Chi speaks out on Cost of Living

House of Commons


14 May 2013

6.29 pm

Chi Onwurah (Newcastle upon Tyne Central) (Lab): It is a pleasure to follow my hon. Friend the Member for North Ayrshire and Arran (Katy Clark) in this important debate on the Gracious Speech. You will of course keep me in order, Mr Deputy Speaker, if it is not appropriate to call it the Government’s Queen’s Speech, given that so many Government Members seem already to be regretting it. They say that success has many parents, but failure is an orphan. Given the number of Government Members who are distancing themselves from it, it seems that the continued failure of the Government to deliver on living standards is absolutely certain, and it is about living standards that I wish to speak.

It was reported this week that when policy advisers in No. 10 were asked what was keeping them awake at night they said, “School fees.” Now, I know what keeps far too many people in Newcastle awake at night: the cost of living. The TUC recently compared actual wages in 2012 with what they would have been had they increased in line with inflation, to discover a localised pay gap. In the north-east, it is more than £1,100 a year, or £23 a week. In Newcastle, it is £7 a week. Not much, some might think—a couple of café lattes, and nothing in comparison with the private school fees keeping the Ministers’ advisers awake. However, for those getting by it makes all the difference between security and despair. That is something the Government do not understand. Indeed, the Prime Minister’s adviser on enterprise thinks that this is an excellent time for businesses to boost their profits on the back of falling wages. Such crass comments highlight that the Government are a narrow clique with no idea of the real issues facing real people.

The hon. Member for Hereford and South Herefordshire (Jesse Norman) said recently that the Prime Minister’s chumocracy should be made up of old Etonians, because they have a unique “commitment to public service” that is not found in other schools. It is the voices of those experiencing this unprecedented squeeze on living standards that should now be heard. Instead of blaming those struggling to get by for not having jobs that are not there, the Prime Minister should listen to what they have to say.

The Government argue that by attacking the public sector, giving tax breaks to millionaires and reducing tax credits for working people, we will liberate individual entrepreneurship. I can testify to the entrepreneurship of many Geordies. As the birthplace of the steam engine in the 19th century and ScreachTV in the 21st century, we have a long history of innovation. However, crushing poverty crushes creativity, as I know both from my own childhood and from my surgeries. When every waking moment is spent worrying about making it to the end of the week; when the electricity bill means borrowing to buy food—as one in 10 people in Newcastle have had to do; when 50p on a pound of margarine means not being able to afford the bus to the library to e-mail CVs to prospective employers; when the bedroom tax means that the kids are not able to stay and there is a worry about how they are growing up, then unleashing one’s own inner market forces is next to impossible.

If the Government had advisers with that kind of experience, they would not have produced a Queen’s Speech so devoid of help or hope for those working hard just to get by, and who need only a helping hand to succeed and thrive. The Prime Minister should overlook the accents of his old school tie and invite the hard working and struggling to write a new Queen’s Speech.

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