16 May 2012 : Column 608

Simon Hart (Carmarthen West and South Pembrokeshire) (Con): Given his experience in the university of life, would the hon. Gentleman recognise, albeit grudgingly, that some people who have done particularly well in our society are major employers and major taxpayers in the UK, so they should be viewed as positive contributors, not the negative contributors that he portrays?

Sir Bob Russell: I appreciate that intervention, because my point was that the problem was not necessarily the content but the presentation, and the perception of millions of people out there that the Government were interested only in the rich. I endorse the hon. Gentleman’s point and hope that he will endorse my observation.

Increasing the personal allowance to £9,205 takes us within touching distance of the Liberal Democrats’ No. 1 manifesto pledge to ensure that no one pays any tax on the first £10,000 of earnings. I hope that that figure will be reached or, better still, raised even further in the next Budget. That would be good for the cost of living of those with limited financial means.

For most people, the most significant cost is that of housing, whether it be a mortgage or rent. One does not have to be an economic wizard to know that the more of the family budget is spent on housing, the less will be available to be spent on all other aspects of the cost of living. If the rent or mortgage goes up there is less money to be spent, and that has an impact on the economy, particularly the local economy.

I will concentrate my remarks on rent, because the subject of social housing—that is the current terminology, although I prefer the concept of democratically accountable council housing, given that successive post-war Labour and Conservative Governments strove to outdo each other in the building of hundreds of thousands of homes—has interested me throughout my political life, the 42nd consecutive year of which, in my home town, began this week.

As a nation, we need to follow the excellent record of successive Labour and Conservative Governments in the 35 years or so that followed the second world war, and to put right the damage inflicted by successive Conservative and Labour Governments from around 1983 onwards. I look to the coalition Government to follow the lead of the Governments of Attlee and Churchill, Eden, Macmillan, Douglas-Home, Wilson and Heath, Callaghan, and Thatcher in her first Parliament. It is a startling fact that the Thatcher Government built more council houses for families than new Labour managed to build in 13 years.

We need to build council houses today, on publicly available land. That would help to boost the economy, create jobs and provide decent homes for the hundreds of thousands of families living in accommodation that is not suitable for their needs. I am grateful to the National Housing Federation, whose East of England bulletin states:

“155,900 households are on social housing waiting lists in the East of England, one in 16 of all households in the region, and a 59% increase since 2000.”

Let me issue one caveat. We must not, in the process, sacrifice the special greenfield sites that provide a positive contribution to the quality of people’s lives.

16 May 2012 : Column 609

I merely ask that the coalition seeks to follow the post-war consensus of politicians from all parties: people who had grown up in the terrible times of the 1920s and 1930s and who, in post-war Britain, knew that providing decent family homes would transform lives. Incidentally, I have no objection to the right to buy provided that each house sold is replaced by a new house, and I understand that that is the policy of the coalition. I invite Ministers to read the report of the housing debate that I led in Westminster Hall on 11 June 2003. Sadly, new Labour failed to take action, and I urge the coalition Government to do so.

I also invite Ministers to look at the Education Act 1944. On studying it, I realised that it was about more than just teaching, and that it adopted an holistic approach to the upbringing of children. It dealt with education, of course, but also with such matters as school health, dental checks and school meals. The architects of that Act recognised the importance of bringing everything together. If we are to succeed with a jigsaw, we need to fit the pieces for the corners and edges first, and the same applies to the jigsaw of life. If a decent home is provided for a family, the other pieces of the jigsaw of life are more likely to fall into place.

All this has a bearing on the cost of living, because if people have a decent home at an affordable rent, they will have money to spend in local shops and on local services. It is not a cap on housing benefit but a cap on rents that we need. While building council houses is the mid to long-term solution, a cap on rents is the immediate requirement.

The private sector and housing associations—the latter being dependent on public money—have not been able to fill the gap caused by the near-collapse of council house building under successive Governments over the past 30 years. Private landlords have made a killing and tenants have been given a worse deal at a much higher cost, much of it coming from the public purse. Public money is far better invested in public housing than lining the pockets of those who have become property millionaires courtesy of the publicly funded housing benefit regime. If a family’s housing benefit is cut, they have less money to spend on food, clothing, energy bills, local services and so on. The landlord still gets an inflated rent—or the family is forced to move. I call the latter economic cleansing. The local economy also has less money circulating because tenants spend more on rent and less on local purchases.

At the weekend, celebrity chef Jamie Oliver and England footballer Steven Gerrard called for better knowledge of food nutrition to be made part of the national curriculum. However, before getting carried away with this good idea, I have concerns that the school meal service is not what it used to be, and I fear that Government policies are not helping the needs of many children. I urge Ministers not to damage the school meal service even more.

I return to the good idea from Messrs Oliver and Gerrard. What would be even better is if first aid training also became part of the national curriculum, as I called for in a ten-minute rule Bill that I put to the House on 19 November 2003. Both ideas should be incorporated. The case I made nine years ago is arguably even stronger today. By the way, earlier this month the all-party parliamentary group on first aid was formed, and I have the honour of being its first chairman.

16 May 2012 : Column 610

If every child in this country knew first aid and, over time, took this knowledge into adult life, the national health service would make huge savings. As I said when I introduced my Bill, it would

“save many hundreds of lives every year, produce annual savings to the national health service of hundreds of millions of pounds and result in a better quality of life for all age groups throughout the land.”—[Official Report, 19 November 2003; Vol. 413, c. 808.]

It would lead to savings in people’s spending, because they would be more knowledgeable about what constitutes a healthy lifestyle. Today, an increasing number of children suffer from obesity, but I fear the prospect of a return to many children being under-nourished, because they are becoming the innocent victims of rises in the cost of living. Our Government must not allow this to happen.

I shall support the coalition Government in the Lobby this evening and tomorrow, but I urge Ministers to look at what was achieved on the housing front by Governments between 1945 and the early 1980s, and seek to emulate them.

4.6 pm

Phil Wilson (Sedgefield) (Lab): I want to address the transport rather than the energy aspect of today’s debate, and raise three issues that affect my constituency: the local airport, the big Hitachi investment, and the state of rural bus services not just in Sedgefield but throughout County Durham, including Darlington.

As local people know, Durham Tees Valley airport has gone through difficult times in the past few years, especially recently. Just three or four years ago, some 1 million passengers used the terminal. That figure has gone down significantly recently, but at an engagement at the airport a couple of weeks ago, it was good to see KLM making everybody aware of its ongoing commitment to the airport. Hopefully, at some point it will put some more routes on, or use the airport more often than it currently does.

I want to discuss the long-term sustainability of regional airports—I am pleased that the aviation Minister, the right hon. Member for Chipping Barnet (Mrs Villiers), is in her place, and that she has agreed to a meeting next week—and air passenger duty. The latter is critical to the aviation industry in more ways than one, and to the passengers who have to pay it. It has gone up by twice the rate of inflation in the Budget. The aviation industry has told me that we need to look at regional variation of the APD. That does not mean varying it region by region, but having one rate for the south-east, where there is a lot of passenger congestion, and another for the rest of the country. Some would say, especially the Scottish National party, that we should devolve this matter to each of the devolved Administrations—Scotland and Wales, for example—but that is not the way forward. Devolving it to Scotland would impact on Durham Tees Valley airport and Newcastle airport. We need to gain the evidence for our approach. I am meeting a Treasury Minister on 18 June, along with my hon. Friend the Member for Newcastle upon Tyne North (Catherine McKinnell), to discuss this matter and try to get an evidence base pulled together, so that we can say that having regional variation in air passenger duty will work.

I also wish to discuss Hitachi, which I always mention when I can because it provides a massive boost to the north-east economy; it is providing the biggest private

16 May 2012 : Column 611

sector investment in the north-east since Nissan. Hitachi is going to build a £90 million factory—a train-building facility—in my constituency at Newton Aycliffe. The company is going to refurbish the rolling stock for the east coast main line and for the great western line into Wales. Hitachi is going to create 500 jobs, with thousands in the supply chain. This will be one of the most exciting industrial stories that we have in the north-east of England. I congratulate the Government on making the right decision on it and I pay tribute to the previous Labour Government, whose idea it was in the first place.

The big issue I want to talk about, which is really affecting not only my area but all rural areas, is the state of rural bus services. The Sedgefield constituency covers about 150 square miles and contains about 30 to 40 towns and villages, some of which are very small. Brafferton, for example, has a population of only about 200, whereas Newton Aycliffe has a population of 20,000-odd. There is a lack of rural bus services and subsidies that have gone to local authorities have been cut. The subsidies are then withdrawn from bus companies such as Arriva, the big one in our area, and if they do not get the subsidies, the bus does not run. Sometimes that happens without the local people having been consulted, so they find that their bus does not turn up at their bus stop because the service has been pulled off the road and nobody has bothered to tell them.

The situation is creating problems in the area. For example, people are having difficulty getting to work. We have actually had to write to the local jobcentre and the Employment Minister to say, “If someone cannot get to work any more and they pack in their job, what does that mean for their benefits? It is not their fault that they have had to resign their job, so will they still not get benefits for six months?” I have been told that this would be looked at on a case-by-case basis, but the local jobcentre has pointed out to me that it has actually considered buying bicycles to get people to work because of the state of the local bus services. It seems to me that we are going back not to Victorian times but to mediaeval times in respect of the state of transport in the area. A sophisticated society such as ours must be able to put on adequate bus services for people.

Gloria De Piero (Ashfield) (Lab): I, too, represent a semi-rural constituency, where bus services, and school buses in particular, are becoming a real issue. Just last week, a mum contacted me about the removal of the school bus in Bagthorpe. Getting children to school is not a luxury; it is a necessity. Should not Ministers take that on board?

Phil Wilson: Ministers do need to take that on board, because the state of bus services is not just an issue about people getting to work, getting to see their family or getting to medical appointments; it is also an issue for schoolchildren and their parents.

Pat Glass (North West Durham) (Lab): This issue is having an impact on every rural and semi-rural constituency across this country and it is having an impact on our future. Young people are now telling me that they are choosing courses on the basis of where they can get to, not on the basis of what the right course is for them or for the future economy of this country.

16 May 2012 : Column 612

Phil Wilson: These are all issues to address. Ultimately, they are not just about bus services; they come down to the effect on society in rural areas. People living in rural areas should have the same rights as those who live in urban areas, which on many occasions have adequate transport facilities.

I wish to discuss one or two villages in my area. Hurworth, Sadberge and Brafferton are all in the Darlington borough, and my hon. Friend the Member for Darlington (Mrs Chapman), who is in her place, wishes to discuss these same issues, as they are affecting our communities in that borough. For example, Sadberge has lost its shop, its post office and its school, and from the end of the year it will lose its bus service, too. At a surgery there two or three weeks ago, I was told by a disabled person who works at Lingfield Point in Darlington, “If that bus route is withdrawn, I do not know how I am going to get to work, unless I hire a taxi.” We all know that going by taxi is a very expensive way of getting to and from anywhere, never mind just using it to get to work.

Brafferton is, as I have said, a very small community, containing 60 to 70 houses and perhaps 100-odd people. I have been contacted by Mrs Firby, who lives in that village, and I want to read one or two extracts from her letter to explain the state of transport in the area. It says that now the bus has been withdrawn, residents

“must walk to the A167”—

the main road—which is

“much too far for elderly or infirm, or anyone to carry much more than a light bag. There is no shop in the village and the partial footpaths away from the village are poorly maintained.”

The letter goes on to explain that 50% of households have someone over the age of 60, and states:

“More people are becoming reliant on family and friends or a second car when retiring from work and losing easy access to shops.”

In fact, the nearest shop to that village is the motorway garage at the interchange on the A1. Imagine the nearest shop being at the motorway caff and having to go there to get groceries. That shows the issues affecting our local villages and the stark contrast of the situation in those areas.

Darlington council, because of the cuts it is facing, has had to take some really difficult decisions about subsidies to buses and how it will deal with adult care. Because of the cuts, it will not be able to continue giving subsidies to bus companies, especially at the end of this year. What it is able to do—there are particular grants for doing this—is set up community transport systems. It does not want to run the systems itself but wants a third party to do it. It is currently consulting with local parish councils and others to find a way of doing that. I am pleased about that and I and my hon. Friend the Member for Darlington will help and support the council in its efforts in that regard.

The report of the Select Committee on Transport on its financial scrutiny of the Department for the 2010-12 Session says that £500 million was handed back to the Treasury. It says at page 8, paragraph 10, that that money is

“likely to have exceeded the total reduction in annual revenue for the English bus industry following the Spending Review.”

16 May 2012 : Column 613

The report goes on to say:

“Money voted by Parliament for expenditure on transport should be spent on transport, not handed back to the Treasury.”

