Working People’s Finances: Government Policy
Published date : 21 September, 2021
It is a pleasure to take part in this timely debate, as we surely head towards a cold Tory winter of discontent, of high prices, shortages and rising unemployment. I am privileged to represent a constituency in the north-east of Scotland, which is generally regarded as a prosperous area. It has certainly suffered from the oil and gas downturn over the past few years. It is still to benefit from the transition to renewable energy technologies that we all fervently hope to see, and it has certainly borne the brunt of the austerity agenda we have experienced in recent years. My constituency is a mix of urban and rural, taking in a slice of the north of the city of Aberdeen and extending
out into the rural countryside, with its mix of small towns and villages. Although the economic statistics might show that it has one of the highest levels of gross value added in Scotland, never mind the UK and never mind Europe, that hides the reality of the experience for far too many who live there. Someone who went to the go-to data set of the Scottish index of multiple deprivation and looked at Aberdeenshire might pick out a handful of streets that would show a concentrated amount of deprivation, but that misses out important parts of the picture. It misses the individual stories hidden within, because the reality is that there is a significant amount of rural deprivation and a range of intersecting factors that contribute to that.
As I know myself, living in a small community, there is the perennial issue of trying to find childcare. The Scottish Government are tackling that with their 1,140 hours of free childcare, which it is no exaggeration to say will be an absolute game-changer for many in Scotland with young families.
There are the additional costs of heating, particularly for those who live off the grid. People who get their energy for heating and cooking from heating oil do not get the opportunity to shop around on MoneySuperMarket.com for the best suppliers. There is a limited number of suppliers and they have to buy in bulk. Despite some of the many laudable community initiatives that have come through the community planning system to try to take the edge off that for people, it is still an additional expense of rurality.
There are transport costs. Not everybody lives near a public transport link, so there is the added cost of having to run a car to get to work, get about and access public services when public transport is not always an option.
People have been hard-pressed by austerity for a number of years. It is easy for those who have never lived in such an environment or who have never experienced scarcity or shortage in any significant way themselves to fully understand how expensive it can be to be short of money. People buy what they can afford, not what lasts best. They pay more for their energy, particularly if they are, as many colleagues have said, trapped on a prepayment meter, with everything that goes with that. Access to credit and financial services is much harder and is often more expensive when it is available.
Deprivation also hits those who at one point might have been seen as doing well—we could call them, as some have, the precariat. A significant number of people right across Scotland and the UK are probably no more than a missed pay cheque or a significant household expense away from serious financial difficulties. Let me cite the example of a citizens advice bureau that is not in my constituency—it is in the neighbouring constituency to the south, West Aberdeenshire and Kincardine—but covers areas of my constituency and I do not believe it is atypical. This citizens advice bureau is located in Westhill—in what would, on the surface, look like a prosperous set of communities there and roundabout—but it has one of the highest rates of people coming through its doors in search of debt advice.
Right across the north-east of Scotland, the use of food banks is common; not a community is unserved and, as we have heard, demand is, as in other areas, heading in only one direction, and sadly it is not down.
For me, tackling poverty means many things, but above all it means treating people as citizens, with dignity, and enabling them to participate fully in society on their own terms, shorn of the shame of being left without. What does it say of the UK Government that they have made a set of policy choices, particularly over the past fortnight, that seek to make it harder for families and individuals to provide that dignity for themselves and to participate as they might wish in wider society?
The hon. Gentleman makes a succinct and powerful point about how people voted in good faith for something that has turned out to be a fiction and a fantasy. I would always argue for more money to help those who are most in need—there is also an economic benefit to that in the boosting of consumption—but one of the first steps we could take is not to take money away. If the hon. Gentleman waits patiently, he may hear that I have more to say on that later in my speech, but he makes a powerful point.
In the Minister’s response to the opening speech of the hon. Member for Houghton and Sunderland South (Bridget Phillipson), he spoke of the need to make tough choices. It is that macho rhetoric—fine, easy words that fall a great deal harder on those on whom those choices impact than they do on the perennial Conservative and Unionist party’s self-conceit of being a party of low taxation, which it seldom ever lives up to in office in any meaningful way.
Those tough choices come with very long-standing consequences: they impact on people’s children; they impact on family life and well-being; they impact on a person’s health; they impact on their self-esteem; they impact on their opportunities; and they impact on life chances, and they do so across generations.
In the past fortnight alone, we have seen the triple lock gone, removing the link between earnings and pensions. We have seen the end of furlough. We have seen the £1,040 cut to universal credit. We have seen a breaking of the manifesto promise not to increase national insurance, in a move that will hit the youngest and the poorest the hardest and that will embed generational and geographical inequalities and bake them into our social and economic reality for generations to come. As has been said, this has all been exacerbated by Brexit, with the shortages of products that that will bring, allied to an accompanying increase in prices.
I could not agree more with my hon. Friend. I was deficient—I should have said what a magnificent speech she made earlier on, encapsulating
as it did what it really means to be without and to be in search of that dignity. She is absolutely correct in what she says: this is absolutely the worst time to be taking away that support. It is almost like the Chancellor has gone out to the pub for a round of drinks. He has carried the drinks away from the bar—it was a very complicated order—and staggered across the floor with a big tray, and when he is about one yard from the table, he drops the whole lot, and leaves it smashed on the floor. It is the same with the economy, having carried it thus far. It is inept to say the least.
I will give way with great pleasure. The hon. Gentleman has been waiting some considerable amount of time, so I cannot wait to hear what he has to say.
That is surprising for a gentleman who has served in both Parliaments. I would have expected him to be quite au fait with the constitutional settlement. There is no decision that can ever be taken in Holyrood that would bring about the situation that he describes. [Interruption.]
When I am on my feet, the hon. Gentleman needs to be in his seat, as I believe he said last week to somebody more senior than either of us for the moment. Nevertheless, the Scottish Government have managed, through this deal with the Greens, to invest money in the energy transition. There is actually money on the table—money that has not been put on the table by the UK Government despite their big words. They are delivering infrastructure for my constituents, with investment in roads and the examination of possible future investment in rail. I am certain that the benefits will fall through to the hon. Gentleman’s constituents and to Moray as well, even though I have absolutely no doubt that he will find the worst possible angle that he can try to put on it for his election leaflets when he is next up for election.
We have a UK Government who speak the language of levelling up, while simultaneously grinding down on those who work the hardest and those who have the least. I personally would much rather that we judge their efforts on the fairness that they exhibit in their approach to Government and the equality of opportunity that can be offered to all regardless of means or background to deliver the improved outcomes that we all strive for.
If we want to build back better and build back fairer, Scotland quite clearly needs to be well away from the baleful influence of Conservatives in this place and from the continued rule of Westminster Conservative Governments.
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