1. There shall be a select committee, to be called the Cost of Living Committee, to examine the causes of and possible solutions to matters related to the cost of living in the United Kingdom, the consequences of the United Kingdom leaving the European Union and the cost of living, how the effect of changes in the cost of living affects the economy, and other connected matters.
2. The committee shall be chaired by a Member from the second largest Opposition Party and shall additionally consist of 22 Members from the Government party and 22 Members from opposition parties, drawn from the following Committees
|Committee||Number of Members|
|Business and Trade||3|
|Energy and Net Zero||3|
|Environment, Food and Rural Affairs||3|
|Health and Social Care||3|
|Levelling Up, Housing and Communities||3|
|Northern Ireland Affairs||5|
|Women and Equalities||3|
|Work and Pensions||3|
3. The committee shall have power—
a. to send for persons, papers and records, to sit notwithstanding any adjournment of the House, to adjourn from place to place, and to report from time to time; and
b. to appoint specialist advisers to supply information which is not readily available or to elucidate matters of complexity within the committee’s order of reference.
4. Unless the House otherwise orders, each Member nominated to the committee shall continue to be a member of it for the remainder of the Parliament.
5. The committee shall have power to appoint a sub-committee, which shall have power to send for persons, papers and records, to sit notwithstanding any adjournment of the House, to adjourn from place to place, and to report to the committee from time to time.
6. The committee shall have power to report from time to time the evidence taken before the sub-committee.
7. The committee shall have power to order the attendance of any Member before the committee and to require that specific documents or records in the possession of a Member relating to its inquiries be laid before the committee or any sub-committee.
8. The quorum of the sub-committee shall be eleven.
The cost of living crisis is the No. 1 issue for most of our constituents: how to keep a roof over their head with the rising cost of mortgages or rent; how to put food on the table when food inflation in the UK is the highest in Europe; how to pay energy bills that double in just a year; and how to cope with overall inflation, which is far outstripping wage growth. It therefore deserves serious focus by this Parliament to find solutions. The Government are already patting themselves on the back that inflation has eased from 10.1% to 7.8%. Of course, that does not mean that prices are falling, just that they are increasing at a slightly slower rate.
There is no question but that the covid pandemic and the war in Ukraine have contributed to the current crisis—particularly through the latter’s impact on global energy prices—but the UK is the only G7 country not to have recovered to pre-pandemic economic health, and consumers in the UK have faced the biggest energy price rises in Europe.
Despite the current easing of the inflation rate, it is still higher than in the OECD, the EU and the US. So why does the UK have the highest inflation and the poorest growth projections among similar economies? It is simple—the disaster that dare not speak its name: Brexit. As we approach the seventh anniversary of the referendum, one of its key architects may have just left the stage, but Brexit’s disastrous legacy will impact people across the nations of the UK for years to come.
I know as a doctor that the first step for someone in dealing with any problem is to admit that they have one, but both the Government and the Labour party appear to be in complete denial about the contribution of Brexit to the cost of living crisis.
The Labour party is keen to regain seats in Scotland from the Scottish National party. We obviously hope they do not, but why does my hon. Friend think the Labour party is ignoring the impact of Brexit even in Scotland, when the overwhelming position of the Scots is that they want to remain in the European Union?
I thank my hon. and learned Friend for her contribution. It is quite clear: we saw the discomfort of the Labour party on Brexit for quite a number of years, because its approach to Brexit had flip-flopped backwards and forwards, so it simply avoids the topic.
Until recently, people would think that there had been an omertà in the mainstream media when discussing the UK’s poor economic performance. Despite previously campaigning against Brexit, the Labour leader, Keir Starmer, is now clear that he will not consider rejoining the EU, the customs union or the single market, yet he claims that he can somehow reduce the trade friction that has cut exports by 15% and cost 4% of GDP.
Just as Brexiteers claim the problem is just that Brexit is not Brexity enough, we now have Labour claiming that they will “make Brexit work”. It cannot work, but if the Labour leader wants to reduce some of the damage of Brexit, he should support the idea of a Committee to identify proposals that could be put to the EU prior to the review of the trade and co-operation agreement in 2026. Otherwise, what is the plan—close his eyes, click his red heels together and make a wish? Talk about not reading the room.
Just as polls show that a majority across the UK recognise that Brexit is a mess and would support rejoining the EU, the supposed official Opposition have lashed themselves to the mast of the floundering Tory Brexit ship. I am not quite sure why they are called the official Opposition when they do not seem to do much opposing and just go along with the policies of this Tory Government, whether that is on Brexit, immigration, outsourcing the NHS in England to private companies or denying the right of the Scottish people to choose their own future.
Labour may have abandoned almost all its previous pledges, and does not offer much real change after the next election, but the politicians who have caused the current damage to the UK economy are those with their bahookies squarely planted on the Government Benches. Tory austerity may initially have made the Treasury balance sheet look better, but 13 years of benefit cuts and public sector pay freezes have sucked money out of local economies, leading to dead high streets and rising poverty, particularly among children, pensioners and disabled people.
Austerity also meant that health and care services were already struggling when covid hit, and the workforce shortages that hamper all four UK health services have been exacerbated by the loss of freedom of movement, meaning that they are all struggling to catch up on the backlog.
The cost of energy is a major contributor to the cost of living crisis, but while global energy prices have risen due to the Ukraine war, the problem has been exacerbated by the Tories’ policy over decades. It was their poster girl, Mrs Thatcher, who put the profits of oil, gas and electricity into private hands. That has left the UK fully exposed to global price rises, despite the UK and Scotland’s energy potential. We are unlike France, with its nationalised power supplier, which has been able limit price increases to 4%. The UK has been unable to do that.
While the energy support payments were welcome, they had a limited impact on energy bills, which had doubled in a year. The UK Government did not follow other European countries such as Germany, Spain, Ireland or the Netherlands in substantially cutting VAT on energy bills, even though rising prices means that such a VAT cut could have been revenue-neutral.
Brexiteers actually promised cheaper food—it is hard to believe—but that has turned out to be a complete crock, with food inflation in the UK at more than 19%, the highest in Europe. The costs of basic foods and supermarket brands are rising even faster, meaning that those on lower incomes face a dramatic surge in food costs, with more people resorting to food banks or missing meals. Almost 30% of the UK’s food comes from the EU, so there will be another surge in food prices next winter when the UK introduces full customs checks on foodstuffs being imported from the EU.
Does my hon. Friend agree that it is also an absolute scandal that during a cost of living crisis, when we are seeing prices such as those she described, we have produce going to waste in Scotland because we do not have enough people to actually pick the fruit and veg?
I thank my hon. Friend for that point. While soft fruit is a particular issue in Scotland, this is an issue right across the UK because of the lack of European staff in harvesting. As my hon. Friend says, the sector is seeing food rotting. We are also seeing this issue in other sectors; there is hardly a sector that is not struggling for workforce.
With regard to the checks on incoming foodstuffs from the EU, the former ill-named Brexit Opportunities Minister, Sir Jacob Rees-Mogg, delayed the checks for the fourth time last year. At the time, he suggested that they would cost £1 billion, and described them as an “act of self-harm”—duh! I could have told him that in 2016. On top of that, the now-infamous mini-Budget that tanked the pound and the stock market while the then Chancellor, Kwasi Kwarteng, was still on his feet, sent mortgage costs spiralling. The relentless rise in interest rates in response to inflation is making home ownership unattainable for young families, as well as pushing up rents.
My hon. Friend has rightly pointed to the disastrous mini-Budget that was imposed on us by our previous Prime Minister, Elizabeth Truss. Does the leader of the Scottish Conservative party group in the Scottish Parliament, Douglas Ross, who initially demanded that the Scottish Government implement those disastrous policies, and now demands that they spend billions of pounds to mitigate their effects, have any credibility?
It would be a more appropriate response by the Scottish Conservatives to get down on their knees in the Holyrood Chamber and apologise for the abuse they gave the Scottish Government for not following such crazy policies.
I had the honour to be a Member of the Scottish Parliament for some 12 years, and the Minister served in the Scottish Parliament. I know a good deal about the committee system; indeed, I chaired one. Members of the Scottish Parliament who were not members of a committee could come and speak at it—it was almost never not allowed.
I am not a member of any Committee in this place. Given the size of my party, only three of our Members are on Committees. Due to the structure of the proposed Committee, the door would be locked against me applying for a place on it. I feel disenfranchised, and I do not see why my constituents should not be given the chance for their representative to have a voice. I cannot vote for the structure of the Committee as it stands—it is very sloppy work.
That is incorrect: there will be Members from the three devolved nations. It will be—as described—a large Committee, which might provide a place for the hon. Member or one of his colleagues from a devolved nation. It is nonsense—there is no exclusion.
I do not think my hon. Friend is reading the Order Paper wrong.
The combination of rising energy, food and housing costs, on top of years of benefit cuts and stagnant wages, means that, for many families, the sums simply do not add up. The Scottish Government are trying to use their now very limited powers of devolution to mitigate the crisis, particularly for those on the lowest incomes. However, the Scottish budget for the day-to-day running of services is less in real terms than it was in 2010, with no uplift for inflation and—as we all know—no significant borrowing powers. Despite that, the Scottish Government have provided additional funding for the fuel insecurity fund and the Scottish welfare fund. Low-income families are now supported through five childhood grants, including the Scottish child payment, which together provide £10,000 of support during the early years and will provide over £20,000 by the age of 16.
Does the hon. Member agree that the way to improve the situation for everyone, not just in the devolved nations but throughout the United Kingdom, is for those who are elected to the Scottish Parliament to work hand in glove with those of us who are elected to this Chamber, and particularly with the other Government for Scotland in the United Kingdom? Rather than set up another cumbersome Committee, which is a process, would it not be better to work together for the benefit of everyone in the United Kingdom?
The hon. Lady knows well that on issues such as trade deals and Brexit, we see very little genuine consultation between the Government here and the devolved Government. She is also well aware of how devolution is being rolled back and hollowed out, with legislation that has been passed blocked and undermined.
No, I am sorry. I have just given way to the hon. Lady.
The Institute for Fiscal Studies’ analysis of the Scottish tax and benefit system showed that it was more progressive, with almost 30% of low-income families £2,000 a year better off in Scotland, but Scotland aspires to something more radical than just mitigating Westminster austerity such as the two-child limit or the six-year benefit freeze. Our vision is to be a fairer, greener nation. The Scottish Government founded the Wellbeing Economy Governments Group in 2018 with Iceland and New Zealand, and Finland and Wales joined later. A wellbeing economy does not just focus on GDP, which includes the profits of damaging sectors such as the tobacco industry, but invests in the physical and mental health and social, economic and environmental wellbeing of every citizen. It is a holistic approach that recognises that our society and economy depend on the success of every individual, every family and every community.
Therefore, in addition to the targeted anti-poverty measures, the Scottish Government invest in the wellbeing of all those living in Scotland, from the baby box that welcomes the birth of a child and university tuition that allows our young people to reach their full potential to the free personal care that allows older people to stay in their own home for as long as possible. However, with the tightening limitations of devolution, the Scottish Government do not have the power over their own economy or the control of taxation and social security that are required to deliver the wellbeing economy we aspire to. We all know that we need a different type of economy by the end of this decade, or we will leave our grandchildren to face climate collapse. The pandemic brought everything to a standstill, which gave us a unique opportunity to decide what kind of economy and society we wanted to rebuild.
Before my hon. Friend goes on to talk about the kind of economy we want to see, will she make the observation that in an important debate on the cost of living and its evil twin Brexit, on the day after an urgent question on the Tories’ mortgage crisis, we have one Tory Back Bencher and two Labour Back Benchers in the Chamber? Does that not tell the Scottish people everything they need to know about how little Unionism really cares for ordinary people?
The proposal for this economy, as I said at the beginning of my speech, is not just for the people of Scotland: it is for the people of the four nations of the UK. The review of the TCA will come up in 2026, and while it is not possible to make Brexit work, it is possible to mitigate some of its worst effects. For that, though, we need to understand what Brexit is doing to the UK’s society and economy and have proposals that we can bring to the EU to ask for change.
Unfortunately, the opportunity to change to a different economy and society has not been taken. We already see poverty and inequality rising, and the climate emergency being pushed off the action list—including by Labour, which has just U-turned on its pledge to invest £28 billion in the transition to a green economy. Unfortunately, the climate crisis cannot wait. Scotland is blessed with extensive green energy potential, from wind and tidal power to green hydrogen and pump storage hydro. The current Government have failed to support Scotland’s green energy potential, and sadly there is now little reason to expect much change under Labour, either.
My hon. Friend talks about Scotland’s energy opportunities, and green hydrogen is indeed one of the key ones. Does she agree that it is perhaps illuminating that the Foreign Secretary himself does not even know about those opportunities, nor has he taken the opportunity to engage with the US on its Inflation Reduction Act regarding the supply pipeline for green hydrogen? Does she think that is absolutely indicative of the relationship of the Government of this place with the needs of the Scottish people?
I sit on the Scottish Affairs Committee: we have done an inquiry into hydrogen, and we have also covered some of the other issues around green energy. It has been clear from the UK Minister that the UK Government do not support the Scottish vision of being able to export green hydrogen. We know that Germany is desperate for green hydrogen, particularly in the Ruhr area in Nordrhein-Westfalen, because it is crucial for heavy industry, but the UK Government are not interested, so Scotland’s potential for such a lucrative export will be held back.
The hon. Member has raised an issue that we have discussed at some length in the Scottish Affairs Committee: the future of hydrogen, carbon capture and storage, and suchlike. However, given that energy policy and international trade are both reserved functions, does she believe that it is appropriate for Scottish Government Ministers and officials to be having direct discussions with federal German Government Ministers and officials on that matter?
Obviously we are just continuing the Scottish Affairs Committee diatribe from Monday, but the job of the Scottish Government, Scottish Ministers, MSPs and Scottish Members here is to promote Scotland in the world and to attract as much business and investment into Scotland as possible. Because of that, and because of the efforts of Scottish Ministers and MSPs, Scotland is second only to London in foreign direct investment, and that is how we intend to keep it.
