I inform the House that I have selected amendment (w) in the name of the Leader of the Opposition, which will be moved at the start of the debate, and amendments (m) and (s) which will be moved at the end of the debate. I call the shadow Chancellor of the Exchequer, Rachel Reeves.
I beg to move amendment (w), at the end of the Question to add:
“but respectfully regret that the Gracious Speech fails to bring forward immediately an emergency budget to tackle the cost of living crisis or to set out a new approach to the economy that will end 12 years of slow growth and high taxation under successive Conservative Governments.”
We meet today when inflation has hit its highest level for 40 years. Every pound that people had last year can purchase only 91p-worth of goods today; that is what inflation of 9% means. Our country has a cost of living crisis and a growth crisis, with prices rising, growth downgraded and no plan for the future. None of this, though, is inevitable. It is a consequence of Conservative decisions and the direction they have taken our economy in over the past 12 years.
The Government are increasingly a rudderless ship, heading to the rocks, while they are willing to watch people financially drown in the process. Where is the urgency and the action? The time to change course is now. We need an emergency Budget to deal with the inadequacy of the Chancellor’s spring statement, with a windfall tax to help to get bills down and to help families and pensioners to weather the storm. On the day that inflation has reached a 40-year high, the Chancellor is missing in action. As energy bills and anxiety levels soar, the response from the Government diminishes in comparison.
The hon. Lady asks where the action is. Will she accept that today £150 is going into the bank accounts of people in council tax bands A to D from councils across this country?
The action that Labour proposes is a windfall tax to take up to £600 off people’s bills. As the hon. Lady knows, energy bills have gone up 54%, by an average of £693. With all respect, £150 just does not cut it.
Labour first proposed a windfall tax on 9 January, more than four months ago, and what was the first response from a Conservative Minister? It was to insist that a windfall tax would be unfair because Shell and BP were “struggling”. North sea oil and gas producers are making £32 million a day in unexpected profits. Meanwhile, parents trying to pay their bills are going without food so that their children do not miss meals—that is struggling. We now know that each and every day the Conservatives delay introducing a windfall tax, families and pensioners are forking out £53 million more in their energy bills.
Last night, my party supported the amendment relating to oil and gas that was moved by the right hon. Member for Doncaster North (Edward Miliband). The hon. Lady is right: there is a real need to protect our pensioners. This morning, a constituent told me that his brother, a pensioner, sleeps in a sleeping bag to keep warm; another pensioner tells me that she can turn the heating on in her house for only one hour a day. One way of helping our pensioners would be through the proposal that the hon. Lady refers to: a windfall tax on those who are making exorbitant profits.
I thank the hon. Member for speaking so powerfully about his constituents. After years of work and contribution to this country, a pensioner is sleeping in a sleeping bag to keep warm.
The Government got rid of the triple lock, and now they are refusing to implement a windfall tax. Every day, the case for Labour’s windfall tax gets stronger, while the Tory defence for refusing to act gets weaker and weaker, yet last night every single Conservative MP voted against a windfall tax for the third time. People can no longer afford to pay for the Government’s mistakes. The Government should put the national interest first and follow Labour’s advice. It is time to do the right thing; it is time to put the needs of people first; it is time to introduce a windfall tax to get bills down.
Will the hon. Lady clarify one thing? There is a bit of dispute about how much a windfall tax would raise per household. There are about 25 million households in the UK. Will the hon. Lady confirm how much money per household a windfall tax would actually raise?
A windfall tax would raise about £3 billion. That, combined with the extra VAT that the Government are receiving because prices have gone up so much, could go directly towards taking money off people’s bills. It would make a real impact now. Every single day, the energy companies are making £32 million in unexpected profits. This Government increase taxes on working people; a Labour Government would increase taxes on the big oil and gas companies.
The cost of living crisis is being made worse by a wage crisis, as years of Conservative Governments have failed to stand up for working people. At the Conservative party conference last year, the Prime Minister bragged of plans for a high-wage economy. How is that going? Let me update the House. In the six months since then, average real-terms pay has not risen, but fallen. Behind the headline figures, data released yesterday by the Institute for Fiscal Studies shows not only that workers are experiencing a fall in their real pay, but that the gap between those earning most and those earning least is widening. For the hospital porters, the supermarket assistants, the delivery drivers—the very people who worked tirelessly through the pandemic to keep this country going—wages are in no way keeping up with the rising cost of living.
I just want clarification of the figures, because they are very important. The hon. Lady said that a windfall tax would raise £3 billion; among 25 million households, that is just over £100 each, which is less than the Government are giving. She then said that there would be £600 for each household, but that would cost about £18 billion, which is £15 billion more than the windfall tax would raise. Where would that extra £15 billion come from? Would it come from an increase in Government borrowing?
Our scheme is very clear. We would introduce a windfall tax, use that money to reduce VAT on gas and electricity bills from 5% to zero, and expand the warm home discount from the measly £140 that people get today to £400. We would fund that through the windfall tax, through the additional VAT receipts that the Government are getting in at the moment because prices are so high, and through receipts from the additional corporation tax that the oil and gas companies are paying. The Government will end up doing this. The only question is when they will get on and deliver for their constituents. Oil and gas companies are making record profits and people are paying record bills. It is a question of whose side you are on. The Government are very clear that they are on the side of the oil and gas companies; the Opposition are very clear that we are on the side of ordinary families and pensioners.
The Government have failed to introduce not only the windfall tax, but the employment Bill that has been repeatedly promised. There is a real-world price: allowing scandalous threats of fire and rehire to continue to drive down conditions at work, not just in the appalling P&O case, but in other sectors. Fire and rehire should have been outlawed, but thanks to this Government’s actions it is being encouraged. Employment rights for the modern world of work will not just protect workers, but boost growth and financial security. That makes for a stronger economy with firm foundations, rather than allowing a race to the bottom that takes away dignity as well as eroding family finances.
I give way to my hon. Friend the Member for Lewisham West and Penge (Ellie Reeves).
As well as struggling with rising fuel bills and food prices, many of my constituents are worried about their precarious work, about not knowing from one week to the next what hours they will get, and about being fired by unscrupulous employers. Does my hon. Friend agree that the Queen’s Speech was a missed opportunity to introduce the long-awaited employment Bill, which would ensure that workers get the dignity and security that they desperately need?
The sad truth is that the Government used to agree. Introducing an employment Bill was in their manifesto; in fact, they have been promising it for five or six years. Let us have that employment Bill to protect people at work, so that working people do not have to resort to food banks, and so that they have the security and dignity that work should provide.
April’s International Monetary Fund data show that families in Britain are more exposed to the cost of living crisis than countries such as Germany, France and the US because of depleted savings. Savings are declining and household debt is on the rise, not because millions of people can no longer manage a budget, but because millions of people cannot afford a Conservative Government. Working families are increasingly struggling with their budgets because the Chancellor has failed to act in his Budgets. The Food Foundation believes that since January, 2 million people have not eaten food for at least a whole day, because they could not afford to.
I give way to my hon. Friend the Member for Swansea West (Geraint Davies).
My hon. Friend knows that food banks were used by something like 26,000 people in 2010 and are now used by 2.6 million people—100 times as many. Does she agree that the economy’s growth now contrasts dismally with its 40% growth in the 10 years to 2008 under Labour? The Institute for Fiscal Studies has said that if we were on the same growth trend, the average person would be £11,000 better off and could therefore weather the storms that we are suffering because of the Tory Government.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. That is the Tory growth penalty—the effect of the lack of growth in the economy. Average earnings are £11,000 less than if growth had stayed at the same rate as under the last Labour Government.
My hon. Friend mentioned a hundredfold increase in food bank use. This is not normal; it is the consequence of Conservative Governments’ choices. Meanwhile, what have we heard in recent weeks? We have heard suggestions from Ministers about what people can do in their own lives to deal with the cost of living crisis. The Prime Minister thinks that a 77-year-old pensioner who rides on the bus all day to keep warm should be grateful for her discounted fares; the Environment Secretary has lectured people struggling with the cost of food, telling them to “buy own brands”; and the Secretary of State for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities has treated the need for an emergency Budget as if it were an audition for a comedy club. Another out-of-touch Minister has told people, just this week, that if they are struggling financially they should simply work more hours or get another job—as if it were as easy as that. The Chancellor continues to insult the public’s intelligence by suggesting that a compulsory £200 loan—a loan that must be repaid—is somehow not a loan, and now blames a computer system for his decision not to help the least well-off. What planet are they on?
Does my hon. Friend agree that given that wages have been falling for the last 14 years and inflation is now at 9%, or 11% for the poorest families, there is an alternative to people’s wages being squeezed—that the Government could squeeze profits instead? Shell and BP raked in more than £12 billion in the first three months of this year alone, and it is shameful that every Conservative Member voted against a windfall tax yesterday when they had the chance to support it.
Conservative Members voted against the windfall tax not for the first time, not for the second time, but for the third time. Every single Conservative MP opposed what they know is the right thing to do. A Labour Government would tackle the cost of living crisis head-on. We would introduce a windfall tax on oil and gas producer profits to cut household bills by up to £600, a home insulation policy that would save millions of households up to £400 a year, and a discount on business rates for high street firms funded by a tax on the online giants. Perhaps the Chief Secretary can tell us in his speech why the Government will not abolish the unfair, outdated and unjustifiable non-dom tax status, and use that money to keep taxes on working people down.
Finally, Labour would put a stop to the Chancellor’s fraud failures, which allowed £11.8 billion of taxpayer funds to go criminal gangs, drug dealers and worse. We would claw back every penny of taxpayers’ money that we could, because the public are sick of being ripped off and they want their money back.
We are now in the worst of all possible worlds, with inflation high and rising, and growth low and falling—in other words, there is stagflation. This Conservative Government must address the underlying weaknesses in our economy, which are the result of years of Tory failure. Growth has stagnated, not just this year but over the last 12 years, falling from 2% on average under the last Labour Government to just 1.5% a year in the decade leading up to the pandemic.
The Conservatives have failed to work with British industries—employers and trade unions—to create the economic growth that would benefit everyone, and for 12 years that approach has sown chaos and uncertainty, making it impossible for businesses to invest with confidence. Now the UK economy has the worst growth projections of any G20 economy but one: Russia.
The Bank of England has issued a stark warning of a downturn next year, with GDP projected to fall, and it is not set to get much better after that. [Interruption.] The Chief Secretary says, from a sedentary position, that it is set to get better. Oh, yes—growth in the following year is expected to be 0.25%, almost 10 times lower than what the Office for Budget Responsibility predicted in March. Well, done, Tory Government!
We have heard nothing from this Conservative Government about what they will do to change the situation, and if the Chief Secretary is proud of that record, good luck to him. The Government have no plan to provide the catalytic investment that we need to create new markets, no plan to get trade moving again and tackle the supply chain problems facing businesses, and no plan for a new industrial strategy to make the most of Britain’s potential, bringing good jobs to all parts of Britain. The Conservatives have become the low-growth party, and our country is paying the price.
My hon. Friend is making some powerful points about the fall in growth. I am sure she will be as concerned as I am about the statistics which show the decline in business investment, which I think is down by 9%. We are seeing a 34% fall in automotive production, which is a massive hit for the UK economy. The impact on our foreign competitors is less, because those countries have a strategy. Does my hon. Friend agree that this Government seem not to have an industrial strategy—for gaming semiconductor production, for example? Does she agree that that is what is needed, and that is what a Labour Government would do?
The figures from the International Monetary Fund show that investment as a proportion of our economy in the UK is 18%, if we take both public and private investment into account. In other similar economies that the IMF looks at, it is 23%. If we add that up over the next six years—the IMF’s forecast horizon—we see a projection of £1 trillion less investment in the UK than in other countries. These are huge missed opportunities to create the jobs and industries of the future that my hon. Friend wants to see in Warwick and Leamington and all of us want to see in our constituencies.
The Government’s lack of action is felt by businesses. In April, the price of materials for UK manufacturers increased at its fastest rate since records began, with prices up by nearly a fifth on the previous year. When I speak to businesses, they are worried about falling consumer confidence and a lack of spending power, as well as the costs that they are having to face.
The British Retail Consortium has explained that the rising cost of living has crushed consumer confidence and put the brakes on consumer spending. So many businesses that worked tirelessly to adapt and survive the pandemic were banking on this year to recover, and it is just not happening.
Will the hon. Lady give way, on that point?
We could be so much better. Our geography, our universities and our industrial heritage offer so much potential, but the Government do not do enough to unlock it. I have seen the brilliant businesses and emerging industries that will power our economy and lead the world: businesses such as Nanopore, a technology and life sciences firm that started as a research team at Oxford University and now employs more than 600 people; Rolls-Royce in Derby—I was there a couple of weeks ago—which is leading pioneering research with world-leading engineers developing carbon-neutral technologies; and Castleton Mills in my own city of Leeds, once a key part of West Yorkshire’s textiles industry but now a creative, collaborative space housing freelancers, remote workers and start-up businesses.
However, the success that I see all around the country could be strengthened with strong leadership and vision from the Government. Ministers are more concerned about the next headline or photoshoot than about creating credible plans for growth and success. Today, as inflation spirals out of control, where is the £3.4 million PR budget in the Treasury, and what is the Treasury doing?
I will give way to the hon. Gentleman. [Hon. Members: “Hurray!”]
I will sit here again next time.
The hon. Lady mentioned earlier the support for households in the form of the £200 discount on their energy bills. That went to 100% of households. The £150 council tax deduction reached 80% of households. Will the hon. Lady tell us what percentage of households would receive the £600 per household to which she referred?
It is great to see Conservative Members taking so much interest in this. It suggests to me that a policy from them on the windfall tax is coming soon, and it will be welcome.
We have said that the £600 would go to a third of households. We would increase the warm home discount from £140 to £400, and that would go to a third of households. The hon. Member is, like me, an MP in Yorkshire. Across Yorkshire, every day, an extra £4.5 million is spent on energy costs as a result of the Conservative party’s failure. A total of £220 million has been spent in the seven weeks since the energy price cap went up. Constituents in Thirsk and Malton, like my constituents in Leeds West, are looking for answers, and an expansion of the warm home discount, paid for by a windfall tax, would make a massive difference throughout our region in Yorkshire.
We need an ambitious plan for the future. That is why Labour will scrap business rates, and the system that replaces them will incentivise investment, promote entrepreneurship and bring life back to our high streets. The race is on for the next generation of jobs, and Labour will make the investment we need with a growth plan to bring opportunities to the whole country, working in partnership with great British industries to get us to net zero and revitalise coastal communities and former industrialised towns. We do not want to be importing all the technologies and products we need; if we can make it here in Britain, we should do so. That is why a Labour Government will buy, make and sell more here at home.
We will make Brexit work, with a bespoke EU-UK veterinary agreement to cut red tape for the food and agriculture industries and mutual recognition of professional qualifications to help our fantastic business services industries and to make it easier for our creative industries to tour and perform. Unlike the Conservatives, Labour will ensure that our economy grows and prosperity is shared.
On the matter of making Brexit work, there is a concern that the United Kingdom now mirrors the United States with its labour shortages, rather than mirroring the right to work across the European Union. This is having a drastic effect on the whole of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. Can the hon. Member say a wee bit more about how they want to emulate Europe’s labour market situation rather than that of the United States with its labour shortages?
The best way to fill those gaps in the labour market is to be training people here in Britain. We have seen the nurses shortage in the papers today. We are having to bring in nurses from all around the world because we are not training nurses here. There are job vacancies here in Britain, and we need to ensure that our young people get the opportunities to train for those high-paid and high-skilled jobs here in Britain. [Interruption.] The Minister says that no one disputes that, so why are the Government not doing it?
The Tories are out of touch and they are out of ideas. They are the party of high taxes because they are the party of low growth. Their choices have made the cost of living crisis much worse than it needed to be. Their decisions have left those with the least fearing for the future. The Tories cannot be trusted with public money. They have handed billions to their friends, to their donors and to fraudsters. We need an emergency Budget with a windfall tax to keep energy bills down. We need a Government that take growth seriously. We need a new vision for a fairer and more prosperous economy. Labour has a different economic approach: pro-worker and pro-business, with a plan to unleash the potential of both. A Labour Government would steer our country through these difficult times together. I urge Members across the House to do the right thing today and vote for an emergency Budget to get our country and our economy back on track.
It is a privilege to respond to this debate on behalf of the Government. I have to say that I thought that was an uncharacteristically poor speech by the shadow Chancellor, and one that failed to rise to the magnitude of the moment. In the shadow of the pandemic and with war on our continent, everyone understands that these are challenging times and that people are anxious about the future. The measure of a Government of any colour is the determination and imagination with which they respond to the challenges of the day. We responded quickly and comprehensively to the greatest challenge of our generation at the outset of the pandemic. Looking forward, we are helping to create the conditions for economic growth by investing in skills, helping businesses to grow and building the infrastructure that provides the backbone of every economy around the world. The crucial thing—the reason that today’s debate is so important—is that we focus on that growth, and this Queen’s Speech does just that.
Let me begin by noting that overall our economy has proved very resilient. Last year the UK was the fastest-growing economy in the G7. Growth in the first quarter—[Interruption.] If Opposition Members listened, they might learn something. Growth in the first quarter was stronger than in the US, Germany and Italy, and pushed output to 0.7% above its pre-pandemic level at the end of 2019. The IMF forecasts that the UK will be the second-fastest growing G7 economy this year, and that, after other economies have caught up as they recover more slowly from the pandemic, we will have the fastest growth in 2025 and 2026.
Far from the dire forecasts about unemployment in 2020 being realised, we see that unemployment has fallen back to just 3.7%, which is below pre-pandemic levels and the lowest since 1974. The fact that 12 million jobs and incomes were protected during the pandemic, that unemployment is now lower than before the pandemic and that we were the fastest-growing economy in the G7 last year is all thanks to the careful economic stewardship of my right hon. Friend the Chancellor and this Conservative Government.
Given that inflation is now at 9%—I think that that is a 40-year high—does the Minister regret abandoning the triple lock and putting so many pensioners into poverty?
As I will set out during my remarks, we have to be very careful, in setting our tax and welfare policies, that we do not worsen the very problems we are trying to manage. That is an important dynamic that we have to hold in balance as we seek to set fair offers on all these subjects.
It is still little more than two years since the onset of the pandemic and, as the Prime Minister told the House this week, its impact has been enormous, with the largest recession on record requiring a Government response amounting to nearly £400 billion. As the House well knows, the Government moved heaven and earth to support our economy, doing things that only weeks earlier no one could ever have expected us to even need to do, and those efforts worked. Human nature being human nature, it is easy to take it for granted when disaster is avoided, but there was nothing inevitable about this. The House and this country owe my right hon. Friend the Chancellor our thanks for steering us through the situation in such strong condition. The challenges we face now are global in origin and impact. We are seeing inflation as a consequence of the unsteady and tentative unlocking of the global economy post-pandemic. One need only look at cities such as Shanghai to see how disrupted the global supply chains currently are. This is particularly concentrated in fields such as energy and food.
I am glad that the right hon. Gentleman is saying that the Chancellor and his Ministers are moving heaven and earth to help the good British people, but would he agree that certain individuals also moved heaven and earth to give out billions of pounds’-worth of crony covid contracts to companies connected to Tory donors and friends? Who could forget, for example, that 11 PPE contracts were dished out to a pest control company, and that £252 million ended up going not to a PPE specialist but to a company specialising in offshore and foreign currency trading? Does he agree that, had those individuals not moved heaven and earth for those particular companies, the good, hard-working British people would not be in such a predicament now?
It is important to set out a number of facts about this situation, because it is the subject of repeated misrepresentation. The first thing to say is that 97% of all PPE that was purchased by the Government was fit for use. Secondly, we obviously had to proceed at enormous speed, given the exigencies of the pandemic, to procure that PPE. Those on the Opposition Benches were leading the charge on that. To the hon. Gentleman’s point about some of the sources that were being advocated, I would remind him that the shadow Chancellor herself recommended that we sought PPE from a historical re-enactment clothing company as part of the proposed solution. The point I would make is that there was a desperate situation and we responded to it at pace. Where there has been fraud against the Exchequer, I am as clear as any Minister and any Member of this House that we should pursue it, and we are funding a dedicated taxpayer protection taskforce from HMRC with £100 million to do exactly that.
I understand that lots of countries in the world have been through similar problems and also have a cost of living crisis, but can the Minister explain why the British Government are being so miserly when Greece, which has a similar set of issues and has been through much more difficult economic times in the past 12 years, is managing to meet 80% of the additional costs of fuel bills this year for the poorest households?
One has to set in context the action that each Government take against their particular situation and the particular economic options open to them, including the impact on taxes, of which we are acutely aware. This Government have consistently shown that we will rise to the challenge. Anyone who says that £22 billion is miserly is simply misreading the economic reality in a way that speaks volumes about the Labour party’s wider approach to budgeting responsibly and managing our public finances to protect the most vulnerable in society and the services on which they rely.
To return to the situation as it stands today, the Bank of England has said that it expects inflation to peak at just over 10% in the fourth quarter of this year, before returning to target over the following year. The reality is that high global energy prices and supply chain pressures are pushing up prices in economies across the world, including in the United Kingdom, and that has been significantly worsened by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, which has injected so much uncertainty into the economic outlook.
We are monitoring the data very closely. I do not dispute that these challenges are a setback to our recovery and are having a significant impact on the cost of living, which was the subject of yesterday’s debate led by the Chancellor. However, last year’s strong rebound in growth put us in a good underlying economic position, with half a million more people on the payroll now than before the pandemic, and with GDP above pre-pandemic levels.
As we heard yesterday, the Chancellor understands the effect of inflation on households and is providing support worth £22 billion this year to ease those pressures. He will keep all those issues under close review and we will bring forward a programme of measures at such time as they will make the right difference in a targeted way, but we must be careful not to fuel the very challenges that we are working to overcome, be that inflation or the size of our public debt.
We will spend £83 billion on debt interest this year. We must, and we will, manage the public finances responsibly because we must not saddle future generations with our debt and because we want to reduce the burden of personal taxation.
Will the Chief Secretary to the Treasury confirm the nature of that £83 billion figure? Is it a cash demand on the Government, or is a substantial part of it rolled over so that we do not need to pay and it is merely attached to index-linked bonds?
Some of it falls due as cash payments and some of it is rolled over. The reality is that, when we are running an £83 billion interest payment on an annualised basis, we will not be in a position to maintain market confidence unless we set out a sustainable trajectory to address it. A sustainable solution cannot be to borrow our way out of the situation; it must be to grow our economy and to create high-skilled, high-waged jobs, and we have a comprehensive plan to do so. That is the choice we have made as a Government and it is absolutely the right one.
The Chief Secretary to the Treasury mentioned that there are 500,000 more people on payrolls, but he neglected to say that that does not include self-employed people. Will he confirm that, according to the Office for National Statistics, there are, in fact, 444,000 fewer people in work than before the pandemic, not, as he implied, half a million more?
There are half a million more people on payrolls, and I was very clear about that. The headline unemployment rate is 3.7%, which we should celebrate. It is a genuine public policy success and contrasts starkly with the situation we inherited in 2010. I, certainly, am determined to continue supporting it by making sure our economic policy is the right one.
The Labour party has only one answer to every problem: spending more. It has made, by our calculations, £418 billion-worth of spending commitments, while setting out precisely how £8 billion would be funded. The scale of spending that Labour would undertake is vast, but what concerns me, and should concern us all, is the lack of seriousness with which Labour considers how to fund its commitments. That is the luxury of being in opposition, whereas in government there is no ducking away from the big challenges with which we are grappling.
Achieving economic growth is not as simple as putting one’s foot down on the accelerator. It is a far subtler and more balanced enterprise that includes multiple carefully weighed decisions that are designed to mutually reinforce each other over time.
Does the Chief Secretary to the Treasury agree that the private sector is our economy’s engine of growth? Businesses are getting up, working hard and developing the growth, jobs and prosperity this country needs. We cannot rely on the state to do everything. Private businesses must be supported.
My hon. Friend is exactly right. He is always a fantastic advocate for the car industry in his part of the midlands. We need to make sure that the engine of growth is able to fire, and our plan for growth, published last year, sets out how we will increase investment in the three pillars of growth: infrastructure, skills and innovation.
On business opportunities, specifically for small and medium-sized business, the National Institute of Economic and Social Research basically is pouring cold water on the Government’s bunkum on the benefits of Brexit for the economy, so I wonder whether the Chief Secretary to the Treasury agrees or disagrees, when it comes to small and medium-sized businesses that need people in the country now, not trained 10 years down the line, that links with the EU through trade and potential labour market mobility have benefited Northern Ireland. Does he agree or disagree?
I am clear that we were right to implement the majority decision of the people of this country to leave the European Union. The Procurement Bill is designed precisely to make sure that small and medium-sized businesses can access the benefits of public procurement in a way that works to their considerable benefit.
We have made excellent progress against our plan for growth: a landmark capital uplift in the spending review I chaired last autumn; the creation of the UK Infrastructure Bank led by my hon. Friend the Economic Secretary; more funding for apprenticeships and skills training; a big injection of public investment in R&D; and the launch of the UK-wide Help to Grow scheme.
I want to see us go further by looking at innovative supply-side solutions to problems, particularly in delivering the homes people need, in ensuring people have access to the services they need and in carefully managing the risk of inflationary spirals. As my hon. Friend the Member for Rugby (Mark Pawsey) alluded to, this is all about creating the conditions for private sector growth. In his Mais lecture earlier this year, the Chancellor set out his plans to create the conditions for that growth by supporting a culture of enterprise through a focus on capital, people and ideas, and the Government have already taken steps to encourage business investment, including through the super-deduction.
On expenditure incurred between 1 April 2021 and the end of March 2023, companies have the right to claim 130% capital allowances on qualifying plant and machinery investments, allowing them to cut their tax bill by up to 25p in every £1 they invest, making our capital allowances regime one of the most competitive anywhere in the world.
The power of our private sector is also seen in our tech industry, in which there was more than £27 billion of investment in 2021. The UK sits alongside the United States and China as one of only three countries in the world to have produced more than 100 tech unicorns. The UK boasts a thriving start-up scene, with a new tech business launching every half an hour throughout 2020.
I declare my interest on this point.
The Chief Secretary to the Treasury talks about investment in private sector businesses. Equity investment is vital. The enterprise investment scheme and the seed enterprise investment scheme are fundamental to private sector investment in businesses, and they are due to expire in 2025. Will he announce from the Dispatch Box today that the schemes will be extended?
