Before I call the mover and seconder, I shall inform the House of the proposed subjects for the remaining days of debate on the Loyal Address: Thursday 5 June—cost of living, and energy and housing; Monday 9 June—health; Tuesday 10 June—home affairs; Wednesday 11 June—jobs and work; Thursday 12 June—economy and living standards. I call Annette Brooke.
Well, the coalition parties have changed the order of speakers. [Hon. Members: “Oh!”] I shall happily allow them that privilege, but it is quite useful to know in advance when these things are being done. We look forward with interest and anticipation to hearing Penny Mordaunt.
I beg to move,
That an humble Address be presented to Her Majesty, as follows:
Most Gracious Sovereign,
We, Your Majesty’s most dutiful and loyal subjects, the Commons of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, in Parliament assembled, beg leave to offer our humble thanks to Your Majesty for the Gracious Speech which Your Majesty has addressed to both Houses of Parliament.
This might be a Queen’s Speech, but I am only the second woman to propose the Loyal Address in Her Majesty’s long reign. Fifty-seven years ago, Lady Tweedsmuir, the then Member for Aberdeen South, had the double pressure of proposing the Loyal Address and making her maiden speech. What she said deserves our consideration for its relevance today. She started by extolling the strengths of Scotland in the United Kingdom. She then set out the challenges facing the country, including the forging of a new relationship with Europe based on trade and co-operation, the creation of a new defence able to respond to Russian aggression and the growing of the economy, fusing the gigantic resources of the old world to the new. She then discussed the cost of living and the reform of the upper House, and finished by advocating the advantages of having more women parliamentarians.
It is a shame that the response Lady Tweedsmuir received from the then Leader of the Opposition is less able to stand up to contemporary scrutiny. Mr Gaitskell—with gallant intent, I am sure—replied to a nodding Commons that she had probably made some good points but that, alas, he had been unable to respond to any of them, such had been the distraction of her soft, attractive voice. So struck was he that he felt that, despite being a grandmother, she was rather easy on the eye, and he had found it impossible to concentrate on anything she said.
I realise that, in recounting this, I might have left the present Leader of the Opposition with a modern man’s dilemma. Should he now risk insulting me by concentrating solely on the issues raised, and failing to mention that I am also a softly-spoken charmer? Or, if he were to compliment me, would he risk incurring the wrath of the Labour party’s women’s caucus, potentially triggering the newly introduced power of recall? These are perilous times for a chap. Whatever he decides to do, I hope that this will mark the end of the parliamentary leap year. Women parliamentarians should be allowed to propose more than once every 57 years.
Lady Tweedsmuir’s first husband, Major Sir Arthur Lindsey Grant of the Grenadier Guards, was killed 70 years ago in Normandy, aged 32, in the aftermath of D-day. It was from Portsmouth that he and other heroes of that blood-red dawn of 6 June 1944 set sail, and it will be Portsmouth that will provide the focal point for our national commemoration of that blow for freedom that does indeed live in history. At 70 years’ distance, the invasion of Normandy is almost impossible to comprehend in its scale and industry. I have been able to understand it through speaking to the people who were there, many of whom it is my privilege to represent. This most remarkable war-time episode was made possible only through the blood, sweat and tears of so-called ordinary people.
The anniversary is a chance to reflect on what the people of this country can achieve when we are united in a common cause. I am proud that this Parliament has recognised the unique service of our armed forces and enshrined a covenant in law; proud that we have seen the injustices of the past addressed by the striking of the Arctic Star and the Bomber Command clasp; proud that we have introduced the Mesothelioma Act 2014, by which those dockyard workers in my city who would otherwise be left without assistance will receive support; and that we are now to create an armed forces ombudsman further to protect the interests of service personnel.
I am pleased too that the Defence Secretary has abandoned the unfortunate tradition of outlining the number of ships required in a defence review and then ordering precisely half of them. Since the strategic defence and security review three extra warships have been commissioned: a former Member for Portsmouth and Admiral of the Fleet, Sir Hedworth Meux, would have approved. In 1917, he seconded the Loyal Address in his number 1b uniform, and in the course of his remarks, advised that the naval service was better praised by an outsider than one who belongs to it. I, in contrast, am not in my uniform. Alas, Chamber protocol and concerns for the blood pressure of my hon. Friend the Member for Beckenham (Bob Stewart) prevent it. As hon. Members who have come within earshot of me during the past four years will know, I am very happy to praise the senior service from within.
Since King Alfred, whose name my reservist unit bears, first fitted out the fleet at Portsmouth, she has been the crucible for our maritime nation’s considerable accomplishments—the battles of the Solent, Solebay, Trafalgar and the Falklands to name but a few. In 1902, she was home to the Navy’s first submarines, a capability dismissed by some Admirals at the time as
“underhand, unfair and damned un-English”.
Four years later, she hailed the awesome step-change in fire power brought by the Dreadnought. Today, the Type 45s, the most sophisticated and capable warships in the world, call Portsmouth home, and so too will the Queen Elizabeth class carriers, the first of which will be named exactly one month from today after our sovereign. [Hon. Members: “ Hear, hear.”] Their arrival in Portsmouth will see more tonnage in the harbour than at any time since Lady Tweedsmuir was on her feet, and 1,000 extra naval personnel. These ships, the largest ever commissioned by our Navy, will ensure an awakening for our nation of a golden maritime age. It is because of the skill and dedication of the men and women who built that ship that her launch marks not the end of the order book, but the beginning of a new chapter for Portsmouth’s shipyard—£1 billion of investment, assisted area status, a maritime taskforce, the defence growth partnership, and our very own Minister, enabling business to transform Portsmouth and the Solent into the maritime heart of the United Kingdom. In mentioning the new office of Minister for Portsmouth, I must pay tribute to my right hon. Friend the Member for Sevenoaks (Michael Fallon) for the sterling work that he is doing to deliver this for my city and the nation. My advice is: if one wants a job doing, ask a busy Minister.
Such is my city’s confidence that we have never sought progress at the expense of our sister base ports of Plymouth, home of the amphibious fleet, and of Faslane, home to the deterrent submarines. I pray that a year from now, the Royal Navy will still have all three bases and those submarines remain damned un-English. I pay tribute to the achievements of the best navy in the world and to 350 years’ service of the Royal Marines.
The Prime Minister recently spoke about the UK being a small island with a big footprint in the world. That could apply equally to Portsmouth, the only island city in the UK. From the top of Portsdown hill, whose Palmerston forts point their guns inland as that was the only way the city was considered vulnerable to attack, one can see the whole of Portsmouth’s few square miles. However, the city’s reach stretches far out of sight. Our goods and services are exported around the globe, our satellites circle the heavens above and our citizens fuel the imagination. We are the city of Brunel, Dickens and Conan Doyle, who, when not writing prescriptions and detective novels, was keeping goal for Portsmouth FC.
Portsmouth football club is now owned by its fans. Pompey has blazed a trail for other clubs and given supporter involvement in football governance the legitimacy and momentum it deserves. That triumph was a wonderful expression of the Pompey spirit: determination, resilience and a close community bond. There are other examples, too. We have organised and fundraised to give the Hilsea lido a new lease of life—a project for which I have gladly sacrificed money, time and almost all my dignity.
In Wymering, we have come together with Highbury college to save for community use a Tudor manor in the middle of a housing estate—left to decay by the council, but now rescued by residents. Touchingly, the manor’s gardening group has christened its hedgehog mascot in honour of the man who enabled community asset transfer to become the norm: his name is Eric Prickles. Elsewhere in the city, the Lime Grove CAPE forum, the Beneficial Foundation, the Baffins Pond Association, Southsea Greenhouse and many other community groups work hard to improve their communities. We love our city and we love our country, too.
It has been said that Portsmouth is peopled by those who express their patriotism in their lives, the ultimate expression of which is to serve in our armed forces. I am proud that the Government are to review the roles in our services currently barred to women, to make sure that we make use of the best talent. In doing so, there must be no compromise of standards, but we must recognise that we cannot set women up to fail. Training must be tailored to enable us to be our best. I have benefited from some excellent training by the Royal Navy, but on one occasion I felt that it was not as bespoke as it might have been. Fascinating though it was, I felt that the lecture and practical demonstration on how to care for the penis and testicles in the field failed to appreciate that some of us attending had been issued with the incorrect kit.
Give us the opportunity and the training and women will embrace the challenge—that has certainly been Portsmouth’s experience. There were the all-women crew who beat all comers in the Portsmouth regatta of 1824 and there was Hertha Ayrton, suffragette and inventor of the Ayrton fan, who spoiled her 1911 census paper thus:
“How can I answer all these questions if I have not the intelligence to choose between two candidates for parliament?”
There were also the girls in the war, such as the now 96-year-old Mary Verrier, whose experiences are the subject of a new play “Tender Loving Care”, and those who learned a trade while coping with motherhood, widowhood or both. Today there are the first women submariners and the first female commanders of our warships. I look forward to other such firsts for women who serve. The review sends a strong message not only to them but to nations where women’s rights and talents are accounted too cheaply.
I am proud today that we have a parliamentary first—an all-women double act to propose and second the Loyal Address. I am delighted to serve as the warm-up act for the hon. Member for Mid Dorset and North Poole (Annette Brooke).
My hon. Friend the Member for Gainsborough (Sir Edward Leigh) is concerned about the consequence of the coalition running its full course. He might see us as the Thelma and Louise of the parliamentary Session, driving at top speed to the Grand Canyon of electoral defeat. Let me reassure him that this will not be the case, because, unlike a 1966 Thunderbird, this coalition is right-hand drive. [Laughter.] He must guard against being like those Palmerston forts on Portsdown hill, our default position introspection. We must turn and face the horizon and face those issues of which Tweedsmuir spoke.
Before the next Queen’s Speech, the future of at least one Union will be decided, and possibly two. We will have withdrawn our troops from Afghanistan. We will have moved towards greater energy self-sufficiency, grappled with Russian aggression and the Syrian crisis, fought the evil that is modern slavery, further paid down the deficit, and continued with our long-term economic plan. If we are to be successful in these endeavours, then we must draw from the same sources as our forebears as D-day dawned. We must take confidence from our heritage. We must be willing to serve a cause greater than ourselves. We must show unity of purpose and the dual belief in the right of our cause and our ability to achieve it. If we ever doubt that our nation’s best days lie ahead and that our country can accomplish all it sets out to do, and lose sight of our duty and the principles and values that underpin it, then 60 miles and 220° south-west of this Chamber lies our inspiration.
It is a great honour and privilege for me personally, and for my constituency of Mid Dorset and North Poole and for the Liberal Democrats, to second the Loyal Address today, and indeed to follow my hon. Friend the Member for Portsmouth North (Penny Mordaunt). That was really some warm-up act—no pressure on me! She has certainly made a great impact, if not a big “Splash!”, in her first Address.
Although I was not born there, I have lived in Dorset for nearly 40 years. I would love to describe myself now as Dorset woman, but I am afraid that truly local families would not accept that. The constituency that I represent was created in 1997, and part of it—indeed, the part where I live—was represented by Sir John Ward from 1979 to 1997. By quite an amazing coincidence, he and I attended the same school in Romford, albeit decades apart. This school, it has to be said, was not a prestigious one, and I recall that in my school year only two pupils went to university, so it is quite remarkable that at least two former pupils became MPs, and extremely remarkable that we have represented the same area. I remember Sir John and his wife, Jean, with affection. On many occasions we recalled our schooldays, and Sir John encouraged me to believe in myself.
In 1994, when Sir John Ward was approaching 70, John Major brought him from the Back Benches to be his Parliamentary Private Secretary. I cannot help but speculate about potential further coincidences between Sir John and myself. The appointment was made at a time of splits on Europe and political scandals. Hon. Members may just have observed that there are differences of opinion in my party at the moment and difficulties involving some prominent individuals. Should I switch my phone back on as soon as I leave the Chamber, I ask myself, and await a similar call from the Deputy Prime Minister? Could I be plucked from obscurity? But perhaps I would prefer to preserve what little remains of my reputation as an old leftie. Sir John, of course, was a right-wing Eurosceptic. Respecting people with different political opinions is very important in coalition. Perhaps I learned important lessons from my acquaintance with him.
Looking back at other MPs who have represented constituencies in Dorset, I see that females are conspicuous by their absence. There was, of course, my noble Friend Baroness Maddock, who had a spectacular by-election victory in Christchurch. I was first elected in 2001, along with the Prime Minister, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, my right hon. Friend the Member for Yeovil (Mr Laws) and many others—a year group that clearly included some high fliers. My election was the first Liberal victory in Dorset in a general election since Frank Byers became MP for North Dorset in 1945. His grand-daughter, of course, is now the hon. Member for Wigan (Lisa Nandy), who sits on the Opposition Benches. I am proud to be the first female Liberal MP to propose or second a Loyal Address. Unfortunately, this could be down to the under-representation of women in my party—something which must change in the future.
Alfred Russel Wallace, who along with Darwin co-discovered the process of evolution by natural selection, is buried in a splendid grave very near where I live. I cannot help wondering whether there are any lessons from his work regarding adaptation of women to the parliamentary environment and a reduction in male dominance; or is it Parliament that has to adapt? I have decided not to stray into his studies on monkey colonies today.
When describing my constituency, it is always tempting to say what it does not have. Like the whole of Dorset, it does not have a centimetre of motorway, but it also does not have a college, a university, a main hospital, a prison or a full-time fire station—I could go on. My constituency does not have a coastline, but provides the gateway to Purbeck’s spectacular world heritage Jurassic coast. What it does have is a collection of diverse communities with very special people. It has the market towns of Wareham and Wimborne, both steeped in history.
In April this year, there were 539 people claiming jobseeker’s allowance—a 1.4% unemployment rate. Although that will be an underestimate, it reflects a healthy mixed economy with a strong industrial base. Key defining features are very large areas of protected heathlands, which include Canford Heath and Upton Heath. A recent lottery grant of £2.7 million, matched with £2 million from the local community, has funded the Great Heath Living Landscape project, which is fantastic news for our natural heritage, a huge range of common and extremely rare wildlife species, and tourism.
Thomas Hardy country extends into my constituency with part of Egdon Heath. In “The Return of the Native”, Hardy writes:
“Twilight combined with the scenery of Egdon Heath to evolve a thing majestic without severity, impressive without showiness, emphatic in its admonitions, grand in its simplicity.”
I thought I should just have a quote to show that I actually agree with some of what the Secretary of State for Education has been talking about. Hardy also writes, “Civilization was its enemy”, and that, in today’s context, is sadly so true, with damaging heath fires and pressure from an increasing population. I love our heathlands and feel a great duty to protect them for future generations, but I care deeply about those struggling to find a home. Finding the right compromises can be difficult.
Many Members present may recall that I was my party’s shadow children’s Minister before the 2010 general election—a role that I felt passionate about. Although I taught economics to sixth-formers and college students in my former career, I had not previously engaged with under-four-year-olds outside of my family. A child’s life chances are so strongly influenced in their early years, and successive Governments have grasped the importance of investment at that stage. I frequently praised the previous Government for their progress from the low base they inherited in 1997 to the level of nursery and pre-school education achieved by 2010. I have always argued that as well as supporting parents into work, nursery education should be provided for children living in workless households. I am incredibly proud that the coalition Government are already providing 15 hours of free education per week for 130,000 disadvantaged two-year-olds, as well the 15 hours per week for three and four-year-olds. I welcome the announcement today that free child care for the most disadvantaged two-year-olds will be extended further, and that a Bill will be introduced to help working families with child care costs.
Apart from child care, my interests ranged over an enormous area, as they do when someone is the spokesperson for a small party. Of great relevance for me today, of course, are the proposals for the Modern Slavery Bill and legislation to tackle child neglect. One of my first trips abroad as an MP was to Moldova, with UNICEF, to look at a country from where young girls were trafficked. It was a harrowing visit in more ways than one, as it included a visit to a sanctuary where returnees were staying. I remember how intrusive it felt to meet young women with so many physical and mental scars. It was predicted that many of them would be trafficked again. I also recall how a non-governmental organisation was setting up simple business opportunities for young girls in their village to enhance their local earning power. I welcome wholeheartedly the inclusion of the Modern Slavery Bill in the Queen’s Speech today, and the additional support for victims. More generally, I want to say how proud I am of this Government’s achievement in reaching the aid target of 0.7% of GDP.
I have been very pleased to support Action for Children’s campaign to update the criminal law to protect children better from emotional abuse. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Ceredigion (Mr Williams) on his private Member’s Bill, which undoubtedly contributed to the welcome announcement today. I also welcome legislation further to tackle female genital mutilation, following the work led by the Under-Secretary of State for International Development, my hon. Friend the Member for Hornsey and Wood Green (Lynne Featherstone), and my hon. Friend the Minister for Crime Prevention.
I suspect that the Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, my hon. Friend the Member for Bristol West (Stephen Williams), will not forgive me—especially as he is sitting next to me— if I do not mention zero-carbon homes. Like him, I believe that climate change must be tackled. The largest share of greenhouse gases comes from our homes, so I am delighted that, through changes made in building regulations this year and today’s announcement that we will proceed with zero-carbon homes from 2016, people will have warmer homes and lower energy bills, and there will be a huge contribution towards reducing carbon emissions.
I must briefly mention the Minister of State, Department for Work and Pensions, my hon. Friend the Member for Thornbury and Yate (Steve Webb), who has responsibility for pensions. He will bring in yet further reforms, some of which may even be applicable to me in my retirement next year. He has made an outstanding contribution to pension reform in this Government.
Coalition has been a difficult period for me politically, but I am pleased to have had the opportunity today to comment on just a few of the many policies of which I am generally very, very proud, and to reflect on the economic recovery that was made possible by the formation of the coalition. I am honoured to commend the Gracious Speech to the House.
This Friday we will mark 70 years since the Normandy landings, when wave upon wave of allied forces poured on to the beaches of northern France. They marked the beginning of the final chapter of the second world war, which preserved the freedoms that we enjoy today, so I want to start by honouring the service of those veterans and the memory of their fallen comrades—a feeling that I am sure is shared across the whole House.
I am sure that across the House today Members will also want to remember and pay tribute to the work of our armed forces over the past decade in Afghanistan. At the end of this year, British combat operations will come to an end. We should be incredibly proud of the service of our armed forces in that country. They have fought to make Afghanistan a more stable country, a country with democracy and the rule of law, and a country that cannot be used as a safe haven to plan acts of terrorism here in Britain. We grieve for the 453 members of our armed forces who have been lost, and our thoughts are with their families and friends. All of them and all the people who have served have demonstrated, as did our Normandy veterans all those years ago, that they represent the best of our country.
By tradition, at the beginning of each parliamentary Session we remember the Members of the House we have lost in the last year. In January, we lost Paul Goggins. He was one of the kindest, most honourable people in the House and someone of the deepest principle. At a time when people are very sceptical about politics, Paul Goggins is a reminder of what public servants and public service can achieve.
Let me turn to the proposer of the motion. The hon. Member for Portsmouth North (Penny Mordaunt) gave an excellent speech—so far, so good. It had a sense of history, a sense of place and a sense of humour. From reading about her background, she can only be described, as we saw from her speech, as one of life’s enthusiasts. Before coming to this House, she had a varied career. She was a magician’s assistant when a teenager and then had a job that was nearly as dangerous—running the foreign press operation for President George W. Bush.
The hon. Lady made headlines for her recent appearance on “Splash!”, to which she made reference. If she will allow me, I will quote her admirable line in self-deprecation about her performance:
“I have the elegance and drive of a paving slab”.
I say unequivocally today that that is wrong. As she got to the quarter finals, I am not sure what that says about the contestants who were knocked out before her. It certainly takes guts to get in a swimming costume and dive off the high board. If she is looking for a new challenge, she should try wrestling a bacon sandwich live on national television. In any case, it is clear that she deserved her place on the podium today.
The seconder of the motion made an eloquent speech. The hon. Member for Mid Dorset and North Poole (Annette Brooke) came to this House with more than 20 years’ teaching in further education and the Open university behind her. Since being elected in 2001, she has campaigned with distinction on children’s issues and has been an assiduous local Member of Parliament. She voted against tuition fees, has described being in the coalition as terrible and says that the Lib Dem record on women MPs is dreadful. By current Lib Dem standards, that apparently makes her a staunch loyalist. On gender representation, she can take consolation from the fact that she can now boast that 100% of Liberal Democrat MEPs are women. As she said, she will be standing down at the next election. For her outside experiences, her wisdom and her all-round good humour and kindness, which I remember from when I was first elected to this House, she will be much missed.
Before I turn to the Loyal Address, let me say something about one of the most important decisions for generations, which will be made in just a few months’ time—the decision about the future of our United Kingdom. The history of the UK, from workers rights to the defeat of fascism to the NHS to the minimum wage, is the story of a country stronger together—a country in which representation from Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland and England has helped us to advance the cause of social justice. It is a decision for the people of Scotland, but I believe passionately that this kingdom should remain united.
The ritual of the debate on the Loyal Address has existed for centuries. Today we do not just debate the Queen’s Speech; we assert the importance of this House and the battle it has fought over hundreds of years to exercise power on behalf of the British people. But what the recent elections show is that more than at any time for generations this House faces a contemporary battle of its own—a battle for relevance, legitimacy and standing in the eyes of the public. The custom of these debates is to address our opponents across the Dispatch Box, but today that on its own would be inadequate to the challenge we face. There is an even bigger opponent to address in this Queen’s Speech debate—the belief among many members of the public that this House and any party in it cannot achieve anything at all.
About 10% of those entitled to vote at the recent elections voted for UKIP, but as significant is the fact that over 60% did not vote at all. Whatever side we sit on in this House, we will all have heard it on the doorstep—“You’re all the same. You’re in it for yourself. It doesn’t matter who I vote for.” Of course that is not new, but there is a depth and scale of disenchantment that we ignore at our peril—disenchantment that goes beyond one party and one Government. There is no bigger issue for our country and our democracy, so the test for this legislative programme, the last before the general election, is to show that it responds to the scale of discontent and the need for answers.
In this election we heard concerns about the way the EU works and the need for reform. We heard deep-rooted concerns about immigration and the need to make changes, but I believe there is an even deeper reason for this discontent. Fundamentally, too many people in our country feel that Britain does not work for them and has not done so for a long time—in the jobs they do and whether hard work is rewarded; in the prospects for their children and whether they will lead a better life than their parents, including whether they will be able to afford a home of their own; in the pressures that communities face. and above all whether the work and effort that people put in are reflected in their sharing fairly in the wealth of the country.
The Governor of the Bank of England gave a remarkable speech last week, saying that inequality was now one of the biggest challenges in our country. We should all be judged on how we respond to this question, right as well as left. There are measures that we support in this Queen’s Speech, including tackling modern slavery, an ombudsman for our armed forces, and recall, but the big question for this Queen’s Speech is whether it just offers more of the same or whether it offers a new direction so that we can genuinely say that we can build a country that works for all and not just for a few at the top.
