It is an honour to open today’s Queen’s Speech debate on behalf of Her Majesty’s Government.
Keeping citizens safe is the first duty of any Government and, although it is not the only duty, meeting every other duty depends on it. Whenever fear and crime flourish, people cannot, and nor can our economy or our democracy. The Conservative party is the party of law and order. Unlike some, we understand that freedom includes the freedom of the law-abiding majority to go about their business free from harm. Those on the Opposition Benches are eager to defend the murderers, paedophiles, rapists, thugs and people with no right to be here. They cheer on selfish protestors who cause chaos and endanger lives. They back people who thwart the removal of foreign national offenders from our country.
In the last Session, opposition parties voted against the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill and the measures to stop the likes of Insulate Britain ruining the lives of ordinary working people going about their daily business.
I will not give way. The right hon. Lady will have the chance to speak shortly.
Opposition parties voted against tougher sentences for killer drivers, greater powers to monitor terrorists, and an end to the automatic release of dangerous criminals. They are much less curious about the rights of everyone else to go about their everyday business free from molestation. It amazes me that the Labour party dares to hold a debate on crime just after having voted against the PCSC Bill. If Labour Members really cared, they would have backed the Bill.
This Government and this party back the police, our intelligence and security services and the law-abiding majority. We have reformed the criminal justice system so that it better supports victims and ensures that criminals are not only caught, but punished.
I will give way shortly.
While the right hon. Member for Normanton, Pontefract and Castleford (Yvette Cooper) voted repeatedly against boosting police funding, we have given the police the investment they need. An increase of £1.1 billion has taken the spending to nearly £17 billion a year.
I am very grateful to the Home Secretary for giving way. I want to engage not in the to and fro on which she started her contribution, but on a subject where I think there is unity across the House, which is in the fight against economic crime. Does she agree that if we are to be effective in fighting economic crime, we must have measures that introduce better transparency, that properly fund our enforcement agencies, because, at the moment, they are not fit for purpose, and that also hold to account the enablers of economic crime for the actions that they take?
The right hon. Lady is absolutely right. I will come onto the forthcoming economic crime Bill, which speaks very specifically not just about how we do better and more, but how we target our resources to stamp out fraud and go after the permissive environment and the individuals who occupy that space and commit the most appalling economic crimes.
Since I became Home Secretary, an additional 13,500 police officers have been recruited. We are well on the way to our target of 20,000 more police officers by next March. Following the incredible response to our public consultation—
I am extremely grateful to the Home Secretary for giving way. May I reinforce the cross-party nature of what the right hon. Member for Barking (Dame Margaret Hodge) has just said? She will know that the right hon. Lady and I have done quite a lot in the House to support the points that she has just made. I very much hope that, when the right moment comes in the economic crime Bill, she will listen carefully to the work that has already been done to try to reinforce the very point that she has just made.
My right hon. Friend is correct on this. I know that, for many years, he has been a champion of many of the reforms, some of which have been put in place. We have had part 1—the Economic Crime (Transparency and Enforcement) Act 2022 and sanctions—but the next Bill will also tackle Companies House and many of the wider issues that have been raised.
The Home Secretary has talked about the extra 13,000 officers recruited across the UK. It perhaps helps to break the figures down. Cheshire has had 189 new officers, and we are seeing results from those additional recruits. There has been a striking improvement in the number of arrests in relation to child abuse cases. Those officers increased from 10 to 46, and last month, we saw 28 extra arrests in Cheshire. Does she agree that that sort of increase makes a significant difference? It is not just about having fluorescent jackets on the streets; it is about the work of investigators tackling terrible crimes such as child abuse.
My hon. Friend is right. There are a number of points to make on that. I know that the Minister for Crime and Policing recently visited that team. First and foremost, when it comes to the most appalling crimes of child abuse and sexual exploitation, a number of significant measures were passed through Parliament in the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill, including tougher sentences, which, as I have already said, the Labour party voted against.
Let me make a bit more progress.
Following the incredible response to our public consultation, we published the violence against women and girls strategy. The Government have passed the Domestic Abuse Act 2021 and launched the multi-year “Enough” campaign to challenge and change misogynistic attitudes. These are terrible crimes that disproportionately affect women and girls, such as domestic abuse, sexual violence, stalking and female genital mutilation. Addressing them is our priority and responsibility. The Government’s rape review found a steep decline in the number of cases reaching court since 2016. One of the key reasons for this was the number of victims withdrawing from the criminal justice process, and in too many instances the criminal justice system has simply not been good enough and has failed victims. Across Government, my colleagues and I intend to transform support for victims by ensuring that cases are investigated fully and pursued vigorously through the courts.
I will come on to that as well, but first I want to speak about the rape action plan. We will increase the number of cases reaching court back to 2016 levels, which means reducing the number of victims who withdraw from the process and putting more rapists behind bars.
Crucial in how the Government will do this is not just money but investment in capabilities and the court system. The Government are investing over £80 million in the Crown Prosecution Service to tackle backlogs and recruit more prosecutors across the entire the country, because we need to start tackling this inequality. There is a significant inequality; that is in part a result of factors such as the way charges have been made and prosecutions brought, but there are other challenges as well.
No, I will not give way; the right hon. Lady will have a chance to speak. [Interruption.] The right hon. Lady will have an opportunity to speak shortly. [Interruption.] If I may finish my point, I may come to her.
The other factor in terms of policing is the increase in the volume of digital evidence, and a vast amount of work is taking place across policing and the CPS now looking at how we can have an end-to-end approach across the criminal justice system to assess digital evidence. Also, for the first time the criminal justice system is now going to be held to account through performance scorecards through the crime and justice taskforce and also through the MOJ as well as the Home Office.
I thank the right hon. Lady for giving way. Is she aware, among student victims of sexual assault, of the use of gagging clauses and non-disclosure agreements in university non-contact agreements? I am in touch with various victims, particularly from Oxford university. One college, Lady Margaret Hall, has now signed a pledge to no longer use these but none of the other colleges has. Will the right hon. Lady join me and the universities Minister, the right hon. Member for Chippenham (Michelle Donelan), in asking other colleges to do the same, and will she consider meeting me so that I can relay to her the thoughts of victims in these cases?
The hon. Lady is absolutely right. [Interruption.] I hear calls for more legislation from Labour Members, but, frankly, they also vote against all Government legislation. The hon. Lady raises a serious point. Through the crime and justice taskforce particularly, which is a cross-Government endeavour, the Education Secretary and other parts of Government are working with the MOJ to address and tackle these issues. The CPS has an important role to play here as well. I would be delighted to meet the hon. Lady and to speak to the universities Minister about this, because it is simply not right. Frankly, some of the practices being used are immoral, because they are effectively denying victims their right to have a voice.
Will the right hon. Lady give way?
I am very grateful to the Home Secretary. On the issue of convictions for rape and serious sexual assault, one of the recommendations from the Home Affairs Committee was to have RASSO—rape and serious sexual offences—units in all police forces. Will the Home Secretary ensure that all police forces now have those specialist units, because we know if that is the case, it is more likely that investigations will be more thorough, victims will be treated better and convictions will follow?
The right hon. Lady is absolutely right, and she will be aware of Operation Soteria, which does that. I will come on to wider support through the courts system and independent gender violence advocates, but the system is working now in a much more joined-up way, which I am sure the right hon. Member for Normanton, Pontefract and Castleford will also welcome. These measures have to be integrated not only with policing, but with the CPS, so that we have an end-to-end approach on prosecution.
The Home Secretary talked about passports. Constituents are telling me that the long delays at the Passport Office could both badly affect the travel industry and ruin family holidays. We need action now. Will she ensure the backlog is dealt with in the coming weeks?
If the hon. Gentleman has a particular case, I have been speaking to other hon. Members—[Interruption.] No, please send it to me. There has been a problem with Teleperformance, the company that runs the helpline on this, but I would be happy to address his points. There is a great deal of work taking place operationally with Her Majesty’s Passport Office in dealing with passports and applications, and we are about to have yet another record month of passport delivery.
The fourth round of the proven safer streets fund is worth £50 million and will help to reclaim spaces so that people across our communities and streets are safe. Alongside that initiative, the Government have worked assiduously to combat issues such as drugs and county lines. While we know that Opposition Members are weak on combating drugs, this Government have overseen the arrest of 7,400 people as part of the county lines drug programme, and 1,500 lines have been closed. Drug seizures by police officers and Border Force in England and Wales in 2020-21 increased by 21% on the previous year. The 10-year drugs strategy is underpinned by £30 million of new investment to tackle that scourge.
The Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Act 2022 backs the police with improved powers and more support for officers and their families in recognition of the unique and enormous sacrifices they make. It means tougher sentences for the worst offenders and modernises the criminal justice system with an overhaul of court and tribunal processes.
I thank my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary for the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Act. When I brought to this House the Desecration of War Memorials Bill, she immediately picked it up and ran with it and included it in the policing Bill, despite the mocking from the Labour party, including the Leader of the Opposition, saying that we were trying to protect statues rather than war graves and the war memorials to our glorious dead. Thank you, Home Secretary.
I thank my hon. Friend for his support in making the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill an Act of Parliament. It is through that work that we are now able not only to protect and stand with our officers and back the police, but to have tougher sentences for the worst offenders and to modernise the criminal justice system. The most serious sexual and violent offenders will spend longer in prison. The maximum sentence for assaulting an emergency worker has doubled, and whole-life orders for those who commit premeditated murder of a child will be extended. Those are all key features of the Act.
This Government are also investing £4 billion to create 20,000 additional prison places by the mid-2020s, and the GPS tagging of 10,000 burglars, robbers and thieves over the next three years will deter further offending and support the police in pinning down criminals at the scene of their crime. That is why this Government will not stop. The beating crime plan is exactly the plan to cut rates of serious violence, homicide and neighbourhood crime.
If the Home Secretary will allow me to intervene, I co-chair with the hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Sir Robert Neill) the all-party parliamentary group on miscarriages of justice. We are looking at the real problems with forensic science since its privatisation. If we are going to catch more criminals and have a more effective criminal justice system, will the Home Secretary make it a priority to ensure that forensic science in every part of the country is as good as it can be?
I pay tribute to the hon. Gentleman and the work of that group. Forensic science and the investment that goes into it is absolutely crucial to making sure that justice is served, and that victims receive the justice that they deserve. I would be happy, perhaps with Ministers, to organise a meeting on this, because there is a great deal of investment and work in forensic science. That is primarily because crime types evolve, and, in terms of the way in which sexual violence cases such as rape take place, digital evidence needs to be treated in a very different way, with the time that digital downloads take and the implications for forensic use. We would be happy to meet and have further discussion, and perhaps share any information and any good practice that we are experiencing in this evolving area.
The beating crime plan includes £130 million to tackle serious violence and knife crime. This complements the improved stop-and-search powers that we have given the police so that they can do what is necessary to keep people safe. This law and order Conservative Government are introducing several Bills in this parliamentary Session that will further help to prevent crime and deliver justice. The Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Act was a major step forward, but elements were frustrated by the unelected other place, urged on by Opposition Members. We will not be deterred from our duty to protect the law-abiding majority from the mob rule and the thuggery that we have seen. The public order Bill will combat the guerrilla tactics that bring such misery to the hard-working public, disrupt businesses, interfere with emergency services, cost taxpayers millions, and put life at risk.
The public order Bill, as the Home Secretary knows, will be music to the ears of many residents in Ashfield. We have seen these eco whatever-they-ares with their little hammers smashing up petrol stations. Does she think it is a good idea to give them bigger hammers and other tools and put them to work seven days a week like the rest of us?
My hon. Friend, like me, believes in work, and that is effectively what we are doing in this Government—we are cracking on with the job, basically, in delivering on the British people’s priorities.
It is important to reflect on this point: the dangerous nature of these protests should not be lost on anyone in this House. We saw in particular the recent Just Stop Oil protest, and there are other sites and oil refineries where these protesters impose themselves. It really is a miracle that somebody has not been killed or injured through the tactics that are being used. To give one example, in the county of Essex, £3.5 million was spent just on policing overtime to deal with those protesters, draining the resources of Essex police so that it could not protect citizens across the county, and at the same time it had to call for mutual aid from Scotland, Wales, and Devon and Cornwall.
Despite Labour and the Lib Dems ganging up to prevent those measures from being included in the PCSC Act, we will act to support ordinary working people because we are on their side. The public order Bill will prevent our major transport projects and infrastructure from being targeted by protesters and introduce a new criminal offence of locking on and going equipped to lock on, criminalising the act of attaching oneself to other people, objects or buildings to cause serious disruption and harm. The Bill also extends stop-and-search powers for the police to search for and seize articles related to protest-related offences and introduces serious disruption prevention orders—a new preventive court order targeting protesters who are determined to repeatedly inflict disruption on the public. The breach of those orders will be a criminal offence.
Modern slavery is something that rightly exercises this House. It is a damning indictment of humanity that this ancient evil has not gone away. This Government will follow previous Conservative Governments in doing everything that we can to identify it and stamp it out. The new modern slavery Bill will strengthen the protection and support for victims of human trafficking and modern slavery. It will place greater demands on companies and other organisations to keep modern slavery out of their supply chains. The Bill will enshrine in domestic law the Government’s international obligations to victims of modern slavery, especially regarding their rights to assistance and support, and it will provide greater legal certainty for victims accessing needs-based support. Law enforcement agencies will have stronger tools to prevent modern slavery, protect victims, and bring those engaged in this obscene trade to justice.
In response to Putin’s appalling and barbaric war on Ukraine, this House passed an economic crime Bill within a day so that we could sanction those with ties to Putin. The UK is an outstanding country to do business in, in no small part because dirty money is not welcome here. An additional economic crime and corporate transparency Bill will mean that we can crack down even harder on the kleptocrats, criminals and terrorists who abuse our open economy. There will be greater protections for customers, consumers and businesses from economic crime such as fraud and money laundering. Companies House will be supported in delivering a better service for over 4 million UK companies, with improved collection of data to inform business transactions and lending decisions throughout our economy.
The Online Safety Bill will tackle fraud and scams by requiring large social media platforms and search engines to prevent the publication of fraudulent paid-for advertising. It will address the most serious illegal content, including child sexual exploitation and abuse, much of which beggars belief and is utterly sickening. Public trust will be restored by making companies responsible for their users’ safety online. Communication offences will reflect the modern world, with updated laws on threatening communication online, as well as criminalising cyber-flashing.
First, the hon. Lady and her party spend a great deal of time voting against the measures that we do bring forward on this. Secondly, the passage of the Online Safety Bill will give her and her party every opportunity to support us in keeping the public safe through some of the new offences that will be brought in.
This Government were elected with a manifesto commitment to update the Human Rights Act 1998 so that we enjoy the right balance between the rights of individuals, national security, and effective government. The UK is a global leader with ancient and proud traditions of freedom and human rights. Our Bill of Rights will reinforce freedom of speech and recognise trial by jury. It will strengthen our common-law traditions and reduce our reliance on Strasbourg case law. Crucially, the Bill of Rights will restore public confidence and curb the abuse of the human rights framework by criminals. This is a welcome and much-needed update, 20 years after the Human Rights Act came into force, and it will apply to the whole of the United Kingdom. Human rights are not something that should only be extended to criminals. In what has to be the most twisted logic I have seen as Home Secretary, I have lost count of the number of representations I have received from immigration lawyers and Labour Members begging me not to deport dangerous foreign criminals. The Conservative party stands firmly with the law-abiding majority.
The most vulnerable among us are not murderers, sex offenders and violent thugs, but their victims. Our victims Bill will mean that victims are at the heart of the criminal justice system, that they will get the right support at the right time, and that when they report a crime, the system will deliver a fair and speedy outcome. The victims code will be placed into law, giving a clear signal of what they have a right to expect. There will be more transparent and better oversight of how criminal justice agencies support victims so that we can identify problems, drive up standards, and give the public confidence. We are increasing the funding for victim support services to £185 million by 2024-25. That will mean more independent sexual and domestic violence advisers and new key services such as a crisis helpline.
I very much welcome the measures to put the victims code on a statutory footing, because these are very basic rights that need to be upheld for anyone who is a victim of crime. One of the other consequences of being a victim of crime is often the mental health fall-out from being involved in that crime and what follows afterwards—the trial or other matters. During what is Mental Health Awareness Week, I ask: what can be done to add to the victims code to ensure that those who find themselves in that unenviable position get the support they need so that they can get their mental health back as well as the rest of their life?
My hon. Friend makes probably one of the most important points about support for victims, and also about how we can help victims to rebuild their lives and live their lives with confidence going forward.
Within this work and the framework is the question of how we integrate many of our mental health service supports and the NHS more widely. The funding for victims, particularly in the areas of independent sexual violence and domestic violence advisers, is just one part of that. Legislation is only part of the solution. It is about how we deliver integrated services within our communities and also how much of the triaging takes place, whether that is through police and crime commissioners, the Victims’ Commissioner or even local policing, as well as mental health services in the community.
Many of these issues are devolved matters, but this is such important work—a lot of good work is taking place through the integrated end-to-end approach, and also through the scorecards that we are now setting up—that I would be very happy for the hon. Gentleman to speak to our Ministers about best practice, learnings and how the work can come to Northern Ireland. There is, it is fair to say, a great deal more that we do need to do in Northern Ireland, and I know we have had these conversations many times.
The data reform Bill will modernise the Information Commissioner’s Office so that it can take stronger action against organisations that breach data rules. We now have more than 490 Crown court places available for use, which is comparable to pre-pandemic levels, and more than 700 courtrooms that can safely hold face-to-face hearings are open across the civil and family justice system. An additional 250 rooms are available for virtual hearings. In March, we announced the extension of 30 Nightingale courtrooms, and we have opened two new super-courtrooms in Manchester and Loughborough. Furthermore, we are ensuring sufficient judicial capacity by expanding our plans for judicial recruitment.
The Nationality and Borders Act 2022 will mean that we can focus our support on those who need it most, not on those who can afford to pay the evil people-smuggling gangs to come into our country. The Act increases the sentences for those coming here illegally and means that people-smugglers face life behind bars. It also makes it easier for us to remove dangerous foreign criminals, as demanded by the British public but not by those on the Opposition Benches or those lawyers working to undermine the will of the public. The British public’s priorities are those of this Government. We are on their side, and we will continue to do everything we can by making this Act viable and workable and delivering for the British people.
We are hospitable and charitable as a country, but our capacity to support the more than 80 million people worldwide who are on the move is not limitless. Many Labour Members and others on the Opposition Benches do not seem to understand that, but we do. It is why we have developed our world-leading migration and economic development partnership with Rwanda to deter illegal entry. We are providing solutions to the global migration challenges that countries across the world are facing. As ever, we hear very little from the Opposition, who seem to support the same old broken system and uncontrolled migration to our country.
Two terrorist incidents highlight how we can never be complacent. The attack outside Liverpool Women’s Hospital last year would have been a disaster, had it not been for the incredible quick thinking and courage of the taxi driver involved on the scene. The terrible murder of our dear friend Sir David Amess was shocking, but not without precedent. We have worked closely together, Mr Speaker, to tighten security for Members, and we will continue to do so, and this Government will continue to work with our Five Eyes partners to keep the United Kingdom and our allies safe.
The “National Cyber Strategy 2022” outlines my approach to tackling cyber-crime. We have terrorist activity committed online and information circulated by terrorist individuals and organisations. Going further, the G7 forum on ransomware launched new programmes, such as our work on economic crime, to counter illicit finance and commodities. Improving our international partners’ ability to disrupt organised crime and terrorist activity is a priority to which this Government are committed.
In the past 12 months, we have completed a review of police firearms licensing procedures in response to the terrible and tragic shootings in Plymouth last August. New statutory guidance came into force in November. It improves firearms licensing safety standards and will ensure greater consistency in decision-making. The measures in the national security Bill will further protect our national security, the British public and our vital interests from those who seek to harm the UK. It delivers on our manifesto commitment to ensure that the security services have the powers they need.
The Bill represents the biggest overhaul of state threats legislation for a generation. We have world-class law enforcement and intelligence agencies, but they face an ever-present and increasingly sophisticated threat. The Bill gives them an enhanced range of tools, powers and protections to tackle the full range of state threats that have evolved since we last legislated in this area. It will also prevent the exploitation of civil legal aid and civil damage payments by convicted terrorists. The Bill enhances our ability to deter, detect and disrupt state actors who target the UK, preventing spies from harming our strategic interests and stealing our innovations and inventions.
The Bill also repeals and replaces existing espionage laws, many of which were primarily designed to counter the threat from German spies around the time of the first world war. It will introduce new offences to address state-backed sabotage, foreign interference, the theft of trade secrets and the assisting of a foreign intelligence service. The Bill will for the first time make it an offence to be a covert foreign spy on our soil. A foreign influence registration scheme will require individuals to register certain arrangements with foreign Governments, to help prevent damaging or hostile influence being exerted by them here.
Can the Home Secretary confirm whether the national security Bill will clarify whether it would have been inappropriate or unlawful for a Foreign Secretary to have met a former KGB officer, as we understand the Prime Minister did back in April 2018?
If I may, I will not comment on that specific example that has been given. Actually, I think the focus should be on the legislation that is coming forward in this House, where there are plenty of debates to be had, rather than making a point like that. I think it speaks to how the Opposition treat matters of national security, and the disdain that they show to the significance of the threats posed.
I will not, because I need to make progress so that others can come in.
The national security Bill provides us with powers to tackle state threats at an earlier stage by criminalising conduct in preparation for state threats activity. It will also mean that other offences committed by those acting for a foreign state can be labelled as state threats and those responsible sentenced accordingly. When sentencing for offences outside of the Bill, judges will be required to consider any connection to state threat activity and reflect the seriousness of that when handing down a sentence. There is also a new range of measures to manage those who pose a threat but it has not been possible to prosecute them. The use of these measures will be subject to rigorous checks and balances, including from the courts, but we cannot be passive, sitting around until someone does something awful.
The Manchester bombing tore into the fabric of our freedom. It was a truly evil act that targeted people, many of them young or children, who were doing something that should have been a simple pleasure—attending a concert. The protect Bill will keep people safe by introducing new security requirements for certain public locations and venues to ensure preparedness for and protection from terrorist attacks. It will provide clarity on protective security and preparedness responsibilities for organisations as part of the protect duty, and it will bring an inspection and enforcement regime that will seek to educate, advise and ensure compliance with the duty. We have worked closely across Government with partners and victims’ groups, and I pay particular tribute to Figen Murray and the Martyn’s law campaign team for developing the proposals and working with us.
These Bills further establish the Conservative party as the party of law and order, as do all the actions I have taken since I became Home Secretary. The people’s priorities are our priorities. Those on the Opposition Benches have only two responses, which they alternate between. Whether we hear splenetic outrage or total silence, their warped worldview means they have plenty to say about the rights of lawbreakers, but nothing to offer the law-abiding majority. We await their plan for a fair and firm immigration system that rewards those in need, not evil people-smugglers.
I will not; I am wrapping up. We await the Opposition’s plan to beat crime. We await their plan for a criminal justice system that protects victims and punishes the guilty. We will wait in vain, while the Government get on and do the job of delivering on the people’s priorities.
I have to say, that was an astonishing refusal by the Home Secretary to take interventions and questions from the shadow Home Secretary and a shadow Cabinet Minister. I have been taking part in Queen’s Speech debates for 25 years and I have never seen a Government Minister at the Dispatch Box afraid to take questions from her opposite number—I have never seen that anywhere. She took questions from a few other Members; her predecessors always took questions from me. I wonder what she is so frightened of. All my questions would have been really factual—maybe that is what she was frightened of.
When the Prime Minister opened the Queen’s Speech debate yesterday, he did not mention crime—not once. Those of us out on the streets talking to residents in different communities across the country—an experience that was probably rather better on our side of the House than theirs this time—know that crime and antisocial behaviour were raised a lot, but the Prime Minister did not mention them once.
The cost of living, soaring bills and rising prices were top of people’s list, but they were followed by crime and antisocial behaviour and a real persistent concern that when crimes are being committed, too often, nothing is done. There was nothing in the Queen’s Speech to tackle rising bills and rising prices and also no serious plan to tackle rising crime and falling prosecutions. There was nothing from the Prime Minister yesterday about the basic issues bothering people across the country.
I thank my right hon. Friend for giving way. It was a shame that the Home Secretary did not want to give way to me, because I wanted to ask her why, more than 30 minutes into her speech, there had been no mention of a public health approach to tackling serious violence, which has a long-term plan, addresses the root causes and is joined up. Perhaps the Government want to be tough on crime and not tough on the causes of crime.
My hon. Friend is right to talk about the public health approach and the need to prevent crime and work across communities to do that.
Across the country, in the last few weeks alone, I have heard from residents and victims talking often about there being no action when things go wrong; about repeated vandalism not being tackled even though there is CCTV evidence of who is responsible; and about the victim of an appalling violent domestic attack who was told that it would not come to court for two years.
I have heard about repeated shoplifting where the police are so overstretched that they have stopped coming; about burglaries where all the victim got was a crime number; about scamming, where Action Fraud is such a nightmare to engage with that pensioners have given up trying to report serious crimes; about persistent drug dealing outside a school where nothing had been done months later; and about a horrendous rape case where the brave victim was strung out for so long and the court case was delayed so many times that she gave up because she could not bear it anymore.
I have heard about police officers tearing their hair out over Crown Prosecution Service delays because they know that the victim will drop out if they cannot charge quickly; about other officers who are working long hours to pick up the pieces when local mental health services fail but who know that that means that they cannot be there to deal with the antisocial behaviour on the street corner; and about women who no longer expect the police to help if they face threats of violence on the streets or in their homes. There is case after case after case where crimes are being committed but no one is being charged, cautioned or given a community penalty and no action is being taken—and it is getting worse.
