Yesterday’s Gracious Speech marks another step in this coalition’s work to secure Britain’s economic recovery. With the infrastructure Bill, the small business Bill and the Childcare Payments Bill, this Queen’s Speech continues the central purpose of this coalition—not just to rebuild the shattered economy we inherited, but to promote a new economy with sustainable growth and employment for all, so the British people can enjoy a stronger economy and a fairer society.
The coalition’s long-term economic plan is all about raising living standards for everyone in our country, but to do that we have to tackle the country’s economic problems head-on. We cannot duck the difficult decisions even when they come at a political price. To do the right thing for our country in the appalling circumstances in which we found ourselves in 2010 was always going to take courage and I am genuinely proud to serve a Deputy Prime Minister and a Prime Minister who have both had that courage even though both have experienced difficulties in our respective parties as a result. Let us look at where their courage has taken our country.
Our economy is growing again; indeed, no other major economy grew faster in the last year. Our deficit is falling steadily, responsibly—not as fast as some people argued for, but at a pace that has kept interest rates low and enabled employment to rise. There is nothing of which my colleagues and I are more proud than this coalition’s record on jobs: unemployment down in the last year alone by over 300,000 and employment up at record levels, increasing by over 720,000 last year alone.
I thank the right hon. Gentleman for giving way so early in what sounded like his peroration. Will he comment on the UK’s decline in stature in terms of the renewables industry, which has come out in recent reports, and also on the speculation that numerous applications for onshore wind energy have been declined by the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government? Can the Energy Secretary tell us how many have been declined against official advice?
Renewable electricity has more than doubled under this Government. The situation we inherited from the last Government was that we were at the bottom of the European league—no, I should correct the record: we were above Malta and Luxembourg—but now our position has improved significantly. I would have thought the hon. Gentleman would have welcomed that. We have put in place an excellent regime for investment in renewables and all low-carbons. The Ernst and Young report he refers to shows us to be the best place in the world to invest in offshore wind and tidal energy, and my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government Secretary and I are very proud of the fact that we have increased onshore wind so substantially and that there is such a healthy pipeline of future investment in it.
The right hon. Gentleman mentioned Malta: does he agree that his economic policy has led to a situation where child mortality below the age of five in Britain is now the highest in any western country other than Malta? One in 200 children is now dying under the age of five because of the brutality against the poorest. The university of Washington has related that to food banks, austerity and welfare. Does the Energy Secretary have anything to say about that? I doubt it.
I simply do not recognise those claims. We have been doing a huge amount to tackle child poverty. The increase in the child care tax credit in the very first Budget was a major help for low-income families with children, so the hon. Gentleman should take that back.
Many commentators thought we should cut the deficit faster, but we have taken a very responsible approach, to ensure not only that interest rates were kept low—that has been so vital for many families and the hon. Lady’s constituents—but that employment has risen so well. I would have thought she would be welcoming that.
The problem is that the Opposition used to criticise the coalition on unemployment—they used to say that unemployment was going to go up—but when the facts showed they were wrong and that unemployment has gone down they have had to change their economic argument. The Opposition keep changing the economic argument because they keep losing the economic argument. Let us examine their recent economic argument on the cost of living. I presume that everyone in this House accepts that the key measure of the cost of living remains the inflation figures. So if the cost of living is the measure by which to judge this coalition, let us see what has been happening to inflation. Inflation is lower than when the previous Government left office and it is falling.
I have to confess to the House that the Bank of England’s inflation target is not being hit—inflation is lower than the target. In March, inflation had slowed to just 1.6%. Of course for our constituents it is real incomes and real wages that actually matter: what people have to spend after tax and after inflation. Looking at things in that way, it is true that after the 2008 recession many people saw living standards fall. But let us remind ourselves what happened: a huge £113 billion was wiped off our economy in the great financial crash of 2008, and there was a £3,000 cost to every household in the United Kingdom. To put that right, and to keep employment rising, it was arithmetically inevitable that living standards could not rise in the turnaround period for our economy, but now we really are in recovery. Now it is not just employment that is rising—it is living standards too. How has that happened? Of course, it has been because of the coalition’s long-term economic plan.
Key aspects of that plan are really beginning to help, above all the implementation of the Liberal Democrat manifesto policy to increase the tax-free allowance to £10,000 a year. Our record not just of implementing this fairest of tax cuts, but doing more than we promised is helping more than 26 million people. It has taken 3.2 million low paid out of income tax and it has cut the income tax bill of a double-earning couple on average earnings by £1,600 a year. This Liberal-Democrat-turned-coalition policy has cut the number of low-income people paying income tax more in five years than any other Government have achieved in the same period since records began.
Before the Secretary of State diverts on to a partisan frolic, may I ask whether he welcomes the British Retail Consortium’s data out this week showing that competition between supermarkets has led to a decline in non-food prices of 2.8%? Does he also welcome the fact that food inflation is at 0.7%, its lowest level since 2006?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right to make that point: competition, not Government intervention, is the best way of getting prices down and helping people with their living standards.
Before the Secretary of State leaves the issue of tax allowances, does he not accept that for many of the lowest-paid workers the reduction in tax was more than outweighed by the reduction in tax credits? Moreover, the cost of this policy benefited higher earners disproportionately. That does not sound to me to be a very Liberal Democrat policy.
I am afraid that the hon. Lady is completely wrong. Higher rate taxpayers did not get the allowance increase. This is one of the fairest tax cuts, because it is focused on the low-paid and people on moderate incomes. I must say that she does not understand how the tax system works.
As the Secretary of State is talking about living standards, is he proud of the fact that many people living in the private rented sector in central London and other big cities are being socially cleansed out of their homes by a combination of high rents and benefit caps? Does he not think that that is a disgrace, that those communities are being damaged and that those children’s life chances are also being damaged? Should he not do something about it?
The hon. Gentleman has been a champion in the debate on housing in London for many years. I do not think that he can point to any halcyon days over the past 30 years. The cost of housing was the biggest issue when I became an MP in 1997, and for many of my constituents it remains the biggest issue. There have been changes, but many of the housing benefit changes that we have made have actually hit the landlords, not the tenants. I think that he ought to welcome that.
I am very proud of our record of helping people on low incomes, and not only the personal tax allowance increases, but the rest of our help with the cost of living—fuel duty freezes, council tax freezes, free school meals and help with child care. The coalition has listened and is helping. Of course, all those measures take time to feed through. Everyone knows that in some parts of the country people are yet to feel the turnaround, and that was always inevitable. Many people are only now beginning to experience the end of the post-recession squeeze.
I think that what is worrying the Labour party is that in 10 months’ time many more people will be feeling the benefits of the recovery and Labour’s latest economic argument on the cost of living will look ever hollower. Of course, last summer the Opposition already began to switch their economic argument again. It was not the general cost of living or general inflation that they were talking about, or the full basket of goods that people buy; it was a few specific ones. That is why we have today’s debate on energy and housing costs. They are very important issues, and my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government will, I am sure, take on the housing costs debate. I am sure that he will cover not only our record of low mortgage rates, but our record and our plans to build more houses to reduce housing costs.
However, I want to deal with energy costs, because, unlike the previous Government, we have acted on energy bills. We have taken on the energy companies, unlike the Leader of the Opposition when he was doing my job, when he could have acted but did not. It is interesting to look at the record on energy bills. In almost every year under Labour, energy bills rose: in 2005 they went up by 12%; in 2006 they went up by 20%; and in 2008 they went up by 16%. In the previous Parliament, under Labour, energy bills rose by a whopping 63%, and Labour did nothing. Yet they lecture us. Of course, bills have also risen in this Parliament, but by 8% a year, compared with 11% a year in the previous Parliament.
Labour did act to reform the energy markets; they managed the great feat of reducing the number of energy market firms and creating the big six. In other words, they made it worse and created another mess for us to clear up. This coalition is really reforming the energy market and taking on the energy companies. From day one, we began reforming the market to create real competition, with new competitors. Twelve new independent suppliers have entered the market since 2010, and independents are topping the best-buy tables, increasing their market share from less than 1% to 5% and rising, giving people a real chance not only to freeze their bills, but to cut them.
Just look at what has been done to help people with their energy bills: Ofgem’s reforms are making bills simpler and forcing firms to put consumers on the cheapest tariffs; switching rates are increasing, with switching speeds getting faster; and Government action is taking £50 off the average energy bill. Where the Opposition wanted to legislate for a freeze, with all the impact such regulatory intervention would have on investor confidence, the coalition has worked to ensure that the Government and competition are delivering something better than a freeze. Scottish and Southern Energy, British Gas, npower, Scottish Power and EDF have all announced that they will not increase energy prices this year unless network costs go up or wholesale energy costs rise, and of course they are not.
Given that we have just read this week that SSE will be raising its prices by 8%, that two of its directors have salaries of £1.4 million and that the price of gas is falling, it is absolutely extraordinary that the Secretary of State still thinks that the consumer should pay. What will he do to ensure that consumer prices come down in line with the proper price of gas? The ridiculous profits that these people are making should be stopped now.
SSE has committed itself to a price freeze. The hon. Lady is right that the recent falls in wholesale gas prices suggest that consumers should benefit too. Unlike the previous Government, we have supported the regulator Ofgem in its proposal for the first ever referral of the energy markets to the independent competition authorities. The Leader of the Opposition talks about energy markets, but when he had the power to act, when he could have taken on the big six, and when he was doing my job, he did nothing. He refused three times to back an independent investigation of the energy markets, even though energy bills were rising faster than they are now. He let the energy companies off the hook and the party knows it.
I am deeply grateful to the right hon. Gentleman. I am listening with great interest to the coalition’s achievement. I just wonder whether part of that achievement is the fact that the Liberal Democrat Benches are empty.
My hon. Friends may well be in Newark, but I have the Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, my hon. Friend Stephen Williams, here with me. It is interesting that that is the only point that the Opposition can make. I give way to Barry Gardiner. He may well have a point of substance.
The Secretary of State talked about the benefits to the consumer from competition in the energy market. He says that the Labour Government did not act properly in this way, but does he recall that of the 14 suppliers that existed when Labour came to power, there was no possibility for any customer to transfer their account from one to the other? What Labour did in creating new electricity trading arrangements and then the British electricity trading and transmission arrangements was to reform the market twice so that competition benefited the consumer.
The hon. Gentleman is mixing up two things. The reforms to which he referred created the big six. There was a consolidation in the markets as a result of those reforms. What is helping competition is the ability to switch. What we have been doing is making that easier, simpler and faster, and that is the right thing to do. I am proud that we now have—or will shortly have when it is confirmed by Ofgem—a full-scale market investigation. The large energy companies will need to think very carefully about their pricing decisions. If they do not pass on falling wholesale costs, the competition authorities and, more importantly, their competitors will be very interested.
This autumn, I intend to ensure that British people know that if their energy supplier hikes up their prices, they will have a real choice to switch firms and cut their bills. The switching choices will be simpler, easier and quicker than ever before.
In this Session’s legislative programme, my Department will be putting forward a number of measures in the infrastructure Bill. First, I draw the House’s attention to our plans to introduce a community electricity right. Communities will be offered the chance to buy a stake in a new commercial renewable electricity scheme in their area. Community energy can play an increasingly important role in our energy mix, not least as we increase renewable energy in the UK.
When I published Britain’s first ever community energy strategy earlier this year, we showed how greater involvement by communities could significantly support our goals of decarbonising the power sector, increasing energy security, reducing bills and helping the fuel poor. One of the key aims of the strategy is to see greater community involvement and ownership of local renewable energy projects. We hope and believe that that will come about through voluntary agreement. A taskforce of industry and community energy specialists is already working out how a win-win can be achieved, with investors gaining greater public support and additional capital investment, and with communities receiving greater benefits and a greater stake.
Since we are pursuing a voluntary approach, the power in the Bill is a back-stop. The community energy sector was clear that the voluntary approach should be given a chance to succeed, and I agree. By legislating as proposed, we can send the strongest signal that Government and Parliament want to see both community energy and local shared ownership of renewable energy succeed. I hope that the measure will receive support from all parties.
Other key energy measures in the infrastructure Bill involve the implementation of the review that I commissioned into the future of Britain’s North sea assets, conducted so brilliantly by Sir Ian Wood. Given recent events in Crimea and Ukraine, we know more than ever that secure supplies of gas are vital to our economy, but cannot be taken for granted. As we cut our carbon emissions, with our dramatic shift out of coal over the next decade, we know that the replacement electricity must involve low-carbon electricity from renewables and nuclear and lower carbon electricity from gas. Our energy security and climate change objectives require gas, so we must conclude that our North sea oil and gas assets are at least as important now as they have always been.
In spite of rising and indeed record levels of investment in the North sea under the coalition, figures show declining production and exploration, which should worry us all. Gas imports have been rising for some time already and if we do not act to improve conditions in the North sea, our dependency on imported gas could reach worrying levels. As we implement the Wood recommendations, specifically to enable a new arm’s length regulator, I hope that we will get support from all parts of the House.
In order to ensure that the UK can benefit even more from its home-grown energy, we will introduce a final set of measures, subject to consultation, so that Britain can be more secure and reduce our reliance on imports and on coal. The measures are to support the development of the shale gas and geothermal industries. Although both industries are still in their infancy, they are both concerned that the existing legal situation could delay or even stop their ability to drill horizontally deep underground to recover gas or heat. Ironically, given the urgency of climate change and unlike the situation for dirty coal—a landowner or property owner high above a coal seam cannot object and delay work—for cleaner gas and clean heat, landowners and property owners can object.
To assist the shale gas and geothermal industries, we are consulting on how to address those access issues. We published our consultation paper on
This is of great interest to my constituents, because we envisage drilling to explore the possibilities for shale gas in our area in the coming months. Will the Secretary of State repeat the assurance that the Prime Minister gave in response to Caroline Lucas yesterday, that there will be no circumstances in which someone may legally drill under people’s property without their consent and agreement?
I am not sure whether the Prime Minister said that in those terms. There will be local community engagement in issues about fracking, not least through the planning process. There will be local involvement, because a company has to get a series of permits and regulatory permissions before it may even start an exploratory drill, which should give the hon. Lady’s constituents and other people the reassurances that they need.
I do not know whether the Secretary of State read the comments of Sir Merrick Cockell, the chair of the Local Government Association. Speaking on a cross-party basis, he said that he thought that the benefits or payments to the community promised to areas in which fracking takes place are simply not large enough, considering the enormous amount of revenue to be gained by the companies from fracking activities, in particular given the tax breaks. Will the Government think again about that to ensure that local communities get a lot more benefit from such activities?
We have already put in place a package of attractive community benefits and as we proceed with the consultation, the hon. Gentleman might want to respond to it. There is talk of further community benefits, but let us be clear what we are talking about. We are talking about drilling at least 300 metres under a piece of land or property, far more than for the underground, the channel tunnel and all those other major pieces of infrastructure. Most shale and geothermals are at least one mile below the service and I think that landowners will be quite pleased to get compensation for that, because it will not affect their land or properties.
I want to ask about the concerns about waste water. There are examples in America of millions of tonnes of water being moved, destroying roads and the environment, and of its becoming contaminated and even radioactive and toxic in some cases, and there were issues with cleaning it, which contaminated the water table. I have heard of companies in Britain that want to do water treatment being turned away by prospective developers who seem to think that decontaminating the water is not a big issue.
First, we have a strong regulatory regime for water, overseen by the Environment Agency. Before people can take water from water courses or put things beneath the ground, they have to get a permit. More than that, if we consider what is happening within industry processes and with some of the research and development that is going on in this area, we can see that the push for what are called “green completions” in the fracking industry is very strong. We are seeing companies minimise their use of water compared with the early years in the United States because it is in their interests and will reduce the amount of vehicle movement. This is a serious issue and I take it seriously. As I hope the hon. Gentleman can see, I have looked into it in some detail and we will continue to monitor that carefully.
Time has not allowed me to update the House on many aspects of our work that feed into the Bill and the Gracious Speech, most notably on our massive work on the international climate change debate. As the Gracious Speech says, Ministers will
“champion efforts to secure a global agreement on climate change.”
I can report to the House that Britain is leading in Europe, persuading European colleagues to go further and to adopt more ambitious climate change targets, just as this Parliament has done, and persuading European colleagues to agree to radical reforms of Europe’s carbon market, which is so crucial in encouraging investment in renewables, energy efficiency, nuclear and carbon capture and storage. The green growth group that I established in Europe 16 months ago has helped to lead that critical debate and a key task for the next five months up to the October European Council is to secure the deal Britain has helped to create. If we achieve that deal in October, Europe can then help to lead the rest of the world as we prepare for the critical climate change summit in Paris in December 2015, working with the United States of America after President Obama’s magnificent announcement this week on regulating coal plants.
The Government are delivering on growth and on green growth, on jobs and on green jobs. We have pulled our economy from the abyss and towards a sustainable, affordable future.
The Government’s record is simple: since they came to power, working people have seen their pay fall by £1,600 a year on average, and by the end of this Parliament, people will be worse off than at the beginning. That is a record that no other Government can match, but it is not one to be proud of. The averages and statistics provide only a glimpse of what is happening to families caught in the cost of living crisis. It is a crisis that runs deep into people’s lives and deep into our country, because something fundamental has happened. The link between the wealth of our nation and everyday family finances has been broken, so the single biggest challenge facing our country is to restore that link so that growing prosperity is shared by all and not just a few at the top. On that challenge, this Queen’s Speech falls badly short. Today, I want to set out why it fails, and how Labour would take immediate action to deal with the pressures facing families and make the big long-term changes that we need so that hard-working people are better off.
Let us start with energy. There were suggestions yesterday that communities would be given the right to purchase a stake in local renewable energy projects, which was one of the community energy ideas in “The Power Book” which we published back in 2012. If that is what the Government are announcing, we welcome it and we look forward to more information on how and when it will apply.
We also heard that, subject to their consultation, the Government intend to bring forward legislation to give oil and gas developers underground access rights without requiring landowner permission. We have always been clear that provided it can be done in a safe and environmentally sustainable way, we will support shale gas exploration, but we have set out six conditions which we believe need to be met, four of which the Government have agreed to. That leaves two—first, an assessment of groundwater methane levels, and secondly, ensuring that all this monitoring is done for a full 12 months before any drilling can proceed, so as to ensure that we have robust baseline measurements to which we can always refer back. That is one of the lessons we need to take on board from the American experience, which did not go as well there.
As the Secretary of State mentioned, the changes to underground access rights announced in the Queen’s Speech will put shale gas on the same footing as other industries such as coal, water and sewage, so we will not oppose them, but we will continue to push for the environmental framework to be strengthened, and for assurances that the responsibility for clean-up costs and liability for any untoward consequences rests fairly and squarely with the industry, not with taxpayers or homeowners.
However, as the Secretary of State knows, companies have only exploratory licences, so full shale gas production is still some years away. Even if it does happen, unless we see significant shale production not just in Britain but right across of Europe, most experts believe it will have little effect on gas prices in the UK. The idea that it will in any way help with the cost of living that people are facing in relation to energy prices is therefore pretty wide of the mark.
One would not know it from the Secretary of State’s complacent speech, but in real terms energy bills have risen three times faster under this Government than under the previous one. The average family’s energy bill is now £300 a year higher than it was back in 2010, and businesses say energy is the second biggest cost they face. The consequences are being felt around the country. Figures out this week show that more than 1.5 million households are in debt to their supplier—saddled with more than £1 billion-worth of debt. If the Government had published their annual fuel poverty statistics last month, as I believe they were meant to, I imagine we would see the fuel poverty gap—the gap between people’s bills and what they can afford—increasing too. Perhaps the Secretary of State could enlighten us today on whether that is the case and explain why these statistics were not published.
On Tuesday we learned that in the past year alone the profit margins of the big six energy companies from supplying gas and electricity have doubled, so what is there in the Queen’s Speech to help bill payers? What is there to stop companies exploiting their customers? Nothing. The Secretary of State spoke about the Government’s dodgy deal with the energy companies, which he claimed had cut the average bill by £50, but let me remind the House of a few things that he forgot to mention. He forgot to say that because the energy companies increased bills by, on average, £110 at the same time as cutting green levies, the average family’s bill is still more than £60 higher than last year. He forgot to say that 3.7 million households on fixed price deals will not even receive the full saving, even though the Minister of State, Department of Energy and Climate Change, Gregory Barker said it was “not acceptable” for the energy companies to fail to pass it on.
