As a National Insurance hike begins to hit pay packets, Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer visited Stevenage to talk about how increased living costs could impact Hertfordshire's businesses.

Sir Keir, who has been tasked with winning back "Labour's lost" following significant Conservative gains in the 2019 and 2021 elections, has called for a one-off tax on profit-making fuel firms to tackle soaring energy costs.

The party leader fears "hundreds of pounds" are disappearing from towns like Stevenage as petrol, energy and grocery prices soar, and inflation increases to levels not seen since 1992.

The Comet: Co-Space co-owner Will Stokes, Labour Party leader Sir Keir Starmer, businessman Michael Wenn and Councillor Sharon Taylor, leader of Stevenage Borough Council.Co-Space co-owner Will Stokes, Labour Party leader Sir Keir Starmer, businessman Michael Wenn and Councillor Sharon Taylor, leader of Stevenage Borough Council. (Image: PA Wire/PA Images)

"The cost of living has been staring the Tories in the face for six months," Starmer told the Comet .

He visited Co-Space in Stevenage Town Square today (Tuesday, April 26) to talk with business owners.

"They had a spring statement which was totally inadequate. They didn't really help with people's energy bills, and they chose in the middle of a cost-of-living crisis to put people's taxes up."

The Comet: Labour Party leader Sir Keir Starmer talks to Will Stokes, co-owner of Co-SpaceLabour Party leader Sir Keir Starmer talks to Will Stokes, co-owner of Co-Space (Image: PA Wire/PA Images)

National Insurance increased on April 6 from 12 per cent on earnings up to £4,189 per month to 13.25 per cent - a move which Conservative Chancellor Rishi Sunak hopes will boost NHS and social care services across the country.

Inflation reached seven per cent last month, according to the Office for National Statistics (ONS).

"Energy bills have risen by hundreds of pounds but some employees will find that their pay packet is much smaller this month," Starmer said.

But does Sir Keir have a plan?

"What I want is a government that actually puts forward an emergency budget, sees the scale of this, and at the very least in this emergency budget include a windfall tax on oil and gas companies in the North Sea who have made much more profit than they expected.

"The tax could be used to reduce bills by £600 for people who need it, particularly across this region.

"Also, they need to reverse the National Insurance hike. What you've actually got is a government which hasn't risen to the challenge - who have made a bad situation worse through its choices - and a Labour Party that's saying 'here are the positive actions which could be taken.'"

Stevenage residents have faced long-term price hikes, particularly around housing and transport.

According to government statistics, the average house in Stevenage borough rose 207.697 per cent between February 2002 and the same month this year - from £100,078 to £307,937.

Average UK earnings have increased by around £10,909 across a similar period (2002-2021) - by around 53.54 per cent - Statista data shows.

"If you take somewhere like Stevenage, you have got Councillor Sharon Taylor, a fantastic local leader who has been instrumental in town regeneration here," said Sir Keir.

"There is plenty of social housing and council housing which is being built here, but it's designed with people in mind - around the town centre near shops and workplaces."

The Comet: Sir Keir in StevenageSir Keir in Stevenage (Image: PA Wire/PA Images)

What's Labour's policy to ease spiralling costs long-term?

Starmer has five ideas - the windfall tax, a short-term business rate relief, a complete cancellation of business rate relief with a "fairer" way of helping small businesses, an end to National Insurance and a faster housing insulation policy to reduce household energy bills.

He added: "We desperately need the government to claw back the £11.8 billion in either fraud or bad contracts.

"There's so much the government could do medium and long-term that it's not doing."

The Labour leader refutes suggestions that North Sea fuel companies would pass the costs associated with a windfall tax onto the consumer.

"What we're talking about is a windfall tax on excess profits - over and above what they expected to make," Starmer said.

"I don't accept that argument at all.

"What I do know is that so many people are desperate for some help with the hundreds of pounds increase with their bill.

"This is the only practical plan on the table, and I can't imagine for the life of me think why the government doesn't adopt it."

How is the cost of living crisis affecting you? Take part in the Comet's survey.