We have all these constituents facing these cuts and having difficulties getting to work. We have elderly people having to walk a mile and go to a motorway caff and back to get groceries, but this £500 million was sent back to the Treasury. I think some questions need to be asked about that.

Mrs Moon: The Bridgend Coalition of Disabled People recently held a transport summit at which they pulled local bus and taxi companies and train operators together to talk about how disabled people can access transport. Increasingly, moving around is expensive and difficult for disabled people and requires prior planning. That money could have been spent on facilitating access to transport for disabled people. Does my hon. Friend agree that it is bad that that money was sent back to the Treasury?

Phil Wilson: That amount—£500 million—is not a drop in the ocean. It is a lot of money that could have done a lot of good for transport throughout our rural areas. I hope that Ministers will address this issue in winding up tonight.

Finally, let me make one or two other comments. Arriva runs bus services in County Durham, where a lot of those services have a bad name. With Arriva buses in London, if you see one, you see three at a bus stop, but in some of the villages we represent, people are lucky if they see one all day. Obviously bus companies need to make a profit to invest in better buses and so on, but the private sector also relies a lot on subsidy. Those companies have a right to make a profit but, given that they are providing a social service, they should have some kind of social conscience.

For me, this issue highlights elements of all the talk about the big society. People cannot get to work or see their friends.

Jake Berry: It is interesting to hear the hon. Gentleman talking about the cuts at Darlington council. All of us in politics accept that in tough financial times, we have to take decisions about how we serve our constituents, but why has Darlington council chosen to cut the bus subsidy when in March 2011, on its own admission, it had more than £10 million in cash reserves?

Phil Wilson: Those are figures we do not recognise, but—[ Laughter. ] Let me answer the question. Tough decisions have to be made, but they are even harder when the amount of money given to local authorities is being cut drastically.

Mrs Jenny Chapman (Darlington) (Lab): Darlington borough council has had £100,000 withdrawn from its bus operating grant and has made some very difficult decisions on adult social care. It has a responsible reserves policy. It is a sensible council, which shares a lot of its back office functions with neighbouring authorities. It is a low taxing council; we have the lowest council tax in the north-east. It is a well run council and there is not a lot of fat. These decisions are being taken—

Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Lindsay Hoyle): Order. There must be a question in there somewhere.

16 May 2012 : Column 614

Mrs Chapman: There is a question, Mr Deputy Speaker, which is that—

Mr Deputy Speaker: Order. I think the hon. Lady should give up now.

Phil Wilson: I thank my hon. Friend for clearing up some of the issues. There certainly are choices, but if grants and subsidies are being cut, the difficult decisions that have to be made are even harder. It is not just that the council has to take those difficult decisions, but that particular things have been thrust upon it.

The whole situation undermines the big society. There is a lot of hot air and a lot of big words, but what is actually happening is that people are suffering at the grass roots.

Several hon. Members rose

Mr Deputy Speaker: Order. We still have a lot of speakers and I am constantly looking at the time, so I shall have to introduce a 10-minute limit.

4.21 pm

Laura Sandys (South Thanet) (Con): Thank you, Mr Deputy Speaker, for cutting me off in my prime.

When Her Majesty read the Gracious Speech, I picked up immediately on a couple of things that I felt were extremely important for my constituents, but when I read the newspapers over the next few days, I did not recognise the speech I had heard in the commentary about it. I know exactly what my constituents are concerned about: the cost of living and the bills that come through the door.

I heard that there was to be a draft water Bill and that we would be focusing on electricity market reform, on which the Energy and Climate Change Committee has done a lot of examination, and as a member, I am particularly interested in that. The draft Groceries Code Adjudicator Bill has also been announced. Those measures represent the three biggest bills regularly faced by my constituents, and where the Government can actually have an impact, so they have decided to focus on them in their second Queen’s Speech.

I felt that it was very much a consumer’s Queen’s Speech, but there is a backdrop. Costs are increasing for water—a resource where we face particular pressure at the moment—for energy in the international wholesale markets and for food, which consumes energy and is subject to global pressures. It is crucial that we put consumers at the heart of the proposed legislation to ensure that we develop greater resilience for them, while making sure that their rights are protected and secured.

The water Bill is in draft form, but I was pleased to hear during the Budget debates that the south-west is to have a dispensation on water bills. There will be an obligation on the regulator to secure social tariffs. The water system will be under more stress. We have had drought alerts over the past couple of months, and those problems will not go away. I find it extraordinary that, as I understand it, the regulator cannot take into account issues of climate change when a water company puts forward a proposal to build a reservoir. We need a total review of what Ofwat believes its priorities are, and we must make sure that the water Bill ensures that the overall water system

16 May 2012 : Column 615

delivers sustainability and good pricing, plus a strong responsibility to work with consumers to protect and conserve water.

Earlier there was discussion of the proposed energy legislation. Members of the Energy and Climate Change Committee from all parties have been persistent in pursuing consumer issues in relation to the energy market, such as the retail market review that Ofgem is putting in place, which is crucial for consumers. We have doggedly pursued the issue of mis-selling. Doorstep mis-selling has been going on for years and it is only in the past year or 18 months that the public have received recompense from the companies that were putting many of my constituents under pressure.

One thing that the Secretary of State mentioned which I think is an exciting dynamic and an exciting new level of engagement is consumer activism. Consumers are starting to find their voice. Because they are under financial pressure, they are starting to look, for example, at energy switching. Which? came down to my constituency and we signed up about 3,000 consumers who are under considerable pressure financially. They have switched energy supplier, we have got a better deal for them, and we are in a much stronger position because consumers are exercising their voice. I urge our Government on every level to support consumers to have a voice, to exercise their choice and to make sure they are getting the best deal for water or energy or in the food sector.

The green deal is a fundamental part of creating a more resilient consumer. I am honoured to be the chairman of a commission that has been set up to look at hard-to-reach homes when it comes to the green deal roll-out. We should not deceive customers about energy prices. We need to put in place measures to ensure that consumers use less energy and are more resilient.

The third key piece of consumer legislation relates to the grocery adjudicator. I have concerns about the legislation, because I do not believe that it necessarily drills down far enough into the supply chain. It is an important step in relation to the large retailers, but we have to understand how the agricultural supply chain works. Often the producer—the farmer—does not have a direct relationship with the retailer. Sometimes wholesalers and intermediaries have that relationship with the producer. It is crucial that the grocery code is open and that it is offered to all parts of the supply chain, and that the market is much more transparent and effective and does not allow the market power of the retailers to distort it.

Let us be frank with the consumer. Food prices are going in only one direction, and that is up. There will be a doubling of the global calorific intake in the next five years. Energy prices will increase. We must redesign our food system to ensure that it is not that food prices are going up and costing our constituents money, but that our constituents have the ability to feed their families at a cheaper price. That will include much more work on food education, which has already been mentioned, which I think is crucial. We need to ensure that we waste less within the system and value food more across the whole supply chain.

One other thing I urge the Government to do is look at where consumers are, in my view, being ripped off. On Friday I had a meeting with a group of young mothers at a Sure Start centre. I brought along a range

16 May 2012 : Column 616

of different products that I had bought in a supermarket, including a packet of corn flakes, a third of which was empty, and other products in packaging that, in many ways, was meant to deceive consumers—for example, a full packet of biscuits in which a large chunk was filled with plastic padding. We must not allow the consumer to be unable to make the smart choices. I used to work for the Consumers Association and know how smart consumers are, but they must be given transparent information and must not be deceived by presentation or packaging. We must ensure that we protect them so that they can make the smart decisions and ensure that they get the best value for their food, water and energy.

4.31 pm

Yvonne Fovargue (Makerfield) (Lab): I am pleased to follow the hon. Member for South Thanet (Laura Sandys) talking about consumers being ripped off, because that is an area I want to explore. Thousands of hard-working people in my constituency and across the country looked to this Tory-led Government to provide some support to ease the pressure on their squeezed living standards and help them cope with ever-rising bills, but they looked in vain. They got an energy Bill that will do nothing for the consumer, no legislation to reduce water bills and nothing on soaring train fares. There is no help for those people who saw their mortgages rise by 0.5% last month, pushing them off the step of “just about coping” and into the pit of “not managing”. There was no help for the people in my constituency who lost their tax credits because they cannot get extra hours from their employers. Where are those people to go? Far too often they go to payday lenders. If we are talking about people who rip consumers off, let us talk about payday lending.

Debt Advice research has shown that one in four people who take out a payday loan needed the money to buy food or essentials for their household and 44% used them to pay off other debts, but that does not help the situation. Indeed, if there is too much month left at the end of the money one month and a payday loan is taken out, the pressure is exacerbated the next month, and so on until the individual either rolls over the loan, using it as a long-term credit facility—an extremely expensive one—or takes out more and more loans from different companies.

I have met a constituent who took out a £300 loan. Unfortunately, she lost her job within two weeks when the company she worked for closed down, and 18 months on she owes £2,700 to the payday loan company, Toothfairy, which still refuses to negotiate a payment plan with the citizens advice bureau. I hate to disillusion thousands of children, but in this case Toothfairy is really the wicked witch. Over a three-month period I have collected 29 cases locally from the local citizens advice bureau and the local credit unions; it is a short time to amass the evidence that I am presenting to the Office of Fair Trading.

At the Credit Today conference on alternative lending last week, research was submitted showing that the average borrower from a payday lender also has overdrafts and credit card debts and is often paying only the interest on those. A payday loan is not a way of managing a deficit budget, and I worry that the lack of credit and affordability checks by these companies is pushing individuals into a worse situation, because by providing

16 May 2012 : Column 617

expensive loans they are delaying those individuals facing the issue and seeking help with their debts, which they need to do earlier. Nobody wants to push people into the arms of loan sharks or into offshore lending, but there has to be a point when the realities of the situation are pointed out and people are encouraged to seek free debt advice. Loans cannot keep being provided to people who cannot afford to pay for them time after time, but companies do not stop.

There were many excellent suggestions in the Business, Innovation and Skills Committee’s report, which came out on 7 March, but did any protection for such consumers make it into the Queen’s Speech? Not one recommendation made it into the legislative programme; in fact, the Government have chosen to ignore the recommendation that, given all the research that is available in the USA and Canada, further research, with all the associated costs, is unnecessary.

The implementation of any measures has been delayed by commissioning the university of Bristol to carry out a study. In the meantime, people such as the constituent to whom I referred can continue to obtain 14 payday loans in one day because of the lack of a real-time database owned by the regulator. My unemployed young constituent, who took out a loan with repayments that were higher than his benefit payments, with no affordability or credit check, will continue to be unprotected.

What of the people who realise their problems and look for debt advice to help them? They are still at risk from the fee-charging debt management sector. In December 2011 I highlighted the fact that if someone types any combination of “debt”, “advice” or “citizen” into Google, they find that the first three companies shown are fee-charging. I typed them in again yesterday, and yes, the first three that came up were adverts for charging companies.

The first site titles itself:

“Government Debt Help—Write off up to 70% of your debts.”

The second one states:

“Write off Your Debts—Debts over £3,000? Government help available to clear your debts”—

I was not aware that that was in the Queen’s Speech. And the third one titles itself:

“Citizens Debt Help Bureau—Help for debts over £2000.”

I have said many times that such loans are a distress purchase, and these sites are where people who are awake at 3 o’clock in the morning go to look for help to clear their debts. If I was up at 3 o’clock in the morning after being worried by the bailiffs or by bills, I am not sure that I would see that those sites were adverts and scroll down to the first search ranking, Citizens Advice.

To provide the advice that is needed, not just advice at the point when someone loses their home, the agencies need to be given hope—the hope that money is available to help their clients. In the UK last year, one home was repossessed every 15 minutes: somebody lost their home every 15 minutes. To stop the misery and the costs of that, early advice is essential, not advice at the point when someone loses their home.

So where was the help for the big society, the organisations that use volunteers, supported by paid staff, to deliver advice? It was certainly not in the Queen’s Speech, and with the advice review once more kicked into the long grass—I believe that it might report

16 May 2012 : Column 618

in the autumn—there will be more uncertainty and more unplanned closures of law centres, citizens advice bureaux and other invaluable local advice agencies. There is no hope in this Queen’s Speech for the agencies, and that means no hope for their clients. The cost of living is going up, debts are going out of control, payday lending is proliferating and there are no measures to deal with it.

This Government are out of touch with the real lives of the people I represent in Abram, Ashton, Hindley and throughout Makerfield. They do not want Lords reform. They want practical help to keep their heads above water and to pay their bills, not a Government who allow an industry to flourish unchecked. This industry appears to throw a lifebelt to people, but it is all too often lead-lined, and it ends up finally drowning them in debt.