The Secretary of State forgot to say how the Government cobbled this deal together—a £5 cut in network charges, to be repaid in full next year, with interest; £12 from the warm homes discount moved from people’s bills to their taxes, and somewhere between £30 and £40 of cuts to vulnerable and hard-to-treat households, which should have got help with energy efficiency and insulation through the energy company obligation. That amounts to 440,000 fewer households getting help to make their homes warmer. These are the people who have been made to pay, not the energy companies.
Then we heard the Secretary of State wax lyrical about the impending market investigation by the
Competition and Markets Authority. I have been clear that we support the market investigation. I have also said that the review should cover the role of the regulator too, because one cannot properly investigate a market without looking at how it is regulated. The very fact that Ofgem has deemed it necessary to refer this industry to the competition authorities is an admission that the market is not working for consumers. Yet the review will take 18 months to complete and has not even been given the go-ahead yet. The test for the Government was what they would do to help households and businesses in the meantime, and on that test this Queen’s Speech fails.
I can tell the House exactly what we would do if this were Labour’s Queen’s Speech. We would protect households from any more unfair price hikes by freezing energy bills for 20 months. That would stop suppliers increasing their prices, but of course they would still be able to cut them. We would also begin the work of reforming the market. Consumers will not thank us if we use the CMA investigation as an excuse to avoid dealing with problems we can fix now. For instance, one of the biggest barriers to proper competition in this market, and one of the main reasons people find it difficult to trust the industry, is that companies can generate power and sell it from one arm of the business to another, at prices that are never disclosed, before finally selling it on to the public.
We could fix that problem quite straightforwardly by introducing a ring fence between the generation and retail arms of energy companies. We are not talking about companies being forced to divest bits of their business, although of course that may be something for the CMA to consider; we are simply talking about the way in which these companies operate becoming transparent. In fact, some suppliers already claim to operate in such a way. SSE has said, following the publication of Labour’s Green Paper on energy market reform, that it will legally separate its generation and retail businesses. So why wait? The CMA might report back with additional measures that need to be implemented, but if there are things we can do now to make this market work for the public and restore trust, then we should do them.
I commend my right hon. Friend for laying out the measures that would have been in an alternative Labour Queen’s Speech. Will she confirm that another measure would have dealt with the one in five or one in six people who are in rural off-grid households and who currently have no protection? One of the greatest measures we could have brought forward would be to allow those people to have their winter fuel payment paid early, so that they have the flexibility to buy at times of the year when the prices for off-grid oil, and so on, are much cheaper.
I absolutely agree with my hon. Friend. I commend the fantastic work he is doing with rural communities the length and breadth of Britain and thank him for the support he has given my team in addressing some of the issues facing households who are off the grid. As he says, for those off the grid this is an equally disappointing Queen’s Speech. It does nothing on bringing forward winter fuel payments, which would allow people to buy their heating oil when it is cheaper, or on bringing those who are off-grid under the energy regulator so that they can enjoy some of the protections that everybody else would enjoy. Labour would have put both those measures in a Queen’s Speech.
I am pleased that Labour has now supported early winter fuel payments, for which I have been pushing for some time. Does the right hon. Lady recognise that one of the other problems is that the energy company obligation does not include off-grid boilers? Would Labour be prepared to push forward a measure on that? [Interruption.]
I am hearing from different parts of the House that the ECO does and does not allow it. Clearly, we must have an energy efficiency and insulation programme that meets the needs of various communities in the different circumstances in which they find themselves. With my hon. Friend Huw Irranca-Davies, I am working through a number of proposals and listening to communities about what would work. I am also listening to those working in the sector, as well as those who supply oil and gas and those who want to see what they can do to help more with energy and insulation. We are looking into this in greater detail.
That leads me to my next point. In the long term, the most sustainable way to cut people’s energy bills is to improve the energy efficiency and insulation of our housing stock. Despite the progress made under the previous Government, who helped more than 2 million households through Warm Front and millions more through the decent homes programme, Britain still has some of the least energy-efficient housing stock anywhere in Europe. Some 80% of our stock today will still be around in 2050, and this Government’s green deal, which I remind the House was billed as the biggest home improvements programme since world war two, has been an abject failure. Just 2,500 households have signed up for a green deal package. To put that figure in context, it is only slightly more than the number of Liberal Democrat councillors left after the party’s collapse in the local elections a couple of weeks ago, including on Kingston council in the Secretary of State’s area.
We have a big enough challenge bringing our existing stock up to scratch without having to worry about retrofitting the housing we are building now. That is why, when in government, Labour set a target that every new home built in Britain would have to be built to, or as near as possible to, a zero-carbon standard by 2016. In this Queen’s Speech, however, we have the bizarre but not uncommon spectacle of the Liberal Democrats trying to claim credit for a policy that was actually introduced seven years ago and which they have undermined. That is exactly what they are doing: taking our zero-carbon homes policy, exempting developments of up to 50 homes, watering down the standards for larger developers, and then wanting credit for it. Whatever the short-term benefits, in the long term there is a real risk that these decisions will leave consumers stuck with homes that are not meeting the high standards of energy efficiency. Given the scale of the challenge we already face, that is a problem we could well afford to do without.
On housing more generally, the country is suffering from the biggest housing crisis in a generation: house building is at its lowest peacetime level since the 1920s; affordable home starts are down by a third since the election; and home ownership is falling further and further out of reach for young families. As a result, more and more people are having to rely on renting a home in the private sector, but the cost of renting has gone up, rising more than twice as fast as wages since the election, despite the prediction of the former Housing Minister and, if reports are to be believed, the soon-to-be former chair of the Conservative party, Grant Shapps, who reassured us that rents would not go up. But they have gone up, and renters are getting a bad deal and are being forced to pay all kinds of unfair charges and fees.
Nothing is being done to provide the certainties that families need to plan for their future. What does this Queen’s speech have to offer them? Nothing. All we have is Help to Buy. Of course, any help for first-time buyers struggling to get on the property ladder is welcome, but why is a scheme that is meant to help first-time buyers allowing for taxpayer-based mortgages for homes worth up to £600,000? How many first-time buyers can afford homes worth £600,000? As more and more voices are warning, unless rising demand for housing is matched with rising supply, house prices will inflate even further, making home ownership even less affordable for those on lower-middle incomes.
As my right hon. Friend Hilary Benn will set out in his speech later, if this were Labour’s Queen’s Speech, we know what we would do to get Britain building again, help people get on the housing ladder and give people who rent more security. We would get 200,000 homes built a year by 2020. We would unlock the supply of new homes by giving local authorities “use it or lose it” powers and boost the role of small house builders. We would legislate to make longer-term tenancies with predictable rents the norm and properly regulate letting agencies.
Like energy, water is another essential to life, but more than 2 million households are forced to spend more than 5% of their income on their water bills. At the moment, the water companies can choose whether or not to offer a social tariff to those customers who struggle the most. As a result, only three companies do so, and fewer than 25,000 households receive any help at all. That is just not good enough. If this were our Queen’s Speech, my hon. Friend Maria Eagle would use powers to establish a national affordability scheme, funded by the water companies, to ensure that help gets to those who need it and to put an end to the current postcode lottery.
As well as dealing with the problems that hold back our country, we should be making big, long-term changes to our economy so that we can grow and earn our way to a higher standard of living. Work should pay and people should always be better off in work than out of it. One reason it does not always feel like that is the rising cost of child care. As my hon. Friend Lucy Powell has highlighted, since the election the cost of a nursery place has risen five times faster than pay. There are 578 fewer Sure Start centres, and 35,000 fewer child care places. However, the Government’s new child care allowance will not even start until well after the next election. If this was our Queen’s Speech, we would expand free child care from 15 to 25 hours for working parents of three and four-year-olds to make work pay, and we would create a legal guarantee of access to wraparound child care for primary school children through their school from 8 am to 6 pm.
As my hon. Friends the Members for Streatham (Mr Umunna) and for Leeds West (Rachel Reeves) will set out next week, there is so much more that the Government could and should have done in the Queen’s Speech. Let us take zero-hours contracts. We welcome the fact that the Government have adopted our policy of banning exclusivity clauses, but that is only one part of the problem. What about people working regular hours for month after month, or even for years, who are still on zero-hours contracts? This Queen’s Speech does not help them. What about strengthening the national minimum wage, tax breaks for firms that boost pay through the living wage, job guarantees for the young and long-term unemployed, or help for small businesses by cutting business rates and reforming the banks? That is the sort of Queen’s Speech that our country needs.
I am afraid that what we got yesterday was a series of half-baked measures, re-announcements and policies brought in to solve problems this Government created in the first place. Why was it necessary to include a Bill to deal with the problem of people leaving one part of the public sector with huge pay-offs only to be re-employed in another part? Let us be honest about this. It is because of the thousands of people who have done exactly that since the Government’s reorganisation of the NHS. Let us remember, when they talk about getting the banks to lend to small businesses, to ask why they are dealing with this problem only in the fifth year of this Government.
Perhaps we should not be surprised that the Government have fallen short. While family budgets were being squeezed throughout the country, the Government were in denial; from this Queen’s Speech, we can see that they still are. They crow about a recovery, but as the Minister without Portfolio, Mr Clarkesaid on Monday, ordinary people have not yet felt any sense of recovery. I agree: a recovery that does not benefit ordinary working people is no recovery at all, and the promise of Britain—that the next generation should do better than the last—is being broken.
The test of any Queen’s Speech is whether it deals with the challenges the country faces today and sets the foundation for our country to be stronger and more prosperous for the future. On both those counts, this Queen’s Speech fails. In 11 months’ time, the country will face a choice between a Britain where a few at the top do well and everyone else is left to take their chances, where people are working harder for longer for less, and where the powerful play by one set of rules and the rest of us live by a different one; and Labour’s vision of a Britain with fair play at its heart, where businesses pay their taxes, do not exploit migrant labour and have an apprenticeship scheme alongside any workers they bring in from abroad, where there are fair rules for things such as welfare, selling energy or coming into our country, where there are fair rewards for a country in which hard work pays, responsibility is rewarded and everyone shares in its success, and where there are fair chances for a country in which people do not have to be born into privilege to get on or to have a secure roof over their head and their life chances are not defined by the postcode in which they were born. That is Labour’s vision for Britain.
Thank you for calling me so early in this debate, Mr Speaker. I commend both the Secretary of State and the shadow Secretary of State for starting off our proceedings, but I am afraid that I will diverge from energy and housing issues to concentrate on other matters.
Although much has been said about the shortness of the Queen’s Speech—that it does not contain many measures—to my mind that is a quality. This House passes far too much legislation, and we ought to spend more time repealing legislation before we consider passing more. Although some say that its shortness is a fault of this Queen’s Speech, I say that it is a particular benefit.
There is one Bill in particular of which I am very fond: the pensions tax Bill. As a private Member, I introduced—I think in 2004—the Retirement Income Reform Bill, which intended to do away with the need for those at the age of 75 to buy an annuity. It passed Second Reading on a Friday afternoon, I think by a majority of 101. Unfortunately, the Labour Government crushed it. I hope that the Labour party has changed its mind and will support the Bill when it comes before the House again in the guise of the pensions tax Bill.
Another measure that I am particularly pleased to see in the Queen’s Speech which is not politically controversial is the modern slavery Bill. As a former law officer who has appeared in the criminal division of the Court of Appeal dealing with cases that concerned the trafficking of very vulnerable men and women from overseas to this country, some to be sexually abused and some to be abused in the world of employment, I am particularly pleased that the Government and, I hope, the House will pass that Bill in due course. It will add strength to the law that seeks to protect the victims of this most appalling form of criminal behaviour. We all know of examples of appalling gangmasters and people who traffic young girls and women into this country for sexual purposes. Anything that this House can do to protect the victims and to ensure that they are brought to a place of safety and allowed to lead fulfilling lives is much to be approved.
I want to see the modern slavery Bill advance for two other reasons. This morning, I received a letter from my constituent, Laura Palmer, who tells me that there is, in France, something called the Picard law. She writes that the law
“states it is illegal to take money off someone who has been mentally manipulated.”
That put me in mind of the case that was brought by the Moonies—the rather eccentric religious sect—some years ago against the Daily Mail, for which, I hasten to add, I was acting at the time. [Laughter.] It was a long time ago.
I got married on the strength of the case, thank you very much. Indeed, I bought my first house on the strength of it. However, I want to make a serious point.
The sting of the libel in the case was that the Moonies brainwashed children and extracted money from them for the purposes of the Moonie organisation. Of course, a lot of those activities took place overseas, particularly in America. However, if the modern slavery Bill can criminalise the suborning of vulnerable adults and children for the purpose of encouraging them to join such sects and to give up their independence and what money they have for the benefit of the leaders of such groups, it is much to be encouraged. If my constituent, Laura Palmer, is right about the Picard law in France, I hope that the modern slavery Bill that we are about to introduce into this House will take account of that law and learn from it.
Given the excellent points that the hon. and learned Gentleman is making about trafficking, does he share my disappointment at the lack of any mention of female genital mutilation in yesterday’s Queen’s Speech?
That matter was certainly mentioned in yesterday’s debate. Of course, female genital mutilation is a crime under our law. I share the hon. Gentleman’s disappointment at the lack of prosecutions so far, if that is what he is driving at, but I think he will understand that one difficulty that the prosecuting authorities and the police have had is in the gathering of evidence.
This is too obvious a point, but I will make it anyway: FGM does not take place in public. It is difficult for independent witnesses to come across evidence, although there will be children who are examined in hospital or seen by schoolteachers or general practitioners. Now that the subject is increasingly coming into the public arena, I am sure that such people will be on their guard to ensure that those who are already victims of FGM find at least some protection under the law, despite what has already happened to them, and that children who may be vulnerable to FGM are also protected. The hon. Gentleman’s point is not one of controversy—he and I generally agree that the more we can do to protect those young women, the better and more civilised our country will be.
It is a tradition in this House to have at least four or five criminal justice Bills every Session, most of which do exactly what previous Bills did in earlier Sessions and no doubt repeat what was done in earlier Parliaments. By and large that comes under the heading of too much legislation—often too much ill-thought-through legislation. The previous Labour Government passed something like 65 pieces of legislation on criminal justice. That was utterly wasteful of parliamentary time and most of it achieved very little. However, it makes Ministers feel good.
I think that the serious crime Bill will be better than that, although it concerns me—I say this gently—that there may be some rough edges to the proposed legislation. In parenthesis, I say to Andy McDonald that as I understand it, the Bill will strengthen this country’s ability to protect vulnerable children and women and extend the reach of powers to tackle FGM, and it will also make it an offence to possess paedophile manuals. There is plenty of good stuff in the Bill, but I am concerned that in dealing with the protection of vulnerable children, the Government may adjust section 1 of the Children and Young Persons
Act 1933 in a way that will have unintended consequences. I urge the House, and the Government, to be sure before they amend the 1933 Act that that does not do something that they should not or do not intend.
At the risk of being excessively prissy and overly legalistic—a very rare thing for me—let me tell the House what the Act currently states. It is an offence if someone wilfully assaults, ill-treats, neglects, abandons, or exposes a child
“or causes or procures him to be assaulted, ill-treated, neglected, abandoned, or exposed, in a manner likely to cause him unnecessary suffering or injury to health (including injury to or loss of sight, or hearing, or limb, or organ of the body, and—”
“any mental derangement),”.
As I understand it, the new Bill follows a campaign from 2012-13 that wishes to extend that part of the Act to cover emotional distress. That seems to me a difficult area to move into when the Bill is already being interpreted in a constructive and protective way.
Some of my constituents, particularly those who are strongly religious, have written to me because they are concerned that the teaching of particular religious tenets—not just Christian or Muslim—would or could stray into the area of emotional distress. I have no view on that because I am not aware of the factual basis on which such things might be established. However, we need to be careful when wishing to send out these messages and signals—I am afraid that such phrases are used by the Government in their surrounding material for this Bill and others—because we are in danger of passing legislation that amounts to just a collection of early-day motions, rather than producing coherent, well argued and well constructed law.
Earlier this week, Libby Purves, the Times journalist, wrote an interesting article—which I recommend—headlined, “You can’t always bring ugly sisters to trial”, towards the end of which she said,
“is it not potentially damaging to ‘intellectual development’ to bring up a child in a strict religious belief that daily contradicts the evolutionary science they learn at school? Is it not detrimental to ‘social development’ to raise a girl—or boy—in the firm expectation that she or he will only marry by parental arrangement?”
“Think how many things you could potentially include. Suppose a family has a baby by donor insemination, or indeed another father, and never tells that child…Is it cruel and diminishing to deny someone knowledge of their origins? Come to that, the emotional damage wrought by divorce is well-attested and divorce is a deliberate act by at least one partner: criminal?”
I place these suggestions before the House to encourage us to be careful, as we move forward with enthusiasm in the last Session of this Parliament, about passing laws that are eye-catching. They must have some utility as well. This also applies to the social action, responsibility and heroism Bill. I cannot think of a more wonderful title for an Act of Parliament.
Will the hon. and learned Gentleman explain how he seems to support the Picard law, which is about mental manipulation, but does not support the idea of dealing with emotional stress? Those are related areas. Does he support any move to tighten up on advertising standards, which is a form of mental manipulation, in relation to Wonga, for example, or breakfast cereals that are described as low fat but which contain high levels of sugar, and so on? How does he square these things?
The hon. Gentleman, perhaps unwittingly, illustrates my point. If we were to criminalise advertising sugar-filled cereals, we would be stepping down a path that I have no intention of going down. I do not know enough about the Picard law to comment intelligently about it, but I understand from my constituent, Laura Palmer, that it outlaws the manipulation of people under a mental incapacity, or who are temporarily mentally disturbed, to extract money from them—this goes back to my Moonies example. That is not the same as extending section 1 of the Children and Young Persons Act 1933, under which it is already an offence to do terrible things to children, including causing them mental derangement.
The better answer to the question posed by the 2012 campaign—and to what I fear may be the consequence of the relevant part of the serious crime Bill—is to reflect emotional or intellectual damage in the sentencing under section 1 of the 1933 Act, not to create a whole new category of offence based on intellectual or emotional damage or impairment.
I am just placing the arguments before the House—I do not want to be nailed to the cross on this point—but I am always cautious about this House’s being too ready to pass spuriously attractive pieces of legislation for the purposes of sending out a message or giving a signal without thinking about the consequences of doing so. The purpose of the various stages of a Bill—Second Reading, Committee and Report stages, and then its going through the House of Lords, where it is examined again—is to deal with rough edges or unintended consequences. However, there is no harm in pointing them out now, so that the Government are aware of at least some people’s concerns.
To my mind, those concerns also apply to the social action, responsibility and heroism Bill. I am sure there is much good intention behind the Bill. The Government say:
“All too often people who are doing the right thing in our society feel constrained by the fear that they are the ones who will end up facing a lawsuit for negligence” and that they want to
“change the law to reassure the public that they can participate in good causes or intervene in an emergency. In the unlikely event that something goes wrong and they are sued, the courts will take full and sympathetic account of the context of their actions.”
They also tell me that the proposed law is
“designed to bring some common sense back to Britain’s health and safety culture. We will put the law on the side of people who are doing the right thing and building better communities.”
That is all well and good, but if one descends into the potential detail of the legislation a number of concerns arise. They are illustrated by an article written by the Secretary of State for Justice headlined, “Our Bill to Curb the Elf and Safety Culture”. I am as great an admirer of the advocates of the saloon bar as anybody else, but I think we need to be a little careful when we are framing laws that affect the way in which our courts treat litigation between citizens.
My right hon. Friend is perfectly right that there have been a number of cases where people have felt constrained—for example, from taking children on school adventure trips and so on—for fear that they, or the school they are employed by, will be sued if somebody breaks their leg or falls into a river and comes to harm through no fault of the school or the individual supervisor, be they a schoolmaster or schoolmistress. As I understand the law of negligence, if it is just an accident, then by and large the courts will recognise that it is just an accident and liability will not be attached to the supervisor.