My hon. Friend tempts me. In all seriousness, we are acutely aware of this issue. Indeed, I have had meetings on it this week, and the Economic Secretary is looking at it very closely. We want to make sure we have the right investment climate to support the kind of activity to which my hon. Friend the Member for Thirsk and Malton (Kevin Hollinrake) alludes.
As the Prime Minister told the House last week, we need the legislative firepower to fix the underlying problems in our energy supply, housing, infrastructure and skills, which are driving up costs for families across the country. The Queen’s Speech will help us to grow the economy, which is the sustainable way to deal with our cost of living challenges, and will ensure that we deliver on the people’s priorities. The Bills it outlined will do so in many different ways.
Every corner of the country can contribute to, and enjoy, economic growth, which is why we created the UK Infrastructure Bank, the establishment of which will be completed by the UK Infrastructure Bank Bill. The bank will be explicitly tasked with supporting regional and local economic growth and helping to tackle climate change as it goes. With £22 billion of capacity, it will be able to support infrastructure investment and level up the whole United Kingdom, in turn boosting private sector confidence and unlocking a further £18 billion of private investment.
The energy security Bill will build on the success of the COP26 summit in Glasgow, reduce our exposure to volatile global gas markets, and deliver a managed transition to cheaper, cleaner and more secure energy, all while we continue to help with energy costs right now, through a £9 billion package, an increase to the warm home discount and the £1 billion household support fund.
I have already alluded to the importance of skills. We have achieved plenty on that already, but we are far from done. Everyone, everywhere should be encouraged to fulfil their potential. The higher education Bill will help to ensure that our post-18 education system promotes real social mobility, putting students on to pathways along which they can excel. It will give them the skills they need to meet their aspirations, in turn helping to grow the economy.
Meanwhile, a bonanza of Brexit Bills, led by my right hon. Friend the Minister for Brexit Opportunities and Government Efficiency, mean that we will continue to seize the benefits of our departure from the European Union, and create a regulatory environment that encourages prosperity, business innovation and entrepreneurship. Regulations on businesses will be repealed and reformed and it will be made easier to amend law inherited from the European Union.
I alluded earlier to the Procurement Bill, which will make public sector procurement simpler, providing opportunities to small businesses that for too long have been out of their reach. New procedures will improve transparency and accountability and allow new suppliers to the market to bid for future contracts.
Another benefit to Brexit is the freedom with which we can now negotiate entirely new trade arrangements with partners around the world. The Trade (Australia and New Zealand) Bill will enable the implementation of the United Kingdom’s first new free trade agreements since leaving the European Union, spurring economic growth through our trading relationships, creating and securing jobs across this country. Well may Opposition Front Benchers snipe, having spent years trying to prevent our exit from the EU. Conservative Members know that we have honoured our contract with the British people, which is ultimately why we are in government to deliver on those opportunities and they are in opposition.
Part of having a growing economy is of course about investors knowing that we are one of the safest and most reliable places in the world to do business. The economic crime and corporate transparency Bill will send that message out loud and clear, cracking down on illicit finance that costs the economy and the taxpayer an estimated £8.4 billion a year, and strengthening our reputation as a place where legitimate businesses can create and grow jobs.
The final Bill to which I will draw the House’s attention today is the financial services and markets Bill. The UK now has a unique opportunity to assess whether it wants to do things differently, to ensure that the financial services sector has the right rules and regulations for UK markets and to further enhance a system that is already the envy of the world. The Chancellor and the Economic Secretary have been outspoken in expressing an ambitious vision for a sector that can contribute so much to this country: more open, more innovative and more competitive. The financial services and markets Bill represents further progress towards making that vision a reality, establishing a coherent, agile and internationally respected approach to financial services regulation that is specifically designed for the UK, removing red tape, promoting investment and giving our financial services regulators new objectives to ensure a greater focus on growth and international competitiveness.
That is a full and ambitious agenda, supporting and encouraging economic growth in many mutually reinforcing ways across the entire country. We continue to keep the wider situation under review, including the impact of Russia’s illegal invasion of Ukraine. But, crucially, our focus is on the best solution of all: a growing economy supporting high-wage, high-skilled jobs.
The Prime Minister told the House last week that our ambition is to
“build the foundations for decades of prosperity, uniting and levelling up across the country”.—[Official Report, 10 May 2022; Vol. 714, c. 17.]
That is what the public rightly expect and that is where our collective efforts will be focused in this parliamentary Session.
Order. Before I call the next speaker, I remind Members that it is very important that those wishing to speak in the debate get here for the opening contributions from the Front Benchers, make sure that they get back in good time for the closing speeches—it is essential and courteous to be here—and stay in the Chamber for most of the debate, because it is important to hear what other people have to say. After I call the SNP spokesperson, I will be going to the Back Benchers. I do not want to put a time limit on, but I would advise that speeches of about seven minutes would be helpful to make sure that everybody makes an equal contribution. I call SNP spokesperson Alison Thewliss.
Today is National Numeracy Day and there will be a lot of figures flying about this afternoon. It often makes me think that it would be helpful in this place if we were allowed to do as they do in the US Senate and have great big charts we can point at to make these debates easier for people to follow. But the Bank of England’s predictions on GDP growth, thankfully for the Government, are quite easy to illustrate—they are pretty much a flat line. The cost of living crisis and Brexit continue to hold back growth, and opportunities for more sustainable, inclusive growth, conscious of our climate obligations presented at the COP26 summit in my constituency last year, are being squandered. It is not so much a Union dividend as a stagnant economy. It does not have to be this way.
We need to recognise that the endless pursuit of GDP growth at any cost destroys communities and the planet. Growth should be inclusive and should prioritise policies that tackle inequalities, contribute to net zero and provide high-quality jobs. Investing in green technologies, in insulating and retrofitting homes, and in improving public transport would all be a good start, but no Bills in the Queen’s Speech get close to that ambition. In Scotland, the SNP has put wellbeing at the heart of our economic strategy. It is through wellbeing and fair work that we can deliver higher rates of employment and wage growth, reduce poverty, and improve outcomes for disadvantaged families and communities.
I was proud to serve on the Scottish Government’s Social Justice and Fairness Commission, which, prior to the pandemic, set out some of the direction of travel. Last week, the Scottish Government announced the establishment of a new centre of expertise in equality and human rights, which will see the Scottish Government working with leading experts to address economic inequality, building on the principle that a fairer economy is a stronger economy.
Post pandemic, we are presented with a clear choice over whether to lead or to lag behind other successful and more equal economies while we recover from covid, deliver net zero, tackle structural inequalities and grow the economy. The UK Tory Government have chosen to ignore the problems and to lag. The UK economy is now forecast to be the worst-performing G7 economy next year. This week, we had more of the Chancellor’s sleight of hand on Twitter, in using a scale on a graph that makes less than 1% in GDP growth look good. It is not that good, so the Government should stop pretending that it is, and it is in no small part a consequence of their policy choices.
There has been no clear economic strategy from the UK Tory Government, yet the policy choice that looms over all things, from the Northern Ireland protocol disputes to manufacturing and labour supply, is Brexit. There is no doubt that global forces are posing huge challenges now, but these have been compounded by Brexit, the daftest of all economic policies. By December 2021, leaving the single market and customs union had reduced UK goods trade by 14.9%. Analysis by the Centre for European Reform shows that UK exports have taken a larger hit than imports. Pushing through that Brexit cliff edge in the middle of a pandemic, and masking the economic damage regardless of the economic cost, is an act of great economic self-sabotage. GDP growth in the UK is only about half the EU average since the Brexit referendum.
I will certainly give way to the right hon. Gentleman if he can explain why there is a benefit of Brexit when we see only economic harm.
I ask the hon. Lady to correct the record. If she looks at the website of the Office for National Statistics, she will see that the opposite of what she is saying is the case. In fact, UK imports from the European Union have fallen, whereas UK exports to the EU have recovered. It is not clear why that is, but that is what the ONS says and I hope she will go away, read that website and correct the record.
That goes to my point that we can make all kinds of statistics show all kinds of things. But what we hear from food producers in Scotland is that it is very difficult for them to get their high-quality exports to the European markets, and that is a direct choice with Brexit. We have also seen it become easier for EU goods to get into the country and more difficult for UK goods to get out—these mad policies have caused all kinds of difficulties.
We face weak growth in 2023 in comparison with not just the G7, but most of the world, as well as higher inflation by far than anywhere in the eurozone. Figures today that put inflation at 9% are shocking, and it is only May. Some of that inflation rate has come about via the Government’s choice—and it was a choice—to increase VAT back to 20%. Given the rampant energy costs, it is certain that more price rises are yet to come.
Last week, Adam Posen, the president of the Peterson Institute for International Economics, told the Treasury Committee that in his view, a
“substantial majority of the inflation differential for the UK over the euro area is due to Brexit”.
That is a choice by this Government that is making things harder for people in these islands. It is an act of self-harm supported not only by the Tory idealogues, of course, but now by the Labour Front-Bench team, who apparently want to make Brexit work, against all good reason and good evidence, and against the 62% of people in Scotland who voted to remain in the EU. Earlier in the week, when I asked Ministers about the benefits of Brexit, they pointed out freeports in Teesside, which will not have huge benefits for my constituents, that is for certain.
I do not want to labour the point, but when it comes to freedom of movement, if people want to make Brexit work, perhaps the easiest way is to make the Northern Ireland protocol cover the whole of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland.
My hon. Friend makes an interesting suggestion because, of course, Northern Ireland has benefited from that.
Investment in our communities has taken a direct hit from the loss of European structural funds. The UK Government’s shared prosperity fund will see Scotland allocated £32 million in 2022, £55 million in 2023 and £125 million in 2024—but even that third year of funding will deliver less than Scotland received before Brexit.
If the hon. Member would like to explain to me why Scotland deserves less now than it had before Brexit, I will take his intervention.
Would the hon. Lady like to explain to the House how much harder it would be for business and what it would do to living standards in Scotland if Scotland followed the SNP’s suggestion and left the United Kingdom, with a border across the middle of Great Britain?
There are multiple benefits to Scotland being independent, and the greatest one would certainly be not having to live with policy choices made by this Government, for whom none of our people voted.
The Scottish Government have calculated that £162 million per year would be needed to replace the European regional development fund and European social fund, and that increases to £183 million per year when LEADER funding and the EU territorial co-operation programmes are added in. That means there is a significant shortfall for organisations and projects that are already operating with significant challenges from the pandemic and the cost of living crisis. Of course, many such organisations, which fund projects such as bridges and green infrastructure, and retrain those who have lost their job or are far from the labour market, were contributing significantly to economic growth. Without the money to replace them, the areas and people involved will struggle to make progress, just as Bloomberg suggests is already happening with the flawed Tory levelling-up fund.
Before the pandemic, investment was stagnant because of the drawn-out uncertainty of Brexit and an unnecessary commitment to leaving the customs union and the single market. The harm to the economy and to people’s pockets could have been lessened had different choices been made. There has been a lot of talk about the Northern Ireland protocol, but the reality is that Manufacturing Northern Ireland has found that the issue is largely with GB suppliers that are unwilling to send to Northern Ireland, while EU supply chains have recovered. There has been a 28% increase in sales with the EU and manufacturing jobs in Northern Ireland are now growing four times faster than the UK average.
The Bills mentioned in the Queen’s Speech do nothing to redress the damage caused by Brexit. James Withers from Scotland Food & Drink said:
“Had the war in Ukraine not happened, we were already facing energy bills rising, a world waking up from a pandemic…Brexit for sure has made nothing better, but has made a number of things a lot worse.”
Mr Withers also pointed to the labour market being in disarray. This UK Tory Government’s obsession with limiting immigration is causing untold harm to our growth prospects. Yesterday, the Office for National Statistics noted that around half a million people have left the labour market completely since start of the pandemic, and we do not know whether they will come back. Meanwhile, vacancies are running at a record high of 1.295 million. Who will fill these jobs? The Government have absolutely no answer to that. All these vacancies are already having an impact: surveys by the British Chambers of Commerce have found that companies cannot fulfil orders because of a lack of staff, as well as soaring material costs. Perpetuating the hostile environment is bad economics as well as morally dubious politics. It is not a recipe for growth: it is a recipe for self-inflicted economic catastrophe.
Precious little in the Queen’s Speech will help with the spiralling cost of living crisis and soaring energy prices. The April 2022 price cap was already 75% higher than one year ago. Miatta Fahnbulleh of the New Economics Foundation said that
“the government said its priority was…to help people with the cost of living crisis…Yet we had 38 bills that will barely have an impact on that agenda.”
Whether people are in work or out of work, the money in their pockets is being eroded every single day by inflation. The UK Tory Government could choose to put money into people’s pockets. They could introduce an emergency Budget to make sure that the least well-off—those who are really struggling, those who need support with their energy bills to get by—are supported. The SNP Government have uplifted the benefits in their control by 6%; there, again, the UK Tory Government lag behind. People are seeing the money that they receive eroded every single day.
The UK Government should be converting the £200 heat now, pay later loan into a grant. As the chief executive of ScottishPower has said, they should be increasing that grant substantially—he says to £1,000—to help people with their energy bills. Such is the magnitude of the increase in people’s costs. The UK Government should scrap the regressive national insurance tax hike, which is a tax on jobs at the worst possible time; reverse the £1,040 cut to universal credit; and support those on legacy benefits, who have seen very little from this Government. They should also introduce a real living wage—a living wage for all that people can actually live on—rather than their pretendy living wage, which is not even available to all ages, with age discrimination baked in. They should also look at removing VAT on energy bills, which is a significant cost.
The Government have been raking it in: additional money that they did not expect has come in through the taxation system, as set out in the spring statement, and that will increase every day as VAT receipts come in and inflation soars.
As a proportion of income, the rise in the cost of living for poorer families is nine times larger than it is for the richest 5%. Institute for Fiscal Studies figures suggest that although inflation today is at 9%, for the least well-off it is just shy of 11%. The impact of such inflation on people can sound a bit abstract when we talk about percentages here and there, but the Child Poverty Action Group has calculated that with inflation running at 9%, the value of someone’s universal credit falls by £790 per year. That is a lot of money to the people who receive that benefit and the Government should be doing more about it.
All the way through the supply chain—from those growing crops and those processing and transporting food, to those stacking it on the shelves, to those cooking their tea and putting it on the table—costs are increasing. Businesses are being pushed to the very limits to absorb the costs and it cannot continue for much longer.
When I watch Treasury Ministers in this place, it is hard for me to hide my frustration, because they have all the levers that my colleagues in Holyrood do not have, yet not one iota of the ambition or imagination. There is so much that they could do to invest in people and communities, to work towards the promise of COP26 and to build a fairer, more just and more equal society—to grow, but in a way that leaves no one behind. We cannot rely on the Conservatives or Labour—both are now Brexiteer parties—because Scotland wants to take its place in the world. We want to be part of something and to be connected, rather than to rely on the tiny ambitions of this Government. People in Scotland are yearning for a Government with the powers to do better by their people; I hope they will soon get the chance to vote for that in an independence referendum.
It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Glasgow Central (Alison Thewliss).
I rise to support many of the Bills in the Queen’s Speech. In particular, I wish to support the contention that slow growth is the long-term bane of the British economy, going back many decades, so I wholeheartedly welcome the fact that the Chancellor has made raising productivity, and therefore growth, his main task. The urgency of the task is only amplified by the scary inflation that we are currently experiencing. He is absolutely right to emphasise that as the central purpose of his chancellorship. In his excellent opening speech, the Chief Secretary made the point that there are three pillars to the Chancellor’s approach. I was going to mention five; I hope the number having gone up so quickly is not another sign of rapidly rising inflation.
On top of the pillars that the Chief Secretary mentioned, I would add and commend the idea, which was in the Queen’s Speech, of spreading economic activity and opportunity all across the country. If all the UK was as productive as London and the south-east, UK GDP would be boosted by some £180 billion—as the hon. Member for Glasgow Central (Alison Thewliss) mentioned, many figures flying around today, but that is a very significant and simple one. We would all—all over the country—be significantly richer if we could make the less productive parts of the country as productive as the most productive parts. Therefore, those bits of the levelling-up Bill that are about spreading activity and opportunity are central to the success of our economic policy over the next couple of years. We may wish to return to the planning parts of that Bill in a later debate.
Skills, as the Chief Secretary to the Treasury mentioned, are essential, so I very much welcome the Schools Bill. School education is about much more than preparing for economic life, but consistently higher standards in our schools will give us a more productive workforce, and therefore greater wealth and, in the end, more leisure time. It is one of the bases on which we need to build not just a healthy society, but a healthy economy.
Science and technology, which my right hon. Friend did not mention, is the other element that I would add. Again, successive Governments, going back more than half a century—as far back as Harold Wilson—have emphasised the need to harness science more effectively to give us a long-term advantage in a competitive world. One thing we have learned over those many decades is that it needs to be done in a focused way. In that regard, the genetic technology Bill is particularly welcome. It covers one specific, but hugely important, area in which we ought to have an international advantage and that we should wish to exploit.
My right hon. Friend mentioned infrastructure. In a week in which we have seen Crossrail operating, we should all celebrate the fact that we can, even if slightly belatedly, build grands projets in this country. I hope that the transport Bill, when we see the details of it, will encourage not just Government activity but innovation, which is hugely important and the fifth point that my right hon. Friend mentioned. Innovation is the most difficult thing to legislate for. It requires an attitude of mind, a culture, that grows from a tax system that encourages risk taking, an education system that provides the necessary skills, and the opportunities for people to make a difference, particularly in their own area.
On that point, does the right hon. Member agree that climate education in schools—from primary through to secondary and vocational courses—is essential if we are to meet our legally binding targets of net zero by 2050?
I am sure that, like me, the hon. Lady spends a lot of time visiting schools in her constituency. I am struck not only by the standard of teaching in that area, but by the enthusiasm and engagement of young people on that issue, which is very important.
I am afraid, however, that the Government’s legislative proposals threaten to take us in the wrong direction in another innovative sector in which Britain is world class: the creative industries. Any Government would want to support, encourage, and, above all, listen to those industries when considering the future, but in that regard I have reservations about the media Bill. The Government’s own White Paper on broadcasting, “Up Next”, which was published last month, says:
“The UK’s creative economy is a global success story, and our public service broadcasters (PSBs) are the beating heart of that success. They produce great British content loved across the UK and the world over. The government wants it to stay that way.”
Good, so do I, and so do millions of people who value the BBC, Channel 4, as well as ITV and Channel 5; they all do a good job. What worries me, looking at the White Paper and the announcements made, is that the Government’s warm words are not matched by sympathetic actions. Let us take Channel 4 first. The Government had a consultation. There was an overwhelming desire to keep the ownership situation as it is, and that was ignored. In ignoring the consultation, the Government have argued that Channel 4 needs borrowing powers so that, in the end, it does not have to rely for borrowing on the state. Channel 4 has come up with a suggestion for a joint venture that would enable it to stay with its current ownership regime, but still access private capital. That was ignored. Instead, the Government insist on carrying on with privatisation.
If we care about a successful sector—the creative sector is successful and the many small businesses that make programmes for Channel 4 are particularly successful—we should listen to it when it tells us how best to strengthen it for the future. As a Conservative, I find it extraordinary that we have a Conservative Government who are saying, “The gentleman from Whitehall knows best” and that they are deciding how best to run this part of the sector, ignoring the small businesses that make it up. I thought that listening to small business was a core Conservative aim, but we seem not to be doing so.
Let us go from the abstract to the concrete. If this legislation goes through, which I hope it does not, Channel 4 could be bought by a big US player, in which case let us look in five years’ time at how much quirky, different, and innovative UK-based content is being made for Channel 4, particularly as it happens outside London and the south-east, outside the traditional broadcasting areas. It is also possible that ITV will buy it, which will mean a reduction in competition in the TV advertising market. Again, speaking as a Conservative, I thought that competition was one thing that we believed in and wanted to encourage.
Beyond Channel 4, the Government plan to move onto the BBC. They are rightly consulting on the future funding of this hugely important national institution, but it is slightly difficult to take a consultation seriously when, at the outset, the Secretary of State has announced her conclusion, which is that the licence fee has had its day. It is an arguable position, but it is unarguable that it makes the whole consultation look like a sham. The Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Committee, of which I am a member, looked at this issue last year and, broadly speaking, concluded that for all the disadvantages that it has—we know what they are—the licence fee was the least bad option for the coming years. Let us have a proper debate on this hugely important and complex issue, and not a sham consultation where the verdict has been given before the evidence has been considered. Again, let us listen to the voices of those who have made our creative sectors such a big economic contributor to the country and something to be really proud of in modern Britain.
In conclusion, there is very much that I welcome in the Queen’s Speech, but I hope the Government will listen on some issues, because, otherwise, there is a danger of stifling growth in one of our best economic sectors. Britain needs a thriving creative sector and the creative industries need a Government who will support and nurture them by creating a regulatory climate in which they can thrive, creating jobs and wealth, and also experiences and memories that the British people will share with each other. I am sure that this House will help the Government achieve that end.
This morning, the Foreign Secretary said:
“We are in a very, very difficult economic situation”.
We all recognise that that is true. Although there are some things that no Government can control, I encourage Ministers to reflect a little more on some of the difficulties that they have brought upon themselves and British business.
In his speech, the Chief Secretary to the Treasury somehow neglected to mention the fact that our goods trade with the European Union since January 2021 has had to contend with red tape, bureaucracy and costs, including transport costs, which the Government have dumped on British business via the deal that they concluded. We know that we have small and medium-sized companies that are struggling to export to the EU. The right hon. Member for Ashford (Damian Green) talked about the importance of the cultural sector, but we know that musicians and performing artists face visa applications and customs declarations, which they find incompatible with trying to tour in Europe.
We know that farmers are suffering from a shortage of labour. On Monday, when I was in Kent—I am co-convenor of the UK Trade and Business Commission—I talked to a fruit farmer. He said that, last year, he could not pick 8% of his crop. What has he done this year? He is reducing the amount that he plants. What does that do for British food security? It has benefits for other countries that are growing more, but it is making it harder for British farmers to grow more here.
While businesses are having to cope with all that cost, the Government have for the fourth time postponed checks on EU businesses exporting into the United Kingdom, so they face less of the checks and costs that the Government have just dumped on to British businesses. The Office for Budget Responsibility, as Members will know, says that the UK has,
“missed out on much of the recovery in global trade”.
According to Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs, the number of UK businesses exporting goods to the EU fell by an astonishing 33% last year compared with the year before. That is mainly small businesses that have said, “We can’t be bothered with all of this. We’re giving up exporting.” How does that help economic recovery?
The right hon. Gentleman is making a strong point, and I am not a remoaner in any shape or form, but of the Bank of England’s evidence to the Treasury Committee this week, the evidence from the Governor of the Bank of England, his written evidence or the minutes of the Monetary Policy Committee meetings on the labour shortages the UK faces, not a single one mentioned Brexit. Why does the right hon. Gentleman think that is? Is it not the case that we must confront the brutal facts if we are going to solve some of these problems?
I can only report what I was told by the farmer on Monday. He has relied over the years on workers who have come from eastern Europe, and he says, “They’re just not coming in the same numbers, and that’s why I can’t pick my crops.” That is the point I am making.
The right hon. Gentleman had the pleasure, as I did, of having lunch with some senators who were visiting here from France. I believe he was at the very conversation where they said how difficult it was for them too to find seasonal agricultural workers, because of the disruption caused by the pandemic.
Undoubtedly, disentangling the impact of the pandemic and other factors is continuing work; the Office for National Statistics makes that point when it publishes the statistics. However, there is no doubt at all that the change in the visa regime being operated by the Home Office now is having an impact on British farmers, and that was the point I was trying to make. I long for the day when these things—
Will my right hon. Friend give way?
Very quickly, because of the time constraints.
My right hon. Friend is making an excellent point. I have been given the same feedback by small businesses. Does he agree that there is also a serious connection between the rising cost of food and the lack of labour for British farms, and that that particular area could be driving inflation?
There is no doubt that if we put more costs, bureaucracy, red tape and increased transport costs on businesses, prices will increase. That is one of the ways businesses cope. Those things need to be sorted out but, as long as there is no trust between the European Union and the United Kingdom, it is frankly not going to happen.
The principal cause of that distrust is the stand-off over the Northern Ireland protocol, which is the other issue I want to raise. We have two problems. One is that the Northern Ireland Government is not functioning and the second is that the Northern Ireland protocol is not working. The Good Friday agreement and the power-sharing and peace it has brought cannot be jeopardised by trade problems caused by the protocol.
It is extremely tempting to dwell on the miserable history of how we got here—how the Prime Minister moved from promising that he would never put a border in the Irish sea to promptly doing so when he became the occupant of No. 10, and then to describing it as “a great deal” for Northern Ireland—but, in all honesty, the Prime Minister’s failings and inconsistencies are not a reason to inflict damage on Northern Ireland or on the British economy when so many people are struggling.
We all knew that leaving the European Union would create difficulties over Ireland. The only thing everyone agreed on—practically the only thing—was that there could be no return to a hard border. That is why the most important part of the protocol talked about goods at risk, and this is at the heart of the debate: goods at risk, having entered Northern Ireland, of going into the European Union, as opposed to goods that are going to stay in Northern Ireland. That was never defined, and the joint committee was given the task of dealing with it.
We have a stand-off at the moment. In one way, that stand-off could just be extended and extended and the Government could continue to prolong the grace periods—unlawfully, as per the protocol—with the EU starting legal action and staying it while they try to negotiate. That is one way of dealing with it. In fairness, the EU moved on medicines, and I praise Maroš Šefčovič for that. He changed EU law to allow NHS patients in Northern Ireland to get NHS medicines, which is pretty obvious really.
I said to Mr Šefčovič on Thursday, when he appeared before the Parliamentary Partnership Assembly, “Thanks for doing that, but if you can move on that, can you not move on other things as well?” We all know the list of remaining problem areas: seed potatoes, parcels, guide dogs, supermarket deliveries to shops, organic food and divergence on the use of titanium dioxide, an ingredient in cakes and ice cream that I was not previously aware of. The EU proposals would provide more checks and problems than the current stand-off, and it is important to recognise that.
I say to the Government, as I said to the Foreign Secretary yesterday, that threatening to disapply the protocol will not work. In the end, it will result in retaliation. If retaliation results in further obstacles to trade or, heaven forbid, a trade war, that will make the cost of living crisis even worse. We have a real war in Europe going on; we do not need a trade war with our biggest trading partner.
At the same time, the EU needs to understand that it has to move to help to bring this crisis to an end. If one takes those supermarkets that sell only to shops in Northern Ireland, what exactly is the risk to the integrity of the single market from a sandwich, a cake or a chicken—I speak as a vegetarian—that is bought in a supermarket in Strabane or Belfast? Can anyone point, in the 16 months the grace period has operated, to a single example where the integrity of the single market has been damaged? I am not aware of any. There is a problem with divergence, but I hope that a way of mutually recognising each other’s food production standards arrangements can come.
