You probably have to go back to the 1970s to find a time when the pressures on family finances were so acute.
Then, it was the trebling of oil prices; now it is the huge increase in the cost of gas and electricity. The cost of living is rising at the fastest rate for forty years, real pay is falling faster than at any time in the past two decades and more and more people are struggling to cope.
There are pensioners who have no idea how they will heat their homes this winter and parents who are skipping meals so their children can eat. High inflation hurts hardest those on fixed incomes and high energy bills affect not only families, but also businesses, schools, hospitals, churches, voluntary organisations and shops. They need help too.
To make matters worse, we’ve only begun to see the impact of this crisis because further big increases in energy bills are coming unless the Government does something about them.
And if all this wasn’t bad enough, at the same time we have growing in-work poverty. For too many people, working does not bring in enough to pay the bills and look after a family. There are 5 million people who go out to work but who are also living in poverty, and that’s why we have seen an ever-increasing number of people having to turn to foodbanks for help. Adjusting for inflation, average pay was actually lower this May than in February 2008 – more than 14 years ago.
So what needs to be done?
First of all, and most urgently, we have to protect people from further unaffordable increases in energy bills. The energy price cap was originally introduced to try and protect consumers, but it’s now become a source of anxiety when we hear that it is going to go up again and again if global energy prices remain where they are.
Targeting help to people who need it is not straightforward, and the more complex you make the system, the more difficult it is to implement and the greater the risk that some people who really do need assistance will miss out. An alternative approach is simply to freeze energy prices which is what the Leader of the Opposition has proposed. This would prevent the energy price cap rising through this winter, and it would be paid for by extra tax on oil and gas giants who are making eye-watering profits. It would be universal and would buy some breathing space. It would also help bring inflation down and so make future interest rate rises less likely, so easing the burden on households and businesses.
We also need to deal with the injustice that sees people on prepayment meters paying over the odds for their energy. It’s not fair and it must end.
Either way, what’s clear is that the new Prime Minister is going to have to act very quickly indeed because people are worried sick and are already making difficult choices in their own lives.
The second task is to speed up the move away from fossil fuels to reduce our reliance on expensive gas. We already know we need to do this because of the impact of climate change – just look at the record-breaking temperatures we’ve seen in the last month or so – but now there is another reason which is to make bills more affordable.
And that means investing in more renewable energy – wind, solar and tidal power – so as to protect ourselves against future shocks and build Britain’s energy independence. This should also include building new nuclear capacity, with big plants like Sizewell C and developing small modular reactors.
It’s the same story on home insulation. Houses in Britain are the least energy efficient in Europe. We need to invest much more in upgrading our homes. This would help reduce bills whatever source of heating we use.
And the third task is to increase the national minimum wage.
I have never been so worried about the coming twelve months for my constituents as I am now. This is a real national emergency. And the responsibility on politicians is to come up with a plan to help people get through it.
On a brighter note, Leeds has made the shortlist to host the Eurovision Song Contest next year, after Ukraine was forced to withdraw because of Russia’s invasion. Our city has put in a really strong bid, 2023 is already going to be Leeds City of Culture year and, of course, we have the great Leeds Arena which has hosted events like the BBC Sports Personality of the Year. Fingers crossed.
And finally, it is good to see that work has at last started on improving the state of Hunslet Spire – that much-loved landmark. The Church of England has begun to remove graffiti, cut back weeds and other growth around the war memorial and assess the state of the structure itself. Congratulations to those who have pushed for this, including the Hunslet Carr Residents Association and local councillors.
For over 150 years, the Church spire of St Mary’s – the tallest in the city – has looked out over South Leeds. We are all determined to ensure that it goes on doing so for the next 150 years and beyond.
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