– in the House of Commons at 1:07 pm on 16th May 2023.
We now come to the Opposition day motion in the name of the leader of the Scottish National party on the cost of living. I inform the House that the amendment in the name of the Prime Minister has been selected.
I beg to move,
That this House
regrets that both the Government and the Official Opposition support a damaging Brexit which the Office for Budget Responsibility predicts will lead to a four per cent drop in GDP;
further regrets that the price for this continued economic mismanagement falls on ordinary households, with inflation remaining close to its highest level in 40 years and food prices soaring;
therefore calls on the Government to follow the lead of the Scottish Government and introduce measures aimed at protecting the most vulnerable households from the crisis through measures similar to the Scottish Child Payment;
also calls on the Government to reinstate the £25 a week uplift to Universal Credit, end the unfair benefit cap and the two child limit, follow the action of other European countries in tackling food inflation and put pressure on major retailers to pass on falling wholesale prices to consumers;
calls on the Government to initiate an investigation into soaring supermarket prices and profiteering in the context of soaring inflation;
and finally calls on the Competition and Markets Authority to utilise its full powers and impose maximum fines where evidence of price gouging is found.
The charge that is often thrown at us on the SNP Benches is to stop talking about independence and talk about the things that really matter. Well, here we are—we have brought forward a debate on the cost of living and the cost of Brexit—and, as far as I am aware, there is only one Conservative MP and not a single Labour Back Bencher wanting to talk in this debate.
The UK is in a sorry state just now. We have one of the lowest pensions in Europe, one of the lowest rates of sick pay, and increasing levels of poverty and inequality. For the first time, this generation thinks that it will be worse off than the generation that came before it. When I was first elected, I said that
“Food banks are not part of the welfare state—they are a symbol that the welfare state is failing.”—[Official Report,
Vol. 598, c. 775.]
Eight years on, food bank use is through the roof and does not show any sign of stopping. Vulnerable people being forced to rely on the goodness of others to do something as basic as eat is barbaric: it was barbaric in 2015, and it is still barbaric now. Just yesterday, I saw an article where a woman was saying that if it were not for food banks, she would be a criminal, because she would have to steal food. That is like something out of a Dickens novel.
The folk who normally occupy the Government Benches will say that all of this has nothing to do with 13 years of austerity, 13 years of Tory Governments, or five Tory Prime Ministers wreaking havoc on the country. They say it is because of two reasons: covid, and the war in Ukraine affecting energy prices. Now, there is an element of truth in that, of course.
Yes; I thank the hon. Lady for giving way. On covid having been part of the problem, would the SNP have spent more or less than the £400 billion that we had to spend to get us through the pandemic?
If the hon. Member had shown a bit of patience, he would have heard what I am about to say. [Interruption.] Give me two seconds; bear with me.
First, let us look at covid—this is for Dr Evans. The Government awarded £10.5 billion-worth of pandemic-related contracts to companies in a VIP lane as part of no competitive process. That lane was dedicated to prioritising politically connected suppliers at the start of the pandemic. The New York Times has found that billions went to companies that had no prior medical experience. In fact, just down the corridor—I say “down the corridor”, but no one has seen her in a long time—we have Baroness Mone, who I think was last spotted on a yacht somewhere, so I think she is doing fine. She appears to have made a profit of nearly £30 million from personal protective equipment after she helped a company secure a place in that VIP lane—a company that the UK Government are now spending more than £10 million to sue after they discovered that the equipment was unusable.
This Government lost track of £4.5 billion of public money wasted through error and fraud during covid, and have no intention of finding those billions of pounds, but when a constituent finds that he was overpaid tax credits in 1999, they are unstoppable. They will hound people down; they will hunt them for £450 before they go after £4.5 billion, especially when a lot of it appears to have gone to their pals. This is a dangerous Government making bad decisions on top of a global pandemic. Mind you, we should not be surprised, given the fact that they seem to have been pished half the time at parties in No. 10.
Order. I should just say to the hon. Lady that she really must not use language like that. Please do not. I hope she will apologise for doing so.
Let me rephrase, Madam Deputy Speaker. They were inebriated; they were intoxicated; they were paralytic at parties in No. 10. Is that all right?
The hon. Lady should be quite careful.
I do not see what I said that was not true, Madam Deputy Speaker, but I take it.
As I said, there is an element of truth in that covid has had a big impact, and the war in Ukraine has also had a global impact on energy supplies. However, unexpected events and conflicts will always occur, which is precisely why it is so important that we have Governments that plan in advance and think long-term to make decisions that will build our resilience in the face of the unforeseen.
The events in Ukraine only exacerbate the fact that the UK has not had a sensible energy policy for more than 30 years. Scotland has heard this song many times before; we have endured this kind of mismanagement for years. We are one of the only countries to discover oil and somehow get poorer, whereas comparable countries such as Norway sought to treat oil as a national asset to be used in the national interest, and invested it in a sovereign wealth fund that is worth over £1 trillion today. Similarly, in the 1980s, Denmark and the UK both had similar scale renewable wind programmes. Denmark chose to heavily invest in that sector, whereas the UK focused primarily on the cheapest and quickest option. If we fast-forward to 2016, we find that Denmark’s wind exports were worth over €7 billion, but the UK had wind exports of less than half a billion. It is like “Bullseye”: here is what you could have won.
The hon. Lady is speaking about energy policy. Does she agree with the SNP-Green Government’s policy on a presumption against new oil and gas fields in Scotland? [Interruption.]
As someone has said behind me, for a start, I would say that I am totally against nuclear. [Interruption.] I am about to answer the hon. Member’s question, but that is exactly what he wants. On what the Scottish Government are doing, I am very proud of the coalition Government and the fact that they are investing their money in places that make sense—they are investing towards a just transition. The hon. Member will like this point: the only sector in the UK that has made profits comparable with Denmark’s wind sector is the arms industry, at €7.2 billion. There is a political decision for you: our Government would rather fund weapons that bring death and destruction than fund industries that might just help secure life on this planet in the future.
Political choices matter, not just in facing the problems of the day, but to plan for a future worth living for. Again, this dangerous Government are making bad decisions.
No, I am on my last point, thanks. I want to address the Brexit-shaped elephant in the room—a Brexit that is shrinking our economy, limiting opportunity for our citizens and young people, and emboldening the worst in us. Just across the sea, a small, independent country such as Ireland, with a similar population to that of Scotland, has seen the highest economic growth of any country in Europe as part of an EU with access to the single market. In contrast, Brexit Britain is one of the poorest- performing economies, and we are closing ourselves off from the rest of the world. We cannot forget that this is a Brexit that is supported by the Tory party and the Labour party, that has been thriving off racist and bigoted dog-whistles, and that has cost us economically and, arguably, more so morally. It is a Trojan horse decked out in Union Jacks in the hope that we do not notice our food standards, our health and safety, our workers’ rights, and even our human rights eroding underneath it.
This is a Government that cannot afford to give £25 to the poorest in our society, but can afford to misplace £4.5 billion. This is a Government that force women to prove they have been raped before they can claim the benefits that they are entitled to. This is a Government that try to shame people—the sick and the disabled—into work, completely ignoring the fact that most people in poverty are in work. Most of the children who are growing up in poverty live in households where their parents work. The Government know that the minimum wage is not enough to live on, but instead of substantially raising it, they have decided, “Let’s rebrand it and hope that nobody notices. Let’s just call it a living wage, because surely nobody is paying that much attention.”
This is a Government that will applaud our key workers and our NHS, but draw the line at paying them fairly for all the work that they did. In fact, the Government go further than that: they now want to restrict the rights to strike and to protest for that fairer pay. They will hand millions of pounds over to their pals and their political chums. They will hand it via their WhatsApp groups and backroom deals, rather than raising standards in a country where living standards are sorely declining.
When I am asked, “Why do you support independence?”, the answer is, “All of the above”. I am tired of people in Scotland paying the price for disastrous decisions imposed by Governments who have no mandate in Scotland. The Scottish Government spend millions each year mitigating Tory policies. We defend people as best we can, and it works to an extent—no one in Scotland has endured the bedroom tax for instance, and child poverty rates in the UK are at their lowest in Scotland.
On child poverty, Bruce Adamson, who was Scotland’s Commissioner for Children and Young People, was asked, “Is Ms Sturgeon raising the bar or closing the attainment gap or opening opportunity for every child?” He turned around and said, “No, she is failing absolutely.” How does the hon. Lady respond to that?
I would respond to that by saying: give us the powers to be able to function. [Interruption.] If the hon. Gentleman just listens, he will hear that child poverty rates in the UK, as I said, are at their lowest in Scotland, where the Scottish Government are making a concerted effort to build a wellbeing economy. [Interruption.] I tell you what, if the hon. Gentleman wants to continue this back and forth, he should maybe have put in to speak in the debate, but I will leave him to google things on his phone for now.
The Scottish Government will always do what they can, but the truth is that one child growing up in poverty left to deal with the scars of poverty, which do not heal for a long time for a lot of people, is one too many. The Scottish Government have done and will continue to do all they can, but so long as 70% of financial powers—[Interruption.] The hon. Gentleman would benefit from listening to this bit. So long as 70% of financial powers and 85% of welfare powers are in the hands of him and his Government, it is not within the Scottish Parliament’s gift to solve these problems. In fact, I can think of one solution that would give Scotland the powers to act, and it begins with an i.
Whether it be the blatant profiteering during a global pandemic going unpunished, supermarkets keeping their prices high despite there no longer being a need for it or the eye-watering profits our private energy companies are enjoying, all while ordinary people cannot afford to cook hot meals, it could not be clearer: this is not a cost of living crisis; it is a cost of greed crisis. There is plenty to go about, it is just that few are hoarding it and this Government are helping them. This is a crisis made by the choices of this place. This place is the one that has the power—nowhere else. This is a crisis made by a dangerous Government making bad decisions.
I beg to move an amendment, to leave out from “House” to the end of the Question and add:
“welcomes the Government’s action to halve inflation, grow the economy and reduce debt;
further welcomes the Government’s action to take advantage of the opportunities presented by Brexit, including the passage of the Genetic Technology (Precision Breeding) Act which will boost UK food security;
supports the Government’s extensive efforts to support families up and down the country with the cost of living through significant support to help with rising prices, worth an average of £3,300 per household including direct cash payments of at least £900 to the eight million most vulnerable households;
and notes that the SNP and Labour would fail to grip inflation or boost economic growth with their plans for the economy, which would simply lead to unfunded spending, higher debt and uncontrolled migration.”
The world has been challenged by a series of events, including covid and the war in Ukraine, with knock-on effects to economies in every continent. In each of those, the Government have risen to the challenge. When covid hit our shores and the entire country had to isolate to save lives, we delivered groundbreaking and historic support to keep businesses afloat and families going. When our ally and friend Ukraine was invaded, we led the way to provide support internationally, and we continue to do so. The Prime Minister just yesterday announced further air defence missiles and support for our ally. Now, with economic challenges at our door, we continue to take the actions necessary to support the most vulnerable and set our country up for long-term, healthy, sustainable growth.
Already, as a consequence of the steps we are taking and decisions we have made, our country has avoided a recession. The International Monetary Fund has said that we are on the right track. Measures in the spring Budget deliver the largest permanent increase in potential GDP the Office for Budget Responsibility has ever scored in a medium-term forecast. That is as a result of Government policy. We have grown the economy faster than France, Japan and Italy since 2010, and at about the same rate as Germany since 2016. Just today, we see the unemployment rate remaining historically low. Inflation of course remains a concern, and we cannot afford to be complacent.
While I would not usually seek to give economic lessons to Members on the SNP Benches, it seems to be worth explaining in this instance that the reality is that high inflation in our country cannot be separated from global events. Other countries are experiencing similar situations to the UK. In the UK, inflation has primarily risen because of Putin’s illegal invasion of Ukraine and global supply chain pressures, which have pushed up the price of energy, goods and raw materials. Domestic inflationary pressures have also risen, as the UK labour market has remained tight, and challenges in recruitment have been reflected in strong wage growth. That has also pushed up the cost to firms of producing their goods and services, and that has been passed on into higher prices.
If we are to answer the challenge of high inflation, we must first accept that high inflation is a global challenge, which many major central banks are tackling. Nevertheless, I know that right now for many in society rising prices, including rising food prices, are causing worry and significant anxiety. People want to know when things will get back to normal and how they will be supported in the interim. Let me answer that directly. The Prime Minister pledged to halve inflation this year, and the latest Bank of England forecast published last Thursday shows that we are on track to meet that pledge. From its peak above 11% at the end of last year, inflation has begun to fall. Both the Bank of England and the OBR forecast that inflation will quickly fall later this year. We are also focused on growing the economy, reducing the burden of public debt, cutting NHS waiting times and stopping the boats. Those are all priorities of the British people, and therefore they are this Government’s priorities, too.
How does stopping the boats help the cost of living crisis?
The point I was making was that stopping the boats is a priority for the people of this country, and this Government are focused on the priorities of the people of this country. We are on track to meet these pledges to make our country and all nations, including Scotland, better off. It is also worth remembering that Scotland already has one of the most powerful devolved Parliaments anywhere in the world. The Scottish Government have substantial tax powers, including in relation to income tax, and agreed borrowing powers to further increase their spending, which I am sure the First Minister will be considering.
The Minister talks about Scotland having one of the most powerful devolved Parliaments in the whole world. How does he feel about Lord David Frost’s accusations that it has too much power and some of it should be taken away? Is that official Government policy now?
I am not aware that Lord Frost is a member of the Government. I speak for the Government, and I am clear about what the situation is.
As it stands, the Scottish Government are well funded to deliver all their devolved responsibilities. The 2021 spending review set the largest annual block grant in real terms of any spending review settlement since the devolution Act, and that provided an average of £41 billion a year for the Scottish Government. That settlement is still growing in real terms over the three-year spending review period, despite inflation being higher than expected. On top of record spending review settlements, as a result of UK Government decisions at the autumn statement and the spring Budget, the Scottish Government will receive an additional £1.8 billion over the next two years. All that means that the Scottish Government are continuing to receive around 25% more funding per person than equivalent UK Government spending in other parts of the UK.
Since the autumn statement, food inflation has risen and is now at 19.2%. Can the Minister tell us what specific measures the Government will put in place to address food inflation?
I fully acknowledge the pressures of food inflation—they are in line with those of many of our friends and neighbours, but less than in Germany, for example—and I will come on in a moment to set out the interventions the Government have specifically made to deal with that.
In addition, we are investing directly in Scotland, with £349 million of funding allocated through the first two rounds of the levelling-up fund, as well as establishing two new green freeports. As the Prime Minister has already said,
“all this talk of needing any more powers is clearly not appropriate”.
The SNP and the Scottish Government do not fully use the powers they have already. While, as we have seen today, SNP Members speak about a referendum that I do not believe they have a mandate for, we are levelling up and investing directly in local communities across Scotland.
Let me address the points raised by Chris Stephens.
If this Union is so successful, so good for Scotland and we benefit so much, why do we need money out of a so-called levelling-up fund?
I think the principle of levelling up across the United Kingdom recognises that we do not have symmetry across the local economies of the United Kingdom, and it is about investing to improve the productive capacity. Let me make some progress.