For me, this task starts with the nature of work in Britain today. It is a basic belief of the British people that if you work all the hours God sends, you should at least be able to make ends meet. We all, on all sides of the House, say in our slogans that those who work hard and play by the rules should be rewarded for what they do, but we should listen to the voices of all those people who say that their reality today is that hard work is not rewarded and has not been for some time. All of us on all sides will have heard that during the recent election campaign, such as from the person I met in Nottingham who was struggling with agency work and total uncertainty about how many hours’ work he would get. This was his working life: every morning at 5 am he would ring up to find out if there was work for him. More often than not, there was none. He had a family to bring up.
The fact that this is happening in 21st-century Britain, the fourth richest country in the world, should shame us all. This is not the Britain that that man believes in, it is not the Britain we believe in, and it should not be the Britain this House is prepared to tolerate. [Hon. Members: “Hear, hear.”] We have seen the number of zero-hours contracts go well above 1 million. We need to debate as a country whether this insecurity is good for individuals, families and the country as a whole. It is not.
The right hon. Gentleman is absolutely right that we need to continue to create more and more jobs, but one of the things we have to make sure of is this: we have just reduced national insurance by £2,000 for employers, so will he now rule out any increase in employers’ or employees’ national insurance?
I believe we actually called for that proposal first, but I say to the hon. Lady that there are two schools of thought on the recent experience of the election, one of which says that this country is fine and the economy is fixed. I do not believe that that is the message of the recent elections.
I am going to make a bit more progress.
We must debate, as a country, whether we should really be prepared to do something about the problem, and we need to debate the wider problem. Five million people in Britain—one in five of those in work—are now low paid. The shocking fact is that, for the first time on record, most of the people who are in poverty in Britain today are in work, not out of work.
I agree with the right hon. Gentleman that politics cannot be the same. In that spirit, will he be clear and transparent and rule out once and for all—should he enter Downing street, God forbid—any new tax on employment through increases in either employers’ or employees’ national insurance contributions?
We want to see taxes on employment fall—that is why we have proposed a 10p tax rate to actually make work pay for people.
The shocking fact is that for the first time on record most people in poverty are in work—so much for hard work paying. None of our constituents sent us here to build such an economy. At a time when we face significant fiscal challenges into the future, it is costing the taxpayer billions of pounds. It is no wonder that people in this country do not think this House speaks for them. To show a new direction for the country, and to show that it is not just more of the same, the Queen’s Speech needs to demonstrate to all those people that it can answer their concerns.
There is a Bill in this Queen’s Speech covering employment, but the Bill we need would signal a new chapter in the battle against low pay and insecurity at work, not just business as usual. What would that involve? It would set a clear target for the minimum wage for each Parliament, whereby we raised it closer to average earnings. If someone is working regular hours for month after month, they should be entitled to a regular contract, not a zero-hours contract. If dignity in the workplace means anything, it should clearly mean that. We could make it happen in this Parliament and show the people of this country that we get what is happening, but this Queen’s Speech does not do that.
Britain, like countries all round the world, faces a huge challenge of creating the decent, middle-income jobs that we used to take for granted, and many of those jobs will be created by small businesses. There is a Bill in this Queen’s Speech on small business, but we all know—[Interruption.] A Government Member says “Hear, hear”, but we all know that we have a decades-long problem in this country of banks not serving the real economy. Companies that are desperate to expand, invest and grow cannot get the capital they need. For all the talk of reforming the banks, is there anyone who really believes the problem has been cracked, with lending to small businesses continuing to fall? The choice that we face is whether to carry on as we are, or whether we say that the banks need to change, break up the large banks so that we tackle our uncompetitive banking system and create regional banks that properly serve small business, but the Queen’s Speech does not do that.
A Queen’s Speech that was setting a new direction would also tackle another decades-long problem that has happened under Governments of both parties, and would devolve economic power from Whitehall to our great towns and cities. If I may say so, Lord Heseltine was right in his report—we do need to give our towns, cities and communities the tools to do the job. That is even more important when there is less money around. They need more powers over skills, economic development and transport, and the Government should be going much further. None of that is in the Queen’s Speech.
Here we have it: the country wants answers to deeply serious questions, and what do the Government do? They get every Tory Back Bencher to read out a planted Whip’s question. I have to say it: no wonder the public hate politics, given the way Government Members behave.
The first thing this Queen’s Speech needed to do was signal a new direction in the jobs we create in this country and whether hard work pays, and it did not rise to the challenge.
I am very grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for giving way to the question that I have obviously been given by the Chief Whip. In his opening and thoughtful part of his speech he called for a different form of politics, but as soon as he gets on to the detail it is business as usual and he criticises us for doing the same. May we go back to his first speechwriter, who was actually giving us something rather interesting?
I say to the hon. Gentleman that the man who called for a pact with UKIP clearly has great confidence in the prospects of the Conservative party and its ability to win the election.
Let me come to the child care Bill. We support measures on child care, which is part of the cost of living crisis, although the scale of that challenge means that we could go further on free places for three and four-year-olds. We also support the Bill on pensions, although we want to ensure that people get proper advice to avoid the mis-selling scandals of the past.
The next task for this Queen’s Speech is to face up to another truth: for the first time since the second world war, many parents fear that their children will have a worse life than they do. No wonder people think that politics does not have the answers when that is the reality they confront, and nowhere is that more important than on the issue of housing. We all know the importance of that to provide security to families, and we know that it matters for the durability of our recovery too. The Bank of England has warned that the failure to build homes is its biggest worry, and that generational challenge has not been met for 30 years.
The hon. Lady speaks from a sedentary position, but I say that that challenge has not been met for 30 years. Part of the challenge we face as a country is facing up to the long-term challenges—[Interruption.] I say to Government Members who are shouting that in no year of this Government have there been as many housing completions as in any year of the last Labour Government. It is a long-term challenge that we all have to face. We are currently building half the homes we need, and on current trends the backlog will be 2 million homes by 2020.
What I can say is that we built 2 million homes under a Labour Government, and we had a faster rate of house building than under this Government. As I have said, we face a big long-term challenge in this country, and the question is whether we are going to face up to it or just carry on as we did.
This Queen’s Speech proposes a new town at Ebbsfleet. That is fine, but it does not do enough to set a new direction in building homes. What is the fundamental problem? The fundamental problem is a market that is not working, with a small number of large developers not having an incentive to build at the pace we need. We know there is a problem of developers getting planning permission, sitting on land and waiting for it to accumulate value. There are land banks with planning permission for more than half a million homes, and we can either accept that or change it. We could give councils powers to say to developers, “Use the land or lose the land”, but the Government repeatedly refuse to do that. We could give councils the right to grow where they need more land for housing. The House could commit today to getting 200,000 homes built a year—the minimum we need. After all, in the 1950s that is what a one nation Conservative Prime Minister did. However, the Queen’s Speech does none of those things.
A Queen’s Speech that is rising to the challenge on housing would also do something for the 9 million people who rent in the private sector. There are more than 1 million families and 2 million children with no security at all. Children will start school this September, but their parents will have no idea whether they will still be in their home in 12 months’ time—and we wonder why people are losing faith in politics.
When the Opposition published our proposals for three-year tenancies, some people said they were like something out of Venezuela. If something as modest as that is ridiculed as too radical, is it any wonder that people who rent in the private sector do not think this Parliament stands up for them? Those proposals would not transform everything overnight, but they would tell 9 million people who rent in the private sector that we get it, and that something can be done. It is not an insecurity hon. Members would be willing to accept, so why should other people have to accept the insecurity they face?
There is another area where people are fed up being told that nothing can be done: their gas and electricity bills. It is eight months since Labour called for a freeze on people’s energy bills. Just this week, we have seen figures showing that companies have doubled their profit margins. That is a test of whether the House will stand up to powerful vested interests and act or say that nothing can be done. The companies can afford it, the public need it, and the Government have ignored it: this Queen’s Speech fails that test.
Another test for the Queen’s Speech is whether it responds to the anxieties people feel in their communities—[Interruption.] I say to the hon. Member for South Staffordshire (Gavin Williamson) that shouting from a sedentary position is another thing people hate about this Parliament. [Interruption.] We are seeking improvement. We all know that one of the biggest concerns at the election was around immigration. This is an important point. I believe that immigration overall has been good for the country. I believe that as the son of immigrants, and I believe it because of the contribution that people coming here have made to our country, but hon. Members know that we must address the genuine problems about the pace of change, pressures on services and the undercutting of wages.
Some people say we should cut ourselves off from the rest of the world and withdraw from the European Union. In my view, they are profoundly wrong. We have always succeeded as a country when we have engaged with the rest of the world. That is when Britain has been at its best. Others say that nothing can or should be done. I believe they are wrong, too. We can act on the pace of change by insisting on longer controls when new countries join the EU. We need effective borders at which we count people in and out. The House can act on something else that all hon. Members know is happening in our communities by tackling the undercutting of wages. We should not just increase fines on the minimum wage, but have proper enforcement.
I am sure the entire nation is grateful to the Leader of the Opposition for allowing the British people to speak about immigration—the Opposition have previously denounced as racist many of our fellow citizens who have spoken out on the matter. Will he apologise for the policies of the previous Labour Government, who admitted uncontrolled migration of 2.2 million people into this country—deliberately—the result of which is huge pressure on our social services and a massive increase in the demand for housing, to which he has referred.
Let me say to the hon. Gentleman plainly that it is not prejudiced to have concerns about immigration—he is right about that. We should have longer transitional controls, as I have said on many occasions, but the question is what we are going to do about the problem now. Are we going to tackle what is happening in our labour market? I do not understand why the Government are not taking action on those issues. Employers crowd 10 to 15 people into a house to sidestep the minimum wage. We all know it is happening. Gangmasters exploit workers from construction to agriculture. We all know it is happening. We should stop employment agencies from advertising only overseas or from being used to get around the rules on fair pay. We all know it is happening.
I am not going to give way.
It is no wonder people lose faith in politics when they know those things are happening and Parliament fails to act. If the House believes those things are wrong, we should do something about them. Responding to the concerns we have heard about work, family and community is the start the House needs to make to restore our reputation in the eyes of the public.
I am not giving way.
At the beginning of my speech, I said that there is a chasm between the needs and wishes of the people of this country and whether or not this House and politics are capable of responding. We need to rise to this challenge. This Queen’s Speech does not do that, but it can be done. That is the choice the country will face in less than a year’s time. This is what a different Queen’s Speech would have looked like: a “make work pay” Bill to reward hard work, a banking Bill to support small businesses, a community Bill to devolve power, an immigration Bill to stop workers being undercut, a consumers Bill—[Interruption.]
Order. Mr Cairns, you have done quite a lot of yelling loutishly from a sedentary position, which does not greatly advance your cause. I invite you to note that it is not difficult: the Leader of the Opposition is not giving way. The hon. Gentleman should therefore exercise his judgment.
This is what the Queen’s Speech should have done: a “make work pay” Bill to reward hard work, a banking Bill to support small businesses, a community Bill to devolve power, an immigration Bill to stop workers being undercut, a consumers Bill to freeze energy bills, a housing Bill to tackle the housing crisis and a NHS Bill to make it easier for people to see their GP and to stop privatisation. To make that happen we need a different Government: we need a Labour Government.
In this, the year that our troops leave Afghanistan, let me start by paying tribute to those who have lost their lives serving our country. Since 2001, 453 British servicemen and servicewomen have made the ultimate sacrifice for our safety and our security. Our troops in Afghanistan have driven out al-Qaeda from their training camps. They have helped to train Afghan forces—over 300,000 people —to take control of their own security. They have done all that we have asked of them and much more besides. Last month, we saw a presidential election in Afghanistan that has paved the way for the first ever democratic transition of power in living memory. I said at the start of this Parliament that we would get all our combat troops home by the end of 2014. By the end of this year, we will have done just that. We will never forget the sacrifices made for us. We will build a permanent memorial at the National Memorial Arboretum in Staffordshire. We must honour their memory for generations to come.
There is clearly a huge amount to be done still to turn our country around, but, as a result of the work in the previous Session, the Government have now cut the deficit by a third, cut crime by more than 10%, cut taxes for more than 26 million people, capped benefits, frozen fuel duty, helped to freeze council tax for the fourth year running and cut billions from the bloated cost of government. We have introduced a cancer drugs fund in our NHS, treated 1 million more patients a year and all but abolished mixed-sex wards. Our economy is now growing faster than at any point in the past six years: faster than those in France, in Germany, and America. There are 1.5 million more people in work, 400,000 more businesses, 1.7 million more apprenticeships and almost 700,000 fewer adults on out-of-work benefits. The claimant count has fallen in every single constituency in Great Britain over the past year. Our long-term economic plan is working, but there is much, much more to do. This Queen’s Speech sets out the next steps in seeing through this vital plan to secure our future, but it will take the rest of this Parliament and the next to finish the task of turning our country around. That is the enormity of the challenge we face, but it is matched by the strength of our commitment to sorting it out.
The Leader of the Opposition rightly talked about those MPs who, sadly, died in the previous parliamentary Session. He was right to say that the House lost one of its most respected and popular Members. Paul Goggins was a kind and brilliant man who believed profoundly in public service. As a Minister, he did vital work in Northern Ireland, and he cared passionately about delivering the devolution of policing and justice to the Province. He was one of those MPs who passionately believe that crime and insecurity affect the poorest people most, and he spoke about it with real power. He also cared deeply about the welfare of children. We are honouring his memory in this Queen’s Speech by making child neglect illegal. It is a move I know he would have supported and something I am sure will be backed on all sides of the House.
The Loyal Address was brilliantly proposed by my hon. Friend the Member for Portsmouth North (Penny Mordaunt). She showed us her characteristically shy and retiring style. It was a brilliant speech. She did her city proud and we saw a real parliamentary star.
It has already been noted by the Leader of the Opposition that my hon. Friend was once foreign affairs press adviser to President George W Bush. I am not sure which of the former President’s remarks she was responsible for, but as you would expect, Mr Speaker, I have done my research into her school reports and I understand that, despite an outstanding record, she gave up geography rather early, so I hope she was not behind the President when he asserted:
“Border relations between Canada and Mexico have never been better.”
My hon. Friend has done outstanding work in support of our armed forces, as everyone heard today, and she is herself a navy reservist. I understand that while training at Dartmouth, cadets are dunked in an icy river on Dartmoor and asked three short questions: name, rank and unit. When my hon. Friend hit the water, however, a crowd of marines formed along the bank and shouted, “Lads, we’ve got the Member of Parliament.” My hon. Friend was then asked for name, constituency, majority, votes polled, swing, number of constituents, followed by the request for a 20-minute explanation of the strategic defence and security review. Judging by her performance today, she would have done that without deviation, hesitation or repetition. She survived all that and is a great champion for Portsmouth. She helped to take Portsmouth football club, as she told us, into genuine community ownership; she is fighting around the clock to get new commercial opportunities at the Portsmouth shipyard; and, as has been said, she famously took part in ITV1’s “Splash!” to sell the Hilsea lido for the community. As the Leader of the Opposition pointed out, this is the latest example of people being asked to attempt something exceptionally difficult in front of a live audience on national television. As the Leader of the Opposition rightly said, the next one will presumably be a request to eat a sandwich live on television, and see how it all goes.
My hon. Friend has the distinction of being the only serving Member of Parliament to have captained a British amphibious assault ship. She captained HMS Bulwark, and I am sure that she was as effective a “master and commander” of that vessel as she was of this House this afternoon.
Let me turn to the seconder of the Loyal Address. My hon. Friend the Member for Mid Dorset and North Poole (Annette Brooke) has served this House with distinction for 13 years. She has done great work in that time as chair of the all-party groups on micro-finance, on ME and on breast cancer, while she spoke today about the importance of heathland, child care and nursery education—all causes close to her heart. I have looked very carefully at all the things she has championed. She failed to mention that she is also a leading voice in the campaign for the protection of endangered species—work that has taken on a new significance in recent weeks!
Last year, my hon. Friend became the chair of the Liberal Democrat parliamentary party. I was pleased to note that in a party that prides itself on democracy, she was elected unopposed. She rightly welcomed the measures in this Queen’s Speech to outlaw the appalling practice of modern-day slavery, and I know this Bill will have all-party support.
My hon. Friend has a strong track record on human rights and a history of making a case on this subject. Again, I have tried to do my research, and I can inform the House that, like many distinguished Liberal Democrats, she has, of course, been arrested. In her case, the cause was entirely honourable. She told us about her visits to Moldova and I understand that she was campaigning for children’s rights when she was detained by the authorities because she was so vigorous in rightly championing what she believed in. She prevailed in this as she has in many other causes she has championed. It was entirely appropriate that she was given the honour of seconding the Loyal Address today; she did so with style and aplomb.
Our foreign policy priorities are set out in the Gracious Speech: strong in defence of freedom and united against all threats, especially the dark shadow of extremism falling over countries such as Syria and Nigeria. On Friday, I will join hundreds of D-day veterans on the beaches of Normandy as we begin a summer of commemorations, which will also include the centenary of the beginning of the first world war. The Leader of the Opposition quite rightly spoke powerfully about this important commemoration. As we remember the sacrifices made for peace and the threats that face us today in our world, there has never been a more important time to underline our belief in collective defence.
At the NATO summit in Wales, Britain will host the largest gathering of international leaders ever to take place here in the United Kingdom. As well as seeing through the transition in Afghanistan, we will support the Ukrainian Government as they embark on tough, but necessary reforms, and we will take steps to ensure that Britain and its NATO allies have the equipment and ability to address the ever-evolving threats to our security. Britain meets its NATO commitment to spend 2% of its GDP on defence, and we will urge other countries to do the same.
The Prime Minister has almost anticipated the question that I was going to put to him. We are meeting our minimum 2% commitment to NATO; will he give an undertaking that as long as he remains Prime Minister, this country will always meet that commitment?
It is very important to meet such commitments. We will set our detailed plans in our manifesto, but throughout the time for which I have been Prime Minister, we have kept—more than kept—that commitment, and it is important for us to use our record of meeting it, at a time when we have had to make difficult decisions about spending, to encourage other countries to do the same.
May I return the Prime Minister to what he said earlier about his record on jobs? In Chesterfield, I constantly meet people who are in work but in poverty, and who use food banks because they cannot make work pay. Why has the Prime Minister done so little to support people who are working hard, but cannot make work pay under his Government?
Let me say first to the hon. Gentleman that it is good news that, in Chesterfield, the claimant count for unemployment benefit has fallen by 29% over the past year. He asked specifically what we had done to help people who are in work. Well, we have ensured that they can earn £10,000 before they pay any income tax, we have made it possible to have council tax frozen, we have cut fuel duty, and we have done many other things to ensure that people can keep more of the money that they earn.
We will continue to lead the way in reforming the European Union, which, as I have said, has become too big, too bossy and too interfering. We have already made a start, not least with the first ever real-terms cut in the EU budget. In this Session we shall see the first benefits of that cut, which, over time, will save British taxpayers more than £8 billion. That is proof that this House of Commons and this Government can get things done.
Should a Member introduce a private Member’s Bill to legislate for an in/out referendum on our membership of the European Union in the coming Session, will the Prime Minister give that Member the same wholehearted support that he has shown to me during the past year?
I can certainly give my hon. Friend the undertaking for which he asks. He did a brilliant job in presenting his Bill to the House of Commons. The Leader of the Opposition mentioned some of the issues that turn people away from politics. I think that one of the ways in which we can turn people back on to politics is to make it clear that, when it comes to the vital issue of whether or not Britain should be a member of a reformed European Union, it is the British people who should have their say.
At the heart of the Queen’s Speech is our long-term economic plan, which is based on a clear set of values. It is wrong to pass on an irresponsible burden of debt to our children, and it is right that people should keep more of the money that they earn. The best route out of poverty is work. Britain needs to earn its way in the world, and in order to do that we need modern infrastructure, new roads, high-speed rail, superfast broadband, and new sources of energy. It is business and enterprise that create jobs and generate revenue to fund our public services, and we can afford public services only if we back business, support entrepreneurs, and take on the anti-business sentiment that holds Britain back.
Will the Prime Minister recognise that his plan to strip property owners of their right to refuse permission for fracking under their homes is hugely unpopular? It is opposed by 75% of the population. Will he tell us why he is ignoring not just the public, but the science which shows very clearly that if we are to have any hope of avoiding climate change, we must leave 80% of known fossil fuel reserves in the ground?
I think that we should look at the empirical evidence provided by countries around the world, including the United States, where the ability to access shale gas is making energy prices and industry competitive and is helping the economy to grow. Those who are against access to shale gas seem to be claiming that it will somehow be legal to go on to people’s property and frack against their will. That is simply not the case, as the legislation that we are setting out will make extremely clear.
I was speaking about the values that are at the heart of the Queen’s Speech, and I believe that they are what matter when it comes to turning people back on to politics and our ability to change things in a way that they will find satisfactory. One value that is important is fairness. However, fairness means not just what people get out but what they put in, so it is right for us to have a welfare system that rewards work and an immigration system that is tough, controlled, and unashamedly in our national interest. We will never have genuine equality of opportunity if we have low expectations for our children, so it is right for us to take on the dumbing down and the low standards of the past, and to ensure that we have the best schools and skills for the next generation. Those are the values at the heart of this Queen’s Speech.
Job creation is absolutely at the heart of what this Government are about. As my hon. Friend said, we have seen 1.7 million more private sector jobs and 1.5 million more people in work overall. One of the things that I think is absolutely vital is to give a clear commitment that we will not put up jobs taxes—national insurance—on either employers or employees. I am prepared to make that commitment; why will the Leader of the Opposition not do so? He was asked repeatedly. He says he wants to deal with the things that people find so frustrating. One of the things that is so frustrating is when someone will not give a simple answer to a straightforward question.
We have made new tenancies available. That is absolutely vital, and it is also important that we make sure that there is greater transparency in this industry, but the idea of rent controls that would lock people out of housing is a throwback to the 1970s and would not work.
As we recover from Labour’s great recession, the British public want to know that we will do everything possible to deliver financial security—[Interruption.] I thought that shouting from a sedentary position was out of fashion. The message has not got through. As is often the case, the message has not got through from the Leader of the Opposition, who has a new idea in politics that he has not yet told his shadow Chancellor. What a surprise! Financial security is what our long-term plan is all about.
Returning to the question of Europe, why, under the Prime Minister’s policy, do the British people have to wait three years for this referendum? [Interruption.] I accept that my views on this are not shared by others, but I am prepared—[Interruption.] No, I am sorry about this, because let me tell the Prime Minister that people concerned about Europe do not trust his promise to have this referendum in 2017. Let us trust the people, get on with it, make this decision more quickly and have the referendum before the next election.
The short answer to that is that if the hon. Gentleman wants a referendum, he could have supported our Bill in the last Session. Let me answer him directly: the reason for having the referendum by the end of 2017 is that I want to renegotiate Britain’s position in Europe to get us a better deal, so we give people a real choice: “Do you want to stay in this reformed European Union or do you want to leave altogether?” I have to say to the Leader of the Opposition that my experience of 13 years in this House is that when you lose the support of the hon. Member for Dudley North (Ian Austin), you are in deep, deep trouble.