To summarise, the key reason to have independence is for the powers that enable us to tackle problems. Independence does not sprinkle fairy dust, but it would give us the levers to tackle poverty, for instance. It would also enable us to invest in our incredible natural resources for the benefit of all our citizens. Most importantly, independence would enable us to be in control of our own future. Being independent would mean that we would never again have a disaster like Brexit forced on us against our will. Those living in Scotland would get to choose their own Governments and therefore drive decisions about our future. With more than 70% of Scots supporting membership of the EU, I have no doubt that our most prosperous future is as a modern, independent European country, just like many of our successful neighbours.
I am grateful to have the opportunity to speak in the debate this afternoon. Cost of living increases are impacting households and businesses right across the country. It is right that this Parliament should be concerned about how we mitigate those impacts to ensure that the people of Scotland thrive. However, a debate that starts from the unfounded position that the UK’s exit from the European Union is to blame for any and all woes is not the best use of this House’s time. Putin’s illegal invasion of Ukraine coupled with the economic aftershocks of covid have caused huge disruptions to the global economy. No country is immune from that. However, we are benefiting from the swift action taken by this United Kingdom Government to mitigate the worst of those impacts. [Interruption.] I will make some progress if I may.
Announcements made at the spring Budget 2023—[Interruption.] Madam Deputy Speaker, this is a serious subject, but SNP Members laugh and shout down the Government’s representative as we try to respond to some of the points that they have made.
I will make some progress. Rather than shouting and laughing, I encourage SNP Members to listen to the points I am making. We are benefiting from the swift action that this United Kingdom Government are taking to mitigate the worst of these impacts. Announcements made at the spring Budget 2023 bring the UK Government’s total cost of living support to £94 billion over the current and next financial year, averaging at more than £3,300 per UK household. Those interventions will not only help ease some of the pressures on those most in need, but stimulate the economy and contribute to our long-term recovery from these unprecedented global challenges that we have faced in the past few years.
As has been said in the House previously, Government Members would warmly welcome a serious debate on ways to build on those foundations and to improve Scotland’s economy, because Scotland’s economic growth has lagged behind that of the UK during the SNP’s time in Holyrood.
The Minister knows that he and I will never agree on Brexit and its impact, not just on Scotland—[Interruption.] We do not agree on that. Does he share my amusement that the SNP cannot see the irony in complaining that Scotland was dragged out of the European Union—a successful political and economic union—yet wants to drag Scotland out of an even more successful and economic Union?
Indeed, there is little consistency in the SNP’s position, particularly given the importance of the rest of the UK market to Scotland’s economy. We cannot blame the poor performance of Scotland’s economy on our departure from the EU. Export figures from the Scottish Government show that the rest of the UK remains by far Scotland’s most important market. Around 60% of total exports are destined for the rest of the United Kingdom, accounting for approximately three times the value of exports to European Union countries. In the opposite direction, around two thirds of Scotland’s imports originate from the rest of the UK.
The Minister will know as well as I do that, looking at the figures from the Scottish Government, the vast majority of Scotland’s manufactured goods—the things we make in Scotland—are exported outside of the UK to the US, European markets and other places. The figure is some 63%. He will also know that the vast majority of exports to the rest of the UK are financial services, insurance and things such as gas, oil, water, renewable energy and so on—things that people down here would not like to do without if they were taken away.
I am very disappointed that the hon. Member is belittling these important parts of the Scottish economy and how much they contribute to the economic growth of Scotland through trading with and importing from the rest of the UK. More than half of Scottish firms sell to other UK nations, compared with a UK average of just a third. The success of the Scottish economy is dependent on the rest of the UK market.
Clearly Scottish businesses value seamless access to the UK market too, but that could not be guaranteed under the SNP’s plans to attempt to rejoin the European Union. Make no mistake, Madam Deputy Speaker—I do not underestimate the challenges facing the people of Scotland, but it is simply outrageous to suggest that leaving the EU is responsible for driving those challenges.
To give another example, Germany, Sweden, Portugal and a number of other countries in Europe have all seen food price inflation of more than 20% recently. That is driven by global factors, such as the loss of grain supply from Ukraine and unseasonable weather in places such as Spain and Morocco. Do SNP Members really want us to believe that Brexit is responsible for bad weather, too?
Coming back to the Minister’s opening comments, he complained yet again about the SNP bringing forward a debate. He never seems to agree, whatever debate topic we bring forward. If it is independence, he stands up and says, “Why are we debating independence? We should be debating the cost of living.” Now we are debating the cost of living and he is complaining about that. If he fundamentally disagrees that Brexit is having a negative impact, will he start explaining the benefits that Brexit has given us?
I have not complained about the SNP bringing forward this debate. The cost of living is an issue facing every single one of us in this House and each one of the households and residents we represent here. What I am complaining about is SNP Members laughing and trying to shout down Government Members just because they do not agree with the points we are making. I also disagree with the fact that, when we should be talking about the measures that both Governments in Scotland are taking to address the cost of living, SNP Members choose to talk about independence, rather than anything else. Your obsession—
Order. I do not have an obsession. If the Minister is saying that he is not going to take interventions, Members should please not just stand up and shout at him. I am sure the Minister will indicate if he wants to give way, but Members should not keep standing up for too long, because otherwise it is difficult to hear what he is saying.
Thank you, Madam Deputy Speaker. My frustration is with SNP Members’ continual focus on independence, rather than on the measures that both Governments of Scotland—the UK Government and the Scottish Government—should be taking to address those challenges that all our constituents are facing. Yet again, SNP Members focus on independence.
The SNP argues that the Scottish Government do not have the financial powers required to mitigate the increases to the cost of living. I strongly suggest that that is simply not the case. The UK Government are providing the Scottish Government with a record block grant settlement of £41 billion a year. In real terms, that is the highest settlement since the start of devolution for Scotland. The spring Budget provided the Scottish Government with £320 million over the next two years, and that is on top of the £1.5 billion of additional funding we provided at the autumn statement in 2022. This funding is still set to grow in real terms over the spending review period.
Going back to the substance of the motion we have brought before the House, can the Minister briefly outline the Government’s objection to each of the eight paragraphs of the proposed new Standing Order?
If the hon. Member shows a little patience, I will deal with those points head-on further on in my speech.
People in Scotland benefit from being part of a strong United Kingdom, with the pooling and sharing of resources that that brings. The strength of the United Kingdom, and Scotland’s place within it, is even more important during these challenging times. The UK Government will continue to support Scotland and the rest of the UK as we recover from the economic shocks I have mentioned.
The UK Government are also directly investing in Scotland through programmes such as the city and regional growth deals, the levelling-up fund and the UK shared prosperity fund. That is on top of the £52 million of UK Government funding for the creation of two freeports centred on the firth of Forth and the Cromarty firth. Together, these two freeports aim to attract over £10 billion in public and private investments, and to create an estimated 75,000 jobs. I am also pleased to report that I am seeing great progress on investment zones, with our two Governments working together to co-create an approach in Scotland. Each zone will be backed by £80 million of UK Government funding.
The hon. Lady’s constituents also voted overwhelmingly to remain part of the United Kingdom, and I suspect they are very frustrated that the SNP Government and the SNP continue to push for further division, rather than focusing on dealing with the cost of living pressures that households are facing. All the initiatives I have outlined will help stimulate growth and ensure Scotland’s economy is more resilient to future shocks, whether they stem from overseas conflicts or global health crises.
The SNP likes to claim that the Scottish Government do not have the policy levers required to mitigate the impacts of the cost of living increases. I would suggest otherwise, and I respectfully ask what the SNP Government have been doing to grow the Scottish economy, with Holyrood’s extensive powers on education and skills, economic development, transport and planning. Instead, SNP Members continue to talk down Scotland and the United Kingdom and to talk up their own separatist ambitions with our European partners, which only damages investor confidence in Scotland. Despite what the SNP says, Scottish exports and foreign direct investment continue to increase to above pre-Brexit levels, during which time the UK Government have secured trade agreements with 71 non-EU countries and the EU worth £808 billion in 2021. Surely that demonstrates the advantage of Scotland being an integral part of the UK market, with the trading power that that creates for the entirety of Scotland.
I have a challenge for SNP Members: would any of them like to tell us what the impact of splitting Scotland from the rest of the UK would be on the cost of living crisis? How would prices be helped by a hard border at Berwick? How would mortgage rates fall if a new untested currency was introduced? How on earth would energy prices be brought down by closing down development in the North sea sector, as Humza Yousaf, the First Minister of Scotland, seems to want to do?
One impact is that in a normal independent country, we would not have more food banks than branches of McDonald’s. That is precisely why we want to ensure that our constituents are not going to food banks as a result of a cost of living crisis on which the UK Government are asleep at the wheel.
Scotland is already a normal country, despite what the hon. Member for Glasgow East might suggest. Talking down Scotland is not something I am here to do; I am very proud to promote Scotland. If the SNP Government in Edinburgh perhaps used some of the powers they are responsible for, then some of the challenges in the Scottish economy and in other aspects of Scottish society that we are dealing with would not be as great as they are. I am very clear that what this Parliament should be focused on is how the Scottish Government, along with the other devolved Administrations, could and should work with this United Kingdom Government to build a better future for the people of Scotland.
The SNP motion to establish a Select Committee to look at the cost of living crisis is not only unnecessary duplication of other work by this Parliament, but a complete waste of taxpayers’ money. The total anticipated cost to the House of Commons of this crackpot idea is in the region of £463,000 per annum. In addition, there would be extra costs to adapt Parliament’s Committee Rooms to accommodate this massive new Committee. I suggest that that would be a complete and utter waste of taxpayers’ money.
My hon. Friend makes an excellent point. Thankfully, it is not my job to defend the decisions of the SNP Government and the huge mistakes they have made in relation to ferries. What I do know is that this is having a huge impact on many of our island communities in Scotland and on economic development in those communities, because of a complete cock-up by the Scottish Government in delivering those ferries.
I notice that the memorandum by the accounting officer that was released for this motion states at paragraph 3:
“Current select committee meeting rooms are not equipped for a committee of the proposed size and would need to be adapted to accommodate the Committee. The costs stated in this memorandum do not include the additional costs associated with such adaptation.”
Do the Government have any idea how much this adaptation would cost, or perhaps someone from the SNP could intervene and say?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right to highlight that. As I have pointed out, the estimated cost simply to set up this new Committee is almost £500,000 per annum. As he has correctly identified, there is the additional cost of adapting the existing Committee Rooms. I know many of my constituents in Berwickshire, Roxburgh and Selkirk will be asking why on earth the SNP are proposing this when there are so many pressures on budgets for households and businesses. The SNP is proposing to spend more taxpayers’ money on this crackpot idea, which is a complete and utter nonsense.
The people of Scotland want their two Governments to be focused on tackling the cost of living, ensuring our future energy security and investing to support growth, and they want us to work together to do so. I therefore respectfully suggest that the SNP motion before us is not what we should be focusing on, and I urge right hon. and hon. Members to reject it.
Order. Before I call the shadow Secretary of State, let me provide a little bit of guidance. This debate has to finish by 4.20 pm, so I suspect the wind-ups will start at about 4 o’clock. That means speeches of about 10 minutes each would be a good guide to make sure that everybody gets in. I call the shadow Secretary of State.
I am pleased to be able to speak in this SNP Opposition day debate on the cost of living crisis. It is only a few weeks since the SNP called a similar debate, but for millions of people across Scotland and the whole of the UK, this is the most important and difficult issue they face in their lives. In many instances, the situation is getting worse, so I am very pleased that the SNP has called this debate on a similar subject. It is worth noting that the SNP’s previous debate on this issue did not stay on the cost of living crisis for very long. It quickly descended into a debate about independence, and today we are seeing a debate about independence or a debate about the Government’s Brexit versus the SNP’s Scexit.
I apologise once again for being late for this debate, Madam Deputy Speaker, and I have now given up my opportunity to speak in it. I was talking to four women who are currently on hunger strike to raise attention for children living in poverty throughout the United Kingdom, and they asked me to ask the Minister if this Government would consider following the Scottish Government’s example of “cash first”, so that we can eradicate food banks throughout the United Kingdom. Does the hon. Member agree that we should be working towards eradicating food banks?
We should absolutely be eradicating food banks across the whole country. The very fact that people in this country cannot afford to eat is an indictment on both Governments. I hope the hon. Gentleman will encourage his colleagues in the Scottish Parliament to support Rhoda Grant’s Right to Food (Scotland) Bill, which the SNP Government have so far refused to do. I hope he gets an opportunity to speak in this debate, and a chance to put those points forward. He makes an important point about food banks, but he misses the point about poverty, particularly child poverty. The previous Labour Government lifted millions and millions out of poverty, and that has been all but reversed, and more. That should be of eternal shame to this UK Government and to the Scottish Government.
Does the shadow Secretary of State share my astonishment that in this ramshackle proposal for a Committee there is no mention of the Education Committee? Do children not get caught in the poverty trap and the cost of living crisis? Of course they do. This is an example of a badly drafted proposal, and I suggest that the Scottish National party ought to have done its homework a bit better than this.
Indeed, the Education Committee is not represented. Given that it deals with skills, access to employment and the biggest contributor to our economy, which is children’s education, I would have thought that it would be represented on the Committee. However, given that 375 Members or so are already projected to be nominated to this Committee, I am not sure we should have any more. If we do have more, perhaps we should sit as the whole House, as that might be the best way to deal with such issues. SNP Members have not thought this through properly. Perhaps they are frightened of education, because the defining mission of the former First Minister was to close the attainment gap in Scotland. Given that it has got wider, perhaps they do not want to talk about that.
I am not sure I understand that point, given that this is about a UK parliamentary cost of living crisis Committee. It would not be a Committee dedicated just to Scotland; it would be dedicated to the cost of living, I would have thought, and we cannot determine not to have other Committee members serving on it, on the basis that something is an England-only Department. Education is critical across the whole United Kingdom and in terms of the cost of living crisis. Perhaps we can have an explanation for why the Education Committee is not listed—it was not my question; it was a question from Jamie Stone.