Let me look at the economic matters at hand. As I mentioned earlier, energy costs have contributed significantly to price rises. That is why we are paying half of people’s energy bills. At the Budget, we announced that the energy price guarantee will remain at £2,500 for the next three months, funded in part by the energy profits levy. Just under £26 billion between 2022-23 and 2027-28 is expected to be raised by the levy, on top of around £25 billion in tax receipts from the sector over the same period through the permanent tax regime. This measure is saving the average family a further £160 on top of the energy support measures already announced. That includes this Government’s help for all domestic electricity customers with £400 off their energy bills through the energy bills support scheme, and in providing a £200 payment for households that use alternative fuels such as heating oil through the alternative fuels payment scheme.
Alongside holding down energy bills, increasing benefit payments, increasing pension payments, a council tax rebate, the multibillion-pound household support fund—attracting Barnett consequentials—and freezing fuel duty, we are giving up to £900 in cost of living payments to households on means-tested benefits. That means that more than 7 million households across the UK have been paid a £301 cost of living payment by
Could the Minister explain to me what has happened to the energy coming out of a country such as Scotland, which is a net exporter of energy, that suddenly makes it almost three times as expensive as it was before? Where is the 200% or 300% increase that people are paying on their fuel bills going? It is not going to the people of Scotland, so who is taking that money?
I have set out the number of interventions we have made to support individuals and the taxation levies on energy companies that we have set.
With inflation running high, I understand the temptation of some to accuse companies of profiteering, and Mhairi Black mentioned that in her opening speech. I would like to be clear with the House that the Government stand against that practice. At a time of high inflation, companies should not be seeking financial gain at the expense of their customers. Fortunately, we have not seen widespread evidence of this in the UK thus far. Corporations’ gross profits as a percentage of GDP were 21.4% in the third quarter of 2022, which is in line with an average of 22% over the last 20 years. The net rate of return for non-financial companies—a measure of company profitability—fell in the third quarter of 2022 and remains lower than 10 years previously. Instead, companies have been hit by a combination of rising labour, energy and raw material costs, and have reacted accordingly. As I have said, and it bears repeating, we do not expect them to profit excessively, but we cannot expect them unsustainably to absorb all cost increases, so the best course of action is the course we have charted thus far—to bear down on inflation.
This is a Government of action and delivery, as I have set out. We have pledged to tackle inflation, bring down debt and grow the economy, and we are doing just that. We said we would help the most vulnerable through these challenges, and we are, and we have refined and developed those interventions to suit the evolving circumstances. We are focused on strengthening our great Union, halving inflation by the end of the year, easing the pressure on households, and boosting the economy and protecting growth—proving our economy is more resilient than predicted—as well as boosting employment to well above pre-pandemic levels and ensuring more people have the security of a steady wage. As a united Government, we will continue to remain focused on what really matters to the British people.
I am very pleased to be able to speak in today’s SNP Opposition day debate on the cost of living crisis, because for thousands of my own constituents—just as this is true for Members right across this House—this is the most pressing issue facing all households. After coming through the pandemic, millions of people have found the biggest health crisis in our lifetime being replaced by the biggest financial crisis in our lifetime, most of it compounded by this Government’s own decisions.
Bills are continuing to rise, and that is against a backdrop of wages failing to grow. The average Scottish worker’s wage is now £800 lower in real terms than it was when Labour was last in government. In my own constituency, it is almost £3,000 lower. At the same time, the price of everyday essentials has risen by an average of £3,500 since 2019. The cost of a typical food shop is up by £700 a year, and food inflation is far outstripping actual inflation, as we have heard. Transport costs are up by £800 and everyday fuel bills are up by almost £1,500. So it is little wonder that so many people are struggling to make ends meet. It is the No. 1 issue my constituents contact me about, and I am sure that is the same for every MP in this House.
The crisis shows no signs of abating; in fact, it is getting worse as the Government’s sticking plaster attitude to politics begins to run out. We used to say that too many are having to choose between heating and eating—we have used that phrase in this House a number of times—but it is becoming much more apparent that some are unable to choose as they cannot do either. Under Labour, we used to celebrate the fact that millions had been lifted out of poverty. Scotland’s two Governments are doing a very good job of thrusting them all back in—and more.
Despite what we have heard from the Conservatives—we will continue to hear this today, no doubt—about the miserly attempts by this Government to resolve the crisis, let us not forget that this crisis was made in Downing Street. They will blame and they have blamed covid and Ukraine, but we have had 13 failed years of this Government. Covid and Ukraine have merely hastened the chickens coming home to roost. Just nine short months ago, the former Prime Minister and the former Chancellor crashed the British economy with a reckless plan to give unfunded tax breaks to the very richest. The Conservative party crashed the economy, but there is no contrition and no acknowledgment of that.
The shortest-serving Prime Minister in history has left a long-lasting legacy of economic misery that ordinary working people up and down this country will be paying for for many years, and every Conservative MP who supported that reckless Budget was complicit and continues to be complicit. They are complicit in the Tory premium on everyone’s mortgages; they are complicit in the Tory premium on everyone’s food shop; they are complicit in the Tory premium on everyone’s energy bills; they are complicit in the Tory premium on everyone’s cost of living. And while being complicit in the premium, they are complicit in the discount on everyone’s pay.
Because while the former Prime Minister blew the doors off, this is a crisis that has been bubbling away for a long time. Growth in our economy has stagnated for more than a decade. In fact, had the economy continued to grow at the rate it did under the last Labour Government, we would have about £40 billion more to spend our public services and tackling the cost of living, without raising a single tax. That is the elephant in the room for the Conservatives. [Interruption.] They chunter from the Government Benches without any contrition for the fact that they crashed the economy and everyone is paying the price.
Since 2019 alone, there have been no less than 24 separate tax rises, all implemented by the current Prime Minister as Prime Minister or by the current Prime Minister when he was Chancellor. The tax and no spend Chancellor is now the tax and no spend Prime Minister, taking even more from the pockets of those that can least afford it at a time when they need every penny they can get.
Let me mention the story of constituent who came to see me worried about losing their family home because of higher mortgage rates. Those interest rate rises are a direct result of the Tories’ inflation crisis and the crashing of the economy. He said to me that he may lose his family home to pay for this Government being out of touch and their economic incompetence. Just think about that for a minute: a family losing their home as they can no longer afford their mortgage because of decisions made by this Government.
After 13 years, Britain is forecast to have the worst growth in the G7. In fact, if our economy continues along this growth path, by 2030 Britain will be less well off than Poland. The Government just do not get it, and they do not get the cost of living crisis. It is affecting everyone, with a disproportionate impact on the young, the old, the disabled, students and of course, as always, the poorest. The Government are out of touch beyond comprehension and should be out of time.
It is interesting, however, that in the motion and the amendment both the SNP and the Conservatives attack the Labour party. The SNP’s motion rightly talks about the damage caused by the Conservatives’ Brexit. Putting to one side the fact that this is partly an attempt to hide the SNP’s own complicity in the cost of living crisis, the mess the Tories have made of Brexit has undermined our country: we believe that and agree with the SNP on that. The Conservatives failed to negotiate a good deal with the European Union despite their “oven-ready” promises, and instead have left the country with a deal so thin and deficient that it has had lasting repercussions. Their entire Brexit project was driven by their own party interest rather than the national interest. Ever since, the Government have continued to weaken the relationships with our European neighbours and friends, with disastrous consequences for jobs, businesses and Britain’s place in the world. They are viewed by our European and international colleagues as untrustworthy law breakers.
But the SNP motion is completely wrong: Labour does not support a damaging Tory Brexit. The SNP playbook reeks of desperation and SNP Members absolutely know it. [Interruption.] They chunter, and they use that same line again and again, but I remind the House of their track record on Brexit: they would have taken Scotland out of the EU had they won the independence referendum in 2014; they spent less on campaigning to stay in the EU than they did on chasing 3,500 votes in the Shetland Scottish parliamentary by-election; they abstained on a vote in this House that would have delivered a customs union; they pressed for a general election in 2019 for their own party interest rather than continuing to try to fight the Government’s warped Brexit strategy; and we must remember that when the Division bell rang in this House to either back the thin trade and co-operation agreement or plunge the country into no deal, the SNP chose no deal. This Government have fundamentally failed to improve anything and the Brexit situation in the UK has been bad, but no deal would have been immeasurably inferior. Worse still, the SNP has a proposition for a separate Scotland that is incompatible with EU treaties for a new state wishing to join.
Is it not the case that the reason we are not in the customs union is that some Labour MPs backed the Tories, and is it not the case that there are now two Baronesses in the House of Lords who were Labour MPs and have been rewarded for their work in helping deliver a hard Brexit—Baroness Gisela Stuart and Baroness Kate Hoey? That is where Labour were back then.
Those two Baronesses were put into the House of Lords by the Conservative party, not the Labour party, and the reason they are in there and not in here is that they were on the wrong side of history. I draw the hon. Gentleman’s attention to what actually happened in this House in the two major votes when we had the indicative vote process in this House: I do not remember exactly now, but I think there were 42 SNP MPs, and they abstained on the customs union and the vote was lost by six—and that apparently was our fault. Let me emphasise again that on 12 or maybe
The next Labour Government will build a closer relationship with the EU so that our businesses have the opportunity to grow and to create wealth and high-quality jobs across Britain. We see the trade and co-operation agreement as the floor of our national interest and not the ceiling, as the current Government do, and it will be up to the next Labour Government after the next election to renegotiate the TACA in 2025, as stated in the agreement. We will tear down trade barriers to help our businesses, we will support our world-leading scientists and service sectors, we will strengthen our security co-operation to keep us all safe and we will turn the UK into a green superpower, working with our EU neighbours and international partners. All of that will be done while repairing our tattered relationship and regaining the trust of others.
There is a reality that the SNP never acknowledges: the UK did leave the EU, and we cannot just wish that away. I know SNP Members like to promise the undeliverable because they know they will never have to deliver it, but anything other than saying that to the public is completely and utterly dishonest. It is only through sustainable economic growth that we can resolve the cost of living crisis, and that is exactly what Labour will deliver after the next general election.
Unsurprisingly, the SNP’s motion fails to mention that the SNP has been in charge of the Scottish economy for the last 16 years. A Scot who was finishing school when the SNP came to power is now in their mid-30s, perhaps with a family of their own, and they have seen that, much like with the UK Government, economic growth has been an afterthought, with Scottish businesses dismissed and jobs shipped overseas—although the SNP has done wonders for the UK motorhome industry, of course.
Huge promises have been made off the back of the renewable energy potential in Scotland, but little has been delivered. The truth is that the SNP Government—I give them credit for this—have created tens of thousands of highly skilled, high paid jobs in the renewables sector; it is just that none of them are in Scotland, but are instead in Denmark, Indonesia and everywhere else where that they have shipped off the contracts to foreign shores. So the renewables potential, which could create highly paid jobs and lower energy bills for everyone in Scotland, is being used to lower bills in Scandinavia, while we pay the highest bills in Europe. That is the work of the Scottish Government—nobody else.
When it comes to child poverty, after 16 years of SNP Government a quarter of Scottish kids are growing up in poverty. All the progress made by the previous Labour Government in lifting millions of people out of poverty has been reversed. Even the Children and Young People’s Commissioner for Scotland said the SNP had “absolutely failed” children and young people. SNP Members may enjoy their rhetoric, but their record of delivery is lamentable.
Their record on public services after 16 years of SNP rule is appalling. Their proposition for an independent Scotland is as economically illiterate as the Conservatives who crashed the economy; it is a proposition that will make the current cost of living crisis look like a tea party in comparison. Despite the SNP’s recent statements—including by their Westminster deputy leader, Mhairi Black, who opened this debate—that they do not want to rid us of this Tory Government, I can assure them and the people of Scotland that a Labour Government will transform the country for every part of our country, because we have credible, fully costed solutions to the cost of living crisis.
The first thing we would do is introduce a proper windfall tax on the oil and gas giants, something repeatedly opposed by the leader of the SNP at Westminster until the polls showed it was popular. [Interruption.] SNP Members chunter again, but the record shows that when we brought to the House our proposition to introduce a windfall tax on the oil and gas sector, the SNP did not support it. Over the last year, the Conservatives have left more than £10 billion on the table which could have been realised by backdating the tax to January 2022, as Labour has been calling for, closing the tax loopholes the Prime Minister helpfully put into his windfall tax and taxing at the same rate as Norway. It is simply not right that oil giants are raking in unexpected billions of pounds off the back of British families. The next Labour Government will put an end to that injustice while the SNP sit on their hands, merely carping from the Opposition Benches.
The money raised from that would help Labour alleviate the pressure on families across Britain and would pay for our plan to help energy-intensive industries such as food manufacturers and processors with the cost of energy, helping to keep down prices in the supermarket. That point was also made by the Minister, although his means of doing that was not the same. We would cut business rates for small businesses, paid for by taxing the online giants, who have raked in huge profits in recent years while our high streets have suffered, and we would reverse the Conservatives’ decision to hand the top 1% of savers a tax break, while introducing specific measures to keep doctors in work. We would close the non-dom tax loophole—much to the frustration of the Prime Minister—and break the Tories’ high-tax, low-growth trap that is breaking our economy.
Listening to the hon. Member for Paisley and Renfrewshire South, it would seem that none of that matters and that we would be just as well off to keep the Tories. I do not agree, I am not sure that her constituents agree, and I am sure that the people of Scotland definitely do not agree. If the new First Minister and the SNP really thought that the people of Scotland were on their side, they would put their game playing to one side and call an election in Scotland so that the people of Scotland could choose their next First Minister. While we are on elections, perhaps the best way to resolve the cost of living crisis would be for the UK Government also to call an election so that we can kick this out-of-touch and out-of-time Government to one side.
I will start with some reflections on the remarks made by the deputy Westminster leader of the SNP, Mhairi Black, in opening the debate. She was critical that there was only one Back-Bench Conservative MP speaking in the debate. I was then reminded how, in a recent Holyrood debate led by the Conservatives in the Scottish Parliament on highly protected marine areas, the nationalist Benches behind the Minister were empty, despite it being a crucial issue for coastal communities up and down Scotland. When we debated the deposit return scheme, which is an absolutely dangerous scheme for businesses in Scotland, where were the nationalist MSPs that day? They did not turn up.
I have counted the number of SNP MPs in their places, and less than a quarter of the parliamentary party is here for its own debate on an issue that it says is crucial. I also noticed how the SNP’s Westminster leader, Stephen Flynn, and his predecessor, Ian Blackford, were here for the opening speech and then left. I am not sure whether they are out on the Terrace getting another picture to show us all how well they get on, but they did not stay in the Chamber for the debate.
This is the UK Parliament. Will the hon. Member explain why no Tory MPs from Wales are here to speak this afternoon?
There are a lot of Conservative MPs from Wales, and I am sure that they are busy in other parts of the House. [Interruption.] Well, there are certainly more Tory MPs from Wales than Plaid MPs. When the SNP—[Interruption.] Yes, you are the only Plaid MP in the Chamber.
Order. Will the hon. Member direct his comments through the Chair, please?
Thank you, Madam Deputy Speaker. I will not do it again so that you do not have to interrupt with a sweetie in your mouth.