In conclusion, this crisis arises from a practical problem and it requires a practical solution. That is what politics is meant to deliver. That is our job. We need patient diplomacy and negotiation that takes as its starting point the purpose of the rules—they are there for a purpose—rather than the rules themselves and applies that to the unique and particular circumstances of Northern Ireland. Could we have less squabbling and more cool heads? Could we have less escalation and more conciliation? My message to both sides in the partnership council is a simple one: “You’ve got the power to deal with this. Sort it out.”
Just a gentle reminder that my guidance was seven minutes. I call Chris Grayling.
Thank you very much, Madam Deputy Speaker; I will endeavour to fulfil that.
The right hon. Member for Leeds Central (Hilary Benn) is right about conciliation, but it is noticeable that the European Union is preventing the United Kingdom from participating in Horizon Europe, while allowing the Israelis to do so. That does not feel to me like an awful lot of good will from their side, and that is to be regretted.
I rise to support the Queen’s Speech. As we focus on economic growth, these are extraordinary and difficult times for our economy. We have had in this country to deal with an unprecedented series of problems, and so have our Ministers—something the Opposition often forget as they throw brickbats at them.
We now know from the World Health Organisation that the Government and the country handled the tragic circumstances of the pandemic pretty well. Many countries suffered and so did we, but we were far from being the bad performer that has been suggested. We also forget the continued impact of the pandemic in China, where there are severe lockdowns still. That is causing an economic ripple effect that contributes to the inflation problems we face. The sad reality is that when oil prices, food prices and the cost of household energy soar, those things are outside the control of any individual Government and there are few Governments that can wave a wand and solve them.
I am pretty supportive of much of what this Government have done and how they have gone about dealing with the range of issues that have arisen, but I make one simple point to the Minister and his colleagues: we cannot achieve growth by over-taxing our economy. The decisions that have been taken on tax have been taken, but the direction of travel needs to change, and soon.
We also need to step up our incentivisation of investment. If we are to deal with the huge energy challenges this country faces, we must do more. That means continuing our dramatic progress on wind and solar power; it means, I suspect, looking again at tidal energy and it means developing hydrogen. It must be said that we would be in a much more difficult position if this Government and the coalition Government before them had not placed such emphasis on renewables. That was clearly the right thing to do. However, we also need more domestic production of gas. There are those who say we should stop all fossil fuel projects now. I take completely the opposite view.
As the world rightly moves away from coal, something needs to take its place. Countries that have been dependent on coal are not suddenly going to make a complete switch to renewables or zero-emission nuclear power stations overnight, so gas, which is the cleanest of the fossil fuels, must be a short-term priority for us. Indeed, it is the move away from coal in parts of Asia that started the gas price surge in the first place. It is pretty clear that the world does not at the moment have enough gas for the transition to net zero, particularly as we deal with the consequences of the war in Ukraine, so we will see prices continue to remain high unless we deal with supply issues.
That is why it makes absolute sense—the Government are right to be supporting this—to have additional extraction of gas from the North sea. Frankly, we would be in dereliction of our duty if we did not look again at the potential to use shale gas to help us through. To those who say, “No more UK production”, I just say this: the emissions from a tanker of gas from Qatar are roughly twice those of a similar consignment from the North sea. I want to cut emissions. I also believe that we need a steady transition to net zero by 2050—but it is a transition. Burning fuel that generates twice the emissions makes no sense. Gas is a key part of our transition to net zero, and the more it can be produced in the UK, the lower our emissions will be. We also need to move rapidly on nuclear, and I welcome the Government’s commitment to that as well. We cannot achieve net zero without it.
Let me turn to the environment and conservation. If I have a disappointment in this Queen’s Speech, it is that the legislation on conservation I was hoping for has slipped beyond this Session. I hope that my right hon. Friend the Minister for Brexit Opportunities and Government Efficiency, who is in his place will make sure that it comes back in the next Session. We urgently need to take forward the progress we have made but also to put in place a modernised framework for wildlife protection in this country. For example, it makes no sense to have expansive protections in place for newts, which are numerous here, but not for creatures such as the hedgehog that have declined so much. I have pushed for the hedgehog to have greater legal protection and I look forward to this happening in the next Session, at least. But there are steps that can be taken now. When the levelling-up Bill comes before the House, I will table an amendment, if the Government have not already acted, to require a full wildlife survey of every development site, and if vulnerable species are found, there should be a legal duty to relocate them to an appropriate habitat elsewhere. No more should we tolerate developers cutting down all the trees on the site and clearing all the foliage, turning it into a wasteland, before they have even applied for, let alone secured, planning consent. We need growth, and we need more houses, but a cavalier approach to local wildlife cannot be the consequence.
In this Session I will continue to push Ministers to go further and faster on bottom trawling in marine protected areas. We have made a start in the first few areas, but there is much further to go. This is a really important of protecting our ecology. Having stronger environmental protections in our seas is one of the benefits that is deliverable now that we have left the European Union. It would not have been possible while we were still EU members.
Turning to broader issues on conservation, I applaud Ministers for the work they are doing internationally, and particularly what Lord Goldsmith is doing to support the Congo Basin. The leadership of my right hon. Friend the Member for Reading West (Alok Sharma) on COP26 and its aftermath has been exemplary. One of the key moments of the coming Session will be the negotiations at the Convention on Biological Diversity summit this year. I want the UK to play a key role in delivering what is needed—a renewed international drive on species protection and habitat restoration. WWF estimates that the amount of degraded land internationally where deforestation followed by over-farming has taken place is the size of South America. If we are going to tackle climate change, protect endangered species and deal with a global food shortage, we need to start recovering this land, restoring it for wildlife in some areas or properly managed agriculture in others, with a particular focus on creating sustainable livelihoods for the people in those areas. Our Ministers need to make sure that we set a path towards those goals as we finish our year of COP presidency and take part in the CBD discussions.
There is a lot to do in terms of a growing economy, the move towards net zero, and doing our bit internationally to secure a proper future for all our environments. I am glad to support a Government who, in my view, have made a good start, but there is still a lot to do.
This is a Queen’s Speech that provides mediocre answers to the wrong questions. The Government acknowledge that there is a cost of living crisis, but they do not want to do anything about it. They acknowledge that there is a housing crisis, but they are not willing to control rent so that people can afford to live in their homes. They acknowledge that energy is expensive. But do they want to talk about meaningful price caps? Do they want to talk about retrofitting or insulation? Did they vote in favour of a windfall tax to lower bills when they had the opportunity yesterday? No, no and no.
This is a Government who tell us they want action on the climate crisis, and then, when a protest movement comes along to demand just that, introduce legislation to have them sent to jail. They want to invest, they tell us, in the future. But the Conservatives have been in power for 12 years and they have cut the public sector to shreds. Wages will be lower in 2025 than they were in 2008, when I was 12 years old. Since they came to power, the number of people on zero-hours contracts has risen more than fivefold. All of this happened on their watch—and are they going to reverse it? No.
In 2010, the Trussell Trust handed out 48,000 food parcels. Last year, it handed out 2.1 million. Meanwhile, Britain gained a record number of billionaires, between them owning £597 billion—about triple the annual operating budget of the NHS. That is the dynamism of the market for you—the kind of dynamism that makes an elderly lady sit on the bus all day to keep warm because she cannot afford to heat her home. We need a publicly owned energy system that delivers cheap, green energy; an above-inflation rise in the minimum wage; at least the restoration of the £20 universal credit, but really a reversal of all the benefit cuts since 2010; and rent controls.
Finally, I would like to address the disgrace of explicitly excluding trans people from the so-called ban on conversion therapy. Once again, the Government acknowledge that there is a problem, but will they extend the protection of the law to those who need it most—young trans people, half of whom have attempted suicide by the time they reach the age of 26? No. So transphobic parents will still be able to hire someone to psychologically abuse their child in an attempt to stop them being trans, and this practice will still be perfectly legal. What kind of message does that send to young trans people fighting to survive? We need a Government who are on the right side of history, but instead we have a Government of pound-shop authoritarians made on the playing fields of Eton and in the Daily Mail’s wildest dreams. They know there is a problem, but what they cannot do is recognise the truth—that the problem is them.
It is appropriate that I am following the quite passionate speech by the hon. Member for Nottingham East (Nadia Whittome) about the conversion therapy Bill. I broadly welcome the Queen’s Speech and the Government’s legislative programme. I was always in favour of some kind of legislation about conversion therapy, but the more I have looked at the issue, the less and less happy I am that there should be such a Bill, not because I am in favour of conversion therapy, but because I cannot see that legislation is either necessary or desirable. I am ready to be proved wrong, but I can think of no coercive behaviour that it would ban that is not already illegal. This Bill will be used to stoke exactly the kind of bitter disputes about transsexuality that we need to resolve before we legislate next in this field. Again, I am happy to be proved wrong—let us see the Bill—but we could have done with some pre-legislative scrutiny of such a Bill.
Although conversion therapy and, indeed, hedgehogs are both fascinating subjects, in terms of achieving economic growth, does my hon. Friend agree that what the Government are doing on levelling-up funds and bringing investment that can act as a catalyst for further investment in great small cities such as Gloucester will help to create jobs, footfall and retail—all the things that people in our country value—in order to have the opportunities to bring about that growth?
I am most grateful to my hon. Friend for that intervention, but we should recognise that these issues of conversion therapy and transsexuality are very important to certain sections of society. They need to be addressed, but we need to be sure that we address them in the right way.
Will the hon. Gentleman give way?
I will, but I do not want to give way too often because we are not time-limited.
Some years ago, I brought forward a Bill on the regulation of psychotherapists, which recommended banning conversion therapy. There was a conference that 100 conversion therapists attended, so this is a widespread and abhorrent practice. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that those who say that transsexuality should not be included seem to be those who think that people would go through the process of becoming a transwoman in order to rape another woman? There are a lot of male rapists out there. It seems to be a lot of effort for someone to have their head kicked in by other men. Transgender people should be included in the Bill.
I had not intended to make a great speech about this subject. I note the point that the hon. Gentleman has made and I wish to move on.
I welcome the forthcoming legislation to protect the Belfast/Good Friday agreement. I say to the right hon. Member for Leeds Central (Hilary Benn), who spoke a few moments ago, that perhaps we agree a great deal about the future of the Northern Ireland protocol. The question is whether we can make it happen unless we have some legislation coming down the track as well, because the EU has not changed its mandate.
I want to concentrate today on much more immediate challenges. Covid supply chain disruption persists in many parts of the world, notably China, and now we have Russia’s dreadful war against Ukraine, which frankly has shattered the geopolitical order that we have become used to for decades. We all used to believe in what the Germans called, “Wandel durch Handel”—the mistaken faith that nations that trade together would never go to war with each other. President Putin has smashed that confidence.
Business and Governments are reducing their exposure to dependency on all autocratic regimes. That is throwing globalisation into reverse, creating massive price increases and shortages. Poorer nations are acting to keep their food affordable for their own people. For example, India has just banned wheat exports, following Indonesia, which banned palm oil exports. We have an acute, growing and potentially far greater energy supply crisis in Europe. Europe cannot continue to rely on supply from Russia. This crisis requires a vast reorganisation of Europe’s energy supply and trading arrangements, and this massive adjustment will take years and is unprecedented. Only major food and energy producers in the world, such as Canada and the US, will avoid the worst kind of recession.
At least the United Kingdom can produce some of our own gas and oil and can continue to expand renewables, but why are we pumping our surplus gas out to Europe this warm spring to fill EU storage capacity, when we should be filling our own? The Government shut it down, and we need to reopen our gas storage capacity as quickly as possible. I fervently hope that we can achieve net zero by 2050 without excessive cost. The Government are right to see gas as the essential transition fuel, but why import gas when we can produce our own more cheaply?
Meanwhile, we must all recognise the cost of living crisis—yes, crisis. Even before today’s shock rise in CPI to 9%, the Commons Library had given me striking projections for the effect of this crisis on households. The full-year cost of just energy and food prices will rise by well over £1,000 a year for the lowest 20% of households by income and by £1,500 a year for pensioner households. A summer package to rescue the most vulnerable households is needed to avoid real financial distress and personal anguish and to support the economic demand of the most vulnerable households, or we will be creating possibly a worse recession than is already expected.
I welcome the suggestion in The Times today that the Government are considering a package. The spring statement represented peacetime thinking. Like after the unforeseen covid crisis, the Treasury must adapt to this unexpected war in Europe and accept that this new global energy and economic crisis also requires a very substantial policy response. I have to say that is far greater than the £3 billion package that the Labour party has offered us, though I do not subscribe to the rest of its fiscal profligacy.
I suggest that the £20 uplift in universal credit should immediately be restored. The abolition of VAT on domestic fuel would abolish a regressive tax that hurts the poorest households the most. We can do that now we are outside the EU. The Government should abolish the green levies on energy bills and fund them from the Exchequer, as recommended by Professor Dieter Helm. The Government should provide pensioners and poorer families with the confidence they can afford to stay warm. We should double the warm home discount and treble the winter fuel payment.
This package would cost not £3 billion, but £13.5 billion from July in this current tax year, but that is still less than the recent tax increases we have seen, and it is about 0.6% of GDP and affordable. Now or later, we should also consider relief for middle-income households. The lower 40% of households will feel severe stress from energy and food costs alone. We could start reindexing tax thresholds, or more, and that would have the advantage of incentivising work and productivity.
I have watched Governments—and Oppositions, I think we saw it today—blindsided by their own commitment to outdated thinking and policies of the past. There is no excuse for another such episode. My right hon. Friend the Chief Secretary is right to sound cautious, but we can see what is coming, and I am confident that this Government will act as they must.
Five thousand one hundred and fifty-six people were admitted to hospital between September last year and February this year with malnutrition in England alone. That is more than in the whole of 2010. The number of people being admitted with scurvy has doubled in the past 10 years, and we are meant to be the sixth, or sometimes the fifth, wealthiest country in the world. We have inflation running at 9%, and for the poorest families it is at 10.9%, because more of their money is spent on food and on energy, where inflation is higher. They are getting a rougher deal than anybody else. That is my constituents.
The Government answer so far is £200. They call it a gift, but it is not; it is a loan. It actually puts up next year’s bills by even more. We also have the more than £1,000 cut from universal credit. The hon. Member for Harwich and North Essex (Sir Bernard Jenkin) is absolutely right: of course we should be restoring the £20 a week on universal credit, and we have to do more for pensioners who are on fixed incomes as well.
The Government have said, “Get a better paid job”—oh yes, it is easy, isn’t it, just getting a better paid job—or they have told us, “Get a different job”, or, “Get more hours.” Well, it is just not that simple, especially if someone has caring responsibilities. Incidentally, one of the cheapest deals that the Government get is free carers in the country. The Government say, “Shop more carefully for value brands.” Do Ministers honestly not understand how ordinary people do their shopping every week? That is what they have been doing for ages, and they are not deciding which brand; they are deciding whether to buy anything at all.
Drive around on a bus all day just so that you do not have to pay the electricity bill—that seemed to be the Prime Minister’s answer just before the local elections. Now his new version is to cut the civil service by 91,000. Well, I guess there will be even fewer people sorting out the Passport Office. I do not know about anybody else’s, but my office is inundated with people saying, “I’ve got to go to a funeral”, or “I’ve got to go to a wedding”, or, “I’ve got a holiday that’s been planned and I won’t get any of the money back if I don’t have my passport by next Thursday, and I put the application in more than three months ago.” I am sorry, but cutting civil servants by 91,000 does not always go well. The one that really amuses me is the Prime Minister’s latest version, which is, “Let them eat foie gras.” We are allowed to have foie gras because apparently it is not Conservative to stop people maltreating animals so as to get a more exciting diet.
I do not think this is a Gracious Speech. It is so flimsy, it barely counts as a gracious intervention, to be honest. It is so threadbare, it barely covers the Government’s dignity. It is nothing more than a letting out of air. It is a tired sigh, a long yawn, a tedious exhalation, a great big meh of a Queen’s Speech.
There is no plan, no project, no leadership, no ideas, no programme for Government in here. Some of the so-called Bills are little more than glorified clauses. Great Governments give us really significant legislative programmes—measures such as the Reform Act, the abolition of slavery Act, the NHS Act, the minimum wage Act. What do we get here? The Harbours (Seafarers’ Remuneration) Bill. Of course it is good, but in relation to P&O this is the definition of slamming the door shut after the horse has bolted. Why is there not a proper Bill that would ban fire and rehire in its totality?
There is a load of “Groundhog Day” Bills that were promised in last year’s Queen’s Speech and we are apparently meant to have completely forgotten, such as the High Speed Rail (Crewe—Manchester) Bill, which was promised last year but never happened, and the Product Security and Telecommunications Infrastructure Bill for 5G, which was also promised last year but never happened. I am really keen on the Bill to counter state threats, because we need to update the laws on espionage in this country, but that too was promised last year and never happened.
Will the hon. Gentleman give way?
I will not, because I am looking forward to hearing the hon. Gentleman’s speech later. I am sure it will be absolutely magnificent.
There is also a mental health Bill that was promised last year and still has not come into being. A long overdue Bill is the Economic Crime and Corporate Transparency Bill. I have been arguing for such a Bill for a long time. In 2018, there was an opportunity to introduce all the measures that I guess we might have by the end of this legislative Session, but Companies House still says on its website, “Companies House does not verify the accuracy of the information filed.” So when we read that Boris Johnson Ltd was dissolved on 5 January 2021, we do not know whether that is true. We might like it to be true, but we do not know whether it is. Nor, for that matter, do we know for sure that Big Boris’s Bouncing Bonanza Ltd was dissolved on 1 February 2022. It is listed on Companies House, but we do not know whether it is true.
Where is the Bill on seizing assets? It is great that we freeze assets of those who are sanctioned for their participation, involvement or engagement in Putin’s regime, but there is no provision to seize assets, which is what we really need to do and which other countries are doing.
There are all the twaddle Bills—complete and utter twaddle. My favourite is the Human Rights Bill, which either will be compliant with the European convention on human rights, in which case it is completely and utterly useless, or will not comply with the European convention, in which case it will presage the UK departing both the convention and the Council of Europe and is therefore an act of self-harm.
Then there is the Northern Ireland protocol Bill. I am really looking forward to the day when someone in the Government finds out who actually signed the Northern Ireland protocol. That is going to be a really good day. This is what I worry about: we have been preaching, quite rightly, to Vladimir Putin and President Xi about abiding by international law, yet barely a few years after we signed up to a treaty, we want to tear it up. The only person who is laughing about all this is President Putin.
We have the Bill to privatise Channel 4, coming from a Culture Secretary who did not know that Channel 4 does not receive public funds, who did not know that Channel 5 has always been a private body, and who told the Salvation Army magazine The War Cry,
“I am not an MP for any reason other than because God wants me to be... I am just a conduit for God”.
I have to say I worry about people like that bringing in legislation.
I do not think that this Queen’s Speech addresses any of the problems of my constituents. They are choosing between heating and eating, they worry about whether they will be able to pay the rent, they worry about their family—and we still have not addressed any of the issues in the NHS. I had cancer three years ago, and I was told that I probably had less than a year to live. I know how important early diagnosis is. At the beginning of covid, we had a 4.4 million backlog of people waiting for surgery; we now have a 6.1 million backlog, and still I see no answer to how they can get the treatment they need to save their lives. That is why I say this is a meh.
It was interesting to listen to the hon. Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant). Although I will not be joining him in the Lobby this evening to vote down the entirety of the Queen’s Speech, including the economic crime and corporate transparency Bill, which is what he is choosing to do, I will say that he made his points forcefully and well. However, I endorse the Chief Secretary’s comments when he ran through the range of important Bills that are included in the Queen’s Speech.
We were all shocked and taken aback today by the headline rate of inflation reaching 9%. It is a sobering moment, which many hon. Members have noted, so I start by saying that I think our Chancellor has been an unlucky Chancellor. He has had to face a pandemic, he has had to face war, and now, due to the consequences of that evil war, he has to face the inflation that is harming everyone in the United Kingdom in their pocket. None the less, I believe I am right in saying that my constituents feel very lucky that they have had this Chancellor throughout these difficult challenges, because he was so quick to provide help during the pandemic. The furlough scheme, the small business income support scheme and the culture recovery fund, to name just three, were gratefully received by constituents during the pandemic, and it is thanks to his plan for jobs that yesterday we saw the foundation of what we all want to achieve through economic growth: quite remarkably low unemployment in this country—the lowest since 1974.
There were other remarkable things in yesterday’s jobs announcements, such as a record high number of vacancies. I think I am right in saying that it is the first time the number of vacancies has exceeded the number of jobseekers in this country. The plan for jobs has worked well, as has the help the Chancellor gave throughout the pandemic, so today, as we face this high inflation rate, we are in a position to say that we have a strong job market.
It is also worth noting that this month marks the 25th anniversary of the independence of the Bank of England. I will strike a consensual note by saying that that was a really good policy decision. We must all reiterate the importance not only of the Bank of England’s independence, but of its achieving the 2% inflation mandate. It is incredibly important to our constituents that we have low inflation to form the foundation for achieving economic growth.
It might surprise Opposition Members to hear this, but I think a windfall tax—
Is a great idea.
Well, I think a windfall tax that helps the lowest-income households is the right approach, and that is the approach that the Government are already following. There is already a windfall tax on the oil and gas sector: whereas most corporations in this country pay 19% corporation tax, those in the oil and gas sector pay 30% corporation tax and 10% windfall tax on top of that. There has been a windfall to the Chancellor from the price of oil and gas having risen so much, and he has rightly spent that windfall on people in the lowest-income households. Just this week, people in council tax bands A to D in my constituency will receive a £150 cash grant in their bank accounts. In a couple of months’ time, in July, there will be a hike in the national insurance threshold that will put a further £330 a year into the pockets of those who pay national insurance. We have also heard about the £200 to smooth the impact on household bills.
I would urge every pensioner in this country on a low income to check whether they are entitled to pension credit. There are 850,000 pensioners in this country who are not claiming the pension credit they are entitled to. Can we all agree that we should encourage our constituents to claim that? It not only gives them extra cash, but means they get other benefits. There is the household support fund, which has been doubled to £1 billion. I would direct any of my constituents struggling with bills who reach out to me to ask about that fund. There is also the warm home discount, which has been increased and its eligibility has been widened. These measures are important and targeted at the lowest-income households, unlike a 5% across-the-board cut in VAT on fuel bills that would most benefit those who live in the biggest houses.
In conclusion, it does not matter how much bad luck the world has thrown at us—I think the Chancellor has been unlucky—because by doing the right thing, we can make the luck that will be a strong foundation for achieving economic growth.
It is a pleasure to speak in this Queen’s Speech debate, just as it was a pleasure to see Her Majesty yesterday at the opening of the Elizabeth line, our new railway line through London. As the right hon. Member for Ashford (Damian Green) has mentioned, it has overrun on both time and budget, but the small upside is that Her Majesty got to open the line that bears her name during her jubilee celebrations.
The line itself, with its innovation and infrastructure, the opportunity it has provided for thousands of young people to develop their skills and the level of ambition it shows for economic growth in this country, is actually a much better tribute to Her Majesty than the speech delivered in Parliament in her name last week. We are here today to talk about how that speech achieves economic growth, and I am afraid to say that there was really very little in it at all. I think we all know and accept that economic growth, particularly at this time, is absolutely vital to support not just our small and medium-sized businesses, but all the organisations that support employment and entrepreneurship across this country.
Yesterday, we saw the unemployment figures at their lowest levels since 1974. Conservative Members, not least the Prime Minister earlier today, have highlighted that that is a good thing, which it undoubtedly is. However, we also saw that, for the first time ever, there are more vacancies across the UK economy than there are people looking for work. I think we have to look at the serious implications of that, because it is going to be a real brake on growth. If we cannot fill those vacancies and businesses cannot get people into the skilled jobs they need to push forward, grow, create opportunities and provide economic growth, that is really going to hold this country back. So it is quite a serious issue as well as being some cause for celebration, as some people have said.
One thing to highlight—everyone has been saying this—is that we are now facing 9% inflation. That means wage growth, but greater wage growth acceleration in the private sector than in the public sector, as I am seeing in my constituency. I was on a visit to Kingston Hospital the other day, and I was told that its biggest issue right now is being able to discharge patients out of hospital and back home. However, it cannot discharge patients because it cannot get them care packages, and it cannot get them care packages because people do not want to work in care for very low wages when they can get better wages working in hospitality or retail. So we need to concede that there is perhaps a dark side, as it were, to the unemployment figures, and that is really going to inhibit growth.
Another thing we are beginning to see is that we are not trading to the extent of some of our partners across the world. According to the OBR, the UK has become a less trade-intensive economy. By the fourth quarter of 2021, UK exports remained around 12% below pre-pandemic levels, and trade as a share of GDP has fallen by around 12% since 2019—2.5% more than any other country in the G7. The Government pledged in the Queen’s Speech to
“continue to champion international trade, delivering jobs across the country and growing the economy”,
yet trade is declining and there is no determined plan for growth. They have talked about their free trade agreements with Australia and New Zealand, but we have highlighted on several occasions the potentially negative impact that they will have on British farming, and I do not think that the British Government are really listening to the concerns of farmers on this issue.
In my constituency of Richmond Park, businesses are telling me about the multiple barriers they face to trade that are having a direct negative impact on their ability to grow. A very successful and popular restaurant in Richmond town centre called Don Fernando’s has closed after 32 years because of myriad issues, not least the high cost of importing the food and drink from Spain on which it relied to deliver its high-quality Spanish cuisine. A drinks company has had complications with customs checks, with a complete lack of support or advice from HMRC, which left its goods in quarantine for almost three months. Obviously, any kind of food and drinks trader cannot operate when facing such delays and with fresh food or drinks being kept for that length of time. The Government really need to get on board with some of the issues being thrown up by Brexit red tape and customs checks, and they really need to work hard to unlock some of these problems if they want to support our small and medium-sized enterprises.
I want to highlight my disappointment that there was not more in the Queen’s Speech about insulation. We have talked a lot today about fuel prices, and that is a very real anxiety for many households across the country. We all know that one way of tackling that is to get to grips with some of our very poor housing stock, which obviously our low-income families are particularly impacted by. We need to see a great deal more from this Government to support households, particularly social housing tenants and their housing providers, to improve insulation and so improve energy efficiency in our housing. If we really got to grips with that now and launched a big drive right across the country, particularly for low-income families, think of the difference we could make when those fuel bills really begin to rack up in the autumn and winter. We could do that if we were really serious about it.
