No One Should Ever Have to Choose Between Eating and Heating

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Headlines about energy price hikes and empty supermarket shelves are concerning.

Just as the economy and our lives have been returning to a bit of normality, it’s very frustrating to see supply shortages causing disruption in a whole host of sectors.

In particular, the prospect of energy price rises just as we are heading into the colder months is of real concern. No one should ever have to choose between heating and eating.

Although most of these issues relate to powers controlled by Westminster, the Scottish Government is very concerned about the situation.

They are actively engaging with businesses and other organisations across Scotland to understand where the pressures are greatest, and how we can work together to fix them.

But they also calling on the Westminster Government to do much more in the areas where they are responsible.

There are a number of factors at play.

In terms of energy, wholesale costs have risen sharply because of lower supplies across Europe, compounded by an exceptional year which has produced less wind energy than normal, as well as some technical faults and outages.

These supply problems are occurring just as the economy opens up.

That pandemic recovery is actually faster than many expected – which is obviously a good thing, but has meant that energy demand is increasing faster than anticipated.

The worry is that the sharp rise in wholesale energy costs will be passed on to consumers and hit household budgets.

OFGEM has already announced that the UK-wide energy price cap will rise by 12% this Friday.

Fuel poverty is already a big problem across the UK, and affects one third of households in Scotland, so anything that makes this worse is of real concern.

 

Where the Scottish Government can make a difference, they will do so – whether that’s ensuring households have access to advice on debt management, offering support to improve energy efficiency in homes and businesses, or providing support to low-income families.

Just last week they published legislation to extend the eligibility of Child Winter Heating Assistance, reaching another 5,000 families with a child or young person in receipt of certain disability benefits.

But Westminster controls most of the key levers here – and there is a lot that the Tory Government could be doing to support families.

Most pressingly, they could halt their planned £20-a-week cut to Universal Credit.

This is the wrong policy at the best of times – but with a surge in energy prices and rising food bills, it really is the worst possible decision being taken at the worst possible time.

 

The energy supply issues are symptomatic of wider problems with supplying essential goods in the wake of Brexit.

Since Scotland was forced to leave the EU, skills shortages in key sectors across the economy have been made worse – this included an acute shortage of lorry drivers.

This has made it harder to get goods – particularly fresh goods with a limited shelf life – to shops up and down the country, leaving shelves bare of some products and pushing up food prices.

The loss of freedom of movement is making it much, much harder to attract workers from the EU, with the UK Government’s relentlessly hostile attitude toward immigration also deterring and preventing people from coming to live and work in Scotland.

The Tories can’t say they weren’t warned about these issues well in advance – but they chose to plough ahead with the hardest possible break with the EU. Their actions have been reckless and we are all now paying the price.

Boris Johnson performed a partial climb down on this issue on Friday, announcing he would relax immigration rules to allow 5,000 more foreign truck drivers into the UK for three months – but this will barely dent the estimated shortage of 100,000 HGV drivers.

And rather than look for temporary fixes to stave off bad headlines, the Tories need to urgently revisit their entire post-Brexit immigration policy.

With each passing day of inaction, the problems are only going to get worse.

Taking a step back, we can see how frustrating it is when all of these decisions which are so central to our daily lives are being taken elsewhere.

We recently marked seven years since the independence referendum, during which the No campaign repeatedly said that staying in the UK would mean we had lower energy bills and lower food prices.

And of course, they said we needed to vote no to protect our EU membership.

Instead, Scotland has been dragged out of the EU against our will – which is manifestly damaging Scottish jobs and businesses.

The UK is becoming more isolated from our key overseas trading partners – and is becoming a more unequal society, with measures such as the Universal Credit cut hurting the very people that a society as wealthy as ours should be helping most in times of uncertainty.