What we heard from the Opposition was that there was not enough in the Queen’s Speech. I think we should be clear about this, the fifth year of this Parliament. For the first time ever we are introducing tax-free child care to help hard-working families. We are creating new laws on producing shale gas to give us energy security; new laws to help build high-speed rail to modernise our infrastructure; new laws to reform planning to build more homes and help more young people. We are outlawing modern slavery, confiscating assets from criminals, protecting people who volunteer, cutting red tape, and curbing the abuse of zero-hours contracts. This is a packed programme of a busy and radical Government.
Does the Prime Minister also recognise the importance of taking forward developments in the North sea oil and gas industry and implementing the report of the Wood review, and in particular of getting the message across that it is not just jobs in the north-east of Scotland, but our whole supply chain throughout the United Kingdom, that will benefit?
My hon. Friend speaks very powerfully for his constituency and for that absolutely vital industry which, as he says, is vital not just for Scotland, but for the whole of the United Kingdom. We are going to make sure that the recommendations of the Wood review are included in our infrastructure Bill, which is a key Bill at the heart of this Queen’s Speech.
The Prime Minister mentioned zero-hours contracts. Having care workers in long-term employment on zero-hours contracts means that the people they are caring for are getting a bad deal, so will he amend his Bill to give protection to those workers?
Labour had 13 years to act on zero-hours contracts and did absolutely nothing. We are outlawing exclusivity in zero-hours contracts. I thought this was one of the problems with the Leader of the Opposition’s response—[Interruption.] Oh, too late we are told. Hold on, Labour had 13 years to do something and did nothing. One of the problems with the Leader of the Opposition’s response to the Gracious Speech was that I was not sure he had read it. He asked when we are going to make sure that employment agencies cannot only advertise overseas—we have acted on that. When we are going to have higher fines for not paying the minimum wage? It is in the Queen’s Speech. When are we going to stop exclusivity in zero-hours contracts? We have done it. Those are all things Labour has talked about and never acted on.
The Prime Minister is aware that there is an enormous gap between the rich and the poor. I am not making a party political point, but in my constituency many people are on the minimum wage and it is not enough to make ends meet. Why did he not consider increasing the minimum wage in the Gracious Speech today?
I support increases in the minimum wage, and it has just increased at a faster rate than average earnings, which is actually the policy the hon. Lady supports. I want to see a £7 minimum wage, but what we need to do, while keeping the process of setting the minimum wage independent, is cut taxes for people on minimum wages. That is what we are doing. The income tax bill of someone working 40 hours a week on the minimum wage is down by two thirds—that is what has happened under this Government.
On inequality and poverty, let us just be clear about what has happened under this Government: today there are half a million fewer people in relative poverty than there were under the last Government; relative child poverty has been lower in every year of this Parliament than in any year of the last Government; the proportion of workless households is at its lowest since records began; and inequality is at its lowest since 1986. The facts may be inconvenient for the Labour party, but none the less it should listen to them.
What I would say about the hon. Gentleman’s constituency is that the claimant count—the number of people claiming unemployment benefit—has come down by 23% in the last 12 months. That is what is at the heart of the Queen’s Speech: work is the best route out of poverty. That is what we should be supporting.
I have been very clear about what we are legislating for.
Does the Prime Minister not accept that there are now 1 million people on zero-hours contracts who are working and living in poverty? They have been taken off the claimant count, and in Swansea 65% of people on jobseeker’s allowance have been sanctioned. He is fiddling the figures, people are living in poverty and they have to go to food banks. These are not real jobs, there is no growth—he has failed.
Order. There is still a lot of shouting on both sides of the Chamber. May I just remind the House that Members on both sides of the Chamber have this afternoon praised and paid tribute to the achievements of Paul Goggins? One thing Paul Goggins never did was yell at people across the Chamber. He spoke without fear or favour, but he spoke with courtesy at all times.
The point I would make politely to the hon. Member for Swansea West (Geraint Davies) is that the best way to help those who are low paid in our country is to increase the number of jobs, cut their taxes, pare back the cost of government and make sure they feel the benefit from a Government who are on their side.
We are also legislating, for the first time ever, to claw back excessive redundancy payments to the most highly paid workers in the public sector, because I want hard-working people to know that their taxes are spent wisely. Any Government would be proud of all this legislation in the first year of a Parliament; we are now in the fifth year. We are also doing something else. For the first time ever, we are allowing people to spend their pension savings; it is their money, they worked hard for it, they saved it and they should be able to do whatever they want with it.
Was my right hon. Friend as surprised as I was by the interventions of the hon. Members for Swansea West (Geraint Davies) and for Edinburgh East (Sheila Gilmore) given that a number of Labour MPs use the sort of contracts they were condemning?
My right hon. Friend makes an important point. A number of local councils, including many in Labour areas, also use those contracts. We are taking a sensible approach. This issue has not been acted on for 13 years. We have sensible proposals for getting rid of exclusivity in zero-hours contracts. It is plainly unfair to say to someone that they have a zero-hours contract but that they cannot work for anyone else, so we will act on that in this Parliament.
One in six children living in poverty comes from a working household. In some parts of my constituency, it is one in three children. What specific measures in the Queen’s Speech will eradicate child poverty, as promised in the coalition agreement?
What will help those families is for us to make sure that we have an economy that is creating jobs, that we cut people’s taxes, that we protect those at the bottom who are working hardest and that we ensure that we freeze their council tax, cut their petrol duty and help with the cost of living by reducing the cost of government. That is what we need to do in this Parliament.
I listened to the speech of the Leader of the Opposition, and I have to say that there was a complete absence of anything approaching a coherent plan. There was nothing on the deficit, nothing on taking long-term difficult decisions and nothing on growth. That is his problem. It is not that he went to campaign in some target council seat but did not know the name of the leader of the council, or that he campaigns on the cost of living but apparently does not know the cost of his own groceries; it is that he has no coherent plan for our economy. He has nothing to say about how genuinely to improve our public services and nothing to say about strengthening Britain’s place in the world. What he has is a ragbag, lucky dip, pick’n’mix selection of ’70s statist ideas, which would set back this country, after all the work that we have done to turn it around. He has a policy on rents that would restrict access to housing; a policy on trains that would put up fares and increase overcrowding; a policy on energy that would risk power shortages and higher bills; and a policy on national insurance, which he repeatedly refused to deny today, that would increase taxes for hard-working people. Frankly, it is a revival of Michael Foot’s policies paid for by Len McCluskey’s money.
Last week, I held my third annual Weaver Vale jobs and apprenticeship fair at Mid Cheshire college. The number of jobseekers in Weaver Vale is lower by a third compared with this time last year, and it is lower than before the general election in 2010. Will my right hon. Friend confirm that job creation will remain at the centre of our long-term economic plan, so that more families can have the financial security of a pay packet?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. The most important thing in this Session of Parliament is to keep up the pressure on getting the deficit down, so that we keep mortgage rates and interest rates low and continue with the growth in our economy that is creating jobs and giving many more people the chance and the stability of financial certainty in their lives.
The Prime Minister has just mentioned that the Government have been successful in reducing the deficit. Will he tell us how much the national debt has gone up on his watch since 2010?
Every year in which we run a deficit, the national debt increases. The issue is to get the deficit down so that we stop adding to the debt. We have taken decision after decision on public spending and welfare, and not a single one of them has been backed by the Opposition. Simply on welfare, Labour has opposed £83 billion-worth of reductions, and, as we heard today, we have had not one single suggestion for cutting the deficit from the Leader of the Opposition. The Opposition offer nothing but a return to the past, while we on the Government Benches are looking to the future. The future is continuing to cut the deficit. In this Queen’s Speech, we will be introducing a new charter of budget responsibility to entrench strong public finances and to ensure that never again can a Government borrow in a boom and leave Britain bust in a bust. We have already cut the deficit by a third; in this coming Session, it will be coming down by a half; and, in the next Parliament, we are set to return Britain to a surplus.
A moment ago, the Prime Minister spoke about the importance of financial certainty for families. Why does the Queen’s Speech not include the right for those who work regular hours but are stuck on a zero-hours contract to have a proper, regular contract?
I thought that the hon. Lady would have started by pointing out that in her own constituency the claimant count has come down by 22% in the last year, which shows that our long-term economic plan is working. We are going to take action on zero-hours contracts, in a way that Labour never did. We are going to take action to increase the fines on those who do not pay the minimum wage, as Labour never did. We are putting the Gangmasters Licensing Authority into the Home Office, next to the National Crime Agency, so that we end the scandal of people being brought here and being paid less than the minimum wage—something that happened all too often under Labour. We are going to war on all those abuses, and I am proud to lead a Government who do that.
The future is about creating more jobs. We are cutting jobs taxes, with a £2,000 employment allowance and the abolition of employer’s national insurance contributions for those under 21. Our infrastructure Bill will open the way for a second energy revolution in the North sea, creating more jobs in Scotland and along the east coast of England. Our small business Bill will make it easier for small businesses to start, to grow and to employ people, creating more jobs across our country. Next year, we will create even more jobs and, in the next Parliament, we will move towards our goal of full employment for our United Kingdom. All the measures in this Queen’s Speech are about building on the success of the last four years: Britain is growing faster than any country in the G7, we are creating more jobs than at any time in living memory and we have more inward investment than any other European country.
We have seen today a fundamental difference in values between the Leader of the Opposition’s party and mine. It wants to carry on spending and borrowing more and more, whatever the consequences for our children; we are putting our children first by getting our country back to surplus. They want an ever-expanding welfare budget; we are determined that work should always pay. Our long-term economic plan is about building a better Britain, where together we can secure a brighter future for all our people. I commend this Queen’s Speech to the House.
I congratulate the hon. Members for Mid Dorset and North Poole (Annette Brooke) and for Portsmouth North (Penny Mordaunt) on their excellent speeches. This is the 27th Gracious Speech debate that I have spoken in and those were two of the best proposer and seconder speeches that I have heard.
The Prime Minister has kept his promise on Afghanistan. He said that he expected the troops to withdraw by 2014 and he has told the House that that expectation will be realised. I hope very much that Britain can also keep its promise in respect of Afghani interpreters: to treat them in exactly the same way as we treated the Iraqi interpreters. Many young men have laid down their lives. Their families have been affected by them being interpreters and are still in Afghanistan. I hope that the Government will remember the pledge and promise that we made to them: that they will be able to come to this country if there are no means by which they can remain in Afghanistan.
I know that the Prime Minister’s favourite video game is “Angry Birds”. I am not sure whether he was playing that as the results of the European elections were coming in, or what his score was, but all of us—the whole country—were surprised at the results. I am glad that the Gracious Speech includes a commitment to promote reform in the EU. As someone who supports not only the EU, but the reform agenda, I believe that this is one of the ways in which we can convince the British public that the House is serious about dealing with reform. I think there is a lot of common ground between the three party leaders on reform. All three have said that they want to remain within the EU but all three also support reform. I hope that in dealing with the rise of the UK Independence party and the remarkable results of last week’s elections the party leaders will be able to reach common ground on what we can do to reform the EU.
The Prime Minister is right to veto Jean-Claude Juncker as the proposed next President of the EU. He is the wrong choice and it is extremely important that following these elections we have somebody leading the EU who is capable of ensuring a strong and effective reform agenda.
It is also important to consider the fundamental way in which we should change the institutions. Let me give an example. Last Wednesday I was in Brussels to seek meetings with European Commissioners about the ban on Indian Alphonso mangoes. I felt it was odd that the EU could make such a decision so I went to Brussels during the recess to meet as many commissioners as I could. One informed me that he had to return to his country of origin to vote—they have obviously not heard of postal voting in Brussels—so he was not available. I met the Agriculture Commissioner in a very good meeting in which progress was made, and I know that the Prime Minister supports the need to overturn the ban, but I was also told that for the next two days Brussels would close for a religious holiday and that that happens regularly. If we look at how the institutions operate, we see that we can fundamentally reform them. The idea of Europe is of course good and our participation in Europe is important, but we need that fundamental reform.
I absolutely agree with the hon. Gentleman—who, I am sure, probably went to every single city in the European Union during his time as Agriculture Minister—that the practice of moving the European Parliament is outdated and should end.
We should also confront what UKIP is saying on EU migration. I do not believe that the British people are against people who come from the EU to work in this country and to contribute to it. The Leader of the Opposition’s points about exploitation and low wages are important, but I have not come across people in Leicester who say that they do not want people to come from Poland or Romania because they do not make a contribution when they work. The issue for the British people concerns our benefits system—when it pays child benefit, for example, to people who do not have their children in this country, which costs a total of £30 million a year. There is no resentment towards those who have their children in the UK and contribute to our taxes. As we consider reform in the context of the Gracious Speech, as well as how we can improve the EU and how it operates, that is certainly one thing we should take into account.
We need to confront UKIP on its immigration agenda. All three party leaders were right to condemn the statement of Nigel Farage that he would feel uncomfortable if Romanians were going to live next door to him. The agenda takes the Christian principle of love thy neighbour and turns it into choose thy neighbour and, finally, into hate thy neighbour. It is important that we should confront that, because it is what was said about my parents and other members of the Asian and black communities when they came to Britain—people said that they did not want to live near Asians and black people.
The right hon. Gentleman is making a very fair point. I draw the attention of those Members who have not read it to the report of the Select Committee on Communities and Local Government on community cohesion and integration, produced during the last Government, which showed that it was the pace of change that was objected to, even by second and third generation immigrants, not necessarily the colour or ethnicity of the people who were coming in. That was what was so unplanned under the last Government.
The fact is that we are a very diverse nation. Whenever the Prime Minister, the Deputy Prime Minister and the Leader of the Opposition speak about Britain, they speak about the importance of our diversity. It is diversity that won us the Olympics. It is important in dealing with UKIP that we can see the changes that have occurred. The Prime Minister has just appointed the first Asian member of a Conservative Cabinet, but we need to go further in showing how we have changed. When we come to the appointment of the chairman or chairwoman of the BBC, we need to ensure that someone from the ethnic minority community is on the shortlist. That is important in dealing with those who try to undermine the basic nature of our society. When we appointed the Governor of the Bank of England, we still selected from an all-white shortlist. The hon. Lady has many Bangladeshis living in her constituency. We have so much to offer as a nation, and the people do not want abuse. They do not mind legitimate people coming here to work.
Only the right hon. Gentleman could make a political issue of exotic fruits. Is he not in danger of conflating racism, which we all abhor, with a legitimate debate based on facts, which should have happened in 2004 when a moratorium should have been put on the free movement of labour? What we are really talking about is the pressure on public services, such as schools and health services.
There are those pressures for the hon. Gentleman because of east European migration. All parties now seem to be saying they want the maximum level of transitional controls on free movement. That means that the mistake that was made in 2007, whereby the transitional arrangements did not last the seven years, which was not the case with Romania and Bulgaria, will never be repeated. But that is a different form of migration. Those who came from south Asia and the Caribbean came to stay. If the hon. Gentleman looks at his constituency, he will find that a lot of the migration is easyJet migration. The communities will come from eastern Europe, they will work and they will go back. There are some who have stayed, but the vast majority have gone back to their countries. UKIP said that it would be the end of the world on 1 January—that thousands of Romanians and Bulgarians would come into this country. As the House knows, the Home Affairs Committee went to Luton airport and the plane was half empty, and 4,000 Romanians have left the country since 1 January, so the worst predictions were not realised.
When we look at east European migration, we should also consider migration from outside the EU. It is time the Government abandoned their target of bringing net migration below 100,000. I know that the Prime Minister and the Home Secretary have tried very hard to reach that target, but unfortunately it will not happen. The Prime Minister gave evidence before the Liaison Committee, and better to abandon the target and admit that it will not be met than continue to say that we still want to ensure that it will get below 100,000, because that will not happen.
Does my right hon. Friend agree that in advocating this policy there is a real danger that the message is going out around the world and to entrepreneurs who want to come to places such as Shoreditch that Britain is closed for business?
I agree with my hon. Friend. I wish she had seen the Prime Minister’s appearance before the Liaison Committee, because he is a class act in respect of his evidence. He told the Committee that he is responsible for the immigration total not going below 100,000 because he has been going around the world drumming up support for students to come and study in this country. He looked no further. It is a great achievement. When he went to China, he told all the Chinese to come and study in the UK. When he went to India, as he has done four times—full credit to him for being the first Prime Minister to visit India four times—he told all the Indians to come to study in Britain. No wonder the target has not been met. He is responsible.
I am grateful to my right hon. Friend and parliamentary neighbour for giving way. In the city that we represent we have two superb universities, both of which want to attract students from India. Yet the Home Office insists that students applying for visas have to go through credibility interviews. How on earth can the Government on the one hand say they want to increase our links and trade with India, and on the other hand make it more difficult for students from India to come to the UK?
Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that the real damage to public trust on immigration was done under the last Government? After years of this country happily accepting roughly 40,000 people a year, the last Government deliberately did not take out the exclusion when the new nations joined the European Union. Levels of net immigration rose dramatically to more than 250,000 a year in an illegitimate cheap-labour policy. We are now reaping the whirlwind that that caused.
I do not know whether the hon. Gentleman heard what I said to the hon. Member for Peterborough (Mr Jackson), but we have already had the mea culpa. There is a limit to how many times even a Catholic can say “mea culpa” to the House of Commons. We get what we did wrong and it will not happen again; I do not think any more countries will be joining the EU at this rate.
Let me tell the Prime Minister about the importance of what he does with his European partners as he pushes forward the reform agenda. I am thinking about the issue of illegal migration from outside the EU. The Home Affairs Committee has been to the border of Greece and Turkey; 100,000 people cross illegally to Greece from Turkey every year. They want to live in the UK or western Europe. Some 40,000 migrants are camped in Morocco waiting to come to Spain. Only last week, the French authorities, under a socialist Government, disbanded the camp at Calais. Eight hundred people were trying to come from Calais to the United Kingdom. As we hear on the news so frequently, people are literally dying as they seek to come from Libya and north Africa to enter the EU through Italy.
This is a big issue for the EU. It cannot be confronted by the United Kingdom on its own and there must be support for our EU partners on the southern rim of the EU. Greece, Italy and Spain need the support of the British Government and Brussels to ensure that they can deal with illegal migration. It cannot be fair that people are risking their lives to come here. We need a new partnership with EuroMed to ensure that there is that support.
Is the right hon. Gentleman aware of stories in the press about the French? When people get on lorries going from France to the British mainland, they are caught and given to the French police. But the French police do not take any direct action; they put them back into the system and the people try again a week later. Something stronger needs to be done in relation to the French.
The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right. If he has not been to Calais, I suggest that he goes there. The problem is that the French clock off at 5 pm, so it is easy for people to know when the French authorities are not doing their job. He makes the case for better co-operation with the French authorities and for ensuring that our Home Secretary and the French Interior Minister can work together to deal with the problem.
The Gracious Speech always talks about other measures and I hope that those will include a toughening up of our policy on foreign national offenders. Currently, there are 10,695 foreign national offenders in our prisons costing us £300 million a year. The top three countries are Poland, Ireland and Jamaica. Two of those are EU countries; I cannot understand why an EU country cannot deal with these issues in a more productive way. I know that the issue is a concern to the Prime Minister because he said so when he gave evidence recently. It is vital that these countries take back their own citizens as quickly as possible. We must initiate legislation to make it a requirement that, at sentence, people produce their passports and declare their nationalities. What the Home Office says—there is a slight problem between the Home Office and the Ministry of Justice—is that it does not know about nationality until much later. If we know about nationality at the beginning, we can start the process not of removal, but of looking at removal, much earlier.
I am sorry that no legislation is proposed on extradition. The hon. Member for South Northamptonshire (Andrea Leadsom) has led a brilliant campaign to protect two of her constituents, Mr and Mrs Dunham—British citizens who should not be in the United States of America and are there only because of a flawed extradition treaty. They are currently in detention and they are in great difficulties. There was an attempted suicide before they left the country. Despite the fact that America is our closest ally, I really think we should be talking to the Americans about ensuring that we can change this treaty, because what is going on is just not fair.
As for policing, I welcome the Bill on serious crime. Some £500 million of confiscation orders imposed on criminals in the past five years remains unpaid. The Mr Bigs—or Mr and Mrs Bigs—are getting away with not paying fines imposed by the courts. The Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police has put forward some very reasonable suggestions, and I hope they will be included in the Bill. We should not allow criminals who benefit from the proceeds of crime to leave prison, and certainly not allow them to leave the country. We need to make sure that our system is joined up to prevent them from going before they pay out what the court has imposed on them.
The Government have radically changed the landscape of policing. I am not sure whether, at the end of the process, it will be as uncluttered as it was when they started. I know it is the Home Secretary’s wish that she declutter the landscape. I welcome the National Crime Agency and the College of Policing, which are incredibly important changes. I was present at the Police Federation conference when the Home Secretary made her speech which means that there is no need for legislation on the federation. After that speech, I decided that I would not want to meet her on a dark, wet night in Leicester, because it was certainly extremely brave. I was sitting next to Sir David Normington, and we thought it was too brave a speech to make, but in fact the Police Federation has shown that it can change. I hope that it will continue with the reform agenda and ensure that it becomes much more democratic. As the House knows, the Select Committee suggested that every police officer should get back £130 because there is £70 million in the bank accounts of the Police Federation and the local federations.
I am sorry there is not a health Bill to deal with sugar. Sugar, as we know, is a killer. I am glad to see that in the Tea Room we have now replaced some of the sugary biscuits with fruit at the point where we go to pay for our food. As a diabetic, I think it is extremely important that we save the Government some of the £10 million that we spend every year on dealing with this.
I welcome what is being done on violence against women. The Home Secretary has done a great job in trying to ensure that this work takes place. However, I feel that we missed an opportunity on female genital mutilation. The Prime Minister’s summit is on 22 July, and the Select Committee will probably report at the end of June. There are 24,000 women and girls at risk of FGM, and 66,000 have been subjected to it. I would have liked to see a Bill toughening up the responsibility on doctors to report this. I hope that the Select Committee’s report will be useful for the summit. The Government should look at their guidelines. Only yesterday, a woman was on the tarmac ready to be deported to Nigeria even though she said that if her children returned there they would be subject to FGM. In these cases, we should be very careful to make sure that people are not returned to a position that we would not like in which they are subjected to violence of this kind.
As the Prime Minister and the Leader of the Opposition said, the whole House will welcome the modern slavery Bill. This practice is a curse that blights our society. As a modern state and the fourth richest country in the world, we should take a lead in dealing with it. When we did our inquiry into human trafficking, it was difficult to find victims who were prepared to come out and say they were victims. We must make sure that they are immune from prosecution under the Bill, because if they report what is happening we do not want them to then be prosecuted for being in that position. I am sure—because the shadow Home Secretary, my right hon. Friend the Member for Normanton, Pontefract and Castleford (Yvette Cooper), has spoken often about this—that the Opposition will support what the Government are doing so that we can have a benchmark Bill that will truly be something of which the whole House can be proud.