There are opportunities for SNP MPs to speak throughout the debate, and they have not turned up. Three quarters of them are not here for the debate; they have refused to be here. This is an important debate, and there are lots of issues that we need to discuss, but many other topics could have been chosen by the SNP. When I was waiting for the motions to come in last night, I thought that we might have a debate about what our two Governments can do together to improve the lives of young people in Scotland, because that is a crucial issue. Just this week, we heard that the former Children and Young People’s Commissioner for Scotland, Bruce Adamson, said that the previous SNP leader at Holyrood had “absolutely” failed young people.
I thought that was the most extraordinary thing that we had heard on the subject—and it was until, in response to the intervention by my hon. Friend Dr Evans, who quoted those comments, Alan Brown said, “Woo hoo—the big dog.” Is that the official SNP position on the previous Children and Young People’s Commissioner for Scotland rightly being critical of the abject failure of the hon. Member’s party in government for young people in Scotland?
I know that a lot of people down here pretend that they cannot understand what I say because of my accent. It is quite embarrassing if the hon. Member does not understand what I said. I did not say words remotely close to that, so he can withdraw the remarks.
I am happy to give way again to the hon. Member if he will tell us what he was saying about the former Children and Young People’s Commissioner for Scotland. If I have got it wrong, please tell the House what you said.
Order. Please, do not refer directly to others. I think that Douglas Ross was asking whether Alan Brown would like to clarify what he was saying.
I will clarify that the hon. Member for Kilmarnock and Loudoun said, “Woo hoo—big dog.” That was his impression of the former Children and Young People’s Commissioner for Scotland. If that is not what he said, there is an opportunity for him in the Chamber to tell us what he thinks about the former commissioner. No? I think that maybe I wrote it down correctly at the time. I also noted how David Linden whispered to the hon. Member for Kilmarnock and Loudoun not to intervene again, and I can see why. I do not think that anyone wants to hear any more from him on this.
We could have been discussing that issue, or we could have been discussing ferries. Of course, the UK Government have promised the people of Shetland and Fair Isle a ferry, which has not been made available by the Scottish Government. Of course, when the Scottish Government and the SNP get involved in ferry building, they go massively over budget and behind schedule. The ferries that the people in the Western Isles urgently need are five years overdue.
We could be speaking about drug deaths in Scotland. Again, our two Governments could work together to deal with that crucial issue, yet under the SNP, drug deaths in Scotland are not just the highest in the United Kingdom but the highest anywhere in Europe.
The last issue that I thought we could have been speaking about today was Scotland’s tourism. Many SNP MPs represent rural areas. I wonder if they do not want to speak about camper vans—is that why we cannot look at tourism? Perhaps we could have used the debate to hear whether any SNP Members have ever been in the now infamous camper van. It was apparently bought for the purpose of electioneering for their seats here. Did any of them get in that camper van? Did any of them know about the camper van? We could have discussed that.
Of course, we are looking at the crucial issue of the cost of living crisis in Scotland and across the United Kingdom. We did not hear a word from the SNP about the UK Government’s intervention, with £94 billion provided to help people in every part of the country to meet the challenges of the difficult period they have been experiencing. The autumn and spring statements delivered an additional £1.8 billion to the Scottish Government to help individuals, families, businesses and communities through this difficult time; it was the highest budget that the Scottish Parliament has ever had to deal with these issues. What response do we get from the SNP? It makes up falsehoods about its own interventions.
Less than a year ago, the SNP was claiming that it had put forward and spent £3 billion in response to the cost of living crisis in Scotland. That is the huge figure that the nationalist Government in Holyrood said they had spent to help people through that difficult and challenging time. The only problem for the SNP is that the figure is not true. The Scottish Parliament Information Centre has said that the actual figure is £490 million. The biggest chunk of the £1 billion that the SNP said it used to deal directly with the cost of living crisis was to implement a policy that was part of a platform that the SNP stood on back in 2014. It was Government policy since 2014, but last year it was included in the sums so that the SNP Government could suddenly claim that they were doing far more than they were. We need a bit of realism from the SNP and its Members.
On realism, Labour Members feel strongly that the best way to address the cost of living crisis is to have a Labour Government, which would involve Scottish voters voting Labour. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that voters in Scotland should vote Labour?
Let me be clear. The sole Labour MP from Scotland is in the Chamber. There are six Scottish Conservative MPs and, in huge parts of Scotland, the Scottish Conservatives are the greatest challengers to the SNP. We proved it in 2017, we proved it in 2019 and we will prove it again in 2024.
I was also making the point about the biggest issue—[Interruption.] Well, Labour Members are speaking a lot. I am very interested in how they will vote today. I am not sure whether they will support the Government amendment or the SNP motion. Or will they do what they normally do: sit on the fence and not take a position? We will find out quite soon. [Interruption.] I am happy to give way to the shadow Secretary of State for Scotland Secretary. No? We will see how it goes at decision time.
Could I gently say to the hon. Gentleman that decision time happens in the Scottish Parliament? Maybe you are there more often than you are here.
Order. We have got to stop addressing people directly. The hon. Lady is very experienced and knows how she should address people. We cannot have these conversations going on down the far end of the Chamber.
The point I was moving on to is that there is not a single mention in the SNP motion about the oil and gas industry, heating homes, and making sure people have affordable energy in their homes and businesses. [Interruption.] Drew Hendry says we should wait for his speech, but why not put it in the motion? Of course, the SNP cannot speak about oil and gas because it is in government in Scotland with the extremist Greens, who are against the oil and gas industry. The only reference to it in the opening speech by the hon. Member for Paisley and Renfrewshire South was in response to my intervention. I asked specifically about oil and gas, but I got an answer about nuclear. The SNP has given up on the north-east of Scotland and the 100,000 people employed across the UK in the oil and gas sector, because it would rather have the Greens in government and be anti-oil and gas. It would rather import oil and gas from other countries with a higher carbon footprint and a higher cost than support our oil and gas industry and those who work in it in Scotland.
Another issue that leads to problems with the cost of living in Scotland is taxation. Scotland is the highest taxed part of the United Kingdom. Indeed, the Scottish Fiscal Commission estimated that the divergence of Scottish taxation from the rest of the United Kingdom between 2017-18 and 2023-24 means that people in Scotland will have paid £1 billion more in taxation than their counterparts in the rest of the United Kingdom—£1 billion more in tax because the SNP has made Scotland the highest taxed part of the United Kingdom.
The SNP often likes to claim that the majority of working Scots pay less income tax than those south of the border. That has now been proven to be completely false. [Interruption.] I am sorry if I am keeping up the hon. Member for Glasgow East, but his constituents are paying more tax in Scotland because of decisions his Government have taken. If he thinks that is something to yawn about, I am pretty sure his constituents do not.
By not increasing tax thresholds with rising salaries, the Scottish Government have confirmed that anyone earning more than £27,850 in Scotland will pay more tax than those in the rest of the United Kingdom. We have calculated that the average Scot will earn £29,095 in 2023. Because of SNP policies and the taxation plans of the SNP Government at Holyrood, we are all paying more in taxation—more than £1 billion over that period. The majority of Scots and the majority of constituents represented by SNP MPs will be paying more in taxation because of the decisions taken by the SNP Government at Holyrood.
The hon. Gentleman is rightly pointing to the high tax burden. I think he said—I apologise if I am paraphrasing—that we have the highest tax burden in Scotland because of decisions made by the Scottish Government. Does he therefore agree that we have the highest tax burden on working people in the last 80 years across the UK as a result of his own Government’s decisions?
I know we cannot have that conversation. The hon. Gentleman mentions 80 years. I am not sure what timeframe he is speaking about, but I was looking at the Scottish Fiscal Commission, which looked at the differential from 2017-18 to 2022-23. It said that people in Scotland paid £1 billion more in taxation than they would have done if they lived elsewhere in the United Kingdom. That is a damning indictment of the Scottish Government, who are not interested in growth and not interested in supporting people through the tax system. They are now making sure that a majority of Scots pay more in tax than people elsewhere in the country.
The final point I want to focus on is growth. The Government amendment rightly prioritises growing the economy. Of course, that also could not be included in the SNP motion because it does not support economic growth. It has brought Ministers into the Scottish Government from the Green party to serve alongside its own Ministers, and the Greens—they are quite open about this—are anti-economic growth. They do not believe in it. But we need our economy to grow. We need a growing economy to pay for the services that people across Scotland and across the United Kingdom rightly want and expect.
We also know that GDP grew more slowly in Scotland than in the rest of the United Kingdom during the period when Nicola Sturgeon was in office. From 2014 to 2021, GDP grew at a slower rate in Scotland than in other parts of the United Kingdom. The SNP has always been anti-economic growth. It has shown that with its previous policies and its previous performance. Now, by bringing the extremist Greens into the Government, it is continuing on that trend.
When we speak about the cost of living crisis and the issues affecting all our constituents, I hope that the SNP reflects more on what it could and should be doing with the powers and the finance it has in the Scottish Parliament. It should be looking to the future to grow Scotland’s economy and ensure we can fulfil our potential for all of Scotland, our constituents and our businesses. If we had a Government who were more focused on economic growth and on delivering for the people of Scotland, rather than on division and independence, Scotland would be a lot better off. I hope we will soon see the SNP Government in Scotland suffer for their repeated failures over 16 years, letting down young people, letting down taxpayers, letting down the health service, letting down education and letting down the justice system. This is a Government in Scotland who are tired and out of ideas. The sooner they are replaced, the better.
It is always interesting to follow Douglas Ross. Some of his contribution nearly touched on the subject of today’s debate. I will try to stick to the topic at hand.
The cracks in this disunited kingdom are clear and there for all to see. The catastrophe of Brexit, Tory cuts, the UK Government’s pandering to the rich few and, unfortunately, Labour’s persistent lurch to the right has shown what we all know to be true—Scotland is held back by this place, this Government and any Government in this place. Both Scotland and my constituency of Midlothian are being strangled by the vice grip of Westminster control. The UK is the sick man of Europe, lagging behind other countries on economic growth. The UK economy grew by only 0.1% in the first quarter of 2023 and contracted by 0.3% in March, according to the Office for National Statistics figures. That is yet another clear indication that we need to find a new way to end this morass. The SNP wants to get Scotland back into the EU, with all the benefits that brings. While Labour backs Brexit and continues to dig a deeper hole for millions of families left struggling by the cost of living crisis, the Government here do nothing that will address any of these issues.
I can see the impact of rising food and energy prices every day in Midlothian. We are in an appalling situation, where soaring inflation and food prices have made it difficult for struggling families to put food on the table. It is heartbreaking to see so many families struggling to afford the absolutely basic necessities. There are some stark examples of the reality of the situation in my own constituency. One restaurant fears that nearly a third of outlets could be forced to shut down due to soaring energy and food prices. Its own energy costs have increased to £80,000 a year. On top of that, there are the unsustainable price increases. That local business has seen a 25% increase in the cost of rice alone. The cost of other basic ingredients such as onions, garlic and cream have doubled. That is having a real daily impact, with jobs and opportunities threatened across Midlothian and throughout Scotland.
SNP-led Midlothian Council has, thankfully, formed a cost of living taskforce to fight back against the onslaught, the first—as I understand it—such taskforce to be established in the UK. The taskforce has provided a £1.6 million cash injection to boost the local economy, but the UK Government desperately need to step up and accept their responsibility to do so much more. SNP-led Midlothian Council is taking action and the SNP Scottish Government are taking action with their limited powers, but what about the UK Government? The Westminster Government could restore the lower rate of VAT, which ended last March, for tourism and hospitality businesses. The UK Government must take urgent action to address the root cause of the shortages and ensure that Midlothian residents have access to affordable and nutritious food. They could uplift universal credit. They could end the benefit cap. They could take action to address soaring food prices and the increasing mortgage rates inflicted on so many by the disastrous failed experiment they attempted last year. Those are choices and the lack of action by this Government is a choice—it is their choice.
The impacts of Brexit and Tory economics are being felt across the country, and Midlothian is no exception. Given that the damage is so obvious, I find it astonishing that Labour is hellbent on inflicting yet more hardship by supporting so many of the Government’s policies.
Real change could be implemented now. We do not have to wait. We can find sustainable solutions to the challenges to ensure that our communities are supported through very difficult times. This Government could act now to stop the rot by investing in local agriculture and food production, as well as by boosting support for food banks and other community initiatives that help families in dire need. Instead, I have been struck by this Government’s apathy towards issues north of the border.
This Tory Government, augmented by tacit Labour support, have shown nothing but contempt for Scotland and my constituency. I recently contacted the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs on all those issues. She could act immediately to ease the suffering happening right now, but so far the response is that it is not for the Government to intervene in such matters.
The Government could do so much more. I wish the Labour party offered a genuine alternative, but as far as I can see there is only one way for Scotland: for us to decide our own future.
Poverty fuelled by the Tory cost of living crisis is a scourge on all communities. I am certain that right hon. and hon. Members across the Chamber have done their best to mitigate the effects of that Tory cost of living crisis and the poverty that it inflicts on constituents—that is, after all, what we are paid to do. That must be pretty awkward for those on the Government Benches, but I am sure that they do it. I see those effects as a constituency MP and I saw them before as a local councillor working to try to help people in the most difficult circumstances.
Most of us in this place will understand that education is the route out of poverty, but that is made all the harder when the macroeconomic position in which people find themselves is set up against them.
I will, though I was not expecting to after 25 seconds.
The hon. Gentleman mentioned education. How does he view the defining mission that Nicola Sturgeon set to completely eradicate the attainment gap in Scotland? Was it a success or not?
As much as it pains me, I credit the hon. Member with a little more wit than that. If he thinks that 300 years of this Union and its effect on the people of Scotland—particularly the poorest—can be eradicated in a decade, he is more naive than I thought. He likes rhetoric, but he is not so keen on facts. My colleagues in the Scottish Government are sighted on the challenges of closing the attainment gap and are doing the right thing by our young people, but real life is much harder than that.
What Governments can do—particularly constrained Governments such as that of my colleagues, who exist under the profoundly suboptimal circumstances of devolution—is pull on the levers of investment in education. Douglas Ross might like to know that the Scottish Government invests £1,758 per child in Scotland, compared with England’s £1,439. In Scotland, his constituents in Moray will enjoy a far higher teacher-pupil ratio than elsewhere in the United Kingdom. In Scotland, there are 7,573 teachers per 100,000, versus England’s 5,734 per 100,000. That is a substantial difference. He might be keen to know that, when a teacher qualifies in Scotland, they will attract a remuneration of £33,729, whereas their colleagues in England will be on £28,000.
My hon. Friend is telling the House about the Scottish Government’s positive work on Scottish education. Does he agree that the Scottish Government are doing all that good work with one hand tied behind their back, because the attainment gap is fed most by poverty, and the levers to deal with it lie in Westminster?
I know better than to disagree with my hon. Friend. She is absolutely right. We heard from the Minister when he spoke to his amendment—and perhaps the hon. Member for Moray, I am not sure—about how the Scottish Government have tax-raising powers and do not use them. Having some tax-raising powers is like having a set of spoons and being told to set the table. It is not going to work. They need the whole suite of fiscal levers to make a difference to the economy. My hon. Friend Patricia Gibson is right. We have one hand tied behind our back. We have domestic policy but we do not have the full suite of fiscal policy, and we will never dig into the root causes of the crises faced by communities and businesses in Scotland until we get independence.