4.39 pm

Tim Farron (Westmorland and Lonsdale) (LD): I want to focus my remarks on the parts of the Queen’s Speech relating to rural affairs, particularly farming and the groceries code adjudicator, as mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for South Thanet (Laura Sandys).

I hope that all of us, whatever our politics, would at least have been relieved and encouraged when we saw this morning’s unemployment figures, while not finding them the source of a desire to punch the air and celebrate. I guess that during the day most of us will have seen in our inboxes reference to the unemployment levels in our own constituencies; we always look at those, as I did. I can claim pretty much no credit whatsoever for the fact that Westmorland and Lonsdale has the lowest unemployment in England. When we look at these stats and what they mean for the cost of living and for people’s ability to keep their heads above water, we see that nothing is more important than whether someone has a job and whether it pays well. The latter is equally important. The fact that we have very low unemployment in our part of the world is a credit to businesses and the public sector, both local and national, but it overlooks the fact that our local average income is less than £20,000 a year while the average house price in Westmorland is £240,000. That means that the average person is earning a twelfth of what it costs to buy a home. That is why we have so many people on the social housing waiting list and why so many people find it a struggle. If someone lives on my patch, the chances are that they are in work but that they are still struggling because the cost of living is a significant problem given the nature of what it is to live in a rural area.

When we talk about the cost of living, it is worth reflecting on something that has changed drastically during the post-war period. In 1954, 33% of the average household budget was spent on food; today, that figure is about 11%. Of course, that progress is welcome, but it has not happened entirely for good reasons. It is good that food is less expensive these days—Members will be delighted to know that I do not claim credit for that either—but we need to remember that one of the reasons for that is the imbalance in the food market. We have a handful of very powerful retailers who do a good job; they do what any of us would do if we were given the freedom to do what the supermarkets are enabled to do.

16 May 2012 : Column 619

We have a handful of processors and many hundreds of suppliers. In such a market, as everyone knows, the powerful few are able to take advantage of the relatively powerless many. Let us be honest—the reason why food prices have been as they have over the decades has as much to do with exploitation as with progress.

Pat Glass: Last year, during the long summer holidays, I was told by the chief executive of the local hospital trust that children in my constituency had been admitted to hospital with malnutrition. Would the hon. Gentleman and his Government like to take responsibility for that?

Tim Farron: As a human being and as someone who is involved in politics, I do take responsibility and do not pretend that it is somebody else’s fault. It is not peculiar, two years into a particular Government, to point the finger at them for something that is a moral crime. If those things are genuinely happening—I am absolutely prepared to believe that they are—then we all take responsibility. One of things that I find unseemly about this world of politics in which we work is how we can sometimes be delighted at people’s misfortune because there is a political point to be made. I try to be reasonable, non-partisan and non-tribal, although I do not always succeed, and I try not to bracket together those in one party or another as having a collective psyche. However, similarly to the hon. Lady’s stance on this issue, I suspect, I observed earlier Labour Members cheering when someone mentioned that we are in recession, as if that were a good thing; I suppose that it might be seen as a political benefit. There was almost embarrassment on the part of Labour Front Benchers about the fact that there was some good news today on unemployment. We must be prepared to take collective responsibility for the things that are wrong and celebrate the things that are positive.

Let me therefore point out something that is wrong. Over the past month, there has been a drop of 2p a litre in the amount paid to dairy farmers for milk. That means that the average dairy farmer is now getting 3p to 4p less per litre than it costs him to produce it. At the back end of the previous Government’s time in office, I tabled some parliamentary questions which showed that the average annual income of a hill farmer, after all the relatively small payments that they get through the single farm payments scheme, was £5,000. Now, I do not know how many hours most hill farmers work each day, but the ones that I know work 16, 17 or 18-hour days. That means that they make about a quarter of the minimum wage. That is an outrage. I wonder whether the hon. Member for North West Durham (Pat Glass) would take responsibility for that, given that it happened under her Government. Of course, we all bear collective responsibility and it is right to say so. The exploitation of dairy farmers, sheep farmers and farmers in general happens because of an imbalance in our market and because of market failure.

Everyone in this House ought to be committed—I am sure that we all are—to fair trade. However, there is something peculiar about the fact that we can wander down one aisle in a shop and buy some Colombian fair trade coffee, and feel good about ourselves for having done so, and then go down the next aisle to buy the milk

16 May 2012 : Column 620

to put in that coffee, which has been ripped out of the hands of some underpaid Cumbrian farmer. We want fair trade for British farmers, as well as for farmers across the world. Fair trade at home matters. That is why the announcement in the Queen’s Speech of a groceries code adjudicator with teeth is a massive step forward for rural areas and for food producers of all kinds. It is fair and just to do that, but it is also sensible because unfairness damages us all.

Over the 15-year period of 1995 to 2010, which is not entirely coterminous with the Labour Government, there was a 50% drop in the number of dairy farmers in this country. Over the past 30 years, there has been a 25% drop in our country’s capacity to feed itself. If we do not take account of that, we will go down together. It has happened partly because the supermarkets and the food processors are too keen to make a quick buck at the expense of the exploited supplier and producer, rather than looking to the long term.

Bob Stewart (Beckenham) (Con): May I ask, in support of what my hon. Friend is saying, how the Government can make a substantial difference to dairy farmers in his constituency to put things right?

Tim Farron: There is a bunch of things that we can do. I thank my hon. Friend for asking the question. We can ensure that there is a fair and decent referee in the groceries code adjudicator. Through the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and our other missions, we can help our farmers to have an export market, because they will get a much better deal from the supermarkets if the supermarkets know that there is someone else who the farmers can sell to and who will compete. We also need to invest in research and development to help people improve their effectiveness and efficiency. I will come back to that point if I have time.

Laura Sandys: Does my hon. Friend agree that the issue of contracts is also important? The relationship between supermarkets and producers is extraordinary in that they often have no contracts whatsoever.

Tim Farron: Yes, farmers need to be encouraged and enabled to co-operate. I always thought that it was peculiar that the milk marketing board was got rid of because it was a monopoly—what the heck is a supermarket, for pity’s sake? It is important that there is balance in the market.

The reality is that unregulated markets do not work. I believe in a free market, but markets are not free when there are powerful entities that control them. Markets do not always work in the interests of the people who are being exploitative. It is not in the interests of Tesco, Sainsbury’s, Asda or Morrisons to exploit their farmers, even though they often do so. I acknowledge that they do good things too. As John Maynard Keynes once said, among the many other wise things that he said,

“The market can remain irrational longer than you can remain solvent.”

The supermarkets are putting people out of business, despite the fact that it is not in their long-term interests, just because it is in their short-term interests.

That highlights something that this Government and all Governments have failed to do—set out a coherent food production strategy for the country. As my hon.

16 May 2012 : Column 621

Friend the Member for South Thanet said earlier, over the next 40 years the population of planet Earth will increase by about 50%, but the demand for food will roughly double. If we as a country preside over a 25% drop in our ability to feed ourselves, as we have over the past 30 years, it is completely witless and massively damaging. The food crisis—I say that with no exaggeration at all—that the planet faces and that this country will face is at least as big a concern as climate change and, dare I say it, is a bigger concern than the economic crisis.

That challenge must be met. It must be met by having regulation of our market, with a referee to make sure the market is fair and effective, and the groceries code adjudicator will do that. We also need to have an integrated strategy, so that our approach to common agricultural policy reform is focused primarily on maximising sustainable food production; we have a science policy that has food production at the top of the agenda—research and development is crucial to ensuring that we maximise the amount of food we produce in this country—and we have a planning policy that is fit for purpose and allows rural areas and rural businesses to develop, so that they can meet the needs of this country. The reality is that people’s ability to enter the farming industry and to provide the food that this country desperately needs also depends on young people being able to afford a home of their own for their family in a rural area.

4.50 pm

Mrs Sharon Hodgson (Washington and Sunderland West) (Lab): The cost of living is an excellent theme for our debate on the Queen’s Speech, because alongside and intertwined with the strength of the economy and the availability of jobs, it goes to the core of what ordinary people are most concerned about right now, as I see in my inbox and hear from constituents on the doorstep and in my surgeries. Frankly, I am amazed that the Secretary of State was able to speak for so long, given the lack of action to help with the cost of living in the Her Majesty’s Gracious Speech.

I think the Queen’s Speech was best described by the deputy political editor of The Daily Telegraph, as

“a ragtag bag of second-order legislation and moderate tinkering, partly to address some quite important issues, but also simply to look as if they’re doing something.”

There are one or two Bills that I am pleased to see and will discuss later, but where was the meat? Where was the creativity? Where were the drive and ambition to get this country out of the first double-dip recession in almost 40 years? Nowhere. There was no change, no hope, and Ministers still act like they have no idea of the impact of their policies on the lives of my constituents. Quite frankly, they just do not have any ideas.

One of the biggest cost of living pressures that working families are feeling is child care. According to the Daycare Trust’s annual child care costs survey, the average price of nursery provision in the north-east has increased by 7.5% over the past year, but the cost of out-of-school child care has increased by more than 25%. That is but one part of the triple whammy that parents are facing, because at the same time the help they receive from the Government has been cut by 12.5%, and child care places are becoming scarcer as the money councils get to ensure availability and affordability is slashed and

16 May 2012 : Column 622

de-ring-fenced, and private nurseries face a daily struggle to stay afloat, due to the increasing number of women who are leaving the work force or finding alternative care, coupled with increased costs and cuts to child care tax credits.

Add to all that this year’s changes to working tax credit eligibility, which affect an estimated 355 families in my constituency, and ever-rising costs of petrol and public transport, and the result is a situation where the cost of working is forcing parents, particularly women, out of work at an alarming rate. After last year’s cuts to child care tax credits, about 44,000 parents stopped claiming. Many will have left work because continuing just did not make financial sense any more. Last month’s changes will no doubt exacerbate that worrying trend. Where were the measures in the Queen’s Speech to help? Again, nowhere.

The cost of child care is normally higher for children who are disabled or who have special educational needs. In addition, places for those children are scarce: according to the Daycare Trust, only 12% of councils have sufficient places to meet local need. A children and families Bill was announced in the Queen’s Speech; I welcome that and look forward to working on it when it comes before the House. I am delighted that, as part of that debate, the House is to discuss how we can improve outcomes for children and young people with special educational needs and disabilities. Where, though, is the commitment to increase the availability and affordability of child care for children with special educational needs and disabilities, to allow their parents to hold down a job, which is not only important financially, but provides much needed respite in some cases?

The Government have also said that, in that Bill, they will continue Labour’s reforms on flexible working, allowing mothers to transfer some of their maternity leave to their partner. There are of course social benefits to that, but where are the financial benefits for families? Research commissioned by my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Camberwell and Peckham (Ms Harman) back in 2010, when she was Minister for Women and Equalities, showed that only about one in five women earned more than their partner, although the number is thankfully rising. With that in mind, transferring statutory leave will come down to a practical economic decision for many families. It will be a luxury that most cannot afford, especially if the Government continue to do nothing to mitigate the rising cost of living.

Colleagues have mentioned a number of other pressures on household budgets, and I will echo their points if I have time. Those pressures include rising energy bills, rising shopping bills exacerbated by last year’s rise in VAT, which took £450 out of family budgets at a stroke, and the rising cost of fuel and public transport, about which we have heard quite a bit.

One particular problem that has been raised with me, and mentioned in the media in the past few months, has been banks hiking up mortgage interest rates while the base rate remains at a record low. Mr Edward Cairns of Washington called my office to complain that on the same day as the Royal Bank of Scotland announced a total bonus pool of £785 million for 2011, despite the fact that the bank had made an overall loss of £2 billion, he had received notification that the interest on his mortgage was being increased by 0.25% to 4.25%. I wrote a letter to Stephen Hester asking him to explain

16 May 2012 : Column 623

that hike and the fact that it coincided so insensitively with the announcement of the huge bonus pot. Unfortunately, I am yet to receive a response from Mr Hester, so I also wrote to the Chancellor to see what he was going to do about it. I received a letter back from the Financial Secretary to the Treasury saying, in a nutshell and in a very polite way, absolutely nothing.

RBS is a bank in which Mr Cairns, as a taxpayer, has an 84% stake, yet it and other banks are needlessly hitting people like him in the pocket while their executives are being rewarded for failure. That is bad news not just for consumers but for the Government.

Robert Flello (Stoke-on-Trent South) (Lab): I am sure my hon. Friend is aware that in the letter that Halifax sent out to mortgage customers, it stated that the reason why it had increased its rate was the parlous state of the economy and the recession born out of No. 10.

Mrs Hodgson: Very interesting. I hope that Ministers are listening and that my hon. Friend’s point will be fed back.

