Do you ‘recognise’ our country anymore? Our government seems incapable of doing so. It’s not just the sewage bathing this island that ministers and spokesmen seemingly ‘don’t recognise’. It’s their go-to answer for anything and everything when their doublespeak, sophistry and outright lies are challenged.
Evidence is dismissed – ‘I don’t recognise that’. Tripe is pedalled so often that politicians sound like La-la land caricatures in a satirical party political broadcast – just like this by PoliticsJoe.
But why deny the obvious? Would a patriot choose to gloss over or dismiss fears about the cost-of-living crisis? Why pretend everyone else around the world faces the same astronomical energy hit and cost of living crisis as the UK does, when that’s not true?
Is it patriotic to allow poverty to rise, the nation to crumble, arrogantly diss our allies and still make fanciful claims as to our world-beating, international status? Or am I missing something?
Cost-of-living crisis? Where?
It’s not as though this has suddenly and exclusively happened to us. Over the summer, European governments have sought to curb the impact of the energy crisis on businesses and households, while ours has been seemingly asleep on a luxuriously clean beach somewhere other than right here.
The EU is looking at a common maximum price. Spain and Portugal capped local gas-based power prices, and France capped price rises. In England, we face at best government complacency and at worst denial of the evidence that the privatisation of utilities has not benefited ordinary people. We’re told to act individually to cut our consumption but choosing between a bit of heat and something to eat is no choice at all.
The-make-of-it-what-you-can-individually approach in the UK has no place in Europe where governments accept their responsibility for addressing a crisis that affects everyone.
The EU has agreed a target of 15% voluntary reduction in gas usage. From 1 September and until April 2023, in Germany and elsewhere, public offices will be heated to a maximum of 19°C (12°C where there’s intensive physical work), warm water will be off, halls and foyers unheated, and outside illumination of public monuments, buildings and business signs turned off. That’s just for starters.
Denmark produces half its energy from renewables and is self-sufficient in gas but is temporarily upping its natural gas output to defray Europe’s reliance on Russian energy. With an eye on its strategic position, it increased spending on defence, is helping its neighbours, and just signed a deal with Germany on boosting investment in hydro and wind power. It has kept its 2015 plans on phasing out fossil fuel production.
Germany cut natural gas taxes to ease the burden on consumers. France owns EDF and obliged it to limit wholesale electricity price rises to 4% a year, costing the government some €8.4bn. It largely relies on nuclear energy, unlike Germany who cut taxes on gas from 19% to 7% and initially is spending €30billion on relief packages. Even so, German bills will rise about €500. Like Spain, Italy intends to levy windfall taxes on energy companies. Spain cut VAT on energy from 21% to 10%, on electricity from 7% to 0.5%, and made rail travel free until Christmas. Norway has large oil and gas reserves and has the cheapest electricity bills, followed by Ireland and Malta.
The UK faces an 80% energy price hike in October (followed by more next year) and an energy crisis set to hit households harder than the 2008 crisis. The projected increases, rising to a staggering £7,700 by April next year, aren’t even the end of it says Peter Smith, director of policy and advocacy for the National Energy Action charity. Electricity has risen 148% and gas by over 275% compared to last year and big energy firms refusing to supply small businesses are a sign of worse to come which, in a further obscene twist, are also exempt from energy price caps.
Together in adversity?
EU energy ministers will meet at a summit in October to try and thrash out solidarity measures. That won’t be easy. While the EU in 2017 agreed a security supply regulation for mutual help in case of supply problems in times of crisis, this is proving tricky as some states are more vulnerable than others. All hope to cut personal energy consumption by 15% and boost alternative energy and home insulation.
Across Europe, the response to the energy crisis varies. But there is a sense that ‘we are all in this together and must solve it together’ for the sake of society at large. CEO bonuses get a negative press, and ministers come in for heavy criticism. Lengthy media interviews and informed cross-examination typify many a broadcast. None answers with ‘I don’t recognise that.’ And few get away with saying their civil servants have the figures when the minister doesn’t.
