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Inflation: Households and Businesses

Volume 708: debated on Wednesday 9 February 2022

1. What recent steps the Government have taken to tackle the impact of inflation on households and businesses in Wales. (905481)

2. What recent steps the Government have taken to tackle the impact of inflation on households and businesses in Wales. (905482)

8. What recent steps the Government have taken to tackle the impact of inflation on households and businesses in Wales. (905489)

12. What recent steps the Government has taken to tackle the impact of inflation on households and businesses in Wales. (905493)

The Chancellor announced a £9.1 billion energy bills rebate last week. This includes a £200 energy bill discount for households across the UK, including Wales, as well as an additional £175 million to the Welsh Government.

On Monday, this Conservative Government imposed a real-terms cut to social security benefits and pensions of approximately 4%. This is on top of the hike in national insurance contributions, the rise in the energy price cap and cuts to universal credit and working tax credit, which the Bevan Foundation in Wales has estimated will take approximately £286 million out of the Welsh economy. People in Wales are genuinely fearful of the impact that these cuts are going to have on living standards, so I ask the Secretary of State: how can he justify voting for these measures, which will not only exacerbate existing poverty but drive more and more people into hardship and poverty?

The hon. Lady has constituents, as we all do, who are of course concerned about the cost of living challenges ahead, but I hope I can reassure her by naming, as I have already done, a few of the measures we are putting in place. They include the substantial additional money via the Barnett formula for the Welsh Government, but also the universal credit taper is worth £1,000 per household, the increase in the living wage is also worth £1,000 a year for those in receipt of it and there are the warm home discounts. Of course, the main thrust of what we are trying to do is create the right circumstances for a jobs-led recovery.

Tesco’s boss says that food inflation will hit 5%. Families across Wales will struggle to cope, so how will the Secretary of State help people in food poverty?

I can only refer the hon. Member to my earlier comments. We want to be extremely sure, just like him, because Conservative Members have a similar dynamic in our own constituencies, that we are putting in place everything we can, whether that is the universal credit taper, the increase in the living wage, an increase in the tax threshold, or indeed the jobs-led recovery I have mentioned. The fact is that the economic prospects for the UK, including Wales, are actually growing at a reasonable pace, although it can always be faster and greater. I am hoping I can reassure his constituents, just as I am attempting to reassure mine, that we have their best interests at heart when it comes to food poverty.

People do understand the need to provide more money for health and social care, but Welsh businesses and workers—they now face rampant inflation, bringing escalating costs and reduced consumer spending power—are angry that the UK Government are hitting them with the national insurance rise while the Chancellor has simply written off billions. What talks has the Secretary of State had with Cabinet colleagues about implementing concerted efforts to recover the £5 billion of taxpayers’ money taken fraudulently by criminals in covid support, and about engaging with companies that were vastly overpaid by the UK Government for personal protective equipment contracts on recognising their corporate social responsibility and returning excess profits, rather than hitting workers and businesses across Wales with this national insurance rise?

The hon. Lady raises an important point about fraud. All I can tell her is that the Treasury is a world leader in tracking down, eliminating and reducing the risk of fraud, and I think she should give it some credit for the remarkable work that it has already done in that respect.

An 80-year-old constituent of mine has contacted me to say that he and his 78-year-old wife currently pay £68 a month on energy bills and they just about manage, but they have been told that that will go up to nearly £3,000 for the year. Meanwhile, BP has announced its highest profits in years. The Government’s answer is to hand out loans, but Labour has a plan to make energy companies pay. My constituent is worried and angry, and he wrote to me asking me to shout and scream at the Secretary of State. I do not think that will work, but what does he expect me to say to my constituent?

What I hope I could pass on to the hon. Lady’s constituent is that deploying the usual Labour response to pretty well every problem in the world, which is to find somebody and tax them, is not the right answer, because that would have a knock-on cost that would then be picked up by the very constituent she mentioned. The idea that tax is anything other than a disincentive in this particular instance is a myth. Much more important are our attempts to make sure that families in the position her constituent points out are looked after to the best of our ability.