The UK is a poor country. The Unionists in the House like to talk up GDP, which is an increasingly meaningless measure of wealth. It has its role, but GDP is largely irrelevant to the ordinary men and women in my constituency. The United Kingdom is so unequal that ordinary people working hard every day of every week of every year still cannot afford to feed their kids or pay their rent at the end of the month. That is not a meaningful economy working in the interests of ordinary people up and down these islands. It would be very different with a Scottish Government and an independent Scotland.
We have heard all about how this is entirely down to the illegal war in Ukraine and the covid pandemic. Interestingly, neither Labour nor the Tories want to lay any blame at the feet of the world’s worst unforced error and self-injury—Brexit. “Brexit has not done anything; it has been nothing but positive for the economy” according to those two delusional movements. In reality, compared with the pre-pandemic level, UK GDP in Q1 of 2023 was 0.5% lower. That contrasts with GDP in the eurozone being 2.5% higher than its pre-pandemic level. In the United States it is 5.3% higher and in Canada 3.5% higher. Among their chums in the G7, the United Kingdom is something of an outlier. I wonder what distinguishes the United Kingdom from those other countries: they did not take the most profoundly daft manoeuvre ever and exit the biggest trading bloc in the world.
Does the hon. Gentleman share my surprise that the only Brexit benefit that the Government can identify in their amendment is the Genetic Technology (Precision Breeding) Act 2023? Where is the abundance that we were promised?
The hon. Gentleman is right, and I will get to that in my conclusion. It did not escape my notice that in talking up Brexit the Government came up with the most abstract and niche policy affecting almost nobody.
On future growth, the IMF forecasts that UK GDP will fall 0.3% in 2023—the lowest figure in the G7 and it is the only member expected not to see growth in 2023. Total real-terms pay fell 3% between December 2022 and February 2023 alone, largely due to inflation and low public sector pay increases. On trade, UK goods exports to the EU remain below 2019 levels, but imports of goods from the EU, despite Brexit, were 1.4% higher in 2022 than in 2019. If it is taking back control to end up with a £92 billion trade deficit with the trading bloc that those people were trying to extract themselves from, I am not certain Brexit is going as well as they would have us believe. I smell a rat.
If the macro numbers do not add up—which they do not—I only have to look to my constituency to see the real cost of the Tory Brexit, which Labour will not oppose, on my fishermen and farmers. Fishermen now have to jump through umpteen bureaucratic hoops to get the same fish, caught in the same grounds, exported to the same market in France as before, when they just had to put it on a lorry. The system is in a state of stability and is working but, as Government Members will know, increased bureaucracy is a drag on trade.
In my constituency, the fleet catches nephrops—lobster and langoustine. Some 85% of the catch used to be in a Paris market the next day. In January 2021, fishermen got nothing out, and they are still getting less for what they catch because they cannot get it there quickly enough. In our small fleet, we are seeing boats sold and two have already been scrapped. There will be fleets that disappear because of these arrangements—so much for “a sea of opportunity”.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. Her fishers, on Scotland’s west coast, are encumbered by the access of all four nations to each other’s waters which the United Kingdom has come up. That is fine if fishermen are in Cornwall, and it is not too troublesome if they are in Peterhead, Arbroath or Montrose. If they are on the west coast of Scotland, they have to go through all the bureaucratic hoops to get their catch into the EU, but if they are in Northern Ireland, they can fish the very same grounds and get the catch directly into the market. A genius bit of organising, that was.
The hon. Gentleman is speaking about access. What do his Angus fishermen think about the SNP-Green plans for highly protected marine areas taking 10% of Scottish waters away? Does he support them or does he agree with his Government’s policy?
The nub of the hon. Gentleman’s question was whether I support the fishermen of Angus; I would have thought it was patently obviously that I do. In direct answer to his question about highly protected marine areas, the Scottish Government have been very clear—maybe he was down here, juggling jobs, when he should have been up in Scotland listening in his other job—that any community that does not wish to have a highly protected marine area will not have to be subject to it.
I do not want to put too much on my hon. Friend, but after the debate will he be so kind as to dig out—indeed, fish out—a copy of the Scottish Tory manifesto that commits exactly to that and place it in writing to Douglas Ross?
I think that would be quite interesting. I am not suggesting for one minute that the hon. Member for Moray was saying one thing in 2019 and another thing now, but it would be interesting to see any clash of rhetoric.
On that point, would the hon. Gentleman give way?
In a minute.
It is not just the fishers, because Angus is the garden of Scotland and its farmers are subject to the real constraints of Brexit. People talk about farmers as though they are just a guy with a tractor, but modern agricultural enterprise is a vast undertaking involving plant and seed suppliers, as well as any amount of different subcontractors and small businesses, so when I talk about agriculture I am talking about hundreds of small businesses across Scotland, and thousands across the United Kingdom.
My farmers in Scotland are subject to the UK Internal Market Act 2020, for which my colleagues in the Scottish Government would not give legislative consent, because it is so damaging to Scottish agriculture, even before the introduction of the Australia trade deal on top of it, which undercuts with lower standards. That has created a market in which we cannot possibly compete, where they do volume and we do quality. Scottish agriculture is different to English agriculture, which is much bigger. We do not do bulk in Scotland, which gets to the heart of how broken the Union is. Did the UK Government try to construct that system to promote enterprise, jobs and prosperity in agriculture in Scotland? No, they did not. They did it on the basis of their ideology.
Turning back to business investment, where there is a thriving business community, there are jobs and upward pressure on wages. That is what we need to get people out of poverty—
Will my hon. Friend give way to Christine Jardine?
I am sorry; I promised I would give way to the hon. Lady.
I was intrigued to hear the hon. Member talking about fishing policy. What is his view on the fact that his own party of government in Scotland has not seemed able to agree since the former Minister criticised the Government’s policy? I am fascinated that he is talking about supporting businesses when every business in my community tells me that they have nothing but complaints about the business rates imposed by the Scottish Government.
I thank the hon. Member for her intervention, but I would love to see the evidence that every single business in Edinburgh West is critical of the Scottish Government, but that is not what she said, is it? Let us not forget that the business environment of Scotland is far preferable, particularly for small, independent traders, to the rest of the United Kingdom, because we have the small business bonus and rates do not kick in for small businesses until they have a rateable value of £15,000, unlike a rateable value of £12,000 in England. So I will not be taking any lectures from any Unionist about the business environment that we have created in Scotland.
Business investment grew in real terms steadily between 2009 and the Brexit vote. It then failed to grow at all between the Brexit vote and the pandemic, and has not returned to pre-Brexit levels. It fell off a cliff after the pandemic and has increased barely to where it was 10 years ago. As I said earlier on, when it comes to the nature of the United Kingdom, this is now a poor country. I do not know if that comes as news to anybody on the Government or Opposition Benches: this is now a poor country, irrespective of the GDP that gives a false prospectus of what it is to live in this country. Comparisons for 2021, in pounds rather than dollars, show that the UK is 14th, behind Ireland, Australia, Iceland, Denmark, and Norway. In terms of OECD countries, the United Kingdom finds itself in a very poor position, with an average salary of £37,500. I appreciate that many people listening to the debate will think, “Well, I wish I was on £37,500,” but that is an average salary, which is pushed up by a few colossal salaries. What is far more interesting and compelling is the median salary, which is down in the low £30,000s.
It is helpful in demonstrating how poor the United Kingdom is to compare like-for-like occupations. Nurses are paid more in Canada, Ireland, New Zealand, the Netherlands, Norway, Switzerland, the United States, Belgium, Iceland and Luxembourg. The average salary of a nurse in the United States from 2016 to 2019 was £54,900; in Belgium it was £55,000; and in the Netherlands it was £46,000. However, in the UK it was £33,000. That is a directly comparable job and gives an interesting perspective on where we are.
When adjusted by purchasing power, salaries are even worse. Not only are the salaries lower, but the cost of living, thanks to the Tory party, is even higher. The purchasing power of a nurse’s salary is lower in the UK than the OECD average and lower than in Slovenia, Ireland, Spain, Germany, Denmark, the Netherlands, Belgium and Luxembourg.
Current estimates of an average nurse’s salary in the UK are that they will go up to £35,600, but the salary pay scale for new nurses in band 5 in Scotland tops out at £37,664, which is probably why the health spend per person is £3,490 in Scotland as opposed to £3,192 in England. The number of staff in the NHS in Scotland per 100,000 people is 2,845, compared with 2,224 in England. We value our nurses even when they are training, by making sure they get a £10,000 bursary in Scotland, rather than a £5,000 bursary. These are the best jobs in many of our communities. Teachers are very much in the same position.
Hywel Williams mentioned the Government’s amendment to the motion, but what I have said and what some of my colleagues are about to say lays bare the myth within it. The amendment reads that this House
“welcomes the Government’s action to halve inflation, grow the economy and reduce debt”.
Well, inflation has not halved, and the Government are not acting but hoping. The economy is shrinking, but even it is was not—sorry, the economy is not shrinking; it is growing. The Government are saying that we have the highest growth in the G7, but we are starting from the lowest base. Growth is relative to where it starts from, and the Government are not too keen to talk about that. They are saying that they are taking action to reduce debt. When they took over, there was £0.8 trillion of debt in this country, but that is now getting on for £2.5 trillion of debt. They have completely lost control of debt, and they have obviously lost control of reality as well if they are suggesting that this is a measure of their doing really well. We have already mentioned the obscurity of the Genetic Technology (Precision Breeding) Act 2023 as a measure of how good Brexit has been. If that is what we have to show for Brexit, a lot of people up and down these islands will be scratching their heads and wondering whether it was all worth it.
The Government go on to note in their amendment that
“the SNP and Labour would fail to grip inflation or boost economic growth with their plans for the economy”.
Well, they are half right, because Labour would wreck the economy. It would certainly fail to get a grip on inflation or improve growth, for when has it ever done anything else? Show me a time when Labour was put out of office without leaving the economy in tatters—and it will be the same every time for the UK population. Scotland is subject to the electoral will of the UK—[Interruption.] Ian Murray challenging me to be a Tory? That is a good one.
We need to educate our people well, and ensure that they can use that education in their employment environment so that they can have well-paid jobs enabling them to pay their way and do better than their parents. Even with the limited powers that we have in Scotland, we have a higher level of foreign direct investment than any other part of the United Kingdom; we have the best small business environment in the UK, with the most attractive small business bonus; our level of research and development is enviable according to UK standards; we have the most universities per head, with incredible research and innovation taking place in them; and our median wage income tax rate is lower.
The hon. Member for Moray, who said a lot earlier, talked of the scandal of paying for services, which he calls tax. It is tax, obviously, but he looks at only one side of the equation. People under a social contract in Scotland have elected a Government who support funded interventions in, for instance, eye tests, better-paid nurses, tuition fees, pupil equity funding, and all manner of other social contract interventions. The hon. Gentleman is supposed to be a Tory, and the Tories are supposed to be the party of business. They are supposed to be, at the very least, fiscally and economically literate; although I would respectfully suggest that the evidence implies otherwise. The hon. Gentleman must know that there is nothing for nothing. Although we rhetorically describe these things as free, they are not free; they need to be paid for, and I suggest to him that the people of Scotland know that very well.
Lower bills, lower energy costs, tariff-free trade with the EU—would that not make life a bit easier as we contend with this Tory-led cost of living crisis? But those were also the bullish forecasts of Brexiteer MPs and the “leave” campaign back in 2016. Of course, industry groups knew far better than to take their claims at face value. The Food & Drink Federation warned that prices for shoppers were likely to go up as the pound fell. Rising food bills were also predicted by the Resolution Foundation—a finding, we should remember, that was branded “ridiculous” by leading Brexiteers who insisted to us that the opposite would happen. We were all dismissed as “remoaners”. In fact, frustratingly, we have been shown to be Cassandras, which I am sure will be appreciated by Conservative Members who are versed in the classics, although the Minister’s inability even to utter the “B” word in his opening speech suggests that they have learnt absolutely nothing.
Early in 2017, I spoke in this place of the warning from NFU Scotland that Brexit was the biggest challenge to Scottish food producers in generations. Farmers, food processing companies and hauliers needed workers from the EU, access to European markets, and guarantees on future financial support. Many of Scotland’s farmers depended on that financial support to remain viable businesses, as did fishers and so many in our food manufacturing and processing industries. How often did my colleagues and I come to this place to repeat the warnings from industry groups, the Scottish Government and other devolved Administrations? But all that we heard back was ridicule, slander and dismissal.
Fast-forward seven years—and more than three years since we left the EU— and food prices are reportedly at their highest level for 45 years. Research published in April by Which? found that the price of staples such as cheddar cheese and white bread had shot up by as much as 80%, while the cost of porridge oats and semi-skimmed milk had risen by more than a third; and, of course, this is disproportionately impacting the least well-off among us. A recent study by the Co-op and Barnardo’s found that one in three young people aged between 10 and 25 has reported that their family has had to rely on food support.
Yes, the causes of inflation and the cost of living crisis are multifaceted. Yes, covid and the effects of Russia’s war in Ukraine have exacerbated price rises. Those have had an impact the world over, but, nevertheless, cost rises are cutting deeper here. The UK is the worst-performing economy in the G7. As a result of Brexit, GDP has fallen by 4% and exports are down 15%, according to the Office for Budget Responsibility. The European Central Bank’s new report says that Brexit has caused
“a significant decline in trade with the United Kingdom in almost all cases” of anywhere between 10% and 25%. Goods exports are lagging behind those of all other major economies, which in Scotland amounts to a loss of £2.2 billion since we left the EU.
As we read in The Irish Times yesterday, in its recent update on financial projections for the year and the performances of its principal export economies, Ireland’s Department of Finance noted that
“at the end of last year the level of activity in the UK is not only 7 to 8 per cent below the level implied by the hypothetical no pandemic/no war scenario, it was also below its pre-pandemic level. This is in sharp contrast to other regions such as the euro area and US, where activity has surpassed pre-pandemic levels and…almost back at levels implied by the pre-pandemic trend growth rate.”
Horrifyingly, it is expected that things may well get worse before they get better, partly owing to the new customs checks for EU imports that will be phased in from October. While those prophetic Conservative Members insisted that there would be minimal costs, their Micawberish optimism was not reflected in the UK Government’s own internal estimates, which put the cost to importers of these checks at up to £400 million a year. The British Chambers of Commerce, the British Retail Consortium and the British Meat Processors Association warn of higher inflation and suppliers passing on some of the extra costs, which will mean higher prices in shops.
The Scottish National party welcomes the upcoming investigation by the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee of the cost of producing food and the price burden on consumers. There are growing concerns across Europe, and notably in the European Central Bank, that soaring food prices are also a result of “greedflation”,a trend with which the UK Government unfortunately seem quite comfortable. If they are not, why are they not taking real action to solve the problem? Will they call another food summit at No. 10, where the Prime Minister will pretend once again to listen to the voices of farmers, fishers and food producers of all sorts before, no doubt, trotting off to do exactly as his neo-liberal thinking directs? He did not listen to those voices before his Government negotiated trade deals so bad that the former Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs finally even felt compelled to come clean with the criticisms that he had unfortunately kept to himself before then.
