PM promises ‘compassion’ but faces criticism for lack of action on living costs
By David Hughes and Sam Blewett, PA Political Staff
Boris Johnson warned the UK Government cannot “completely shield” people from the rising cost of living, as he came under fire for not using the Queen’s Speech to promise more support.
The Prime Minister used the Queen’s Speech, delivered for the first time by the Prince of Wales, to set out plans for changes to create a “high-wage, high-skill” economy, claiming the UK Government’s programme would “build the foundations for decades of prosperity”.
But charities, campaigners and opposition politicians criticised the lack of any short-term measures to help people faced with soaring costs in their day-to-day lives.
The Prime Minister hinted at future help, using the “fiscal firepower” of the UK Government.
“We will continue to use all our ingenuity and compassion for as long as it takes,” he told MPs.
“The Chancellor and I will be saying more about this in the days to come.”
But he warned there were limits on how much public money he was prepared to commit to addressing a global economic crisis.
Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer called the response to the situation “pathetic”, telling Mr Johnson: “This Government’s failure to grow the economy over a decade, combined with its inertia in the face of spiralling bills, means that we are staring down the barrel of something we haven’t seen in decades, a stagflation crisis.”
With the war in Ukraine raging, the UK Government’s programme included a series of measures to give the security services extra powers to tackle foreign spies and efforts to influence British democracy.
The package also contains measures aimed at taking advantage of the freedoms offered by Brexit – but there was no legislation to implement the Government’s threat to tear up the deal on Northern Ireland’s trading arrangements, although officials said that remained an option.
But with rising energy bills, inflation forecast to hit 10% and benefits and wages failing to keep up with the increase in prices, the cost of living is set to dominate domestic politics in the coming months.
The UK Government highlighted the £22 billion package of help with energy bills, tax cuts and other measures already announced.
But its focus is on generating economic growth to help address the issues rather than increasing state support, with the public finances already battered by the billions borrowed to address the pandemic.
“After two years of Covid-19, I know that the last thing people need are further challenges,” Mr Johnson said.
“I know people are struggling with their bills and that they are anxious about the future.”
“While we must keep our public finances on a sustainable footing – and we cannot completely shield people from the fallout from global events – where we can help, we will.”
Mr Johnson said the “aftershocks of Covid-19 and the biggest war in Europe since 1945” are causing disruption around the world, with all major economies facing cost-of-living pressures.
“It is right that we continue doing whatever we can to ease the burdens people are grappling with now, supporting the hardest-hit with £22 billion of help to address the cost of living and cutting hundreds of pounds off household bills.
“But we must also remember that for every pound of taxpayers’ money we spend on reducing bills now, it is a pound we are not investing in bringing down bills and prices over the longer term.”
He said the UK Government’s “top priorities” are growing the economy, making streets safe, and supporting the NHS to clear the backlogs built up during the pandemic.
The Queen’s mobility problems meant she missed the lavish State Opening of Parliament ceremony for the first time in 59 years, with the Prince of Wales delivering the traditional speech setting out the Government’s legislative programme.
The 38 Bills in the package include:
– A Levelling Up and Regeneration Bill will seek to drive local growth and regenerate towns and cities across England, including by enshrining the Government’s levelling up “missions”.
– The Harbours (Seafarers’ Remuneration) Bill aims to deter companies repeating P&O’s mass firing of staff by giving ports powers to refuse access to ferries not paying the UK minimum wage.
– The sell-off of Channel 4 will be enabled by the Media Bill.
– An Energy Security Bill seeking to transition to cheaper and greener energy, extending the price cap beyond 2023.
– A Bill of Rights that will replace the Human Rights Act.
– Legislation to deal with the legacy of the Troubles in Northern Ireland.
– Measures to ban conversion therapy that attempts to change someone’s sexual orientation, although consenting adults can still go through the process.
Liberal Democrat leader Sir Ed Davey said the Queen’s Speech “does nothing to help the millions of families and pensioners facing soaring bills and eye-watering inflation”.
Child Poverty Action Group chief executive Alison Garnham said “this speech was a far cry from what struggling families needed to hear today”, offering “no short-term comfort for parents struggling to feed their kids in the face of rocketing prices”.
Dan Paskins, director of UK impact at Save the Children, said: “The Queen’s Speech was a major opportunity to support those most affected by rising costs and the Government didn’t take it.”
But the Confederation of British Industry’s Matthew Fell said: “Firms looking for the Government to address the cost-of-living crisis by growing the economy will be encouraged by the ambition in the Queen’s Speech.”