Cost of Living Crisis: Wales — Caroline Nokes in the Chair

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 3:19 pm on 19th July 2022.

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Photo of Geraint Davies Geraint Davies Labour, Swansea West 3:19 pm, 19th July 2022

It is a great pleasure to follow my hon. Friend Beth Winter, who emphasised the depth of inequality, despair and impoverishment in her constituency and across Wales due to the cost of living crisis and a long history of cuts that we have seen disproportionately in Wales.

We are talking about Wales, and it is worth remembering that Wales is poorer, sicker and older. That was already the case before the austerity cuts began to bite from 2010 onwards. Let us put this in context. Austerity cut public services and welfare, and Wales is disproportionately reliant on public service jobs, has more older people on welfare and all the rest of it. That was the starting point. We know, from a University of York study that was published by The BMJ, that something like 50,000 extra people across the UK died from austerity.

Then, of course, we had covid. Again, we had the background of a poorer, sicker and older nation, where we would have expected, therefore, a much higher death rate. In fact, the death rate above the five-year average was something like 13% in Wales and 20% in England, but of course the average was much higher to start with because we had a poorer and sicker nation. The lower death rate was through the good governance of Mark Drakeford and his Welsh Government.

We are now coming to a situation after having had those massive cuts. Let us face it: in Wales, we are operating at 70% of gross value added, so average wages are about 70% of the UK average. We are having cuts and pay freezes in a very difficult situation, so people are suffering more. We have had Brexit. I know that the Minister is a big fan of Brexit, but 60% of Welsh trade was with Europe. In England, it is more like 48%. The problems that we have had, including problems with the Northern Ireland protocol, are again disproportionately hitting Wales.

Take a typical example of a public sector worker, for instance a nurse who is the only breadwinner in a house in the valleys, or wherever it is. If there are pay freezes on public sector workers, that house is impoverished. We have all heard the sorts of cases that were just mentioned: children who hold back half their free school meal to eat in the evening, because they do not have any food at home; children washing their hair with washing-up liquid; people not having the lights on, and so on. We know from the Trussell Trust that there are now 14 million people in poverty. There are, I think, 2.6 million people using food banks in the UK—up a hundredfold—and the majority of people who use food banks have some level of disability.

There is a pressing case for the Government to act now, whether through indexing social security or the universal credit uplift. There is also a pressing case for doing something about rent, which is not talked about very much. We talk about energy and food, but the local housing allowance has not been indexed. For example, studies by the Bevan Foundation show that, in an online search of private rented accommodation in Wales, only about 1% fits in with the local housing allowance. People are therefore driven into squalid, Rachmanite living conditions—another terrible fact.

In his intervention, the Minister implied, “Whose money is this, anyway?” I suggest that not only have the cuts disproportionately hit Wales but, as he knows from our meeting last week with Professor Mark Barry, there has been a historical lack of investment in Wales—of getting our fair share to boost productivity, jobs and wealth, so that we can pay our way. Over the last couple of decades, rail enhancement investment has operated at about 1.5% of the UK total, and we have 5% of the population and 11% of the rail track. Looking forward, instead of at the historical legacy, if we take 2020 as the baseline, Wales is being promised £0.5 billion out of an England promise of £106 billion, including High Speed 2, which is outrageous. HS2 is north-south. It will help Scotland much more than Wales, yet Scotland is getting its fair Barnett consequential. If we got it—90% of the 5% population—it would be £4.6 billion.

The Minister knows from that meeting that there are plans on the drawing board for about £2 billion to £3 billion. That is about half the amount that we deserve—from now on, I suppose, the legacy—and could make a big difference in moving us towards net zero, in productivity, in speed and in getting people to relocate. The truth is that once HS2 starts running, we will be able to get from London to Manchester in one hour and 10 minutes instead of two hours and 10 minutes, but it will still take nearly three hours to get to Swansea, so where will companies put their investment? In the case of Virgin, the answer is to take it out of Swansea and put it into Manchester. If we want to go to Staffordshire, it will take 45 minutes instead of one hour and 45 minutes, so on top of the historical inequalities I have mentioned, that will hammer Wales again.

The Minister asks, “Who will pay?” The way to pay is to invest in the productivity and future of Wales through moving towards a green future. We have talked about the windfall tax. Let us be straightforward: the big five oil companies have made excess profits of $2 trillion in the past few decades. They were making those operating profits above costs, and then Putin invades Ukraine and we have a price hike. They have done nothing to earn that windfall profit. It is our money, which was paid out of the pockets of the travelling public, and it should be given back.

In Spain, the people are getting free public transport; in Germany, it is €9 for a month. If we did that with the windfall tax, everyone could go to work for cheaper. We could get investment in green public transportation much more quickly, such as hydrogen and electric, and do something innovative. We could provide the background for pay settlements, such as the rail disputes. Instead of the National Union of Rail, Maritime and Transport Workers being told, “You can have 3% and 10,000 job cuts; what are you going to do about it?”—and, as we would expect, a strike is provoked—we could encourage everyone to go on public transport so that we do not need cuts in jobs. There might be a change to jobs, but there would be no cuts, and with more investment, we would not have to ask for so much. We can all agree to that.