Speaking out on the rising cost of living

 In Croydon, Parliament, Speeches

I delivered this speech in the House of Commons on 4th September 2013, the hansard of it can be found here

Madam Deputy Speaker, I want to take part in this debate because the Government are clobbering people in Croydon North and everywhere else by squeezing their standards of living. The Prime Minister likes to say that he has helped with the cost of living where he can, but the truth is that he has not. I want to demonstrate that by showing just how much Labour councils, including those that are part of the Co-operative Councils Network, are doing compared with the Government’s relative inaction.

Wages have fallen in real terms in London, including in Croydon North, by 7.5% since the Government were elected. The average employee in my constituency therefore takes home £2,200 less a year since 2010. That is a catastrophic fall in income for many households at a time when the cost of living is going up, not down, thanks to the Government’s actions. One of the Government’s very first actions was to hike up VAT to 20%, despite repeated criticisms of that policy by one of the coalition partners when they were trying to persuade people to vote for them. It is notable and disappointing that no member of that party has chosen to participate in this afternoon’s debate.

One of the heaviest costs for families or households with young children is the cost of child care. Child care costs have risen by 19% since the Government were first elected, and 25 hours of child care in Croydon can cost up to £175—nearly £800 a month. How many families can afford that, especially given the downward pressure on wages? In part, that is a result of the Government’s decision to cut the early intervention grant by 40% in real terms, so limiting the capacity of councils to contribute towards child care provision. The cost of child care in Britain is the highest in Europe, and instead of demonising parents who cannot work as skivers, how about the Government considering the costs that they have allowed to pile up to such an extent that parents cannot afford the child care that would allow them to go back to work?

More locally, I regret that Croydon’s Conservative-led council has closed six designated child care centres since 2010—a reduction of almost a quarter in what used to be provided. That sudden loss of provision has forced up costs elsewhere, once again costing families dear and pricing parents out.

Although the Tories in national and local government have made the problem worse, Labour in local government is acting to solve it. I commend Edinburgh city council, ably led by its Labour leader Councillor Andrew Burns, for using co-operative values to explore setting up a city-wide child care co-operative, aiming to reduce costs and increase accessibility for parents with young children. The council is working with parent-led, out-of-school care providers to set up after-school clubs and mutual child care services, helping them to achieve co-operative status and setting up a service level agreement to bring stability and sustainability to the sector. That is Labour offering real help to hard-pressed families, based on parent power, while the Tories continue to do very little.

People commuting from Croydon to work in central London have experienced enormous fare increases under the Conservatives. Since London has had a Conservative Mayor, the cost of a single bus journey has increased by 56% and a zone one to six travel card costs £440 more a year. This year, it costs £313 more to travel from Croydon to central London than it did in 2010, when the Government were elected. That increase is way above the rate of inflation and even more above the rate of wage inflation.

Compare that with Labour-run Oldham council. Its leader, Councillor Jim McMahon, realised that high travel costs were a real barrier to accessing employment and leisure opportunities across the rest of Greater Manchester. The council worked with First Greater Manchester, the local bus operator, and negotiated a 28% reduction on weekly and daily bus fares for every Oldham resident. It worked up the business case to show how lower fares would increase journeys and overall profitability for the bus operator. The scheme is saving residents up to £260 a year on the cost of public transport and may now be extended right across Greater Manchester.

Let us also consider the soaring cost of energy. As many colleagues have said this afternoon, household bills have soared by £300 a year. The Government have failed to get a grip of the problem and to take action to curb what amounts to profiteering. Contrast that with Lambeth’s Labour-led council, which I am very familiar with. It worked with the community to set up a microgeneration co-operative called Brixton Solar Energy. It placed solar panels on the roof of a housing estate in Brixton, sold the surplus energy back to the national grid and used the profits to reduce the energy bills of neighbourhood residents. I am delighted to say that that success is now being extended to other estates in the area.

I have conducted my own research locally into the fees charged by letting agents in Croydon North. I have found that some charge up to £500 for handling deposits and some charge up to £500 more in additional administration charges. Newham’s Labour-run council is setting up a register of approved landlords and agents, so that its tenants know who is playing fair and who is not. What a shame that Tory councils such as the one in the area I represent are refusing to do the same.