Is it not the case that all that is ever expected when people take children on a school trip is that they take reasonable care? They need to have some forethought as to the risks they run, but nobody is expecting a counsel of perfection. If an accident happens that could not have been foreseen, and there has been no carelessness or negligence, then no liability will ever attach.
I agree. I hope that common sense already exists not only for those contemplating taking children away on trips. That is to say, we do not have to worry about this. If we set in place proper arrangements—we make sure there are lifejackets if people are going out in canoes and all that sort of stuff—then it strikes me that common sense is already in play.
What I am concerned about, however, is the concept of heroic negligence. I would be very interested to hear from a Minister from the Ministry of Justice the definition of heroic negligence. [Interruption.] The Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, my right hon. Friend Mr Pickles, is the embodiment of political heroism—that is easy to understand—but I think even he would be pushed to find a cogent definition of heroic negligence. When he goes to the next Cabinet meeting and discusses the important things they discuss in Cabinet, I wonder if he could encourage the Attorney-General and the Secretary of State for Justice to think carefully about the concept of heroic negligence, because it will lead to derision, if not amusement, if it is pushed forward.
I accept fully that this is not a courtroom and that the people who draft or think about legislation are not always thinking entirely legalistically. I plead guilty to occasionally being rather prissy about that, as I said a moment ago. However, I am a politician and in the Chamber there are other politicians, so we all understand the need for the political backdrop to the things we do. Governments will of course send out their messages and their signals. At some stage, however, somebody has to apply this law. At some stage, a judge in a county court or in the High Court is going to be faced with a case in which a fireman has been sued by someone he has rescued. He will not just personally be sued—the fire authority will also be sued.
One will have the most complicated litigation. Perhaps expert witnesses on heroism will be called, who will say, “Well, this was heroism that strayed into the area of negligence. It was foolhardy. On the other hand, this chap up the other ladder was heroic in a common-sense way.” One needs to go through these slightly absurd examples in order to demonstrate that somebody needs to think a little more carefully before this aspect of this very important Bill goes forward.
I am very glad that my right hon. Friend will be responding because not only is he the embodiment of political heroism, he is the embodiment of political common sense. I know that because I have heard him say things that are eminent common sense. I dare say that in winding up the debate this afternoon he will do no more than utter eminent common sense, but with a delightful Conservative political tinge that I would be disappointed if he did not show.
I was elected to this House as a Conservative. I cannot wait for a single-party Conservative Government. I cannot wait for Robert Jenrick, the next Member of Parliament for Newark, to take his place in this House. Given that this debate continues until next Thursday, I hope he will be able to make his maiden speech during the Queen’s Speech debate, if he is fortunate enough to catch your eye, Mr Speaker.
I am now getting into the area of waffle—[Hon. Members: “No!”] I finish on a serious point. This Queen’s Speech is full of good things and good intentions but I say with the greatest deference to my right hon. and hon. Friends on the Front Bench that we need to be a little careful when we construct laws that do no more than send out a message. If I want to send out a message, I will use semaphore.
Order. Just before I call the next speaker, may I impress upon the House that although there is no formal time limit on speeches, a certain self-denying ordinance would help? I invite hon. Members to help each other in these matters. Although in terms of courtesy, legendary as it is, there is much to be said for Members seeking to imitate Sir Edward Garnier, there is no need for them to feel the need to do so as far as length of speech is concerned.
Thank you, Mr Speaker. I hope that that was not directed personally. I am sure that it was not.
I want to concentrate on the supply of housing, or rather the lack of it, the regulation of the private rented sector and the impact of immigration on some of our poorer communities.
On housing supply, we ought to be building 250,000 homes a year to keep pace with household formation. We all know from the people who come to our surgeries weekly that we do not have homes that people can afford to buy, and that there are not homes in the social rented sector for which people are eligible—even, as in my constituency, for those who have been on the waiting list for 10 years. Many in the private rented sector are well housed but many others are not and they feel the pressure of rising rents.
We have a long-term failure in this country, as politicians, to build the homes that people need. I use those words carefully because it is a failure of the last Government as well as of this Government. It is just that the failure has got worse under this Government, as the number of homes being built has fallen.
Historically, compared with the 1960s, 1970s and early 1980s the real fall-off has been in the building of homes to rent in the social rented sector.
We could do with affordable homes in many of the villages and hamlets I represent. The problem is that whenever a site is identified, people come running to me to say, “We are all in favour of affordable homes, but this is the wrong place, Mr Parish”. That is where I think the problem lies—we need to persuade people that affordable homes are needed and must be situated somewhere. The problem is that everybody objects, wherever we want to build them.
I entirely take the point that some people object. At a public meeting in my constituency three or four years ago, someone said to me, “We are not going to have homes for those sorts of people, are we?” Frankly, an elected representative has to stand up and face down that sort of prejudice, making it clear that everyone is entitled to a home. Many people who have lived in my constituency all their lives simply cannot afford to buy homes that their parents could have afforded to buy a few years ago. These people are entitled to live in that community; homes should be provided for them.
It is unfortunate that one of the biggest cuts in Government funding during this Parliament has been the 60% cut in funds for social housing. If we are to see house building rise in future, the private housing developers will play a part, but they are not going to build the quarter of a million homes we need. We are going to have to build more homes to rent. It is disappointing that the Government have not moved at least some way in that direction in the Queen’s Speech—failing, for example, to take the cap off local authority borrowing for house building, which they could have done. They could have provided 60,000 new homes immediately with no cost to central Government funds. They could have taken steps to alter the definition of the grant on housing association books and convert it into a genuine grant from the loan that it currently is. That would have freed up more borrowing for housing associations as well.
If we are honest about this in the long term—I say this to both Front-Bench teams—and if we are to build the homes that people need and build more social housing on the scale this country needs, we are going to have to put in more subsidy from the national public purse. That is the reality. We are not going to build the homes we need unless we spend more money on them. That is an uncomfortable fact and we tend not to want to discuss it before the general election, but it is, as I say, the reality of the situation. Whether it be housing associations or local authorities that do the building, they are going to need more assistance to make it work. We need to carry on arguing about that.
Does the hon. Gentleman agree with me on the avenue provided by brownfield sites, which is seldom properly explored? Development companies are always very keen to develop on greenfield sites because it is much cheaper for them. Does he agree that more effort should be made to direct developers to brownfield sites as well?
I very much agree with that. The Select Committee is currently doing an inquiry into the operation of the national planning policy framework. One problem can be seen in paragraph 47 and subsequent paragraphs, whereby the sites for the five-year housing supply in the local plan have to be viable and deliverable. Developers are now claiming that brownfield sites are not viable or deliverable in the current economic circumstances, forcing local authorities to revisit their local plans and include more greenfield sites. We need to look very carefully at that problem. The hon. Gentleman makes a valid point, to which we must give further consideration.
There is nothing wrong with people renting homes in the private rented sector, and many people are happy in the homes they rent. The real problem is the uncertainty over which home people will be living in in six months’ time, which also means uncertainty about which school their children will attend. It means uncertainty about whether they will have to live near their parents or grandparents to provide child care, or about whether to live on a suitable bus route for their job. Those are real problems—uncertainty and the instability it causes to family life. I therefore suggest that any measures to lengthen tenancies and provide more security should be welcomed.
I have made it clear on the record—the Select Committee report said it—that I am not in favour of rent control. If we try to interfere with the rent at the beginning of a tenancy negotiated between a landlord and tenant, we will damage the ability to attract private investment into better-quality private rented provision, which is something we must not do. If, however, we can find a way of making tenancies naturally and usually longer than the current six months to a year, we should go ahead with it. The proposals from the Opposition Front-Bench team are at least an interesting move in that direction, and I hope the Secretary of State will be prepared at least to consider them. I am sure he would like to see longer tenancies as well. I think we all want to provide greater certainty for families in the private rented sector.
We can do more to regulate letting agents. During the Select Committee’s inquiry, we heard more complaints about them and their activities than about any other issue. The Government have indicated that they want to make the whole process more transparent, so that people know what they will have to pay from day one rather than incurring hidden charges later. We ought to ban double charging: it is wrong that both landlord and tenant can be charged for the same service. Charging tenants has been banned in Scotland, and the Select Committee will be looking into that further. It has been argued that landlords will simply add their charge to the rent, but it might be slightly easier for a tenant to pay a little more rent each month than to find an average of £500 to pay the letting agent up front while at the same time having to find a deposit, which is often very difficult.
I wish the Government would reconsider their refusal to give local authorities more flexibility in the regulation of standards of private rented accommodation. The present licensing system is cumbersome, and operates only in areas of low demand or where there is antisocial behaviour. I am not entirely sure of the merits of a national registration scheme, but empowering authorities to adopt a mandatory registration scheme would provide the necessary degree of flexibility, and might make it possible to control the worst excesses of the worst landlords who will not join voluntary accreditation schemes. For several weeks, Sheffield city council encouraged landlords who were objecting to a licensing scheme in one area to apply for a voluntary accreditation scheme in the neighbouring area. During that time, only one came forward in Page Hall and Fir Vale in the constituency of my right hon. Friend Mr Blunkett.
Some horror stories have emerged from the mandatory licensing scheme. A classic example is the story of a cooker that was not properly wired up, but was connected to ordinary sockets by a wire running right across the kitchen. In other instances, wiring has been left bare and dangerous. The council is now trying to deal with those problems, but the Inland Revenue would surely have a major interest in ensuring that landlords are registered so that it can know who is receiving rent from tenants. This is a complete scandal, and we need to put an end to it.
Let me now say something about the impact of immigration, a subject that arose frequently during the recent elections. By and large, people do not object to immigration. The problem is the Government’s “one size fits all” policy of a 100,000 limit, and the fact that they are shoving every kind of migrant into a single category. People in Sheffield do not object when doctors or computer technicians, of whom we have not enough in this country, come here to do vital jobs. Nor do they object to overseas students, who are clearly bringing real income and benefit to the city. Sheffield university is one of our biggest industries, involving a great many people, and there are also long-term benefits to be gained from allowing overseas students to study in this country.
The Government are right to take a firm view on the incomes that people should have when they sponsor those who wish to come here as dependants, and to say that those who come should be able to speak English. The real problem is caused by economic migrants, particularly those who come from the European Union. If we remain a member of the EU, as I hope we shall, we are likely to have to settle for the free movement of labour, even if we can mitigate the effects of that in the case of new entrant countries. However, people who come from the poorer parts of the EU are likely to enter poorer communities. If we, as a society, believe that immigration can provide benefits for the whole of our country, the whole of our country has a responsibility to help the individuals and communities on whom the entry of migrants will put particular pressure, for instance in relation to jobs and working conditions.
We know what happens in many cases. We believe that about 2,000 Slovak Roma are coming into Sheffield in Fir Vale and Page Hall and in Darwen and Tinsley, which are in my constituency. They are given a package: they are offered a deal whereby when they obtain jobs, which are mostly unskilled and low paid, those who give them the jobs take money from their pay packets and use it to pay the rents for the often grossly overcrowded housing they are given. That gets around the minimum wage legislation because the people do not see the whole of their wages, and they pay inflated rents because of the lack of proper regulation and rent contracts. That scam is going on, and we need to toughen up on regulation and enforcement.
I am pleased the Government are looking to introduce greater penalties for failure to pay the minimum wage. We ought to put more resources into that, and look at what local authorities can do to help enforce paying the minimum wage, and at the scams that link working conditions and working arrangements to housing arrangements. Local authorities will be very well placed, through the extra powers to enforce better housing conditions and their role in minimum wage enforcement, to bring those two things together and stop these scams, which undermine the working conditions and job opportunities of existing residents and cause a lot of grievance in the local community. We must recognise that this is a problem and tackle it. It is not racism to oppose such things; it is about people saying, “My job is being undercut; my conditions are being undercut; it simply isn’t fair.”
My right hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Brightside and Hillsborough and I have been to see the Secretary of State to discuss the pressure on local public services that is being generated, and he has promised us another meeting. I met local doctors in Darnall last week, because people are complaining that they cannot get an appointment to see their GP. The doctors tell me that the numbers of migrants coming into the local community are simply overwhelming them, and the money that comes for having patients arrives a long time after the patients arrive. They want to do thorough health checks on people who come from a background where they are not offered such checks, and that is absolutely right, but they also have people coming to them who do not speak English, so every consultation takes twice as long. People who have lived in that community for years then get upset and angry and irritated. They cannot get to see their GP, or have to wait in a queue while others take twice as long as them with the GP. We have to put resources in to help address that issue.
Resources must also go into the schools where kids are coming in who cannot speak English not just at five, but often at seven and eight. Some of them have not been to school at all, and not only their inability to speak English but sometimes their behaviour poses a great challenge to the school. I asked one head, “How many of these kids have you got?” and I was told, “Thirty. But not the same 30 as last month because they move around.” Having newly come to the country, they tend to be mobile; they have no fixed abode, and they may be somewhere else in a month’s time. That is a challenge to schools, to the police and to our housing services.
Therefore, if we believe as a country that there is benefit from migration, the communities facing those pressures need extra resources and assistance to cope. People say to me, “Mr Betts, is it fair that I have been waiting 15 years on the housing list, but someone can come to this country and in six months’ time get a house from the council?” Often, that does not happen, but the perception it could happen again builds up resentment. Councils could take action to give more priority to people who have been on the waiting list for a long time, because our communities will think that is fairer. That could be done, and the Government might think about that.
Order. Before the hon. Gentleman gives way, I express the cautious optimism that he is approaching his very brief peroration.
The hon. Gentleman and his colleague Mr Blunkett came to see me and I was persuaded by what they had to say, and we are working on a package to be helpful. It has to go beyond money and be about services. I think the hon. Gentleman will forgive me for saying he is selling himself short, too, because what really impressed me from my meeting with him and his right hon. Friend was his determination to ensure the newcomers were properly integrated into the system, and the recognition that the failure to do that so far was making the situation worse. I commend him and his right hon. Friend, who sadly is not with us today, on the efforts they are putting in.
That is absolutely right, and one of the positive things going on—it is not all negative by any means—is that the Pakistani Muslim centre had an open day for the Slovak Roma community a month ago in my constituency to which over 300 people came. That was a great event. Also, earlier today I got an e-mail from the Handsworth junior football club, which is going to give a week’s free coaching in August for the deprived community of Darnall, which has people from the Pakistani, Bangladeshi, Somali and Slovak Roma communities. It is going to be open house for all to come along for a week’s free coaching. We can do these events on the ground, and my right hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Brightside and Hillsborough and I are very much involved in trying to stimulate such activity.
My final point does not relate to the Queen’s Speech, but it was interesting to hear the Conservatives’ major announcement last week of a commitment to radical fiscal devolution for Scotland. They have gone further than the other two parties in that regard, and I commend them for that. We shall not be doing much about that during this Session, however, and we ought to be thinking ahead to what will happen after the next Queen’s Speech. If Scotland votes to stay in the Union, as I very much hope it will, and if there is then extra devolution to Scotland and Wales, the really big question that we will all have to think about is the English question. Once such devolution has happened in Scotland and, to a great extent, in Wales, how will we be able to devolve English government in a way that will rejuvenate our local democracy and give our local authorities greater fiscal powers and responsibilities? That is the major question that we need to be thinking about.
It will certainly be in my interest to keep my speech relatively short. I rise to speak in support of the Gracious Speech and, in particular, of the historic significance of the Modern Slavery Bill. I realise that it has only a tenuous connection to the themes we are debating today, but I want to talk about the housing of trafficked victims and I hope that the Ministers present will take that into account.
It is no coincidence that my hon. and learned Friend Sir Edward Garnier also chose to focus on this subject today. The Modern Slavery Bill is the proposal in the Queen’s Speech with the greatest historic significance. Who would have thought that we would need to pass further legislation to tackle slavery more than a century after all the efforts of William Wilberforce and his supporters? The brutal truth, however, is that the estimated number of slaves worldwide now stands at 21 million and that the slave trade generates £150 billion of illegal profits annually. That is three times more than was previously estimated. Those figures come from the International Labour Organisation. In this country, the trouble is that the slavery is largely hidden. It was no surprise that the Centre for Social Justice entitled its report on the subject “It Happens Here”, because it does. I hope that the publication of the Bill will raise awareness.
I could not speak on this subject without paying tribute to someone who has really raised awareness of modern-day slavery: the former Member of this House, Anthony Steen. In 2006, he began his work of shining a searchlight on this iniquitous trade in human beings. He has worked for the Human Trafficking Foundation and now plays a pivotal role in raising public awareness. The foundation includes among its trustees Mr Field, who was asked by the Home Secretary to chair the pre-legislative scrutiny Committee. He did so with remarkable skill, garnering support from both sides of the House.
The Home Secretary is to be commended for tackling this wicked issue head-on. It is also significant that the whole House came together during the pre-legislative scrutiny stage in recognising that we need to tackle the matter on a cross-party basis. My right hon. Friend has clearly been motivated by the shortcomings in the existing law. A good Queen’s Speech should contain legislation that brings together, rationalises and simplifies existing laws that are dotted around in other Acts. This Bill will do that.
I was surrounded by erudite lawyers during the pre-legislative scrutiny stage, and I was struck by the fact that the prosecution rate was so poor because of misunderstandings surrounding the definition of slavery. Indeed, those misunderstandings extend as far as the European directive that covers the problem, which highlights trafficking. Those prosecutions often fail because victims of trafficking stand up in court and swear on oath that they came here of their own free will. Indeed, they are sometimes paid to come here, only to find themselves subject to servitude. When we try to prosecute on the ground of trafficking, the case therefore often fails because the witness says that they moved here of their own accord. In a funny sort of way, if the European directive had been drafted in English first, we would have spotted that problem: trafficking is not actually the overarching term that needs to be used. We need to refer to “exploitation”, of which trafficking is an aggravation. This Bill is an opportunity to get that balance right, and we are indebted to such people as Lady Butler-Sloss, who applied her razor-sharp mind to that pre-legislative scrutiny Committee and helped all of us to understand where these kinds of problems lie.
The Bill will break new ground because it will pay attention to the need for victim care and support. If it had neglected that aspect of this problem of modern-day slavery, I would be a good deal less enthusiastic about the Bill than I am. But I was delighted to hear that need to improve victim care and support spelled out in the Queen’s Speech. I do not underestimate the political challenges of protecting those who admit to breaking the law under coercion, but we will never stamp out this iniquitous trade in human beings until we get enough victims to testify. That is why I was encouraged to hear that a serious crime Bill will strengthen powers to seize the proceeds of crime as part of this Queen’s Speech. I firmly believe that some of those proceeds need to come back to the victims, which would help them to come forward to give evidence against the real criminals, who are the ones we need to catch. The care of victims of slavery in our country is nothing short of a scandal. I am sure there will not be a Member in this House who has not sat in a surgery hearing from someone—often someone young—who has been brought to this country under false pretences and still remains stateless within our society.
We also face real problems in trying to distinguish between those victims and the genuine criminals. I have heard evidence from victims who, just hours before being deported, were saved only by the swift intervention of lawyers, often working on a pro bono basis and some funded by the POPPY project, at detention centres. That happens all too often because of the inherent conflict of interest whereby UK Visas and Immigration, formerly the UK Border Agency, which is primarily responsible for getting immigration down, is the agency overseeing the decision about who stays and who goes. In some cases those almost deported faced a dangerous future, returning to families complicit in their trafficking in the first place. Anyone alleging slavery is invited to use the national referral mechanism, which contains questions designed to elucidate their real status. If they get through that, they are given just 45 days’ protection. That is my point about housing: what are these victims of trafficking expected to do about accommodation, after just 45 days of protection, while their whole situation remains uncertain? That is a cross-departmental consideration, so I hope the Ministers here today could give it some thought.
America is ahead of us, with statutory victim care and support. It has a designated independent anti-slavery ambassador, with a full-time complement of 80 staff, reporting directly to the President. The plan in this country is for a commissioner to be appointed by the Home Secretary, but an anti-slavery commissioner must be able to crack the whip round Whitehall, precisely because of the example I have just given about the lack of suitable housing for trafficked victims. We will not be the first country in Europe to have a commissioner; countries that have developed the role include Finland and the Netherlands. Of course I understand that the commissioner needs to have the sponsorship of one Department in order to secure adequate resources from the Treasury, but the commissioner must remain sufficiently independent to put a rocket up the prosecution service, as a Home Office Minister put it.