This is about not just the fuel bills our constituents are facing now and are dreading in the winter, but the Government’s net zero commitment, because we want to reduce carbon emissions and households are a serious contributor to them. We really need to get to grips with that issue if we are to meet our net zero commitments. I was interested to find that there are 1,690 installer businesses that meet the requirements to participate in Government schemes. There is such a great opportunity here for improving innovation, entrepreneurship and skills training right across the country, and the Government need to put some serious money and some serious thought into that as soon as they possibly can.
Finally, like other Members, I really welcome the mental health Bill, but I want to see a lot more from the Government to recognise the scale of the issue. The No. 1 problem in my constituency is access to health services of all kinds, and I am hearing concerns from constituents about dentistry, surgical procedures and GP appointments, but my experience is that the most critical issue is access to mental health services. The impact on our children of the pandemic and lockdown has been profound, and we are failing them if we do not get to grips with that impact. That impact is felt by our very youngest citizens, who were deprived of some of their early years of schooling and have so much socialisation and learning in a classroom to catch up on, and who face separation anxiety from their parents, as well as our teens and young adults, who have spent some of their critical socialising years in their bedrooms and are finding it difficult to reconnect with everyday society, especially as they move from school to whatever they are moving on to. They are finding it hard to move to university, training, further education or employment because they have missed out on some of that critical development.
I want to see the Government do a great deal more. I have multiple cases of constituents waiting for treatment. I have a young girl aged just 12 who was referred to children and adolescent mental health services in March 2021. Thirteen months later, she is still awaiting treatment. Her parents are absolutely desperate. She has been hospitalised twice and repeatedly sent home from school due to suicide attempts. Schools are under increased pressure and are struggling to cope with complex mental health needs and the sharp rise in those presenting higher levels of risk. The Liberal Democrats are calling for a dedicated qualified mental health professional in every school to provide first-level support for young people and also to help teachers struggling to deal with this issue.
There are multiple ways in which we need to respond to the challenges of our current economy and society, and I am afraid to say that the Queen’s Speech has failed in all these things. I urge the Government to do more on these issues.
I am delighted to be called in this debate. I want to talk about three areas in my seven minutes: the economy, general practice, and skills and schools.
Yesterday I was delighted to receive the very good news from the House of Commons Library that unemployment had fallen by 1,725 in the year to April in my constituency. Every one of those people is an individual, able to contribute to a household budget and help with the family finances. Sometimes I do not think we realise what a jobs miracle this country’s economy has been over the years. In the middle of the last decade, the United Kingdom was creating more jobs than the whole of the rest of the European Union put together. That is an amazing jobs creation record. The fact that the economy is still enabling those jobs to be produced after the covid shock and the Ukraine shock is quite incredible. I pay tribute to all businesses large and small, and to Government policy, for enabling that to happen.
What is happening in Ukraine is having a consequence on people’s cost of living. One thinks of the storehouses in Odesa, full of grain that could go around the world to feed hungry people and that would help grain prices to come down and help us in the United Kingdom. However, because of the evil action of the Putin regime, that is not allowed to happen. Ukraine is also the world’s fourth largest producer of ammonia and fertiliser, which is having a huge impact on the problems that our farmers are facing.
I am also acutely conscious that housing, particularly in my constituency and large parts of the south-east, is a mammoth part of people’s outgoings. There is a lot of talk at the moment, quite understandably, about increasing energy and food costs. In my part of the world, it is not unusual for people’s rent to be two thirds of their income. That is simply not sustainable. It is really tough for people on lower incomes in high housing cost areas. We need to confront that. I know that the Prime Minister and the Levelling Up, Housing and Communities Secretary get that, and in my view this issue at the heart of poverty issues in large parts of the south.
As has been pointed out for years by the British architect Bill Dunster OBE, the architect of Portcullis House—if that does not put those of my colleagues who have offices there off him—it is possible to build zero-energy-bill homes that sell back more energy to the grid than they draw down. Those homes would not have gas and electricity bills, which would be fantastic for our greenhouse gas emission targets and the huge energy shock that is causing so much worry and concern for many of our constituents. I know that we are reducing carbon in new homes by 70%, but I would encourage the Government to go further and faster in this area.
I note the £22 billion and the £83 billion in debt interest, but I was pleased to hear the Chancellor say yesterday:
“we will do more to support the most vulnerable”.—[Official Report, 17 May 2022; Vol. 714, c. 585.]
That is absolutely right, and I look forward to seeing the details, particularly for the disabled and pensioners. Given the Chancellor’s record in getting the country through covid, I know that he will not disappoint in that area.
Does my hon. Friend agree that the statistic that emerged yesterday—that we have increased the number of people with disabilities in employment to 1.3 million, after setting a target of 1 million in 2017, which we have achieved within five years—is astonishing and the result of hard work by many people, including the applicants themselves?
I am so grateful to my hon. Friend for making that point. There is a wonderful Indian employer in my constituency who calls his disabled staff “differently abled”. That is a wonderful way to put it, because they have amazing gifts to bring. Often, employers will say that they are some of the most hard working and dedicated, which is why our disability confident campaign, which has clearly been successful, is so important, so I thank my hon. Friend for raising that point.
Secondly, I am focusing in particular on the Levelling-up and Regeneration Bill and what it needs to do, and I want to raise the appalling difficulty that many of us on both sides of the House have in getting sufficient additional general practice capacity where there are huge new housing developments. We are a country that generally does public administration and planning well—for example, I rarely come across a child who does not have a school place—because we have brilliant civil servants and brilliant local authority officers. However, I must say that a major exception is general practice, where the system is not working well. I ask my Front-Bench colleagues please to note that and take it back across Government.
There is an alphabet soup of different places to go to try to get a health hub or extra GP surgeries. One could try section 106 or the community infrastructure levy. One might be lucky with the housing infrastructure fund. Perhaps one’s local authority—or even Government capital from the Treasury to the Department of Health and Social Care—will come to the rescue. It is complicated and uncertain, and we are not serving our constituents well in ensuring that general practice capacity is available. I have 14,000 new houses being built, which will help with the housing issues that I mentioned, but that is more than 36,000 new residents coming to my area for which we must have the general practice capacity. I will keep campaigning on that issue until it is resolved.
I turn to the Schools Bill. The Government are doing lots of good things in schools and skills, and never has that been more important. I am pleased to report to my hon. Friends on the Front Bench that the Church of England is particularly pleased with the Bill. Why is that significant? The Church of England and the Roman Catholic Church run a third of the schools in England, so it is a big stakeholder. The Bishop of Durham and Nigel Genders, our chief education officer, have said how pleased they are and that they have extremely good co-operation with the Secretary of State for Education, which they are delighted with. They think they can do a lot more together. I like what we are doing on lifetime skills. T-levels are really important. There is a little more work to do on apprenticeships, but what we are doing on employer representative bodies is absolutely right.
I have a particular issue with computer numerical control operators in my area as engineering businesses are screaming to get hold of them. I am working closely with the Bedford College Group on that, which we must press through. Those jobs pay about £48,000 a year, so it is not right that we cannot get people to do them. The skills Minister—the Under-Secretary of State for Education, my hon. Friend the Member for Brentwood and Ongar (Alex Burghart)—is coming to Houghton Regis on 6 June and I look forward to his visit.
The Gracious Speech the other day was most memorable for being a Queen’s Speech without a Queen. It was also an agenda from a Government without clear direction, flailing around in their 12th year. As the Institute for Government said,
“it reads like a manifesto aimed at the party base more than a realistic programme.”
That is what we get when we have an Administration diverted from the real issues of the day by self-preservation. While 38 Bills is, on the face of it, a frenetic level of legislation—it is the most in almost a decade and four times that of the last Queen’s Speech—when we strip away the bits that are reheated leftovers that the Government could not get through the Lords last time and the bits and pieces that will scrap EU regulations, we see that, paradoxically, it is a very thin speech. It is a scattergun of afterthoughts, and it puts off all the really big decisions.
When, the other day, the Prime Minister had a go at our hard-working civil service by saying that it had a mañana culture—I am told that the word translates as “tomorrow”—he seemed to identify that his own Government have been gripped with putting everything into a “too difficult for right now” box to be dealt with tomorrow. Although the words “cost of living crisis” were included in the speech’s text, it was missing any big, overarching ideas for dealing with the crippling of household finances when it comes to the weekly shop, leaving the lights on, heating the house or filling up the tank. The Government’s answer for when they might deal with any of the above, or the record inflation that we see today, is some ill-defined date in the future, but the problem is now.
Take the flagship pledge to ban buy-one-get-one-free on junk food—again, kicked into the long grass. I do not know if that is because the Conservatives are not into the nanny state or whether it was nanny who told them to do it. Whatever it is, it just reeks of timidity. The whole thing is like a bad episode of “Neighbours”, where we have No. 10 and No. 11 at war with each other. They only thing they are agreed on is that if you break the law you can get away with it—you don’t have to resign.
From the content of the Queen’s Speech, we would not know that we are in the midst of a European war, that we are coming out of a global pandemic with a spluttering economy edging perilously close to recession, or that we are in a climate crisis. Instead, what do we have? Ideological hobby horses and populist posturing. We have a higher education Bill consisting of student number controls and a lifelong loan entitlement—more dumbing down than levelling up. Then there is the freedom of speech Bill roundly condemned by everyone in the higher education sector. That is what you get when you have had enough of experts. There is a Bill to curb Insulate Britain, but nothing that would actually help to insulate Britain’s homes. With high streets increasingly boarded up and turning into cash deserts, it is shameful that food bank usage is rocketing but that in Acton banks are an extinct species. TSB has now gone in Ealing, which is going the same way.
Faced with crises at home and abroad, what is the Government’s priority? It is to privatise the widely respected Channel 4, which costs us all not a penny. It is a solution to which there is no problem. The proposal is condemned by prominent Conservatives, such as the former Culture Secretary who is now the Chair of the Health and Social Care Committee, the right hon. Member for South West Surrey (Jeremy Hunt), and the right hon. Member for Ashford (Damian Green), a former deputy Prime Minister, who is no longer in his place, so even their own side do not like it. It was not even in the Conservative manifesto and it looks like revenge. Members might remember that that was promised when the Prime Minister did not turn up to the Channel 4 election debate and he was replaced with an ice sculpture.
We now have a Bill for BO—the laughably titled Brexit opportunities Bill—with more dead ends and might-have-beens, and more re-writing of history all over. The Prime Minister trumpeted removing VAT on domestic energy during the referendum campaign. His exact words were:
“When we vote leave, we will be able to scrap this unfair and damaging tax.”
The country obliged, but six years on, in the middle of an energy price crisis, nothing. Then there is the manifesto pledge that Brexit would allow them to ban the import of foie gras, which is so cruel to ducklings and geese. Vanished, all because the Prime Minister is too chicken to do anything about it. [Hon. Members: “Groan!”] Only warm words, but no concrete proposals on trophy hunting. All our constituents write in in their hundreds about these things—but the proposals are gone. Two years on since the promise of an employment Bill—that sounded really good, didn’t it?—employment rights, flexible working and carers’ leave have also disappeared from the Queen’s Speech, despite the P&O scandal. BO seems, concerningly, a handy cover to euphemistically deregulate and scrap protections in a race to the bottom Singapore-on-Thames, which we know at least half the Cabinet salivates for.
We now know that the plan is to leave the European Court of Human Rights, and repeal and dilute EU law bypassing Parliament. It is all very fitting for a Government with an aversion to being held to account—wasted time and populist headline chasing when we could be addressing the real crises of a country feeling the pinch. The Financial Times said it is
“red meat over real reform”,
a bunch of ill-considered, ill-timed, unnecessary and nakedly political measures: flogging off that great Thatcher legacy, Channel 4; waging a trade war with the EU; joining Russia—only Russia has done this before—in quitting the ECHR; and regulating street naming. I have knocked on loads of doors over the years every day in the run-up to elections, and no normal person on the doorstep wants any of that. Yet there is nothing to tackle the climate crisis, or to cut energy bills, or to make people more secure at work, or to turn around our struggling economy—none of the stuff that people desperately need.
The rollercoaster nature of the Government is that they are prone to knee-jerkism and tearing up their own manifesto commitments rather than thinking through problems. On this occasion, this ostensible blizzard of Bills is ultimately a too-little-too-late Queen’s Speech without a Queen. I was pleased to see that Her Majesty was on Crossrail yesterday and has been enjoying the horses recently. HRH has been an able stand-in, but maybe we can all agree that Her Majesty will deliver many more addresses from the throne, starting, as soon as possible, with one from my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Holborn and St Pancras (Keir Starmer), the Leader of the Opposition, when we re-take the reins. Bring it on!
I draw the House’s attention to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests, and I rise to give general support to the Queen’s Speech. There are areas about which I am particularly enthusiastic, and there are one or two areas where I have to sound a note of warning for my Whips.
I thought that the tone adopted by the hon. Member for Ealing Central and Acton (Dr Huq) and the hon. Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant) was rather surprisingly wide of the mark. Their remarks were perhaps a little ungracious about the Gracious Speech. The hon. Gentleman said that the Queen’s Speech lacks content and does not really have a theme. I have here the explanatory notes for the Levelling-up and Regeneration Bill, given that we are talking about substance. He complained that there were Bills that would be no more than clauses in other Bills, but this Bill has 11 parts, all of which could be very substantial Bills in other cases. It recognises that the reputation of this Administration will very much depend on whether, by the next election, we have put in place the path to delivering levelling up and regeneration in practice, and that those parts of the country that lent us their vote in 2019 will convert that to a rather more permanent arrangement when they see this Administration beginning to deliver in a way that they have not seen for decades. This Bill provides a most important centre of the legislative programme and, by and large, it will have my full support.
There are specific opportunities in the Queen’s Speech. For example, the genetic technology Bill, which has been championed by our absolutely marvellous science Minister—the Under-Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, my hon. Friend the Member for Mid Norfolk (George Freeman)—will open up potential opportunities for growth in our economy and investment in science and research. The United Kingdom should take the opportunities to establish global leadership in this space.
I am a veteran, and although I did not serve in the Province in my time in the armed forces, I think that the Northern Ireland Troubles (Legacy and Reconciliation) Bill is the product of long consultation and wise reflection to try to find the right balance to deal with the difficult issues involved.
The Social Security (Special Rules for End of Life) Bill is to be welcomed. It recognises the long periods in which people now have to live with the prospect of knowing that their lives are coming to an end, and will extend benefits from six months to 12.
In general, I welcome the Public Order Bill, which will hold to account people who are intent on disrupting society. As for its content, however, I feel that we might have slightly missed an opportunity in imposing criminal sanctions on those people. Why not civil sanctions? If they are determined to go to the greatest trouble for the greatest number, and to impose costs on our public services and costs on people whose activities are disrupted in an unfair way—as regards the cause that protesters are trying to promote—I think that we should have explored civil sanctions rather more carefully. If people with resources are going to stick themselves to the road or tie themselves to the top of underground trains, so that the travel arrangements of others are disrupted, there is a specific opportunity to provide restoration to those who have been inconvenienced by them. As a great supporter of restorative justice, I think that we should try to widen the spread of that in the justice system, so that we hold people accountable for their actions against and damage to others.
Obviously I welcome the inclusion in the Gracious Speech of the conversion therapy ban Bill. It is still being drafted and has not yet been presented to the House, but we hope to see it before we rise for the summer recess. I say gently to my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister that it may be easy to make a quip and laugh at the Leader of the Opposition’s expense about what a woman looks like, but perhaps he does not need to look very much further than Bridgend to see that the question can be just a little more complicated than a first glance might suggest. I therefore think that gender identity should be included within the scope of the conversion therapy ban Bill. I will certainly lend my support to colleagues on both sides of the House to work in the direction of ensuring that we have a proper conversion therapy ban that protects people in respect both of sexuality and of gender identity.
I understand the purpose of the boycott Bill, which is described as legislation to
“prevent public bodies engaging in boycotts that undermine community cohesion.”
However, I think we need to be a little careful. I am afraid that in the last Session I supported an amendment on the subject tabled by my right hon. Friend the Member for Newark (Robert Jenrick); that was an error of judgment on my part, because I was not paying sufficient attention to the business, and I do not intend to repeat that mistake if the boycott measure comes back to the House. It is designed to take away people’s ability to make a statement of their beliefs about the policy of a nation that is in gross breach of international law. Obviously the nation is question is Israel, and obviously the community cohesion being thought about relates to antisemitism within communities. I fully appreciate the Government’s concerns about the matter, but if a nation is in gross breach of the fourth Geneva convention, has invaded and then settled an occupied territory, and is killing journalists in that territory who are observing what is going on, we might just want to reflect on what capacity or ability there is in our society to say, “We don’t think that’s right,” notwithstanding the obvious associated issues of antisemitism.
Finally, on the Northern Ireland protocol Bill, the statement that we make in the Gracious Speech about our values as a society—the values of Britain post Brexit—is incredibly important. We need to be a nation that stands up for the rule of law and the rules-based international system to sustain our security and our role in the world. The enormous reputation of the City of London and of the commercial part of our justice system, in which companies from countries around the world come to have their disputes adjudicated under British law in British courts, is a huge credit to our country and our system. British law, in general, is trusted. I do not think that we should play quite so fast and loose with powers to overturn the protocol until we have explored every other conceivable option, including holding the European Union responsible for the consequences of an overly legalistic approach, which I think would be a better route.
In the recent local elections, the Conservatives lost almost 500 council seats across Britain as the public delivered their verdict on the Conservative Government’s performance at Westminster. Voters expressed their dismay at the Chancellor’s refusal to get a grip on rising inflation or offer families support through the cost of living crisis. This Gracious Speech provided the Conservatives with an opportunity to reset by introducing legislation to meet three major challenges: tackling rising household bills, starting to grow our economy again and building into our economy the all-important resilience that we require at a time when hostile foreign states such as Russia and China are on the rise.
The Conservative Government have offered none of those things, so the entire Gracious Speech has fallen utterly and spectacularly flat. Despite the Government’s promise in the opening sentence to
“help ease the cost of living for families”,
there was nothing of the sort to be found in the speech. With household energy bills rising by £700 a year and inflation outstripping wages, we needed a Government who were ready to tackle this crisis head-on. Instead, the Conservatives are raising taxes on working people, and in this they are an outlier: no other Government are responding to the cost of living crisis by hammering working people with more taxes.
The Labour party has a clear plan. First, we would scrap the national insurance rise. Then we would reduce energy bills by as much as £600 per household per year, expand the warm home discount, and support the businesses that are hardest hit. That would be paid for by a windfall tax on the spiralling profits of oil and gas giants which, by the admission of BP bosses themselves, have
“more cash than we know what to do with”
and are effectively “a cash machine”.
However, we would also look to the long term. As well as taking those immediate crisis management measures, we would fix the foundations of Britain’s economic model. Despite the Government’s latest attempts to shift the blame, it is clear that the roots of this cost of living crisis are not global but national. The reality is that the Chancellor is presiding over a high-tax economy, and that is because, for more than a decade, the Conservatives have presided over a low-growth economy, based on insecure work and chronic underinvestment, driving a productivity crisis. Indeed, Britain has a 20% productivity gap with other leading nations. There has been chronic underinvestment by consecutive Conservative Governments in research and development, but the impact of that has been a real shortfall in investment by the private sector in the UK, compared with Europe. Figures from the OECD show that Britain’s private sector investment as a share of GDP is the lowest among the 36 members assessed.
At the heart of the decline in productivity has been the decline in our manufacturing sector. Since 2015 alone, the Government have lost more than 230,000 manufacturing jobs. The result has been an increasingly unbalanced economy, in favour of London and the south-east, and proof that the Conservatives are not levelling up, but levelling down. Communities across Britain’s proud industrial heartlands in the midlands, northern England and South Wales—home of my Aberavon constituency and our Port Talbot steelworks, of which we are immensely proud—are struggling to get a look in.
What we need is a modern manufacturing renaissance. It is far easier to drive productivity gains in the manufacturing sector than to do so in services, but this is not manufacturing based on the old industries of the past; it is modern, it is green, and it is in the high-tech industries of the future. Those are the industries that deliver the good, meaningful, productive, well-paid jobs on which people can raise a family on, and they are the jobs that will get our economy firing on all cylinders, throughout the UK. We need to get Britain making and exporting at levels that reflect our true potential.
That is why the shadow Chancellor’s “make, buy and sell more in Britain” policy is so important. A Labour Government would change procurement laws so that the British Government must buy British by default. A Labour Government would introduce a green steel deal, creating a world-leading steel industry to power us through the century ahead. A Labour Government would back 100,000 businesses with start-up loans to boost British small and medium-sized enterprises. Labour’s plan is to build a better post-covid economy, to drive growth and truly get our economy firing on all cylinders, with good jobs at its heart.
Let us contrast our approach to work and good jobs on which people can raise a family with the Conservatives’ axing of the long-promised employment Bill, which was expected to outlaw the type of dreadful business practice that we saw when 800 P&O Ferries workers were sacked and replaced by foreign workers paid less than the minimum wage. Labour would outlaw that practice immediately, across the board.
A modern manufacturing renaissance will not only help to boost growth and help us to build a vibrant, modern economy for the future; it will also help us to build that resilient economy for the future—a Britain that can stand more firmly on its own two feet. By backing British manufacturing, we can reduce supply chain pressures caused by the behaviour of authoritarian states such as Russia and China, and by the covid-19 pandemic. In that regard, an energy security plan is also crucial. Frankly, it is staggering that China owns 33% of the Hinkley Point nuclear power station.
There is too little in the UK Government’s new agenda that actually gets to the core, underlying issues that underpin this cost of living crisis. A wasted decade of low growth has left us with a weak and insecure economy that is ill-prepared for the challenges and turbulence of an uncertain world. Building that economy is the job of Government. Politicians are not bystanders in this. The Chancellor is not a victim. The Tories have become the party of high taxes and low pay because they are the party of low growth and insecurity. We believe that Britain deserves better. A Labour Government would help workers and families through this cost of living crisis and deliver the resilient, growing, sustainable economy that will get our country fit for the future.
The hon. Member for Aberavon (Stephen Kinnock) attacks us for being the party of low growth, but this is the party that has presided over a situation where we have more people in employment than ever before. Unbelievably, the number of vacancies is higher than the number of those who are unemployed. But he is right—this is why I am going to follow the hon. Gentleman—to focus laser-like on what we are told to talk about today, although we are allowed to stray a bit during this Queen’s Speech debate, which is achieving economic growth. That is what the British people care about. In time, we can have an interesting debate about Channel 4 privatisation, about foie gras and about conversion therapy, but those are not the overwhelming priorities of the British people at the moment. What they are concerned about is the cost of living crisis.
There has never been an easier opportunity for the Opposition to attack the Government in terms of broad economic statistics, but that ignores the fact that when the last general election took place we could not possibly have predicted the impact of a global pandemic or, unbelievably, war in Europe as a result of the cruel tyrant Putin trying to recreate an old-style empire. I would argue that no Government since the second world war have faced greater challenges. I would also contend that, generally, the Opposition have failed to provide any substantial alternative policies that would have greatly alleviated the situation in regard to the war in Ukraine or the pandemic.
I am going to hold the Government to account, however. I want to hold them to account on the tax burden. Given that families are suffering and people are lying awake at night desperately searching for a way to pay their bills, and that we are in such a crisis, we have to move in a far more radical direction on the overall tax burden. I put that to the Chancellor of the Exchequer yesterday in Treasury questions, and I was quite pleased with his response when I urged him to make this a priority.
We are now facing the heaviest tax burden since the 1940s. Freezing income tax thresholds, combined with more inflation, will push many people into higher tax thresholds. Paul Johnson of the Institute for Fiscal Studies has said that
“almost all workers will be paying more tax on their earnings in 2025 than they would have been paying without this parliament’s reforms to income tax and NICs”.
The rise in inflation is projected to spark the biggest decline in living standards in any single financial year, so I follow the hon. Member for Aberavon in calling for radical policies. I am not against a windfall tax, but I am not sure that, on its own, it will make a great deal of difference after we have divided its receipts between every household in Britain. Frankly, the Chancellor has to come back to this House in time for the Budget, or preferably before, and introduce a cut in the overall tax burden.
I also want to talk about the housing crisis. If we are going to kick-start the economy and help our young people get into housing, we simply have to build much more housing. The number of dwellings where, according to building control figures, building work had started on the site was 41,600 in October to December 2021. That was a 3% decrease compared with the previous quarter and a 3% decrease compared with the same quarter of the previous year. The number of dwellings completed from October to December 2021 was 41,330, a 4% decrease on the previous quarter and an 11% decrease on the same quarter of the previous year. The fact is that this is a crisis.
I welcome that, through the Queen’s Speech, the Government are honestly attempting to find a way through the planning controls to get the housing we need, but we need a similar effort to the one we had after the second world war, when Harold Macmillan built 300,000 council houses a year. We have to see this as an absolute priority.
There is no point building more housing—and it is a crisis we need to address—or cutting taxes if, at the same time, immigration is out of control. The Government have to understand that we simply cannot replace mass immigration from the EU with mass immigration from the rest of the world, which is why the channel crossings are so totemic. The Home Secretary is right to try to address the crossings, for all the controversy.
Last week, from 9 to 15 May, 607 migrants aboard 25 boats were detected in the channel. In the week before, from 2 to 8 May, 792 migrants aboard 30 boats were detected. From 25 April to 1 May, 254 migrants aboard seven boats were detected. This cannot continue. We have to build houses, we have to control immigration, we have to cut taxes and we have to kick-start the economy.
Although there has been great criticism of the Government’s handling of the Northern Ireland protocol, we have to unite this United Kingdom. We cannot have a situation in which there is no proper Government in Northern Ireland. The fact is that the DUP will not come back into government unless we address the protocol. I say to my hon. Friend the Member for Reigate (Crispin Blunt) that of course we want to respect international law, but we have to sort this out.
The issues we face are urgent and important. I am sure the Government are listening, and I urge them to address these issues as dramatically as they would address the issues following a world war. The effects of the pandemic and the war in Ukraine are so grave that we should all unite, with a sense of compassion, to help people who are suffering with this level of inflation, rising costs and rising taxation.
Unlike the Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport, I stand not as a conduit of God but as a heretic shaking my metaphorical fist at the crumbling edifice of economic orthodoxy.
The title of today’s debate is “Achieving Economic Growth,” but to what end? For more than 70 years, successive Governments preened themselves in the mirror and admired what they saw—growth. That mirror is better known as gross domestic product and it has become our key metric for judging how beautiful we are as both an economy and a society. We use it to gauge progress and as a proxy for our collective wellbeing, yet the mirror we have been staring into all these years is less of the bathroom variety and more of the fairground variety, reflecting a distorted image at odds with the reality confronting many of our constituents over those long decades.
