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Cost of Living

Volume 708: debated on Tuesday 1 February 2022

1. What fiscal steps he plans to take to help reduce the impact on households of the rise in the cost of living. (905371)

5. What recent assessment he has made of the impact of inflation on trends in the levels of living standards. (905375)

8. What fiscal steps he plans to take to help reduce the impact on households of the rise in the cost of living. (905378)

18. What fiscal steps he plans to take to help reduce the impact on households of the rise in the cost of living. (905388)

21. If he will offer further support to people struggling with the rise in the cost of living. (905392)

To help people with the cost of living, the Government are providing support worth around £12 billion in this financial year and next. That includes: cutting the universal credit taper rate to make sure that work pays; freezing duties to keep costs down; and providing support to households with the cost of essentials. In addition, the Government’s plan for jobs is helping people into work and giving them the skills they need to succeed—the best approach to managing the cost of living in the long term.

The Chancellor will have plenty of opportunities to get the answer right this morning. Data from the Office for National Statistics show that on average people aged 65 or over spend twice as much on energy compared with those under 30, so they will be hit twice as hard by escalating bills. Meanwhile, Energy UK tells us that without Government action there will soon be 6 million people, many of them pensioners, living in fuel poverty. Will the Chancellor persuade himself to really get into this and take up our pledge to remove VAT from energy bills and extend the warm homes discount? If he will not, what will he do, particularly for our most vulnerable pensioners who are suffering from this cost of living crisis?

I am proud of this Government’s track record in supporting pensioners. Thanks to the triple lock, in place since 2010, pensions are, relative to earnings, the highest they have been in more than three decades. However, I recognise the anxiety that many pensioners will feel about rising energy bills, and we are always looking at the best way to support people. To help with exactly that phenomenon, the winter fuel payment provides up to £300 for everyone over the state pension age.

With the cost of living crisis upon us, millions across our country must choose between heating their home or putting a meal on the table. Hunger is a political choice made by this Government and the buck stops with the Chancellor. Last week, he wrote off £4.3 billion of covid fraud. If he has the will, he can end the crisis of food insecurity for millions across our nation. Will he use his spring statement to implement a right to food, including universal free school meals and setting social security payments and the living wage at rates calculated to take account of the rising cost of food?

On providing food for those who most need it, I am pleased that the recent spending review confirmed £200 million of extra funding for the holiday activity and food programme to provide support to families and children outside term time. The national living wage, which the hon. Gentleman mentioned, is going up by 6.6% to £9.50 in April, putting an extra £1,000 in the pockets of hard-working people up and down the country.

A constituent wrote to me recently; she is 57 and works four days a week on the minimum wage. Her energy bill is rising from £95 to £220 a month, eating up an extra 11% of her take-home pay. Weekend reports suggest that Treasury action on the cost of living crisis has stalled due to the paralysis engulfing No. 10. Those struggling to heat their homes should not pay the price for the Prime Minister’s conduct, so will the Chancellor agree to extend eligibility for the warm homes discount further and increase it beyond the pitiful £10 that is planned?

Although I do not know the specific circumstances of the hon. Gentleman’s constituent, it sounds like she will benefit from two measures that we have already announced: the significant increase in the national living wage by 6.6% in April; and the cut in the universal credit taper rate, which will mean that a single mother working full time on the national living wage will be an extra £1,200 better off. That will help significantly with energy and other bills, and of course the warm home discount provides a £140 rebate to those who need it.

I have met a number of pensioners in my constituency who are on the state pension, but who also worked hard and saved for a private pension; not a huge pension, but a pension that they believed would help them meet the cost of living. Unfortunately, years of low interest rates and now the rising cost of energy, food and other things have made them begin to worry and they are very concerned about the year ahead. Can the Chancellor provide more information on how he will monitor the situation, and support the families and pensioners whom we encouraged to get private pensions but now find that they cannot meet the cost of living?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right to highlight pensioners and their needs. As I said, I am proud of the Government’s track record in supporting them. I can also provide him with the reassurance that we continue to look at the best way to provide support to all those in need, as we have done over the last year of two. In the meantime, he will be reassured to know that we have protected pensioners this coming year with the double lock and, as I said, the winter fuel payments providing up to £300.