On a point of order, Mr Speaker. This morning, the Downing street press office made available to the British and, indeed, international press a 100-plus page document that sets out in great detail every item in the Queen’s Speech, but Downing street is not making it available to Members of Parliament and it is not in the Vote Office. Is there anything you could do, Mr Speaker, to bring to the urgent attention of Downing street office holders the need to share the information with Parliament?
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his point of order. If Ministers have prepared material which they feel would be helpful in understanding the full import of the Queen’s Speech, I have no doubt they would wish to share it with hon. and right hon. Members as soon as possible.
My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister was right to say that what matters most in the year ahead is that the economic recovery, which is now under way and speeding up, needs to be supported and developed. The whole House agrees that we want people to be better off. Their living standards were cruelly squeezed in the great recession between 2008 and 2010, and in the early years of the coalition Government there was some further loss of real incomes. It now looks as if that is beginning to change, and the way it can best change is if there are more jobs so that more people move from being out of work and into work. Under my right hon. Friend’s important policy, it will always be better to be in work than to be out of work.
As the recovery extends, wages will go up and there will be more better jobs available. Very often the best way to get a well-paid job is to start off in a not so well-paid job and to work one’s way up. Many of us have had to do that, and it will be increasingly possible as the recovery gets under way. I see that Labour Front Benchers think that that is ridiculous or funny. They should live in the real world and understand that economic recovery is good news for people’s potential living standards. None of us thinks that living standards are anywhere near where we want them to be. We need to develop that recovery.
The Queen’s Speech was right to have a limited number of measures. We have a short year before us and it is often not possible to do things through legislation. We need things to develop as the marketplace has its way.
Perhaps the reason for the wry smiles on people’s faces is that, although there are opportunities for people to start in low-paid jobs and to progress to higher-paid ones—many people have done that in their lifetimes—in the current economic situation many people who work in my constituency are lucky if they get a few hours a week on a zero-hours contract. It is unlikely, therefore, that they will be able to meet the aspiration of starting off in any paid job, never mind anything else. That is why Members on the Opposition Benches have wry smiles.
I think that is churlish. As the Prime Minister has pointed out, using constituency after constituency as examples, people are getting back into work. Some are not in the jobs they would like or for which they are being paid nearly enough, but the way to work on that problem is to get behind the economic recovery.
The Gracious Speech promoted three big things that are important in that connection. I am glad that Labour now agrees with many of us that the opportunity and right to own one’s own home is one of the most important things. Many people have that ambition and all too many of them are not able to afford it at the moment, so measures in the Gracious Speech and elsewhere that can help create more opportunities for young people in particular to buy their first home and for others to improve their home, or even to have their first home in later life, will be very welcome.
Part of the answer is sensible rates of building, which in turn produces opportunities. I visited a construction site in my constituency, where the Prime Minister will be pleased to hear a lot of houses are being built. Not all my constituents are delighted about that, but those seeking a home are. We are already seeing many more jobs for plumbers, bricklayers and carpenters, and wage rates are going up, because those people are in demand. That means that they have a better living standard after the period towards the end of the last decade and the earliest part of this decade in which their wage rates were very badly cut or squeezed.
Is it not true that by controlling Government borrowing, keeping interest rates low and keeping mortgage rates low, we are giving more people opportunities to buy and own their own properties, to pay lower mortgages and to live the dream of having their own home?
Indeed. That is part of the strategy and, as we can see, it is beginning to work, with more house building now being undertaken and more people being able to afford a home.
The next thing we need is more domestically supplied energy and cheaper energy. The two go together, felicitously, so if we can get a bigger energy sector extracting oil and gas in Britain—onshore and offshore—we will have more jobs, some of which will be higher-paid jobs, but also access to cheaper energy. I am very pleased that the Government are going to get behind the shale gas revolution. It is already transforming the American economy, creating higher living standards for many and producing the much lower gas prices that are pricing Americans back into competitive jobs in industry vis-à-vis Europe and Asia, where the price of energy is high. We need the same here.
We need to make sure that all people setting up their own business, or who have already set up their own business but have not taken on many or any employees and are now thinking of doing so, should feel that that is possible and feasible. If we have too much regulation and control—much of it well intentioned, no doubt—the very bright or able can still run a business, because they know how to handle that regulation and control and can get proper advice, but other people find it far more difficult. They are put off, thinking, “I really do not understand all this. I don’t know what it’s all about.” Anything that my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister can do to make it much easier for people to start their first business and then to take on their first employee will be extremely welcome and will promote the recovery.
My right hon. Friend is making a very eloquent case about how the best and most sustainable means of raising the standard of living is by developing sustainable jobs. Does he agree that one of the most damaging things we could do is to raise the tax on jobs as represented by employer’s national insurance contributions? That is being considered by Labour Front Benchers, but it would be hugely damaging.
That is quite right. The point has been made before. Lower taxes on enterprise and effort are generally a good thing. We want people to keep more of the money they make or earn when they set up businesses or get good or better jobs, and we also want to make sure that the Government do not deter employers from creating more jobs by over-taxing work.
I am pleased that the Gracious Speech refers to the need for more and better roads. In the past 15 years, our road building has fallen well behind what needs to be done to support the economic recovery and to promote industry, commerce and more jobs around the country. I look forward to seeing the detailed proposals.
What I primarily wish to do this afternoon is to speak for England. [Interruption.] I am glad that at least two hon. Members agree with that proposition. We speak too little for England in this House of Commons; yet a majority of us are English Members of Parliament.
I heartily encourage this movement from the right hon. Gentleman. Let us hope he can do more and more of it post-March 2016, when Scotland becomes independent.
I will have to disappoint the hon. Gentleman. The Gracious Speech of course invites us to talk about this matter by referring to the possibility of more extensive devolution of powers to Scotland—in the likely event that Scotland votes to stay in the Union, which many of us want to see—and of the extension of powers to Wales. However, the Gracious Speech makes no mention of extending devolved powers to England, and we cannot carry on with lop-sided devolution without considering the business of England.
As many hon. Members will know, I believe in being economical when it comes to public expenditure on the business of politics and government. I do not want a new expensive building and a whole lot of new English MPs down the road, in the way that Scotland has for its Scottish Parliament. This sacred plot has been the site of the English Parliament for many centuries. This Union building is now for the Union Parliament—built for an empire and a great Union—but it could again be the site of the English Parliament under the United Kingdom Parliament. Like me, I am sure that many colleagues who understand the need for value for money for taxpayers would be happy to do both jobs. We would be prepared to come here under your skilful guidance, Mr Speaker, to talk with our Scottish, Welsh and Northern Irish colleagues on all the matters of the Union, and to come here on other occasions to deal with the business of England without their help, guidance and certainly their votes. I think that there would be justice in that.
Does my right hon. Friend agree that it is a great shame that after primary powers were devolved to Wales so that it could take more command of its own affairs, we did not reduce the number of MPs in Wales, as the last Labour Government did in Scotland, purely because, as I understand it, it was objected to by our partners in the coalition?
I take my right hon. Friend’s advice on that, because she is more current on those arguments than I am.
I would like English MPs to be able to settle English issues on a fair basis. Labour gave us a cruel inheritance. The Prime Minister is wrestling with the bodged constitutional reforms on a huge scale that were made in the previous decade, which have left us with lop-sided devolution. Many in Scotland are hungry for more devolved powers and many in England feel that the settlement is very unfair. Labour also left us with three mighty federalising treaties with the European Union, which have left this Parliament struggling for power in many important areas of policy that matter to voters, as we saw on 22 May. This Parliament no longer has the power to make all or, in some cases, any of the important decisions in those areas.
I am sure that my right hon. Friend shares my dismay at the missed opportunity to reduce the number of MPs and to have fairer constituency sizes, which was the result, sadly, of the lack of impetus behind the Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Act 2011.
Indeed. The parties that voted against the boundary proposals have a lot to answer for. Again, that is unfair to England and to those constituencies that have many more voters than the average and that looked for some justice to be brought in through sensible reform. If this place is to work, we must surely work towards a world where we all represent roughly the same number of people. That is the kind of proportional representation that I believe in.
I hope that Scotland votes to stay in the Union. I think that that is likely because, had there been a tidal wave of opinion in favour of independence for Scotland—if that really was the wish of many people in Scotland—surely in the general election of 2010, the Scots would have voted in 30 or 40 Members of Parliament who were rooting for independence for Scotland. We would have taken that seriously and would have had to listen to them.
I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for allowing me to intervene. May I say how much I agree with him that in the next Parliament, we must address the issue of equal-sized constituencies? I ask his forgiveness for the ultimate insult, which is that I will leave his speech to depart for Brussels. Sadly, that is what I have to do because the G7 is starting in a few hours and I do not want to be late. I do not want to do him any discourtesy, so I wanted to point that out while commending his strong passion for equal-sized constituencies, which are a key democratic reform.
I am grateful to the Prime Minister for his courtesy. He has been courteous to stay as long as he has given that he has such pressing engagements. He illustrates the point that I wish to move on to, which is how much Brussels dominates our proceedings and our government, but I will first complete my Scottish point.
The most likely need that we will face after the Scottish referendum is the need to look at the question of lop-sided devolution. I would be happy to extend more powers to the devolved Scottish Parliament, but I want to be a voice for England and I do not think that we can carry on doing that without England having a settlement as well.
In the less likely event that the Scottish nationalists get their wish and there is a vote for independence, I will be one of the first to congratulate the Scots and help them in any way towards a smooth transition. However, I will want them to be genuinely independent. I will not want us to pretend that there is some kind of special relationship that is rather like a federal system. If people wish to be independent, they should be independent.
In that event, I propose that the House of Commons should immediately pass legislation saying two important things. The first is that the 2015 general election will not apply in Scotland and the current Members of the Westminster Parliament from Scotland should continue for as long as it takes to complete the process of separating the countries. There would be no point in having the expense and nonsense of a general election in a country that was leaving the Union. The second thing, which the hon. Member for Na h-Eileanan an Iar (Mr MacNeil) might like less, is that the Scottish MPs should play no part in any discussions about non-Scottish business in this place and no part in forming the response of the rest of the United Kingdom to their wish to be independent.
I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for allowing me to intervene again. I agree with him wholeheartedly on that point. In the SNP we have a self-denying ordinance of not taking part on English issues and non-Scottish issues because we believe, and I am sure the right hon. Gentleman is demonstrating this, that England is as good as France and Germany and can run itself amply, without any help at all from the Scots.
Very good. I shall now move on and speak for the United Kingdom. The hon. Gentleman might find that we are back here together still arguing about these matters after the referendum, but I hope he will accept the verdict of that referendum, as I will do, because we cannot go on arguing about this.
I support the unification of the whole of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland—that is, Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland and England together—so will the right hon. Gentleman tell me whether he recognises the contribution that the MPs from Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland bring to this House, and the knowledge that they bring from their own regions, which can help to formulate Government policy to benefit the whole of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland?
Indeed. I am a Member of Parliament of the United Kingdom Parliament, and proud to be so. I would like my country to stay together, but I do not want people in it who are not keen to be in it. If a democratic process is gone through and we discover that a part of the United Kingdom wishes to leave, as democrats, we must realise that that is the answer. We cannot keep on pulling up the plant to see where the roots are. I hope the referendum will be a one-off and that it will settle the issue for a considerable time.
I am glad to see the Scottish nationalists agreeing.
I come on to talk about the United Kingdom and its relationship with the European Union. We have today again witnessed a very important ceremony in this House. That ceremony is designed to remind us all of the battles and struggles of our forebears to ensure that this House of Commons had the power to limit the Crown—had the power to make the authority of government in this country accountable to this House of Commons—and a very moving and important ceremony it is. But we have a new struggle on our hands, equally important though not one, fortunately, for which we will need muskets and musket balls. We will need words, actions and independent thinking.
Our struggle is that this once great and sovereign House of Commons now is not sovereign or great in so many fields because the European Union has powers to instruct, overrule and command. There is a particular case that I would like the Government to consider in this next year in the legislative programme. The case is that of the human rights convention and the list of human rights therein. It was a Labour Government, when signing us up to the treaty of Lisbon, who expressly said in their motion on the treaty and in the Act of Parliament that they put through on the back of it that we were not going to consolidate all of the convention on human rights—that this House and this country would make up its own mind on human rights. That was reflected in the legislation that we passed—an act of sovereign legislative activity to say that we did not want it all dictated from the European Union.
What has now happened under a European Court judgment is that the European convention on human rights is being absorbed into the corpus of European law and will become an instruction on this House, against the wishes of Labour and against the wishes of the rest of us in the House at the time. I think the House should now move an amendment to the European Communities Act 1972 expressly ruling out that grab of power by the European Court of Justice on this issue, reflecting the words of the treaty we signed and reflecting the words of the legislation that this House passed. Unless this House is prepared to do this at some point on some important issue, this House is in no sense sovereign any more. We can claim to be sovereign only because all the powers of the European Union today are technically the result of our passage of the 1972 Act, but if we are never going to amend or revisit that Act, those powers have gone and we are completely under treaty and ECJ law.
Another area that we may need to look at is the promise by Governments of all persuasions that matters relating to taxation and social security would remain national issues, because they involve the money of our taxpayers and the money going to people in our country who most need help. Surely this Parliament should control our taxation, and our expenditure of substantial sums of it on benefits.
My right hon. Friend is making a characteristically powerful speech. Is not another mark of a sovereign nation that it controls the integrity of its own borders? Is it not high time that, even if we fall foul of the European Court of Justice, we look again at the ramifications of the free movement directive and possible changes to it? Should we not employ some of the changes that Spain, for instance, has made, to protect the integrity of our borders within the European Union?
I agree, although I do not think the legal case is quite so clear on that matter, which was why I concentrated on one on which were given assurances that a power had not been transferred. I believe the previous Government transferred a lot of power over borders, so it might be more appropriate to consider the matter by way of renegotiation. However, if my hon. Friend has particular examples of the ECJ or the Brussels Commission exceeding the powers that were granted to it, exactly the same argument will apply as with the human rights convention. We need at some point to make changes if we cannot effect them by negotiation and agreement with our partners. When negotiating, it is always a good idea to have a plan B just in case they do not see it our way. I always find that that concentrates the mind somewhat.
The Gracious Speech will reinforce the recovery, and that is what matters most to many of our constituents, who wish to have better jobs, better living standards and access to better housing. We are the inheritors of mighty constitutional turmoil, and we can no longer put off the business of England. Whatever result comes from the Scottish referendum, this House must engage earnestly with the business of England as surely as it has, on and off, with the business of Scotland and that of Wales and Northern Ireland in recent years. Above all, because we need to be in control of our own destiny and represent our people in ways that our forebears would respect, this House needs again to say that there are limits to European Union power, which will be prescribed here and dictated from this House. We can then look the British people in the eye again and say, “Yes, we will redress your grievances. We still have the power to do so, and we have the political will to act.”
It gives me great pleasure to react to today’s Gracious Speech.
Today’s Queen’s Speech should have laid out a grand plan for this country, tackled some of the issues that matter to my constituents and set the tone for how the general election will be fought in a year’s time. It should have raised the level of that debate and ensured that the Government of the day addressed the issues that matter to people. Sadly, it falls short on those points, possibly because the coalition has run out of steam as a working operation.
Any Government need to act to improve people’s lives, but we heard a rather ragtag set of measures that will go only part of the way to tackling some issues. I want to touch on three of those issues in particular, and on a number of smaller issues that Her Majesty mentioned earlier today. I will touch first on housing, which is a huge issue in my constituency, secondly on the child care measures that the Government are introducing, and thirdly on infrastructure, particularly broadband, which is crucial in my constituency.
Housing is a huge issue in Hackney South and Shoreditch and in Hackney borough as a whole. Prices are rising for those who want to buy homes, and rents are spiralling out of control, yet alongside those seismic economic changes there has come no greater security for highly mortgaged home owners or private tenants. I say “seismic” because the average house price increase in Hackney from 2013 to 2014 has been 19%, which is not affordable in any way and is causing a great deal of difficulty. Although this was not in the Gracious Speech, the Government’s calls for social housing rents to increase to 80% of those private rents are pricing the poorest, the low paid and the moderately paid out of my city and my borough. I applaud Hackney council—led by the newly elected mayor, with 59% of the popular vote—for standing up to the Government and saying, “No, Hackney will not raise rents on new social housing to 80% of incredibly high private rents”.
I mentioned high rents, so perhaps I should give the House a couple of examples—I imagine they are rather different from rents in your constituency, Mr Speaker, affluent though it may be. The median gross monthly rent for a one-bedroom flat in Hackney between October 2012 and September 2013 was £1,235, and for a three-bedroom flat it was just short of £2,000 at £1,993—out of the reach of families. If we add to that child care costs and the other costs of living that we know are causing families trouble, and which my right hon. Friend the Member for Doncaster North (Edward Miliband) is constantly highlighting, how can a family afford to rent privately in Hackney? My constituency has more people renting privately than owning outright, with 12,899 people renting privately and 10,394 owing their homes. This is a real issue now for people, but what have the Government said about it in today’s Gracious Speech? Nothing. That is in contrast to those on the Labour Front Bench, who I am pleased to say are looking at reform.
I declare an interest as a landlady. I welcome the measure to introduce three-year tenancies when tenants want them, putting power in the hands of tenants. With the 19% increase, the average property price in Hackney has risen from £441,000 last year to £525,000. Again, what family can afford that? Banks are constantly restricting borrowing, and even with the Government’s initiatives to try to improve borrowing, the problem in Hackney is not even scraped.
What is the solution? It is, of course, to build more homes. I was pleased to hear Her Majesty say that the Government will sell Government land for housing, but I am somewhat sceptical of that promise because over 20 years we have seen—I have seen this directly as an elected representative in London—how Treasury rules have stymied such moves at each stage. I remember being a councillor in Upper Holloway in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Islington North (Jeremy Corbyn) when the Royal Northern hospital site was being sold off and we sought to turn that into housing. What better legacy could there be for a former hospital than to improve public health by having decent, family housing for people in need? But no, it had to be sold, mostly for private housing and to the highest bidder.
That point highlights the difference between the Opposition and the Government. When the right hon. Member for Wokingham (Mr Redwood) talked about giving people the opportunity to buy houses, it demonstrated an obsession by the Government with buying homes, even though a lot of people are looking for rented, affordable accommodation and do not want to buy homes. The numbers that my hon. Friend gave the House demonstrate why they cannot buy a home, and that is why we should build more council houses.
Absolutely; I completely agree with my hon. Friend. We need a complete, radical overhaul of the rental market so that it is a stable, long-term investment for investors that provides stable long-term housing for families. One reason there has been discussion about the three-year tenancy is that many single young professionals do not want to tie themselves down, but families do. What family would choose to rent privately if they did not have to? They are pushed from pillar to post.
The Government talk about Government-owned land being made available, and we need clarity on that, which I will be seeking over the next days, weeks and months. For example, does it include land owned by the national health service’s PropCo? That amorphous body was set up and has snatched land from the hands of local communities—land such as the St Leonard’s hospital site, which was passed to the centre of the NHS and PropCo, rather than being available for local decisions and local housing. That site is now in the hands of a central organisation. Local people are crying out for affordable, decent homes, but what is the incentive for PropCo to provide that? As with all Departments, the incentive is to maximise income from the sale of the land, which does not mean social housing. Social housing will not provide maximum revenue, but it will give long-lasting social and economic benefits to hundreds and thousands of families across London and the UK who really need it. Those people are working but cannot afford to rent or buy in the private sector, and they certainly do not qualify for other social housing. We need to increase the supply to make that more available.
I represent one of the youngest constituencies in the country with more than one in five Hackney residents under the age of 16. I think—rather to my horror given that I am a shade over 21 these days—that more than a third of residents are under 35. Those taxpayers of the future—those young people—need access to quality child care and early-years education. Their parents need affordable, available child care to help them to work when they want and when they can do so. Instead, the Government take a muddled and ineffectual approach. The Queen’s Speech includes a £2,000 cashback offer for a working parent if they spend £10,000 up front on child care, but for many parents who access workplace child care vouchers, such as me, the existing system works. Instead of adjusting a system that works and perhaps extending it, the Government want to rip it up and start again, adding complexity to the system and confusion for parents. Many child carers might have to register with new schemes. Only this Government would reinvent the wheel to make things more confusing.
The Government are promising to give with one hand, but let us not forget that, with the other, they have removed certain child tax credits and child benefit from higher income earners, of whom there are a number even in my poor constituency. If someone has three children, they would have to earn £4,000 gross extra in order to replace the child benefit. The giveaway is a little less generous for many.
To make matters worse, there are rumours—I hope the Government will clarify them—that Atos will run the new scheme. Atos was ripped to shreds in the Public Accounts Committee, of which I have been a member, for its abhorrent handling of the personal independence payments contract. I hope that, if the Government are minded to go ahead with that crazy approach—reinventing the wheel by introducing the new scheme of which I cannot see the benefits compared with current provision—they take a sensible approach on who delivers it. I am not here to protect the reputation of the Government, but I am here to protect the parents who will use the scheme and who need it to help to pay for their child care. You could not make it up, Mr Deputy Speaker. It is like an episode of “Yes Minister”. Ministers are not saying yes or no and are confused about what they are trying to do.
I am perhaps more radical than Opposition Front Benchers because I have previously called for a child care revolution in the UK—the shadow Chancellor would probably not like to commit to that, but I am working on him. I look to Denmark as an example. The day care Act there means that local councils provide 8 am to 5 pm child care for everyone. The better-off contribute and the poorest get free child care. We see that in some exemplary local authorities in the UK. My children have been through local authority child care where people pay according to their means, which means that children mix and get good quality child care. It is not universal, but I would like it to be universal. In Denmark, the provision means that 76%—more than three quarters—of women work. Child care is a priority in Denmark and other parts of Scandinavia, and children and parents are at the centre.
In the past when I have raised that in the House, Government Members have accused me of saying, “Women must work and should always work.” I am a great supporter of maternity leave and benefits, which allow women to take a good year off when they are nursing their child. Those who can afford it and find a way can take longer. Women are the first educator of children and it is important that people make their own choices, but many women—women at the school gates whom I have met over the years—want to work and often have to give up work or reduce their working hours because of the lack of affordable, available, safe and secure child care.
For the economic recovery, that proposal is a no-brainer. We need everybody on board the boat to be rowing in the same direction. Allowing parents and particularly women to work is crucial. That proposal makes economic sense, gives women full access to the workplace and removes the discrimination that exists for women who are parents.