Growth is an illusion that is partly responsible for driving three of the key challenges we now face: rising inequality, the erosion of democracy and the climate crisis. We have had GDP growth, albeit sluggish, over the past 12 years. Hence, by our main metric of choice, our collective wellbeing should have increased, even if only incrementally. That is the logic of the message we tell our constituents, “You’ve never had it so good because the economy is growing.”
Yet, by focusing on growth, we too often evade the hard political questions about distribution. If the economic pie is growing, the proportional size of the slice matters less, but the issue still gnaws away at people’s sense of fair play. Back in 2016, during a Brexit debate, a remain campaigner told his audience:
“If we leave the EU, GDP will fall.”
He was, of course, as we have seen, correct, but that is not the point I wish to make. The point is the heckle from a lady in the audience, which came back:
“That’s your bloody GDP. Not ours.”
She knew that for millions like her the proceeds of growth were never fairly shared and that, when the economy grew, the overwhelming beneficiaries of that growth were the rich and powerful, not her. Even when it was growing but not fast enough for its main beneficiaries, it was the public services that she relied on that had to be discarded—again, in the name of economic growth.
That leads us on to the second great challenge of this century: defending democracy, not just from external threats, such as Russia, but from within. Why? Because if people do not see the reality of their lived experience reflected in the political discourse of their politicians and do not hear their reality being discussed in this place, that gulf is dangerous. Citizens end up believing they are being deceived, and nothing is more dangerous or destructive to our democracy. We must understand that our constituents’ buy-in to any political economy depends not just on their absolute wealth, but, rather, on their relative wealth to those around them. As has been repeatedly demonstrated, the more unequal a society is, the less satisfied its citizens will be. That results in political instability, higher crime rates and higher levels of mental health illness—and we wonder why demand for mental health services is going through the roof in this country.
Let us, for the sake of argument, park both democracy and inequality to the side for one moment and ask ourselves: how do we square unlimited growth on a finite planet? It is a fair question but one that never gets a remotely convincing answer. Apparently, it is through increased resource use efficiency and productivity gains. In the next half of this century, the global economy will triple the number of people who will enjoy western levels of consumption, to 3 billion,. That is despite the fact that the l billion of us already consuming that much are using 1.6 times more of the planet’s resources than is sustainable—you can do the maths. In other words, the growth delusion is a fallacy that will drive climate and ecological destruction and kill us all. Only in the warped reality of our current growth-obsessed economic model is expansion without end seen as a virtue. In biology, it is called a cancer.
Bobby Kennedy knew this truth more than 50 years ago when he made his now famous speech on the limits of GDP growth as a metric for success. He understood that GDP is mercenary, blind to morality and indifferent to suffering. GDP growth loves pollution, especially if it has to be cleared up. It relishes crime, especially if more prisons must be built. It delights in war, especially if countries require rebuilding in the aftermath. That does not mean there is no place for GDP as an economic tool but, if we are to successfully face the existential challenges of this century, we need new political tools for measuring wellbeing, the health of our democracy, and the ecological and climate cost of our economic activities.
It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Norwich South (Clive Lewis), who addressed the topic of today’s debate, “Achieving economic growth”, by seeming to argue that economic growth is not only not important, but not desirable. I wonder therefore whether he will be having a word with his Front-Bench team, who seem to have spent most of the afternoon criticising the Government for not delivering sufficient economic growth, but that is a matter for him.
It is a pleasure to take part in today’s debate, to address the issue in question and to raise one or two points about the Queen’s Speech. Successful growth will be delivered through the effective role of the private sector. It is the private sector that is the wealth generator. I was delighted that the Chief Secretary accepted that reality in his opening remarks.
Both the economy generally and individual businesses face exceptional challenges, ones that have not been encountered for generations. Those challenges revolve around the recovery from the covid pandemic and, now, the need to address the issues arising from the conflict in Ukraine and its impact on energy prices.
I recently spent a really interesting lunch time with the Coventry and Warwickshire chamber of commerce. I expected those who attended to talk to me about supply chain problems and the challenges presented by inflation, but the biggest single issue they wanted to talk about was ensuring that they had a workforce with the right skills and the recruitment and retention of their staff. We have heard about jobs from many Members, not least my hon. Friend the Member for South West Bedfordshire (Andrew Selous), who spoke about the “jobs miracle”. The ONS tells us that unemployment is at its lowest since 1974 and job vacancies are at a record high of 1.295 million. In fact, we have more vacancies than people looking for work. The unemployment rate is now just 3.7%, which is the lowest rate for 50 years. The figures for my constituency tell exactly the same story, with unemployment falling and vacancies rising.
However, the current situation creates real challenges for businesses. As consumers, we recognise the effect of staff shortages: short-staffed businesses do not have the time to answer the phone or respond to inquiries, and there is a decline in service levels. Significantly for both businesses and the broader economy, opportunities are missed. In previous years, UK companies were able to look to eastern Europe to fill vacancies when they had staff and skills shortages, but that has become less of an option following our departure from the European Union. Businesses have raised with me the loss from the workforce of people in the 50 to 70 age demographic who either lost or left their jobs during the pandemic. The Government should focus on how we might get such experienced people back into the workforce.
There have been a lot of references in the debate to the ONS and its reports. Just a few months ago, in March 2022, the ONS published a report on its over-50s lifestyle study, which looked at the motivation of 50 to 70-year-olds who left employment during the pandemic. The ONS found that 77% of those aged 50 to 59 had left sooner than they had expected or intended to. It found that 19% had left because of stress or mental health, but that 58% would consider returning the workforce and 15% actively wanted to return. Were those people to return to the workforce, 36% of them would consider a flexible attitude to working to be most important, and 69% would want to work part time. It is important for the Government to consider ways to get such people back into the workforce, because they have valuable experience and can make a contribution. I saw an example of the people I am talking about in the volunteers I worked with on the delivery of the vaccine programme. Demand exists in the economy but it is not being fulfilled. We need to put the two things together.
In achieving economic growth, it is important for investors, customers, suppliers and the workforce to be able to understand the true state of a company. I note the Government’s interest in restoring trust in our audit and reporting systems through our corporate governance system. I am a member of the Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy Committee and we have looked at auditing, so I was disappointed to see that the audit reform Bill in the Queen’s Speech remains only in draft form. I want to see swift action to ensure that the full Bill comes to the House as promptly as possible. We know about the dominance of the big four, and we have had many reports and three independent reviews, as well as the work done by the Select Committee. I want the Government to make sure that a transparent and effective audit system is introduced. There are plenty of reports calling for change, and we have seen the events at Carillion, Patisserie Valerie, Thomas Cook, P&O Ferries and BHS. We need to rectify the situation, and I hope that the audit reform Bill is brought forward.
It is important to equalise growth across the country, and the levelling-up provisions are incredibly important in that regard. On the planning system, I want to ensure that an adequate supply of land is made available for businesses. That is an issue in my constituency. We are at the centre of England, making ours an ideal location for the logistics businesses that want to serve the country, but land is rapidly being taken up. I am concerned that, even now, many local councils have no up-to-date local plan, and instead rely on applications coming in and development control.
I note some of the provisions on local involvement, but the current neighbourhood plans are too bureaucratic and long-winded and take too long to implement. I note, too, the attempt to give people more involvement in planning issues and the principle of street referendums, but I am uneasy about those proposals as they may become a vehicle for disputes between neighbours. The Government may also have a real challenge in defining what constitutes a street.
Housing supply is a vital part of economic growth. Building homes is an economic activity, and of course new housing provides homes for workers, as my right hon. Friend the Member for Gainsborough (Sir Edward Leigh) reminded us a few moments ago. In my constituency, we have probably one of the best examples in the country of delivering new housing at volume through the development of Houlton, the sustainable urban extension to Rugby, which is being developed by Urban&Civic. That massive developer has great control over the activities of the house builders, and I believe that it is creating communities as well as building homes. It is vital that we provide the infrastructure first. In Rugby, we now have a link road to the main urban community, and both primary and secondary schools, but the challenge is to get the healthcare provision in place. There is a great deal of development in Rugby, and I am proud of what we have achieved.
I conclude by noting that there are many provisions in the Queen’s Speech that will support our businesses and enable growth and development to take place.
Order. I hope that we can manage without a formal time limit, but that means that I must ask colleagues to stick to about six minutes. Six minutes and 20 seconds is okay, but eight minutes is not.
It is an honour to follow the hon. Member for Rugby (Mark Pawsey) and his broad critique of the Queen’s Speech.
Today’s inflation figures add to mounting evidence of UK stagflation. The Conservatives’ record is of 12 years of failure to create an economy that delivers wellbeing for people across the United Kingdom—let us remember that they have been responsible for the economy for 12 years. From the banking crisis to the present day, the Conservative party has sought out every opportunity to impose austerity and to bring about a hard Brexit of its own making. Those have combined to aggravate the UK’s cost of living crisis. Yes, there have been other causes, which have been beyond our control, and possibly beyond any Government’s control, but these are ideological choices that will go down in history as Tory creations. Out of ideas other than to centralise powers that they do not possess and blame what they do not know, the Conservatives sit on their hands as the economy for which they are responsible fails to work for households and businesses across the UK.
The Levelling-up and Regeneration Bill does nothing to correct past mistakes or deliver for the future. The Welsh Government have stated that this Government’s post-Brexit funding arrangement for Wales falls short by £772 million of structural funds alone for the period 2021 to 2025. That is not only
“an assault on Welsh devolution”—
not my words, but the words of Labour’s Minister for Economy—but a broken election promise. More broadly, sources including Bloomberg illustrate a failure to maintain current standards, let alone deliver any improvement, across most of the UK and especially across Wales.
That is not what was promised on page 15 of the 2019 Welsh Conservatives manifesto, which said that
“no part of the UK loses out from the withdrawal of EU funding”.
It is certainly not what was promised on page 29, which said that
“Wales will not lose any powers or funding as a result of our exit from the EU.”
Three years into this Parliament and six years on from Brexit, this Government cannot articulate or deliver any clear benefits to Wales. We need an honest funding settlement, devolved engagement and a focus on delivery rather than glossy announcements.
Other elements of the Queen’s Speech also give pause for thought. Rather than correcting Wales’s underfunding of more than £5 billion from HS2, it gives us—wait for it—Great British Railways. Rather than working with Transport for Wales, our publicly owned transport body, it seems that Westminster’s solution to historical underfunding is to override our solution while not correcting the underlying problems that need fixing. Put bluntly, this Government’s approach to a difficult problem is to stick a Union Jack on it and sing a song of praise to past glories. Nostalgia does not an economy make.
Plaid Cymru drove the creation of the Development Bank of Wales, yet its future, and how the new UK infrastructure bank will work with rather than over the devolved institutions, is unclear. We do not know how what we are operating for ourselves to improve the economy of Wales will align with what is being done in Westminster. That is not good government.
The right hon. Lady makes an excellent point. The Scottish National Investment Bank is already up and running, but there is nothing from the Government on how that will interact with their plans either.
Exactly. The lack of clarity and working together does not help anybody’s economy.
This Queen’s Speech does nothing for the basics of the Welsh economy or to address the ongoing cost of living crisis. I reiterate Plaid Cymru’s call for an emergency Budget and measures including a windfall tax, increased energy bill support and the expansion of the rural fuel duty relief scheme for Wales.
Net zero is obviously in the Queen’s Speech but, alas, missed opportunities include the devolution of the Crown Estate and the establishment of a Welsh national energy company to support local renewable generation and fix grid capacity—measures, by the way, that Plaid Cymru has agreed with Labour in Wales through our co-operation agreement. It is good to see politicians working together in the common interest of all the people in all our communities, rather than in conflict. I ask the Government to address the shortage of grid capacity somehow, because without further grid capacity in many areas of Wales we cannot grow our own renewable supplies and make the best of that opportunity.
Westminster’s refusal to countenance legitimate devolved proposals to boost our economy scorns our democratic voice. It emphasises how, until we have full powers over our future, we will always be treated as second best, simultaneously mocked for seeking handouts and told to be contented with handouts.
I hope the Chancellor will address the immediate crisis with an emergency Budget, or whatever he chooses to call it, including measures such as a reformed SME tax relief in Wales to boost productivity as a first step. I also hope the UK Government’s vaunted Great British Nuclear will work with and learn from Wales’s existing Cwmni Egino, which is already at work to develop the nuclear licensed site of Trawsfynydd.
Where there is a problem, it seems the UK Government’s answer is to cobble together a UK-branded institution to wallpaper over the self-perpetuating vortex effect of research funding, public investment and targeted tax relief that keeps the south-east of England within the pale of economic privilege and the rest of England’s regions, Northern Ireland and the nations of Scotland and Wales, as always, beyond it.
It is a pleasure to speak in this debate. I will focus my remarks on the work of SMEs in driving economic growth. As we often say in this place, they, more than anything else, are the engine room of economic growth.
Taking a step back from that, the most important thing in driving economic growth—the foundation of which is productivity, which leads to prosperity—is more competition. Competition is very good for opportunity but also very good for consumers: it drives down prices and drives up service. When we started our estate agent business back in 1992, we quickly got to a leading market share in our marketplace. We were doing quite well. Two or three years later, we noticed lots of other “For Sale” and “To Let” boards popping up all over the place as new competition came in and was taking market share from us. Suddenly we were no longer the new kids on the block—the people who had got to No. 1. We had been pushed off our perch as the market leader. That made us look at what we were doing and become more efficient and more effective, work harder, and put a new package together so that we could once again become market leaders. That is the effect of competition—the driving force behind all the benefits for consumers that we see from competition. That is how it works in reality.
What competition drives the energy, water and rail sectors? They seem to be natural monopolies, if I am not mistaken, so can the hon. Gentleman tell me how the free market and competition help to drive down prices in those sectors?
That is quite interesting, because energy distribution was very competitive in this country, with a huge expansion in the number of energy distributors that led to a driving down of prices very effectively. Where people got caught out was with the huge increase in wholesale costs, which drove lots of them out of business. However, that was an excellent example of how competition does work and drives down prices for consumers and increases choice. As to source energy, I agree that there are not enough big producers, which is why we must be careful when one or two big companies dominate the marketplace.
G.K. Chesterton said:
“Too much capitalism does not mean too many capitalists, but too few capitalists.”
That is why we need to focus on competition, making sure that the environment is very attractive to new businesses starting up and growing—SMEs. All our policies should focus on small businesses, not on big businesses, which can generally look after themselves.
We have to look at the brutal facts, I am afraid. I was a bit disappointed, as I said earlier, by what the Governor of the Bank of England said to the Treasury Committee about some of the issues we are seeing with labour shortages, which are driving inflation. We looked at some of the issues that SMEs, in particular, are facing in terms of accessing labour. In 2020, the last year we have reliable data for, net migration into the UK dropped by 88% from 271,000 people down to 34,000 people. People may say that is a good thing because we wanted to get a hold of immigration, and some of it may be due to covid effects. Nevertheless, pubs, restaurants and farmers, all of whom are generally SMEs, are finding life very difficult. We have to make sure that there is an available supply of labour. Another issue causing particular problems for SMEs is red tape at the borders—non-tariff barriers, as they might be called. There is a 45% reduction in the number of SMEs exporting to the European Union. These are facts we have to confront and deal with.
Levelling up is of particular interest to me as a representative of the north—from the north and for the north. We need to make sure that we level up properly and that the opportunities are spread equally nationwide. It is a huge undertaking. In relative terms, the gap between the north-east and London and the south-east in terms of productivity per capita is as wide as it was between East Germany and West Germany prior to reunification. It took 30 years and $2 trillion to narrow that gap. It is the right thing to do but it is a long haul. We need to get the private sector to invest, which was the lesson from East Germany. Such things as the enterprise investment scheme and the seed enterprise investment scheme are vital for equity investment to SMEs. Those measures are due to expire in 2025, and we need to see them extended. I would also like to see enhanced tax breaks for the EIS and SEIS so that businesses in the less well-off parts of the country can attract more investment capital into those areas.
Finally, one thing could make a massive difference. Lots of SMEs in this country will not borrow—some 73% would rather grow more slowly than borrow—which is partly because of the lack of trust between small businesses and big banks. Other parts of the world have something called regional mutual banks—Germany is a good example—that expanded lending during the financial crisis. In the UK, we contracted lending during the financial crisis—about 20% on either side. Regional mutual banks lend more into the economy at key times, and that could be a good policy for driving SMEs forward in our regions.
It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Thirsk and Malton (Kevin Hollinrake). This marks my fifth Queen’s Speech in this House. In that relatively short time, we have had two Prime Ministers, Brexit, a global pandemic and now a brutal cost of living crisis, yet one fact has remarkably stayed the same: this Government’s inability to rise to the challenge. They have not risen to the challenges faced by ordinary Brits, and sadly this Government-drafted Queen’s Speech follows the same disappointing pattern and fails to grasp the severity of the situation faced by millions of people across our country.
At every turn, the absence of any real help is an insult to hard-working people. The experts are clear: more than 1.5 million British households will soon face bills for food and energy that will exceed their disposable income after housing costs. Inflation is now at its highest level for 40 years at 9% and is set to soar very soon to more than 10%. Alarmingly, growth is forecast by the Bank of England to be negative next year.
Beyond these statistics are people. Many Members have already eloquently highlighted the real-life struggles their constituents face, and sadly Slough is no different. I have had constituents tell me that they have been forced to cut down to one meal a day or wear extra layers of clothes in their own homes. What is stopping Ministers from acting, for example with a one-off windfall tax on energy companies? Instead of taxing big energy companies posting extra profits in the billions, the Chancellor is more intent on taxing ordinary people, who are now afflicted with the highest tax burden since the 1960s.
Even when people are in work, they cannot expect to be offered adequate protection. The Queen’s Speech was 874 words, yet there was not one mention of workers’ rights. There was no employment Bill, as promised in the Conservatives’ election manifesto. We live in a time when workers’ rights are more important than ever, with insecure work, inadequate wages and unscrupulous tactics from employers, but instead of taking action, Government Ministers go about telling workers to work more or to get another job and do not offer a decent pay rise. It is absolutely absurd.
Where the Government have decided to legislate, they have completely missed the mark. Their priorities are all wrong. On crime in particular, we have had four Queen’s Speeches and three manifestos, yet the victims Bill still exists only in draft. That is of little use to the thousands of victims of crime unable to benefit. Crime is up and prosecutions are down to record lows. The number of arrests has dropped by 35,000, but victims and communities such as mine are still suffering. This Government have made huge cuts to Slough’s local youth services funding, made a real-terms cut to school budgets and cut community safety funding by 40% by 2024, even though our crime rate is 28% higher than the rest of the south-east and 27% above the national average. This Queen’s Speech offers nothing to address all that.
On housing, despite almost 1 million more people now living in private rented accommodation, it has taken this long for us to see the renters reform Bill. Although there is slow progress in some areas, there is no word on the promised 300,000 homes to be built every year by the mid-2020s, a lack of detail on the decent homes standard, and no mention of the lifetime deposit. Frustratingly, five years on from the deadly Grenfell tragedy, far too many of my Slough constituents remain trapped in flats with unsafe cladding and fire safety defects, with no end in sight.
This Queen’s Speech simply fails to address the problems that ordinary people up and down our country face, because Government Members do not fully understand the everyday realities of hard-working people. Where is the ambition to decarbonise our economy and our public transport system, to insulate our homes and to accelerate the transition to renewables? Where are the annual rolling programme of rail electrification, annual targets for more rail freight, and huge investment in green industry jobs? What are a Government for if not to protect people?
Privatising Channel 4 over helping families with household bills, street referendums for extensions over investing in youth services, arguing over what human rights to scrap instead of delivering a properly funded state pension—this Queen’s Speech was written by a Government who are out of touch and out of ideas. I implore Ministers to see what is so plainly happening around them and to do something to help the millions of struggling Brits. If they will not address the serious issues facing our country, they should step aside for those of us who will.
I refer Members to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests.
It is a pleasure to speak in this debate on the Gracious Speech in the year of Her Majesty’s platinum jubilee. I welcome the focus on strengthening the economy and achieving economic growth that this Queen’s Speech provides after the huge impact of the covid pandemic on all sectors of the economy.
Levelling up local infrastructure is key to securing economic growth, and I welcome the steps the Government are taking to invest in our nation’s infrastructure and transport links. Burton and Uttoxeter sit within the manufacturing heart of the country, and the A50-A500 corridor is home to both national and global brands, including JCB, Toyota, Nestlé, Rolls-Royce and many more. They rely on that vital link for connecting to international markets and trade around the globe. To support economic growth, new jobs and better connectivity for business and for my constituents, vital improvements are needed to this corridor.
Recently, Midlands Connect published its “The Road to Success” report, outlining suggested developments to the corridor that would create over 12,000 jobs and generate £12 billion for the economy. With the improvements, commuters driving on the central section of this corridor, where the junction at Uttoxeter has been identified as a priority element of the strategy, would be likely to get back 3.5 working days a year by 2050. As the project champion for the improvements to the A50-A500 north midlands manufacturing corridor, I look forward to continuing to champion the project with Ministers, and making the case for the economic growth that these improvements will bring to my constituency and the wider economy.
As well as improving infrastructure, it is vital that we continue to level up our towns, so I welcome the Government’s continued commitment to this important strategy. I was delighted that Burton was awarded £23.8 million from the towns fund to deliver transformative regeneration for the town. This includes reconnecting the town centre to the River Trent, making it an attractive location to visit, live and do business. I am also pleased that we have the chance to submit a bid for the second round of the levelling-up fund, complementing the town deal investment and completing the transformation of the High Street for generations to come. I look forward to the outcome of the local consultation and discussions about how we can continue to level up Burton and Uttoxeter, and I hope that as a priority 1 area the town’s bid will be received favourably as it seeks to deliver on that vision of levelling up.
Of course, one of the key industries in Burton and Uttoxeter is the brewing sector, and I was pleased to welcome Staffordshire-based businesses to Parliament recently, ahead of Staffordshire Day, to promote fantastic local businesses and producers. They included Molson Coors, which recently invested £25 million in its Burton site, which is a sign of its commitment to continued innovation in the great brewing town of Burton. Breweries and the wider hospitality sector have been hit very hard by the impact of the pandemic and the current rise in the cost of living. During the pandemic, the Chancellor reduced VAT on hospitality goods and services, which was of huge benefit to businesses in my constituency. However, disruption to these businesses is still being felt, and I would take this opportunity to urge the Government to reconsider the proposal of the Long Live the Local campaign for a permanent hospitality VAT rate of 12.5%. That could generate an additional turnover of £7.7 billion and an additional 286,850 jobs over 10 years.
I welcome this Queen’s Speech and the Government’s ongoing commitment to levelling up and supporting economic growth, and I look forward to continuing to support opportunities for investment across Burton and Uttoxeter, such as the vital improvements to the A50-A500 corridor, that my constituents elected me to deliver.
I was very disappointed by the Gracious Speech as it failed to deal with a number of things that really matter to my constituents and, I believe, to the country at large. First and foremost, and we have heard this mentioned many times today, the cost of living crisis is clear: inflation is nearing 10%, economic growth has been revised down, we have the slowest recovery in the G7, interest rates are up and real wages have fallen below 2008 levels. The impact of that on my constituents and people across the country is huge. They are having to choose between heating and eating. That phrase has been used quite a lot today, but these choices are real, not imagined, as some Conservative Members like to suggest.
The Government are refusing to help those people. Why? I am not trying to be controversial, but perhaps, fundamentally, it is because certain people in the Government do not care and hold ordinary people in contempt. Why do I say that, and where did this rot start? In 1995, the current Prime Minister penned an article in The Spectator claiming that working-class men are
“likely to be drunk, criminal, aimless, feckless and hopeless”.
Did he stop there? No, he said that the children of single mothers are
“ill-raised, ignorant, aggressive and illegitimate”.
It is a bit like the pot calling the kettle black.
One may ask whether perhaps the Prime Minister is just one bad apple—wrong! The current Deputy Prime Minister, the Secretary of State for Business, the Home Secretary and the Foreign Secretary co-authored a pamphlet in 2011 that claimed
“the British are among the worst idlers in the world.”
I would like them to come to Bolton South East and tell that to the care assistants, the cleaners and the retail workers, who are often working more than 50 hours a week on the minimum wage just to make ends meet, and see their reaction and what they have to say.
On the morning round a few days ago, a Home Office Minister said that people can move to “a better-paid job” or “take on more hours” to address the crisis. In my constituency, there are not many better-paid jobs and everyone is already working more than they need to do. Then we had the hon. Member for Ashfield (Lee Anderson) claiming that people can cook meals for 30p and implying that poverty was a choice. Well, as somebody who cooks quite regularly, I can tell him that we cannot get a meal for 30p, even when we are cooking at home. Many people in my constituency of Bolton South East have written to me feeling very insulted and saying that they cannot actually afford to use their oven because of energy costs. I say that, frankly, it is insulting to my constituents.
There is, however, another option—a real plan to fix the cost of living crisis. In the first three months of this year, Shell made £5 billion in profit and BP £7 billion. Those profits have been made through the charges paid by us, the consumers. The Labour party has constantly pushed for a windfall tax on oil and gas companies—calls that have so far fallen on deaf ears—to fund a real support package for working families, rather than the £150, which is a loan that people will have to repay. We have also suggested that VAT on energy bills should be removed for the lowest paid and that the universal credit allowance should be increased. I know that the Government think the universal credit allowance is somehow a benefit for those not working, but many of those receiving it are working, yet their pay is so low that they still need to rely on state benefits. The £20 a week reduction in the universal credit allowance has affected £14,000 of my constituents—people for whom this is very important benefit. We have also asked for the warm home discount to be expanded, which would also help by keeping energy bills down.
My hon. Friend is making an excellent and heartfelt speech, which I am sure the whole House is listening to intently. Does she agree that part of the problem is that many of our poorest constituents live in some of the worst-insulated houses and that we urgently need to tackle this problem?
That is absolutely right, and their situation is exacerbated by that. Often they also have damp in their homes, which has not been sorted out. Yet the Government refuse to act and say there is no money, but we know that they wasted £39 billion on track and trace, when the same system in France cost only about £3 billion to roll out. So the money is there if there is the will to use it.
There was also nothing in the Budget to deliver better infrastructure, trams and trains in my constituency. There was nothing about building more social housing and affordable housing, in particular by using brownfield sites to meet housing shortages. The Government say they are interested in renewables and tackling climate change, yet real investment—which the Labour party has also argued for—could create good jobs and eventually reduce our dependence on energy supplies from other countries, as the Ukraine war has shown the need for.