The hon. Gentleman made a point about the failure of Scottish education, but the attainment gap in Scotland has closed by two thirds at higher level, and by two thirds at positive destinations. That is in contrast with what has happened south of the border, where figures in November showed that the gap had widened.
It always surprises me when SNP Members think that just slightly beating England is an achievement. The attainment gap in Scotland is an unmitigated shame for us all, and the way they have treated education in Scotland should also be a shame.
I have not even got through the first page of my speech, so if hon. Members do not mind I will take no further interventions for now.
The cost of living crisis is loading unbearable stress and anxiety on to millions of people. Just last week, a woman came to my surgery with her family. Her mortgage is up for renewal on
I genuinely ask the Minister, who I know personally cares about those issues, what advice he would give to my constituent, and to the millions of other mortgage holders who are coming off fixed rates and being met with interest rates that are eye-watering in comparison with their family budgets. He voted for the former Prime Minister’s Budget, which crashed the economy and left mortgage holders and rent payers with that Tory premium. He voted for all the measures that the Government proposed in that Budget that made the situation worse. What does he now say to people who will be sitting around dinner tables tonight worried about losing their homes? Those are the family and real-life scenarios of this Government’s decisions.
We should never forget that this crisis, which impacts on millions across the country, was created and made worse in Downing Street. This is a Government-made crisis where political choices are having a direct impact on people’s mortgages—and subsequently on rents, as the mortgages of landlords also become unaffordable. The Prime Minister is absolutely culpable.
This crisis is not just the result of one disastrous mini-Budget that the Government backed; it is the result of 13 years of this Government’s decisions—13 years of little to no growth in the economy, 13 years of stagnation, 13 years of party before country, and 13 years of appeasing Tory Back Benchers rather than looking after the country. Thirteen years of failure—unless, of course, you are looking for a seat in the House of Lords. Even now, this Government are more interested in protecting the profits of the oil and gas giants than in helping ordinary families with their energy bills. At the same time, this Prime Minister, when he was Chancellor, imposed the highest tax burden for 80 years on those very same people, taking more money out of their pockets when they need as much as they can get. We have the highest inflation in 40 years.
I agree with Dr Whitford, who I thought was fair to suggest that part of the blame is down to Ukraine and other factors, but in the UK we have stubbornly high inflation, higher than most of our peers, and certainly much higher than in the United States and the European Union. Food inflation is more than 15% and shows no sign of falling any time soon. Some food inflation on the most basic of goods bought by the poorest in society is touching 20%, and it is all compounded by the disastrous 13 years of policies on energy that have left us exposed to shock and crisis in the energy sector.
The SNP motion talks about the damage caused by the Tories’ Brexit, and on that we agree. The Government have failed to negotiate a good deal with the European Union, despite their promises at the last election, and instead they have left the country with a deal that is only marginally better than no deal at all. It is a deal to ensure that the Prime Minister’s party was happy, rather than in the national interest, and every month that goes by, the Government continue to undermine the relationship with our European neighbours and friends, which is having dire consequences on jobs, businesses and this country’s place in the world. That has to stop.
I know the hon. Gentleman cares passionately about Brexit—so much so that he nearly left the Labour party for Change UK but cancelled the press conference. In the debate on article 50, and the vote against triggering it, he said:
“I will do so in the knowledge that I will be able to walk down the streets of Edinburgh South, look my constituents in the eye and say to them that I have done everything I possibly can to protect their jobs, their livelihoods and the future of their families.”—[Official Report,
Vol. 620, c. 1052.]
With the chaos unravelling just as he feared back in that debate, and Labour’s current position on Brexit, can he still look those same voters in the eye?
I love it when the SNP quote my own words in debates, because I am very proud of what I and my party did in trying to resolve the savages of Brexit. I am delighted with the way that we pushed the Government all the way in trying to ensure that the country was put first and not their party. Let us not forget that when the Division Bell rang on
The hon. Member for Central Ayrshire spoke, rightly, about the history of this place when we debated the Brexit process, but when the House had the opportunity to back a customs union that would give us frictionless trade with the European Union, SNP Members decided that was not for them and the vote was lost by six. That is on the record as well as my own words, which I stand by 100%. [Interruption.] I will give way to the SNP again. Perhaps they can try to explain why they preferred no deal over any deal.
I do not agree with the hon. Member—he is justifying his abstention on the basis that other people abstained as well. I did not agree with them at the time, and I still do not. No deal would have been an unmitigated disaster for the country.
Again, I go back to the point—SNP Members might want to reflect on this—that if, as is the case, Brexit with the deal that we have got is a contributor to the cost of living crisis, surely having no deal with the European Union would have magnified the cost of living crisis even more. They cannot say one without the other, and, as David Linden just confirmed, they backed no deal when the deal came to the House.
Unlike the SNP, the Labour Party is trying to be honest with the public on what is in front of us. SNP Members’ proposition to the public at the moment is to have their cake and eat it. They want a separate currency while using someone else’s currency, they have a deficit well in excess of what the legal treaties of the European Union would allow them, and their own First Minister is saying that there will not be an independence referendum anytime soon because the Scottish people do not want it, yet they are promising the public, against the very treaty rules in place—they are there in black and white—that they can have everything they want and still get easy access to the European Union. That is fundamentally dishonest. Labour will not be dishonest with the British people.
On day one of my right hon. and learned Friend Keir Starmer being Prime Minister, he will have to deal with the principles in front of him, and we will ensure that the Brexit proposition is done on the basis that we can have better trade and better agreements. In the 2025-26 trade and co-operation agreement renegotiation, we can build on that agreement and ensure that we repair our damaged and tattered relationship with the European Union. As I said, we see that agreement as the floor and not, as the current Government suggest, as the ceiling.
The SNP is clear that its solution to Brexit—in its words, as well as mine and those of many others, it was a bad idea—is to have Scexit, which would be many magnitudes worse than Brexit. It wants to repeat the same mistakes and do the same thing while being dishonest with the British people. Labour will not be dishonest with the British people about the position we are in as a country. Regretfully, we have to deal with what is in front of us, not how we would wish to dream it up. The SNP does not have to deal with that, so it can take any position it likes.
The key point is that while SNP Members keep blaming Brexit—they are right that Brexit has contributed to the cost of living crisis—by saying it is all Brexit’s fault, they are letting the Government off the hook. It is not all Brexit’s fault; it is the Government’s fault, given the decisions they have made on Brexit, on energy, on the economy, on wages, on growth and on tax, and the impact of every single thing they have done in the last 13 years. Let us not let the Government off of the hook by blaming their botched Brexit. Let us keep them on the hook for Brexit and for everything else that they have subsequently done.
The motion talks about setting up a cost of living Committee. That may seem like a sensible idea, but when we look at the small print, the flaws of the proposal become clear. I am left wondering whether the real reason for proposing it is to try to get one of the SNP group’s many disgruntled Members an additional salary payment for being the Committee Chair, as stated in the motion. Perhaps the SNP is trying to campaign to get Chris Stephens a Committee Chair position after campaigning so heavily against him for the Energy Security and Net Zero Committee position in the House a few weeks ago.
I am also left wondering why, if the SNP thinks this is such a great idea, it does not use its coalition majority in Holyrood to create a similar Committee in the Scottish Parliament. Perhaps it does not wish to do that, but it does want to spend upwards of half a million pounds here on a Committee with 45 members that would not include members of the Education Committee. The Committee would include three members of the Energy Security and Net Zero Committee, even though the cost of living crisis is no doubt driven mostly by the energy crisis. Is the SNP aware that the biggest spark of the cost of living crisis is spiralling energy bills for families and businesses?
The Committee would have five members from the Scottish Affairs Committee, five from the Welsh Affairs Committee, yet none from the Education Committee. The justification is that the English Education Committee does not have anything to do with Scotland, but neither does the Welsh Affairs Committee, yet it will provide five Members while the Education Committee will provide none. I do not think that the SNP has thought this through. There will also be no representation from the Defence Committee, which is a UK-wide Committee. Perhaps SNP Members are not aware of the many stories of soldiers having to rely on food banks because of the cost of living crisis.
The SNP’s motion fails to mention that the SNP has already been in charge of the Scottish economy for 16 years. The Scottish economy is now indisputably the creation of the SNP Government. A Scot who was finishing school when the SNP came to power 16 years ago will now be in their mid-30s—they will probably have one of those fixed-term mortgages, and perhaps even a family of their own—and they will have seen that, much like for the UK Government, economic growth has been an afterthought for the Scottish Government.
The Scottish Government are responsible for a huge number of issues and policy areas in Scotland, including the creation of jobs in the renewable sector. I have said this many times in the House and will continue to do so: we should congratulate the SNP Government, because they have created tens of thousands of jobs in the renewable sector—but unfortunately they are in Denmark, Indonesia and elsewhere. When they had the opportunity to sell what they called ScotWind licences for offshore wind in Scotland, they told us that they could not demand that bidders had their supply chains in Scotland due to EU state aid rules, even though we had left the European Union. They are right to talk about the damage of the Tory Brexit, but they cannot say that and, at the same time, hide behind state aid rules when we know that was not the case. They could have conditioned all those licences for Scottish jobs, but they decided that it would be better for those Scottish jobs to be overseas.
Labour has a fully costed alternative to the Conservative crisis. We would first introduce a proper windfall tax on the oil and gas giants—the SNP and its new leader opposed that until they realised it was popular—by backdating that to January 2022, as we have always called for, closing the loopholes and taxing it at the same rate as Norway. That would raise an extra £10 billion that would go towards people’s energy bills and put an end to the injustice of the oil and gas companies raking in billions on the back of people’s energy bills. The money raised would help families directly and pay for a plan to help the energy-intensive industries such as food manufacturers and processors with the cost of energy and, therefore, potentially reduce prices in shops for ordinary people.
Labour would reverse the Government’s decision to hand the top 1% of savers a tax break in their pensions while introducing specific measures to help doctors and the NHS. We would close the non-dom tax loophole, much to the frustration of the Prime Minister himself. We would cut business rates for small businesses, paid for by taxing the online giants such as Amazon, which are not held to the same rules as our high street businesses.
The hon. Member for Central Ayrshire said that there is no difference between the Conservatives and the Labour party. However, we have already announced that we would fund the Scottish Acorn project, and we would set up a publicly owned GB Energy, which the SNP used to believe in until it dropped that. So it does matter what colour of party is sitting on the Government side of the Chamber.
The new First Minister claims that absolutely none of it matters. Incidentally, he is the first SNP First Minister not to be arrested—but, when he is, I am sure we will send him flowers and thank him for his service. He would threaten to bring down a Labour Government over his obsession with the constitution. The consequences of what he said at the weekend are clear: vote for an SNP MP and they will block the transformative change that a Labour Government would seek to deliver. Vote SNP and see SNP MPs walking side by side through the No Lobby, with the very hard Brexiteers they have been slagging off this afternoon, to block a Labour Budget. That is what he said.
The conclusion that we can all come to is that SNP candidates at the election will be a barrier to change in this country. Why is the new SNP leader taking such a destructive stance? It is because Labour opposes rerunning the 2014 referendum. He could not have been clearer. He said:
“at the moment, for example, it’s pretty obvious that independence is not the consistent settled will of the Scottish people”.
Previous SNP leaders have always avoided speaking that truth for a reason. It begets the question: if the SNP’s preferred change is not what the people want, what is the alternative? After the SNP leader’s interview, we know that he will block the change that Scots want by undermining a Labour Government, in his words,
“at every corner and every turn”,
to demand something that he has admitted Scots do not actually want. I think that the people of Scotland can see through that position, and I am sure they will do so at the election.
Scotland wants a Labour Government, and a Labour Government will deliver for Scotland. When the mood shifts in politics, it shifts fast, but as ordinary working people sit around their dinner tables discussing how they will meet the weekly shopping bill, praying for mild weather, worrying about their families, neighbours, colleagues and friends or dreading the next email from ScottishPower or a bill dropping on their door mats from British Gas, the Tory Government and the SNP are devouring themselves with their own psychodramas. The cost of living crisis is a misery for millions in Scotland, but both of their Governments are responsible for making it worse and sit back to do little to help. Voters agree: 60% say that the Government are not taking the right measures on the cost of living crisis. The public deserve so much better and, at the election, they will get it.
I would like to start with a comment on what I believe to be the real motivation behind the motion. I invite the responding Minister to say whether he agrees. It was made evident in the opening speeches, despite its not being mentioned in the motion itself. It is a blatant and cynical attempt by the SNP, in its usual grievance-driven holier than thou manner, to push its own political agenda on a subject that is very real and immensely worrying for many people right across the whole United Kingdom.
On the actual motion, as is often the case, it starts off reasonably non-controversially:
“That this House
agrees that increases in the cost of living are having a detrimental impact on businesses and families across Scotland and the rest of the United Kingdom”.
Nobody can argue with that. However, it then goes on to state:
“the United Kingdom’s exit from the European Union has played a significant role in driving those increases”.
There is no mention at all of the covid pandemic or Russia’s illegal invasion of Ukraine, which has had an infinitely more significant impact on the current cost of living issues we are facing. This is straight from the SNP’s playbook: every problem is Brexit; every solution is independence. [Hon. Members: “Hear, hear.”] As if to prove the point; thanks very much. In her opening speech, Dr Whitford mentioned independence and those other issues, as other Members have, but again it was entirely predictable that—
I will give way in a second.
It was entirely predictable—as was the case in the previous SNP Opposition day debate, which again was on the very important and serious topic of the cost of living—that it soon became about how Brexit is bad and independence is good. I will quite happily give way to the hon. Member.
For the hon. Gentleman to suggest I merely mentioned covid and Ukraine is inappropriate—I did discuss them. But covid is easing and other countries have recovered after covid. Unfortunately, Brexit remains with us. That is what we are discussing today.