I was interested to see that the Queen’s Speech includes an infrastructure Bill. I am not privy to the No. 10 press briefing, which has the full details, but according to leaks to today’s papers and other information, the Bill does not include broadband. I believe it should, and I am not alone. I represent an inner-city constituency where speeds and physical connectivity are woeful and inadequate for many businesses, and yet for the past couple of years everybody has passed the buck, saying, “It is somebody else’s fault and somebody else’s problem.” The Public Accounts Committee has seen the well-documented problems with the rural broadband programme. I am frustrated—I am not the only one—by the intractable nature of this problem, with everyone blaming somebody else and even BT saying that in Shoreditch in my constituency only two thirds of businesses have access to fibre-optic broadband. Quite simply, the Government have to get a grip. The Bill could provide a vehicle for that, but some issues do not need new legislation. Some of this is about enacting what can already be achieved through existing measures.
I ask the Government to do two things in particular. First, they should recognise that universal superfast broadband is as much infrastructure as a new road or railway. Infrastructure is not necessarily about big physical projects, and universal superfast broadband is vital to the future of Britain’s economy and to equality across the piece. Secondly, the Government should come up with an affordable plan that delivers infrastructure and, critically, a competition regime that delivers for households and businesses.
There are a few other measures that warrant a mention. The draft riot damages Bill is very welcome and I give the Government credit for that. I saw the challenges at first hand that businesses in my constituency suffered after the August 2011 riots. I think of Siva in his shop on Clarence road, which I visited the day after it was trashed. It was his life’s work. He had worked seven days a week for nine years or so to support his young family and to establish them here in the UK. He saw his livelihood damaged. Steps to improve, speed up and simplify access to funds are vital if riots happen again, although I hope the draft Bill is never needed. I will be watching the detail to ensure that my experience, and those of other colleagues whose constituencies suffered, will be taken into account. I hope Ministers are listening to that experience in drawing up the proposed legislation.
On access to business finance, I welcome anything that improves the delivery of finance, in particular for small and medium-sized enterprises. I was in Shoreditch yesterday for the launch of LaunchPad Labs, which is helping small and medium-sized enterprises to set up by providing mentoring and access to financial advice. There is a critical difficulty for a business when turnover reaches about £20,000 and needs to grow to about £60,000—the financing challenge. At the moment, the Government’s track record has been woeful. Project Merlin promised a lot in encouraging banks to lend more, but it is not delivering for businesses. Frankly, high street banks are derelict in their duty. They do not understand businesses in their community and they are not lending to them properly. The correlation between people’s borrowing and the lending that banks do back to the community does not match. In all the discussions on finance, we are letting high street banks off the hook.
On pubcos, I have already seen too many pubs close in my constituency. This is probably too little too late for many, but any measures that begin to put power back into the hands of landlords—business people trying to run their businesses—and away from the big companies that force a particular business model on them, can only be welcomed.
On public sector redundancy clawback, we understand that the Government may be offering to claw back the money from people who have been made redundant and are then rehired, particularly in the NHS. I have raised this issue in the House repeatedly. My simple view is this: if it is the same pension scheme it is the same employer. If someone who is made redundant takes a redundancy package and then gets a job with the same pension scheme within a few weeks, that redundancy payment is null and void and should be returned.
I acknowledge and support some of the proposed measures relating to the plastic bag tax. People use far too many plastic bags. From my many trips to the Republic of Ireland, I know that a tax can change attitudes. We have to be careful, however. We must not get too excited and think that a tax simply solves the problem. The British Plastics Federation, which is based in my constituency in Rivington street, has told me that carrier bags make up 0.02% of household waste in the UK.
Northern Ireland is an example of how well it can be done. It has achieved an 80% reduction in the use of plastic bags and contributed £6 million to the Department of the Environment to use on environmental and consultation projects. It can do good even in a small place such as Northern Ireland, which has a population of 1.75 million people.
I thank the hon. Gentleman. Both Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland have set an example for the British Isles on this measure. I am in broad support, but we should look closely at measures on which the House agrees because of potentially perverse outcomes. Keep Britain Tidy says that carrier bags account for about 3% of the rubbish at sites that it observes. With DEFRA acknowledging that re-use stands at about 78% to 80%, with up to 50% of plastic bags taken from a supermarket being used as bin liners, we need to be clear that if people are not getting plastic bags at the supermarkets, they may well be buying bags elsewhere, so we need to think more about the consequences. It is about looking at the issue in the round. In Northern Ireland and Ireland—Eire—I have seen this working.
On a recent visit to Rwanda with the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association, I discovered, after arriving there and turning up at the presidential palace with my leaking mosquito repellent in a polythene bag, that the country had some time ago banned all polythene bags. Happily, I was let into the presidential event, after my polythene was confiscated on the way in, but it showed that a country such as Rwanda—20 years ago it faced a horrific situation—can make many strides ahead of the UK on the issue. I support the Bill, but believe that we need to reflect more on the consequences.
We have talked a lot about the successes following the Olympics, but very little, I think, about the Olympic legacy. As an MP representing a constituency that hosted part of the Olympics and still has the Copper Box and other Olympic facilities, I know that we have not seen the dividends that we should have done. For physical activity across the board, we have seen activity levels rise, but it is the same active people doing more rather than inactive people taking up sport.
I believe the Queen’s Speech provided an opportunity for the Government to revisit the issue of VAT on some fitness activities. In my constituency and many others up and down the country, GPs have for many years prescribed fitness activities at the local leisure centre, but when that prescription runs out, individuals have to pay if they want to continue, with the taxman—or, with Lin Homer as the permanent secretary, the taxwoman—taking a cut very quickly. A tax of 20% on fitness seems perverse, reducing the likelihood of people continuing with their health measures. I am not talking about reductions for luxury gyms, as the issue is sometimes reported, because many of my constituents are very poor and have to count every penny in every pound at the end of the week. Constituents such as a young woman who came to see me at my surgery the other week—she is contemplating surgery to deal with her weight problem, but she is not on a high income; she is a single parent not working at the moment but wanting to work—find it hard to pay for these things. She wants to be fit and active and to live long so she can be a good mother to her child, but having to pay an extra 20% for her fitness regime would make a considerable difference, possibly putting her off continuing with it.
There is, then, a little to be welcomed in the Queen’s Speech, but I think it is a missed opportunity, failing to tackle the cost-of-living issues that my constituents and people I have spoken to elsewhere really feel on a day-to-day basis. It seems but a drop in the ocean in comparison with the problems that constituents are facing. I will work to try to improve such measures as are in place to ensure that my constituents benefit as much as possible from the meagre offering they have been dealt.
Unlike the hon. Member for Hackney South and Shoreditch (Meg Hillier), I welcome this Queen’s Speech, which contains some very constructive measures, but we need to recognise the mountain that we have been climbing and continue to have to climb. The economy collapsed by more than 7% in 2009, and we inherited a public sector deficit that was bigger in percentage terms than that of Greece. Lord knows that Government Members have had to take some very tough and difficult decisions at a time when our trading partners have also been trapped in recession, which has made it even more difficult to get the economy growing again.
Now that we can, at last, see strong sustainable growth across all sectors, it is to be hoped that from this year on, people will at least begin to feel the benefits of recovery. Having gone through such a long period with no growth, we know that getting growth going again does not happen overnight; it will take time for many people. As a Liberal Democrat, I would stress that this is a coalition Government and that Liberal Democrats have shaped many of the key reformist policies. If we do not say this, nobody else will, but it is important for people to understand how coalition works.
The Queen’s Speech pledged to deliver a stronger economy and a fairer society, enabling everyone to get on in life. It is a Liberal Democrat mantra that the Queen uttered this morning—although I do not know whether she realised that—and it has underpinned our approach to government. I want to give the lie to the idea that the Government’s key achievements could or would have been secured without the Liberal Democrats. I want to make it clear that this is a coalition, in which we share the responsibility, the decisions and the policies.
The fact is that many of the things that have happened would not have happened without the Liberal Democrats. Let me explain what I mean. First, there seems to be a theory out there that the coalition was not even necessary, but there is a real likelihood that, had we not entered the coalition in 2010, there would have been a run on the pound, a great deal of market uncertainty, and a sharp rise in interest rates.
What I said was that had there not been a coalition delivering stability in Government, there would have been a run on the pound, or it is likely that there would have been a run on the pound, and there would have been a sharp rise in interest rates—and as the only coalition possibility was the one that actually happened, yes, I am saying that had we not entered the coalition, that would have been a real risk.
There is also a presumption that, a short time after the 2010 election, there would have been, or might have been, a second election, which might have produced a similarly indecisive result because the economy had been seen to deteriorate even more, but which, in some people’s opinion, would have produced a Conservative majority Government. I can only say that if that had happened, we should have heard a very different Queen’s Speech from the one that was delivered today. For instance, I do not believe that the Government would have delivered the raising of the tax threshold to £10,000 this year, and the further increase to £10,500 next year. That was not in the Conservative manifesto, and the Prime Minister said that it could not be done, but it has been done, because we were there fighting for it. It has been popular, and of course Conservatives want to be associated with it, but it was and is our policy. It will cut income tax for 24 million people by £800 annually from next year, and it has taken 2 million people out of tax altogether.
If there had been a Conservative majority, we would certainly not have introduced the latest round of the most radical reforms of our state and private pension arrangements since the days of Lloyd George, who, as some Members may recall, was a Liberal. Our pensions Minister, my hon. Friend the Member for Thornbury and Yate (Steve Webb), has secured a legacy as a great reformer. He is probably the best informed, best qualified pensions Minister that the country has ever had, and I believe that the measures he has introduced will serve as the foundation for both public and private sector pensions for decades to come.
Those two measures in themselves represent huge and positive reforms that have happened only because Liberal Democrats have been in government, but Liberal Democrat Ministers have also been the driving force behind the growth of apprenticeships, and we are on target to achieve 2 million by the end of the current Parliament. Liberal Democrats, led by the Deputy Prime Minister, have secured extra child care support, free school meals for every infant, and targeted support for disadvantaged pupils. Those measures have made a significant difference to families and others living in deprived circumstances, and are having, or beginning to have, a qualitative effect on the outcome of education.
Liberal Democrats have led the way towards a reform of the electricity market which, unlike the measures proposed by the Opposition, would keep the lights on, keep bills down and promote green energy. Liberal Democrat Ministers have secured a commitment to zero-carbon homes and to international agreement on climate change. Numerous other Liberal Democrat measures pepper the Queen’s Speech, including restrictions on plastic bags, support for garden cities, protection for pub landlords, a definition of child cruelty through a Cinderella clause, tough powers to tackle female genital mutilation, and legislation for the recall of Members of Parliament. None of those measures would have been in the Queen’s Speech if Liberal Democrats had not been in the coalition.
There are other parts of the speech which I warmly welcome, too. As I represent a constituency in the north-east of Scotland, I welcome the fact that maximising North sea resources is committed to in the Queen’s Speech, as is implementing the proposals of the Wood review, which the Government—indeed, the Liberal Democrat Energy Secretary—commissioned and which was supported by the Prime Minister. This will be achieved first through co-ordination between the Government and industry and also by maintaining a tax regime that encourages development. I hope the Government can simplify the tax regime over time, because it is becoming complicated. That is serving to unlock investment but it is also making it very difficult for businesses to assess that against international comparators. We also need to stimulate exploration, which is essential for future development.
I should say in passing that the industry has a concern. It will support this co-operation between Government and industry to maximise returns and to co-ordinate the use of infrastructure, but the regulator that is required to achieve that could be costly and it believes that if there is shared co-operation the costs should be shared, not imposed entirely on the industry. However, this calculation has, in the end, to be made: whatever is done has to enable the industry to make the investment that will ensure we get the maximum returns in the long run.
I also welcome the implementing of new financial powers for the Scottish Parliament. It is the essential next step in devolution. The right hon. Member for Wokingham (Mr Redwood) has left the Chamber, but he was right to say that if—or when, as I believe—Scotland votes to stay in the United Kingdom, the further transfer of powers to Scotland and what is happening in Wales and Northern Ireland will lead to a demand for devolution within England. I recognise that that is a matter for English MPs, but I personally think it would be a welcome development, leading to decentralisation and more localism.
This is the reality in Scotland: the coalition Government had to tackle the recession and the hole in the finances and had to take all the tough decisions, whereas all the Scottish Government had to do was spend the block grant, but they have done that while hurling abuse at all the difficult measures which, frankly, any Government would have to take, and while having no responsibility for those decisions. Giving the Scottish Parliament the responsibility to raise its own revenue and not just spend the block grant will increase transparency and accountability.
Does my right hon. Friend agree that had we given the Scottish Parliament those powers of full control in raising and spending revenue at the time of the 1998 Scotland Act—this point was made back then—we would have reduced the demand for independence?
I do agree. I would not say “full” in this context, because in a quasi-federal system each tier in Government needs to have access to its own tax base, but I agree that if the Scottish Parliament could have accessed most of its own revenue and resources, that would, indeed, have been the case. I think it would also have led to a more adult debate in Scotland about how priorities are determined. It is very easy for MPs in the Scottish Parliament to attack the difficult decisions involved in dealing with the deficit, as they have no responsibility for making those decisions.
Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that one of the most important reasons for the Scottish Parliament having full control over its tax revenues through, hopefully, independence is that that will enable it to grow the economy? The laudable aims of making Parliament more transparent and politicians more responsible is all well and good, but the most important thing for people in the street is that the economy grows, and we can do that through independence.
The hon. Gentleman will know that I am not going to go down the route to independence. I believe the Scottish Parliament has got substantial powers and, frankly, I believe that the Scottish Government would have served the Scottish people better if they had spent more time using those powers and less time promoting the case for independence. They even let their current tax-raising powers lapse: they did not want to use them as it might have been a bit unpopular or they might have been accountable for that. I do not accept the hon. Gentleman’s argument because what independence does, of course, is raise barriers to the very means of growing the economy. My argument is, yes, we should have access to taxes that help fund the Scottish Parliament, but that we should contribute to, and share in, the whole of the United Kingdom.
If I may, I will pay tribute to someone. Just in the past week, a great champion of Scotland’s role in the UK, Maitland Mackie, died—I am going to his funeral on Friday. People might have heard of him, as he was famous for Mackie’s ice cream and was a great pillar of the Scottish agricultural community. One of his uncles was a Liberal Democrat MP and another was a Labour MP. Maitland Mackie was committed to the view that Scotland would thrive provided it had control over its own affairs domestically but shared in the full benefits of the Union; as he pointed out, 80% of his ice cream is sold south of the border, and he did not wish to undermine that. I pay tribute to him, because he was a very fine example of Scottish enterprise and success—
The right hon. Gentleman makes an interesting point about selling ice cream; he is trying to give the impression that if Scotland were independent it would sell less ice cream outwith its borders. I ask him this: where is most Guinness sold? It is not sold in the Republic of Ireland; it is sold worldwide. The idea that borders would stop that trade is nonsense, and he knows it.
I do not know that, because I do not know what the currency transactions would be—because we have not got an answer on that from the Scottish Government. The problem is that all the uncertainties—the potential barriers and the potential changes—will have an effect. Like Maitland Mackie, many others in the food industry who are doing business in England daily are overwhelmingly concerned that independence will damage their market and are privately saying that they do not want to see Scotland vote yes in September.
Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that the thing that finally swung the Quebec independence campaign referendum was the fact that the rest of Canada made it very clear that it wanted Quebec to stay within the union? Does he agree that we can throw all the facts and figures we like at the Scottish people but if we could get it across to them that they are actually wanted by the rest of the United Kingdom, that would do more good?
It is a simple statement as far as I am concerned and the better way to put it is that if the United Kingdom breaks up, we are all diminished: Scotland is diminished; Wales, Northern Ireland and England are diminished; and everything we stand for together is diminished. It is as simple as that. When all the ins and outs—the costs and the figures—are taken into account, the reality cannot be measured just in money. We will all be diminished, and our influence and standing in the world will be diminished.
No, I am not going to accept another intervention. I say to the hon. Gentleman that on the doorsteps—this is not about slogans—people are increasingly telling me, in very simple terms, “You know what, we are better together.” I believe that will be the prevailing argument.
In my role as Chairman of the International Development Committee, I wish to say that I share pride in our achievement of 0.7% of gross national income being spent on official development assistance. When I say “our achievement” I mean the achievement of this Parliament, across parties; it could only have been achieved because all parties supported it. I welcome the fact that we have achieved it and that the Queen’s Speech specifically sets out a commitment to improve the humanitarian situation in Syria. On the information that my Committee and I have—we will be publishing a report in a few weeks’ time—UK support has been crucial to being able to provide access and support to people in distress which other countries have not stepped up to the plate to deliver. We should recognise that this country has every reason to be proud of that.
I also welcome the explicit commitment in the Queen’s Speech to preventing sexual violence in conflict worldwide. We have all seen too many horrors recently, in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Nigeria, Pakistan, India and Afghanistan to name but a few, of the appalling ways in which women are treated: how they are valued—how they are undervalued; how they are denied access to education; how they are abducted; and how they are murdered. This is an intolerable situation. The UK alone cannot prevent those things from happening, but as the world’s second largest bilateral donor and an internationally acknowledged force for good we can provide leadership that can make a difference. I welcome the fact that that is explicitly set out in the Queen’s Speech, and I hope that Members on both sides of the House can unite behind that.
I conclude by saying that I believe that, for the last Session of this Parliament, with only 10 months to run, this is an excellent Queen’s Speech containing a lot of very substantial and worthwhile measures. It is substantially a Liberal Democrat Queen’s Speech and for that reason I am very happy to commend it to the House.
It is a pleasure to follow the right hon. Member for Gordon (Sir Malcolm Bruce). I should like to acknowledge Her Majesty’s Speech, which she delivered from the Throne today. The words may not have been hers, but the delivery certainly was. We are richly blessed as a country—England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland—to have Her Majesty, Queen Elizabeth, as our Head of State. I am sure that we all wish her continued health and strength; long may she reign.
I associate myself with the remarks that were made by both the Prime Minister and the Leader of the Opposition concerning our troops who are leaving Afghanistan. I pay tribute to their sacrifice and say that they come home with honour. Because our troops served their country in Afghanistan, many families have been bereaved, and we extend our sympathy to them.
I also associate myself with the remarks that were made about Paul Goggins who, as a Minister in Northern Ireland, served with distinction. Certainly my right hon. and hon. Friends and I have many happy memories of him during his time there.
Her Majesty’s speech contains many elements that we warmly welcome. There are other elements on which we will be seeking more information from the Government, and there are some omissions with which we are disappointed.
First, let me start with the positive elements. The Democratic Unionist party welcomes the actions of the Government in addressing the ongoing scourge of human trafficking and organised crime. In this country, we are rightly proud of the role played by reformers such as William Wilberforce in bringing about the destruction of slavery throughout the British empire and other places in which our influence was felt. Despite that historical legacy, the sad reality is that slavery is still going on within our borders, and we have a moral obligation to act in that regard and to punish severely those who trade in human misery and suffering.
My colleague in the other place and in the Northern Ireland Assembly, Lord Morrow of Clogher Valley, is pioneering legislation through the Assembly. His Human Trafficking and Exploitation (Further Provisions and Support for Victims) Bill contains many measures to tackle the evil of human trafficking, to punish those responsible for the suffering and to afford help and protection to the victims. The central feature of that legislation is the adoption of the Nordic model in relation to paying for sex, and I strongly encourage the Government to go down that path as well.
Northern Ireland is the only part of the United Kingdom that shares a land border with another EU member state. A key element of fighting crime across that border is the work of the National Crime Agency, the importance of which has been acknowledged in the House. However, I am sure that the Government would agree that the behaviour of some parties in Northern Ireland, namely Sinn Fein and the Social Democratic and Labour party, which are currently blocking the establishment of the NCA in Northern Ireland, represents a gross and monstrous betrayal of the safety and security of their and my constituents. Those parties should reverse their position, and allow the people of Northern Ireland to enjoy the protection and the benefits afforded by the NCA. We must tackle serious crime, and those who stand as obstacles in the way cannot plead innocence and should be condemned.
On that subject, the obstacles that have been placed by certain political parties in Northern Ireland to the formation of the NCA have contributed to a loss of perhaps as much as £100 million of revenue to the Treasury because of the deals in which they have been involved.
I thank my hon. Friend for his intervention. It is correct that fuel and tobacco smuggling is a big thing, and the revenue that has been lost cannot be properly tackled without the benefits of the NCA. I ask the Government, once again, to act and to encourage the Social Democratic and Labour party, especially its Members who attend this House, to stop putting obstacles in the way—to remove them—allowing us to make progress on the protection and safety of all our citizens in Northern Ireland.
The DUP is a low-tax party. We believe that people, rather than Government, should decide how to spend their money. We therefore welcome the measures announced in the Gracious Speech pertaining to reducing taxation on personal saving. It cannot be right that, when people behave responsibly and set money aside to pay for home improvements, their children’s education, their health care expenses or their retirement, the Government take a slice out of such saving. Equally, measures designed to afford greater flexibility in how people draw down their pensions are to be welcomed. Nevertheless, it is important that a degree of education is afforded, so that people do not run out of money before their retirement comes to an end.
It was interesting to hear the right hon. Member for Gordon. He took all the credit for everything that he looks on as positive in Her Majesty’s Gracious Speech—not only this one, but ever since the coalition started—and all the difficult things that were hard for people to stomach, the Lib Dems, of course, had nothing to do with; those were simply down to the Conservative party. Honestly, that is hard for us to stomach, because that is not the reality. This is a coalition Government and, whether they were difficult decisions or easy ones, all the fingerprints will show the Lib Dems’ thumbprint on every one of them, just the same. They must take responsibility, and when they go to the electorate they are finding out that they are taking the responsibility. The recent elections to the European Parliament certainly showed that. They were left with only one MEP. To endeavour to take all the credit for things that were beneficial to the people, saying that that was Lib Dem policy and everything else Tory or Conservative policy, is rubbish and should be binned.
Can I ask the hon. Gentleman about something he said about pensions? Does he not think that the coalition Government have got themselves in a bit of a pickle with the concept of people being able to take all their money at one time, when there was tax relief on that money when they first paid it into the pension pot? There is a great danger that people will receive large sums of money and spend it unwisely unless some protective measures are introduced by the Government to ensure that that does not happen.
I certainly accept that there could be problems. That is why I believe that there must also be a strong degree of education for those taking out pensions, to be sure that they are doing it for the benefit of the rest of their days, rather than for the immediate moment. Such a decision should be considered carefully, and the proper advice given to them.
It is also imperative that the Government give the lead by ensuring that future Governments spend taxpayers’ money responsibly, so I welcome that commitment in the Gracious Speech. Wastage of public money on gimmicks and non-essentials makes the public cynical about the good stewardship of the nation’s finances, especially at a time of cutbacks on essential services for the population.
