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Cost of Living

Volume 735: debated on Wednesday 28 June 2023

4. What recent discussions he has had with Cabinet colleagues on the impact of cost of living increases on households in Scotland. (905584)

5. What recent discussions he has had with Cabinet colleagues on the impact of cost of living increases on households in Scotland. (905585)

7. What recent discussions he has had with Cabinet colleagues on the impact of cost of living increases on households in Scotland. (905587)

11. What recent discussions he has had with Cabinet colleagues on the impact of cost of living increases on households in Scotland. (905591)

These questions show the originality of thought among the Opposition parties. The United Kingdom Government recognise the challenges facing households due to elevated costs of living and so have taken action to protect struggling families with the largest support package in Europe. UK-wide, support to households to help with higher bills is worth £94 billion, or £3,300 per household on average.

Over the winter, too many have had to make the decision whether to heat or eat—in fact, too many could not afford to do either. With food inflation well in excess of 15%, and much higher on specific staple items, people simply cannot afford to eat. What advice does the Minister have for households in Scotland, and those in Sunderland who I represent, who are worried about being able to provide food for their families?

Inflation is a problem affecting many western economies, particularly those in Europe, and it is right that this Government continue to provide cost of living support while sticking to our plan to avoid adding unnecessary inflationary pressures. The average household in Scotland receives £1,850 from the UK Government, with the poorest households receiving £2,445. About £5.2 billion was spent in 2022-23, which is more than the Scottish Government’s entire annual welfare budget.

After 13 consecutive hikes in interest rates, the Institute for Fiscal Studies has warned that 1.4 million more householders could face a 20% fall in disposable income. This mortgage crisis started with a disastrous Tory mini-Budget last September and is adding to the cost of living crisis. Will the Minister please explain what the hell his party is doing to clean up the mess it created?

We do not accept that analysis. We recognise that this is a worrying time for homeowners and mortgage holders, but we cannot ignore the fact that interest rates have risen across western economies as a result of the pandemic and the impact of the war in Ukraine. The Government remain committed to responsible economic management to bring inflation back under control, which is the only way to achieve sustainably lower interest rates and mortgage rates.

It is not just homeowners who are affected by spiralling interest rates; they also contribute to an average rent increase of over 8%. The Scottish Government are doing their bit, using the limited powers they have. They have extended the rent cap and extended the evictions freeze into March, so that nobody in Scotland will be thrown out of their house because they are poor; and of course in Scotland, thanks to the Scottish National party, we are not selling off council houses but building more of them. What exactly are his Government doing to protect tenants in Scotland and to prevent an increase in homelessness?

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his question. I know he recently announced that he will be standing down at the next election, and while he and I clearly do not agree politically, his eight years of service to the people of Glenrothes is worthy of recognition.

As I said previously, tackling inflation is this Government’s priority. It is the best way to support mortgage holders and the people who rent accommodation.

Is the Minister aware of the recent YouGov survey commissioned by Feeding Britain, which shows that, in May, almost one in six adults in Scotland reported that they or someone in their household had accessed food aid in the previous three months? Does he agree that it is now time for the Government to launch a food poverty strategy? Will he support the principles outlined in my private Member’s Bill to end food bank use by 2030?

This United Kingdom Government remain absolutely committed to supporting the most vulnerable in society during these difficult times. That is evidenced by our providing support to people who need it the most: for example, over £137.5 billion to pensioners on benefits, £67.9 billion on benefits to support disabled people and people living with health conditions, and a further £114.3 billion on welfare benefits for working-age adults and children. In addition, since April, benefits and state pensions have been uprated by 10.1%. This Government are taking the action that is most required to support the people in most need, and we reject the hon. Gentleman’s analysis that we are doing nothing.

Under the last Labour Government, absolute child poverty levels in Scotland fell from 40% in 1997 to 20% in 2007, but that has been all but reversed. The SNP Government are not on track to meet their own goal of lowering child poverty to less than 10% by 2030—[Interruption.] SNP Members shout, but there is a reason why they do so. What steps are the UK Government taking to ensure that child poverty returns to the low levels last seen under the last Labour Government?

The hon. Lady is right to highlight the failures of the Scottish Government, and SNP Members’ reaction shows that they do not like being challenged. They shout, heckle and try to shut down any contrary argument.

As I said, this Government are absolutely committed to supporting the most vulnerable in society. We will continue to support all parts of our society—children, householders and anyone else who needs support during these cost of living pressures.

Last year, £4.2 billion in balancing costs was added to our energy bills. That means paying wind farm operators to turn off their turbines and at the same time paying gas operators to fire theirs up owing to grid constraints and a lack of storage. However, pumped-storage hydro schemes in Scotland could create 15,000 jobs and lower bills, so why are this Government not fighting tooth and nail to put in place contractual arrangements that would get these schemes up and running?

In relation to the cost of living—the theme of these questions—the energy price guarantee will save households £160 for the period until July, bringing the total Government support for energy bills to £1,500 for a typical household since October 2022. We are also ending the premium paid by more than 4 million UK households for prepayment meters, bringing their charges into line with those paid by comparable customers using direct debit. This Government are absolutely committed to supporting people who face cost of living pressures.