Banks putting their standard rates up means that average interest rates increase, so the amount that the Government have to pay out in support for mortgage interest also increases. It also means that people have less disposable income to spend in shops, pubs and restaurants, so tax receipts are hit as well. Did the Queen’s Speech do anything to address that worrying trend? No, it did not.

What my constituents wanted from the Queen’s speech was a sign that this Tory-led Government had listened to the message that had clearly been sent to them through the ballot box on 3 May. They wanted a change of direction and some hope for the future. They actually wanted what Labour is offering—a fair deal on tax, instead of a great deal of tax being given back to the wealthiest few; a fair deal on energy, wresting power back from the big six and ensuring that pensioners get deals that allow them to eat as well as to heat their homes; a fair deal on transport, reining in the constant price hikes by train operators; a fair deal for consumers, stopping rip-off charges and practices by unaccountable companies, including payday lenders and secondary ticketing websites; and, above all else, a fair deal on jobs, getting young people in my constituency and others involved in working our way out of the recession that this Government have created. They did not get any of that. It was just more of the same from an out-of-touch and incompetent Government.

Ministers need to listen to Paul Dixon, who lost his seat on 3 May, before which he was the only remaining Lib Dem on Sunderland city council. He said that the coalition Government need to open their eyes, take a good look and realise the damage they have done. I agree with Paul, but the Government need to start putting it right. I hope they do so sooner rather than later, or else they should step aside and allow Labour to do so.

4.59 pm

Jake Berry (Rossendale and Darwen) (Con): May I say what a privilege it is to have the opportunity to

16 May 2012 : Column 624

speak on the cost of living? All hon. Members would accept that the cost of living is the issue raised most often with us in our advice surgeries. In an era of static if not falling incomes, ensuring that our constituents can live their lives, support their families, continue to get work, put fuel in their car and keep their houses warm, is one of the most important issues we can debate in the House.

Recent media coverage seems to revolve around whether MPs know the cost of a pint of milk, and that decides whether they are in or out of touch with their constituents. I know the cost of a pint of milk, because I am particularly fond of a milky coffee with two sugars on a Saturday morning before I go to my advice surgery.

Gavin Shuker: How much is it?

Jake Berry: It was 46p when I bought it last weekend, but since the general election, the cost of the pint of milk that I buy for my milky coffee has gone up by 10%. Although that is not the world’s greatest economic indicator, all hon. Members can accept that it is a symptom of the huge increase in the cost of fuel, which puts pressure on families in all our constituencies.

I am a great supporter of the great British pint—I am sure some of my colleagues think that litres are a European abomination—but one thing that we buy in litres is fuel. The cost of fuel in my constituency is 6p or 7p a litre more expensive than in the neighbouring towns of Bury and Bolton. I became absolutely fed up with that, so I wrote to the major supermarkets to ask why there is such a difference. Apparently, for people who live in rural isolated areas such as Rossendale and Darwen, the local supermarket sets the cost of the fuel at the pump. Therefore, in a small geographical area that encompasses my constituency alone, the biggest retailer in my patch—the supermarket—sets the price and is the major supplier.

People in my area say, “Welcome to rip-off Rossendale or dearest Darwen if you want fuel in your car.” That situation cannot be right. It is wrong that supermarkets behave in that way on fuel pricing. I can find out the price of a Tesco pint of milk or a can of beans by going on its website, but it is not prepared to set a tariff for fuel nationally and instead discriminates against rural and isolated areas.

I support the Government’s idea of getting energy suppliers, particularly the utility companies, to write to their customers to offer them the lowest tariff, but supermarkets should offer petrol at the cheapest price to the young, hard-working families in my constituency—they might have to put diesel in a van to go to work or petrol in a small car to take children to school—and not at a price that they know they can get away with just because of location. The major supermarkets have had a monopoly—the hon. Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale (Tim Farron), who is no longer in his place, spoke extremely well on farming and the price of milk in that respect. Anti-competitive practices on fuel are pushing small, independent fuel retailers out of business, which is bad for businesses and for my area.

That extra £5 a week where I live to put fuel in a vehicle to go to work is the difference between people being able to turn the heating on or not, being able to feed their children healthy food or not, or being able to go out and spend money in the economy or not. I hope

16 May 2012 : Column 625

fuel price setting is part of the Government’s programme to look at the relationship between supermarkets and their suppliers.

The cost of gas and electricity is another major issue raised by all our constituents. Those costs have ballooned beyond anyone’s increase in income over the past few years. They have risen by as much as 20%. We tell people to switch supplier. When people visit me in my patch, they say they will not switch supplier because they are nervous of bill shock. Uniquely, virtually, in a service industry supplying utilities to our houses, it is expected to be self-service. People are asked to read their own electricity meter. People in my advice surgeries have told me that they purposely underestimate how much electricity or gas they have used to help manage their cash flow. That builds up a huge legacy bill. Others simply have underestimations having had their meter readings underestimated over a long period.

Those people are worried about switching, because they know that when they switch they will have to give an up-to-date meter reading and will have a huge legacy bill that they cannot pay. These people, sometimes those on the most expensive tariff, are unable to switch because they cannot pay their historical bill. That is why it is absolutely right that the Queen’s Speech sets out a programme to introduce smart metering. Bglobal, a successful business in my constituency, which I am delighted to see has retained its profitability, does business-to-business smart metering. There is an opportunity for us all to have smart meters in our homes.

Dr Whitehead: Does the hon. Gentleman think that consumers should pay for smart meter installation or should other methods of payment be considered?

Jake Berry: However they are paid for, ultimately the consumer will pay, because if the electricity company pays, it will be added to the bill somewhere.

I am glad that the hon. Member for Southampton, Test (Dr Whitehead) is interested in smart metering. As I said, Bglobal, a business-to-business smart meter supplier in my constituency, is doing very well. The great thing about smart meters is that they enable us to pay only for the energy we use. There is not the bill shock; there is not the legacy bills which make people nervous. Paying only for the energy we use helps us to manage our electricity consumption and means that we can reduce it over time. People underestimate their readings so that they can manage their cash flows and pay their bills, but that is not real; they are simply putting off the pain. I want people to understand that by smart metering they can regulate their utility use and genuinely reduce their bills.

Bill shock is a real block to switching, as too is the fact that switching between the majority of energy suppliers involves an online medium. I refer to the uSwitch website, which I am sure many Members have used. That is a real block for the elderly and people on low incomes who do not have an internet connection. There are plenty of silver surfers in my constituency—they e-mail and tweet me—but that is not for everyone, so switching online is not right for all. People without phone lines or internet connections cannot switch.

Having said that, uSwitch does make the switching facility available in paper form. I am sure that many Members, like me, have collected the uSwitch envelopes

16 May 2012 : Column 626

and taken them out to elderly constituents, saying “Get your last utility bill, put it in here, and uSwitch will write back telling you the best tariff to go on.” As MPs, we should be publicising that and ensuring that vulnerable constituents are not excluded from saving what can be hundreds of pounds by switching their electricity supplier.

I support the Government’s proposal that energy suppliers should be compelled to write to their customers every year offering them the cheapest tariff. That does not enable people to switch between suppliers, but it at least ensures that they are on the best tariff. Of course, that is not always the one with the lowest electricity charge. Some people—those with very low usage, for example—might choose not to pay the standing charge and pay slightly more for their electricity. Tariffs have to be tailored to individuals.

Finally, I turn to the proposal to ensure that power generation in this country is environmentally sustainable. Often in this place we obsess far too much about short-term issues. As important as things are such as the eurozone, part of our job has to be horizon scanning. If I scan the horizon and think about what might affect our children or grandchildren, global warming is probably the biggest issue that I spot. I absolutely support the Government proposals to move to more sustainable electricity generation, but we have a problem with wind energy. In my constituency, 30 planning applications for wind turbines are currently under consideration by the local authority. That points to a market that is completely out of kilter with commercial reality. We saw it with solar energy: we had a sort of gold rush, because people suddenly realised that they could get 16% guaranteed by the Government tax-free. We are now seeing similar speculation by major energy suppliers, with the applications for large wind turbines in my constituency.

We all support wind generation, but I do not want to see my patch become the wind capital of the UK—although colleagues might look at me and think that it already has become that. I hope that the Government will have a look at the subsidy for wind generation and try to ensure that we cut the “get rich quick” merchants—the speculators—out of the market. I am happy to see the development in my area, but I want to ensure a local benefit, so that it really works for our children and grandchildren.

5.11 pm

Jim Dowd (Lewisham West and Penge) (Lab): I am conscious that there are many more Members—certainly on the Opposition Benches—who still wish to speak, so I shall be as brief as I can. I am happy to speak in today’s debate on the Queen’s Speech about the cost of living, and to support the amendment in the name of my right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition, concentrating as it does on energy costs, fares and petrol prices.

Fares, and particularly rail fares, are critical to people in Lewisham generally, and in my part of it especially, as we have the highest proportion of residents in any London borough who commute to work outside their borough, although we do not have as many people in work as we once did. I welcome today’s marginal fall in unemployment, as any sensible person would, but in Lewisham in particular there are still 20 people unemployed for every vacancy. The cost of commuting by rail from

16 May 2012 : Column 627

my part of the constituency into London Bridge, Charing Cross and Victoria is extremely important, which is why I am keen to support what the Opposition are saying today.

Following on from what many other colleagues have said today, my constituents are also very concerned about the conduct of the big six energy companies. There is a strong feeling, not just across my constituency but across the country, that people do not get a fair deal from the big six—that they effectively operate a cartel, with myriad deals, special deals, “supersaver” deals, “half-past-Tuesday deals” and God knows what else, so that people do not know whether they are getting the best deal. I accept that the big six have stopped the scandalous cold-calling campaigns of recent years—as far as I am aware, all but one do not do that any more. However, there is still a major concern among the public generally that the big six are not as accountable as they should be.

The previous speaker, the hon. Member for Rossendale and Darwen (Jake Berry), mentioned smart metering and the opportunities that it provides. Smart metering could be a huge benefit to the economy and to the public more broadly, provided that it is done in the most objective and reasonable fashion, and not merely to accommodate the whims of the big six, which of course have a critical role to play in its implementation.

I also had a passage in my speech about the social care Bill, or rather the lack of a social care Bill in the Queen’s Speech. However, as my hon. Friend the Member for Worsley and Eccles South (Barbara Keeley) dealt with that issue far more elegantly and eloquently than I could, I will not belabour the point—although it is not unusual in this place for at least half a dozen people to say something that somebody else has said already. Nevertheless, the absence of a social care Bill is a huge missed opportunity, given the amount of spadework that has been done on the subject by local authorities and by the Dilnot review.

I want to deal with an issue mentioned by the hon. Member for South Thanet (Laura Sandys), my hon. Friend the Member for Ynys Môn (Albert Owen) and others—the setting up of an adjudicator on the groceries code of conduct. Everyone has welcomed it, quite reasonably, but I fear that there is not as much to it as meets the eye.

I am sorry that the hon. Member for Colchester (Sir Bob Russell) is no longer in his place. He used to be vice-chairman of the all-party small shops group back in 2005 when I was the chairman. We conducted an inquiry into “High Street UK 2015”, looking into what the future of the high street would be 10 years on from 2005 if the current trends in retailing and the current regulatory regime remained in place. Staggeringly, we are now only three years away from 2015, and much of what we suggested in the report has, sadly, proved to be true. That was echoed in the report by Mary Portas and the proposals she made to address the situation.

Having looked at this subject in great detail over a long time, I have to admit, sadly, that I am deeply pessimistic. I am not sure that many of our traditional high streets have not changed for ever—and not necessarily for the better. The belief that something probably cannot

16 May 2012 : Column 628

be achieved should not stop us from making the effort, and I welcome the efforts of those involved.

One recommendation in our report was to establish a supermarket ombudsman, but one who would have power across the whole sector, not just across the supply chain, important though that is. When the detail of the Government’s legislation is made public, I believe people will see that only a narrow and restrictive role is proposed for the adjudicator. We wanted the office and the office holder to have the ability to examine in detail the effect that the disproportionate power of the big supermarkets—the big four, as they are known—has on dictating the climate for retailing, and the disproportionate impact they can exert on small and independent retailers.

All we are likely to get from the Bill will be enforcement of a code of conduct that already exists. Even six years ago, a code was in place, but no one ever used it. The suppliers were able to take things up directly with the big supermarkets, but nobody ever did. There was not a single recorded case of suppliers ever taking forward an official complaint about one of the big supermarkets they supplied. Some would say that it is fairly obvious why they did not do so—because they would have lost the business, and it was better for them to carry on with the business, even under onerous terms, than to lose it altogether. On the other side, some argued that it showed how effective the code was—that it did not need to be enforced, that nobody needed to have recourse to it and that people could continue their relationship with their suppliers.

