Before I open today’s debate, I want to reflect briefly on the horror that unfolded at Grenfell Tower last week. My thoughts are still very much with the victims, their families and their friends. All hon. Members will have heard the Prime Minister’s statement earlier today and, having visited the site for myself and met some of the bereaved families, I want to echo her determination to get to the bottom of whatever went wrong. I will also write to hon. Members shortly with a detailed update on what we are doing to support the people who have been affected by this tragedy, the progress we are making in rehousing people and the steps we are taking to improve fire safety at similar tower blocks across the country.
In the longer term—this point is perhaps more pertinent to this debate—it is clear that any changes in the wake of this tragedy should not just be technical or legislative ones. What happened at Grenfell also showed us all that we need a change in attitude. We all need to rethink our approach to social housing, and we need to reflect on the way in which successive Governments have engaged with and responded to social tenants. We do not yet know for sure whether this disaster could have been avoided if the people who called Grenfell Tower their home had been listened to, but we do know that for far too long their voices fell on deaf ears. If nothing else, let the legacy of Grenfell be that such voices will never, ever be ignored again.
It is good to see the right hon. Member for Wentworth and Dearne (John Healey) in his place, to which I am delighted to welcome him back after the general election. I am even more delighted that we have not swapped places. I know that we have a great deal in common—perhaps we use the same barber—and it is always a pleasure to debate with him. I look forward to doing so regularly during the next five years. Like other hon. Members, I have heard the right hon. Gentleman talk about his party’s policies on the big issues facing the country, especially the issue of how we can build more homes, and we will no doubt hear him set out some of those policies.
On the point about building more homes in the context of what the Secretary of State has said about social housing, does he accept and will he now confirm that, since 2010, the Government’s record on building social homes has been deplorable, with, in fact, a 97% fall in social housing starts?
There was a deplorable record on building social homes, but that was the record of the previous Labour Government. As the hon. Lady will hear shortly, as I rightly talk about their record, during the 13 years that Labour was last in office we saw, for example, a decline in socially rented homes of 420,000 units.
We of course have a Labour Government in Wales who are committed to building 20,000 new homes, and who are building new social and council housing in Cardiff as I speak. Does the Secretary of State agree that lessons also need to be learned from Wales about its different approach to fire safety, including the fact that we introduced measures requiring sprinkler systems to be fitted in new high-rise buildings and converted buildings? There are a lot of lessons to be learned from Welsh Labour. Will he listen to them?
When it comes to fire safety, I think we should learn lessons from wherever we can—whether Wales or elsewhere. The hon. Gentleman will know that, since 2007, there has been a requirement for new buildings to have sprinklers.
I am intervening, at the suggestion earlier of the Leader of the House, having spent three and a half hours in the Chamber. This debate is largely about housing, but is it possible for my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State to hold a debate on leasehold? He could then look at whether the Government can intervene on the Mundy decision, which affects the extension of the leases of 2 million leaseholders, and carry on the work of his former deputy Gavin Barwell in reforming Lease, the Leasehold Advisory Service, so that leaseholders who, frankly, should be on commonhold can get a better service and avoid being abused, intentionally or unintentionally, by managing agents and freeholders.
I agree very much with my hon. Friend. It is important to continue the work on leasehold reform, and we will certainly take it forward. Let me take this opportunity to thank him for all the work he has done and the contribution he has made to the debate on that reform.
During the general election, we heard from the right hon. Member for Wentworth and Dearne and his colleagues about Labour’s housing policy, and no doubt we will hear more shortly. Let us be clear, however, that it was not just an attempt to wind back the ideological clock to the 1970s; it would have undone so much of the progress that we have made during the past seven years.
Since 2012-13, when the Government introduced the increased discount for right to buy, 51,352 homes have been sold, but for so-called one-for-one replacements over that period, there have been only 9,344 starts—starts, not completions—on site. Is that what the Secretary of State means by a new attitude to social housing?
If the hon. Gentleman will bear with me, he will very clearly hear the Government’s track record on social housing.
This is the progress that the Government have made since we first took office in 2010: we have a resilient, growing economy; the labour market is in its strongest position for years; and the claimant count is at its lowest level for 45 years, with millions more people in work compared with 2010. That is thanks in part to our wide-ranging process of welfare reform: 520,000 people are receiving universal credit, which is helping to transform lives and to make sure that people are always better off in work than on benefits. In the past year, the number of disabled people in work has increased by more than 170,000. The Department for Work and Pensions has launched tailored support for people with a disability or ill health through our personal support package. We of course remain committed to a strong, humane welfare safety net. Every year, we spend some £90 billion supporting families, people with disabilities, jobseekers and people on low incomes. By 2020, we will have given local authorities £1 billion in discretionary housing payments for residents who need extra help.
The Secretary of State mentioned extra money for people on disability benefits. Does he agree that changing the work-related component so that from April this year people in the work-related activity group have received £30 a week less is hardly the most intelligent way to persuade disabled people to get back into employment?
Where that happens, we will compensate people in other ways and make sure that the welfare policy remains fair to everyone.
In the last year, we spent £24 billion on housing benefit, helping people to cope with the ever-increasing cost of housing.
We are not just tackling the symptoms of our broken housing market; we are taking action to fix the causes. Our housing White Paper, which was published earlier this year, set out exactly how we will go about that: releasing more land where people want to live, building the homes that we need faster, getting more companies involved in the housing market, and supporting people who need help now. The Queen’s Speech, which promises proposals to
“help ensure more homes are built”,
marks a significant step in turning that blueprint into bricks and mortar.
The Secretary of State mentioned the housing White Paper, which I thought was a terrific document, but in his little list he neglected one thing. Given that the Self-build and Custom Housebuilding Act 2015 is now on the statute book and was strengthened by the Government in the Housing and Planning Act 2016, does he think that serviced plots and land pooling may have an important role to play?
I agree very much with my hon. Friend about the importance of self-build and factory-built housing, and making sure there are enough plots for that. That was why a key part of the housing White Paper was about working on how we can diversify the market further. I thank him for the work he has done and continues to do in this sector. He has made a significant contribution.
We are investing more than £7 billion through the affordable homes programme, which will provide funding to housing associations, local authorities and other providers to deliver 225,000 affordable housing starts by March 2021. We are making the affordable homes programme more flexible so that it funds a range of affordable homes for rent, as well as home ownership. That will enable providers to build a range of homes to suit people’s needs.
My most urgent priority continues to be getting rough sleepers off our streets. We will establish a homelessness reduction taskforce, pilot Housing First and implement the Homelessness Reduction Act 2017 so that more people are helped earlier.
In the wake of the Grenfell Tower tragedy, it is more important than ever that we continue to support housing associations and local authorities with their plans to regenerate housing estates. We have paid out some £32 million in grants to support early phase work with local residents. We are providing practical support and guidance to ensure that tenants are at the heart of all new regeneration schemes, and that their rights are protected. We shall continue to assess bids to allocate £290 million of project finance.
But that is not all: we are determined to make all types of housing more affordable and secure for ordinary working people. That is why we will legislate to stop tenants being charged fees for renting a property. That will mean that tenants will be able to see at a glance exactly what an advertised property will cost them, with no hidden or upfront charges. It will also stop unscrupulous agents who rip off tenants with unjustifiable and opaque fees. The full details will be in a draft tenants’ fees Bill, which we expect to publish during the first Session of this Parliament.
Can we deliver all this? Yes we can. Just look at our track record. Since 2010, we have delivered 893,000 additional homes, including 333,000 affordable homes.
To help the Secretary of State with delivery, I suggest he looks at the Housing (Wales) Act 2014, which was passed by the Welsh Labour Government. It sets out an additional duty on local authorities to prevent homelessness. Would it not be worth the Government following the lead of Welsh Labour on that?
The hon. Gentleman may be aware that the Homelessness Reduction Act was passed in the last Parliament, thanks to the hard work of Members across the Chamber, especially my hon. Friend the Member for Harrow East (Bob Blackman). Trying to prevent homelessness in the first place is precisely what that legislation does. I am sure that the hon. Member for Torfaen (Nick Thomas-Symonds) would welcome that measure.
Will my right hon. Friend join me in welcoming the news that thousands of new homes are being built in Cannock Chase, with new homes built every week? Does he agree that sites such as the Rugeley B power station are ideal places for new homes?
I have visited home building sites and potential home building sites in Cannock Chase. I commend the record so far and the proactive attitude that is taken, certainly by the local Member of Parliament, to ensuring that local people have the homes that they need and deserve.
Since 2010, house building starts have increased by more than three quarters. More than 382,000 households have been helped to buy a property through schemes such as Help to Buy and the reinvigorated right to buy.
The Secretary of State is telling us about his record. In these changed times, is it still Government policy that housing associations should be required to sell off homes faster than new homes can be built?
It is Government policy that people should have the right to buy their home, whether it is a council house or a housing association property. The hon. Gentleman will know that we are piloting how the housing association right to buy programme works. We will then work on how we can take it forward.
On that point, the housing associations in London have made it very clear collectively that they are willing and able to massively ramp up the number of homes they are building. The one thing they ask from the Government is to accelerate the release of publicly owned land so that they can do so. Is that still very much part of the agenda?
My hon. Friend touches on a very important point. The public sector land programme is designed to do just that. In the past seven years, it has released record amounts of land for hundreds of thousands of new homes. There is always more to do. That is why we set out plans in the housing White Paper to achieve even more from that programme.
I can tell Labour Members one more thing that has happened since 2010: more council housing has been built in the past seven years than was built in the previous 13 years. Going back to the question from my hon. Friend the Member for Richmond Park (Zac Goldsmith), enough public sector land has been released to deliver at least 130,000 new homes, which is equivalent to a city the size of Nottingham.
More than 300,000 new homes were granted planning permission in the year up to March, which was up 15% on the previous 12 months. New build dwelling starts rose by 15% compared with the previous period. Once people are in their homes, they are staying in them because mortgage repossessions are at their lowest level for 35 years. This Government can offer an ambitious, far-reaching plans for the future of house building, built on solid foundations of real success.
I want to contrast that with what is on offer from the Labour party. Let us look at what happened last time Labour was in charge of housing. When Labour came to power in 1997, the average house cost 3.5 times the average salary. When it left office 13 years later, the average house cost seven times the average salary—a massive collapse in affordability and the biggest the country has ever seen. That hit ordinary working people the hardest.
We are discussing this year’s Queen’s Speech, not 1997’s. Does the Secretary of State accept that the 13 years of the last Labour Government saw 2 million new homes built in this country, 1 million more people becoming homeowners and the largest investment in new affordable housing for a generation by the end of that period?
I will come to the right hon. Gentleman’s record in particular in just a moment, and then I will let him know what I will and will not accept. Let me remind the House that, on Labour’s watch, the number of social rented homes fell by 420,000. In fact, the only thing about social housing that actually grew under Labour was the waiting lists—by a massive 70%.
I am looking at the live tables—published online yesterday, I believe—concerning the record of the Government that the Secretary of State represents. It shows that the number of social rent starts was 39,492 at the end of 2009-10 and had fallen to 944 by 2016-17. Can he explain that?
Over the past six years, 330,000 new affordable homes have been built, which is a record in a six-year period and is certainly higher than the last six years of the last Labour Government. For every 170 right to buy sales, Labour built just one new council house—a replacement rate of less than 0.6%.
In 2010, when house building completions hit their lowest peacetime level since the great depression, who was the Minister in charge of housing? I will let hon. Members know: it was the right hon. Member for Wentworth and Dearne himself. You will forgive me, Mr Deputy Speaker, for being a little bit sceptical when the right hon. Gentleman stands up and claims to have all the answers.
What is the great answer to housing shortfalls and rising unaffordability? What is Labour’s magic bullet to fix the broken housing market? It is a Ministry of Housing. Young people struggling to get on the housing ladder or people who cannot find a place big enough for their growing family should not worry if nothing in their area is affordable because Labour is going to create a new Government Department. It is the typical Labour prescription: there is no problem that cannot be fixed with a bit more bureaucracy.
That is the difference between Labour and the Conservatives in a nutshell. We want to build more homes for hard-working people; they want to build more offices for civil servants. Moving the furniture around Whitehall may create the illusion of action, but it does not get any homes built. Only this Government can deliver the housing and market reforms that this country needs. Only this Government can provide the economic strength we need for house builders to thrive in a post-Brexit world. Only this Queen’s Speech takes the first steps towards fixing our broken housing market. That is why I am delighted to commend it to the House.
I welcome you to the Chair, Mr Deputy Speaker; I think this is the first time that you have been in the Chair in the Chamber. May I also welcome almost all of my Labour colleagues back to the House after the election, and all 87 new Members from all parties? As elected Members of the House, ours is a special job with special responsibilities. Last but not least, may I welcome the Secretary of State and his old team back to the Front Bench? There is a new Housing Minister, but, sadly, he comes with no new ideas or plans to deal with the housing crisis in this country.
These are extraordinary times. There is a Government Bench without a Government, a Prime Minister who cannot even seal a deal with the DWP—I mean the DUP. [Interruption.] She might have better luck with the DWP; she cannot seal a deal with the Democratic Unionist party. There is also a Queen’s Speech with no guarantee of getting the number of votes needed to approve it. This is the first minority Government in this country for 38 years, but this Prime Minister is no Jim Callaghan. She called the election expecting a bigger majority and saying she wanted a stronger mandate. She now has no mandate, no majority and no authority.
Normally, the Queen’s Speech sets out what the Government will do; this Queen’s Speech sets out what they won’t do, can’t do and daren’t do. They will not make the economic changes to invest for the future and protect our public services. They cannot put forward a full programme for government, because the Prime Minister cannot yet do a deal with the DUP. They dare not even implement their own manifesto, and have taken it down from their website.
A Queen’s Speech with, I think, 21 Bills in it, and draft Bills, is not a thin Queen’s Speech. May I just point out that the mandate from a 42.5% vote share in this high-turnout election is rather better than, say, Tony Blair’s mandate in 2005, when he got only 35% of the vote?
To come up with that number of Bills, the hon. Gentleman has to incorporate anything that can be loosely described as a draft Bill or flagged as potentially coming to the House in the next two years. The Prime Minister promised she would not call an election, but then did so because she wanted a bigger majority, a stronger mandate and greater authority. I am sure the Secretary of State will accept that the Prime Minister has none of those things at a time when our country is facing—I know he will appreciate this being such a strong Brexiteer—some of the biggest challenges we have faced for decades at home and abroad. At a time when we need a heavyweight Government, we have an interim leader and a set of lightweight Government Ministers.
There are plenty of heavyweight people around. Indeed, there are plenty of heavy people around, although I should say that I have lost two stone since the beginning of the election campaign. I hope that the right hon. Gentleman will get on to housing at some point. Does he agree with the Redfern review, which he commissioned, that Help to Buy has the potential to be inflationary? Does he further agree that it might be better to switch the money towards help to build, which, unlike Help to Buy, would in every single case result in extra housing being built?
We need to do both, of course. The major flaw with Help to Buy is that nearly a fifth of the people being helped to buy through the scheme are not even first-time buyers. Nearly 4,000 being helped by Help to Buy are on incomes of more than £100,000. It is not well targeted and it is not good use of public money. It could be spent much better, especially on helping younger people on ordinary incomes to get their first foot on the housing ladder.
The right hon. Gentleman says that a £100,000 income should be too high to qualify for Help to Buy. What level would he set it at?
We would be happy to consult on that. My main argument is with Ministers. They are making the wrong judgments and they are not putting in place the help that young people need in particular. That is why—the hon. Gentleman may know this—the number of homeowners under 45 has fallen by 900,000 since 2010. Young people’s hopes and dreams of ever owning their own home are being completely dashed, and the Government have no plan in this Queen’s Speech or in their manifesto to fix that.
In truth, the Prime Minister is locked in place by her party only until its members judge that they can dump her without facing the British people again in a fresh election. It was Margaret Thatcher who said:
“Minority Governments can only struggle on from day to day with a series of short-term measures. They can’t and don’t tackle the longer-term questions that affect the future of our nation and the wellbeing of all of us.”
The question for the Queen’s Speech is whether the “short-term” will be days, weeks or months. On 8 June, the Prime Minister asked the people for their judgment on seven years of Conservative Government, and they gave it. Real wages have fallen, Government debt has risen, investment in new transport and housing has been slashed, the NHS is in crisis, schools are cutting teachers and last year, more than a million people used a food bank. At the same time, there have been big income tax cuts for the top earners, with more tax cuts to come for the richest on wealth that they do not even earn. We have had seven years of failure and a party with no answers to people’s problems, no hope for the future, and no plan to change the country for the better or to make government work in the interests of all.
The right hon. Gentleman talks about our having no plan, but only a few days ago I was at the new Bexhill business park, which has been funded by Government money. There is a new road, which will open up new land not just for housing but for employment sites. Does that not sound like a plan?
I am glad that the hon. Gentleman’s constituency of Bexhill has seen the benefit of some Government investment and support in recent years. The part of the Barnsley borough in my constituency certainly has not. The Government seem simply to overlook large parts of the country.
I now turn to housing, the theme of today’s debate, and to Grenfell Tower. The Prime Minister was right today to apologise, to admit that local government and national Government were too slow, and to take charge herself. However, in a set of important commitments, which we welcome, she set several hares running and failed to answer a number of important questions. Earlier, my hon. Friend the Member for Hammersmith (Andy Slaughter) made the point that the safety checks that are imperative for all 4,000 tower blocks around the country are about not just cladding but all aspects of fire prevention and fire safety. The Secretary of State needs to make it clear that the checks will be comprehensive and rapid and that if local authorities need support and resources to carry them out, the Government will make that available. He also needs to make it clear—the Prime Minister did not—that if remedial work is needed to make the blocks safe and funding is required for that, the Government will provide it to ensure that the buildings are safe for their residents.
The right hon. Gentleman is right: the checks need to be comprehensive. Everyone agrees about that and local authorities are carrying out those checks. Many have already done so. My Department contacted every single local authority and we have made it clear that we will make the testing facility available for free—we have said that we will pay for all the tests. We have also made it clear, as the Prime Minister did today from the Dispatch Box, that if a local authority needs support and help to implement any necessary changes, we will work with it to provide that.
Support, help and funding if local authorities need it: is that what the Secretary of State is saying to the House, yes or no?
We have made clear exactly that if a local authority needs support, including funding support, we will work with it to provide that.
I am grateful for that and I think that the House is, too. It has taken a dozen questions to the Secretary of State, the Prime Minister and the Leader of the House to get that statement, but it is of course welcome.
I paid tribute to the Prime Minister for her leadership, having acknowledged that the Government were slow to get a grip of the matter and appreciate the scale of the tragedy. I also pay tribute to the Mayor of London, who has given a strong voice to the concerns of local communities and residents and strong leadership to the emergency services that struggled to deal with the tragedy. I pay tribute, too, to my new hon. Friend the Member for Kensington (Emma Dent Coad). She has been simply magnificent in her first week in the job as a Member of Parliament. I thank my less new hon. Friends the Members for Westminster North (Ms Buck) and for Hammersmith, both of whom know the area well and, as neighbouring MPs, spent much of the past week with my hon. Friend the Member for Kensington.