Since the 2019 general election—in fact, since the Home Secretary was appointed—crime is up by 18% and prosecutions are down by 18%. The charge rate is now at a record low of 5.8% compared with 15.5% in 2015. Cautions and community penalties are down too, notwithstanding the Prime Minister and his Downing Street staff’s attempt to make valiant personal efforts to get those numbers back up again.
The Home Secretary made an astonishing claim. She said:
“We have reformed the criminal justice system so that it better supports victims and ensures that criminals are not only caught but punished.”
Where are the criminal justice reforms that are pushing the prosecution rates up? The prosecution rates have plummeted on the Conservatives’ watch, which means that under the Home Secretary and the Conservatives, hundreds of thousands more criminals are getting off and hundreds of thousands more victims are being let down.
Will the right hon. Lady give way?
I am grateful to the right hon. Lady for giving way. I understand the picture that she is trying to paint, but I know that she will want to give the House a balanced picture overall. I am sure, therefore, that she will want to acknowledge that in the latest publication on crime statistics by the Office for National Statistics, violence was down 8%, knife crime was down 4%, theft was down 15%, burglary, which she mentioned, was down 14%, car crime was down 6% and robbery was down 9%. Although we acknowledge that the fight against crime is never linear, we should celebrate our successes, should we not?
I am hugely relieved and glad that during lockdown, while everybody was at home, there were fewer burglaries of homes. I am also hugely relieved that during lockdown, while there were fewer people on the streets, there were fewer thefts on the streets. In April, however, the Office for National Statistics said:
“Since restrictions were lifted following the third national lockdown in early 2021, police recorded crime data show indications that certain offence types are returning to or exceeding the levels seen before the pandemic… violence and sexual offences recorded by the police have exceeded pre-pandemic levels”.
On overall crime, I am sure that the Policing Minister would not want to make the mistake that the Business Secretary made of somehow dismissing fraud, which is responsible for some of the huge increases in crime, and of saying that it is not a crime that affects people’s daily life. We know that it causes huge problems and huge harms, particularly for vulnerable people across the country.
My right hon. Friend is coming up with some telling statistics. I have talked to constituents and the police, who say that morale has never been lower and their numbers have never been so small. Since 2010, Conservative Governments have diminished resources for the justice system more than for anything dealt with by other Departments. The balance is totally out, so the morale of the police and the confidence of my constituents have plummeted.
My hon. Friend makes an important point. I pay tribute to police officers across the country who are working incredibly hard in our communities to try to crack down on and prevent crime. They walk towards danger when the rest of us walk away. They are valiantly trying to hold things together, but too often, they are let down by the Government, particularly when dealing with violence against women and rape. The rape charge rate has gone down from 8.5% in 2015 to a truly shocking 1.3%. Today, in England and Wales, an estimated 300 women will be raped. About 170 of those cases will be reported to the police, but only three are likely to make it to a court of law, never mind the jail cell. Just think what that means.
That applies not just to rape, but to many other crimes. No charge are made within a year of the offence being committed in 93% of reported robberies, 95% of violent offences, 96% of thefts, 97% of sexual offences, over 98% of reported rapes and over 99% of frauds. It is a total disgrace. As one police officer said to me, “This is awful—it feels like once serious offences are effectively being decriminalised”, because there are no consequences.
My right hon. Friend is making a very powerful speech. I want to move on beyond the police to the issues she has raised about fraud. Fraud is now the biggest crime facing us, and the cost to the economy is coming on for something like £190 billion a year. Does she agree with me that, as well as funding the police, it is absolutely imperative that we fund all the enforcement agencies fighting this sort of economic crime? While the Americans are raising the amount of money spent on this, we are lowering our investment into the enforcement agencies.
My right hon. Friend makes a really important point, and we will pay the price if the law against economic crime is not enforced. The system just is not working. Everybody will know what a nightmare it is to try to report fraud; they may be passed from pillar to post, and sent between Action Fraud and the local police force. She is right, too, on some of the more serious issues, where this is also about the relationship between the police, the Serious Fraud Office and other enforcement agencies that need to take action. I hope this will be debated in our discussions on economic crime.
It is a really damning picture: crime rising while there is a shocking drop in prosecutions and action. But what is the Home Secretary’s response? Soon after she took up the job, she said:
“let the message go out…To the British people—we hear you… And to the criminals, I simply say this: We are coming after you.”
Well, to the Home Secretary I simply say this: “You’d better start running faster, because they’re all getting away.”
To be fair to the Prime Minister, yesterday his main Home Office focus was anger at the Passport Office, and that is probably something all of us can agree on, including the newly-weds who are having to cancel their honeymoon, and the hard-pressed families who face losing thousands of pounds that they had long saved up for a well-deserved holiday. Ministers told us the issue was being sorted out, but most of us can say from our constituency casework that it is getting worse. People are being badly let down, so the Prime Minister was right to be angry yesterday, although who does he think has been in charge of the Passport Office for the last 12 years?
The Prime Minister now says he wants to privatise the Passport Office if this is not sorted out. However, the immigration Minister—the Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department, the hon. Member for Torbay (Kevin Foster)—told us:
“The private sector is already being used in the vast majority of the processes in the Passport Office.”
He also said:
“The bit that is not…is the decision itself.”—[Official Report, 27 April 2022; Vol. 712, c. 767.]
That leaves us back with the Home Office failing to get a grip on private sector contracts and failing to take basic decisions. It is part of the pattern of Home Office failure and the Prime Minister casting around to get someone else to step in. Ukrainians fleeing war have been waiting weeks on end for visas because the Home Office added long bureaucratic delays. So many desperate families have given up because they could not afford to wait; they have found somewhere else to live, and others to give them sanctuary instead. There have been 80,000 applications to Homes for Ukraine, but only 19,000 people have arrived.
The right hon. Member is being very generous with her time. She made a point about Ukrainian refugees; a family moved in next door to me two weeks ago. I would like to thank the Home Secretary personally: the family got in touch with me, and within minutes of my contacting the Home Secretary about them, her team had got back to me. The family is now in our village of Kirkby-in-Ashfield. They thank the Home Secretary, the Prime Minister and the people of Great Britain.
The people of Great Britain have shown that they want to help desperate families who are fleeing Ukraine. However, the facts are clear: there have been 80,000 applications, but there are only 19,000 people here. The Home Secretary says that is because they are staying where they are. Yes, a lot of them are; they gave up because it became so difficult.
Does my right hon. Friend agree with me about the really troubling reports—some of these are cases I have dealt with, but some of these I heard of through the media—of the Home Office issuing visas for only some members of Ukrainian families? The families quite rightly do not want to leave someone behind, so do not come here. That is classed as Ukrainians not taking up a visa, rather than Home Office failure. At the same time, the Home Office lines are bunged up. We cannot get through, and when we do, we are told, “I don’t even have a computer in front of me. I’m just on a phone line, and I don’t know what to say.” This is failure at the Home Office, and the Home Secretary has presided over it.
My hon. Friend is right. I have also heard of cases where one family member does not get their visa, and of course the whole family has to wait. They are not going to be separated at a time of crisis. That Home Office Ministers think it is somehow a triumph to take four weeks to issue basic visas to people fleeing war in Europe is totally shameful.
It now takes more than a year to get a basic initial asylum decision, because the Home Office is taking just 14,000 initial decisions a year—half the number it was taking in 2015. This basic incompetence means that the backlog has soared, and so too has the bill for the taxpayer. It takes nearly two years to get a modern slavery referral, which means that victims do not get support and prosecutions just do not happen. No wonder that even the Prime Minister, who is not known for his laser-like focus on delivering policies, has lost confidence in the Home Secretary and is getting other people to do the jobs instead.
The Prime Minister is looking to privatise the Passport Office; channel crossings are to be handed over to the Ministry of Defence; Homes for Ukraine is to be handed over to the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities; and visas are to be handed over to the new Refugees Minister. Decision making on asylum processing is so slow that Ministers are in the ludicrous and unworkable situation of paying Rwanda over £100 million to take decisions for us. At this rate, crime will be given to the Ministry of Justice and the fire service will be given to the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs. Under this Home Secretary, the Home Office has in effect been put into special measures because it cannot get the basics right. If the Home Secretary cannot get the basics done on any of those core decisions, she should get out the way and let someone else sort it out.
There is an alternative to this shambles. On crime and prosecutions, it was obvious a decade ago that this was where we were heading as a result of Government policies. I warned in 2013 of the risk of falling charge rates. I warned then about the Home Office’s failure to help the police tackle increasingly complex and fast-changing crimes, and about the risks if there was no proper, urgent plan to modernise policing, none of which has happened. I also gave a warning about what it would be like if the police were ripped out of the heart of our communities. Now, our towns, cities and rural communities are all paying the price; they all feel that the criminal justice system is not there for them when they need it.
Where is the action in the Queen’s Speech to turn this around? Where is the action to help the police modernise, so that they can keep up with fast-changing crimes? Where is the action on reform, and on raising police standards so that we improve confidence? Where is the action on getting justice and improving safety for women and girls? There is nothing on establishing specialist rape investigation units in every police force, nothing on establishing specialist rape courts to speed up cases and make sure that they have the expertise necessary, nothing on setting up the domestic abuse and stalking perpetrators register for which we have been calling for years, and nothing to establish a mandatory minimum sentence for rape—all things Labour has been calling for. There is nothing to tackle antisocial behaviour—the powers are just not being used. There is nothing to sort out community penalties, which are too often dropped, and nothing to prevent crime and antisocial behaviour There is nothing to ensure that neighbourhood police are restored to our streets or to set up neighbourhood prevention teams, which Labour has repeatedly called for.
The Home Secretary wants to boast that she is delivering the biggest increase in police funding for 10 years—well, who has been in power for the last 10 years? She has not even restored the police her party cut and she is not getting them out on to the streets. There are still 7,000 fewer police in our neighbourhoods compared with 2015. Instead, the police are weighed down by more bureaucracy, stuck back at their desks doing paperwork—the only way to improve their visibility is to move their desks nearer to the window.
To be fair, the Government have proposed a victims’ Bill, and we would support that, but it is only in draft and it was first promised in 2015. It was promised again in 2016, again in 2017, again in 2019 and, yes, again in 2021. This year, it did not even get a proper mention in the Humble Address and there was certainly nothing from the Prime Minister yesterday.
The Home Secretary rightly made a personal commitment to strengthen victims’ rights back in 2014 when she first said that she backed a new victims’ law. She was right to do so because at that time 9% of cases were being dropped because victims were dropping out of the criminal justice system as they had lost confidence. Since then, those figures have almost trebled. Last year, 1.3 million cases were dropped because victims gave up and dropped out. Yet is she seriously telling us she does not have time in this Parliament for victims again? Instead, the Government’s top priority is a rehashed Public Order Bill, even though they have just done one, because they are again failing to work with the police to sort out swift injunctions against serious disruptive protests or to help the police sensibly to use the powers that they have.
There are Bills that should command cross-party support. Labour supports a “protect” duty that could keep people safer from potential terror attacks. We remember with sadness all the victims of the Manchester attack. I ask the Government to listen to the calls from bereaved families from other major incidents, and I ask the Home Secretary again to look at calls for a Hillsborough law, which she knows have been made by Members across the House and by the families who have lost so much.
Labour also welcomes the long-overdue economic crime Bill. We have called for years for action to strengthen Companies House and we will be pressing for stronger action on money laundering, including illicit finance used for terrorist activity. On terrorism and national security, we always stand ready to work with the Government in the national interest. We agree on the need for a register of foreign agents, which, again, has been promised for years. We need much greater vigilance and action against hostile state activity. My hon. Friend the Member for Halifax (Holly Lynch) raised a significant issue that the Home Secretary did not answer, so I ask her to consider it and to be ready to answer it in future. There should be some transparency on the issues around contact with foreign agents. It would be helpful if she could confirm whether the Prime Minister, when he was Foreign Secretary, met the ex-KGB agent Alexander Lebedev in Italy in April 2018 and whether any civil servants were present. It would be very helpful to know that information.
Labour supports stronger action on modern slavery and hopes that the Bill will be an opportunity to go further, but the Home Secretary needs to reverse some of the damaging provisions from the Nationality and Borders Act 2022 that will make it harder to prosecute trafficking and slavery gangs, as the retiring Independent Anti-Slavery Commissioner has warned. We must also ask: where is the employment Bill with the long-promised single enforcement body to crack down on forced labour and abuse? Without those measures, this is still not a serious plan to tackle modern slavery.
In the absence of any serious action in the Queen’s Speech on the cost of living or to push prosecutions up, the Government talked instead about levelling up and community pride. The trouble is, they just do not get it. There is no levelling up if people cannot afford to eat, cannot afford to pay their bills or cannot afford to go to the local shops. There is no community pride if town centres do not have police officers or see no action when there is vandalism, street drinking, shoplifting or litter—or if, too often, the windows are broken and nothing is done. How can people have that local pride if there are no neighbourhood police to help prevent crimes, solve problems or nip them in the bud, or if people feel that there are no consequences for criminals? The very communities to whom the Government keep making false promises about levelling up are towns that are being hardest hit by antisocial behaviour and persistent unsolved crimes.
Trust within our communities depends on us having trust in the law and trust in there being consequences. That is why Labour has called for the police to be getting back on the street and to have neighbourhood prevention teams and partnerships in place that work both to prevent crime but also to tackle the criminals and bring them to justice. If people stop believing that a fair and valiant criminal justice system will come to their aid if they are hurt or wronged, that is corrosive for our democracy, too. That is why it is so damaging to feel like we have a Government who shrug their shoulders as victims of crime are let down. The Conservative party in government is not a party of law and order any more. Too often, it is a party of crime and disorder, a party that is weak on crime and weak on the causes of crime, letting more criminals off and letting our communities down. Britain deserves better than that.
I remind everybody that those participating in the debate are expected to be here for the wind-ups. There will be wind-ups today and on subsequent days, unlike yesterday. I will not put a time limit on speeches at the moment, but I urge people to be at least aware of the length of their speeches.
I support the Queen’s Speech and the programme unveiled by the Government. One can see politics getting back to normal and I am sure that the contest in the House today will be watched in the next two years as we glide to the likely date of a general election. Both sides are feisty performers and I am sure that many of us appreciate that.
The Government’s programme sets out to help grow the economy. It is for safer streets and for supporting the recovery of the national health service. The economy is in much better shape than one might have thought when we had the prolonged period of lockdown. We have a growing economy—this year it will be the fastest growing of many in the G7—a budget that is moving towards balance and falling national debt. There are challenges with the cost of living and inflation, but the Government have so far put in £22 billion of support, they are monitoring the situation and I am sure that, as things unfold, there will be further support as and when needed. One could never argue that the Government have not given support to the British people over the past two or three years. We must wait and see how things unfold on energy. Gas prices have fallen in recent months. Let us all hope that that continues and that inflation is lower than some predict. That is not to say that there are not challenges out there, but I think that the Government have proven that they can rise to challenges.
Some of the measures in the Queen’s Speech are useful to help and support the growing economy, in particular those to deregulate some of the EU regulations that we put into British law when we left the EU. Logically, we need to review them now to see if we can get ourselves a more efficient, more competitive economy. So I welcome the Bills that are looking at that area.
Of course, energy is a major challenge. It is my great pleasure to commend the Minister for Energy, Clean Growth and Climate Change, my right hon. Friend the Member for Chelsea and Fulham (Greg Hands), who is doing an excellent job with his energy brief. The Government are grappling with issues such as nuclear power, oil and gas, and renewables to increase our capacity. That is to be commended. Indeed, it is sensible, even if we are heading for net zero at some point in the future, that we use the resources that God has given us and which the British economy has proved able to get out of the ground. We are going to need oil and gas for a long time and the Government are proving that they want to make use of those resources to make us a richer and more competitive country.
Nuclear power is very important. We can see the mistake the Germans made in announcing the closure of their nuclear power stations and their dependency on Russian gas. We need to replace many of the Magnox stations that are going to go offline. This is an exciting time. I hope we get a decision on Sizewell soon. I am particularly pleased that Rolls-Royce has, with its partners, come up with a scheme for smaller nuclear power stations. I think that is going to be a game changer for the United Kingdom and it could be a game changer for exports to many countries that wish to avail themselves of safe nuclear power, so I think that is good.
There is one area, agriculture, that I am still a bit concerned about. I still think we seem to spend a little too much time talking about trimming hedges and less about producing food. One thing the pandemic and the current world shortages have proven is that resilience and local production are important. I would be very disappointed if the food we were producing reduced to below 50%. If anything, we ought to be producing more. I therefore think there needs to be a rethink in this area.
I am not a great fan of Bank of England independence. I have always been a little sceptical about it.
On my hon. Friend’s first two subjects, I wonder if he would reflect on the fact that both in terms of nuclear power and agriculture we have the freedom and flexibility that come from his and my vote to leave the European Union. On nuclear power, he will recall the blood-curdling predictions that we would fail in that particular industry by departing from Euratom all those years ago. Does he agree that, along with the French now, we can position ourselves as the only two serious nuclear powers in Europe?
That is absolutely so. The original design teams for British nuclear power were taken apart. To have a productive nuclear power industry, we need continued investment in new plants. The good thing about what has happened at Hinkley C, Sizewell and Rolls-Royce is that we are getting design teams together and collaborating with other partners. That will be a major game changer in terms of Britain being able to produce the power we need in future.
Going back to the Bank of England, I am a little concerned that it has merrily gone on printing money. I am old enough to still be a monetarist in its broadest sense. One of the reasons we have higher inflation is that we have allowed for it because of monetary growth. If we had stopped printing money sooner and put up interest rates sooner, the consequences of the current spike in inflation would be less severe. Nevertheless, we are where we are. At least it is only the European Central Bank printing money at the moment and Britain can get back to a more sensible policy.
We have very low levels of unemployment and high levels of employment. There are many other measures in the Loyal Speech. We are trying to improve education and outputs in that area. We really do have to educate our population, so they become more productive and we can get productivity up. If we get the investment and education right, there is nothing we cannot do in the future.
I thank the Home Office for the hard work it put in in the last Session. My constituents are very appreciative that we now have powers to deal with Travellers, who tend to cause problems every summer in Dorset. They are also pleased that we are starting to deal with illegal immigration. Immigration has to be fair. If people follow the system, pay the fees, fill out the forms and wait in the queue, it is fundamentally unfair that people arrive in boats and try to jump the queue. The Government are therefore taking action. A lot of the action will put off some of those people from coming in an illegal way, which I think is good.
I am particularly pleased with the public order measures announced today. My constituents look at people trying to wreck petrol stations and getting on tankers—taking action that is dangerous. I have to say that my sympathy was with the woman in the Range Rover who was trying to nudge protesters. A lot of people work hard. They try to get their kids to school and keep them in school uniform. They take people to hospital. Protesters who are not demonstrators but are disrupting other people’s livelihoods need to be curtailed. The measures are therefore welcome and I am glad the Government are on the front foot when it comes to dealing with these issues. That is vital. Part of the problem and the reason we have to legislate is that we have seen examples of City banks where people outside have hit buildings and smashed windows with hammers, and, unfortunately, the judicial system has let people off. Sometimes the people who are making decisions in the judicial system do not understand the seriousness of where that leads. If we let there be some degree of anarchy, that can easily overspill and break out, so the measures are welcome.
Of course 13,500 police officers are welcome. I still think the police need some reform. It is the one area that Mrs Thatcher did not reform and sometimes the productivity we get out of the police force is not all that we need. We need some specialists in police forces, so I do not think that just the head count of police officers is important. It is important sometimes when dealing with fraud to deal with people who are experts in that, rather than people who just happen to be officers.
My final point is that we put a lot of money into the national health service. It is important we get the productivity. It is also important that it does not disappear and we cannot deal with care. We made a number of commitments. People are paying higher taxes, at least in the short term, to deal with the backlog and care. It is so important we live up to the pledges we made.
I welcome the Loyal Speech and what the Government are doing. I have one or two concerns, but broadly speaking I am supportive.
The debate today is about preventing crime and delivering justice. We heard the Home Secretary’s claim, delivered without any sense of irony, to belong to the party of law and order, but this Government’s record is one of seeking out every opportunity they can to put themselves beyond justice and above the rule of law. We have had a decade of successive Tory Governments obsessed with chipping away at any institutions or activities that constrain or hold them to account: trade unions, charities, the Electoral Commission, our courts and, obviously, our EU member-ship. Now, it is human rights and protesters yet again in the firing line. To this Government even international law is almost inconsequential, broken quite readily, whether in a specific and limited way or by a complete trashing of the refugee convention.
This is a Government too often pursuing pet obsessions and short-term headlines instead of dealing with the basics. While people struggle to heat their homes and put food on the table because of the cost of living crisis, the Government, instead of taking the action we need, imagine up a Brexit freedoms Bill. Six tortuous years after the Brexit referendum, they are still trying to scapegoat Brussels.
There were newspaper reports of a Cabinet rebellion to stop imports of foie gras being outlawed. How about a rebellion to protect workers’ rights or human rights, or to help our constituents to heat their homes and put food on the table? This is a Government who are out of touch. Those skewed priorities are just as evident in the sphere of justice and home affairs, with two Departments cut to the bone by a decade of austerity pursuing obsessions, pet projects and ridiculous headlines instead of taking the action and making the investment required to deliver the decent public services we need them to deliver. This Government are just not getting on with the job. People just want their passports delivered on time! Despite all the fuss made by Brexiteers, it does not matter what colour the passports are if they arrive too late. The Home Secretary very generously agreed to take away individual cases, but I think she will find that her inbox will be absolutely overflowing with thousands of emails if we take her up on that.
If the Government are to insist on Ukrainians applying for visas—we continue to argue that they should not—then they need to be delivered speedily and efficiently, because leaving those fleeing war in limbo is unforgivable. The Home Secretary seemed to talk up the fact that 19,000 had arrived here. I salute the generosity of the British people in opening their homes, but there are already 27,000 in Ireland, a country that is about one-thirteenth the size of this country. The bureaucracy put in place by this Home Secretary is not allowing this country to step up to the plate. In fact, the whole asylum and immigration system needs to be sped up, with decision making improved and the hostile environment ditched. For those who are victims of that hostile environment, we need an overhaul of the Windrush compensation scheme, because it is appalling that people continue to die without seeing a penny of what they are due. If the Government are serious about the lessons learned from that disaster, we need a more serious set of actions to implement Wendy Williams’ recommendations, including a migrants commissioner.
All those very basic issues need to be addressed, but instead what we get in this Queen’s Speech are further attacks on our rights. Before I turn to the main offenders in the legislative programme, let me highlight the Bills for which we will offer some support and bring some light to the Home Secretary’s afternoon. An overhaul of espionage laws is badly overdue, as we know from the Russia report, the Law Commission and various other sources. We need a more resilient state with espionage laws that are fit for the 21st century and able to keep pace with the ever-changing threats that we face. However, we will always watch out for proper oversight and mechanisms to ensure that the powers are not abused by Government, and we will press the case for a public interest defence.
We welcome the economic crime Bill. Again, that is long overdue, with my hon. Friends, including my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow Central (Alison Thewliss), among the voices that have been calling for action for years. We have welcomed the online safety Bill and we recognise that it is now truer than ever that feeling safe requires regulation of the online as much as the offline.
We also support the ideas mentioned in relation to the modern slavery Bill, particularly around action on supply chains, but any modern slavery Bill worthy of the name should repeal some of the provisions of the odious Nationality and Borders Act 2022, which was passed just last month and which will undoubtedly make life worse, not better, for victims of trafficking, including those who face being sent to Rwanda. We will engage positively, though cautiously, with discussions about the Protect duty and that draft Bill. However, these are not the dangerous obsessions or pet projects to which I referred. Those come in the form of the legislation to meddle with the Human Rights Act and to undermine yet again the right to protest.
The Human Rights Act
“works well and has benefited many”.
The Government know this as they were told so by their independent review body, which noted that many so-called problems with the Act are more to do with perception than reality, requiring a remedy through a focus on human rights education, not a radical overhaul. The Joint Committee on Human Rights has also done excellent work in highlighting the “enormously positive” impact of the Act on the protection of human rights in the UK, concluding firmly that no case for reform had been established.
This is about people being able to have a practical means of enforcing our human rights, challenging unlawful Government policies and securing justice. It is about ensuring that people interacting with the state, whether that is the police or in care homes or hospitals, are treated with dignity and respect. Our public services are better, not worse for being fully accountable to our constituents in the courts here, instead of their having to travel to Strasbourg to vindicate their rights. That is what the Government risk undermining and damaging, not delivering justice but seeking to protect themselves from it. We will oppose the proposals every step of the way.
The proposals tell us something much more fundamental about the British constitution, because the Human Rights Act is, after all, a piece of legislation that is absolutely crucial to the devolution settlements. That has not been recognised at all in this debate. Along with the Scotland Act 1998, it is absolutely fundamental in setting out what the Scottish Parliament and Government can and cannot do. It is the same for Wales and it is pivotal, too, for Northern Ireland.
Not for the first time, here is a Tory Government fixing up the balance of powers in the United Kingdom not through negotiation, agreement and endorsement, but unilaterally, without consent and absolutely without cause. In most states and most countries, such fundamental changes would require agreement; approval in all the impacted legislatures; sometimes even double majorities; sometimes endorsement through referenda. But here in the UK, the Tories can rewrite the constitutional settlement to suit themselves in the blink of an eye, such is the lack of checks and constraints on them.
A Home Office focused on Scotland would tear up the immigration system that has served us so badly, left us without the people we desperately need for our economy and public services, and undermined the rights and security of so many of the people we already have welcomed. It would utterly reject an asylum system that is expressly and increasingly designed to make people suffer.