This was a missed opportunity to deal with many issues, including first and foremost the cost of living crisis. The Government have refused to do that. As far as I am concerned, they really do not care about my constituents.
I am pleased to follow the hon. Member for Bolton South East (Yasmin Qureshi), but I am sorry that she, like others, has chosen to misrepresent my hon. Friend the Member for Ashfield (Lee Anderson). I suggest that she goes and listens to what he actually said.
I am pleased to be able to speak in support of the Queen’s Speech on our final day of debate, when we have the opportunity to discuss achieving economic growth. I spent my entire career in manufacturing businesses before becoming an MP in 2019, and I firmly believe in the power of economic growth and investment to change towns and the lives of people in them. In order to do so, it is important to encourage both the physical and human assets that are necessary to sustain an economic ecosystem.
It is also critical that the Government support our people through the cost of living challenges. I am confident that our Chancellor will deliver on that in cohesion with his Cabinet colleagues. I note that earlier in the debate the hon. Member for Leeds West (Rachel Reeves) indicated that 33% of people would benefit from Labour’s windfall tax proposal to the tune of £600, yet the right hon. Member for Wolverhampton South East (Mr McFadden) has apparently said that the rest would also get £200. So while they indicate that there would be £3 billion in tax receipts, they propose to spend £8 billion. They either disagree with each other or it is classic Labour maths and misrepresentation.
In my opinion we are facing a cost of living crisis. I do not care whether it costs £3 billion or £8 billion; the Government need to bring out the money to look after those people.
Of course the Government need to look after those people, and the Chancellor will do that cohesively with the rest of the Cabinet, but we must focus on the importance of resilience, particularly for our national assets. The past two years have demonstrated the fragility of supply chains and the risk of geopolitical instability affecting consumers in the UK. We need to increase the use of some of our new-found Brexit freedoms to ensure that nationally strategic assets are kept in British hands.
Economic growth and levelling up go hand in hand. As co-chair of the all-party parliamentary group for “left behind” neighbourhoods, I am convinced that we cannot have the latter without the former. That is why, when making spending decisions, the Treasury should emphasise creating new business clusters in left-behind areas. For that to happen, we need a skilled workforce in the area. That is why I think that, of all the Bills in the Queen’s Speech, the one that will have the greatest economic impact on areas with historically lower levels of economic growth will be not any of the legislation sponsored by BEIS or the Treasury but the higher education Bill.
The north-east is already on the right track. My constituency is fortunate enough to be surrounded by five universities, all of which do excellent work. To the north of Sedgefield, Northumbria University has done particularly well recently, leaping from No. 50 to No. 23 in the latest research excellence framework ranking. Together with Durham University, it is well on the way to creating a northern research powerhouse, which is further enhanced by the complementary provisions of Newcastle, Sunderland and Teesside universities. The Bill seeks to improve standards in education generally, and the aspect that I am most excited about is the lifelong loan entitlement, guaranteeing four years of post-18 study, which will allow more career flexibility for those who have not undertaken any further or higher education. It will ensure that they have the chance to get an education to work in skilled industries. We also need to enhance the broader opportunities for people through supporting T-levels and engaging more university technical colleges such as UTC South Durham in Newton Aycliffe as well as ensuring that opportunities exist for those who have had further education in the past but now want to redirect their talents.
One of my primary focuses for delivery is speaking up for the businesses in Sedgefield, whether they are the extraordinary science-led businesses in NETPark, substantial employers such as Gestamp, Hitachi, Crafter’s Companion and 3M in Newton Aycliffe or the myriad smaller enterprises in the Aycliffe industrial estate and spread around in places such as Trimdon, Chilton, Fishburn, Wingate, Wheatley Hill, Thornley and Ferryhill. They all matter, and they all need encouragement. On Friday, I will be talking at the “make your mark” awards at Aycliffe business park, meeting businesses that I have seen before such as Husqvarna, Stillers, Ebac, Roman and Gestamp as well as the newcomers, the apprentices, the innovators and the environmentalists. We have such variety and diversity, and we need to encourage each and every one of them. They need to know that the Government’s strategy supports them, and delivering infrastructure such as bringing the train station back to Ferryhill and tax breaks for capital investment are all part of the mix.
Clusters rarely develop organically; they are usually the result of a strategy that co-ordinates investment in an area. Those strategies must consider the appropriateness of sectoral support as well. For example, as part of our drive to reach net zero by 2050, the Government are rightly keen to support investment in electric vehicles. An EV strategy, for example, must therefore support new businesses looking to work on EVs and help existing companies to adapt their current output to them. While I will always support further inward investment, considering how much expertise and jobs the established companies tend to have, the Government would do well to focus their primary efforts there.
Another part of the strategy is led by the Under-Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, my hon. Friend the Member for Mid Norfolk (George Freeman), with his focus on science and innovation. I encourage him in his support of the north-east space hub as part of a co-ordinated national approach to space. I direct him in particular to the asset base that we have in Sedgefield when he considers promoting the semiconductor industry. We have everything from II-VI, which is a major manufacturer, through to Evince, Filtronic, Kromek, INEX, Isocom, Northern Space and Security and PragmatIC in our interrelated clusters in the areas of advanced material electronics, resilient communications and space. The development of clusters to support UK resilience founded on existing platforms of enterprise can be transformational in levelling up places such as Sedgefield.
While the Minister has been to NETPark, he and his colleagues would be very welcome to visit more of this extraordinary supply chain. That would also enable them to see the fabulous cultural offers demonstrated in the outstanding County Durham bid for city of culture and the proposed levelling-up bid that would enhance the living environment for so many in Newton Aycliffe. I encourage our pragmatic Chancellor and innovative Prime Minister to deliver on those Bills and to remember Keynes, who said:
“What do you do when the facts change? I change my mind.”
We are in an ever-changing world, and we need to remain as flexible as possible.
For a party that prides itself on the economy, the Tories have a shocking record of running it. Our economy has the slowest growth in the G7. We have greater regional inequality than almost any other developed nation. Food banks now do the job of Government in providing for families—families that are more often than not in work.
The Government could start solving this crisis by providing solutions, such as closing tax-avoidance loopholes or creating a windfall tax for energy companies. Instead, we get endless Bills paying lip service to a manufactured culture war. The priority is not the economy. It seems to be things like protecting freedom of speech, yet the Tories are the ones who banned schools in England from using sources that are not overtly pro-capitalist. They are cracking down on freedom of assembly and protest. They are privatising Channel 4, when the Culture Secretary did not even know that Channel 4 receives no public money, so the argument is not financial. When we consider, as the hon. Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant) touched on earlier, that the Culture Secretary was once a key focus of a Channel 4 documentary about the influence that Christian fundamentalism has on UK politics, it becomes even more concerning that this decision is political and personal. It is not professional.
Most terrifying of all, however, is that the Government literally want to get rid of the Human Rights Act. That begs the question: for whom do they think rights have gone too far? Do they know how scary it is to sit at home and wonder if it is you—is it your rights that are up for grabs? We have witnessed Windrush. Our economic strategy is to open our doors to the rest of the world when we need their hard work and then chuck them out 50 years later without a word’s notice. We tell our own citizens that their safety cannot be guaranteed in Rwanda, but we are perfectly happy to ship asylum seekers, people fleeing war and persecution, over to Rwanda as though they are cattle to be dealt with by someone else and despite knowing that the plan costs more than it will ever save.
This is just little England elites drunk on the memory of a British empire that no longer exists. We have the lowest pensions in Europe and the lowest sick pay. We pretend the minimum wage is a living wage when it is not. We miss our own economic targets time and again. We are happy to break international law. We are turning into a country where words hold no value.
Over the last 12 years, I fear we have been sleepwalking closer and closer to the F word. I know everyone is scared to say it for fear of sounding over the top or being accused of going too far, but I say this with all sincerity. When I say the F word, I am talking about fascism—fascism wrapped in red, white and blue. You may mock and you may disagree, but fascism does not come in with intentional evil plans or the introduction of leather jackboots. It does not happen like that. It happens subtly. It happens when we see Governments making decisions based on self-preservation, based on cronyism, based on anything that will keep them in power, when we see the concentration of power while avoiding any of the scrutiny or responsibility that comes with that power. It arrives under the guise of respectability and pride, which will then be refused to anyone who is deemed different. It arrives through the othering of people and the normalisation of human cruelty. I do not know how far down that road we are. Time will tell, but the things we do in the name of economic growth—the warning signs are there for everyone else to see, whether they admit it or not.
It is a pleasure to speak in this debate and to support the legislative agenda that the Government set out in the Queen’s Speech. When Harold Macmillan was asked what the greatest challenge facing a statesman was, he famously responded, “Events, dear boy, events”. During my entire time in this place, we have been buffeted by extraordinary, frightening events, not least for our constituents up and down the country, including in my constituency. There has been fear of the health consequences of the global pandemic, as well as its economic consequences on lives and livelihoods, and the pandemic is still having an impact across the globe, notably in China. The effect on supply chains of the covid resurgence in China, including in Shanghai, is also having a devastating economic impact.
We have had to face Russia’s evil and unjustified invasion of Ukraine. Not only have we rightly imposed sanctions, which the whole House supports, but the invasion itself has had an economic impact. The Governor of the Bank of England warned this week at the Treasury Committee of the “apocalyptic” prospects for food prices. He also said clearly that 80% of the causes of inflation was due to global factors. That makes Government intervention very difficult. This is a very challenging time and the cost of living crisis is very challenging for any Government who face it. They are being buffeted by global events.
After listening to some very fine and impassioned speeches from Opposition Members, I cannot help but remember that, if things had gone differently, and if they had had their way, the leader talking to our NATO allies and shepherding this country through these economic and security crises would have been the right hon. Member for Islington North (Jeremy Corbyn) and we would have had a Chancellor who brandished the little red book in this Chamber. So thank goodness—I believe this very strongly—that it is a Conservative Government who have been shepherding this economy and country through unprecedented, back-to-back crises over the past few years and who will continue to do so.
This Government, in shepherding and controlling the economy, have enabled us to support lives and livelihoods for the past few years to the tune of £400 billion. They continue to support people in need with a package currently of £22 billion for measures that include reducing fuel duty, raising national insurance thresholds, increasing the national living wage and others.
The heroes of the pandemic were our doctors, nurses and key workers. The future heroes in this global crisis will be the business owners, the workers in businesses and those who are innovating and starting new businesses. As I see it—I have said this before in the Chamber—that is where the Government’s role is that of a groundsman. It is about setting the pitch and conditions for our bowlers and batsmen to be able to respond to the difficult balls and to knock the easy balls out of the park. I see the context of this Queen’s Speech as one where, as the groundsman, we put in place those conditions, so that our players can play the best game available.
As the Chief Secretary set out, that means dealing with skills, innovation and infrastructure. All those measures are included in the Queen’s Speech: the Levelling-up and Regeneration Bill; the Brexit freedoms Bill; proposals on data reform and financial services to support our critical venture capital industry; the UK Infrastructure Bank Bill; and the higher education Bill. This is a consistent, thought-through package of legislation that will deal with the global and domestic challenges in the years ahead. I absolutely commend it to the House.
It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Hertford and Stortford (Julie Marson). Today, we listened again to the Prime Minister telling us that we had a strong economy, yet when Labour left office only 26,000 people a year were going to food banks and now there are 2.6 million—100 times as many. We heard that 500,000 more people are in work than before the covid pandemic, but according to the ONS there are 444,000 fewer people in work—the Prime Minister conveniently missed out the self-employed. He said, “We are the low-tax party,” but taxes are now at a 50-year high and the Chancellor increased taxes by £40 billion last year. The tax share of GDP is at a level not seen since Attlee, when we were coming out of the second world war and we needed to charge such taxes.
Inflation is at a 40-year high. There is a departmental freeze on spending, so there are savage cuts across the board. [Interruption.] I see the right hon. Member for North East Somerset (Mr Rees-Mogg)—the Minister for Brexit opportunities and Government inefficiency—chattering away, living up to his title in the delivery of inefficiency. The truth is that inflation, ironically, is helping the Government’s revenues. They have a four-year freeze on personal allowances and tax thresholds, which means a creeping increase in tax as people sink into tax thresholds and allowances go down in real terms. They are planning a cynical attempt to drop tax before the next election in 2024 or 2025. That will be gobbled up by that inflationary clawback. People will think that they are getting a tax cut, but will lose twice the amount.
Is there an alternative? The answer, of course, is yes, and the evidence is that in the 10 years to 2008, when Labour was in power, the economy grew by 40%. We did not just give the proceeds away; we used them to double investment in the health service, double investment in education and bring millions of young people and pensioners out of poverty. We bequeathed a debt-to-GDP ratio of 45%; it is now 90%, so the share of debt has doubled. The Institute for Fiscal Studies has said that, if our trend of growth had continued, people would be £11,000 better off than they are today. They would be much more resilient to the global shocks that we have all seen, including Ukraine and covid.
There has been catastrophic mismanagement since 2010. It started with Osborne’s austerity, which simply did not work: it just drove down growth, because people were expecting that they might be one of the 400,000 people he said he was going to sack. We then had the stupidity of hard Brexit, when we decided that we would all be outside the single market. There is no move now for product realignment or a minimum amount of worker movement to allow lower-cost market access, which is what businesses want, so a third of businesses that have been exporting to the EU now say that they will not do it at all.
We have a low-growth, high-cuts, high-tax, wage-cutting Government—a complete failure. I appreciate that a windfall tax is not the complete answer, but let us understand what a windfall tax is. The oil companies worked on a marginal profit that was quite healthy; then, all of a sudden, Putin invaded and there was an escalation in the price and a massive profit over the cost of production that the companies did not do anything to deserve. That is Putin’s profit, and people here deserve it to help them through the hard times that we are going through because we are imposing sanctions. Sanctions, of course, take time; the IMF says that sanctions will cut the Russian economy by 8.5%, but they will not stop a Russian tank. The war needs to be won to sort the situation out, but that is another story.
We certainly need to increase productivity, but the reality is that the Chancellor’s ambition is to bring investment per child in education by 2024 up to Labour’s 2010 levels. Our young people need to be invested in now.
There is talk of everyone having to go back to the office. Indeed, the Minister—that man sitting on the Front Bench—has said, “We have all got to go back to work in the traditional way.” However, a study by the Office for National Statistics shows that there would be a considerable increase in productivity and a delay in retirements if people were allowed to work from home. In particular, women, carers and people looking after families could work flexibly. Furthermore, people being at home for one day in five would take 20% of the traffic and 80% of the congestion off the roads, so we would spend less on roads and it would be carbon-friendly.
This whole approach to productivity, green investment, and cognisance of those matters, is completely ridiculous. Macron, along with Italy and Germany, has asked why we cannot take a more collaborative approach to trade with Britain—and, indeed, bring in Ukraine, because it shares the same values. All we are doing is starting a trade war on the back of the very sensible arrangement that Ireland should be in the single market to protect it. That is what the Government agreed and that is what should continue to operate.
Apart from the economic catastrophe, to which there is a clear solution, I fear that there are attacks on the fundamental rights of democracy. The Queen’s Speech contains all this stuff about reducing the power of an independent judiciary. Obviously the Government are very angry with Miller because the judiciary in that case gave us a vote on the Brexit deal, and they are very angry with the judiciary for allowing democracy to be reconvened after the Prime Minister had tried to abandon it for a long period. The composition of the Supreme Court has been changed and seven of its key decisions have been reversed. It has been intimidated by the media, and by Ministers sitting there slagging it off—particularly, the Lord Chancellor who is supposed to defend it. The average tenure of a Lord Chancellor is now one and a half years; it used to be four years. The Lord Chancellor used to be a senior judge, or a member of the judiciary who was respected, rather than someone who just wants to proceed to the next ministerial position. Our independent judiciary is under attack, our rights are under attack, and our democracy is under attack.
I respect what the hon. Member for Paisley and Renfrewshire South (Mhairi Black) said about the rolling authoritarianism that we see in the contexts of poverty, the economy, and the democracy that we fundamentally are. We are better than this. We deserve better than this. We do not want low growth, large cuts and low wages; we want high growth, and a fairer and stronger economy in the future. Let us roll forward and deliver that—with a Labour Government.
In respect of what the hon. Member for Swansea West (Geraint Davies) said about democracy, one would think that in the current circumstances we would be incredibly careful. We cherish our democracy in this country. Our institutions are strong. Democracy, freedom and the rule of law run through the core of this country, and hearing him observe so flippantly that democracy is under attack, or, earlier, hearing the hon. Member for Paisley and Renfrewshire South (Mhairi Black) suggest that we are descending into something close to fascism—only seconds after saying that words matter—is extremely frustrating.
Will the hon. Gentleman give way?
I am afraid the hon. Lady did not give way to me, so I am going to return the favour.
The Queen’s Speech set out some of the things that we have needed to do for a long time for the purpose of economic growth. I am thinking particularly of the Levelling-up and Regeneration Bill, which offers several solutions for Bolsover, Derbyshire, and the east midlands in general. That part of the country has struggled since its former industry, coalmining, has diminished. What we have needed for a long time is a new economic settlement. Behind the figures relating to our local economy we see a great many low-skilled and low-wage jobs, and we are not reaching the potential that we have as a region. According to one of the most indicative statistics, the investment going into the east midlands, whether private or public, is much lower than the investment going into other regions.
One option that the Levelling-up and Regeneration Bill presents us with is a devolution settlement. Over the last two years in this Parliament, I have been lucky enough to be Parliamentary Private Secretary to the Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, and I have had insights into how various colleagues engage with Ministers here. One of the most striking things has been that regional Mayors work. They work as a way in which the private sector and the Government can engage with a particular area and help to bring investment, jobs, skills and education to it.
Unfortunately, the east midlands is fighting with one hand tied behind its back when it comes to competing with London, Manchester, the west midlands, South Yorkshire and Teesside. It is undoubtedly true that the Mayors of those areas are having a huge impact; they are becoming household names across the country. Anyone who wants to invest in the east midlands will have to speak to at least one county council, at least one district council and almost certainly the local enterprise partnership, which becomes cumbersome. Anyone who wants to invest in the west midlands can ring Andy Street’s office, and that is a much easier process. Andy Street can then pick up the phone and talk to whoever he needs to talk to. Within this Queen’s Speech and this Bill, we can find various ways for powers to descend to our regions, and that will empower us to create more economic growth locally.
Another thing that I am pleased to see in the Queen’s Speech, again in the Levelling-up and Regeneration Bill, relates to planning. For too long, there has been frustration that when housing comes to Bolsover, either it is through a salami-slicing approach of adding five or six houses to a village or it is a huge new estate that does not get the investment in the public services that need to come with it, such as a GP surgery or local school. We have a problem in that demand for those public services has gone up. The outline for the planning reforms is very strong, and if we are looking at levelling up an area such as Bolsover, we need to improve education and skills levels. We need to be able to bring skilled jobs to the area; we need affordable, quality housing; and we need to be able to bring in infrastructure that is fit for the 21st century.
There is an admirable line on public transport, which is that the Government would like to get the rest of the country’s transport connectivity much closer to the standard of London’s. I do not expect Bolsover to get an underground system any time soon, but I suggest to the Transport Secretary that we would accept just a few new bus routes that actually work and that run beyond 7 o’clock in the evening. I admire the emphasis on ensuring that we have public transport, because the groups most impacted by a lack of it are the elderly, students and younger people, and those on low incomes. It is hard to generate economic growth without good public transport.
I am looking forward tremendously to the Schools Bill, because there are many positive things in it, but one of my great frustrations is that we have no post-16 education in Bolsover. That requires everybody to travel out, but our bus services are not fit for purpose.
I will end on this, Madam Deputy Speaker, because unlike some others, I will stick to six minutes. I very much welcome the conversion therapy Bill. The Government will know that I think it needs to go further, and I hope that that will happen. A number of colleagues have fought incredibly hard to ensure that this issue remains on the agenda, and I doff my cap to them because this is incredibly important and something that we should put an end to in the 21st century.
The Queen’s Speech presents the Government of the day with an opportunity to stand back, take stock and realign their priorities. There are aspects of the new legislative programme that are welcome, and aspects that are less so. Most concerning are the things that are missing from it altogether. I will start with levelling up. Regardless of any personal views we might hold about the intricacies of the agenda or how it is implemented, I am sure that most of us would agree that the principle of targeted and meaningful local investment is not a bad thing. Each one of us could point to projects in our constituency that not only deserve such investment but would return it tenfold.
There is an enormous patch of derelict land at Shawfield in my constituency that had been vacant for decades. Opportunity was wasted because the land suffered from the big problem that, until recent years, nobody had the patience or the vision to invest the time and money to fix its contamination with hexavalent chromium, a carcinogenic chemical—anyone who has seen the movie “Erin Brockovich” will know how dangerous it is.
Remediating the site will cost tens of millions of pounds. Clyde Gateway, a publicly backed community regeneration project that reinvests its profits in new projects, has taken on this mammoth task. It has already remediated huge amounts of land, but the majority of the site is still unusable. The location is perfect, and Clyde Gateway has already proved with its redevelopment of remediated land that it is profitable. The site would serve as an excellent hub outside the Glasgow city centre boundary for businesses and residents alike. I have even heard rumours that the Cabinet Office has looked at some of the remediated land to house its offices.
The project is a no-brainer, and I hope it is successful in bidding for the levelling-up fund. It will transform the local economy, but it needs vision and funding. Through my extensive conversations with the executive director of Clyde Gateway over the years, I have found that funding streams such as the levelling-up pot pose their own challenges. Although it is vital to ensure that public money is not frittered away, being too prescriptive stifles the ability to access and use the money to its fullest potential. I encourage the Government to consider how different project types, such as Shawfield, might be even more successful and economically beneficial to communities if their funding streams have more flexible criteria. Of course, the most important thing is to make sure that the levelling-up fund is distributed equitably across the four nations to projects that will bring the most economic value.
I am glad to see the Government finally bring forward plans for community access to cash, an issue on which I have bored Treasury Ministers to tears, as the most vulnerable in our communities are the most reliant on physical cash. Although we have accelerated our progress towards low reliance on cash over the past two years, it remains essential to protect cash and restore ease of access.
I look forward to the proposals on the sustainability of the ATM system, making sure all ATMs are free to customers without risking the affordability of maintenance for providers. I am also interested to see more of the measures on consumer rights and protections and the economic crime Bill, which is increasingly crucial at a time when people have less, if any, disposable income.
I spoke last week about Safe Hands funeral plans and the devastating impact of the company’s collapse on victims who face losing thousands of pounds they simply cannot afford to lose. I agree that strengthening this area of our statute book is essential. We need strong reform of limited partnerships and the role of Companies House, although I reserve judgment on the efficacy of the Government’s proposals until the details become clearer.
I am also eager to see the energy security Bill. It is high time—to be honest, it is too late—that the Government addressed the price crisis that is hitting households so hard. Over the past few months, this issue has been high on the list of reasons for constituents to seek support from my office. It has been so frustrating to see the Government offer so little to help the millions who are struggling to keep up. It is not just households, either: there is currently no price cap for businesses, and smaller businesses are finding themselves at real financial risk. The Government advertise themselves as the party of business, so they must do more to back up that claim.
There are quite a few Bills that we need to see in detail as soon as possible, including the Brexit freedoms Bill to address retained EU law, the Bill of Rights and the national security Bill.
I said I would return to the things that are missing from the Queen’s Speech, and I will focus on a big one. This year’s Queen’s Speech skirted neatly around the very large elephant in the room—an elephant that, for some reason, the Government are determined to ignore. At the very least, they do not want to make eye contact with it, perhaps because they know that, at the end of the day, they can leave the metaphorical room. Everyone else though—our constituents, the taxpayers and voters—is stuck in that room, eye to eye with the elephant, every single day. The room gets tighter, conditions worsen and the walls are constantly closing in. There is no sunlight and, seemingly, no escape. The Government failed to adequately account for the single biggest, most immediate and pressing crisis this country is facing: the cost of living. We are all acutely aware of it, and colleagues on Benches across the House will agree that we are fortunate that we do not feel it in quite the same way as many of our constituents do. The only way to achieve economic growth is to invest in our people. The Government are not doing enough of that, and that is incredibly short sighted.
It is a pleasure to take part in this debate, which has ranged over the entire Queen’s Speech in the past four hours. It has been interesting to hear Opposition Members make the case both for tax rises and for tax cuts, and I enjoyed the case made on the lack of desirability of economic growth. I am in the camp where economic growth is largely a good thing, although this is not without some reservations in certain circumstances.
I serve on the Treasury Committee, where we take evidence from a range of different economists the whole time. The good news is that the UK economy is fundamentally strong. However, we have had too low growth for too long, and we are facing unprecedented challenges, as many people have mentioned. We have had a pandemic and a war, and before that we had a global financial crisis. Someone described the Chancellor as the “unlucky Chancellor” and that is absolutely true, as he has faced greater challenges than any Chancellor since probably the second world war, but he has dealt admirably with the challenges thrown at him. We have inflation at a 40-year high, which is causing a lot of challenges to a lot of households, as we have been hearing this afternoon. But that it not purely a UK thing; it is a global inflation crisis.
I wish to put on record my continued support for Bank of England independence. The Governor of the Bank of England appeared before the Treasury Committee earlier this week, and various media reports questioned that independence, saying, “This shows that the Bank of England cannot be trusted with inflation.” That is not true. Monetary policy was never suited to and never aimed at dealing with the current global supply shock—it is not the right tool. That does not mean that the system we have for the Bank of England is not working. It has worked very well over the past 25 years and the way to judge it is whether it brings inflation back in the next year or two to the 2%.
One mystery in economics at the moment, as we find in our Treasury Committee hearings, is how well the economy is going. Two years ago, when the pandemic started, we had all these apocalyptic—that word has come back into fashion—forecasts about the economy and how we were going to have the deepest recession ever, and that unemployment would go back up to 1980s levels of 3 million or so. As various Members have mentioned, however, unemployment is now at a historic low—it is at its lowest since 1974. For the first time ever, we have more vacancies than people who are unemployed and claiming benefit. We need to work hard to make sure that those unemployed people get into those vacancies. Obviously, we still have a big budget deficit, but that is getting managed down, and taxes are heading up. I am with my right hon. Friends the Members for Epsom and Ewell (Chris Grayling) and for Gainsborough (Sir Edward Leigh) on the case they made that taxes are too high and should come down. That must be the medium-term trajectory.