I was with our Labour leader in Kensington the day after the fire. Firefighters with more than 30 years’ experience told us that they had never seen anything like it. The police commander was right when she said to me, “You have to be here to appreciate how truly apocalyptic this fire was.” It was not a natural disaster, but man made. It should never have happened and must never happen again. Hon. Members of all parties have a deep responsibility to ensure that it does not.
Some have said, “Don’t try to score political points from the tragedy,” but it is about politics: ideology and policy, which the House exists to debate and decide. The residents and communities affected by the terrible tragedy want us to tackle precisely the political and policy decisions that those in power took. The Prime Minister has talked about the lessons to learn and promised that all necessary action will be taken after the investigation. As the official Opposition, we will not rest until those who need help and a new home have it, until anyone culpable has been held fully to account and until every measure is in place to prevent such a thing from happening ever again.
Surely what has happened must shock the country and us into changing the policy, ideology and responsibility of government. When a country as decent and well off as ours fails to provide something as basic as a safe and decent home to all our citizens, things must change. When this happens in one of the richest parts of the country, it offends our sense of living together as one nation, with each and every person equally treated and valued by our society and our Government. Things must change.
For decades after the second world war, there was a cross-party consensus about the value of social housing. There was also a recognition that, in only one year since then did we build more than 200,000 new homes without councils doing at least a third. In 2015 we saw the first year since the second world war when central Government provided no new funding to build new social rented homes. Labour’s decent homes programme to overhaul and upgrade social housing has been stopped. Last year, Ministers ended secure long-term tenancies for new council tenants.
The Secretary of State talked about the Government’s track record on social housing. My hon. Friend the Member for Westminster North exposed it. Perhaps the Secretary of State could ask his officials for table 1012. My hon. Friend gave the figures for the number of starts; I will give the figure for social homes completed that people can live in. It was 37,000 when Labour left office. Last year, it was just over 1,000. That is the Government’s track record on social housing. It must change.
The right hon. Gentleman referred to the decent homes standard for social housing. The programme has not been ended. Since 2010, £1.7 billion has been provided. As a result of the Government’s work, the number of homes that fail to meet the decent homes standard is down by 41% from its peak in 2007.
Will the Secretary of State confirm exactly how much is in the Homes and Communities Agency programme this year and last year for Government investment in the decent homes programme?
I shall be happy to write to the right hon. Gentleman and give him the exact number.
Good. It is a small number, and it has a zero in it—and nothing else.
Let me return to the serious points that I wish to make. Secondly, let me say to the Secretary of State that all markets, organisations and consumers need regulation to guarantee safety, ensure fair practices, safeguard standards and stop abuse; yet that is not the mindset of current Conservative Ministers. Never again can a Minister who is challenged on fire safety measures say, “It is not the Government’s responsibility,” and justify it by citing the Government’s “one in, two out” rule on regulations. That must change.
The right hon. Gentleman must accept that it was this Government who introduced improved regulations insisting on the installation of smoke alarms and carbon monoxide detectors in homes in the private rented sector, and, for the first time, required electrical safety checks and checks on appliances from this autumn.
But my goodness, didn’t people—including us—have to argue hard for those basic regulations? Why did the hon. Gentleman and his colleagues, when the Bill that became the Housing and Planning Act 2016 was going through the House, reject intervention and regulation to ensure that all private landlords at least made their homes fit for human habitation before letting them? This is a Government whose mindset can see regulation only as red tape, and who do not see what the Prime Minister described as the important role played by good regulation in the public interest.
May I put it to the right hon. Gentleman that the last thing people want to see now is parties turning this into a party political argument? It would be equally easy for us to point out that the present Government inherited the 2006 regulations from his Government. If there has been a failure of regulation, I think that it is shared. I think that what the public want to see is the House taking full and shared collective responsibility for what has happened and putting it right, rather than Members trying to accuse each other in order to score political points.
This is precisely about politics. This is precisely what the House should do, and, in fact, it is precisely about what the Prime Minister said this morning. Indeed, my third point follows on from the point that she made when she talked about the fundamental issues that underpin the detail of what we have also been discussing.
Sections of our people feel marginalised and ignored, and that is what happened to the tenants at Grenfell Tower. It is no good the hon. Gentleman huffing and puffing; the Prime Minister said that this morning. She recognised it. However, this is a Government whose housing regulator has now dropped any real requirement for the voice and views of tenants and residents on governing boards to be heard, and who, in 2010, abolished the National Tenant Voice, which we had set up. Its establishment resulted from a report called “Citizens of equal worth”. Many Grenfell Tower residents, and other social housing tenants, will feel that that rings hollow in this day and age.
Let me now deal with the specific failures on housing. Two thirds of people now believe that the country is experiencing a housing crisis. Everyone knows someone who is affected—people who are unable to obtain a home that they need or aspire to. Many of the housing decisions made by Ministers since 2010—decisions that the Secretary of State boasts about—have made the problems worse. Because Ministers have done too little for first-time buyers on ordinary incomes, home ownership has fallen to a 30-year low. They have given private landlords a freer hand and rejected legislation requiring properties to be fit for human habitation, so 11 million private renters have fewer consumer rights than they have when they buy a fridge-freezer. They have stripped away protections for people who need help with housing, so the number of people sleeping rough on our streets has more than doubled. They have cut investment and outsourced responsibility for building new homes to big developers, so, on average, fewer new homes have been built since 2010 than under any peacetime Government since the 1920s. That is the track record of the Secretary of State and his colleagues.
After seven years of failure, it is clear that the Conservatives have no plan to fix the country’s housing crisis. Some of what the Secretary of State has said this afternoon, and has said before, about house building and tenants’ fees is welcome, but there is nothing in the manifesto or in the Queen’s Speech to tackle the wider causes of the housing crisis.
Will the right hon. Gentleman give way?
I have given way twice to the hon. Gentleman, and I want to finish my speech so that others can speak.
There is nothing to change the scandal of rising rough-sleeping homelessness. There is nothing to deal with the lowest level of new affordable house building in 24 years, nothing to reverse the rapidly falling level of home ownership among young people, nothing to secure supported and sheltered housing for the future, and nothing to scrap the hated bedroom tax.
However, there is an alternative, as we showed in our Labour manifesto. It is possible to fix the failings in the housing market and in housing policy. I am not just talking about a fully-fledged new Department for Housing to reflect the seriousness of the crisis, to spearhead our new deal on housing and to tackle the crisis. I am talking about a new deal for first-time buyers, with no stamp duty, guaranteed “first dibs” on new homes built in their local areas, and 100,000 new FirstBuy homes at a discount price linked to local average incomes. I am talking about a new deal for homeowners to stop leaseholders being ripped off, and a new homeowner guarantee to help people to pay the mortgage if they lose their jobs. I am talking about a new deal on house building, with at least a million new homes built over the current Parliament, and a new target for 250,000 new homes a year to be built by 2022, a level that should then be sustained each year for the five years of the next Parliament.
I am talking about a new deal on affordable homes. I am talking about building at least 100,000 genuinely affordable homes to rent and buy a year, with the biggest council house-building programme in more than 30 years. I am talking about a new deal for private renters to establish new consumer rights, with legal minimum standards, as well as making three-year tenancies the norm, with an inflation cap on rent rises. Finally, I am talking about a new deal on homelessness, involving a new national mission and plan to end rough sleeping—not some time in the future, as the Secretary of State says, but during the next Parliament.
Ministers have no domestic programme in the Queen’s Speech, and no majority in the House of Commons. I offer them our new deal on housing: a deal between the people of this country and the Government, and a bold, long-term plan to start to fix our country’s housing crisis and meet people’s housing needs and aspirations. If they too are willing to offer people that hope, I offer them Labour’s support as they put it into practice; but if they are not, they will have to make way for a party that can change the country for the better, and can make government work for the many and not the few.
I welcome you to the Chair, Mr Deputy Speaker—on a temporary basis—and thank you for presiding over yet another day of debate on the Gracious Speech.
Let me, at the outset, associate myself with the remarks of both Front Benchers about the recent tragedies that have affected all of us, throughout the country, and will continue to do so. Let us hope that, after all the bad things that have happened, good things will come. I think we can all share that view.
I also think it apposite, on a day on which we are continuing our debate on the Gracious Speech, to welcome the fact that the Duke of Edinburgh—who, sadly, could not attend the State Opening of Parliament—has, I believe, left hospital today. I am sure that we all wish him a speedy recovery. I know that he would not have wanted to miss standing at the side of Her Majesty the Queen yesterday, but he was ably represented by his son.
I welcome not just the reflective way in which the Prime Minister announced the legislative programme, but, in particular, the way in which she has approached the recent tragedies. The parliamentary arithmetic that we have been given in the House will require restraint and, I believe, a great deal of thoughtfulness on the part of all politicians on both sides of the House as we steer our country out of the European Union, and increase our engagement across the wider world. It is against the sombre background of those national tragedies, which we have been discussing at such length in the Chamber since we reconvened, that we face a very daunting period as we negotiate Brexit.
The voters made the decisions for us in the House. I think we must all agree that, in the referendum and the general election, we have learnt a lesson in democracy. You cannot second-guess the electorate. None of us expected the outcome of the referendum or the general election. In welcoming the Gracious Speech, I think we all acknowledge that it is set against an extraordinary backdrop that no one truly expected.
It is natural that the legislative timetable is dominated by Brexit but it is crucial that, during Brexit, we do not lose the economic momentum that is delivering for the whole country, and in particular for my county of Buckinghamshire. Let us not forget that, over the lifetime of the last Government and the Government before, we cut the deficit by more than two thirds. We have the highest employment on record and, in 2016, we had the fastest-growing economy in the G7.
My local economy in Buckinghamshire has benefited greatly from the Conservatives being in government since 2010. Since May 2010, unemployment in Chesham and Amersham has more than halved: it has gone from 1.9% to 0.9% in May this year. Youth unemployment is down from 3.4% to 1.4% and almost 1,000 new businesses have started since 2010.
The health of the business environment is crucial to our nation’s success. Locally, we need to ensure that it is driven hard to provide not only the income that we require as a country, but the security that our citizens require. May I issue a word of warning, however, on the drive to create more housing? Particularly in Chesham and Amersham, we are finding that valuable business premises are being converted into residential properties. I do not know about the constituencies of the rest of my colleagues, but in Buckinghamshire there is a demand to start businesses, and people who want to start businesses in Buckinghamshire tell me that they cannot find the premises in which to start them. If we are losing business premises to housing, that is not the right way to create the balance in our society.
There are several Bills in the Queen’s Speech to build a stronger economy. I particularly welcome the automated and electric vehicles Bill, which I think grabs all our imaginations. I am also particularly pleased to see the space industry Bill. This country has a £13.7 billion space industry. I have to declare an interest. My husband is a long-retired senior civil servant, but he was the director general of the British National Space Centre. Thirty-three years ago, when we got married, we cancelled our honeymoon because the then lady Prime Minister was due to decide on the space plan. She failed to do so. Perhaps it will take this lady Prime Minister to decide the way forward for the space industry, which has been undervalued but is one of this country’s leading sectors. We have great expertise that can benefit us here and in the rest of the world.
I also welcome the smart meter Bill, although it raises a bit of a problem for me. I tried to have a smart meter put into my house but was told that the signal where the smart meter was supposed to go was so weak that it was impossible to install it.
Communications is vital to industry. The impediment to business in Bucks is not just the lack of premises but the lack of superfast broadband. I do not think we can expect our businesses to flourish in a post-Brexit world unless we have that vital infrastructure to support them. Sadly, we seem to prefer to put money into what I consider to be rapidly ageing technology.
There is no prize—my hon. Friends are all smiling on the Conservative Benches; I think there are a few smiles on the Opposition Benches, too—for guessing my next point. It is inevitable—I cannot rise to my feet in the Chamber without mentioning it. I welcome everything in the Queen’s Speech, except the announcement of the HS2, phase 2a Bill.
HS2 will be written on my heart and my tombstone when I leave this world. I have to say that my heart fails me when I see that the Government are about to introduce what could be another hybrid Bill—a form of legislative torture for the House and the people who have to sit on the Committee that considers it—before we know that phase 1 is in the bag, so to speak.
We have heard today that there are three contenders to provide the rolling stock. Much is made of the fact that one of the bidders is Chinese, but HS2, phase 1, which is starting its construction phase, is in an appalling mess. It has haemorrhaged its senior management. Beth West is the latest person to leave the senior management of the company. Its governance and procurement policy has failed. It has failed to take into account conflicts of interest; the company CH2M pulled out of a £170 million contract. It has failed remarkably badly in its community engagement, particularly in Buckinghamshire.
I ask the Government to carry out, before any new legislation is brought forward, a complete and full review of phase 1 to date. I want them to revisit the business case, examine the governance of the project and decide whether it is good value for money for the taxpayer. That is the correct thing to do.
Of course, I would like the project to be cancelled. I make no secret of that. However, I think it is unrealistic, after so much money has been spent on it, to expect the Government to do that, but they do need to take a firm grip of the project. I would hope that, if the review showed that it was not good value for money for the taxpayer and that the technology was rapidly going to be overtaken, the Government would have the courage to bring it to an end.
I have still not given up hope that the Government, whatever their complexion, will honour their environmental principles. Although I have been grateful for the extra tunnelling that I have obtained under the Chilterns for the area of outstanding natural beauty, it still does not completely protect the whole AONB. The whole purpose of a national designation for an area of the country is to protect it from being violated by major infrastructure projects such as HS2. The Government have done only half the job. They could do extra tunnelling to the end of the AONB, which would greatly relieve Wendover, which is going to have vast noise barriers inserted in a rural environment. It would also show that the Government were putting their environmental credentials firmly at the centre of their legislative programme.
I am truly delighted that in the Queen’s Speech we have had confirmation that the mental health legislation and how it is delivering for people will be reviewed. I know that the Minister is aware that mental health provision is a huge issue for people on the autism spectrum. Research suggests that more than 70% of children on the autism spectrum develop mental health problems during their childhood. It is important that they and autistic adults are able to get good mental health support when they need it. I hope that, in responding, the Minister will be able to fill us in some more on the scope of the review. Will it just be about access to services, which Members on both sides of the House will agree is important, or will it be a root and branch review of all the legislation and how it is delivering for people? In any case, having been privileged to serve as the chair of the all-party parliamentary group on autism in the previous Parliament, I look forward to working with the Government on where we can strengthen rights and entitlements for people with autism.
Social care has been much talked about, including the provisions that were in our manifesto but perhaps are absent from the Queen’s Speech. Improving our social care system is also a huge issue for people on the autism spectrum. I was glad to hear that the Green Paper with further proposals will be out soon.
I would like the Minister to confirm that the Green Paper will look at the whole system of adult social care, and to ensure that if any reform is brought forward, it addresses the needs of both the elderly and the working-age disabled populations. Much attention is rightly focused on the needs of our growing elderly population, but it is important that the needs of working-age disabled people, such as those with autism spectrum disorders, should also be looked at. The system is currently not working for them either.
In his opening remarks, the Minister alluded to the 170,000 disabled people who are in work. The Government have rightly made a pledge to halve the disability employment gap by getting 1 million more disabled people into work, and much good work was done in the previous Parliament through the “Work, health and disability: improving lives” Green Paper. However, as the House has heard me say before, the autism employment gap is even wider, and that work was not mentioned in the Gracious Speech. I hope that when the Minister winds up, he will be able to assure disabled people and those on the spectrum that the work to reduce the gap is still going forward and is still a priority for the Government.
I do not think anyone would disagree that the focus on mental health is welcomed on both sides of the House. However, speaking as a constituency MP, I can say that accessing effective help for people in crisis is still challenging, not least because of the multiplicity of agencies involved in the care of an individual. I hope that we can evaluate this and, in the case of the review, let us have a look at how we can simplify accessing help for problems for all concerned.
Finally, I would like to touch on education. Quite rightly, our programme is focusing on technical education, and we want to see educational standards improve across the board. However, I have to say that the funding of schools remains a major issue, particularly in my constituency. Buckinghamshire has seven out of the 10 lowest funded schools in the country, and I believe that it is necessary to ensure fairer funding to help with equality in education. I therefore urge my colleagues on the Front Bench to re-examine the funding of schools very carefully, and to ensure that sufficient funding comes to schools such as those in Buckinghamshire that have been grossly underfunded for many years.
This Queen’s Speech introduces a two-year programme. It contains 27 Bills and draft Bills, and it forms a great basis for this Government to move forward. It will provide the basis for a period of consolidation and enable us to grasp the opportunities for the whole of the country as we leave the European Union. We now have to establish the UK as a close friend of Europe, but a friend that, when it leaves the European Union, will once more be in charge of its own destiny. I commend the Queen’s Speech to the House.
Several hon. Members rose—
Order. Before I call the Scottish National party spokeswoman, I must tell the House that because of the pressure on time and our wish to get as many people in as possible, I shall introduce a six-minute time limit on Back-Bench speeches once the next speaker has sat down. That limit might have to be reduced further later, but I hope not. If people stick to the time limits, and if possible even undershoot them, we might be able to stick at six minutes.
I should like to associate myself with the comments made by right hon. and hon. Members across the House about the tragic incident at Grenfell Tower. We on these Benches welcome the inquiry and believe that lessons must be learned from this event.
This Queen’s Speech seems to me to be one of the most shambolic and lame legislative programmes in my lifetime. The Tories, cowed by their unnecessary election defeat, are working on a weak mandate with no authority. Since the start of the month, we have seen promises ditched as they face defeat across the House. Pledges on introducing an energy price cap, disastrous social care plans, a free vote on foxhunting, the introduction of grammar schools and the setting of an immigration target have all been dropped—and yesterday we witnessed no mention of the deliberately harmful plan to scrap the triple lock on pensions.
Yet again, this Queen’s Speech proves one thing: the Tories will continue their obsession with austerity in spite of a sea of evidence against it. Let me be clear: another Parliament of cuts is a choice, not a necessity, and it is a choice that has been decisively rejected by voters across the country. The Resolution Foundation has warned that the continuation of austerity will drive the biggest inequality since the times of Margaret Thatcher. Much of the power to legislate on housing has been devolved to the Scottish Government. We ended the right to buy some time ago, taking the view that unless housing is replaced, many people are left disadvantaged and lacking the opportunity to obtain affordable housing. That is something that this Government have failed to learn.
Today’s debate also focuses on social security. The High Court ruling on the benefit cap highlights the fact that it causes real damage to single families. When will this Government learn their lesson? The incomes of the poorest third of working-age households will fall by 10% over the next four years, driving a further 1 million families across this country into poverty. By 2021, there could be more than 5 million children across the UK—a number equivalent to the total population of Scotland—living in poverty. This is one of the wealthiest countries in the world, and that is a disgrace.