I am not going to deny that the act of leaving the EU does not have an impact. It was always going to have an impact. It was a major event. The people of the UK showed their settled will on what they wanted the UK to do. However, I would severely disagree with their saying that it is ongoing and in some ways maybe even getting worse, trying to present it as a reason for breaking apart the United Kingdom. I will come on to talk about the impact of Brexit, but for the moment I want to dispel the repeated myth from the SNP that all the issues faced by people, businesses and communities, particularly in Scotland somehow, are all a direct result of the United Kingdom leaving the EU. They may grumble about that, but in every conversation I have with anybody from the SNP, in any panel, session or public meeting in my constituency where SNP Members at any level of Government are present, it is always about Brexit. Brexit is always the problem and independence the solution.
I welcomed the intervention from the hon. Member for Central Ayrshire who led the debate, but I was expecting an intervention on the old chestnut of how 62% of Scots voted for the United Kingdom to remain in the EU. I was not among the more than 1 million people in Scotland who voted for the United Kingdom as whole—not Scotland, one way or the other—to leave the EU. I voted remain, as I am sure many other Members did. However, as a democrat, I accepted the result of that referendum, realising of course that the concept of accepting the results of referendums is lost on SNP Members. Subsequently, particularly having been elected as the MP for Banff and Buchan a year later, I have done everything I can to make sure that we make the most of the opportunities leaving the European Union presents to all of us, right across the whole United Kingdom.
People right across the world are struggling with rising prices and higher energy bills, mostly due to the aftermath of covid and Putin’s war in Ukraine. The impact of covid not just on this country, Scotland and the United Kingdom but on the whole world as we all started to recover from the awful pandemic and the lockdowns it created, should not be understated. We were still only beginning to recover from that when Russia invaded Ukraine. The overall issue of cost of living is precisely why this Conservative Government paid for half of families’ energy bills last winter and extended the energy price guarantee until March 2024. This Conservative Government are committed to restoring economic stability, while delivering fair and compassionate support for the most vulnerable households as, among other priorities, we halve inflation, grow the economy and reduce debt. It is no accident that the Prime Minister’s top three priorities are to stabilise the economy.
Thanks to the action taken by the UK Government, the Bank of England predicts that inflation is expected to fall sharply to around 5% by the end of this year. The energy price guarantee set the unit cost of energy so that typical households pay around £2,500 for their energy bills until the end of this month. An Ofgem price cap, which comes into action at the end of this month, from July, is just over £2,000. Some 686,000 individuals in Scotland will receive our £900 means-tested cost of living payment this financial year. Some 639,000 disabled people in Scotland will receive a £150 payment to support them in the face of rising prices. Some 973,604 winter fuel payment recipients in Scotland will receive an additional payment of up to £300. Benefits have been increased in line with inflation for 2023-24. More than 10 million households across the UK in receipt of working-age and disability benefits will see an increase in their benefit payments, with an average uplift of around £600 for households in receipt of universal credit. [Interruption.] I hear the grumbling from the SNP Benches saying, “Is that all?” When we take all those numbers into consideration and add them together, it is not insignificant. Despite Opposition Members gleefully predicting that the triple lock on pensions would not be protected, the state pension was increased in line with inflation of over 10%. That means the basic state pension will increase to £141.85 a week and the full rate of new state pension will increase to £185.15.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for giving way. He mentioned that inflation is an important issue. Food inflation is 19.2%. What does he expect that figure to be by the end of the year?
The Government’s objective is to halve all inflation, which would take that into account. I do not have the number off the top of my head and I do not know what the Bank of England’s prediction for that is.
I will in a second. I am aware of the hon. Gentleman and I will give way once I have made some progress.
The £2 billion household support fund was created to support vulnerable families across the whole UK. From
I want to make some progress and get through this massive long list of improvements that people will experience as a result of this United Kingdom Government. The 80p cut to the taper rate and the £500 increase in the work allowance represent a combined tax cut that will next year be worth £2.2 billion, or an extra £1,000 per person, for 2 million low-income families.
Does the hon. Member share my concern at the many reports suggesting that the additional checks on food imports that are due to come in later this year might have the effect of maintaining or, indeed, exacerbating food inflation?
That is an excellent point, but it has to be taken wholly in the round with the concerns of our own food and drink producers. It is not just about what we pay to get food on our plate. If our primary food producers do not make enough profit at the farm gate, we will not have any food produced in this country at all.
Decisions taken in the 2022 autumn statement and the 2023 spring Budget have resulted in an increase of more than £1.8 billion in Barnett consequential funding for the Scottish Government. That takes the total UK Government funding for the Scottish Government to £37.1 billion annually by 2024-25.
Under this Conservative UK Government, the economy is improving in a range of different ways. There are a record 33 million people in work in the UK, which is up 382,000 over the past year and by 4 million since the Conservatives came into power in 2010. The employment rate of 76% is near record highs and is up by 0.3 points over the past year and by 5.8 points since 2010. Figures show that the unemployment rate is at 3.8%, which is near its lowest rate since 1974 and down by 4.4 percentage points since 2010.
The benefits of Brexit include removing unnecessary red tape and regulatory burdens, ensuring that rules and regulations work for British businesses and consumers. The first package in a series of deregulation announcements expected this year is expected to save employers more than £1 billion a year in today’s money. Our first post- Brexit trade deals with Australia and New Zealand have already come into effect. The deals will—[Interruption.] Again, SNP Members are grumbling about trade deals. They have never, ever voted for a trade deal, either in this place or in the European Parliament. They are anti-trade, and they make no secret about it. As Ian Murray said earlier, they voted against our deal with the EU after we left. In effect, they voted for a no-deal Brexit.
A few moments ago the hon. Gentleman said that border checks are important for food producers. In a sign of there being no joined-up government, does not the Australia trade agreement kick away the stool he was standing on only a couple of minutes ago?
Again, everything needs to be looked at in the round. Our fantastic food and drink producers have export opportunities, and not just with Australia and New Zealand. Our trade deals with Australia and New Zealand are a stepping-stone to—[Interruption.] In fact, I was just about to come to this point. We will become the first European country to join the comprehensive and progressive agreement for trans-Pacific partnership, which is now worth £12 trillion.
I will come back to the hon. Gentleman once I have finished this point. With 500 million people, trade with CPTPP countries will boost our economy by billions and support thousands of jobs in this country. Of course, no discussion of the benefits of leaving the EU could pass without mentioning fishing, but before I do so I will give way again to the hon. Gentleman.
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for raising CPTPP. He will be aware that his own Government’s figures show that Brexit has damaged UK GDP by 5%, but the gain from CPTPP is 0.08%. That is equivalent to going to a horse race with £500, coming back with £8 and telling everybody that you backed a winner—but you have lost, and you have lost big style.
The 5% has gone up from the 4% that was reported previously, but what is not taken into account when those calculations are made is what it would cost for the UK to be in the EU. We are not in the EU any more, but we have a comprehensive trade agreement with the EU.
As I was saying, we have left the common fisheries policy and taken our place as an independent coastal state, which is well established as having been of great benefit to the fishing industry. [Interruption.] I would be delighted to take any argument on that. If SNP Members do not want to believe me, they can believe Elspeth Macdonald, the chief executive of the Scottish Fishermen’s Federation, which has confirmed that the UK Government and Scottish Government Ministers have a far stronger negotiating position at bilateral negotiations than we ever would have had as one of 28 member states of the EU.
A fishing fleet in my constituency on the west coast predominantly catches lobster and langoustine, because virtually all the quota in Scotland has been hoovered up in the north-east. The fleet used to get that into the Paris market in less than 24 hours, with 85% of its produce going there. Boats have already been sold and scrapped, and local fishermen in my area are not convinced that there will be a fleet by the end of this decade. On the idea that there is a sea of opportunity for fishing, the hon. Gentleman must know that that is not true for inshore fishing.
The hon. Lady has spoken on behalf of her constituents, so I am sure she will forgive me for speaking on behalf mine. There are a large number of pelagic and white fish vessels in my constituency, and lobster and other static gear fishing industries are also represented. They experience the same problems with access to exports as anyone else on these islands. I was in the Scotland Office at the time we left the EU and there were initial issues with access to markets. There was new paperwork that everyone had to get used to. Many in the seafood export industry got established and were ready for the new conditions, but many were not. If the hon. Lady would like to intervene again, I would love to know what the SNP Scottish Government did with the £180 million Brexit preparation funding. How much of it was spent on actually helping our Scottish fishermen prepare?
How far does the hon. Gentleman think £180 million would go given that the cost of moving product to the European Union from my constituency off the west coast of Scotland has trebled? It was about 30p a kilo, but it is now over £1 a kilo. That is down to the red tape of Brexit. How far would £180 million go to mitigate that? It would not get anywhere near it, and this is costing people a lot.
I apologise, but the most engagement I have with the fishing industry is with that in my own constituency. I am sure that nobody would want to debate that. Remember that it was during the months after we left the EU that covid hit us, and it is covid, above all else, that has had the biggest impact on exports because the whole hospitality sector across the continent—the biggest market for our langoustines, lobster and other shellfish—had shut down.
I want to move on because I know that you want us to be relatively brief, Madam Deputy Speaker. On the motion’s proposal for the formation of a Committee, Jamie Stone, who is no longer in his place, made a very good point that the Education Committee is not included on the list. It might be possible to argue that there is no good reason for it to be included, but as he pointed out, our young people and skills are extremely important for the recovery of this economy. We need the overall economy to recover if we are going to get a hold of our cost of living issues. I was surprised when Marion Fellows said that the Education Committee should not be there because education is a devolved issue. I thought that this motion was a motion for this Parliament, which represents the whole United Kingdom, so I found that a strange justification. I agree with the hon. Member for Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross, and would like to hear what other justifications there may be.
Finally and in conclusion, as everyone will be pleased to hear, I will finish with a few more benefits of having left the EU. I must re-emphasise—we are still trading with the EU. We did not leave without a deal, as was predicted. In fact, as I said earlier and as others have said, at the time of the referendum, SNP Members voted to not have a deal when we left the EU at the end of 2019.
Order. I completely understand that there are a lot of interventions, but I am conscious that many other people want to speak. Some of those who are standing now wanting to intervene have not put in to speak. It is quite a long time since the hon. Gentleman started his speech and he has taken a lot of interventions.
Thank you for your clarification, Madam Deputy Speaker, and I thank David Linden for bringing me a glass of water. I was glad of it because, as hon. Members will have noticed, I have a bit of a frog in my throat today.
To finish, I will repeat some of the main issues that are often misrepresented in our ongoing relationship with the EU. Compared to 2018, when the UK was in the EU, we are about even on trade exports to the EU—a fraction below in goods, but considerably higher for services. The biggest factor in any fluctuations in UK trade exports to the EU in the intervening years was due to coronavirus.
UK trade exports to the EU have increased year on year by 24%, which is part of the post-covid recovery that demonstrates that covid was the biggest factor in those trade issues. That was 24% year on year for UK trade exports, but Scotland’s exports to the EU have increased by 28%, including record exports in whisky and salmon—other fish are available, as I often remind people—so Scotland is actually doing better than the rest of the UK in the ongoing trade with the EU.
It is crucial for Scotland and the UK’s interests to increase exports, not only in the EU but around the whole world, and not focus solely on Europe. We could not commit to both EU and non-EU free trade agreements when we were a member of the EU. Outside the EU, there is a huge opportunity and presence to increase trade exports with Latin America, including Chile, as well as with India, Mexico and Malaysia, and other states in the CPTPP. Going to non-EU countries seizes more untapped market space and more export growth than going to any EU country, where we already have, and continue to have, a significant presence.
With that, Madam Deputy Speaker, I will finish my remarks, with great disappointment, but I really have to have another drink of water.
We can all agree that the cost of living crisis is connected to other social and economic disasters, but public services have been undermined by more than a decade of austerity, with devolved Governments, social security benefits and the National Health Service bearing the brunt.
The UK’s dependence on fossil fuels, under-investment in renewables, reduced gas storage and failure to regulate the energy market meant the nations of these islands faced unprecedented price rises from early 2022, despite being much less dependent on Russian gas than our European neighbours. Inflation triggered by reopening the economy in the aftermath of the covid-19 upheaval was augmented by supply chain disruption, with food particularly affected. We have had too many years of Torynomics, looking out for the wealthy at the expense of those who can least afford to live, and that was before the bombshell car crash of a Budget experiment towards the end of last year.
I see the effects of these decisions every day in my Midlothian constituency. New figures have laid bare the full scale of the problems facing my constituents in Midlothian. Last year, there were more than 4,500 children living in poverty in my constituency, according to End Child Poverty. Last month, more than 1,300 people were claiming unemployment related benefits. Around 250 of these claimants were aged 18 to 24. Up to 21,000 adults living in Midlothian cannot afford to turn on the heat in their homes to keep warm or to eat a balanced meal, a report found.
We heard about some of those issues on Monday, at the launch of the all-party parliamentary group on coalfield communities, of which I am a vice-convener. This is not a new phenomenon in our coalfield communities but a legacy of Thatcher that we have never recovered from and that successive Governments have done nothing to tackle.
It is estimated that as many as 34,000 people were worried about energy bills. The same survey found that in one month alone, 8,000 adults went hungry because they did not have enough money to buy food. Those figures, presented to a meeting of Midlothian Council last month, come from an independent study ordered by that council’s cost of living taskforce, set up last summer. With residents facing this cost of living crisis, it is clear that has quickly become the biggest priority for our SNP-led council and why it has invested more than £1.3 million in direct help to residents across Midlothian. It is hard to imagine a much worse scenario, but then there is Brexit.
Even the usually staid publication, The Lancet, says the Brexit fiasco is one of the central elements at the core of this cost of living crisis. It impacts not just our constituents and their households, but the Scottish Government, other devolved Governments and local government across the country. They are all facing the same inflation costs, increased costs of capital projects and increased energy bills that are all a drain on limited and fixed budgets. That is certainly the case with the Scottish Government, who do not have the borrowing power of this place or even of local government.