Children who are victims of slavery are a particularly important concern to us. The Government have recognised that with pilots for children’s advocates. A young person does need someone to fight their corner with authorities and stay on their case. A particularly worrying aspect of child slavery in this country is the fact that sadly children are often send to the UK to serve family members as slaves, even for sex. One victim told us that even when she was allowed to go to church on Sundays, she was forbidden to speak to other people. That shows how we need to open our minds and our eyes to the hidden slaves around us. We should try asking the chamber maid, the cleaner and those we fear might be under duress and offer a friendly hand of help where we can.
The right hon. Lady is making an excellent speech. She must be aware of the problem of children living in informal foster care with distant relatives in this country, which means that nothing is done to regularise their immigration status and they are threatened with removal at age 18, having been completely unaware that they had no status whatsoever. The Home Office needs a different approach to the matter.
The hon. Gentleman raises an important anomaly, and it certainly ought to be debated in relation to the Bill.
I have two more points to make. The first is about the Gangmasters Licensing Authority’s transition from the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs—it was under my wing when I was Secretary of State— to the Home Office. The Gangmasters Licensing Authority does an excellent job in the sectors of the economy that it currently covers—agriculture, fisheries and horticulture—but sadly, slavery is rife in many other sectors, such as catering, cleaning and hospitality. I urge all Government Departments to make use of the Gangmasters Licensing Authority model to tackle slavery in the economic sectors for which they have responsibility.
Finally, I believe that the Bill must contain a clause on supply chains. That would make the legislation world-class. Businesses in general need to reappraise the risk of slavery in their own supply chains. That has already been achieved in America, where the Transparency in Supply Chains Act has been passed in California. Any European company that wants to do business in California must be compliant. Michael Connarty introduced a private Member’s Bill on the subject, which I am sure he would wish me to remind the House of. We need a clause in the Bill that tackles the problem. Until businesses are made to report on due diligence, ruling out slavery the length of their supply chains, they will continue to be at significant reputational risk and, sadly, the victims will continue to suffer.
The UK has the potential to provide global leadership on this important issue. Frankly, with our heritage and the Wilberforce spirit behind us, we ought to be able to do that, and this Queen’s Speech opens the way.
I start by offering my sincere apologies to you, Mr Deputy Speaker, and to right hon. and hon. Members for not being present at the start of the debate; I was chairing a meeting of the Public Accounts Committee, which was attempting to hold the Government to account over their major projects.
I wanted the opportunity to speak in this debate because this is the final Queen’s Speech of this Parliament. I looked at it to see what it offered my constituents, the good people of Barking and Dagenham, but I am afraid that it offers them nothing. The recent European and local elections placed centre stage the challenges that many communities face from migration. In Barking and Dagenham, we have been dealing with the impact of migration on our community for over a decade. Indeed, the extreme right, in the form of the British National party, tried to exploit the legitimate concerns and fears that people have when dealing with change. Although we saw off that divisive, racist and intolerant threat, the concerns remain, and there was nothing in the Queen’s Speech to help me or my constituents to respond to them.
The Government’s rhetoric continues to be about being tough on immigration numbers, but inevitably the Government fail to deliver on that promise. When the Government fail, that strengthens and deepens people’s loss of trust in their politicians, democracy is damaged and community cohesion is undermined.
More migration across national borders is a feature of the inter-dependent world of the 21st century; nobody can turn the clock back on that. The Government should start tackling the issues on which they can make a difference and respond positively to people’s concerns as well as articulate much more positive messages about the benefits of migration to our economy, culture and communities. If they were to do the practical things, anger would not be turned on migrants or indeed on second and third generation British citizens who are scapegoated for our Government’s failures.
My constituents feel bewildered and frustrated by the Government’s failure to respond to their needs. Top of their agenda is housing. They are desperate for a decent home at a price they can afford. Our need for more homes in Barking and Dagenham has gone beyond a crisis. Our population is set to grow by around 50,000 over the next decade. We have more than 13,000 families on the housing waiting list, and homelessness has increased by a staggering 167% since 2010 when this Government came into office.
In London as a whole, more than half a million new homes are needed by 2021 to meet the projected increase of a million in the city’s population, according to the figures that are produced by the London councils. If we factor in existing need, the number of houses needed in the capital over the next seven years grows to more than 800,000. What is the Government’s pathetic response to this crisis? It is a help-to-buy scheme that most economists believe is fuelling the housing price bubble and is anyway having minimal impact in helping first-time buyers or people in housing need in London.
Proposals in the Queen’s Speech simply tinker at the edges and fail either to unlock the potential or to provide the resources needed to respond to my constituents’ need for decent, affordable homes. The Government’s failure to act where they can simply fuels hostility against migrants and breeds division rather than supporting cohesion and harmony. There has been too much talk and too little action on housing. The Government need to stop making grand claims about how many homes they are going to build and get on with unlocking the investment to make things happen on the ground. Critical to that is getting the essential transport infrastructure in place. All I can see, and all my constituents can see, are a series of what I call big boys’ toys, such as HS2, for which the case is not yet proven, and Boris Johnson’s vanity cable car project.
We need a proper strategy that links up housing, transport and other regeneration so that we can achieve the potential and the prosperity for Barking and Dagenham and the east of London that are taken for granted in the wealthier parts of the capital.
Let me take Barking Riverside as an example. This is one of the biggest regeneration sites in London. It has been more than 20 years since the site was first bought by Bellway. There have been endless master plans, but since 2008 there has been planning permission for nearly 11,000 homes to be constructed on the site. About a third are supposed to be homes with three or more bedrooms, and more than 4,000 are supposed to be affordable. That means that 26,000 people could be housed on Barking Riverside—half the number of extra people we expect to be living in the borough over the next eight to 10 years. Yet so far, only 360 homes have been completed and another 300 are under construction. At that rate it will take more than 100 years to complete the development.
Failure by both the Government and the Mayor to take the necessary steps to speed up this development is a blatant dereliction of duty. Putting the necessary transport infrastructure in place is part of the planning deal to build these new homes, yet when Boris Johnson first became Mayor in 2008, he stopped the proposals to extend the docklands light railway to Barking Riverside on the grounds of cost. Only in 2013 did he start lobbying Government for the funding of a cheaper proposal—to extend the Gospel Oak to Barking line to Barking Riverside. However, in the last Budget all we got was a plan for a plan, with woolly words and no concrete commitments. The Government said that they would
“work with the Mayor of London to develop proposals”.
No funding has been made available.
The Government are prepared to commit £50 billion to HS2, but cannot commit even the £180 million needed to extend the Gospel Oak to Barking line to Barking Riverside. Boris spends £60 million on his cable car—a facility which, according to a recent freedom of information request, is used by just four regular commuters. Neither the Chancellor nor the Mayor has committed the money needed to unlock the huge potential for housing and regeneration in the heart of my constituency.
The Queen’s Speech could have delivered for Barking and Dagenham, and for London. We have the land to build a significant proportion of the homes we need. Indeed, there are 4,000 hectares of brownfield land in London alone, about 40% of which is owned by the public sector. Lack of planning permission is not an excuse. In my borough, we already have planning consents for at least 20,000 new homes, yet over the past 10 years, the housebuilding average has been around 500 homes a year. This is about political will. The Government should use their infrastructure programme to unlock the potential of communities, rather than feed the vanity of the coterie of men who control the legislative and financial purse strings.
The Government should legislate to ensure a ruthless and determined use of compulsory purchase powers so that disused sites can be brought into use and new homes built. They should legislate to penalise both public and private bodies which simply sit on land to let its value grow, rather than building homes.
The Government should lift restrictions on London councils to enable them to borrow against their assets to build new homes. Far from weakening section 106 powers, the Government should strengthen them to ensure that a good proportion of new homes are affordable to local families. That would be a legislative programme that brings optimism and hope to the good burghers of Barking and Dagenham, and across east London. That would be a pragmatic and serious response to the concerns expressed by voters in the recent elections. That is what the Queen’s Speech should have contained and that is what my constituency, London and Great Britain need.
Both my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister and the Leader of the Opposition have mentioned the D-day anniversaries—it was also mentioned in the Gracious Speech—and it is right that we should all pay tribute to those who were involved. However, I should also like to mention other events. I have not done my research, but I think that it was in this very House in 1944 that a Member referred to those people fighting in Italy as the D-day dodgers. Seventy years ago, on his 21st birthday, my father was at the battle of Monte Cassino. Recently, there was a royal visit to Monte Cassino to mark the anniversary of the battle. While we concentrate on D-day, it is also important that we do not forget all those who fought elsewhere.
The right hon. Member for Barking was right to say that we need to look at housing, and I believe that we are making efforts in that regard. The other area of concern is that of immigration. There are genuine concerns about that issue, but I want to sound a cautionary note. A couple of weeks ago, I was privileged to have been asked to attend the 105th birthday celebrations of Sir Nick Winton. I am sure that many people in the House have heard of him, but if they have not, he founded the Abbeyfield homes system. In 1988, his wife came across a scrapbook in the attic of his house in Maidenhead and discovered that Nick Winton, as a young man in Prague at the outbreak of the second world war, had helped to get Jewish children out of Czechoslovakia into Britain. In fact, one of the people he rescued was a Member of this House and is now in the other place, Lord Alfred Dubs. I have discovered that, at that time, it was only Britain that was really prepared to help such children. Those who wanted to help had to have £50 and be able to find an address for the children to go to. What struck me was that the parents must have gone through hell being parted from their children, but they gave them up so that they could go off to find a life—literally, to find a life. Unaccompanied children arrive as asylum seekers at Heathrow, which is in my borough, next to my constituency. This is an issue that stirs us up. We have to remember that people are coming here not because they love the climate; they are coming because they are escaping from tyranny elsewhere, and we should always remember that.
There are some measures in the Queen’s Speech about which I have concerns. First, I am a director of the family retail business—furnishing, which is why I am keen on housing being improved, as long as everyone does not shop online—and I want to see some detail on the carrier bag measure. Although it is generally welcome, it is easy to talk about something happening, but the practicalities of it and how individual customers and retailers will be affected will have to be looked at carefully. It is good to have noble ideas but sometimes the practicalities have to be worked out.
Does the right hon. Gentleman recognise that the programme of paying for carrier bags has been a tremendous success in Wales? It has been remarkable how little correspondence any of us have had against the programme and, today, the Association of Convenience Stores has come out in favour of the measure.
I recognise that, and I have been following the issue for some time. In fact, the measure would save me money because I would have to give out fewer carrier bags. However, we might also be put in an awkward position. My family’s store is not a convenience store and we sometimes sell quite high-value items. If someone has bought something for £200 and we then say, “It is 5p for a carrier bag”, that puts the retailer in a difficult position. I recognise what the hon. Lady says, but we do have to think about such a measure. I am an advocate of it, however, because it is environmentally desirable.
Fracking is a more controversial issue and we need some detailed thought on it. I heard what the Opposition spokesperson, Caroline Flint, said. There is uncertainty on both sides of the argument. I agree that fracking is not the only answer to our energy problems, but some of the stories put out to frighten people about someone turning up outside the back door with a rig ready to drill through their garden are false. We have to get the legislation right. Strong environmental concerns about water and all sorts of other issues have to be looked at carefully. I do not want us to rush into this because it is a fundamental issue. I hope that we can look at fracking in as non-partisan a way as possible because it is important for the future of our country.
Like my right hon. Friend Mrs Spelman, the one thing in the Queen’s Speech that I am most delighted about is the introduction of a modern-day slavery Bill. Like her, I pay tribute to Anthony Steen of the Human Trafficking Foundation—I declare an interest as a trustee of that organisation—and to Mr Field, with whom I have been privileged to sit both on the review that the Home Secretary asked him to carry out and on the scrutiny Committee for the draft Bill. For the past six months, since deciding to no longer keep an eye on my colleagues to ensure that they vote in the right way, I have devoted myself to that cause. As with so many things, modern-day slavery is something that people cannot ignore once they find out about it.
Anyone who has watched and been appalled by “12 Years a Slave” must realise that almost the same sort of conditions exist for some people today—being kidnapped, having no escape or being too frightened to find any way out. If nothing else were to be done in this Session, we could still be a world leader with this Bill. It is the most important measure. There are things that the scrutiny Committee has advocated that were not in the draft Bill, and I look forward to seeing whether they will be incorporated—no doubt some will and some will not. I will reiterate a few of those recommendations.
My right hon. Friend the Member for Meriden mentioned the Proceeds of Crime Act 2002 and things that we could be doing. We want not only increased penalties, but to ensure that the activity is simply not lucrative. As with a lot of crime, but particularly modern-day slavery, one of the problems is that by the time of conviction the criminals have moved all their ill-gotten gains around the world. In Italy, where the authorities have experience with the mafia, they now freeze assets on arrest. I hope that we can go some way down that line. It does not mean confiscation; it is simply freezing. People are allowed something to exist on, because they remain innocent until proven guilty, but we have to look at such a measure in order to stop the goods and money being taken away. Otherwise, for some of these people, five years in jail is nothing, as long as they have the billions when they come out. During debate on the Children and Families Bill, some Members in the other place were advocating guardians for trafficked children. Such a measure has to be included for child victims of modern-day slavery—I think the Government will do so, because they said that they would.
I thank my right hon. Friend and the other members of the pre-legislative scrutiny Committee for their work. Does he acknowledge that the role of the new anti-slavery commissioner will very much be to co-ordinate the law-enforcement process, including internationally, where international co-operation plays the part that he describes? Clearly, in consideration of the Bill, the role of the commissioner can be looked at in some detail in that regard.
I agree with my right hon. Friend. I am a little cautious, for understandable governmental reasons, about ensuring the independence of the commissioner. No one likes to give up power entirely. The commissioner’s role will be important, but we have to recognise that to a great extent, the commissioner will have to have independence from Departments. That is another aspect.
My right hon. Friend the Member for Meriden talked about the supply chain and ensuring that businesses have due regard. I am sure that that theme will be raised on Tuesday when we are discussing home affairs and certainly when we debate the Bill itself. It is one of the most controversial issues, but it is essential. How far that is put into legislation will have to be discussed. I know that the Government, rightly, do not want to burden businesses with unnecessary regulation, but I think that most businesses, as my right hon. Friend the Member for Meriden said, will want such provision for their own reputational advantage, so that they are seen not merely to pay lip service to having no slavery in their supply chain but to ensure that they do not. Nobody can be sure at any particular stage and some of the evidence we heard over recent months has put me off purchasing all sorts of items. For example, many of the prawns we get in this country, from Thailand and elsewhere, are produced in conditions, which, if we knew more about them, would make us very wary of buying them.
The right hon. Gentleman is making a very good point. Does he agree that buyers in the UK can play a significant role unilaterally in this regard? There are half a dozen significant buyers in the garment and food sectors and should they choose to lead the field by saying that they will ensure that they are paying people what they need right down the supply chain, whatever part of the world they live in, so that they can live in dignity and bring up their families, that could go a long way.
To a great extent, they are doing that. The problem is that when their suppliers in another country tell them that everything is okay and not to worry, they accept that. It is sometimes very difficult to get right down to the problem and that is why many of us think that one director or the chief executive should have a legal responsibility, not to penalise that person but to help the company. In other words, so long as they are doing their very best they will not be hauled in front of everybody and publicly shamed if something is found to have gone wrong. The idea is to help businesses.
Will my right hon. Friend also acknowledge the excellent work that has been done through the Department for International Development’s support in places such as Bangladesh, where the garment industry has been encouraged to improve its terms of work and the conditions for its staff? UK companies that take supplies from Bangladesh are being encouraged to work with DFID on that.
I pay tribute to my hon. Friend for his work in this field. He is a very strong advocate and he is absolutely right. We have to work on this and must also increase public awareness. There is always a problem—I remember discussing it as a furnisher in the context of sustainable timber—in that some people, sad to say, do not care as long as a product is cheap enough. That is true of a lot of items. We must make it unacceptable to have available products produced by slave labour so that people will be unable to say, “Well, it’s cheap.” There should be no choice. We in this country should be free of the problem and we should set an example.
There are always things that I would have liked to have seen in the Queen’s Speech and things that I am delighted to see. If we can get a modern slavery Bill of which we can be genuinely proud onto the statute books in the 10 or 11 months left to us at the end of this Parliament, we will all be able to say that we were here when that happened.
I am pleased to follow Sir John Randall, who made some good points, particularly about the modern slavery Bill, and some effective comments about immigration and what happens to youngsters coming into the country. I think that that is something on which we could all agree.
I am pleased to make a small contribution to the debate and, perhaps unsurprisingly, would like principally to address some issues about energy. I am somewhat perplexed by the apparent headlong rush to do everything possible to allow fracking to take place. I remain sceptical about the potential of fracking and would be more cautious about taking it forward, because despite all the claims that are made of a new energy revolution, the situation in the UK is vastly different from that in the United States, and even there considerable controversy surrounds the technology.
Much of central and eastern Scotland, including parts of my constituency, is included in the latest map of possible sites for unconventional oil and gas. It seems to me, however, that we need to take a balanced, responsible and evidence-based approach, listening to the concerns of communities, and to proceed with caution. I particularly wanted to raise this issue, because I am a little unclear as to what is proposed in the infrastructure Bill. In Scotland, the situation is different to that in England. Although onshore oil and gas is vested in the Crown and subject to the same licensing regime at present as the remainder of the UK, planning law is devolved and the law of property is also significantly different, and both are the responsibility of the Scottish Parliament.
The changes to the law to allow fracking under properties without owners’ permission has already produced a considerable public response. In fact, I received a number of e-mails on the subject overnight. Although I accept what the right hon. Member for Uxbridge and South Ruislip said about the amount of misinformation and misapprehension over what is meant by those changes, I had assumed that the proposed changes to the law would not affect Scotland, since property and land law is a devolved matter. However, the notes to the Queen’s Speech issued by the No. 10 press office state, in relation to the infrastructure Bill:
“Subject to consultation, this Bill would support development of gas and oil from shale and geothermal energy by clarifying and streamlining the underground access regime.”
Furthermore, in a section headed “Devolution” it goes on to say:
“The provisions relating to roads, Nationally Significant Infrastructure Projects, planning consents for local projects and public sector land assets would apply only to England. The provisions relating to the local land charge aspects of the Land Registry and invasive non-native species would apply to England and Wales. Where the Bill deals with devolved matters, we are engaging with the Devolved Administrations as needed.”
Now, that raises a question in my mind: what is the situation with
“streamlining the underground access regime”, as the notes put it? Can the Minister clarify whether it is the Government’s intention to seek changes in Scotland on these issues or is it indeed a specific matter for England? I had understood that the problem was with the specific English law of trespass, a law that is different in Scotland. If the Government’s intention is the former, what specific changes are they seeking? Many questions are being asked by my constituents and I do not want to give them false information, so I need to be clear about exactly what is happening and how far it will affect them.
The notes also make reference to the future of North sea oil and gas and the report from Sir Ian Wood on maximising economic recovery of oil and gas reserves.
This report perhaps already holds a special place in history as the only review to which both the UK Government and the Scottish Government, and almost everyone in between, has subscribed, even although it has some fairly uncomfortable things to say to both Government and industry. We will, of course, look closely at the part of the Bill that seeks to implement the proposals, although we have a different view of the future—these matters will become academic for this place following September’s referendum.
It will, however, be interesting to see how the Government propose to proceed. They say that they will
“introduce a levy-making power so that the costs of funding a larger, better resourced regulator can be paid for by industry rather than by the taxpayer as is currently the case.”
I support that objective, but as other parties now seem to be falling over themselves to offer some crumbs of further devolution to fight off the growing momentum towards a yes vote, it will be interesting to see whether that includes basing the proposed new regulator in Aberdeen, the oil capital of Europe, or whether it will be yet another London-based outfit.
What the Gracious Speech did not do was tackle some of the many issues affecting the energy industry and consumers in Scotland and throughout other parts of the United Kingdom. Over the years in this House, I have repeatedly raised the issue of the unfair transmission charging regime that increases costs for generators, particularly renewable generators, in Scotland, adding to the costs of producing energy, which are invariably passed on to the consumers. After much pressing, Ofgem finally came up with Project TransmiT, which seems to be interminable. Although far from perfect, the proposal was to make some changes to the regime that would have benefited renewable generation, particularly in Scotland, yet its implementation has been postponed yet again and is now promised for sometime next spring.
