Early General Election — [David Mundell in the Chair]

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 4:57 pm on 17 October 2022.

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Photo of Catherine West Catherine West Shadow Minister (Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs) 4:57, 17 October 2022

Thank you for calling me to speak, Mr Mundell. It is a pleasure to contribute to this debate under your chairmanship.

This is a Tory crisis, made in Downing Street but paid for by working people, as my hon. Friend Ruth Jones has said. Changing the Chancellor over the weekend or making a partial U-turn does not undo the damage that has been done by the Prime Minister and the Conservative party, who selfishly used the whole summer for their infighting, rather than focusing on the needs of working families, such as their energy bills. Now look where they have landed us; they have undermined our institutions and trashed our standing on the world stage, damaging the country’s credibility as a place to invest. They need to get on with reversing this Budget in order to reassure the markets. However, the statement that is being delivered in the main Chamber as we speak here in Westminster Hall does not give me much cause for pleasure, because I believe that it will lead to more hardship for working people. Basically, it is balancing the books on the backs of working people, who have played no role in crashing the economy.

The problem is the philosophy of trickle-down economics, which the Prime Minister seemed to promote when she was first elected to the post by Tory party members. However, the confusing thing—for members of the public, the markets and for us as MPs—is that the new Chancellor appears to have turned all that on its head.

The Conservatives crashed the economy for unfunded tax cuts for the wealthiest, causing mortgages to skyrocket and making people worried sick about their pensions. When the Prime Minister was asked to come to Parliament to explain, somehow she sent someone else and was not even able to turn up to apologise for what she had done to wreck our standing in the world and to wreck the economy.

I would be very happy with a general election. I hope that some fresh faces might improve the situation somewhat. The important thing is that, as a representative from Tesco said yesterday on the BBC, the Labour party has a plan. It has the confidence of large groups such as Tesco and others. When Tesco, or another large company like it, agrees with the trade unions that the Government have wrecked the economy, we know it is time for some fresh faces.

We are ready. We have been watching for 12 years. We have been watching as child poverty has skyrocketed. We have been watching as the promise of levelling up—which was a good Tory pledge and a good idea—has utterly failed. We will see that as the Chancellor now announces the cutting back of capital and revenue spend in the poorest corners of the UK.

With the Office for Budget Responsibility not having laid out its view, it is difficult for us to say exactly, in pounds and pennies, what Labour would do. However, we have enough of an outline; we have something that is much more convincing than what the Government will take to the general election. It may not come today and it may not come tomorrow, but we all know that the general election is not far off.

Let us talk briefly about the mortgage situation. We will need a plan for people’s mortgages. The eye-watering mortgage increases will cause homeowners across the country sleepless nights. In the area I represent, where there are very expensive mortgages because the cost of housing is so high in London, those who can buy their own homes are very stretched indeed. One mum told me that she had sleepless nights, saying, “How am I going to come up with £800 as of next spring? I don’t know where that’s going to come from.” Her job is quite well paid, but it does not pay another £800 a month. Those are the sorts of conversations that families are having up and down the country. Mortgage increases will lead to more families breaking up, too. It is a fact that the more financial worries people have, the more that families tend to break up under their weight.

Another thing that is very much on our minds as Labour MPs is the question of benefits, and what will happen to the poorest in our society. The events that we are most often invited to attend in our constituencies are food bank openings. I have been involved in both local and national politics since 2001, and I have never gone to so many food banks. Bounds Green food bank tells me that it used to open at 10 in the morning and close at 1 pm, but it now closes at 11 am, because in one hour all the food is gone, and there are fewer and fewer people who are able to donate. This crisis is doubly unfair on those who need to use food banks.

Working parents, disabled people and the poorest pensioners must have the knowledge that, when we get in, our Government will ensure that they can pay for the cost of living. In fact, once we get in, and there are fresh faces and fresh energy, I believe that the economy will improve a bit—just on the basis that we have more energy and some ideas. In a democracy, any Government tend to run out of ideas. After 12 years, this is a genuine fact: the Government have run out of ideas. We saw that in the summer, when Tory candidates said some nonsensical things and were completely out of touch with what the average person is deeply worried about.

I have another couple of points to make. I am very worried about the treatment of the civil service during the last month. It was not just the fact that the Office for Budget Responsibility was not permitted to give an outline to MPs, journalists, markets and citizens; pushing out the head of the civil service and the Treasury on day one sent a very bad message to all those parties. Over the years, civil servants in our system have held up a non-partisan approach to what the right thing is for the country. That is not to say that there cannot be conflicts or debates between a politician and a civil servant, but sacking the most senior civil servant in the Treasury was one of the most troubling things I have seen since being in this House.