As well as laying bare the massive public health impacts of the cost of living crisis, a recent article in The Lancet says:
“There are several factors driving this crisis. The most immediate trigger is high inflation, partially a consequence of trade disruption associated with the conflict in Ukraine, superimposed on the impact of Brexit and associated fall in the value of the pound, which is leading to a rise in the costs of energy, food, and other essential resources for life.”
The Lancet also makes the ominous point that this is just the beginning and there is more to come. We have heard others talk about the impact on mortgage rates. Because of the tendency to set fixed rates, many people are still to come up against the worst of the increases.
My hon. Friend Dr Whitford talked about the impact of staff shortages on our public services. How can we have a situation where impactful decisions taken in this place can have such a direct consequence for communities across our isles? Those are chilling words from The Lancet, which make it ever more baffling that the Government persist with the failed Brexit project, and even more so that Labour want to continue to do more of the same.
As the SNP’s armed forces and veterans spokesperson, I am acutely aware of the impact that the cost of living crisis has on our men and women in uniform. Serving military personnel and their families have been forced to use food banks and there are serious questions to be answered around the pay offer to our armed forces.
This week, Sky News revealed that an unofficial food bank even exists at a Royal Air Force base in Lincolnshire. The voluntary facility at RAF Coningsby, home to Typhoon fast jet squadrons, was set up by an aviator to collect food donations from servicemen and women to support civilians in their local community, but a defence source claimed it is now being used by RAF personnel too. Despite the much-vaunted armed forces covenant, we now have a situation where service personnel need to choose between food or fuel. The crisis is impacting on so many places where people would never have thought that would be the case. According to the reports, one aviator, a single mum, was forced to go without a hot meal for four days because she had spent her last money on baby milk formula.
This place, the Tories and their Brexit-supporting Labour pals, need to take responsibility for this utter clusterbourach. In Scotland, we are fortunate that we have a path out of the chaos. We can become independent. I know David Duguid will be delighted that I have said that, because he was waiting for it. We have the opportunity to elect progressive Governments that can implement all the levers that a normal nation can in taking forward their own destiny as a member of the European Union. As we work towards that goal, we desperately need an inquiry led in this place to reveal the full extent of the devastation wrought by Brexit and the cost of living crisis. Why would we not want to get to the bottom of why these problems are happening? That is the only way for Scotland to weather this perfect storm. I look forward to the day when we can get the answers we need, but much more important, I look forward to the day when we can make our own decisions in Scotland.
I now have to announce the results of today’s deferred Division.
[The Division list is published at the end of today’s debates.]
I welcome the opportunity to speak, again, about the cost of living crisis and the motion tabled by my Scottish National party colleagues.
I strongly agree with the opening words of the motion: increases in the cost of living are having a devastating impact on our constituents throughout the United Kingdom. I also agree that
“the devolved administrations do not possess the full financial powers required to effectively mitigate the increases”.
Certainly, in Wales, I believe that Labour in government, under the leadership of Mark Drakeford, is driving a modern socialist agenda to do all that it can with insufficient resources. However, I also feel that, in focusing on the impact of exiting the European Union on the current crisis, the scope of the motion is too narrow. Yes, Conservative policies on Brexit and the failure to sufficiently replace regional development funds are causes of the crisis, but outwith Brexit, the crisis is also down to Tory economic decisions and austerity policies before and since the Brexit referendum.
Although the proposal in the motion is for the Committee to understand the extent to which the problem is due to Brexit and to come up with solutions, other issues that are identified regarding policy from this place will also become clear and can therefore be challenged.
I thank the hon. Lady for that explanation.
As others have pointed out, the frontline remains in the everyday lives of our constituents: in the energy bills that come through their doors, at the supermarket check-outs, and in the payslips detailing wages that are much too low. In Cynon Valley, far too many people are struggling. About a year ago, I conducted a cost of living survey to which hundreds of people responded: we were overwhelmed by the response. It showed that 72% of respondents expected to cut down on their heating in the following 12 months, and almost half expected to cut down on essentials. Like other Members present, I hear harrowing stories of families having to use food banks—there has been an exponential growth in their use in my constituency—and kettle packs.
I was interested to hear the hon. Member’s ideas about a socialist Government in Wales. I look forward to that. According to research by the London School of Economics, the impact of Brexit on food prices has cost households across the UK £6.95 billion, because 28% of food consumed in the UK comes from the EU. Does she recognise that being wedded to Brexit is an absolute policy disaster, not only for the Government but for her party as well?
I do not disagree that Brexit is an issue. I have made that comment already. Food price inflation is a major issue.
I thank all the community groups and the trade unions back in south Wales who do such fantastic work to try to mitigate the worst elements of the cost of living crisis. We recently raised a significant amount for the food banks in my constituency in conjunction with the trades council. Despite all the constraints being placed on us by this UK Tory government, local people are stepping up. They should not have to do that, but it demonstrates the importance of community spirit.
There is a problem with pay, and there is a problem of profiteering. Only yesterday, we saw data from the Office for National Statistics showing that real pay is down by £35 a week compared with 15 years ago. Paul Johnson of the Institute for Fiscal Studies described these data as “staggering statistics” and spoke of
“a completely unprecedented period with no earnings growth.”
That is thanks to this Tory Government’s policy of holding down public sector pay and using that to drive down private sector pay. This is a strategy they have pursued regardless of Brexit.
As a result of Brexit, however, there is certainly a loss of funding. The levelling-up fund and the shared prosperity fund fail to match the resources of the EU regional development fund. We famously heard that there would be
“not a penny less, not a power lost”,
but as a result of the shortfall in EU structural funds and the loss of rural funding, the overall shortfall to the Welsh budget is more than £1.1 billion. That is shameful. The UK Government rode roughshod over devolution when it cut out Welsh government to deal with local authorities. My constituency remains one of those that have seen nothing from the levelling-up fund. In the context of that disregard for devolution, it is welcome that we have new thinking, from Gordon Brown's commission on the future of the UK to Mark Drakeford and the Welsh Government’s Comisiwn y Cyfansoddiad or Constitution Commission. Indeed, in the last couple of weeks the two came together with the Mayor of Greater Manchester, Andy Burnham, in the new Alliance for Radical Democratic Change to advocate the changes that we need to strengthen what the First Minister of Wales refers to as our “solidarity union”. I look forward to becoming involved with that work.
In Wales, as Mark Drakeford explained at the Welsh Labour party conference, that has meant progressive policies such as trialling basic income, expanding universal free school meal provision, and delivering the living wage for care workers. I could say more about those progressive policies, but I know that we are short of time. In contrast, the UK Tory Government have only made people’s lives worse, forcing hardship and suffering on millions of people. We are the fifth richest nation in the world—I am tired of saying that—and we have the wealth, but it is in the hands of the few and not the many. There are alternatives, such as a wealth tax, fundamental reforms of the social security system, and inflation-proofed pay rises. I also want to see a commitment to reforming funding for devolved Governments that recognises Wales’s dependence on public services. We urgently need a revision of the Barnett formula to deliver a needs-based allocation of funds. We need the provision of prudential borrowing powers for the Welsh Government.
The solution to this crisis is being advocated by grassroots community groups and the labour and trade union movements, which speak of the need for higher pay, more universal service provision and for increased wealth taxation, and that is what the TUC General Secretary told the parliamentary Labour party this week. The most pressingly needed solution to alleviate the cost of living crisis is the election of a Labour Government so that we can achieve a greener, fairer, socialist future for everyone.
It is a pleasure to follow Beth Winter. I agreed with pretty much all that she had to say; it is disappointing that her party leadership does not agree with the two of us.
I will focus my remarks on some of the concerning aspects of our current political landscape: the implications of Brexit in creating what is now an endemic cost of living crisis, and the impacts of Westminster rule on Scotland’s potential. Brexit ideology is supported by both the Tories and the Labour party in Westminster. That ideology has turbocharged the cost of living crisis for so many people across Scotland and the rest of the United Kingdom. It is damaging and insular, and has more than a whiff of racism about it. In fact, it is exactly the kind of thing we have come to expect from the Conservative party.
But what of the official Opposition? What has been their position when the Westminster Government’s ideology has ensured that the UK’s GDP is down by 4%, that trade and exports have been reduced by 15%, that there has been a loss of £29 billion in business investment and of £100 billion in output, and that a third of our NHS workforce has gone as decent hard-working contributors leave the UK in droves? What has been the resistance to all that from the self-styled party of the ordinary man and woman—the Labour party—with its knight-of-the-realm leader? What has the Leader of the Opposition given us? The only thing that comes to my mind is a xenophobic trope about British kids speaking Polish.
The reality is that the Labour party has been fully complicit in and a willing enabler of this deeply damaging ideology. It is an ideology shared between the Labour party and the Tory party. It is not just us in Scotland who see the folly of these Brexit ideologues. The former US Treasury chief and top economist Larry Summers recently said that Brexit will be remembered as a “historic economic error”, adding that he would be “very surprised” if the UK avoided a recession in the next two years. He also noted that the UK’s economic situation was
“frankly more acute than in most other major countries”.
The sentiment that Brexit has been disastrous for the UK economy is well known to the people of Scotland, and it is now being reflected by people right across the rest of these islands. A poll from April 2023 shows that 53% of people now think that leaving the EU was the wrong decision. They know that Brexit was a lie and they know that it is contributing significantly to the scale of the day-to-day cost of living crisis that they are experiencing. Research shows that households in the UK have paid nearly £7 billion since Brexit to cover the extra cost of food imports to and from the EU. Food inflation alone sits more than 19% higher today than it did on this day last year.
The forecast is not good. Better days are not ahead. The vice-president of the European Commission recently said:
“Trade can no longer be as frictionless and dynamic as it was before. This means additional costs for businesses on both sides... Over time, increased divergence will bring even more costs and it will further deepen the barriers to trade between the EU and the UK.”
That is the reality. The Labour party should have been in unison with us in the SNP as a voice for the ordinary people who are so affected by Brexit and the cost of living crisis. Labour Members should have joined us in opposing this madness; instead, they endorsed it. They stood shoulder to shoulder with the Tories and they continue to ignore Scotland’s democratic will.
My hon. Friend is making some powerful points. Does he not find it extraordinary that Labour continues to insist that it will somehow make Brexit work? Very recently, we heard from the European Commissioner that even in the forthcoming review of the trade and co-operation agreement, there would be no fundamental change. Is that not ultimately very deceptive?
It is very duplicitous, and it is pretty much standard from the Labour party. My hon. Friend supplements the point that I am making, and I thank her for that.
The reality is that families across Scotland are finding it increasingly difficult to make ends meet, with the cost of their rent or mortgage now sky high and the cost of food and energy putting the most basic necessities beyond the reach of many. Eight in 10 charities have experienced an increase in demand from families in the last three months alone, and half of them are not expecting to meet that demand in the next three months. Food banks across my constituency simply cannot meet the demand, and referrals are increasing day after day. In the United Kingdom today, baby food is being kept in anti-theft boxes in local shops. This is the cost of the Union.
In Coatbridge, Chryston and Bellshill, 15% of people are living in poverty and another 10% are experiencing employment depreciation. The figures are much higher here in Tory England, where up to 44% of children in deprived areas live in poverty. Workers’ rights, consumer standards, environmental regulations and many other safeguards have been eroded or lost entirely. We knew that Brexit would put these crucial protections in jeopardy. We warned that people would suffer and lose their rights over pay and conditions, pensions and opportunities for development. We warned that people’s prospects would be reduced.
My constituent, Mr Monteith, contacted me recently with his concerns about surviving as a single parent navigating the cost of living crisis. He is struggling to meet his soaring food and energy costs, and his employer has him on a zero-hours contract with no consistent hours, no set income and no job security, and with no consideration for his young family as a lot of his shifts start at 2 o’clock in the morning. He is stuck. He is scared to miss a shift when it is offered, for fear of not being able to put a meal on the table. His is just one of many such cases, but in many of these cases, all we can do is join our constituents—these hard-working men and women, the breadwinners of their families and the backbone of our community—and watch as yet another of their rights is taken from them by these callous ideologues before their very eyes.
What about the choices and chances left for our young people? The CEO of Barnardo’s said recently that young people
“seem to be losing hope and do not feel optimistic about their futures”.
I simply ask: is it any wonder? Is it any wonder, when the vast majority of young people in the United Kingdom voted to remain in the EU but were ignored? Is it any wonder when they know that their Government have damaged their educational opportunities, dented their employment and career prospects, and hindered their cultural and social integration opportunities?
It is disheartening and frankly sickening that any Government would continue on such a road of self-sabotage. But we know that when the time comes to rid ourselves of this Tory Government—that day is fast approaching—the new Tory-lite replacement will continue on the same futile path of destruction. There can be no doubt that the Labour party’s support for Brexit and siding with the UK Government from that day until this day is a betrayal of its core principles and a real disservice to the working class people it claims to represent, whether it relates to the damage of Brexit, the party’s brutal approach to social security or its persistent U-turning on promises.
The Leader of the Opposition has U-turned so many times that I do not know which way he is facing these days. Is Labour going to abolish the Lords? It tells us it will, but the next week it is putting mair people into it. It is also failing to stand against the universal credit cut imposed on struggling families by this Government. In my book, the worst thing of all is that it is offering the people of Scotland no say, no voice and no protection from the worst of Brexit. Labour knows fine well that the Scottish people did not vote for Brexit or for Labour. Yet, come election time, when this untrustworthy, unreliable lot are kicked out of office, Labour will expect and implore the people of Scotland to trust it again. But why should we and, more to the point, why would we?
It saddens me that that is the reality of the situation. As I was saying in relation to the chief exec of Barnardo’s, the young people of today realise that their future has been dented by this Government. How sad.
Why should the people of Scotland trust the Labour party again? The reality is that the people of Scotland know that while we in the SNP are not perfect, we believe in them and we will stand up for them every single step of the way. We will stand up for them compared with any of the British parties that take their lead from this place. The people of Scotland know that no Tory Government and no Labour Government will protect Scotland, because the reality is that no Westminster Government have or ever will put Scotland’s interests first. Only an independent Scotland among our European friends and neighbours can ensure a brighter, more secure, greener future for all as we unleash our potential. A future for the many, not the few.