In further reference to the Gracious Speech and its relevance to Northern Ireland, the over-reliance of Northern Ireland’s economy on the public sector is a continuing cause of concern. The DUP believes in the rebalancing of our economy, but the answer is not to be found in the slash-and-burn approach. Public sector reduction in Northern Ireland needs to be commensurate with private sector expansion. Northern Ireland is moving forward in that regard, and there have been significant and welcome job announcements over the course of the past 12 months—I certainly experienced that in my own constituency. We are seeing the recovery gathering pace in the Province. My party stands ready and willing to work closely with the coalition Government to continue to bed down the recovery and to enable further private sector growth. My colleagues and I are committed to ensuring that our economic recovery in Northern Ireland is stable, sustainable and enjoyed not only in parts, but in every part, of our Province.
We also welcome the commitment in the Gracious Speech to make the United Kingdom the most attractive place to start, finance and grow a business. I await the details that will outline how the Government intend to support small businesses by cutting bureaucracy and enabling them to access finance. Promises have been made on these issues in the past which have seemed to encourage small and medium-sized enterprises in my part of the United Kingdom, across the rest of the Province and across the United Kingdom as a whole, but the results have fallen short of expectations.
We must ensure that banks will lend money to businesses to allow them to grow. We seem constantly to hear that small businesses will be enabled to access finance, but unless banks lend to them they cannot access it. The Chancellor of the Exchequer and the Prime Minister have both encouraged banks to do that from the Dispatch Box, but banks seem to be above even the Prime Minister and the Chancellor of the Exchequer. We must therefore force them to ensure that the money goes to small businesses to allow them to grow as they desire.
There have been some attempts to map the amount of money people borrow from a bank for mortgages and so on and the amount of money that is then lent out to businesses in the same area, but they have been based on wide postcode areas. Will the hon. Gentleman support me and others in asking to have that carried out in a much more detailed way so that we can see the business of the banks and what they are doing in our communities?
I would certainly be delighted to see that, because it would bring out revealing statistics as well as the reality of what is happening on the ground. My constituents are still finding difficulties every time they go to the bank. As for those who desire mortgages, let us see exactly what the real situation is rather than the spin that even the banks put on it.
The Gracious Speech referred to a shared future. Members from throughout the rest of the United Kingdom might not be familiar with the concept in reference to Northern Ireland. In a nutshell, it entails a future in which people’s culture, identity and religion are celebrated and afforded dignity and respect. In that context, the Parades Commission’s most recent determination, made today, about the return parade to Ligoniel Orange hall represents a stark contrast with the concept mentioned in Her Majesty’s Gracious Speech. The Parades Commission has bowed once again to undiluted fascism and the threat of dissident republican force. These are people who support the murder of police officers and soldiers, yet the commission has given in to their demands. Sadly, on top of that, the fingerprints of Sinn Fein agitation can also be seen and today’s decision is repulsive to the ordinary decent law-abiding loyalist and Unionist community. The Secretary of State for Northern Ireland has the power to overturn this ludicrous determination and I strongly urge her to do so.
The DUP welcomes the freeze in fuel duty, but we do not believe that it goes far enough. In Northern Ireland, we pay the highest fuel bills of any region of the United Kingdom. During the years of the Labour Government, fuel duty was a major public concern that resonated throughout the country. In 2000, when the average price was 80p a litre for unleaded and 80.8p a litre for diesel, rising fuel prices prompted protests that brought the country to a standstill. The depth of public anger directed towards the Government of the day over the issue was such that it was the only time during the 1997 to 2001 Parliament that Labour fell behind the Conservatives in the opinion polls.
In many areas throughout the Province, cars are the only mode of transport, as public transport is limited. People can journey to our major cities, but bus timetables mean that getting home later in the evening is absolutely impossible. Public transport can take someone there, but they must stay there because they cannot get home. Trains cover only a limited part of the Province, so they are out of the question. The mode of transport is cars, and fuel costs are a heavy burden on those who have to travel to gain employment.
Fuel poverty is an important issue in Northern Ireland, and as 38% of the population of Northern Ireland live in rural communities they are dependent on cars. Is my hon. Friend aware that the Treasury consulted across the whole of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland on a fuel pilot scheme that would reduce prices in specific areas and that it received 30 responses, 19 of which came from Northern Ireland? Not one of those schemes will be for Northern Ireland, even though almost two thirds of the responses came from Northern Ireland. Does he feel as annoyed as I do about that?
On this occasion, I am happy to listen to and consider carefully what the Scottish National party has to say. I emphasise “on this occasion”, because on its other policy on the United Kingdom I will not listen to anything that it has to say because it is living in a dream world. I hope that the United Kingdom will remain solidly together after the referendum.
As Leader of the Opposition, the Prime Minister made much of his intention to introduce a fuel duty stabiliser, which would protect hard-pressed families and businesses against any rises in the price of crude oil. Basically, what happens is that as the price of crude oil goes up, the rate of fuel duty charged on petrol goes down to keep the prices stable and avoid the massive fluctuations that we have witnessed recently. On 12 April 2010, some three weeks before people cast their votes in the general election, in relation to the fuel duty stabiliser a Conservative party spokesman said:
“We are very straight with people. This is not a tax giveaway—instead it is a sensible, balanced policy that protects families from big increases in the oil price.”
I wholeheartedly agree with those sentiments. It really annoys my constituents that when crude oil prices increase, there is an immediate increase at the pumps, but whenever they decrease, there is a long period before consumers get any of the benefits. Even when they do go down, they do not go down to the previous level. The Government must look carefully at that.
I welcome the fact that the Government are to introduce measures to protect people who seek to intervene or help in emergencies. If a genuine sense of community spirit is to be re-established, it is imperative that those who seek to help another citizen in distress or danger can be assured that the force of law is on their side and that their community spirit will not result in their being prosecuted for doing what is right.
I want to reflect on another matter that exercises my colleagues in Northern Ireland that is not in the Gracious Speech. As shadow Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, the right hon. Member for North Shropshire (Mr Paterson) toured the Province trying to rally support for the then alliance between the Ulster Unionist party and the Conservative party. One way in which that was attempted was to tell people that the ongoing payment of public moneys to MPs who did not attend this House and fulfil their duties would be ended. That has not happened, and that is a disgrace. Amidst all the other cuts in public expenditure, elected Members of Parliament receive moneys for not participating in debates in this House and representing their people here. That must be acted on. This is the last Gracious Speech of this Parliament and the Government should have delivered on their pledge. I regret that they have not done so, and I urge them once again to do so. We must bring this matter before the House, perhaps through a Back-Bench debate, because it is wrong that people who do not represent their constituents in this House should receive this money. Sinn Fein should not be receiving this money for not representing their constituents in this House.
I want to mention an important issue for us as Unionists and for the people of Northern Ireland in general. We understand that Sinn Fein has been able to claim £600,000 for not sitting on these green Benches. That money would have been better spent on things such as building schools or hospital extensions.
It is important that even now we raise this matter in the House; no party in the House can justify people receiving money when they do not come here to represent their constituents. They can use that money. As elected representatives, we have to answer for our money; IPSA certainly has a right to look at all our expenditure, although that is not so for those who receive money but fail to represent their constituents.
Finally, on reform of the European Union, the right hon. Member for Wokingham (Mr Redwood) mentioned Members from Scotland, Northern Ireland or Wales speaking about English issues. I would say that that is less offensive—we are elected to a House of the United Kingdom—than European legislators legislating for our constituents, telling us what our laws should be and taking sovereignty over certain sections of our legislative process, when this House should be doing that on behalf of our people. The Prime Minister should be encouraged to see what changes he can get. However, at the end of the day, the people of the United Kingdom should make their decision in a referendum. I trust that the promise made by the Conservative party will be supported by Her Majesty’s Opposition and that the referendum will be brought forth sooner rather than later to allow the people to make their decision. They have a right to speak.
We have to look at zero-hours contracts, which have been considered by the Northern Ireland Assembly. We should do everything we can for the working poor; quite a number of people go out to work every day but are caught in a poverty trap. We have to see how we can alleviate much of their and their families’ suffering at this time.
Order. Before we move on, I should say that a large number of Members still wish to speak. So far, speeches have averaged 20 minutes or more. Rather than imposing a time limit, I ask Members to aim for 15 minutes or less. In that way, everybody will get in before 10 o’clock. Otherwise, some Members will be disappointed.
It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for South Antrim (Dr McCrea). It was good to hear about his passion for the role of Members in this House and participation in its debates.
I am delighted to welcome this Queen’s Speech following my two able colleagues who proposed and seconded the motion. I single out my hon. Friend the Member for Portsmouth North (Penny Mordaunt), who made an absolutely superb speech; I tweeted that it was a Tina Turner moment—“Simply the Best”. She was a credit to the House and her constituency.
It seems as though there are only a few days before we face a general election. What we needed in the Queen’s Speech was a mature approach to this last year in government and in the legislative programme. That is what we have got from the Government today. Eleven new Bills were set out and they covered a wide range of subjects. Before the Leader of the Opposition stood up, it was put about that this would be a zombie Queen’s Speech. It was far from that. I notice that that term has been dropped from the commentary given by Her Majesty’s Opposition. They can no longer call it a zombie programme because it is a full one that builds on and consolidates our economic progress and the way in which this Government have been taking the country forward. It is a credit to my colleagues that far from being finished, they are showing that they are preparing for the election and, I hope, to leading this country in a pure Conservative Government next time.
As my hon. Friend says, a real Conservative Government.
This Queen’s Speech does not bring forward much-required measures on immigration and on enshrining the EU referendum in law, but the Prime Minister and my colleagues in the Cabinet in the Conservative party have been held back by their coalition partners. I agree with my right hon. Friend the Member for Wokingham (Mr Redwood)—I want that referendum. If a Conservative Member is high up in the ballot for private Members’ Bills, I very much hope that they will take forward the valuable work done by my hon. Friend the Member for Stockton South (James Wharton).
On the economy, I was pleased to hear the reassurance that we will continue with our tax cuts and reducing the deficit, and the news on personal allowances. I particularly welcome the proposal to recognise marriage in the tax system—something for which my constituents have been asking for a long time and hoping we would fulfil. I am glad that it is finally being brought forward in this Queen’s Speech.
I am pleased that we are again paying attention to small businesses’ needs with the small business, enterprise and employment Bill. Access to finance has always been a problem for small businesses in my constituency. In many instances, they have said that it is the prime factor holding them back from development. If the Government can speed this matter forward, we will all welcome it.
On the provisions on child care, the hon. Member for Hackney South and Shoreditch (Meg Hillier) and I have something in common. I am passionate about women being able to go back to work if they want to, and having the correct child care provisions is extremely important. There has been a 27% increase in child care costs since 2009. Across the country, the average weekly cost of child care is about £109 for a 25-hour nursery placement for a child under two, and having a childminder for 25 hours could cost £99. The problem is that returning to work is often a marginal decision for professional women. Yesterday I talked to a physiotherapist who works in the national health service and who has just given birth to her second child. She would like to return to work, but she did the calculations and found that, on the basis of working three days a week, it would be a marginal decision as to whether she did so. Yet she is desperate to go back, not only because she has to keep up her professional qualification but because she is devoted to the national health service. I hope that some of our provisions will assist women like her and others so that they can go back to work and make the valuable contribution right across the economy that women do make.
I welcome the right hon. Lady’s support. We should be dealing with this as a cross-party matter because it is fundamental to the future of our society. I hope that she would embrace not only a wider vision of an increased supply of child care but an acceptance that it should be available. When we get our child care we should not have to all dance around feeling grateful that we have got something; it should be provided and it should be good quality so that we are able to work.
I agree. I almost intervened on the hon. Lady earlier because half my family live in Denmark, so I am familiar with the child care facilities there. The importance of this issue is now being recognised in the highest echelons of Government.
As we are legislating not just for child care but for the protection of children, I would like the Government to consider again an important matter that I have raised before—the mandatory reporting of activity around children by those engaged in regulated activities. Since 1950, the reporting of suspected and known abuse of a child by a member of staff at a school or location of a similar regulated activity has been entirely discretionary. Despite legislation in 2002, nothing has changed. There is still no legal requirement to report abuse of a child in an institutional setting. The statutory guidance says only that such abuses or allegations “should” be referred to or discussed with the local authority designated officer.
Given the flood of non-recent cases of child abuse in schools that we see reported every week in the media, we now know that discretionary reporting does not work. Mandate Now has done some terrific work of which I am very supportive, as are a number of MPs across the House. We should consider a law that requires professionals who work with children in regulated activities and who know, suspect, or have reasonable grounds for knowing or suspecting child abuse to compulsorily inform the local authority designated officer or, in appropriate circumstances, children’s services. Failure to do so would be a criminal offence. At the moment, the guidance is frequently ignored. The legislation that the Government have proposed on the protection of children could allow us to consider introducing this measure in this Bill at this time. I hope that they will at least consider that.
The Government are legislating not only for those at the start of life and our young people but for those in the twilight of their years. I welcome the pension provisions, which are long overdue and welcomed by many of my constituents. However, I remind the Government that there is still a running sore in the pensions world—that is, Equitable Life. The fact remains that nothing has been done for the people who took out pensions with Equitable Life before 1 September 1992. I pay tribute to Paul Braithwaite and the Equitable Members Action Group, who have done so much work in this area. As the economy is now starting to grow and to look much healthier, now is the time for the Government to strike—to go back and collect those people, who are getting fewer and fewer in number. I very much hope that my words will be heard in the Treasury. The compensation scheme needs to be seen to be fair. At the moment, there is some controversy about the fact that the actuarial firm that is calculating the compensation payouts and the one assessing the validity of appeals is one and the same. I hope the Government will look at that, because it does not send out a message that the situation is fair and equitable.
I have had a long and privileged association with the land of my birth, Wales, and I am pleased to see the proposed measure on carrier bags and plastic bags. We often think that devolution is a one-way street, with us giving things to the countries that have devolved powers to themselves, but this is just a little proof that we can carry out a measure in Wales or in Northern Ireland and bring it back to this House. However, although the measure will take a large number of plastic bags out of circulation, let us not be lulled into a false sense of security that it will save the environment. At first, people’s habits are formed by the charge, so they save their bags and take them to the supermarket, but then they forget and buy the 10p bag for life, so the number of bags for life mounts up at home in the same way as the little, thin, annoying bags mount up from every visit to the supermarket. I want to avoid having to re-legislate on this matter, so I hope the Government will look closely at the detail of the Bill, but so far, the action taken has been a force for good. When I did some research, I found that since 2007 Marks & Spencer has charged 5p for all its standard food carrier bags—as I know to my cost, because when I do not have a bag with me, I end up having to juggle a large number of parcels or buy a bag for 5p. The profit from that charge goes to charities—the World Wide Fund for Nature and the Marine Conservation Society—and towards educational projects in primary schools to promote awareness of marine life. I believe that since the measure was introduced in Wales, it has raised some £4 million for good causes, which is something we could all support. We could bring about a similar result from making these charges across the board.
I was also pleased to have it reaffirmed that NATO will meet in Wales. I think it will have a warm welcome and enjoy very good facilities in the Principality.
The proposed change in the planning laws to ease access to land for the process of fracking will prove controversial. I hope the Government will learn a lesson from the experiences of my constituents about to access to land and High Speed 2. It has not been a happy event. HS2 and the Government do not have statutory powers to access private land without the owner’s consent; that will only happen once the hybrid Bill has been approved by Parliament. I wonder whether the Government’s new proposed provisions will override those in the HS2 hybrid Bill with which my constituents have come to terms, and whether they will allow, in effect, compulsory access to people’s land. Many of my constituents have been very concerned that giving access could result in them losing some rights over their land. Indeed, I think that some 40% of the phase 1 route of HS2 has yet to be examined, in some cases because landowners have refused access.
On the change in law regarding hydraulic fracturing, may I, as the chairman of the all-party group on unconventional oil and gas, reassure my right hon. Friend that my understanding is that it is simply about access to drill at a depth of greater than 300 metres beneath a property? It should not give any right of access to the property above the surface.
I am grateful for that clarification. Perhaps I am seeing problems where none exist. However, my message to the Government is that if they are going to engage with landowners about any infrastructure development or fracking, they need to make sure that that engagement is correctly done and appreciated by the people in the communities that will be affected, because that has not been the case with HS2.
I am glad my hon. Friend entirely agrees on that important point.
I am pleased that the Government are now going to limit large pay-offs for people who leave the public sector, but that conflicts with a recent request from HS2’s chief executive to lift all pay controls on HS2 personnel so that she can get the best people for the job from the marketplace. That implies that the best people would not be satisfied with the public sector salaries available to our very good officials right across the board. There seems to be some tension between that and what the Government are doing. I hope they will make sure that those working on Government projects will get the same rate across the board. That is important.
I, like my right hon. Friend, have been involved in HS2 for a long time and sympathise with her constituents who are affected by it. Does she agree that those whose properties are affected deserve provision for generous terms of compensation from the Committee studying the hybrid Bill, and that if the Government were to concede that, there would be far less opposition to the Bill?
The matter of compensation has been extremely badly handled. Not only did the courts find against the Government, but we are still waiting for a compensation consultation. We do not have the dates yet and we still do not know what the final compensation package will be. I have always said that if the Government are going to press ahead with HS2, they must do two things: they must protect absolutely the area of outstanding natural beauty that will be violated by it and they must deliver the best possible compensation to the people most affected. Nothing else will do. I am sure the House will look at the issue. The Chair of the hybrid Bill Committee, my hon. Friend the Member for Poole (Mr Syms), is present and I hope he will have noted my words, which were not directed at my Front-Bench colleagues on this occasion.
Media reports lead me to think that the long-awaited power of recall will be reasonably controversial. Personally, I do not think it is necessary. However, if it is there to make sure that people trust and have confidence in their elected representatives, I will support it, because that is considerably more important than any luxury we may have to serve continuously even if we commit a crime, including one that results in a custodial sentence. There is, however, an inequity: if MPs are going to be subject to the power of recall, why not other elected representatives, such as Welsh Assembly Members, Members of the Scottish Parliament and Northern Assembly Members?
Why not MEPs and why not councillors? We need to make sure that elected representatives are treated fairly across the board. I hope the Bill will examine the possibility of applying the same conditions to other elected representatives in other parts of the United Kingdom, so that we do not just single out MPs. That is really important.
I think that now is also the time to consider Cabinet collective responsibility, which is an extremely difficult issue. It seems to be observed by some and not by others. I speak from my own experience of the difficulties I had when I was a serving member of the Cabinet. I was delighted and privileged to hold that position, but I could not, of course, talk in public about how HS2 was affecting my constituency so badly. I would not like to see others go through such an experience. If we are going to consider recall and the constitutional position of an MP, this may also be the time to refresh our views on Cabinet collective responsibility and perhaps allow some exceptions in the future. That would make life a great deal more agreeable.
This is a good Queen’s Speech. The economy is going in the right direction and we have a long-term economic plan, which was markedly absent in the earlier contribution of the Leader of the Opposition, who did not seem to have a plan for anything. I hope we will increase people’s sense of well-being and their financial security. We have shown that we are a party that is firmly in charge, and I look forward to the day when we can escape the Liberal-Democrat-limiting coalition and offer a clean constitutional and legislative programme to the electorate at the next election.
I am grateful for being called to speak. It is 22 years since I first addressed the House on the first day of debate on the Gracious Speech. It struck me that it would be a good idea to look back at that speech to see what has changed on this planet since. Interestingly, some phrases recurred today, which should be of serious concern to us all.
In 1992, the John Major Government said that they required
“full Iraqi compliance with Security Council resolutions”,
and that they would
“work for a peaceful settlement in Yugoslavia”
“support moves to bring lasting peace to the middle east.”—[Official Report, House of Lords, 6 May 1992; Vol. 537, c. 7.]
Those were matters of profound importance and there has been some good news since then, but it is possible to compare it to today’s Queen Speech, which noted:
“My ministers will strive to improve the humanitarian situation in Syria, to reduce violence and promote a political settlement. It will work for a successful transition in Afghanistan, and will work towards a comprehensive nuclear agreement with Iran.”
Major issues still affect the middle east in particular. As this is the last time that I will address the House in a debate on the Queen’s Speech, it is worth putting down a marker that, even after that long period, we still have to look at this intensely difficult area of the world. None of us from any party should either shirk our responsibilities in addressing some of the challenges or pretend that we can ignore them.
The second and obvious point relates to budgetary discipline. In 1992, the Government said that they would
“promote sound finance and budgetary discipline.”—[Official Report, House of Lords, 6 May 1992; Vol. 537, c. 7-8.]
They obviously did not succeed, because there is still apparently a need to
“strengthen the economy and provide stability and security”.
That phrase constantly occurs in every Queen’s Speech, irrespective of the Government for whom it is delivered. That is clearly a matter of great importance, especially as we move towards the next general election, because it will be the determining factor in whether the Government can persuade the electorate that they have succeeded.
Contrary to some of the figures that one hears bandied around in the Chamber, the experience of my constituents is markedly different, and many of them simply do not believe the Government figures. A gentleman came to my surgery last weekend to complain that he could not get on to a training course that is available to the vast majority of unemployed people in my constituency. He is not entitled to receive any benefits because of his wife’s earnings, which means that he is not counted as unemployed. He profoundly feels that he is unemployed, and that he has been badly let down by this Government. Many people in that situation—either in such cases, or because their income is based on zero-hours contracts and low-wage jobs—are really struggling, and they simply do not believe the figures presented by the Government.
The third area that I want, perhaps slightly teasingly, to draw to the attention of the Conservative party—there now appear to be only Members from one party on the Government Benches—is the question of Europe. Today’s Queen’s Speech says:
“My government will work to promote reform in the European Union, including a stronger role for member states and national parliaments.”
I remind Conservative Members that the Queen’s Speech in 1992 stated that the Government would
“lay before Parliament the treaty of Maastricht and introduce a Bill to implement it.”—[Official Report, House of Lords, 6 May 1992; Vol. 537, c. 8.]
Of course, that Bill was very controversial. You will remember, Madam Deputy Speaker, that we spent many a late night in the Chamber—sitting until the early hours of the morning for weeks at a time—while the Government drove it through. To pretend that the Bill and the treaty that it incorporated did not have an impact on the relationship we now have with Europe is simply to ignore history. At least one historian, my hon. Friend the Member for Blackpool South (Mr Marsden), is on the Opposition Front Bench today, and I am sure that he could draw to our attention other examples of how what was said in previous debates has been conveniently forgotten. In several areas, there are similarities—as well as some profound contradictions—in what the Government have said.
It is a pity that the mover of the Loyal Address, the hon. Member for Portsmouth North (Penny Mordaunt), is not in the Chamber. I know her constituency extremely well, having lived and worked in the Portsmouth area until the 1970s. I remember one of her slightly eccentric predecessors Brigadier Terence H. Clarke, who was the first person in the Conservative party with whom I came into conflict. He was succeeded by Frank Judd, now Lord Judd in the House of Lords, and then by Syd Rapson and Sarah McCarthy-Fry, so the seat has had some strong representatives over the years. The hon. Lady gave us some of the background to the issues that are having an impact on her own city, of which everyone who has an association with Portsmouth is proud. Obviously, the naval ones are hugely important in the context of my opening remarks about international security issues. I also happen to agree with her about the success in rescuing Pompey football club from a bunch of cowboys and getting it into the hands of decent people, but that is perhaps another story.