Incidentally, the bulk of suppliers are not, as many people think they are, small farmers with small supplies. That is not true. The bulk of suppliers to the big supermarkets are large corporations and large food processors. Most of the supermarkets’ product comes from them. While I welcome the introduction of the new office, I am pessimistic about its effect, as I do not think it will address the real problem, which is the disproportionate market power of the big four.

I shall skip over a few other matters and move on to the heart of the debate on the Queen’s Speech. I accept the qualification that some Members have highlighted—that the Queen’s Speech cannot say everything and that a Queen’s Speech cannot necessarily legislate for everything. That is perfectly true. Within the past few weeks, however, we have become aware of both the Budget and the Queen’s Speech. Those two items together should demonstrate the priorities, direction and intent of the Government. We now have a pretty good view of what their priorities are.

All this should be seen against the economic background of a double-dip recession at home and a eurozone crisis abroad. We are witnessing convulsions in Greece, Portugal, Italy, Spain and perhaps even France: the southern economies in the eurozone are in a parlous state. There is also growing concern, both nationally and internationally, not about debt, inflation or interest rates, but about growth, or rather the lack of growth. The Federation of Small Businesses drew attention to that last week, and yesterday the Bank of America Merrill Lynch Survey of Fund Managers observed:

“The proportion”

of leading international investors

“saying global fiscal policy is ‘too restrictive’ has… doubled to a net 23 percent”

16 May 2012 : Column 629

within a month. That lack of demand is the most acute problem. It is more significant than either employment law or the impact of regulation. Even access to finance and credit is cited more often than those factors as a cause of businesses’ inability to expand and become profitable.

Today the Governor of the Bank of England downgraded the growth forecast from last year’s 2% figure to 0.8%. The Government must look, listen and learn, and reverse the damage that they are doing to the people, businesses and social fabric of this country, for it is that, more than anything contained in the Queen’s Speech, which will determine whether the future of the people of Britain is bright or bleak.

5.21 pm

Stephen Phillips (Sleaford and North Hykeham) (Con): It is an enormous privilege to have the opportunity to contribute to the debate on the Queen’s Speech, and in particular to speak today about the cost of living, which I think is the subject that touches the constituents of every Member most closely. It is a subject that resonates especially in rural areas such as the one that I represent, because for us the cost of living differs in so many respects from the cost of living for those who live in urban areas. One of the reasons for that is associated with the cost of fuel, and the cost of filling our cars at the pumps.

For those who live in my constituency and in other rural parts of England and the rest of the United Kingdom, having a car is not a luxury but an absolute necessity. The car is the thing in which people drive their kids to school in the morning, it is the thing that they need in order to get to work, it is the thing that they must have in order to do their shopping, and it is the thing that gets them to the doctor and the dentist. For my constituents, journeys that can be made on public transport in London and other metropolitan areas must be made by car, and are quite often lengthy.

Angela Smith (Penistone and Stocksbridge) (Lab): Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Stephen Phillips: I am only just beginning my speech, but I will be kind and give way to the hon. Lady.

Angela Smith: When the hon. Gentleman talks of metropolitan areas, he should recognise that they include areas such as South Yorkshire. Two thirds of Barnsley is rural, but it is also a metropolitan area. The issues to which the hon. Gentleman refers apply in many metropolitan as well as rural areas.

Stephen Phillips: They certainly apply in such areas to some extent. I do not dissent from that proposition. However, the hon. Lady needs to know the direction in which I am going. Because our constituents—including hers—are so affected by this issue, it is an issue on which the Government should take what action they can take. We are debating the cost of living, and one of the principal costs for those who live in the rural areas in her constituency and in rural areas such as the ones that I represent is the cost of fuel. The Government have tackled that. My right hon. Friend the Chancellor has scrapped £4 billion in duty increases that were planned by the last Government. The Opposition do

16 May 2012 : Column 630

not like to hear this, but the truth is that the price of petrol at the pumps is 10p a litre cheaper than it would have been if the Labour party had won the last election.

Is there more that could be done to deal with the cost of living? Of course, but Opposition Members also need to remember the huge debt bill—£120 million a day—with which the country has been left. If we were not paying that bill, my right hon. Friend the Chancellor and the other Treasury Ministers would have far more scope to tackle this and other aspects of the cost of living. We have heard Opposition Members criticise the Government today, but they need to remember who was responsible for getting this country into the mess in which we find ourselves.

Phil Wilson: I remind the hon. Gentleman that we are in a double-dip recession, and that when we left power, growth was increasing and unemployment was coming down. Until 2008, before the crisis, the Tories were supporting our public expenditure plans pound for pound.

Stephen Phillips: The hon. Gentleman and his Opposition colleagues are very keen on saying that this double-dip recession is a recession made in Downing street, and they are absolutely right—it was made in No. 11 Downing street under the last Government, and then made in No. 10 when the previous Prime Minister finally made his transition from No. 11. The truth of the matter is that we need not only an apology but a bit of humility from the Opposition. It is they who got us into this mess.

I would desperately like to see more action on the cost of living, and specifically fuel pricing, from this Government, but I know, as I have had to tell many of my constituents, that it is simply not possible because of the mess with which we have been left.

That is the first aspect of the cost of living that principally affects my constituents, but there are of course others, including the other great cost associated with ordinary living: energy. The Government have taken action on this through their agreement with the suppliers, as we know, but again there is more that can be done. I am enormously heartened by not only the measures the Government have taken, but those in the Queen’s Speech that will be brought before the House in due course. The truth is that we face a great problem with energy security and the cost of energy as the developing countries across the world become richer. We need to reduce the reliance on fossil fuels that we have had for the last 50 years.

However, there is a related issue that affects constituencies such as mine and that of my hon. Friend the Member for Rossendale and Darwen (Jake Berry), who spoke earlier: the impact of onshore wind power on rural areas. He may have 30 planning applications outstanding for wind turbines in his constituency; I suspect I have a similar number. The great problem with onshore wind, which the Government will have to grapple with, is that it seems universally to attract no support whatsoever from the communities where the siting of such wind farms is proposed. Some of these very large structures—including in my own constituency—over-top the spire of Lincoln cathedral to a considerable degree. These things are generally not wanted and are uneconomic, to the extent that the subsidy is removed.

16 May 2012 : Column 631

The Government will have to look at this issue. Yes, man-made climate change is important, and this generation will have to grapple with it if we are going to live responsibly and hand a decent United Kingdom to our children. However, the problem the Government face—notwithstanding the Localism Act 2011 and everything that was done in the last Session—is that there is no national framework within which wind power is planned. I want to hear from Ministers that that will shift, either in this Session or in other Sessions during the remainder of this Parliament.

The third issue I want to talk about is the cost of food. Government and Opposition Members have spoken about the Government’s plans for a grocery adjudicator. Those who farm in my constituency have too often seen the power of the supermarkets bearing down to such a degree that they have effectively been unable to make a living. That is certainly true of dairy farmers in my constituency, many of whom went out of business long before I became the Member of Parliament. Many farmers in my constituency and other areas of the United Kingdom have been struggling for a number of years. That is why the grocery adjudicator is so important. It is important that we sustain our farming industry in this country, so that we can ensure not only a decent living for our farmers, but future food security. That form of food security will, ultimately, feed through the supply chain and ensure reasonable prices for our constituents. So that is another important aspect of this Queen’s Speech. It is not, as one Opposition Member said, a ragtag Queen’s Speech or a Queen’s Speech full of a ragtag of Bills; it is a Queen’s Speech full of measures that are important to take during this Session and this Parliament to try to rectify some of the damage done to our country between 1997 and 2010.

In today’s debate on the Queen’s Speech we are principally concerned with the cost of living, and I had wished to make contributions on other days on other of the topics that have been debated. I would not wish to find myself ruled out of order, so I shall confine myself to saying that the Government took some brave decisions in the previous Session on foreign policy, and the manner in which the United Kingdom has conducted itself overseas and sought to ensure that democracy is fostered and grows throughout not only the middle east, but the remainder of the world. However, other conflicts that do not find their way into the newspapers and in which civilians are dying are taking place all over the world today. One such conflict is occurring on the borders of South Sudan. I hope that the Minister answering for the Government in this debate will convey my concerns about that and about what is happening in the other areas where humanitarian disasters are occurring, which I know other Government Members and doubtless some Opposition Members share, to my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary, notwithstanding the fact that I failed to find my place in yesterday’s debate.

Several hon. Members rose

Mr Speaker: Order. May I remind the House that the wind-ups will begin at 6.30 pm? There is a 10-minute limit, but if hon. Members feel able to speak for less time, demonstrating great concern for their colleagues, that will be an additional benefit. However, it is not obligatory.

16 May 2012 : Column 632

5.32 pm

Jessica Morden (Newport East) (Lab): I promise to speak quickly, Mr Speaker, and I thank you for giving me the opportunity to take part in this debate and give a voice to my constituents, who are really struggling with the cost of living. Like other Labour Members, I wish to concentrate on the realities of how those on lower incomes are coping during these times.

Like other hon. Members, I found, in Newport, that the cost of living was the No. 1 issue on the doorstep during the local elections. The good voters of Newport had their say on the Government’s policies, voting out the Tory-Lib Dem coalition in Newport and electing a new Labour council. I feel very much that people are sending a message, and we must listen closely to them.

As other hon. Members have said, the Queen’s Speech undoubtedly contains some worthy ideas; many moons ago in this debate, my right hon. Friend the Member for Croydon North (Malcolm Wicks) mentioned flexible parental leave, a Labour idea, and I wish to mention the attempt to speed up the process of adoption, which was a real issue for the couple I met last week in my constituency. They have waited a long time to adopt and have left me in no doubt as to the difficulties of that process, and this is well worth tackling.

However, the Queen’s Speech is about priorities, and last week the Government failed to offer a glimmer of hope to those families and constituents of mine who find themselves struggling to get by and just managing to keep their heads above water. These are families who are living in the real world, where careful budgeting is thrown out by the washing machine breaking down or by a child needing a new pair of shoes—by just a small unexpected bill. They were looking to this Government to help or at the very least understand, but instead the Queen’s Speech came on top of the measures announced in the autumn statement and in the Budget, particularly the cuts to tax credits, and has done nothing to help and offers little hope.

While food, energy and fuel prices and transport costs are up, wages are stagnant or cut and the Government are taking away tax credits. In April, 730 families in my constituency will have had their tax credits reduced unless they have been able to find extra hours to work. They will have lost around £3,800 a year, but they are the people who can least afford to lose that money. They are on incomes of about £16,000 or £17,000 a year and are those most impacted by the price rises because they spend a disproportionate part of their income on fuel and food. They are the people who are now turning up at my citizens advice bureau with three children saying that they are staying in private rented accommodation, have had their income reduced by £70 a week and are really struggling.

Glyn Davies (Montgomeryshire) (Con): I have a lot of sympathy with what the hon. Lady is saying, but does she welcome the fact that the core measure in the Budget this year raised the very people she is talking about out of the taxation system altogether? The Budget and the Government’s strategy are aimed at helping the very people she is talking about.

Jessica Morden: I have a lot of respect for the hon. Gentleman but the Government are giving with one hand and taking away with the other. I just need to say

16 May 2012 : Column 633

“VAT” and “tax credit cuts”. I am sure that the family I am talking about who presented themselves at the CAB will not recognise themselves as being better off in any way as a result of the measures he mentions.

As other hon. Members have mentioned, there was nothing in the Queen’s Speech about helping with the cost of child care. For many families, it is as much as the mortgage or housing costs, if not more. What are the Government doing for families in my constituency whose child care costs are rising by 4% to 6%? The Childcare Trust recently pointed out that those costs are increasing, particularly for the under-twos, whilst wages are stagnant and the child care element of the working tax credit has been cut. There is an urgent need for creative solutions in this area of policy, as child care is a massive part of the cost of living for many of my constituents.

Last week in my constituency office—I cannot be alone in experiencing this—I saw constituents who are having to wait months, not weeks, for appeals on tax credits. In the meantime they are struggling along. I see people with disabilities who have medical evidence backing up their situation having their benefits withdrawn. Half of them then appeal successfully, but they have to wait months for their appeal. I am even seeing parents who cannot afford to take up nursery places because of the cost of petrol. In my local CAB there were 1,900 extra benefits cases in the last financial year, and that figure is going to increase.

There are two food banks operating in my constituency, with the churches in Caldicot looking to set up and operate another one. In December alone the food banks distributed more than 3,000 parcels. I have to pay tribute to the food banks in my constituency run by the Raven House Trust and the King’s Church. They are a fantastic example of the good society and have heart-warming community support. However, the new people turning up at food banks are often those affected by benefits changes who have to be helped until an appeal is heard or who, because of low pay, just cannot make it to the end of the week.