If we really wanted to prevent crime and deliver justice, we would overhaul the out-of-date Misuse of Drugs Act 1971, which exacerbates one of the most persistent and difficult public health challenges that we face today. This is the scourge that is inextricably linked with so much crime, overcrowded prisons, serious and organised crime groups, county lines, modern slavery, drugs deaths and ruined lives. The Misuse of Drugs Act is not working and, in too many respects, is now undermining efforts to tackle all those fundamental problems. Even very obvious evidence-based policies, such as overdose prevention facilities, remain hugely difficult because of that Act. There were some very welcome steps in the Government’s drugs strategy, but for real progress to be made, we continue to make the case for that Act to receive a radical review and overhaul.
Those are just some of the things that we desperately need from this Home Secretary and this Government, but they will never be delivered. They are a Department and a Government that deliver nothing of substance for the people of Scotland, instead undermining our rights and undermining the Scottish Parliament. This Government will not deliver. More than anything, this Queen’s Speech shows us that we in Scotland need to get on with delivering for ourselves.
Preventing crime and delivering justice—surely if we get the first bit right, we do not need the second. That is wishful thinking, I know, but it is nevertheless true. Sadly, we do not live in a perfect world, so justice is needed, and the best justice is swift justice. Justice delayed is justice denied.
The legacy of covid lives on in so many ways. In the last Session, we did much to help alleviate the pressures on the justice system, but we will have to wait and see. We made new laws to protect our borders. To me, it never made sense to spend huge amounts of money on a justice system and to continue to let people come in illegally. Am I saying that these people are all criminals? Not necessarily, but it does not look good on anyone’s CV. “How did you arrive in this country?” “Well, I gave a people smuggler all my cash and I hoped to beat the system.” That is unacceptable. It had to be dealt with and I hope that what we have put in place will do just that.
We have given tougher sentences for many crimes, and even though I do not necessarily believe that a 25-year sentence will deter people from committing some of the devastating crimes that happen, it will at least keep them off the street for a much longer period and help the poor victim to move on. I welcome the victims Bill, too. That is the right thing to do, and I hope that it will make a huge difference to how victims are treated and hopefully encourage more to come forward.
Today, I want to talk about prevention. As chair of the all-party group on issues affecting men and boys, I am fully aware of the statistics about men and crime. Men make up 95% of the prison population—just let me run that by the House again: 95% of the prison population are men. If this was a statistic for any other demographic, there would be a public outcry, so why is there not? It is because that is what we have come to expect of a large number of our population. Some say, “Men are bad”, but I say to the House: no, no, no—that is not true. Far too many men and boys are being forgotten, left behind and ignored, and they are now being increasingly vilified. We hear about toxic masculinity. Some say, “Impose a curfew on all men”—yes, that is what was seriously suggested—and “All men are bad.” We cannot let that constant vilification happen. I say here and now that this has to stop.
We need to deal with this head on and ask ourselves the simple question: why? Why are men committing so much crime? Why are so many women being murdered, attacked and abused? Why are so many men being murdered, attacked and abused? Why? Do I have the answers to those questions? No, not yet—it is not simple—but we need to get there, and I believe that we could get there a lot quicker. We need help with that, such as through a Minister for men and boys, a Minister for their health and wellbeing, a national men’s health strategy. If we are serious about fighting crime, let us tackle the causes as well as the symptoms. I believe that if we were to start asking those questions, we would protect our women and girls so much more. We would also protect our men and boys, but we must start asking the questions.
I have spoken with many people in my position as an MP and as chair of the APPG, and they agree that we cannot arrest ourselves out of all crime. Having more police is great, and we are getting many, but if every police officer were to go out on the beat, there would still be some streets without a police officer. It is great that we are lighting roads, but I am afraid that attacks will still happen on some of those roads and behind closed doors.
We have to ask why. Why is this the case? Is it drugs, alcohol, mental health or a bad childhood experience? What drove these people to drugs, alcohol or depression? Why are they not talking about their dreadful past? Is it the result of being the victim of sexual abuse or pornography? Is it the internet? Is it from being brought up in a dysfunctional family or a community that does not bring hope? Is it peer pressure or gangs? Why do young people join a gang? There are lots of questions, but there are answers. If we really want to protect one another, surely we should be finding those answers.
I wrote an article in The Yorkshire Post last week with an analogy:
“if out of every 1,000 cars we had three that were faulty…Would we ban all cars? Would we build more hospitals? Would we wrap every pedestrian in bubble wrap? No…we would try and find out what has gone wrong with the cars.”
That is what I believe we should do with that small minority of men and boys. I have been told that as chair of the APPG I may get some opposition, but I can tell the House that I have not—not yet, anyway. The reason is that if anyone really thinks about it, they will see that I am trying to help society as a whole.
Who would a men’s Minister speak to? Lots of men, hopefully, and lots of women too, but in this place I would expect them to speak to Ministers in the Department for Education, the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities, the Department of Health and Social Care, the Department for Work and Pensions, the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport, the Ministry of Defence, the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy—the list goes on. We need someone to see all the problems that men face, collate them all and then speak to the Home Office and say, “This is what’s going wrong.” It has to happen. We have to ask these questions, and we have to find the answers.
I have a wife, a daughter and a son. I want them all to go about their business safe and happy. We all want that, so let us use our heads. Yes, we want swift justice and long sentences where required, but let us try and prevent the crimes from happening in the first place. Let us see what has gone wrong with a small minority of our men and why they are in the criminal justice system or may end up in it. Then, when we know, we will need a concerted effort to fix the problem at source.
We need to fix the faulty cars before they head for the road. I know that the House will agree that we would find it hard to manage without cars. Well, we would find it much harder to manage without men.
I do not often get the chance to speak in the House—being shadow Minister without portfolio means having a lot to do, but often without the opportunity to say very much—so I am delighted to be able to contribute to the debate.
The Home Secretary is just leaving the Chamber. This will not do either her or me very much good—I may even get chased from this place by my own colleagues—but in her absence I want to say that I like the Home Secretary. I also like the Minister for Crime and Policing.
That will definitely not do me any good.
One thing I admire about the Home Secretary, even though I profoundly disagree with her, is that she believes in things. However, despite her virtuoso performance at the Dispatch Box today, I do not think that she believes some of the accusations that she levelled at the Opposition. I do not think for a second that the Government think that an Opposition led by a former Director of Public Prosecutions, who prosecuted terrorists and the worst sort of criminals and offenders and made sure that they were put in prison, are any sort of threat to national security. We can argue about policy, record and delivery, but let us not kid ourselves or the British public, because frankly they do not believe it either.
Before I come on to my main remarks about the Loyal Address, I want to place on record, given the topic of today’s debate, my thanks to and admiration for Merseyside police, led by Chief Constable Serena Kennedy. We have been blessed in Merseyside with good leadership using all the tools to provide a robust policing response to things that matter to people in St Helens and across Merseyside, tackle the root causes of crime and antisocial behaviour, and give no quarter to those criminals who would terrorise our communities. I stand squarely behind our police force—the men and women of Merseyside police who put themselves daily in harm’s way to keep us and our communities safe.
I turn to the wider aspects of the programme that the Government have set out, or the lack thereof. This was a gilt-edged chance for the Government to grab the cost of living crisis by the scruff of the neck. More than that, it was a chance to lay the groundwork after the pandemic, for prosperity and renewal across our communities and to set a pathway to the securer future that has never felt further away for many of our citizens, but is so badly needed.
The House will not be surprised to hear this, but I regret to say that I think the Government missed that opportunity. That matters, because this is not just about the theatre of the state opening. This is a profoundly worrying juncture for our country. Inflation is soaring and is predicted to rise further to some 10%, fuel and food prices are skyrocketing, and 15 of the tax rises imposed by this Government are hitting working people particularly. A national insurance hike—a tax on working people—is the wrong tax, at the wrong time, on the wrong people.
When I speak to residents, my neighbours in St Helens, their families, pensioners, businesses and local community groups, it is clear that this crisis is really affecting people and that they are really worrying about how they will cope. That was the stark reality that I heard from community groups in St Helens at a recent meeting that I convened with some of those who work with our community and residents who are affected. What they tell me is borne out by statistics from very reputable sources. Nine in 10 people have already seen a rise in the cost of living, are already experiencing more expensive energy bills, and are seeing more costly groceries on their weekly shop. Nearly a quarter of adults are finding it difficult to pay their usual household bills.
Worryingly, food bank use in St Helens North has risen by nearly 900 users over the past year, including 300 children—in the United Kingdom, in the 21st century, in a town like St Helens. This is not often cited, but our food banks are also wrestling with a 30% reduction in donations, because people who previously gave cannot afford to now because they have to look after themselves. Our transport costs are also rising, making it harder to get to work, see family and friends and stay connected. That has a huge impact on inequality.
Even before the crisis, a sixth of households in my constituency were in fuel poverty, so I was very pleased that a central plank of the Labour party’s offer in the local election campaign was putting up to £600 back in people’s pockets now by levelling a windfall tax on the excess profits of the oil and gas companies, which to all intents and purposes are printing money because of the increase in costs. At a time when the Government should be using every policy lever they can to deliver security, they had no answer this week.
As I have said before, our communities are resilient. We have been through a lot over the past two years—in fact, over the past 20 or 30 years—but people have come together to meet the challenges, particularly under the banner of St Helens Together, in a spirit of generosity, kindness and solidarity. Contrary to what some commentators wish to believe, communities in the north of England are not homogeneous and the challenges we face are nuanced, but our sense of place is important, as it is in St Helens. We are proud of that and remain steadfast in our ambitions for a better and securer future. That is why—this is a point that I have consistently made—it is not just about criticising the Government. Part of my job as an Opposition MP is to do that, but it is not enough.
I have agency. I am a Member of Parliament and a political leader, so just attacking the Government for what they are failing to do does not wash for my constituents in St Helens. They want to see action, so we are taking responsibility. As political, business and community leaders, we are addressing the big challenges facing our towns and villages in the Liverpool city region by regenerating our town centres through an historic, innovative £200 million partnership with the English cities fund; securing £25 million of innovative projects from the towns fund; investing record amounts in children’s services and focusing on the next generation’s educational attainment; and creating decent, secure and skilled jobs, training and opportunities through world-leading initiatives such as Glass Futures.
We are regenerating former colliery sites such as Parkside. They are not just a monument to those who worked there, proud as we are of that heritage. They are places that will create new employment opportunities for a whole new generation of people across our coalfields. We are revolutionising public transport, we are taking steps to bring buses back into public ownership, and we are seeking to “bring rail home” to where it originated, with the Rainhill trials, through our bid to host the headquarters of Great British Railways in our borough.
Our approach was endorsed again last week, when Labour increased its vote share in St Helens after its candidate stood for election on the basis of the party’s record and an ambitious manifesto. It is now back, forming a new administration in our council with a strong mandate to continue.
Disappointed as I am—as would be expected—with what the Government have, or indeed have not, included in their legislative programme, that is not an excuse for me or anyone else to abdicate responsibility. I know that I have a job to do for my community, and we are of course taking responsibility, because we are proud of our past and ambitious for our future. However, I must stress to Ministers that people are worried. There are huge fears about the cost of living and what it means for their families, and that clouds the present and makes it more difficult to be optimistic about the future. I wish that the Government would do more to help me and my constituents in St Helens, but also to help people throughout the country. I wish that they would help us to get through the cost of living crisis, but also to push on with our plans to build a better and brighter future. If they do not, however, we in Helens will, as always, just do it ourselves.
It is a great pleasure to be called. Law and order is a subject that is close to all our hearts, as has been made clear by the passionate contributions that we have heard so far.
I shall not speak for long, but I want to do two things. First, I want to provide a constituency perspective—a local perspective—which I think is relevant. Secondly, I want to explain why I feel that the crime prevention measures in the Queen’s Speech are so important.
Bracknell is the safest major town in Berkshire, and the 21st safest town in the United Kingdom. That is a great accolade. These statistics, by the way, are taken from the website crimerate.co.uk, and I urge everyone to look at them. The overall crime rate in Bracknell in 2021 was 60 crimes per 1,000 people. That compares favourably with Berkshire’s overall crime rate, being 25% lower than the Berkshire rate of 75 per 1,000. East Berkshire is a pretty good place to live, offering good schools and good roads; we also have almost full employment. I am proud to represent those who live in my constituency.
Crowthorne is deemed to be a “small town” in this analysis, although it is probably a village. In 2021 the overall crime rate was 43 crimes per 1,000 people, 76% lower than the overall Berkshire rate. In Sandhurst, the overall rate in 2021 was 45 crimes per 1,000 people, 69% lower than the Berkshire rate. Finchampstead—which is certainly a village—is categorised as one of the five safest small towns or areas in Berkshire, with a rate of 36 crimes per 1,000 people.
The most common crime recorded in my constituency is violence against the person, including, sadly, sexual violence, so we have work to do. I therefore welcome a number of the measures in the Queen’s Speech. I do not want to wax too lyrical about what we have already heard, and the Home Secretary has covered all the detail. However, I welcome the Public Order Bill, the economic crime Bill, the economic crime and corporate transparency Bill, the modern slavery Bill, the National Security Bill, the draft protect duty Bill and the Online Safety Bill.
Let me focus on three of the Bills that have been announced. The draft victims Bill will set out to restore victims’ confidence that their voices will be properly heard, and that perpetrators will be brought to justice. That is very important to my constituents. The Online Safety Bill creates a new regulatory framework that improves user safety online while safeguarding freedom of expression, making the UK one of the safest places in the world in which to be online. The Bill of Rights, which has real relevance locally, will ensure that there is a proper balance between the rights of individuals, our vital national security and effective government, strengthening freedom of speech and our common-law traditions, and—rightly—reducing reliance on Strasbourg case law post-Brexit.
There are some additional issues to focus on. For instance, 13,500 new police officers have been provided so far in this Parliament as part of the manifesto commitment to put 20,000 extra officers on the streets. We are getting there. Thames Valley alone has gained an additional 368 police officers, with a further 233 projected for this year. That is great news for Bracknell, for Berkshire and for Thames Valley. The commitment to introduce a new drugs strategy is extremely important: we need to break up county lines and criminal gangs, and help those who are struggling and are the victims of crime. So far we have seen the closure of 1,500 county lines, 600 operations against organised crime groups, and more than 220,000 drug seizures. Those are impressive figures, but we can go further. For the purpose of crime prevention, £200 million is being offered for a 10-year youth endowment fund.
I have already mentioned the Public Order Bill. It is so important for people to be able to go about their daily business and get to work, and for ambulances to get to hospitals. No one has the right to impede the way in which other people lead their lives, and those who chain themselves to railings and glue themselves to the road need to be in jail: that is a fact.
I welcome all these Bills on the basis of their inherent merits, and because they will make a difference. Let me end with three key points which are important to me locally, and to my constituents.
We need stronger powers to deal with antisocial behaviour, in terms of police response and in terms of arrest at the scene. We see a great deal of such behaviour in Bracknell, in the wider constituency area and throughout the United Kingdom. Antisocial driving is another feature locally. On Saturday evening, at Birch Hill Sainsburys in Bracknell, there was a big car meet. That is fine: I love cars. I am a motor sports fan, and I chair the all-party parliamentary group for motorsport. However, activities of that kind must be managed and controlled. People were spinning cars and doing “doughnuts”; there was tyre smoke, and there was a huge amount of noise. It reached the point at which residents were being assaulted. This cannot continue to happen. I would urge Sainsburys to lock its car parks at night when its stores are not open—that would be an easy way of dealing with the problem—but I would also urge Bracknell Forest Council, the Thames Valley police and crime commissioner and Thames Valley police to deal more responsibly with such incidents, which cause misery to all concerned. We must cut down on speed, on antisocial driving and on noise nuisance.
A constituent of mine, Luke Ings, was jailed at the age of 18 for affray. He is now 37 years old, and he is still in Durham prison. He has done his time, in my view. He is what is known as an IPP prisoner—imprisoned for public protection. He has been given an indeterminate sentence. I suggest to the Minister that we need to review IPP prisoners to ensure that we are not locking people up beyond the point at which they have be locked up. Luke Ings has done his time; let us please release him.
Young Stacey Queripel, aged seven, was found dead—murdered—in woods in Bracknell 29 years ago. I think we need to focus a bit more on cold cases and cold case reviews. I want to see more police resources given to investigating that particular crime, and all those like it. No one has been brought to justice for that murder in 29 years, and the family still live in Bracknell.
I am very happy with the announcements made yesterday, and I am very supportive of the Government. I think that the Bills will make a difference—but I also think we can go further.
I appreciate being called so early in the debate, Mr Deputy Speaker.
Many people were looking forward to the Queen’s Speech—not just Members in this House but those who have been affected by the huge problems that have arisen as we have come out of the pandemic: the hospital waiting lists, the impact on the economy, and now, of course, the cost of living increase, as well as events occurring internationally, whether in eastern Europe or further afield. We wish the Government well in seeking to address those problems.
We will be critical of many of the measures, but it is important that the Government have highlighted the right priorities to deal with the cost of living crisis, which needs to be addressed very quickly. Many people are now struggling to meet the ordinary day-to-day expenses they face, not for luxuries but for basic necessities, and the Government need to act quickly by putting money back in people’s pockets. I believe that individuals are best placed to decide how they spend their money.
I understand the problem that the Prime Minister and the Chancellor have outlined about huge debt and having to pay it back, but the inflationary pressures that have occurred over the last number of months have given the Government a windfall. They have given the Government finance that is available for tax cuts and, against a background of having imposed the heaviest tax burden on the people of this country since the 1950s, one way of dealing with this issue is to make immediate tax cuts. There is a benefit in doing that, in that it puts money in people’s pockets immediately. Also, not having complicated schemes would ensure that those benefits would be seen to come directly from the Westminster Parliament. One of my concerns about the Union is that the benefits that occur because of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland being part of the fifth biggest economy in the world are often hidden because the money is devolved down to the regions; we get complicated schemes, and the benefits are seen to come not from being part of the United Kingdom but from the actions of the devolved Administrations. The Government should consider how they can quickly address this issue and how they can ensure that people understand that the benefits have come because they are part of the United Kingdom. As a Unionist, I would advocate that the Government take that stance.
We welcome many of the law and order and justice initiatives in the Queen’s Speech. It is right that we address the issue of slavery, and I hope that that legislation will delve into the supply chains. Many of us obtain cheap goods because firms are careless as to where they source those goods. I do not want to get cheap clothes because somebody has been exploited in a third world country and the people who sell those goods have not looked into where the supply is coming from. I also welcome the initiatives on economic crime, and I hope the Government will recognise that it is not just those who engage in economic crime but those who assist them who have to be dealt with in the legislation.
As far as disruptive protest is concerned, I am not averse to protest—I have involved myself in many protests over the years of my political involvement—but we have to strike a balance between giving people the right to have their say about issues that concern them and at the same time ensuring that they do not deliberately, callously and selfishly deny others the ability to go about their business. I have witnessed at first hand the frustration of the good people of Canning Town, where I stay when I am in London, at being denied the ability to go to work. One guy said to me—I will not repeat his exact words because they were not very parliamentary—as we stood on a packed platform at Canning Town, “If I don’t get to work today I don’t get any wages, but those people sitting on top of the tube think that doesn’t matter and that their concerns are more important than my ability to go to work.” It is right that the Government should take action to ensure that those who engage in this selfish behaviour and who smugly think that their cause is more important than anybody else’s welfare are dealt with.
Of course, not all the measures will apply to Northern Ireland because many of these matters are devolved to the Northern Ireland Administration, but there are many other measures in the Queen’s Speech that will not apply to Northern Ireland because Northern Ireland is not treated the same as the United Kingdom. I looked at some of the things that the Prime Minister said yesterday. For example, he said that we were going to have measures to encourage economic growth and a bonfire of European regulations. In Northern Ireland, there will be no bonfire. There will not even be a matchstick in Northern Ireland when it comes to European regulations because we have stayed within the single market of the European Union. It would be illegal for that bonfire of regulations to apply to Northern Ireland.
That is one of the key ways in which the Government say they intend to level up economic activity within the United Kingdom, yet Northern Ireland will be exempt. The energy legislation that will be put through this House to deal with fuel bills cannot apply to Northern Ireland because Northern Ireland is part of the single electricity market, and any attempt to give support through the energy infrastructure would fall foul of the rules on state aid that apply to Northern Ireland. When it comes to support mechanisms, we have already had the example of the Chancellor being unable to fulfil the Conservative manifesto promise that when we left the EU, the Government would be free to reduce VAT on fuel bills. They could not do it. Why? Because that reduction in VAT could not apply to Northern Ireland.
I heard the former Prime Minister, the right hon. Member for Maidenhead (Mrs May), saying yesterday that we could not possibly do anything to disrupt the protocol. In this debate on crime and the threat of crime it is important to remember that Northern Ireland’s different position in the United Kingdom is due to the threats that were made by the Irish Prime Minister, by certain political parties in Northern Ireland—some of which sit here; some of which do not—and, indeed, by some Members of this House that if we did not have separate arrangements for Northern Ireland, we would face violence in Northern Ireland. The protocol is the baby of threats of crime and threats to Northern Ireland and the United Kingdom.
My right hon. Friend has just mentioned the former Prime Minister, the right hon. Member for Maidenhead. Does he agree that she made an unfortunate reference yesterday that was inaccurate, in that she seemed to allude to the fact that we could have avoided this if we had backed her proposals, when in fact we would have been in exactly the same position had GB diverted from the EU regulations? That was very unfortunate, and we have an opportunity now to rectify that error.
Under the former Prime Minister’s proposals, Northern Ireland would have been subject not only to single market rules but to customs union rules, which would have meant that we could not have benefited from the 80 trade deals that the Government have now done across the world. Thankfully that is not the case; we still have access to those trade deals, and firms in Northern Ireland have benefited from them. Indeed, I can think of an example in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for South Antrim (Paul Girvan), where a firm has set up exclusively to export the machinery that it will produce to the Australian market, as a result of the deal that we now have with Australia. There are huge benefits to being separate from the EU.
It is important to highlight that, as a result of the Northern Ireland protocol, many of the measures that the Government intend to introduce for the rest of the United Kingdom cannot apply to Northern Ireland. As my right hon. Friend the Member for Lagan Valley (Sir Jeffrey M. Donaldson) said yesterday, the Northern Ireland Assembly cannot possibly function until this issue is addressed. We are told that, without the protocol, Northern Ireland could become a hive of economic crime, because people would bring goods into Northern Ireland and smuggle them across the Irish border, contaminating the EU market. Of course, very little trade actually goes through Northern Ireland into the Irish Republic. Indeed, supermarkets that do not have shops in the Irish Republic are subject to these measures. What economic crime they will involve themselves in, I do not know. Nevertheless, that is the rationale attached to the protocol.
For the sake of good governance in Northern Ireland, this issue must be addressed. No Unionist in Northern Ireland will accept the divisiveness and economic damage of the protocol, which means there will not be consensus on the workings of the Assembly. If we do not have consensus, there will be all kinds of divisions, so the Assembly cannot possibly work. It is therefore important that this issue be addressed.
If justice is to be done for people in Northern Ireland, and if we are not to give in to the threats of criminal behaviour by those who are opposed to getting rid of the Northern Ireland protocol, the Government must take action. I am disappointed that no action was highlighted in the Queen’s Speech, but this is not solely a Northern Ireland issue.
I have already highlighted that we cannot change VAT on fuel bills, but there is another Bill absent from the Queen’s Speech. I believe there is almost universal support for improving animal welfare, as promised. Most people in the United Kingdom do not want to see the continued importation of hunting trophies from across the world. Whether Conservative or Labour, most people do not want to see the importation of foie gras, in the production of which birds are cruelly treated. I do not think most people want to see the importation of furs.
Those measures were not in the Queen’s Speech, even though the Government indicated that they would be. Why? Northern Ireland is part of the single market: those things cannot be banned in that part of the United Kingdom, because Northern Ireland would become a back door. Many of these animal welfare measures are not in the Queen’s Speech because of the Northern Ireland protocol. We have not even tested the state aid rules in the rest of the United Kingdom.
This issue needs to be addressed, and I implore the Government not to delay. There might be divisions in the Cabinet and the Conservative party, and there might be Opposition Members who really do not care that the protocol is having an impact on the Good Friday agreement, the stability of Northern Ireland and the ability of people in Northern Ireland to share the same benefits as the rest of the United Kingdom, but I assure the House that my party will do everything it can, on a weekly basis, to raise this issue with Ministers in the House of Commons and to use whatever leverage we have back home to ensure the political institutions are not contaminated by the Northern Ireland protocol.
Nobody should feel unsafe on the streets or in their home, which is why preventing crime is probably the most important part of this Queen’s Speech. Each time we debate the subject in this place, the Labour party seems to side with the criminals. I am not sure why that is, but it seems to happen every single time. The Queen’s Speech serves as a reminder to everyone that the Conservatives are the only party that is serious about law and order in the UK.
The vast majority of decent, hard-working people in this country will welcome the new public order Bill. Every week we see mindless people who have nothing better to do than wreak havoc on our streets, motorways and petrol stations. Frankly, the hard-working people of this country are fed up to the back teeth of these people disrupting lives and destroying property.
When I have been out and about, I have seen people gluing themselves to property, digging up lawns, throwing paint and performing zombie-like dances in the middle of the road with no regard for the decent, hard-working people of this country. [Interruption.] Zombie dances, a bit like Strangers Bar at night with my hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent North (Jonathan Gullis). These people have no regard for the decent, hard-working people of this country, and their guerrilla tactics are disrupting emergency workers and putting lives at risk. The public have had enough.
