With the Norwegian MoD team.
Whilst times remain challenging – at home and abroad – a look back at 12 months ago underlines that we have made considerable progress. This time last year I was a Treasury Minister and held responsibility in the department for energy policy. We were distributing £100bn of assistance to directly support the soaring energy bills of businesses and households.
Such a scale of intervention would normally be unprecedented, and yet represented about 25% of the extra borrowing we raised to fund Covid support. With such extraordinary and successive financial interventions by Government, it is therefore no surprise that taxes have risen, and I think the public know both that this support was necessary, and that you cannot add half a trillion pounds to the national debt without consequence. Yet the issue that has really hurt people economically has been the surge in the cost of living, an inevitability when energy costs rose so much following Putin’s invasion of Ukraine.
12 months later, we have finally started to make progress on inflation, the factor which drives higher prices on a day to day basis. We delivered the Prime Minister’s target to halve inflation this year, and as a result, were recently able to start cutting taxes - with a 2% reduction in National Insurance arriving early in the new year to lift us from any post-yuletide hangover. Once inflation takes hold it can have a powerful, negative impact across the board. So, we should not underestimate our success in getting to this point, particularly because the Government’s role in supporting the Bank of England is a really tough but necessary one – holding firm on the inevitable demands for huge public sector pay rises, themselves a response to inflation.
All that said, I am entirely aware that inflation falling does not of itself mean life is suddenly affordable for most people. It just means that we have started to get a grip on the rate of rising prices. I am delighted by our progress - but I know that many will still find this winter a challenge. As such, it remains ever the case that Christmas is a chance to really focus on those less fortunate than ourselves. Thus, I’ve been spending time recently focused on our crucial voluntary sector. Day in day out, a collective effort happens across our county that is often under-appreciated, but enrichens society and helps our wider community, not least to help those with least.
This is why a few months ago I launched my ‘Community Champion Award’, to highlight the really powerful stories of people in our villages and towns who go above and beyond the call of voluntary duty. It was a highlight of the constituency year when I recently hosted my Community Champion nominees in the ‘Dicky’ pub, East Bergholt, to hear the real life stories of those making a difference. From parish councillors to First Responders, they have all had a huge impact on their communities this year and I will be celebrating their case studies on social media in the coming weeks ahead.
Of course, a year on I’ve also changed Ministerial responsibilities. It’s been an extraordinary privilege to be so intimately involved with our Armed Forces at a time of tension and conflict in Europe and across the world, in my role as Minister of State for Defence Procurement. We have now trained over 50,000 Ukrainians since 2014 and continue to provide significant support to a country that has fought so hard to stay free. I hope that the politics which inevitably intrudes on such a major geopolitical issues does not cloud the fact that nobody expected Ukraine to so successfully defend itself – and we have played a decisive role in delivering that.
Only last week, we announced that the UK would join Norway in leading a new Maritime Capability Coalition in the Black Sea, to support Ukraine’s crucial efforts to maintain freedom of navigation – including the provision of two mine clearance vessels to the Ukrainian navy. Last Thursday I visited Oslo to meet my Norwegian counterparts and discuss our strong naval relationship. This is not just about our support for Ukraine, but the common threat we both face on the home front – in the North Sea and right up to the arctic - from Russian submarines.
On all fronts, we continue to face huge pressures, but I remain optimistic about our prospects. I do believe in 2024 there will be a chance to restore a sense of progress, and on that note wish readers a Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year.
Published in the Suffolk Free Press.