Finally, into this picture of people struggling with the cost of living in Newport we throw the fact that the Government are raising the spectre of regional pay. There are 23,000 public sector workers in Newport, which has a lot of public sector workers precisely because of the previous Government’s policy of relocating jobs out of the south-east to increase employment in targeted areas, which was a fantastic thing to do. As a result, our employers include not only the local authority and the NHS but the Office for National Statistics, the Prison Service and the Intellectual Property Office, to name a few. Those jobs have been a boost to our city and a huge success story, but public sector workers in Newport have had a pay freeze for two years now and there will be a 1% cap for a further two years. They are also having to pay increased pension contributions. We have had 9,000 public sector job cuts in Wales and the TUC predicts a possible 39,000 more in the years to come.

Regional pay would be devastating for Newport and Wales. Last week, the Welsh Government published their response to the Treasury consultation on regional pay, and all the parties in the Welsh Assembly have expressed their opposition to it. I agree with the First Minister, Carwyn Jones, that the proposal is just

“code for cutting pay in Wales”.

16 May 2012 : Column 634

The Welsh Government point to the lack of Treasury evidence that high public sector pay crowds out the private sector. We believe this is a back-door way to drive down public sector wages and will be bad news for Welsh workers and the Welsh economy.

Not only will struggling public sector workers see their pay driven down; there will be a devastating effect on the economy in Wales. In my area, the public and private sectors are inextricably linked—they are intertwined. Money taken from public sector workers means less spent in the local economy, which then hits the private sector.

In Newport, we saw how close that connection was when the Home Office tried to close our passport office. Closure of the office would have devastated our city centre, which relies on the throughput of its staff and customers to survive. The argument that holding down public sector wages will make private sector jobs magically appear is ill thought out.

In Wales, women make up 64% of the public sector work force and 87% of part-time workers. The previous Government made particular efforts on equal pay. Average pay might be higher, but I ask the Government not to roll back progress for women.

In March, like many hon. Members, I challenged Ministers about where the extra hours would come from for families who would lose their tax credits as a result of the Government’s proposals. We said then that the Government had demonstrated no understanding of the real difficulties faced by families. Nothing in the Queen’s Speech demonstrates that they have any more understanding than they did then. I urge them to do all they can to help people with the cost of living.

Several hon. Members rose

Mr Speaker: Order. Six hon. Members are still seeking to catch my eye and I am keen to accommodate all of them. It will be deliverable with an eight-minute limit on Back-Bench speeches, to apply with immediate effect, and some self-restraint as far as interventions are concerned.

5.41 pm

Dr Alan Whitehead (Southampton, Test) (Lab): Today, we heard that energy prices for the average household went up by 12% over the last 12 months, and by 34% over the last four years. That clearly has a tremendous impact on the cost of living and, as we have heard already, on the rise in fuel poverty.

Bills are not increasing because of green initiatives, although they contribute. The Daily Mail and others who have suggested that green and environmental initiatives add hundreds of pounds to energy bills are wrong. They are increasing mainly because of the non-transparent energy market and global fuel prices. The latter are not about to change, but we can do a lot about other issues.

Investing in green energy and the low-carbon economy is one route to lower fuel costs in the future, because of the disaggregation of fuel costs and world mineral energy prices. We can keep getting indigenously produced and stably priced fuel in the future. Investing in energy efficiency in homes and offices—using less energy more efficiently—is a no-brainer, as has been said. Lower

16 May 2012 : Column 635

energy usage will bring smaller bills. The best method for combating fuel poverty is to fuel-poverty-proof UK homes.

All that investment in energy and the low-carbon economy means jobs, energy security and the development of technologies where the UK can play a world role. In some instances, we already have a world lead that needs sustaining. I understand that the Foreign Secretary recently intervened on these matters in a letter to various Departments. He said:

“I am in no doubt that we must meet this challenge, not only to safeguard the sustainability of our planet and the security of our energy, but also to ensure we are at the front of the queue when it comes to the jobs and industries of the future.”

I agree with many of those sentiments, but it is remarkable that the right hon. Gentleman felt it necessary to write that letter if the Government are indeed the greenest ever, as has been suggested.

Current policy on the challenges is patchy; in practice the Government even fail to get to grips with the targets in their own legislation. It looks as though the carbon emissions reduction and community energy saving programmes will end ingloriously, seriously short of their targets. The targets and likely achievements and ambitions of their replacements—the green deal and the energy company obligation—are being downgraded before our eyes. The green deal is stuck on the question of interest rates.

On fuel poverty and hard-to-treat homes, the overall ambition is being bound by the imposition of levy caps. That is a peculiar element of forward Government policy, in that the response to the question of levies for environmental and green purposes is first to introduce them as a policy instrument in energy policy in the future, and then to disembowel their effectiveness by capping them. There is no plan B, and we can see the results of that process in the recent solar PV feed-in tariffs fiasco. Hence the serious binding of the energy companies’ obligation at £1.3 billion a year, even if successful, leads us only halfway towards those hard-to-treat homes’ insulation targets. If a switch is made towards dealing with fuel poverty, that target will be further downgraded and there will be no serious impact on long-term fuel poverty.

The levy theme is recurrent in future energy policies, as well as in present initiatives. We have a levy for the energy company obligation, a levy for smart meters, a levy for the warm home discount, a levy for feed-in tariffs and a levy for carbon reduction commitments. In the energy Bill, levy mechanisms are the engine oil of the measures to reform the energy market, although as I have commented previously, the Bill is remarkable in seeking to promote energy market reform without reforming the way the energy market works—that is, it continues with the loose regulation of non-transparent bilateral deals a long time ahead, without any change in the new energy Bill.

We will shortly see what the Bill consists of, but we know already that there will be a new levy, effectively for capacity payments, a levy for contracts for difference, a likely levy for a fund to underwrite the counterparties to the contract for difference, and indirectly at least, a levy fund to anticipate payments into Government when energy prices rise above the agreed strike price

16 May 2012 : Column 636

level. So a series of new levies will come in with new legislation, undoubtedly being capped by the Treasury in the process.

That seems to me not to be a sensible long-term form of green and low-carbon energy policy. It is a dead-end in policy development, and one that we need to get over if we are to meet the ambition, among other things, set out in the Foreign Secretary’s recent letter. We can start to do that, in the context of this Queen’s Speech, by redesigning the Bill that is coming up on energy market reform genuinely to reform the energy market, so that it works around a transparent pool which will drive prices down through full contract transparency and the ability of new and competitive entrants to come in on a level trading playing field.

There seem to be no demand-side measures in energy market reform, unless there are big surprises in the Bill when it emerges, to incentivise and support reductions in energy demand and the advance of energy efficiency in our energy market. Is it because DECC cannot negotiate further levies with the Treasury that there are no demand-side measures in electricity market reform as it stands? We should go further and look at the relationship of green taxes in the future, not the hypothecation of current taxes, to the advancement of the low-carbon economy.

Why should new green taxes that are supposed to tax bads and reward goods simply disappear into the Treasury, thereby underlining the often unjust accusation that they are not green taxes at all, and are merely stealth taxes? Should not those new forms of taxation, such as the carbon floor price and the auction of EU emissions trading scheme credits, be placed behind our move to a low-carbon economy and our support for low-carbon technologies within it, rather than acting as an arguable one-way tax that does not connect with the promotion of environmental goods in any way?

The energy bill revolution campaign suggests that at least some of these taxes should be applied to the promotion of energy efficiency, and in particular to home insulation. I applaud that idea. I would like to go further, to relate green taxes to our support for green initiatives, instead of the dreary round of levy imposition, followed by Treasury cap, followed by policy fiasco. This can be, among other things, mediated and given enormous added value by the green investment bank, the other environmental measure contained in the Queen’s Speech—a green bank hobbled at present by Treasury formulae so that it cannot be a bank and do what banks do as far as credit, bonds, lending and so on are concerned until 2017 at the earliest. Legislation to make it a real bank early is another important matter.

It is the lack of ambition for the green and low-carbon economy, and the difficulty in creating policy instruments to move the low-carbon economy forward, that stand out in the proposed measures. These are measures to which we should pay urgent attention as we debate the Queen’s Speech.

5.49 pm

Mr Angus Brendan MacNeil (Na h-Eileanan an Iar) (SNP): Mr Speaker, I am mindful of what you have said about time and self-restraint when it comes to interventions. I would like to focus my remarks on something that the Queen’s Speech seems to have flown past: the cost of

16 May 2012 : Column 637

living. Right hon. and hon. Members are no strangers to my concerns about the cost of living, particularly in Na h-Eileanan an Iar, an island constituency that feels the impact of UK Government changes harder than most. Fuel duty and VAT are exacerbated in remote, rural and island communities and businesses face ever-increasing costs for services. However, we do welcome the rural fuel derogation, which will hopefully lead to a better differential between fuel prices on the islands and on the mainland. I hope that the pilot projects for the change of 5p a litre prove a success so that it can become permanent and be extended to other areas on the mainland. I am sure that people in Sutherland, Caithness, Argyll, the Isle of Skye and other areas would welcome it.

Another problem recently is that companies delivering to my island constituency have been charging my constituents exorbitant rates simply because we live there. I would like the Government to act on that and ensure that people are treated equally no matter where they live in the kingdom. Those companies frequently cite distance and difficulty as the reasons for the ever-increasing prices. Ever since I came to this House, I have fought to ameliorate the cost of living for my constituents and those travel costs. That is why I have chosen to speak on that in the Queen’s Speech debate. I feel that, sadly, there is too little in the Queen’s Speech that will bring down the cost of living for Scottish families.

I will start with fuel. I know that the Government have put off the 3p duty rise until August and brought in the fuel duty derogation, as I have said. The 5p is very welcome, but we still have the ever-present problem of the high cost of fuel in rural Scotland. Some drivers in my constituency currently spend nearly a quarter of their yearly income on fuel. Some fill up their tanks only once a week, but others do so several times a week. As long as the UK has the highest petrol duty in Europe, we will still have to pay that price. We have heard the Chancellor speak about dealing with that through the fair fuel stabiliser, but to date we have seen very little action on this subject, and I hope that the Government bring that forward as a second leg to follow the welcome rural fuel derogation.

Additionally, VAT adds to the burden of the cost of fuel, and that 20% hits our pockets hard. It is a shame that the Labour party, with a couple of honourable exceptions, did not support the Scottish National party and Plaid Cymru in the Lobby by voting against the VAT increase. Instead, they abstained. As we know, VAT is no respecter of ability to pay; it is a tax that hits need and hits lower incomes disproportionately.

The list goes on. The cost of energy in general is increasing at an untenable rate, and in my constituency that means increasing costs for the basics, such as light and heat. Sadly, my constituency leads the UK fuel poverty statistics. The Government say that we cannot spend our way out of a recession and that in theory the Government and the people have to tighten their belts to survive until something happens to bring the economy back on track. Some might say that that is a good microeconomic plan for growth that follows the example of how an individual saves money, but I question it as a macroeconomic plan. Here is a quotation:

“Unemployment, and fear that it will spread, drives down wages, incomes, and consumption—and thus total demand. Decreased rates of household formation… depress housing prices, leading to

16 May 2012 : Column 638

still more foreclosures. States with balanced-budget frameworks are forced to cut spending as tax revenues fall”.

That is a destabiliser that Europe, and the UK specifically, seems intent on adopting. That quote was from the Nobel prize-winning economist, Joseph Stiglitz, who once worked in the Clinton team but has now gone on to higher and greater things: he is on the Scottish First Minister’s council of economic advisers. In essence, his words are a stinging rebuke to the Prime Minister, who has said that the answer to debt is not more debt. I think he sees that from the wrong perspective. Surely the answer to hunger is not greater starvation, and that is what is happening to the economy at the moment.

What we need is to get people back to work. When the private sector fails to provide jobs, surely the Government should look at jump-starting the economy by investing to create assets, as I said when I intervened on the hon. Member for Gainsborough (Mr Leigh). I am saying not that we should spend recklessly for its own sake, but that we should invest in the country’s long-term assets and make wealth by going from cash to assets in the long term. Joseph Stiglitz argues that countries that do that will enhance their long-term growth. That is why in Scotland we have £320 million-worth of shovel-ready projects, from Ullapool pier to Glasgow university and the Clyde gateway to name but a few. We are ready to put people back into work—to stimulate, to prime the economy. Those projects are ready to go and ready to create jobs.