We were pretty good at handing out fines during lockdown. We dished out big fines, some justified and some not, and I hope the Government will consider handing out bigger fines to these public nuisances who think it is a good idea to damage petrol stations. I suggest a £10,000 fine, going up to 20 grand. That will teach them. Going back to their mum and dad with a 10 grand fine might be the deterrent they need.
Let us remind ourselves of what the Conservative party has been up to in government. We are recruiting 20,000 new police officers, and there are already more than 13,000 new police officers on our streets, making our streets safer. We have enshrined the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Act 2022 in law, giving the police extra powers to prevent crime and keep dangerous criminals off our streets. The Act stops the automatic early release of dangerous, violent and sexual offenders, widens the scope of police powers such as stop and search, and places a legal duty on local authorities to work together with fire and rescue services, the police and criminal justice agencies. Labour voted against the Act, and I will tell the House what else Labour voted against: everything in the Act.
In Ashfield we are really benefiting from a Conservative Government. We have just had £550,000 from the safer streets fund, with which we are putting up CCTV in some really dodgy areas of my town. This will make women and young girls feel safe. There will be safe hotspots where they can reach out for help. It is wonderful news for one of the most deprived areas of my constituency. We are using the fund to put up new security gates to secure alleyways, which are antisocial behaviour hotspots. The funding is making residents feel safe in their own home. It is real action. On top of that, we have new police officers in the Operation Reacher teams in Eastwood and Ashfield, which are going out to take the most undesirable people off our streets and lock them up.
The police had always been a little frustrated that the sentencing has not been enough for these criminals, but we have sorted that with the 2022 Act. People will be locked up for longer, and so they should be. It makes people in Ashfield and Eastwood feel safer, it makes me feel safer and it makes my family feel safer. When these criminals are arrested and taken through the court system, it is only right that they should be put away for as long as possible to make us all feel safe.
Labour also has no ideas about the illegal crossings by dinghies and boats coming over the channel. Labour Members seem to be confused, as they do not know the difference between an economic migrant and a genuine asylum seeker, which is a shame. My constituents in Ashfield would put them right. If Labour Members come up to my Wetherspoons in Kirkby, my constituents will tell them the difference—they are pretty good at it.
If, as the hon. Gentleman says, Opposition Members do not know the difference between economic migrants and, as he calls them, genuine asylum seekers, the Home Office does not, either. The Home Office has concluded that the vast majority of people in those boats are refugees and should be recognised as such. What does he have to say to the Home Secretary?
I thank the hon. Lady for her intervention and I think that what she describes is the fault of the old, failing asylum system; when people get here, they know how to fill the forms out and they have these lefty lawyers who say, “Put this, this and this.” So they fill the forms out and, hey presto, about 80% get asylum status, and it is wrong. It is a burden on the taxpayer, these people are abusing the system. It is a bit like some benefit cheats—they do it, don’t they? They abuse the system, saying that they are disabled when they are not. [Interruption.] Yes, they do. Come on, let’s be right about it.
Make no mistake: if that lot on the Opposition Benches got in power, perish the thought, this Rwanda plan would be scrapped within five minutes. They want to see open borders. They want to let anybody in. [Interruption.] However, I welcome the sensible comments on food bank use made by the hon. Member for St Helens North (Conor McGinn), who is not in his place. I would welcome any Opposition Member coming to visit my local food bank in Ashfield, where I help out on a regular basis. We have a great project in place at the moment.
My hon. Friend will know that there are two elements to most sentences: rehabilitation, which is important because we can rehabilitate criminals in prisons and put them back on the streets as, we hope, reformed characters; and deterrence. Does he agree that deterrence is an important function of any sentence and that longer sentences may well have the deterrent effect of saying to people, “Think twice before you commit that crime”?
I thank my hon. Friend for his intervention, as he makes a perfect point. Not only is it a great deterrent, but the longer those people are locked up in prison, the longer they cannot commit these horrible crimes.
As I was saying, the hon. Member for St Helens North made some great comments about food banks. My invitation is to every Opposition Member: come to Ashfield, work with me for a day in my local food bank and see the brilliant scheme we have in place. When people come for a food parcel now, they have to register for a budgeting course and a cooking course. We show them how to cook cheap and nutritious meals on a budget; we can make a meal for about 30p a day, and this is cooking from scratch.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his intervention, as he makes a great point. Indeed, it is exactly my point, so I invite him personally to come to Ashfield to look at how our food bank works. He will see at first hand that there is not this massive use for food banks in this country. We have generation after generation who cannot cook properly—they cannot cook a meal from scratch—and they cannot budget. The challenge is there. I make that offer to anybody. Opposition Members are sitting there with glazed expressions on their faces, looking at me as though I have landed from a different planet. They should come to Ashfield, next week or the week after, and come to a real food bank that is making a real difference to people’s lives.
I will end now, because Opposition Members are not listening; these are a generation of MPs who never listen. The bad news is that this Labour party is out of control and out of touch, but , thankfully, it is out of power. That is me done, Mr Deputy Speaker.
What I will say to the hon. Member for Ashfield (Lee Anderson) is that all of us have food banks in our constituency and we do not need to visit his, because we are perfectly well aware of the requirement for them. They are required not because people do not know how to cook, but because we have poverty in this country on a scale that should shame his Government.
Before I address the substance of today’s debate and, in particular, the Government’s plans for a British Bill of Rights, like others I would like to refer to the results of the local elections last week, because in Scotland they were a very important reminder that this British Government have no mandate in Scotland and no mandate for any of the policies they are seeking to impose on my country in their programme for government. It is no surprise that the Conservatives lost so many votes and have been reduced to third place in Scotland. When I was campaigning on the doorsteps of my constituency, I heard over and over again the contempt in which this UK Government are held, not just because of the endemic law breaking, but because of the rank lack of respect for the Scottish electorate’s frequently expressed wish for a different way of doing things, and for a second independence referendum, following the broken promises of the first.
I am particularly proud that in the Pentland Hills ward of my constituency, my colleague and friend Fiona Glasgow displaced a Tory councillor and won yet another seat for the SNP on the City of Edinburgh Council. I congratulate her on the fantastic campaign that she ran. It is always so good to see women of independent mind elected to public office.
It was suggested by the Leader of Her Majesty’s Opposition yesterday that this Queen’s Speech has no guiding principle. He is right, in so far as it abjectly fails to make meaningful proposals to reverse the cost of living crisis, which is hammering my constituents, and constituents across the UK. There is nothing in the Queen’s Speech about cutting VAT on fuel bills; nothing about taxing big companies—not only energy companies, but others with excess profits; nothing to increase benefits; and nothing to reinstate the £20 that was cut from universal credit. I heard on the radio this morning that the Cabinet met yesterday to chuck around ideas to deal with the cost of living crisis but did not come to any conclusions. The lack of urgency and focus of this Government is as insulting to my constituents as it is callous. Nor does this Queen’s Speech contain any measures to compensate my constituents for the serial incompetence of the Home Office in respect of not just the handling of immigration and asylum cases, but the issuing of passports. Lots of working-class families in my constituency have lost out on hard-worked-for holidays and it is a disgrace. Will the Government compensate them?
I might not agree with everything the Leader of Her Majesty’s Opposition says—we disagree on the right of Scotland to self-determination, and I would like him to do more to stick up for women’s sex-based rights and the rights of same-sex-attracted people—but I consider him to be a man of integrity. I do not want to live in a state where the Government, with the assistance of their little helpers in the right-wing press, are able to influence the police to reopen a closed investigation into their political enemies. It stinks, and most of my constituents can see the difference between what seems to have been a working meal and the endless parade of parties, with suitcases of booze and karaoke, that took place at No. 10 during lockdown. People are not stupid.
Yesterday, we were told in the Queen’s Speech that this Government will ensure that the constitution is upheld. I had to struggle to stop myself laughing out loud. This Prime Minister cannot even uphold the ordinary laws of the land, and in 2019 he rode roughshod over the constitution when he unlawfully prorogued Parliament. That was just the start of it, because in 2020 his Government introduced legislation designed to go back on an agreement they themselves had signed with the European Union, and they are still at it with the Northern Ireland protocol. I think this Queen’s Speech does have a guiding principle: the principle of diminishing the ability of this Parliament and the courts to hold this Government to account. We see that in the Bill of Rights, the Public Order Bill and the Brexit freedoms Bill, which will expand Executive power to amend, appeal or replace EU retained law by way of secondary legislation, so that this House cannot scrutinise it properly. So much for “taking back control”.
On the Bill of Rights, as was said by my hon. Friend the Member for Cumbernauld, Kilsyth and Kirkintilloch East (Stuart C. McDonald), the Government’s independent review of the Human Rights Act and the cross-party Joint Committee on Human Rights, of which I am a member, have found that the case for replacing the HRA with a British Bill of Rights has not been made out. The independent review suggested only very minor changes to the HRA, noting that the vast majority of submissions to that review spoke strongly in support of our Human Rights Act. But this Government did not even bother to address the findings of their own independent review, and instead published their own consultation on the day on which the independent review reported. This is extraordinary.
Yesterday, the right hon. Member for Haltemprice and Howden (Mr Davis), who is not in his place and for whom I have great respect, even though I disagree with him on this issue, tried to suggest that the main reason for modifying the Human Rights Act is that it will give the Government the ability to deport foreign criminals who have been released from prison. In the recent thorough report on Human Rights Act reform by the Joint Committee on Human Rights, published on 13 April, we examined that claim in some detail and found it to be unsubstantiated by the data produced by the Government. For anyone who is interested, the arguments are set out at paragraphs 223 to 234.
The Joint Committee also found that the Government’s case that human rights legislation is in serious need of reform is not proven. This is not evidence-based policy making. We concluded that the Government are purporting to solve non-existent problems and offering solutions that will cause only confusion and detriment to those who need their rights to be protected. We said:
“If the Government wanted to strengthen human rights they would improve how they are respected in general, improve education so that everyone knows their rights and improve access to the courts for those needing to enforce them. Improving awareness and understanding of human rights and access to the courts would have a”
“the government’s current proposals.”
Our cross-party report was agreed unanimously, so the Government should listen to what it says, as well as to the conclusions of the independent review that they commissioned.
There is of course a particular Scottish angle to the reform of the Human Rights Act, as was highlighted in a previous Joint Committee on Human Rights report, in which we recommended that any proposals to reform the Act should not be pursued without the consent of the Scottish Parliament. Again, that was the recommendation of a cross-party Committee, and it is in tune with the position of the Scottish Government. The Human Rights Act itself is a reserved matter, but human rights per se in Scotland are not reserved. We have our own Scottish Human Rights Commission, which has been A-listed by the United Nations, and it is very concerned about the Government’s plans to replace the Human Rights Act with a Bill of Rights. Indeed, the Joint Committee on Human Rights is to take evidence on that this afternoon.
The Human Rights Act that we have in this country is already a Bill of Rights. Bills of Rights have two characteristics: first, they are universal, so the rights apply to everyone, not just the people to whom the Government find it convenient to give rights; and secondly, they are a higher law, which is why the existing Human Rights Act includes the section 3 interpretative obligation. If those things are taken out, as the Government propose, it will not in fact be a Bill of Rights. Everyone knows that the Tories—or some of them, at least—have wanted to get us out of the European convention on human rights for some years. [Hon. Members: “Hear, hear!”] They are cheering now, but the reality is that their leader signed an agreement with the European Union when we left it that means we cannot leave the ECHR. This British Bill of Rights idea is, then, actually just a sneaky way to try to diminish people’s ability to enforce their rights under the ECHR.
So far this afternoon, nobody has mentioned the plans for a ban on LGB conversion therapy. I support such a ban, although I think the evidence for how much it is a contemporary problem is questionable. It was certainly a very serious problem in the past.
I will develop my argument before I give way. I am concerned that Members are coming under pressure to support a ban on what is described as trans conversion therapy that ignores the interim report of the Cass review and the testimonies of Tavistock clinic whistleblowers and detransitioners. There is an exponential rise in the number of girls seeking to transition. Many of those girls will be same-sex attracted; it is important that that possibility, and other explanations for dysphoria, such as autism, be explored in a respectful way with a qualified therapist before young women embark on a road to medicalisation. If someone experiences gender dysphoria in childhood or puberty, it does not necessarily mean that they are trans. Thousands of adult lesbians and gay men will, like me, know that to be true. It is really important that Members understand that “trans inclusive” means assuming that all children who say that they are of the opposite sex are transgender. It also means insisting that they do not need psychotherapy if they say they do not want it.
Hilary Cass, former president of the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health, has been commissioned to report on NHS gender identity services for children. Her interim report, which was published a couple of months ago, has provided worrying information about the lack of normal clinical standards being applied to children with gender distress. More work needs to be done, but the interim results show that a high proportion of cared-for children, those with autism or experience of abuse, and children who would be likely to grow up lesbian or gay are presenting for gender services. I am advocating for evidence-based policy making. Let us wait for the outcome of the Cass report, and let us not be influenced by those who want to criminalise therapists who simply want to do their job and act in their patients’ best interests. We urgently need proper, informed debate, in public and in Parliament, and it must centre on the wellbeing of children and young people.
We can have such proper, informed debates in this place and beyond only if we have free speech. The Tories say that they believe in free speech and want to better protect it as a right, but actions speak louder than words. The Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Act 2022, which was passed in the previous Session, the Public Order Bill and the Online Safety Bill all contain potential threats to freedom of expression. One of the problems with the Online Safety Bill is the introduction of a “legal but harmful” category for the removal of content. It will create a situation in which people are prevented from saying things that are legal but prohibited. There is a significant danger that, as drafted, the Bill will lead to the censorship of legal speech by online platforms and give the Government unacceptable controls over what we can and cannot say online.
As a former sex crimes prosecutor, I completely applaud the desire to protect children online that underlines the Online Safety Bill, but I am worried that the “legal but harmful” category will enable vexatious complainants to exploit the lack of definitional clarity to try to shut down lawful speech on topics of public concern on the grounds that it is “harmful” and should be subject to censorship.
Will the hon. and learned Member give way?
It is my lucky day. The hon. and learned Member is making a most interesting speech. When it comes to this Bill, does she agree that the weighting of primary and secondary legislation is worrying? Some of the definitions involved, such as those relating to freedom of speech, are so fundamental that they should be considered by this House, rather than nodded through in some instrument or another, whether under the negative or affirmative procedure.
I do share that concern. I do not think it is safe to leave the setting out of definitions that will impact on free speech to a Government Minister— particularly not one in this Government—in secondary legislation. I am most worried about the online platforms, because they cannot be trusted to police speech in a way that is properly cognisant of the law—not just law on freedom of speech, but law on freedom of belief, as well as domestic anti-discrimination law.
I shall draw my remarks to a close shortly, but let me take Twitter as an example, because this is really important. Twitter’s hateful conduct policy does not include the protected characteristic of sex, so Twitter routinely censors perfectly legitimate contributions to the public debate on women’s sex-based rights while routinely ignoring threats of violence and worse to women who participate in the debate.
In October 2019, the Joint Committee on Human Rights published a report on democracy, freedom of expression and freedom of association, in which we noted that Twitter has omitted sex from the list of protected characteristics in its hateful conduct policy. We recommended that Twitter remedy that, and in May 2019 a Twitter executive promised us that she would look at the issue; nearly three years later, nothing has been done. That is a real concern in respect of the Online Safety Bill, because when women have challenged Twitter’s unfair and discriminatory moderation policies, Twitter has responded that it does not consider itself bound by the Equality Act in providing services in the UK. Twitter’s argument is that because the company is established in Ireland as opposed to the UK, it is exempt under paragraph 2 of schedule 25 to the Equality Act. I am not sure that that is right, but it is a loophole that could be closed in the Online Safety Bill. I have already had informal discussions with Ministers about closing it.
To conclude, there is no point in saying that we need a Bill of Rights to protect free speech and then handing over the policing of speech to private companies such as Twitter, whose records show that they cannot be trusted. On free speech, the Government need to put their money where their mouth is.
It gives me great pleasure, as it always does, to speak in this debate on behalf of the great people of Peterborough. This is the best job that I will ever have. Whether I have it for two more years or for 22 years, it will always be a pleasure to talk about the issues that concern the great people of Peterborough. One of their big concerns is about crime and disorder, and they would fully expect me to come to this place to talk about some of those issues.
I am very pleased to note that the number of police officers in Cambridgeshire is now at a record level. The recruitment target has actually been surpassed for the second year in a row. It is incredibly welcome that we now have more police than ever before. We have 145 new police officers this year. That is on top of the normal expected recruitment level and above the target. There are 1,671 police officers in Peterborough and Cambridgeshire. They are on the streets of Peterborough right now, patrolling, preventing crime and doing the things that the people of Peterborough would expect them to do. I think 13,570 extra police officers have been recruited so far. That is above our 12,000 target, which is obviously good news for the country.
I wish to speak about three measures included in the Queen’s Speech: the Public Order Bill; the British Bill of Rights; and the draft victims’ Bill. First, on the Public Order Bill, one of the most popular pieces of legislation from the previous Session was the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill. In a funny sort of way, I was delighted when I saw, as expected, Labour politicians opposing the Bill both nationally and locally in my constituency, because it showed them to be out of touch with the genuine concerns of the British people. Sometimes, Labour Members seem to think that Twitter is representative of public opinion. I have news for them: it is not. The people of Peterborough are hugely supportive of measures taken against those who glue themselves to roads, who disrupt ambulances and who disrupt hard-working people going about their ordinary business. Action against the mindless fools who do that is hugely popular in Peterborough, as are measures against unauthorised travel encampments, which currently blight the picturesque village of Thorney in my constituency, preventing people from using Thorney park for football games. The cubs were supposed to be using it this weekend for some activities. Unfortunately, the unauthorised encampment is preventing people from enjoying that public space, leaving rubbish, human waste and all sorts of other unspeakables in their way, and costing taxpayers thousands of pounds to clear it.
I am enjoying the hon. Member’s speech. This summer we were all frustrated that roads were blocked, and that ambulances and fire engines were not able to get through. However, does not he agree that the police already have the powers to deal with those things and that they should be using the powers they have, rather than adding others, which will restrict the rights of people in reasonable, fair, peaceful protest?
The hon. Lady makes a thoughtful intervention and I agree with her: often, I want to see the police act much tougher on people blocking ambulances and gluing themselves to the sides of the road. However, what these measures will do is strengthen the powers that the police have in order to get rid of those nuisance issues that she quite rightly identifies.
Does not the hon. Gentleman agree that stopping people blocking roads, sending criminals back to the country from which they come and ensuring that people are not enslaved to produce the goods that we consume are just common-sense measures that most people understand and agree with?
The right hon. Gentleman is right. He identifies that hard-working people in this country completely agree with those sentiments and I am glad to be on their side. I ask hon. Members of the Labour party to do me a favour: please oppose the Public Order Bill because that will allow me to demonstrate to the people of Peterborough that, again, the Labour party is not in touch with them, their values, or their concerns. To do us all on the Conservative Benches a favour, vote against that Bill and give us an opportunity to demonstrate again how out of touch their party is.
Secondly, on the British Bill of Rights, I remind Labour Members that introducing that was a manifesto commitment—a manifesto commitment on which I was elected and on which this Conservative Government were elected, with an 80-seat majority. We have to do this. We promised the British people that we would and I am thrilled to say that that is what we are going to do. It will rip up Labour’s Human Rights Act 1998, which enshrined the European Court of Human Rights in British law. It will stop criminals dodging deportation through vexatious and continuing legal challenges. It will stop judges from Strasbourg overriding British judges, and it will protect free speech and press freedom. More important, it will also—I understand that human rights are important—restore public confidence in the law and in human rights, which is why it is such a welcome part of the Queen’s Speech.
Thirdly, on the draft victims’ Bill, I sometimes feel that the criminal justice system is not on the side of the victims of crime. The fact that we are looking to legislate on this shows that this Government are on the side of victims. We want criminals to be scared of the law. We do not want the law-abiding majority to be scared of criminals. Putting the victims’ code on a statutory footing will ensure that victims’ voices are heard.
A constituent came to see me in one of my advice surgeries. This local mum told me about her son and how he had been beaten up very badly in a bar in Peterborough. She described the experience of the criminal justice system as almost retraumatising. She was pushed from pillar to post. The very structures and resources that she thought were in place to support her and her son were found wanting. That really stayed with me. She felt let down and that they did not have enough support when it really mattered. In some exchanges, they were made to feel almost like the criminal, rather than the victims of the crime. We really must do better. The draft victims’ Bill is designed to do just that, so it must be hugely welcomed.
As I said at the start of my speech, the people of Peterborough want us to be tough on criminals. They want us to ensure that we protect the British public and they want to see natural justice done. We had that in parts in the previous Session with the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Act 2022. As I have said, it was one of the most popular pieces of legislation in Peterborough. I know from some of the measures announced in the Queen’s Speech that, again, Conservative Members and this Government have shown themselves to be in touch with the people of Peterborough and in touch with the British public.
What the hon. Member for Peterborough (Paul Bristow) said was very revealing, because he actually put on the record that most of this package of legislation is about party political advantage, posturing, setting up straw men and trying to create divisions that do not really exist, rather than trying to address the real issues facing this country, particularly the cost of living crisis, which I do not think he referred to.
What we have is the Government wasting parliamentary time, bringing back, with the Public Order Bill, the culture wars nonsense that we saw with the worst parts of the Policing, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill. At that point, it was about attacks on statues, which was very much based on what happened in Bristol. It is interesting that the hon. Member talked about public opinion, but a jury trial acquitted some of the protesters by the Colston statue.
That was very much an attack on the whole Black Lives Matter movement. Although I did not agree with the fact that the statue was removed in the way that it was, we did not need legislation increasing the maximum sentence for damaging statues to 10 years. It was just about party political point scoring.
Now we have the measures on climate change activists. Again, the Government are trying to create a false divide. Most people, if we ask them, want to see greater action on climate change and support the right to peaceful protest, while thinking that the tactics used by some protesters are ill-judged, inconsiderate and counter-productive. People who are very much involved in the environmental movement share my opinion that some of the things we have seen do not help the cause at all. However, I am not convinced there needs to be legislation on this, rather than the Government working with infrastructure providers to obtain injunctions. Again, the reason is very much about headlines and trying to stir up antipathy. It is also interesting that the people who try to do that do not even manage to pay lip service to the need to address climate change.
I am a little confused. Is the hon. Lady saying she is content for protesters to be brought before the court and punished either with imprisonment or a fine through an injunction process—a civil process—but would not support the same through a criminal process?
No, I did not say that at all. What I am saying is I think the reason the Government are bringing forward that legislation is suspect and I am not convinced that the police need these powers. I ask the Government to prove as the Bill passes through the House that the police are calling for these powers, because they were not calling for the increased powers brought in under the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill; they said they did not feel they were necessary. It is now down to the Government to prove that the injunction system does not work but, as I have said, some of the protests are ill-judged and inconsiderate to people going about their daily lives, and I think we would all speak as one on that point.
It appears at first sight that the Levelling-up and Regeneration Bill is more about spin than substance. If it genuinely gives more powers to local communities rather than developers, that is good, although the Government’s past action on this front does not inspire confidence. I hope that as we consider the Bill we can look at what has been happening. I have a case in my constituency where land originally used as meadows was designated for housing by a previous administration. The update of the local plan has been delayed, partly because the West of England has not updated its planning strategy. I think the Government rejected it. Therefore, even though we have a one-city ecology strategy that says we want to protect 30% of the land as green space, we cannot oppose the planning application on those grounds because the previous local plan is still in place. The Minister may have some experience of this sort of issue from previous roles. I hope that, when we get a chance to discuss the Bill, we can talk about how we can ensure that planning rules take into account a city’s desire to address the ecological crisis.
I would like to have a conversation with the Secretary of State for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities about architecture. His remarks on Poundbury, the village the Prince of Wales set up, were quoted at the weekend. On aesthetic grounds, I do not like Poundbury. I do not think it is brilliant architecture, so I disagree with the Prince of Wales and the Secretary of State on that. but in his comments, the Secretary of State set up a completely artificial argument, saying opposition to new housing development comes from
“a few modernist architects who sneer at what the rest of us actually like and people who dislike anything that seems small-c conservative.”
That is not the case. The opposition to new housing developments is about people wanting to protect green spaces, thinking that infrastructure is not available and being worried about the impact on road systems and local facilities. It is not about people saying, “We would accept this new housing if the architecture was more modern.” That is just made up. It does not make for good political debate if people are constructing such straw man arguments.
The privatisation of Channel 4 is an unnecessary and spiteful move. Channel 4 is not broken and does not need the Government to fix it. Public ownership is not a straitjacket; the Government are trying to say it is. The channel invests more in independent production companies outside London—including Bristol, where it has one of its regional hubs—than any other broadcaster. Privatising Channel 4 could mean £1 billion in investment lost from the UK’s nations and regions, with over 60 independent production companies at risk of going under.
The hon. Lady is making an important point. In my previous career I worked in an organisation which supported Channel 4 to encourage independent production companies across the country and help them enter the international market. It was clear from watching Sunday’s British Academy film awards that Channel 4 is an integral part of our culture; does the hon. Lady agree that the Government should do everything they can to protect it, rather than try to change it?
I entirely agree: Channel 4 is doing a brilliant job and is financially viable, and there is absolutely no reason to seek to privatise it.
The long overdue Online Safety Bill received its Second Reading in the last Session. It is good that fraud is included; many of us will have had constituents who have fallen prey to scammers. It is disappointing, however, that, with so much of a delay in bringing forward this Bill and with its having gone through pre-legislative scrutiny, there is still so much room for improvement. The Government must focus on how harmful content can be amplified and spread, including through breadcrumbing, leading to there being more smaller sites, which often contain the worst content. As the Bill stands, such sites might slip through the net because the focus is all on the larger providers. I am also concerned that the definition of what is harmful to children will be left to secondary legislation rather than be set out in the Bill, that the Government have not accepted the Law Commission recommendations on self-harm, that misogyny is not a priority, that state disinformation from countries such as Russia will still be allowed to thrive, and about much more. I hope we can significantly improve the Bill during Committee and on Report.