We on these Benches choose to take a different approach. Unlike those on the Government Benches, and many on Opposition Benches, the Scottish National party has consistently and unapologetically opposed austerity. Our approach to the public finances would balance the UK budget for day-to-day spending by the end of the Parliament. It would set debt on a downward path and, crucially, free up an additional £118 billion of public investment. With our plans, we could stop the further £9 billion of additional social security cuts that this Government will inflict. That would mean that those on low incomes who rely on in-work social security, and the vulnerable and disabled, would not have to face further punishment. Despite the rhetoric from the Labour party, its plans fail to provide the same protections.
In my constituency, the cost of welfare reform is clear. Despite my constituency’s assets, almost 25% of the children in Lanark and Hamilton East grow up in poverty. Under this Government, my constituents have had to endure a reduction in employment support allowance, a freeze on in-work support, cuts to their personal independence payments and the removal of their mobility cars. Worst of all, they are now subject to a family cap and a despicable rape clause. Austerity has failed my constituents in Lanark and Hamilton East and it has failed constituents up and down the country. However, we are, for now, in a better position than some.
My constituency is yet to face the massive ramifications of the roll-out of universal credit. Later this year, the UK Government intend to introduce universal credit in South Lanarkshire. Only a few weeks ago, the Scottish Federation of Housing Associations highlighted the policy as a key concern in tackling homelessness across the country. The Scottish Government have plans to mitigate some of the worst elements of the UK Government’s welfare reforms, including the roll-out of universal credit, but that will not help families across the rest of the UK. It is completely unreasonable to suggest that we should spend nearly £400 million mitigating poor decisions made by this UK Government. Universal credit will make some of my constituents homeless, and despite the work of the local authority and the third sector, the UK Government are intransigent and unrelenting in their approach.
It is clear that austerity has failed the economy and failed society. It has driven the people we should protect into poverty, hunger, humiliation and crippling debt. I had perhaps naively hoped that their defeat earlier this month would make the UK Government reflect on their approach to social security, listen to the experts, and inject the investment necessary to genuinely rebalance the economy and create a fairer society. At its very heart, that is what a social security system ought to do, yet that is exactly what this UK Government have failed to do.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right that austerity has failed and that the social security system is not providing the necessary safety net. Does she agree that the application of a proposed cap on housing benefit for supported accommodation is another issue that this Government need to reflect on? Otherwise, this austerity will hit the most vulnerable: those in women’s refuges and other vulnerable adults in supported accommodation.
Absolutely. Statistics already show that over 80% of the cuts fall on women. That is simply not good enough.
Will the hon. Lady give way?
I need to make some progress.
The UK Government are fixated on a failed Brexit strategy and intent on damaging the economy and threatening jobs—so much so that they have cancelled next year’s legislative programme. In closing, my call to Government Members is this: stop being fixated on fighting with the EU and get on with your day job of governing this country.
Several hon. Members rose—
Order. I remind the House that the six-minute time limit starts now.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Deputy Speaker. I always think that a time limit is good for focusing the mind and generating extra productivity, so I will adhere to your strictures.
The Government said in their Queens’ Speech that they want to build more houses, which is an approach I strongly support. The title of the recent housing White Paper is “Fixing our broken housing market”—an important title and an admission of something that has been increasingly clear for many decades under Governments of all parties: our housing market simply does not work properly. The supply of housing does not rise to meet demand. [Interruption.] I see the right hon. Member for Wentworth and Dearne (John Healey) nodding, and I am glad that he is nodding; I hope to persuade him of some of the solutions on which he is still resisting my charms. I am sure that I will get there over the course of this Parliament.
The fact is that our broken housing market is failing to meet aspirations. In effect, demand is unable to influence supply and drive volumes in the way that it does in markets that operate successfully. Some years ago in a Committee room upstairs, the presenter of “Grand Designs”, the famous Channel 4 television programme, told our all-party parliamentary group on self-build, custom and community housebuilding and place-making:
“The consumer has been on the receiving end of a pretty poor deal. We build some of the poorest, most expensive and smallest homes in Europe. That’s not something to celebrate.”
At the core of the housing debate is a key intellectual problem: is development good or bad? We often see the word “development” used as a pejorative term, yet the instinct that we all have to nest and to build a home is a response to one of our deepest human needs. Mr Deputy Speaker, if you were to go on a survival course, you would be taught that without food you would die within seven to 10 days and that without water you may last three days, but you can die without shelter in 20 minutes. However, we often talk about development, which means providing enough shelter for everyone, as if it is a bad thing.
During a general election debate, one of my opponents said that housing—although she admitted that it was necessary—was a “heavy price to pay”. I understand that language even if I disagree with it. The reason people so often speak about development in that way is because it is driven and brought forward in the wrong way. It should be obvious that without enough housing the chances of our children and grandchildren finding a home that they can actually afford are rapidly fading from view. In order to make “development” a good word, we have to have good development.
Does my hon. Friend accept that one way of driving forward house building is through neighbourhood plans? They are delivering more houses than originally set out by the district councils that instructed the building of houses.
I thank my hon. Friend for that and agree with him, although the caveat is that some developers are good at getting around neighbourhood plans, undermining their basis and confidence in them. The Government need to address that.
The key to getting the right kind of development is more choice and beauty. Now, that may sound airy-fairy, but it is the exact opposite, something which the Prince of Wales noted in his BIMBY or “Beauty-In-My-Back-Yard” campaign. We must have better, smarter, beautiful development that offers a wide range of real choices to consumers and is actively welcomed by existing communities, including the grandparents and parents who so often oppose development with arms folded saying, “We don’t want any houses in our area.” They want to see the next generation flourish and do well, and see their own grandchildren adequately housed. We must allow our communities greater voice and choice about what gets built, where it is built, what it looks like and who gets first chance to live there.
My hon. Friend is making some extremely important points that resonate in my constituency. Does he agree that one way to ensure acceptance and, indeed, the welcoming of development in our communities is to allow for the increased availability of self-build, of which he is a great supporter, and to ensure the diversification of housing providers? Small local companies should be able to benefit from building, which brings jobs and work to the area.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. As recently as 1988, 66% of housing in this country was built by small local builders. There has been a huge change that has benefited a small number of large companies, but not our communities or most of our constituents and society as a whole.
My hon. Friend mentioned self-build and it will not surprise him to know that I promoted, got through this House and the other place and secured Royal Assent for the Self-build and Custom Housebuilding Act 2015, which has now been strengthened by the Housing and Planning Act 2016. Some 53% of people in this country would, at some point in their lives, like to build their own house or have someone build a house to their design. Government policy should not just take account of that, but embrace it and make it as easy as possible.
All my Act does is require local authorities to keep a register of individuals and what are called “associations of individuals” who want to get a serviced plot of land to build a house. An “association of individuals” could be anyone: a group of friends; the governors of a school looking to provide accommodation to help recruit and retain teachers in difficult-to-fill subjects; or the Royal British Legion or a similar veterans’ body, such as Help for Heroes, working with veterans to fulfil their accommodation needs—[Interruption.] I see my hon. Friend the Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Mrs Trevelyan) nodding and I am pleased to see her in her place. An association of individuals could include the directors of a social services department looking to provide accommodation to help to recruit and retain social workers in parts of the country where jobs are difficult to fill. My act has now been strengthened by sections 9 to 12 of the Housing and Planning Act 2016, which require local authorities not only to keep a register but, crucially, to provide enough suitable development permissions to meet the demand on the register.
I turn again to the right hon. Member for Wentworth and Dearne, because I do not think that he is fully persuaded of how powerful such measures could be. The Dutch expert group will be imitated by the right to build expert taskforce being launched at the end of the month at a housing conference in, funnily enough, my constituency. The taskforce will take the lessons that have been learned in the Netherlands. If we were building as many units of self-build and custom house building as there are in the Netherlands now, we would be creating 60,000 extra units a year on top of what is currently being delivered, which could make a significant difference.
I have two requests of the Government. First, paragraph 2.19 of the housing White Paper states:
“We will target the £2.3bn Housing Infrastructure Fund at the areas of greatest housing need. We will open this capital grant programme to bids in 2017… We will fund those bids that unlock the most homes in the areas of greatest housing need.”
Amen to that, but we need the details to be announced. I understand that they have not been announced due to the general election, but it needs to happen soon.
Secondly, the Government should adopt the 10-point plan of the National Custom & Self Build Association—point 2 in particular—which calls for a help to build equity loan scheme to help people get their own house. A deposit of just 5% is required to buy a home under the Help to Buy scheme, although that does not create any more dwellings; it just helps volume house builders to sell the houses that they have already built. I will happily provide the Government with what NaCSBA has proposed. A help to build scheme would ensure that an extra house was built. Moreover, one could recycle the money because, in most cases, as soon as the house is built the owner could re-mortgage, and the equity loan could be paid back and would be available to lend to somebody else.
The final thing that I want to say in the 30 seconds that remain is that our party did not reach out during the recent general election to young people in the way that it should reach out. However, it is true that all people, but young people in particular, need somewhere to live. It is absolutely fundamental. In many cases, young people have given up on the prospect of ever having their own place. We have to make owning a house a reality. The architect Rod Hackney once said:
“It is a dangerous thing to underestimate human potential and the energy which can be generated when people are given the opportunity to help themselves.”
As the first Labour MP for Kensington, I am walking in the footsteps of giants. Although the boundaries have changed over the years, the charismatic figures of Alan Clark, Michael Portillo, who shares my Spanish heritage, and Malcolm Rifkind have created their own legacy, and I am grateful to my immediate predecessor, Victoria Borwick, for showing the way with her impressive social and organising skills, which I will never emulate.
I was born in Chelsea, went to school in Hammersmith and have lived in North Kensington for half my life; the constituency is in my DNA. As MP for both Harrods and the Notting Hill carnival, I hope to ensure that all my communities are cared for. I know, because I have spoken to many of them, that the good people of South Kensington have had their eyes opened in the past week and are asking the same questions that we are asking in North Kensington. The horror and fear of this man-made catastrophe will be etched in all our hearts forever. The tears may never stop, and I know that from the grief etched on the faces of people in Ladbroke Grove and from the total strangers approaching me for comfort, reassurance, a question, a hug, to share their fears and disbelief that such horror could be visited upon our neighbourhood. The burnt-out carcase of Grenfell Tower and all that it represents, lours over us, and we have the Red Cross managing a relief programme—in Kensington.
It has been said before that tenants of Grenfell, and of other council and housing association properties, have been voicing their very serious and evidenced concerns about poor and diminishing housing standards, and about how appeals, complaints and petitions have been ignored and discredited. I have witnessed over the years the deterioration, and perhaps even the deliberate managed decline, of social housing; the frustration of a minority party councillor is huge. Eleven Labour councillors in Kensington and Chelsea Council listened to the concerns, put them forward and shouted out for their residents, but they are a minority; decisions are made in cabinet, where Labour has no representation. In my 11 years as a councillor in the community where I was born and bred, I have seen housing conditions that are simply shocking: homes growing toxic black mould; five children squeezed on mattresses in one bedroom; homework done in relays; chronic health problems such as asthma, with children being carted off to hospital at night; malnutrition rife; and the simple day-to-day organisation of clean clothes, food and personal cleanliness being carried out in rotas to allow a semblance of respectability. Child poverty in Kensington is just the same as child poverty in Lanark and Hamilton East. It is 25%—in Kensington.
People are proud. I have seen families coming out of disgracefully overcrowded and unhealthy homes who seem organised, clean and in control, however stressed and tired they are. I have had late night emails from one teenager who had been sitting on the stairs to complete her GCSE homework when her family had gone to sleep—this was the only time she could do it. I have visited a proud and ambitious family where four children, including teenagers of opposite genders, shared a bedroom. I have visited a very dear and confused elderly woman who had been living in darkness for weeks as her electricity ring main had blown and she was too afraid of strangers to let repair workers in. All these issues and more occurred in Grenfell Tower, including power surges that blew all the electrical devices, yet the residents’ protestations were ignored, and the so-called “frequent complainers” were blacklisted. By what process of deregulation and the bonfire of red tape was this disaster allowed to happen?
Some people seem to think that social tenants have no right to live in an area such as “desirable” Kensington. Some people demonstrate a total lack of empathy or even respect for those not born to a world where basic human comforts and a good education are givens. Some people think that social tenants should simply move away if they don’t like what they’ve been “given” and that housing people on low incomes in the inner city, which they serve through their labour, is not a public good, but some kind of privilege to which they are not really entitled.
So we have heard, after this disaster, that voluntary groups and charities have “stepped up” to deal with this and that they are wonderful—and indeed they are. But I want to live in a world where charities do not exist, and where volunteers are not needed to fill the yawning gaps where local services have been cut or withdrawn, to be replaced, as they are in Kensington, by prep schools. People of all backgrounds should be safe in their beds, and have food in the fridge and shoes of the right size on their children’s feet; the basic human needs cannot be met in a world of charities, food banks and handouts. In a council with a third of a billion pounds in reserves, I do not understand how this can be.
The burnt carcase of Grenfell Tower speaks for itself and has revealed the true face of Kensington—the mask has dropped. We have poverty, malnutrition, overcrowding, poor maintenance and, underlying this, a lack of care. The people who have been failed want justice and accountability, and an honest and transparent process to achieve it. We all now have to step up to ensure that we live in a world where a terrible and avoidable tragedy such as the fire of Grenfell Tower never happens again. South Kensington has stood with North Kensington, and we will work together to achieve that, as I will, as the first Labour MP for Kensington.
First, I wish to praise the words of my new colleague, the hon. Member for Kensington (Emma Dent Coad). What a week it has been for her to start as a new MP. When I first started I had to deal with the possibility of the hydrographic UK business moving out of my constituency, which I thought was a big job to deal with, but it is as nothing compared with what she has had to deal with. I can only reiterate the comments made this morning by the Prime Minister and the Leader of the Opposition crediting the fine work that the hon. Lady has done, and so I thank her.
Let me turn to today’s debate. Although we face issues in places such as Kensington, on the whole this Government’s record on housing has been good, and I want to talk about that. Investment in housing has now doubled to more than £20 billion to support the largest affordable housing programme by any Government since the 1970s, and we have seen this in my constituency. The Government have delivered more than 300,000 affordable homes since 2010. When the coalition Government came into power in 2010, house building was at its lowest level since the 1920s. We cannot escape the fact that for years the Labour Government did not address that, which has exacerbated the situation we now find ourselves in. However, I always say that there is always room to do more, because everybody deserves a home of their own. While on the issue of housing, I want to pay tribute to the former Housing Minister and Member for Croydon Central. I had the pleasure of working closely with him during the last Parliament and he was a fantastic champion for the housing industry. He will be sorely missed, but this is only Downing Street’s gain.
I want to talk about the renewed commitment to housing supply in the Queen’s Speech. Thousands of new homes are being built in my constituency, many of them in new estates. I knocked on the door of hundreds during the election campaign, from Monkton Heathfield to Killams, Wellington to Wiveliscombe, and I was very struck by the type of people benefiting from Conservative policies and the investment in housing that has enabled the building of all these properties. Undoubtedly, the people living in them are, on the whole, first-time buyers; they are young people, often with young families. Those are the kinds of people this Government are helping, especially through our Help to Buy schemes. There are all manner of schemes under which one can now get into owning a property—or a bit of it or a share of it. There are so many different schemes and they are very popular. There are great advantages to buying or moving into a new home, because they are energy-efficient and they cost less to run.
Let us not forget that the people living in all these houses, particularly those around Taunton Deane, all have jobs and are all working in the constituency. They are all contributing to the economy and paying their taxes—low taxes I might add, to which we are committed in the Gracious Speech, unlike the Labour party. All of this is working for the economy as a whole. One thing I have noticed is that among these new housing developments we need to address the infrastructure and the traffic generated by all these new homes. We need to make sure we get the right facilities in the right places to accompany all these houses. I am very pleased that in the last two years I have been able to be part of a group of stakeholders that has managed to attract an incredible £300 million to Taunton Deane, largely for these infrastructure projects. That will make these developments much more viable. We have the developments at the Toneway, Creech Castle and the railway station, and they will all help to make the economy work and to make people’s lives more sustainable. We also now have garden town status, which I played a role in securing. With that, Taunton Deane will now be able to bid into the £2.3 billion housing infrastructure pot of money, to make these homes and the whole infrastructure around them more sustainable. So it is very important that we build the right homes in the right places and make them sustainable.
The excellent housing White Paper contains lots of ideas about the types of homes in which we might live: should we have container homes, or homes on water, for instance? We need to take great care if we are going to build up, as we know from the recent tragic events. Careful thought needs to be given to these matters, but we have got the building regulations and building controls. We have established an effective, new, high-quality system that will enable us to live in the homes that we want, and with sustainable drainage, because in Somerset flooding is a big issue so I urge the Housing Minister to be very conscious of including that as well. I applaud the introduction of the electric vehicles Bill, because all these initiatives will help to make our neighbourhoods better places in which to live.
Finally, I look forward to the introduction of the agriculture Bill. I hope we will build into this new Bill not only a Brexit that works for all our land use and agriculture—because this is a huge industry—but measures that work for the environment, too. We must attract and bring in all the environmental protections that we need to make our country sustainable. That brings us back to housing, because, of course, without a sustainable environment we do not have a sustainable future.
I welcome the Queen’s Gracious Speech; I welcome everything in it to make Brexit work and the fact that we will have the tools in place to continue to have a positive economy moving forward.
Like many others, I had expected a little more from this Queen’s Speech. On the key point regarding the repeal of the European Communities Act, the certainty and assurance my constituents want to see is that there will be no loss of rights or protections as a result of leaving the EU. The last thing our country needs right now is a bunch of “here today, gone tomorrow” Ministers blundering around undoing the rights and safeguards on which the British people depend for protections at work, human rights, environmental security and economic wellbeing.
One thing is clear: we do not need to hear any more nonsense about extensive use of secondary legislation or Henry VIII powers, as this Parliament has plenty of time to debate these issues. As we reflect on whether contempt for regulation played any part in the Grenfell tragedy, the last thing we want is to see our water and air standards reduced and food safety compromised because of the behaviour of those who fundamentally reject precautionary principles or the idea that the polluter pays.
If part of my job is to reflect the concerns of my constituents, it is only fair that I point out that in a recent survey I undertook with the people of Selly Oak, they were very clear that their No. 1 concern was housing and homelessness. That is perhaps not surprising when we can barely move in Birmingham these days without coming across someone sleeping in a shop doorway. The problem is not confined to the city centre; it is rife across the suburbs and the same all over the country. It is a consequence of an obsession with austerity. In some cases it is a direct result of the Government’s pointless meddling with the Supporting People programme, heartless and botched attacks on local authority spending, and ill-considered welfare changes. My advice centres are full of people with housing problems: a mother with two children who has been forced to sleep on the floor of her parents’ two-bedroom house for over three years; the man whose bedroom is covered in black mould; repairs that never get done; or the woman who contacted me to say that she and her three-year-old son had been subjected to carbon monoxide poisoning courtesy of a flue that had not been properly connected to a boiler despite the work being signed off by the landlord’s gas engineer.
