Last week was the State Opening of Parliament, the formal start of the parliamentary year setting out the Government’s proposed policies and legilsation.
On Tuesday 14 May 2013 MPs had the opportunity to debate the Government’s proposals to tackle the cos of living.
The proposed policies in the Queen’s Speech only highlighted the Government’s lack of action to tackle the problems we have locally with housing, increased reliance on foodbanks, increased poverty and the rate of employment.
You can read my contribution to the debate in its entirity below. The remainder of the debate can be read online here.
“Last week’s Queen’s Speech was delivered at a time when most people’s wages are being frozen or cut and both measures of inflation—the consumer prices index and the retail prices index—are above the Bank of England’s target of 2%. The sad fact is that many people, in work as well as out of work, are struggling. We have heard examples from my colleagues, and I have regularly had people in my surgeries in tears at their plight. Last week, I had somebody who had just had a heart bypass operation and had been made homeless. She had been living on her in-laws’ couch for the past three months. Such is the plight of many people across the country.
With energy prices increasing by 20% since 2010, nearly 8,000 households in my constituency—nearly one in four—live in fuel poverty. Given that there was no change in economic and social policy in the Queen’s Speech, the situation is set to get worse. Nationally, it is estimated that by 2016, 9 million households will be living in fuel poverty. The knock-on effects will be felt particularly by our health service and social carers.
My local Oldham council is doing all that it can to address the problem, through the fair energy campaign. It is getting households to sign up to a collective energy deal, using people power to negotiate with energy companies for the cheapest energy tariff for consumers. That contrasts starkly with what the Government are doing. We know that the Warm Front initiative, which we introduced many years ago, closed in January, and the new scheme that the Government have introduced provides less than half the support that Labour provided. On top of that, the Government have cut the winter fuel payment for older people by £50 for the over-60s and £100 for the over-80s, in the full knowledge that every winter tens of thousands of older people become seriously ill or die as a result of the cold. In 2010-11, there were 25,000 excess winter deaths just as a result of cold, and there are fears that the number will be larger as energy prices rise.
The warm home discount scheme, which is meant to help households at risk of fuel poverty, has been shown to help only a fraction of those intended—25,000 families, instead of the 800,000 it was supposed to help. As some of my constituents have already discovered, the Government’s green deal is another white elephant because the interest payments alone are set to exceed the cost of the energy efficiency measures they are meant to support.
I wish to raise a couple of other points in the few minutes remaining, the first of which is food banks. A number of colleagues have already mentioned increased demand for food banks, and the Trussell Trust recently reported that demand has exceeded its estimations by 170% since last year. My constituency of Oldham has had a food bank for the first time in its history. In the past three months, demand exceeded that of all the previous year, and it is set to get worse. Figures I have just received indicate that the number of people accessing food banks has increased by nearly 100 times in the past two years. When I visited my food bank recently, I was told that it is desperately in need of people to contribute, and that is the sort of thing we have to contend with in different ways.
A week or so ago I took up Oxfam’s Live Below the Line challenge, living on £1 of food a day. From my experience, that makes it incredibly tough not only to get the necessary nutrition, but to get food that will sustain someone for the day—I certainly will not be eating baked beans for a while.
With the benefit changes introduced last month the situation is expected to get much worse. In addition to the bedroom tax, the abolition of crisis loans for living expenses and other so-called reforms of social security are driven by the Government’s ideologically led cuts. Ministers are fond of making unsubstantiated and misleading claims about the effects of their so-called welfare reforms or the level of health spending, but they are far more reticent about data that reveal the cumulative effect of their changes to tax, tax credits and benefits, and which mean—as I mentioned earlier—that the 40% lowest-income households are worse off. The average household is estimated to lose £891 per year, with millionaires gaining an average of £100,000. There is nothing fair about that.
The Queen’s Speech mentions the need to ensure that every child has the best start in life, but how can increasing absolute child poverty by 55% between 2010 and 2020, and relative child poverty by 34%, be said in any way to give children the best start in life? More than 1.1 million children are set to be living in poverty by 2020, which is completely unfair—”