The OBR was not allowed to make its statement, institutions such as think-tanks and the Institute for Fiscal Studies were publicly trashed over the summer, and very negative language was used about the Governor of the Bank of England, when his job is to provide financial stability for the country. Time and again during the leadership election there were subliminal and quite outspoken criticisms of the Governor. The scene was being set for trashing the institutions that basically, through a gentleman’s agreement, hold together our standing domestically and internationally. That was completely detonated when the current incumbent in Downing Street—I assume she is still there—got into power. The judgment of that individual has come into our sight.

Something else has been really bothering me in the last couple of weeks. As we have a couple of minutes up our sleeve, may I be indulged, Mr Mundell, in mentioning that I read in The Guardian that when the Prime Minister moved into Downing Street she moved out of the former Prime Minister’s office—Mr Johnson’s office—and allowed her assistant, Mr Mark Fullbrook, to move into it? Mr Fullbrook is based in Mr Johnson’s office, and apparently the current Prime Minister uses the Cabinet room for her discussions. Fair enough, but it worries me deeply that this individual has a very questionable record on two counts. First, there is a question over who he has advised in a Libyan set-up, and whether he has advised correct people there. Secondly, there is the question of his advice in a gubernatorial race in the USA. Money came into his company so that he could work on somebody else’s campaign, and the FBI has been looking at whether the funding has been correctly transferred from one party to another.

To have somebody who is being investigated by the FBI sitting in Mr Johnson’s former office chills me to the bone, but that is the sort of Government who have finally got into power in this country. Regardless of how many days this Government have left, we urgently need an independent ethics adviser to be appointed. Other Members may be able to clarify this, but my understanding is that the Prime Minister said that that was not urgent, and not particularly necessary. I think it is urgent, but only a new Government can clean up the mess that this Government have got themselves into.

I will talk briefly about constituents who have written to me about the cost of living crisis. They are not necessarily going to food banks currently, but they are finding life very difficult indeed. They have told me how much food in the supermarket has gone up by—real basics, such as milk, butter and chicken. People should be able to put those basics on the table to feed their families. Energy costs and the cost of petrol to go into someone’s car have been soaring; yet what we have been discussing in the House of Commons often does not reflect the pain that many people are going through. We want to see workers getting decent pay, being respected, and having their rights at work respected—not a Government who seek to roll back further the rights of trade unions, or of people who want to protest against what the Government are doing. We are seeing increasing authoritarianism, which seems to go hand in hand with the financial mistakes that the Government have made.

We want the question of the national grid and energy shortages to be addressed with some sincerity and honesty. Last week and the week before, when National Grid warned that there would be blackouts, no one really believed the Government when they said, “We’ll be fine”. We have been told that before and then we have had a crisis. It is deeply distressing to see the lack of honesty. We need the Government to be honest and say, “There could well be blackouts, and if there are, this is what you do: one, two, three.” They should not let people live in fear that that will happen without the correct advice on what to do if it does.

On clean power, which links to the national grid question, the next Labour Government will launch an urgent mission for a fossil fuel-free electricity system by 2030, making the UK a clean energy superpower that will export clean power to the rest of the world. Gas futures price projections show that that would save UK households £93 billion over the rest of this decade, or an average saving of £475 per household every year until 2030. This world-leading commitment would support the creation of more than 200,000 direct jobs and 260,000 to 300,000 indirect jobs.

That kind of vision, plan and investment in skills and the future, with a proper plan for our regions, is giving the likes of the Tesco boss who said that Labour had a plan confidence that we do. The UK would be the first major economy to make that world-leading commitment, alongside smaller European countries such as Austria, Portugal, Denmark and the Netherlands. It complements Labour’s plans to increase energy efficiency, including through our warm homes plan to insulate 19 million cold, draughty homes over a decade.

A number of Members have been on local councils. When I was a borough leader in 2010 we had a very good programme for giving away boilers to the private rented sector, and a plan to retrofit draughty Victorian properties. After 2010, it was disappointing to see Mr Osborne decide to trash all spending to councils, including for all the important green programmes to insulate homes. We would have had 30% more warm homes in my constituency if that small amount of funding had been allowed to continue. I am sure that if that had been replicated across the UK, we would spend so much less as a nation on fuel and energy.

Martin Lewis has made his most recent projection of what our fuel bills will look like next year. I am pleased that we will not be opposing the energy price guarantee legislation this evening, but for goodness’ sake, get the money off the companies. Do not put it on to debt, because that will make the markets go crazy again. The Government must listen to the Opposition and accept that we have sometimes come up with some good ideas.

Thank you for your patience, Mr Mundell, as I have been on a circuitous route around the question of a general election. I have laid out some of our good ideas. We will have an energy policy for the future. We will have a plan for working people. We will have a vision for no more food banks, for the building of more affordable homes for our residents, and for enhancing our role in the world. I hope we will look at eliminating our huge trade deficit, which is another area that worries many of us on the Labour Benches. I hope that with some fresh faces and energy through the upcoming general election, which I am sure will come, we will end up with a wonderful team of committed Labour Cabinet members and a Labour team that will restore us as the best country in the world.