This Queen’s Speech should be setting out to make these problems a priority. We need the law to be simplified so that there are powers to utilise land that has been banked by individuals or organisations. We need permissive powers to encourage funding opportunities so that, as well as traditional build, there is scope for smaller developments, community build, and high-quality, healthy and environmentally modern systems. We need to be certain that this Government are now serious about building such housing and ending the scandal of homelessness.
Of course, rather than being shy of regulation, we need to tackle rogue landlords and developers, whether we are talking about council and social housing or the private sector. Last year, the Government had an opportunity to look at my Protection of Family Homes (Enforcement and Permitted Development) Bill, which warned of the dangers of rogue building and conversions. Perhaps if the Government had spent a little more time listening and a little less time talking it out, their minds would have been a little more focused on safety and regulation. I hope that I will be able to give them another opportunity in this Parliament, but we should not be waiting for a private Member’s Bill; providing protection for tenants and homeowners against rogue landlords and developers should be a Government priority.
Of course, with so little else to address in this Queen’s Speech, I thought we might have seen an offer to revisit the plight of the WASPI women. If transitional arrangements in the form of pension credits are not the answer for these women, who are being punished through no fault of their own, what is the answer? It surely cannot be to wait until their numbers dwindle through age and ill health. This is an injustice for all to see. Why not have a short piece of legislation to tackle it now? And while we are at it, where is the promise to straighten out the mess that is affecting disabled people and the scandal of personal independence payments? How many people have to go hungry, suffer a breakdown, get into mountains of debt and lose their entire self-respect before this Government recognise that there is a world of difference between helping those who can work into work and setting arbitrary targets based on bonus payments for private companies that strip the poor, the sick and disabled of support to which any civilised society would see them as rightfully entitled?
We heard a bit yesterday from the mover of the Gracious Speech about his wish for a fairer, more just society. I want that as well. So how am I to explain to my constituents that the average chief executive of a FTSE 100 company now earns 144 times the average salary? How do we compare that with cuts to in-work benefits and pay freezes for low-paid workers? Why are the Government not doing something to tackle that? What about introducing a compulsory living wage—and these people on high salaries can certainly afford to pay tax on a salary of that level?
Thank you, Mr Deputy Speaker, for the opportunity to deliver my maiden speech during such an important debate on the future of our country. The challenges ahead of us all are indeed profound.
Representing much of the Scottish borders for 10 years in my previous role as a Member of the Scottish Parliament was a great honour and privilege. Now, as the Member for Berwickshire, Roxburgh and Selkirk, I find myself once again humbled by the trust and confidence placed in me by my constituents. I am deeply grateful for their support and promise to work as hard as I possibly can to represent them, regardless of their party politics.
I count myself very lucky to live in and represent one of the most beautiful parts of the United Kingdom—if not the most beautiful. Due to the rural nature of the constituency, it is one of the larger areas represented in this House. With size, comes great diversity: fishing communities like Eyemouth on the Berwickshire coast, paired with distinct and historic towns such as Duns, Coldstream, Hawick, Selkirk, St Boswells, Jedburgh, Newcastleton and Kelso; and then out to the valleys of the remote communities of Ettrick and Yarrow.
My new constituency includes the towns of Galashiels, Melrose, Earlston and Lauder, which I did not have the pleasure of representing in my previous role in the Scottish Parliament. For those who do not know this part of Scotland, all these border towns, and the lands that surround them, are famed for their beauty. Their history runs deep, as is clearly apparent in the centuries-old common ridings and festivals that are held every year in many towns throughout the borders. We also have the glorious home of Sir Walter Scott, Abbotsford house, on the banks of the mighty River Tweed.
Of course, the rural and diverse nature of the constituency provides us with many challenges. I will make it my mission in this place to improve broadband connectivity, thus ensuring that businesses can thrive and compete with the more urban areas of these islands. Similarly, I will make the creation of an environment that allows for job creation a priority. In my view, creating good and well-paid jobs is the best way of lifting people out of poverty. Effective and sustainable transport links—including the extension of the borders railway to Hawick and on to Carlisle—together with better broadband connectivity and improvements to other infrastructure, will be the key to pursuing that aim.
The challenges and opportunities thrown up by Brexit for my constituents—especially export businesses, farmers and fishermen—will be of fundamental importance over the coming years. I will work tirelessly to help to ensure that we come out of the process even stronger and even more together than we are now. Specifically, I look forward to working with the Government on establishing the borderlands growth deal, which will not only secure economic prosperity but deepen ties between communities in southern Scotland and northern England. Our communities may be divided by a border line marked on the map, but we share many of the same challenges, and the borderlands growth deal will give us the opportunity to tackle them together.
Speaking in this great Chamber today, I am struck by the importance of effective parliamentary democracy. Most of all, though, I am reminded of the significant contributions that my predecessors have made to this place. I know that my immediate predecessor, Calum Kerr, worked hard to ensure that the voice of Borderers was heard. We had differing views on big political issues of the day, but he is proud of his border roots and his contributions here were evidence of that. I wish him and his family well for the future. Before him, Michael Moore represented the constituency for 18 years. Such long service and loyalty to the borders will not be forgotten any time soon. His time as Secretary of State for Scotland at such a crucial time in our Union’s history, and his successful private Member’s Bill on the international aid target, show that his influence was not confined to the borders. I pay tribute to him, too.
As I mentioned, the borders is steeped in history and tradition. The foremost examples of this are our common ridings and festivals, which are currently getting under way throughout the borders. All the towns have their own distinct form of celebration and commemoration. However, one things remains constant: all are a celebration of identity and pride, and all allow those who gather a chance to reflect on those who have gone before them. Although a celebration of individuality, the events that take place in each town tie the people of the borderlands together in a show of pride and commonality.
In Selkirk’s common riding, which took place last week, the focus, as at many of these events, is on the battle of Flodden in 1513, when 80 people from Selkirk—known as Souters—went to fight for King James IV against the English. The King was killed in battle, becoming the last monarch from these isles to die in battle, and only one Souter returned. That reminds us that for centuries, whether at war with each other or side by side in war, the nations of our great country have always been intertwined, and our deep, lasting ties are impossible to disentangle.
Our common ridings and festivals, which display such pride in one’s identity yet symbolise an overarching feeling of unity, are striking. Pair that with the rich history that all the nations of our Union share, and it is clear to me that we have much more in common than not—that we are, together, worth more than apart. Perhaps that is clearer now than it has ever been in recent times. Such values are what we all must fight for. I look forward to playing my part as the Member for Berwickshire, Roxburgh and Selkirk. Once again, Mr Deputy Speaker, I would like to convey my sincere gratitude to you for allowing me to speak today, and to my constituents for electing me to this place. I hope to do my best in this Parliament for the borders, for Scotland, and for all of our United Kingdom.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Berwickshire, Roxburgh and Selkirk (John Lamont) on his maiden speech. As an Ulster Scot who has a very strong relationship with those on the mainland, it is always good to have a Scottish cousin in the House. I invite him to come to Strangford—then we will see whether he still thinks he has the most beautiful constituency in the whole United Kingdom. It is a pleasure to have him in the House, and we wish him well in all that he does.
It is no surprise that the Queen’s Speech mainly included issues relating to Brexit. This is the most crucial time in recent British history for good legislation, and it is clear that there must be a focus on getting the best approach to our exit from Europe. This debate is on housing and social security, and when we talk about housing, we should also focus on where that housing is. Where we have housing we need good healthcare, so we need to ensure that there is investment in GP practices nationwide—the hon. Member for Stafford (Jeremy Lefroy), who is not currently in the Chamber, referred to the lack of investment in his area. We need to encourage young students to commit to service as a GP. We need to strengthen the ties between GPs and their local surgeries, and we can give GPs the support they need in the form of initiatives such as treating minor ailments in chemists, thereby using the available professionalism and capability to the fullest.
Returning Members will know about one of my passions in this House, and new Members will hopefully know shortly: I am well known for being the Democratic Unionist party spokesperson for human rights and for my concern about persecution throughout the world. Sadly, this has been exemplified on our shores recently with terrorist attacks against freedom and democracy—attacks on the very core of our communities. The world is changing. As chair of the all-party group on international freedom of religion or belief, I believe that understanding the religious dynamics playing out in different communities must be of the utmost importance when Her Majesty’s Government form any internationally focused policy. I appreciate that the Government are committed to that.
Some 80% of people worldwide live in countries where social hostility and restrictions on religion are high or very high. Freedom of religion or belief is a human right that is often overlooked. In 2016, nearly 90,000 Christians were killed simply because of their religious beliefs. In more than 100 countries around the world, more than 215 million Christians continue to face intimidation, imprisonment, forced conversion or assault.
Does the hon. Gentleman, like me, support Open Doors, an organisation that publicises some of the shocking discrimination and prosecutions against Christians around the world, and that urges Her Majesty’s Government to step up and make it absolutely clear that this is unacceptable, as it would be against any religion?
I agree with the hon. Gentleman that Open Doors does excellent work, and I am aware of it day to day. There are many organisations in the House, but Open Doors also takes the opportunity to stand up for and talk to people around the world.
So-called Islamic State has nearly succeeded in its attempt to eradicate the Christian communities of Iraq and Syria; the Christian population has plummeted from 1 million to 200,000 in Iraq, and from 1.25 million to 500,000 in Syria. Many Christians remain displaced and face discrimination that prevents them from gaining equal access to food, shelter, education and work. In May, 122 Christians in Eritrea were rounded up from their homes and detained, including disabled people and entire families. That escalation in the crackdown on Christians coincides with the Orthodox archbishop’s 10th year under incommunicado house arrest.
In April we saw the Russian Supreme Court’s decision to declare the Christian sect Jehovah’s Witnesses an extremist organisation, banning their headquarters and all 395 local organisations from operating and ordering their property to be seized by the state. That shows a clear escalation.
In Pakistan, only last week a Shi’ite man, Taimoor Raza, was charged with blasphemy and handed the death sentence, contrary to international law. That underlines the issues there. In Myanmar, since 2012 over 168,000 Rohingya Muslims have fled the country because of attacks by the military, including the burning of homes and the raping of women. Those are vile, evil, wicked deeds, and in some cases they are carried out by its Government.
Advancing freedom of religion or belief between faith communities helps to build tolerant and cohesive communities. I believe that it is a crucial component of Government policy, not only in preventing further violent attacks on people because of their faith, but in preventing violent extremism and achieving the sustainable development goals. There is a role to play for the Department for International Development, the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and, I believe, the Ministry of Defence. I am pleased to see the Minister for Disabled People, Health and Work on the Government Front Bench. This is not her responsibility, but I know that she will take my points on board.
The Government’s recent manifesto declared that they would
“expand our global efforts to combat…violence against people because of their faith”.
The Prime Minister has made a commitment to stand up for the freedom of people of all religions to practise their beliefs openly and in peace and safety. Perhaps the Minister responsible will clarify what those measures will be. For example, will they ensure that displaced communities in Iraq and Syria can return home safely? I offer the Government the APPG’s assistance in taking those measures forward.
As part of its membership of the EU, the UK has routinely asserted its commitment to promoting the right to freedom of religion or belief as part of its global human rights diplomacy. The UK regularly reports on its implementation of the EU guidelines for freedom of religion or belief and has made further commitments within the EU human rights framework. I ask the Minister responsible whether Her Majesty’s Government will retain the commitment to monitor and report their implementation of freedom of religion or belief through their representatives globally. I urge the Government to deepen their work with multilateral organisations such as the Commonwealth and the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe.
I believe that the Government are committed to that in some of their policies, but I am seeking an assurance because it was not mentioned specifically in the Queen’s Speech, and I think it is important that we put down a marker now. There are many things that we would wish to see happen. This matter is very close to my heart, as it is to the hearts of many people across the whole United Kingdom. The fact that people are intimidated because of their religious beliefs, having to live in endangered neighbourhoods, or even killed, indicates how important this issue is.
I want to mention a few other things that also concern me. There are many aspects of Brexit that we wish to support and take forward. I commend the financial guidance and claims Bill. Age UK recently contributed to the Government’s consultation on the future of the Money Advice Service, the Pensions Advisory Service and Pension Wise. I support the proposal to create one agency, which I think would be a step in the right direction, as the Government have recognised. I also welcome the smart meters Bill, which I believe will help older people to manage their energy costs. We should support that initiative. There are many other issues that we also need to work on.
The votes are in and the Government are in place. The agreement between the DUP and the Government is not done just yet, so let us see how that goes, but we look forward to carrying out the business of this House for all our constituents in the years to come.
It is a genuine pleasure to follow my hon. Friend the Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon). I also congratulate my new colleague, my hon. Friend the Member for Berwickshire, Roxburgh and Selkirk (John Lamont), on his excellent maiden speech. Well done; brilliant!
Violence driven by hatred and intolerance have blighted our country in recent weeks, and the ghastly fire at Grenfell Tower has only heightened a growing sense of unease. I have to say that this feeling has been exploited shamelessly by some for political gain, and I find that totally inappropriate. I would like to place on the record the fact that I have the highest admiration for the Prime Minister, who was knocked first one way and then the other by events over which she had no control. Her apology to the House yesterday and today for the failure of both local and national Government to respond appropriately to the fire was delivered with great humility and should be welcomed.
Naturally, Brexit dominated much of the Queen’s Speech, and rightly so. We have a challenge ahead of us over the next two years, and one that we will rise to. I am a little tired of the siren voices, both in this place and in the media, for the decision to leave the EU has been made, and now it is time to get right behind UK plc. Of course jobs and our future prosperity must be key factors in future negotiations, but which idiot of a bureaucrat or politician would purposefully punish the UK by placing obstacles in the way of the free trade on which both we and the EU rely so heavily? I am confident that common sense and pragmatism will prevail against those wishing to prop up a failing political project. Let us face it: scores of countries already have access to EU markets, so why can’t we?
The future is exciting and prosperity beckons as we reach out to countries around the world for new trade deals. I was saddened that we did not hear more from the Secretary of State for International Trade and President of the Board of Trade during the election. He has much to sing about and all of it encouraging.
To ensure that our overseas exploits are a success, we really must secure our finances back home. The elephant in the room is our massive debt of about £1.9 trillion. The interest alone to service this elephant is circa £47 billion—just imagine what we could do with that money.
I also wish that we had a simplified tax system, as it gets more complicated with every Budget. The easier the taxes are to collect and the lower they are, the more money the Government will find. I welcome the Government’s commitment to spend at least 2% of our national income on defence—the NATO minimum—but, as I have argued in this place for the past seven years, that is not enough. It was over 5% in my time, and even then retaking the Falklands was touch and go. We often hear people say that the UK tries to punch above her weight. Yes, we do. As a beacon of freedom, hope and democracy, we have frequently been called on to do our duty around the world, which does not come cheap. I call on the Government to spend more on defence, especially as we face uncertain times and do not want to be caught napping again.
Internal security also concerns me. As a former soldier who served in Northern Ireland on three operational tours, I know how important it is to have a uniformed presence on the streets. It not only reassures residents, but dominates the ground on which the terrorist wants to operate. Similarly, more police on the streets would do the same. I appreciate that the nature of crime has changed. Online crime, for example, consumes much police time and officers, but community policing is just as important and, frankly, it is where much of the intelligence should and must come from to tackle crime.
On education, I must repeat my call for fairer funding for schools, especially in a rural constituency such as mine in South Dorset. I accept that there are now more good and outstanding schools, and that is to be recognised —people must be congratulated on that—but the current funding formula is really not fair. We do not want all the cake in South Dorset, just a fairer share of it.
The vexed question of climate change is my next observation. Although no one would argue with the need to break away from our reliance on fossil fuels, there has to be an affordable and workable alternative that keeps our economy turning and the lights on. Yes, renewables must play a part, but phasing out our coal and gas-fired power stations could be a “monstrous act of self-harm”, according to Nick Timothy, the former aide to the Prime Minister. Interestingly, the Office for Budget Responsibility says that soaring green subsidies and levies are due to virtually double during this Parliament to £14.7 billion a year. Those are paid through our energy bills. We really need a credible approach to our future energy needs, and setting unrealistic and potentially damaging targets is not a sensible way forward.
On overseas aid, I am afraid that I do not agree with the arbitrary 0.7% target. Yes, we should help those who need help, but we need help in this country, too. Charity starts at home. I want the money that we send—taxpayers’ money—better targeted, and the money that we do not send spent on very good causes in this country.
I wish to associate myself with the earlier comments from the Front Benchers on the Grenfell Tower tragedy. I also wish to congratulate the right hon. Member for South West Hertfordshire (Mr Gauke) on his appointment as Secretary of State for Work and Pensions. I am glad to be back, and, as I have been appointed the Liberal Democrat spokesman on work and pensions, I shall be having numerous conversations with him. Today, there are four particular aspects of social services on which I want to focus. There is an awful lot to cover, but I shall restrict myself to four: universal credit, WRAG, WASPI and PIP.
When I was thinking of those four this morning in preparation for my speech—I was involved with all of them during the coalition, to a greater or lesser extent, often trying to improve or change things—I saw that they were shocking combinations of poor quality. Universal credit has poor-quality policy. I remember years ago, under the coalition Government, when it was first mooted, that I supported the concept of bringing all benefits together to one point of contact. That would be more sensible for the recipient. The key, though, was the taper. I was very disappointed that the former Chancellor of the Exchequer, who now edits the Evening Standard, insisted on an absolutely ludicrous taper that means that people on universal credit are barely better off in a low-paid job than they are on benefit, which defeats the whole purpose of universal credit. I look forward to the new Secretary of State using his charm with his close colleague, the current Chancellor, to get a more intelligent taper. Without that, universal credit is doomed to fail, and we all know in this Chamber the problems people already face with its delivery. The taper was bad policy.
WRAG is an acronym for work-related activity group, and is meant for disabled people who have had a disability or have had a disability for quite some time and believe that they can—and the DWP believes that they can—get back into jobs, with the correct levels of support. That is something that I am passionate about, and that I was passionate about when I was last in this House. From April this year, the Government took a decision to reduce the income of those in the WRAG by almost 30%. Anyone with any experience of disability at all will know that if someone has been disabled for quite some time, they can get out of the habit of getting into work. It takes a bit of support to get them back into employment, so they go into the WRAG. To then cut their income by 30%—folks, we know what will happen. People will do their darnedest to stay in the support group, which means that they do not get back into jobs. I think that that was a stupid decision by the Government.