I take any opportunity to raise the cost of living crisis in my constituency and beyond. The cost of living crisis started before the Ukraine war in 2022, before the 2019 pandemic and before Brexit in 2016. It started with austerity, which has been affecting people for more than 10 years, and let us remember that austerity is a political choice. It is a choice made by Ministers, past and present, and they were told at the time that it would not work. Even the United Nations told them that their ideological austerity experiment would not work, but the Government continued, and we are all worse off because of it. Bizarrely, I know the Chancellor agrees with me. He said that some cuts went too far when he was Health Secretary, but he is now Chancellor and can reverse those cuts, so why has he not?
I attended this morning’s debate on hospices, which are at breaking point. There is a massive funding gap between what the Government are offering and what hospices need, and the same is true of dental care, which I have mentioned many times in this place. My constituents cannot get an appointment, and they cannot go private because it is so expensive. I could go on.
Child poverty is now rife in my constituency. The number of people fed by food banks has increased, and inequality is worsening. What is happening to our country? Why are the Government allowing this? The austerity policies of David Cameron and George Osborne hollowed out our welfare state and left us unprepared for when covid hit. They both owe the public an apology.
It is a pleasure to follow Mary Kelly Foy. I agree with what she says, and she certainly gave David Duguid a lesson in what “relatively brief” actually means. I am still reeling from his zinger accusing the SNP of pushing a political agenda. Who knew that politicians advance their own arguments and beliefs? It is news to me.
As always, the Minister said that Scotland has all the powers we need—the typical Unionist mindset. Will he explain to me why Northern Ireland has powers over energy, pensions, the civil service and the welfare state, but Scotland is somehow blocked from having these powers? Why is that? Why does Scotland not have better borrowing powers? There is no way that we have the powers we need. It is a weak Unionist argument.
It is unfortunate that the hon. Gentleman is making comparisons with Northern Ireland, which clearly has a very difficult and very different history compared with Scotland. The history of Scotland cannot be compared to the history of Northern Ireland, thankfully. The point I was making in my opening remarks was that, despite all the levers they have, the SNP Scottish Government are failing to expand economic growth or to look after the most vulnerable in society. They continually blame Westminster and ask for another independence referendum, which frustrates me and my constituents.
The Minister does not explain why Northern Ireland has these powers and Scotland cannot have them. Of course I recognise the difficulties caused in Northern Ireland by the Democratic Unionist party, his brothers in arms. It would be good if it helped to get the Northern Ireland Executive up and running.
We might have thought that Brexiteers, who claim that Brexit is a good thing, would welcome this motion to set up a new Committee. When the Committee looks at the impacts of Brexit, perhaps it will unearth the Brexit dividends that the Minister and the hon. Member for Banff and Buchan have not been able to explain.
We know that Labour and its Front Benchers are not in favour of the motion, hiding behind the fact that the Committee would be too big for a room in Parliament and would cost too much money—the Minister said that, too. Well, I have an idea: we could abolish the House of Lords and the Committee could sit in there. That would save money, too.
As for the omission of the Education Committee, perhaps we should accept members of the Education Committee—Labour could have tabled an amendment—because that would allow greater insight into the impact on higher education in Scotland of the Tories’ student visa rules and of not being in Horizon for two years. Having members of the Education Committee on a cost of living Committee might be quite helpful.
Labour obviously does not support the Committee because it would expose Labour’s mantra of making Brexit work without rejoining the internal market, rejoining the customs union or restoring the free movement of people. Their mantra is a vacuous statement. Their position, like the Tory position, means continuing labour shortages in the health and social care sector. It means crops continuing to be left unpicked, and it means the home-grown food stock will shrink because farmers will plant less in future. It means continuing rules of origin issues that affect manufacturing in the automotive industry. And it will mean food prices increase further, given the imminent checks that will be made on food imports.
Shane Brennan, the director of the Cold Chain Federation, has said:
“It is crazy that one week the government is holding a crisis meeting in Downing Street to discuss out-of-control food inflation and the next is willing to nod through a multimillion new import tax on EU food imports.”
Meanwhile, despite what Conservative Members have said, farmers will have to compete with Australian and New Zealand lamb imports, thanks to the deal that a former Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs has said was an absolutely duff deal pushed through by the former Prime Minister.
The biggest issue created by Brexit and Tory Government policy is the cost of living crisis, which has too many aspects to quantify and discuss. That is why a cross-party Select Committee would be kept meaningfully busy.
Another great Brexit lie is that energy bills would be cheaper if we left the EU. That one has aged as well as Scotland being told in 2014 that our energy bills could only remain as they were, or be lowered, by staying in the UK. We have acknowledged that the Russian invasion of Ukraine is, of course, the main factor in soaring energy bills, but there is a quantifiable Brexit impact. By leaving the single electricity market and creating a standalone trade and co-operation agreement, the post-Brexit cost of trade in electricity is higher. Energy UK estimates that these arrangements cost more than £1 billion a year, which is added directly to our electricity bills. There is a so-called Brexit dividend: higher energy bills. We were promised that VAT on our energy bills would be cut post Brexit, which is another broken promise that has not materialised.
This is in stark contrast to the 2016 Vote Leave briefing on taking control of energy, which said:
“Because of silly EU rules”—
Vote Leave loved that phrase—
“EU energy regulation will cost the UK economy about £90 billion… Instead of spending money on patients, the NHS has to instead spend millions every year on energy costs.”
Can anybody with any credibility tell us that, post Brexit, the NHS is saving money on energy and other matters? And where is the mythical £90 billion saving we are supposed to see?
Another Brexit dividend and cost impact on both energy and wider goods comes from the drop in the value of the pound. This means higher costs on imported goods, and the fact that oil and gas are traded in dollars means another financial hit for the UK. The EU is moving much quicker to decouple gas and electricity prices, to bring down the cost of electricity, and it has also taken much stronger action to try to combat the US Inflation Reduction Act.
And what do we hear from the Energy Secretary? “Oh, everyone else is 10 years behind the UK, so we do not need to do anything because the US is playing catch-up.” The reality is that investors are looking at moving elsewhere. If the Government will not do anything about it, it will have another long-term impact on the green transition.
The Government argue that they have led the way on renewable energy, and they have been a leading light at some points in the deployment of renewable energy, but the reality is that there have been so many missed opportunities in supply chain development. We are always told that it was the EU that prevented contracts for difference auctions from incentivising UK and local content in the supply chain, which is, frankly, utter rubbish. Over the years, their narrative was always that EU procurement rules meant lowest price only. People said that other countries did not stick to the rules, unlike the good old Brits, and that that hampered us.
We are talking about the same leavers who now want to break international treaties. The reality is that tender assessments can consider wider impacts and quality. More than 20 years ago, I was procuring civil engineering contracts under EU laws, so I have always been well aware that if a robust scoring assessment system is in place, the argument that we need to go only for the lowest price is false.
The notion that the EU is forcing imports from the far east because of competition laws is also palpable nonsense, because that is where so many of the components come from. So it is high time that the procurement process for the contracts for difference auctions suitably incentivises the creation and establishment of a UK-based supply chain. What is the point of talking about energy security when so much of the renewable energy deployment and so many of the ongoing grid upgrades depend on imports and there are waiting lists of years for some of the components?
The UK Government have at least finally acknowledged the need for some change in supply chain development, but they have cut the overall CfD budget for allocation round 5 by 30%, at a time of rampant inflation. That is happening with projects already struggling to hit allocation round 4 strike prices. That is further proof of their saying one thing and doing another. Tidal stream technology needs to be backed; with 80% of its supply chain content being UK based. However, the ringfencing for that has been halved.
I am sorry, but I am not going to give way.
If we look at Westminster energy policies over the years, we see that the biggest disgrace is the lack of a sovereign wealth fund from oil and gas. Norway has the biggest sovereign wealth fund in the world, and it only started that in the 1990s. That shows what can be done when a country looks after its assets and plans for the future. When Labour came to power in 1997, oil dropped to $12 a barrel. When Labour left office in 2010, the price was close to $100 a barrel. Why was there no creation of an oil sovereign fund then? Where is that legacy of that price increase bonanza that Labour had? It was completely frittered away. Governments of any colour down here take Scotland’s assets and resources and fritter them away, with no long-term planning.
To add insult to injury, we supply the energy, yet those who stay in the highlands and islands help pay for the gas grid, even though, in general, they are not connected to it. They see the renewable energy going south, but they pay a supplement in their electricity bill. They are also more likely to be energy poor. The situation is unbelievable.
Our hands are being tied by being part of the UK. It is time we were able to make decisions for ourselves, like any normal independent country. This Committee, if established, would expose that and the fact that independence, in the EU, is the best way forward for Scotland.
Order. I am conscious that there are four more speakers and the wind-ups will start at 4 pm. Please bear that in mind. I call Brendan O’Hara.
I would like to begin by thanking my hon. Friend Dr Whitford for the way she opened the debate. In her time in Parliament, she has deservedly gained a reputation as being one of those Members people listen to when she speaks. Across this House, she is recognised as speaking with authority, experience and great knowledge of her subject. I am delighted that she upheld her own very high standards this afternoon.
My hon. Friend the Member for Central Ayrshire was absolutely right when she said that the cost of living is the No. 1 issue for all of our constituents and that regardless of how often the Leader of the Opposition says it, it is simply impossible to “make Brexit work”. I have the vision of Keir Starmer saying to King Canute, “No, you cannae hold back the tide, but I can; I’ll show you how to do it.” This is utterly delusional because, as she says, we cannot make this work. She laid out brilliantly the case as to why this House should have a dedicated Select Committee, one that will be able to investigate all matters relating to the soaring cost of living and of the contribution made to that cost of living crisis by the UK’s disastrous exit from the European Union.
It is not often I will say this, but I am looking for a Lib Dem—
Jamie Stone intervened earlier to complain bitterly that his party was not to be represented on this Committee and that that would be the Lib Dems’ excuse for not supporting this motion. However, as my hon. Friend David Linden said, this is an amendable motion and if the hon. Gentleman felt that passionately about it, he could table an amendment. I wish he was here so that I could remind the Lib Dems that when they proposed the creation of the EU withdrawal Committee, their proposal awarded the SNP precisely zero seats, despite our having the vast majority of Scottish seats. Perhaps the Lib Dems do not want to address this issue and are throwing smoke bombs right, left and centre because they do not want to be reminded that they are where they are because of the dirty deal they cut with the Tories in 2010. I just wish the Lib Dems were here to stand up and face the consequences of it.
No one can deny the detrimental impact that increases in the cost of living are having on businesses and families across Scotland and the United Kingdom, and only the most blinkered Brexiteer would deny the role that leaving the EU has had in driving those increases. Unfortunately, the powers available to the devolved Administrations in Edinburgh, Cardiff and Belfast mean that it is this place that must find a long-term solution to this crisis. As much as I commend the work done in Edinburgh, Belfast and Cardiff, it is this place that has to find those solutions.
That is why we must, with some urgency, establish this Committee. We must put in motion a process whereby the people of these islands can see and understand why food price inflation is through the roof and why mortgages are becoming increasingly unaffordable for so many. The evidence that will come to this Committee and the reports that will come from it will, we hope, furnish this hapless Government with the facts and evidence they need to see where they are going wrong and perhaps allow them to do something about it.
Let us be clear: the economic disaster of Brexit has not just fallen out of the sky. It has not just miraculously appeared. I am reminded of an exchange I had with Sir Jacob Rees-Mogg almost exactly a year ago, when he was Minister for Brexit Opportunities—I try to get through that title without laughing. I took the opportunity to remind him of his 2019 promise that the “broad, sunlit uplands” of Brexit were just around the corner for the British people and British business. Last year, I described the case of a small Scottish cosmetic company, Gracefruit, whose owners had told me that, because of red tape, soaring costs and loss of markets, they no longer had the mental or emotional strength to make a success of what had been a thriving business. Gracefruit was emblematic of so many small and medium-sized enterprises across the islands whose business had been destroyed by Brexit. In his reply to me, the right hon. Member for North East Somerset said:
“We are freeing people in this country from red tape because we look at the United Kingdom playing a global role—trading with the globe, being as economically productive as anywhere in the world…That is why the EU is a failing economic option and why we sing hallelujahs for having left it.—[Official Report,
Vol. 715, c. 933.]
That was the Minister for Brexit Opportunities. I thought at the time that his reply was vacuous and glib. Twelve months on, I see it as deluded, arrogant, negligent and dangerous. If there is one reason why the creation of this cost of living Select Committee is essential, it can be found in that single reply. It was he and his well-heeled City chums who sold the people of England a pup in 2016. They sold it as a dawn of a new era of freedom and prosperity and of taking back control, but, instead, we live in a time of uncertainty and grave economic hardship, suffered, ironically, by those who bought into the fantasy that Brexit would be good for them and who have been left with the grim reality that Brexit has been a major driver of spiralling food costs, soaring mortgages and lower wages.
The pain of Brexit has been felt most acutely in our rural communities—communities such as my Argyll and Bute constituency, which had benefited from decades of EU membership and the support that it gave to our agricultural sector and the market that it provided for our outstanding seafood and shellfish sector. All of us who represent rural constituencies such as Argyll and Bute know that incomes are lower and costs are higher. Nearly 70% of households in my constituency are at risk of fuel poverty or extreme fuel poverty. As Alan Brown said, 56% of my constituency are off gas grid. To avoid fuel poverty, an average all-electric household would need an income of £72,200. To avoid extreme fuel poverty, they would require an income of £39,600. This is in the context of a median household income of just £33,000. Anyone can see the crisis of fuel poverty that is coming down the line, as indeed there will be with so many of my constituents.
The Royal Society of Edinburgh released a paper, “The cost of living: impact on rural communities in Scotland”, which recommended that any piece of legislation related to the cost of living should be “rural-proofed” and I heartily agree. It also recommended that the UK Government recognise the contribution of rural communities—whether it be through their whisky, tourism, timber or fish farming. In areas such as Argyll and Bute, the contribution made by my constituents to the UK Exchequer through whisky production alone is gargantuan compared with what they receive.