I know that the Prime Minister and the Government are entirely focused on helping people to deal with those pressures. However, the focus of the SNP Government seems to be elsewhere, as we saw last weekend when the First Minister announced that the next election would be entirely focused on yet another independence referendum. Does the Minister agree that that is the wrong priority for Scotland, and that Scotland’s two Governments should be working together to improve the delivery of public services and help people with the cost of living?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. Both of Scotland’s Governments—the UK Government and the Scottish Government—should be focused on delivering better public services and supporting people with the cost of living, but instead we hear the SNP cheering about another independence referendum. This Government remain focused on delivering for the people of Scotland; I am just sad that the SNP Government in Edinburgh fail to do so.

Let me join the Secretary of State in his earlier tributes to Winnie Ewing and Craig Brown, both of whom passed away last week, and both of whom will be sadly missed. I hold Craig Brown personally responsible for moments of completely unbridled joy and total heartbreak.

Let me also wish the Secretary of State a happy birthday—a significant birthday—for next week. [Interruption.] Whoever shouted “80” from the Back Benchers is not far away from his age, so happy birthday to him.

Nearly five months ago, the Secretary of State promised to arrange a meeting for David Williamson, a Scottish terminal cancer patient, but neither his Department nor the Secretary of State for Health and Social Care has been able to do so. I wonder whether that could be sorted out as soon as possible.

Millions of people across the country are facing spiralling mortgage rates and rents. Statistics released by Citizens Advice Scotland this week show that the number of Scottish mortgage holders searching for advice on repossession is up by 341%. Does the Minister agree with the insightful advice from the Prime Minister that worried mortgage payers hit by a Tory mortgage premium should just “hold their nerve”?

I can confirm that the Scotland Office did write to the Department for Health and Social Care about the case of David Williamson, and I will undertake to ensure that we pursue that.

As for mortgage rates, the Government recognise that this is a very concerning time for homeowners and mortgage holders, but we cannot ignore the fact that interest rates have risen across western economies as a result of the pandemic and the impact of the war in Ukraine. Of course, the Bank of England sets the base rate, which has an effect on mortgage pricing—as the hon. Member will recall, it was the Labour Government who made the Bank independent of Government. As he will also know, last week the Chancellor agreed with mortgage lenders a brand-new mortgage charter, which will hopefully provide some protection and reassurance for mortgage holders.

The Scotland Office is saying that Scottish mortgage holders should just “hold their nerve”. What the Minister did not include in his list of excuses was the fact that the Tories actually crashed the economy, which has resulted in some of these mortgage interest rates. Is it not incredible that during the worst cost of living crisis in living memory the Prime Minister’s entire approach is to tell people to hold their nerve, while the approach of the First Minister in Scotland is to launch proposals for a de facto referendum and a written constitution—something that he himself admits Scottish voters do not want? Scotland has two Governments so out of touch with the priorities of the Scottish people that polling shows that 70% think they are doing little to help with the cost of living. Does the Minister agree that what Scots need and deserve is a UK Labour Government focused solely on delivering the priorities of Scottish voters?

This UK Government are very clear that now is not the time for another independence referendum, but the Labour party so often ends up backing SNP policy after SNP policy in Scotland. As we are approaching the summer holidays, perhaps the right hon. and learned Member for Holborn and St Pancras (Keir Starmer) should take his flip-flops and see whether there is space in the SNP’s camper van.

I thank the Secretary of State for his kind words about Winnie Ewing and Craig Brown. Let me pay my own personal tribute to Winnie Ewing, who was such an icon for our party and, almost uniquely, served in three Parliaments—our own Madame Écosse.

At over 19%, food inflation in the UK is 50% higher than among our EU neighbours, yet both the Government and the Labour party seem to be in complete denial about Brexit’s contribution to this cost of eating crisis. With 28% of the UK’s food coming from Europe, how will the UK Government prevent a new surge in food prices next winter, when extra post-Brexit checks are introduced at the border?

As the Chancellor has said, food price inflation has been a problem in many parts of Europe. In Germany, Sweden, Portugal and Poland, food price inflation is around 20%, so this is not a UK-only problem. The Government are doing everything they can to deal with Putin’s invasion of Ukraine and the aftermath of the pandemic. We have one central focus, which is bringing inflation down. We are ensuring that is this Government’s one priority.

The London School of Economics has shown that a third of food inflation in the UK is due to Brexit. With the loss of freedom of movement and European workers, Brexit has also caused £60 million of Scottish fruit and veg to rot in the fields, threatening farms and further increasing the cost even of domestic produce. As a Brexiteer, should the Secretary of State not apologise to the Scottish public, including his own constituents, for driving up food prices, and maybe explain why he still supports the proven liar who was one of its main architects?

We do not accept the SNP’s analysis. As I have already explained, food inflation is an issue in many parts of Europe. It is a bit rich for an SNP Member to bring up food price inflation and rising costs, especially when leaked papers this morning revealed that SNP Ministers in Edinburgh are discussing raising council tax by up to 22.5%, meaning that some people will end up paying £751 more per year. Under the SNP in Scotland, local government funding has been gutted, forcing councils to slash local services and impose large tax hikes. I will take no lessons from the hon. Member about bringing prices down for households in Scotland.