House of Commons
Thursday 12 May 2022
The House met at half-past Nine o’clock
[Mr Speaker in the Chair]
HM Passport Office Backlogs
Due to covid-19, more than 5 million people delayed their passport applications in 2020 and 2021. With demand for international travel having returned, Her Majesty’s Passport Office is currently receiving a higher number of passport applications than ever before; 9.5 million applications are expected in 2022 compared with approximately 7 million in a normal year.
Since April 2021, 500 new staff have joined and a further 700 will join by the summer. As a result, the vast majority of passport applications are being processed within the 10-week timeframe and more than 90% within six weeks. Less than 1.4% of the passports printed last week for UK applications had been in the system for longer than 10 weeks.
With a record number of applications in the system, customer inquiries have increased accordingly. However, the passport advice line, which is run by Teleperformance, is not currently meeting the needs of passport customers. Clearly, that is not acceptable. The Home Office has clear standards for the level of service that suppliers are expected to provide.
Her Majesty’s Passport Office has engaged with Teleperformance at its most senior levels to emphasise the need to significantly improve performance as soon as possible. Alongside steps to bring the operation of the passport advice line, email and call-back functions within the required standard, Teleperformance is urgently bolstering staff numbers in response to the recent surge in customer contact, with 500 additional staff due to be added by mid-June.
We recognise that hon. Members will wish to raise cases and queries on behalf of their constituents, as is, of course, right and proper. Her Majesty’s Passport Office staff have therefore been deployed to answer passport-related inquiries to the Home Office’s dedicated MPs hotline and, for the most urgent cases, they will also be available to conduct in-person passport surgeries in Portcullis House.
Although we acknowledge that there have been issues with customer contact that must and will be resolved, I take the opportunity to recognise the work of Her Majesty’s Passport Office staff who continue to ensure that the vast majority of passport applications are processed in under 10 weeks. Their efforts, alongside the extensive work that went into preparing for record demand, have ensured that passport applications continue to be processed in higher numbers than ever before.
Across March and April 2022, Her Majesty’s Passport Office completed the processing of nearly 2 million applications. As that output demonstrates, HMPO staff are firmly focused on maintaining a high level of service and are fully committed to ensuring that people receive their passports in good time for their summer holidays.
Thank you, Mr Speaker, for granting this urgent question.
I thank the staff working on the passport backlog, but many people across our country will not be satisfied with the Minister’s response today. A constituent told me yesterday:
“It’s terrible. We’re due to fly out on Sunday but are still unable to get our youngest son’s passport. Every time I phone I get passed to a different department, then hold, then the phone line goes dead.”
Another told me:
“I’ve called 40 times in the past week, they cut me off every time. I don’t know what to do and am breaking down at this point.”
The facts are that there are long queues outside passport offices; that hours and hours are being spent on phone lines; and that families are afraid of holidays getting cancelled. This situation was avoidable. It was obvious that, when restrictions ended, people would need passports to get away.
The Prime Minister blames a mañana culture at the Passport Office. We need a strategy that improves performance and helps families now, not those flippant comments. During a cost of living crisis, telling people to spend an extra £100 per person to fast-track their application rubs salt into their wounds.
Yesterday, the Home Secretary told us of record passport delivery, which is good, but we need the facts today. How big is the actual backlog? By when will the Passport Office’s too-long 10-week timeframe be down to the normal three weeks?
Deliveries are also delayed and other companies are having to help TNT. Its £77 million contract cannot be value for money, so will the Government be renewing that contract in July?
After years of covid, families finally want to get away this spring and summer. Instead, they face losing thousands of pounds if they cannot keep their holiday after the grief of chasing their passport. The Government need to do much, much better than this.
I am very grateful to the hon. Gentleman for putting in for this urgent question today and for the way that he approached his contribution.
I again thank HMPO staff for the tireless work that they are doing to issue passports as quickly as possible for people who have made those applications; in saying that, I am sure the whole House joins me. I can also confirm for the House’s benefit that the service I referred to in Portcullis House is now live and available for colleagues to access to get help with these matters. Of course, it is also worth pointing out that the Minister for safe and legal migration—the Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department, my hon. Friend the Member for Torbay (Kevin Foster)—issued a “Dear colleague” letter yesterday that provided further detail on this issue.
The hon. Gentleman mentioned specifics in relation to contracts. Of course, what I must not do is get into contract-related deliberations on the Floor of the House today, but it is of course right to say that, where performance issues arise, candid conversations are had about performance and what interventions are required to improve performance, where necessary. I again reiterate for the House’s benefit that the key reality is that, between March and April 2022, Her Majesty’s Passport Office completed the processing of nearly 2 million applications. The vast majority of passport applications continue to be processed well within 10 weeks, with over 90% of applications issued within six weeks between January and March 2022. Less than 1.4% of the passports printed last week for UK applications had been in the system for longer than 10 weeks. Those are the facts. He asked for the facts. Those facts have been provided.
There is of course an expedited service available for individuals where passports have been in the system for more than 10 weeks, and I would certainly encourage people to avail themselves of that service if that is the situation they find themselves in. Of course, if there are Members of this House who have specific cases they wish to share with Ministers, we will happily take those away and look at them if colleagues make contact.
Can my hon. Friend tell us how many people employed in the Passport Office are still working from home, if indeed anybody is still working from home? It seems extraordinary that they may be. Can he also expand on the issue of the 10-week limit? If there is a 10-week guarantee, why should people in respect of whom that guarantee is not delivered have to pay a premium? Is not the consequence of all this that people are now panicking and applying for their new passports three or four months ahead, thereby adding to the burden on the Passport Office? Can he assure the House that the 10 weeks is a guarantee, and that anybody who does not get their passport within 10 weeks will get compensation for any consequences arising therefrom?
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his question. What I can say for the House’s benefit is that, on homeworking, it is fair to say that, as in society as a whole, business as a whole and Government, we are seeing staff returning to the office to work. Of course, people’s working arrangements are in accordance with the approach taken within the Government to these matters. There is the expedited process after 10 weeks for individuals who require it, where passport applications have not been processed within that timeframe. As I have said, 98.6% of passports are renewed within the 10-week timeframe. If he has specifics that he would particularly like to raise with Ministers so that we can take those away and look into them, we will very happily do so.
The chaos at the Passport Office reflects the wider failures of a Home Office that is simply not fit for purpose under this Home Secretary. The Government have had two years to prepare for a spike in passport applications after the pandemic. They were warned repeatedly about the possible backlog, but they have clearly not acted quickly enough to solve the problem. Can the Minister please explain why that is the case? Can he also tell us how many agency staff are now working to clear this backlog?
The Government have already changed the three-week target to a 10-week target. At the last urgent question on the subject, the Minister insisted that the 10-week target did not need to be adjusted. Given we now know that it is being repeatedly missed, is that still the case or has he changed his position? Can he confirm what the current average period from passport application to receipt of passport actually is?
Some of the cases colleagues are hearing about from their constituents are truly awful. In one case, a couple were trying to get back into the country with their new-born baby after the husband’s two-year work contract in France came to an end, but, having waited two months for a passport, they faced the daunting prospect of having to leave France without a passport for their baby.
The Minister will be aware of the problems MPs and their staff have had accessing any guidance from the Home Office helpline. Is that being addressed? The Prime Minister has threatened to privatise the Passport Office as a solution to this mess, but is it not the case that the privatised TNT courier service is already a major part of the problem, beset with long delays? Surely what we need is genuine leadership and strategy from the Home Secretary. The Home Office contract with TNT is due to end in July. Given its complete failures in delivering passports on time, can the Minister confirm whether the Home Office plans to renew TNT’s contract? Finally, given the thousands of pounds lost when holidays are cancelled, does the Minister accept that the Passport Office’s backlog chaos is making the cost of living crisis worse?
A Government who fail to plan are a Government who plan to fail, and the British people are paying the price for this latest in a growing list of Home Office failures.
I am grateful to the shadow Minister for his contribution. I should make it clear that the 10-week timeframe is not guaranteed, but the expedited process is in place for individuals when it goes beyond 10 weeks. That is available and if colleagues raise specific cases with us directly I will happily ensure they are looked at.
On staffing, passport offices are of course based in seven locations across the UK, with 90% of staff based outside London. Her Majesty’s Passport Office staffing numbers have been increased by over 500 since last April and it is recruiting a further 700. As of 1 April, there were over 4,000 staff in passport production roles.
On the point about contracts, for the reasons I have set out, it would not be appropriate for me to get into the specifics of those contracts and their renewal, but I reiterate that it is right that we have candid conversations about performance against contracts. That does happen and it is happening in relation to these matters.
On the issue of Teleperformance, the provider of the passport advice line, we expect over 500 full-time equivalents to be added by mid-June compared with the position in mid-April. There has been a recent and temporary issue with the passport advice line which means some customers may be informed that they have dialled an incorrect number. Teleperformance is working to resolve that problem as soon as possible with the carrier. The line opened at its usual time of 8 this morning. Customers who have a problem with the usual number can call an alternative number, and there is further information on gov.uk and the HMPO’s Twitter account.
I am grateful to the hon. Member for Blaenau Gwent (Nick Smith) for raising this urgent question. We have seen a number of cases where we are trying to get information and I have to be honest with the Minister: the phone lines we have at the moment as Members of Parliament are not fit for purpose. The advice hotline he has referred to is a general Home Office hotline; it does not always have information, and yesterday a member of my staff was on the phone for two hours and then got cut off. I need to be able to provide information to my constituents, who are getting incredibly stressed, so can we have a dedicated hotline on passport matters? I am very grateful for both the “Dear colleague” letter and the hub in Portcullis House, but can the Minister confirm that staff in the hub will have access so they can provide live updates from the system, rather than just general updates on the process?
I am able to say yes to my hon. Friend in response to his question. I would certainly encourage him to take his cases to the Portcullis House hub to progress them accordingly and to receive the updates he seeks. I am grateful to him for raising that suggestion.
I am grateful to the hon. Member for Blaenau Gwent (Nick Smith) for raising this question, because this mess is causing untold misery for people and families across the UK. It is not, as Members have said, about hard-working staff; it is about leadership and planning. On that note, I am worried that the Home Secretary just does not get the scale of the problem. Yesterday, like the Minister, she invited colleagues to send details of their cases directly. My inbox is bursting at the seams and is about to explode with the cases. If all 650 of us were to send our cases to the Home Secretary, she would never be able to look at her inbox again. Does the Home Secretary understand the scale of the problem? Does that complacency explain why it took the Home Office until April to flag up this issue to the public and warn them of the change in target times?
I welcome the new facility at PCH. However, on the phone lines, what are folk being charged for phoning? For example, I know that colleagues have noticed that their constituency office phone bills are going through the roof because staff are having to spend hours on phone lines. I hope that is not the case for members of the public. I seek reassurance on that.
We have been reassured that the Home Office expected this year to deal with 9.5 million British passport applications and had been planning for that, but something has gone wrong. Was it the estimate? Apparently not, given what the Minister said, so what went wrong with the preparation? It is all well and good to be told that the Passport Office is processing higher or record numbers, but that is not the test—the test is whether there are sufficient numbers and that is clearly not happening. When will the Passport Office have enough staff to process sufficient applications?
I am always grateful for the constructive way in which the hon. Gentleman approaches these matters. Calls are charged at the local rate. I set out for the House the steps being taken to boost capacity in Her Majesty’s Passport Office but also in relation to the contractors that we work with to deliver these services. It is also the case that, after 10 weeks of proof of travel, within two weeks, the upgrade is free, should that be required. Again, I go back to the fact that 98.6% of passports are renewed within the 10-week timeframe and more than 90% are processed in just six weeks. However, it is right, in terms of the remainder, that we make the interventions we are making to improve matters. We want to see the best service possible delivered and that is precisely what those interventions seek to do.
It is clear that all of us are being contacted by distressed constituents seeking their passports. It can be highly stressful for them to be chasing documents as they approach departure day—and business travel can be at even shorter notice than a planned holiday. I am encouraged to hear that significant recruitment is taking place at the Passport Office and that 1 million passport applications were completed in March alone—that is a good number—but will the Minister look at the progress being made with that recruitment? We clearly have a capacity issue, which we need to get through, and that will only be got through when we have boosted the capacity of those doing the applications.
I thank my hon. Friend for his question. Of course, I and ministerial colleagues recognise the distress caused when individuals cannot receive their passports in the timeframe that they seek. That is why we are taking steps to improve matters. On recruitment, I hear his point about trying to expedite this as much as possible. It is fair to say that we want to see progress made on that as quickly as possible, and I will certainly ensure that Home Office colleagues are sighted on his views. My hon. Friend the Minister for safe and legal migration has that at the forefront of his mind. We want to see that recruitment happen as quickly as possible.
I am grateful to you, Mr Speaker, for granting the urgent question and to my hon. Friend the Member for Blaenau Gwent (Nick Smith) for securing it. I have already raised separately with the Minister that I have constituents who applied for a name change on a child’s passport on 9 February. My office has chased it twice and we are nearly into week 15 of waiting for a response from the Passport Office. I echo the comments of the hon. Member for Bolsover (Mark Fletcher) about the MP hotline. This week, staff in my office have been cut off from the general hotline three times. I therefore welcome the PCH office. What reassurance can the Minister give us that the hotline will work properly and that calls will be answered? Many Members’ caseworkers are based in our constituencies, so the phone lines need to work. I plead with him to take up the particular issue of the child name change so that my constituents can travel in June on their long-deserved and very expensive holiday.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his question. If he shares the details with me, I will happily take that case away and look at it as a matter of priority. On the hotline-related issue for Members of Parliament, I hope I can provide some reassurance in saying that, in the light of the increased number of passport-related queries to the MP hotline, it has been arranged for non-operational HM Passport Office staff to supplement the work of MP account managers and help to provide MPs with a faster service. Of course, that is in addition to the service available in Portcullis House, which I would encourage colleagues to use if they require it.
A few colleagues have already mentioned our caseworkers in our constituencies. I want to put on record my thanks to my caseworker team, especially Niall Hargreaves who spent nine hours on the phone to the Passport Office last week and did not manage to get through all day. I am grateful to the Minister for acknowledging the unacceptable situation facing the Passport Office at the moment and for the 700 new recruits. Can he provide any clarity on when we expect the new recruits to start having an effect on the backlog?
I join my hon. Friend in saying thank you to parliamentary staff who work for Members across the House. I, for one, know that my parliamentary staff work incredibly hard to support my Corby and Northamptonshire constituents. I know the same applies for colleagues, regardless of party, and the effort that is made to support us in our work. I can certainly appreciate the frustration they have felt when not being able to make contact or when calls have been disconnected. He is right to raise the increase in staffing. As I said, we expect 500 full-time equivalents added to Teleperformance resourcing by mid-June. The Passport Office is increasing staffing by 700 by the summer and, of course, there have already been 500 additional staff since last April. This is a priority. We are going to get on and deliver, because it is clearly necessary for the swift and expeditious delivery of people’s passports.
Thank you, Mr Speaker, for granting the urgent question. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Blaenau Gwent (Nick Smith) on applying for it.
Dozens of my constituents are now facing huge delays in getting their passports. In one particular case, my constituent applied for his passport to be renewed back in February. He sent his old passport by special delivery. Following many chases for updates, he was told that they had lost his passport, and that he should report it as being lost and pay an additional fee to have his new application expedited, which he did. By Friday last week, they still had not done anything and told him that he needs to say it has now been lost yet again. He is travelling in July. He needs to apply for visas. He has already spent thousands of pounds on his holiday. Will the Minister agree to look at my constituent’s case and see if we can get a resolution as soon as possible? I should also add that we all knew there would be a surge in demand after the pandemic and I really want to know why on earth the Government were not prepared for that.
We do, of course, encourage people, as standard, to apply in good time for passports to be processed and to be available. The point I again make is that after 10 weeks of proof of travel, within two weeks the upgrade is free, but if the hon. Lady could provide me with the details of the specific case in question I will happily make sure it is looked at as quickly as possible for her.
I would like to stress to the Minister that this is not just an issue of people wanting to go on holiday. In my constituency—as you know, Mr Speaker, being so diverse as it is—people have families all across the world whom they have not seen since the pandemic. I have one elderly couple who applied before the new year, back in December. They applied, in fact, before Christmas. They were told that their passport was ready on 24 January, but that they had to send the old passport back in order to get it. By the end of March they still had not had it, by which time they had missed a niece’s wedding and, sadly, a sister’s funeral. It was only after multiple interventions that we eventually got the passport sorted at the end of last month. That is unacceptable—absolutely unacceptable.
The Minister said that 500 new staff were in place and 700 were coming, but what we really want to know is when will the Department be able to return to the three-week standard time that we all expected previously? That is the key issue and that is what our constituents need to know. He said 10 weeks from the end of June. We are way beyond the summer holidays by then. The backlog will have accumulated and those people will have lost the opportunity to go abroad. The key thing is when do we get back to that three-week period?
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman, who, as ever, puts his case forcefully but entirely respectfully. When there are compassionate or compelling circumstances, steps can be taken to expedite applications where appropriate. Some of the sorts of circumstances that he mentioned would potentially be eligible in that scenario. I cannot, of course, provide an explanation on the Floor of the House for his particular case, but I will take his wider point away. On the three-week target, I will ask the Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department, my hon. Friend the Member for Torbay (Kevin Foster), who is responsible for passports, to write to the hon. Gentleman to set out the position and let him know his thoughts on that point.
This issue is undoubtedly causing huge anxiety. I have a case of a new mother who, when her daughter was born, wanted to register her for a passport immediately, because she wants the support of her family, who live in Egypt. She has been up all day and night trying to get a fast-track application. She could not find one, so she put in a regular application. She then did find a fast-track application and now she has been told, having secured the fast-track application for Saturday, that if she shows up, she may not get the passport because the regular application cannot be withdrawn. We have tried everything for her. First, if she does show up, will she be able to get the passport on the fast track, and can I show the Minister the case just to make sure? Secondly, will he assure people that a common-sense approach will be taken in cases such as these and others, so that if someone finds a workaround solution, it will actually work?
I would always want to see common sense shown in these matters. The hon. Lady suggests that it would be worthwhile to share the specifics of the case with me. I would certainly appreciate the opportunity to take this away and look at what we can do to assist and provide any appropriate guidance and advice.
You might remember, Mr Speaker, that I raised the issue of delays with passports at business questions back in April. The Leader of the House expressed some surprise that I was getting upset about it back then, but I can honestly say to the Minister that the position since then has become much, much worse. He cannot really say that we did not know this was coming, because we were telling Ministers about it some weeks ago.
We have dealt with many dozens of cases from my office, but we still have about 14 cases that have not yet been expedited. The Passport Office advised that applications that are older than 10 weeks—of which we have several—and where travel is due to take place in the next two weeks can be expedited. In order to exercise that, applicants are advised to contact the passport advice line. However, as many Members have said this morning, constituents are doing that but they cannot get through, and when they do, they wait an inordinate amount of time and are then being cut off. It is just not good enough. British citizens cannot actually get their passport—even though it might be printed in Poland these days—to travel abroad.
Many constituents are reporting that they cannot get through and, at the time of the application, constituents were advised on the not appropriately updated website that the turnaround time would be five weeks—so the website was wrong at the time that people were applying. The Minister has to get a grip on this. When will the—
There was quite a lot there, Mr Speaker, and I think that if I were to answer all of that, I would be at real risk of incurring your wrath. Two million passports were issued in March and April alone. The hon. Gentleman is a canny parliamentarian who took the opportunity to raise this issue in business questions. He will have noted from my earlier responses the steps that we have been taking in that period to address this issue. We will see that work through. This is all about bolstering capacity and resource, but if he would like us to look at specific cases, I am very happy for him to share them with us so we can perhaps understand where he thinks the issues are.