I welcome the renters reform Bill and the scrapping of no-fault evictions, but, again, there has been such an inexcusable delay. The legislation was promised three years ago and in that time the number of people in Bristol evicted from private rented property through no fault of their own has more than doubled.
The Mental Health Act reform Bill is another measure that has long been promised, but it is still only being published in draft. There have been some terrible stories about people with autism and learning difficulties being detained long term without their consent and a disproportionate use of sectioning for people from the black community. But this is a piecemeal measure; it addresses only one part of the problem. We know that mental health services are not fit for purpose and that many people are waiting far too long for diagnosis and treatment or are not getting help at all. We know, too, that children who need residential services often face being sent a long way from home, as beds are not available, and that far too many people resort to turning up at A&E in mental health crisis. There is a balance to be struck between giving mental health patients control over their treatment and making sure that people who would be helped by a stay in hospital get the support they need.
It was recently reported that freedom of information requests from 22 NHS trusts reveal that between 2016 and 2021 over half the 5,403 prisoners assessed by prison day psychiatrists as requiring hospitalisation were not transferred from hospital to prison. That represents an 81% increase in the number of prisoners denied a transfer in the previous five years. There is a very high threshold for that transfer request being met, so prisoners with major psychotic illnesses or chronic personality disorders are being kept in prison rather than getting the help they need. I suspect Conservative Members will think I am being a wet liberal on this, but this is as much about preventing reoffending as supporting the prisoners themselves.
There are quite a few measures missing from the Queen’s Speech that I would have hoped would be included, including the animals abroad Bill and measures on trophy hunting. Given that we long ago accepted that the production of foie gras and fur in this country was inhumane and should be prohibited, there is no excuse now that we have left the EU for not acting to ban imports too. It just shows the warped priorities of this out-of-touch Government that they would rather give in to the demands of the pro-hunting lobby on their Back Benches—and some in the Cabinet as well—than enact one of the few genuinely popular promises they have made. Senior figures in the Conservative party have spoken out about trophy hunting and they have got lots of good publicity time and again, but where is the legislation?
Regardless of whether we are supportive of the Conservative or Labour parties, or the Liberal Democrats or whatever, a huge majority of people in the United Kingdom want these animal welfare issues to be addressed, but does the hon. Lady accept that one reason why it would be difficult to implement any such legislation is that Northern Ireland cannot be covered and will become the back door into the United Kingdom for anything we banned through legislation here?
I am thankful for the right hon. Gentleman’s support for the animal welfare measures. Given that I have already spoken for rather longer than I intended to, I do not think I can unpick the Northern Ireland protocol today, but—[Interruption.] Well, there are not many Tories here, so maybe I can speak for another half an hour. I hope that as we come to talk about the future of Northern Ireland, we can look at the impact that the ban on imports would have and whether we can still proceed with it without completely upsetting the balance of politics there.
Finally, also missing from the Queen’s Speech was any action to address the cost of living crisis. According to the Food Foundation, one in seven adults now live in homes where people have skipped meals, eaten less or gone hungry. Energy bills are skyrocketing, rising inflation is starting to bite and we have heard about the 15 Tory tax rises. It is the Government’s responsibility to mitigate that suffering, whether through measures in the Queen’s Speech or through introducing a much-needed emergency Budget. What we are seeing in operation is an active choice by the Chancellor, the Prime Minister and the Government to allow that financial pressure on households to continue.
A windfall tax on BP and Shell would hardly dent their enormous recent profits of £12 billion but, while my constituents remove items from their shopping baskets, spend their days on buses to keep warm and stress over bank balances in the red, the Government have refused to act. Even Tesco has come out in support of a windfall tax, and I think the boss of BP said that it would not stop the company from investing. Labour has been clear that the best solution to the cost of living crisis is a green one, yet this speech promised nothing to help insulate homes, which would lower bills and emissions. Nor did it promise to rectify this Government’s nonsensical ban on new onshore wind.
To conclude, I look forward to debating some of the 38 Bills in the Queen’s Speech. It is a massive missed opportunity; I hope that we see an emergency Budget soon and that the Government wake up to the real crisis they face.
I was going to confine my speech to the Public Order Bill, but I will follow up on a few comments that the right hon. Member for East Antrim (Sammy Wilson) made. The more I listen to him, the more I think he speaks a good deal of common sense. I would like him to know that I for one, and a number of my colleagues, agree with much if not everything of what he says, and we have a steely resolve to make sure that we are one United Kingdom. That is what we voted for when we voted for Brexit.
My daughters, for some unfathomable reason, sometimes describe me as a grumpy old man. I really do not know why. However, there are a few things that can make me a little bit miserable, and one thing that has really grated on me in recent years is the minority of protesters who have pretty much used guerrilla warfare to disrupt the everyday lives of the vast majority of our constituents—not just mine, but everybody’s.
The good people of Dudley North are ordinary folk, working hard to make a living, a living that is increasingly harder to make in the current climate. I cannot fathom how the privileged and entitled few think it is acceptable to stop our carers and nurses from being able to get to work to care for our sick and elderly, or to blockade a fire appliance from getting to a serious fire burning a local business to the ground—or, more tragically, perhaps preventing people inside the burning building from being saved. Of course, that applies to any blue light service, not just the fire service. That minority of criminals truly disgust me. They have no concept of the real world out there. They have no concept of the misery they bring to those less fortunate than themselves.
I hope that you, Mr Deputy Speaker, and those on the Front Benches will join me in making working here more bearable for our staff, myself and my colleagues. I will not dignify his existence by tarnishing Hansard with his name, but there is a noisy man outside who dresses up as a clown and harasses and chases Members of Parliament and our staff from his little camp on the crossing island on Parliament Street. He is someone else who serves no public benefit whatsoever.
I know the character my hon. Friend alludes to, and I have witnessed some ferocious verbal attacks on my hon. Friend from that character, who patrols Whitehall like a public nuisance. May I suggest telling him that, if he is interested in changing things in this country, he should come to Dudley North and stand against my hon. Friend at the next general election?
In fact, that invitation has already been made. I am going to print off a set of nomination papers, but I wonder about the 10 people this person might need for the form to be valid.
My staff cannot hear distressed constituents on the phone through the awful racket he causes. All our staff who have offices in 1 Parliament Street suffer considerable stress and anxiety from the disruption he causes to their, and our, work. I doubt that staff in the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport and Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs, the buildings opposite, would say anything different—[Interruption.] Is someone wanting to intervene? I do not know. I heard some noises. It is like a Hoover—an irritating thing in the background. I do not know what it is.
This person needs to have his loudspeaker system confiscated and to be moved on. Personally, I would like to see him locked up in the Tower with a loudspeaker playing “Land of Hope and Glory” on repeat at maximum volume. The Met Police really should deal with him. He is causing misery to hundreds of staff, he is intimidating many—
The hon. Member clearly does not know how Parliament works, but we often make sounds across the Chamber when we disagree with someone, and I disagree with him. I am happy to swap offices: I will take his office and he can have my office. Then there will be no problem and we will not need to shut down free speech either. Win-win!
I am actually very comfortable for the hon. Member to come to Dudley North and make those very arguments, because he would be out of office completely. Please do come and make those very arguments. I am not going to allow this kind of behaviour from someone outside, who is a public nuisance, to force us to have to make changes for him.
Our police, whether in Dudley, the Met or elsewhere, need the tools to better manage and tackle the dangerous and highly disruptive tactics used by a small minority of selfish protesters to wreak havoc on people going about their daily lives. Our police already have enough to be doing without the unnecessary burden of a privileged few who seek to rinse taxpayers’ money.
It will come as no surprise that I wholeheartedly support the Public Order Bill. If that disruptive minority want to glue themselves to anything, maybe the Bill should make it easier for them to have their backsides glued to a tiny cell at Her Majesty’s pleasure. They would be most welcome.
It would be customary to say that it is an honour to follow the hon. Member for Dudley North (Marco Longhi), but, without being personal in any way, it is incredibly frustrating, when we are facing a catastrophic rise in the cost of living, a war in Europe and an economy that is just starting to recover from the covid-19 pandemic, that this is the Queen’s Speech we are dealing with today. It should have been full of ambition and vision for our country, but instead we have cynicism, half measures and a total lack of vision. We have an eclectic mix of Bills that is more about stoking division and setting up dividing lines. It does not come close to tackling the issues that the public care most about—the catastrophic fall in their incomes and the cost of living soaring as a recession looms.
The very beginning of the Queen’s Speech talked about supporting the police to make our streets safer. We know the Government have no shortage of hard-line rhetoric on crime; we heard it from the Home Secretary earlier. Browsing the headlines on any given day, there is a good chance that we will see something about how harshly criminals will be punished if they get caught. But it is the “if they get caught” bit that is really crucial. After 12 years of Conservative cuts, the police, and the justice system, often do not have the resources to investigate even the most relatively straightforward crimes. The impact of this has been devastating. The antisocial behaviour that blights significant parts of our country, including my constituency, has effectively been decriminalised. The cuts to frontline policing and the criminal justice system have caused the proportion of reported crimes ending in prosecution to plummet.
I am grateful to the hon. Lady. Obviously antisocial behaviour is an important issue across the whole country, and we definitely recognise that. In my own county of Hampshire, the police and crime commissioner has established an antisocial behaviour taskforce, using the extra resources that the Government have now provided for the third consecutive year. Has she had the same conversation with her own Labour police and crime commissioner to establish exactly the same kind of assertive response in Newcastle upon Tyne?
I appreciate that the Government state their commitment to the issue, but over the past 12 years we have seen an accumulation of the impact of public service cuts right across the board, whether in education, youth services or our police, sending the message to constituents across my constituency and elsewhere that people are getting away with it and very little can be done.
The relatively small increases in police numbers are not going to change that either. Northumbria Police has lost 1,100 officers and we still need 632 more to get back to 2010 levels, but replacing police officers is not going to take us all the way. Ministers have also shown very little interest in replacing lost back-room staff, who are essential to releasing that police resource on to the street. The Minister seems to think the problem is solved, but residents in my area, and right across the country, would disagree. We need to make community safety a priority, and that means more police out there tackling crime, antisocial behaviour and dangerous drivers: the things that they came into the force to do. The Minister’s own Back Benchers have been calling for it repeatedly today. That means tackling the backlog in the judicial system—something that the Government have simply ignored and continue to ignore.
We know the distressing impact that antisocial behaviour can have on victims, destroying their mental health and impacting every part of their life. In the worst cases it can be life-ending. When I speak to people in my constituency in Lemington, Newbiggin Hall, Kingston Park, West Denton, Gosforth and Fawdon, they are very clear that what they want is greater support and protection from antisocial behaviour and crime, and greater strength and legal protection as victims. Yet victims are too often treated as an afterthought. The community trigger, which is supposedly the main instrument to support antisocial behaviour victims, is largely unused, and meanwhile support for victims remains a postcode lottery due to the lack of dedicated Government funding. It is disappointing that the long-promised victims Bill is still not enacted after being promised in no fewer than four Queen’s Speeches and three manifestos. Putting the victims code on a statutory footing is so overdue, and I urge the Government to take up the Victims Commissioner’s recommendation to include in it victims of antisocial behaviour. We must give them the same rights as victims of crime. We must end the postcode lottery in support for victims with proper dedicated funding.
Taking on crime is also vital to rebalancing our economy—or levelling up, as the Government like to call it. Crime not only leaves people fearful in our own communities but damages the prospect of attracting people and businesses to areas that quite often badly need the investment. The levelling-up agenda itself seems up in the air, with little sense of the Government’s priorities. The modest changes expected in the Levelling-up and Regeneration Bill simply are not enough, especially if the Government have already passed up the chance to transform northern economies by delivering on the long-promised eastern leg of HS2.
In the Levelling Up White Paper, the Government identify 12 missions to drive and measure change. I do not have time to go into them all, but take, for example, the mission of 90% of children meeting the expected standard in reading, writing and maths by the end of primary school by 2030. We would all love to see it happen, but is it possible to achieve, when the highest performing areas currently do not reach 90%? It is hard to see how a Government who are presiding over half a million more children sinking into absolute poverty can possibly achieve that goal, given all that we know about the impact of poverty on achievement at school. Promises are one thing; delivery is another, and indeed there is no mention of child poverty at all in the Queen’s Speech or in the Levelling Up White Paper, even though we know it accounts for much of the difference in attainment at school across the country and impacts on so many areas of life, including health, wealth and happiness. It has become a reality that must not be named, but in failing to do so, the Government are failing our children.
I will touch on transport, because the transport Bill will include long-awaited and much-needed measures to roll out charging points for electric vehicles. Making the shift to low-carbon vehicles will save drivers money, increase energy independence and clean our air. We know that nearly 40,000 buses on Britain’s roads need to be replaced, both as part of the switch to zero-emission vehicles and to encourage people to switch from private to public transport with a new modernised fleet. The Department for Transport’s target is to fund 4,000 zero-carbon buses in this Parliament, but 40,000 need to be replaced.
The DFT’s approach of funding zero-emission buses through this ad hoc centrally administered funding pot, forcing local authorities to spend precious time and money writing bids, feels like an outdated and half-hearted solution, if I am honest, to the urgent problem of decarbonising our transport system. I often imagine my communities with full electrification of cars and buses, and think how quiet and clean the air would be. It is within our grasp; we just need more urgency, and we need to streamline the process of returning bus networks to public control, so that green buses can become integrated, efficient and accountable, like they are in major cities such as London. We want the same for Newcastle.
Fundamentally, we need to remove fossil fuels from transport. We need to make electric vehicles affordable for everyone and ensure that every community has the infrastructure to charge them. We need the right regulation and funding for a clean, efficient bus network, and we need investment in cycle paths and walking to allow people to travel safely. That is how we create safe and healthy communities.
Crippling energy bills and runaway inflation are hitting families hard, and the catastrophic fall in disposable income alongside the crisis in Ukraine will define our politics for the foreseeable future. The very first line of the Queen’s Speech should have acknowledged that we are living in a cost of living crisis and made a commitment to bringing forward a Budget to support households. Yet that is not what we got yesterday, and we are left with grudging half-measures previously announced by the Chancellor. That is scant comfort to constituents facing another increase in the energy cap in the autumn, when energy bills are expected to reach a staggering £2,500 to £3,000 on average. It is just not good enough.
Two and a half years into his premiership, it is not at all clear what the Prime Minister’s guiding mission in office is, other than staying there at all costs. It is a remarkably thin policy programme from a Government with an 80-seat majority who tell us that they are going to level up our country. It shows a Government seriously lacking in ambition and far more interested in stoking culture wars that they think will benefit them in the next election, rather than supporting British people and British businesses through the multiple domestic and international crises we face. I will work with Labour colleagues to try and improve these Bills and the Government’s programme, but frankly, after 12 years, it is time for a Labour Government.
It is a pleasure to follow my hon. Friend the Member for Newcastle upon Tyne North (Catherine McKinnell), who spoke passionately about the cost of living crisis and the problems we face that have not really been addressed by the Government’s Bills.
First, in this new Session of Parliament, I will talk about the platinum jubilee. The Loyal Address has come weeks before this year’s celebration to mark 70 years since Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth became the monarch of the United Kingdom and the head of state of other territories and countries. For me, it is particularly poignant because 20 years ago, at the golden jubilee, as a result of the efforts of people in Preston, the council, other stakeholders and me, Preston was fortunate enough to receive city status in the golden jubilee competition in which 40 towns across England competed. I do not know which town will be chosen this year but I wish good luck to whichever town it is and the Member of Parliament who represents it, because we have seen considerable investment in Preston as its profile has been raised through its city status.
Despite the joyous occasion of celebrating the Queen’s platinum jubilee, the people of Preston and the country cannot help but be distracted by the real-time tragedy of the cost of living crisis that comes on the heels of two-plus years of hardship and sacrifice caused by the global pandemic. In the Queen’s Speech, the Government made it clear that they are not interested in easing the pain of people who are suffering now and will suffer in months to come. Between last year’s Queen’s Speech and last month’s spring statement by the Chancellor, no tangible action has been brought forward to address the cost of living crisis.
The country is in a state of emergency and on the brink of a potential recession, so people need help now. I echo the calls that the Government will have heard from Opposition Members for an emergency Budget to try to address that situation. At a time when high inflation is outstripping wage and benefit increases, in conjunction with recent tax increases, this Queen’s Speech is a missed opportunity to address the issues that matter most to people: their livelihoods and the future.
Today’s debate focuses on crime and justice. The Conservative party fancies itself as tough on crime, yet it has a Prime Minister and a Chancellor who have been issued with fixed penalty notices for breaking laws that they wrote. Crime is up while criminal enforcement is down, with thousands of criminals getting off without being charged or held accountable.
The same is true for fraud and computer misuse, with online fraud soaring during the pandemic and before, yet few fraudsters are being arrested. According to the figures that I have, 416,000 cases of fraud have been reported in the last year and £35 million has been stolen as a result of that fraud, but only 156 fraudsters have been arrested. People may conclude from that that crime does indeed pay.
I am sure that the hon. Gentleman would want to acknowledge that, although he is right that fraud and computer misuse have been rising and have been included in the overall crime numbers in the last few years, quite a lot of those offences are committed by people who are operating internationally and online and who are, therefore, particularly difficult to bring to justice because they are in other jurisdictions.
I certainly agree with that point. In fact, as the Minister knows, there has been a big shift away from things such as car and telephone theft. Many people are now finding that their identities are being stolen and fraud is taking place as a result of computer crime, which is a big problem. We certainly see problems in cyber-space in terms of defence. I am pleased that the cyber-security centre is coming to Lancashire and hopes to do a great deal in that area. I am still quite bemused by the size of the resources being committed to police forces up and down the country to tackle this sort of thing, and the lack of wherewithal for Companies House to try to tackle fraud with businesses. I have had a number of cases of online fraud in my own constituency, about which I have written to the Government.
With the Online Safety Bill having been carried over into this Session, we have seen how delay has allowed disinformation to spread like wildfire online, particularly during Russia’s illegal invasion of Ukraine, which obviously speaks to the point I have just made about cyber-crime and cyber-security. We want to see more effort on scams included in the scope of that legislation, to which I know the Labour party is committed.
The data reform Bill will reform the way data is handled in the UK after Brexit. The Government have said that the changes will help to increase the competitiveness of UK businesses and boost the economy, but reinventing the wheel by finding an alternative to the general data protection regulation just so the Government can claim freedom from so-called EU red tape is a waste of time. It is posturing really, and just creating new standards for data security is not going to solve any problems.
On the question of security itself, with the current state of affairs internationally, I think the Government need to be reminded of how critical national security is. We welcome the National Security Bill, and we want to limit state threats activity in the UK. As has been witnessed in the Russian invasion of Ukraine and in state-backed interference in the UK before that, there are changing threats to the UK, and legislation on foreign interference must keep pace with the reality on the ground. We want better security and we support the National Security Bill, but we want this situation to be transformed quickly, with the cyber centre I have mentioned being constructed and the experts in there as soon as possible.
On the Public Order Bill, this should really be about tackling injustice. However, it is not about tackling injustice; it is about restricting further rights to protest in a legitimate way. There are extreme cases, as we saw here when people glued themselves to the glass in the Gallery overlooking the Chamber, but laws exist at the moment to deal with that sort of thing. The normal activity of demonstrations is something that, as a free country, we have come to expect, and if the Government are too heavy-handed on this, Bill will do a great deal more to cause problems by not allowing people to protest freely.
There is talk about an energy security Bill and how it will build on the success of last year’s COP26 environment summit in Glasgow, with a pledge to build up to eight nuclear power stations and to increase wind and solar energy production in the UK. Again, I, as a Labour Member, and my party will support an energy security Bill. In particular, an increase in the provision of nuclear power is a no-brainer to me. Over the last 20 years—I do stress the last 20 years, and I would include the Labour Government as well—what we have seen in this country is a lot of talk about nuclear without much being done. I certainly welcome the consideration given to small modular reactors, which will provide very efficient nuclear power from engines that were originally designed to power nuclear submarines rather than provide power to the public. There is potential for great developments to see us move towards a carbon-free future, and not only in this country, but for exports abroad. In the area of my constituency, we have Springfields—formerly British Nuclear Fuels, but now part of the Westinghouse Electric Corporation—which is a world leader in producing nuclear fuels. I think the 1,000-plus people who work at Springfields can look forward to extra work if this Government and any future Labour Government are committed to delivering on the ground, instead of just the talk we have had over the last 20 years.
Yes, and Mike Tynan, formerly of Westinghouse, who is a good friend of mine—he still lives near Preston—has been involved through the Advanced Manufacturing Centre in Sheffield and done a great deal of work in the area. After 12 years, I am glad that the Government finally see the benefit of that for the future, but it has taken the instability of the wholesale energy markets to bring that about. I would have liked to have seen it much earlier in this Government’s tenure or within Labour’s tenure. It should not take a war for us to move in that direction.
On energy security, I am concerned about restarting the debate about fracking. In Lancashire, we had an experimental phase of fracking, and I was quite agnostic about it when the coalition were in government and the leader of the Liberal Democrats, the right hon. Member for Kingston and Surbiton (Ed Davey), was the Energy Minister, but I am not now, because in moving from experimentation towards production we saw tremors measuring seven or eight on the Richter scale. At the time, we were told that any tremors above two or three on the scale would be dangerous and assured that the Government would look at whether work should continue, but now the Secretary of State is starting to look again at fracking. He argues that the wholesale energy market has brought that on, but the decision to put a moratorium on fracking had nothing to do with that; it was about safety in production. It was never a consideration to lift the moratorium because of energy prices. It is a desperate attempt to bring that dangerous business to certain communities—in the north of England in particular—when it is not warranted on safety grounds or, for that matter, on energy grounds. Nuclear can provide the extra energy that we need, so I support the Government in what they are trying to do on nuclear, but they are making a mistake if they think that they can revisit fracking. Labour welcomes steps for a low-carbon economy and the commitment to nuclear, and the impact that that will have on our energy independence.
Today’s debate is also about justice and, when we discuss the delivery of justice, it would be remiss of us not to mention food injustice, which we see in this country at the moment. Justice is not just about what is happening in the courts; it is also about fairness and what is happening in society. I am a Labour and Co-operative MP, and one of the co-operative movement’s founding principles is tackling hunger and food insecurity, which is critical in the face of a cost of living crisis. In one of the richest countries on earth, no one should go hungry.
Millions of people are affected by the cost of living, and in the UK 2 million people—mainly adults—have had a day when they went entirely without eating food. In this day and age, we should not accept that. We want a fair food Act that enshrines a commitment to zero hunger by 2030—a sustainable development goal that should be put into UK law—and a comprehensive national food strategy, but those were not included in the Queen’s Speech. If we were really concerned about justice, people’s ability to eat should be a priority, but the Government have not really considered that. It should have been in the Queen’s Speech. We are also aware that as many as 16 million people may be in poverty by 2023, which is less than a year away, and, according to the Resolution Foundation, 1.3 million are currently suffering in extreme poverty.
While not specifically mentioned in the Queen’s Speech, it is no secret that the Government are preparing new draft legislation to unilaterally scrap key parts of the Northern Ireland protocol, including chucking away checks on goods between Great Britain and Northern Ireland, stripping away powers of the European Court of Justice and eliminating all requirements for Northern Irish businesses to follow EU regulations. That all comes from a Government and Prime Minister who negotiated and agreed to the protocol. In September 2020, the Government were prepared to break international law in
“a very specific and limited way”—[Official Report, 8 September 2020; Vol. 679, c. 509.]
when it came to the protocol, before backing down. Yet here we are again as global Britain, issuing thinly veiled threats to Brussels under the guise of protecting peace and stability in Northern Ireland, all the while jeopardising relationships with Dublin, Brussels and Washington, and any credibility we would otherwise have with international trade partners.
The Government are currently trumpeting the Australia and New Zealand trade deal, mentioned in the Queen’s Speech, which they are looking to put through the House. The degree of trade we have lost as a result of the shenanigans over Brexit and what is happening in Northern Ireland at the moment is phenomenal. No amount of trade deals we are likely to do over the next five years will replace that loss. That is not what Brexit should have been about, according to the Government’s own declarations in the run-up to the referendum.
The Prime Minister said that the Brexit freedoms Bill, mentioned yesterday, would allow the UK to
“get on with growing our economy by making the most of our Brexit freedoms”.
by liberating the economy in the wake of the UK’s departure from the EU. Yet by overturning the protocol, the UK risks the possibility of trade retaliation during a cost of living crisis, which is a perfect storm in terms of the livelihoods of people in this country and the businesses that support those livelihoods. We are just now beginning to see the fallout from Brexit. We would have seen the fallout earlier but for covid, and now the effects of covid are being masked by increases in energy prices as a result of the Ukraine war. The cost of living crisis has several factors, which I have just mentioned. The Government are returning to the 2019 playbook of using the EU as a bogeyman following last week’s dismal election results, but people know the ruse and are tired of being taken for fools when it comes to Brexit and its so-called benefits.
The country cannot continue like this, with a cost of living crisis and the Government sleepwalking with a threadbare Queen’s Speech that will do little or nothing to improve the livelihoods and living standards of the people of this country.
Order. We are not under huge time constraints today, which is unusual, so I will not put a time limit on. We will leave it up to people to judge for themselves how long they should speak, but I should just give an indication that 10 minutes is usually the maximum for a Back-Bench speech for all sorts of reasons that I do not need to explain to anyone who feels the atmosphere of this Chamber.