Thirdly, on the Women Against State Pension Inequality Campaign, this decision was profoundly unfair. My partner, if she will forgive me for giving her broad age to the Chamber, is one of those affected. Many women between 55 and 58 across the United Kingdom are affected and it is profoundly unfair. We hear that under the new consensual approach to government the Conservatives are ready to loosen the austerity strings, to listen more to people and to be fairer, and I would urge them to have the WASPI women at the top of the list for reconsideration.
Last but not least is PIP, or the personal independence payment. Again, I am very frustrated because I worked hard with Lord Freud in the other place to try to get PIP to work. The concept is about individual personal income, allowing people with disabilities to control the money they have and use it in the right way. The concept is good, but then guess what happens? I go and lose the election in 2015—I am sure that I am far too insignificant to have made any difference at all, but PIP has not improved things. We are still getting a high rate of people failing the work capability assessment and going to tribunal; more than 80% of them are winning, which means that PIP is not working and the delivery of PIP is not working.
Over the coming years—however long this Parliament lasts—I am looking forward to working with the Government in a spirit of compromise to improve these areas of the DWP and its remit so that it delivers what it is supposed to deliver: fairness, equity and ease of access. The latter is terribly important when someone has been on benefits for a long time, as there must be a smooth transition of funds.
On the pension side, I am delighted that the Conservative manifesto pledge to get rid of the triple lock was dropped in the Queen’s Speech. I remind the House that it was the Liberal Democrats in coalition who brought in the triple lock pension, so I am glad that despite those halcyon days the Conservatives are finally listening to the Lib Dems and have retained the triple lock.
Most importantly of all, it is good to be back. I pay tribute to my predecessor, who I know fought valiantly for Eastbourne. For me, it is a pleasure.
It is a great pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Eastbourne (Stephen Lloyd), and I warmly congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Berwickshire, Roxburgh and Selkirk (John Lamont) on his very fine maiden speech.
When Her Majesty Queen Victoria granted permission to her military command in 1854 to establish a permanent training camp for the British Army at the village of Aldershot, the foundation was laid not just for a successful garrison, but for a remarkable tradition of service to this country. Since that time, my constituency of Aldershot has been the home of the British Army and, since its foundation more than 160 years ago, thousands of servicemen and women have passed through the garrison while doing their loyal duty to the Crown. Today the garrison is still home to thousands of soldiers and their families: the 1st Battalion Grenadier Guards, the Queen’s Own Gurkha Logistic Regiment, 4 Rifles and my own regiment, the 1st Battalion Scots Guards. These regiments, as part of 12th Armoured Infantry Brigade, form one of the country’s most deployable and experienced combat units, with distinguished service in Iraq and Afghanistan.
For many years, Aldershot was home to the Parachute Regiment and British airborne forces. It was from Aldershot in 1982 that the airborne battalions of 2 and 3 Para joined the British taskforce sailing to the south Atlantic to liberate the Falkland Islands from the Argentine invasion. Last Sunday, to mark the 35th anniversary of their victory, our town was honoured to welcome back the surviving veterans of 2 and 3 Para, and the families of the fallen. They were joined by a new generation of serving soldiers and many local people from across our community in a demonstration of the high regard that Aldershot has for the armed forces community and the strong civic bond that exists between the military, the town and the wider borough of Rushmoor. Indeed, the borough has taken creative measures to support our veterans—for example, enabling a £10 million investment from Stoll to provide social housing for vulnerable veterans and help to reduce the alarmingly high levels of homelessness among that group of people.
Another group whose history is intertwined with that of Aldershot and the surrounding area is that of former Gurkha soldiers and their families. Their historic loyalty to our monarch and their immaculate record of courageous service is second to none, and they play a much valued and respected role in our community today. The Nepalese community is particularly active when it comes to charitable fundraising, and many other groups across the borough do exactly the same thing. Our football club, Aldershot Town, is more than just a club. It is a community hub that raises tens of thousands of pounds every year for good causes—as too, do the Rotarians, who are justifiably proud of the annual Rotary club donkey derby in Farnborough, which I recommend to all hon. Members.
Although my constituency is the home of the British Army, it is also the birthplace of British aviation. When Samuel Cody made the first British flight on the heath at Farnborough in 1908, it was the start of a remarkable story of courageous and determined innovation that has now blossomed into a huge global industry. Today, companies such as BAE Systems, TAG Farnborough, QinetiQ and a plethora of highly innovative defence aviation and hi-tech companies in Farnborough and the Blackwater valley employ thousands and earn millions for our Exchequer.
I did not start my life with a particular interest in politics. I started my career as a soldier and I am humbled to come to this place as a parliamentarian. I know that in my predecessor, Sir Gerald Howarth, I have very large shoes to fill. Sir Gerald is a man of absolute integrity who has dedicated his life to public service, and I have been hugely fortunate to benefit from his kindness and his wise counsel.
The strength of the military presence in my constituency is mirrored by the strength of civic society across Rushmoor borough, and I am proud of that. I am proud that we have a great history and a great future. We are diverse and dynamic. I am proud that we now have the youngest ever mayor of the borough, Councillor Sophia Choudhary, who also happens to be a young Muslim woman of Kashmiri heritage. I hope to serve my constituents with the same sense of public service, energy and compassion that they themselves display every day of the week across Aldershot, Farnborough, Blackwater and Hawley.
Anyone familiar with my constituency will know that one figure who literally towers over us is the Duke of Wellington. The Iron Duke sits on horseback in massive bronze relief on top of Round Hill. The Iron Duke, never one to be over-patient with politicians, would, I think, have agreed with this nation’s other greatest soldier-turned-statesman, Sir Winston Churchill, who, as a young cavalry officer, lived in Aldershot cavalry barracks before deploying to India. Churchill famously said:
“Courage is what it takes to stand up and speak; courage is also what it takes to sit down and listen.”
On that note, Mr Speaker, I will resume my place.
I warmly congratulate the hon. Member for Aldershot (Leo Docherty) on a fine maiden speech, and congratulate others who have made maiden speeches today.
I hope I may be forgiven for particularly singling out my hon. Friend the new Member for Kensington (Emma Dent Coad), who not only made a fine and moving speech but has had to rise to the kind of challenge that I am not sure anybody has ever had to rise to so soon after being elected to Parliament. Kensington needs her, and she has certainly risen to that challenge in these days. I hope we will all do what we can to support her in the times ahead. I speak with particular feeling because some of the wards in the northern part of her constituency were in my constituency under previous boundaries, as was Grenfell Tower. What she said was therefore particularly powerful and moving for me.
I echo what my hon. Friend and others have said about the extraordinary community response at a time of serious failure in the institutions of the state in the aftermath of the tragedy, including from many constituents in north Westminster, a sister community who have been working tirelessly over the past week to help the victims and survivors of the disaster.
Along with very many other Members of Parliament, my hon. Friend and I have residents living in other tower blocks, many of whom are deeply concerned. I hope that few will have anything like the equivalent level of reason to be concerned, although they will still need reassurance. However, some may need more support and assistance than reassurance. It is absolutely incumbent on us to rise to that challenge.
Is not the one single bit of reassurance that everyone needs the knowledge that if local authorities are going to carry out inspections and take remedial action, there will be funding from the Government to deliver it?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. I and others pushed for that during the statement and at other opportunities. The local authorities, the arm’s length management organisations and other providers must have a guarantee. They must have the bills underwritten both for the inspection process and for any remedial works. I think we have nudged closer to that commitment this afternoon, but we still do not have it unequivocally. This is important because local authorities have had their budgets cut very severely, Kensington by 38% in the past five years and my own borough of Westminster by 46%. Local authorities, including the environmental health teams who are so important in this context, have had their budgets cut, and social housing providers have had a rent cut imposed on them, with an impact on housing revenue accounts and on management and maintenance in social housing. That has to be recognised. It was a policy imposed by the Government and it has implications that they need to respond to. That action has to be forthcoming.
The Government will need to demonstrate to us how quickly they can respond to the findings of the inquiry, which cannot be prejudged, of course, but actions need to be taken even before that. We have spoken about social housing in this context, but we need to remember that many residents in towers and high-rise blocks, even those built by local authorities, are not actually local authority tenants. In many cases, about a third are either leaseholders, or are legally subletting their properties to private tenants. Those people are all in different situations and subject to different regulatory arrangements, and there are real concerns that the fire safety and other standards applying in social housing do not automatically apply to private owners and leaseholders in social housing blocks. That must be urgently addressed by the Government.
In my view, we need to bring into force section 38 of the Building Act 1984, which would allow victims of breaches of building regulations to sue for damages. The Government could move on that. We need to introduce a statutory consultation process applying to tenants when there are major works in buildings. Such a process currently applies to leaseholders, but not to tenants. We need to amend the Regulatory Reform (Fire Safety) Order 2005 to allow landlords to go into tenanted properties and ensure that fire safety standards are comparable. We also need to impose new obligations on leases to enable landlords to require access for the purpose of making fire safety improvements, and so forth. There are regulatory changes on which the Government could act immediately and urgently—and they must do so—without in any way prejudging the findings of the inquiry and the separate actions that they will need to take afterwards.
I ask the Government to revisit a revised version of the Homes (Fitness for Human Habitation) Bill—I introduced the proposals as a private Member’s Bill, and the Opposition put them forward as amendments to the Housing and Planning Act 2016—because, particularly in an age of cash-starved local authorities, we need to enable tenants to enforce standards in law when there is substandard accommodation, as they can currently do with respect to properties in disrepair. This is not about having a new regulatory burden; it is about tenants being able to enforce such standards.
In my last remaining minute I want to raise one other matter. The absolute first priority today must be to house the survivors of the Grenfell Tower tragedy adequately—we must provide them with decent local accommodation—but that must not be at the expense of the needs of other people who are homeless and in desperate housing need, whether in Kensington, Westminster or other parts of London. At the moment, we are in the dire situation that homelessness is rising fast: it has risen by 17% since 2010, and just yesterday we saw figures showing that the number of households in temporary accommodation has risen by a staggering 61% since 2010. As has happened in Kensington and Westminster, many of those families have been moved away from their homes, their children’s schools and their support networks. Social housing is not part of the problem; social housing for these and other people is part of the solution, provided it is properly funded, decent and affordable.
I want to place on the record my apologies for disappearing from the debate last night: I had a meeting with the Brexit Secretary, and that was unavoidable. I echo the comments made by Government and Opposition Front Benchers yesterday in offering their sympathies and condolences to all those who have died, been injured or been terribly affected by the horrendous recent events in Manchester and London.
It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Westminster North (Ms Buck). She quite rightly said that the hon. Member for Kensington (Emma Dent Coad) has had the most extraordinary introduction to her career as an MP. She has conducted herself extremely well, and I commend her for her maiden speech. I also commend my hon. Friends the Members for Berwickshire, Roxburgh and Selkirk (John Lamont) and for Aldershot (Leo Docherty) for theirs. All three have made a very fine start to their parliamentary careers, and I am sure that we will hear much more from them in the future.
Mr Speaker, you and I were elected 20 years ago. I am proud to return to the House as the Member for North Shropshire, with a record number of votes and a record percentage of the vote. I put that down partly to my very clear line that I want decisions about our laws and our money to be taken in this place by directly elected politicians. I am very proud to follow my predecessor—the, sadly, late John Biffen—who voted against the European Communities Act 1972, and it is tremendous to be present for a debate on a Gracious Speech that states, among its first lines, that we will repeal the European Communities Act. We will be delivering what 17.4 million people voted for, which happily was announced on my birthday at about this time last year.
Members on both sides of the House had better realise that for the first time, a massive vote in a referendum has gone against the wishes of the establishment. That is a constitutional novelty and all of us in this House had better wake up to the catastrophic damage that will be incurred to the integrity of the whole political establishment if we do not deliver.
I am delighted to say that in the election, 85% of the electorate voted for the Conservative party and the Labour party, both of which said in their platforms that we will honour the vote, we will leave the European Union, we will leave the single market and we will leave the customs union. The Liberals, bravely and quixotically, said that they would not and did extremely badly. They got only 2.4 million votes. I believe that we have a very clear mandate in this Parliament to deliver. The Gracious Speech makes it clear that that is what we will do.
About three years ago, I made a speech saying that we should nationalise the acquis. That was my expression for adopting the whole corpus of European law and filleting it at a later date. The idea goes right back to the reception statute of Virginia of 1776, the reception provision of the Delaware constitution of 1776, the moves to make Australia and New Zealand independent, the Irish Free State Constitution Act 1922 and the Indian Independence Act 1947, all of which adopted existing UK law but said that from the stroke of midnight, any further provisions made in this Parliament would not apply.
That is effectively what we will say. We are going to take back control of our laws for the elected Members of this House. We are going to take back control of our money. There is much debate among Members from every part of the House. Every one of us knows how we would like to spend public money in our constituency. Happily, we will have £10 billion, which is our net contribution, to play with. We can decide in this House what to do with it. If we make bad decisions, we will get kicked out and people who might make better decisions about money will replace us.
Leaving the single market will deliver on the political imperative and the economic imperative. Opposition Members rightly say that we should have a Brexit for jobs. They go on about the single market, but do they realise that in 1999, 61% of our trade went to the EU, today it is 45% and in a few years’ time it will be 35%? The growth is in trade with the rest of the world. That is where our future lies. That is why I am delighted that we will leave the customs union. The Secretary of State for International Trade is in the States at the moment.
The EU is pathetic at striking trade deals around the world. I was involved in the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership negotiations with Secretary Vilsack in the States. The whole £100 billion deal was stuck on the Greek definition of feta. The EU moves as slowly as the lamest donkey in the caravan. We can now do trade deals with countries that are hungry to trade with us. That is the future. Do not forget that that will help many in the developing world. It is a disgrace that because of the common external tariff, Germany earns $3.8 billion from coffee and the whole of Africa, where they grow the stuff, earns only $2.4 billion because of the tariffs on worked coffee. Ending that would bring huge benefits, probably bigger than many aid budgets.
Looking quickly to the clock, Northern Ireland brings all this together, with the need for seamless borders and trade that is as free as possible. Critically, we have the ability to bring that about with modern technology. Today, 10,000 trucks will go from Canada to Detroit and they will not stop. With automatic number plate recognition and electronic invoicing, problems at the border are surmountable.
I will speak rapidly about the right of abode. I am delighted that the Prime Minister will make a commitment today on the 3 million EU citizens and the 1 million UK citizens.
Lastly, it is tremendous to see in the Queen’s Speech that we will have a UK agriculture policy and a UK fisheries policy right out to 200 miles, decided by elected politicians in this House. I support the Gracious Speech.
I do hope that, with the passage of time, the right hon. Member for North Shropshire will learn to overcome his natural shyness and to tell us what he really thinks.
Thank you for allowing me the opportunity to make my maiden speech today, Mr Speaker. I start by paying tribute to my predecessor, David Burrowes. He dedicated more than 23 years to public service, first as a councillor and then as an MP, showing his commitment and affection for the area. I wish him well in the future.
I also pay tribute to our emergency services, across London and the UK. The recent terror attacks have been abhorrent and terrifying, but our emergency services have responded each and every time with the utmost courage and professionalism. For this they deserve both our praise and gratitude, as they do for their response to the awful tragedy at Grenfell Tower in Kensington. All London grieves deeply for the family and friends of those who sadly lost their lives. I join in thanking and praising the brave people from our emergency services in London who once again ran towards danger.
I am of Cypriot heritage. My parents came here from Cyprus, and English was not my first language, but we made a home in London, and we were welcomed with tolerance and warmth. That is what allowed me to be here today in Parliament to give my maiden speech as the proud new MP for Enfield, Southgate. That is the same welcome that the people of Enfield, Southgate extend to everybody from other nations who lives, works and studies locally. I am proud of our diverse, tolerant and inclusive community, which brings out the best in people. It is precious to us all in Enfield, Southgate in these difficult times, or in any times. We will not allow the preachers of hate to drive a wedge between our community.
Along with the majority of my constituents, I voted to remain in the European Union. I believe, as they do, that we are better off working together, and I believe that people from countries across the European Union should be allowed to live, work and study in London. I wish the result had been different, but we must now face the reality, and I will do all I can to campaign for the best deal we can get.
We are very proud of our local history and institutions in Enfield, Southgate. We are lucky to have the Chickenshed theatre, set up by Jo Collins and Mary Ward, with the assistance of John Bull, which has been running for more than 40 years. What a success story. It leads the field in breaking down barriers, promoting diversity and tackling discrimination. Chickenshed has given many young people hope, a fantastic experience and the confidence that they can succeed irrespective of background, ethnicity, or disability.
Many people know the Piccadilly line in London, with its iconic art deco stations at Arnos Grove, Southgate, Oakwood and Cockfosters in my constituency. Designed by the renowned architect Charles Holden, they were built in the early 1930s, and these transport links, along with the Great Northern rail line joining Bowes Park, Palmers Green, Winchmore Hill and Grange Park, led to the subsequent housing boom that made Enfield, Southgate the place it is today—the place I am beyond proud to represent, here in the mother of all Parliaments.
Those transport links were one reason why many people flocked to Enfield in the 1930s; later, in 1971, when I was just three years old, my parents made Southgate their home. At school in Enfield, encouraged by some incredibly dedicated and knowledgeable teachers, I developed a love for reading that has stayed with me. Enfield, Southgate has been fortunate in having a connection to a string of literary figures, including Sir John Betjeman, Thomas Hood, Leigh Hunt, Jerome K. Jerome and, of course, Stevie Smith. However, contrary to what I told my teachers, I do not admit to having read them all.
Education is the cornerstone of success in life. It plays a key part in breaking down inequalities and promoting tolerance and understanding, but unless we invest in our schools and our children, those aims will be lost. We have some fine schools in Enfield, Southgate, including both St Michael at Bowes Church of England Junior School and Eversley Primary School, for both of which I am a governor, and Hazelwood Primary School. However, the majority of our schools face Government funding cuts that will harm the prospects of many young people in my constituency. All children get only one chance to have a decent education. I was lucky enough to get that opportunity and I seized it. I want the same chances for our young people, which is why I will challenge the cuts to education funding and champion a properly funded education system.
Enfield, Southgate also has a place in suffragette history. When Hazelwood Primary School opened in 1908, its first headmistress was Laura Goulden, the sister-in-law of Emmeline Pankhurst, founder of the Women’s Social and Political Union. It is no coincidence, then, that between 1910 and 1913 there was a well-established and active local suffragette movement that gathered at the famous Palmers Green triangle. I am proud that the people of Enfield, Southgate played their part in supporting votes for women—but votes are not enough. We still have huge inequality, women still earn less than men, and in Enfield, Southgate, just as elsewhere, women have borne the brunt of the Government’s austerity agenda. I will do my utmost to push for fair and equal pay and a decent living wage for everyone.
Inequality is also increasingly prevalent in our health services. It was a body blow for our area when Chase Farm hospital’s accident and emergency unit closed. Since then,mounting pressure on North Middlesex hospital’s A&E unit is pushing it to breaking point. This cannot go on. The people of Enfield, Southgate deserve better. I will not sit back and allow our precious NHS to be destroyed. It needs a massive tonic, and it needs it now.