I put on record my thanks to the Glasgow passport office, which has been most helpful to my caseworkers.
I have a constituent who has applied for a child’s passport. The child is a dual national; as part of the application for a British passport, my constituent provided the child’s Australian passport, which is in date. They travel next week, and my team have been urgently supporting them in trying to get, at a minimum, the Australian passport returned urgently. We were assured that that would happen, but the constituent was advised last night that it was not possible. My constituent has also faced some really poor treatment from call handlers on the advice line and is very stressed and upset by it. Please will the Minister intervene in this case and help me to get my constituent their passport?
I certainly want the hon. Lady to share her constituent’s experience with me and with Ministers in the Department, particularly the concerns that she raises about how the calls have been handled. If she shares those details with me, we will look at them in the usual way, but I am keen to understand the specifics.
I thank the Minister for his replies to questions this morning. May I put on record, in Hansard, my thanks to his ministerial staff and particularly to the Belfast passport office, for everything that they do?
May I put forward a constructive suggestion that may be helpful for our region and for others? Will the Minister outline whether he has considered allowing renewals to be fast-tracked in regional areas, such as by allowing the Belfast office to handle Northern Ireland renewals and especially children’s first passports? Is there a way to further fast-track applications locally or regionally?
I join the hon. Gentleman in thanking the staff of the Belfast office for all their work. I also thank the Glasgow office, which the hon. Member for Rutherglen and Hamilton West (Margaret Ferrier) mentioned, and HM Passport Office staff around the country.
I will take away the hon. Gentleman’s suggestion for how we might process future applications and share it with the Under-Secretary of State, my hon. Friend the Member for Torbay. As with all suggestions from the hon. Gentleman, I am sure that he will want to consider it closely.
Hong Kong Arrests Under National Security Law
(Urgent Question): To ask the Secretary of State for Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Affairs if she will make a statement on the arrests of Cardinal Zen, Margaret Ng, Hui Po-keung and Denise Ho in Hong Kong on 11 May.
I thank my right hon. Friend for raising this incredibly important issue. The Hong Kong authorities’ decision to target leading pro-democracy figures, including Cardinal Zen, Margaret Ng, Hui Po-keung and Denise Ho, under the national security law is unacceptable.
Freedom of expression and the right to peaceful protest, which are protected in both the joint declaration and the Basic Law, are fundamental to Hong Kong’s way of life. We continue to make clear to mainland China and to Hong Kong authorities our strong opposition to the national security law, which is being used to curtail freedom, punish dissent and shrink the space for opposition, free press and civil society.
In response to the imposition of the national security law, as well as wider recent developments in Hong Kong, the UK has taken three major policy actions: on 31 January 2021, we launched a bespoke immigration route for British nationals overseas and their dependants; we have suspended the UK-Hong Kong extradition treaty; and we have extended the arms embargo on China to cover Hong Kong.
China remains in an ongoing state of non-compliance with the joint declaration, which it willingly agreed to uphold. As a co-signatory to the joint declaration, and in the significant 25th year of our handover, we will continue to stand up for the people of Hong Kong. We will continue to call out the violation of their rights and freedoms and hold China to its international obligations. My right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary is in regular contact with her international counterparts on issues relating to Hong Kong, and we continue to work intensively within international institutions to call on China to live up to its international obligations and responsibilities.
As my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary stated in the latest six-monthly report, published on 31 March, the UK will continue to speak out when China breaches its legally binding agreements, and when it breaks its promises to the people of Hong Kong.
I am grateful to you, Mr Speaker, for granting the urgent question.
On 11 May—yesterday—Chinese authorities arrested three trustees of the 612 Humanitarian Relief Fund, which helped pro-democracy protesters to pay their legal fees. Although those three figures, led by Cardinal Joseph Zen, have apparently been released on bail, the bail requirements are very onerous and their passports have been confiscated. This is a huge abuse of human rights. Cardinal Zen is, I believe, 96, and he has been a lifelong advocate of democratic causes in Hong Kong and mainland China. We should be looking up to this man, and considering the abuse that he faces. He has spoken out against China’s growing authoritarianism under President Xi Jinping, including a Beijing-imposed national security law, and the persecution of members of many religions, including Roman Catholics in China.
The problem we have is this. A representative of my Government comes to the Dispatch Box, legitimately, and condemns all these actions in China, yet we lag behind others in sanctioning individuals under the Magnitsky requirements. The following people have already been sanctioned by the United States, and are involved in this process: John Lee, elected as Hong Kong’s next chief executive; Carrie Lam, the previous head of the Hong Kong Government; Teresa Cheng Yeuk-wah; Xia Baolong; Zhang Xiaoming; Luo Huining; Zheng Yanxiong; Chris Tang Ping-keung; and Stephen Lo Wai-chung, a former commissioner of the Hong Kong police force. Not one of those people has been sanctioned by the UK Government. It is time to step up and make our position very clear.
I would also say to my right hon. Friend, for whom I have a huge amount of respect, that the 612 Humanitarian Relief Fund was shut down last year, and was opened up for inspection for “collusion”. This needs to be investigated.
I understand that you wish me to finish my remarks, Mr Speaker, and I am about to do so. Let me simply say this: it is the important bit. There have been reports that the Government may well re-enact discussions about the Joint Economic Trade Commission, and even re-endorse the economic and financial dialogue which was previously suspended. I want an absolute undertaking from our Government that they will sanction those individuals, and that there is no way on earth that we will entertain the opening up of any trade or financial discussions with this abusive Government.
My right hon. Friend speaks with huge authority on this issue, and he knows that when he speaks on any issue but particularly this one, I personally take notice and Her Majesty’s Government always take notice. He will, I know, be frustrated by the sentence I am about to utter, but I think he will understand that, while we work closely with our international partners on sanctions of individuals, as our response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine demonstrates, we never discuss publicly any future sanctions designations that might be brought. Nevertheless, Her Majesty’s Government and I will take very seriously the points that he has made, and the list of individuals that he has read out. He was right to highlight the importance of not just words but actions in opposition to actions such as those taken by the Chinese Government. We consider Beijing to be in a state of ongoing non-compliance with the Sino-British joint declaration, and I think that that will be borne in mind when we speak, or think, about any other agreements that might be entered into with that Government.
The arrests in the past few days of Cardinal Zen, Margaret Ng, Denise Ho, Cyd Ho, and Hui Po-keung mark a disturbing new phase in China’s relentless crackdown on the freedoms and liberties promised to the people of Hong Kong—in this case, freedom of religion or belief, which so many Members of this House hold very dear.
This phase has been marked by the rigged election of Beijing’s hand-picked choice of Chief Executive, John Lee, in a one-person coronation. Mr Lee is known for his brutal policing policies during the pro-democracy protests in 2019, and we are now seeing the erosion of the remaining freedoms, including the freedom of religion or belief, that were enjoyed by so many Hongkongers. This will undoubtedly lead to a further exodus of young Hongkongers from the city in search of freedom and new lives elsewhere, away from Beijing’s reach. We have long accepted that the promise of a high degree of autonomy for Hong Kong in the legally binding Sino-British agreement has been breached.
I am pleased that on previous occasions we have seen a lot of agreement in the House on this subject, and we strongly endorse the BNO—British national overseas—policy of the Government, but the arrest of opposition activists, including a 90-year-old cardinal, just days after the election of a hard-liner demands further action. I have these questions for the Minister, although I am sorry that the Foreign Secretary is not with us today. Will he make urgent representations to the Chinese embassy here in London? Will the Government consider the sanctions that the right hon. Member for Chingford and Woodford Green (Sir Iain Duncan Smith) has so eloquently set out? Will the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office redouble its efforts to support exiled journalists, faith leaders and campaigners in order to ensure that independent reporting on the situation in Hong Kong can continue? Finally, will the FCDO work with the Home Office and the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities to ensure that those Hongkongers who have fled to the UK for sanctuary are welcomed and supported, and are able to report with confidence any safety concerns they may have about Chinese influence and activity here in the UK?
I thank the hon. Lady for those points. The tone of her questions, probing though they were, reflects the concerns being expressed from right across the Chamber about what is going on in Hong Kong, and our desire to protect its people. She mentioned the election—or selection—process. On 9 May, the UK released a joint statement with our G7 partners and the EU, underscoring our grave concern about the selection process for the Chief Executive in Hong Kong and its part in the continued assault on pluralism and fundamental rights. The hon. Lady mentioned our commitment to freedom of religion or belief, and also to freedom of the press, both of which we regard as the foundation stones of a properly functioning society. She is right to highlight our collective concern about those in relation to the situation in Hong Kong. Finally, she mentioned her support for the Hong Kong people who have come to the UK. I take very seriously her point about protecting them. She is referring not just to our general duty to protect the citizens of this country, but the specific duty to protect these people from any repercussions. I will take that on board. I cannot give her a direct answer to that question, but the point she makes is valid and has been listened to.
Can the Minister tell the House what steps the Government are taking to protect freedom of religion or belief in the light of the arrest of Cardinal Zen, a senior leader of the Catholic Church in Asia? Have there been any discussions with the Vatican about the arrest? Does the Minister agree that the deteriorating state of freedom of religion or belief in Hong Kong must now be one of the concerns addressed at the UK-hosted ministerial conference on freedom of religion or belief in July?
I thank my hon. Friend for the work she does on this issue. She is famously passionate about it, and rightly so. She makes an incredibly valid point about this being a topic for the summer; it is inconceivable that it will not be a topic of discussion, although the agenda is not down to me. The Sino-British joint declaration is a legally binding treaty under which China committed to uphold Hong Kong’s high degree of autonomy and to protect the freedoms and rights of its people. This explicitly includes freedom of expression and freedom of religion or belief, so my hon. Friend is absolutely right to say that this goes to the core of the agreement. We will call out China when it curtails those freedoms and, as I say, it is right that this should be brought up in international fora—both those centred on freedom of religion or belief and others.
I am grateful to the right hon. Member for Chingford and Woodford Green (Sir Iain Duncan Smith) for securing this urgent question. The direction of travel and the stifling of democracy in Hong Kong is obviously deeply concerning and something we should all deplore. Human Rights Watch said of Cardinal Zen’s arrest:
“Arresting a 90-year-old cardinal for his peaceful activities has to be a shocking new low for Hong Kong, illustrating the city’s free fall in human rights in the past two years.”
That is correct. Rather than colluding with foreign forces, which is what they have been accused of doing, those arrested have simply helped the people of Hong Kong in the face of an increasing crackdown and autocracy.
Will the Minister pledge to the House that every possible diplomatic avenue will be explored to try to secure the urgent release of these four individuals, alongside other pro-democracy campaigners? Will he clarify what diplomatic discussions the UK Government have had on the situation in Hong Kong, and further outline the strategy to try to influence the situation? Finally, will he tell us more about the UK Government’s assessment of the likely impact on democracy of John Lee’s appointment?
I thank the hon. Lady for raising those points, and for reaffirming the cross-party view of these arrests. On 9 May, the UK released a joint statement with the G7 and the EU specifically on the selection process for the Chief Executive. A co-ordinated international voice has the greatest impact, and we will continue to work with our international friends, partners and allies in calling out these situations.
We used our G7 presidency to highlight our concerns about Hong Kong, including at the Carbis Bay summit. The hon. Lady asked how we will move things forward; we consistently raise these concerns with both the Hong Kong authorities and the Chinese mainland authorities.
Everyone in this Chamber knows that China seeks to project its power around the world in order to obtain the respect that it believes it is owed. Does my right hon. Friend agree that the arrest of Cardinal Zen does nothing but inspire the contempt of not only Catholics around the world, but all people who value freedom of religion?
My hon. Friend makes an important point. It is not for me to give advice to the Government of China, but they freely and openly entered into an agreement with us. They are now in breach of that agreement. Countries around the world should look at the respect the Chinese Government have for the agreements into which they freely enter. We expect them to stand by the agreements they make, both on this issue and on the other issues in the Sino-British agreement.
I thank the Minister for his answers. He is a compassionate Minister who understands the issues very well, and I thank him for all that he has done and will do. The Home Secretary has identified protecting freedom of religion or belief as a foreign policy priority. These arrests indicate increasing restrictions on freedom of religion or belief in Hong Kong. If that is happening in Hong Kong, we must also worry about Christians, Uyghur Muslims and Falun Gong practitioners in mainland China. What assessment has the Minister and his Department made of this case’s long-term impact?
The hon. Gentleman is another Member in this House who speaks regularly and with great knowledge on this incredibly important issue. He is right to highlight that what is happening in Hong Kong may well reflect things happening in other parts of China that we do not see. The freedom of religion or belief is a foundation-stone freedom. It is the canary in the mine, as it were, and it is a key indicator of a Government’s commitment to a whole range of other freedoms. The fact that this freedom is so visibly being curtailed in Hong Kong should draw our attention to other religious minorities in China, a number of which he regularly champions. I assure him that we will keep a close eye on not only Hong Kong but on places elsewhere in China.
It is clear that the Chinese Government were watching the west’s reaction to Russia’s illegal invasion of Ukraine. Members of this House have been sanctioned by the Chinese Government for doing nothing more than calling out human rights abuses in China, so surely the point made by my right hon. Friend the Member for Chingford and Woodford Green (Sir Iain Duncan Smith) about the sanctions and the people to be sanctioned should be taken on board by the British Government, and his suggestion should be implemented immediately.
My hon. Friend speaks with great passion. I assure him that his point is heard by the Government. I repeat what I said to my right hon. Friend the Member for Chingford and Woodford Green (Sir Iain Duncan Smith): we do not talk about future sanctions designations. However, I absolutely hear the point about it being completely inappropriate for British parliamentarians to be sanctioned, and we will listen carefully to the point that my hon. Friend and my right hon. Friend have made.
I thank the right hon. Member for Chingford and Woodford Green (Sir Iain Duncan Smith) for securing this important urgent question. I feel that in the five years I have been here, there has been a repeated deterioration in the situation in Hong Kong. Words are one thing, but action is something else. We should absolutely put in place sanctions, but Hong Kong Watch recently produced a report showing that dirty money gained through corruption—money that is being spent by families of officials from Hong Kong—is flowing in our economy. Will the Minister look carefully at that report, and commit to carrying out an audit of that dirty money, and to using the new powers in the economic crime Bill to root it out from our society?
The hon. Lady makes an important point about the economic crime Bill. That piece of legislation is being brought through the House specifically so that we can address dirty money that may be flowing through the UK, and I can assure her that the report that she highlighted will be read. This is not my portfolio, but I suspect it already has been read by those at the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office.
I thank the Minister for appearing in the Chamber to answer the urgent question. Does he consider the statements by Hong Kong’s new leader John Lee about cracking down on “fake news” to be as worrying as I do, given the accusations of human rights abuses in the region? Have the Government yet sought engagement with Lee? How do they intend to apply pressure to protect democratic freedoms more broadly?
Just like the protection of freedom of religion or belief, a free media is a foundation-stone freedom, and actions to curtail it are always something we look at carefully and closely. We have previously released statements about that appointment with our international partners, and I assure the hon. Lady that we will take very seriously actions that are being euphemistically described as a crackdown on fake news, because of course we recognise this for what it is: the curtailment of a free and open media.
What steps is the Minister actively taking to protect religious freedoms in Hong Kong, in the light of the arrest of Cardinal Zen? Will the Minister commit to working with his counterparts in the Home Office to ensure that UK police forces protect Hongkongers in our country from Chinese Communist party agents, as, shockingly, many Hongkongers are reported to have been followed or even attacked?
The hon. Lady raises an incredibly important point. The offer we made to British nationals overseas in Hong Kong to come here and make their lives here was designed specifically to help protect them from persecution and danger. We absolutely see that the duty does not stop just because they are now in the UK, and I assure her that we take their protection incredibly seriously, particularly in the light of some of the things we are seeing.
The business for the week commencing 16 May will include:
Monday 16 May—Continuation of the debate on the Queen’s Speech, on making Britain the best place to grow up and grow old.
Tuesday 17 May—Continuation of the debate on the Queen’s Speech, on tackling short-term and long-term cost of living increases.
Wednesday 18 May—Conclusion of the debate on the Queen’s Speech, on achieving economic growth.
Thursday 19 May—General debate on transport, followed by a general debate on NATO and international security.
Friday 20 May—The House will not be sitting.
The provisional business for the week commencing 23 May will include:
Monday 23 May—Second Reading of the Public Order Bill.
Tuesday 24 May—Second Reading of a Bill.
Wednesday 25 May—Remaining stages of the Product Security and Telecommunications Infrastructure Bill, followed by a general debate on Ukraine.
Thursday 26 May—My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister will propose an Humble Address to celebrate the platinum jubilee of Her Majesty the Queen.
Colleagues will also wish to be reminded that the House will rise for the Whitsun recess at the conclusion of business on Thursday 26 May and return on Monday 6 June.
I thank the Leader of the House for the forthcoming business. If I may start with some parish news: Bristol Rovers 7, Scunthorpe nil. I am sure the Leader of the House will join me in congratulating Gasheads on that win and the resulting promotion to League One.
We were all sad that on Tuesday Her Majesty the Queen was unable to address Parliament. The glaring obviousness of her absence is testament to her unfaltering dedication to our country. We wish Her Majesty well and look forward to celebrating her platinum jubilee.
What a contrast between two constitutional figureheads: one is iconic, capable and the epitome of the high standards that the British public hold dear; the other one is the Prime Minister. Speaking of huge disappointments, I turn to the content of the Queen’s Speech. The Tories promised renters reform in the previous two Queen’s Speeches; in this week’s—the third—there is a mention of a White Paper. The victims Bill has featured in four Queen’s Speeches and three manifestos and is still only in draft form. Gazing into my crystal ball, I see the future: me, months from now, asking, “Where have those Bills gone?”
There is nothing in the Queen’s Speech for women at work, or to close the pay, pensions or housing gaps that hurt women. There is no recognition of the rising child poverty rates that affect children in constituencies of Members from all parties, including those on the Government Benches. Will the Leader of the House please explain why the Government seem to have ignored women and children?
Last week, people from Cumberland to Wandsworth told this Government what they think of 15 Tory tax rises in two years, the cost of living crisis, inflation up, taxes up, debt up and economic growth stagnant. As there is clearly space in the business, will the Leader of the House ask the Chancellor to come to the House with the emergency Budget that Labour has long called for and that people throughout the country so badly need?
On 29 March, the House passed an Opposition motion that instructed the Government to place all documents, emails and so on about questions relating to the appointment of Lord Lebedev—a subject so ably explored by my right hon. Friend the Member for Ashton-under-Lyne (Angela Rayner)—before the House by 28 April. I understand from advice given to me from clerkly quarters that because of Prorogation the deadline moved to this Tuesday, but either way it is still behind us.
When we debated that motion, the Minister for the Cabinet Office and Paymaster General, the right hon. and learned Member for Northampton North (Michael Ellis), said in his closing speech that, puzzlingly, the Government would not vote against the Opposition motion because
“the common practice is not to vote on Opposition motions”.—[Official Report, 29 March 2022; Vol. 711, c. 787.]
That must have been a surprise for the Leader of the House who, as Government Chief Whip in the 2019 Parliament, whipped his colleagues to vote down 50 out of 68 Opposition motions on subjects ranging from protecting leaseholders from unsafe cladding and supporting the steel industry to helping small business, and much more. Perhaps he can tell his colleagues—including, perhaps, his Cabinet Office colleague—why he instructed them to vote against those Opposition motions. Importantly, will he tell us exactly when his Government will comply with the motion that this House approved on the documents relating to Lord Lebedev?