The project has been postponed several times, and energy producers and consumers continue to pay more. Dealing with such issues could do a lot to help ameliorate the costs that consumers must pay towards their energy. If this Government are truly intent on enhancing the United Kingdom’s energy independence and security, as stated in the Gracious Speech, they need to get a grip and ensure that we have a regime that truly encourages the growth of renewable energy, which will not only create jobs but, as I said, ensure lower prices to consumers in the longer term.
There are many other issues that impact upon energy consumers and the cost of living of specific groups which could be dealt with to give real benefit and relief, but yet again they are completely missing from the Gracious Speech. It is interesting to note in passing that much was said earlier by the Secretary of State about companies voluntarily freezing prices. That has undoubtedly happened in some cases, but as those of us who looked at price freezes in another context know, it comes at a cost. There is no magic bullet. Along with its proposal to freeze prices, Scottish and Southern Energy announced significant job losses and pulled out of several investment projects. That must be borne in mind when thinking about such a proposal. It is not a one-way street.
I have long championed the cause of introducing a simple measure that would help pensioners who live off the gas grid, and have introduced two Bills on the matter, as well as raising it during the passage of various energy Bills. I may well take part in the ballot for private Members’ Bills and, if successful, introduce such a Bill again. The simple fact is that those who are off the gas grid pay higher costs than those on the grid, and pensioners are particularly badly hit. The problem in many rural areas is exacerbated by the fact that much of the housing is old and of construction that makes it very difficult to install energy-saving methods, such as cavity wall insulation.
Of course, those households will continue to receive the same winter fuel allowances as pensioners on the gas grid, but the crucial difference is how the energy is delivered. Those who are on the gas grid will receive their winter fuel bill around the time that the winter fuel allowance is generally paid, and the system therefore works very well for them. Indeed, in their explanatory notes to the regulations that last amended the benefit, the previous Government said specifically:
“They are paid in a lump sum each winter to ensure that money is available when fuel bills arrive.”
That is not the case for those who are off the gas grid. They face the difficulty that they have to pay for their liquefied petroleum gas or home fuel oil up front at the beginning of winter, well before they have the benefit of the winter fuel allowance. Many find it difficult to do so and may well not fill up the tank completely, leaving them having to do so in the depths of winter, which brings problems of its own.
When the Office of Fair Trading looked at the market a few years back, it found that there were many competing suppliers in the market. By definition, many of these were small suppliers, and although some of the larger players will offer greater flexibility for payment, many smaller ones are unable to so. The price of fuel is rising, often quite substantially as winter approaches, and even those suppliers who offer a fixed winter price will do so at a price higher than the summer price. There is also the problem of getting a delivery. Members will recall the dreadful weather two winters ago, during which many of my constituents faced huge difficulties in getting their tanks filled up, some being left with no fuel in the run-up to Christmas. That was perhaps exceptional, but it shows the additional problems that off-grid consumers face.
I am very pleased that the Labour Opposition have now supported the measure. I welcomed it when they did so and I welcome it again today, but the cynic in me notes in passing that I have now had support from all three of the other parties in the House for the measure. Unfortunately, it has always been when they were in opposition, not when they were in government. I hope that in the event of a change of Government, this time we will see an all-party approach to try to get the matter dealt with finally. It is an issue that has been going on for years and it is a simple matter that could make a real difference.
As I said, my Bill put forward a suggestion as to how we might tackle the problem, as was mentioned earlier by Huw Irranca-Davies, by paying the winter fuel allowance earlier. The regulations could be amended simply by changing the date on which it is paid to off-grid customers. The scale of the problem was highlighted this week by a report from Scotland’s Rural College which showed that nearly 60% of the over-60s in rural areas are in fuel poverty, compared with 45% in urban areas. That is a truly shocking statistic. We need urgent action to tackle this situation.
The other point that I have often raised and will raise again is that there are no proposals in the Gracious Speech to tackle the problems of off-grid consumers under the present green deal. That is not working as well as it should, partly because it is left to the energy companies to set up and administer. There is such a complete lack of trust among consumers towards energy companies that many will not take up any deal offered by them. One example that I raised earlier and will mention again relates to the lack of ability to get a home fuel or LPG boiler under the energy company obligation scheme.
In Scotland the situation is slightly different. Under the home energy efficiency programme, the old scheme partly for central heating that was introduced by the Scottish Parliament, it is possible to get an off-grid boiler if it is replacing part of the central heating scheme. As I understand it, this is not available in other parts of the United Kingdom and it is not available under the energy companies’ ECO scheme. We have repeatedly been told that ECO is technology-neutral but this is clearly not the case, as none of the companies will include off-grid boilers in their schemes. I appreciate that these boilers are more expensive than traditional boilers, but that rather emphasises the point that those who are off the gas grid are doubly penalised—they pay much higher prices and at the same time cannot get replacement equipment that would be more efficient. Surely there are economies of scale that could reduce prices if the companies offered such technology, but I suspect that it will take the Government to force them to do so.
I am disappointed that despite talking about this matter—I know that the Minister without Portfolio, Mr Hayes took an interest in it he was an energy Minister—the Government have not grasped the nettle and included provisions to deal with these issues. There is a missed opportunity in many of the proposals relating to energy, which could have made a real difference to people’s lives.
As the hon. Gentleman cited the impressive record that I had as the energy Minister, will he acknowledge—I know he is very generous about these things—that we have made strides in greater transparency and clarity, at least in terms of tariffs, and that that progress was partly inspired by contributions from Members across the House, including him?
I have always acknowledged that even off grid the Minister was responsible for setting up the ministerial round table which has opened up discussion on these issues. I acknowledge that, but what we need is action before next winter on these specific issues, because there are serious problems among pensioners in rural areas, and not just in Scotland. In the highlands of Scotland it is a particular issue, but it is also an issue in rural Wales, Northern Ireland and many parts of rural England. We need action on that. It is not expensive. It could be done relatively easily and I am disappointed that the issue has not been tackled.
Thank you, Mr Deputy Speaker, for calling me to speak in this important debate following Her Majesty’s most Gracious Speech yesterday—a speech which truly shows that we are on the side of the vast majority of hard-working, decent, law-abiding, responsible people. It is a speech which, despite what the Opposition say, continues to demonstrate that this Government are dedicated to securing our country’s long-term economic future.
The range and depth of Bills announced shows that there is no let-up in our commitment to put right the failures of the previous Government, and builds on what this Government have already achieved. For the Opposition to have any credibility, they need to accept the failures of the past and just say sorry. Until they do, no one should ever trust them again with the finances of this country. Their weak attempt to frame this parliamentary Session as lacking substance is misguided and shows the desperation of their own argument. As John Longworth, director general of the British Chambers of Commerce, said:
“Businesses across Britain will be relieved to see that the government has opted for a streamlined legislative programme, meaning ministers can devote more time to delivering the best possible environment for economic growth and enterprise. Businesses hold governments accountable not for how many bills they pass, but for what they actually deliver.”
I agree. There is much to be welcomed, and it is not about quantity but quality. It is also not just about what we say here and what is in the speech but what we do and achieve in the next 11 months.
We have already achieved a lot. When this Government came to power, the future of our country was by no means certain. We were in the throes of Labour’s great recession, borrowing billions of pounds to bridge the gap between income and expenditure; confidence was at an all-time low; and, to top it all, we were informed by the former Chief Secretary, Mr Byrne, through his now infamous note, that “there’s no money left”. It was against this backdrop—this toxic economic inheritance—that the new Government had to set about rebuilding and rebalancing our economy. We abandoned the plans of the previous Government for more borrowing, more spending and more tax in exchange for a real long-term economic plan that is delivering growth, employment, and a brighter future than we might have dared to expect. Yesterday’s Queen’s Speech builds on that.
In his very outspoken welcoming of the Queen’s Speech, will the hon. Gentleman reflect on a situation that I am sure affects his constituents as well as mine, whereby as many as one in six agency workers now work under the so-called Swedish derogation, which means that some of them are being paid £135 less for doing the same job as the people standing next to them? Is that how we should be rebuilding the economy?
The hon. Gentleman makes a valuable point. There are still challenges to be tackled. I am not saying that the recovery is perfect. There is a long way to go and we need to do a lot more, but the fact that we are on the right road has to be welcomed.
There are challenges—there is no doubt about that—and one of them is the overall cost of living, but we are serious about tackling that by taking the decisions to resolve these issues, decisions that have been blocked at every turn by Labour. I accept that there is a cost of living challenge—we have to; it is a reality—but we were always going to have this problem until our long-term economic plan was in place and seen to be working. Whichever way you cut it, as a nation we were spending more than we were earning and borrowing the difference, and that is what had to come to a stop. We cannot keep spending more than we earn. Anyone who has ever got into trouble with their credit card or overdraft knows that at some point they have to stop spending and face reality. That is what we did when we got into government—we faced reality and we stopped spending so much. Anyone who has ever used a credit card or an overdraft to fund their lifestyle knows that when they rein in expenditure and start paying back their bills they do not have as much money to spend. That is the situation we found ourselves in as a nation. Despite the toxic economic inheritance we received, we have managed the reductions in spending in a cautious and measured way. It has not been without pain, but if we had not taken the decisions we have, things could have been so much worse than they have been and are.
How do we tackle the continuing cost of living challenge? I believe there are three ways to do that. First, we can put off the inevitable, keep borrowing and spending, and hope something will turn up. Secondly, we can take an interventionist approach and try to con people that we can freeze energy prices, cap rents, and renationalise the railways. Thirdly, we can do what this Government have done: take the hard decisions, pull our head out of the sand, and tackle the problem head on. The best way to deal with the challenge is to create growth and jobs and to rebalance the economy so that wages rise at least in line with costs, and, in the meantime, to mitigate the impact of the readjustment as best we can. For example, we have raised the threshold at which people begin to pay tax so that low-paid workers who are least able to weather the economic storm can keep more of their money. That measure alone has saved 26 million people £705 each per year.
We have demonstrated to the markets that we are serious about paying down the debts and closing the deficit. This has potentially saved mortgage holders over £1,000 for every percentage point by which mortgages could have risen. We have frozen council tax so that after five years people are paying the same as they were in 2010, saving them hundreds of pounds. We should compare that with the doubling of council tax that took place under the previous Government. We have frozen the fuel duty escalator, making fuel now 20p per litre cheaper than it would have been under the previous Government’s plans. We have created jobs so that people have the security of an income. We have created 1.5 million new jobs and now have more people in work than ever before in our history. I could go on .
However, all of the above does not mean I am oblivious to the challenges people continue to face each and every day. That is why I warmly welcome all the Bills announced in the Gracious Speech, including the Childcare Payments Bill, which will help people to meet the cost of child care; the infrastructure Bill, which will enable us to source cheaper local energy; and the pensions Bill, which will show that we trust people to do the right thing with the money they have saved.
Above all, I welcome the small business, enterprise and employment Bill. As many in this House will know, in my previous life I worked in my own family printing business. I can therefore confirm that running your own small business is tough—always has been and probably always will be. If we can do anything to make it easier, then we must, and this Bill goes a long way towards achieving that. People might ask what small businesses have to do directly with the cost of living. I sometimes think we forget how important our small and medium-sized business sector is. It is the powerhouse of the British economy and—dare I say it?—the backbone of our society. Not until the SME sector is truly thriving will we be able fully to tackle the cost of living challenge. There are 4.9 million small businesses in the UK. If even only half of them employed one extra person, we could wipe out unemployment in a stroke.
That is why this Bill is so important, and I am not the only one who thinks so—the Federation of Small Business and the British Chambers of Commerce have also welcomed it. John Allan, the FSB’s national chairman, said:
“The Small Business Bill, announced today in the Queen’s Speech, reflects the growing recognition of the role small businesses have to play in driving forward the economy and the need to do all we can to support them in that effort.”
“Simplifying life for small or growing businesses should be an objective shared across all political parties.”
That is what I believe we are delivering. A number of significant measures in the Bill will go a long way towards helping small businesses and thus helping them to support their staff in tackling the rising cost of living. Unlike Governments or public bodies, SMEs can pay their staff only what the company earns, and until they can earn more they cannot pay more.
The first measure that will have a significant impact on the success of our businesses is the renewed focus on late payment. As I said in my debate on this topic 18 months ago, small businesses should not be acting as the bank for large business. A recent survey of FSB members found that 51% of large company invoices were paid late. That is outrageous. It is blocking tens of billions of pounds that could be pumped back into the economy for the benefit of the majority and not the minority. Make no mistake: this is not asking companies to settle their invoices before the due date; it is just asking them to settle them at the agreed terms, whether 30, 60 or 90 days—that is a private arrangement. Paying on time could significantly increase the profits of small businesses. Businesses often function on overdrafts because of the money they are owed. If they did not have to fund an overdraft, they would undoubtedly have more money for wages and investment. Late payment of invoices costs money, affects cash flow, increases overdrafts, causes anxiety, and demotivates businesses so that they do not invest. Anything we can do to improve the situation by toughening up the prompt payment code is very welcome, but if it does not work, please expect me to come back here and call for yet further action. We cannot take our foot off the accelerator on this one.
Is my hon. Friend disappointed, as I am, that the Queen’s Speech did not say anything about a full review of business rates? I am sure that he has been very conscious of this issue and businesses in my constituency talk about it all the time. We fundamentally need a full review of business rates in order to come up with a fairer tax.
I agree that we need to look at that. The steps we have taken to ease rates for small businesses have been welcomed by businesses in my constituency, but we need to do more and a full review, perhaps with some safeguards for those businesses that may not be able to weather an increase in rates, is certainly something we should consider.
The second area of the small business Bill that I particularly welcome relates to the fact that, despite what banks tells us, small and medium-sized businesses still find it very hard to access competitively priced finance. Every time I visit my local shopping area or business park, someone tells me of the problems they have getting finance in order to grow and invest. I welcome the steps the Government have already taken to ease access to finance, such as the introduction of the business bank, but it is now time to go further, which is why I welcome the steps to force banks to refer businesses to other providers.
We are told that, for many first-time small business borrowers, the rejection rate from banks is about 50%, often simply because the bank’s risk assessment process is so rigid or the sector profile is so inflexible that a small or growing business is rejected out of hand, regardless of how viable or sustainable it is. Therefore, it is only right that they can be referred to other banks and alternative providers with different business models. If the provision fails to improve access to finance, I will again call for more direct action to support our vital SME network.
The third measure I particularly welcome is the commitment to level the playing field. As John Longworth has said:
Of course those businesses will agree with that. The vast majority of SME owners and operators are decent, caring people who often act as the second welfare system, helping employees cover unexpected costs through loans or advance wages, avoiding other sources of lending. They also often help their staff with financial planning and managing their finances. That is because the vast majority of SMEs recognise that their greatest asset is their staff. For those who do not recognise that and who want to take advantage, it is right that we crack down and make everyone play by the same rules.
I believe that those measures, combined with many others in that and other Bills announced yesterday, will go a long way to help to tackle the cost of living challenge. It is a challenge that we have to rise to, and I believe that we are doing that. It is not easy—no one ever said it would be—but I am sure that, despite the challenges faced and the pain we have endured, there is only one Government who can rise to the challenges we still face, only one Government with a long-term economic plan to secure our future, and only one Government with a parliamentary programme that builds on our achievements. That is this Government and they should be supported.
I am pleased to be able to speak in this debate, which takes place in the atmosphere generated by the negative attitudes of the UK Independence party and others in the recent local and European elections. I urge people to be very cautious about starting to dance to the tune of xenophobes and closet racists or, indeed, open racists in their attitude towards society as a whole.
I compliment in particular the speeches of the right hon. Members for Meriden (Mrs Spelman) and for Uxbridge and South Ruislip (Sir John Randall) for highlighting the human consequences of what happens to people who migrate from one place to another. We should be aware of the fact that in every story there is a human story and in every tragedy there is a human tragedy. We should not suddenly shut the doors against anyone who is fleeing from violence, oppression or destitution, which is, indeed, what many people are doing.
Of course, the situation has consequences for our society, but people from this country have also sought to migrate to many other parts of the world in order to make a better life for themselves. This is the way of the modern world. If we start saying that nobody can come here, other countries might start saying that none of us can go there. These things go full circle, and we should be more cautious in our attitude to issues of migration and society.
I want to make two germane points and I will try to adhere to the 10 minutes suggested by Mr Speaker. First, the Queen’s Speech stated:
“The Bill will enhance the United Kingdom’s energy independence and security by opening up access to shale and geothermal sites and maximising North Sea resources.”
I urge a degree of caution before we rush down the road of fracking all over the country, particularly the north-west, which will have environmental consequences. Many different organisations hold briefing sessions in this House—it is a form of lobbying and there is nothing wrong with that—and I was astonished at the large attendance at yesterday evening’s Friends of the Earth briefing on fracking and its consequences. A very interesting speaker from Australia, where there has been much fracking with apparently limited controls, explained what has happened there. She pointed out that a vast amount of water is used for fracking and that it causes pollution when it is pumped up to ground level. Storage ponds are needed to allow the water to settle and the process has longer-term environmental consequences.
Indeed, the first line of fracking has caused earth tremors in Lancashire, and there has also been a significant number of earth tremors in the United States as a result of fracking. Although it is presented as a cheap form of energy—any cheap form of energy sounds attractive when we first hear of it, and there is all kind of talk about Klondike and the new gold rush—there are two problems. One is the congestion caused by extra traffic and the noise and other pollution caused by the process itself, and the other is the clean-up phase afterwards. Are we not building in potentially huge costs to the public sector in having to clean up all the environmental pollution that will result from the process?
Surely we should be thinking even more strongly than we have up to now about energy sustainability and security, by which I mean not necessarily producing vast amounts more, but using a lot less through better conservation, better insulation and more efficient forms of transport, as well as, increasingly, the use of renewable energy. It is populist to attack wind farms, but they make a significant contribution to our electricity supply and will continue to do so. They do not, of course, create the pollution problems of fracking or any other fossil energy. There will be a huge debate about fracking and I would be very cautious about going down that road, because of the pollution problems it causes.
The other issue I want to address is housing. I represent an inner-city constituency and am very proud to do so. We face massive housing problems. We have an image problem, in that everyone thinks that Islington is an extremely well-off, wealthy and great place to live. It is, indeed, a great place to live, but the housing market is totally out of control. A first-time buyer seeking to buy in my borough would need to be on a very substantial income indeed, so no MP need think about buying as a first-time buyer in Islington.
We also have a large social rented sector—it is mainly council-run, but there are some housing associations—which makes up about 40% of the market. Thirty per cent. of the population in my borough live in the private rented sector. They pay very high rents and have very good security as a result. Those in the private rented sector who are in receipt of housing benefit or any other kind of benefit now find that the Government’s benefit cap affects them in a very damaging way. They are unable to pay the rent from their housing benefit, and they cannot make up the gap between their housing benefit and the rent level from any other benefits or, indeed, their wages—their low wages; many people receiving housing benefit are already in work. The council does not have enough houses to put them in, so they are forced to move away from the borough to a private rented flat somewhere else in London or, in the case of other London boroughs, outside London. That means that families have to up sticks and move, caring and child care support arrangements disappear, and children travel very long distances to remain in local schools to try to maintain a link with the community in the desperate hope that there will one day be a council flat available for them to come back to. Not just in my borough but all over London significant numbers of very young children make very long journeys every morning to keep a place in a primary school.
Is all this avoidable? Yes, I believe it is. I welcome the moves that the Labour party and its Front Benchers have made on changing our attitudes to the private rented sector, the regulation of letting agents, environmental conditions, longevity of tenancies and the ending of the ludicrous charging and deposit scheme that many agencies promote. I suggest that at some point, however, we will have to face the fact that we cannot go on controlling benefit levels but not rent levels, and therefore forcing people who rely on benefits for all or part of their income to move away from the areas where they have traditionally lived and been a very important part of the community.