That would surely help the wider economy and the cost of living. Everything that involves getting people back to work sees a community become more active and people off the streets—undertaking productive activities and gaining and providing long-term assets for their communities. It means that locals see an increase in people making purchases, from eggs to clothes and, of course, iPads, which have become a common feature in the House, and that in turn travels up the economy, letting the world know that it is okay to start spending again. Confidence will grow and we will, I hope, see prices moving in the right direction. Rather than waiting for the mystical something that I mentioned earlier, we need to ensure that the tangible something is happening, increasing capacity in our economy.

Mr Speaker, you might be interested to know that new figures point to Scotland having avoided a double-dip recession. How is that possible? The figures are tentative, and of course I make the proviso that success has many fathers and failure is an orphan, but it looks like a possible success. There will be many claims on it, but it is potentially because the Scottish Government have been investing, where we can, and taking economic decisions, where we can, to help alleviate the cuts from the UK Government, following the example and advice of economists such as Joseph Stiglitz and making the right decisions for Scotland.

Scotland needs to be able to grow confidence in our economy, and the only way to do that is to get people back to work. Unfortunately, we currently have to ask permission to help ourselves, but by autumn 2014 we will not need to do so: we will have removed the brakes from Westminster on the Scottish economy, and Scottish growth and recovery from current troughs will be faster and more efficient.

16 May 2012 : Column 639

5.56 pm

Graeme Morrice (Livingston) (Lab): It is a pleasure to speak in this debate in support of the Labour Opposition’s amendment.

With the cost of living remaining the primary concern of most families throughout the country, this Queen’s Speech should have started to address the real day-to-day concerns of squeezed households. Soaring energy bills, the increasing price of food and fuel and big rises in the cost of travel are all hitting households hard, but, as we have seen time and again over the past two years, this out-of-touch Government have missed another opportunity to give some relief to hard-working people.

Those people want to know that the Government are on their side, but the coalition has instead offered more of the same failed approach, demonstrating how utterly clueless it is about the real needs of hard-working families in this recession. It has failed to address the cost of living crisis; it has failed to deliver help for hard-pressed families; and it has failed the crucial test of fairness.

Labour would have brought forward measures to help families immediately by addressing the cost-of-living crisis, tackling rip-off prices and creating real jobs for young people. In contrast, this hapless Tory-led Government are adding to the financial pressures that families face by cutting working tax credits, forcing middle-income pensioners to pay more tax and condemning more than 1 million young people to life without work, with the unemployment rate for 16 to 24-year-olds in Scotland, where my constituency is based, standing at 94,000, or just over 23%, in the period from January to March. So the Government are piling the financial agony on to families, when families can least afford it, with some decisions, such as the tax cut for millionaires at the expense of middle-income pensioners, rubbing salt into the wounds.

The Institute for Fiscal Studies, in its analysis of the Chancellor’s autumn statement, stated that median-income families would be worse off in 2015 than they were 10 years ago, with soaring energy bills being one of the main contributing factors. That is borne out by the experience of people in my constituency, with the damaging impact of massive year-on-year increases in fuel bills often highlighted as their single biggest financial headache. The cost of a typical annual dual gas and electricity bill is now £1,310—up by nearly 50% in the past four years alone. Under the toxic combination of a Tory Westminster Government and an SNP Scottish Government, more than one in three households in Scotland is estimated to be living in fuel poverty, including a staggering 65% of single pensioner households—12% higher than the UK average. This dire situation led Citizens Advice Scotland to declare last year that Scotland is now in a “shameful crisis” of fuel poverty.

Despite a mild winter, millions of people are now receiving bigger energy bills than they had planned for. Many with fixed or reducing incomes will struggle to meet these rising bills, and that will result in even more households slipping into fuel poverty. With about 80% of households currently paying over the odds for their energy, there is clearly a massive problem in the domestic energy market that requires an urgent response. However, while voluntary sector groups and campaign organisations such as Which?, 38 Degrees, Consumer Focus and

16 May 2012 : Column 640

Citizens Advice have taken decisive action to try to tackle the fuel poverty crisis and to help desperate energy customers, the Government have done next to nothing to tackle soaring energy prices.

The Big Switch campaign initiated by 38 Degrees and Which? is a particularly welcome initiative aimed at helping as many consumers as possible to achieve savings on their energy bills by negotiating a collective deal with a supplier. Such mass consumer action has the potential to make an important contribution to securing a fairer deal for energy customers, and I am delighted that the Leader of the Opposition has said that Labour will explore doing something similar to support local communities to achieve better deals on their energy needs. This proactive, co-operative approach, working in partnership with local communities, contrasts sharply with the Government’s approach in sitting back and allowing hard-pressed families to suffer.

The baffling array of tariffs, which now stands at over 400, is one of the biggest frustrations for energy consumers, with 70% saying that they are confused about which tariff offers them the best deal on their energy. In a speech last month, the Deputy Prime Minister heralded a move to force the big six to send their customers an annual update on their cheapest tariffs to try to ensure that consumers have the information they need to switch to a better deal. He described that as a landmark decision, but senior energy company managers have revealed that much of what they agreed with the Government is already being done, and uSwitch warned that consumers would not necessarily be made aware of the “best deal overall”. So while the Government’s agreement with the big six may help some consumers to switch to a better deal, many will still find it difficult to find the best deal for them, and it does nothing to tackle the bigger problem of the stranglehold that the big six has on the energy market.

The bottom line is that the market needs a complete overhaul, but this Government are only tinkering at the margins. Labour will stand up for hard-pressed families and pensioners and end the energy rip-off. We would introduce an energy Bill to break up the dominance of the big six energy companies by requiring them to sell power into a pool, allowing new businesses to enter the market, increasing competition, and driving down energy bills for families and businesses. By forcing energy companies to introduce a new simple tariff structure, we would make tariffs fairer and help all energy customers to get a better energy deal.

We would also require the energy companies, by law, to offer over 75-year-olds the lowest rate available. Such a move would enable more than 10,000 over 75-year-olds in West Lothian, for instance, to save as much as £200 on their energy bills, giving real, practical support to those who need it most. That kind of tangible, affordable measure demonstrates how it is still possible to deliver fairness, even when money is short, by offering ways to help families immediately. It is also indicative of how Labour Members would have acted on the priorities of hard-working people had we been writing this Queen’s Speech.


6.4 pm

Pat Glass (North West Durham) (Lab): Apart from half an hour when I nipped out to a meeting, I have sat through the entire debate. Two things have characterised

16 May 2012 : Column 641

this debate. The first was at the beginning of the debate, when the two parties of government appeared to blame each other for what was happening. At times, it was like watching a Punch and Judy show.

Putting that aside, the thing that has characterised the debate the most is that Members seem to be living in two completely different worlds. My hon. Friend the Member for Washington and Sunderland West (Mrs Hodgson), my right hon. Friend the Member for Manchester, Gorton (Sir Gerald Kaufman) and my hon. Friend the Member for Makerfield (Yvonne Fovargue) spoke passionately about the impact of the Government’s policies and cuts on people in their communities—those who are living on the margins, families who are barely keeping their heads above water and even those who have gone under. I even recognised what the hon. Member for Rossendale and Darwen (Jake Berry) spoke about. From listening to other Members, it appears that while those parts of the country are slipping under, others are living in clover as a result of the Government’s policies.

The Queen’s Speech was a lost opportunity. I would have liked the Government to have included some measures for growth, particularly in the construction industry. Those of us who have been around for a while know that in the past we have built our way out of recessions. Tax reliefs on construction and capital projects would have been a good place to start if the Government were serious about growth.

I would have liked the Government to have announced investment in social housing in the Queen’s Speech. In the north-east, 1,900 people are classified as homeless. The north-east is not a region that is usually associated with homelessness, but the combination of high unemployment and stagnant growth is forcing those at the bottom of our society out on to the streets. The Queen’s Speech contained nothing to help with that tragedy.

There was nothing in the Queen’s Speech to support families who are struggling to feed themselves and to heat their homes. The number of food banks in this country has risen from fewer than 10 in 2010 to more than 2,000. The number is growing daily as communities recognise what is happening in their midst and organise themselves to help the most vulnerable. I am involved with the Food4U food bank in my constituency. It is not the feckless or the workshy who are queuing up for food parcels, but decent families who have faced recent redundancies and who have to wait for up to six weeks for their unemployment claims to be processed, and the disabled who are appealing against employment and support allowance decisions and who face a wait of up to 13 weeks for their appeals to be processed. In the meantime, those families are left with nothing to live on, except what their neighbours and communities collect for them.

Since 2010, the Government have shown themselves to be firmly on the side of vested interests. They have shown that in banking, the rail industry and the fuel industry. They stand firmly with the big six energy companies, the rail companies, banks and millionaires; not with the ordinary people of this country who are struggling to bring up their families and pay their bills. The Secretary of State said at the beginning of the debate that he is holding the big six to account, but he could not give us any details. Quite frankly, the secret deal with the big six is not fooling anybody. Instead of

16 May 2012 : Column 642

supporting British industry, such as the solar industry in my constituency, the Government stand firmly on the side of vested interests and against the consumer. In the solar fiasco, the defence of the big six energy companies and their failure to tackle big bonuses in the water, communications and banking industries, the Government have shown again and again that they stand on the side of vested interests and against the consumer.

I will make one final point because I want to leave time for other people. I want to give a message to the junior partner in the coalition Government. My constituents are desperately worried about their jobs and about how they will make ends meet. One constituent told me at the weekend that it costs him more to fill up his car than to pay his mortgage. People are worried about the cost of heating and fuel. Rail fares are rising. Despite the Government telling us that rail fares have gone up by only 1% above inflation, people tell me that their rail fares have gone up by 11%. People are worried about their public services. They see their libraries closing. They are frightened when they see the police on the streets, marching against 20% cuts in police budgets. They are worried about the impact of rising crime. They are worried about cuts in health and in school budgets. What they are not worried about is reform of the House of Lords. The House of Lords may be of interest to Liberal Democrats and political anoraks, but it is of no interest whatsoever to most of my constituents, who do not have the time to intellectualise about political reform because they are too busy worrying about how they are going to feed the kids, put fuel in their cars and pay their bills.

This Government are out of touch with ordinary people’s lives, they are firmly on the side of vested interests and they are at war with themselves. They need to go now, before they do any further damage.

6.8 pm

Mrs Jenny Chapman (Darlington) (Lab): It is a pleasure to follow my hon. Friend the Member for North West Durham (Pat Glass). I cannot help but agree with her final remarks, contrasting the conflicting priorities of the Government and the people we represent. I have not yet had any correspondence, phone calls or visits to my surgeries to discuss House of Lords reform, and I look forward to having those conversations, should they arise.

At the moment, we talk much more about local bus services in Darlington, a problem that has been brewing for quite some time. It all started for us in the north-east, particularly in my town, in the 1990s, when bus services were deregulated with a view to creating choice and competition, improving service and getting fares down—I think that was the plan. Let me share with colleagues what happened in Darlington—the experience is not unique to Darlington, but I think the problems were perhaps more pronounced there than anywhere else.

We had gridlock on our streets due to bus wars. Two big bus companies decided to compete for the same routes and both ran free buses around the town in an attempt to get the other company off the road. That did not help consumers and passengers in the town. It did not improve public transport. Instead, it landed us with, in effect, a council tax payer-subsided monopoly on bus services in Darlington, and we have pretty much

16 May 2012 : Column 643

been stuck in that position ever since. Now, the council is having to make difficult decisions on the subsidy it offers to run some of the routes, but I cannot even find out how much council tax payers are paying to subsidise a route across Darlington. Extraordinarily, I have been told that the information is commercially sensitive. Council tax payers in Darlington are subsidising to the tune of roughly £500,000 a year a company owned by a business in Germany that turns a profit of about £500 million a year, yet we do not know exactly how much we are paying for our bus routes. That is an intolerable situation for my constituents.

That is a big problem for us because, according to Passenger Focus, 34% of residents in my constituency have no access to private transport and are forced to use the bus services. Recently, I was quite stunned to see a London Routemaster bus travelling down one of the main arterial roads into Darlington. It was there because the engines of the new Routemasters are made in Darlington, and they were being tested. However, that sight brought home to me the contrast between the services available to people in major cities such as London, which are excellent, and those available elsewhere, where fares are not regulated, ticketing does not allow use across different services, and routes and timetables are not integrated. Most worrying for me, there are few means short of spending hundreds of thousands of pounds each year on subsidies by which residents and communities, and even councillors and MPs, can influence the routes on offer.

Fares in Darlington have increased by 6.1% in the past year, which is considerably more than inflation. We need to take a look at fares, given that bus users tend to be the young, the elderly and those on low incomes. I would strongly support the creation of a strategic transport infrastructure, or a body similar to Transport for London for the rest of the country, so that the system can be monitored and organised much more effectively.

Gavin Shuker (Luton South) (Lab/Co-op): Does my hon. Friend agree that one of the reasons why the major increases in fares are so bad is that for many people, they are essentially a tax on work? People need to be able to get to work to obtain employment and to keep their living standards high.

