Express & Star

Andy Richardson: Evidence is there of our country in crisis

It may well be a relief that the national discourse is not dominated by the salacious tittle tattle of Westminster.

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Foodbanks are now routine for many

Rishi Sunak and Jeremy Hunt are too smart to get themselves into trouble over slices of cake, suitcases full of booze or mini-budgets that literally send the economy into meltdown.

They are, however, not impervious to the disastrous, recessionary effect of successive Tory missteps.

While other G7 nations are growing slowly, Britain is in decline.

Yes, ministers can blame Putin. But the fact is the self-inflicted economic downturn caused by Brexit, allied to more than a decade of austerity, is pushing people into poverty.

There are people living in this region who won’t make it through the winter because they are too poor and it’s too cold. They were sold a lie – that Brexit would provide the NHS with £350 million a week – and now one in eight people face delays for treatment while the nurses are on strike. Putin is to blame for many things, but not that.

Vast numbers of people across the Black Country, Staffordshire and Shropshire are in real trouble. If they have a spare pound, they’ll buy four sachets of powdered soup, or stick the heating on briefly, for light relief.

There was a time when poverty affected those without a wage, when it was a daily reality for a tiny percentage of the population. That’s no longer the case. Significant numbers who are in gainful employment still can’t pay the rent, can’t afford a bath or a shower, and have no chance of buying regular-priced food from the supermarkets. NBC News, one of America’s more respected outlets, recently spent a week in Britain, looking at an area that has much in common with the working class parts of the Black Country, Telford and Staffordshire.

The results were frightening. There were former soldiers who had to live in armchairs, wrapped in blankets, because the heating was too expensive to use. There was vast evidence of the world’s sixth largest economy stagnating as a financial calamity enveloped the haves as well as the have-nots.

One in six British households are on social security checks, and almost a third of British children live in poverty, Government figures show.

One in four are facing financial difficulty or are already mired in it, and almost one in 10 have missed paying bills, according to the Financial Conduct Authority regulator. It is frightening.

Against that backdrop, the unions are winning the argument.

Nurses asking for 19 per cent is, of course, plainly daft. It’s not affordable and it won’t ever be paid.

But the public is largely sympathetic to the nurses and paramedics, the train drivers and postal workers because they know that if a pay rise isn’t in line with inflation it’s a pay cut. And people can’t afford that.

Pay hasn’t fuelled inflation, it can’t have. Pay has been squeezed for more than a decade. Inflation has come from external factors out of our control and we are the ones to suffer.

Rishi Sunak says the nation can’t afford £28 billion to meet pay demands.

And it’s clear that it can’t afford everything that’s in its in-tray.

But it could afford £33 billion on Covid fraud and waste, £31 billion for a Brexit that has made us all poorer and £30 billion for the failed Truss-Kwarteng experiment.

It’s a political choice to refuse to come to the table with nurses and to get taxpayers to cover the losses incurred by railway companies when their workers go on strike.

ONS data shows real wages are falling by 2.7 per cent at a time when the cost of living is rising by double digits. There will have to be compromise in respect of public sector pay. There will also have to be more energy put into the appalling waiting lists that have accrued in the NHS. Not all of those are the fault of the Government – rightly, it diverted resources to the battle against Covid.

But the Government must get public services working again – and that means an end to strikes and a diminution of waiting lists. For red wallers, Brexit is done – the next election will be won and lost on our under-performing economy.