It is a pleasure, an unusual pleasure, for me to follow my hon. Friend the Member for Preston (Sir Mark Hendrick). Perhaps the Government have not been able to muster enough MPs to speak in support of their legislative programme and defend it—perhaps because it is impossible to defend.
The problems our constituents face are grave and numerous: a snowballing cost of living crisis, stagnated growth, energy bills soaring by 54%, inflation at a 30-year high, the tax burden at a 50-year high, record-length NHS waiting lists and criminal prosecutions at an all-time low. The logbook of Tory failures grows more comprehensive by the day.
Our inboxes are full of correspondence from people who are struggling to make ends meet. There are schoolchildren who have to go hungry in the holidays and pensioners who are forced to choose between heating and eating—the same pensioners who suffered yet another of the Government’s broken promises when they ditched the pledge to maintain the triple lock on pensions. More than 2 million adults across the UK have gone without food for a whole day over the past month because they simply cannot afford to eat. It is a national scandal that brings shame on the Government.
Professor Sir Michael Marmot, a public health expert at University College London, said it best:
“If one household in seven is food insecure, society is failing in a fundamental way. These figures on food insecurity are all the more chilling because the problem is solvable. But, far from being solved, it is getting worse.”
In a Queen’s Speech with 38 Bills, there was nothing that would help to address the worsening cost of living crisis. In the face of the obvious need for ambitious reform and support, the Government have offered nothing in response.
It is no wonder that our regional newspaper, The Northern Echo, ran the headline today, “Have they run out of ideas?” The answer is an overwhelming, “Yes, they have,” and the people of Hartlepool agree. Last week, they cast 8,316 votes for the Labour party and 6,487 for the Government’s party. The Government have even dropped plans for the employment Bill that was promised in the last Queen’s Speech. That means that at a time when everyone is straining to make their pay packet go further and they need their wages to be protected, the Government have rolled over at the feet of the likes of P&O Ferries and others who fire and rehire at will, screwing down wages and treating loyal workers like dirt. Of course, there is nothing about slave labour in the Bills either.
The Queen’s Speech lacked any of the real substance needed to address the challenges that the UK faces. Sadly, we know that that deficiency of leadership in Government will hit low-income families hardest. Regions such as mine, where income levels are the lowest in the country and poverty rates are among the highest, will bear the brunt of the crisis.
The Secretary of State for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities—he of the funny voices on television this morning—even admitted in the media over the weekend that the Government-created cost of living crisis will further entrench the existing inequalities across our regions. In some ways, that is no surprise. We know from experience that inequalities widen when the Conservatives are in power. By their own admission, their economic mismanagement has now made it more difficult to achieve their flagship policy of levelling up.
As we have long suspected, the Government’s apparent commitment to supporting growth in our regions is nothing more than bluster and electioneering, and they completely lack the ambition and will to do so. The Levelling-up and Regeneration Bill in the Queen’s Speech is inexplicably thin. With so much inequality ripe to be addressed, it is ridiculous that getting the funding needed is a lottery for local authorities.
In the place of bold reforms, we have a centralised pot of money, controlled by Whitehall. Overworked councils that are trying to provide services to the communities that the Government left behind have to bid against one another for scraps. Even when they have a demonstrable need, they may still fail, as Billingham in my constituency did, and all the while, leafy suburbs nearby were somehow successful in their bids. Perhaps the Queen’s Speech should have had a Bill compelling the Government to be fair to all our communities.
The Secretary of State said that the Government would employ levelling-up directors to help councils to write their bids—so the Government will use taxpayer money to employ people to help places that the Government have disproportionately cut funding from to bid for pots of money that the Government control. Why do they insist on making areas that have been left behind by their failed policies jump through ridiculous hoops just to access basic pots of funding?
However, the scandal of growing poverty is what is really on my mind. I agree completely with the director of the North East Child Poverty Commission, Amanda Bailey, who said yesterday:
“We all want a North East in which every child can thrive and fulfil their potential—including through education—but they cannot do that whilst already high levels of hardship continue to grow.”
Through their failure to take decisive action, the Government are removing opportunities from children and young people in my constituency. As the Child Poverty Action Group said:
“This is a legislative agenda that risks leaving increased levels of child poverty—currently at almost 4 million and expected to rise further—as its only real legacy.”
The failure to deliver levelling up can also be seen in our struggling town centres. I will be interested to see the detail of the Government’s non-domestic rating Bill, but from the little information available, I am concerned that it will not provide the overhaul that is needed. I urge the Government instead to look at Labour’s ambitious plans to scrap and replace the outdated business rates system that disincentivises investment and holds back growth. Labour would also immediately cut tax for small business by raising the threshold for small business rate relief, supporting cash flow and investment this year.
It is time that we made the Amazons of this world pay their fair share, too. Huge online companies have thrived throughout the pandemic, and it is important that their tax burden appropriately reflects that. It is not fair that high street businesses are taxed more heavily than online giants. It is high time the Government levelled the playing field and brought business taxation into the 21st century.
Central to the rise in the cost of living is the increase in energy prices. It affects domestic consumers all over the country, but it is also felt tremendously by industries, particularly energy-intensive industries such as those in my constituency. There is nothing in the Queen’s Speech to support them, despite many months of dire warnings to the Government that some will simply no longer be able to produce their materials competitively in the UK. The job market in constituencies such as mine relies on the sector. Once again, it is my constituents who will be the hardest hit if the Government do not get a grip on the issue. Production lines across the country are dependent on the industries continuing to function, as was dramatically shown in the carbon dioxide crisis last year. If the Government were serious about keeping down prices for consumer goods for our constituents who are struggling with rising prices, they would have provided comprehensive support for those industries.
Another area in which the Queen’s Speech is completely lacking is health. The pandemic brutally exposed the cracks in our healthcare system, but the Government have done nothing to fix them. Instead, they have allowed them to yawn even wider, with gaping holes in provision. A record 6 million people are waiting for NHS treatment; they are waiting longer than ever before, often in serious pain and discomfort, limiting their ability to carry out their lives as normal.
I have said this in every Queen’s Speech and Budget debate since I was elected 12 years ago, and I call for it again: my constituents need a new hospital. To be clear, they need a proper, whole new hospital that will help my community to address the health inequalities that blight it—not a refurbishment or a single new wing added to an existing hospital, which is what the Government are currently counting among their hospital builds. They just try to fudge the numbers all the time.
This Queen’s Speech shows that Tory Ministers simply do not understand the enormity of the cost of living crisis that people on Teesside and across the country face. Instead of introducing measures to deal with rocketing food and energy costs, the Government are choosing to forge ahead with a tranche of half-baked and recycled ideas from previous Queen’s Speeches that they have failed to implement and, worse still, with unnecessary ideological Bills that will do nothing to help the people of this country.
Why are the Government ploughing ahead with a media Bill that will see Channel 4—a unique institution that is owned by the British public but costs them nothing—sold to a foreign bidder? All that demonstrates is that the Government are not serious about supporting British-made programming and our home-grown creative industries across the UK.
Another broken promise is action on conversion therapy. The Government promised a comprehensive ban, so why will their ban not cover trans people or consenting adults? It is now time to end that cruel practice for all, with no exceptions.
The transport Bill is yet more evidence of a Government who are out of touch with the country. Under the Tories, rail passengers are paying more but getting less in return. Fares have risen twice as fast as wages, but services have been slashed and our constituents are being priced out of rail travel. Constituencies such as mine do not even have proper infrastructure to support improved rail services for constituents, so how do they stand to benefit from the Bill? There is nothing to improve our dire bus services either.
At the same time, the Tory Mayor has poured tens of millions of pounds into Teesside International airport, which continues to lose money. Those losses may increase after Loganair ends flights to Heathrow and Southampton, as was announced yesterday. The Mayor has blamed Heathrow charges, but I met Heathrow airport this morning and I suspect that the decision has more to do with Loganair’s arrangements with the Mayor and the extremely low usage rates. I am determined to get to the bottom of it. Perhaps I might suggest to the Government a Bill to ensure full transparency where public money is being used. I think that that would be a very good idea.
We needed a Queen’s Speech that would tackle the cost of living crisis, with an emergency budget, including a windfall tax, to get money off people’s energy bills. Instead, we got the last scrapings of the barrel from a Government who have run out of ideas and are unable to tackle the challenges that our country is facing. They should make way for a party that will do so.
The Liberal Democrats exist to build and safeguard a free, fair and open society in which we seek to balance the fundamental values of liberty, equality and community, and in which no one is enslaved by poverty, ignorance and conformity.
Let us take poverty first. If there was one message that the people of this country sent the Government in the recent council elections, it was that they were struggling and needed help at this time of a cost of living crisis. When we compare that message with the contents of Her Majesty’s Gracious Speech, we see a Government who are not listening to what the people are asking them to do.
This is a Government who are more interested in stoking culture wars and opening past sores than in looking forward to a future on which we can all agree. We need only look at the way in which they are attacking our human rights. Promoting human rights is at the heart of what Liberal Democrats believe: it is in the DNA of our mission. What we have seen in the Queen’s Speech, however, is a replacement of the Human Rights Act with a so-called Bill of Rights that will weaken, limit and undermine our current human rights protections. I do not think that that is what people throughout the country have asked for, and it is certainly not their priority at the moment.
Let us now put aside what is in the speech, which is underwhelming, and look at what has been missed out completely. There is no law to make misogyny a hate crime, there is no reform of the criminal justice system that has failed women and girls in particular for far too long, and there is nothing for the 4.1 million victims of fraud.
I have had personal experience of fraud recently. My official Twitter account was hacked, and I found myself looking at my online self trying to flog PlayStation 5s to my unwitting Twitter followers. Luckily none of them took it on and no one was inconvenienced, but it took an age for me to regain control of my account. When we reported the incident to Action Fraud, I eventually received a phone call from—I must say—a lovely gentleman, who told me that of his team of four who, with him, comprised the entire support network, three were off with covid and the other was on holiday. I am pretty sure that I received the call because I was an MP and we had reported it because we were worried about security concerns.
I think that this omission says a great deal about the emphasis that the Government put on online crime, which is worth £27 billion a year. The Liberal Democrats do not believe that the provision in the Online Safety Bill is sufficient, which is why we are calling for the creation of an online crime agency to tackle illegal online content and activity effectively; but the Government, I am afraid, are not listening.
It is not just new legislation that is missing. I hope that some loose ends from the last Session will be tied up in this one, and I am thinking in particular of the Vagrancy Act. There was much celebration in all parts of the House when we finally consigned that Act to history, at least in theory, because in reality it has not yet been scrapped. The Government’s public consultation closed last week. I sincerely hope that the Act will not be in force this Christmas, and that we will no longer be a country which criminalises people simply for being homeless. I look forward to truly celebrating when that happens.
My campaign began when the issue was brought to my attention by Oxford students. When they were turfed out of clubs at a late hour they would have conversations with homeless people on the streets of Oxford, which was how they discovered that the Vagrancy Act was one of the measures used by the police to move them on.
Those students have now graduated, but another campaign is being run by new students on an issue that is really troublesome. I want to raise it in my speech today, and I sincerely hope it will find its way into one of the 38 Bills. It is a campaign to stop the use of gagging clauses for university students. This applies in particular to young women, because it is mainly young women who are the victims of this, and they are being encouraged to not speak out about their experiences of sexual assault in university. The prevalence of sexual violence among young women and girls is well known, and there are doughty campaigners on this on all sides of the House.
The group It Happens Here supports survivors of sexual violence at the University of Oxford, and it urged one survivor—I will call her Lucy—to come to me with her story. She has given me permission to tell her story today, to show just how widespread this issue is. She was assaulted in her college dorm room by her ex-partner, who lives in the same college. With support from the Oxford sexual abuse and rape crisis centre, she reported the assault to the police during the Easter holidays. On returning to the university, she was terrified that her assaulter would find out that she had reported him to the police and therefore try to hurt her again. On the advice of the crisis centre, she spoke to the principal of her college about putting in place measures to protect her.
Months went by. Eventually, the college set up what is known as a no-contact agreement. This banned both students from entering each other’s accommodations and set out separate times to enter the dining hall. That sounds perfectly sensible, except that the agreement was conditional—and by the way, breach of the condition would result in expulsion—on neither party making any information about the assault, the police case or the college publicly available in any way. That is shameful. These are Lucy’s own words:
“I signed it, feeling terrified that if I didn’t agree to it he would be able to enter my accommodation without any consequence. But I was incredibly upset about the effective gag clause. I was terrified of telling absolutely anyone anything, because what if college interpreted that as ‘publicly available’? I felt I couldn’t talk to anyone, my friends or my mental health support or my GP, because of it and felt very alone.”
This is not an isolated case. It Happens Here, the group supporting victims such as Lucy, has received testimony from survivors across several different colleges who are under similar gagging orders. I am aware of young women who are my constituents who are scared to talk to me directly about this because they are fearful that it would invoke the gagging clause and that they would be expelled. They fear that they have to choose between their voice and their future. The irony of this is that in cases of sexual violence, that discrepancy of power is at the core. It is not just about sex; it is about power. These young women have gone from a situation where they were robbed of their power into another situation where that power is again taken away, this time by the college.
I want to congratulate those survivors on having the courage to come forward to It Happens Here and to congratulate Lucy on coming to me, and I would urge others to do the same. I congratulate the Oxford student union, and especially Ffion Samuels, who have been brilliant at bringing these cases forward. I am pleased to report that Lady Margaret Hall, the college that Lucy attended, has now taken the important first step of signing a pledge committing never to use these types of non-disclosure agreements in cases of sexual misconduct, harassment or bullying. For this, it should be applauded, but it is shameful that it is the only Oxbridge college to have signed such a pledge. Some other universities have done so, but these agreements are rife in many other universities across the country.
I am grateful to the Universities Minister, who has called on all colleges to sign that pledge, and also to the Home Secretary who earlier today condemned such use of gagging clauses and agreed to meet me so that I could relay more stories of these victims. But for the survivors of sexual violence, delivering justice surely begins with allowing them to tell their story. We should be helping those victims to reclaim their power. These gagging clauses in the cases of sexual misconduct do nothing to help that. In fact, they do the exact opposite. They are immoral, they have no place in modern society, and I simply urge the Minister: please can we find a way to address this in this Parliament?
We meet during a cost of living emergency, which is why I am so taken aback that too many Tory MPs in this debate—though there are far too few here now—instead of calling for the action and support that millions of people across our country need, have resorted to Alf Garnett cosplay, ranting about so-called benefit cheats, ranting about asylum seekers and fixating on a single protester outside Parliament and how he annoys them.
Millions of people are having to choose between heating and eating. Pensioners are riding buses to keep warm. Parents are going a whole day without eating to keep the kids fed. It is a cost of living emergency and, if we recognise it as an emergency, the Queen’s Speech should have been used to implement emergency measures to help people now, yet the Tories offered nothing in the Queen’s Speech. The Government are sitting on their hands and refusing to act. They are standing idly by while others suffer. Why? Because, actually, it has not been a bad crisis for everyone.
I understand that not all Tory MPs realise this, but the Tory party exists to ensure that wealth is sucked from the many into the hands of a few. Like Robin Hood in reverse, they rob from the poor and give to the rich. British billionaires increased their wealth hugely, by £290 million a day, in the first year of the pandemic. We have seen billions of pounds handed out in crony Government covid contracts. We have seen multibillion pounds of tax cuts for bankers, even as banks are recording record profits. Some are doing very well at the moment.
Given all that wealth, and given that we are the fifth biggest economy on Earth, it is clearer than ever before that poverty is always a political choice, including during this cost of living emergency. The Conservatives are choosing to push people into poverty through this cost of living crisis so that more and more of the wealth in our society goes to the wealthy.
Take energy, for example. Bills are rocketing. [Interruption.] The Tories scoff, but millions of people in this country will not take kindly to having it explained to them by the hon. Member for Ashfield (Lee Anderson) that, actually, food banks exist because people do not have the cooking skills to feed themselves and because people do not know how to budget. That is completely out of touch, despite the Alf Garnett theatrics, and it is completely contemptuous of the reality faced by millions of people in our society.
The End Fuel Poverty Coalition is warning that the energy crisis could leave more than 8 million households, in one of the richest countries on Earth, unable to heat their home. At the same time, gas and oil giants are making £900 profit every second. Yesterday’s Queen’s Speech should have been the moment to make our energy system work for people, not for profit, by including a windfall tax to raise billions to lower the bills of millions. Not only that, it should have introduced the price caps we have seen in France, which have allowed bills to rise by only 4% and not by the 54% we have seen here, and we should have seen action to bring the energy system back into public ownership so that it works for people and not for profit. But the Prime Minister and his Government are willing to accept millions of people being forced into fuel poverty because that, to them, is more acceptable than the alternative of reducing the profits of the oil and gas giants. We often hear discussions about wage restraint; during a cost of living emergency we should be having discussions about profit restraint as well sometimes. But the Government are on the side of the oil and gas giants, not on the side of the vast majority of people in our society.
We need an emergency plan to tackle this social emergency—instead of doing nothing, the Government should be doing everything they can to immediately get money into the pockets of the millions of people hit hard by the cost of living crisis. That is why I have tabled an amendment to this Queen’s Speech calling on the Government to deliver a wealth tax Bill, which would introduce the best ways of raising taxes on the very wealthiest in our society. The tens of billions of pounds that would raise could be used to create a huge emergency fund to support people through the cost of living emergency. That is the job of the Government: people need security in their standard of living and to be able to pay their bills and have a roof over their head. The Government need to ensure that people get enough to eat, and have enough to heat their homes and to be treated with the respect that they deserve.
How obscene that we are having this discussion in one of the richest countries on earth and that the Government have deliberately squandered the chance to take the action needed to support people who are facing a cost of living emergency that they have never experienced before. It is at times like these that people look to the Government to do the right thing and support them through the toughest times. This Government, true to their political ideology, have chosen not to do that and instead to stand by and leave people to it, which is unforgivable. A wealth tax should be just the start of taking action to support people—the many in our society.
It is a pleasure to follow my hon. Friend the Member for Leeds East (Richard Burgon) and his passionate calls for action. I have become accustomed to feeling disappointment, dismay, despair and, at times, disgust in response to Government pronouncements, but this Queen’s Speech is a new low. The people of my constituency deserve better than this low-growth, high-tax and, increasingly, high-inflation Government. Under Labour we had growth on average of 2% each year, but under the Tories it is averaging 1.5% and is forecast to go negative. The cost of living crisis brought about by this Government has my constituents flocking to food banks. The choice between eating and heating is real in my constituency. Child poverty rates in the north-east rose by more than a third, to 37%, between 2015 and 2019. Some 61% of children in Elswick in my constituency are growing up in poverty—this is in 2022!
What is the Government’s response? This Queen’s speech is remarkable for what is not in it, not what is: there is no emergency budget, with a windfall tax to get money off people’s bills, as Labour has called for; and it contains no employment Bill, although the Government promised one. We needed a real plan for growth to get our economy firing on all cylinders, with a climate investment pledge, and a commitment to buy, make and sell more in Britain. Instead, the Government hike national insurance; cut universal credit; have real-terms pay cuts for public sector workers; freeze the rate of local housing allowance; and freeze the cap on childcare costs that UC claimants are entitled to. Each of those decisions make it even harder for my constituents to deal with rising costs.
The problem is that this Government do not believe that government can make a positive difference to people’s lives. That leaves my constituents with stagnating wages; the north-east regional economy without the investment it needs; hard-working Geordies facing massive technological and economic change without the skills they need; and the Tyne bridge peeling and our buses infrequent and overpriced. It does not have to be this way, because government can be a force for good. Governments can look ahead and plan—although not this Government, obviously.
I want to show how it can be different by looking at one Bill that was actually mentioned in the Queen’s Speech and that really highlights the point, and by looking at where the Government are creating growth: in online crime. Online, the Conservatives are the party of no law and total disorder. The Home Secretary did not even bother to defend her Government’s record when I challenged her earlier. I am an engineer and a passionate advocate for technology and innovation. It has truly distressed me to see technology go from being boring but useful to exciting but exploitative. Our constituents fear that tech is managing them, tracking, monitoring and analysing their every move, and then serving them up to be trolled, exploited, scammed, groomed or just bombarded with advertising and misinformation.
Online harms are not some future threat but an established current reality about which successive Conservative and Liberal Democrat Governments have done absolutely nothing, because they have believed in and, indeed, promoted the silicon valley libertarian lie that Governments could do nothing about the internet. They have thereby allowed monopolistic platforms to acquire more money and power than many Governments have. That power is used to deny workers’ rights in silicon valley and to delay and minimise regulation here.
Successive Conservative and Liberal Democrat Governments chose to leave it to the market, blinded by their belief that the state was too slow or too stupid to regulate to keep people safe and secure online. They did that while actively cutting the parts of the state—such as the police and trading standards—the job of which it is to protect people. We now see the same dogmatic approach in the Government’s attitude to the cost of living. They refuse to take action, such as by introducing a windfall tax, and instead cut programmes, such as the green homes scheme—axed just six months after it was announced—that could help.
Nevertheless, it is possible for Governments to take action. The Labour Government at the time saw the fast-evolving communications landscape of the late ’90s, consulted widely and put in place forward-looking regulation in the form of the Communications Act 2003, which set out a regulatory landscape fit for the next decade. Come 2013, the Conservative-Liberal Democrat Government chose to ignore the many calls, from me and many others, to do something similar. It is no surprise that the former Liberal Democrat Deputy Prime Minister is now Facebook’s president of global affairs, justifying the online harms that deliver billions of pounds of revenue to that company.
The Online Safety Bill in the Queen’s Speech will not be in place before 2023, so Conservatives have left my constituents unprotected and insecure online for more than a decade. The much-delayed Bill still fails in so many ways. It fails to strengthen child protection across the entire internet; to properly address the harmful impact that social media can have on young people’s mental health; and to ensure a voice to victims of abuse and harm online. The Bill needs to tackle disinformation online, and to close the loophole that means people are not properly protected from online fraud by ensuring that all platforms take a proactive approach to preventing scams.
The data reform Bill, also in the Queen’s Speech, seems to be more about taking away protections than about giving new digital rights, and the digital markets Bill has no proper enforcer. This Government are constructing a piecemeal, ad hoc and, at times, kneejerk online legislative framework when what we need is a comprehensive, cross-departmental, evidence-based, forward-looking review of digital rights and responsibilities so that we can have a regulatory framework that is fit for the future. This is the security and the respect that the British public deserve in the digital age. It is also mind-numbingly depressing that the Government are repeating their mistakes of a decade ago, ignoring emerging harms, algorithms, artificial intelligence, the internet of things, bossware and data dominance.
There is nothing in the Bill that addresses the decentralisation inherent in web 3.0 reflected in the use of blockchain as part of the future architecture of the web. Although distributed ledger technology has many strengths, there is also a libertarian dogmatic view that the blockchain can replace regulation in Government. That is a lie, and the Government need to show that they understand that—but, clearly, they do not.
We also need more emphasis on people’s rights, on access to algorithms and their regulation. The metaverse poses significant risk to children, with virtual reality chatrooms allowing children to mix freely with adults. Labour has long campaigned for stronger online protections for children and the public in order to keep them safe, to protect their prosperity from scams and online fraud, to secure our democracy, and to ensure that everyone is treated with decency and respect. Governments can act. This one refuses to do so. To be competitive in the global age, we need to empower everyone to be confident digital citizens. That is an economic imperative. An investment now will bear fruit for decades to come.
The Government have failed to rise to the challenge of the digital age, just as they failed to rise to the cost of living crisis, and failed to rise to the challenges of covid, of climate change, and of child poverty. They look at our northern cities and see problems to hide from, not opportunities for investment. Whether we are talking about short-term or long-term planning, this Government are failing. Britain deserves better and I look forward to a Labour Government who are on the people’s side.
What we have here is a set of divisive, straw man Bills—all fluff and no substance. Where these Bills do have substance, they are nasty and miserable, or they are in complete reverse from what was suggested in the previous Session. Planning is one such example. One moment, we were to have a developers’ charter, but a rebellion on the Tory Back Benches meant that that was suddenly reversed, so now we have a nimbys charter. Suddenly, our neighbours will be able to vote on whether we can have that loft extension. Do not upset the Joneses otherwise there will be no extra room for your child. What kind of world are we living in? It is absolute tosh. Then we have a Bill that will make sure that MPs can sit in their offices in silence—with no noisy protesters outside. Really! Is that the extent of the Government’s ambition?
The borders Bill summed up the failure of the Home Office, which is unable to properly process refugees’ applications, leaving them to wait years for proper and decent outcomes, and unable to create safe and legal routes for refugees, of which there are none at the moment for the vast majority of people in the world—none, in fact, for anyone outside Afghanistan and Ukraine. The only legal route to claim asylum is to make an illegal crossing. Is that not stupid? I would have thought that the Government would fix that tautology. No, instead they offshore the problem—they let Rwanda fix it because they cannot get their own house in order. Indeed, it is not just those applying for asylum who are suffering from Home Office mismanagement; ordinary people cannot even get their passports from the Home Office, such is the incompetence in that Department.
On conversion therapy, we have a Bill that is completely useless. Yes, it will protect under-18s, but the majority of those who attend conversion therapies are over 18 and they will of course sign a waiver because they will be told that if they want to stay in their church or their community, and with their friends and families, they will have to go through conversion therapy.
There is a good argument for including trans people in a ban on conversion therapy. I am not saying that trans people should not have psychotherapy and be able to discuss their options as they go forward, or that different options for going forward should not be presented to them and that things should not be slowed down rather than speeded up, but in conversion therapy, the therapist is trying to force people to go in one direction and that is wholly unethical in whatever form it takes. It is wrong for trans people, for gay people, or for any form of therapy where the therapist is forcing the person into a certain direction. The Government’s failure to ban trans conversion therapy, and to ban conversion therapy entirely for over-18s, is a missed opportunity.