The cost of living crisis, 15 Tory tax rises and the Government refusing to comply with the requirements of this House—what a mess. I really missed Big Ben and his friends ringing out across Westminster. Yesterday, we heard them once more, and the resumption of those chiming bells seems particularly apt, because this Government are certainly out of time.
It is good to see the hon. Lady back in good form. May I join her in paying tribute to Bristol Rovers? It was an extraordinary result. I cannot help but reflect for a moment on the disappointment that Northampton Town must have felt at getting pipped to the post, but I am sure that we all wish them well in the play-offs to come.
The hon. Lady mentioned Her Majesty the Queen and the jubilee to come. I know that the whole country is excited by the prospect of the jubilee and wishes Her Majesty well for the coming celebrations. The jubilee can certainly unite us not only across this Chamber but across the country as we join in celebrating the incredible achievement of 70 years on the throne.
That, of course, leads us to the Queen’s Speech. Undoubtedly, the hon. Lady is very keen to criticise what she described as, I think, “an empty Queen’s Speech”. We are proposing 33 Bills—33 Bills! This is the biggest legislative agenda that we have had for many, many Sessions. There is a huge amount in the Queen’s Speech to help communities across the country, to boost the economy, to make our streets safer, and to recover from the covid pandemic. We will need a huge amount of time in Parliament to get through that huge agenda. I know that she will want to go further and do more, but, rest assured, the Government are driven and committed to improving the lives of our constituents, and the Queen’s Speech is certainly a huge step in the right direction.
The hon. Lady made reference to the local elections. It is worth reflecting on the fact that a previous Leader of the Opposition, the right hon. Member for Doncaster North (Edward Miliband), had a net gain of more than 800 councillors, so with a gain of circa 100 this time for Labour it is a little bit of a bridge too far to convince us that it is connecting with the electorate. The electorate, I think, see through its fibs and see through its lack of a plan. They acknowledge that the Government have an exciting legislative agenda, are on their side and are doing a very good job.
Finally, the hon. Lady came to the Humble Address motion. She will be aware that we have committed to releasing that information. I think I can share with the House that there are a number of security challenges in that information, which has been gone through in great detail, but it will be released to her and the House very soon. [Interruption.] Very soon. She will not have long to wait.
My right hon. Friend will be well aware that, despite some difficult elections elsewhere, in the London borough of Harrow we gained eight seats from Labour and took control of the council for the first time since 2006. Will he join me in thanking and congratulating the councillors who were elected across England, Wales and Scotland last Thursday, the activists and all the support people who did the hard work and the hard graft to get them elected and get representation across our councils?
I am delighted to join my hon. Friend in that. I pay tribute to all those elected, whatever political party they represent, and I wish them well in their careers as local councillors representing their communities. It is no surprise to me that the Conservative party made gains in Harrow, as Harrow has great leadership at its core under my hon. Friend. He is a true ambassador for his community and a great campaigner.
To that list, of course, we should add the Prime Minister, who sunk the Conservatives from second place to third place in Scotland, so well done to him.
I thank the Leader of the House for helpfully announcing the business up to the Whit recess. Try as I might, though, I could not find any scheduling of an emergency budget. This must now surely be a priority as we learn today that the UK economy has contracted by 0.1% and that inflation is at a 40-year high. The whole of the UK is suffering from a cost of living crisis, yet the Government’s priority is to give people in England the right to complain about a neighbour’s garden shed.
I do not know whether the Leader of the House is joining his Cabinet colleagues at their bonding session in Stoke-on-Trent this afternoon, but we can only imagine what a joyous occasion that will be. I hear the hon. Member for Ashfield (Lee Anderson) is in charge of the kitchen arrangements; he is offering cooking lessons to help Secretaries of State ensure that their Cabinet salaries go just that little bit further. Who knows? There might even be cake, and it might even be made from scratch, because they have so much to celebrate. The Prime Minister is still in place—a big hooray from everybody on the Back Benches over there.
We must have a debate on comedy performances, because the Levelling Up Secretary is apparently providing the after-dinner entertainment. Following his rip-roaring, side-splitting success yesterday, he is going to give all his best regional accents in an attempt to upset just about all parts of the United Kingdom. But that is this Government, is it not—laughing while the nation suffers? They fail to take seriously the utter despair and desperate conditions of our constituents. The Tories may still be in power, but any moral authority they might ever have had is now well and truly gone.
I am not quite sure what questions or requests for debates the hon. Gentleman made there, but he did draw attention to the state of the economy. It is worth reflecting that, following a global pandemic, the policies of Her Majesty’s Government meant that the UK economy grew fastest of any nation in the G7. That puts us in a robust place to assist with the global challenges of energy and food inflation. Putin’s invasion of Ukraine has caused huge challenges around the world, with energy price spikes and the cost of food going up exponentially. That is something the Government take very seriously, and we have already invested £22 billion of support to help people through the cost of living challenges they face.
There is a lot more in the Queen’s Speech that will continue to grow the economy and ensure that we move towards a high-wage, high-skill economy so that people can earn their way out of some of the challenges they face, but there is also support for those who find themselves in difficult circumstances, which the Government wholly understand. There will be more from this Dispatch Box; this is something the Government understand, and we want to try to help mitigate the impact of those global challenges.
During Prorogation, Mr Speaker, you announced that you would establish a Speaker’s Commission to ensure that the workplace we are privileged to be part of is as secure and as welcoming as it could possibly be. Could the Leader of the House find some Government time in which hon. Members could debate some of the changes they would welcome in this place—including, I hope, a condemnation of the constitutional sexism we find in the other place, where one eighth of the seats are reserved for men only?
I know this is something my hon. Friend has long campaigned on, and she has tabled a private Member’s Bill to that effect. Maybe she will be lucky enough in the private Member’s Bill ballot next week to have another crack at that. I join her in welcoming your announcement of the conference you are hoping to pull together, Mr Speaker. We will work across the House, and I know there is cross-party support for trying to improve the way people are treated. There are structures in place and I am sure that, working together, we can solve some of the challenges we face.
Mr Speaker, I hope that you and the Leader of the House will join me in congratulating Gateshead Football Club, who were last week promoted to the national league from the national league north—a promotion secured, by the way, with a 2-2 away draw at Chorley, Mr Speaker. It is a great success, because the club was rescued by the fans, having been relegated from the national league for financial misdoings by the previous ownership. That is one reason why we need the urgent introduction of the governance provisions on football. I know there will be a White Paper produced, probably in the summer, but we want to see this done as a matter of urgency, because football is not out of the woods by a long way.
I realise that in praising Gateshead football club I am going down a rabbit hole of celebrating with all the football clubs who are seeking promotion through the play-offs. I see that the hon. Member for Huddersfield (Mr Sheerman) has been bobbing in his seat. I hope he is not going to encourage me to wish Huddersfield Town well through the play-offs as they compete with Nottingham Forest.
It is worth reflecting on the positive impact that football has up and down this country, not only in drawing communities together but in getting young people out of the house and on to sports fields, and keeping themselves physically, and mentally, fit.
One of the consequences of the employment Bill not being included in the Queen’s Speech is that the vehicle to introduce neonatal leave and pay for 2023 is no longer available. Nobody wants to see another year where thousands of parents are not able to spend the appropriate amount of time with their premature or sick children. I am grateful to the Leader of the House for meeting me to discuss this and taking it so seriously. What steps will the Government now take to deliver this vital commitment on time?
My hon. Friend is undoubtedly an assiduous campaigner on this issue, as he has indicated. I have met him previously to try to assist him in his pursuit and will continue to try to assist him. He will be aware that the ballot for private Members’ Bill will take place next week and I wish him well in that, as he may well be able to pursue the cause in that way. However, there will be other routes whereby we can work together, and I encourage him to continue to engage with Ministers going forward.
I have every confidence that Huddersfield Town will succeed in being promoted to the premiership, but I will leave it there.
I want to ask the Leader of the House about a housekeeping matter. At the time of the last jubilee, some of us fought very hard to get the fountain in the main court—a gift from both Houses of Parliament to the Queen for the silver jubilee—working, and we did that in time. At the moment, it still is not operating—could he do something about that?
Can we soon have a proper debate on those selfish communities, towns and cities that create much, much waste but do not want to dispose of it in their own patch, exporting it to other constituencies and other parts of the country? As the Leader of the House will know, energy from waste in every community could support 20% of our energy needs.
I think I am right in saying that there are plans to make sure that the fountain is working for the platinum jubilee, and that extensive work has recently taken place in that area of the Palace of Westminster. There is also the prospect of the unveiling of a new gift to Her Majesty from both Houses in the very near future, and we will all be able to celebrate and enjoy that.
I hear the hon. Gentleman’s comments about waste, and clearly there are challenges in some communities. Disposal of waste is often a very controversial planning challenge for local authorities to overcome. Across Government and local government, we need to find ways to reduce waste and try to improve recycling. The Government are certainly committed to doing that, and I know he will continue to press the issue.
In response to a business statement last month, my hon. Friend the Member for Harrow East (Bob Blackman) called for a debate on Labour corruption in local government, and I echo that call. The current leader of Crawley Borough Council, when he was a parliamentary candidate, arranged for a housing contract that did not include Unite the Union. Unite the Union then said that it was going to withhold funding from his parliamentary campaign. That resulted, at a cost of over £150,000 to the taxpayer, in the council having to renegotiate the housing contract to include Unite the Union in it. I will be referring that to the district auditor, but may I again call for a debate on corruption in local government among Labour councils?
I am sorry to hear about the challenges my hon. Friend faces in Crawley. I know that he will pursue this alleged corruption and will not allow people to get away with that if it is the case. He will have the opportunity to raise the matter directly with the Secretary of State at next week’s Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities questions, and I am sure he will be in his place to do so.
Can the Leader of the House find time for a debate on the worsening economic and civil rights problems in Sri Lanka, an island of 22 million people? Protests on Monday saw nine people killed and 200 injured, allegedly by supporters of the Rajapaksa Government. Clearly there will be a need for the International Monetary Fund to intervene. Will his Government ensure that any IMF intervention takes heed of the past travesties of justice experienced by the Tamil community in Sri Lanka?
The hon. Lady is right to raise that terrible situation, and I am certainly sorry to hear about what is happening in Sri Lanka. I know that she will continue to raise it in the House. There will be an opportunity at Foreign Office questions on 21 June to raise it directly, but should the situation worsen, I am sure Ministers in the Foreign Office will update the House.
Does the Leader of the House agree that it should be a priority in funding station improvements to ensure that all platforms, and therefore all trains, are accessible by all passengers? A bid to the accessible stations fund for lifts at Sandbach station to facilitate that should be strongly supported, as indeed it is by the local MP.
I pay tribute to my hon. Friend for the campaign she has run. I, too, have campaigned in my constituency, as Mr Speaker has in his, to try to improve access to railway services for those with disabilities. It is certainly something that the Secretary of State for Transport takes very seriously, and he is trying to address it with funding and opportunities for bids for funding. I am sure my hon. Friend will take the opportunity at Transport questions next week to raise the matter directly with the Secretary of State.
The closing of post office services in North East Fife is a blight on our communities. In the past year, we have had, or are shortly due to have, post offices closed in St Andrews, Ladybank, Balmullo, Newport, Wormit and Leuchars, removing vital services. A part-time mobile service is doing its best to make up for those losses, but there is a lack of a dedicated vehicle. When will the Government make time for a debate in this House on the worrying decline in traditional post office services and the support that is not there for badly needed alternatives?
I am disappointed to hear that; I am a huge fan of the post office. Personally, I think they do a fantastic job. They play a crucial role in our communities, providing key services; and the Government set out access criteria to ensure that services remain with reach of all citizens. I think 99% of the UK population should be within 3 miles of a post office outlet so that they can access those services. I am sorry to hear about the challenges that the hon. Lady faces, and I will pass on her concerns directly to the Minister, and hopefully she will get some answers.
Given that today is International Nurses Day, can my right hon. Friend advise me on how we can thank nurses across the country and especially in my constituency of Watford, not just today of all days, but throughout the year? Is there a way to do that formally and put my thanks on record?
My hon. Friend may well have just done that by raising it here in the Chamber. He is right to raise the great work that nurses do up and down this country, and I know that is supported across the House. We never know when we might need the support of the NHS, and it is good to know that it is there for us in our moments of need.
In the Leader of the House’s football chat, he forgot to congratulate Manchester United on their victory over Nottingham Forest in the FA youth cup final last night. I am sure he will want to rectify that omission as a matter of urgency.
Moving on to more serious matters, a few weeks ago I met some constituents whose dog sadly died as a result of a fire in their home. The fire service says it was caused by a fault with a Hotpoint tumble dryer, but Hotpoint refuses to accept any responsibility. I am outraged that we have reached this point, forcing the family to look at legal action. Can we please have a debate on what more can be done to hold manufacturers to account for these kinds of faults?
I understand the hon. Gentleman’s enthusiasm for celebrating Manchester United winning anything, which is a rare event these days. He went on to make a very serious point about tumble dryers and whether they are causing fires in people’s homes. There are clearly a number of safety regulations that products in our homes should meet. It is worthy of further debate, and I am sure that he will be in his place to raise those matters with the relevant Ministers when they are at the Dispatch Box.
Telford’s Princess Royal Hospital is still not doing elective orthopaedic surgery. Many of my constituents, such as Mr Graham Cotton, who is 68, are suffering severe and constant pain, having already waited since before the start of the pandemic for surgery. If a hospital trust decides not to do much-needed surgery, it is answerable to no one—not patients, MPs or Ministers. It has no responsibility or duty to find an alternative provider. May we have a debate on the accountability of the NHS? It is simply wrong that desperately needed care is not provided and that no one is accountable or responsible to the patient.
I thank my hon. Friend for her question. She is truly an assiduous campaigner on health challenges in her constituency and the whole of Shropshire. The Health and Care Act 2022 includes measures designed to improve accountability to enhance public confidence in our NHS. The Government plan to spend £8 billion over the next three years to tackle the elective backlog. Clearly, covid has given a number of challenges to the NHS and has caused those backlogs. The Government are committed to trying to resolve that and to helping health services catch up so that our constituents can get the operations they desperately need.
With apologies to Sir Winston Churchill, like
“the dreary steeples of Fermanagh and Tyrone”,
the Northern Ireland protocol continues to plague Northern Ireland politics and affect our economy. There have been many reports in the media about moves by the Government to perhaps legislate directly to lance that boil. Can the Leader of the House give an indication about whether any movement is planned? Will it be brought to the House, and how quickly can we expect action on that matter to ensure that businesses know what is happening?
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his question. As he identifies, the protocol was clearly a huge issue in the Northern Ireland elections. It is something that the Foreign Secretary has been pursuing for a long time by trying to encourage EU colleagues to come to the table to find a way forward. She will continue with those plans. The hon. Gentleman is right to identify, however, that if we cannot find a way forward, the UK Government will clearly have to consider options to overcome the challenges that communities in Northern Ireland are facing. Shoring up and supporting the Good Friday agreement is a fundamental desire of the UK. The Good Friday agreement must be protected, so if the protocol is damaging it, the UK Government will have to take action.
For the vast majority of our constituents, the largest purchase that they will make in their lifetime is a house for them and their family to live in. For my constituents living in Steinbeck Grange in Warrington, however, the opportunity to purchase a dream home has turned into a living nightmare. The Competition and Markets Authority has launched an investigation into the mis-selling of leasehold. Can the Leader of the House update us on where the CMA is with that investigation? Can we have a debate in the House on the opportunities to retrospectively fix the leasehold scandal that affects many people living in my constituency?
I thank my hon. Friend for his question. That subject would make a good Adjournment debate if he were to apply. We welcome the CMA’s action to tackle potential mis-selling and unfair terms, and the Government certainly want affected homeowners to obtain the justice and redress that they deserve. I know that my hon. Friend will play his part in drawing the House’s attention to the challenges that they face. It is DLUHC questions next Monday, and I am sure that he will be in his place to raise the matter again directly with the Secretary of State for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities.
Every 22 minutes, someone is killed or seriously injured on UK roads, and police describe speeding as one of the fatal five. Last week, we learned that Nottinghamshire’s police and crime commissioner, who was elected on a promise to tackle speeding on our roads, has admitted breaking the law five times in 12 weeks, including twice near a Nottingham primary school. What does that say about her commitment to road safety?
The hon. Lady will be aware that that case is ongoing, I think, so I am not going to comment on the individual court case. However, I would say that speeding is something that should be condemned. Local authorities, the police and the Government put measures in place to try to reduce speeds, particularly around our schools. As someone who has done an enormous amount of campaigning on speeding, certainly in the villages in my own constituency, I will continue to pursue those who break the law by speeding.
Spring brings the familiar sights of daffodils, newborn lambs and, less cheerfully, temporary traffic lights, as councils across the country rush to spend their annual roads budget before financial year end. Due to poor planning and communication between Derbyshire and Tameside councils, residents in Glossop have been subjected over the last few weeks to complete traffic gridlock as major roadworks have been approved on both of the main roads out of the town, which underlines the long-term need finally to build the Mottram bypass. In the meantime, can we have a debate on the way councils’ roads budgets work and the need for long-term strategic planning over several years, rather than the annual chaos we see every spring?
I am sorry to hear of the challenges my hon. Friend is facing in High Peak. He will have the opportunity at DLUHC questions on Monday to raise those matters directly with the Secretary of State. I certainly share his frustration at times of sitting at temporary traffic lights, especially when, after finally getting through those traffic lights, it does not appear that anything is happening.
May is a very important month, and today, as well as being International Nurses Day, is the birthdate of Florence Nightingale. In addition, today is also my birthday—[Hon. Members: “Hear, hear.”]—a day I share with the Chancellor of the Exchequer, although, sadly, I have celebrated 12 more birthdays than he has.
Even more importantly than that, May is Melanoma Awareness Month. Melanoma is the most serious type of skin cancer, and protection from ultraviolet rays is key to lowering the risk of this disease. Cancer Research UK has found that skin cancer rates have more than doubled since the 1990s. Will the Leader of the House join me in lobbying the Chancellor to reclassify sun cream as an essential healthcare item, instead of a cosmetic item, thereby exempting it from VAT and making it more affordable for more people to protect themselves from the risk of skin cancer?
First, I wish Florence Nightingale, the hon. Member and the Chancellor of the Exchequer a happy birthday.
The hon. Member is absolutely right to raise melanoma as an issue in this House, and I thank her for doing so. The more we talk about it, the more people will be aware of a change in a mole or a growth on a part of their body that needs early detection. I think I am right in saying that the earlier we detect these things, the better the chances of the NHS being able to solve the particular problem. I hear her request to the Chancellor of the Exchequer. I shall pass that on directly to him, and I am sure that, at a future Budget, it will be something he will consider.
This week is Mental Health Awareness Week, and the theme this year is loneliness. I would like to take this chance to thank organisations nationally and locally in my constituency, such as Age UK in Gateshead and the MHA—Methodist Homes—in the west of the borough for the work they do in tackling loneliness. Can we have a debate in Government time on the issue of loneliness to make sure that we are doing all we can to tackle it?
I thank the hon. Lady for raising that important matter, and for raising the profile of the challenges that some people face with loneliness. I join her in celebrating the work of the many individuals and charities that do great work in this area. I certainly think it would be worthy of a Westminster Hall debate or an Adjournment debate. It is something on which I am sure she will continue to have support across the House and that she will continue to pursue.
