On Friday 22nd April I look forward to holding my Employment & Skills Fair in the Stevenson Centre, Great Cornard, from 10am to 1.30pm, hosting a wide range of businesses offering vacancies and opportunities that, in my view, offer something for everyone – whether looking for a first posting, or a change of direction. This event is part of a positive picture in our local jobs market that was beyond my wildest expectations when we went into the pandemic. Far from the record surge in unemployment many had feared, we now have abundant vacancies; huge opportunities to look for work and a fresh start.
That said, I’m very conscious that the labour market is important, but that for many readers – especially those who are retired – a particular economic issue right now is the cost of living. From heating oil to many household goods, I am well aware that my constituents will have been feeling the pinch of late, and I recognise that we have to do what we can to help.
Of course, it must be stressed that there are limits to what Government can do to directly affect matters – the rising cost of living is a global issue. When the geopolitical tectonic plates shift, there are usually consequences. Lockdowns around the world to ward off Covid reduced social contact and therefore transmission; but economic activity slumped on an unprecedented scale and the state had to step in. As the world economy reopened and demand soared for energy and other consumer goods, prices rose, in many cases sharply. Putin’s invasion compounded that trend, particularly where fuel is concerned. Hence, we now face a cost-of-living challenge that is profound – not least for those on low or fixed incomes.
The recent economic statement from the Chancellor announced a substantial package of support, with many billions of pounds directed to help families and businesses. For example, this included a temporary cut in fuel duty of 5p per litre for 2022/23, at a cost of £2.4 billion. I know how important this measure will have been for my constituents, many of whom depend on their car to get around.
Yes, we are in the middle of an unprecedented push towards transportation without emissions – especially electric cars. I still try to cycle to the station and catch the train when I come into Westminster, as far as possible. Nevertheless, we also have to be realistic. Most of our households depend on a car, and most of their vehicles are still using the internal combustion engine. Public transport and cycling are to be encouraged – but we are a rural constituency and for many the car remains the main means of getting from A to B.
Hence, I also appreciate how frustrating it will have been for motorists to face the recent disruption at the pumps caused by ‘Just Stop Oil’ protestors. I have been aware simply from driving locally how much pressure there has been on supply at local forecourts. As a Justice Minister I attended cross departmental meetings about these protests over Easter and can confirm that East Anglia was among the worst affected regions.
The good news is that stocks have started to increase significantly, and actions are in place to deal with further disruption. This includes legal injunctions against protestors, which could result in a significant penalty for those participating. Yes, we must respect the right to protest, but this must be balanced against the right of hardworking people to go about their daily lives, and I find it truly staggering that people from this country should think it a good idea to cause such disruption when we already have the impact of Putin’s invasion to contend with.
Again, just as we are on a path to decarbonising transport but remain vulnerable to price spikes in the interim, in an ideal world we would have reduced the number of local households using heating oil. But, as ever, overnight reform is not realistic; I still rely on an oil-fired boiler and am aware of just how much prices have risen of late.
So, I greatly sympathise with the very real impact people will have felt from global inflationary pressure, and in addition to stressing the steps we are taking to support households, maintain that the best long-term answer is a healthy economy generating well paid employment. This is the prospect we will be focused on at my jobs fair in Great Cornard, stressing positive opportunities that exist even in these challenging times.
Published in the Suffolk Free Press.