Mrs Chapman: My hon. Friend makes a very good point. It has been made before in the debate, and we need to consider it.

I have constituents who previously needed to use two buses to get to work, at considerable expense and with no cross-ticketing. They were just about able to manage that, but now those bus services have been removed. Somebody who works after 6 o’clock at night, or who lives in one of the surrounding villages, cannot keep their job. I know people in my constituency who are no longer in employment because the bus services have been removed.

It is not just people in work that are affected but people who rely on health services. I am sure we all have stalwart, hard-working councillors in our constituencies, and I have one in particular, Bev Hutchinson, who is relatively newly elected and a fairly formidable woman. She has taken it upon herself to take surveys on buses around the town. She found a constituent, Betty Sowersby,

16 May 2012 : Column 644

who is 74 and lives on Barmpton lane in Darlington. Betty told

The Northern Echo

that she was in hospital for a major operation in March and now could not use the bus to get back from her doctor’s surgery, where the doctor checked how her wounds were healing. She said that there were a lot of elderly people like her along her street who could no longer even go and do their shopping independently.

When civil servants and policy people consider bus issues, they too often focus on the problems of getting around London and major cities and do not think enough about the day-to-day problems facing people living in regions such as my own. Those problems exist in rural areas and even in quite large towns such as Darlington, where no integrated structure exists. Local government is not in a position to subsidise bus companies in the way it has in recent years. One could argue that perhaps it should not have been doing that, but that is how the system has been maintained for the past decade. It cannot be maintained like that in the future, so the Government need to give serious thought to how to provide bus services in our regions from now on.

6.16 pm

Gavin Shuker (Luton South) (Lab/Co-op): I am extremely grateful to you, Mr Speaker, for calling me towards the end of the debate. I promised a little variety if I were called. I know that many issues to do with the cost of living have been raised in the course of the debate. In a sense it is hard to narrow them down to one or two, but I wish to refer to a few problems with regard to utility bills, particularly water bills.

We know that we in this country are facing not just some of the toughest global economic times but, as we have highlighted, a very tight fiscal contraction—I nearly said “contradiction”, which might actually be the right term—in the UK economy. Against that backdrop, there is a cost of living crisis. We have heard from many Members of all parties about the rising cost of energy and fuel and the inflation-busting rises in transport fares.

Back in February, I had the opportunity to go to the university of Leeds, where there is a brilliant research centre on water policy. While I was there, I gave a speech in which I talked about the consensus that there has been about the privatised water industry for the past 20 or 25 years. That consensus has stretched across both major parties, customers and companies. It involves a relatively low-risk settlement for investors, with reasonable levels of investment in water infrastructure and rising standards of water quality. Crucially, customer buy-in has also taken hold over the past 20 years or so.

In that speech, I laid out my concern that we risked walking into a perfect storm this year. We have drought conditions, and sadly, there was very little in the Gracious Speech about concrete action on the rising cost of water. While that concern exists there is every chance that, just as the Government and Opposition have rightly targeted energy bills in recent months and years, we will have to take similar action on water as people’s dissatisfaction with the service that they are receiving continues to grow.

Angie Bray: One problem I raised earlier in the debate is that the regulator sets soft targets on plugging leaks. One of the most frustrating things for my constituents

16 May 2012 : Column 645

is finding themselves paying water bills in a drought while the rain is plummeting down. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that it is because the leaks are not being plugged that we are still in a drought, and that we need tougher targets?

Gavin Shuker: The hon. Lady makes an excellent point. Ofwat, the industry regulator, lays out tough targets on water companies reducing leakage in some places, but not so tough targets in others. The fundamental problem is that if the cost of water being lost is less than the cost of making the repair, it is not economically viable for water companies to make the repair. That is why we need comprehensive action and a comprehensive water Bill, rather than a draft Bill, in this Session.

Mr Tom Harris (Glasgow South) (Lab): Does my hon. Friend see any merit in the idea of alleviating drought conditions in the south of the country with some form of network distribution of water? That should be implemented in order to allow water from Scotland—believe me, we have too much of it—to be transported south in an efficient manner through a national pipeline network.

Gavin Shuker: We are jumping around in water here. My hon. Friend is my new colleague in the shadow Environment, Food and Rural Affairs team and I am sure hon. Members on both sides of the House would want to welcome him back to the Front Bench. He makes an extremely good point. What is required in the industry to move water from places where it is in good supply to areas where there is less? For me, that is not primarily about building a big pipeline from north to south; it is also means getting interconnectors between different water companies working appropriately. Of course, the carbon cost of that is great.

Mrs Chapman: Does my hon. Friend believe it is easier to move water around than it is to move people? We have plenty of water in the north-east, but we could do with more people and more jobs. If there were a more even distribution of people and jobs, we could save ourselves the job of moving water.

Gavin Shuker: My hon. Friend once again makes a great point, but the key point missed by the lack of action on water in the Queen’s Speech is that we can reduce demand as well as increase supply. There is increasing need in growing areas such as London, the south-east and, for example, Yorkshire, where there could be 1 million new household customers in the market in the next 10 years, but there would be benefits for all if we could increase the number of people in an area without increasing the amount of water used.

Last month—April—water bills increased on average by about 5.7%, which is about £20 per year on the average bill. Ofwat estimates that 2.2 million households spend more than 5% of their disposable income on water. Sadly, the Queen’s Speech promises only the publication of a draft Bill, which shows a Government who refuse to take action.

The Gracious Speech contained a commitment to bring forward only a draft water Bill, which is disappointing because the Government have broken their promise to

16 May 2012 : Column 646

introduce a comprehensive water Bill in this parliamentary Session to reform the water industry. That means that the much needed reforms—the Opposition agree on what needs to be done—and action to keep bills affordable will be even more delayed, which is a slap in the face for the many families who are struggling to pay their water bills.

There was a flurry of activity in the previous Session to rush through the Water Industry (Financial Assistance) Act 2012. That legislation does nothing to tackle water affordability in the long term. In the short term, it will help households in the south-west to pay their water bills by giving them a direct £50 subsidy, but it is worth noting that without action to tackle affordability in the long term, that £50 will be gobbled up within two years because of the existing increases in that area. The Opposition believe that assistance should be extended to all households who are struggling to pay their bills, which is why I proposed amendments to ensure that water bills remained affordable for all.

As the Opposition know, with the wettest drought on record and hosepipe bans imposed on almost half the country, now, more than ever, we need urgent action to reform the water industry, to ensure that water supply meets demand and to stop the harmful practice of taking water out of the natural environment in places where we cannot afford to do so. It seems, however, that the Government have no sense of urgency. As we know, in politics momentum is everything. Right now, water issues, whether flooding, drought, rising costs for customers or other things, are at the forefront of people’s minds. This is a once-in-a-Parliament opportunity to take action on water.

The impact of climate change means that water resources will become more and more scarce. The recent droughts and floods could be an indication of what is to come. What needs to be done to ensure that water remains affordable for hard-pressed bill payers in the long term? Since the botched privatisation in the early ’90s, water bills have increased year on year. We could take urgent action on abstraction—taking water out of the natural environment—but the Government have promised no legislation until 2015, and they do not propose to complete that process until 2030.

We could also take urgent action on leakage. The problem is that water companies generally repair leaks only if it costs more in lost water not to do so. Ofwat sets targets, but many companies can go years at a time without making a significant reduction in their leakage rates. We need to ensure that the comprehensive water Bill, when it comes, tackles the issue of leakage head on. By 2015—the end of this Parliament—more households will be metered than unmetered, yet there is little evidence of the deep thought required on the matter from the Government.

The further delay confirmed in the Gracious Speech to the comprehensive water Bill is serious not only for those who care about the environment but for people right across Britain struggling to pay their utility bills against the backdrop of the highest unemployment rate for 16 years and the first double-dip recession in 37 years. While the Government continue to delay desperately needed reforms, hard-working families are feeling the pinch and footing the bill.

16 May 2012 : Column 647

6.26 pm

Maria Eagle (Garston and Halewood) (Lab): It is good that the Transport Secretary has made it here for the debate—indeed, she made it from the beginning. We have all enjoyed her attempt to revive the 1970s-style public information films, with her call to the public to re-route, re-mode and re-time their travel. The Opposition were worried that “re-moding” would mean she might have still be en route from Putney, but she was here right from the beginning—so congratulations to her. I am even more pleased that she is closing the debate, because had it been the Under-Secretary of State for Transport, the hon. Member for Lewes (Norman Baker), he would probably have sent a DVD, as he now frequently chooses to do—presumably to avoid having to face the outside world. That probably explains why he is still using expressions such as, “Get into the groove”, as he does in this now infamous film.

The debate has focused on the cost of living crisis. We have managed to get 23 Back-Bench contributions into the debate, which is a decent number. It has been a wide-ranging and excellent debate, and we have heard good and powerful speeches from Members on both sides of the House, but particularly from my right hon. and hon. Friends on the Opposition Benches—especially from my right hon. Friend the Member for Manchester, Gorton (Sir Gerald Kaufman), who declared himself a devout Keynesian before uncompromisingly demolishing the record and credentials of both parties in government. I particularly enjoyed that speech.

We have heard excellent contributions, including on social care from my hon. Friend the Member for Worsley and Eccles South (Barbara Keeley), on consumer issues and in particular payday lending, from my hon. Friend the Member for Makerfield (Yvonne Fovargue). On transport issues, I enjoyed hearing from my hon. Friends the Members for Sedgefield (Phil Wilson) and for Lewisham West and Penge (Jim Dowd). We heard interventions from my hon. Friends the Members for Ashfield (Gloria De Piero) and for Bridgend (Mrs Moon) and a speech from my hon. Friend the Member for Darlington (Mrs Chapman). We heard interesting contributions on fuel costs from across the House.

As my right hon. Friend the Member for Don Valley (Caroline Flint) set out so well at the start of the debate, the Government’s legislative programme for the year ahead contains not a single measure to address the rising cost of living. Just as the Government have shown that they have no practical answers to address the rising energy bills facing households, nor do they have any solutions to tackle rising rail and bus fares or to reduce the pressure on motorists. The truth is that this is a Government completely out of touch with the impact that rising transport costs are having—on household budgets; on families struggling to make ends meet; on those who want to work or stay on in education or training; and on pensioners who want to stay active rather than becoming isolated.

The rise in transport costs is happening not in isolation from the decisions that have been made by this Government, but as a result of them. Cutting investment in the rail network too far and too fast, creating a black hole that has to be filled with inflation-busting fare rises; cutting funding for local transport too far and too fast, forcing local authorities to reduce their support for bus services, with one in five supported services already lost and with

16 May 2012 : Column 648

fares rising too; increasing VAT, which has contributed to prices at the pump reaching record levels—these are choices that have been made by the Chancellor and the Transport Secretary because they are out of touch with the pressures that families face and with the consequences of their decisions. It simply is not good enough for Ministers to use the deficit as a catch-all excuse for rising costs—as they seek to do all the time—because the decisions they have taken will make it harder to reduce the deficit. Indeed, they have already led to the Government having to borrow £150 billion more than they had planned.

There is no joined-up government, and making the wrong choice comes at a price. For example, the Government are telling young people to stay on in education post-16, yet many young people are no longer able to take up college courses because the bus into town has been cut or the concessionary fare scheme has been axed.

Andrew Gwynne (Denton and Reddish) (Lab): My hon. Friend is making a superb case in respect of the bus services to college. Let me give her an example from my constituency of a barmy outcome of bus deregulation. We now have different bus companies operating the buses going to the schools from those operating the buses coming back, which means that parents are having to pay twice for their children’s bus fares.

Maria Eagle: My hon. Friend is correct, of course. The Government have said that those who are out of work should be willing to travel for up to 90 minutes to take up a reasonable job offer or lose their jobseeker’s allowance. The Secretary of State for Work and Pensions has said:

“The truth is there are jobs. They may not be absolutely in the town you are living in. They may be in a neighbouring town…We need to recognise the jobs often don’t come to you. Sometimes you need to go to the jobs.”

Not only is he out of touch about the extent to which there are actually jobs, but he seems to have no concept of the cost of travel under his Government. Those on the minimum wage will have take-home pay of just over £10,000 a year, but a season ticket for the 90-minute journey between Newark Northgate and King’s Cross would cost more than £8,000. Under the Government’s policy, therefore, they expect someone to spend up to 77% of their take-home pay just to get to work. Coming into London from Braintree would cost someone in a minimum wage job 46% of their take-home pay. There are other examples. The cost of transport is making it harder for people to take up jobs or to stay in education, as my hon. Friend the Member for Sedgefield made clear in the examples that he gave.