I want to touch on some other areas. I first want to refer to the section in the Queen’s Speech about cutting bureaucracy and enabling small businesses to access finance. During the last Parliament, I chaired the Regulatory Reform Committee, which did a huge amount of work then, and some work has been done in this Parliament. This matter has a huge impact on the well-being of small businesses. The warning note that I want to send to the Government is that they should not, for goodness’ sake, come back to us with some mixed-up Bill that seeks to diminish employment rights in small businesses. That is not the solution to the problem.
Yes, there are ways in which the bureaucracy impacting on small businesses can be improved dramatically and, cross-departmentally, the Government need to take into account a lot of considerations to ensure that such improvements have an effect. For example, it always seems to me to be pretty daft that a small business that perhaps employs only a handful of people might find itself regulated by four or five agencies under different Departments, with no joining-up between one and another. If that is the kind of regulatory reform impacting on small businesses that the Government want to introduce, fine; if, on the other hand, they mean removing rights that involve the necessary protection of workers—both in terms of employment rights and health and safety conditions—they will certainly not have the support of Labour Members.
Some bits are obviously missing from the Queen’s Speech. There has just been an interesting exchange on hydraulic fracturing. Given where the right hon. Member for Chesham and Amersham (Mrs Gillan) lives, she understandably has real difficulties with HS2. Of course, if HS2 were two miles below her constituency, she would not be raising such issues. We need to get across to the public some important points about the development of what is called unconventional oil and gas, rather than allow emotive arguments to dominate.
I perfectly understand the people of Chesham and Amersham’s concerns about the impact of the railway on their community if they get no direct benefit from it. On the other hand, as has happened in my area, if a pilot well is drilled a couple of miles below the land on which I live, it has no impact on my house or its value. In fact, some of the oldest fracturing operations in the United Kingdom, such as BP’s operations down at Wytch Farm in Dorset underneath some of the wealthiest landowners in the country—at Sandbanks and places such as that—have not exactly knocked value off their houses, have they? We need serious engagement with the public and must take the science to the public, rather than allowing the emotive arguments to dominate this incredibly complex debate.
I recognise the hon. Gentleman’s interest in that site. I first went there 40-odd years ago and saw oil extraction going to Fawley on a regular basis.
We need to get it across to the public that there are answers to some of the technical issues that have been raised. There are perfectly legitimate questions about the intensity of fracturing processes, the protection of watercourses and so on, but it is possible to address them. We need proper and transparent engagement with the public to ensure that we reach the right answer. In the recess, I was involved in two debates. One was organised by the Institution of Engineering and Technology at the Daresbury laboratory. The other was organised by the university of Chester at its new campus at the Thornton research centre, which is now called the Thornton science park. Those debates tried to engage with members of the public on these complicated issues. That is how it has to be done.
The whole issue of science was the missing link in the Queen’s Speech. There was a great big gulf. There is a cross-party consensus that, in future, our economy will be driven by science-led businesses. However, that was a great missing part in the Queen’s Speech.
Finally, I will refer to the section on schools. As I said recently in an article in Tribune, which not too many Government Members will have read, I profoundly disagree with all the nonsense about the structure of schools. We have to get back to releasing inspiring teachers from the burdens on them and enabling them to get on with the job that they are good at. Having a constant debate about structures is not the answer. We have to release more time for those people who are brilliant at their job. We have all been inspired by teachers. We must ask how they did it and ensure that such teachers are freed up to empower other teachers and students. That is the answer to the education debate. We must get away from the nonsense about whether it is a free school, an academy, this type of school or that type of school. We must engage with teachers and get the best out of that group of people who do a great job of educating our young people.
This is an incredibly wide-ranging Queen’s Speech, given that we have only a few parliamentary weeks to implement it. I look forward to seeing the proposed legislation. I hope that we make some progress so that the people who are standing here next year have something to build on. However, I fear that much of the rhetoric in the speech will not be backed up by substantive Bills and that we have a sham of a Queen’s Speech.
I follow the hon. Member for Ellesmere Port and Neston (Andrew Miller), who made a perfectly sensible and balanced contribution to this debate. He said that it is 22 years since he first spoke in the House on the first day of the Queen’s Speech debate and he talked about Portsmouth and its naval traditions. I was just musing on whether he had the same grey, sea-dog beard that he is sporting today.
I am obliged.
As someone who spent 19 years in the Royal Navy and the Royal Naval Reserve, I join others in paying tribute to an absolutely first-class opening speech by my hon. Friend the Member for Portsmouth North (Penny Mordaunt). It illustrated that the Government’s position is strong. This is a Queen’s Speech that shows that we are not running out of steam.
As someone else who is addressing the House during the Queen’s Speech debate for the last time, I declare my interest in the welcome pension reform that has been proposed. It is long overdue.
I welcome the proposed Bill on modern slavery and human trafficking. Human trafficking is the world’s second most lucrative crime. I pay tribute to a former colleague, Anthony Steen, who used to be the Member for South Hams. He has done much to progress this issue.
I welcome the announcement in the Queen’s Speech that the President of Singapore will visit the United Kingdom. We have an awful lot to learn from that country, particularly on pension reform.
When I heard Mr Speaker announce the subjects for debate over the next six days, I asked myself, “Where is the debate on foreign affairs?” That decision is made by the Opposition. A quarter of the Gracious Speech refers to foreign affairs and yet there is no debate on that. It is remarkable that a party that seeks to be the next Government does not feel able to contribute anything on the field of foreign affairs.
Never have there been more foreign challenges than are facing us today. In an increasingly unstable world, we face huge challenges in Ukraine, Syria and Iran. Where is the debate on energy security? Russia is making it perfectly clear that it uses energy as a tool of foreign policy. It has just announced a major hook-up with China in the Russia-China gas deal, which has profound geopolitical consequences and implications, and yet there is nothing from the Opposition on the subject. In a few months’ time, there will be a NATO summit in Wales, which was expressly referred to in the Queen’s Speech. Again, that is of fundamental importance, because we need to increase defence spending. The Opposition have nothing to say on the subject and cannot find the time to debate it.
I hope that the House will understand it if I focus on international issues. In June 2014, we must address how the world will look in the post-2015 era. We still have to deal with the fallout of the vote last August on Syria, when 80% of the House voted for intervention. However, the ghost of the Iraq debate of 2003 hung over the House. That illustrated the loss of trust in intelligence. Perhaps when the Chilcot report is eventually published, it will shine some light on that episode. The question that we have to address today is whether that debate set a constitutional precedent. Must we have a vote every time there is an intervention on foreign soil? Legally, the Prime Minister still has his prerogative and, in my opinion, he should not hesitate to use it. However, we have to address where we have got to on that subject. We must also address the brutal question of why so few countries around the world were prepared to follow us on that occasion.
This year, 2014, is the 100th anniversary of the first world war. I took the opportunity over the Easter break to visit the battlefields of northern France. It was with some emotion that I stood in the exact spot where my wife’s grandfather was wounded on the first day of the battle of the Somme. The Prime Minister and the Leader of the Opposition rightly paid tribute to the 450-odd soldiers, airmen and sailors who have lost their lives in recent conflicts. It is sobering to remind ourselves that on the first day of the battle of the Somme, 19,000 men were killed and a further 39,000 wounded. I hope that puts into perspective how war was fought in those days. It is quite revealing to compare the state of world affairs in 1914 with today. In 1914 Britain started its relative decline. After two world wars, it is still, to its credit, one of the top five economies of the world.
The lesson that we learned in 1914 was that we cannot ignore Europe. Then, Russia was seeking to reassert itself, as it did in 1918 after the first world war. We are entering a period of instability. Today we see that the established world order is on the march. We see the rise of China as a world superpower. We see instability in north and west Africa. In all this our key ally remains the United States, but there has been a marked shift in its policy position in recent years. When President Obama walked into the White House in 2009, 180,000 troops were deployed in Afghanistan and Iraq. Today there are only a handful. It is unclear when the United States would still be prepared to intervene on the world stage. In an important speech by President Obama just a couple of days ago, he said that when article 5 is invoked—the US’s membership of NATO—and when the US sees mass genocide, it will be prepared to act. I welcome the fact that the United States put down a marker yesterday by announcing a $1 billion European reassurance initiative for the Baltic states, with increased exercises and detachments being deployed, building partnerships with Georgia, Moldova and Ukraine.
We can agree with the United States that the enemy remains terrorism, and we can co-operate on counter-terrorism policy, but we must recognise that this is a new era for the United States. The US cannot solve all the world’s problems, but few of the world’s problems can be solved without the US. Despite the vote on Syria, the US remains our key ally and it remains in our interests to stay close to the US.
My right hon. Friend quoted the number of deaths at the Somme, but more than 100,000 people have been killed in Syria and the butchery, kidnapping and starvation still go on. Does he not think that the west needs to revisit its policy on Syria? Even if we do not give lethal assistance to the Syrian opposition, we should at least reconsider what assistance we can give.
My hon. Friend makes a very important point. I was, of course, comparing men in uniform with men in uniform, but he makes an important point about the loss of life in Syria. I was a signatory of the letter to The Daily Telegraph yesterday inviting the Government to revisit their policy on that. Given that the United States is now arming the rebels in Syria through the provision of anti-tank weapons, there is a case for our going down the same road.
The other great change since 1914 is globalisation and the unbelievable impact it is having on the way that we all live. Foreign investment and global supply chains are interconnecting Governments, nations and markets. The world’s growth in the 1990s was 3.3%. It comes as quite a surprise to colleagues when I tell them that in the 2000s world GDP increased by 3.7%, which illustrates that globalisation works and the effect that it has. It is enabling the rise of new players. We see the emergence on the world scene of the BRIC countries—Brazil, Russia, India and China. Globalisation is connecting us in a way that we have never seen before. UK corporations are now investing globally and we have to think globally. We have to stay interconnected and build alliances around the globe.
The commercial challenge that we all face comes from China. China is not a threat to us. The United States looks at China strategically; we see it as an economic competitor. However, we have to accept the fact that we face a painful readjustment in our position on the world stage. In 2000 the US, Japan and the European Union accounted for 71% of world GDP. China, Latin America and the Caribbean accounted for 11%. It is forecast that by 2018 those figures will be 48% and 27% respectively, a marked shift and a trend that will continue. The winners are those who compete in open markets—countries such as China and Brazil with big single markets. In the European Union, Poland quadrupled its GDP in 20 years, whereas Ukraine, outside the single market, had static growth.
We must continue the reform of the single markets, continue the negotiations with the United States and get the benefit of the agreements that we have with Japan, Thailand and India. Now is not the time to isolate ourselves on the fringes of world markets. It is not the time to leave the European Union. We should ignore the siren calls of isolationist parties. The European Union is 7% of the world’s population and 22% of its economy. The UK is less than 1% of the world’s population and 2.7% of its economy. Trying to survive in those marketplaces through a network of bilateral treaties would lead to disaster.
I understand those who call for our withdrawal from the European Union, but they are engaging in an emotional argument. It is a policy of the heart, not of the head. We have to work through international treaties and organisations and build alliances based on common interests. Of course, the European Union must reform. It was designed to fight war, hunger and communism and it has been a success. There is no need for it to be a federation, but we must have the benefit of the single market. Although for more than 50 years we have been a member of the European Union, we are still independent. We retain our parliamentary democracy, we raise our own taxes, we drink pints, we drive on the left, we choose to drop bombs on Libya but not on Syria, and we do what we want in our education, health and social security systems. We just need the EU member states to co-operate more closely together. In her famous Bruges speech Margaret Thatcher said:
“My first guiding principle is this: willing and active cooperation between independent sovereign states is the best way to build a successful European Community.”
So let us follow the Dutch principle: Europe if necessary, national when possible.
The elections last week make the case for the Conservatives’ pledge to reform the European Union. This Government have already proved that they can deliver, with our campaign to cut the EU budget. We can make alliances, too. Other countries are pressing for change—Germany, Austria and Netherlands are all backing our initiative to reduce EU spending. They are all on board with our efforts to limit benefit tourism and illegal immigration. Even the President of France has called for change. I would like to say at that point, “I rest my case, m’lord.” If France is beginning to recognise the force of our arguments, there is plenty to benefit from.
In conclusion, I shall pick up on a point raised by the right hon. Member for Leicester East (Keith Vaz), the Chairman of the Home Affairs Committee, when he spoke about the origins of mass migration from the Mediterranean. That is the basis of a report recently published by the Foreign Affairs Committee. In the Sahel, the strip to the south of the Sahara desert, the high population growth in sub-Saharan Africa is seeing hundreds of millions of young men and women born into an economic desert. They have no prospects, no opportunities and no quality of life. It has become a fertile ground for conflict, as was recognised in the United States by the 9/11 report. For a couple of dollars a day, young men are picking up a rifle and going in on behalf of whoever will pay them.
We saw that when the Government of Mali were very nearly brought down, but for a quick reaction by the French. We saw it in the attack on the In Amenas gas facility in Algeria. We see it now in the rise of Boko Haram in northern Nigeria, a part of the Sahel that bears no relation to the prosperous south of Nigeria. We need to get alongside these countries, because such attacks are having a profound impact.
Apart from young men and women going into conflict, we are now seeing mass migration. People are beginning to walk across the Sahara desert to the ports of north Africa, and they are not stopping. They are getting into boats, as we saw with the tragedy when a boat sank off the coast of Lampedusa and everyone on board drowned. We see it in Melilla, the Spanish enclave in Morocco, where people have been killed trying to get over the fence, because if they get into Melilla they are in the European Union. That is why it is such an attractive target.
We need to get alongside the countries affected, such as Mali, Chad, Nigeria, Mauritania and Burkina Faso, and try to stabilise them. All those countries need our support. We need to give them confidence to strengthen their security, and we need to provide assistance on good governance and bring in economic aid packages. In that way, we can stabilise them and take away the migratory pressures.
I could not agree more with the right hon. Gentleman. In the past few months, 40,000 people have made the journey from those north African countries, many in perilous situations in boats that have sunk, with lives lost. Does he agree that it is imperative that we crack down on those who bring them here with the false hope of getting into the European Union for a better life? We should concentrate not particularly on the migrants but on the criminal gangmasters.
I thank the hon. Gentleman, who is absolutely right. People trafficking is now a serious business in north Africa, along with smuggling, prostitution and drugs. Organised crime has moved into all those fields, and getting to the root cause of it will solve the problem.
Speaking as the Member for Dover, may I add to the point about that concern? I went to the camps in Calais before they were cleared and asked everyone there, “Who here has paid to be here?” Every single hand went up. We need a campaign against international trafficking gangs and an international counter-offensive.
I absolutely agree. The key question is what the policy is if an air patrol spots a boat in the middle of the Mediterranean. Is it to persuade the people on it to go back to north Africa, or to usher it to safety in Lampedusa, Italy, Greece or Spain? There is no policy at the moment, and the EU needs to address the issue. We cannot do so on our own. The major powers—Britain, France and the United States—need to get together and come up with a co-ordinated policy. We then need to get our EU partners to row in behind us diplomatically and politically, and in some cases militarily if they are prepared to bite the bullet.
We are all affected by migration. When I became the Member for my constituency in 1992, the non-white ethnic component was 8%. In the 2011 census, that figure had risen to 28%, and in my local primary schools it is 38%. That shows the changing demography, which is particularly relevant to those of us with London constituencies and produces pressures such as the shortage of housing that Members have mentioned and pressures on public services. We have to address all those matters. I believe we have the willpower and willingness to do so, but we have to make more progress than we are at the moment.
Thank you, Madam Deputy Speaker, for giving me the opportunity to speak on the Gracious Speech. My hon. Friend the Member for Ellesmere Port and Neston (Andrew Miller) said that this was his 22nd year of Queen’s Speeches, and I believe that the same is true of the right hon. Member for Croydon South (Sir Richard Ottaway). It is my 27th year of Queen’s Speeches, and it is the last one that I shall attend.
The right hon. Gentleman made a thoughtful and informed speech, in which he mentioned that foreign affairs do not feature in the timetable for debating the Queen’s Speech. Environmental issues do not either, and there is huge synergy between the two. He talked about the origins of mass migration, and unless we deal with climate change, we shall be dealing with far more mass migration throughout the planet years from now. I would therefore have liked environmental issues to be included in the programming of the debates, but I will pick up on them in my speech.
The tone of the Leader of the Opposition’s response to the Gracious Speech was exactly what we needed, especially in the weeks after the European elections, at which we saw a great deal of disengagement with Parliament and low turnout. Perhaps people do not understand Parliament’s role and we are not getting our message across about the thoughtful debates that go on here and the need for the Government’s policies to be properly scrutinised and fit for purpose.
Many Members have picked up on the theme of the 100th anniversary of the first world war. When we attend remembrance services around the country, we are reminded that 100 years ago, and in every conflict since, people gave their tomorrows for our todays. The policies in the Gracious Speech should balance the pressing needs to deal with today’s issues and the long-term issues. It is often difficult for Members, with an eye on who is going to vote for them and how they will get re-elected, to consider long-term issues, given how many pressing matters need to be resolved. It is important to try to find a way of solving both sets of issues through the legislation that will come from the shopping list presented today.
Perhaps the reason why so many people felt the way they did at last week’s elections was that they are concerned about the here and now—what is happening to their lives and families. There might be a sense of an economic recovery in London and the south-east, but it is not the same north of the Watford gap. In my constituency, people are still crying out for jobs with real pay and real contracts of employment, so that they are not exploited on zero-hours contracts. They are crying out for homes, both new build and refurbished. They are crying out for welfare support and pension support in old age—I am sure my hon. Friend the Member for Aberdeen South (Dame Anne Begg), who chairs the Select Committee on Work and Pensions, will want to refer to such issues.
I am disappointed that there was nothing in the Queen’s Speech about those who are too ill to work, or those who are waiting for the Department for Work and Pensions and Capita to make decisions on personal independence payments and so on. Just today, my office has dealt with three urgent cases of people who are terminally or seriously ill but cannot get payments. I wonder how many more people will have to die or commit suicide before the Government do something to ensure that people are assessed properly. If they are entitled to the personal independence payment, there should be no further delay in their getting it.
Another way in which we can balance the needs of today with long-term needs is by dealing with environmental issues across the globe. That is related to international affairs, as it will help to resolve conflict. When the coalition agreement was produced, the Government said that they would be the greenest Government ever. Those were the heady days when everybody believed the Government’s photos with the huskies and so on. It looks more and more like a lost cause, and we must do everything we can to scrutinise legislation and get those aspirations back on track. It is about how we reconcile that with the needs of today.
Tomorrow is world environment day and a reminder that we have not inherited the earth from our grandparents as sometimes we might think, but that we have borrowed it from our grandchildren. That should remind us to take our duties in this House seriously, however electorally difficult that might be, and consider how we can work together to make a safe, secure and sustainable world. The Gracious Speech needs to measure up to that.
Of course I welcome the fact that the Queen’s Speech states:
“Ministers will also champion efforts to secure a global agreement on climate change.”
and that is as it should be. I believe, however, that we must do everything we can to ensure a strong outcome at the United Nations talks in September this year, and at the forthcoming Paris conference in 2015. Those talks are under way now and must link to the whole agenda of sustainable development and millennium development goals. For that to happen there must be clear and strong direction from the Government, which I believe means this House and the Government doing what they say and walking the talk.
One issue that concerns me that is not being addressed is the fourth carbon budget, on which we have complete uncertainty. There are dangers if the House and Government delay adopting that budget at a time when we need to step up everything that we must do on climate change. That was recently confirmed by the fifth assessment report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. The evidence is there and there is a sense of urgency. To get that outcome from the climate change talks and negotiations, we must start right here with no further delay to the fourth carbon budget.
Other environmental measures have been touched on by previous speakers and relate to the planning and infrastructure Bill. I mentioned jobs and homes, and I believe that a truly environmental infrastructure Bill would contain new proposals to improve the homes of people who are struggling with fuel bills or in fuel poverty, and also address the terrible impacts of that on health. Do the Government intend to use the infrastructure Bill to direct funding where it is most needed to deliver better economic outcomes and create the right conditions for sustainable growth, and will that include investment in a major home energy efficiency programme? That would deliver better economic outcomes than almost all other forms of investment, as well as homes that are cheaper to keep warm, which would have a major impact on environmental and public health. It would also help indirectly with costs to the NHS and the crisis of the extra investment that is needed, about which we know all too well from our constituencies. For me, homes that are capable of keeping people warm and healthy are perhaps the most vital infrastructure the UK can have, not to mention the benefit that that would bring to constituencies such as mine that are crying out for jobs, skills and so on.
Another aspect of the infrastructure Bill is fracking, which was mentioned by the right hon. Member for Chesham and Amersham (Mrs Gillan). I think the Government are making a huge amount of what seems to have become a dash for fracking—something to be done at all costs. It seems a little like jam today, but do not worry about tomorrow. Deregulation measures are already going through Parliament, and we heard about proposed changes to legislation that will make it easier for developers to be granted access under people’s homes.
I will not mention the climate change aspects of fracking, but given that this measure has been brought forward, I want to know who is looking at the safety implications of fracking and at what seem to be loopholes in existing legislation. In the late ’80s and ’90s I did a huge amount of work because of constituency problems related to mining, especially coal mining, and to mine shafts and coal mining subsidence. We ended up with many homes that were unsaleable. People were desperate because they could not sell their homes, and they were concerned about subsidence. Today, virtually every major conurbation in Britain has mining beneath part of it, and in many cases that is coal mining at depths of less than 50 metres. Mining is not restricted to coal but relates to other minerals all over the country—bath stone and all kinds of different minerals. A statutory remedy enables coal to be mined beneath property without unacceptable concerns to the property owners and mortgage lenders, but who has looked at the potential effect that vibrations and tremors caused by fracking could have on destabilising shallow old workings in an unconsolidated condition, further resulting in collapse, movement and damage to property and services? How can we proceed with fracking without some liability route to protect home owners and provide repair to property?
I tabled an amendment to the recent Water Bill, and Lord Whitty raised similar issues. The Government have referred to the safeguards, but what about major infrastructure? The right hon. Member for Chesham and Amersham mentioned railways and High Speed 2, and there is also the issue of pipelines. How will those be affected, and what are the resulting implications for public safety? Shallow coal mine workings exist beneath significant lengths of the east and west coast main lines, and that will almost certainly apply to HS2 routes as well. Where is the protection, and without it how can there be public support for this dash for fracking that we appear to have?
