Fighting the Cost of Living Crisis

It is a great pleasure to follow my hon. Friend the Member for Wirral South (Alison McGovern) and the hon. Member for Croydon Central (Gavin Barwell), who have both made thoughtful contributions to the debate. It is a great shame that more Members are not present on the Government Benches. We seem to be running out of speakers rather early, which speaks volumes.

 

The Conservative Government seem quite happy to crow at great length about how well the economy is doing, but they seem to take very little interest in the question of living standards. They crow about how well the economy is doing, we hear a great deal of briefing on the subject and we endure a great deal at Prime Minister’s questions, but the truth is that no one believes them. That is because people’s lives do not reflect a growth in the economy. For ordinary people, life is getting harder, not better. People do not believe that next year is going to be better than this year; they believe that it is going to be harder. And I am afraid that, at the moment, it looks as though they are right.

That is partly because services are being cut. It is partly because people are having to queue to see their GP. It is also harder for older people to get social care or to see a consultant. After-school clubs are being cut, youth groups are being closed and there are restricted hours for day centres. Life is also more difficult for people because they no longer have access to the kinds of services that they have been taking for granted, which are being cut by the Government. Primarily, however, life is harder because people feel that their wages and benefits are not keeping up with inflation. The reason for that is that they are not: they are not keeping up by a long chalk.

Those people who are lucky enough to be in work are often not working sufficient hours. They might be working for their poverty, but they are not earning enough to be able to rely on their own wages. They also have to rely on benefits and tax credits. Many of those on low wages who work full time also have to rely on benefits and tax credits, especially in areas such as the one I represent. In central London, it is simply not possible to live on the average wage without relying on benefits to help to pay the rent and to help with child care costs.

Much has been said about what a great idea universal credit is, and about how we should have one level of benefits for everyone across the country, including those in central London. No allowance is made for the fact that rents and child care costs are so much higher in areas such as this. People on average wages in central London rely on benefits too. That is the truth, and if universal credit is introduced in the way the Government propose, I do not know what is going to happen to those people.

Charlie Elphicke: I appreciate that the hon. Lady is making a sincere and heartfelt speech, but the difficulty is that every prescription from Labour involves more spending and more welfare. The effect of that would be to drive up interest rates, which would harm the recovery and harm the job creation that could lead to increased wages and a strengthened recovery. The polls show that that is not a prescription that this country finds credible.

Emily Thornberry: The hon. Gentleman raises a point that divides us completely. Those of us on the Labour Benches believe in investing money in housing, for example. I have just mentioned the huge rents that people have to pay, and how difficult it is for people on average wages to live in London without relying on housing benefit. If we could build more houses in central London and the south-east, house prices would not be as high as they are now and people would not need to rely on benefits in the way that they do. That makes sense. If we build homes, we also provide jobs and infrastructure, lower our dependence on housing benefit and lower housing prices generally. We will offer hope and opportunity for the next generation. I have no idea why the Government will not do this, but they are refusing to invest properly. We will need a new Government before that happens.

Ben Gummer: There is absolutely no difference between us on whether there is pressure on living standards, as it is completely obvious to all Members that there is. Where there is a difference relates to prescriptions. The hon. Lady rightly talks about housing demand in the south-east, but she knows perfectly well that, even if we start building tens of thousands of houses in the south-east this year, it will take many years before it feeds into reductions in rent. What prescriptions—costed prescriptions —could the hon. Lady and her Front-Bench team bring forward now to ease living standards?

Emily Thornberry: I am sure that the hon. Gentleman, who I know takes this issue very seriously, will have seen the policy development happening in the Labour party and the seriousness with which we are putting this issue as a front-and- centre policy for us as a future Government. We know the difference that that will make to the economy. When it comes to investing money, this is what we should invest it in. I fully support our Front-Bench team on this and I believe it is the right thing for this Government to do. In the end it would save us a great deal.

I do not believe that we can just build tens of thousands of homes. We need to get out there and start building seriously. We need to start building now and, frankly, I think it is disgraceful that, given the recession that we are having to endure, this Government have, I believe, the worst house building record of any Government since the 1920s. That is outrageous. This was not the original purpose of my speech but since the hon. Member for Ipswich (Ben Gummer) has touched this particular nerve—I apologise for giving it to him with both barrels—I simply cannot see the sense in the Government’s current policy of putting their fingers in their ears and saying “La, la, la, la, la, la, la.” and thinking that this problem will somehow go away. It will not go away. The only way to solve our housing crisis is to build more housing.

Returning to my original brief, those in part-time work do not earn enough money to be able to afford a good standard of living and that applies even to some of those in full-time work, so some have to rely on benefits. We have seen that 60% of new jobs since the last election are in the low-paid sectors of our economy—retail and residential. Between 1997 and 2010, 25% of the new jobs established were in those sectors. Why is this difference occurring? A Resolution Foundation study has shown that 4.8 million Britons—20% of all employees—earn below the living wage, which is a leap from 3.4 million—14%—at the height of the recession. Why is that happening? Why have those on average wages lost an average of £1,500 a year?

It is happening because our economy is unfair and unbalanced. What are the Government going to do about it? How are they going to address the problem? They cannot simply keep sailing on and hope that things are going to be all right. Things are not going to be all right. The evidence shows that there will continue to be people who just manage to grab on to work by their fingertips, but not by enough for them to be able to sustain themselves and their families. Even those in full-time work, particularly in areas such as London and the south-east, cannot afford to live without being supported by benefits. In the end, this is unsustainable; we must raise wages in real terms.

I hold a women’s listening panel every year. This year, it is on 13 September at St Mary’s hall in Upper street, and all my female constituents are welcome. I carried out a survey last year and 89% of the constituents who replied said that their income had gone down in the previous year; 32% said their rent had gone up and 70% said it was difficult for them to make ends meet because of their food and fuel bills. They particularly mentioned the expense of child care in Islington. The problem is not just the obvious and manifest cost of rent. The cost of child care—£164 a week—is so expensive as to make it impossible for someone on the minimum wage of £212 a week to put a child into full-time child care. These things do not make sense.

There are many single parents in my constituency who want to get into work, but who simply cannot make ends meet when it comes to getting to work, placing their children in child care, being able to pay the rent and being able to pay their way. This is the trap that so many people find themselves in, and there has to be an answer to it. Even getting someone to pick the children up after school and look after them for a few hours until the person finishes work can cost £92. How can that be all right for someone on the minimum wage of £212 a week? It does not make sense; it does not add up.

Those who live on benefits and do not work at all—those on jobseeker’s allowance—have, of course, seen a rise in their income of 70p a week. I do not know whether the Exchequer Secretary has ever spoken to anyone who lives on jobseeker’s allowance and gone through with them how they spend their £70.70 a week? If so, he would know how difficult it is for them to make ends meet at the moment. It seems to me that we have heard a great deal of political knockabout today when what we should be doing is listening to real people out there and how they live their real lives. I invite the Minister and his boss to come to my women’s listening panel. I will not tell the women that they are Tories, so they will be safe, and we will finesse the fact that they are the only men in the room. They should listen to what is said, listen to these women’s stories of how they are trying to make ends meet in these difficult times. Year in, year out, it gets worse and more difficult for them. The Minister may talk about the economy getting better, but he should listen to what is going on in real life.

 


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