Leaseholders in Cambridge and across the country are continuing to suffer punishing insurance premiums. Their homes are safe, but because of the fallout from the issues around the removal of cladding and the EWS1 fiasco, they are punished. That is quite unfair, so can we have a statement from the Secretary of State—I do not mind whether it is in a scouse accent, an American accent or a Scots accent—to explain to us why my constituents are still suffering in this way?
The hon. Gentleman will have an opportunity at DLUHC questions on Monday when the Secretary of State will be at the Dispatch Box to answer any questions of that nature. The Government recognise the challenges facing people who have suffered from the miscladding, let us say, of their properties and we brought forward the Building Safety Act 2022 and other legislation to try to address those challenges.
Yesterday at the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee, Professor Lorand Bartels, professor of international trade law at the University of Cambridge, was asked about the ramifications for trade with the European Union if article 16 is invoked. In the afternoon at the Committee, the Minister for Trade Policy spoke passionately about the problems with the current checks in the Irish sea. However, she was unable to give an answer on the legal basis upon which article 16 could be invoked. May we have an urgent question from the Attorney General about the legal basis for the invocation of article 16?
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his question, and should there be any triggering of article 16 he should and would expect a statement from the Dispatch Box from the relevant Minister; I would be amazed if that was not the case. The Government would of course update the House on any changes, but there are currently no plans to trigger article 16. Our discussions with the EU continue over the challenges of the Northern Ireland protocol, but it is a challenge we need to overcome; I encourage the EU to work with us to protect the Good Friday agreement, but that needs to happen on a very rapid timescale because it does need resolving.
The Syrian family of 13-year-old Firas were told in 2018 that they would be resettled to the United Kingdom, but they are still waiting and, heartbreakingly, that severely disabled kid died in Beirut with his family struggling to pay for medical care, food and clothes. Some 2,000 refugee families are currently in a similar situation according to the United Nations Commission on Human Rights. The resettlement programme can be transformational but we must not leave families hanging on for so long. May we have an urgent statement on steps to be taken to speed up the resettlement programme and help more families like Firas’s?
I am sorry to hear about the challenges the hon. Gentleman outlined. If he writes to me on the specific case, I will of course raise that directly with the relevant Minister on his behalf. The Government have a great track record in supporting families coming to the UK and taking refugees not only from Syria but from Afghanistan and now Ukraine, and if I can assist him in his pursuits, I will do everything I can.
The David Livingstone birthplace museum in Blantyre in my constituency has been nominated for the best permanent exhibition at the museums and heritage awards. The museum documents Livingstone’s life and career, good and bad, and seeks to educate about Scotland’s role in slavery and colonisation. Having visited a number of times, I can attest to the power of the exhibition. Will the Leader of the House join me in congratulating the museum and schedule a debate in Government time on the importance of the arts and culture sector in educating communities?
I join the hon. Lady in that celebration; I was not aware of the Livingstone museum but it sounds interesting and I am sure tourists up and down the country will be making their way to her constituency to enjoy the exhibition. I join her, too, in celebrating all tourist attractions and museums; that is worthy of a debate and I am sure that if she were to apply for a Westminster Hall debate, many colleagues would want to participate.
I thank the Leader of the House for all the time he gives to answering all our difficult question; they are sometimes more difficult than others, but I hope he will agree with mine. In Ethiopia recent violent clashes between Muslims and Orthodox Christians have left at least 30 people dead and more than 100 injured. Will he join me in condemning the attacks and ask the relevant Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office Minister to make a statement calling on the local authorities in Ethiopia to carry out timely, independent and transparent investigations into the attacks?
I thank the hon. Gentleman, whom Mr Speaker always saves till last. I do not know why he does that—it feels a little bit like the good news story at the end of the ITN news. I saw that he was present for the urgent question to the Foreign Office Minister, when he also asked about religious oppression around the world. He is an assiduous campaigner on this topic and, at the end of his career—I think that is a long way away—we will all be able to reflect on the positive impact that he has had around the world on religious freedom. I know that he will continue to pursue those aims.
Order. I just want to correct the record. The hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) has already asked three questions today, and earlier he was called so early that he fell off his own chair. If the Leader of the House wants the hon. Member to be taken last, I will have to listen to him.
Debate on the Address
Debate resumed (Order, 10 May)
Question again proposed,
That an humble Address be presented to Her Majesty, as follows:
Most Gracious Sovereign,
We, Your Majesty’s most dutiful and loyal subjects, the Commons of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland in Parliament assembled, beg leave to offer our humble thanks to Your Majesty for the Gracious Speech which was addressed to both Houses of Parliament.
Fairness at Work and Power in Communities
I am pleased to speak in support of the Queen’s Speech and the measures that it contains to make the United Kingdom stronger, healthier and more prosperous than before. The rising cost of living is a global challenge, and I know that this is a worrying time. The Government have made dealing with that challenge our top priority. Fundamentally, the only way to deal with it properly is to grow the economy, enable businesses to invest and create jobs, increase wages and increase productivity. However, we cannot achieve that overnight. That is why in 2022-23 we are providing support worth more than £22 billion to help families with the pressures in the immediate term.
The Government recognise that businesses are also concerned. Energy prices have increased globally, and there are supply-chain issues as the world economy recovers from the pandemic and adapts to the shock of the war in Ukraine. We will continue to keep the situation under review, recognising the current high level of uncertainty, and continue to monitor the ongoing impact on the economy. However, the UK economy is incredibly resilient and, with responsible management, we have seen it bounce back time and again—most recently from the pandemic with output above pre-pandemic levels. Unemployment is back below pre-pandemic levels and demand for workers remains strong. There are now more employees on the payroll than ever before.
A key part of our resilience is our strong, flexible and dynamic labour market. It is the envy of the world because it gives businesses the confidence to create jobs and invest in their workforce while giving workers more choice over who they work for and how often.
Informal carers across the country will have been dismayed to hear that legislation to introduce the right to unpaid carer’s leave was not in the Queen’s Speech. It was a 2019 manifesto commitment and is a key pillar of the Government’s adult social care reforms. Will my hon. Friend please let me know when that will be addressed?
I thank my hon. Friend for raising this issue, which she has done on a number of occasions, and rightly so. It remains a commitment of the Government to support unpaid carers, who do an amazing job in supporting their families and, importantly, supporting the economy and other areas of social care through their work and their commitment to their families. We remain committed to unpaid carer’s leave and indeed will introduce it when parliamentary time allows.
I have listened to the Minister’s speech so far. He is talking about business being dynamic, but of course there are rogue employers out there. He promised a Delegated Legislation Committee on 25 January that there would be an employment Bill in the Queen’s Speech—may I ask where it is?
We remain undiminished in our commitment to balance, as I outlined, the flexibility of the labour market with protections for workers. Indeed, we have already been working on a number of areas. We have made really good progress in extending the right to a written statement of core terms of employment to all workers—we have made access to that a day one right—and quadrupling the available aggravated breach penalties used in employment tribunals to £20,000 as well as any number of other issues, many of which I will outline in the debate. However, we clearly want to do more, and we will do that as parliamentary time allows.
I will cover P&O a bit later in my speech, if the hon. Gentleman will bear with me. While we celebrate the flexibility of our workforce and the employers that do the right thing, clearly, there are egregious examples, such as P&O. We continue to address those through the work of the Insolvency Service and through the harbours Bill, which was announced in the Queen’s Speech.
Would the Minister extend the category of egregious employers to Asda, B&Q, Sainsbury’s, Marks and Spencer and British Gas, all of which have reduced the terms and conditions of their long-standing members of staff on the basis of just 90 days’ consultation? Is that any way to treat anybody?
The hon. Lady has raised this issue on a number of occasions. She will have seen, not that long ago, my announcement that we are establishing a statutory code of practice that will allow a strengthening of the findings of tribunals on companies that are doing the wrong thing in terms of fire and rehire and going back on people’s contracts in the way that she describes. What we want to provide, and what we have, is a labour market that rightly bears down on unscrupulous employers, protects those keeping to good working practices, promotes more competition in UK markets to build a high-skilled, high-productivity, high-wage economy, and promotes competition and choice so consumers have confidence in markets and businesses can compete on a level playing field. Our labour market is ranked among the top 10 countries, according to the World Economic Forum’s global competitive index. We also have one of the best records on workers’ rights in the world. Despite the pandemic, the labour market is strong by historical standards, with close to record levels and rates across the board.
Does the hon. Gentleman agree that crucial to our recovery and crucial to our workforce is the ability of women to get back into the workforce and have hours of work that suit them? Why is it that childcare in this country is the most expensive in the developed world? When are we going to do something about that to liberate women to use their talent to the full?
I happily agree with everything the hon. Gentleman has said. The Under-Secretary of State for Education, my hon. Friend the Member for Colchester (Will Quince), is reviewing childcare to tackle exactly that point. It is so important, as he says, to keep women, and basically everyone, in the workforce who want to stay in the workforce and progress their careers. So much about the flexible labour market is to ensure that companies, which invest a lot of time, money and resource in their workplace, keep those people and keep investing in those people. Businesses are based on their people if nothing else, so it is important that women can stay. That was my point about childcare. The Minister for children is reviewing the issue with a sense of urgency and passion to do something about making childcare affordable, but also to ensure that good employers, and more employers, provide women with flexibility in the workplace to keep them in the workplace, so there are fewer career breaks.
The unemployment rate is at its lowest since 1975. If you are in work, you have the best chance of tackling the cost of living as a household. The employment rate is at its highest since comparable records began in 1971 and workforce participation is close to record high rates. Youth unemployment—that is, 16 to 24-year-olds—has bounced back to pre-pandemic levels and is now at one of its lowest rates on record. We continue to build on that excellent record. This April, we made sure that 2.5 million people received a pay rise by raising the national minimum wage and living wage. That was the largest ever cash increase to the national living wage and put more than £1,000 a year into a full-time worker’s pay packet, helping to ease the cost of living pressures.
I am sure that the hon. Lady has read the report on the challenges in relation to this. We have seen how gender pay gaps have changed. There are complexities about ethnic pay gap reporting, but it is clearly an important issue. We will continue to work through that and encourage businesses to make sure that they pay a fair wage, and that starts with the lowest paid in the workforce.
The 2022 national living wage is now 42% higher than the minimum wage was in 2015. It is 60% higher than the minimum wage was in 2010. The Government have a commitment for the national living wage to equal two thirds of median earnings by 2024, providing economic conditions allow that. Additionally, we are putting power into the hands of individuals and businesses to find and create work that suits their personal circumstances. On Monday, we confirmed our intention to widen the ban on exclusivity clauses, ensuring that the lowest-paid workers have the freedom to boost their income through extra work if they wish.
We also continue to level the playing field, holding unscrupulous businesses to account and creating an environment in which businesses can compete fairly. The Government are tackling appalling business practices, such as—as I said—the disgraceful behaviour of P&O Ferries in firing their employees without consultation.
I am very interested in what the Minister said about exclusivity clauses. How will he ensure that that does not simply encourage employers to keep wages low, knowing that, in fact, workers will then take on more and more low hours and low-paid jobs, effectively multiplying their exploitation?
That is the careful balance that we in this place rightly have to achieve in our legislation. The entire philosophy behind removing exclusivity clauses is that it is for people on the lowest wages. They should not be bound to one employer. Clearly, people should not be forced to work in many jobs to earn a living wage. That is not the purpose of our proposals. We want to ensure that we remove discrimination by extending the protection against exclusivity clauses.
To come back to P&O, on 1 April, following a request from the Business Secretary, the Insolvency Service confirmed that, following its inquiries, it has commenced formal criminal and civil investigations into the circumstances surrounding the recent redundancies made by P&O Ferries. The Harbours (Seafarers’ Remuneration) Bill that was announced in the Queen’s Speech will protect seafarers working aboard vessels visiting UK ports by ensuring that the ports have powers ultimately to refuse access to ferry services that do not pay an equivalent to the national minimum wage to seafarers while in UK waters. That means that all ferry staff will receive a fair wage while in UK waters when operating regularly to or from UK ports, helping to avoid a legal loophole between UK and international maritime law that P&O Ferries ruthlessly exploited.
The Minister said a very important thing: that a criminal investigation had started. An assurance was given to the Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy Committee that there would be advice on the legal position by 8 April. Will he please inform the House whether he has received that advice and whether a criminal offence has been made out?
I said that the Insolvency Service would respond by 8 April, which it did, and that is why it has launched its criminal and civil investigations. That is ongoing.
We have also recently committed to producing a statutory code on fire and rehire practices to strengthen the rights of all employees. The new code will deter employers from using controversial tactics and from failing to engage in meaningful consultations with employees. The Government’s approach is clear: when bad bosses do not play by the rules, we will act.
Last year, I introduced the Tips Bill, which would be an important solution, supporting hospitality workers with the cost of living: it would ensure that employers could not keep tips given to staff, waiters and hospitality workers. May I have an assurance from the Minister that he will continue to support me in ensuring that the Bill goes through Parliament?
My hon. Friend has done amazing work in raising the profile of ensuring that there is a fair system for tipping and that the tronc actually goes to those at the front end, who are often on low wages. As I have said, the primary purpose of our employment measures is to protect those who are at the lowest end especially. I reaffirm our commitment to building on my hon. Friend’s continuing work in that area.
The Minister is being generous in giving way. He says that, where employers adopt bad practices, the Government will act, but it has been nearly five years since the Taylor review reported on issues such as zero-hours contracts and short-term shift notices. Once again, may I ask where the employment Bill is to tackle those issues?
I will come back to the future of work in a second. The hon. Gentleman talks about zero-hours contracts, but we cannot just throw that term around as if it described a single exploitative work product. I have talked about how we have a dynamic and flexible labour market. Many, many people who are on zero-hours contracts like to be on them. There is still exploitation and there are still bad bosses out there, which is why I say that where there are bad practices we will act, but it is important that where businesses are playing fairly we salute them and support them in creating jobs and boosting our economy. We will all become poorer if the public lose faith in Britain’s businesses.
I thank my hon. Friend for his comments. I know that he is committed to improvements to the labour market; we have had many conversations about the subject. He talks about acting when bad bosses are not doing the right things. Are the Government still planning to act to outlaw the misuse of non-disclosure agreements and confidentiality agreements, which are too often used to cover up wrongdoing in the workplace? The Government have undertaken to do so.
We have had some really good conversations about this. As I say, where we have said that we will act, we will. My right hon. Friend has talked often in this Chamber and in the Women and Equalities Committee, when she was its Chair, about pregnancy discrimination, which goes back to a point that I responded to earlier about keeping women in the workplace. Women should not have to suffer for taking career breaks. We need to make sure that investment in women in the workplace is not wasted, because frankly it makes no business sense to act badly in that area.
There is no growth without enterprise. The Queen’s Speech sets out exactly how we will continue to boost economic growth across the country to address the cost of living and help to create the conditions for more people to have high-wage, high-skill jobs. The energy security Bill will not only accelerate our transition to more secure, more affordable and cleaner home-grown energy supplies, but encourage the creation of tens of thousands of high-skill jobs across the country. The audit reform Bill will reduce the unfair impact of sudden corporate collapses on workers, pensioners and suppliers, and will help businesses to grow by reinforcing the UK’s reputation as a great place to do business and invest.
The digital markets, competition and consumer Bill will protect consumers’ hard-earned cash from scams and rip-offs and will help them to get better deals, promoting more competition in UK markets so that consumers have confidence in markets and businesses competing on a level playing field. The economic crime and corporate transparency Bill will strengthen the UK’s reputation as a place where legitimate businesses can thrive, while ensuring that dirty money has no place to hide. All these reforms will improve our business environment and increase opportunities for the hard-working people of the UK to find jobs that suit them and their personal circumstances and that treat them fairly.
The Minister is being generous in giving way. He referred to the Harbours (Seafarers’ Remuneration) Bill, and specifically to provisions to protect seafarers on ships entering UK ports. In the light of his remark about opportunities for well-paid, secure employment, will the same provisions apply to employment in the renewable energy sector on the UK continental shelf? There is the potential for many tens of thousands of new jobs, but the risk is that they will be offshored and will not go to British workers.
The economic crime Bill gives us an opportunity to address the misuse of compulsory strike-off. I should be grateful if the Minister would make time to meet me, and some of the insolvency practitioner organisations, to discuss this phenomenon, which allows unscrupulous directors to use the practice to have their companies struck off without meeting debt and other obligations.
I think I missed the first part of the hon. Lady’s intervention, but I will happily meet her, or one of my colleagues will. The Minister responsible for corporate governance matters is in the House of Lords, but I will ensure that whatever meeting takes place is the most appropriate one for the hon. Lady. We do want to secure the confidence in our corporate governance to which she has rightly referred.
The Queen’s Speech contains a packed and ambitious legislative programme, including a comprehensive set of Bills which will enable us to deliver on priorities such as growing the economy, which will in turn help to address rising living costs and get people into good jobs. We remain committed to introducing legislation to deliver on these manifesto commitments as soon as parliamentary time allows. Today the Prime Minister has asked my hon. Friend the Member for Boston and Skegness (Matt Warman) to conduct a review on the future of work. The review will build on existing Government commitments, mentioned by Members today, to identify and assess the key questions to address on that subject are as we seek to grow the economy after the pandemic.
Let me take this opportunity to remind Members that we have produced a raft of secondary legislation in recent years. We brought into force a world first in introducing a legal right to two weeks’ paid bereavement leave for parents who suffer the devastating loss of a child, irrespective of how long they have worked for their employer. Furthermore, at every stage of the pandemic our priority has been to protect jobs and livelihoods, and to provide a fair deal for the hard-working individuals of the United Kingdom. We continued to take action, swiftly and decisively, when it was needed during the pandemic.
I have spoken today about how reforms in the Queen’s Speech, and additional Government actions, will continue to improve our business environment and increase the opportunities for those hard-working people of the UK to find jobs that suit them and their personal circumstances and treat them fairly. Let me also make it clear that those opportunities will be spread across the country, driving local growth and regeneration. We are giving powers back to local leaders by devolving powers to Mayors and local government. We are giving local communities more tools to bring about regeneration, including a planning system that places beauty, infrastructure, democracy, the environment and neighbourhoods at its heart. The Levelling-up and Regeneration Bill will enshrine in law the Government’s commitment to the 12 levelling-up missions giving power and opportunity back to those communities, and we are pressing ahead with our plans for the implementation of the White Paper “Levelling Up the United Kingdom”.
The Minister has talked about more powers, and it is clear that more areas will be given powers similar to those currently held by, for instance, the existing combined authorities. Can he specify what those powers will be, for the benefit of those mayoral combined authorities? Will he set them out very simply, so that we all know what additional powers the Mayors will have?
I am sure that the answer to that question will develop as the debate proceeds. I am not going to go through all the various powers now. Suffice it to say that what we will all see is devolution that matches the expectations of people and communities, so that we can create opportunities for good governance and ensure that local leaders shape their areas and their economies. Ultimately, levelling up is about levelling up people and levelling up lives. That will inevitably be reflected in infrastructure and transport, but it will also be reflected in governance which ensures that those who know those people best and can work with them most effectively can respond at a local, bespoke level.
We are also introducing legislation to give social tenants a more powerful voice with their landlords, and we are legislating to improve the quality of housing for private renters and making renting fairer for tenants.
This is a Queen’s Speech which will ensure that we can continue to build back a better Britain after the pandemic, boosting our growth and our recovery so that every part of our country can thrive.