Another apparent green credential in the Gracious Speech is for new homes to be built to a zero-carbon standard by 2016, and the prospect of legislation for off-site allowable solutions if emissions cannot be mitigated on site. There is the replacement of the code for sustainable homes with standard level 5 of the code for building regulations, which allows homes to be built at level 4 if allowable solutions are used. That may sound good and as though further progress is being made, but when we get to the small print in the Government papers issued today we see that small-scale house builders will be exempt. It all hinges on the definition of small scale and comes down to further consultation. It seems as if once again the Government are caving in to developers, and we will not have the zero-carbon homes we need if we are to meet the carbon commitments to which we have signed up. The environmental measures are therefore not what they seem, and I cannot help thinking that some greenwash is coming through. It is important that Parliament scrutinises what goes forward in the name of environmental progress on some of these issues. The Government appear to reassure people that they have measures in place for our future and that of our grandchildren, but they do not quite add up in the way that they need to.
Finally, I will briefly mention plastic bags because in one sense that issue just about sums up the approach to the environment. I do not feel that this measure should be as hyped up as it has been in the Gracious Speech, because legislation has existed since the Climate Change Act 2008 to introduce a charge for short-life carrier bags. The previous Government and this one have backed off until now, but from the perspective of biodiversity, dealing with litter and so on it is important that we deal with plastic bags. Yes, it will be difficult for all of us, me included, but that behavioural change is necessary.
I welcome the announcement on plastic bags. It is wrong that we are damaging nature to the extent that we are with them. They are an unnecessary use of natural resources and contribute to litter, and the cost of clean-up is not factored in. However, the question is how fit for purpose the proposed scheme is. It is not quite the same as the scheme in Wales. We need an exemption for biodegradable bags, and I am concerned about the way in which smaller retailers will be exempted. The Environmental Audit Committee inquiry said that if we are to have a truly effective scheme that gets everybody on board, the charges on plastic bags need to be introduced in such a way that everybody understands them. We need a simple and clear way of charging. I realise that there will be further consultation, but the current proposal will not provide the clear and simple solution we need.
I hope the Government will listen to Parliament when they introduce legislation. I hope they listen in all cases to the informed reports of Select Committees, including the Environmental Audit Committee, which I chair. I hope that in the consultations they take note of what non-governmental organisations say, many of which have far more members than the political parties represented in Parliament. I hope they take on board the recommendations of the Environmental Audit Committee on energy subsidy, green finance and the code for sustainable homes.
We need balanced policies that refer not only to short- term economic outcomes, but long-term environmental and social gains, so that the newer Members of Parliament for the next 28 years can make lasting progress on factoring in environmental issues into economic aspects. We need economic outcomes today, but we must not lose sight of our tomorrow.
It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent North (Joan Walley). I do not agree with everything she has said, but her belief, clarity and lucidity shone through in her very good speech.
The House will probably know that I would not be embarrassed to criticise the coalition Government if I felt it necessary. I was a little nervous in the run-up to the Queen’s Speech by the possibility that, with 10 months to go and two parties anxious to jockey for electoral advantage, it would be a hollow vessel. Indeed, we saw a bit of that in the contribution of the right hon. Member for Gordon (Sir Malcolm Bruce), who is sadly not in the Chamber—his speech was clearly about who gets the credit for the good bits of the speech. In fact, I need not have worried. This is a remarkably good Queen’s Speech, particularly for one that must fit into the last 10 months of the Parliament. I had a wry smile when my right hon. Friend the Member for Chesham and Amersham (Mrs Gillan) referred to the comments from Labour Front Benchers about a zombie Government. That is rich coming from them. They depend on rent control, price control and a variety of policies that did such horrible damage the last time they were used that I thought they were dead and buried at the crossroads with a stake through their hearts. It was an interesting comment, but wholly wrong.
I agreed very much with the brilliant speech made by my right hon. Friend the Member for Wokingham (Mr Redwood) and the equally brilliant speech made by my right hon. Friend the Member for Croydon South (Sir Richard Ottaway), the Chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee. They dealt with much of what I had to say, so you will be glad to hear, Madam Deputy Speaker, that means my speech will be much shorter.
I want to focus on just a few parts of this valuable Queen’s Speech. The centrepiece in domestic policy terms is undoubtedly the pension reform proposals. They have their genesis in all parties, not just the Conservative party. Indeed, they have their genesis abroad, in Holland. In many ways, they are overdue. The Dutch pension provision system has long been better than almost anybody else’s, and it has certainly been better than ours following the difficulties engendered by the right hon. Member for Kirkcaldy and Cowdenbeath (Mr Brown) as Chancellor a decade or so ago. The Dutch system has been much less expensive and has provided much better returns over a 25-plus year period, which is what we have to look at for pension returns. It is something like 30% to 40% better than what we achieve in this country—it achieves astonishingly higher numbers than we do.
The proposal is therefore a very good one, but it is just the foundation stone. As we saw in 2008, the British financial services industry has something of a habit of using the asymmetry of information between the provider and the consumer to the advantage of the provider. For example, with-profits life policies were similar in principle to the proposal, but they did not work well because the benefits went to pension fund managers and not to customers. Therefore, the Bill must include very strong trustee management to make up for that asymmetry of information and to ensure that schemes are run firmly in the interests of the customers—pensioners.
The proposed schemes must also have very good communications. Even a scheme such as the one proposed must accommodate a tightening of the belt from the point of view of pensioners when the markets turn down dramatically. However, to give the House some context, in 2008, the Dutch had on average a 2% reduction in benefits given. The biggest reduction was 6%. In Britain, annuity values dropped by 20% in the same time. That must be communicated so that pensioners and customers understand it, but the scheme will be far more robust.
The scheme is enabling rather than mandatory, so it will work only if employers take it up. They must understand that it is a defined contribution scheme. Their liabilities will be minimal, so it ought to be beneficial to them and encourage a great deal of take-up. I know that a number of large companies want to take it up. That is why the National Association of Pension Funds, the CBI, the TUC and pretty much all parties in the House are in favour of the proposal. However, I flag up one concern. When there is no controversy between those on the two Front Benches, the legislation is almost invariably bad and flawed and goes wrong later. We therefore ought to be ultra-careful.
The proposal is not of itself a complete policy. Pension policy is one of the neglected areas of modern politics. We need a much more comprehensive policy. My right hon. Friend the Member for Chesham and Amersham mentioned the Equitable Life scandal and the fact that the Government are just about providing appropriate benefits or compensation—it is still not good enough, and they must revisit it.
I have one point to make and I hope those on the Front Bench will note it. The policy must not just be about automatic enrolment and the pension proposal I have described; it must also be about our tax approach to pensions. At the moment, there is hypocrisy in that. The Treasury run by the right hon. Member for Kirkcaldy and Cowdenbeath introduced the lifetime allowance, the purpose of which, I believe, was to stop people using pensions as a tax avoidance facility. That is fair enough and perfectly understandable, but the regime has been tightened so that, currently, somebody on the salary of a head teacher, a GP, a middle-ranking manager or a reasonably successful solicitor—in other words not mega-millionaires, but ordinary people who have had moderately successful lives and who earn about half as much as Cabinet Ministers—will run into pension taxation of 55%.
Currently, that applies to perhaps 1% or 2% of the population, but if the pension scheme works and provides 30% greater returns, it will apply to a much bigger proportion of the population. What is more, when the Treasury is dependent on such a large tranche of money for a while, it is unable to retract it. I therefore ask the Government to think about that. If we are once again to have a successful pension system and one of the best systems in the world, we should think not just about the systems we use, but the tax treatment, which can be unfair on good citizens who have done the right thing and put in money in the proper way.
In what was, I think, a flash of good intentions, the coalition Government promised a recall Bill at the beginning of this Parliament. They have regretted it ever since, because it has proved unpopular with colleagues for fairly obvious reasons. The Deputy Prime Minister’s proposals received pretty rough treatment from the relevant Select Committee for a number of reasons. I support the idea of recall—I guess I am the only person in this House to have recalled myself; I failed and got sent back—but I have one simple concern. I fear that the original proposal—to make a recall subject to a House of Commons trigger—would be very unfair.
Looking back over about 20 years of the Privileges Committee and the other mechanisms that penalise Members for greater or lesser misdemeanours, it is as plain as a pikestaff—I am not going to pick out individual cases, so please do not intervene to ask—that people outside the system, the mavericks who are perhaps not popular with those on their own Front Benches, receive a different standard of treatment from those inside the system such as Cabinet Ministers and shadow Cabinet Ministers. Members do not need to take my word for it, but need only look at the list of the most draconian and least draconian penalties. I therefore resist fiercely any proposal that gives the decision to any organisation controlled or influenced by the Whips Office—I used to be a Whip—by those on the Front Bench of either side, or even by the establishment of the House. I would rather see a solely democratic recall that originates in constituencies—right enough, with a decently high hurdle so that it is not misused—than one under the control, whether indirectly or directly, of the establishment in this House. I give warning to those on the Government Front Bench that I shall be actively pursuing this case and trying to ensure that the vice I have described is avoided.
In every Queen’s Speech, there is the phrase:
“Other measures will be laid before you.”
All of us hope that that will lead to legislation on matters left out that we would rather see in the speech. I want to raise an issue that will surprise my colleagues on the Government Benches: there is no reference to a national health service Bill. Many will be wiping their brow thinking, “Thank God for that.” In modern times, NHS Bills have always had some ideological content that has divided the parties and often those within parties. The Labour party has had its internal divisions, as has the coalition—of course, one NHS Bill pretty much crashed and burned. That ideological battle has covered up the serial failures of the health service—such as at Mid Staffs, the lack of use of best practice or the tens of thousands of people every year who die unnecessarily for a variety of reasons. A responsible Government—and the coalition Government have shown in the past year that they are a good one to take this up—therefore have the scope to take some non-ideological action on the health service. I shall cite one example, although I could cite dozens, but Madam Deputy Speaker would like me to be brief.
The National Institute for Health and Care Excellence was set up by the Labour Government with the very best of intentions. It was a sensible idea: since we have the rationing of drugs and therapies, we should have a rational approach to that. Sadly, although it has done a reasonably good job, over the years it has become apparent that many of its approaches are incredibly judgmental. It is clear that the so-called quality adjusted life years are very judgmental. It makes forward-looking judgments or predictions on the effectiveness of drugs, and that is done as a rationing and cost control mechanism. It has become out of date in the last year or two, because there is now a deal between the Government and the pharmaceutical industry that limits the maximum spend on drugs. A rebate will be paid back from the industry to Government in the next two years—I think it is £12 billion—and, after that, there will be a limited growth rate. This means that new drugs have, in effect, a zero marginal cost.
Nobody in the health service has thought things through. The problem has been raised once or twice, but we ought to change NICE’s approach to make it far more aggressive, far more experimental and far more willing to try out a drug for a year or two in the marketplace to see if it actually delivers. That will have two effects. First, it will save thousands of lives. Secondly, because of the way the rebate mechanism works, the innovators will gain and the non-innovators will lose. I put that out as one example, but it is by no means the only one.
My right hon. Friend’s idea is interesting and powerful. What would he say to those who worry about new drugs and massive innovation in the marketplace? New drugs sometimes go wrong and people worry about negligence claims and the claims that are made against pharmaceutical companies.
Drugs already have their safety protocols established by the time they are put in front of NICE, so safety would not be a problem. In an article the other day, Professor John Waxman cited the use of drugs for those with prostate cancer who are going to die. The drugs are for the extension of life, not complete rescue. Safety is not an issue but the use of such drugs affect the prospects of life for people with terminal diseases, so they are well worth using.
Finally, I would like to make a constitutional point, precipitated by the comments of my right hon. Friend the Member for Chesham and Amersham, on collective responsibility. One of the most contentious issues in the past year or two within and outside the coalition has been a referendum on the European Union. Last year, of course, the Conservative party, in effect, introduced a private Member’s Bill. Why did that happen? Although there are approximately only 60 Liberal Democrat MPs on the Government Benches, both sides of the coalition have an effective veto on introducing legislation. That is entirely improper and undemocratic. Let us take my example of the referendum Bill, although the problem does not just apply to it. If there is an argument inside the Government, why not let the House of Commons decide by putting the Bill to the House of Commons? After all, we no longer accept that a vote lost in the House of Commons will lead to a fall in the Government. That is explicitly prevented in the Fixed-terms Parliament Act 2011, so why not put such things to the House? When we go into the next election, people would then be able to see exactly how everybody voted and we would no longer be relying on the promises of parties, but on their actions. Something has gone wrong in the structure. It may well be something in the civil service or the original coalition agreement, but if we are going to have a proper coalition, it should be more open than closed. It should give more power to the House of Commons, not less. If we did that, it would really make this an extraordinarily good Queen’s Speech.
Both the Leader of the Opposition and the Prime Minister reminded the House that the day after tomorrow, 6 June, is the 70th anniversary of D-day. During the second world war, my late father rose from the ranks and was commissioned as an officer. He did not land in Normandy on D-day, but he fought in France, in the Netherlands and in Germany, and was awarded the France and Germany star. I have the great honour to have been invited by President Hollande to join the presidential tribune at the official international ceremony in Normandy on Friday.
The event ought to make us all reflect on the things that we and France have in common—for example, the defence agreement concluded between our two countries when Tony Blair was Prime Minister, which has been supported by both Prime Ministers since; and the support we gave to France during its recent military operation to protect Mali from being taken over by terrorists. It should remind us, too, of the overwhelming and continuing importance of the transatlantic relationship. Above all, of course, it should remind us of the courage and sacrifice of British and allied servicemen and women who secured the freedoms that we as Members of this House enjoy every day that we sit and speak here and every time we stand for election.
This year is also, of course, the 100th anniversary of the start of the first world war. Both that, and the second world war, should make us reflect on the severe consequences when defence and deterrence fail.
Russia’s occupation of Crimea and its destabilisation of eastern Ukraine is a wake-up call that we should all hear. It is 25 years since the fall of the Berlin wall, and since that time our country and others in our alliance have put out a hand of friendship to Russia, helping it to build more democratic institutions and a more liberal free-market economy. We have helped it to join, for instance, the World Trade Organisation and, indeed, we have tried to build a partnership between Russia and free Europe to replace the sterile zero-sum game of the cold war and its military and nuclear stand-off. Yet Russia’s actions in Ukraine indicate, I believe, that that trust in partnership and co-operation, which we made, has been betrayed.
We, I suppose, had notice of Russia’s new aggressive foreign policy in 2008 when it was at war with Georgia. We have seen Russia’s occupation of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, so Russian policy in Ukraine shows that President Putin is establishing a pattern of behaviour—a pattern of unacceptable and illegal use of Russian force. Are we seriously expected to believe that the appearance of heavily armed, well-trained and uniformed militias in eastern Ukraine has nothing whatever to do with the Kremlin? Are we to accept that the Potemkin referendums in Crimea and eastern Ukraine reflect real public opinion in those areas, and are we to believe that the human rights of 97% of Crimea’s population were in imminent danger from the other 3%?
President Putin’s policies in Ukraine are bad enough, but, worse still, he has said in his speeches that he reserves the right to intervene—militarily, if he judges it necessary—in other countries with Russian-speaking minorities, including NATO member states, such as the Baltic states, Poland and Romania. I have just returned from a weekend representing our country at the NATO parliamentary assembly held in Lithuania, so I can tell hon. Members that in the countries that border Russia or are close to it, there is a real sense of apprehension—a recognition that the Russian bear has broken loose from its chain and is acting irresponsibly, aggressively and illegally. Those countries want support and solidarity from their allies to control that behaviour.
Those are countries to which we as members of NATO have made the most profound commitment possible through article 5 of the Washington treaty, whereby an attack on any one of us is deemed an attack on us all because we are mutually committed to collective defence. President Putin is, I believe, testing that commitment, so I view it as essential that at the NATO summit in September this year we reaffirm article 5 and show through our actions that we mean it.
We should ask ourselves why President Putin feels so emboldened and so willing to test us by annexing Crimea and threatening eastern Ukraine. I think that there are four principal reasons. The first is that Russia, having been enriched largely by petrodollars, is now stronger economically than it was a decade or two ago. Secondly, a number of countries in central and eastern Europe have become too dependent on Russian energy and are therefore less willing than they otherwise would be to criticise Russian foreign policy. Thirdly, under Obama’s presidency, the United States has announced a policy to pivot, or rebalance, its foreign policy away from Europe to address new threats in east Asia and the Pacific. Fourthly, President Putin has watched as we in this and other countries in our alliance have cut our defence spending. Over the last five years or so, since the banking crisis, we have cut our defence spending while Russia has increased its expenditure.
What, then, do we need to do to deter further Russian aggression? On the economic front, we need sanctions. We certainly need to reduce our dependence on Russian exports. In relation to energy in particular, we need to reduce European dependence on Russian oil and gas. I believe that there is a key role for the European Union here, as this is not something that the UK or any individual country within the EU can do on its own. This need should be reflected in the energy Bill announced in the Queen’s Speech. We clearly need to generate more energy from renewables in this country and across the EU, while we also need to improve energy conservation and energy efficiency.
We need, of course, to frack more. I listened carefully to my hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent North (Joan Walley) about the need to be sure about the science, but we certainly have to produce more energy of our own so that we are less dependent on energy from Russia—and we need to import more from alternative sources, such as from central Asia through the new southern pipeline and from north America as it produces more gas, which we should import as liquefied petroleum gas.
On the pivot, we need to recognise that the security risks identified by the United States in east Asia are real and that by addressing those risks more directly, the Americans will bring a benefit to us in Europe as well as to themselves. We face many cyber-attacks in this country: they affect our government and our businesses, and they even affect eBay. Many of those attacks originate from China, so this is not some zero-sum game: more American interest in east Asia is not necessarily bad for us in Europe.
We need to grapple with the issue of defence spending. Since 2008, Russian defence spending has increased by more than 10% a year in real terms. That means that over the last five years it has increased by more than 50% in real terms. Over the same period, defence spending by NATO’s European allies has been cut by almost 10% in real terms. President Putin, of course, draws a conclusion from this. In the UK, although we started from a higher base than many of our European allies, according to the Government’s public expenditure statistical analysis published last year, our defence spending between 2009-10 and 2014-15 has been cut by 18% in real terms. Some people are arguing for further cuts as we bring our troops home from Afghanistan. Indeed, Government expenditure plans assume that the MOD’s delegated spending limits will fall in real terms from £32 billion this year to £30.7 billion next year, which means a cut of a further £1,321 million.
The Government told us that the cuts made in previous years were necessary because of the state of the economy. We should, perhaps, pass over the fact that the economy was growing again at the time of the 2010 election, having fallen into recession following the banking crisis, and also the fact that we suffered a double-dip recession as a result of the coalition Government’s economic policies. However, all of us—Members on both sides of the House—now agree that growth has returned, and although there are other pressing needs for public expenditure, I believe that further defence cuts next year would be wrong. Further defence cuts would send the wrong signal to our allies—especially our European allies, who often look to the United Kingdom for a lead on defence matters, because we are one of the very few countries that still spend more than 2% of their gross national income on defence as NATO recommends. They would send the wrong signal to President Putin, and they would send the wrong signal to the NATO summit which we are hosting in south Wales in September.
I believe that now is the time for us to ask our leadership—the leaders of our parties on both sides of the House—to put national security first. We should ask them to stop cutting our defence expenditure and start rebuilding our security forces, and if we do so we shall be in a much stronger position to argue at the September NATO summit that others should do the same.
I am grateful to you for calling me, Madam Deputy Speaker, on the first of our six days of debate on the Loyal Address. Some very good speeches have been made, covering a wide range of matters. I am particularly pleased to follow the hon. Member for York Central (Hugh Bayley): I agreed entirely with a great deal of what he said. However, I think it a great pity that his party did not include a day’s debate on foreign affairs and defence matters in its programme for these six days of debate. I think that we shall have to rectify that. I shall ask those on my party’s Front Bench whether we can have a general debate on foreign affairs. We seem recently to have got into the habit of hearing statements on specific matters, but it has been some time since we had a general debate.
The hon. Member for York Central rightly reminded us that we are approaching two important anniversaries, of the first world war and of D-day. We should bear in mind the state of flux that world affairs were in after the two world wars. As was pointed out by my right hon. Friend the Member for Croydon South (Sir Richard Ottaway), probably not since those days has the world situation been so fluid.
The hon. Member for York Central also referred to our problems with the attitude of the Soviet Union—or the Russian Federation, as it is now called—to increasing its hegemony around the world after seizing Ukraine. I shall make only one point about his critique of the Russian Federation. He said that the Russians were more economically independent than they used to be. Let me remind him that, as I have said before in the House, they are more internationally dependent on the world’s economic situation today than they have ever been. The rouble is more internationally tradable, the Russians now have a stock exchange, and they require more international development to develop their huge oil resources. They need big firms such as BP to be able to develop those resources in some very difficult exploration areas. There are levers that we can use in relation to the Russian Federation, and I think that we need to use them.
However, the hon. Gentleman was right to observe that the world is in a state of flux. As I said in my intervention during the speech of my right hon. Friend the Member for Croydon South, the situation in Russia is fluid, and the situation in Syria is very fluid. I think that the House, and my party, will need to revisit the subject of what assistance we can give the Syrian opposition. Like my right hon. Friend, I was one of the signatories of the letter that was published in The Daily Telegraph today, calling for the whole matter to be re-examined. We know that 100,000 people have been killed in Syria, that probably well over a quarter of a million have been displaced, and that there is a huge volume of misery in the country. People are being starved, maimed and killed. That situation cannot continue indefinitely: we cannot allow the evil Assad regime to go on behaving as it is.
Our troops are pulling out of Afghanistan. It will be interesting to see whether a democratic Government succeed there, and whether the gains that we have made in terms of women’s education and a whole range of infrastructural changes proceed or whether the country returns to its previous state. One of the things that the Queen’s Speech lacked was any reference to conflict countries, their abilities, and how we deal with them in the aftermath of conflict. My right hon. Friend the Member for Croydon South raised the interesting issue of what is happening in the aftermath of the Libyan problem in which we intervened. A huge range of weapons are now going into Maghreb and Sahel, and that has given rise to a large number of problems in Africa and elsewhere.
I did not want to concentrate on foreign affairs today, although it is my wont to speak about them in the House. I really wanted to focus on economic matters. I think that the coalition Government’s economic policy has been successful. We have reduced the deficit by a third, we have created 1.6 million jobs in the private sector, and, even more pleasingly, we have created a record number of apprenticeships. I am especially pleased to note that 570 apprenticeships have been created in The Cotswolds in the last year. That is excellent news for my constituents.
I am particularly keen on the subject of exports and foreign direct investment in this country. After all, there are only so many goods and services that we can sell to ourselves, and if we want to continue on our current path of excellent economic growth, we must increase exports. I was pleased to see that in 2013 the UK’s goods exports amounted to £304 billion, which was a record high. The jump in exports reduced the trade deficit from £9.8 billion in November to £7.7 billion. However, that is only a drop in the ocean. We must continue to work to increase our exports. I am pleased that the Prime Minister has led trade delegations to China and to other countries all over the world. That is very good news, and it demonstrates the Prime Minister’s dedication to increasing our exports.
We need to look closely at the job that is done by UK Trade & Investment. UKTI has been transformed under Lord Green, and I am sure that Lord Livingston will build on those ach