Friday, 20 June 2008

Food bills up, house prices sliding, pay rises below inflation ... but Labour minister says: Stop being so MISERABLE


By James Chapman
19th June 2008

Tom Harris

Transport Minister Tom Harris has told families across Britain to stop being so miserable

A Labour minister last night told families struggling with the soaring cost of living to stop being 'so bloody miserable'.

In an astonishing message at a time of rising prices and falling incomes, Transport Minister Tom Harris said that despite the escalating credit crunch, 'our citizens have never been so wealthy'.

And he claimed we were spending money on food and clothes in sums that would have 'made our parents gasp'.

His extraordinary outburst came on another day of desperate economic news:

  • Britain's biggest mortgage lender said it feared house prices could plunge by up to 9 per cent by the end of the year
  • Experts warned rising prices could push a quarter of households into fuel poverty; 
  • Official figures showed a huge unexpected rise in public borrowing.

Opposition MPs said Mr Harris's blithe insistence that the nation should cheer up was 'breathtaking' when Labour had fuelled the squeeze on family finances.

They pointed to the scrapping of the 10p tax rate, soaring council tax, looming increases in road tax and recent figures showing pensioner and child poverty on the rise.

They are likely to contrast Mr Harris's 'cheer up' message with the downcast attitude of most of his Labour colleagues as the party slumps in the polls.

Tory Treasury spokesman Philip Hammond said: 'Tom Harris's breathtaking comments raise Labour's arrogance and complacency to a whole new level.

'Like his boss, Gordon Brown, he clearly lives on a different planet from ordinary hard-working families  -  who are struggling with soaring living costs, stagnant earnings and falling house prices.

'The short answer to Mr Harris's question asking why everyone is so miserable is, "Because we've got Gordon Brown as our Prime Minister".'

Mr Harris's incautious remarks come only a day after Bank of England governor Mervyn King warned families to prepare themselves for 'most difficult economic challenge for two decades'.

They are reminiscent of Tory Prime Minister Harold Macmillan's famous declaration in 1957 that most Britons had 'never  had it so good'  -  though that statement was made during an economic boom.

Downing Street, which has said the Prime Minister is to focus all his attention on the rising costs of fuel, food and family finances, is likely to be infuriated.

Mr Brown has gone out of his way in recent weeks to demonstrate that he understands the pressures on families in the economic downturn.

And only this week Chancellor Alistair Darling warned workers to  brace themselves for low pay rises.

Enlarge Ten reasons to be cheerful

Ten reasons to be cheerful

Official figures showed this week that inflation has jumped to 3.3 per cent, its highest level since 1992.

And it is predicted to keep on rising.

But Mr Harris, MP for Glasgow South, declared: 'In our own country today, despite the recent credit squeeze, our citizens have never been so wealthy.

'High-def TVs fly off the shelves at Tesco quicker than they can be imported.

'Whatever the latest technological innovation, most people can treat themselves to it.

'Eating out  -  a rare treat when I was a child in the Seventies  -  is as commonplace as going shopping.

Enlarge Harold Macmillan

MP Tom Harris' words were reminiscent of Tory Prime Minister Harold Macmillan who famously claimed in 1957 that Britons 'had never had it so good'

'And when we do go shopping, whether for groceries or for clothes, we spend money in quantities that would have made our parents gasp.'

Latest figures from the Daily Mail Cost of Living Index show that the cost of a basic shopping trip is up by almost a fifth year-on-year at 19.8 per cent.

However, Mr Harris's claim of reckless spending was backed up by evidence that consumers ignored the warnings of economic gloom and flocked to the High Street in their droves last month.

Official figures released yesterday showed that retail sales surged a record 3.5 per cent in May from April, the highest monthly rise since records began in 1986.

The increase  -  which experts said may have been fuelled by hot weather last month  -  prompted renewed speculation that the Bank of England may consider raising interest rates.

Mr Harris, writing on his Internet 'blog'  -  promoted on his official  website  -  admitted it was true that job security was 'felt to be less than in the past'.

But he added: 'The corollary of that is the tremendous real-terms rises in incomes over the years and the consequent improvements in quality of life.'

The minister, who has responsibility for the road network at the Department of Transport, appeared to dismiss concerns over the rising cost of motoring.

'There are more two-car homes in Britain today than there are homes without a car at all,' he insisted.

He added: 'We live longer, eat healthier (if we choose), have better access to forms of entertainment never imagined a generation ago (satellite TV, DVD, computer games), the majority of us have fast access to the worldwide web, which we use to enable even more spending and for entertainment. Crime is down.

'So why is everyone so bloody miserable?'

Mr Harris mused that 'crippling levels of cynicism and pessimism' might simply be 'part of the human condition'.

'Were we always like this?' he demanded. 'What happened to that post-war optimism and commitment to common values?

'Are they gone for ever and if so, why? If not, how can we bring them back?'


Tom Harris MP

Transport minister Tom Harris MP

Tom Harris may not be a household name in Britain, but in Taiwan he appears on the $5 stamp.

The Asian country's railways minister apparently liked Britain's Transport White Paper so much he adopted it.

Mr Harris's face now adorns one of a set of stamps commemorating UK expertise in railway asset management, which went on sale in March.

The son of a lorry driver, he became MP for the deprived seat of Glasgow Cathcart (now Glasgow South) in 2001 after 15 years in journalism and public relations.

Mr Harris, 44, who is pictured at the launch of a national cycling scheme, was loyal to Tony Blair, and voted for the war in Iraq despite being uneasy about troops going in without a second UN resolution.

His loyalty was repaid in 2006 when he entered the Government as a junior transport minister. Mr Harris is, however, sceptical of European integration and is a member of the Labour Against The Euro group.

He is married to Carolyn, a press officer for Strathclyde Police, and has three sons. His hobbies include badminton, hillwalking and astronomy.

Mr Harris says on his website that he is a fan of karaoke and that he plays tennis when he can --although 'he is not very good at it'.


  • Tom Harris earns £92,100 as a junior minister and claimed £153,862 in expenses last year. That's one reason to be cheerful!

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