In introducing a ten-minute rule Bill last Session, I pointed out that London was significantly different from the rest of the country in this respect. Rents are significantly higher and there is a significantly greater churn of people in London than in most other parts of the country. I do not see why we should not involve local government in the solution. After all, local government is the primary housing authority. Why can we not have some form of rent registration and regulation—London-wide—that takes account of the needs and costs of producing and providing housing in London so that we do not lose out on the private rented sector altogether, but can keep our mix of communities?
I would not normally go along with much of what the London chamber of commerce and industry says, but it points out in a briefing note sent to Members for today’s debate that of their members in London
“59% of firms are experiencing a greater pressure to increase wages as a result of higher housing costs…42% of firms believe that higher housing costs are having a detrimental impact on their ability to recruit and retain staff” and
“33% of firms believe that their employees’ punctuality and/or productivity is being affected by longer commutes as a result of not being able to afford to live in the capital.”
All that is absolutely true. Unless we ensure that there is a sufficient supply of housing for a whole range of people in London or any other big city, we will end up destroying our communities and increasing the pressure on longer and longer commuter rail lines, bus routes and roads, while not actually solving the problem. I hope that we will be able to make some progress on that.
My last point on housing is that my local authority, like others, assertively uses its planning powers to try to ensure planning gain from any private sector development that takes place, as is absolutely right and proper. Hitherto, it has been able to ensure that any new housing development of more than 10 units must include a proportion of affordable housing, including a proportion of social housing. Many developers try to get around that, so the council has levied a surcharge to try to ensure that there is sufficient money for local housing development. Islington has done very well. It has one of the largest council house building programmes in the country, which, ultimately, is the only solution to the housing crisis.
However, the Government came along and changed the regulation on office conversions so that these no longer require planning permission. A developer who buys an office block can therefore convert it into private sector housing without any social housing requirement whatsoever, and no local authority or planning authority has any say in whether the conversion should take place. I can understand the point that some local authorities might oppose the conversion of office blocks into housing to retain jobs, and I think that local authorities should have the right to do that and that local people should have the right to have a say. However, when a large number of office blocks are converted into housing, with the developer making no contribution whatsoever to resolving the local housing crisis, it is time for regulation and for the local authority to have a say in the matter.
For example, Archway tower, near Archway underground station, which was originally built by London Transport in 1967, has been used for a succession of offices, mostly in the public sector, but is now empty. It has been bought by a company called Essential Living, which is converting it into 120 flats for tenants earning somewhere above £80,000 a year, which is far more than anyone earns who works in the area. No contribution whatsoever is being made to the social housing needs of my borough. That is happening all across London; indeed, it will soon happen in cities across the country.
We therefore need regulation, local government input and more council housing, but above all we urgently need tough regulation of the private rented sector so that very many people do not go through the insecurity and indignity of being forced to move out of their community simply because landlords can put up rents to whatever level they like and that they think the market can bear. Surely we must understand that housing is a necessary right for everyone, and that all children deserve to be brought up in a decent, clean and dry household and to attend a local school without the insecurity of moving every six months.
I shall return to the comments made by Jeremy Corbyn and talk about housing in the bulk of my speech, but may I first commend my hon. Friend Penny Mordaunt, my friend and neighbour, for moving the Loyal Address yesterday? She spoke with passion, wit and great substance, not just about D-day and the Navy but about Portsmouth. Portsmouth has had a good week because not only has my hon. Friend moved the Address, but it is the focal point for the D-day celebrations, and this week the Conservatives took control of Portsmouth city council from the tired and discredited Liberal Democrats. I can get away with saying that since none of them are in the Chamber.
This Queen’s Speech is pro-business, pro-work and pro-aspiration. I want to focus my remarks today on aspiration—the aspiration that people in my constituency and across the country have to look after themselves and their family, to provide security for their retirement and to have a home of their own. However, I first want to address the issue of housing.
Housing development was a big issue in the elections in Fareham. Demographic change and a growing population mean that we need more homes if we are to enable people to get on the housing ladder and if we are to accommodate the families currently in overcrowded affordable housing or social housing. The challenge we face is where to site the 6,000 homes needed, for sale and for rent, to accommodate the demand.
Fareham has expanded during the past 40 years. Where I live in the west of the constituency, there used to be strawberry fields. In the last decade, the focus of development has predominantly been on brownfield sites, not greenfield ones or, indeed, strawberry fields. Although that approach to development has preserved green space in a predominantly suburban area, there have been issues with the provision of infrastructure. We have relied on expanding existing schools, rather than building new ones to accommodate demand. We have tweaked road junctions and lay-outs, rather than building new roads. GP surgeries have become overcrowded. For example, the Jubilee surgery in Titchfield has about 2,500 patients per GP, compared with an average of 1,800 patients per GP across the country as a whole. As a consequence, GP surgeries have shrunk their catchment areas and required families moving less than a couple of miles to change surgeries if they no longer live in the same GP catchment area. The use of brownfield sites has therefore imposed more pressure on existing infrastructure.
As a community, we have now reached a decision point about how to accommodate current population growth and where new homes are built. How and where do we build the 6,000 homes that Fareham needs? Brownfield sites have largely been utilised, so Fareham faces significant challenges. Do we merge existing communities so that Portchester merges with Fareham, Fareham with Stubbington, and Titchfield with Titchfield Common, creating a ribbon of development along the A27, which bisects my constituency? Alternatively, do we create a new settlement, where we create a vision for the future in which the services and infrastructure are tailored to meet the needs of the new community, rather than being cobbled together from what is already in the area?
Fareham, as a community, has decided to go down the second route. It will have a new settlement within its borough boundaries called Welborne. It will be on a greenfield site to the north of the M27. I am the first to acknowledge that that is not an easy decision for the communities that border the site, such as Funtley, the north of Fareham and Wickham. However, it is supported by the borough as a whole. Having Welborne in the borough plan to meet the future housing needs of the constituency protects other sites from development. An application to build in the gap between Fareham and Stubbington is less likely to succeed because we have a robust plan in place to meet housing demand in the borough. The Government’s planning reforms have been implemented to good effect in Fareham.
For Welborne to gain the full consent of the community, it is vital that the infrastructure is of a high standard and is provided when it is needed, rather than when the existing services are creaking at the seams. The developers get that and will finance the bulk of the infrastructure. Plans are in place for community facilities, new schools and new GP surgeries. A key part of the infrastructure provision is the creation of a four-way junction at junction 10 of the M27. That will improve road access to Welborne and the north of Fareham.
That junction is the main ask of the Solent local enterprise partnership in its bid to the local growth fund. The developers of the site, Fareham borough council, the Solent LEP and I have met the Housing Minister, the Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, my hon. Friend Kris Hopkins, to press our case for that funding. The £90 million bid from the Solent LEP will ensure that we get the improvements that are needed to our road infrastructure to ensure that development takes place across Fareham and to facilitate improved access to the enterprise zone at Daedalus.
Welborne will meet the borough’s housing needs. Without it, fewer people will get on the housing ladder, there will be significant upward pressure on house prices and more families will be forced to live in accommodation that is too small for them. It is right for the Government to increase the supply of housing and to make it easier for people to own a home of their own. Owning one’s own home is an aspiration that many people save hard to fulfil. It took a decade of hard saving for my parents to buy their first home. My grandparents exercised their right to buy their council house. My family’s experiences motivate me to help others get on the housing ladder. That is why I support the Government’s Help to Buy scheme, which helps those who can afford mortgage payments but who do not yet have the deposit that lenders require.
The measures that the Government have taken, which have been built on in the Queen’s Speech, to tackle supply through planning reforms and the schemes to help affordability are vital to aid aspiration. We will improve social mobility and tackle inequality only if we make it easier for people to acquire assets such as a home of their own.
I shall touch briefly on the pension reforms in the Gracious Speech. They form part of the agenda on aspiration. The Minister of State, Department for Work and Pensions, Steve Webb, should be commended for pursuing collective defined contribution schemes. He recognises the shift in pensions, whereby the burden of risk has been transferred from employers in defined benefit schemes to individuals in defined contribution schemes. His approach of tackling that through pooling investment should help to reduce the investment risk that the individual faces.
The pensions tax Bill, which the Chancellor announced in the Budget, is part of a series of radical reforms to pensions since 2010. The implementation of auto-enrolment, the move to single-tier pensions and the end of compulsory annuitisation have transformed the pensions landscape. The Chancellor was right in the Budget to recognise that new landscape and to give people greater freedom in the use of their pension pot. The single-tier pension will float most pensioners off means-tested benefits. It is right to give people more freedom in how they use their pension pot and not simply to roll it over into an annuity offered by the pension provider. People are not getting a good deal from the way in which the annuities market is operating. Freedom will force providers to sharpen up their act and to offer better value annuities and a wider range of products to help people manage their income in retirement.
The key to the success of these proposals is the guidance guarantee. We need to ensure that people are equipped to make the best choices for themselves. From meeting various stakeholders in the pensions sector, I know that that is a cause of concern. How will we ensure that people have good guidance at the right point in their life? Simply having guidance at retirement is not enough, given that people’s needs change over the period of their retirement. How will we gather together all the information about people’s pensions and savings so that we can give them good quality guidance? Will there be a digital service that people can dip into at will, or will advice always be face-to-face or on the telephone, which would be more expensive? How will we ensure that people take up the offer of guidance, so that they get the support and help they need to make the most of the new freedoms that we provide? If we get the guidance process right, it will help more and more pensioners to make better use of the assets that they have accumulated over their working life and ensure that they have the income that they need in retirement.
Ensuring that people are able to build up a pension pot, to save and to have good quality accommodation, whether that is in the private sector through owner-occupation or in the rented sector, is important if we are to support aspiration in this country. Over the past four years, the Government have made huge strides towards helping people realise their aspirations of work, a home of their own and savings. We need to continue that work into the next Parliament.
I apologise to you, Mr Deputy Speaker, and to those on both Front Benches that I will not be here for the winding-up speeches, but I have to leave the House for personal reasons.
I am pleased to follow Mr Hoban because he was a courteous and able Minister. He was very courteous in dealing with the Equitable Life issues, which were complex. I will touch on pensions a little later.
I will start by welcoming some of the measures in the Queen’s Speech. Like other right hon. and hon. Members, I welcome the modern slavery Bill. It is an excellent piece of legislation. The draft Bill was rightly scrutinised before the Bill came before the House. I believe that the Bill will proceed with the good will of those on both sides of the House. It has been referred to by my hon. Friend Jeremy Corbyn and others, but I just want to say that I will be very proud to be one of the Members of Parliament who helps to push that legislation through.
It is important not to lose sight of one issue in respect of that Bill. We must have adequate resources to ensure that measures can be taken against those who traffic people across our countries. As someone who represents a port community, I know how difficult that will be. We must have the right numbers, the right resources, the right intelligence and the right kit to ensure that there is adequate screening at ports and that people are brought to justice when they are caught. I welcome that piece of legislation.
I also welcome the announcement that the Government made a couple of days before the Queen’s Speech on pubcos and the need for adjudicators. There has been cross-party consensus on that. The House works very well on such issues. Many pub landlords in my area have suffered over the past few years because of the unscrupulous way in which the pub companies have dealt with them. Many pub companies bought lots of property across the United Kingdom at the height of the market when prices were high and got their fingers burnt. The victims of that are the tenants who are in tied premises. The proposal is an excellent way forward.
I also welcome the plastic bag legislation. I say that as a Welshman because in my part of the world, we do not have carrier bags in many places. I feel quite stupid when I take my carrier bags with me to go shopping in London and other parts of England. People look at me rather oddly. Getting rid of carrier bags is not the end of the world. It is very good for the environment. It also helps in framing one’s thoughts and buying just the right amount of goods, rather than loading up one’s trolley too much, thinking that there will be all those free bags. The serious point is that it is good legislation and I will certainly support it.
I am rather confused about the measures that are coming out on pensions. I know that the Minister of State, Department for Work and Pensions, Steve Webb is very good on the theory of pensions. He knows the subject inside out. However, I am slightly concerned about the contradictions in the different pensions measures. We talk about liberating people to have choice on the one hand and collectiveness on the other. I want to see more detail before we move forward. We do need 21st century legislation on pensions because we are an ageing population, but I want to ensure that we mitigate the risks to workers in the private sector and to those who collect the state pension.
As a Welsh Member I do not often get the chance to engage with housing issues because of devolution, but I tell hon. Members from all parts of the United Kingdom that housing is a real and big issue whether someone lives in Scotland, Northern Ireland, Wales or England, and we need to build more houses for the future. We also need the skills and work force for that—more bricklayers, plasterers, structural engineers and various things—and it is in all our interests for the United Kingdom to have an adequate skills base to ensure that.
This is not a partisan issue. Previous Conservative and Labour Governments have built numbers of houses, but we now face a massive challenge because the demography of our country is changing so much. Elderly people need to downsize. Many people who have had strokes and suffer from various things are living longer, and we need to adapt and build accommodation that is fit for purpose. We must help young entrants with the Help to Buy scheme—I know from my daughters and their peers how difficult it is—but we also need to look after older and less able people, and ensure a good mix of housing stock for our future citizens. I welcome legislation that will help that to happen.
The consensus ends on energy and the cost of living. It was interesting to hear the Prime Minister’s opening remarks on the Queen’s Speech. Government Members are now all on message to say that the long-term economic plan is working, but they have short memories. In 2010 an emergency Budget by the Chancellor stated that the core of the economic plan was to eliminate the deficit by 2015, but that has changed. Cuts are being felt by communities across the United Kingdom, but we have not eliminated the deficit and that is a big failure of the Government’s economic plan. It was their words, their actions, and their failure, and they will be judged on that as in recent elections and in the future—[Interruption.] Michael Ellis laughs, but I do not think we should be laughing when 5 million people vote for third and fourth parties in protest. They are doing it for a reason and the Government should be wary of that.
I will take an intervention if the hon. Gentleman wants to defend the fact that the deficit has not been eliminated. [Interruption.] The Whip states from a sedentary position that the Labour party is not in power, but this Government said that they would eliminate the deficit and did not do so. They also said they would not raise VAT but did so straight away. They are raising taxes and ordinary working people across the country are paying more for fuel, not less, because every time they buy £1 of fuel, they pay 2.5p extra. The reality is not the mythical 20p that the Government talk about; it is the real 2.5p on every pound when people purchase fuel.
Does the hon. Gentleman think that he is rather like the hypothetical arsonist who starts a fire somewhere and then criticises firefighters for not putting it out quickly enough? Labour has the responsibility, which it is abrogating, and this Government have been fixing Labour’s problems.
The hon. Gentleman needs to get out and about. That might be what Conservative central office is telling him, but he needs to get out across the country and ask himself why people are genuinely suffering as a consequence of the actions his Government have taken. Blaming the Labour party is old hat and will not work. Carry on doing that, and we will see at the next election that the Government are judged on their record, not that of previous Governments.
I want to say the three letters that the Prime Minister will never admit to—VAT—because this is about trust in politics. When the leader of a party tells the country that he will not do something and then immediately does it, the country does not forget. This is about trust in politics and this Prime Minister. Indeed, to be fair to the Deputy Prime Minister, before the election he warned that the Conservatives would put up VAT, but he has now jumped into bed with them and is pushing those reforms through.
I think there is a big challenge for energy, and whichever party was in government would have had to reform the energy market. I supported many of the reforming measures in the Energy Bill, but the cost of living crisis has pushed up energy prices beyond what is reasonable and what households can afford. I think it is a missed opportunity for the Queen’s Speech not to contain a consumer Bill for helping with energy prices.
The Government ridicule the fact that the Opposition have come up with a energy freeze, which they say is populist, yet energy companies are starting to do it. The Government need to take a lead on that and not allow energy prices to go beyond the means of ordinary people. Mr Weir mentioned people who are off-grid. The Queen’s Speech contains an infrastructure Bill, but no mention of extending gas mains to many households in the United Kingdom. Many off-grid households have to pay a heck of a lot more for their fuel. They do not benefit from dual fuel bonuses and are not able to switch in the way that the Energy Secretary boasts about. They are also paying considerably more for their energy. The Winter Fuel Allowance Payments (Off Gas Grid Claimants) Bill promoted by the hon. Member for Angus would help to alleviate that, but we need to go further and build infrastructure.
When the Energy Committee, of which I am a member, discussed shale gas three or four years ago, the Government dismissed it because they did not think it worth taking forward—hon. Members can see the responses to that report. We then had another report, and I think it is important to have energy security. Rather than importing foreign gas and oil, we should produce our own if the potential is there. However, I am confused about the way those measures have been handled, moving towards exploration of shale gas, and from what I heard from the Energy Secretary today, things are no clearer.
We must bring communities with us to enjoy the benefits of shale gas together, and there should be local benefits. I am certainly not a nimby and I represent a
constituency that has a nuclear power station, offshore wind farms in close proximity, too many onshore wind farms—they need to be moved as new development takes place—and tidal power. I think we should look at the bigger picture, and find local but also national benefits from a gas and oil bonanza, whether it be in the North sea or from shale. We should be putting aside money and ring-fencing some of those profits for local communities and for national benefit, and that could help to fund extension of the gas mains that are causing problems for many of our communities. I know that those on the Opposition Front Bench are listening to these arguments, just as they listened to arguments about people who are off-grid being protected by the regulator. The market does not work in the same way for people who are off-grid, as I explained, and they do not have the protection of a regulator. The Labour party is moving forward on that issue, and such measures could easily have been included in the Queen’s Speech.
People are suffering on a day-to-day basis from a cost of living crisis in the real world. Hon. Members should not take my word for that; they should listen to the former Chancellor of the Exchequer, Mr Clarke. When he goes out and about and listens to people, he hears that there is a problem. There is a problem, and the Queen’s Speech should have helped to deal with it. Over the next 11 months I think that we will go at a slow pace and little will be achieved. There will then be an opportunity for real choice at a general election, and this failed Government will be turfed out because they have failed to do the things they said they would, and they have done many things that they said they would not do.
I am pleased to follow Albert Owen. I agreed with some of the things he said, particularly that this Government will be judged on their record—I am very happy for the Government to be judged on their record at the general election. He mentioned shopping in England, but he should not be too embarrassed at taking his bags with him. I take my bags to the supermarket, and the only reason people look oddly at me is because I tend to fill rather robust Waitrose bags in a Tesco supermarket.
This was a good Queen’s Speech. It has been criticised for containing only 11 Bills, but earlier this morning we approved the carry-over of six Bills from the previous Session, so that makes 17. As somebody who is in favour of less government and less legislation, I think it is a good Queen’s Speech—the culmination of a balanced programme in the face of the economic and financial crisis that this Government inherited. As I said, I am happy for this Government to be judged on their record, and they will be judged on the growth, employment and inflation figures.
One of the topics we are considering today is energy—whether from solar panels, wind turbines or shale gas. How we get it, what we pay for it and what we are willing to give up to secure its future continue to be issues. Nationally, I have campaigned hard over the past 15 years with many colleagues in this House to change national policy in respect of large-scale, badly sited onshore wind farm developments, in response to a veritable barrage of applications faced by rural constituencies, from developers desperate to profit from generous subsidies. Twelve years ago in my constituency we saw off an application for some 32 wind turbines in the Winterbourne valley and, more recently—we fought this over several years—another wind farm at Silton, which at the end of 2012 the inspector ruled was a totally inappropriate development in a country area, on grounds of intrusion on the landscape and historic buildings.
The campaigning has started to pay real dividends, with a welcome commitment by the Prime Minister that the next Conservative Government would end any additional public subsidy for onshore wind beyond what is already planned and ensure that large-scale onshore wind farms would be determined by the locally led planning system, as opposed to a national infrastructure regime. We need to amend planning policy to give even greater protection to the landscape, heritage and other concerns.
Solar power is another renewable energy source that has enjoyed unprecedented growth in recent years. Similar action to curb over-inflated solar subsidies in 2011 led to cuts in the feed-in tariff that had so long supported the deployment of solar farms. That drove down the cost on consumer bills and, despite the concerns of the industry, solar has continued to thrive, as evidenced by the number of applications across my constituency. Back in the Winterbourne valley, where we fought wind turbines 12 years ago, the same landowner tried to develop 175 acres—for those who do not live in rural areas, that is about 110 football pitches—by covering them with wind turbines. I am pleased to say that the residents, who probably had a degree of self-interest, took the application to judicial review and it has now been quashed.