Rural Scotland has been hit hard by the cost of living crisis, which is why the people of these islands need the Committee to be set up. They need to have confidence that the decisions that we make here are done with all the available evidence that we can possibly muster. That is what the Committee would do. I say to Members, whether they be from the Labour party, the Liberal Democrats or the Conservatives, to vote this motion down on the minutiae—[Interruption.] The Minister may laugh, but this was an amendable motion, which his party, if it had any real commitment to the cost of living crisis, could have amended. To vote down this motion on the minutiae would be disingenuous in the extreme, because this is a genuine attempt on behalf of our constituents to address the biggest crisis in their lives at the moment. The Government and, sadly, the other opposition parties are playing political games with what should be a motion that unites all in the House.
I am calling the wind-ups at 4 o’clock and there are three others wanting to speak, so I ask Members to do the maths and be generous to their colleagues.
It is a pleasure to follow my hon. Friend Brendan O’Hara. As the junior deputy assistant viceroy was chuntering from a sedentary position about crackpots and a few hundred thousand pounds, I was reminded of Baroness Michelle Mone in the other place, who I am sure he would probably think is great value for money. However, this is a serious motion for a serious issue. Given that the cost of living remains by far—by a country mile—the single biggest issue that my constituents continue to raise on the doorsteps, I am somewhat intrigued that the Government and, indeed, the Labour party have once again largely boycotted this Opposition debate.
I understand that the Government’s focus is perhaps elsewhere—for example, sorting out a peerage for the positively sycophantic right hon. Member for Mid Bedfordshire (Ms Dorries)—but I am very surprised at the British Labour party’s boycott of today’s debate. I thought it was only picket lines that it boycotted, but I guess variety is the spice of life.
As I have said before, the cost of living crisis has been a persistent issue on these islands for several years, with many people struggling to make ends meet despite working full-time jobs. However, it is important to recognise that the cost of living crisis is not a new thing; it is the culmination of 13 long, cold years of Tory austerity from a Government who Scotland did not vote for. Yes, the issue has certainly been exacerbated by a variety of factors, including stagnant wages and rising housing costs, but the UK’s exit from the European Union has caused significant economic disruption and uncertainty that has further worsened the situation for many of those I represent in the east end of Glasgow.
Prior to Brexit, the free movement of goods, services, people and capital in the single market and the customs union were a benefit to our economy. The arrangement helped to promote economic growth and prosperity on these islands, making it easier for businesses to trade and for consumers to access a wide range of affordable goods and services. However, the UK’s decision to leave the European Union—a decision not consented to by the country I represent—has created significant challenges that have had a profound impact on the cost of living crisis that people across these islands are experiencing.
Since 2016, the value of the pound has fallen significantly against other major currencies, making imports far more expensive and causing inflation to rise. That has had a particularly acute impact on the cost of basic necessities such as food and fuel, which are heavily reliant on imports. According to the Office for National Statistics, consumer prices inflation surged to 3% in September 2017, up from 2.9% in the August and well above the Bank of England target. That was before the war in Ukraine and before covid. That increase was largely attributed to rising food prices, which jumped by 4.1% in September 2017, and to fuel prices, which rose by 2.5%. The weak pound also led to an increase in the cost of travel abroad, making it more expensive for families going on holiday or for those travelling for business.
Another area where Brexit has exacerbated the cost of living crisis is in the labour market more generally. With the loss of free movement of people around the EU, many industries in the UK face labour shortages, which in itself puts additional strains on business. I know from speaking to many businesses in the east end of Glasgow that they are facing additional costs associated with Brexit such as increased bureaucracy and red tape, tariffs, customs duties and the need to comply with new regulatory requirements. Those costs are often passed on to consumers in the form of increased prices, further exacerbating the cost of living crisis for many people.
Scottish businesses are set to be hit with even more Brexit pain, as the Tories have put on the table new inspection charges on food entering the UK from the EU. Plans drawn up by the Government would see a charge of £43 for each shipment of food coming in from the continent. It is not just my party warning against those plans: the former Glasgow Labour MP, now head of trade policy at the British Chambers of Commerce, William Bain—I think he is known in Glasgow as Willie—warned that the changes would hit small businesses particularly hard, as they would be bringing in “smaller, lower-value shipments”.
While supporters of Brexit argued that leaving the EU would enable the UK to negotiate better trade deals and reduce the cost for consumers, the reality is that the process has been fraught with uncertainty and complexity. So far, the UK has managed to agree two rather measly trade deals—we would say capitulations—with Australia and New Zealand, plus a pile of roll-over deals. That has been the sum total of Britain’s achievements on free trade, and let us not forget that the cost to farmers amounts to some £145 million. Negotiations have been slow and difficult, and there is still so much uncertainty about that future relationship between the UK and the European Union.
Meanwhile, people are struggling to make ends meet, and that is the biggest issue that constituents raise at my surgeries in Cranhill, Easterhouse, Baillieston and Parkhead. According to the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, the number of people in the UK living in poverty has risen for three consecutive years, with 40 million people now living in poverty, including, most shamefully, 4 million children.
Ultimately, the cost of living crisis is a complex issue that requires a multifaceted solution. It requires changes to social security policy, and I would argue it also requires short-term price controls on food, diversification of energy supplies and much more. That is precisely what the Committee in the eight-paragraph motion before the House would look at.
Does my hon. Friend agree that that Committee could propose what other European countries have done in reducing VAT on energy? If prices have doubled, we could halve VAT and it would still be revenue-neutral.
I would never disagree with my hon. Friend—life is too short for that. The point is that Brexit was about Parliament taking back control. What Parliament has sought to do, via this Opposition day motion, is say, “Right, we have identified an issue with Brexit and the cost of living crisis. We want to empower Parliament to look at this issue further.” Yet the Minister—the deputy assistant junior viceroy—seems opposed to that.
Before I finish, I will touch briefly on rising mortgage rates, which are another aspect of the cost of living crisis that persists—one that will get worse and dominate our inboxes far more. Government inaction on that will mean that millions of households could, by next year, be thousands of pounds a year worse off owing to frankly unsustainable rises on their mortgage payments. On new-build estates in my constituency, such as Broomhouse, Gartloch, Belvidere and Eastfields, many young families are living in fear of fixed rates expiring in the coming months.
Capital Economics reports that 3.2 million households are paying interest rates of 3% or more. By the end of next year, that will have risen to 5.8 million—a rise of 2.6 million. As we look at support for homeowners, households need particularly innovative action and solutions to avoid catastrophe. An example that I would like to see on the table is the concept of employer salary sacrifice schemes, which may provide mortgage-holders with a bit more mortgage relief. Thus far, however, as with food prices, the Treasury believes that it is up to the markets to self-regulate, and I know from speaking to constituents that that simply will not cut it. The very reason butter is security tagged at Tesco in Shettleston is because we are allowing the markets to self-regulate.
The Government are very much asleep at the wheel. The Tories have overseen record food inflation caused by their cost of living crisis and their reckless Brexit. Working people are being forced out of buying basic items while their energy bills and mortgage payments rise, too. All the while, our European neighbours are taking action to tackle food prices and price gouging. So yes, I will by all means support the motion when the Division bell rings tonight, but in truth, I would rather my Glasgow East constituents have decisions about their lives made in Edinburgh by a Government we elect, not by an intransigent Tory Government here in London whom we have not voted for—indeed, one we have not voted for since 1955.
Putting the word “Brexit” in the title of the debate will have confused those on the Government Benches, because that word has been expunged from their party’s political lexicon.
When talking about the financial difficulties faced by citizens of the United Kingdom, the Government will rightly mention covid. Certain individuals may have got rich on the back of the suffering of those who experienced covid either through their own illness or that of a loved one. More than 220,000 people died of covid in the UK, and people continue to die of it today. A few folk made a bit of money out of it, because the Government awarded contracts to their incompetent mates. We squandered £37 billion on a failed test and trace system, and covid damaged the UK-wide economy. The UK Government will rightly add to the equation the war in Ukraine, which has had a detrimental effect on the economy.
The existence of covid and the Ukraine war cannot be blamed on the Conservative and Unionist Government, which is why they are so keen to place those issues front and centre. It seems, from listening to the countless interviews that have taken place over the past five years or so, that the B-word has now almost entirely disappeared, but Brexit is and has been at the very heart of the Government in that time. They misled the electorate with promises of sunny uplands, as we have already heard, and now they wish to categorise Brexit as the latest entry in the newspeak dictionary. The poor are getting poorer and the rich are getting richer, and until this Government face up to the consequences of their actions, they will never be in a place to address the problems that Brexit has created. With both the Tories and Labour continuing to support a damaging Brexit that has wreaked havoc on the UK economy, it is clear that Westminster offers no answers to the pressures faced by ordinary households. We need a Committee that will focus entirely on that.
The OBR predicted in March that the UK’s GDP will fall by 4% as a result of Brexit, with trade and exports reducing by 15%. Additionally, a senior Bank of England official has said that £29 billion in business investment had been lost because of Brexit, because of leaving the EU. The former US Treasury Chief and top economist, Larry Summers, recently said that Brexit will be remembered as an “historic economic error”, adding that he would be “very surprised” if the UK avoids a recession in the next two years. He also noted that the UK’s economic situation is
“frankly more acute than…in most other major countries.”
All those people know more than me about politics and economics, but I know about people, including people in Motherwell and Wishaw. When I joined this place, I knew of one food bank. During recess, I heard about two more that have opened up— those are just the ones that I heard about during recess—and I visited one of them. People in my constituency are hungry. Grown men turn up at food banks and cry because they cannot feed their families. They want to work, and do work in many cases, but they do not earn enough to pay energy bills and to feed their families.
As for the question of baby milk, how in this country have we got to a stage where a security tag has to be put on baby milk, and where parents are diluting baby milk to make it go further? A Committee looking at the cost of living could look into that sort of thing. As a grandmother, I can tell the House: that is just not on.
The Citizens Advice Scotland social justice spokesperson noted that the energy cap
“remains higher than it was last summer, bills will remain higher than the beginning of this crisis in 2021, and since then people have faced a huge squeeze on their finances.”
As SNP spokesperson on disabilities, I deal all the time with disability organisations; I listen to them and the people they represent. David Duguid read out a huge list of things that the Government have done for people during the cost of living crisis, but for disabled families, it is just not enough. Scope has put a price tag on the cost of living in a disabled household as £975 a month. The support given to people who are disabled, their families and their carers has simply not been enough. That leads me back to food banks. A huge percentage of people who attend food banks, because they need to, do so because they are disabled.
I wonder whether the Minister or any Government Members know—I cannot tell the House this—how much it would cost for someone to power five machines overnight to support their disabled child. Families are living with that struggle day and daily. In a country as rich as this, we should all be ashamed of that fact. Let us think of that: five machines for someone to keep their child alive, and they are offered something from the Government—I do not deny it—but it is nothing like enough. We need a social tariff on energy, as called for by Citizens Advice. We need to support people who, through no fault of their own, cannot effectively contribute to the economy, otherwise what is the point of a place like this?
In Scotland, things are better for people with children. The Scottish child payment has made a huge difference to families with children, especially during this economic crisis. This Government really need to look at social security benefits, and to stop dealing with people who have to rely on those inadequate benefits as some form of scroungers. There have always been people who play the social security system—I would not stand here and deny it—but think on the people who play the tax system, hoik all their money offshore and refuse to pay their correct taxes. Let us let this Committee look at that sort of thing. If it is a question of money to help families, households and people in general through this cost of living crisis and make up for the effect of Brexit, let the Committee look at that. Let us have a Committee dedicated to helping end this cost of living crisis.
The biggest single issue that has come up on the doorsteps as I have been doing the rounds back in my constituency over the past number of weeks has been the cost of living. People are absolutely terrified, especially as mortgages are increasing and people on fixed-rate mortgages are having to renegotiate those very soon. There is a palpable sense of fear, and I am absolutely astounded that once again in a cost of living debate, we have not only empty Tory Benches—I can kind of understand that, because the Tories want to hide from the consequences of what they have done—but empty Benches on the Labour side of the Chamber. Of course, Labour Members want to hide from the consequences of their support for Brexit.
You would have thought that any sane, normal institution that is interested in pushing things forward for people would want to learn from mistakes. Brexit has cost 5.5% of GDP—or 4%, if we take the estimate given by David Duguid. That is a massive amount. We are talking about some £40 billion a year in tax revenues, yet the excuse for not having a Committee to investigate that is that it will cost a wee bit of money, or that Parliament does not have a big enough room to put it in. That is just insane. It does not make any sense at all. Lessons should and must be learned; if they are impacting on people, those people have a right to know.
Hon. Friends on the SNP Benches have described families as being the backbone of our communities, and that is especially true in the highlands. These are people—families—who are toiling to secure a future for their children, and Brexit has made that significantly more challenging for them. Those hard-working families are now at the mercy of consequences made in contradiction to their voting preference. The people of Scotland went to the polls and voted to reject Brexit, yet we have it imposed upon us, and the other nations of the UK are feeling the effects too, so why should this not be looked at in detail in a Committee? It just makes no sense, but then this place day by day makes no sense for people, especially those in Scotland.
When it comes to Brexit, do not forget that the Tories failed to oppose the hard-right voices in their ranks. They capitulated to them, resulting in these hardships, including price hikes for people and their families for essential goods such as bread, milk, rice and cooking oil. Those things have shot up astronomically in price over the past while as a direct consequence of Brexit—that cannot be blamed on the Ukraine war. That is not the cause of these price increases—there are direct correlations between the cost of basic foods that people are paying in the shops and Brexit.
Post-Brexit immigration policies have led to skills shortages, as we have heard from my hon. Friends, especially in the highlands. The health service, local services, the care sector, tourism and hospitality are all facing difficulties due to the workforce drain, yet there is to be no examination of what has gone wrong there, what could be done differently or what could be improved, because this place decides that it wants to brush all that under the carpet. The Government want to take no responsibility for that and they want to learn no lessons, because they are arrogant enough to say every time, “It is our way or the highway”. That is what they keep saying to the people of Scotland, in direct contradiction to their democratic preferences.