Energy prices are rocketing but the price of producing energy has not, meaning that energy companies are experiencing record bonanza profits this year if they are producers. The Chancellor is, of course, worth more than a billion pounds. Could he tell constituents struggling to pay their energy bills what should be taking the cut? Should it be the profits of the energy companies or the lifting of the energy cap that he proposes, costing constituents £1,800 on average a year?

The energy price cap has already protected millions of people against rising energy bills. On the taxation of companies, it is probably worth bearing in mind that one thing that the last few months have shown is that there is an opportunity to invest more in providing natural gas as a transition fuel as we make our way to net zero in a measured manner. To that end, we should be encouraging investment in exporting our natural resources, not disincentivising it.

While Ministers travel the globe in private jets, more and more families across the UK go hungry. Last year, the Trussell Trust delivered 2.5 million food packages through its food banks, which is 100 times more than in 2008-09. Now families face further cuts in benefits, increasing taxes and the cost of living crisis. Does the Chancellor not think that addressing that perfect storm of poverty drivers would be a better use of his time than plotting leadership bids as he waits for the downfall of his lame duck Prime Minister?

The hon. Lady talks about poverty, but the track record of this Government and the Governments since 2010 shows very clearly that more than 8 million fewer people are living in poverty as a result of the actions of those Conservative Governments. Income inequality today is lower than it was in 2010.

It is not good enough to simply say that work lifts people out of poverty when we know that millions of people up and down this country with one job, two jobs or three jobs are still not even making ends meet. The universal credit cut is having a devastating impact, combined with growing food prices and the rise in rents—not to mention the huge hike in national insurance contributions.

I know it is difficult, Chancellor, for someone with financial privilege to really understand what is facing people in communities like mine, but I must say that when I have got elderly people freezing in their homes and more people than ever before using food banks, we need some help from the Government. Poverty is a political choice.

Anyone who has questions about my values can just look at my track record over the last year or two. I am proud of this Government’s achievements in supporting those who most needed our help at a time of anxiety for our country. I respectfully disagree wholeheartedly with the hon. Gentleman: I do believe that work is a route out of poverty. All the evidence shows that children who grow up in workless households are five times more likely to be in poverty than those who do not, which is why I am proud that there are almost a million fewer workless households today as a result of the actions of this Conservative Government.

The most effective sanctions that we could impose on Russia would be to block Russian banks’ access to UK and international markets. Will my right hon. Friend consider that and consider cushioning the inevitable blow to our banks, businesses and households from the financial impacts, including to the cost of living?

My hon. Friend makes an excellent point. With regard to sanctions, absolutely nothing is off the table. We are working extremely closely with our international allies to make sure that we can send a robust signal to deter Russian aggression, and we continue to explore diplomatic solutions at the same time. He should rest assured that nothing is off the table.

I visited the citizens advice bureau in Malvern and people there were sharing with me the fact that they still have tens of thousands of pounds in household support grants that they can give away between now and the end of March. Will the Chancellor join me in encouraging families who are struggling with the cost of living to apply for the help available?

My hon. Friend, as always, makes an excellent point. I join her in encouraging all those local authorities and others to get those funds out to people who need them as quickly as possible. That is why we have created the household support fund: half a billion pounds to provide £100 or £150 to millions of our most vulnerable families. It is there to help, and I hope we can get the rest of the money out as quickly as possible.

The Chancellor of the Exchequer is exactly right in all the measures that he describes the Government taking to protect families’ incomes. He has always shown a powerful instinct for protecting those on the very lowest incomes, but may I say respectfully to him that we must do something about energy costs? On Friday, I met a couple in my constituency who showed me their fixed tariff agreement with their energy company, which is coming to an end, and the new one coming on stream, which is more than double. They will really struggle to pay their energy costs this year, so may I ask the Chancellor of the Exchequer to look at the issue? The warm home discount scheme is not perfect, but it is a useful vehicle for doing something to help those on the lowest incomes.