Does my hon. Friend agree that the Home Secretary’s remark that there is no reason why ordinary British people cannot pick fruit demonstrates that this Government—regardless of who is in office in which Department—have zero understanding of modern agricultural methods, and are not to be trusted with rural environments?
I absolutely agree with my hon. Friend. I was shocked to read the Home Secretary’s comments, which I thought were patronising and did not reflect the reality of modern agriculture, or, indeed, the real skills that are needed by, for example, berry-pickers—which is certainly something that the Scottish Affairs Committee learnt when some of its members took part in that activity a few years ago.
When will the UK Government follow the lead of other European countries, and intervene to bring down the price of food and other necessities? France, for example, introduced a “price block” on staple products. What pressure will be put on major retailers to pass on falling wholesale prices to shoppers? It is vital for the Competition and Markets Authority to utilise its full powers and impose maximum fines where evidence of price-gouging is found.
Although Brexit offers nothing to Scotland except economic hardship, the SNP is now the only major party that opposes it. Labour is not only pro-Brexit, but seems to be set on preserving some of the Tory Government’s most damaging policies. Even the DWP has at last admitted that benefit sanctions do not work, but I was shocked to learn that Labour’s shadow Work and Pensions Secretary has U-turned on the promise to scrap them, instead characterising people who are out of work due to health problems as a “growing burden” on the economy and individuals.
In the last couple of years, food security has become an issue of huge significance, and yet agricultural production in Scotland and the rest of the UK is set to slide. Immigration policy still falls short by some way of the numbers needed by our once thriving berry, brassica and other foods, fishing, food processing and manufacturing sectors, already hit by skyrocketing inflation, fuel and fertiliser costs.
Judging by their amendment, the UK Government seem to think that their failings in other areas can be compensated for by silver bullets such as gene editing. In January, the Scottish Parliament declined to give legislative consent for the Genetic Technology (Precision Breeding) Bill, which along with the United Kingdom Internal Market Act 2020, is yet another attack on the integrity of the Scottish Parliament in specifically devolved areas such as agriculture, aquaculture and animal welfare. The impact assessment for the Bill recognised that
“products entering the market in England would also be marketable in both Scotland and Wales.”
Yet, wholly predictably, the Tory Government made no attempt to work closely with the Scottish Parliament. We now face the prospect of gene-edited products being sold in Scotland, unlabelled, unauthorised by Scottish Ministers and without consumers in Scotland having been properly informed or consulted on how they feel about that. It also means undermining once more the Scottish Government’s aim of staying aligned with EU regulation as far as possible and practicable. We do not want to erect further barriers to our largest market, so sensibly we are waiting to see the outcomes of the EU review of gene-edited products before acting—unlike the UK Government.
Amid this mess, we are stuck between the Conservative party, many of whose deluded members appear to think Brexit would work if only us miserable remoaners wished hard enough, and the Labour party, which seems to think that offering better administration of Brexit will do the trick rather than being brave enough to admit to the electorate what a disaster it has been. Ultimately, until Scotland becomes an independent nation and full member of the EU, we will be constrained by Westminster’s two-party consensus, unable to harness all the powers needed to tackle the cost of living crisis, fund our objectives in food production, set our own immigration policies or fully realise the potential of our food and drink export industries.
Nevertheless, Scotland is thankfully taking a very different approach to social security. The IFS found that the lowest income families in Scotland are significantly better off thanks to the Scottish Government’s progressive tax and benefit policies. The Scottish child payment, for instance, has been further expanded to eligible six to 15-year-olds and increased in value to £25 per child per week—a real game changer. But our hands will always remain tied while 85% of welfare expenditure and income-replacement benefits remain reserved to Westminster.
Before I call the next speaker, colleagues will be aware that another debate follows this one, so my advice is for Members to stick to around 10 minutes each.
I congratulate the SNP on introducing this debate. It is an important issue, and I am inclined to support the motion, but it is far too polite and lacks real challenge and ambition. We want to begin to tackle the scourge of poverty and the Alba party’s plan would include an annual £500 payment to 500,000 low earning households in Scotland; increasing the Scottish child payment to £40 a week for 400,000 children in 250,000 households; extending free school meals to all primary and secondary pupils in Scotland; and, most importantly, writing off the almost £1.4 million of debt to local authorities from parents who cannot afford to pay. We would also double the education maintenance allowance from £30 to £60 a week for 16 to 19-year-olds in school or college, and introduce universal access to sports facilities for all children and young people under 18.
On a personal note, even all that is not quite enough, but it would be a start. The current crisis that we are experiencing is not an accident: it is the result of unfettered capitalism and an absence of social conscience in politics. Disaster capitalists have a playbook, and what has been happening in the UK over recent years follows it perfectly: create or harness a problem, privatise and profit, dismantle public services and hand over the resources of the people to the private corporations. Governments are responsible for that, and in Scotland we have rightly complained about that for many years with North sea oil and gas. The people have never benefited, although they got a few jobs out of it. Now, with the Energy Prices Bill, Scotland will get no supply chains or service jobs—nothing. The Scottish Government have replicated the mistakes of Westminster, selling off £350 billion licences for ScotWind for £700 million. Scotland will never benefit from that. The mistakes of Westminster should not be repeated by the Scottish Government.
We know all this is because of rapacious greed. People who accumulate money need to answer the question of how much is enough. As with all addictions, the need to feed the addiction is endless, and the impact on others is manifest. The UK Government put out the red carpet for the super-rich, the high earners, the non-doms, based on the fallacy that trickle-down will reach the poorest. Trickle-down is a neo-conservative lie: it does not happen. The rich accumulate and the poor suffer. As the indulged rich hoarded more through the pandemic, doctors, nurses, teachers, train drivers and many others were denied a liveable wage or a meaningful pay increase. That is made worse in Scotland because we have the political and economic dominion of a Parliament in which Scotland can never win a vote.
The robbery of our vast energy resources from fuel-poor Scots is an outrage. The Treasury gets £80 billion in tax profits from the current boom, and 124 billion kWh of energy will be supplied to England by 2030 for free. Scotland will never see anything in return from the UK Government. Just that energy alone has a value of £11 billion per annum, and Scotland gets nothing. The food banks in my constituency have gone from a monthly expenditure of £3,000 to more than £20,000, and they can hardly afford to keep going. The energy costs of the Fife Ice Arena in Kirkcaldy have gone from £3,000 a month to more than £35,000. I wrote to every energy giant in my constituency and all those who operate off the Clyde coast to ask for help: none of them offered a penny. They have eye-watering profits but would not offer a penny of help to the communities from which they profit.
UK Labour offers nothing better. It talks of pooling and sharing, but it is really taking and driving away. It wants to use Scotland’s vast energy wealth to cut the costs of English council tax. Scotland still gets nothing.
There is a real scandal brewing on energy. The costs being endured by people and businesses are front-loaded, with up to 70% commission going to the brokers who sign them up to suppliers. It is an absolute scandal, and none of it is declared to businesses and individuals when they sign up.
At the beginning of covid, the last Prime Minister but one promised there would be no profiteering, but the Government used the vehicle of VIP lanes to pass on billions to well-connected Tories. At the same time, the Government laid waste to the domestic diagnostic sector, doing dodgy deals through shell companies that suddenly appeared and then melted away just as quickly. Let us not pretend that we are all in this together. Stop the spin and tell the truth. Facilitating and celebrating greed is an affront to human decency.
Supermarket shelves empty of food and basic goods, unaffordable energy prices and inflation and interest rates going through the roof—these were the nightmare, apocalyptic scenarios facing Scotland if it voted for independence, or so we were told in 2014. Voting to stay in the Union, on the other hand, would guarantee freedom of movement, access to the European single market and the protection and enhancement of the Scottish Parliament’s powers. And we were told there was no chance that the then Mayor of London, now Boris Johnson, would ever become Prime Minister. Those arguments, promises and vows were enough to persuade a majority of people across Scotland to say no, or at least not yet, to independence.
People now go shopping every day in Glasgow North to find supermarkets short of goods. They worry about the cost of heating their home and they despair as their rent or mortgage payments climb ever upwards. Access to Europe is more difficult, Tory Lords openly call for devolution to be wound back and we are all living with the consequences of a Johnson premiership. People in Scotland did not get what they voted for nine years ago. The United Kingdom, as it was on
Every country in the world is having to deal with the consequences of the pandemic and of Russia invading Ukraine. Only one country in the world is having to deal with the impact of Brexit. Just as people who voted to stay in the Union were promised one thing only to be delivered something completely different, people who voted for Brexit are finding the reality very different from what was promised. There is no £350 million a week for the NHS, there has been no mega trade deal with the United States and this Parliament has not taken back control. The Tory Government have simply replaced Brussels bureaucrats with Whitehall mandarins as they award themselves ever-increasing powers through their Brexit legislation.
When Scotland voted not to become independent, the SNP and the Scottish Government accepted it and wanted to find a post-referendum settlement that could work for everyone, which is why we joined the Smith Commission and why SNP MPs came down to Westminster to lead, not leave, the UK. Compare that with the Conservative response to the European referendum. They delivered the hardest possible Brexit on the narrowest of mandates, and still it is a Brexit that satisfies no one. It is not isolationist enough for the European Research Group and the Maastricht rebels who occasionally prowl the Tory Back Benches, and it is still causing economic chaos up and down the country. The Government wave around the Windsor framework as if it is some kind of triumph, and they proclaim that Northern Ireland has the best of both worlds. By their own definition, the rest of the United Kingdom must have something worse.
The motion before the House points to the Office for Budget Responsibility’s forecast of a 4% drop in the UK’s GDP entirely attributable to Brexit. Every day, the evidence of this is already visible in Glasgow North and around the country: the delays in getting essential supplies to shops and services; the staff shortages in social care, the health service, hospitality and entertainment; and the academic research and collaborations that are simply no longer happening because it is now too complex.
I have lost count of the number of small business people and entrepreneurs who have told me that they had to set up subsidiary companies or fresh outlets in European cities, at extra cost and expense, because of the hurdles that Brexit put in the way of them developing their business, and I have lost count of the number of constituents who are facing unexpected and sometimes unexplained bills, particularly from energy companies. Many of us will not have seen such cases before 2020. In fact, I think it has been a shock to many energy companies, too, because they are struggling to deal with the volume of inquiries and disputes, which is why I strongly support the campaign of my hon. Friends the Members for Inverness, Nairn, Badenoch and Strathspey (Drew Hendry) and for Glasgow North East (Anne McLaughlin) to better hold those companies to account in returning credit balances to customers and making prepayment meters much fairer. I also welcome the efforts to amend the Energy Bill to empower local communities to generate more of their own clean, green energy for use in their neighbourhoods.
Those are the kinds of solutions that groups such as Parents for Future and the Warm this Winter campaign, which I recently met in the Hillhead library, want to see. They want to see a fair, just and sustainable transition away from fossil fuels across all sectors, which could be at the heart of tackling the cost of living crisis. Localising our food systems, investing in public transport and active travel, and reducing, reusing, recycling and repurposing our consumer goods could help to create more jobs and make everyday life more affordable at the same time.
Those are the prizes available if we live up to the commitments that we all made, including this Conservative Government, to achieve the sustainable development goals and the targets set at COP26 in Glasgow and at other climate conferences, but all that seems to have been forgotten in the rush for the hardest possible Brexit and the Tory concept of a global Britain that is all about the imagined glories of the past.
The reality is that a Labour Government, by their own admission, would not change any of those fundamentals. A Labour Government would be pro-Brexit, anti-immigration and terrified of any meaningful constitutional reform.
My hon. Friend is making an exemplary speech, as always. We have seen how the Labour party has aligned itself with the Tories on Brexit, on immigration and on protest legislation. For how long will Labour be in step with the Tory attacks on our democracy, our devolution and our Parliament?
My hon. Friend is right to raise those concerns. We hear the drumbeat against the hard-won powers of devolution, which used to enjoy consensus, and we see the centralising tendency of all Westminster Governments. Whatever their shape, they want to centralise power here in the House of Commons. Labour has been promising reform of the House of Lords for more than 100 years, and it has been in power once or twice in that time without making a vastly noticeable difference. I disagree with the expectation that anything will change significantly. There will be an interruption, a brief interlude, as there always is, before the UK reverts to a Tory Government for whom Scotland has not voted.
Through the United Kingdom Internal Market Act 2020, this Government basically drove a coach and horses through devolution, and the Labour Benches were notably empty during that Act’s passage.
They are notably empty this afternoon, too. My hon. Friend is correct. That will continue to be the case as far as Scotland is concerned, because I have every confidence in the SNP continuing to return a majority of seats in Scotland for as long as we are in Westminster. That future will be short-lived because, as the 78% of voters in Glasgow North who voted to remain in the European Union and the 50%-plus who voted for independence in 2014 already know, it is now up to Scotland to choose a different path.
Scotland will have, and has always had, the right to choose to become, once again, a member of the community of nations in its own right. The reality is that when the majority of people in Scotland are prepared to vote for independence, Scotland will become an independent country. No Supreme Court, no Westminster Parliament and no constitutional convention made up by the Better Together campaign will be able to stop that.
With the full powers of independence, we will not need to spend resources mitigating the impact of failed UK Government policies of whatever colour. We will be able to support and empower everyone who calls Scotland home, and we will be able to work with like-minded nations to build a fairer and more peaceful planet for everyone: the early days of a better nation in the early days of a better world.
I have to say that my wee heart skipped a beat with delight when I saw that finally, in an Opposition day debate, the Scottish National party was going to talk about something that mattered to the people of Scotland: the cost of living crisis and the problems our constituents face. Surely few of us would dispute that the cost of living crisis being faced by our constituents is a constant and overriding concern for far too many households in this country.
I have often stood here and criticised the Conservative Government, on their energy price hike; inflation; interest rates; and the situation that faces our young people throughout the UK, where too many of them live with the fear that they will never be able to own the house of their own that they would like or that the ever-increasing rent rates in this country, which in my city of Edinburgh are outrageous, put too many options beyond their reach. We must then consider the fact that the Chancellor did not listen when the Liberal Democrats asked him to cut energy bills by £500 per household, which would have made a significant difference to so many families; that the growth in the economy in the first three months of this year was only 0.1%; that, according to the Office for National Statistics, average pay, after taking inflation into account, fell by 3%; and that the take-home salary fell by more than £1,400.
I was delighted when I saw this motion, because our economy in the UK is on its knees and so are far too many families, and not just in Scotland. My disappointment is that SNP Members do not seem to appreciate that they in a unique position, of which I, like many other Members, are jealous, as their party can do something about it in Scotland. By that, I do not mean independence, which it turns out this debate is actually about after all.
I will give way in a moment. In Scotland, and particularly in Edinburgh West, I hear every week from my constituents. I hear from business people who managed to make it through the pandemic but are struggling with energy costs and with the burden of business taxes, which the Scottish Government could alleviate but choose not to—
I wonder whether the hon. Lady would associate herself with the comments made by the Scottish leader of the Liberal Democrats that Scotland is an ancient nation, and it should and would never exist again.
I thank the hon. Lady for her petty and irrelevant—[Interruption.] She is taking a comment out of context, when we are speaking about the lives and livelihoods of people in this country who cannot afford to feed their children; so we have to have a petty debate about a comment made in February, which was been taken out of context. I thought that her contributions were normally better than that.