My partner twice suffered going through conversion therapies in his long process of coming out—he comes from an evangelical Christian background—and it has caused huge amounts of pain and agony. I do not want other people to go through that, and the loophole the Government have given is not worth the paper the rest of the Bill will be written on. I am deeply saddened by that and hope the Government will come forward with something to address it.
I am interested in the hon. Gentleman’s view on this. Is he proposing there should be an absolute ban on conversion therapy, even if an adult consents? I understand the problem he raises about societal and group influence, but I am genuinely interested in how he would overcome the issue of freedom of association, or indeed action, for an adult.
I do not think that any psychotherapy processes should ever have a prescribed outcome. Of course, people can have friends persuading them one way or another, but that is not a therapeutic programme. That is the difference.
This is a lock-‘em-up Queen’s Speech: lock up the refugees if they manage to get over here because there are no other legal routes for people to come; lock up protestors; and lock up people who may be drug addicts and need treatment and support rather than a criminalising approach. Meanwhile, it allows corporations to continue to get off the hook with tax dodging, and allows the huge covid scams that existed under this Government to go unpunished. There is nothing on clamping down on those corporations that led to the Grenfell tragedy—no forcing them to pay the costs of converting all the properties up and down the country.
We could have seen a cap on fuel bills. We could have seen real progress on social care, integrating it into the NHS. We could have seen the Union saved through confederacy, with the independent sovereign states and regions of this country coming together, instead of continuing the Conservative party’s blind approach of trying to pretend the Union is not in peril and forcing it further apart.
All the Queen’s Speech does on justice is pretend there is no problem. It pretends there is no backlog in the courts. It pretends that all people want is some British Bill of Rights. It pretends that there is not a crisis in the family courts. It pretends that there is not a crisis in the magistrates system—where the Government have cut local magistrates courts up and down the country in the past 10 years, where victims and people seeking justice cannot access a local court and often have to get a bus that takes half a day to get to the local court and a bus back. There is no access whatsoever and no suggestion of fixing it. Even where the Government do suggest some positive things, it is too little.
One area where I welcome some progress is on housing and the renter’s rights Bill that the Government are suggesting will come forward in this Parliament. I welcomed that in the 2019 Queen’s Speech, I welcomed it in the 2021 Queen’s Speech and of course I welcome it in this Queen’s Speech—but this is the third attempt to announce a strengthening of tenants’ rights. Ministers are planning to produce a Green Paper, to consult on it, to produce a White Paper and to get through all the stages in this place while assuming there will not be a new Session in Parliament or a general election, which would mean that all that good work was completely wasted.
I implore the Government to get on with the process, because every minute delayed is another minute of private renters being turfed out of their homes—and I literally mean every few minutes. Research by Shelter shows that every seven minutes a section 21 eviction notice has been served to households in England since the Government first committed to ending no-fault evictions. That equals 230,000 private renters who have been evicted from their households for no fault of their own.
Every one of those renters has their own story. Just last week I heard from one, a private tenant for 13 years in her current home, who has five children between 18 and seven years old. Their landlady has informed them they that they have to leave with a section 21 notice. The council will not help them until they get a county court judgment, and that is another scandal: once they have the county court judgment against them, they have a black mark against their name and they cannot rent from the private rented sector.
In this Kafkaesque world, that parent is petrified about even being about to put a roof over her children’s heads. She has the money to pay the rent, but will any landlord, or the council, help her? She says she is terrified. She has never been in rent arrears. She has two children with autism, one of whom has hypermobility problems and both of whom attend special educational needs provision in the city. She is worried she will have to move out of the city with the rest of her family. There is no legal redress or compensation for the fact that that family have been kicked out through no fault of their own after 13 years of calling that place a home.
I am chair of the all-party parliamentary group for renters and rental reform—I should mention that we are meeting next week, for those others who want to join—and our group has heard time and again that the lives of renters are being harmed.
These moves are positive, and the Government have agreed to set up a private rented property portal. I hope the lessons have been learned from the rogue landlord register, on which the Government predicted there would be 10,000 entries but on which, after two years of operation, there are just 21 names. It is completely useless. If the Government are to make the next register work, all landlords must be on it. Every single landlord in this country, with no exceptions—everyone in this Chamber who is a landlord, everyone out there who is a landlord—needs to be on that register and there needs to be a scorecard for them. If there is not, it will not work for people.
Finally, and most pleasingly in the housing section, there is to be a new housing ombudsperson. That is music to my ears, but what is the detail going to provide? Take the deposit scheme, where there is already a system of redress: it does not allow for precedent to be set from one judgment to the next in deposit disputes. If someone wins an argument that the level of mould was the landlord’s fault and not the tenant’s, the person in the house two doors down, with the same landlord who holds the deposit back and refuses to give it to them, has to go through all the arguments again, and with a different ombudsperson they might have a different outcome. We cannot have justice like that.
An ombudsperson in housing must have precedent for all the other cases they then see, unless the precedent is overturned through legal argument; and they must have open justice, where people can see the results of previous outcomes. They must look at rent, because we know that if we abolish section 21, all landlords will do is whack up the rent and kick tenants out. The Government’s saying they will make it easier for landlords to kick people out for rent arrears without going through the courts is a worry in itself. The system must not penalise tenants if they seek to use it, as currently happens in the county court system, where it can take many months, sometimes almost a year, to even get a hearing. There is a real problem with the backlog in our courts. The Government have called the Bill on housing and renters radical, and a radical approach is needed, so I hope we will see it.
I thank you, Madam Deputy Speaker, and Mr Deputy Speaker for being so understanding regarding my need to be absent from the Chamber for a period of time and then allowing me to come back to speak. That is very gracious of you.
It is always an honour to follow the hon. Member for Brighton, Kemptown (Lloyd Russell-Moyle), who has a flair for theatrics. He is a gentleman I certainly enjoy conversing with. I am sure that his audition just now for the Christmas panto in Brighton will get some phones ringing for him.
The people of Stoke-on-Trent, Kidsgrove and Talke were delighted with this Queen’s Speech, because it talks about the very places that they are proud to call home, and about the very issues that they raised with me on the doorsteps when I was out knocking doors in the recent local elections. Today’s theme of safer streets is clearly one of those. They were delighted that the Government are pushing forward with the measures in the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Act 2022, which will see child killers receiving a whole-life sentence, killer drivers being given longer sentences, and an end to the automatic early release of violent and sexual offenders.
We will also see the adoption of the Desecration of War Memorials Bill, which I brought to this House after the shameful acts of vandalism upon our Union flag at the Cenotaph in London over a year ago now. When I looked into that, I noticed that it was happening not just in London but across the country, and sadly even in Tunstall, where a war memorial to our glorious dead was graffitied. Thanks to two fantastic young girls who went along to clean it, that really brought to people’s attention the importance of making sure that war memorials—and war graves, which the Government rightly added—have special protection. While the monetary value of war graves, for example, would require 10 or more to be damaged for any offence to go to a magistrates court, we now have an offence that reflects the emotional damage done to a community. These war memorials and war graves are in every village, town and city of our United Kingdom, and our glorious dead should always have the respect that they rightly deserve. It was just a shame that when I brought the Bill to the House Opposition Members ridiculed it as somehow being protection for statues rather than what it was clearly about—protecting war graves and memorials to our glorious dead. I hope that their jumping on the Twitter bandwagon, as the Opposition frequently like to do, will be a lesson learned and they will now come out and say that it was absolutely right to make sure that those memorials have full protection.
I am delighted to hear that we will have the draft victims Bill, because giving rights to victims is so important. It is sometimes easy, in the criminal justice system, for us to focus on the offenders and forget the victims. It is vital that we ensure that victims not only have their day in court but receive extra support and welfare after any sentence is given so that they can rightly feel recompensed for the crime committed against them.
The Nationality and Borders Act 2022 is exactly what the people of Stoke-on-Trent, Kidsgrove and Talke voted for when, back in 2016, 73% of them voted to leave the European Union because they wanted us to take back control of our borders. They wanted to send a very clear message that while they have absolutely no issue with people coming to this country legally—people, for example, who they can see are coming from Afghanistan, Syria and Ukraine fleeing persecution—they do have an issue with people choosing to come across as illegal economic migrants from safe mainland European countries such as France, putting tens of thousands of pounds into the hands of people-smuggling gangs and fuelling an industry that is causing misery and turning the English channel into a watery grave. Let us not forget that 70% of those making that journey are men. My constituents see that queue-jumping and it does not sit right with them. That is not because they are not compassionate: Stoke-on-Trent is the fifth-largest contributor to the asylum dispersal scheme. They are happy to do all they can to support those who are most vulnerable and most in need, but they want fairness. If someone is coming from Ukraine, Syria, Hong Kong or Afghanistan, that is fair. People choosing to make that journey unnecessarily is simply not right. It is jumping the queue, and the British public were delighted to hear, when I was out in Stoke-on-Trent North, Kidsgrove and Talke, that we are taking action. They are just waiting to see that first flight take off and that policy come to fruition.
The Public Order Bill is another fantastic piece of legislation. My hon. Friend the Member for Ashfield (Lee Anderson) was absolutely correct to say that it is simply not right that the crusty woke warriors who are busy gluing themselves to pavements or roads, or standing on top of trains, meaning that they cannot leave—people who are preventing others from going out to earn their money—are allowed to take that action without feeling the full force of the law. There are plenty of ways for someone to demonstrate their feelings about wanting to solve the climate change crisis without having to go to those extremities where they damage people’s lives, particularly when we are suffering with rising inflation and a rising cost of living. They are asking people potentially to lose out on a day’s pay, and that is simply not right. Those people need to be held to account, especially when—the Policing Minister has said this from the Dispatch Box—they are taking extremely dangerous action on motorways, risking the lives of men, women and children, as well as their own. That is simply not appropriate, and it is therefore correct that we take action with this Bill.
Then we have the Government’s fantastic ambition of 20,000 extra police officers, of which more than 13,500 have so far been recruited, with over 201 in Staffordshire alone. What is important—I know that the Policing Minister gets this—is that we do not just have these numbers, but that we see them transferred on to the streets. We are very lucky in Stoke-on-Trent and Staffordshire to have got rid of the absolutely pathetic former chief constable, who had no ambition, no drive and no understanding of what the people wanted or expected. We have now brought in the fantastic new chief constable, Chris Noble, who has already drawn up a completely new plan for neighbourhood policing in our local area. It means Newcastle-under-Lyme will have a new policing hub based there, with dedicated officers for the Kidsgrove and Talke area. The plan will also look at how the Stoke-on-Trent North policing area, which I also cover, will work. That will be extremely well received. The plan has bobbies on the beat and bobbies engaging with local businesses, schools and communities, but also makes sure that those response times are met. Those are all the types of thing that people want to see.
Finally, there is the safer streets fund, which I fully support. In Stoke-on-Trent, we have had a whopping £2 million or more from four successful bids. My only gripe is that none of that money has gone to Stoke-on-Trent North. It has all gone to my friends in Stoke-on-Trent Central and Stoke-on-Trent South, and I am greedy. I want my own pot of money for places such as Cobridge, Tunstall and Smallthorne, which rightly want alley gates, more CCTV and new back doors and front doors. The blight of antisocial behaviour and fly-tipping is something that Members in all parts of this House will experience in their constituencies. We need to ensure that all the measures that can be taken are taken to prevent that as best as possible. I therefore look forward to lobbying the Minister, Stoke-on-Trent City Council and the Staffordshire police, fire and crime commissioner Ben Adams to make sure that those bids go to the right place.
We also need to look at the consequences for those who are responsible for antisocial behaviour. It is easy to blame the Government, and it is easy for the public sometimes to moan at the police, but personal actions are someone’s personal responsibility, and those individuals should be held accountable for their poor choices. In the case of someone under the age of 18 who is constantly having the police knock on their door, and whose parents or carers are taking no action to back the police, the school or a social worker when they say, “You need to have stricter controls on the young person you are in charge of”, perhaps we should look at making sure that those high-vis chain gangs are not just for those who commit ASB. Perhaps the household should be made to go out and tidy up the community and clean up the streets. If they have to suffer the consequences of that delinquent’s poor actions—that feral youth who is acting in such a poor way—perhaps the whole household will take much more seriously the need to back our police, our teachers, our social workers and our care system when they say, “You, as a parent or carer, have a responsibility to bring up your child or young person in care in a responsible way.”
It is about holding people accountable. Boundaries are important. I know that, because I spent eight and a half years as a teacher before coming here. As a head of year, I was in charge of attendance and behaviour, as well as being—I am sure Opposition Members will be shocked—a trade union representative on the shop floor, proud to represent the NASUWT for all that time.
I will be quick about the other things in the Queen’s Speech because I do not want to be cheeky with time. The Mental Health Act reform Bill is personal for me; I shared my story in The Daily Telegraph about my struggles with mental health. I am proud to be part of a campaign called No Time to Wait led by my friend and former Government adviser James Starkie, which calls on the Government to ensure that we have a mental health nurse in every GP surgery across the country to help to triage. We know that 40% of GP cases are specifically for mental health, so we need action on that. I am delighted to have support from Labour Members, such as the hon. Member for Canterbury (Rosie Duffield), who is not in her place, and Liberal Democrats Members as well as the Royal College of Nursing, The Daily Telegraph and Mind, which is an important charity.
I was also delighted that the Chancellor hosted a reception for us yesterday at No. 11 Downing Street to share the campaign’s aims and raise awareness of it. I hope that that is something that the Government will take up. I see the Minister for Health, my hon. Friend the Member for Charnwood (Edward Argar), on the Treasury Bench and I am delighted that he has had the chance to hear that. I look forward to meeting him and the Secretary of State for Health and Social Care to have those further discussions. It is something that we simply must come to terms with and deal with quickly.
I am delighted that the Online Safety Bill is coming forward, because we need to tackle those vile online sites that coerce and advise people on how to take their own lives. In Stoke-on-Trent, a young man called Brett Stevens was sadly a victim of that type of crime. His mother Angela brought that to my attention and we have been engaging with the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport. It is vital that the legislation creates a new offence so that anyone who encourages or assists self-harm is held accountable by the law, as the Law Commission recommended. It is not right that those websites can do such things.
Then we have our places and the Levelling-up and Regeneration Bill: this is what the Government were elected on and what Stoke-on-Trent has been long overdue and waiting for after 70 years of Labour neglecting it and forgetting where it is, because the assumption was that it would automatically vote Labour at every general election. It took Labour losing Stoke-on-Trent for its party members to find where it is, although that was a bit of a journey—they thought it was in Stoke Newington at first, but they finally made their way to Stoke-on-Trent on a couple of occasions. Every time they have come, the Conservative gains have increased in the local elections and by-elections, so I thank them very much for all the campaigning that the Opposition are helping us with.
With the planning reforms that are being undertaken, I want the Government to go further than just compelling landlords on the high street to fill their shops after a year. I want them to strengthen planning enforcement to make sure that if a landlord’s window is broken or dirty, if there is poo muck, as there sadly is outside some of my shop fronts, or if the signs are hanging half off, the landlord is held responsible and tidies it up. It is not appropriate for a private landlord to allow the high street to become neglected and ruined. The state should give the power to local councils to hold those responsible to account.
I also want the Government to adopt my ten-minute rule Bill, which I introduced more than two years ago and reintroduced in the previous Session—I will be doing that again this time—about section 215 of the Town and Country Planning Act 1990. It would increase the current fine of a maximum of £1,000 on a rogue or absent landlord, as we have at Price and Kensington, to make it unlimited to allow a judge to determine the seriousness of the fine. The Bill would also increase the daily fine after that from £100 to £500 so that rogue landlords can be held accountable and responsible for their actions.
On education, we have the Skills and Post-16 Education Act 2022, which is brilliant because it is about time that we have a focus on technical education and apprenticeships. We need to make sure that apprenticeships work, which is why we need to reform the apprenticeship levy. Members across the House will agree that it is not working in the interest of business and is not enticing businesses to take on apprentices. We need to ensure that that lot of money, which is sitting in a pot somewhere not doing anything, is doing what it should be doing and helping those young people or adults who are looking to reskill and retrain. I am delighted to have Jess from Talke Pits as an apprentice in my office, who is doing a fantastic job. We will soon advertise for our new apprentice from Stoke-on-Trent College, because I want to make sure that I am leading the way. If I am calling for businesses to do it, I need to set the example.
The £4 billion that is going into those skills through the lifetime skills guarantee is also superb. The higher education Bill with the lifelong loan entitlement will reap benefits for those people who need to reskill or retrain, or who want to have a change, which is exciting. The Schools Bill banishes the lazy culture of low expectations and poor aspiration, which is also important, especially the increase in literacy and numeracy to 90% in young primary school students.
There are two other points. It is good that we are going for full academisation by 2030—it is about time that we do this—but there are some rotten multi-academy trusts in our system, as I know from my time as a trade union rep. We want a Bill to make sure that the board of trustees of a multi-academy trust faces an Ofsted inspection to look at its governance structures, its accounts and how it is applying its policies across the board. I want these to work, and if they do not work Labour Members will say that these are just more unaccountable and less transparent local education authorities. I do not want the Labour party to be right, which is why I want to make sure we get this policy right. I therefore hope that the Government will adopt my ten-minute rule Bill. I will be reintroducing it in this Session and seeking the cross-party support for it that I got in a previous parliamentary Session, because it is about time that boards of trustees are held to the same standards as the teachers who work within their profession.
I also wrote not long ago about grammar schools. I know that some Conservative Members will say I am just dragging up an age-old Tory argument, and Labour Members will be going, “Oh, here we go—a bit of blue on blue!” However, I think grammar schools are fantastic. I believe they are fantastic because—as I saw with my own mother, who is the beneficiary of one, and my own brother, who is the beneficiary of one—those I have met in Stoke-on-Trent who were able to attend one say that it transformed their lives for the better. It is so important to remember that 60% of grammar schools are situated in 11 out of 150 local education authority areas, which is simply not right. A child in the north-east does not have access to a single one, and that is not appropriate. That is why I hope this Government will work with me to see how we can lift the ban on grammar schools and give parents such a choice, so that parents have the same choice for a kid in Stoke-on-Trent as for a one in Kent.
After 12 years of a Conservative Government, they now promise that this will be the Queen’s Speech to fix regional inequality. Forgive me if I do not take the Government’s words at face value. We have heard all this before, and just like before, this Government are all talk and no action. First it was the long-term economic plan—remember that? The Conservative party cynically used that phrase time and again to justify slashing services for those who needed them most. Then it was the northern powerhouse. Let us check how that is going—major infrastructure projects scrapped, living standards down and inequality up.
When I say “inequality”, I know that it is a word we can knock about a bit, but it means people, families and children living in abject poverty and having no way out of it. Let us be clear about that, and let us remind everyone again whose fault that is. This Government have been in power for 12 years, but from some of the rhetoric we have heard today, we would imagine this Government were elected only two years ago. When these hon. Members talk about resetting things and getting on with things, what they are actually doing is admitting that they have got it wrong for the last few years. If they had got it right, we would not be seeing them coming up with such policies now, so I do not think that is anything to talk about or celebrate.
To move on, the latest buzzword now is “levelling up”, but just like all those other times before, the Government are hoping that a catchy slogan will be enough to distract us from their chronic inaction. It is yet another piece of the empty rhetoric we have come to expect from the Conservatives, but their record speaks for itself. In my constituency of Sheffield, Brightside and Hillsborough, we have borne the full brunt of more than a decade of Tory cuts. The spending power of Sheffield City Council has been slashed by almost a third since 2010. Communities such as mine do not need catchphrases; they need investment.
Turning to a particular area very close to my heart, further education has a huge role to play if we are truly to level up. Sadly, we are seeing worrying trends in skills and in education. In a recent survey, a third of British businesses said that their workforces are lacking basic literacy and numeracy skills. Our further education institutions go above and beyond to upskill their students. Having worked in colleges for most of my life, I know that education is one of the most powerful tools in lifting people out of poverty, and I have seen that in action in my constituency. The Sheffield College and Longley Park Sixth Form do fantastic work to ensure that their students leave with the skills that they need to succeed, but that commitment is not matched by the support they need from Government. The Prime Minister speaks about the importance of getting people into high-paid jobs, but he refuses to take the action needed to get them there. More investment in further education and post-16 education and careers is needed now.
The Government’s further education and post-16 reforms risk leaving behind completely the students who need the most help. T-levels are an important addition to our education system, but they should not come at the expense of existing qualifications that have proved to be successful. BTECs are taken by almost a third of 16 to 18-year-old students and help to ensure that young people enter adulthood with a level 3 qualification, which is vital when entering the workforce. Rolling them back will undermine that work as well as cut student choice and degrade the variety of qualifications that employers can look for. Students who do not qualify for T-levels could end up falling through the cracks and miss out completely on any levelling-up exercise, should it even exist.
I agree with the hon. Member that apprenticeships and technical education have not been promoted enough, but does she agree that that was not helped by the previous Labour Prime Minister but one having an obsession with a 50% university target and that many people who have gone to university would have been better served by doing an apprenticeship?
I apologise, Madam Deputy Speaker.
Cutting BTECs flies directly in the face of levelling up. Instead of that, the Government should be championing them alongside T-levels. That is just one example of the Government’s actions failing to meet their rhetoric. Ministers are already making excuses on levelling up. The Levelling Up Secretary has spent the last week trying to cover up his own failures and those of the Government. He is trying to lead us to believe that deepening inequality is purely a result of external events such as covid and the war in Ukraine, but we know the truth.
We know that responsibility for the entrenched inequalities in our society falls at the door of this Conservative Government and their policies. Pensioners are having to ride buses all day to keep warm and families are struggling to afford the basic essentials, but, instead of stepping in, the Government are stepping aside. They are too busy trying to cover their own shortfalls to provide the support that people are crying out for. We all know why they are doing that: one day, just like the long-term economic plan and the northern powerhouse, levelling up will be retired as a political slogan with nothing to show but deeper inequality and worsening living standards.
The Government have once again shown that they are all talk and no action. The Queen’s Speech is yet another missed opportunity that fails to fix the deep-rooted inequalities caused by 12 years of this Conservative Government. They are out of ideas and out touch—and hopefully, following the Conservatives’ dire local election results on Friday, they will soon be out of office. Britain deserves so much better than this.
The first duty of any Government is to keep its citizens safe. We heard that earlier—it was the Home Secretary’s opening remark when she started the debate—but the Government have failed in that duty over the last 12 years.
On the Conservatives’ watch, we have seen police officers disappearing from our streets, a criminal justice system in chaos and people feeling much less safe in their own communities. The Government’s record on crime and justice is utterly woeful: total crime is up, charge rates are down, and victims appear to be being abandoned. The Queen’s Speech was an opportunity for the Government to finally get tough on crime and the causes of crime, rebuild our broken criminal justice system and make our communities safer. Yet again, they have failed completely to grasp that opportunity. Once more, the Government are chasing the wrong priorities while ignoring the criminality that people face daily. There are vague promises in the Queen’s Speech to make our streets safer, but there is little detail on how they will tackle the real concerns of the people in Coventry North East, such as local neighbourhood crime and persistent antisocial behaviour that has such a serious impact on both individuals and communities in my constituency.
Over recent years, we have seen significant issues with antisocial behaviour on our streets, from problems of noise, nuisance and neighbour disputes to vandalism and the illegal use of off-road motorbikes. More and more residents are now contacting me to tell me that these incidents are leaving them feeling intimidated, threatened and fearful for their safety. Sadly, the Government’s record shows they simply do not seem to understand—or, worse still, care—how persistent antisocial behaviour like this can destroy communities and blight residents’ quality of life. That probably explains why the Government have failed to put in place a co-ordinated national plan on antisocial behaviour for a decade, which has left communities in Coventry North East feeling abandoned.
My local force, West Midlands police, has been badly let down and hamstrung by a lack of resources, with both officer numbers and budgets cut to the bone by successive Tory Governments for more than a decade. The police in my constituency do a wonderful job and I am always grateful for the regular updates they bring me. However, what is really apparent is that they cannot do more with less money and fewer resources. Worst of all, we now have what seems like a postcode lottery on policing resources. For example, how is it Warwickshire police can have a dedicated off-road bike team when West Midlands police does not and cannot? That lack of resources means there is an absence of visible community policing on our streets, with fewer officers to reassure residents, deter criminality, investigate crimes and support victims. Indeed, all too often residents tell me they rarely see bobbies on the beat any more, while the officers I have spoken to tell me there are simply insufficient resources to investigate every crime.
The hon. Lady rightly talks about off-road bikes, which are an issue in my constituency. We have section 59 notices, which I do not think are working as a deterrent. Does she agree with that, and does she think that, cross-party, we can try to find a way to toughen the law in this area?
In my constituency, off-road motorbikes are being used in a very, very intimidating way. They are almost escorting cars around. They are not doing them any actual harm, but they are intimidating people, so much so that one person in my constituency had to stop at the side of the road to gather himself to be able to drive on. That has been said to me time and again through emails and through visits in the community. I visited the police. I had a meeting with our police and crime commissioner. Only two weeks ago I had a summit meeting with the leader of the council and others, where I spoke about off-road motorbikes.
It would be useful if we could do something. The police and the police and crime commissioner tell me that there are not enough resources, and they have to put the resources where they need them. There are pots of money, such as the safer streets fund, but is that really the way to tackle those problems? This must be done far more broadly than it is now. Of all the antisocial behaviour incidents, I deal most with off-road motorbikes, and I know that this goes on across the whole west midlands. It does not happen only in my area, which is why we should look at what we are giving to police forces and say, “This is a problem up and down the country. We need to tackle it.” I would work with anybody to try to tackle it.