My right hon. Friend speaks with compassion and authority on these topics, and I join him in making sure that we are aware of the issue. I am, of course, aware of people’s anxiety about what is coming; he can rest assured that we continue to look at all the policies we have in place to make sure that we are supporting people in the best way possible through the months ahead.

With the risk of inflation becoming entrenched, we need fiscal discipline while the Bank of England undertakes the tricky task of monetary tightening. What does the Chancellor think of proposals that would break down that fiscal discipline and therefore risk increasing inflation and being completely counterproductive?

My right hon. Friend is absolutely right; given his career before he was in this place, he, too, speaks with authority on these matters. He is right to highlight that many of the proposals that people suggest would involve a significant fiscal loosening, which would be inflationary and counterproductive at this time. It is right that fiscal policy is supportive of people, but also mindful of the risks of rising inflation, not least because of the risks for the costs of servicing our debt.

The Chancellor will be aware that voters are being hit by a triple whammy on the cost of living: soaring energy bills, the Chancellor’s own tax rises and falling real wages. Next week, the energy price cap could rise by as much as £600. Labour has set out a fully costed plan to cut these bills, funded by a windfall levy on the oil and gas companies making the most money from the current spike in prices. Where is the Government’s plan for those energy costs? What has distracted them from producing one?

I would probably slightly disagree with the idea that Labour’s plans are fully costed, but it would not be the first time that its numbers do not add up. With regard to the responsible way forward, the right hon. Gentleman has talked about funding the NHS—a good example of something that is funded, because Government Members know that the NHS is the people’s No. 1 priority. It is right that we tackle the backlogs and reform social care, as the Prime Minister has set out, but it is also right that we fund that sustainably and responsibly, which is what this Government are committed to doing.

On Sunday, the Prime Minister and the Chancellor nailed themselves to the mast of the national insurance rise coming in this April—like Thelma and Louise, they have held hands and are going to drive off the cliff. The Chancellor says that it is all about public services, but we know that the real reason he is so desperate to stick to the timetable is so that he can implement planned tax cuts before the next election. Why should the cost of living crisis be made much worse for families this year just to fit in with the Tory party’s planning grid for the next election?

With regard to the cost of living, the Government have, as we have already discussed, put a range of measures in place to help people, not least the increase in the national living wage by £1,000 a year, the cut to the universal credit taper rate and the freezing of fuel duty. The Government will not shirk from funding the NHS sustainably and responsibly. It is the people’s No. 1 priority; the backlogs are rising at an unprecedented rate, and I think people would like to see them addressed, which can be done only with a sustainable funding stream. That is what we have created, and this is a progressive way to do it. Although these decisions are difficult, a responsible Government do not shirk from them.

Inflation is running at 5.4%, the highest level in nearly 30 years. It is already having a real and painful impact on people and businesses, with worrying reports today that increased bills are pushing businesses to lay off staff. The upcoming national insurance hike is a tax on jobs as well as on individuals. This is a cost of living crisis, yet today is the first time that the Chancellor has been to this House since the start of December, and we still do not hear a plan from him—he is too distracted by plotting for the Prime Minister’s job to help those affected by this crisis. People are struggling, so what additional practical financial support can they expect from this Chancellor, and when?

The hon. Lady talked about inflation; she is right and I am very cognisant of the anxiety that people are feeling about rising inflation. It is also right to put that in context. She said it is the highest tier since the early 1990s, and that is right. We are also seeing this as a global phenomenon—inflation in the US is running at its highest since the 1980s, and the highest since the eurozone was created—so we are not alone in facing those challenges. The Government have already set out a plan, but it is a plan that is working. In contrast to what she said about people losing their jobs, what we have seen is 11 months of falling unemployment, which is now back to the almost record pre-pandemic lows, and record numbers of people in work. That is the best way to tackle the cost of living—get people into work and make sure those jobs are well paid.