It is a pleasure to face the Under-Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, the hon. Member for Sutton and Cheam (Paul Scully) for the first time, but from what he has said today, I have to ask: where is the employment Bill that was promised? Where is it? The Labour party has a long and proud history as the party of working people and for working people. It is simple: we believe that people deserve a high-quality, secure job and a fair day’s pay for a fair day’s work. Everyone deserves a job that they can build their life on and the security to be able to start a family, no matter who they are or what job they do.
More than that, I believe that working people should earn enough so that they can have cash spare at the end of the week to enjoy the fruits of their labour and balance work and life. Going out for dinner or taking their kids to the cinema should not be a luxury item for people who are working. What a miserable vision of our country it is when older people who ride buses to keep warm are told that they should be grateful for that privilege, when 2 million people in our country cannot afford to eat every day and when a further 250,000 UK households face destitution in 2023. That is the Conservative Government in action, and it shows how we on this side of the House differ. We are not all the same.
The Minister opened the debate today by talking about the importance of growth, yet today’s GDP figures show no growth in February and a fall in GDP in March. Working people across the country have been betrayed by the Conservative Government. The employment Bill that was promised to follow the withdrawal agreement has never happened. They did not get it done.
In yet another Queen’s Speech the Government offer jam tomorrow while millions of people in our country cannot afford either to eat or to heat. This week, families needed to see a proper proposal from the Government to put money back in their pockets. Parents getting a late-night text to tell them their working hours and tearing their hair out organising last-minute childcare to cover their shift, and social care workers working two jobs who cannot afford to take a break or get sick, needed to see fair pay agreements or a basic minimum wage that is enough to live on. The bus driver who worked all through the pandemic but was fired and rehired on less money and longer hours needs to see the outlawing of this obscene practice. They need real help, right now. Instead, they get warm words and wishful thinking.
Time and again—in fact 20 times—Ministers promised an employment Bill that would protect workers and put an end to warehouses run like Victorian workhouses. They then promised they would make it illegal for bosses to sack long-standing staff members and then rehire them on worse pay and hours, to avoid a repeat of the P&O scandal. They promised that enhanced rights and protections were just around the corner. Well—mañana, mañana, mañana. Twenty times, Ministers have stood at the Dispatch Box and said that we should await the employment Bill, and await it we did. Where is it? Three years now and we are still waiting.
Now we can see that the Government were never going to come good on that pledge. The promise to introduce a single enforcement body and take action on tips and sick pay—gone. The promise to consult on making flexible working the default without good reason not to—ditched. The promise to introduce extended leave for neonatal care—dropped. The promise to make it easier for fathers to take paternity leave—disappeared.
The promise to extend the entitlement to leave for unpaid carers to a week—abandoned. The promise to create a preventive duty against sexual harassment—missing. The promise to extend redundancy protection for pregnant women—nowhere to be seen. And the promise to end the cruel practice of fire and rehire—up in smoke. The truth is that this Government are presiding over a bonfire of workers’ rights and breaking their promises left, right and centre. They pledged to enhance rights and protections at work, but yet again they have failed to deliver.
If the Conservatives were serious about spreading opportunity, prosperity and power across the country, they would start by introducing plans to pay people a fair day’s pay for a fair day’s work, but this Government have yet again failed to make the choices required to stand up for working people, because they are not on working people’s side. While prices continue to skyrocket, we see no plans—no plans—to tackle the cost of living crisis. The Prime Minister said that more help is on its way, and then his own spokespeople and his absent neighbour at No. 11 furiously denied it, while Ministers took to the airwaves to put on silly voices and mock those who are struggling. This is not a serious Government.
The Government continue to try to pull the wool over our eyes, telling us that skyrocketing prices are just a global problem, that offering people help is somehow silly, that nothing can be done. But here is the problem: as bills soar across Britain, the Prime Minister is enforcing a tax-hiking Budget. He is the only G7 leader to do so. The Prime Minister and his Chancellor chose—they chose—to hike taxes on working people at the worst possible time, and they chose not to introduce a windfall tax on energy companies to help people with their energy bills. We need an emergency Budget now to sort out this mess and to tackle the cost of living crisis.
I constantly get mail from constituents who are struggling to make a pay cheque last until the end of the month. They all deserve better, a decent wage that is enough to raise a family on and to afford bread and, yes, some roses, too. Better pay would end the self-defeating low wage, low investment and low productivity cycle in which the country has been trapped for the past decade. Boosting people’s income is not just the right thing to do for them; it is the right thing to do for our economy.
The fact is that, right now, people do not have the money to spend in our shops, businesses and local economies, so high streets are suffering. Places that were once a source of great pride are now a source of great sadness, as independent businesses are replaced with plywood shutters.
Britain’s insecure work epidemic is not just punishing workers and communities; it is starving the public finances, too. New research from the TUC this week shows that insecure, low-paid work costs the Treasury £10 billion a year in lost tax revenue and increased social security payments, which means less funding for our cash-strapped hospitals, care homes and schools. That is a choice—it is the Government’s choice—and, under this Government, the people who worked to rebuild this country have been forgotten. In towns up and down the country, people are working harder and paying more but getting less every year.
In places like Stockport, where I grew up, families are suffering. While travelling across the country during the local election campaign, I saw at first hand how the Conservatives have frozen wages, overseen widespread inequality and increased poverty. From Bury to Bletchley, and from Barnet to Burnley, the people and places that once proudly powered Britain, that contributed to our economy, are being rewarded with low wages and insecure work. They are underpaid, underappreciated and undervalued. It is high time that the key workers who got us through this pandemic, and all other working people, were given the dignity and security at work that they deserve, but under the Conservatives, work does not mean security any more, and it does not mean fairness, either. That is why we have proposed a new deal for working people. Within the first 100 days of a Labour Government, we would legislate to introduce fair pay agreements, which would bring together workers and employers to agree terms in each sector, starting in social care.
We are ambitious for our country, and our ambitions do not stop there. Labour will strengthen the protections afforded to all workers by ending qualifying periods for basic rights, which leave working people waiting up to two years for their basic protections. Labour will end this arbitrary system, and will scrap qualifying time for basic rights such as those on unfair dismissal, sick pay and paternity pay. With a Labour Government, working people will have rights at work from day one, but this not just about workers; so many businesses play by the rules and try to do the right thing but are undercut by the offshore and the unscrupulous. Many of them are the small and medium-sized businesses that are the backbone of our local and regional economies, and they deserve better, too. We would scrap business rates to help our high streets flourish. Just today, Deliveroo and GMB union have reached a groundbreaking agreement, which shows how innovation and a voice at work can go hand in hand. It is good that there are successful businesses that understand the value of trade unions in a modern economy.
This Government could also learn a lesson or two about the role of women in our economy. Having been a single parent, I know only too well the challenges of trying to balance work with being a good mum—of running from work to the school gates, and of missing out on parents evening. Rather than stacking the odds against working parents, Labour would deliver stronger family-friendly rights. Labour will ensure that all workers have the right to flexible working as a default from day one. During the pandemic, so many workers have shown how flexible they can be, and we should build on that flexibility. We are committed to extending statutory maternity and paternity leave, introducing the right to bereavement leave, and strengthening protections for pregnant women by making it, as a default, unlawful to dismiss them within six months of their return to work. Labour will set stronger family-friendly rights in stone.
We will also put mental health on a par with physical health in our workplaces. This week is Mental Health Awareness Week, and Ministers would do well to remember it. Labour will also act to close gender, disability and ethnicity pay gaps. This Government’s programme is completely lacking in any plans to tackle the inequalities facing black, Asian and minority ethnic people, which were so visibly exposed by the covid-19 pandemic. Yet again, the Government have reneged on their promise to introduce ethnicity pay gap reporting, ignoring calls from both the CBI and the TUC.
My right hon. Friend is making a fantastic speech. Does she share my admiration for Baroness McGregor-Smith, and the work that she did to persuade many companies to embrace pay gap reporting, though that was thwarted by those on the Government Benches? Is it not a sad indictment of the Government that business, the TUC and everybody else are way ahead of them on this issue?
I thank my hon. Friend, not only for his work on Labour’s plan for employment, but for the crucial point he makes. This Government’s pattern of behaviour is to not work with or listen to anybody at the moment. It is all about rhetoric, rather than working collaboratively to make things better for the people of this country. It seems that nobody is immune to that these days, whereas once it was just a select few who the Government felt were partisan in their views. The ideas of quite a lot of people are now frozen out, and it seems the Government are not willing to listen.
Our country is riven with inequalities, which we on the Opposition Benches are focused on fixing in order to ensure that the working people who create our nation’s wealth get their fair share of it. Meanwhile, the Government propose a Procurement Bill that looks increasingly unworthy of the name. We need a Bill that allows us to use Government contracts to support British businesses, so that we can make, buy and sell more in Britain. As we recover from the pandemic, we have a chance to seize new opportunities to shape a new future for Britain—opportunities to give people new skills and jobs here in the UK, to invest in local businesses, and to help our high streets to thrive again.
A Labour Government would ask every public body to give more contracts to British businesses, using social, environmental and labour clauses in contract design. We would work with colleges and universities to make sure that we hone the skills and apprenticeships that we need for the jobs of the future. The Tories have cynically abused procurement rules and handed out millions of pounds of public money to their mates; Labour will use public procurement to support good work and good British businesses. From good green jobs in tidal power and offshore wind, to fintech, media and film, we must grow modern industries to build a long-term economy that provides good jobs and is fit for the future.
I absolutely agree. The frustration is that people in the north and in the midlands—areas like the one I represent—have been told that there will be “Levelling up, levelling up, levelling up,” yet at the first sign of any sort of sprig of help for our economy, they trash it by taking away the support that is there and doing something that really does not add up to levelling up and supporting our great industries in the north and in the midlands.
I thank my Unison colleague and friend, who I have known for many years, and who has fought for working people and great public services for many years. Yes, I absolutely agree with him: it does not make sense. The theme I have highlighted throughout my speech is that the Government say one thing, but it is always jam tomorrow, and their actions are completely divorced from what is happening on the ground.
The Conservatives have had 12 long years to make the changes that our country desperately needs to secure our future, but they have failed. All the while, we have seen the watering down of workers’ rights, and rogue bosses such as those at P&O taking advantage of our lax rules while Ministers stand idly by. Instead of an employment model that delivers for working people, the Conservatives have ushered in a race to the bottom on the backs of working people. Outsourcing, zero-hours contracts and agency work have driven down pay, standards and conditions for everyone across our whole economy.
Labour’s approach is to offer people real help right now, and a vision for the future of work in which working people enjoy dignity and are treated with respect. This is what is missing from the Government’s programme: real help right now, when people need it—a vision for a better Britain, with a more secure future. Work should provide not just a proper wage that people can raise a family on but dignity, fairness and flexibility. Labour will make Britain work for working people. This Conservative Government have not got a plan—they have not got a clue. Ministers claim they are getting on with the job, but they are failing Britain’s workers and their communities today.
It is always a pleasure to speak in this House, but it is a particular pleasure for me today, as it is 30 years to the day since I stood on almost the same spot to give my maiden speech in the House of Commons. It is a pleasure, too, to speak in a debate about the communities up and down our country.
Nothing undermines the stability of our economy, community and families more than inflation. It inevitably hits the poorest in society hardest, and it is therefore a moral as well as an economic hazard. As Milton Friedman said, inflation is taxation without legislation, except that no one wins, including the Treasury.
As a result of the covid-19 pandemic, the global economy suffered a negative supply shock, with an initial fall in output followed by an increase in prices. That has affected a wide range of global commodities, but nowhere has the effect been felt more than in the energy sector. The complication here is that the current surge in prices is the result not of a single shock of the pandemic, but of a number of supply and demand factors that have affected the market in recent times. Members who are interested in a detailed analysis of this subject should read the report by Carlos Fernandez Alvarez and Gergely Molnar, written and published by the International Energy Agency, because it answers the question that many of our constituents are asking us: why has energy suddenly become so expensive?
At the beginning of the pandemic, fossil fuel prices fell to their lowest in decades. That was followed by a strong rebound as the global economy recovered, and it was exacerbated by a cold winter in the northern hemisphere and lower than average wind generation in Europe. However, the main driver of price increases has come on the supply rather than the demand side. The commodity price collapses of 2014-15 and then 2020 resulted in diminished investments in oil and gas, which increased the vulnerability of the sector. Governments across the world have failed to sufficiently scale up clean energy sources, renewables and technologies to fill the inevitable gap.
Those problems were exacerbated by the recent lockdowns, which pushed essential maintenance work from 2020 into 2021. That led to restrictions on supply just as demand was quickly recovering. That was particularly true in the UK and the Norwegian sectors of the North sea. Similar problems affected the gas industry. The global economy has seen an unavoidable inflationary shock, but—and there is a big but—we can be sure that this is not the whole story when it comes to the price rises that British people face today, not only in energy but across a range of commodities. How can we be so sure? If we look across the global economy at the variability of inflation rates, we see a very large difference. In Japan, which imports all its fossil fuels, the latest inflation figure shows a rise to 1.2%. China is 1.5%. While inflation in the eurozone has surged to 7.5%, Switzerland, a European but non-eurozone country, has inflation of 2.5%. In the UK, we are above 7%, and the US is 8.5% and rising, so something other than energy prices has been behind our inflationary phenomenon.
In fact, we have two different inflationary surges—that of global commodity prices, as I mentioned, which affects everyone, and that of monetary inflation, which afflicts those countries where central banks have allowed persistent increases in the amount of money in circulation relative to existing output. The group-think mentality of central bankers in the United States, the eurozone and the UK has reinforced the idea that they have stumbled on some kind of monetary alchemy that makes it is possible to continually expand the money supply, unrelated to output, without creating inflation. Perhaps that is an uncharitable view, and they knew all along that they would create inflation but were simply responding to their political masters. However, that raises questions about the independence of the central bank in the first place. Either way, it is a wholly unacceptable position.
It is almost universally accepted that the first duty of Government is the protection of its citizens. As a former Defence Secretary, I am only too aware of the many external threats to the safety of our people and our country, but there are other threats that I believe we have a right to be protected from: the debasement of our currency, the erosion of our earnings and the devaluation of our savings. I believe it is fundamentally wrong for Governments to engage in structural profligacy, spending excessively across the economic cycle and passing ever-larger amounts of debt on to the next generation.
I also believe it is the duty of central banks to safeguard the value of our money and our savings. The Bank of England persisted beyond any rational interpretation of the data to tell us that inflation was transient, then that it would peak at 5%. It has consistently underestimated the threat.
There are three things I would like to see. First, the Treasury Committee should launch an investigation into why the Bank of England so comprehensively underestimated the inflationary threat; secondly, the monetary policy report should go back to being the inflation report and thirdly, the Government should think about what guidance might be given to the Bank of England on considering and reporting monetary stability.
I will say a word about the Government’s forthcoming Levelling Up and Regeneration Bill. We all understand the need for housing targets. We must have social mobility, ensuring that the next generation can participate in the benefits of home ownership. We need more affordable homes to allow young people to continue to live in the communities in which they grew up. However, targets for housing must be just that—targets for local authorities, not instructions to local authorities. I am delighted that the Government seem to have changed the direction of travel to move in a much more rational direction than previously.
We must also accept in planning that local authorities have competing priorities. To give one example, in my North Somerset constituency we accept that we need to have more housing and that the Government will set targets, but at the same time the Government say, understandably and correctly, “Don’t build on the green belt”, and, “Don’t build on floodplains.” That limits the space to build further housing. I would like to hear the Government make very clear that, where local plans are being constructed and conflicting priorities are being applied to them by Government, it is the local authority that will get the benefit of the doubt when it comes to the Planning Inspectorate.
That brings me to the issue of the green belt itself. According to the Government’s national planning policy framework, the green belt serves five purposes:
“to check the unrestricted sprawl of large built-up areas; to prevent neighbouring towns merging into one another; to assist in safeguarding the countryside from encroachment; to preserve the setting and special character of historic towns; and to assist in urban regeneration, by encouraging the recycling of derelict and other urban land.”
In order to secure that supply of land for building houses that the right hon. Gentleman spoke of, does he agree that it would make sense to reform the Land Compensation Act 1961 so that local authorities can purchase land closer to its existing value, rather than its hoped value?
That is certainly something that we should look at. The passage and the Committee stage of the Levelling-up and Regeneration Bill are opportunities for Parliament to genuinely reform our planning laws to make them sensible for a 21st-century country. We must ensure that in that Bill, not only is our green belt protected, but the Government increase those protections. Once our green belt is gone, it is gone forever. I believe it is our duty to steward the green spaces in our land for future generations.
Is the right hon. Member aware that there are large tracts of green belt close to outer London train stations that are not green and are not accessible and that, if developed, could lead to 1 million more homes precisely in the areas where people need them?
We should be having far more housing built in our urban areas. One of the great hopes I have for this Bill is that we will see housing built closer to where people can go to work so that there is not so much pressure on the transport infrastructure. It has been our tendency in recent times to build commuter belts where people therefore have to travel into our cities. Getting mixed development in our cities, thereby regenerating them, would take a lot of pressure off the transport system.
I do not have time—I apologise to my hon. Friend.
We need reform of land banking. The system that we have at the present time, where big developers buy land, get permission for 200 houses, build 40 and wait for the price to rise before they build the rest, results in planning blight. It results in big land banks for the developers. It means that people who live in our communities do not know what is going to happen. There are a number of solutions. My preferred one would be that if developers have not built out the permissions they have, they should not be allowed to apply for further planning permissions in the same local authority area. We absolutely have to deal with this problem, because it blights communities up and down the UK.
The levelling-up agenda is about extending opportunity to people in all parts of the United Kingdom. In regenerating our great northern cities, we have an opportunity to take pressure off the overcrowded south where housing and transport demand is too high. We need better employment opportunities spread across the country in what I would call a rebalancing of Britain. We have a great chance to have a win-win for all parts of the United Kingdom. However, unless we are able to tame inflation, none of our ambitions will be realised.
In giving some thought to what I might say today, I thought that the best way I could say, “Where is the employment Bill in this Queen’s Speech?”, would be to quote the Scottish TUC, which absolutely got it right:
“20 times the Tory UK Government promised to bring forward an employment bill. Absolute silence in today’s State Opening of Parliament. True to form, Tories have shafted workers and armed bad bosses. Devolve it already.”
I could not say it better than that. The Minister has given us all sorts of promises about an employment Bill, as he has been doing all year, like many other Ministers. We cannot believe anything that he says in relation to the employment Bill, because it has not been forthcoming. He promises and promises and clearly cannot convince the UK Government to actually deliver—if he even believes it should come through at all. There are so many reasons why we need an employment Bill—why it is absolutely vital and more so today even than it was when it was in the Conservative manifesto back in 2019 or when the Taylor review was published more than five years ago. It is desperately needed because of the cost of living crisis that we are seeing and the absolute pain that our constituents are going through. The Conservatives might want to try to rebrand it as a cost of living crunch, but it is an absolute crisis that people are struggling with every single day.
The first thing that we would like to see in the employment Bill is a proper living wage and the removal of the age discrimination within it. The living wage is not actually enough money for people to live on. The UK Government have continued to call it a living wage, but it is a minimum wage rebranded as a pretendy living wage, because people cannot afford to live on it. We can see that from the fact that the Child Poverty Action Group has said that 72% of families with children where at least one parent works are struggling to afford food. If this Government were committed to making work pay, those people would not be going to food banks. They would not be in poverty while working. They would not have to have so many jobs, including zero-hours contracts. Because they have so many jobs that are so low-paid, they do not meet the thresholds for things like auto-enrolment or statutory sick pay. They do not get any of the benefits that people should get with work because the work is not paying. We see the level of stress, pain and mental health suffering that this is causing people. If the UK Government decide that they want to put employers first, ahead of employees, then surely they should recognise that employees having no money and living with that level of stress makes them worse employees. If that is the key thing for the UK Government, they should be trying their best to improve lives for employees by making sure that work actually pays.