A lot of this afternoon’s debate has been about the cost of living. I do not want to reiterate a lot of the points that have been made, so I will focus on the title of the debate, “Achieving economic growth”. There are reasons for that; a lot of the problems we face as a country could be solved by higher economic growth. It leads to higher incomes, which helps with the cost of living, and to higher tax receipts, which helps with funding tax cuts. That is why I welcome the Government’s drive to promote economic growth. I keep saying that their priority should be, “Growth, growth, growth”. The Chief Secretary highlighted the Government’s strategy of improving skills, infrastructure and innovation, and I fully support that. Obviously, many of the measures needed to promote economic growth are fiscal—they are related to taxes—and are reserved for a Budget rather than a Queen’s Speech. For example, in the spring statement the Government outlined their ambition to use tax cuts to promote business investment. Those measures will be enacted in the autumn Budget, which is welcome.
Many measures in the Gracious Speech will drive up national productivity in the medium or longer term. The education reforms and investment in skills that others have talked about, the transport improvements, and the reforms to the planning system will all help to promote economic growth. I want to focus, though, on the Bills that are aimed directly at businesses, about which not many people have talked. There are 38 Bills in the Queen’s Speech and many of them relate directly to businesses or specific industries.
The digital markets, competition and consumer Bill is most welcome. The almost duopolistic grip of Google and Facebook on electronic advertising is not good for businesses, competition, innovation or consumers. Google frequently reforms its algorithms in ways that are detrimental to ordinary businesses that rely on online advertising. They are forced to pay for expensive adverts if they want to reach their customers. Google also sets itself up in competition with businesses in a way that shows a clear conflict of interest and that damages innovation. For example, Google directs those who search “cheap flights to New York” to its own flight-comparison service rather than to independent companies such as Skyscanner or Expedia.
The Government are absolutely right to give the Competition and Markets Authority powers to protect consumers, ensure the integrity of digital markets and stop market abuse by dominant players. It is, though, a fiendishly complex policy area, and the law will work only if the new digital markets unit in the CMA is properly funded and can offer competitive salaries for highly skilled staff, so that they are not immediately poached by industry—in the same way that the Financial Conduct Authority can offer sufficient pay to make sure its staff are not lured away by the City.
The UK Infrastructure Bank Bill is long overdue. I used to work at Morgan Stanley investment bank, which does a lot of infrastructure finance, and not only is it often very complex, but there are limits to the risks that any private bank can take on in respect of massive projects. The power of the state is needed to arrange suitable financing. When I worked at City Hall in London, I was involved in sorting out the finance for Crossrail—or the Elizabeth line, as it is now known—and I really look forward to riding it next week. London was lucky to have the highly skilled finance team at Transport for London to help to arrange the financing for that £20 billion project, but most infrastructure projects do not come with such pre-formed finance teams. We need to leverage different forms of finance, including by attracting private investment, and there is a clearly defined role for the UK Infrastructure Bank, but, as with the digital markets unit and Bill, the proof will be in the delivery. It is essential not only that the UK Infrastructure Bank can operate independently from political pressures, but that it is funded so that it can attract high-quality staff.
On the non-domestic rating Bill, the business rates system is a massive source of complaints—often justified—from businesses and needs to be modernised. The Bill will do that, but let me float one little thought. A cap on business rates of 10% of a company’s declared turnover would help start-up companies and a lot of smaller businesses without damaging the revenue received from larger companies. I am sure the devil will be in the details, but it is worth the Treasury considering that.
On the genetic technology Bill, such technology is very big in my constituency—I probably have more genetic and genomic companies locally than any other constituency. The Bill is a huge opportunity for us, and it is quite possibly a Brexit opportunity, too. It is about not genetically modified organisms but gene editing, which is very different. It is about speeding up the breeding that happens naturally.
We should have introduced an electronic trade documents Bill before. I cannot believe it requires legislation, but it will slip through Parliament quickly.
My hon. Friend the Member for Rugby (Mark Pawsey) mentioned the audit reform Bill—I think he has been the only one to do so. Everyone in finance knows that there is a major problem with auditing. It has always been in the “too difficult” box, the “too complex” box or the “I just don’t understand it” box. Thank God it is now being addressed, because we need that Bill to stop the series of scandals that have happened as a result of bad auditing.
On the Procurement Bill, I was heavily involved in procurement when I worked at City Hall, and the EU rules on public sector procurement that we inherited were horrendously over-engineered to stop abuse across 28 different countries with 28 different procurement cultures and so on. They are a severe constraint on an effective and efficient public sector—often, the Government cannot deliver what they want because of procurement rules—and we absolutely need to streamline them.
Finally, the financial services and markets Bill is a huge piece of legislation. We have looked at it a lot in the Treasury Committee, and I look forward to taking part in the debates on it when it comes to the House. It is the UK’s dirty secret that we had far more influence on the EU’s financial services legislation than any other EU member. That legislation is therefore not that bad overall, but compromises were often made, which meant that in a lot of ways it is not appropriate for a global financial centre such as the UK. We can make many reforms to it that will help our global competitiveness.
There are real issues for Parliament here. It is right to give regulators more powers, absolutely, rather than relying on everything being in primary and statutory legislation, but that means that regulators must have more effective scrutiny. Parliament is not currently set up to do that, and we need to agree on how we can more effectively hold financial regulators to account.
Overall, the Queen’s Speech has a very wide package of measures to promote business, help consumers and drive up economic growth, and I strongly recommend it to the House.
Today, I wish to focus on three key issues. The first is the cost of living crisis, which is the No. 1 issue facing the country. My constituents in Coventry North West have suffered months of sky-rocketing fuel bills, soaring inflation and hikes at the petrol pump. Sadly, this has been met by a carefree response from this Conservative Government whose policies are pushing many below the poverty line.
The crisis has been hitting my constituents hard since last summer, yet the Government are still not adequately supporting them. When I surveyed hundreds of my constituents recently, a massive 88% said that they did not expect their income to keep up with rising energy bills. Despite that, none of the 38 Bills outlined in the Queen’s Speech offered any specific or effective measures to tackle the cost of living crisis. That is why the Government must accept Labour’s plan to introduce a windfall tax on gas and oil companies that have reported record profits, and that would go a long way to providing a cut to energy bills of up to £600 per household. The Government must finally wake up to the urgency of the crisis on the ground.
Secondly, I wish to speak about planning rules and new housing developments, and the impact that they are having on certain communities. Across the communities of Holbrook, Allesley, Keresley, and Eastern Green in my constituency of Coventry North West, many of my constituents have real and heartfelt anxieties about the impact of large-scale new development and its devastating impact on greenbelt land.
For years now, I have heard constituents warning that the current planning rules are not fit for purpose. They say that they currently serve developers’ greed and do nothing to address the needs of local people and those who are most impacted. In Coventry, this means that the wrong type of houses are being built. They are built in the wrong part of the city and, eventually, are sold at an unaffordable price. From start to finish, the system is a mess and it is broken. Tens of thousands of new homes have been imposed on my city of Coventry in recent years, against the wishes of residents and their elected councillors.
Equally, the rules concerning new developments do nothing to guarantee that new homes will come with the necessary added infrastructure. That means that large-scale housing developments are being built without the necessary infrastructure, such as decent public transport, good-quality broadband connectivity, improved roads, green spaces, and extra local services, such as schools and GP surgeries.
What we have heard so far from the Queen’s Speech goes nowhere near reaching the key issues affecting my constituents. What we have are mere gestures towards a more democratic planning system, which will not fix the problems in Coventry or elsewhere across the country.
My final issue concerns healthcare and the future of our beloved NHS. Our NHS is struggling to keep up with increased and more complex demands, and it is finding it increasingly difficult to clear the backlog created by the pandemic. Let us look at our ambulance service as an example. In the west midlands, ambulance services are receiving more 999 calls than at any time in history, and yet, simultaneously, our region is facing crippling ambulance shortages. In my own city of Coventry, just days ago, a woman suffering from a heart attack had to wait two-and-a-half hours for the ambulance to show up. That is heartbreaking and it cannot go on. However, this is only part of the problem. Health services in the community are at breaking point following the failure of successive Conservative Governments to recruit more GPs and to roll out additional GP surgeries. Every morning, dozens of my constituents have to wait on the phone line, often for up to an hour, just to try to book an appointment with their GP. Too often, when they finally get through to somebody at their surgery, they find that all the appointments are booked up or that the next available appointment is not for weeks.
Frustratingly, although the Government have already admitted that they will fail to fulfil their pledge to recruit 6,000 extra GPs by 2024, and although those shortages are making life exceedingly difficult for many of my constituents, there was nothing announced in the Queen’s Speech to tackle this health crisis. Labour, however, has a very clear plan. We would make reducing waiting times and boosting staffing numbers in our NHS a top priority in government. Until this Government understand its importance, the problem will not go away.
One subject that was outlined in Queen’s Speech was women’s health, but, like so many other critical issues, it got empty words and no concrete promises. Many women continue to face appalling healthcare inequalities. For example, more than half a million women face horrendously long waiting times for gynaecology care.
The Government have repeatedly promised to prioritise addressing women’s health issues with a long-awaited women’s health strategy. However, they have failed again and again to deliver that strategy. It was meant to be delivered by Christmas last year, but that never happened, and we are still waiting for it five months later. If the Government genuinely want to do right by women’s health, they must urgently publish a comprehensive and intersectional women’s health strategy. Until then, they will continue to fail in their duty to provide world-class healthcare to every woman in this country.
This Tory Government have been in power for over 12 years now, and they appear to have entirely run out of energy and ideas. Whether on the cost of living crisis, housing or healthcare, the Government are first to deliver a soundbite, but last to deliver the lasting changes that the people of this country need. This Queen’s Speech should have been the opportunity to address some of the many complex challenges that we face. Instead, it was yet another demonstration of the Government’s disinterest in delivering for my constituents in Coventry North West. They, and the people of this country, deserve so much better.
Order. The wind-ups will start no later than 6.30 pm, so six minutes, please. I am not imposing the time limit, but you will be really unfair to whoever is coming last if you do more.
It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Coventry North West (Taiwo Owatemi). She made a typically punchy and political speech with much to disagree on.
I do agree with the hon. Member on her diagnosis of the current issues with the planning system. There the agreement stops, however, because I am optimistic about the solutions proposed to democratise the system and make planning fairer and more transparent. There is much more work to do getting stuck into the detail, but optimism trumps pessimism on this account.
Planning and development is not the only challenge this country faces, of course. We have dealt with many challenges—the biggest challenges facing our country in living memory—and it has been the innovation of our people, our Government and our businesses that has got us through it. My hon. Friend the Member for Rugby (Mark Pawsey), who is not in his place now, pointed out earlier that private sector innovation is key to unlocking economic growth, the subject of this debate. Government innovation also helped us to get through the crisis. Both the unprecedented furlough scheme and the brilliant kickstart scheme, put together in a targeted, interventionist way, have helped us to become the fastest-growing economy in the G7 and to build back better.
I am glad to see that this innovative thinking has continued through Her Majesty’s Gracious Speech. Importantly, that innovation will drive up skills and economic growth in my Milton Keynes North constituency, truly putting us on the map as the Silicon Valley of Europe. I understand that that is a bold claim to make: how can we compete with the tech giants of the United States? However, it would be unwise to underestimate the people and the businesses of Milton Keynes. In Milton Keynes we have a proud record of harnessing innovation, entrepreneurialism and creativity to tackle the challenges of the modern world.
We are home to many exciting technological innovations such as driverless car trials. We therefore welcome the transport Bill and the unashamedly pro-technology approach that the Government are taking. The transport Bill will truly revolutionise the way we travel, bringing the benefits to the environment and to people. For those who are vulnerable in our communities—who struggle with mobility or their sight—self-driving vehicles will be transformative, connecting them to the outside world and ensuring their independence. With the UK market set to be worth about £41 billion by 2030—that is 6.4% of the global market, so we can have a bigger slice of that pie—it is vital that the United Kingdom leads the way in the development of this technology. The transport Bill will be the first step to doing that.
But if we are truly to look towards the future, I hope that the Bill can go further. Those who have visited Milton Keynes, or indeed heard me bang on about Milton Keynes in the past few years, will have seen or heard of our much-loved Starship robots buzzing along our streets delivering our groceries—food, coffees, and even beers to a barbecue, if you happen to run out of beers, as in my experience. They may be small in stature but they are mighty in the positive impact that that they have. They have not only supported local business but helped to solve the problems of the last mile of delivery—the most expensive and carbon-intensive part of the supply chain. These robots have helped to remove nearly 400,000 kg of carbon from the atmosphere and have taken over three quarters of a million miles of car journeys off the roads in Milton Keynes. I encourage the Minister to ensure that the scope of the transport Bill supports and enables the expansion of companies such as Starship, bringing us closer to our net zero targets and our ambition to embrace the technologies of the future.
Yet if we hope to see this technology in action and being a success, we need to ensure that we have the skills and jobs to sustain it. The best way to do this is through investing in and levelling up our education. Whether through the Schools Bill or through the lifetime skills guarantee, this Government are providing people of all ages and backgrounds with the right opportunities to succeed. While it is right that we provide those opportunities, I urge the Government also to consider investing in the institutions that will be able to deliver the teaching of these vital skills. We need to teach the skills for the jobs that we cannot even conceive of yet. Those institutions include Milton Keynes University—a pioneer in the education field. MKU represents a new approach to higher education that is designed with business and for business to give students the skills and knowledge they need to meet the needs of our local economy, both now and in future. Degree apprenticeships in robot engineering or cyber-security may seem alien now to some of us in this House, but these graduates will be leading the charge in future years. With that in mind, I implore colleagues in the Treasury to consider the case for MKU more thoroughly, as it will transform our economy at both a local and a national level.
I truly feel that this will be a critical year for Milton Keynes, as we are expected to have one of the UK’s fastest-growing economies over the next two years, but to maximise that growth, we must invest in the skills, technologies and institutions of the future.
It is a pleasure to speak in my first Queen’s Speech debate.
The Prime Minister likes to pose as a man of action, but where in this Queen’s Speech is the bold and transformational action needed to tackle the most pressing and urgent crisis facing people across the country—the cost of living, as we have heard many times over the past few days? Families in my constituency do not want vague promises of help to come some time, maybe. They do not want to be patronised and told that things will be better in a few years’ time. They need an emergency Budget now, with immediate help to reduce their bills along with a plan for growth that offers them financial security for the long term. People struggling day to day and week to week are being let down by a Government presiding over a low-growth, high-inflation, high-tax economy. The Government talk about levelling up, but in reality they are hammering our communities down with an ever greater financial burden that shows no sign of easing.
Hardly a day goes by without one Minister or another on our TV screens showing just how out of touch they are with the people of this country. People are facing real hardship, unable to pay bills, skipping meals, turning the heating off and relying on food banks to survive, all of which are taking a real toll on their mental health. I have been contacted by suicide prevention organisations in my constituency that are busier than ever. Indeed, I have just been to a powerful event with Mr Speaker and the brilliant band New Order, organised by my hon. Friend the Member for Bristol East (Kerry McCarthy), as today is the 42nd anniversary of the tragic suicide of Ian Curtis.
What do Ministers say to people who are struggling? They say, “Try and get a different job”, or “Work more hours”, or “Eat own brand food”. Unpaid carers and people on fixed-term pensions cannot change jobs or do an extra shift. The Government add insult to injury by writing off £11.8 billion in fraud and error. It was their error, not that of our constituents. It is insulting, it exposes their own inaction, and it shows their total inability as a Government to put in place an economic plan that can work for all the people
of this country.
While the poorest households are being hit hardest, many families who until recently thought they were reasonably secure now also feel incredibly vulnerable. A serving police officer in my constituency got in touch with me recently. He is on a decent wage, but due to the huge increases in his essential outgoings, by the end of the month he faces the prospect of not being able to afford to put petrol in his car. He searches the aisles of the supermarket for yellow-stickered discounted food for his kids, and they share bathwater to cut down on costs. When he gets to work, he sees the wider impact of the crisis with the soaring number of emergency mental health incidents he has to attend, and he is not alone.
A family of four with both parents in full-time employment emailed me, scared for their future. They are struggling, and through no fault of their own, they are relying on credit cards and facing a battle just to reach payday. What hope are we offering them and their kids? There is nothing today, and they face the prospect of their already tight family budget being stretched to breaking point by inflation and wages failing to keep up with rising prices.
On the Opposition Benches, we believe in putting in place the urgent steps needed to provide an economy that allows the benefits of higher growth and investment to be shared by all, and not just the privileged, and an economy based on fair taxation, where loopholes are closed, and those who make huge profits while their customers are hit with ever higher bills—such as the producers of North sea oil and gas—are asked to contribute more, which is something they themselves say they are ready to do. I am not anti-business—far from it—but we need a fairer economy that brings good jobs into our communities and puts pride back into our towns, but this Queen’s Speech did not provide the vision, the ambition or the foundations for an economy that will work for the people of Batley and Spen and the people of this country.
I will always try to be fair to Ministers, although they do not always make it easy. There were Bills in this Queen’s Speech that address some important issues, such as online safety, victims, schools and mental health, and I look forward to debating them in this Chamber, but until we address the most pressing issue of the day—the highest inflation and greatest pressure on living standards in a generation—we are letting down our constituents when they need us most and widening the economic gaps that are holding our communities back. That is why I am calling on the Government to take some action, show some urgency and show some compassion to tackle the very real cost of living crisis that so many of our constituents are facing.
It is a pleasure to contribute to this debate this afternoon and to follow the hon. Member for Batley and Spen (Kim Leadbeater). I will reserve my comments on achieving economic growth to the rural areas of the United Kingdom. I particularly advocate for my constituency of West Dorset.
The Queen’s Speech contained a number of welcome Bills, including the Levelling-up and Regeneration Bill, the transport Bill, the Procurement Bill and, importantly, the Animal Welfare (Kept Animals) Bill.
West Dorset is a very rural constituency, covering 400 square miles. Thirty per cent. of the population is over 65 and one in 12 is over 80. Eighty-five per cent. of all our funding comes from local taxation, and two thirds of our council tax goes to support those needing social care. It is constituencies such as mine that have a really strong requirement for regeneration and levelling up in a way that sometimes this House does not quite recognise. The default view of West Dorset is that it is a particularly well-off place, but I can tell the House that many parts are far from it. West Dorset is in as much need as anywhere of levelling up, especially as we are one of the few authorities to have zero revenue support grant, despite having one of the highest council tax rates in the country.
I am particularly pleased that my right hon. Friend the Minister for Brexit Opportunities is on the Treasury Bench this afternoon. I was delighted to welcome him to West Dorset just a few weeks ago to talk about some of the challenges and difficulties we face. In West Dorset, 97% of our businesses are small or micro-sized. The pandemic was very harsh to us: 6,500 very small businesses existed before the pandemic; 5,500 are there now. So I was delighted to learn from my right hon. Friend that the procurement Bill will help those very small and micro-sized businesses to tap into the procurement system. For far too long, those businesses have been held back from accessing that system because of bureaucracy or European rules and legislation. Such things as approved suppliers lists will, I understand, be reviewed. I think that will mean an enormous amount to constituencies such as mine, with such a high proportion of small and micro-sized businesses.
Many in this House know that, for 20 years before I was elected in 2019, I worked for the railways. That is one of the reasons I am delighted to see the transport Bill feature in the Queen’s Speech. Bus and rail services have also been a contentious matter in West Dorset. I have the worst frequency rail line in the country—a three-hourly train frequency—that many often do not recognise. Inter-regional rail connectivity is also very poor, which is another reason I am delighted that we will have a transport Bill that will reform the railways and bring lots of opportunity and in particular take full advantage of regional connectivity, meaning that, where we see franchise boundaries precluding sensible cross-regional connectivity measures, we will have the opportunity to fully review those.
West Dorset is a very agricultural area as well. Agriculture plays an enormous part in the local economy. For that reason, and as a farmer’s son, I am delighted to see that the Animal Welfare (Kept Animals) Bill will be coming back in this parliamentary Session. It contains a lot of important measures that I would have liked us to have dealt with before, but I am pleased that it is to come back. Animal worrying is a considerable problem for our sheep farmers in and around West Dorset, and the Bill will put the responsibility on dog owners to keep their dogs under control. I hope that, during our debates on the Bill, we will also discuss the unnecessary non-stun slaughter of animals for supply chain purposes.
I am delighted to be able to support the Queen’s Speech. I am pleased that my right hon. Friend the Minister for Brexit Opportunities is present to hear my points and to reiterate the conversation we had when he visited West Dorset. I commend the Queen’s Speech to the House.
Like the hon. Member for Batley and Spen (Kim Leadbeater), this is my first Queen’s Speech debate. For a Queen’s Speech delivered during a cost of living crisis, this year’s address was regrettably notable for its lack of urgency or solutions. As we have all been hearing, inflation is now at 9%—the highest in over 40 years—and people are struggling to imagine how they can make ends meet, let alone make it. The notion that people can solve the crisis by taking cookery classes or working longer hours is as tone deaf as it is offensive.
The Government talk a lot about levelling up, but in my constituency we see vital local services disappearing before our eyes. I could talk about the loss of multiple bank branches locally, or about protracted postal delays due to Ofcom’s failure to hold Royal Mail to its universal service requirements, but as I only have a short amount of time, I will focus my remarks on questions that cannot afford to be ignored.
With their commitment to making streets safer, I had hoped that the Government would pay some attention to local policing. They talk a good game about their commitment to recruit extra police officers, yet in our local force—Thames Valley police—we were promised an additional 609 officers by the end of May 2023; instead, they were down 29 officers in 2021. This is why I was particularly disappointed to hear that, rather than focusing on provision to improve local policing, the Home Office plans to spend this parliamentary Session attempting to force through draconian legislation that was so recently rejected during consideration of the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill.
On future development, my constituents made no secret of their distaste for the Government’s previous planning White Paper. As such, I am glad that the Government appear to have heard the voices of the people of Chesham and Amersham and dropped those proposals. Having been made to think again, the Government are now looking to give communities more say over developments in their area. I only hope that the results live up to the billing.
I am pleased to see that there will be more emphasis on environmental considerations within that legislation. Without a doubt, the planning system plays a big part in protecting our natural environment. However, I am disappointed at the lack of stand-alone environmental legislation. In the UK, some areas of outstanding natural beauty are in decline, yet we are continuing to destroy unique and precious habitats, ancient woodlands and globally scarce chalk streams in my constituency alone. If we are to halt this decline and protect our environment for future generations, we need specific protections to do so. I have previously suggested a special designation and enhanced protection for chalk streams, and I again urge the Government to consider that.
Finally, on transport, the Government have committed to improve reliability for passengers, but I am sure fellow Buckinghamshire Members will share my disappointment that our local council received no funding for bus service improvement plans. I ask the Government what their plan is to improve transport connectivity in regions such as ours which were overlooked. The neglect of Chesham and Amersham’s transport services is particularly ironic given that our community is obliged to watch as ever-increasing amounts of money are poured into the HS2 project, which brings nothing to our area but pollution, congestion and destruction. The Government’s blinkered approach means they are simply ploughing on ahead, despite spiralling costs and an environmental impact far greater than estimated. I urge the Government, before the High Speed Rail (Crewe—Manchester) Bill is brought before this place, to please pause, assess the damage already done and undertake a fresh cost-benefit analysis of the project that takes into consideration the many changes that have occurred since hon. Members regrettably consented to it.
That was well within six minutes—well done.
I rise to support the Queen’s Speech, its 38 Bills and its broad legislative agenda. I thought the opening paragraph of my speech would not be too disagreeable, but after listening to some of the comments this afternoon, I still firmly believe that efficiently managing our economy and stimulating growth is absolutely a key priority that this Government should be helping us through, in what will undoubtedly be one of the most challenging scenarios of the last 75 years.
I think we are all in absolutely no doubt about the challenges ahead, but rather than dwell on those challenges, what we need to be doing when we debate achieving economic growth is talking about confidence—confidence in our economy and confidence in our businesses—because that is what they absolutely need. As constituency MPs, we have a fundamental duty, I feel, to be talking about confidence in our own representative communities, including confidence to invest and confidence to recruit into a market where opportunities are plentiful. We have heard many times this afternoon that we have more jobs than we have ever had before for people. We have the lowest unemployment since the 1970s. We have to have the confidence that people can go out there and that businesses can match them with the skills they are looking for. Then we will drive the growth agenda that we need. That is what is expected, and what is indeed happening, in my rural constituency of North Norfolk.
Rather like with buses, Mr Deputy Speaker, you sit here for nearly five hours and nobody talks about the rural economy, and then my hon. Friend the Member for West Dorset (Chris Loder) comes along—not that I would ever liken him to a bus. When we stimulate local growth, we foster and support thriving communities. That does not just apply to towns and cities; it also applies to rural areas and North Norfolk is just one of those areas set to benefit. What better place can Members think of than somewhere with swathes of glorious rolling countryside, sprinkled with picturesque towns and villages? Businesses are making a significant contribution to local and national economic growth, and the east is a net contributor to the economy—to the Chancellor and the Treasury. We should not forget that.
We should also recognise that the pandemic has taught us many things. Remote working has changed everything. Places such as my beautiful constituency have never before provided the kind of work-life balance that the pandemic has opened our eyes to. It is estimated that rural businesses across the country make up 28% of England’s firms and contribute at least 19% of gross value added to the English economy. Rural areas have more business start-ups per head of population than many urban areas, and most have enormous amounts of manufacturing businesses. Those businesses can be small, medium or large, but all of them contribute immensely to the surrounding areas and the national economy.
Whenever I have talked about levelling up, I have said that we must not forget our rural areas. I want to show that there is confidence in the future, and so does a serial entrepreneur called William Sachiti, who is the real leader here—I notice that my hon. Friend the Member for Milton Keynes North (Ben Everitt) has disappeared, but it is interesting that this issue has been brought up twice in the space of half an hour. William Sachiti is a tech entrepreneur who is relocating the headquarters of his robotics company, Academy of Robotics, to a former military base in my constituency in quite literally the middle of nowhere. In doing so, he is placing the vanguard of driverless vehicle technology and development in my county. Many have already described the company as the closest thing we have to Tesla in the UK.
If there is a better way of demonstrating that we can achieve economic growth through the suite of Bills in the Queens’ Speech than the businesses opening in my constituency, I do not know what it is. This business, which has already been valued at $100 million, will deliver the benefits of high-skilled jobs and bring real talent into my constituency.
I hope that goes some way towards showing how integral rural areas are to our economy. They are quite often the economic drivers of growth. As we move out of the pandemic, it is vital that we recognise that and the inherent potential of businesses in the rural economy, and realise that there are no barriers any more to where people can start a business and enable it to thrive. Just like levelling up, economic growth is not the preserve of metropolitan areas any more but for the whole country. I know that the Government will deliver on this.