I have no objections to solar power as such, and in most cases it is infinitely preferable to towering industrial wind turbines, stamping their carbon-intensive footprint across our beautiful landscapes. However, the Energy Minister, my right hon. Friend Gregory Barker, was right when he said that support for solar as part of our future energy mix does not equate to wanting the
“uncontrolled expansion of solar on the countryside”.
That means, in future, favouring domestic, retail, industrial and commercial rooftops and on-site generation, such as deployment on brownfield sites and car parks. In my view, our locally led planning system should be the sole judge of such developments.
Shale gas—I mention this because it was also mentioned in the Queen’s Speech—is a valuable resource that we should be considering, but when fracking takes place in our communities it, too, should come under the control of our democratically elected councillors and local communities, because they are essential to the decision-making process. Our future energy supply and security must remain at the top of this country’s agenda, but that should not mean sacrificing our natural environment or the quality of life of local communities, whether in Dorset or elsewhere.
Let me turn to the final paragraphs of yesterday’s Queen’s Speech, which included the words:
“My government will work to promote reform in the European Union, including a stronger role for member states and national parliaments.”
That is fundamental. It is a positive message that, after the European Parliament election results—which sent us a clear message—says that we need to look positively at how we develop our relationship with the European Union.
The rise of UKIP and other far-right movements across Europe is a manifestation of the electorate’s disapproval of mainstream political parties and their handling of the financial crisis that engulfed the world, and particularly some European states, in 2008. Their dissatisfaction is justified, but the European elections come at a time when the British and European economies are turning the corner. With growth on the up—that it is not just my assessment; the International Monetary Fund and the OECD have indicated that in this country growth is up and, although modest, consistent, with employment numbers rising—I think the overall sentiment towards the European Union has been improving, both at home and across the rest of Europe. Despite UKIP’s rise in popularity, 70% of the voters who turned out in the European elections voted for parties that want Britain to remain part of the EU.
I urge all the mainstream political parties represented in this House not to use the EU as a fig leaf to cover other failings. What is needed is leadership and real solutions to the challenges facing this country and Europe. The populist and xenophobic panaceas offered by far-right parties are not the answer, as our not-so-distant history has shown us.
Unfortunately, UKIP Members of the European Parliament have consistently failed to work for their constituents and promote British positions. For about a month, I tried—not particularly scientifically—to ask virtually everybody I met in my constituency whether they could tell me who were the two UKIP Members of the European Parliament for the south-west. I did not find a single person who could answer the question. Many of them knew who the three Conservative MEPs were—and the one Liberal Democracy MEP—who, I have to say, have all been diligent over the past five years, working hard for their constituents. The UKIP MEPs are the least hard-working of all MEPs. At a time when Britain in Europe needs all hands on deck, they have been sleeping on the job and I do not expect the new batch to perform any better. It is more important that the rest of the MEPs we send to Brussels are influential, involved, active and constructive, and are prepared to engage, build alliances, lead, write reports and vote on the decisions that affect all of us.
Of course, Nigel Farage is popular. He is the average bloke we might meet in the pub—well, not quite average. The answer to every problem, as far as he is concerned, is either Brussels or immigrants; or, if we put them together, “It’s foreigners”—although not his wife, who happens to be German. He complains about hearing foreign voices on the train. When Mr Farage is on the Eurostar, travelling to Brussels, and he crosses the Belgian border, does he speak Flemish or French? I wonder what the answer is.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for giving way, and for his considered comments on UKIP and those on the more extreme edges of the debate. The point he makes about immigration is moot, because people are talking about it on the doorstep. However, I think it would have been a different conversation on the doorstep, with his constituents and mine, if UKIP had elevated its conversation to talk about the real issues around pressures on services, and if, for example, Nathan Gill, the UKIP MEP elected in Wales, had fronted up to the fact that, as we now know, he employed immigrant labour for his own business. It seems to be a case of do as I say, not as I do.
The hon. Gentleman is very perceptive, because I have Nathan Gill’s name written down here and I was going to mention him in a moment or two.
I want to continue briefly talking about Nigel Farage, because in UKIP terms he is quite moderate. What concerns me most, when listening to many UKIP members and supporters, is that they use the word Gypsy, which is for them Roma, which means Romanian, which therefore means that all Romanians are criminals. Bringing together those terms in a very ignorant way is something our hard-working European partners find deeply offensive. The hon. Gentleman mentioned Nathan Gill, the newly-elected UKIP MEP for Wales, who has been employing large numbers of eastern Europeans and accommodating them in bunkhouses, for which he then charges them rent. I think he has probably done a great service for his own pocket. Whether he has done a great service for the British economy, I am not sure.
If we are going to look at migration, we must remember that some 2.3 million EU nationals live in the United Kingdom. It is estimated that they contribute about £25 billion to the UK economy. In fact, there are fewer eastern Europeans living in the UK than there are UK nationals living in the rest of Europe. Some 1 million UK nationals live either permanently or temporarily in Spain, which is 300,000 more than the number of Poles living in the United Kingdom. However, most of the Poles living in the United Kingdom are here to work and to make a contribution, whereas most of the UK nationals living in Spain are there to use the local services because they are retired and elderly.
We need a sense of perspective, because we have a great opportunity. This year we are negotiating a new trade deal with the United States—the transatlantic trade and investment partnership—which will bring together 40% of the world’s GDP in one effective single market. That deal is too good to turn our backs on. I therefore hope we can turn our backs on the UKIP remedy for our problems. I hope we will treat the commemorations this year of the first world war and the 70th anniversary tomorrow of the D-day landings and the start of the liberation of Europe as a siren call to build on what the founding fathers of the European Union saw as the goal. It is not a centralised Government in Brussels; it is the European nations working together in harmony for the prosperity of all our peoples.
I thank Mr Walter—or rather, I do not thank him because I am trying to wean myself off the subject of Europe but I cannot, given his speech. It is 39 years to the day since the United Kingdom, by a majority of two to one, decided to remain in what was then the European Economic Community. It is interesting to remind ourselves that in March of that year Harold Wilson declared:
“I believe that our renegotiation objectives have been substantially though not completely achieved” and that the Government would recommend a vote in favour of continued membership. As I was reading that, I wondered whether there is not a Prime Minister somewhere who might be tempted to use a similar phrase not too far ahead in the future. As the hon. Gentleman was speaking, I checked the turnout in the European elections. For different reasons we may have started on the same side on the subject of Europe and are no longer on it, but does he not share my extraordinary distress at the turnout? This year it was 19.5% in the Czech Republic, 28.9% in Hungary, 13% in Slovakia, 25% in Croatia, 22% in Poland, 20% in Slovenia and 36% in the UK. The turnout in the referendum 39 years ago was 67%. That shows us a disengagement and democratic illegitimacy that national Parliaments will not address. That is not the subject of my speech, however. What I really want to talk about was not in the Queen’s Speech: cities.
I care deeply about cities and I want, in this context, to talk about the core cities, particularly Birmingham. My hon. Friend Mr Betts, the Chair of the Select Committee on Communities and Local Government, said in his final sentence that the real problem we have not addressed is devolution in England outside London. At the moment, we might be slightly more concerned about devolution in Scotland and the vote in September. I am concerned about that, but the truly unfinished business, which none of the party political manifestos, as I see them emerging, have so far addressed and neither did the Queen’s Speech, is the question of what we do outside London.
One of my great regrets is that towards 1999 and 2000, there was a huge tension in the Labour party over whether to go for regional government or city regions. In the end, we went for neither. That, combined with the abolition of regional development agencies, has meant that we now have a situation where the local enterprise partnerships that have replaced them might not have the capacity to deal with that issue. They may be too small in their configuration to be truly strategic.
With the exception of the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, who I would not dream of offending as he is in the Chamber, there are only a few people who understand the problem and are putting forward plans. I would like to mention Lord Heseltine and Lord Adonis. On the Government Benches, the Minister of State, Cabinet Office, Greg Clark, who has responsibility for cities, understands what needs to be done, but I am not sure whether he has been given the means to do what is required.
There are two things I need to say in this context. First, I am German by birth. Actually, I am Bavarian by birth. Bavaria has a population of 12.5 million. It is in itself a federal structure made up of seven units. Its capital, Munich, has been a socialist city since time immemorial and it is surrounded by a conservative state. It is so conservative that when the Christian Democrats win it is not a question of whether they win but by how much they win. The important point is that I understand subsidiarity, federal structures and the importance of cities in generating wealth. Cities are the engines of economic growth—they do not reflect the national economy.
Secondly, I am a Birmingham, Edgbaston MP and my predecessor was a man called Neville Chamberlain, who was the son of a man called Joe Chamberlain who died 100 years ago. Joe Chamberlain was a Unitarian who did not approve of statues, so Birmingham does not have a statue of him. However, every day I go up the stairs to my office and there in front of me in the Committee corridor is Joe Chamberlain with his orchid and a monocle. He turned what was then one of the country’s worst governed cities into one of the best in three years. He did that after being elected as ceremonial mayor and making himself executive mayor. He municipalised water, which, as a public good, was not allowed to make a profit. He municipalised gas, which was allowed to make profits that were used to subsidise the business rates. He had a huge housing programme and he went for free education across the city. He failed in his attempt to make education completely secular and non denominational; something which, more than 100 years later, Birmingham may regret.
The key thing was that he was a local leader who gave up the town hall, with regret, to go to Westminster. He was said to have made the weather. How many civic leaders do we have these days who we can say are making the weather? We can say it of Ken Livingstone or Boris Johnson, but the names of Richard Leese and Albert Ball ought to be rolling off our tongues in the way that the names of Cabinet Ministers do. But they do not.
With the greatest of respect to the DCLG teams on either side of the House, DCLG questions is hardly the big ticket seller. Anyone who seriously suffers from insomnia could not be better advised than to take a lesson on how central Government is funded. There is nothing designed to send someone to sleep faster than being given central Government funding formulae. Yet funding is where the money lies. Remember the line about Watergate? “Follow the money.” When we follow the money, we will also find where the power is. This is why the money that comes from central Government cannot be at the grace and favour of Westminster or Whitehall, which decides by pitting city against city or rural against urban. Our big cities need independent funding streams.
The council tax model is beyond repair. Previous speakers talked about how great it is that council tax is not increasing. In our big cities we have a history of council tax being artificially held low. Governments of both parties have talked about re-banding, but then lost their nerve. We are not re-banding, unless the Secretary of State tells us that we are. On top of that, we have a cap which says that beyond a certain level we are going to need—[Interruption.] Yes, it is a cap. It requires a referendum. I recognise that it is a cap in everything but name.
If the cap fits, I wear it.
The funding streams for our cities are not working, which is a problem. I want to spell out some stark facts. I can pick any set of statistics and paint whatever picture of Birmingham I choose. It could be the most enterprising, the fastest growing and the most amazing city that has everything: theatre, football, ballet, orchestras. You name it, we have it. On the other hand, we have just about everything that is dark. We have the fastest growing population under the age of 25; 40% are under 25 and 30% are under 15. On family patterns and in terms of family sizes, we are Bradford. In terms of skills gaps, we are Leicester. In 18 months’ time, on the current trajectory, the city could go bankrupt. This is not just scary talk; it is the truth. What does that mean? In order to give our cities proper power and to make them work properly, we have to look at different ways of dealing with them.
We are told that Deutsche Bank is coming to Birmingham and creating 1,000 new jobs, but I have talked to Network Rail in the context of Birmingham New Street and asked what has surprised those most involved in the five years of the New Street regeneration. I was told that it was the increase in regional commuting. We have a city with ten constituencies, of which two are consistently in the top three of youth unemployment and general unemployment: Hodge Hill and Ladywood. We then create 1,000 jobs for Deutsche Bank in or on the edge of Ladywood, and all that happens is that we bring in employment from Warwickshire, Solihull and Worcestershire. The problems building up in the city are not being addressed.
There are some things that Birmingham can do by itself. I am working on something called the Birmingham baccalaureate, which is trying to combine the English baccalaureate employability skills with what local employers want to make sure that when we create jobs, we also create the kind of jobs that they will respond to. For our cities to grow, we must make sure that the wealth that is generated in the cities stays in the cities.
That takes me to the one thing that grieves me the most in the last five years: the wretched imposition of police commissioners, whom I would abolish tomorrow without shedding a single tear. We made having directly elected mayors the subject of a referendum, which was a big mistake. If we want to devolve power in England outside London, we need strategic directly elected mayors. We need them to work on boundaries that are beyond the local authority boundaries. If we look at the Birmingham city boundaries and at the NHS commissioning boundaries, the latter go by patient flows around the hospitals, which are not respecters of local authority boundaries.
We may think cities are about buildings. They are not. They are about flows of people. It is our job to provide the structure for the flows of people, and to make cities thrive and be economically successful. What I really want—it was not in the Queen’s Speech—is strategic elected regional mayors. I want direct flows of finance to go to the city units. I do not care whether it is a property tax, a percentage of VAT or whatever; they need a consistent and reliable stream. That is a challenge for all of us as politicians.
My last point is that we need to realise that doing the same everywhere is not only not fair, it is inappropriate. Divergence and differentiation—horses for courses in different places—is something that is politically difficult to accept but, in terms of devolving power properly, is the right thing to do.
It is always a pleasure to follow Ms Stuart, who painted an honest and balanced picture of the city of Birmingham. She gave startling figures on the disengagement from the EU in terms of the voter percentage turnout. I agreed with her on devolution in England outside London and on cities being the engines of economic growth. As a London MP, I completely agree on that. We only need to look at the Mayor of London, Boris Johnson, to see how successful a mayor can be and what he and his team can deliver.
I pay tribute to my hon. Friend Penny Mordaunt on her outstanding proposal of the Loyal Address yesterday. It seems incredible that she is only the second woman to propose the Loyal Address in the 57 years of Her Majesty’s reign. Of course, it was ably seconded by my hon. Friend Annette Brooke.
I was reading the speech this morning. I thought it was stunning, including the reference to Eric Prickles, which I really loved. However, I do not think that Penny Mordaunt was the second woman; she may be the second Conservative. Just for the record, I distinctly remember Oona King moving the Loyal Address from our side.
I thank the hon. Lady for that correction. My hon. Friend the Member for Portsmouth North was the second Conservative woman to propose the Loyal Address, and I was very pleased she did. She did herself, her party and her constituency proud.
We heard earlier from my hon. and learned Friend Sir Edward Garnier who talked about the Gracious Speech in terms of less is more: there was less legislation in it than expected. I completely agree with him and with others that less government and less legislation is a good thing and that we have quality and not quantity in the year ahead.
I was personally disappointed that my ten-minute rule Bill on the succession to hereditary titles and estates was not included. I am sure, Madam Deputy Speaker, that you are as amazed as I am that in the vast majority of cases women in this country still cannot inherit hereditary titles or estates. Of the 92 hereditary peers in the House of Lords, only two are women. At some stage—hopefully sooner rather than later—that really needs to change.
We have already heard about the importance of this year as the centenary of the start of the first world war. Another important event this year was mentioned by Mr Weir who spoke about the Scottish referendum. I hope that many Members will get involved in it. I believe it is important to give Scotland more fiscal powers and I hope that we can debate that issue before the referendum takes place in September. I believe that the Scottish people are sensible and pragmatic and that Scotland is an enterprising nation, and I hope and feel sure that the Scottish people will do the right thing and affirm that we are better together.
The legislation outlined in the Queen’s Speech underlines the Government’s commitment to delivering our long-term economic plan. As my hon. Friend Mr Hoban said, it is all about being pro-work, pro-business and pro-aspiration. The last year before the general election is an appropriate time to look back at the last four years. Unlike Margaret Hodge, I think that this Government can say a lot about what they have achieved—whether it be cutting income tax for 25 million people, taking 3 million of the lowest paid people out of tax altogether, cutting the deficit by a third, helping businesses create 1.5 million new private sector jobs, creating 400,000 more new small businesses, making our corporation tax the lowest in the G20, getting net immigration down by a third—I could go on. We need to recognise the many things that this Government have achieved in difficult circumstances over the last four years.
As I look locally at Brentford and Isleworth in west London, I can see what those things mean for my constituents. We are in the top 10 constituencies for business growth across the country. Since 2010, unemployment has gone down by 25% and youth unemployment down by 38%, while crime has gone down 15% across the borough—the second biggest decrease in London. There is much, then, to be recognised in what has been done in my constituency of 95,000 voters and 120,000 residents—one of the biggest in the country—including the Mayor’s outer-London fund in giving Brentford and Hounslow £4.8 million. Businesses are expanding; the new BSkyB campus hopes to increase from 8,000 to 12,000 people; a new free school has been set up; and the Health Secretary has prevented the closure of A and E at Charing Cross hospital and has secured £50 million to build a new hospital.
Much has been done, but there is, of course, more to do, which is what we have in front of us today. I believe that this Queen’s Speech was all about helping families and backing small businesses. As the small business ambassador for London, I would like first to look at what this means for small businesses. Secondly, I want to say a few words about support for child care in helping families. Thirdly, like other Members I shall speak about housing. I shall also mention supporting schools and finally touch on the Modern Slavery Bill.
On small businesses, my hon. Friend Stephen Metcalfe ably mentioned the challenges that he and small businesses have to face generally. He reminded us of how important small businesses are to the economy, making up 99% of all UK businesses. If all the sole traders were to take on just one person, we would eliminate unemployment across the country, as he said. That provides an important sense of perspective. A lot has been done to support small businesses, whether it be through encouraging start-ups, through StartUp Britain or the “Business is GREAT” campaign, through start-up loans, the new enterprise allowance or by encouraging growth through reducing corporation tax and extending small business rate relief, increasing investment allowance and doubling the lending for export finance.
Increased access to finance in general is important, with the setting up of the Business bank and the introduction of the enterprise finance guarantee. Improving skills is relevant, too, with 1.7 million new apprentices since 2010, making a huge difference to young people’s lives. We have seen 17 new university technical colleges, with a further 33 in development. I would really like one in west London, so I hope to work on that over the next year. We have cut red tape, improved business advice and achieved much for women in enterprise—there are now more women in work than ever before, and more female entrepreneurs than ever before. A lot has been done to help support them.
The Prime Minister was good enough to visit me in Brentford to meet some of my female entrepreneurs, who certainly spoke very clearly to him about where they needed further support. Whether it be “lovegiveink”, Anila’s Sauces, Plumber UK or SprinkledMagic, these small businesses have been set up by enterprising women who will, I am sure, go from strength to strength. We just need more of them. The Small Business, Enterprise and Employment Bill will, I think, help even further: it is all about building a stronger economy and supporting businesses. It should help to deal with some of the issues that many businesses talk to me about—access to finance, late payments, access to Government contracts, red tape and so forth. Those things are all important to small businesses. This Bill will really help them by reducing the burden of regulation, helping them to get paid faster by large companies, and supporting them through public procurement—I want to see many more small businesses getting the opportunity to get a slice of the bigger contracts that are often difficult for them to secure. The Bill will provide support for the low paid and help pub landlords to get a fair deal. This Bill, the first of its kind, will achieve much for small business.
Secondly, supporting child care is crucial to help people at an important time of life. This Government have already done a lot to support it, although there is certainly more to do. I was at a meeting this morning with Carolyn McCall, the chief executive of easyJet, and there was a whole range of talented business women in the room. She spoke of her frustration at how many great women in the middle ranks of business drop out of their careers, partly owing to the high cost of child care. We really need to try to do more to help with that. We have already funded 15 hours of free child care a week for all three and four-year-olds and introduced shared parental leave, which will make a difference. This Bill will offer tax-free child care to almost 2 million families, meeting 85% of the child care costs of families on universal credit. That will affect people’s lives fundamentally and make a real difference to families in my constituency and elsewhere around the country.
Thirdly, housing is very important, as some hon. Members have mentioned, and it is a particularly big issue in London. I was very pleased to take my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government to Brentford to see some of the developments taking place there, particularly how Brentford has been completely transformed from Commerce road to the south side of the High street right up to Kew bridge, with many new housing developments taking place. From 2011 to 2021, the population of London is expected to rise by a million, so we will hit the 9 million mark before New York and approach 10 million by 2030. Jeremy Corbyn mentioned population growth in his contribution.
