explain themselves to us and more importantly to our constituents?

Photo of Peter Grant Peter Grant Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Europe), Shadow SNP Deputy Spokesperson (Treasury - Chief Secretary)

Again, the hon. Member has got it absolutely spot on. Tory Back Benchers have been given quotes to read out by their Whips, and they routinely read them out regardless of whether they bear any relation to reality or whether they completely cut the feet from the argument presented in an earlier quote. They sometimes forget, especially these days, that what the Whips tell them to say today might well contradict what they told them to say yesterday, because the truth may have had to change.

Labour is absolutely right to condemn the record of this Tory Government, but Scotland will not forget that in previous incarnations the Labour party has played its part in creating this crisis. I know that it will not make comfortable listening for Labour Members to be reminded of that. One of the reasons we have been worse hit than a lot of other European countries is that even before the pandemic we were already one of the most unequal societies in Europe. The hon. Member for Oldham West and Royton mentioned that in his speech, but previous Labour Governments did nothing to address it. The Blair-Brown Government managed to preside over an increase in inequalities in Fife, Gordon Brown’s home county, during a period of economic growth.

Although I have no doubt that Labour in Scotland will demand that the SNP Scottish Government fix the whole problem, Labour has repeatedly voted against giving Scotland the powers to allow us to do just that. Employment law, minimum wage legislation, banning exploitative zero-hours contracts, banning fire and rehire, and the proper provision of sick pay could all have been put into the Scotland Act in 2015. Labour voted to keep all that within the hands of the Tories. Energy; the energy price cap; discriminatory charges for access to the national grid for Scottish producers; a decades-long obsession with nuclear power, whose true costs the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy admitted to the Public Accounts Committee yesterday we still do not even know—Labour’s policy on all these has been almost identical to the Tories’. Labour’s policy has been that Scotland should trust this Government on all of them.

Pensions—reserved to Westminster; income-related benefits—almost entirely reserved to Westminster; the national insurance increase, which everybody in this House opposes—reserved to Westminster. In fact, on pensions, during my time as an MP we have seen this British Government betray their promises to millions of WASPI women, betray their promises on the pensions triple lock and free TV licences, and underpay more than £1 billion in pensions to over 130,000 pensioners. Last year they also failed to pay tens of thousands of pensioners their pensions at all after they had reached state pension age.

It is quite clear that we cannot trust this Government with pensions, any more than we can trust them to look after anyone else living on a low income, but Scotland will never forget who did a tour of pensioners clubs in 2014 and told the people of Scotland: “Your pensions will be safe under a British Government.” My message to Gordon Brown is this: our pensions will never be safe under any British Government. If he thinks that the people of Scotland will be fooled by the same myth next time, as they were in 2014, he has another think coming.

Although we will support the motion if it is put to a vote, and although the recent crisis has been made infinitely worse by the British Conservative party, we will not allow the Scottish Labour party, or the UK Labour party, to forget that the reason why Scotland is still part of this mess is the unholy coalition that Labour chose to enter into with the Conservative party at the last independence referendum. I urge Labour Members to consider very seriously indeed whether it is in the interests of their voters in Scotland or the rest of the UK for them to form a similar coalition with the Tories at the next independence referendum.