Let me return to the issue at hand and the problems facing our constituents.
Yes, the hon. Lady has made me quite angry, because this is far more important than that.
Surely the cost of living for so many people in Scotland, our constituents, could be alleviated if we did not now pay more tax than anywhere else in the UK. The situation is so bad that the Scottish newspapers today are reporting that the SNP-Green Government are concerned that the ever-increasing taxation burden may now encourage people to move elsewhere. Is that not dreadful?
When the hon. Lady speaks about the financial pressures and burdens on families and communities, she hits the nail on the head. How important for her constituents is not having to worry about the cost of a prescription, rather than finding £9.65; being certain that their children will get to university if they make their grades, without having fears about funding; or having any other benefit that they enjoy in Scotland but not in England? How grateful are her constituents?
When my constituents come to me, what they complain about is not that they might have to pay that amount for prescriptions were it not for the Scottish Government; they complain about the burden they face every day at the moment. Businesses complain to me about the Scottish Government. Constituents regularly complain to me that they do not understand why the Scottish Government are not doing something about the state of our NHS and not doing something to provide a better education for their children to give them a better chance in life. That is what my constituents complain about.
As for Brexit, I agree with the SNP that it is doing immense damage to our economy, making life incredibly difficult for business and increasing the burden on families. What surprises me is that the SNP fails to recognise that to take Scotland out of the UK would be to repeat and amplify that damage to Scotland’s economy, income and households. Why does the SNP want to inflict the same damage again? Of course independence is its solution to everything—
Not at the moment, thank you.
When Mhairi Black was talking about bad Governments making bad decisions, I had to bow to her expertise as a member of the SNP, because when it comes to bad Governments making bad decisions, it is in a class of its own. One has only to look at the mounting bill for the ferries, at the burden of business rates, which I have mentioned, at the state of our NHS, and at the state of our education.
The hon. Lady keeps referring to the NHS and education. Public funding is required to support those. It is common in this place to talk about failing on health and on education. All four health services are struggling after the pandemic, but A&E waiting times and cancer waiting times in Scotland are still significantly better than in the other three health services. Closing the attainment gap helps young people have a better future, and both at highers and in positive destinations, that gap has closed by two thirds while the SNP has been in power. As for this nonsense that somehow she expects public services to be better but with less taxation, she needs the same reality check as those on the Government Benches.
I thank the hon. Lady for her intervention because, like the rest of SNP, she talks a good game but often forgets that those of us on these Benches live and have constituency surgeries in Scotland, and we know the reality of the queues of people every week complaining about the public services in Scotland. I know that the SNP blames Westminster for that, but SNP Members always overlook the fact that the Scottish Government have had record amounts of money. I do not for one moment believe that the UK’s economic stewardship at the moment is the best it could be—it falls far short, as I have mentioned—but it is rich of the SNP not to recognise the mistakes it has made.
I do not believe anyone in this House, in any party, is not concerned about the cost of living crisis, inflation or the energy prices we all face. Where we differ is in our solutions. The hon. Member for Paisley and Renfrewshire South offered us the “I” word, which I am not surprised came up in this debate. I suspected that might have been what it was about all along. I offer three alternative “I” words: incompetence, inability and ineffectiveness. The voters will take all of them into account the next time they go to the ballot box in a general election. They will apply those words to both Governments and their stewardship of our economic wellbeing. At that point, we will see change, because the people of Scotland have had enough and they want a Government—two Governments—who are competent, able and effective.
The cost of living crisis affects disabled people far more than it does the general population. I make no bones about repeating parts of the speech that I made this morning in Westminster Hall, because I think that they bear repetition. I have had numerous briefings from a variety of disability organisations telling me that this Government have continuously failed disabled people, their carers and their families; that they are tinkering around the edges of a cost of living crisis that is affecting millions of people across the UK; and that the impact of this crisis affects those with disabilities, their carers and their families even more seriously.
This morning, I opened my iPad and the first story that I read in the news was about a man stealing formula milk for his baby, because his wife and he could no longer continue to dilute the formula that they gave to their baby. I wish that this was an isolated incident but, as many here today will no doubt testify, this is not just a feckless couple who are doing it all wrong; this is real life in the UK today, and it is even worse for disabled households.
Scope’s recent “Disability Price Tag” report showed that in 2023, the cost of being disabled has risen to £975 per month for a disabled household. That figure includes disability benefits such as personal independence payment, which was designed to offset the additional costs associated with being disabled. It is a £300 per month increase on the 2016-17 figures, when the additional costs were £675. Scope has recently warned that the figure could increase to £1,122 per month if it is updated to accommodate the inflationary costs for the period 2022-23.
The bottom line is that this Government’s support for those with disabilities has been wholly inadequate throughout the cost of living crisis. Disability Rights UK has said that the cost of living payments that this Government have given “don’t touch the sides.”
The two welfare Acts in 2012 and 2016 really changed social security across the UK. Does my hon. Friend agree that one big failure was not to do cumulative impact assessments? What has been the impact on a disabled woman who is a lone parent with three children of being hit by changes to disability benefit, the two-child limit, the benefit cap and the benefit freeze?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. The Government do not take into account real lived experiences and people with multiple differences, such as being a woman, being disabled and being a single parent. It just is not good enough.
Disabled people often face higher costs for their gas and electricity. Many disabled people say that they need more heating to stay warm—most of us here can recognise that—and others say that they have to use extra electricity to charge up items of assistive technology. My parliamentary assistant went to a drop-in session and came back to my office almost in tears, having spoken to a parent who requires three separate machines to keep their child alive overnight, but who could not afford to pay the associated electricity costs. Even with the cap that the Government have tried to put on electricity prices, the extra £150 does not help.
Disabled people have been suffering for years, and if we give someone a percentage of a very small amount, it is still a very small increase. According to the professional association for social work and social workers, 7 million people—almost half of those living in poverty in the UK—are either disabled or live with someone with a disability. The Trussell Trust says that half of those using food banks are disabled.
I know that the Government do make some effort—I congratulate the Minister for Disabled People, Health and Work, whom I spoke to this morning—but they do not get the bigger picture. When something like this cost of living crisis rears its ugly head, it drives the most vulnerable in our society into further debt and further difficulty. Something that I have not yet mentioned is that anyone with a food allergy or anyone who requires special food is in an even worse state during this cost of living crisis.
The SNP has consistently called on the Government to uplift universal credit—to increase it by £25 per week—and extend it to all means-tested legacy benefits. I refer to those people who went through the covid-19 pandemic and got no additional costs. That is just not right and we need to look at it. The Government need to do their job properly and actually help people.
The Scottish Government are trying to make things better. Our adult disability payment and the child payment, which has recently been doubled and will hopefully be increased even more, help families and disabled people much more than what is happening in the rest of the UK. However, as my hon. Friend Dave Doogan has said, there is a cost to this, which is that folk like me pay more tax. I have yet to meet a constituent who tells me that they object to paying more tax to help folk less well off than themselves. It may just be that Motherwell and Wishaw is a beacon of light, but I do not think so. The Motherwell and Wishaw constituency is built on old mining communities—coal and steel communities—and the people there tend to know what it is like to be in poverty, but they also know that helping each other is the sign of a civilised society.
The health and disability White Paper raises the spectre of more disabled people facing sanctions. Can we really believe that, in the 21st century, we are going to sanction disabled people? They will have to move on to universal credit, and then not only will they not get what they are entitled to, but any increases will be barred under that punitive regime. This Government are also very bad at signposting. Let me cite as an example pension credit, the uptake of which has been disgraceful.
I am watching my time carefully, but I will briefly reflect on what the Prime Minister was doing today with the Farm to Fork summit at No. 10. That seems to me a lamentable effort to mitigate the disaster that has been Brexit for the economy and for the food supply chain. The Government were warned often during the Brexit debates, many of which I was able to attend.
It is not good enough. Scotland needs and wants to go back into the European Union. Many people in Scotland still believe that is the best way forward for this country and we want to follow the example of countries such as France that put blocks on prices to keep things cheaper for people during a cost of living crisis. This country is in a terrible state. Scotland is in a terrible state in terms of people suffering with the cost of living.
It is almost inconceivable that the Lib Dems and the Labour party are backing a hard Tory Brexit. They do not want to say how awful it has been for people right across the UK and what it has done for food prices—
I am about to finish. Sorry, no. My time is up.
I will leave it to the hon. Lady to correct me later, when she finds time.
Lastly, it is really important that this Government reflect on the fact that a society is judged on how it treats its most vulnerable people. On that measure, this Government are failing.
I will attempt to be brief, so that colleagues from the SNP can take part in the debate. Before I come to my own remarks, I want to note that this is a motion, albeit derived from the SNP, about the cost of the crisis, before the UK Parliament, and I think the empty Opposition Benches—with one honourable exception, Claudia Webbe, who I am looking forward to listening to—will be noted in Wales and in England. Labour has no interest; it has only contempt.
The latest “Snapshot of Poverty in Wales” published by the Bevan Foundation found that more than one in eight Welsh households either sometimes, often or always do not have enough to afford the basics. The latest Rowntree Foundation figures show that 36% of children in my Arfon constituency live in poverty. That rate hardly varies across the constituencies in Wales, and even the generally better-off Vale of Glamorgan constituency has a child poverty rate of 28%.
We should be ashamed that people are being forced to make impossible choices between essentials, and that they have no option but to turn to charities and food banks for the very basics of existence. Food price inflation, much higher than the general rate, is behind much of the suffering we have seen over the past couple of years, and we know, as has already been said, it hits the poorest hardest. That is one reason why Plaid supports this motion, and in particular the call for an official investigation into “soaring supermarket prices” and suspected profiteering.
Can the Minister, in his winding-up speech, tell us what steps the UK Government are taking to ensure that, as wholesale prices fall, the savings are immediately passed on to customers? There is genuine concern that a failure to do so will mean that the current extortionate prices and, in some cases, immoral levels of profiteering will, I suspect, become entrenched in the economy.
Despite some Government help, energy bills remain sky high, in great contrast to other neighbouring countries, mainly in the European Union. Many Members will, like me, have received heartbreaking correspondence this last winter from people struggling with cold and damp houses because they could not afford to heat them. Given that energy bills are expected to increase by 17% this year alone and that households who have had to use up savings or take out debt in order to cope with high prices are now less financially resilient, I fear that this coming winter will be even more difficult.
However, there is time between now and next winter for the UK Government to put support measures in place. First, a fair tax on share buybacks, including the £3.18 billion-worth announced by Shell last month, could be used to increase support provided under the energy price guarantee; secondly, the energy bills support scheme could be redesigned to target financially vulnerable households; and, thirdly, another round of the alternative fuel payment could be guaranteed, set at a level that better reflects the increase in the cost of alternative fuels experienced by off-grid households—something that has been neglected in the past. I am concerned about the need for a fairer system of emergency help for poorer people, for families with children and for people with disabilities when the weather is particularly cold. Scotland has a better system, although it appears that this Parliament is not interested in it. Too many of my constituents in upland areas miss out by being on the wrong side of a notional weather line drawn up for bureaucratic convenience.
Looking beyond next winter, our system must be redesigned so that energy is affordable to all. One option would be to introduce a social tariff that provides a safety net for vulnerable customers. One group of people for whom such a safety net would be particularly important is people with disabilities. The high cost of specialist equipment, the higher usage of everyday essentials and energy, and the inadequate welfare system all make it harder for disabled households to meet the extra costs of their disability. Figures from Scope show that, on average over the 2022-23 period, and accounting for inflation, households with at least one disabled adult or child need an additional £1,122 a month to have the same standard of living as households without.
The UK Government reform outlined in the health and disability White Paper makes the situation worse by using the deeply flawed personal independence payment assessment process to determine eligibility for financial support for those who are not well enough to work. I call on the Government to rethink this matter, which is of particular concern in Wales, which has the highest level of poverty and proportion of disabled people of any UK nation.
Since Scotland gained certain powers over disability benefits, it has been able to chart a different course by committing to reducing onerous assessments for people with disabilities, removing the private sector from the decision-making process, and moving towards a person-centred approach that truly listens to the needs of people with disabilities. It is high time that Wales—and England for that matter—had the same powers as Scotland so that we can all begin to restore the dignity and respect that claimants with disabilities deserve.
Before I close, I will touch on support for small and medium businesses. They are at the heart of the Welsh economy, employing 62.6% of Welsh workers, so it is vital that they be supported through the crisis. Despite that, those businesses received in the Chancellor’s spring statement no additional support with their energy bills. Twenty-four per cent. of small businesses are trapped in fixed energy contracts that were agreed when prices were at their highest. The Federation of Small Businesses estimates that that issue affects up to 17,500 small businesses in Wales. Many are concerned that it will force them to downsize, restructure or even close, putting at risk the jobs and communities that they support. Will the Minister commit the UK Government to taking real action by requiring energy companies to provide opportunities for businesses to renegotiate their contracts to reflect current rates?
Many of my constituents, like many across the country, are struggling—struggling to pay their energy bills, struggling to put food on the table, struggling to keep their head above the financial flood waters that threaten them and their families. Energy bills are up 300% or so in the last two years, food prices are up 17% in the latest Which? survey—the prices of the cheapest and most essential foods have soared the most—and mortgages are up by 61% in just the past year. That, of course, was caused by the disastrous seven-week reign of the previous Prime Minister and her Chancellor.
The excuse frequently trotted out by those on the Conservative Benches—we have heard it again today—to justify the inflationary attack on us all, which hits the lowest paid the hardest, is Ukraine. The problem with that argument is that it shows just how short-sighted and backward-thinking UK energy and economic policy has been for decades. I am no geopolitical expert, but it seems to me that pegging our electricity prices to the wholesale cost of gas, putting so many of our eggs in a basket controlled by Putin and murderous oligarchs, and relying on a region that has never been renowned for its stability was nonsense on stilts.
Instead of using past decades to invest in our energy sector, build a green industrial base and begin the process of decarbonising our grid—thereby reducing our dependence on the likes of Putin—the Labour Governments of the past put their weight behind the dash for gas, while the Tories paid lip service to the very idea of industrial strategy. It is their economic strategy, exemplified by the previous Prime Minister and those catastrophic seven weeks, that has caused mortgage rates to skyrocket and left our economy in the mire, wrecking any ability to recover from the kind of shocks to the system we have seen over recent years, whether from covid or from Putin’s warmongering. Most of all, it is their kamikaze Brexit unleashed on our society that has destroyed what was left of the UK’s capacity to invest in its own recovery and future.
In 2016, my constituency voted two to one to remain in the EU. My constituents knew and know that our economic prosperity and our wider society are inextricably linked to our European allies. From the airport, which delivers the largest cargo exports by value in Scotland, to the whisky bonds and warehouses that slake the thirst of millions of Europeans, through to the universities and colleges with links to their contemporaries on the continent, and the hauliers based in my constituency who experience at first hand every day the Kafkaesque world created by the current Government—they have all been hit hard by Brexit, and so have their staff. They and we have lost a huge amount since Brexit.