There is something liberating about coming in at nearly the end of the debate, Mr Deputy Speaker. Knowing that you do not have much time to get your points across, you tend to get right to it, so I will.
I want to talk about not only economic growth, which we all understand the importance of, but the sustainability of that growth and the type of economy that it seeks to create, which is similar to what the hon. Member for Norwich South (Clive Lewis) was talking about earlier in the debate.
The cost of living is the order of the day, as it should be, but for all the talk of economic shocks and external factors that we cannot avoid, many of the largest price rises have come in areas where the Government on these islands have decided they no longer have a role to play, abdicating their national responsibility. I think in particular of energy storage and transportation—I say that as my attention has been to the news that Russia has decided to stop energy exports to Finland the day after it announced its intention to join NATO. That decision was met with a shrug by the Finns, who had been planning for such an eventuality and have avoided the Russian energy trap that so many other European states have sleepwalked into. Resilience is built into Finnish society, and its economy plays as much of a role in the defence of the homeland as its military. That is key to avoiding the temptation to fall back on the easy gains of what some call balance-sheet capitalism.
If the House will indulge me, I will quote a paragraph from the introduction to Brett Christophers’ excellent overview of the modern UK economy, “Rentier Capitalism”, which nicely encapsulates the quandary that this place will find itself in when trying to legislate for inclusive and sustained growth:
“A form of capitalism geared principally to doing pays heed to the balance sheet only to the extent that assets facilitate and liabilities mitigate profitable making or providing, or whatever else a business does. For a form of capitalism structured by contrast around ‘having’—rentier capitalism, in other words: a mode of economic organisation in which success is based principally on what you control, not what you do—the balance sheet is the be-all and end-all.”
In this political state, as successive Governments—blue and red—have sought to keep the City of London onside, unthinking deregulation has been the order of the day, and a rentier capitalist system has been created. That may have kept stakeholders happy, but as we stare down the barrel of massive utility price rises, I am not sure that our constituents, including mine in West Dunbartonshire, always have been. A Government who own and maintain the fundamental pieces of infrastructure that allow entrepreneurs to proliferate and thrive is one who can keep an eye on the horizon and ensure that our fundamental national interests are upheld, and the temptation to put shareholder interests ahead of citizen interests is avoided.
My contribution to this area is a paper published with Stuart Evers by the Progressive Policy Research Group last year regarding the ownership and regulation of telecoms infrastructure. As we get our head around the challenges that have been mentioned and the opportunities presented to us by the new digital economy, it is imperative that the keystone industries of the economy are kept principally in public hands, not only because extracting private rents from them is unfair but because that allows us to get back to focusing on an economy that actually does things. It will surprise no one in the House if I say that I cannot see a way in which this political state can extract itself from under the dead hand of the UK’s rentier economy, so I draw the conclusion that so many of my fellow Scots increasingly do: it is only through independence that Scotland can create an economy that is fairer for all of us, in which growth is sustainable and whose foundations are resilient enough to face the economic headwinds we are heading into. I only hope that the Government will allow us to make that decision for ourselves.
Order. Tahir Ali will be the last Back Bencher to speak before the wind-ups, so any Member who has participated in the debate should make their way back to the Chamber for the wind-ups.
The Queen’s Speech clearly comes from a beleaguered Government who have run out of ideas and lost the ability to show leadership in a time of acute crisis. As several of my colleagues have made abundantly clear, the lack of measures to address the cost of living is an indictment of the Government and demonstrates their complete disregard for everybody struggling and working in the UK. Inflation continues to rise, and the Bank of England is warning of an imminent recession. With wages stagnant, my constituents in Birmingham, Hall Green and consumers across the country are cutting back on spending as the cost of essentials such as energy and food skyrockets. While energy companies amass record profits, small and medium-sized businesses in my constituency, in high streets and in local centres, struggle with rising costs and less income. The cost of living crisis threatens to become a vicious cycle, whereby working people struggle to make ends meet, small and medium-sized businesses struggle to stay afloat and people’s jobs are put at risk. Rather than levelling up, this crisis threatens a downward spiral.
Bereft of ideas, the Government have not even done what they usually do and stolen Labour policies. The Government have ignored our calls for a windfall tax on oil and gas companies, as demonstrated in last night’s vote, which would help to raise significant revenue to assist those struggling to pay their energy bills. Nothing has been said about low pay and stagnant wages, nothing on how rising interest rates will increase mortgage costs and rents, nothing on the scourge of insecure work and fire and rehire, and nothing on child poverty and the staff retention crisis in our hard-hit primary and secondary schools.
The new Brexit freedoms Bill threatens to further undermine parliamentary scrutiny of important legislation —yet another attempt by this Government to avoid accountability. Where positive measures have been announced, such as ending no-fault evictions for renters, the Government have accompanied them with draconian nonsense such as criminalising the homeless for rough sleeping.
The missed opportunities do not end there. The new proposals for street votes on extensions and conservatories provide a compelling model for local democracy, but one sadly wasted on relatively minor matters. The Government have been made well aware of the problems with exempt accommodation in my city of Birmingham and in my constituency. Local people are demanding a voice in decision making on whether Government Departments establish so-called exempt accommodation in their neighbourhoods. That would be a far more suitable issue around which to develop street votes and local democracy than whether someone wants a conservatory or an extension on their street.
The real achievement of the Queen’s Speech was to use so many words to say so little of substance. The people of this country were looking to this Government to show courage and leadership at a time of great need. Instead, all they got were more missed opportunities and hot air.
It is a real privilege to close the final debate on the Queen’s Speech tonight after more than 30 contributions from colleagues on all sides.
I want to start with a candid admission of jealousy. Every time I see a Government present a Queen’s Speech I am envious of the right they have to lay out not just one Bill or one measure but a full, comprehensive programme, a chance to address the many issues our country faces. What an opportunity that is. For this Government, with their large majority and now in the delivery stage of this Parliament, what a moment this should be after 12 years in power. The Queen’s Speech should be the crowning glory of everything the Government are about, but can any reasonable person say that it matched that moment, that it seized the opportunities of the future?
In a list of 38 Bills, we should all be able to find one or two things we like, but can we say that it lives up to the fundamental challenges being faced in homes across the country? Like many Members today, I am moved to ask: is this really it? We selected this debate to outline a vision for the future, but the Government have quite literally sent a vision of the past. The test for the Queen’s Speech was whether it could deliver both the short-term relief and the long-term plan for growth that this country needs, but it has surely failed on both counts.
Many colleagues mentioned the news that inflation has hit a 40-year high, rising to 9%. It is the highest one-year increase in consumer prices since records began. People are grappling with impossible decisions and they are rightly looking to this place for action. The average energy bill has gone up by more than £1,000 this year. The food shop has gone up by 5%, and the Bank of England has warned of further “apocalyptic” food price rises. Putting petrol in the car has jumped up by £20 a time. Since January, 2 million people in our country have a gone a whole day without eating because they simply cannot afford to do so.
Those are not just statistics and headlines; they are about real people—our friends, neighbours and constituents. We can do something about it, because these are all symptoms of a much deeper problem. At the heart of the difficulty we face is the fact that our economy has not grown as it should have done since the Conservatives came to power. That is not a contested argument; it is a fact. Economic growth under the Conservatives has been slower than the historical average, and slower than under the last Labour Government. Sadly, this Queen’s Speech showed that the Government cannot, or will not, take the action needed to rectify that.
In contrast, our position is that our economy can and must do better. We believe that the UK needs greater investment in net zero. We believe that we need a real reform agenda on such things as business rates. We believe that we need a modern industrial strategy that provides a route for every business and worker in this country to fulfil their true potential.
That ambition, that hunger for change, was shown in my hon. Friends’ contributions. My right hon. Friend the Member for Leeds Central (Hilary Benn) talked about the urgent need to overcome the problems that UK businesses are having exporting into the single market. My hon. Friends the Members for Nottingham East (Nadia Whittome) and for Slough (Mr Dhesi) talked about job security being essential to wellbeing, yet the employment Bill is nowhere to be seen. My hon. Friend the Member for Aberavon (Stephen Kinnock) talked of the new opportunities available to manufacturing and the need for private investment in the UK to capitalise on them. My hon. Friend the Member for Batley and Spen (Kim Leadbeater) called for transformational, bold thinking and gave examples from her constituency about what the contemporary situation means. My hon. Friend the Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant), in perhaps the phrase of the debate, called this more of a “gracious intervention” than a Gracious Speech, and he is surely right.
Even among Government Members, the frustrations were evident. The right hon. Member for Ashford (Damian Green) raised legitimate points about the media Bill and the creative industries. The hon. Member for Rugby (Mark Pawsey) asked why the audit reform Bill is just in draft form when it is supposed to be a priority. The hon. Member for Thirsk and Malton (Kevin Hollinrake) again admirably raised points about small business lending, and he was right to do so. Lots of Government Members, including the right hon. Members for Gainsborough (Sir Edward Leigh) and for Epsom and Ewell (Chris Grayling) and the hon. Member for South Cambridgeshire (Anthony Browne), pointed out that taxes on working people are too high. They are very high under this Government.
From listening to the whole debate, it seemed to me that with the Government having had a policy to cut corporation tax, which they have now abandoned; having tried an embryonic industrial strategy, which has now been abandoned; having tried austerity, which was originally a growth policy, not just a necessity, and has since been recognised as having gone too far; and having had the super deduction, which has been and gone, there are no big ideas left on the Conservative side of the House at a time when we really need them.
The first line of the Queen’s Speech could, and should, have been: “We will introduce an emergency Budget to offer relief to families and firms struggling with the cost of living crisis.” Instead, we have the Prime Minister saying that he is neither in favour of nor against a windfall tax, and the Business Secretary saying that he is ruling it out, but that everything is still on the table; then we have the Prime Minister telling us to expect action on the cost of living soon, and the Treasury telling us to expect action on the cost of living never. The truth is that families and households across this country do not need lessons in budgeting or cookery classes. They need help dealing with challenges that are too big for individuals to have to deal with alone.
All Opposition Members are asking for is action commensurate with the scale of the challenge. That means an emergency Budget with a one-off windfall tax on oil and gas profits to cut household bills; a tax cut for small businesses, saving pubs and shops up to £5,000 this year; and a contingency fund to keep energy-intensive industries competitive, so that for instance we could keep open fertiliser factories that are currently closed, meaning that we would not see further food price inflation into next year because of inaction now. These are real proposals for real action now, because if we wait until October, and if business confidence continues to fall and inflation continues to rise, already hard decisions will become even harder.
What frustrates me is that despite all this, we are a country with such incredible potential. We have an amazing, cutting-edge business sector, with industries up and down the country. As shadow Business Secretary it is a privilege to go and see those firms for myself. In the past few months, I have had the opportunity to see electric cars being manufactured in Sunderland and green hydrogen in Sheffield. I was with a new generation of entrepreneurs at Leeds Business School last week: they were buzzing with ideas and innovations that would boost our economy.
Britain is a great country to work and do business, so why should we accept projections of weak growth and poor productivity, with ever higher taxes as a result? We know how good Britain can be, but over the past 12 years the Conservatives have failed to capture that potential, and future projections are no better. In this debate, several Conservative MPs said that international forces beyond their control, such as global commodity prices or the conflict in Ukraine, were to blame. That claim just does not stand up to scrutiny. Conservatives have been in power for 12 years. Low growth took hold long before the international events that we are concerned about, which is why the Government have had to raise taxes on working people to historic levels. The IMF says that the only country in the G20 that will grow at a slower rate than us is Russia, yet all the Government have to offer is more of the same.
The Opposition are clear that a plan for economic growth must offer good jobs—high-skill, high-wage, secure jobs across the country, jobs that people can raise their family on. Hon. Members rightly raised the absence from the Queen’s Speech of the employment Bill, which was a general election promise in 2019 and has since been promised an additional 20 times. What is it about flexible working rights, banning fire and rehire and sorting out sick pay that the Government are so afraid of? I still have not heard from anybody an explanation for why the employment Bill was not included. The treatment of people at P&O Ferries was not just a scandal; it was immoral. As a pro-business, pro-worker party, we stand proud in saying that better employment rights are a key part of our economic plan for Britain.
This country is crying out for a serious plan to break the cycle of low growth, low productivity and high taxes. We have that plan: an industrial strategy built on a partnership between employers and workers; catalytic public investment of £28 billion every year to build the industries and jobs of the future; reform of business taxation to encourage long-term, sustainable growth; increased investment in research and development; and buying, making and selling more in the UK. That is the action needed to grow our economy, drive up living standards and fund the public services that this country so desperately needs.
The Queen’s Speech just does not meet the moment. We have to ask: if this Government have so little to offer in the face of such tumultuous events, what is the point of this Government? Away from all the bluster and boosterism, the fact is that they have wasted the mandate that they received, and frankly the British people will not forgive them for it. Leadership, vision and optimism are what is required.
The opportunity to present a Queen’s Speech is an immense privilege, and the circumstances that we live in made this Queen’s Speech a particular responsibility. It required nothing less than short-term relief and hope for the future, but the Government have been unable to provide either. It is clear that this country will not get the Queen’s Speech that it really deserves until Labour has the chance to write it.
It is a pleasure to close this debate on behalf of Her Majesty’s Government. I thank right hon. and hon. Members on both sides of the House who have contributed; they made many important points, quite rightly holding the Government to account in the best traditions of this House, which made for an excellent debate to follow Her Majesty’s Gracious Speech. That speech set out the Government’s plans to grow our economy, ease the cost of living and drive our levelling-up agenda.
My right hon. Friend the Chief Secretary to the Treasury set out earlier today the ambitious plans for accelerating economic growth in this country. I echo his comments that there are reasons to be optimistic. Last year the United Kingdom was the fastest-growing economy in the G7. Employment has fallen back to 3.7%, below pre-pandemic levels, the lowest in nearly 50 years—since, I think, before you were even born, Mr Deputy Speaker, assuming that you were not born in 1974. However, as in 1974, inflation is once more on the prowl. It is a global issue, because of wars and rumours of wars, as well as, of course, the covid pandemic. Energy prices have risen globally. Other supply chains are disrupted, and China’s biggest cities are in lockdown. Container shipping is in the wrong place in parts of the world. The monetary policy prescripts that were necessary to deal with the global financial crisis and the pandemic risk of economic inactivity have also taken their toll. All that presents challenges not just to the Government in this country, but to Governments across the world. Fortunately, this Government—Her Majesty’s Government—have plans to deal with them.
The areas under my direct responsibility are some crucial, essential, fundamental supply-side reforms in the Brexit freedoms Bill and the Procurement Bill. Those two Bills, along with a host of others in the Queen's Speech covering data reform, gene editing, future transport technology, financial services reform and more, provide exactly the sort of meaningful policy—supply-side reforms that Opposition Members always oppose because their answer is always more regulation and more interference— which will truly open up the bottlenecks in our economy and give the British people the plenty and prosperity that they deserve. Once again, it is Conservatives who are willing to make proper, long-term, well-thought-through policy decisions to the benefit of the British people.
Before I talk about the Bills in more detail, I want to refer to some of the comments that have been made during today’s excellent debate—and what a pleasure to start with the hon. Member for Leeds West (Rachel Reeves). Her speech was a beautifully crafted and elegant audition for the leadership of the Labour party, but she has set out her stall, and having always been thought of as being quite moderate—she was, I believe, an economist for the Bank of England at one point—she is now red in tooth and claw. The prescripts of socialism came spewing forth: higher tax, higher regulation, more spending. The fuel for the inflationary fire was piled up as if she were looking for a veritable bonfire.
The hon. Member for Leeds West was only to be outdone by the hon. Member for Nottingham East (Nadia Whittome), who, if the other hon. Lady was Solomon, was Rehoboam. If it was whips from the shadow Chancellor, it was scorpions from the hon. Member for Nottingham East. The scorpions of socialism have lashed this country before, and we will not be stung by their like again. But I must now move on to the very distinguished hon. Member for Glasgow Central (Alison Thewliss).
There is a phrase that comes to mind, because the hon. Lady was looking around for something with which to attack this Government, an extraordinary thing for her to do. She found that one item, which was of course the obsession of the Scottish National party, who want to be free from the United Kingdom only to be in thrall to the yoke of Brussels. She found a few pounds that used to come from Brussels but do not come from the United Kingdom, but she forgot the £41 billion that will go from the UK taxpayer to Scotland each year for the next three years; the £170 million from the levelling-up fund for eight Scottish projects; the £52 million to support the establishment of two green freeports; the £42 million for Scottish fisheries and the £1.9 billion for farmers and land managers; and the £1.5 billion for 12 city growth deals. The hon. Lady sat there elegantly straining at a gnat, when camel after camel had been greedily swallowed by the Scottish Government previously.
Let me turn to the inspired and helpful interventions from this side of the House. I am not saying that there is a monopoly of wisdom on this side of the House, although it does sometimes look that way. We started with my right hon. Friend the Member for Ashford (Damian Green), who pointed out that productivity had been a challenge for this economy for some time. He is absolutely right, and that is why supply-side reforms are so important.
My right hon. Friend the Member for Epsom and Ewell (Chris Grayling) mentioned shale gas. I recall an occasion when a much more distinguished speaker at this Dispatch Box decided that the argument coming from the Back Bench was so strong that he could not rise to answer it and remain within the confines of collective agreement. My more distinguished predecessor was, as it happens, Robert Peel, and the argument was over free trade. Although I was not entirely won over by my right hon. Friend’s argument, I am nonetheless glad that Her Majesty’s Government are reviewing the position on shale to ensure that we maximise safely the resources that lie under the feet of the people of this nation.
Several Members on this side and on the other side spoke today in favour of a windfall tax on windfall profits. As I understand it, the right hon. Gentleman is wholeheartedly opposed to this socialism, so if and when the Government introduce it, will he resign?
Unfortunately, as so often, the hon. Gentleman has not been paying proper attention to the day’s debate. If he had, he might have heard an authority greater than I am answering half a dozen questions on that very issue from the Leader of the Opposition slightly earlier. The authority in Her Majesty’s Government is obviously the Prime Minister, of whom I am a humble servant.
My hon. Friend the Member for Harwich and North Essex (Sir Bernard Jenkin) raised the issue of disruption in supply chains. This is a fundamental problem, and until supply chains are restored, inflation is likely to be difficult. The contributions have ranged widely. We heard from my hon. Friends the Members for West Worcestershire (Harriett Baldwin) and for Rugby (Mark Pawsey), as well as from my hon. Friend the Member for Burton (Kate Griffiths), whom I was pleased to visit last week. We had the pleasure of going to the Elkes Biscuits factory. If you want a better biscuit, buy Elkes biscuits. They are absolutely delicious. I helped—I was not very good at helping, but I did help—and they sent me home with a packet of Bourbon creams, which have never been devoured faster than they were by my children. I thank my hon. Friend for having me on that visit.
We heard from my hon. Friends the Members for South West Bedfordshire (Andrew Selous) and for Reigate (Crispin Blunt), and from my right hon. Friend the Member for Gainsborough (Sir Edward Leigh), who insisted that we stick to the title of the debate, which is “Achieving economic growth”. He is almost always absolutely right, but on this occasion he was particularly absolutely right. We want to stick to the issue of economic growth. We also heard from my hon. Friend the Member for Thirsk and Malton (Kevin Hollinrake).
I do not know whether to be delighted or somewhat miffed at my hon. Friend the Member for Hertford and Stortford (Julie Marson), because in one short speech she made a point that I have been trying to make for about 20 years and she made it more pithily and better than I have ever done. She used a cricketing metaphor, which is that the Government are the groundsmen, and the most they can do is to prepare the pitch for the bowlers and batsmen—the businesses across the country who provide the economic activity. We are not the players in the game; we are the groundsmen. As I say, that is a point that I have been trying to make for a long time, and I am going to steal my hon. Friend’s pithy aphorism shamelessly. I hope that I have her permission to do so.
We heard from my hon. Friend the Member for Bolsover (Mark Fletcher), and also from my hon. Friend the Member for South Cambridgeshire (Anthony Browne), who said that growth was everything, agreeing with my right hon. Friend the Member for Gainsborough. I think that my hon. Friend the Member for Milton Keynes North (Ben Everitt) might need to contact the Boundary Commission, because during his speech he decided to rename his constituency the “Silicon Valley of Europe”. For that to be officially approved, I think it would have to go through the proper processes, but it seems to me a jolly good idea that we should have the Silicon Valley of Europe in Milton Keynes, with robots going around showing how modern and technologically sophisticated they are.
I was also delighted by the contribution from my hon. Friend the Member for West Dorset (Chris Loder). I visited his constituency recently, and he generously provided me with the most excellent cake. Hon. and right hon. Members will think that wherever I go I am provided with confections of the most delicious kind, but that is not compulsory, and I would happily go without the cake to visit Poundbury, which is the most amazing success of planning in providing the things that people want. It is beautiful and elegant, and it achieves a density that other places do not achieve.
I also listened to my hon. Friend the Member for North Norfolk (Duncan Baker) with pleasure.
Will he give way?
How could I refuse such an eloquently phrased request?
I am listening to this very amusing after-dinner speech, but does the right hon. Gentleman agree that the serious issue here is that, had we continued on the growth trend of the last Labour Government, people would have an extra £11,000 to work with? We have the highest tax rate since world war two, the highest inflation rate for 40 years and 2.6 million people going to food banks. Does he agree that is a complete catastrophe? He is making a big joke out of it, which shows he should not be in office.
The hon. Gentleman must think there has been a collective outbreak of amnesia not just in the House but across the nation. He seems to forget that the country was bankrupt when the coalition came to office in 2010, and it had been bankrupted by the “spend now, find the money later” approach of the socialists. Was it not Margaret Thatcher who so rightly said that, ultimately, they run out of other people’s money? They ran out of other people’s money.
Growth has been lower because of the utter irresponsibility of the socialists prior to 2010, and the then Chief Secretary to the Treasury left a little billet-doux, did he not, saying:
“I’m afraid there is no money.”
[Hon. Members: “It was 12 years ago.”] Yes, it was more than 12 years ago, but we will not let them forget because socialism always leads to economic failure. Every socialist Government there has ever been has led to economic failure, devaluation, high taxes and low economic growth, and then the Conservatives come in to clear things up.
I have not had the pleasure of visiting Poundbury, but I have visited the Prince of Wales’s other development at Nansledan near Newquay, where a wonderful, large doctors surgery is being built. Many of us have a serious issue with large new developments, as we do not have quite the same prowess at putting in general practice capacity. When my right hon. Friend is next round the Cabinet table, will he forcefully represent that point, which concerns many of us on both sides of the House?
My hon. Friend is wise, and this is part of the reason why Poundbury has been a success, because it provides basic services, including a primary school. That is part of the planning requirement, so I agree with him very much.
I was delighted by the contribution of the right hon. Member for Leeds Central (Hilary Benn), which are not words I thought I would use nor words he probably thought I would utter. I always thought he was the high priest of remain, yet I could have delivered most of his speech on the intransigence and stick-in-the-mud-iness of the European Union.
I am glad to say that, in the UK, we are being much more flexible. We are recognising that the EU has not suddenly become dangerous. We may not like the EU, we may not think it is the best construct and we may not want to belong to it, but we do not think it has suddenly become rabid. That is why I was delighted to announce in April that the remaining import controls on EU goods will no longer be introduced. This is not a delay but a change in policy, because we recognise that goods produced in other parts of the world—not just the EU—can be produced safely, and it therefore makes sense to have unilateral recognition if others will not give us mutual recognition. Between now and the end of 2023, we will look to see how far we can extend that with other friendly nations that have high standards, as it cuts costs for consumers.
The right hon. Gentleman probably has better relations with highfalutin EU figures than I do, and he may be better placed than I am to persuade them that reciprocation would be more in their interest than ours.
On open trade, will the Minister give us some clarification on “friendly nations”? Does that include India shipping cheap Indian whisky to the UK?
This will have to be a risk-based assessment. If the hon. Gentleman can say that this whisky is dangerous or poisonous, or it is breaking a trademark—
Do we really have a Scotsman in the House who does not like his whisky to be cheap? Does he want to pay higher prices for whisky? Is he calling for this for the good people of Scotland? This is news. This is a newsflash, and I hope the PA is reporting it carefully, along with Hansard: the SNP wants higher prices for whisky. It wants higher prices for an evening tipple. I look forward to that being a good and successful slogan at the next general election: “Vote SNP for higher whisky prices”.
How can I refuse the hon. Gentleman?
Indeed, the Minister cannot. On whisky in India, can he update the House on progress towards reducing the punitive 150% tariff on Scotch whisky, which has an impact on approximately 400 jobs in my constituency?
This Government are a free-trading Government, which is why we are negotiating around the world to improve access to other markets. That is a very important part of what Her Majesty’s Government are doing.
I wish to mention briefly one of the other things that came up in debate, which was on the issue of public sector fraud.
Before the Minister moves on, will he take the opportunity to welcome from the Dispatch Box the first overseas deal that was cut between Northern Ireland and Australia? Wrightbus, in my constituency, and Volgren, in Australia, are now going to put hydrogen buses on the streets of Australia. That has come directly as a result of our new ability to cut free trade deals.
That is particularly good news. It is welcome that Northern Ireland, where there are difficulties over the protocol, is seeing genuine benefit from our free trade agreements.
I wish to make a point about fraud, which was an issue raised during the debate. Two years ago, it was of fundamental importance to get money out to businesses quickly. That was the right thing to do and it was supported across the House. It is now right to follow up to make sure that all that money was used honestly, and that if people did not use it honestly, they are subject to proper processes. So £750 million of taxpayers’ money is being committed to following up on fraud. We are setting up a public sector fraud agency and we are working with the banks, who own the loans, to ensure that the bounce back loans are repaid properly and honestly. But it was right to get the money out quickly two years ago and everybody wanted to do it.
Does the Minister think it was right for more than £4 billion to already have been written off as unrecoverable fraud? Does he also think that the Minister who resigned at that point in time, on a matter of principle, was wrong to resign?
I would correct the hon. Gentleman, as the money has not been written off. In addition, Lord Agnew has been in touch with me, and I have spoken to him and been seeking his advice on how to ensure that our anti-fraud efforts are as effective as possible. He highlighted the issue very effectively. May I also thank the hon. Gentleman for his contribution, along with the hon. Members for Bolton South East (Yasmin Qureshi) and for Paisley and Renfrewshire South (Mhairi Black) for theirs? In my humble opinion, they are three of the most sensible and civilised Opposition Members, but I think they decided that the Queen’s Speech was an occasion for them as it is for the heralds: they put on their tabards and their fine show in order to have a theatrical display, rather than to say something that they normally say, in well-rounded and moderated tones. All three of them went to the wildest fantasies of excessive criticism of the Government.