I am here because my constituents have put their faith in me. They know I am one of them. I grew up among them, I live among them and I will not let them down.
It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Enfield, Southgate (Bambos Charalambous) who made a brilliant maiden speech. I am grateful for having been here for most of the maiden speeches today. I wondered whether I qualified to make one, but apparently not. I see Mr Speaker shaking his head—this is therefore not a maiden speech. [Interruption.] Absolutely right—you can’t be a maiden twice.
Before I say a few words about housing, today’s main topic, I want to join hon. Members in sending my condolences to the families who have been torn apart in the disaster that affected London only a couple of weeks ago.
Housing shortage is undoubtedly acute. The word “crisis” is often overused in politics, but it is a crisis, particularly in London, where the demand is highest. We have reached a point where someone could be earning double the average London salary and still have no prospect of owning a home. The average home here costs around £500,000, which is 12 times the average income in this city. Young people in particular have been locked out. The fact that they have to pay exorbitant rents means that they are even less likely to realise their dream. Without urgent action now, the problem will get even worse—the population of London is likely to hit 10 million in around 15 years.
I was therefore pleased by the emphasis in the manifesto on tackling the problem: the commitment to deliver a million homes by 2021 and to double the housing budget to £20 billion. However, we need to get on and do it, and there are some clear priorities. We need to deal with the fact that there are so many empty homes. It is true that, as we heard from the Prime Minister earlier, the number is at its lowest for many years, but it is still too high. The Empty Homes Agency puts the figure in London alone at 60,000, and it may be higher.
We need to get more competition into the sector, which has become effectively an oligopoly—a tiny number of giant developers accounting for the vast bulk of the development and demanding huge returns based on often spurious viability tests. We need to accelerate the release of publicly owned land. Developers always press Governments to relax protections of our green spaces, but we do not need to do that, and we should not. In London, where the need is greatest, we have huge tracts of publicly owned brownfield land that could be developed. Transport for London alone has the equivalent of 16 Hyde Parks. As we build on publicly owned land—land that we own—we can and must ensure that the new homes are not simply sold off to overseas investors and left empty. We have to solve the problem that we face in this country.
There is something else that we need to do—something that has taken on a grim new relevance. Across the capital, we have tower blocks that were rushed and poorly designed, many of which are coming to the end of their lives. There is a growing realisation that we now have an obligation to rethink our approach. I want to focus briefly on one aspect of that.
We know that a low-rise, high-density, street-based design provides more homes because it makes better use of the available space. The estate agent Savills did a detailed report a couple of years ago. It estimates that rebuilding just one fifth of London’s run-down estates could produce up to 350,000 more homes. Every survey shows that residents more often than not prefer that approach. With so many tower blocks needing serious investment, surely now is the time to look at a different way of doing things. We can avoid the mistakes of the past and build in a way that breaks down barriers, strengthens communities and provides homes that people want to live in.
One reason for the sensitivity of the issue is that the approach has been so ham-fisted in the past. Areas have been improved, but existing residents have effectively been pushed out to make way for newcomers. That is the consequence of bad policy and bad decisions. In my own constituency, we are at the very early stages of a major regeneration scheme to remove 1960s blocks and replace them with low-rise, street-based, beautiful homes—and there will be more of them, even if the design makes it appear that there are fewer. That process is underpinned by a cast-iron residents’ guarantee: no one living there today will be unable to live there tomorrow, no one living there today will have to pay more tomorrow, and no one will have to move twice, which is particularly important to elderly residents and young families with children at local schools. The provision of that guarantee made it possible, immediately, for residents to engage in the process and take ownership of it, without needless anxiety. I think it is a process that could be replicated and emulated through the capital, and beyond.
Planning is nearly always a deeply divisive issue. If we are to have any hope at all of securing people’s consent to the delivery of the sheer quantity of homes that we know we must deliver, the planning system itself must become more sensitive, more open and more consensual. It needs to work with, rather than against, people and communities, who need to feel that they own the process. People know that we need more homes; if not for them, for their children. If they feel they are in the driving seat, they will be much more open to the challenges—and that, I think, needs to be absolutely at the heart of this great enterprise.
It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Richmond Park (Zac Goldsmith). I congratulate him on his non-maiden speech, and I congratulate all Members who made their maiden speeches during this debate.
It is a great privilege to have been re-elected as the Member of Parliament for Torfaen, and to have the opportunity once again to speak for the eastern valley of the south Wales coalfield in the House of Commons in the days and months ahead. Torfaen, like every other part of the country, will face great challenges, and I fear that those challenges will not be met by the weak minority Government that we see before us on the Conservative Benches.
I have been a historian in the past, and I tried to find some parallels in history to give me some optimism at this time. What I found was an account of the general election of 6 December 1923, which was called by the then Conservative Prime Minister, Stanley Baldwin, at a time when he did not need to call an election at all. He lost his majority and his authority, and ended up making a statement in the House announcing that the Government would resign, only 42 days after the date of that election. Perhaps we can look forward to the present Government’s staggering to their inevitable end a bit sooner than they may think.
On a more serious note, I must say that, along with my constituents—many of whom have contacted me in recent days—I send all our condolences and solidarity to those who have been affected by the terrible events of recent weeks and months: the terrorist atrocities in Manchester, at London Bridge and in Finsbury Park, and, of course, the terrible Grenfell Tower fire. I should also put on record my admiration for the great work done by the emergency services in all those instances.
Let me now turn to one of the specific topics of today’s debate, social security. I shall begin by talking about the issue of personal independence payments, because it has been raised in my surgery so frequently over the past two years. I am glad that the Minister for Disabled People, Health and Work is present, because the letter that she kindly sent me back in March illustrates very well why the system is not working. The mandatory reconsideration system is simply not effective. During my time as a constituency Member of Parliament, I have found that not enough decisions are overturned at that stage.
The Minister’s letter states:
“Of the Mandatory Reconsiderations cleared, 42,400”—
“led to a change in the claimant’s award”.
As for the appeals statistics, the letter states that in the period between April 2013 and September 2016,
“125,564 appeals were lodged; and 55,495…were overturned”.
In other words, there was a 44% success rate on appeal: nearly half the number who appeal have their awards overturned, so people are not getting what they were entitled to in the first place. They are being driven through this highly stressful process of having to go all the way to a tribunal to get what they should have received in the first place. I urge the Minister and the Secretary of State to get a grip on that. Whatever one’s views on the Government’s policy on social security, this shows that the system is not working as it should. They should redouble their efforts to ensure that it does work properly.
Because of the record levels of in-work poverty that have arisen in the past seven years, it is not the case anymore that we can say that a job is a route out of poverty. However, quality jobs are a route out of poverty. That is why jobs should be at the heart of our Brexit negotiations. In recent weeks, I have visited the ArvinMeritor factory that produces brakes in my constituency and seen what can be done by the workforce, management, owners and the Welsh Government working together to create a successful business. However, in Wales, we still need, at the heart of the UK Government, a proper industrial strategy that looks at specific sectors, that helps the steel sector, which would be of particular importance in south Wales, and that promotes manufacturing. Manufacturing is where we could have the quality jobs. If we want to improve productivity, the easiest way to do it is in the manufacturing sector. If we want to have export-led growth, manufacturing growth is going to be the most durable example of that. The Government should be focusing their efforts there.
Over the past two years, I have found that my constituency of Torfaen has enormous potential. The statistics provided to me by the Children’s Society show that, of the 17,353 children who live in my constituency, 29.5% live in poverty, when housing costs are put to one side. That is because of the policies that the Government have followed over the past seven years. To unlock the potential of my constituency and others, the reality is that this Government have to go.
I congratulate all new Members who made their maiden speeches in the House today. May I take the opportunity to pay tribute to David Burrowes, the predecessor of the hon. Member for Enfield, Southgate (Bambos Charalambous)? David made a remarkable contribution to the House. The hon. Gentleman has big boots to fill. I wish him well.
It is right that the Queen’s Speech, which I welcome, focuses on Brexit, on strengthening the economy and on investing in infrastructure, but I want to speak about other aspects that I welcome: those that emphasise promoting social justice, tackling modern day slavery further, taking action to protect victims of domestic violence, prioritising mental health, and tackling discrimination, including discrimination on the basis of faith. Time prevents me from speaking on more than two of those, and I would like to focus initially on mental health.
I am repeatedly told by experts that many mental health problems in young people stem from fractured and dysfunctional family relationships. Indeed, the Government’s own research by Professor Gordon Harold has clearly established that couple conflict and family instability gravely affect children and young people’s mental wellbeing. Those are major drivers of our current epidemic of poor mental health, which cannot be ignored any longer. The demand on mental health services for young people could be addressed—indeed, I believe reduced—if the Government grasped the issue and put in place policies to strengthen family life, the breakdown of which is sadly at epidemic proportions in this country.
A great number of colleagues are concerned about that. Shortly before the election, several of us made a detailed submission to our Government, with practical proposals as to how family breakdown could be addressed. We would appreciate a meeting with the responsible Minister to go through those proposals at an early date.
Building tolerant, open communities in which people have the freedom to practise their own religion or their own beliefs, combined with the promotion of greater understanding of other faiths, is an important issue. It can help to prevent extremism in our country as well as elsewhere. Improving religious literacy to counteract extremist ideology needs more attention in our country, including by the Government. I welcome the Prime Minister’s commitment to drive extremism and hatred out of our society.
With reference to the proposals in the Gracious Speech for a commission on countering extremism, may I sound a note of caution? First, Parliament must have an effective say on the scope and powers of the new commission and continue to review its efficiency. Secondly, we must be very careful about how we define extremism. That is something that the Government have yet to satisfactorily undertake. Again, Members of this House must be engaged in this much more than they have been to date. Violent extremism is abhorrent, but it is very different from the peaceful expression of thoughts, ideas and beliefs that might be unacceptable to some, or even to the majority in society.
As you have said, Mr Speaker, we in this House enjoy the precious privilege of free speech, and the constituents we serve should enjoy nothing less. We must be vigilant in protecting and defending that. To give one example, we should be expressing far deeper concern about no-platforming at universities. People in our country today should not be constrained, or feel constrained, from expressing non-violent views or views that could in no way be considered to incite violence, even if they are not currently mainstream views. Nor should people of faith feel inhibited or be prevented from engaging in public life, either in this place or elsewhere. The privatisation of religious belief must not be the price we pay in this country for tackling extremism. If that were to happen, the terrorists would have won. Religion contributes significantly to our nation’s common good and, in countering terrorism and extremism, it is critical that we also ensure that the basic human rights of freedom of belief, speech and association are not eroded for peaceful citizens. Put simply, religious rights are human rights, and this House must safeguard them vigilantly.
The Leader of the Opposition, my right hon. Friend the Member for Islington North (Jeremy Corbyn), rightly pointed out yesterday that this Queen’s Speech would be a thin, anaemic document had it been for one parliamentary year, but that as a two-year programme it is a positive embarrassment. Fortunately, however, we are unlikely to have to wait two years before the electorate is able to put it and this Government out of their misery. I suppose we should be grateful that the disastrous general election campaign means that much of the Conservatives’ toxic programme for government has now been shelved, but that does not mean that we can rest easy.
The general election result in my constituency and many others was in part a rejection of the extreme hard Brexit peddled by the Conservative party. Equally, however, it is a rejection of its determination to continue the destruction of our key public services. Hammersmith residents were being asked to vote for the demolition and downgrading of their main hospital, Charing Cross; for cuts of up to 25% in schools budgets; for further cuts of £400 million to the Metropolitan police; and for the refusal by central Government to invest in genuinely affordable homes. They decisively rejected that, preferring the message of hope offered by Labour, yet there is every indication that the automaton in No. 10 will plough on with hard Brexit and austerity.
Given the tragic events of last week, I will turn now to the consequences of the Grenfell Tower fire. This is not only a terrible disaster for all those involved and the west London community; it also has implications for the safety of hundreds of thousands of families living in high-rise buildings around the UK and draws attention to the neglect of social housing over many years. Yesterday, the Prime Minister apologised for letting down the people of North Kensington, but that apology appears already to have been forgotten, as she fails to give clear commitments on some of the key issues arising from the disaster.
The Government must lead on the programme of making tower blocks safe and giving reassurance to their occupants across the country. The issue is not just the type of cladding and its flammability, but how it is fitted, whether it has been compromised by later alterations and whether it is compatible with the existing structure. If the cause of this fire turns out—as in the case of the Shepherd’s Court fire in my constituency last August—to be a faulty electrical appliance, it will be a further indictment of the lack of any effective system of product registration and recall in the UK. Insufficient means of escape, the lack of sprinkler systems, poor maintenance, inadequate alarms, fire service cuts, and outdated building regulations—all are complex, difficult matters that need to be addressed.
My council wrote to everyone in a high-rise block in Hammersmith and Fulham the day after the Grenfell Tower fire assuring them that every one of those blocks had a fire-risk assessment, but we cannot rely on every housing provider to carry out a full inspection of its stock and to act on recommendations made, not least because they do not have the necessary funds after years of cuts. The Government must lead on those matters and enforcement.
This week, figures showed that the number of social homes being built in England has fallen by an incredible 97% since Labour left office. In one of London’s biggest housing schemes, at Battersea power station, the developer is seeking to cut the number of affordable homes from the agreed 636 to 386. That is not a coincidence. Tory Governments and councils have systematically undermined and devalued social housing over more than 30 years. I think of the example in my constituency of the West Kensington and Gibbs Green estates, where 750 affordable and social homes were sold off to a private developer as part of a scheme promoted by Tory councils in Hammersmith and Fulham, and Kensington and Chelsea. I will add that residents from those estates have been looking after five Grenfell Tower families who were unceremoniously dumped in a bed and breakfast hotel by Kensington and Chelsea without any means of support.
I put it to the Prime Minister this morning that the 68 so-called luxury homes that have been made available at Berkeley’s Kensington Row development were already allocated for social housing. They are not additional homes. It is of course right to give precedence to Grenfell Tower residents, but why should it be a zero-sum game in which affordable housing is not being provided? It is exactly that issue which has led to the loss of trust among Grenfell Tower residents.
The public inquiry must restore that trust, but the disaster relief, which was so appallingly handled by the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea, has added to the sense of gloom and suspicion across west London. I do not know why the Prime Minister could not answer this, but if it is right for the chief executive to go—the Prime Minister said it was—why is not also right for the council’s political leadership to go due to the disastrous way in which it has behaved?
I end by commending the work, effort and maiden speech of my hon. Friend the Member for Kensington (Emma Dent Coad). She and my hon. Friend the Member for Westminster North (Ms Buck), whose constituency used to cover North Kensington, have cared and looked after the population of that area, but that cannot be done without the necessary resources. The Prime Minister has to make good her pledge not only to the residents of Grenfell Tower, but to everyone in need of social housing. It must again be a main form of tenure in this country with proper Government support.
It was Harold MacMillan who said:
“Except for ‘going over the top’ in war, there is hardly any experience so alarming as giving one’s maiden speech.”
I pay tribute to my hon. Friends the Members for Aldershot (Leo Docherty) and for Berwickshire, Roxburgh and Selkirk (John Lamont) for giving such excellent examples today. MacMillan, like me, was a Teesside MP, sitting for Stockton South, which was so ably represented by James Wharton until this election. I pay tribute to James, who was a great champion for Teesside, a staunch ally of Brexit, and an excellent constituency Member of Parliament.
What the electoral gods take away with one hand, they give back with another, and I stand here today having won Middlesbrough South and East Cleveland after 20 years of Labour control, which provides an opportunity to pay tribute to my predecessor, Tom Blenkinsop. Tom arrived in Parliament following the tragic death of Ashok Kumar just a few weeks before the 2010 general election. Tom is a proud Teessider, and an even prouder member of the Labour party, but he was always perfectly decent with me. Indeed, during the campaign, I found myself in a bizarre situation: the only person in my constituency who had a lower opinion of the Leader of the Opposition’s aptitude for Downing Street was in fact the sitting Labour Member of Parliament. Tom made his position perfectly clear and reconciled the situation by doing the honourable thing and resigning, and I wish him well with his return to the trade union movement.
If Tom was fire and brimstone, that was in marked contrast to Ashok Kumar, who, as Members who knew him will attest, was quiet and studious but inspired fierce loyalty from his constituents. It was inspiring for me, as a new MP, to see this high regard, and indeed love, which I found on doorsteps right across the constituency. That is a powerful testament to the importance of constituency work. That quality is also true of his predecessor, the last Conservative Member for the seat, Michael Bates, now a long-standing Minister in the other place. I pay particular tribute to Michael, who joined me at 6 am in Coulby Newham, in the rain, on election day, for a dawn raid. That was typical of the man: unassuming, shrewd, funny and passionately committed to public service.
So what is this constituency that inspires such loyalty from those who represent it in this place? For me, it has the happy advantage of being home; it is where I was born and where I grew up. I did so in Marton, in Middlesbrough, a few hundred yards from the birthplace of Captain James Cook, and I can think of few better ambassadors for a new global Britain than the man who discovered large parts of our world. Cook’s cottage stands in the grounds of Stewart park, which was, in turn, originally the grounds of Marton hall, home to Henry Bolckow, the pioneering ironmaster and Middlesbrough’s first mayor and Member of Parliament. He was one of a generation of industrialists who prompted Gladstone to christen Middlesbrough England’s “infant Hercules”, and the proud industrial heritage of my constituency continues today. We have world-leading engineering firms, the iconic brand of British Steel, mining and the industrial might of Teesport. Lest we forget, the north-east is the only net exporting region of England. We can add to that the huge potential of the new South Tees Development Corporation, which is being introduced under our new Conservative Mayor of the Tees Valley, Ben Houchen.
That is the narrative I am keen to champion in this place: a successful north-east and a successful Middlesbrough South and East Cleveland as part of a successful UK after Brexit. We need to challenge the tired narrative of decline and betrayal, which at its worst has proved self-fulfilling and has held Teesside back. Anyone who knows my constituency will attest to the fact that we have more than our fair share of social challenges, with lives blighted by the circumstances in which they begin. We face stubborn unemployment; poor education outcomes; family breakdown; drug and alcohol abuse; and communities that feel isolated and ignored, such as Loftus, Liverton and Lingdale. This is a powerful moral mission worthy of any generation. As a Conservative, passionate about helping people to help themselves, I am proud that our Government have a strong record in this area, but it is clear that there is much more to do.
That is not the whole, or indeed the end, of the story. The communities that face those challenges also throw up so many quiet community heroes, such as the vicar of Hemlington, Robert Desics, and the members of the Loftus ACCORD group, whom I had the pleasure to meet during the campaign. They support charitable activities, ranging from providing summer holidays for deprived kids who would not otherwise have one to backing the elderly. So many of my campaign team would be encompassed in that group; they serve quietly but dutifully as magistrates, they help to support Gisborough priory, and they manage gardening clubs and local primary schools, and they are the real heroes.