But then, so has the Labour party. Many of us can remember the savage criticism that Jeremy Corbyn received from those on his own Benches because he, in their view, was a secret Brexiteer. Now everyone in the new model Labour party is a Brexiteer, including the current branch office manager in Scotland, elected after the previous democratically elected leader was booted from office by the big boss here. It is no surprise that they are getting very excited about their small increase in the opinion polls in Scotland, because—let’s face it—what else do they really have to get excited about? Their boss down here has declared that he does not care if he sounds like a Conservative, while the shadow Foreign Secretary, Mr Lammy, tells his radio listeners that the Labour party cannot be
“picking through all the Conservative legislation and repealing it” if it ever got back into office.
The Leader of the Opposition promised the abolition of tuition fees for higher education—abandoned in England but maintained by a Scottish Government trying to ensure that education and learning is not the preserve of a wealthy elite. The Leader of the Opposition promised common ownership of the mail, energy and water—abandoned in England but maintained in Scotland, where it has jurisdiction, with water bills in Scotland being substantially lower and 35% more per capita invested in infrastructure. He also resigned from the Labour Front Bench after what he said was a “catastrophic” result in the Brexit referendum, but he is now happy for the UK to wallow in that catastrophe, while Scottish Government plan for a future within Europe and alongside our friends and allies.
Mr Deputy Speaker, the sad truth is that you could not put a fag paper between the two Front Benches in this place. They are both set on policies that will exacerbate and extend the cost of living crisis; both hellbent on ignoring reality and ploughing on with exclusion from the single market; and both sticking their head in the sand as to the damage that their ultra-free market economic policies are costing and will continue to cost ordinary households across these isles, regardless of who sits on the Treasury Bench.
I wish the recently selected Labour candidate in Paisley and Renfrewshire North all the best in the next election, because she will need it, going round the doors with a Tory manifesto coloured in red and a leader who would sell his granny for a few hundred votes in a midlands marginal—and on that, I will give way.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for giving way. Does he agree with his colleague, Stewart Malcolm McDonald, who said:
“‘Labour are just the same as the Tories’ is not a strategy, it’s the absence of a strategy” and that telling people Labour and the Conservatives are the same “won’t get us far”?
Who said it was a strategy? It is a fact. All I am doing is pointing out facts. If the hon. Gentleman wants me to read out all the examples of his leader going back on his word in terms of nationalising various industries, I am more than happy to do that, but I am not sure we have time for it. Everyone here and everyone in Scotland knows that his manifesto will be Tory lite at the next election. It might work in Edinburgh South, but it is not going to work in many places across the central belt of Scotland.
Does my hon. Friend see the delicious irony that the electoral fortunes of Scottish Labour are hinged entirely on the electoral ambitions of middle England?
It is as if my hon. Friend has read my speech—I was sitting beside him, so maybe he did—because I am making the very same point; indeed, I just made the same point about the midlands marginal. The Labour leader is betting the entire future of the UK on winning a few votes in English marginals, and Scottish Labour had better wake up to the reality that that is not going to cut it when they are out campaigning at the doors in the next election.
At the same time, the Labour candidate in Paisley and Renfrewshire North will be campaigning against a Scottish Government who have rolled out 1,140 hours a year of free, high-quality childcare, delivered over a quarter of a million baby boxes to new parents, scrapped prescription charges, extended free bus travel to under-22s, maintained free eye tests and provided free school meals for pupils in primary 1 to 5—all measures that are putting money back in the pockets of people where it is needed most—and against an utter rejection of the fallacy that the state should be rolled back, a fantasy that has afflicted the UK for the past 13 years. For the Labour party to turn its back on reversing the lunacy of the previous 13 years is a complete abdication of responsibility—responsibility that should be focused on those who need the state’s help the most.
To give just one example, the First Steps Nutrition Trust’s report this month on the impact of the cost of living crisis on child diets found that the cost of infant formulas had increased by an average of 24%, while the cheapest formula went up by 45%. The average tin of formula now costs just over £14, while the Healthy Start grant in England, Wales and Northern Ireland was frozen this year, and less than two thirds of eligible families are successful in applying for a grant. At the same time, the Scottish Government have uprated our Best Start package by over 10% this year—that package has an 88% uptake rate—as well as rolled out and expanded the Scottish child payment, getting support to households who desperately need it. It is utterly shameful that we have babies in this country with parents who cannot afford to feed them even the basics. Infants are crying with hunger because the pittance that the UK Government have decided is enough to feed them does not cut it in the real world. The chances of those infants getting a healthy diet once they get older have also decreased, with fresh food inflation sitting at 17%—that is where shops have fruit and veg at all.
There will be Members on the Government Benches who have the gall to tell us that empty fridge shelves and rocketing prices of imported produce are nothing to do with Brexit. They are all someone else’s fault—the hauliers, the farmers, the shops, the workers, the parents, the children—anything to avoid responsibility for the catastrophic mess they have created. They wanted to take back control; instead, they have taken us back to the 1970s, with inflation through the roof, industrial action across the economy, living standards falling continually and food shortages in our shops.
Just this week, the zoomers and zealots who pushed the Brexit campaign in the first place are gathered for a festival of delusion up the road from this place. The influence that these cranks and charlatans have had on the body politic and the direction of these isles is surely the most revealing piece of evidence that the UK is a busted flush. They have succeeded in isolating us from our allies and continuing the harmful economic policies that their great leader Thatcher imposed in the past.
Those who promised that Brexit would mean taking back control should explain exactly what control they think they have taken back. Is it control over an energy market that is rigged against consumers and profits the middleman? Is it control over the tens of thousands of skilled workers who have fled this country in recent years to their former homes in EU countries, so disturbed and dispirited were they by the hostile environment and bureaucratic nonsense cooked up by Members on the Government Benches—now with the connivance of Labour Members, too—leaving our health service without skilled and dedicated staff when we need them most, and virtually every bus company in the country cancelling services because so many drivers have moved to Poland?
Is it control over an economy that even the Government’s own Office for Budget Responsibility says will end up 4% smaller than it would have been without Brexit—wealth and productivity that will never come back while the UK sits in unsplendid isolation? This is an economic crisis that is not going to go away. It is permanently embedded in the fundamental structure of how the UK operates and the way in which the UK governing class and both parties have turned their backs on the rest of Europe. What is equally shameful is that we have a Labour party that is fully signed up to that Brexit agenda—signed up to policies that will continue to take us down that failed road.
At least Scotland has a way out. At least Scotland has a Government who are taking action, despite the fiscal restrictions imposed by the UK, to tackle child poverty through the Scottish child payment and Best Start; to create a social security system that puts dignity and respect at its heart; and to invest in decarbonisation and a just transition to net zero. At least Scotland has a party that takes seriously its responsibility to its citizens to do better, and at least Scotland has a Government who want to rejoin the world and be part of the mainstream of Europe, rather than sit in self-imposed exile. At least Scotland has a Government who want us to fully harness the wealth and resources of our country, natural and human, as an independent sovereign nation. It is time that Members on both Front Benches got out of the way of that democratic mandate and allowed the people of Scotland the chance to escape a Union that is costing them more than ever.
The cost of living crisis is not really a cost of living crisis; in reality, it is a cost of greed crisis. It is greedflation driven by a lack of political interest in protecting ordinary people. As with any crisis, it is the most vulnerable in our society who suffer most, and there are few more vulnerable and more unsupported in our society than those with a disability. Disabled people are no strangers to poverty and crisis. Under 13 years of Tory Government, they have faced constant cuts and conscious cruelty at every turn, sharpened by punitive and pointless assessment regimes, conditionality and sanctions. We live under a Government who responded to the UK’s mass crisis of debt and hunger by suggesting that people should work more hours or take a second job to help with their finances, but many disabled people face huge challenges to work a single job, let alone a second, and they are even harder hit by the soaring costs of energy, fuel and other essentials.
As Marion Fellows has highlighted, according to research by disability charity Scope, disabled households in the poorest fifth spend twice as much of their household budget on energy bills, are twice as likely to have a cold house and are three times more likely to be unable to afford food. The heat or eat scandal is a mark of disgrace on this country, not just because people cannot afford to do both, but because disabled people suffer the worst of it. It shames us as a nation.
Again and again, for well over a decade now, the heaviest burden is placed on the shoulders of those least able to pay, while the wealth of the rich piles up. In a constituency such as mine in Leicester East, where we suffer some of the worst health and lowest incomes in the country, the evils of our unequal system hit especially hard. In my constituency, far more children—37% compared with 26% nationally—live in a family with at least one disabled member than live with none, piling yet more hunger, ill health, stigma and misery on children in a country that is already failing them.
The median annual wage for workers in Leicester East is £19,960, compared with an average of £25,837 in the east midlands and £27,756 in the rest of the UK. The level of poverty in my constituency is stark. My community is hurting. The level of suffering is deep. I am witnessing that daily, and it is painful, yet the Conservatives continue to offer at best a sticking plaster for the grievous wounds they inflict on the poor and vulnerable. In 2017, the United Nations condemned the UK Government’s treatment of disabled people as a “human catastrophe”, and it has only grown worse since then. The abuse and abandonment of our disabled people is an international disgrace and a stain on the UK’s standing among nations. Until this cruelty towards disabled people and all our millions of poor and vulnerable citizens is reversed, the UK cannot consider itself a civilised nation. Every day’s delay in putting it right means more lives lost and ruined.
The Government need to tackle prices and address the inequality of extra costs that disabled people face. They need to work towards the redistribution of wealth and establish a welfare system that provides an adequate level of support for disabled people. We need radical transformational change.
Order. The wind-ups will begin immediately after Mr Hendry sits down.
I thought you were going to give me an instruction to sit down there, Mr Deputy Speaker, but thank you for allowing me to speak in this cost of living debate.
The shadow Secretary of State, Ian Murray and I share an allegiance to a football team, and when we go to some stadiums, particularly for the big events, we often look across and see the empty seats, and go, “Did the opposition come dressed as seats?” I look behind him today, and wonder if the rest of his party have done the same. But no—they have not bothered to turn up because, as Claudia Webbe has just pointed out, this is an issue about whether people can afford to heat their homes or to eat. In fact, it is worse than that, because in Scotland during the winter we had people who could not afford to heat their homes or to eat. This is an important thing that we should have seen the Labour party turn out for, but of course we did not.
When it comes to Brexit, what about the harms? We have heard about quite a lot of the harms today in this Chamber. My colleagues have covered a number of them—from the economy and trade to the impact on our population, education, rights and devolution, as well as on the cost of living and the cost of food. As my hon. Friend Deidre Brock pointed out, when food price inflation goes up, it disproportionately hurts the least advantaged in our society and the poorest. However, it is worse than that, because food price inflation on basic foods is actually higher than the headline rate. It goes up even more, and these are the basic staples that people rely on, yet Labour Members could not even bother to turn up to discuss that with us in this debate.
The Brexit that has been forced upon us is the gift that Scotland didnae want and that keeps on giving misery. It keeps on delivering misery across Scotland for people. I will just mention some of the things it affects. Of course, Labour Members now support Brexit. In fact, as we heard from the Labour leader, if that “sounds Conservative”, they just “don’t care” about it. Brexit has made sure that GDP is 4% lower across the UK. There has been an £800 per year increase, on average, in the cost of living. By the end of last year, according to the London School of Economics, Brexit had already cost nearly £6 billion across the UK in higher food bills, and some £100 billion in lost economic input. When it comes to business, the British Chambers of Commerce has said that more than half its members have faced difficulties because of Brexit. It quotes one of its members saying:
“Leaving the EU made us uncompetitive”.
That is the fairly standard comment that it gets from its members.
The cost in human capital has been tremendous for us. Before Brexit, 6% to 9% of care home staff used to be EU nationals, and now we are struggling to find spaces in care homes for people because we cannot get the staff. The UK Government are doing nothing—nothing—about getting that sorted out. They are doing nothing to solve the misery for people who need that kind of support. Of course, we have the unemployment rate at a record low in Scotland, at 3%, so where are we supposed to get the people? Brexit has starved us of the human capital we need.
We have heard the I-word, and I thought Christine Jardine was going to talk about Ireland—independent Ireland—which over the next two years will have a €27 billion surplus, but no, she did not want to do that. She did not want to talk about the success stories of those small independent countries with fewer resources than Scotland that have stayed in the European Union and grown as a benefit of that.
On energy, I want to reflect on an issue I raised with the Secretary of State for Energy Security and Net Zero about the higher energy tariffs we face in the highlands and islands of Scotland. I said that we needed to do something about that, and I offered to work with him to see what we could do. But no—the answer I got back is that geographic circumstances are the issue: the distances involved result in higher costs of distribution than in other places in Britain. Well, that is rich, because we export our renewable energy around the UK. The distances do not matter when that advantage is being taken, do they? It only matters that it costs us more in Scotland, and the Government are not willing to do anything about it.
Similarly, people are struggling in rural communities with the off gas grid regulations, because they pay a much higher premium for their energy than anywhere else and probably have to use more electricity at a higher rate than for mains gas, and of course face higher costs for liquid petroleum gas and for heating oil as well. The answer I got back on that from the UK Government was, no; their aim is to protect suppliers before people. It is not good enough for them to just wash their hands of a situation where people are struggling, particularly in rural communities, with exorbitant costs to heat their homes during the winter.
I am grateful for the mention earlier of my campaign on credit balances. People are struggling, but electricity companies hold on to their money, in credit, sometimes thousands of pounds—one pensioner in my constituency was nearly £2,000 in credit, yet the company was looking to increase her direct debit even though she had that money with them for safekeeping or use. That money should be returned to people—but, no, that is not going to be done either. What we get back is, “Customers can ask for that money back.” Some people are of course too frightened to look at their bills because of the costs they are facing, while others do not know about this or are intimidated, and some people are told by electricity companies that they cannot get that money back or they can get only a portion of it back. People have rights, and they should be fulfilled. They should be able to get their money automatically returned; it should not be kept on credit balances for companies to use for their own ends. That is exacerbating poverty for people.
I am grateful to the hon. Member for Edinburgh West for raising the issue of business rates. The small business bonus has been mentioned, and we have 100,000 businesses in Scotland that pay no rates whatsoever; if our aim is to help people in Scotland, including small businesses, we should realise that there are a lot of micro and small businesses across rural communities, and that directly assists them.
So too do the actions we take on child poverty. The child poverty rate across the UK is 27%: in Wales it is 34%; in England it is 29%; in Northern Ireland it is 24%; and in Scotland it is 21%. The Institute for Fiscal Studies says that among the poorest 30% of households, incomes are boosted by around £2,000 per year in Scotland compared to England and Wales.
There are transformational policies to help people: free bus travel for young people in every part of Scotland; the expansion of free high-quality childcare to 1,140 hours, available for three and four-year-olds, and to two-year-olds from lower-income households; the best start foods grant, which helps with the cost of buying healthy food for families with young children; and three best start grants, which could be pivotal in a child’s life—for low-income families, £600 for the first child and £300 on the birth of a later child. There is also the Scottish child payment, the baby box, the free childcare extension, free school meals, free bus passes and much more from the Scottish Government to help out.
Does my hon. Friend agree that the problem with 13 years of austerity is that austerity may make the Treasury balance sheet look good in the first year but it starves local economies because people have no money to spend, so we see boarded-up high streets, and in the end that reduces the tax take to Government, so it simply does not work?
My hon. Friend is exactly right that it starves communities, and, worse than that, it starves families—it starves children. It starves people of the opportunity we could give them, because we do not have the advantages that we should and would have if we had the powers to make the decisions we need to make.
