It’s two years to the day since the first lockdown was announced. As we emerge from the Covid pandemic, we now face another crisis: the spiralling cost of living. In the Spring Statement today, working people – in the midst of the worst wages and bills crisis for half a century – were counting on Rishi Sunak to channel the same fighting spirit that went into addressing the pandemic.
But the Chancellor has let families down. The two big tests for Sunak were: what will he do to help families with soaring energy bills? And what will he do to end the pay squeeze and get wages rising? Sadly, the answer was: almost nothing. Working people all around the country will tell you their budgets are stretched to the max and they just can’t cope with the strain. Energy bills alone are rising by £13 a week – 14 times faster than wages – and set to rise even higher in October.
Families used to choose between going to the cinema or getting a takeaway. But now they’re having to choose between heating their homes or putting food on the table. Today, we needed to see a credible, long-term strategy to address the squeeze on living standards. A proper plan to get wages rising and to breathe life back into our economy. But instead, Sunak failed families who need help now.
Pay packets are expected to fall in value by £11 a week this year, but the Chancellor did nothing to get wages rising. A quick win would have been to lift the minimum wage to at least £10 an hour. There was silence on public sector pay, which has been held down year after year by successive Conservative Chancellors. Sunak had the perfect opportunity today to reverse the damage his predecessors have done by giving workers in the public sector an above-inflation pay rise – but he did not.
Another easy way to boost pay is by strengthening collective bargaining. Why didn’t the Chancellor announce a date for the long-promised employment bill? The bill – promised in the Conservatives’ 2019 manifesto – is a real chance to give working people and their trade unions new powers to negotiate fair pay agreements across all of our industrial sectors.
Getting pay rising is a win-win for everyone. Working people are more likely to spend their pay packets in our local shops and our businesses. We were also counting on a big increase to Universal Credit today, to stop low-income workers from being pushed into poverty – but the Chancellor did nothing – compounding his £20-per-week cut last year.
On energy costs, the Chancellor could have taxed oil and gas companies to raise vital money to provide energy grants – not loans – to take a chunk off families’ energy bills. And he could have rolled out a home insulation programme to help hard-pressed families save vital cash. Today was a story of missed opportunities, and the Conservatives abandoning struggling families.
The next six months will be hard. The Chancellor will have to act to help working families at the Budget in six months’ time. After 12 years and four Chancellors, the Conservatives are the party of pay cuts and of falling living standards. Because make no mistake, this wages and bills crisis hasn’t happened by accident.
This is a political choice. The Conservatives chose austerity. They chose to impose pay freezes on millions of workers. And they chose to attack working people’s pay bargaining rights. And then they chose to sit back and do precious little when working families needed them most. Working people deserve better.