As my right hon. Friend has mentioned, the Chancellor has announced that 80% of English households will receive a £150 council tax rebate with effect from April this year. As a consequence, the Welsh Government have received an additional £175 million under the Barnett formula. Is it a matter of regret to him, as it is to me, that the Welsh Government have not yet announced that that money will be passed on to Welsh council tax payers, who are entitled to precisely the same benefits as their English counterparts?

My right hon. Friend makes an important point. The Treasury was explicit in what the Barnett consequentials were for the Welsh Government, and I agree with him. I do not understand why families and businesses in Wales are still unclear about how that money will be used.

People in rural areas will be at a particular disadvantage during the upcoming energy price crisis. About two thirds of my constituents are not connected to the gas grid and are therefore not covered by the protection of the energy price cap. Does my right hon. Friend agree that as rural areas will experience particular hardship, the Welsh Government have a responsibility to act fast to get the £175 million that they have just received out the door as quickly as possible?

Absolutely. I refer to my earlier answer. That is critical, because we probably have a higher proportion of people in Wales in that position than almost anywhere else in the UK. So this is urgent, and I urge Labour Members to put as much pressure as they can on their colleagues in Cardiff to make it happen.

Will my right hon. Friend join me in welcoming the increase in and extension of the warm home discount, which will shield the most vulnerable across the UK from the impact of inflation?

I certainly will. There is a contrast worth highlighting, as the Government’s solutions to these problems are to provide direct and positive interventions for families across Wales rather than defaulting to the lazy position of finding an energy producer and taxing it, as if that would resolve the problem.

It is not just record inflation that is hitting Welsh households hard. Rents in Wales have increased by nearly 10% in the last year, the third highest rate in the United Kingdom outside London and Northern Ireland. When it comes to paying bills, the Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Secretary thinks that a monthly saving on the BBC licence fee of 87p over two years is

“one of the few direct levers we have in our control as a Government.”—[Official Report, 17 January 2022; Vol. 707, c. 39.]

Is that really the extent of the Government’s ambition to help people in Wales cope with a Conservative cost of living crisis?

I am grateful—I think—for the hon. Lady’s question, but she seems to overlook the numerous examples that I have already given, and I have an even longer list of ways in which the UK Government have stepped in, during covid in particular. We have helped protect 470,000 jobs and 60,000 Welsh businesses, dished out £2.4 billion in business loans, increased the living wage and adapted the universal credit taper—I could go on, if only you would allow me, Mr Speaker. She needs to reflect on the long list of positive things to which Labour has contributed almost nothing by way of assistance.

Well, people across Wales are facing the biggest drop in living standards in 30 years under the Secretary of State’s watch. Inflation is at a 10-year high and rising, national insurance levels are increasing by more than 10%—another Tory broken manifesto promise—energy bills are up 54% and rents in Wales are up 10%. Wales is bearing the brunt of the incompetence and chaos not just at No. 10 but at No. 11, while the Secretary of State sits at the Cabinet table and lets it all happen, does he not?

No. The hon. Lady seems to have forgotten that there has been something called a pandemic in the last two years, and that has had a significant effect on the global economy. She also seems to have forgotten that her party is responsible for a number of the standard of living issues in Wales, yet we never hear so much as a squeak of criticism about Welsh Labour’s performance in Cardiff. I urge her again to reflect—perhaps through Hansard tomorrow—on the comments that I have made and the numerous ways in which the Government have intervened in some of these economic challenges, the result of which is that more people are now on the payroll than before the pandemic began and the UK economy is the fastest growing in the G7. Perhaps she should reflect on those facts before raising the issues that she has.

Can my right hon. Friend confirm that the lowest paid in Wales will benefit from our increase in the national living wage, protecting them from the impact of rising inflation?

I certainly can. In answering that question, it is also worth reflecting on the fact that the Labour solution around VAT—an interesting recognition of a Brexit dividend—would not have that effect. The Treasury analysis is that Labour’s proposal would unduly hit the families our proposals are designed to help.