We would like to see flexible working requests available from day one. The UK Government have promised to look at that. Some 29 months ago, they said they would look at neonatal leave and pay. Where is it? They said they would look at making flexible working the default 29 months ago. After 29 months, nothing has happened. There is nothing in the Queen’s Speech about that. They said 43 months ago that they would like tips to go to workers in full. Where is the legislation? They said 54 months ago that they would evaluate shared parental leave. We have been waiting 54 months for UK Government action on that, and they have failed and failed again, and they failed this week in the Queen’s Speech.
The Government have said that they want to look at redundancy protections for women. That was mentioned by the deputy leader of the Labour party, the right hon. Member for Ashton-under-Lyne (Angela Rayner), who made a very good speech that I agreed with the vast majority of. We need to see new mums being given that protection. Having been made redundant when I was pregnant, I know how painful and difficult that situation is. We need to see those protections in place for new mums.
The reality is that the lack of action by this Government has enshrined inequalities and means that the gender pay gap and the gender pension gap will continue to grow, because women are more likely to be on low pay and low hours, working a number of different jobs and not being put into auto-enrolment. The UK Government are making things worse for this generation of workers and future generations of pensioners, as well as for current generations of pensioners.
We saw some action in the Queen’s Speech on fire and rehire specifically for seafarers—it is not actually in relation to fire and rehire, but the P&O issues that there have been. Although I welcome the Bill, and I am glad that action is being taken on low pay for seafarers, it is not for all seafarers; it is for ferry seafarers. It covers only people who work on ferries, and it is not any broader than that. Representing a port in my constituency, I am keen to hear the Government explain how they will indemnify ports having to take action against large boats and large companies. How will the Government ensure that those ports are not put at risk by the action they should be taking? I agree that action should be taken, but I do not want this to land in the lap of the ports and for them to be left holding all the responsibility. The UK Government should be taking action to press for changes in maritime law to ensure that everybody who is in a boat or ship within our seas is being paid a living wage, not just those on UK-flagged boats.
We are five years on from the Taylor review. Why did the Government bother doing the Taylor review? What was the point in all the money, time and hard work that went into it? Nothing has happened and nothing has come of it. Nothing has changed for people working in the gig economy or for people working in companies where they are pretending to be self-employed. Those changes have not been made. People are still living with the level of uncertainty that the deputy leader of the Labour party mentioned, getting texts the night before saying, “Your shift is being cancelled”, or suddenly being given an extra shift that they somehow have to find childcare to cover. They are still living without the benefits of having a pension, sick pay and all those things that workers should have to be able to live lives and not just live to work. We all should be aspiring for our constituents to be able to live, to enjoy living and to have fair work that they can go to.
I want to mention the Brexit freedoms Bill, which has a hilarious name. It is about taking back control—which is ironic—to the UK Government. It is about taking back control away from Parliament and taking back control from having things in primary legislation and moving it to secondary legislation, ensuring that the UK Government can do what they want to remove the protections put in place by EU law. The only reason why we have the level of workers’ rights that we have, and the only reason why we have been saved from the Tories’ untrammelled reductions in workers’ rights, is EU law. The Brexit freedoms Bill will undo that. It will allow them the absolute power to do what they like with our workers’ rights and to ensure that employers are put first rather than employees at every possible opportunity. The Government must absolutely commit not to roll back workers’ rights—not that it will mean anything if they do say it, but it would be useful for us to be able to repeat it back to them—and to increase the protections in place for workers. The promises that they have made need to come through.
We have been asking for years for employment law to be devolved. I would love for the Labour party to back us in that call. If it did not back us on this, it would feel a bit like it was willing just to let us sink with the rest of Britain. It would be very nice for the Scottish Parliament to have control of this area, because we could make a positive difference to workers in Scotland, even though we have a Tory Government and even though the Labour party is letting down workers in Scotland by failing to call for employment law to be devolved. We have made these cases on behalf of our constituents and the people of Scotland: we want employment law to be devolved.
The longer that this Tory Government continue to refuse to devolve employment law; the longer they continue dismantling the protections in place for workers; the longer they keep coming on television saying things like, “People are using food banks because they can’t budget”, or, “People should just work a few more hours and that will be great; that will reduce the need for them to have the £20 universal credit uplift”; the longer they continue to refuse to increase benefits by anything close to inflation—the Scottish Government have increased benefits by almost double what the UK Government have increased them by this year, and the Scottish Government have a child poverty action plan in place—the stronger the case they are making for independence. They are making that case stronger for the Scottish people, who can see the two Governments working on their behalf. They can see the Scottish Government enshrining fair work and principles in every single thing we do and putting the wellbeing of the population first in every single thing we do, and they can see the Tories doing everything they can to dismantle those protections, to reduce social security in real terms and to ensure that people do not have enough money to live on, and they can see them to step up to solve the energy crisis. The case for independence is getting ever stronger, and the Conservatives’ continued failure is bringing the reality of independence much closer every single day.
This Queen’s Speech is all about driving growth in our economy. Although the right hon. Member for Ashton-under-Lyne (Angela Rayner) may have disagreed with that in her speech, that is what is best for working people throughout the United Kingdom, because a strong economy will give us secure jobs, good wages and the most overall certainty for the future. I suggest to the hon. Member for Aberdeen North (Kirsty Blackman), who spoke for the Scottish National party, that when it comes to wellbeing, certainty is incredibly important as well, and having a strong economy, as the Government are focused on, is at the heart of that.
For too long, the economic powerhouse of the UK has been focused on an extremely small part of our country: the south-east of England and London. The Government’s levelling-up mission directly addresses that problem. Today, we have seen the announcement of faster recovery in the UK compared with the US, Germany and Italy, but we have to make sure that that recovery spreads beyond a very small part of our geography, because the cost of living rises that have been referred to in many speeches today affect everyone. The Government need to make sure that when it comes to solutions, they reach everybody.
I suggest that the Government need to pay great heed to the words of my right hon. Friend the Member for North Somerset (Dr Fox), because he is right that one lever they can pull in their response to the challenges that we face is to make changes around inflation. It is very much within the Government’s gift to make those changes to bring inflation more under control. When we look at the different levels of inflation in countries around Europe, we can see how the fiscal responses that Governments make have driven those changes inherently.
The cost of living problems that we are struggling with need to come first and foremost in the eyes of every Minister, regardless of Department. The flagship Bill of the Queen’s Speech, the Levelling-up and Regeneration Bill, is fundamental to Conservative values. It is all about giving everyone the opportunity to succeed, regardless of where they live or the geography they are in. Spreading the prosperity of our country more evenly is crucial to our future.
That is not a new challenge. I gently say to the Under-Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, my hon. Friend the Member for Sutton and Cheam (Paul Scully), that regional policy has a chequered history in this country and we need to ensure that, as the Bill sets out, we have regular monitoring of the effectiveness of levelling up. My constituency of Basingstoke has been named as one of the top 10 most levelled-up boroughs in the country, which is because we have excellent local government in our borough and county councils and we have had significant investment in our local infrastructure. More than £80 million has been invested in our roads, our school places have been expanded and we have high levels of employment.
I want more places in our country to be like my constituency, and I hope the Bill will help that to happen. That comes not just from a positive sense of wanting to support other constituencies around the country, but from self-interest, because we cannot continue to overly focus the growth of our country on such a small geography. Basingstoke built four times as many houses in the last 40 years than other communities across our country, and that cannot continue. We are being asked to build another almost 20,000 houses in our next local plan, because the algorithms punish people who have been successful in building new homes, which cannot be right.
We need to shift growth. If the Government are really going to achieve levelling up, they cannot allow the south-east to continue to be a hothouse of house building. They must make a change ,and they need to direct planning inspectors to look more closely at the challenges that over-developed areas such as mine face so that we can deal with issues such as community cohesion, which we simply do not have time to tackle when we are building so many houses. The Government must appreciate that levelling up is far more than geography. It is fundamental to Conservative values that we give everyone the opportunity to succeed, regardless of where they are born, their parents, their gender or their disability.
I gently point out to the Minister that conversations around the employment Bill cannot be dismissed. There are a number of issues that the Government, through their own research, understand to have been areas of important labour market failure in this country, such as maternity discrimination; the misuse of non-disclosure agreements; the importance of flexible working in increasing our productivity; and unpaid carer’s leave, which my hon. Friend the Member for Gosport (Dame Caroline Dinenage) has spoken about and is central to our adult social care policies, and parental leave. All those things need to be addressed, and the Government must set out how they will be dealt with in the absence of an employment Bill.
This debate is also about stronger communities. One way to strengthen our communities is by strengthening our education system. I am delighted that there is a Schools Bill in the Queen’s Speech. I welcome the focus on raising standards and on specific things such as home-school children being on a register so that we know that every child in this country is being cared for correctly.
I also suggest that the Government look again at the way in which relationship and sex education is being rolled out. It became everybody’s concern when, a year or so ago, Everyone’s Invited was a front-page news item; we were all concerned about the culture of sexual abuse among school-age children. I found it curious that the Government asked Ofsted, which is responsible for the roll-out of relationship and sex education in our schools, to investigate that problem, because it should have been monitoring that roll-out, which, according to many, has been much slower and less successful than it should have been. Despite the provision of such education having been law for three years, just one in three young people in our country have learned about how to tell whether a relationship is healthy, including online, and just one in three have learned about the harm of pornography. The Minister needs to consider how we review Ofsted’s effectiveness in monitoring the roll-out and whether others should be involved in that, given the current failures in that direction.
I am delighted to see a draft victims Bill in the Queen’s Speech. I particularly hope that recognition will be given to the way that the Online Safety Bill will increase the number of victims in the justice system or just outside it. Given that seismic increase, we need to look for ways to ensure that there is funding, perhaps on a “polluter pays” principle from social media companies, to pay for the additional support that is needed.
I welcome the modern slavery Bill, which addresses a weakness in the current system and proposes to increase the accountability of companies and organisations driving modern slavery out of supply chains. That was a key recommendation of the report that the Government commissioned from me, Lord Frank Field and Baroness Elizabeth Butler-Sloss when we reviewed the Modern Slavery Act 2015 three years ago.
In conclusion, I very much welcome the Queen’s Speech and the Government’s focus on levelling up, but we must ensure that we do not limit our ambitions and that we focus on levelling up around the geography of the United Kingdom. We will level up Britain and Northern Ireland if we treat everyone fairly and give everyone the opportunity to succeed, regardless of their gender, their disability, their parentage or whether they are parents or single people. I welcome the measures in the Queen’s Speech but the Government need to carefully consider how they can deliver on the important changes in the workplace that the Minister and I have spoken about for many months.
I obviously want to contribute on the Levelling-up and Regeneration Bill, which was mentioned in the Queen’s Speech and has now been introduced, and the measures on social housing, which the Select Committee have been dealing with in recent months. First, however, as a constituency MP, I ask: where are the measures in the Queen’s Speech to address the cost of living crisis that is affecting all our constituents?
When we talk about levelling up, we should recognise that those in the greatest poverty, who were struggling before energy bills rose, are struggling even more now. Frankly, they look at the eye-watering profits that have been announced in recent days by BP and Shell and wonder why we are not taxing those super-profits to help to cushion the effect of rising prices on their bills and households. The Government have not given an adequate answer to that.
To return to levelling-up issues, I have two major concerns. First, where is the money? That has been a challenge right the way through. If the Government are about levelling up, they are about levelling up Government spending across the piece. Pots of money—levelling up pots, high street pots and town pots—will not make any real difference by themselves, particularly in the context of the massive cuts to local government funding that the poorest areas that need levelling up have seen in the last 10 years.
The Secretary of State for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities sort of got that message; the Under-Secretary of State for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities, the hon. Member for Harborough (Neil O’Brien), got it when he came to the Select Committee; and Andy Haldane got it even more—he basically said that we should not have those individual pots of money. We need proper resources and proper budgets to be given to our Mayors, combined authorities and local authorities to spend according to the needs of their area.
I ask the Minister for Levelling Up Communities, the hon. Member for Saffron Walden (Kemi Badenoch), what levelling up really means in financial terms. Does it mean that the Chancellor has an extra sum of money to announce which will be spent in our poorer areas to bring them up to the level of the richer parts of the country?
One particular example is the buses in South Yorkshire. I see my hon. Friend the Member for Barnsley Central (Dan Jarvis) in his place, who, until recently, was the Mayor of South Yorkshire, previously the Sheffield city region. I thank him for the excellent work he has done on behalf of the region, and my constituents in particular, over the last four years. He knows that the amount of money spent on bus services in London is about 10 times per head more than it is in South Yorkshire. We have the powers to run our bus service in the same way, but not the money.
I say to the Minister that this is about either an extra sum of money that the Chancellor will have to find or rediverting money from the richer areas to the poorer parts of the country. It has to be one or the other. How can we level up and get equality of funding unless we either find additional funding to bring the poorer areas up or transfer money from the richer areas to the poorer areas? It has to be one or the other. What are the Government going to do? Currently, they are really doing neither.
Secondly, I ask: where are the powers? Earlier, I asked the Under-Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, the hon. Member for Sutton and Cheam (Paul Scully), what additional powers are in the Bill to level up and give more authority to combined authorities, Mayors and individual local authorities. He could not answer the question because actually there is no answer. I cannot claim to have read every single one of the 196 clauses in the Bill and the 17 schedules to it, but I cannot find any mention of extra powers. I have found mention of other areas that currently do not have combined authorities, particularly county areas, getting them in the future, which is welcome, but I cannot actually find any additional powers.
The Select Committee has been much more radical. We have said that we should look at this the other way around: should not all decisions be made at local level unless there is a good reason for making them at national level? When the Under-Secretary of State for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities, the hon. Member for Harborough, came to the Select Committee, he said that that was a bit radical. Well, it is, but I actually think we need a radical solution to deal with the fact that we are one of the most overcentralised countries in western Europe. That is the reality. There really is not any fundamental change here to alter that, and I am sure we will come back to and press that as a Select Committee.
There was going to be a major planning reform a few months ago, was there not? The previous Secretary of State announced it: the Government were going to tear up the planning rules and start again. It has now come down to a few clauses in the Bill. I am not dismissing that, because I think there are actually some quite good proposals in there. [Interruption.] Well, they are quite good because I think the Government have come round to the view the Select Committee took, which is why they are probably quite helpful. First, we have got rid of the three zones. It was never going to be possible to rewrite every local plan in 30 months, and we have got away from that situation.
We have, I think, moved to a situation where we are going to have simpler processes for local plans, and I think that is welcome, although we have to look at the detail of how they will be worked through. They will be digitised, and that is helpful. In clauses 50 and 60, I think, we have got to a point where, in individual planning applications, the local plan is going to be given greater weight, and I think that is helpful as well. There will be a degree of certainty for communities and for developers—both are important.
We have to get more of the public engaged in the local plan process so that it actually means something, because currently people tend to get engaged once a planning application comes in for a site near them. We have to change that, and get the community to look at where houses should be built and where other developments should take place in the area as a whole through the local plan. That does mean helping authorities, which are being stripped of resources in their planning departments, to undertake more work in getting all local plans up to date and in place in the next couple of years. I am generally not in favour of ringfenced grants, but I think there is a case for having a one-off grant to planning authorities to enable them to do a real job of getting local plans up to date and getting their community engaged in them to take some of the heat and some of the contention out of the planning process.
There are a couple of issues of slight disappointment. One, which the right hon. Member for North Somerset (Dr Fox) mentioned, is the issue of build out. Why are the Government not taking measures in this Bill against those who get planning permissions—there are hundreds of thousands of them around the country—and then do not build the houses they have permission for? Why are we not penalising them for that? Ministers have argued the case for that in the past, but there is nothing in the Bill to do it. Why not? We had the Letwin report, which recommended something like this, years ago, and it still has not been done.
When we began talking about planning reforms with the previous Secretary of State, the whole idea was to build more homes. It was said that the planning system was holding everything up. I think build out is a key issue there that the Government have not addressed, but where has the target for 300,000 homes a year by the end of this Parliament gone? That was the Government’s target. Would the Minister for Levelling Up Communities like to say whether it is still the Government’s target to build 300,000 homes a year by the end of this Parliament? That seems to have fallen off the agenda, and that is really disappointing because we do have a housing crisis in this country.
To again be complimentary to the Government, I think they have listened when it comes to the whole problem of compulsory purchase. Local authorities have been complaining about the very difficult process they have to go through, and if we are going to see real regeneration and redevelopment of our city centres, as the demand for retail floorspace drops, we are going to need easier compulsory purchase powers. I think they are in the Bill. I do not know all the details, but at least the Government seem to have listened and to have taken that seriously, which is to be welcomed.
On social housing, I welcome the improvements to regulation that are going to come. We have not seen all the clauses, and the Under-Secretary of State for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities, the hon. Member for Walsall North (Eddie Hughes), is coming to the Select Committee on Monday to talk further about that. The Select Committee has seen and heard of some appalling examples of the really awful conditions that some social housing tenants are living in. The housing ombudsman has done some excellent work on mould and dampness in homes, and every local authority should be taking that into account.
I would say that, yes, in the past—and the Grenfell inquiry has highlighted this—there has been an attitude that social housing tenants are somehow second-class tenants in second-class housing, and we have to do everything we can to improve the standard of housing. There was also the idea that people did not really want to be social housing tenants, did they, so we would not build any more council houses and housing association properties. I am pleased that the Secretary of State said the other day that he wanted to see more social housing built, but again, where is the money? Where is the money? The Government are going to have to put in more grant to get the social housing built. If we are going to build the 300,000 homes we have talked about, at least 90,000 of those—probably more—are going to have to be social housing, and we are nowhere near that. I just say in passing that I hope the changes to the infrastructure levy in the Bill do not mean a reduction in the number of social houses built by developers, with the ending of section 106 agreements. That is another challenge.
Finally, on private renting, I welcome the Government’s commitment. Okay, we can be disappointed that we have not actually got a commitment to produce legislation, and I would have hoped for at least a draft Bill, but this issue is complicated and we must get it right. In particular, we must get right that landlords cannot use rent increases as a way of forcing out tenants when they do not have section 21 powers to rely on. One thing the Select Committee has pressed for, which the Government have not committed to, is the idea of a housing court. A housing court would simplify procedure to help both the good landlords and the good tenants—the good tenants being harassed by bad landlords, and the good landlords whose bad tenants will not pay the rent—to have a simplified way to get redress. I hope the Government might look at that again.
Overall, there are real problems with the cost of living that simply are not dealt with by the Government. On levelling up and regeneration, I would just ask: where are the powers and where is the money? Yes, there are some good details that we want to work through with the Government—on planning, compulsory purchase orders and social housing regulation—but there are still many challenges not addressed in the Queen’s Speech that we will need to come back to.
It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Sheffield South East (Mr Betts). I agree with him about one thing, which is that the Government need to show a lot more conviction in expressing their opposition to windfall taxes. They are a simplistic solution that always end up hurting hardest the ordinary people who work in this population. I am against windfall taxes, and if I have time I will say a little bit more about that later.