In a tacit admission of the damage that they have inflicted on policing, the Government introduced the police uplift programme. Although any uplift in officer numbers is welcome, let us be clear that this will still not take West Midlands police back to pre-austerity levels of policing. We lost 2,221 officers in the west midlands during the austerity years, and although the force is due to get back more than 1,200 officers through the police uplift programme, that still leaves a shortfall in the west midlands of more than 1,000 officers compared with 2010 levels.
I have nearly finished and I have already given way.
When launching the uplift programme in 2019, the Prime Minister said:
“I have been clear from day one I will give the police the resources they need”.
If his rhetoric is to match reality, and if he is to meet his pledge to level up, the Prime Minister must return the 1,000 police officers to the west midlands. Sadly, there was no commitment in the Queen’s Speech to either resource the police properly or tackle the antisocial behaviour problems on our streets effectively. I fear that once more on crime and justice, the Government have failed West Midlands police and failed the people of Coventry North East.
I want to address the Queen’s Speech in regard to the position on justice. Justice is a light-and-shade issue; it is not all black and white. I am not surprised by the lacklustre Queen’s Speech and Government programme. I have not been surprised by the policies of Conservative Governments since I was a teenager. I am disappointed that we are yet again facing the same challenges that were visited on Scotland when I was younger. However, the tone from Government Members today is that of a punitive Government who are focused on punishment, not justice. That was personified by the behaviour of the Home Secretary when she opened the debate, with her dismissive and graceless attitude towards her counterpart on the Opposition Front Bench, the right hon. Member for Normanton, Pontefract and Castleford (Yvette Cooper). From my perspective, this needs to be addressed from a position of understanding the light and shade of justice.
Many of the drivers of criminality are social in nature and include such things as poverty, destitution and grinding hopelessness. I cast my mind back to my teenage years, when Thatcherism stalked the streets of Scotland and destroyed many of the communities there—proud mining communities, industrial communities—as cuts and closures were visited on them.
I was a Labour voter when I lived in London, but when I returned to Scotland I was gripped by the progress that had been made with devolution and by the team, record and vision, as it was known, of Alex Salmond’s early SNP Government. The significant advances that they had made in improving the quality of life of the Scottish people seduced me and encouraged me to believe in Scottish independence. The other factor that drove me to that conclusion was the election of a Conservative Government in 2010, enabled by the Liberal Democrats, which motivated me sufficiently to move out of the health service and into frontline politics.
The UK Government’s legislation does not fit the aspirations of Scots. Their immigration policies drive down inward migration, but in Scotland we need more people, not fewer. As for policing the streets, crime and justice is largely devolved in Scotland, but the drivers of criminality are the responsibility of this place, which has legislated to drive people into deprivation and destitution. The police’s job is made all the harder in Scotland because we do not have the normal powers of an independent country.
Let me set out a couple of the key issues. We have a serious problem with drug-related deaths in Scotland. People do not wake up one day and say, “I’m going to become a drug addict”; addiction is the result of grinding poverty, hopelessness and lack of opportunity, which are controlled by this place. If we are to improve those people’s quality of life, we must have the full economic powers of an independent country. We must also make progress on moving drug-related problems from the criminal justice system to public health.
I recognise that the nationalist imperative is that all that is good in Scotland is down to the nationalists, while all that is bad is down to the UK Government. With respect to what the hon. Gentleman says about drug deaths, however, would it not be interesting to understand why the problem is so much more severe in Scotland than in England and Wales? I do not think that the UK Government have necessarily discriminated between them over the past 30 or 40 years. Certainly, for the past decade or more, all the tools required to get on top of the problem of drug deaths, which I acknowledge is very severe in Scotland, have been in the hands of the nationalist Government. Presumably the hon. Gentleman is putting as much pressure on them as he quite rightly puts on us to come together to solve the problem.
Drug deaths are not an isolated issue that exists in a bubble. The opportunities to correct them require the full economic levers of an independent country. While the problem exists, the remedy is retained by this place. The issues cannot be isolated. I certainly do not say that all is rosy in Scotland and that an independent country would flourish spontaneously, but independence is a gateway to different choices, different policies and different politics. It is not a panacea; that is not the argument that I am making. I will cover some of the Minister’s other points as I make progress.
There is another issue that affects crime and justice in Scotland and is a very good illustration of why Scotland needs the full economic levers of an independent country. Harnessing Scotland’s vast energy resources must benefit the Scottish people, not Her Majesty’s Treasury as it does currently. How can it be that in an energy-rich country such as Scotland, our people are fuel-poor and hungry and our pensioners survive on the lowest pension in the developed world? There are uncomfortable truths for those on the Government Benches. It is absolutely clear, from the Queen’s Speech and from the actions and words of Conservative Members, that this Government will prioritise the profits of energy companies over the wellbeing of the people whom they are supposed to serve. The chancellor’s economic policies are making inflation worse, not better.
There are alternative choices. For instance, the Chancellor could reduce council tax by a quarter, at a cost of £10 billion a year. That would reduce the retail price index by 1%. He could halt skyrocketing energy bills with a 50% cut. That would cost another £10 billion, but it would take another 1% off the RPI. Every time the RPI goes up, so do the interest payments to global financiers on index-linked gilt debt. A 1% RPI increase puts £5 billion on to those interest payments, but equally, 1% off the RPI saves £5 billion. The Chancellor—if he had a conscience—and a Government with the political will could reduce energy costs and cut council tax immediately. Her Majesty’s Treasury could finance the additional £10 billion with the windfall tax on the energy companies’ profits. Saving £10 billion for the financial markets and £10 billion from a windfall tax could fix many of the problems that we face immediately. All it takes is political will and a determination to improve the lives of the people you are supposed to serve.
I apologise, Madam Deputy Speaker. I mean “the people the Government are supposed to serve”.
What is clear, and what I do not think has been mentioned by anyone today—although it has been mentioned many times outside this place—is that poverty is a deliberate political choice. Scotland is replete with energy, far more than we could ever possibly need, but our people see no benefit from that. Contracts for difference, along with asymmetric and uncompetitive transmission costs, impede any inward investment in Scotland. We should be in the vanguard of the renewables sector manufacturing industry, but unfortunately there is precious little manufacturing happening in Scotland.
It is not just Westminster that is at fault. This brings me back to the point made by the Minister a moment ago. The Scottish Government shamefully sold off ScotWind licences for relative pennies—£700 million. They set a ceiling on the bids. Bids for a much smaller licence in the United States realised $4.37 billion.
I am sure the hon. Gentleman would not want to inadvertently mislead the House, but the £700 million to which he refers is for options to develop. It completely ignores any future revenue streams, or indeed any royalties that might come. I am sure he would wish to correct the record.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his intervention. I think he has made his point clearly. I do not want to go back over what I have said; I think I am using up enough time.
There are real people in need. The monthly operating costs of my local food bank, Kirkcaldy Foodbank, have risen from £3,000 to £23,000. The notion that this is some kind of “squeeze” is a complete fantasy. This is a cost of living catastrophe: people are in absolute desperation. A “working poor” gentleman phoned LBC radio station to say that he could not afford to feed himself for days on end. He prioritised feeding his children, and he had been thinking about stealing clothes for them because he was so desperate. It was horrendous to listen to, and it cast my mind back to my university days and the “Heinz dilemma”. A man with a sick wife is forced to consider stealing the cure for her illness because the pharmacist will not cut the price or allow him to pay over time. That is where we are. People are in absolute desperation, and that is the misery that the greed of the markets drives. I knew, when David Cameron was elected Prime Minister, that things would be bad, but I did not anticipate that it would be quite the horror show that we are now witnessing. I do not regret or apologise for my sense of urgency over Scottish independence. The Prime Minister talks about compassion, but people need Governments’ deeds to match their rhetoric. I hope and pray that Scotland’s First Minister comes good on her promise for an independence referendum next year. Prevarication will not do; people are desperate and they need action. If we want to prevent crime, we need to lift people out of deprivation. That is the only true way to deliver justice.
No debate of this nature would be complete if I did not refer to Space Hub Sutherland. It is not all bad on the Conservative Benches: we are profoundly grateful for the Government’s assistance in bringing that project to the point it is at today. It has been a great pleasure to have Mr Roy Kirk of Highlands and Islands Enterprise sitting up in the Gallery for much of this debate. He has had to go home now but, me being me, I will make sure he gets a copy of Hansard so that he can see that I have name-checked him.
This is my only opportunity in the next few days to speak on the Queen’s Speech, and I am going to make three general, fairly broad points. In the last few days, just about every candidate standing in the local government elections in Easter Ross in the south of my constituency used a picture of the oil rigs in the Cromarty Firth. They are a majestic sight that we all know very well indeed. If you travel further north in my constituency and look east, you will see the Beatrice offshore wind farm, which produces enough electricity to power a staggering 450,000 homes. We also have loads of onshore wind farms in my constituency, and of course there is a discussion to be had about the merits of offshore and onshore wind, as many rural Conservative Members will know.
This leads me to my first point, which echoes a point made by the hon. Member for Kirkcaldy and Cowdenbeath (Neale Hanvey). My constituents live cheek by jowl with the symbols of British energy production and yet they are faced with a crippling rise in the cost of heating their homes. I hope that image brings home to the House the irony that, where I live, we produce so much energy but we have to pay through the nose for it. We should also remember that far too many of my constituents have no choice other than to use fuel oil to heat their homes. That is the nub of the problem, and I am horrified that the vulnerable and elderly have to make the invidious choice—perhaps this is a hackneyed phrase—between heating and eating. If the Government really do believe in levelling up—perhaps another hackneyed phrase—to help the most disadvantaged, and I hope they do, then solving this particular energy problem is crucial. I personally intend to pursue this in the most dogged fashion possible.
In terms of levelling up, the contribution made by the BBC and Channel 4 to bolstering local, independent production companies all over the UK cannot be overstated. Given Channel 4’s plans to provide 100,000 opportunities for young people starting in the media industry, to invest £2 billion in nations and regions content over the next decade and to become a truly digital-first public service broadcaster, the Government’s plans to sell it off to the private sector are, I am afraid, severely misjudged. But I take heart from the knowledge that many Conservative Members agree with that opinion. Let us think of what Channel 4 has produced: the Paralympics, “It’s a Sin”, and “Derry Girls”, which was made in Northern Ireland. What benefit has that been to the economy of Ulster? There was also the Black to Front project. These are all shows and features that have a British hallmark and would not have been made if Channel 4 did not have the freedom to prioritise public interest and purpose over profit.
Many Members will have read in The Times today the quote from Tim Bevan, who co-chairs Working Title Films. He said:
“British films have always been quite difficult to get made”
and that plans to privatise Channel 4 and scrap the BBC licence fee were a “travesty”. He also said:
“The British film industry and independent production have been supported by those two institutions…That’s our culture. We don’t want to be making American projects, we want to be making British films.”
He is absolutely right. English is one of the most widely spoken languages in the world, and the work of Channel 4 and the BBC gives our country international soft power that can hardly be imagined—I have seen it for myself.
I will keep my contribution short and conclude on power. The Public Accounts Committee has drawn the House’s attention to the fact that the Royal Air Force will have 30 fewer combat aircraft by 2025 because of the decision to retire Typhoon early. When we think that, over the last seven years, we have spent no less than £701 million on developing new radar systems for Typhoon that will not be ready until 2030, we can see there is something desperately wrong with how we are planning to defend our country in the future. These are killer facts.
Members on both sides of the House have rightly said that the plans to reduce the size of the British Army are ill-conceived. Combined with the Typhoon nonsense, we can see that the United Kingdom is surely in danger of sending entirely the wrong signal to our friends and allies, particularly when the dangers we face are all too clear. Now more than ever, we must not drop our guard.
I close with a reminder from the past. In the early 1980s, the Treasury imposed cuts on defence spending, one of which led to the decision to remove the Royal Navy Antarctic vessel HMS Endurance from the south Atlantic. Historians claim that that decision was part of Argentina’s reasoning that the United Kingdom was not serious about defending the Falklands, and that it was therefore worth taking the risk of invasion. The rest is history, and only an exceptionally foolish state does not learn from the past.
I will focus on a few key areas. The Queen’s Speech is arguably more notable for what it does not include than for what it does. The biggest issue facing our country and most, if not all, of our constituents is the cost of living crisis that is causing great hardship in Merthyr Tydfil and Rhymney and beyond. What we needed more than anything yesterday was a Queen’s Speech that included measures to tackle the cost of living crisis, with at the very least an emergency Budget and a windfall tax to get money off people’s bills now.
The Prime Minister hinted yesterday that help will be announced in the coming days, only for the Treasury to announce in the following hours that that is not the case. That would be both shocking and unbelievable in normal times but, as we know, we are a long way from normal times.
A recent discussion with my local citizens advice bureau highlighted the growing hardship in my constituency. Overall client numbers have doubled, and queries on energy have increased by 250%. This is evident in the current fuel poverty crisis, which is now mainly about support to pay fuel bills. The number of debt queries has increased by 200%, and council tax debt is now the biggest issue, with a 200% increase on last year. This is incredibly worrying as these are household debts.
Probably most worrying is the massive increase—over 500%—in requests for food bank vouchers and other charitable support, yet there was nothing in the Gracious Speech to tackle this growing crisis. The Government are either not listening or, if they are listening, are failing to act. The lack of compassion and action is shameful.
It is also offensive that the energy giants are announcing their highest ever profits—Shell announced profits last week of more than £7 billion for the first quarter of the year—yet the Government refuse to consider a windfall tax when, as we have heard over and again today, people are struggling to choose between heating and eating. That is truly shameful.
I am pleased to see legislation on access to cash, after years of delay. We eagerly await the details, given that the Government have allowed 6,000 local bank branches to close on their watch since 2015, leaving many geographically isolated communities without access to cash. In some areas, including Treharris in my constituency, post offices too have walked away and left communities without access to cash.
I am pleased to see that the ban on conversion therapy is in the Queen’s Speech, because it is long overdue. However, it should be a complete ban, with no fudging and no vague approach that will leave loopholes, which will no doubt be exploited.
I absolutely agree with that point, because we have seen too many examples, particularly in rural and isolated areas, where communities are left without any access to cash. The opportunity for banks and other financial institutions to work together is long overdue.
As we know, the Tory record on crime is shocking. We have heard again today that crime is up, charges are down, criminals are getting off and victims are being let down by the Conservatives not taking crime seriously. We have seen an 18% rise in total crime over the past two years. Quarterly recorded crimes are now at their highest point on record, at 1.6 million. As the shadow Home Secretary, my right hon. Friend the Member for Normanton, Pontefract and Castleford (Yvette Cooper), told us earlier, the overall charge rate has fallen from 15.5% in 2015 to just 5.8% in 2021, meaning thousands more criminals getting off and more than 1 million theft cases being closed without a suspect being identified—and there is no sign of things improving.
Antisocial behaviour continues to blight our communities. I have spoken in previous debates about the difference under the last Labour Government, when all local wards—I was a county councillor at that time—had a police officer and one or sometimes two police community support officers. We do not have to hark back to “Dixon of Dock Green” to find a time when people knew their community bobbies, as we had that in the period of the last Labour Government up to 2010. At that time, the neighbourhood policing teams provided meaningful engagement and deterrence in communities before issues got out of hand. We now have the same-sized teams covering five or six wards, and the sheer lack of people on the ground makes it impossible for them to tackle issues effectively, despite their best efforts. Labour would strengthen legal protections for victims of antisocial behaviour to give victims of persistent, unresolved antisocial behaviour new rights, and we would give the police and local authorities stronger powers to shut down premises being used for drug dealing or consumption. Although we have seen more police officers recruited, we still have thousands fewer than we had before the Tories started cutting them in 2010. I am grateful that in Wales we have the support of the Welsh Labour Government on this. Although they do not have responsibility for policing, as it is not devolved, they have provided funding for 500 PCSOs—that has increased to 600 in this Senedd term.
Before I leave the topic of policing, I would like to put on record again the issue of the apprenticeship levy paid by Welsh police forces. In England, funding for the police education qualifications framework, which includes apprenticeships for uniformed police officers, is provided through the national apprenticeship levy. In short, English police forces are fully reimbursed by the Government for the cost of training police officers. In Wales, the Home Office has reimbursed only half that cost, leaving Welsh police forces with a shortfall of more than £2 million.
I acknowledge the issue that the hon. Gentleman is raising. However, I am sure he would want to acknowledge that although the UK Government do collect the apprenticeship levy, as he rightly points out, the money is passed to the Welsh Government, who then have declined so far to pass it on to the police forces affected. He is right to say that the Home Office has stepped in to fund it this year and in the past, but I urge him to speak to his Labour colleagues in Wales to get them to pass on the money, which has been given to them, after being taken from the police forces in the form of the levy.
The Minister really should go away and do his homework. This issue was taken up by his colleagues in the Wales Office team and correspondence has been exchanged. I appreciate that this is a long and complicated issue, but the Home Office is responsible for it, and it should take up its responsibilities and fund the four police forces in Wales in the same way as other police forces are being funded. Welsh police forces are being short-changed, and the responsibility lies with the Government.
Let me return to the cost of living crisis. I urge the Government to listen to the concerns that we have heard over and over again today. There is an urgent need for the Government to listen and to take action on things such as cutting the VAT costs on energy bills and introducing a windfall tax. Those practical steps have been offered to the Government and they really need to take them on board and take action now, for the sake of families right across the United Kingdom.
It seems only a matter of weeks since we were in this place fighting against the UK Government’s now-successful attempts to restrict some of our most precious and long-held fundamental rights. It seems only a matter of weeks because it is. In the previous Session, we battled against the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Act 2022, which will strip people of their right to protest, among other terrifying measures; the Judicial Review and Courts Act 2022, which has serious implications for access to justice and the accountability of public bodies; and, finally, the Nationality and Borders Act 2022, which is set to treat asylum seekers and refugees in ways that I can describe only as nightmarish. It is exhausting to stand here today facing an almost identical set of challenges in the new legislative programme. Rather than see the Queen’s Speech as a unique opportunity to help people to tackle the cost of living crisis and put some compassion back into the system, the UK Government are just adding to their attacks on people’s rights.
A constituent and friend of mine, Joanna, is a cleaner. On Monday, she said:
“So wages have gone up and my company added a wee bit extra, so not too bad. But today I got my wage slip and my national insurance contribution is now more than my income tax contribution, and it’s taken me back to exactly what I was earning before.”
What in the Queen’s Speech will tackle the issues that everyone out there is worrying about? Energy bills are spiralling out of control, the cost of the weekly shop is absolutely skyrocketing and the impending climate crisis is ever-present. There is nothing in the Queen’s Speech to tackle any of that. It is being left to the likes of my constituent Mandy Morgan, who dreamed up the Scottish Pantry Network and has opened nine shops in the past year. The network charges people a £2.50 membership fee for £15-worth of food, and that food is fresh fruit and vegetables and fresh meat and fish. The network is not just for poor people; it was set up for environmental reasons as well and tackles food waste. When people go into the network’s beautiful shops, they do not have to worry that somebody is going to know that they are on their uppers. I pay tribute to Mandy Morgan for everything she has done and to all the volunteers and staff who work for the network. There are, though, troubles ahead for them, because they are struggling to access the food that they need, and an increasing number of people need their help.
Instead of tackling such issues, the Government are attacking people’s rights. We know the old saying about divide and conquer: who do the Government want people out there to blame for all this? As usual, it is those who are already the least powerful and often completely voiceless. This Government thought it was perfectly acceptable to mention, alongside reference to those poor, desperate refugees who are forced to cross the channel in the most perilous of conditions, what they say are plans to help the police to make the streets safer—in the same paragraph of the Queen’s Speech. That is a consciously cynical ploy to conflate the two in people’s minds. It is a deliberate attack on asylum seekers and refugees.
This Tory Government’s shameless propaganda says that anyone who flees persecution and tries to get to safety on these islands is a criminal. And it is working: many people on these islands are doing everything they can to welcome and support refugees—I thank and pay tribute to them, and I thank God for them—but many people repeat the tropes that the Government have so cynically created. It is cynical, deliberate and strategic. We need only to listen back to some of the similarly worded interventions in the last debate on the Nationality and Borders Bill from Government Back Benchers who had never previously shown an interest.
Today, the attacks have moved to those of us who support refugees. I was disgusted to hear the Home Secretary refer to those of us on the Opposition Benches as defenders of “murderers” and “paedophiles”. I understand that it is apparently okay to do that in this place as long as it is not directed at an individual, so I will be writing to her and asking her whether she believes me to be a defender of murderers and paedophiles. I encourage everyone in here to do the same because we deserve an answer.
This Queen’s Speech was primed to reinvigorate the Brexit vote, but perpetuating the myth that Brexit is somehow reclaiming our sovereignty is just ridiculous. Doing it at the cost of trashing our rights is plain scary.
I wish to talk briefly on three of the many Bills that I feel most concerned about in this Queen’s Speech. The first is the Bill of Rights. It is no secret that the Justice Secretary has a long-held disdain for human rights, or, to put it another way, for people having rights. His book, “The Assault on Liberty: What Went Wrong with Rights” is illuminating if not wholly depressing. Let me give one quote from it:
“The spread of rights has become contagious”—
well we can’t have that—
“and, since the Human Rights Act, opened the door to vast new categories of claims, which can be judicially enforced against the government through the courts”.
Let us not forget the footage from the same year, 13 years ago, which saw him look into the camera and say:
“I don’t support the Human Rights Act and I don’t believe in economic and social rights.”
Well, I do, as does my party, which is why human rights are entrenched in Scots law. I thank my lucky stars that we have them, more so now than ever. They make sure that, to some extent, we can all stand shoulder to shoulder in society, that we share some of the same rights of access to justice, and that we can all call out the Government—whether it be this one, the Welsh Government, the Scottish Government, past Labour Governments, future Labour Governments or any public body—when they act in a way that undermines our rights. Who on earth would want to do away with that? These are not some legal concepts out of reach for most; they are entrenched in our modern psyche, and people know that they can rely on them to protect them at their most vulnerable moments, or when they need to face the might of the state. That is what the Tories do not like. They do not want people to know that they can be held to account in the courts, and they do not want to be scrutinised. I predict that, when they are out of office, they will perform a complete U-turn on this.
I do love the positive spin though—the Bill of Rights will defend our freedom of speech. Really? That is just as long as we are not outside this place with a megaphone, or stood at the gates of a fracking site. Our freedom of speech will end right there if Government Members get their way. It is nonsense to imply that the perfectly functioning Human Rights Act has somehow stifled our freedom of speech when it has in fact codified protections for freedom of both speech and assembly under articles 10 and 11 of the European convention on human rights. As with so much legislation forced through this place, there is little evidence to support much of what the Government claim in respect of reform of the Human Rights Act. There is an agenda; there are facts, and then there are Government Ministers determined to bend, manipulate and skew the evidence to fit.
Why should the Government be allowed to dictate who can access justice? That is completely at odds with the rule of law and our international obligations to anyone who seeks refuge on these islands. When will the Government realise that this is not what people want? People are lying under immigration control vans to stop deportations. People are physically running to gather together to protect others from Border Force officers. We all know about Kenmure Street in Pollokshields, but last week, on the day of the council elections, SNP council candidates Marianne Mwiki and now Councillor Simita Kumar, stopped campaigning for themselves and staged their own Kenmure Street protest, along with activists from Edinburgh SNP and hundreds of their fellow citizens from all parties and none, when Border Force vans came looking for someone. We just have to look at the number of emails that have come flooding into our inboxes on the Rwanda plan to know that this is not what our constituents want.
Of obvious concern to anyone in Scotland is the adverse effect that this Bill will have on the devolution settlement. The rights enshrined in the Human Rights Act are at the very core of the settlement and, as Scotland’s Equalities Minister Christina McKelvie MSP said this morning:
“Changes must not be made without the explicit consent of the Scottish Parliament.”
The Scottish Government want to enhance and extend rights protection, but the UK Government want the opposite. What could the solution possibly be? We will no doubt be debating this for many months and, although we may be exhausted with it, we are very much up for that debate. However, I do not understand why anyone would believe this measure will somehow cut our ties with the European courts; rather than our rights being brought home, we will be forced to go to Strasbourg to enforce them. Our human rights should not be embroiled in the Tory Brexit fantasy.
On the Public Order Bill, it is no surprise to see the eleventh-hour amendments to the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Act 2022 that were vehemently voted down by the House of Lords returning in the Queen’s Speech. Is this the way it is going to work now—democratically rejected clauses will be repackaged and grouped together to form next year’s legislation? If the Government can do that after just a few weeks of being told no, what on earth is their argument against Scotland’s right to go to the people and revisit the question on Scotland’s independence after nine long years? They are leaving themselves with no arguments for refusing a section 30 order; that will not stop them refusing of course, but they have no valid arguments. It is one rule for this Tory Government and another for everyone else. It is a brazen thing for the Home Secretary to do. These clauses did not go unnoticed by the public; they sparked outrage and protest during the passage of the policing Act, and rightly so. The Government are deluded if they think that the people who were willing to stand outside this place and risk arrest and imprisonment are going to lie down and accept this Public Order Bill. They are also deluded if they think that those Members on this side of the House and in the other place will roll over and accept defeat.
One of the arguments put in the House of Lords around the clauses the hon. Lady refers to is that they had not been adequately scrutinised by the House of Commons; that is the main argument behind why they were knocked out and, by bringing them back, we will be allowing that scrutiny. I am interested in the hon. Lady’s view, however. As she will know, there is currently a protest outside a fuel depot in Scotland where protestors have locked themselves on. Does she support the arrest and removal of those protestors, and their prosecution, and if they are prosecuted and convicted, what penalty does she think they should get?