Why are UK ministers and government spokesmen so coy, evasive and unwilling to recognise the state of the country they are supposed to be protecting and governing? Don’t they live and draw salaries here? Have none been north of the Watford Gap? Have none shared in the glories of life in Bransholme (Hull), Goldthorpe (Barnsley) or Smethwick (Birmingham) with an ordinary household trying to survive on low wages?
Perhaps they need reminding of their own statistics. The Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government English Indices of deprivation 2019 found that the most deprived neighbourhoods have largely remained unchanged since the previous survey in 2015. Liverpool, Middlesborough, Knowsley, Hull and Manchester have the highest proportion of deprived neighbourhoods; Middlesborough and Blackpool have the most child poverty.
A low weekly wage of around £400 per week, before stoppages, or a monthly pension of £700 are frightening given inflation rising to 18%+ and energy over £4,000. And as for government hype advertising the UK getting cheaper food post-Brexit, the evidence so far indicates the precise opposite.
Pockets of high deprivation exist too, very close to Westminster, like Grenfell, for example, in Kensington and Chelsea, a borough where income is generally high compared to the rest of the country. So is the government complacent or negligently out-of-touch with real wages?
The dividing line
If we were to momentarily gaze through a different set of lenses, we could look at food costs at Aldi, Germany and compare them with costs here. The first thing that strikes you is not price difference but the difference in the quality, freshness and range of fresh food, dairy produce and meats available. The quality and range on offer here is markedly lower. There is a dividing line. It runs along the English Channel, the North Sea and the Irish Sea. It runs deeper than Brexit and the border delays that are largely to blame for such impoverishment of variety and choice. The delineation signals what is glaringly obvious – an appalling dereliction of governance.
The palpable insecurity, angst and raw fear gripping those here facing a cold winter of deprivation is largely absent on the other side of the divide. People in Europe may disagree with their governments, often vehemently, but they know that their ministers are alert to the crisis, acting decisively and being held to account daily in the broadcast and print media. Reassurance is given. Europe is back at work and intensely focused on mitigation efforts to support its citizens.
The UK, in the starkest of contrasts, is floundering; its governing party lost in a hall of mirrors reflecting endless performative hustings in which the posturing participants swat at each other with political non sequiturs, dead cats, bile, and mendacity. Europe recognises its economic crisis. When will the UK? Recognition must come quickly, for in these self-isolated islands many precious lives and livelihoods hang precariously, and in most of those cases, desperately, in the balance. We are a people who recognise impending catastrophe but we are profoundly and fearfully diminished by our government. Only we can change this.
Help is available for customers as advised by Ofgem:
- If customers are struggling to pay for energy bills, they should contact their energy supplier as soon as possible. Depending on their circumstances, customers may be eligible for extra help with their energy bills or services, such as debt repayment plans, payment breaks, emergency credit for prepayment metered customers, priority support and schemes like the Winter Fuel Payment or Warm Home Discount rebate.
- Support available: Energy domestic consumer advice for Autumn/Winter 2022 | Ofgem
- Breathing Space Scheme: This is a scheme to give households time to receive debt advice and find a solution to sort out their debt problems. Breathing space will last for 60 days as long as applicants remain eligible during which time all creditors who have been included will be informed and must stop any collection or enforcement activity. Once the breathing space ends, creditors will be able to collect the debt in the usual way. Consumers can call the National Debtline on Freephone 0808 808 4000 or visit www.nationaldebtline.org
- The Citizens Advice consumer service can provide advice on how customers can resolve problems with their energy provider. You can contact Citizens Advice via webchat, or by calling 0808 223 1133. For complex or urgent cases, or if a person is in a vulnerable situation, they may then be referred onto the Extra Help Unit.
- Advice Direct Scotland has a range of services to support Scottish consumers who are struggling, including advice and information on basic or complex energy inquiries, supplier complaint processes and support with understanding energy bills. You can contact Advice Direct Scotland via Live Chat, by calling 0808 196 8660 or by email.