No, I am about to conclude.
The supports that I have laid out are the kinds of policies that we put in place in Scotland to try to help and to mitigate measures such as the bedroom tax.
No, I am going to finish in just a second.
Those are the things that we try to do in Scotland to help to mitigate the harms from this place, but we could do so much more. We could do things very differently, but we need the powers of independence in order to do that.
We are moving on to the wind-ups. I anticipate Divisions in 20 minutes.
It is a pleasure to close the debate on behalf of the Scottish National party. I thank my hon. Friend Mhairi Black, who opened the debate and laid bare the sheer scale of the cost of living crisis for people across these islands. It has been remarked on that there have been a number of contributions mainly from the SNP Benches, but I do want to single out the one Conservative party contribution, from Douglas Ross. He started off by expressing almost a degree of frustration that the motion before the House touched on the big issues. He then spent the rest of his speech complaining about other issues that he wished he could debate, most of which were under the competence of the Scottish Parliament—of which, of course, he is a Member. It was none the less good of him to grace us with his presence.
We had a contribution from my hon. Friend Owen Thompson, who spoke eloquently about the challenge for businesses in Midlothian as a result of the cost of living crisis. He was followed by my hon. Friend Dave Doogan, who expertly rebutted many of the points made by the hon. Member for Moray about comparisons with education policy in England.
My hon. Friend Deidre Brock spoke about food and drink. Neale Hanvey spoke about the impact of the ice arena energy costs in Kirkcaldy. My hon. Friend Patrick Grady was right to open his speech by painting a picture. At first, most of us thought that he was talking about Brexit, but actually it was a reminder of all the scare stories we were told in the run-up to the referendum in 2014. He was right to do so, because every single one of them has come to pass while Scotland remains a member of the United Kingdom.
Christine Jardine was her usual cheery self; a ray of sunshine every single day. What was noticeable was that, as a member of the party of the people’s vote, she almost avoided any mention of Brexit. The Liberal Democrats have gone from being the party of the people’s vote to the party of “Don’t mention Brexit.”
I respectfully point out that perhaps the hon. Member was not in the Chamber or did not hear when I talked about Brexit. My party is more than happy to point out the damage that Brexit is doing to the economy, as I did when I spoke. Perhaps he would like to go back and check the record.
I was in the Chamber—I may have lapsed into a coma. The hon. Lady talks an awful lot about Brexit and the damage of Brexit. The reality is that the Liberal Democrats were advocating a people’s vote knowing that Brexit was a disaster. I ask her to reflect on her party’s hypocrisy on the idea that, when the facts change, people should have the opportunity to change their minds. What is sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander.
I think that I am right in saying that the Liberal Democrats proposed not only a people’s vote but said that, if they formed the Government of the United Kingdom after the last general election, they would reverse Brexit immediately. So they say that we can have a de facto referendum in the shape of a general election, because their policy was to undo Brexit if they had won the UK general election. Now, of course, they are happy to continue with Brexit.
I would caution my hon. Friend not to take absolutely seriously any commitments made by the Liberal Democrats in the run-up to a general election. The Labour party has been taking a leaf out of Nick Clegg’s book when it comes to tuition fees in the run-up to a general election. Perhaps the hon. Member for Edinburgh West will have that on her next leaflet.
My hon. Friend Hywel Williams spoke about energy, and my hon. Friend Gavin Newlands spoke passionately about businesses in his constituency and the impact that Brexit is having on them.
My little heart was cheered when Claudia Webbe got to her feet to take part in the debate. It was only about five minutes into her speech that I realised that she is not a member of the Labour party any more, so we could not tick off her speech as a Labour contribution. The debate was finished off by my hon. Friend Drew Hendry, who spoke about a number of issues including fuel poverty in the highlands, which has been a massive issue.
There is a common theme this afternoon, especially from colleagues on the SNP Benches, which is borne out by what we are all hearing on the doorsteps. In short, that theme, which comes up time and again, is that Scotland can no longer afford to be tied to an intransigent British Government who are ploughing on with Brexit at any cost. It is clearer than ever that we need independence, so that people in Scotland can stop paying the price for disastrous decisions made here in London by a Government Scotland did not vote for. Indeed, we have not voted for the Tories since 1955.
We should be clear that the cost of living crisis is not necessarily a new thing. Yes, it has got worse, but for many of those I represent in Glasgow’s east end, it has been a permanent fixture in their lives due to Westminster’s inability to truly tackle structural inequality. In short, the cost of living crisis is the culmination of 13 long, brutal, cold years of austerity policies, compounded by Brexit and last year’s kamikaze Budget, which crashed our economy and trashed the Tories’ record on economic credibility.
Let us look at the backdrop against which today’s debate takes place. In this, the sixth richest economy in the world, baby formula is now security tagged. It is now put behind tills to avert mothers stealing milk to feed their children. Now, if that is the image Ministers wish to project when it comes to global Britain, then it is certainly a look—I will give them that—but it would be remiss of me, when we focus on supermarkets and retailers and discuss the cost of living crisis, not to look at the issue mentioned in the motion before the House today. I ask Members to think very carefully about what is in the motion. It deals with price gouging, which was not referred to by either Front Bencher, and the need for tougher action on what has been dubbed “greedflation”.
We believe Ministers should follow the lead of other European countries to bring down the price of food and other necessities, a view supported by many of my constituents who are absolutely baffled as Westminster stands idly by while food prices continue to skyrocket. For example, France introduced a price block on staple products, with supermarkets pledging to keep the prices of certain food and hygiene products as low as possible. It is precisely for that reason that the British Government must intervene and put pressure on major retailers to pass on falling wholesale prices to consumers. More than that, it is vital that the Competition and Markets Authority utilises its full powers and imposes maximum fines where evidence of price gouging is found. Profiteering from selling basic necessities is unjust at any time, but at a time when numbers—record numbers—of people are turning to food banks and skipping meals, it is simply abhorrent.
The Bank of England recently found that falling costs at some companies were
“not automatically being passed through to consumer prices in an attempt to rebuild profit margins”.
Indeed, it was revealed just on Friday that the chief executive of Tesco received a £4.4 million pay packet last year. Ken Murphy was given a base salary of £1.37 million and received £2.73 million in an annual bonus, making around 197 times the amount of the average Tesco worker. That is the level of inequality we have baked into a system that is broken, and broken beyond repair. When I go to Tesco in Shettleston, the very many people I bump into there are shocked at the idea of a boss coining in £4.4 million, when many of them are trying to work out what they can remove from their basket so they have enough to get by.
Of course, stubbornly high inflation extends to so much more than food. Each week on the doorsteps, constituents tell me how they have resorted to rationing baths and showers simply to save on energy costs. That my constituents live in an energy-rich nation but experience eye-watering levels of fuel poverty is a damning indictment of just how ridiculous the situation has become and why change is desperately needed. But we know all that is exacerbated by Brexit, a Brexit Scotland rejected yet has had foisted upon us against our will. Indeed, it is the only nation of these islands to have been so royally screwed over as a result of the 2016 referendum.
We all know from bitter experience that the slogans on the sides of buses were nothing more than empty rhetoric. In 2016, Mr Rees-Mogg slammed the Resolution Foundation’s findings that food prices would increase as a result of Brexit as “ridiculous”, and claimed that the price of food would go down. What is more, last year he suggested that the rules that the British Government followed while part of the EU made life harder for small businesses and increased the costs of operating. That is an entirely false claim. The hard Brexit that Ministers pursued has made life harder for food exporting and importing businesses. Do not take my word for it. Nick Allen, chief executive of the British Meat Processors Association, told The Independent that the extra burden of new paperwork and fees will see some small specialist importers struggle to survive. We know the price of Brexit, and it is one that Scotland cannot afford to pay.
The OBR predicted in March that the UK’s GDP would fall 4% as a result of Brexit, with trade and exports reducing by 15%. Figures recently released by the ONS show that the UK economy contracted 0.3% in March, making it the worst performing economy of the G7, and the only G7 economy to experience negative economic growth. Last Thursday, the Bank of England raised interest rates to 4.5%, in the 12th consecutive rise. Many of our constituents coming off a fixed rate are watching hundreds of pounds being added to their mortgage bill as a Tory premium, simply for the pleasure of having an incompetent Westminster Government that Scotland did not vote for.
The Conservative party inflicting economic pain is hardly a surprise to my constituents—it is probably why we have not had a Conservative MP in the east end for over 110 years. But what of the Labour party, off to my right? I mean that in more respects than one. In the Labour party, we have nothing more than a pound-shop Tony Blair tribute act, devoid of ideas and lurching ever further to the right in a desperate scramble for the votes of Tory English market towns.
On the biggest issues of the day that have caused economic harm to these islands, the Labour party has nothing to say: on immigration policy, more of the same; on Brexit, more of the same; on social security, more of the same. I therefore say to Ian Murray that simply hoping that the Tories run out of steam and that the keys to No. 10 Downing Street land in the laps of Starmer and Streeting is no vision to enthuse electors.
In my constituency, voters are clear that they want Brexit binned. They want their MP showing solidarity with public sector workers striking for fair pay. They want a social security system that provides a safety net. And yes, unashamedly, they want an immigration system not driven by focus groups and dog-whistle politics but responsive to our small island nation and its economic needs. Those are the challenges that Scotland faces today.
By failing to support today’s motion on the biggest issue of the day, Labour and the Tories are simply showing Scotland that it stands at a fork in the road. The choice could not be clearer: Scotland can veer off to right with the full-fat Tories or the diet Tories and pursue yet more economic self-harm with Brexit and austerity, or it can veer left by voting yes to independence, to rejoining the European Union and to unhooking itself from the economic bin fire that is the United Kingdom. On that basis, I commend the motion to the House.
We had agreed on 10-minute winding-up speeches, but there seems to have been 40% inflation on that. I was not going to stop the hon. Gentleman because it is his debate, but I have to give equal time to the Minister.
As parliamentarians, we must be democrats first and foremost. We must accept the democratic decision of the British people in the EU referendum, and we must accept the decision of the Scottish people in the independence referendum; I wish the Scottish National party accepted that. As the Member of Parliament for Hexham, which goes to Carter Bar and the border, I was proud to campaign from Aberdeen to Annan, from the Borders to Edinburgh, to make the case for the Union. I believe we should continue to do so in this place.
It is unquestionably the case that the Government fully appreciate, and are assessing and assisting with, the pressures that households face across the United Kingdom. It is quite clear that these derive from the challenge of high inflation, the impact of covid and the impact of global issues, most particularly Putin’s invasion of Ukraine. That is why we continue to take extensive action to help households. In 2023-24, we have increased benefit rates and state pensions by 10.1% and we will spend around £276 billion through welfare support in Great Britain. We have never spent more in this country on low-income families, the disabled or pensioners.
In respect of the cost of living, the steps we have taken over the last year show that this is a Government that will always protect the most vulnerable. The total support package we have provided to help with rising bills is worth over £94 billion across 2022-23 and 2023-24—that is more than £3,300 per UK household on average. Included in that are the cost of living payments made to over 8 million low-income households, around 6 million disabled people and over 8 million pensioner households last year. There has been a 170% increase in applications for pension credit.
The Government paid out £37 billion in the summer of 2022 and billions in the autumn of 2022, and the Department for Work and Pensions has made cost of living payments worth £2.2 billion so far this year. This year, more than 8 million households will get additional payments of up to £900. Over 99% of eligible households on a DWP means-tested benefit have now received their first cost of living payment during 2023-24 of £301. Over 6 million people across the UK on eligible disability benefits will receive a further £150 disability cost of living payment this summer to help with additional costs. More than 8 million pensioner households across the UK will receive an additional £300 cost of living payment this winter. We have also provided ongoing support with the cost of living through the energy price guarantee, which continues for the summer.
We believe strongly that work is the best way out of poverty, and we have the opportunity through our jobcentres up and down the country to assist people and provide support for them. Whether that is youth hubs for young people, the 50Plus offer, the in-work progression or the massive increase in disability employment, we are progressing and supporting those people who are in work to get better jobs and a better opportunity for the way ahead. That is why we are extending the support our jobcentres offer to low-paid workers so that they can increase their hours and move into better paid, higher-quality jobs.
For those on universal credit, we are increasing the childcare cap to £951 for one child and £1,630 for two or more children. We are paying childcare costs up front when parents move into paid work or increase their hours. We are further supporting working people with the largest ever increase to the national living wage—an increase of 9.7% to £10.42 an hour from this April. That represents an increase of over £1,600 to the annual earnings of a full-time worker.
There has been much criticism of the UK economy, but we have to bear it in mind that the UK has the fourth highest employment rate in the G7—higher than the US, France and Italy. Our unemployment rate remains low at 3.9%. We have more people in payroll employment than before the pandemic, at 30 million. A substantial package of labour market interventions, part of which I have outlined, was announced at the spring Budget. That was a huge boost to our efforts. We see youth unemployment—
As the hon. Gentleman’s colleague said, probably not.
Our record on youth employment is the second best in the G7, our economic inactivity is back at 2018 levels and the number of vacancies has dropped for 10 quarters in a row. We heard much from the SNP during the debate, but there was no talk whatsoever about luxury camper vans worth £100,000, missing auditors or ferries to the Western Isles that do not exist. Presumably those ferries have both the auditors and the camper vans on them. There was no talk of the comment from the Children and Young People’s Commissioner for Scotland that the SNP Government had failed their people; no talk of the 16 years of failure on police, education and health; and no talk of their total abandonment of the oil and gas sector.
We are discussing the cost of living, but the SNP would rather import oil and gas from overseas than support more than 100,000 jobs in the north-east of Scotland and support the businesses that we have there. The truth is that it is in partnership with the Greens, who are closely related to Extinction Rebellion and have stated explicitly that they are anti-economic growth. Why would we import oil and gas when we can address the cost of living with something that is home-grown and supports more than 100,000 in the north-east of Scotland? That is what this Government are doing and what my hon. Friend Douglas Ross is doing, and we should support him wholeheartedly.
We have just passed the 400th anniversary of the publication of Shakespeare’s “Macbeth”—a tale, interestingly, of a husband and wife in Scotland whose misdemeanours finally catch up with them. I am absolutely sure that that has no relevance whatsoever to the present day. I am absolutely sure that the discussion of independence is always
“Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow”.
I am absolutely sure that no one in the Chamber today is
“full of sound and fury,
However, I am absolutely certain that this Government are assisting on an ongoing basis, and I strongly commend the Prime Minister’s amendment to the House.
Question put (
The House divided: Ayes 283, Noes 47.
Question accordingly agreed to.
The Deputy Speaker declared the main Question, as amended, to be agreed to (
That this House welcomes the Government’s action to halve inflation, grow the economy and reduce debt; further welcomes the Government’s action to take advantage of the opportunities presented by Brexit, including the passage of the Genetic Technology (Precision Breeding) Act which will boost UK food security; supports the Government’s extensive efforts to support families up and down the country with the cost of living through significant support to help with rising prices, worth an average of £3,300 per household including direct cash payments of at least £900 to the eight million most vulnerable households; and notes that the SNP and Labour would fail to grip inflation or boost economic growth with their plans for the economy, which would simply lead to unfunded spending, higher debt and uncontrolled migration.