In the highlands, we have record unemployment and struggling industries, which are compounding the problem of a lack of the people we need to come here to work for us. Farms lack labour, resulting in less production and higher prices, increasing the suffering of communities. Rising living costs and mortgage rates have turned homes—homes that are normally the symbol of security—into symbols of anxiety, because people are worried about how they will pay their mortgages or their rent and keep a roof over their head.
Brexit was pitched as a dream of taking back control, but it has morphed into a self-inflicted nightmare. To distract people from the impacts of Brexit, we see the ignition of culture wars to try to take people’s minds off what is happening and to throw a dead cat on Brexit. The Government try to make out that Brexit is not causing harm to people, families and children day by day, but yet again, we are not to examine that. We must not look at that, because it just might expose some truths about what has happened due to Brexit and this place’s ideology coupled to that disastrous, self-inflicted harm.
What do we get from those on the Labour Benches on this matter? They are going to make Brexit great again—that is what they are saying. They say they can fix this. If they really want to do that, why not examine it in a Committee in this House so that we can look over the problems and say what went wrong and what could be done better? Instead they say, “No, let’s ignore that. Let’s not do that. It is too difficult, too challenging and it will upset the apple cart. We cannot do that because we have been told not to by our leadership.”
The promise made of an equal partnership for Scotland has clearly and demonstrably been broken by this place—not only by those sitting on the Government Benches, but by their comrades in the Labour party. They stand in the face of the Scottish people having a democratic choice over their future and being able to make their own examination of Brexit and their own investigation into what has gone wrong and what has been inflicted upon them. The Government and the Opposition are saying no to all that. This is just another example of this place standing in the face of doing what is right for people in their homes and communities.
I come back to the start of this: cost of living is the single biggest issue for people. When people are sitting at home just now, worried about everything, they are also worried when looking forward towards this winter, when they know that things will get worse again. They know that the cost of energy has not gone down very much, they know that prices are still continuing to rise and they know that mortgages will continue to rise. They are looking into that abyss just now and seeing the difficulties. It is affecting not just those who have already been thrust into abject poverty by decisions taken here in Westminster, but people who would have considered themselves relatively well off just a short time ago. Now they face this calamity—this coming together. When the Government talk about all the support they are bringing forward for people in their homes across Scotland and the other nations of the UK, what they are describing may sound a big figure, but it is like pouring a watering can on the bin fire they have set in this economy.
The only way for people to escape this madness, get things looked at properly and get things dealt with in the right way is for them to take the real control that they need, which is to have their democratic voice acknowledged, to have their say on the future of Scotland and for Scotland to regain its place in the European Union as an independent country.
I am anticipating a Division no later than 4.21 pm. We now come to the wind-ups, and I call the SNP spokesperson.
It is a pleasure to wind up this SNP debate on the cost of living. There have been a number of excellent contributions from my colleagues and some other speeches from across the House, and surely we can all agree that the cost of living crisis is something we need to work together to solve. I am very grateful to the Clerks of the House who worked with us in drafting the motion, because it is an innovative proposal—we acknowledge that—but we are in extraordinary times and people need solutions.
I believe that politicians should work together. I spent 16 years in the European Parliament. [Interruption.] As my hon. Friend Stephen Flynn says, I seldom mention it, but I spent a number of years working with people, putting the badges to one side and finding solutions. Usually there is 20% over here that we will not agree on and 20% over there that we will not agree on, but there is 60% in the middle where we can find a solution. Surely to goodness, the people we all serve, who are struggling in their daily lives, need to see politicians working together and finding solutions. It really has been quite disappointing to hear that described as a “crackpot idea”, which I think is unworthy of this discussion.
We are looking to find solutions, and the first step is to admit that there is a problem. The fact is that too many people are struggling with real-life problems, and we can treat those problems. We have heard a number of points relevant to Scotland on which both Governments—the UK and Scottish Governments—are helping to ameliorate the situation. However, what we are trying to do is to get to the root cause of how we got here, where these problems come from and how we can stem them. People are struggling with their energy costs, their food costs and their rent or mortgage costs. We are all struggling with inflation, and we are all struggling with wages that are too low. Businesses are struggling with all of that, as well as with a labour shortage, a skills shortage, energy costs and finance costs. It is a perfect storm that needs brave measures and courage, and I really have been saddened to hear some of the hackery and the boneheaded, specious arguments against the establishment of this Committee.
I encourage colleagues to raise their game, because I am deeply alarmed—we will all have been having these meetings in our constituencies—at how many people are struggling and fearful right now in all our communities. Food import checks are going to be implemented from October, so food price inflation is likely to get higher, not better than it has been. As people come off fixed-rate mortgages—this point has been made—the rises they are looking at are utterly unmanageable for tens of thousands or millions of households and individuals. On top of that, we have the global instability caused by climate chaos, uncertain harvests worldwide, political instability, war in Europe and potential difficulties in south-east Asia, and the global food supply chain—the global supply chain full stop—is under unprecedented strain, so now really is the time to put the badges to one side and find solutions.
The causes of the cost of living crisis are interlinked. David Duguid made the significant point that the motion does not, of course, deal with covid or Ukraine, but that is because covid and Ukraine were external shocks that we all needed to react to. Brexit is self-inflicted, and Brexit is also an ongoing process.
I am a Member of the EU-UK Parliamentary Partnership Assembly, and the trade and co-operation agreement that governs the relations between the UK and the EU is up for review in 2025. There is also the Windsor framework, which we supported. The SNP did not need to support the Windsor framework, but we did, because peace in Northern Ireland is too important. We supported that when we did not need to. We supported the Government in finding solutions to a problem that was brought about by the TCA, and indeed the lack of engagement and intellectual honesty that we saw from the UK Government in ignoring the problems that the Windsor framework goes a way to solve. We are going to come back to those. However, the TCA is up for review in 2025, and there are important solutions to be found.
We have heard that a committee of inquiry is an unusual thing, but actually it is not. In the Irish Parliament, the Oireachtas Éireann had a committee of inquiry into the banking crisis between 2014 and 2016. Obviously the banking crisis had deep significance in all our countries, but that was especially the case in Ireland and there were lessons to learn. The Danish Folketing had a commission of inquiry into the Iraq and Afghanistan wars in 2012, because that major foreign policy decision needed to be learned from properly. The European Parliament had the special committee on the financial, economic and social crisis between 2009 and 2011—I know because I was on it—to learn the lessons of how the financial crisis came to be, and what we needed to do to stop it happening again. The idea that Brexit can be written off as an historical thing, when our citizens are dealing with the consequences of it day in, day out, does not withstand analysis. I understand that Government Members might be sick of experts, but I am quite a fan of them. A key provision of the proposal is that the Committee will be able to hear from experts and identify problems, so that we find solutions.
Brexit has impacted on the cost of living in a number of ways. As we have heard, there are other interlinked factors, but we believe there is a particular issue with how the UK left the European Union, which has made those things more difficult. We are willing to put our ideology to one side. We almost heard an argument that Members will vote against this Committee because SNP Members are in favour of independence. Well yes, damn sure we are. I am absolutely secure in my view that Scotland’s best future is as an independent state back in the European Union, and part of a global A-team of 500 million people. I also think that if the UK cannot do that, the best future for it is to get back into the single market, but I urge colleagues to read the motion—that is not what this is about. This is a suggestion for us all to work together, put the badges to one side, and find solutions to the problems that our people are experiencing.
The impact of Brexit on all those things merits further analysis. I am not interested in hackery about the other positions or parties, or who did what when. We are all in a problem that we need to fix, and we all need solutions. I will work with anybody to improve the lives of the people of Stirling, and to improve the lives of the people of Scotland. I want to see the people of the UK do well as well. Brexit, and the way it is running through, is making life more difficult on a daily basis for all our citizens. We have heard today about the benefits on which it was sold. I never cease to be amazed at the extent to which Government Members get giddy with excitement about hypothetical upsides and the gains of trade deals with various places and far-flung bits of the world, but ignore the 4% GDP hit that we have taken. There is a real need for intellectual honesty, and we think that this cross-party Committee would allow us to get there.
SNP Members believe that Brexit has made food more expensive—and wait until October. We believe that energy, particularly electricity, is more expensive—and wait until winter. We believe that the economy is weaker, trade is more difficult and the labour force is diminished, and that has impacted on and affected all our citizens whom we all serve. We owe it to them to put the badges to one side, roll our sleeves up and work together, and this Committee is an attempt to do that. We are willing to work together to find solutions to this problem, and I hope the other parties will raise their game and join us in that effort.
I thank Members across the Chamber for their contributions to this debate on the cost of living. We have heard extensive and thoughtful contributions from those on the Front Benches, as well as from an array of Beck Benchers, including my hon. Friend David Duguid and the hon. Members for Midlothian (Owen Thompson), for Cynon Valley (Beth Winter), for Coatbridge, Chryston and Bellshill (Steven Bonnar), for City of Durham (Mary Kelly Foy), for Kilmarnock and Loudoun (Alan Brown), for Argyll and Bute (Brendan O’Hara), for Glasgow East (David Linden), for Motherwell and Wishaw (Marion Fellows), and for Inverness, Nairn, Badenoch and Strathspey (Drew Hendry)—I agreed with some of them more than with others.
Although I am pleased that we are having this debate, I emphasise that the cost of living challenges faced by people across the United Kingdom are a global challenge. We are not alone, and countries across western Europe and, indeed, the rest of the world are seeing the same trends, driven largely by Putin’s illegal war in Ukraine, and the aftermath of the covid pandemic—that has been acknowledged by many if not all Members.
The Conservative Government have been taking action to help people by providing cost of living payments. This year, we have provided £900 for households on means-tested benefits, £300 for pensioner households and a £150 payment for people receiving disability benefits. In Wales, those payments have supported more than 400,000 people through some challenging times. In fact, last winter, the UK Government paid almost half of household energy bills through the energy price guarantee and by providing £400 off those energy bills. In addition, last year we provided £650 for households receiving means-tested benefits, £300 for pensioner households, £150 for the disabled, a £150 council tax rebate for households in council tax bands A to D, a 5p cut to fuel duty, which has been extended to 2023-24, and a permanent increase in the amount that someone can earn before national insurance contributions are charged. That is, of course, on top of a 40% real-terms increase in the personal allowance since 2010. Going forward, the removal of the premium paid by those on prepayment meters will save 4 million of the poorest households £45 a year. All in all, the Government’s cost of living support amounts to an estimated £94 billion.
Of course, we as Conservatives believe that work is the best way out of poverty. We are extending the support that our jobcentres offer to low-paid workers so that they can increase their hours and move into better paid, higher quality jobs. In the Budget, we on the Conservative Benches confirmed the biggest expansion of free childcare in living memory. That will reduce costs for parents, who can get back to work, and ensure that a career break does not become a career end. Alongside that, we will see universal credit provide childcare costs up front. We are supporting people with the largest ever increase to the national living wage.
I thank him for giving way. Rather than just reading his pre-prepared speech, will he answer any of the points raised in the debate? For example, I pointed out that Energy UK has observed that post-Brexit energy trading arrangements are adding £1 billion to our energy bills. What Brexit dividends are offsetting that £1 billion that has been added to our bills?
I will come to the benefits of Brexit in due course, if the hon. Member will kindly wait.
We have increased the national living wage to £10.42 an hour in recent times, which is an increase of 9.7%. We have also cut the universal credit taper rate and increased the work allowance. We are supporting those on the state pension and those receiving pension credit and working age and disability benefits with a 10.1% uplift to match inflation.
What have the Opposition parties done? The SNP’s motion fails to recognise the support given by the UK Government to people across Scotland and commits instead to spending almost half a million pounds of taxpayers’ money every year on an unnecessary Select Committee. SNP Members say that they want to investigate matters relating to increases in prices, but while we know that global factors are at play, they seem to blame Brexit alone. That is the same Brexit that has enabled us to take back control of our laws, our money and our borders, and the same Brexit that is enabling UK fishermen to catch an additional £146 million-worth of fish a year.
Without rehearsing the earlier debate on whether Brexit is good or bad for fisherman, does my hon. Friend agree with the chief executive of the Scottish Fishermen’s Federation who has said that
“whatever issues the industry has with Brexit and labour issues”— those were mentioned earlier—
“these pale into insignificance if fishermen are banned from fishing”,
as they would be through the SNP and Green Scottish Government’s shambolic plans for highly protected marine areas?
My hon. Friend is quite right. He champions the Scottish fishing industry, and rightly so.
The Procurement Bill, which we considered yesterday, will allow SMEs across the UK more easily to access £3 billion-worth of revenue and let us rewrite the rules on support for places and regions—including in Wales and Scotland—to deliver levelling up. The same Brexit has allowed two new freeports each for Wales and Scotland, and allowed the UK to lead the way in the roll-out of the covid vaccine, saving lives and putting the country back on track.
We will have to disagree. This country showed the way on the management of the pandemic and the development of vaccines.
The SNP wants to discuss the cost of living, but it would rather import oil and gas from overseas than support tens of thousands of jobs in Scotland.
I would also like to look at the solutions proposed by the Labour Government in Wales. They seem to think that charging people to use motorways, bringing in a tourism tax and scrapping meal deals is the way to help people. Let us not forget the money squandered by the Welsh Government on a racing circuit never to be built, an airport where barely any planes take off and £150 million on a report into the M4 relief road which was then axed. And let us never forget Labour’s record on the economy. No Labour Government have ever left office with unemployment lower than when they came to power. It would perhaps be remiss of me not to remind the House that when Labour left office in 2010, the then Chief Secretary to the Treasury wrote, “I’m afraid there’s no money left.”
We will take no lectures on tackling the cost of living crisis from the Opposition parties. The UK Government are delivering an unprecedented package of support across the whole of Britain. The Prime Minister has been clear that it is his priority to halve inflation, ease the cost of living and give people the financial security they want and deserve. While the Opposition play politics, we are getting on with the job and delivering for the people of the United Kingdom.