“It is a political choice to allow energy bills to rise without controls; it is a political choice to attack the welfare system, to allow living standards to fall.”
By Chris Hazzard MP
With the cost of daily essentials spiralling out of control in recent months, this has been a long and difficult winter for many local people. Yet the multi-millionaire Tory Chancellor of the Exchequer, Rishi Sunak, tells us there is nothing we can do about it; we just have to adjust to the rising cost of living.
Quite simply this is a lie. It is a political choice to allow energy bills to rise without controls; it is a political choice to attack the welfare system, to allow living standards to fall. In recent weeks Sunak wrote-off £40million in fraudulent Covid loans for corporate allies, yet insists that the poorest in society must hand back their £20 Universal Credit uplift.
Economic hardship for our most vulnerable citizens is the inevitable consequence of Tory policies that are designed to produce that very outcome. This is because bumper profits for the few are more important to Tory ministers than the ability of millions of ordinary citizens to heat their homes or feed their families.
With inflation at a 30 year high, and real term wages stagnating, the Bank of England has warned that we now face the biggest drop in living standards in a generation. It is clear that urgent, and unprecedented action is needed.
Unfettered energy markets are in free-fall and incapable of offering solutions to consumers without a recourse to government rebates and loans. BP and Shell have recently announced £40 billion in combined profits – having syphoned £147 billion to shareholders over the last 10 years. The introduction of a windfall tax on these fossil fuel giants with the redirection of money towards tackling fuel poverty to support struggling workers and families would certainly mitigate the rising costs.
If Margaret Thatcher could introduce a windfall tax on energy companies in 1982, then Boris Johnson can do similar in 2022. The British Government must also scrap VAT on domestic energy bills, abandon plans to hike National Insurance contributions, and halt plans to remove the Red Diesel rebate.
Whilst we are thankfully moving out of a global health pandemic; workers still endure a pandemic of precarious work. Part-time and zero-hour contracts are crippling our labour market, and a decade of Tory government has shifted the tax burden from the rich to the poor, with workers being hit hardest.
Our young people are left feeling apprehensive about the future with diminishing prospects of ever owning their own home or managing the increasing cost of rent. Young families are battling out of control childcare costs – often double the cost of their mortgage.
The impact of this is worsened due to the Tories’ attack on the welfare state and increased privatisation of essential services. Despite having the fifth largest economy in the world, the British Government have created one of the least generous systems of unemployment support and statutory sick pay in any advanced economy.
In responding as they have to the Covid pandemic, governments throughout Europe obliterated the very basis of a ‘neoliberal fiscal’ response as they embraced a suite of aggressive monetary and fiscal measures including: nationalising private health providers; prohibiting the short-selling of stocks; suspending utility bills and mortgages; paying employee’s salaries; and introducing unprecedented business support schemes. Effectively these rapid state responses demonstrated that states can indeed move quickly when faced with a crisis, thus going against the neoliberal orthodoxy that there is ‘no alternative’.
Like the other devolved administrations in Edinburgh and Cardiff, Stormont doesn’t have the type of powers required for a crisis like this; we don’t have control of tax, we can’t borrow, nor can we introduce quantitive easing – we also don’t have the powers to effectively regulate the energy market.
Whatever we do, the impact will be limited; so it’s vitally important that urgent support is targeted at those most in need by the Stormont Executive.
In this endeavour it is positive that Sinn Féin’s Deirdre Hargey, the Communities Minister, has launched a £200 payment scheme to help over 280,000 vulnerable families. Minister Hargey has also introduced a rent freeze for those living in Housing Executive homes, and binned the callous ‘bedroom tax’.
Sinn Féin’s Finance Minister Conor Murphy has also introduced a ‘living wage guarantee’ for all public service contracts, delivering a fair wage for thousands of workers. There is always an alternative; there just needs to be the political will to do it.
- Chris Hazzard is the Sinn Fein MP for South Down, you can follow him on Facebook and twitter.
- This article originally appeared in Labour Briefing (Co-operative) magazine and is reproduced with permission. Subscribe by sending a £20 cheque with your address to ‘Labour Briefing Co-operative Ltd’, 7 Malam Gardens, London, E14 OTR.