There is another side of the constituency, too—the side that people who do not know it may not appreciate so well. I am talking about Roseberry Topping, the beautiful hill that Cook climbed as a child; the North York Moors, to Scaling Dam and Cowbar; the East Cleveland coast, viewed from Brotton or from the hills above Skelton, with its thriving Victorian seaside resort of Saltburn; the prosperous market town of Guisborough; and the affluent southern suburbs of Middlesbrough itself.
As with any constituency, there are competing narratives and competing truths. The fact that there are so many positives about Middlesbrough South and East Cleveland has led to massive recent housing development. Some lovely new developments have been built, but we urgently need to ensure that the accompanying infrastructure follows and that the best possible use is made of brownfield land. Transport links will be a key part of my work in this place, be it linking rural communities in East Cleveland or ensuring that the traffic in south Middlesbrough can flow properly.
Middlesbrough’s motto is “Erimus”—we shall be. In closing, let me say that I am immensely proud and grateful to have the opportunity to champion my area on the next stage of its remarkable journey.
It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Middlesbrough South and East Cleveland (Mr Clarke), whose maiden speech was very funny and insightful, and commended some of his predecessor MPs: well done.
Housing, and especially social housing, has been shown up in sharp focus as a result of the Grenfell Tower tragedy. Indeed, in her statement this morning the Prime Minister admitted that “for too long in our country”—meaning England—“under Governments of both colours, we simply have not given enough attention to social housing.” That is in stark contrast to what is happening in Scotland, where the Scottish National party Government are committed to spending over £5 billion by 2021 to build social and affordable housing. The UK Government have allowed the sale of housing association properties; the Scottish Government have ended the right to buy, to protect the existing stock of social rented homes.
The UK Government do not really help 18 to 34-year-olds, and the Government’s tremendously difficult housing benefit recall for 18 to 21-year-olds is causing real hardship across the country. The Scottish Government welcome the fact that the UK Government are now looking into protecting vulnerable people in private landlord lets, but in Scotland we have made a real issue of this, because we want our younger people and tenants to be well protected. The SNP welcomes a full public inquiry into the Grenfell Tower fire and believes that no stone should be left unturned in order to ascertain the causes, ensure appropriate lessons are learned, and get justice for the many families of the victims and survivors.
The Scottish Government resilience operation has met to discuss any potential impact for Scotland of the Grenfell Tower tragedy. Building standards are devolved and Scottish Ministers are in discussion with local authorities today. The Cabinet Secretary for Communities has convened a short-term ministerial working group to review Scottish regulations, and the Scottish Government will work closely with the UK Government and learn any lessons relevant to construction practices following the subsequent investigation.
Moving on to social security, I call for an end to austerity. If one thing came out of the recent election campaign, it was that the Tories’ cost-cutting austerity agenda, especially where it impacts on our older citizens, is not wanted. The Prime Minister paid a heavy price for her suggestions on the dementia tax and on restricting winter fuel payments. Even Ruth Davidson, the Scottish Tory leader, could not swallow that bitter pill and announced that there would be a different policy in Scotland.
In Scotland, we value all of our citizens, whatever their age or ethnicity. Many constituents have approached me in desperation and disbelief. I have a long list and I do not have time to go through it, but during the election campaign I was approached by a grieving grandmother whose son had just been widowed. The so-called simplification of bereavement support resulting in cuts for widows and widowers when they are at their most vulnerable is scandalous. I ask Members to try to imagine how someone who is grieving must feel when having to give up their employment to deal with a young family and finding out that the financial support they expected because of their circumstances was no longer there. That happened in April of this year.
The SNP is opposed to any increase in national insurance, especially at a time of low consumer confidence and squeezed household budgets. We need a freeze on NI contributions and VAT. The SNP here in Westminster will fight for a moratorium and review of the closure of HMRC offices in Scotland and across the UK, for beneficial ownership of companies and trusts to be made public, for measures to improve the transparency of tax paid by major international companies, and for further action by the UK Government to tackle international tax avoidance. If these measures were taken, there might be no need for austerity cuts at all, or at least they could be lessened.
The SNP will fight for an end to benefit sanctions, to the roll-out of universal credit and to charges from the Child Maintenance Service, and we will fight to end private company involvement in social security benefits. Finally, we will fight to abolish the premium-rate telephone charge for those seeking advice or claiming benefits from the Department for Work and Pensions. Not only do the Government cut benefits, but they charge people increasingly large amounts to access what is rightfully theirs. We must help the worst off and most vulnerable in our society, not impose further cuts on them.
I cannot finish without mentioning the WASPI women. I made it—I got my state pension—but anyone who was born a year after me did not. Women have retired expecting to get what they paid in. They were not told that the changes would happen, and they are now living in straitened circumstances as a result of them. The Government need to stop the austerity and cuts and look after the people in this country much better.
It is a pleasure to see you in the Chair, as Deputy Speaker Sir David—albeit fleetingly, perhaps. I am pleased to follow the hon. Member for Motherwell and Wishaw (Marion Fellows). I did not agree with all her points, but I thought that the collaborative tone of her response to the Grenfell Tower tragedy set the tone that the public want and expect to see in the House.
I commend the Gracious Speech. I am not going to labour the point on Brexit, except to make two brief points. First, the ex-remainers who continue to increase the demands that we should make on our European partners for concessions as we leave the European Union are actually making it harder to get any deal at all, because the more we demand and the more concessions we want, the more we will be accused of cherry-picking. The EU has made it very clear that—to paraphrase Michel Barnier—we cannot enjoy the benefits of membership and not be in the EU. Perhaps the ex-remainers have a plan to make so many demands that will not be granted to us in the hope that the country will decide, “Well, maybe we shouldn’t leave the EU after all.” I put it to them that if there is any idea that we are going to try to reverse the decision taken by the British people in the referendum, that would be an incendiary decision for the House to take.
Secondly, we keep hearing about a cliff edge. What is this cliff edge? It seems to me to be a continuation of the fear campaign that is now so discredited. There is obviously not going to be a comprehensive trade agreement within two years—to that extent, we are not going to have a deal—but are we seriously suggesting that the EU is so insane that it will not make the same kind of arrangements on aviation, data protection, intellectual property, customs facilitation or product recognition on standards that it makes with 100 or 150 other countries with which it does not have a trade deal? I prefer to regard the EU as a bit more constructive than that; indeed, the EU has said that it wants to be constructive and does not want to punish us. If we leave without a comprehensive trade deal, we will have an agreement about lots of detailed things that will enable goods to flow across the Northern Ireland border, just as goods flow across the border between Canada and the United States without the lorries stopping, as my right hon. Friend the Member for North Shropshire (Mr Paterson) said.
I commend the Gracious Speech because I am delighted to see that it contains a draft patient safety Bill, which is the result of a 2015 recommendation on clinical incident investigation by the Public Administration Committee, which I chaired at the time. I had hoped to see a draft Bill on reform of the Parliamentary and Health Service Ombudsman, which the Committee described as “stuck in time” in our report entitled, “Time for a People's Ombudsman Service”. If we are going to introduce a public advocate for public disasters, is it going to be a statutory body? Would it not be a good idea to combine ombudsman reform with a new public advocate statutory function?
I wish to talk about the response to the Grenfell Tower fire and to raise some issues relating to how a public inquiry could be established. Just this year, in February, the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee produced a report called “Lessons still to be learned from the Chilcot Inquiry”. We drew on previous reports produced under the chairmanship of Dr Tony Wright. Public confidence in public inquiries is not to be taken for granted. As well as Chilcot, we looked at other inquiries that lost public confidence, including the child sex abuse inquiry, and at the length of time that it took for the Saville inquiry in Northern Ireland to report. We recommended that a public inquiry should not be established unless the House has voted for it, on an amendable motion dealing with the remit, the timetable and the chairmanship, and that before such a motion is debated a special Select Committee should be established to consider those matters and report back to the House.
Everyone wants to set up this inquiry as quickly as possible in response to public anger, which is very understandable, but so many public inquiries are set up in haste before their terms of reference are properly considered. The Leveson inquiry, for example, has been regretted because not enough thought was put into it. I do not belong to the tradition of democracy that believes that the elected Government are necessarily the fount of all wisdom, however much I admire the Prime Minister herself.
Is it my hon. Friend’s position that were a Select Committee to look into a terrible tragedy such as this, there might be a better chance of getting a non-partisan analysis that would lead to more information coming forward on the Floor of the House?
I am glad that my right hon. Friend has made that intervention, because I want to be absolutely clear. I fully support what the Prime Minister is doing in setting up a public inquiry; what I am suggesting is that a special Select Committee should be established to supervise the setting up of the inquiry, to monitor it and, essentially, to set some timelines. These inquiries take so long because lawyers can always think of new questions and new points to make. We need to put a sense of urgency into these inquiries so that they report on time and do not drag on and on.
I submit that the terms of reference should not be about finding blame. If there are to be prosecutions, there will be prosecutions, but we will not make life better by creating an atmosphere of blame, however understandable it is. I remember that after the Paddington rail crash there was so much blame, but in the end the report did not blame people. The Cullen inquiry was a good inquiry that resulted in far-reaching institutional changes in how safety is managed on the railways. I suspect that we need the same kind of far-reaching reforms on fire safety. We heard from the hon. Member for Westminster North (Ms Buck) about the different regulatory arrangements that are scattered across the landscape of housing management.
All those arrangements need to be brought together and considered as a whole, and possibly there should be one new body supervising the safety management of residential property. There should probably be an independent investigatory body to determine the causes of accidents, rather like the air accidents investigation branch of the Department for Transport or the rail accident investigation branch. The healthcare safety investigation branch of the Department of Health is to be established in statute to do the same kind of thing in health. We want to know who is accountable and what lessons need to be learnt. The whole landscape is very confusing at the moment, and that is what this inquiry really has to resolve.
May I begin by congratulating those new Members who have made excellent maiden speeches today? I wish to join other Members in paying tribute to the many people who died in the Grenfell Tower disaster. I also pay tribute to my constituents, particularly those who, through Borehamwood synagogue, have made an extraordinary effort in fundraising and in the provision of goods and services to help those most in need. It really is an example of the whole community coming together.
I would like today to address the question of housing. I am a proud capitalist. I believe that capitalism is the most efficient way of allocating resources and that it is what has driven prosperity in our society for so many generations. However, in order to believe in capitalism, one must first either have capital or have a reasonable expectation that one will be able to acquire it. The problem we have with housing is reflected in a wider problem of the capitalist system in this country. A failure or an inability to expect to acquire one’s own home would lead us to question our interest in maintaining this capitalist system, which is so effective for our country. In my remarks, I wish to address how we can deal with that problem.
First, let me say that, as a Government, we have made progress on this matter. I am proud of some of the things that I did during my time in Downing Street as an adviser to the Prime Minister. For example, our work on allowing the conversion of offices to residential property has increased supply. Help to Buy has allowed many families without a sufficient deposit to acquire their first house. We have also made considerable progress in deregulation, which has allowed people to extend their own homes. People do not recognise it, but deregulation is a way of increasing supply in the housing market, because it allows them to expand their own home and provide more space for themselves and their families.
Clearly, though, there is a lot more to do. At the heart of this matter lies the conflict between the generations, which is so evident in my own constituency. We are very fortunate in Hertsmere. We have a beautiful constituency, which has built-up areas and green belt land—80% is green belt. There is an understandable reluctance to encroach on that green belt land. Certainly, it is essential that we maintain and protect that land. If we are to do that, we have to look creatively at how we can draw consent for further house building.
Members have raised a number of valid points in this debate. First, we have to get consent for housing, which means maintaining the central role of councils, which know where housing can be best placed. It is right that the housing White Paper maintains that central role for local government. Secondly, we need to ensure that we get the infrastructure in place. We cannot expect communities to agree to additional housing if they do not have the schools, hospitals, roads and railways to go with it. In places such as Borehamwood where there has been a lot of housing, one frustration is the lack of infrastructure to go with it. We need to maintain pressure on that.
I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Richmond Park (Zac Goldsmith), the former candidate for Mayor of London, that we should not overlook aesthetics. Low-rise housing is denser than high-rise housing, but it is much more pleasant for people to live in. Certainly, one regret from my time at No. 10 was that we started to pioneer the idea of replacing high-rise with low-rise—[Interruption.] I should hasten to add that I was an adviser to the Prime Minister. If we continue with that agenda, we can get more buy-in for more housing.
We should look at design, because people are much more willing to accept housing if it is aesthetically pleasing. People will forgo some green space if it is replaced by something good. What people do not want is green space being replaced by ugly urban sprawl. Certainly, I will continue to resist that ugly urban sprawl, as I want to ensure that we maintain the character and unique charms of our towns and villages. If we can buy in communities with better design and local consent, we can get more housing, thereby ensuring that young people have a genuine hope of accessing capital. We would reinvigorate their faith in the capitalist system and ensure that, once again, we have a generation of home owners. That is what brought me into politics in the first place. My parents were able to buy their own social housing through right to buy. They got their first stake. The next generations must get that first stake too. If we are creative about this, we can do it and provide opportunities for the next generation.
It is a pleasure to speak in this debate and to follow such excellent maiden speeches from Members on both sides of the House. I was here to listen to the tremendous contribution made by my hon. Friend the Member for Middlesbrough South and East Cleveland (Mr Clarke)—the first, I am sure, of many in this House.
I must draw the House’s attention to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests. I have been involved in the property market for 25 years and am still involved. I am deeply passionate about it, and I am very pleased by the Government’s clear and ambitious plans to increase house building by 1 million homes between 2015 and 2020, and by 500,000 more by 2022. Those are very ambitious plans.
I am delighted to see that the shadow Secretary of State is back with us in the Chamber. I tried to intervene on him earlier to question one or two of the facts that Opposition Members keep repeating. They keep saying that since 2010 house building has fallen to its lowest level since the 1920s, but the House of Commons Library shows that some 100,000 houses were built in 2009-10, and 153,000 in 2016. Where do these figures come from? The claim is that affordable housing building is at a 24-year-low—the shadow Secretary of State can intervene on me on this point—but we know that in the past six years we have built 304,900 affordable homes, and in the last six years of the Labour Government, 294,000 affordable homes were built. Members can choose their own opinions, but they cannot choose their own facts.
Is the hon. Gentleman querying the Department for Communities and Local Government’s own statistics, on its website, which show that there has been a 97% drop in the number of social housing completions since 2010? Those figures are there on the website now to be inspected.
The hon. Lady raises a valid point. There is a different definition. Social housing is part of the overall definition of affordable housing—that is true. The shadow Secretary of State will tell the hon. Lady that that is true. It is also true that we are building more affordable homes than the Labour Government were in their final six years in office.
Building more homes has to be our objective and Members on both sides of the House will agree that we must reform the planning process to deliver more homes and release more land, whether that is brownfield or greenfield. That must take up some of the slack to deliver the amount of housing we need.
We need not just to deliver more land but to reinvigorate some of the sectors of house building on which we have come to rely. Some of that is about our local authorities, and the Select Committee on Communities and Local Government reported on that just before Dissolution. We believe that local authorities should be given the opportunity and more levers to increase house building to previous levels—they were building about 100,000 homes a year back in the 1970s—but only if those houses are properly designed and communities are designed properly around those developments.
The key element of reforming planning to deliver more homes is the role of small and medium-sized enterprises in house building. In 2008, SMEs built 44% of new homes delivered in this country. Today, they deliver 26% of homes. It is not just about land; it is also about capacity. The difficulty for small house builders is that they cannot find the land. That is the primary difficulty: finding access to the land and to the finance.
A White Paper from the Department has accepted that we need to deliver more housing for more small sites, and proposes that in the future, instead of local authorities simply allocating a huge site that is ideal for a huge house build and drawing a big red ring around it, which is probably easier for those local authorities, a certain number of sites in that local plan must be allocated for smaller sites and for small and medium-sized enterprises. It recommends that 10% of those sites should be half a hectare or less. That is good progress, but we need to go further if we really want to get small builders back into the business of building houses. It is critical that they do that.
The other principal problem is finding finance. It is almost impossible for an SME house builder to get finance for their developments. The Government have recognised this with their £3 billion home building fund, but we need to go further. We need to ensure that the mainstream high street banks lend to those SMEs. Those banks are their first port of call, but that is a difficult conversation at the moment. In Germany, the state-backed bank, KfW, sits behind the loans to SME house builders, meaning that builders can keep building. Through that, Germany has been far more successful in ensuring that there is a mixed delivery of house building.
For the next couple of minutes, I will focus on something else of huge significance to the industry: the tenant fees ban. I am still involved in the business and I am told by my finance director that the ban will cost us around £800,000 a year, so hon. Members might think that I am against the legislation, but I support the fee ban. I recognise that there is a problem. It cannot be right that when a tenant finds a property they want, they are susceptible to charges of which they were not aware and which can vary wildly between different letting agents.
All legislation that we bring forward in this place cannot just be about the measures. Delivery—the oversight and enforcement—is also needed. My concern is whether the measure will be delivered with that proper oversight and enforcement. The team that currently manages that within the sector is the National Trading Standards Estate Agency Team near Bangor. That team does not have the capacity to deliver the necessary oversight. We need to ensure that if this legislation is brought forward, it drives out the cowboy operators, who will try to find a way around the rules, which cannot be right. If the legislation is well thought through, it can include new measures about rental property standards. We need to ensure that the rented property sector delivers an appropriate standard of rented accommodation.
I will keep my comments brief so that my hon. Friend the Member for Aldridge-Brownhills (Wendy Morton) gets a chance to have her voice heard.
I wanted to raise the issue of roads in Herefordshire at the very first opportunity. Herefordshire has the most roads per capita of any county in England, and those roads are deteriorating. The joke is that in England we drive on the left-hand side of the road, and in Herefordshire we drive on what is left of the road. It has now got to the stage where something needs to be done. I am grateful to the Secretary of State, who is coming to visit my constituency tomorrow to see the state of our roads.
The issue is not inextricably linked to our adult social care problem. It is appropriate that we are talking about housing today. People work all their lives in the prosperous cities and then retire to the beautiful countryside in seats such as mine, and they need and deserve proper adult social care. Every penny of council tax raised in North Herefordshire is spent on looking after the elderly and looked-after children. They deserve to be looked after properly, but counties and constituencies such as mine cannot cope with this burden. We need it to be shared across the nation.
The Queen’s Speech is interesting in many ways, and I am pleased that certain bits are missing. I was deeply unhappy with the manifesto proposal to reduce the number of hon. Members to 600. That would be very difficult for the Government to pass. I hope that we will soon ask the Boundary Commission to look again at equalising the size of constituencies without reducing the number of colleagues here because as our MEPs go, the burden of work will fall to us.
I also had grave reservations about the manifesto proposals regarding section 40 of the Crime and Courts Act 2013, which is all about the media being properly regulated. The media who do not like it complain that there is only one approved regulator, but there is nothing to stop them having more than one approved regulator. That would allow for low-cost arbitration for newspapers and complainants. Small local papers ought to have that bargain basement way of solving these problems.