Who would dare to criticise the content of the Gracious Speech delivered in Her Majesty’s platinum jubilee year? I am certainly not going to criticise it, but I would like to begin by drawing attention to some omissions from it. I referred to one of them in an article carried in today’s “ConservativeHome”, headed “Harm from Covid vaccinations. Don’t leave victims behind.” That is a reference to the need for changes to be made to the vaccine damage payment scheme. Currently, the maximum payment under that scheme is £120,000, which has not been increased since 2007. By way of comparison, as my hon. Friend the Minister on the Front Bench will know, industrial injuries disablement benefit has in the same period gone up by 39%. When I discussed this with my hon. Friend the Member for Erewash (Maggie Throup), the Minister for vaccines and public health, she indicated that she took the point and understood that something needed to be done. I hope that in responding, the Minister will be able to say what is going to be done and why the Government believe it is fair that this level of £120,000 should continue to remain unchanged since 2007.
The newly formed vaccine injured bereaved UK organisation, vib.uk, which has been established in the last few days is also calling for much wider changes to the vaccine damage payment scheme. I think they are absolutely correct and in the article to which I have referred I explain why I support its suggestions for fundamental reform of the scheme to make it more flexible and relevant to the plight of those who have suffered as a result of doing the right thing by getting vaccinated.
Unfortunately, I missed the article this morning but I will be sure to read it. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that one of the biggest issues with this scheme is the length of time it takes for decisions to be made? People are waiting a significant length of time even to get an initial contact with the vaccine damage payment scheme. Does he agree that that is one of the key things that needs to be fixed?
Absolutely, and I have been campaigning for changes since I first raised this issue in the House last September. In the article I refer to the fact that at the meeting I had with the vaccines Minister on 21 April she told me that, at last, an organisation has been appointed to carry out the administrative job of assessing the claims. There are now over 1,300 claims and the first assessments have not even begun, but I am told they will now begin on 16 May. The new organisation that has got the contract is committed to dealing with 1,800 such assessments each year, which is an indication of the extent of this problem. As the hon. Member for Aberdeen North (Kirsty Blackman) rightly says, it is appalling that we have had to wait for so long, and only last autumn the Prime Minister was assuring a correspondent that people who have suffered vaccine damage should not be ignored and left to suffer in silence. So I very much agree with the hon. Lady on that point and again commend the article to her.
Another significant omission from the Gracious Speech is any reference to the promised changes from RPI to CPI as the measure for calculating the maximum annual increase in charges for pitch fees for park home residents. This issue is dear to my heart; I have been chairman of the all-party group on park homes for many years, and the Government have outstanding, overdue business not just on that aspect but on dealing with the issue of rogue operators in that field.
When I was first elected in Christchurch—25 years ago, Madam Deputy Speaker—I would never have been able to contemplate that we would have a Conservative Government presiding over the highest levels of taxation in a generation and with inflation raging at 10%. I note from the Gracious Speech that the
“Government will drive economic growth to improve living standards”—[Official Report, 10 May 2022; Vol. 714, c. 4.]
and I hope I am right in concluding from that that the Government are not going to introduce any further tax increases. Yet there is talk, even from some of my Conservative colleagues, about new tax increases: so-called windfall taxes. Describing a tax as a windfall tax does not make it any less of a tax and I am concerned that the Government still seem to be flirting with the idea of ever higher taxes despite all the evidence showing that windfall taxes would be a further disaster.
I have been in the House rather longer than the hon. Gentleman and I remember when the first windfall tax was introduced; it was by the Conservative Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher. She made very good use of a windfall tax on the banks, which had made a very big profit. I thought it was a very good innovation; what is wrong with Thatcherism these days?
As with so many things about Thatcherism, the Labour party tried to copy it and, when Gordon Brown introduced a windfall tax, it was such a disaster that ever since Governments have decided that windfall taxes are a very bad idea. I was not in the House at the time, but the justification for the windfall tax to which the hon. Gentleman refers was that the Government had pushed up interest rates in response to rising inflation, so the banks had received a windfall benefit. Those arguments are nothing like those prevailing at the moment, where we need to encourage our oil and gas industry to invest, rather than disinvest, in our economy. Instead of windfall taxes, the Government should be talking about paying back to taxpayers some of the windfall receipts of tax revenue. VAT receipts are now expected to be £47 billion in the coming year, £9 billion more than predicted. So the case for removing VAT on energy bills completely and scrapping green levies on energy bills is overwhelming. It could be financed from the windfall receipts.
I am concerned that throughout this debate there has been insufficient reference—indeed, hardly any reference—to the issue of productivity, which is fundamental if we are to get the economic growth we need. However, I congratulate the Government on, it seems, being on the threshold of completing Brexit, resolving the issue of the Northern Ireland protocol and ensuring all those restrictive practices we continued to sign up to after we left the European Union can be removed. If this Government are able to finally deliver the full Brexit, they will have my full support.
For 30 years, Susie Dent from “Countdown” has admirably been the country’s dictionary and thesaurus expert. When searching for a missing word, there can be few more reliable sources and it was thanks to Susie that I recently discovered the word “snollygoster”: not a character from “Harry Potter”, but an unprincipled person in office motivated by personal rather than public gain. Imagine making it to Downing Street and then spending your time doing anything to clutch on to power, rather than using your privileged position to change the lives of others.
Out in the real world, families are desperately worried about the cost of living crisis and how they can possibly stretch their salary to the next payday. They turned on the news this week in the hope that help was on its way, but, Madam Deputy Speaker, it isn’t. It is the duty of a Government to find ways to help, such as by introducing a one-off windfall tax on the oil and gas producers that have unashamedly declared that they have more money than they know what to do with. Instead, the Prime Minister’s focus is on smearing his opponents, planting dead cat distractions and proposing policies designed not to solve problems but to sow division to make people point at this Chamber and say, “You are all the same.”
But this is no game. Around one in seven adults live in homes where people have skipped meals, reduced meal sizes or gone hungry. And that is before inflation rises even further and energy costs soar even higher in October. Far from the days of D:Ream, without intervention, things can only get worse.
As ever, I listened particularly closely to the housing announcements in the Queen’s Speech. They were surprisingly prominent, but, as always, the devil is in the detail. Despite the fact we have 1.15 million households on social housing waiting lists across our country, the Secretary of State announced yesterday—between his ridiculous impressions—that the Government’s manifesto commitment of 300,000 new homes a year has been scrapped. Fast forward 24 hours and No. 10 says that is not the case. So I ask the Minister to put on the record whether the target still stands.
A cynic might link any scrapping of the house building target with the scale of the Government’s failure on the issue: there were just 5,955 new social rent homes last year, one of the lowest on record. At that rate, it will take 192 years to house everyone on the waiting list. Where is the ambition? Where is the political will?
House building commitments aside, I was reassured finally to read of progress for social housing tenants who are living in disrepair and battling endless hurdles in their fight for a safe and habitable place to live. Last year, my constituent Kwajo Tweneboa bravely partnered with journalist Daniel Hewitt and ITV News, which reported on the appalling conditions in which Kwajo, his neighbours and thousands upon thousands of social housing tenants were living. I am extraordinarily grateful to all involved for their determined pursuit of progress.
As it stands, to make a complaint and see it through to its conclusion, a social housing tenant requires the patience of a saint, the tenacity of a five-star general, an endless amount of phone data, a laptop for emailing and a postgraduate degree in bureaucracy. It is a world regulated by an authority that does not even the power to inspect a property, or speak to a resident—all thanks to the coalition Government, who completely abolished the Audit Commission and the housing inspectorate in the bonfire of the quangos. A decade on, we all need to talk about reinventing the wheel. However, I am relieved that the Government have finally seen the error of their ways. A strengthened regulator does not build a single new home, but it is an important step in finally giving a voice to some of the most vulnerable people in our communities.
I turn to workers’ rights. Ministers promised 20 times to deliver an employment Bill to enhance workers’ rights, but there must have been a page missing in the Queen’s Speech because I could not find a word to turn that rhetoric into reality. Just weeks ago, the Government told us how shocked they were about what happened at P&O and how that must not happen again—but it will. The Bill’s omission is all the evidence needed to show the importance with which the Government consider the issue. Until the practice is banned once and for all, fire and rehire will continue to be the model template for the biggest organisations to restructure and save funds; it is completely naive to think otherwise. The next scandal is just around the corner and the absence of an employment Bill plants the responsibility clearly at the Government’s feet.
I close with one final word from Susie Dent’s dictionary: perendinate, which is the marking of time by continually putting something off until the day after tomorrow. The reality for all those in insecure work, desperately waiting on social housing lists or choosing between heating and eating is that they simply cannot wait that long.
I refer hon. Members to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests. I welcome the Queen’s Speech, which is a timely intervention if ever there was one. On apathy, last Thursday is a warning that many of our voters see us as rudderless and lacking ambition and vision. That is a shame after we led the world in fighting the pandemic and given we are leading the support for a battered Ukraine—I commend the Prime Minister for both. It was an extraordinary coincidence that, on 24 February, when all restrictions were lifted, Russia invaded Ukraine. Since then, the world has faced soaring costs, shrinking revenues and shaky alliances, with fuel and food shortages threatening global stability. What concerns me is that, while we defend freedom and aim for recovery, our nation struggles with ever-weakening institutions and toxic culture wars, and citizens are struggling with the consequences of a cost of living crisis.
The future seems less certain now. Our economy, blighted by covid and lockdowns, is not reigniting as fast as we would like. Unbelievably, we, the Conservative party, are presiding over the steepest taxes since the 1940s and the highest sustained spending levels since the 1970s. That is not the Conservative way, nor is it the way to cope with a stumbling economy. High taxes stifle enterprise, aspiration and, as we heard from my hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch (Sir Christopher Chope), productivity. They also risk low growth, stagnation and unemployment. This week, the Bank of England warned of impending recession and 10% interest rates driven by higher energy prices.
These are difficult times, but every cloud has a silver lining and, as Conservatives, this is the time to be radical and to return to our vote-winning philosophy of less state, low taxes and sound public finances. If ever there was a time to loosen the screws, this is it, and the Prime Minister knows it. He said that
“this moment makes clear our best remedy lies in urgently delivering on our mission to turbo-charge the economy, create jobs and spread opportunity across the country.”
Hear, hear. So let us get on with it, Prime Minister.
The Chancellor, of course, must fulfil his role. The promised tax cuts in two years will be too little, too late. We will have lost the electorate, who, burdened by high taxes and debt, will turn to a ruinous socialist Government, possibly in coalition with the SNP: the ultimate nightmare scenario. I accept that legislation on its own cannot solve the cost of living crisis, which has been caused to a large extent by events outside the Government’s control, but we do have the power to cancel the increase in national insurance, remove VAT from domestic fuel and reduce fuel duty even further.
The power to control our own economy is one of the major reasons I backed Brexit, and I am generally delighted by measures in the Queen’s Speech to, at last, fully exploit our new-found freedom. About time, too, as hardcore remainers are still out there and only too eager to highlight any difficulty that we face. While I am on the EU, despite the lack of a specific Bill, I am glad to hear that the Government will prioritise support for the Good Friday agreement and its institutions. Unless the EU compromises further, we must rewrite the Northern Irish protocol to ensure that Northern Ireland is genuinely and unquestionably back in the United Kingdom. The current system is not working and endangers all that so many have worked hard to achieve, namely, peace and prosperity.
I am also relieved—I think that is the right word—to see at last a Bill that aims to conclude the appalling witch hunt of our Northern Ireland veterans. I do not want to commit myself any further at this stage as the devil will be in the detail. While I am on our armed forces, I would be failing in my duty not to warn the Government once again against impending cuts to the Army. Regrettably, Ministers appear persuaded that Ukraine’s success against overwhelming odds proves what a small, flexible and manoeuvrable army can achieve on the battlefield, but the Russians have shown, fortunately, how inept they are at combined operations, so that is a false comparison. I am told that mass is no longer necessary, but an Army of 82,000 is not massive and, for sustained operations against a peer adversary—God forbid what we may face in future—numbers will count in any future conflict.
I return to the Government’s direction of travel. Their adviser has said that it is time to
“scrape the barnacles off the boat.”
I have some sympathy with the Opposition about the lack of an employment Bill, but, as an employer myself, I would say that we are already riven with legislation from top to bottom. The danger of imposing more is to disincentivise employment rather than encourage it, while quite accepting that employees should have rights—of course they should. On flexible working, yes, if it works for the employer, the employee should be allowed to work flexibly, but it should not be a right. That is all we hear so often from the Opposition Benches—right, right, right, right. What about responsibility? It is the employer who takes the risk to employ someone and give them a life chance, a career and a salary, not the employee. A balance should be adopted, with not necessarily so much weight on one side
If the hon. Lady will forgive me, I will not. I am going to plough on. There are a lot of people who want to speak and I do not have much longer left.
On housing, my right hon. Friend the Member for North Somerset (Dr Fox) spoke such sense. The Bill to ensure that locals have more of a say is to be welcomed and I really am backing that. Far more imagination, less density, more green space and supporting infrastructure is needed in the planning system. It is failing every single time. Affordable homes must be affordable. I have seen examples where developers have really taken the care to build affordable, friendly, safe and warm homes that look nice. All too often, sadly, I see larger developers building homes that seem to fall apart within a year. That has to be changed.
There was no mention of the NHS, but as I have said repeatedly, I believe that although it serves us well and I wish it to continue, it needs to be overhauled. As Allister Heath pointed out in a recent article in The Daily Telegraph, which I thought was very good, all reform is stymied by the lie that any improvement is privatisation by stealth. It simply is not.
I am delighted, too, that protestors will finally be challenged when gluing themselves to each other, roads or anything else they can find and stopping people going about their daily lives, jobs, medical appointments or whatever they want to do. I am delighted that, at last, that Bill has come forward.
In conclusion, there is much to welcome. I do not believe that a huge number of Bills—this point has been picked up—is always necessarily the right thing. My father was a great believer in less is more. What matters is the significance of a Bill and what it delivers, rather than the number of them. Having said that, I support many of the Bills in the Queen’s Speech.
However, I must end by warning the Government that we must return to our traditional Conservative philosophy if we are to turn the country around, regenerate the economy and, importantly, win the next election. That means giving people more of their own money, especially during hard times. What happened to the Singapore-style low-tax economy we boasted about, hoped for, fought for and were looking to deliver, which will create the wealth, prosperity and jobs we all need? It is there for the taking now and I urge the Government to grab it.
I was reminded by my staff that I have been present at 42 Queen’s Speeches—this is the 42nd. May I say how concerned I am that the Government seem to be downgrading Parliament all the time? I cannot remember one of these debates without a Secretary of State on the Government Front Bench defending the Queen’s Speech and the elements within it. As a long-serving Member, their consistent and persistent downgrading of Parliament worries me very much indeed.
The Queen’s Speech is deeply disappointing. So many things have been missed out. I disagree with almost everything said by the hon. Member for South Dorset (Richard Drax), except—Madam Deputy Speaker, I am sure you would like some bipartisan remarks—on the strength of our Army. I have stood up in this Chamber for a long time to say that it was dangerous to have fewer than 100,000 personnel in our armed forces. We are now planning to go down to 72,000 at a time when the world is a very worrying place and we have to take that very, very seriously indeed. It is what is missing from the Queen’s Speech that worries me so much.
One of the greatest challenges we have is health and social care. We have been promised, have we not, a Bill and firm Government action to do something about social care. I do not know about Doncaster in your constituency, Madam Deputy Speaker, but in Huddersfield one big problem in the health sector is that people are taken into accident and emergency and into hospital but cannot be released because there is no suitable supported housing for them in our communities. There has been nothing about social care and, on housing, nothing about building appropriate housing for supported living. That is a very big miss in this Queen’s Speech.
The other big miss is a moral miss. The fact of the matter is that all of us in politics know that our country has been in terrible trouble. Our constituents have had a tough time. They have had covid, years of austerity and now the higher cost of energy to heat their homes and the higher cost of food to fill the tummies of their children and other members of their families. That traumatic background is the truth of it. I was expecting a Queen’s Speech that said, “This is a national crisis. Let us get together and sort it.” What is missing in this debate is honesty. We are promised lower taxation. All of us know in our hearts that somebody has to pay to put the country right and to do all the things we want in health and social care, and to rebuild the welfare state that was found wanting as we faced covid. This country has one of the lowest rates of unemployment benefit. People who never thought they would lose their jobs or be made unemployed were shocked when they realised how weak the support was for their family.
In a second.
I meet a lot of people who are earning pretty good money, professional people with good salaries, and they tell me, “We should be paying more tax.” They say, “We want a decent society, so we want to pay more tax.” Can I just put that on the record? Let us be honest with people. If we want a decent welfare state, decent services and decent local government, we must be willing to pay for them.
We have demoralised so many people on the frontline. I do not use that in a military sense; I mean our health workers, nurses, doctors, care workers and local authority workers who do everything to make our local society and local community viable and decent to live in. They have all felt undervalued. They have all felt that nobody really values the service they provide, whether emptying bins or running schools. When local government had decent resources they did believe that, and we believed that that was the right thing to do.
We were expecting great things from the Queen’s Speech, but we do not have them. We have an environmental crisis. We have had COP26. We have aspirations to say that the other great challenge, apart from health, is our environment. We have a country where in many of the communities we represent we are poisoning children, poisoning pregnant women and poisoning our constituents with the filthy air they breathe. Nothing in the Queen’s Speech will meet that challenge—there was very little to touch it. There was little reference to a cleaner transport system. That is not enough when, as we were reminded only yesterday, we face global warning and climate change and we will get the increase in temperature that will eventually destroy life on this planet. Nothing in the Queen’s Speech will address that. It is as though it does not exist and there is no threat.
As well as health and social care, there is education. I am very proud that I went to the London School of Economics, both as an undergraduate and a postgraduate, and our motto was “to understand the causes of things”. When I look at the causes of inequality in our country, I immediately see education and levels of child poverty. I worked with Tony Blair and his 1997 Government and, as we remember, the main thrust of the campaign was “education, education, education”. We know from the system we have had that if we want to tackle underprivilege, poor attainment at school and poor attainment of skills, we have to invest in early education—in pre-school and early years—and in supporting families in literacy, numeracy and using the English language. The fact is that there is nothing in the Queen’s speech about levelling up. Where is the determination to bring back children’s centres? Where is a policy like the one we used to have to try to give every child a proper chance in their lives? It is not there. It is an appalling missed opportunity.
Turning to some positive things, we have seen cross-party unity in how we have faced covid together and we have had cross-party co-operation on the support for Ukraine—thank goodness—so surely there are things that we could have done in this Queen’s Speech. We could have agreed that we need 500 sustainable towns and cities in this country, based on the United Nations sustainable development goals. That would have lifted us up and given people the chance to roll up their sleeves and change their environment, not just on a global level, but in their communities locally. That is what is missing. We have wonderful vision, passion and commitment in some areas, but this Queen’s Speech has failed to deliver on the environment, education and aspiration, and I am very sad that that is the case.
If I may, Madam Deputy Speaker, I will pause for a moment; I hope Members will join me.
That was just five seconds, but imagine if that had been an hour, a week or a month in which we had no one to speak to and no one to listen to us. Loneliness is one of the worst parts of the injustice in our society, and we have an opportunity, as a nation and as parliamentarians, to tackle it.
Although the first year of the pandemic was such an awful time, a lot of light was brought out during that darkness. I was fortunate to go out to campaign and work with local charities, including One Vision, of which I am now a trustee, Small Acts of Kindness, the Salvation Army and many others. In the first year, I found myself in a rather bizarre situation in that I delivered more bags of shopping to vulnerable people than I did political leaflets. That was so important, because it was not just about taking food to people; when we were knocking on people’s doors, there was a sense that they knew that somebody cared. For me, that was about feeding their soul and their spiritual needs as much as it was about feeding their stomachs—I know, because I certainly have one to feed.
