Last month, I visited a primary care centre in my constituency to hear more about the challenges facing those working in general practice. In the face of ever increasing demands for their services, stretched budgets and the ongoing upheaval within the NHS, these challenges are many and growing. But while well aware that food banks across the north east are giving out seven times more in emergency food parcels than this time last year, I was still disturbed to learn on my visit that, on an almost daily basis, the GPs and their support staff are giving patients the bus fare to get to the nearest food bank, from their own pockets.
No doubt the Prime Minister would welcome this as the perfect example of the 'Big Society' in action. He would possibly go so far to suggest that it’s saving the taxpayer money in the long-term as patients able to obtain a decent square meal are less likely to need to see their doctor so often. But I believe this appalling state of affairs is a sad reflection of the cost of living crisis facing millions of hard-pressed families and individuals up and down the country under David Cameron.
While out-of-touch Tory ministers might like to kid themselves that the threefold national increase in food bank usage in the last 12 months is a result of posters in local job centres – or because "they are not best able to manage their finances" – those of us in the real world know that increasing numbers of people now turning to food banks for help are in work but still unable to meet the basic cost of living.
And is it any wonder, when for 40 out of the 41 months that David Cameron has been in Downing Street, the cost of living has risen faster than wages? The stark reality is that average earnings have fallen in real terms in every region and nation of the country on this government’s watch, while the cost of family essentials continues to go up and up. Gas and electricity bills have risen by an average of £300 a year, and the cost of nursery places by 30% under David Cameron. Households are spending 12% more on food bills than in 2007, despite actually purchasing 4.2% less food.
The economic recovery which finally appears to be underway after three years of damaging flatlining is clearly yet to touch the lives of millions of households across Britain. That’s why Labour has called an Opposition Day debate in the Commons this afternoon, focusing on the cost of living crisis and the government’s economic failure. We believe that any economic recovery should deliver rising living standards for all, and not just for the Prime Minister and Chancellor’s friends at the top. We need a recovery that is balanced, that is built to last and – absolutely critically – benefits every corner and community of this country.
Yet what we have is a government with ministers who continue to bury their heads in the sand and remain totally oblivious to the cost of living crisis that millions are experiencing. Or worse, deny what they hear, and see, with their own eyes and ears.
It’s time that our complacent Prime Minister and Chancellor got a grip of this issue, by finally taking action to tackle the cost of living crisis now facing too many – for a start by implementing our proposed energy price freeze that would benefit 27 million households and 2.4 million businesses, and by extending the previous Labour government’s 15 hours of free childcare for three and four-year-olds to 25 hours per week for working households to help make work pay.
Next week’s Autumn Statement provides Cameron and Osborne with the perfect opportunity to take heed and do something - but will they stand up for the many struggling to make ends meet, or will it be more of the same for the privileged few?
Catherine McKinnell is shadow economic secretary to the Treasury and MP for Newcastle upon Tyne