Those are the two things in the manifesto about which I was deeply unhappy. This is a great opportunity for us to think again and continue to press forward for an outstanding and positive Brexit conclusion. Of course, we will never read about that in our newspapers, but the Government are going to do a grand job on it. The Opposition can knock the Queen’s Speech if they will, but let us see them support all the things they say they believe in. I am happy to conclude and allow my hon. Friend to get her words in too.
I am very grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for North Herefordshire (Bill Wiggin) for so graciously giving me a lesson in parliamentary brevity. I will endeavour to be quick so that the Front Benchers have adequate time for the wind-ups.
I echo other hon. Members in expressing my sentiments and condolences in view of the tragic events at Grenfell Tower recently.
Today it has been a pleasure to listen to the maiden speeches of, I think, seven hon. Members on both sides of the Chamber. I recall giving my own maiden speech two years ago during the debates on the Queen’s Gracious Speech; I think I chose the enterprise debate on that occasion.
I welcome the Gracious Speech and the Government’s legislative priorities for the next two years, particularly the focus on recognising and grasping the opportunities ahead, as well as tackling the challenges we face as a country. Leaving the EU means that we are respecting the result of last year’s referendum. That is what my constituents in Aldridge-Brownhills expect. We need to get Brexit right. In doing so, we need to take the public with us and have their support.
We also need to continue to build and strengthen the strong economy that creates jobs, opportunities and aspiration. Since 2010, more than 2.9 million people are back in work—something to be commended. I particularly welcome the increase in the national living wage, the space industry Bill, the automated and electric vehicles Bill, and reforms to technical education. This is all part of building a world-class education system and, importantly, the skills that we need for today and for the future—developing the traditional skills and trades that we often talk about in this place, as well as the new ones that arise in conjunction with the new, emerging technologies. I hope that businesses in the west midlands and in my constituency have opportunities to play their part in developing those too.
Today’s debate focuses particularly on housing. There is welcome news from the Government that the affordable homes programme will become more flexible. We have the homelessness reduction taskforce, building on the Homelessness Reduction Act 2017, which was taken through this place in the previous Parliament. It was spearheaded by my hon. Friend the Member for Harrow East (Bob Blackman) as a private Member’s Bill one Friday, but he garnered so much support from Members on both sides of this Chamber that it could go all the way through the House of Lords and become an Act of Parliament.
Many of us will remember the first time we bought or rented our own home. For most of us, it is a huge step, and for many, a huge financial commitment, but a dream that has come true. I hope that through these measures we are able to make more people’s dreams come true, so that with Help to Buy they too can have the chance to buy that first home. This is where affordability matters more than ever before. I remember that affordability mattered when we bought our first home 20-plus years ago, and it is still an issue today.
I welcome the recent focus on using public sector land for building on. I hope that we continue with this so that we can prioritise housing on public sector land and brownfield sites—something that my hon. Friend the new Member for Middlesbrough South and East Cleveland (Mr Clarke) recognised in his speech. In the west midlands, as you may be aware, Mr Deputy Speaker, our new metro Mayor, Andy Street, has a very sensible approach to this—brownfield first. My constituents feel that that is an excellent way of tackling the housing crisis by putting those brownfield sites first and unlocking the potential to develop on them, thus protecting our precious green belt and green open spaces. There are also welcome measures in the Queen’s Speech to promote fairness and transparency in housing with the draft tenant fees Bill, which is also to be welcomed.
I am conscious of the time, but I ask for your generosity, Mr Deputy Speaker, in indulging me in making one request; I hope the Minister will also be generous. During the last Parliament, my name was drawn in the private Members’ Bills ballot, and I introduced the Crown Tenancies Bill. I believe it had some support from the Government, so in considering housing in the round, might that be looked at again? Its purpose was to provide, for Crown tenancies, assured tenancies for the purposes of the Housing Act 1988.
It is lovely to see you in the Chair, Mr Deputy Speaker, and I welcome the new Secretary of State to his place.
This has been an extensive debate. There were 24 speakers, and I want to thank them all. I congratulate all the new Members who made their maiden speeches, including the hon. Members for Middlesbrough South and East Cleveland (Mr Clarke), for Aldershot (Leo Docherty) and for Berwickshire, Roxburgh and Selkirk (John Lamont), and my hon. Friend the Member for Enfield, Southgate (Bambos Charalambous), but I particularly pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Kensington (Emma Dent Coad), who spoke so movingly about the devastating effect of the Grenfell Tower tragedy. I know that she will go from strength to strength, and will continue to represent her constituents in the fantastic way she has during the past week.
I, too, extend my condolences to everyone affected by the fire, and to all those affected by the terror attacks in Manchester and at London bridge and Finsbury Park. It seems to be a sign of our times that, in the space of just a few weeks, we should have faced these horrific events.
On behalf of the more than 50% of people who voted against austerity in the general election just two weeks ago, I want to express my profound disappointment at the content of the Gracious Speech. After delivering Brexit and building a stronger economy, it refers to making our country fairer, echoing the Prime Minister’s warm words on the steps of Downing Street about building a country for everyone. Frankly, this just does not stack up. As a result of seven years of austerity under this Government, we have escalating levels of poverty, including 7.4 million people who are in working households, 4 million children and 4.2 million disabled people, while one in seven of our pensioners are living in poverty, which is an increase of 300,000 since 2010. At the same time, there have been excesses in boardroom pay, with Britain’s top bosses being paid, on average, 312 times more than a care worker, 165 times more than a nurse, 140 times more than a teacher and 132 times more than a police officer. It is all right to praise the work of the emergency services, but let us give them a decent pay rise.
The richest 1,000 people own more wealth than the poorest 40%, and this Government’s tax and spending policies have reinforced, rather than addressed, such inequalities. The Conservative manifesto promised more of the same—carrying on regardless of the pain and suffering that so many people have endured and are still enduring. The Conservatives have broken promise after promise: there was no mention in the manifesto of raising living standards, in spite of real wages being at 2007 levels in real terms, and there was no reference to raising the national living wage, in spite of one in five workers being in low-paid jobs. Instead, it boasted that corporation tax will continue to be cut in spite of the fact that it is already the lowest in the G7. Shockingly, it pledged to erode further the social security safety net for older people by removing the winter fuel allowance for 10 million pensioners and the state pension triple lock, while promising a dementia tax that people, if they could not afford it and were unfortunate enough to need home care, would have to pay by selling their home. The Queen’s Speech mentioned none of those Tory manifesto promises, so I would be grateful to the Secretary of State if he confirmed that, given the position of their coalition partners on these issues, they will not now be delivered.
Given that the Government are currently in breach of their own Pensions Act 2014, will the Secretary of State confirm when they will respond to the Cridland report and guarantee that there will be no further increase in the state pension age? Further to that, there was no mention in the Queen’s Speech of the plight of the 2.6 million WASPI women, including the 4,000 in my constituency, who have been affected by the accelerated increase in their state pension age, many of whom had no notice of the increase and many of whom have been left destitute. I have heard cases of women in their 60s who have had to sell up everything and who are sofa-surfing. What will the Government do to address their plight? We are the fifth richest country in the world. Those women have contributed to society and it is scandalous that they are being treated in this way. The Government must act urgently to address the WASPI issue, reflect on the desperate circumstances that many WASPI women are in and put in place mitigation.
The Government seem oblivious to the escalation in child poverty over the past seven years, with 1 million more children expected to fall into poverty by 2020. They seem unconcerned by the direct and immediate effect that that is having on those children’s health and wellbeing, let alone their long-term life chances. The Tory manifesto pledged to cut free school meals. While I am pleased that that has been dropped, will the Secretary of State confirm what specific measures are in place to address the rise in child poverty and to ameliorate its effects? Will the Government agree to exempt lone parents with children under two from the benefit cap, given today’s High Court judgment? Where is the legislation or other measures to deal immediately with low-paid work and to ensure that work always pays, given that low pay is a key driver of worker and child poverty?
Universal credit, as we have heard in this debate, is failing, from its shambolic roll-out to the escalating costs and ludicrous design flaws, including the so-called “digital by default” and the six-week “long hello” before people get their first payment. During the election, I spoke to a constituent who was told she would have to wait six weeks and then had another four weeks added on top. That is not good enough. Of course, there is also the mess around having four-weekly as opposed to monthly payments. Some people have two payments in one month and then have to reapply because they reach the amount they are allowed.
Universal credit is being rolled out to all new claimants in my constituency from next month. Does the shadow Secretary of State share my worry about the interminable delays that are causing such problems in the claiming of universal credit?
As I say, it is an absolute mess and we have pledged to address it when we are in a position to do so.
The cuts to universal credit work allowances mean that 2.5 million families will be more than £2,000 a year worse off. Delays in UC and other social security support were a major cause of more than 1 million people relying on food banks last year. That problem is worse in UC areas. People are falling into debt, with eight out of 10 tenants being in rent arrears and homelessness rising. Again, why was this issue not in the manifesto or the Queen’s Speech and what will the Government do about it?
The treatment of disabled people by this Government over the past seven years has been nothing short of scandalous. The scale and range of cuts in the Welfare Reform Act 2012 alone is huge, with £28 billion of support cut for 3.7 million disabled people. Of course, it did not stop there. Disabled people are now feeling the impact of the Welfare Reform and Work Act 2016, with cuts of £1,500 a year for half a million sick and disabled people in the employment and support allowance work-related activity group. The new work capability assessment, the introduction of the personal independence payment and its associated flawed assessment, and the new sanctions regime have all had profound detrimental impacts on disabled people. Even a United Nations inquiry found the Tories guilty of “grave” and “systematic violations” of the UN convention on the rights of persons with disabilities, yet there was still nothing in the manifesto and there is nothing in the Queen’s Speech. Why do disabled people not count in this Government’s so-called quest for a fairer society?
Why, when the Government affirmed their commitment to parity of esteem for people with mental health conditions, did the Prime Minister not extend that to PIP support? Her Government overturned the independent tribunal rulings and introduced PIP regulations in March without a vote or even a debate, which deprived people with mental health conditions of the higher rate of PIP. Why does parity of esteem not extend to ESA? According to the Government’s own figures this week, 200,000 people with mental health conditions will lose £345 million in ESA WRAG support.
The Government’s warm words about making our country fairer ring hollow. The Labour party made different choices in our manifesto, and we would most certainly have made different choices in an alternative Queen’s Speech. We would introduce a new social security Bill that would repeal the personal independence payment regulations, reverse the cuts for those in ESA WRAG and transform universal credit to make sure that work always pays. Fundamentally, we would transform our social security system. Like the NHS, it is there for every single one of us in our time of need, providing security, dignity and the basics in life should we become sick or disabled or fall on hard times.
We would not stop there, but I will move on, because I know the Secretary of State wants to respond. Specifically on pensions, in addition to committing to the triple lock and maintaining the winter fuel allowance, we would extend pension credit to WASPI women and affected men and define new additional transitional protections. We would also commission a review to report on options for a flexible retirement age policy and much more. The Government are in chaos—saying one thing and doing another. We have the policies, we have the commitment and we are ready to deliver for the many, not the few.
It is a great pleasure to conclude this day’s debate on the Gracious Speech. I thank all hon. Members from all parties who have contributed. Members from all parts of the United Kingdom have covered a wide range of subjects and it has been a very good and insightful debate.
I will not respond to every Member who has spoken, but I will respond particularly to those who made their maiden speeches, beginning with the hon. Member for Kensington (Emma Dent Coad). It is difficult to imagine that there has ever been a Member of Parliament who has faced such a daunting challenge in their constituency in their first few days in office, and she has conducted herself with great sensitivity and energy. She made a very moving speech earlier today in which she spoke of her constituency generally, but she particularly and rightly focused on Grenfell Tower, the families she has met and the tales of the desperate situations that her constituents have faced. I congratulate her on the way she spoke and the way she has conducted herself as a Member of Parliament.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Berwickshire, Roxburgh and Selkirk (John Lamont) on an excellent maiden speech. He spoke powerfully about his constituency and his particular constituency focuses, and showed his depth of knowledge of the borderlands. I also noted that he managed to deliver a perfectly timed speech, which is an attribute that I am sure will attract the attention of the Whips. I suspect he will be much in demand in future months.
I also congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Aldershot (Leo Docherty), who spoke of his town and told us much about its history. As a former soldier, he has an appropriate background for an Aldershot Member of Parliament. He paid tribute to his predecessor, Gerald Howarth, who was a good friend to many of us here. On that note, I also congratulate the hon. Member for Enfield, Southgate (Bambos Charalambous), who spoke about the tolerance and diversity in London and within his constituency, and about his own family’s story. He also paid generous tribute to David Burrowes, with whom I shared an office for five years and who is a good friend. I welcome the opportunity to wish him well, as the hon. Gentleman did.
I also congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Middlesbrough South and East Cleveland (Mr Clarke) on an excellent speech. He spoke warmly of all of his many predecessors and demonstrated a great love of Teesside and a desire to represent it as the first Conservative MP for his constituency for some time.
They did not give maiden speeches, but I welcome back to the House the hon. Member for Eastbourne (Stephen Lloyd), with whom I suspect I will debate on many occasions, and my hon. Friend the Member for Richmond Park (Zac Goldsmith). I also thank the shadow Work and Pensions Secretary for her welcome to me in my new position. I congratulate her on her reappointment. Today may mark one of our friendlier debates, but I hope that we can have a constructive working relationship in the period ahead.
I referred to the maiden speech of the hon. Member for Kensington. Clearly, Grenfell Tower has cast a large shadow over our debate. There have been several excellent contributions, particularly that of the hon. Member for Westminster North (Ms Buck), who previously represented that part of London. It is a terrible tragedy and all our thoughts are with those affected and the families who are grieving.
Our priority is to ensure that the people affected by the fire get the financial help they need. We have staff on the ground who are handling people’s benefits claims sensitively and flexibly. For example, they are ensuring that payments continue if appointments are missed and that jobseeking requirements are suspended for as long as needed. The Department for Work and Pensions has also made sure that people’s benefits will not be affected by payments from the discretionary fund. The local authority has assigned key workers to affected households to ensure that they have continuity of support—wraparound support—and we are working closely with them to provide benefit advice and support.
Money is available from the £5 billion discretionary fund to meet funeral costs. The Department for Work and Pensions administers funeral expenses payments and the local authority also has funds to support people who cannot afford funeral costs. It is important that all parts of government work together to provide the necessary support for the people of Grenfell Tower and the surrounding areas.
The debate on Grenfell Tower has also shone a light on the wider issue of housing. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government set out the Government’s position. It is worth reminding the House that we have a proud record since 2010. We have overseen the building of nearly 1 million new homes and helped around 400,000 households to get on the property ladder through Help to Buy. However, with housing becoming increasingly unaffordable, there is much more to do. My hon. Friend the Member for Hertsmere (Oliver Dowden) made that point. We have set out our strategy in the housing White Paper and we are introducing a Bill to ban unfair tenant fees.
We will drive that forward by investing £7.1 billion through the affordable homes programme, implementing the Homelessness Reduction Act 2017 and continuing to support the regeneration of housing estates. We have not built enough homes in this country for generations. We need to build more of the right homes in the right places and ensure that the housing market works for all parts of our community.
Let me deal with some of the welfare issues that have been raised in the debate. Our welfare reforms are restoring fairness and supporting people into work. Having a welfare system that offers work for those who can, help for those who could and care for those who cannot is part of our plan to build a fair society for all. The Government have improved the chances of finding employment and we will continue to build on that achievement.
The employment rate stands at a joint record high of 74.8% while the employment rate for women is at a joint record high of 70.2%.
It is all zero-hours contracts.
There is a sedentary comment that it is all zero-hours contracts. The employment numbers that came out last week are striking because the increase was overwhelmingly a consequence of full-time employment. We must bear in mind that those on zero-hours contracts constitute, what, 3%? [Interruption.] Less than 3%: 2.8% of the overall workforce. The majority of those people, when surveyed, say that that is what suits them. Moreover, the average number of hours worked by people on zero-hours contracts is 25. Let us not mischaracterise the nature of our labour market.
Let me now deal with universal credit, a landmark reform of the welfare system that will maximise people’s chances of getting work, staying in work, and progressing into better-paid work. Universal credit is working. People move into work faster, and there are encouraging signs in that connection. The roll-out of universal credit continues to deliver to plan. It is being rolled out in a gradual, safe and secure way to ensure a successful delivery and the best service for claimants. The programme has recently passed an important milestone, with well over a million claims made and the number of claimants higher than the number of people claiming jobseeker’s allowance.
I am grateful to the Secretary of State for giving way, because I am aware that time is short. Does he agree that the current taper is simply inadequate in comparison with what we planned a few years ago? Given that taper, what is the advantage of going into low-paid work?
We reduced the taper rate recently, so we have taken steps in that direction. One of the attributes of universal credit, however, is that it does not have the cliff edges of the legacy system that we have run up to now, which features all the disincentives to work for more hours and take on more work. We believe that one of the great benefits of universal credit is that it will always be sensible to do more work. I do not know whether I am being over-ambitious, but one of my objectives as Secretary of State is to convince Opposition Members at some point that this is an important and beneficial reform, and that they should get behind it rather than opposing it. That, however, remains to be seen.
Let me now say something about disability and health. There are more than half a million more disabled people in employment than there were three years ago, and the unemployment rate is at a record low. However, we know that we have further to go. My right hon. Friend the Member for Chesham and Amersham (Mrs Gillan) spoke about the disability employment gap, and referred to our excellent record on the issue. I want to put on record that the Government are committed, and remain dedicated, to continuing our work in improving employment outcomes for people with disabilities and health conditions. We have made a commitment to get 1 million more disabled people into work over the next 10 years. That will enable them to enjoy the benefits that we know good work brings.
Let me now deal briefly with the issue of pensions. We are committed to ensuring economic security for people at every stage of their lives, including retirement. We are also clear about the fact that fairness must be maintained between the generations. The new simplified state pension provides a firm foundation on which to plan for retirement. Alongside the state pension, automatic enrolment has been introduced to ensure that the UK builds pension systems that enable individuals, with the help of their employers, to save towards achieving the lifestyle to which they aspire in retirement, and which is sustainable in the future. About 10 million people will be saving more for a private pension to top up their state pension by 2018.
The Government have worked hard to improve people’s lives. We are focusing on delivering more housing, and we have introduced successful welfare reforms on which we will continue to build. I am proud of this Conservative Government, of what we have achieved to date, and of what we have committed ourselves to achieving in this Parliament.
This is an important Gracious Speech. Part of what we will continue to do as a Government is ensure that we get people to work, reform welfare and deliver for the British people. Consequently, I commend the Gracious Speech to the House.
Ordered, That the debate be now adjourned.—(Mike Freer.)
Debate to be resumed on Monday 26 June.