During that time, I saw communities getting on and supporting one another, helping their neighbours, and looking up from their phones and seeing the doors that they had perhaps not seen neighbours behind for a long time. People’s action to help and support one another was so important. It was about the community acting not just on behalf of national or local government, but on its own behalf. There is a huge role for that. I was pleased, therefore, that trying to cut more red tape was part of the Queen’s Speech so that there is more levelling up at a local level and communities have more say in what they want to do and where they work.
Mental health was a big aspect of that. I was pleased that mental health first aid in the workplace was raised in the opening speeches today; I introduced a ten-minute rule Bill on that a year or two ago. I have continued to lobby and to work on that with Government to ensure that people in the workplace can speak to somebody—just as they would ask for first aid if they cut their thumb—and be signposted to the right guidance and correct information to tell them how to support themselves if they have mental wellbeing or even mental health issues.
That is so important because, in the post-pandemic world, we need to start having a holistic view of a person, and that includes their mental and physical health. We need to ensure that there is justice and fairness in the workplace. That is why have I been pushing my Tips Bill since last year. It would make sure that people who work in hospitality—they make up a big part of my Watford constituency—could fairly access the tips that they are given by people who want to thank them, and that businesses were not allowed to take that money from them. I will continue to push that, and I intend to move forward with another such Bill again this year, post Queen’s Speech.
I have seen the important role of creative services in the hospitality sector. Often, bars and restaurants are part of theatres, and in Watford, we have a fabulous theatre called the Pump House, which is celebrating its 50th year. I have seen the creativity there; it is a place where young people are given hope and the opportunity to unleash their skills, and to level up—because levelling up is not just about planning and building; it is about people’s future and opportunities. I think about when I was growing up. As a kid, I never thought that I would visit London. I definitely never thought that I would visit Parliament and that I would one day be an MP. I want to reach out to kids like me and say, “You know what? Wherever you live in the country, there is an opportunity for you to level up, to unleash your potential and to inspire others in your community.”
There is also the built environment. In Watford, we have lots of debates about planning and how we make sure that we do not have overdevelopment. Tall buildings are one of my concerns, and I have been pushing that with Government. Local people should have a say in what happens in their community and on their streets, and especially about the height of buildings. I was pleased that the Queen’s Speech seemed to indicate that people will have more say on a street level, and perhaps even street votes, so that they can say, “This is what I want in my area and to happen on my street.” Building beautifully is very much part of the answer.
This Queen’s Speech is also about tackling really serious issues. I am pleased that the Under-Secretary of State for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities, my hon. Friend the Member for Walsall North (Eddie Hughes), who is responsible for homelessness, is on the Front Bench because, through our work with him, we in Watford have managed to get rough sleeping pretty much down to zero during the past two years. We will always need to continue to work on that, and to make sure that people are being supported. However, we do not just want to get people off the streets; we want to give them opportunities and ensure that they are not just surviving, but thriving as they look to the future. The Queen’s Speech offers an opportunity to do that.
As well as thinking about the built environment for the next generation, we should also think about the virtual environment. Last year, as a member of the Joint Committee on the Draft Online Safety Bill, I was much involved in the cross-party work done across both Houses to scrutinise the Bill and come up with suggestions. The Government took on board 66 suggestions from our report, and I look forward to the Bill passing through Parliament, because when we think about mental health, exercise or how people work together as a community, we need to look at the way the world is going; things are being done much more virtually and technologically. Kids are not like I was 30 or 40 years ago; they see the world in a totally different way. They see not just the community on their road, but the whole global community. We need to ensure that people who want to do them harm are prevented from doing so, but still need to enable innovation and opportunity.
There are great opportunities and great things coming forward, but I urge the Government to push forward with my Tips Bill, because it is a great opportunity to tackle the cost of living and help people on low incomes to get the money that they have been given and deserve; to ensure that we push forward with mental health first aid and awareness in the workplace, and that people at work are supported and signposted to the right guidance; and to ensure that when we look at society, we look at the entirety of communities, not only in the built environment and in our neighbourhoods but online, so that people are safe, and so that this Government can support them in aspiring to be the best they can be. I support this Queen’s Speech.
The hon. Gentleman did not wish to give way to the hon. Member for East Renfrewshire (Kirsten Oswald), so I am afraid he will not get the opportunity to intervene now.
Everyone should have a fair day’s pay for a fair day’s work, but that is simply not happening in Britain today. Far too many people who are working hard, often taking on more than one job, still cannot make ends meet. They are constantly worrying about how they will provide for their family and pay the next bill, and they often have to go short on heating or eating. Furthermore, low wages are clearly linked to the scourge of insecurity at work. There is insecurity because of zero-hours contracts, with no guarantee of work each week and therefore no guarantee of income, and because of the growth of the fire and rehire culture, in which it seems that even long-standing contracts with loyal workers can be ripped up at a moment’s notice, as we saw in the appalling P&O scandal.
Fairness at work is important not only for workers, but for responsible business owners and companies. No one benefits from a race to the bottom. Good firms and employers who are trying to do the right thing should not have to worry about being undercut by rogue companies that cut corners, depress wages and ride roughshod over health and safety. Good companies recognise that they benefit from fairness at work. A workforce that is treated properly and remunerated fairly and feels secure at work is more productive and loyal, which is good for recruitment and retention. As other hon. Members have highlighted, fairness at work also saves the public purse on healthcare bills and social security bills.
I am absolutely appalled that the Government have not included any form of employment Bill in the Queen’s Speech. We have had promises of an employment Bill time and again. The Prime Minister himself purports to condemn fire and rehire culture, yet even after the P&O fire and rehire scandal, which should have been a wake-up call, there is nothing in the Queen’s Speech that addresses the many issues with employment law.
Not only are the Government showing utter contempt for workers in this country, but they are out of step with employers who want to do the right thing. Businesses have come to Parliament to celebrate paying the real living wage: only a couple of weeks ago, Mary Portas was here with businesses that are part of the better business Act campaign, which were keen to say how implementing fairness at work means having a happy, loyal workforce. When the Welsh Labour Government give support to a business, they require it to demonstrate not only its prospects for growth, but its commitment to net zero, to workers’ rights and to workers’ mental health and wellbeing.
In opposition, it is sometimes difficult to visualise the things we propose, but the Welsh Labour Government are actually implementing our better deal for carers. It was a Welsh Labour party manifesto commitment in last year’s election to make sure that by the end of this Senedd term, all care workers would receive the real living wage, which from April this year is £9.90. It is absolutely right that carers be properly paid and that we value the people they look after, including people who are elderly, people who have particular difficulties, children and young people. What we pay care workers is a measure of how our society regards and treats the people they care for.
Such a policy cannot be implemented overnight. It has to be properly planned so that it can be budgeted for, which is not easy when the Welsh Labour Government have been hit year after year by cumulative real-terms budget cuts from this Tory Government. Nevertheless, the Welsh Labour Government set to work straightaway with stakeholders to work out how the policy could be brought about, and they have made the money available from last month. Some care workers are employed directly by the public sector, but where services are provided by private or third sector providers, the Welsh Government have flagged up the fact that those who commission them, namely local authorities and health boards, will need to build in an uplift accordingly.
I mention that policy to show what can be done when there is real will to do it. It is just one example of putting into practice something that makes people’s lives better and is the right thing to do. When it is carefully planned with the providers, when the additional costs to the public purse are recognised and when it is properly implemented, it can be done, and done well. There is a real contrast between the Welsh Labour Government, who are improving the wages of carers, and this Tory Government, who are not addressing fairness at work at all, and have made no mention of a Bill about it in the Queen’s Speech.
There has also been an appalling failure to do anything to help people with the cost of living crisis. As hon. Friends have pointed out, the Opposition have made many suggestions, including a windfall tax on the gas and oil companies to give immediate relief to our constituents with fuel bills. The Union of Shop, Distributive and Allied Workers has shown that there can be workable solutions that give employers some flexibility without using zero-hours contracts; they have negotiated guaranteed minimum hours per week or per month with some employers so that at least workers know that they will get regular pay. These are all practical actions that we are taking even though we are not in government.
What we would like from the Government, of course, is improved workers’ rights, an end to fire and rehire, proper rights from day one at work so that everybody is treated properly and cannot just be thrown on the rubbish heap, family-friendly working hours, an improvement to the reforms made to date, stronger union rights and proper ways of negotiating pay and conditions with the workforce—and not only all that, but a complete change in attitudes to procurement. The Government have been failing miserably, with appalling losses to the public purse. Their dreadful audit report contrasts with the clean audit report on the Welsh Labour Government’s purchasing during the covid crisis.
We want to ensure not only that purchasing is done fairly and that we have an anti-corruption commissioner to oversee it, but that the procurement process looks at the value of our businesses and companies in this country and does more to make, buy and sell British. When we were in the European Union, it was absolutely possible—even if there had been restrictions under EU law, which there were not—for the social benefit clause to be invoked when giving out contracts to companies, so how much truer that is now! It is perfectly possible to take social value into account, which is exactly what we should be doing.
The Government also need an industrial strategy that ensures a supply chain working towards our strategic objectives. We need an energy policy that means building our own wind turbines, rather than having to rely on imports. We need to think ahead and have a strategy that works, that builds in the supply chains, and that buys British, so that we can provide more high-quality jobs. The combination of high-quality jobs in a secure economy with secure rights for workers in work, wherever they are in the private or public sector, is the way forward.
I welcome the measures in the Queen’s Speech. Given that it contains more than 30 proposed Bills, there is much to talk about, but this afternoon I will confine my remarks to three points about housing.
The term “property-owning democracy” is well known, but perhaps less well known is the name of Noel Skelton, the Conservative MP who coined the phrase and the underlying concept in 1923. That concept was later built upon by Sir Anthony Eden, who skewed it towards the home rather than industrial property. Skelton’s and Eden’s thoughts have formed the backbone of Conservative domestic policy ever since, and rightly so.
The theme of today’s debate is empowering communities. They are strengthened, I submit, when residents are financially and emotionally invested in where they live, and that is something that home ownership achieves; but there is a tension. Prices have put homes out of reach for many, supply does not match demand, and for those on the property ladder, significant change in the form of development threatens—in their eyes—to fundamentally alter the character of the community in which they have become so emotionally invested.
Growing up on the edge of Arnold, in my constituency, I saw this at first hand. Nottingham, one of England’s greatest cities, was on my doorstep, but a few hundred yards up the road were the Hobbucks, an area of woodland and hedgerow with open countryside beyond it. Some of that has been built on, and, while there is now a Hobbucks designated nature reserve protecting some of the land under Gedling Borough Council’s local plan, other areas have been allocated to housing. Similarly, on the other side of the constituency, residents of Gedling village fear that development means they will become subsumed into the Greater Nottingham conurbation. Bridging this conflict is a key challenge for the Government, if not the key challenge for our generation, and I welcome the inclusion in the Queen’s Speech of several pieces of legislation on the subject.
I suggest that one way of making development more palatable for the public would be ensuring that what is proposed will look nice. I start from the rather cynical position that most if not all post-war architecture is ugly, and that were all post-war buildings to be removed, our towns and cities would look no worse and some might well be much improved. I therefore welcome the renewed emphasis on design and beauty, and, locally, I particularly welcome the money that Gedling Borough Council has received to fund and support a 12-month programme to enable the council and neighbourhood planning groups to produce exemplar design codes. I have not yet received from the council the details of how it will spend the money, but I hope it will result in better, more beautiful building in Gedling.
I also want to speak about a problem that affects some of those who have bought their houses: estate rent charges. It is relatively common for private estates with freehold houses to include a provision in the deed of transfer that places a duty on the owners to contribute to the maintenance of the estate’s communal areas and facilities, such as green spaces, play areas or roads. However, as I have been told by residents of the Spring Park development in Mapperley, problems arise when it is thought that the management company is not offering value for money or doing the work that is required. Freeholders’ rights are limited in this regard, and indeed they do not have rights equivalent to those of leaseholders. The Government have promised to take action—the Queen’s Speech of 2019 contained a promise to give homeowners new rights to challenge unfair charges, which was repeated in a written answer in February this year—but as far as I can tell there is nothing about it in this Queen’s Speech, and I see no evidence that the problem will be addressed in the current raft of legislation. If I am right about that, I hope that the Government will consider reform in this Session of Parliament, and I hope to be able to explore the issue in more detail in the House.
Let me conclude on a more positive note. I welcome the announcement that reforms of the planning system will, in the Government’s words,
“give communities a louder voice, making sure developments are beautiful, green and accompanied by new infrastructure and affordable housing.”
I look forward to scrutinising that further, particularly in relation to houses in multiple occupation. Residents of Netherfield, in my constituency, are concerned that developers are turning Victorian family homes into HMOs accommodating several people, with a consequent increase in traffic and a reduction in family housing stock. I have asked the council to make an article 4 direction, which would subject any such conversions to a planning permission application, but the council has demurred, citing possible legal challenge. If the Government’s proposals allow the people of Netherfield to take back control of their neighbourhood, that will be for the better.
I broadly welcome the proposals in the Queen’s Speech, and look forward to scrutinising them further in the current Session.
For the first time in four years, I will not be declaring an interest as the Mayor of South Yorkshire. I will, however, take this opportunity to congratulate my successor: I know that the new Labour Mayor, Oliver Coppard, will be a tireless champion for our region.
Working with a dedicated team to improve people’s lives was an immense honour and a great privilege, and I am proud to say that South Yorkshire is in a much better position now than it was when I was elected back in 2018. We created a renewal fund of half a billion pounds. We set up an ownership hub, the first of its kind anywhere, to support co-operatives and employee ownership. We invested heavily in cycling and walking as part of an integrated, accessible and sustainable transport plan. We gave young people affordable bus fares, and began the work of bringing our buses back under public control. We agreed a groundbreaking flood prevention strategy, and started work on a housing retrofit programme. But for all the good that we achieved, I also saw just how much potential was being wasted.
After a while, we learn to read the small print in all the promises. The flagship shared prosperity fund will eventually reach £1.5 billion a year, but not until 2024, which means that it will be worth significantly less over its lifetime than would otherwise have been the case. Meanwhile, the levelling-up fund, which replaces the local growth fund, will do so at a reduced level. The Government promised £3 billion for bus renewal, but delivered just a third of that. South Yorkshire got nothing at all—but then, so did the majority of places that applied. It is levelling up for the lucky few.
All this can be measured against a baseline of deep cuts in council coffers: that, right there, is the reality behind the rhetoric. As for devolving control, most cash still goes through inadequate, politicised, short-term, competitive pots. That makes strategic planning impossible, and wastes precious time and limited resources.
It is only fair to say that the levelling up White Paper did set out some welcome, albeit modest, aspirations. No one on the Labour Benches will oppose efforts to increase life expectancy or eradicate illiteracy. As it stands, however, those aspirations are just that—aspirations—and, with no details on how they will be funded, we will not arrive where the Secretary of State for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities wants to go on the current trajectory. He is not present at the moment, but I can tell him that if he wants to be this generation’s Michael Heseltine, he needs to change course.
I accept that none of this is easy. We are dealing with entrenched socioeconomic problems, decades of chronic underfunding, and layer upon layer of patchwork approaches. It will take a lot more than a commitment to ensuring that everyone can benefit from al fresco dining—however laudable that may be—to transform our economy. Let me tell the House, in a constructive spirit, what I think needs to change.
The first item is funding. If the Secretary of State needs an example of where levelling up has succeeded, he should look to German reunification. It is estimated that €2 trillion was spent on the project between 1990 and 2014. Most East German federal states are still the largest recipients of investment from central Government. Despite huge progress, East Germany has still not fully closed the gap with the former West Germany, but its GDP per capita is now higher than Yorkshire’s.
Secondly, there is the issue of control. We need an increase in fiscal devolution and a major shift towards allocating central funds according to automatic, genuinely fair formulas. We must let go of the purse strings and trust local decision makers.
Thirdly, there is the question of powers: we need a step change in devolved powers, with skills, transport and policing among the priorities. Regional governments need to be in the driving seat of a local industrial strategy. That does not mean one size fits all. Greater power and funding must be integrated with wider reforms, both here at Westminster so that the centre also reflects the place of regions and nations, and locally to ensure that stronger local and regional government is held accountable. Finally, on democracy, we need basic safeguards for the continued solidarity and redistribution between the nations and regions that make us a United Kingdom and against a race to the bottom on standards or tax. If we can do all that, we will have built not an empty façade but a solid foundation for our country’s future.
It is a pleasure to speak in this debate. I think it was correct for the Prime Minister to make the cost of living so central to the Queen’s Speech. I appreciate that some steps have been taken by the Government already, and I appreciate the fiscal position that the Government face is challenging, but I am of the view that more needs to be done, and I am glad that the Prime Minister and the Chancellor have indicated that this will be the case. I will be watching the situation with interest. Like many colleagues, I have knocked on huge numbers of doors across my constituency and other local areas in the last few weeks, and we have had conversations with people who are struggling to get by at the moment. Of course, that will also be supplemented with our surgeries and casework, so I think we really need to grapple that.
There was much I welcomed in the Queen’s Speech. One of the other issues that always comes up for me is our town centre. It is of great concern to many of my constituents, who feel that the town centre has gone downhill. It is our main civic place, and it is something of great passion. The most frustrating thing about the town centre at the moment is that it does not quite seem to work, even though we have so many brilliant small independent businesspeople and entrepreneurs trying to make it work. Just this Monday, I was fortunate enough to have the Chancellor of the Exchequer in Ipswich, and he met a number of those business owners. We went to Microshops in Carr Street, which is basically a pop-up facility so that local people who have an idea can get a foothold and try it out. If it works, it works, and if it does not, it is less high risk. For most of them it has worked, and 17 small independent businesses are now in there, and a number have got other premises in the town or are expanding. I was very pleased that the Chancellor was able to meet them.
There are too many significant buildings in Ipswich that are empty and have been allowed to collect dust for far too long. It is very pleasing to see that, in the old post office building that had been empty for years, the Botanist, a quite high-end cocktail bar, has opened up. Speaking of al fresco, it has lovely outdoor seating spilling on to the Cornhill. I was pleased to be able to attend its soft launch and its hard launch. At the first one I had completely non-alcoholic cocktails, and at the second one I was convinced to have one alcoholic cocktail. I very much advise everybody to go there if they are in Ipswich.
I welcome the measures relating to compulsory rental auctions and the powers that local authorities can use. Sadly, it has been too difficult to get many of these important buildings back into use, and as much as I would like to just blame the Labour council for all that, it would be wrong for me to do so because it is far more complicated than that. Often it is the owners of these buildings who, frankly, have not done enough. The owners of the building on Carr Street that is now the home of Microshops deserve credit for showing the initiative to get that going, but it is frustrating that it has taken so long to get off the ground.
To get our town centre thriving again, we also need to try to address my constituents’ concerns about the persistent antisocial behaviour in the town centre. Many of my long-term Ipswich residents do not go into the town centre, particularly at certain times of night, because they do not feel safe or secure. Having a good, high police presence in key parts of the town is important. If large groups, invariably of young men, are gathering and drinking alcohol when they ought not to be, and making inappropriate lurid comments to women of all ages going into the town centre, we need the police to be incredibly hands-on and interventionist to disperse and disrupt those groups and enforce the no-alcohol zones. That has not been happening to the extent that I would like, and that desperately