Those figures mean that we need at least another 450,000 jobs for Londoners in the next 10 years, and another 400,000 homes. It is therefore important for us to support people and help them to meet their housing needs. I am pressing my local authority in Hounslow to provide a much better mix of housing, and to ensure that affordable housing is available so that people can live where they need to live. I hope that the Secretary of
State will consider a measure aimed specifically at London, possibly in connection with the Help to Buy scheme. Perhaps the Government could guarantee a higher percentage, or perhaps something could be done to help people who aspire to buy their own homes but who find it difficult to raise a deposit of 10% or 20% when house prices in London are so high.
My borough is the fourth fastest-growing in London, and I know that we need skills to support population growth. I have taken the Secretary of State to see a potential new school site in the ISIS housing development in Commerce road, and I hope that it can be pushed through with the help of Hounslow council and the Department for Education, because there is an intense local need for new primary schools and, subsequently, secondary schools. Much more needs to be done to help cities with problems relating to population growth, housing and education.
My right hon. Friends the Members for Meriden (Mrs Spelman) and for Uxbridge and South Ruislip (Sir John Randall) spoke very articulately about the Modern Slavery Bill, as did the hon. Member for Islington North. The hon. Gentleman said that every story was a human story and every tragedy a human tragedy, and how right he was. Female genital mutilation has already been mentioned today, but the Government are also trying to do more this summer to raise awareness of forced marriage. Pupils at some of my local schools go off on holiday to places such as Pakistan during the summer, and forced marriages take place during that time.
We all need to speak out about such issues. I think that the Modern Slavery Bill will form part of our legacy, and I hope that Members on both sides of the House will work together to deliver what I believe will be one of the first Acts in the world to deal with practices which, although we can hardly believe it, still take place across the world: human trafficking, slavery, forced labour and domestic servitude. If all Members stand up against those practices and speak with one voice, they can have an immensely powerful influence. The Bill will protect victims by introducing an anti-slavery commissioner and tougher measures to ensure that slave drivers face justice. I am sure that we in the House can say with one voice that the actions of such people will not be tolerated, and that we will definitely do something about it.
I am entirely in favour of the measures that were announced in the Queen’s Speech. The best way to ensure that there is a good standard of living for all is to continue to support the working economy and encourage everyone to make the most of the opportunities that are available to them. I commend the work that the Government have already done to help businesses and hard-working families, and I welcome the developments that are still to come in the year ahead.
Order. It may help the House if I clarify a fact before I call the next speaker. The issue of the gender of Members of Parliament who have proposed the Loyal Address was mentioned yesterday by Penny Mordaunt—in an excellent speech—and
Dame Anne Begg, and this afternoon by the hon. Members for Birmingham, Edgbaston (Ms Stuart) and for Brentford and Isleworth (Mary Macleod). It is a fact that until yesterday only one woman, namely Lady Tweedsmuir, had proposed the Loyal Address, but Oona King and others have seconded it. I thought that if I enlightened the House, it might help to keep the facts straight.
I am grateful for the chance to participate in the debate, and it is nice to be doing so just after the length of time that it has taken for women to be able to contribute to the proceedings of the House has been highlighted. I know that you, Madam Deputy Speaker, Mary Macleod and others are especially pleased to celebrate that today.
I believe that my constituents who watched the Queen’s Speech were looking for measures that would give them a sense of confidence and security about the future—a sense that there would be secure jobs, that they would have stable homes, and that they would be able to get on rather than having to scrape by wondering from week to week how things would pan out. There were a few welcome measures. I was pleased to hear the announcement about free school meals, and any investment in helping families with the cost of child care is welcome too. However, I want to say something very clearly and strongly to Ministers about an issue that is brushed aside each time it is raised.
Far too many people in this country who are in work are working in poverty, and that is simply not acceptable. The measures that Ministers talk about, such as the raising of the tax threshold, are not sufficient on their own, because the lowest-paid workers, particularly those on zero-hours contracts, are unlikely to benefit from them. Any fiscal measures must be accompanied by much firmer and more determined action on low pay. That is why we have spoken of the need to be much more proactive in addressing the phenomenon of zero-hours contracts, and to take much more energetic action to ensure that the national minimum wage increasingly becomes a wage on which people can live and raise their families.
I also think that we should take much firmer action in bearing down on some of the basic living costs that families face: the costs of food, energy and housing. I agree with other Members who have drawn attention to the need to increase affordable housing supply. In Trafford, in my part of Greater Manchester, housing costs are relatively high. They are not on the scale experienced by Members with seats in London and the south-east, but, in Greater Manchester terms, Trafford is an expensive place in which to live. That applies particularly to people in private rented accommodation, who constitute a substantial proportion of my constituents.
Those people will be very disappointed by the deficiencies in the Queen’s Speech in this regard, because they are already being priced out of their accommodation. If they complain about its quality, the landlord will tell them to move out, and the knowledge that the landlord holds all the cards makes them feel deeply insecure about their tenancies. It is very regrettable that the Government have not been more active in relation to that substantial housing sector. Many people in my
constituency aspire to own their homes and we want to support them, but we must recognise that a large number of people are living in private rented accommodation, and will continue to do so because they cannot afford, or do not have stable enough incomes, to commit themselves to buying their own homes. I implore the Government to think about what more can be done for those households.
However, it was energy that I really wanted to discuss this afternoon. Let me first say a little about energy costs. We must all be relieved that last winter was so mild. I know that many of my constituents really fear their energy bills—especially disabled people, older people and those who are bringing up young children, because they are at home more often, and because the vulnerability of many family members requires the heating to be turned on and turned up. It is because of that real fear that I want to say to Government Members that their scepticism about Labour’s 20-month price freeze is totally misplaced. The proposal has been greatly welcomed by my constituents, because it will give them a chance to manage bills and to plan a bit—perhaps to set some money aside for a rainy day to cope with day-to-day living expenses. I think that Government Members should think carefully about the nature of that commitment, and about what more can be done to encourage other energy companies to follow the example of those that have already shown what can be done.
I particularly wanted to speak about energy supply, in the context of the importance of energy security and managing climate impact. The issue is of huge concern and interest in my constituency, and it is also an issue of considerable pride. Trafford college is at the cutting-edge in offering renewables installation training, for instance. It is also a very live issue in my constituency, because there is real concern about the environmental impact of the fracking measures announced in the Queen’s Speech, and that is what I want to talk about this afternoon.
The north-west has been identified as having significant shale gas and coal-bed methane fields and drilling has already begun, for example just over the border from my constituency in the constituency of my hon. Friend Barbara Keeley. There are also live proposals for a coal-bed methane site in Trafford. There is deep local fear that fracking will start happening in our community, and there is a particular worry about fracking starting in Davyhulme where air quality standards are already being breached. It is a built-up area that is next to the M60 and close to an airport, and the site is right by the proposed biomass plant. There is, at the very least, real concern that the air quality will worsen substantially if there is fracking and exploratory drilling, not least because of the additional traffic flows, which the Secretary of State acknowledged was one of the unfortunate by-products of fracking exploration.
The core issue, however, is a lack of transparency and of genuinely honest and open dialogue with local communities about the implications for them. For example, it took the local press to reveal that radioactive waste water had been placed into the Manchester ship canal by United Utilities a couple of years ago. That waste water had been brought to our neighbourhood with the purpose of disposing of it. The public should have been informed about that, and if the view was that that was done entirely safely, that, too, should have been explained to local people. It does nothing for people’s confidence in new energy sources if we have such cover-ups.
Friends of the Earth reports that Trafford council failed properly to consider the climate change impacts and did not therefore require an environmental impact assessment for the IGas application for coal-bed methane testing and production at Davyhulme. Therefore, we have not had a full environmental impact assessment of the likely consequences of such activity. Moreover, the Environment Agency has allowed exploratory drilling at Barton Moss next door, in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Worsley and Eccles South. It seems to be quite untroubled by the fact that the IGas application to undertake such activity made it clear that it would be storing hazardous waste extracts on site. That is not covered by the Environment Agency permit, yet nothing appears to have been done to prevent it from carrying on with the activity. There needs to be more transparency and the regulatory regime needs to be much more effective if people are to have any confidence in this form of exploration. My constituents are very sceptical about whether they are being given all the facts.
My hon. Friend is making a very good contribution on hydraulic fracturing. Last year I visited Pau in southern France where for a couple of decades work has been carried out on carbon capture and storage underground. There is extensive seismic monitoring and monitoring of gas and so forth. It would be helpful if Ministers explained to us what long-term monitoring there would be of any sites where hydraulic fracturing is used.
I agree. There must be both the monitoring and the publication of the outcome of that monitoring and absolute openness and transparency about the impact.
My constituents are also anxious about the Government’s proposals to allow fracking companies to drill under people’s homes or properties without permission. I am pleased there is to be a consultation. The Secretary of State said this morning that there would be a full 12-week consultation on this, but I am puzzled as to where the Government are coming from because yesterday, in response to a question from Caroline Lucas, the Prime Minister said it would not be legal to go on to someone’s property and frack against their will, but I am not sure I got such a firm assurance from the Secretary of State this morning.
As my right hon. Friend Caroline Flint pointed out, the coal and water and sewerage industries already have a right of access to underground land. It is important to have clarity as to whether Ministers intend there to be a comparable right in relation to shale gas and if that is the case whether the costs of any damage and any clean-up and so forth will fall to the industry, not to the taxpayer or property owners. As my hon. Friend Huw Irranca-Davies suggested, there is also significant concern about assessing baseline data in relation to, for example, seismic activity or methane in groundwater, and maintaining the monitoring of any impact on that baseline data as a result of any fracking activity.
Finally, there is significant worry about the long-term impact of investing substantially in further fossil fuel technology at the expense of renewables investment. We are very clear that any investment in fracking and other gas-based technologies must be accompanied by rigorous and tough adherence to decarbonisation targets. Ministers have not said much yet to explain why they are so enthusiastic about investing in a fuel source that can only increase our fossil fuel footprint, and which will not deliver much in the way of energy security for a good 10 to 15 years—time that could be used to develop alternative sources of energy. There is real concern about the climate impact being rather underplayed.
I think my constituents would prefer a greener energy strategy, and at the very least they deserve absolute openness about decisions to engage in the exploitation of coal-bed methane and shale gas. I echo calls made in this Chamber today for the Government to proceed with caution, and I very much hope they will be heeded.
It is a pleasure to speak in this debate and to follow Kate Green. She touched on some of the issues I intend to speak to, although she may have come to slightly different conclusions from those I shall reach.
The No. 1 thing for this Government from their inception through to this Queen’s Speech has been the economy. There is no divide between economic growth and fairness and all the things that follow through from that, including the cost of living, which is the subject of this debate. It has been mentioned that we have cut the deficit, and we hope it will have been cut by half by the end of this Parliament, as has been forecast. That is not just some bean-counting exercise; it relates directly to mortgage payments, and it is therefore a cost of living issue as well as an economic issue.
A lot is said about Government debt, but far less is said about banking and household debt. Both of those are down from their high point under the last Government, and that is important. None of us wants to have to talk to our constituents about taxpayers bailing out banks again, and with interest rates likely to rise—and rightly so—in the relatively near future, it is very important that household debt comes down as well, so that those on tight, fine margins in respect of their mortgages do not feel the pinch too much.
We have recently become the fastest growing economy in the advanced world, and as a result unemployment has come down to 6.8%, as opposed to the 8% rate left by the last Government. The private sector has fuelled a huge amount of job creation. The media and also many in this Chamber talk about job creation and unemployment as if it were an economic priority, but the most economically and socially disfranchised in this country are the unemployed, and jobs creation is about dealing with them. This Government’s record in that regard is stellar: in just four years we have seen businesses create double the number of jobs that were created in the last decade under Labour. That is absolutely critical.
Inflation has been one of the issues eating away at the cost of living for many of our constituents, but again this Government’s record is very clear. The statistics do not lie: consumer prices index inflation now stands at 1.8% as against the 3.4% we inherited from the previous Government. The British Retail Consortium figures out just this week show that because of supermarket competition there has been a decline in non-food prices of 2.8% over the year. That is critically important, and annual food inflation stands at 0.7%, the lowest rate since 2006.
I just want to dig under some of the things the hon. Gentleman has been saying about debt. How, for example, would he make sense of the fact that, according to a recent report, the Bridgend county borough area, which covers two constituencies and contains a big manufacturing belt and areas of prosperity, has seen a tenfold increase in the number of people taking out payday loans at the end of the week to ease themselves over into the following week? In spite of all the good news that the hon. Gentleman is giving us, something worrying is happening.
I am trying to look at the big picture, and the fact is that household debt has fallen from its 2009 peak of about 109% of GDP to around 10 percentage points lower. I am not suggesting that there are no issues relating to other subsets of household debt, such as credit and payday loans, but if the hon. Gentleman looks at the big picture and examines the raw data, he will see that the present situation represents a significant improvement on the one that his Government left behind. He is right to look at other micro-issues, and we must continue to do that, but let us not lose sight of the big picture.
When it comes to the big picture, we have to talk about housing. We could talk about stamp duty, as I am tempted to do, and about planning regulations and the relevant taxation, but the key issue is the supply of new homes. We need to do more on that front. I am sure that the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government does not feel that he is on the back foot in this regard; I am simply urging everyone to look at the raw data. Hon. Members will be delighted to hear that, according to DCLG figures, the average annual number of affordable homes built under this coalition was 48,000, compared with 31,000 during the 13 years of the previous Government. That represents a 50% increase, and we should recognise the progress that we have made as well as talking about what else needs to be done.
We are talking about fairness in this debate on the cost of living, and we should also talk about inequality. The Leader of the Opposition is a wonkish sort—I mean that in the best possible way—and I am sure that he will be delighted to learn that the Gini coefficient shows that inequality is lower under this Government than it was under Labour. People talk about tax cuts for millionaires, but he will also be delighted to know that people earning between £10,000 and £15,000 are paying 54% less tax under this Government than they were in the last tax year under the previous Government, and that millionaires are paying 14% more. The idea that this Government are the enemy of the low-paid and the friend of the millionaire is therefore news to us.
I shall try not to be too wonkish. The recent Institute of Economic Affairs pamphlet on poverty argued that the best way to help the poor and to reduce inequality was to reduce the cost of those things that most disproportionately affected the spending of the poor—energy, food and housing. Given the hon. Gentleman’s argument, should he not therefore welcome Labour’s proposals?
The hon. Lady’s interventions are always thoughtful, but I am not quite sure to which bits of Labour’s proposals she is referring. We can talk about the minimum wage and rent controls, but I fear that they would not have the impact that she desires, despite her best intentions. Some people on my side of the House think that raising the minimum wage would be a good thing, but I do not think that it would be the best thing to do for the most socially and economically disfranchised; nor do I think that rent controls are the right answer.
Rather unusually for a Labour MP, I am praying in aid the Institute of Economic Affairs, which has stated that it would be better to reduce energy and food costs than to increase benefits. I would have thought that that would be absolutely in line with the hon. Gentleman’s thinking.
The hon. Lady is absolutely right; we share the same aspirations. Unfortunately, however, this is all about the means to achieving those ends. If we had wanted to do something about energy prices, we should not have closed down nuclear power stations, as happened under the last Government. We should be taking advantage of shale gas, as we propose in the Queen’s Speech. One area in which we can make common cause on the means as well as the ends is the need to reform the common agricultural policy, which puts £400 on the average family’s bills. The hon. Lady will recall, however, that Tony Blair rather meekly gave up on CAP reform as well as sacrificing the British rebate.
Huw Irranca-Davies mentioned regional impacts. The recovery is often described as London-centred, but this week’s figures from the Office for National Statistics show that gross disposable income per person has risen 4% in the north-east, which is higher than the UK average and considerably higher than the figure for London. The shadow Secretary of State, Hilary Benn, is also a wonkish type—again, I mean that in the best possible spirit—and if he and other hon. Members on both sides of the House look at the raw data, they will see that we have done a good job in relation not only to economic stewardship but to social fairness. I might even manage to get the shadow Secretary of State to agree that Thomas Piketty would have to accept that Britain is not just economically better off but fairer under the Tories. Let us see whether the right hon. Gentleman can bring himself to do that when he winds up the debate later.
We cannot rest on our laurels, however. There are important measures in the Queen’s Speech to strengthen the economy further and to curb the practice of public sector employees claiming redundancy and subsequently taking another job in the same sector. It is important that we get the public sector pay bill down, and that should be done in a way that targets the bureaucracy, the highly paid managers and the waste while protecting front-line services.
We are going to simplify the national insurance paid by the self-employed. I would like us to go further and cut employers’ national insurance contributions, because they can deter companies from hiring people as well as from paying better wages. I was delighted to read in The Times today—I am sure that the Parliamentary Secretary to the Treasury, my right hon. Friend Sir George Young will confirm this—that the No. 10 policy unit is considering raising the threshold for employees’ national insurance contributions. I have argued for that for a long time. If we really want to do something about low pay, as the hon. Member for Stretford and Urmston does, raising the threshold for employees’ contributions is by far the clearest way of doing it. The Resolution Foundation, the Institute for Public Policy Research and all the left-wing think-tanks agree with me on that, and I am glad that the Government are looking seriously at that proposal.
I am delighted by the proposed reforms to speed up infrastructure projects and to allow fracking firms to run shale gas pipelines. I should like to comment on a couple of the points that the hon. Member for Stretford and Urmston made about shale gas. Ofgem has made it clear that our back-up energy stocks will fall to 2% by 2015. The chances of blackouts will increase from one in 47 years to one in 12 years. The previous Government allowed this stark energy crisis to creep up on us, and we must address it now. The renaissance in nuclear power will play an important role in achieving that; it will be good for meeting our energy demands and for decarbonisation.
We must also bear in mind our unique national comparative advantage in relation to shale gas. In 2013, the British Geological Survey—hardly a Thatcherite body by disposition—estimated that there were 1,300 trillion cubic feet of shale gas in the Bowland-Hodder basin alone. The reserves equate to 47 years of total UK gas consumption or 90 years of the UK’s North sea gas production. Of course, not all of it will be extracted, and it will take time to develop the right regulatory regime. That is important, but the opportunities over the medium term are immense. The Institute of Directors has estimated that shale gas could meet one third of UK gas demand and support 74,000 jobs, not to mention boosting manufacturing and helping us sustainably to rejuvenate the economy of the northern region.
I understand the concerns about fracking, but the Royal Academy of Engineering and the Royal Society—again, not Thatcherite bodies by any stretch of the imagination—have looked at the risks to aquifers and the risk of earthquakes and concluded that the risks are very, very low. They have concluded that, with a decent set of regulations, the process could be properly managed and monitored. Frankly, the spectres of polluted drinking water and of earthquakes have been massively exaggerated by ideologically driven activists. We ought to get cracking with fracking, and I am delighted that this Queen’s Speech will bring that about. It will also help us to wean ourselves off energy dependence on places such as the middle east and Russia; we need to consider that given the stability in those regions.
In this Queen’s Speech we also want to reward the great economic virtues of saving and grafting, both in the short term and over the long term. That is what our reforms to annuities are about. People will not in future be required to buy an annuity with their pension savings and they will be able to draw their retirement income in one go, if they so choose. If people save hard and do the right thing, we trust them. Our tax break for child care, worth up to £2,000 a year per child, is crucial to dealing with the cost of living. Many couples in our changing society are between them—both men and women—grappling with the balance of bread-winning and child caring. I have to declare an interest in the tax break for child care at this point, because No.2 in the Raab household will be on its way by the end of the year, and we will be delighted to take advantage of this new piece of legislation.
Finally, the European elections showed the level of the corrosion of public trust in the political class, and I welcome the introduction of a right of recall in the Queen’s Speech. I am very conscious of the debate that is being had in government and with parliamentarians such as my hon. Friend Zac Goldsmith about getting the right balance. We do not want something that is abusive, but we should not set up a right of recall and then torpedo it by allowing a committee of politicians to veto or vet it. I am sure we can strike the right balance to give the public greater trust in our political class, and I hope that as that Bill comes forward we can do so.
I am conscious of the time and know that others wish to speak, but I want to make one final point about immigration. It relates both to the economic pressures in this country and specifically to housing, which is the subject of today’s debate. The Government have already cut net immigration by a third; we have cracked down on bogus colleges, which sprouted up left, right and centre under the previous Government; and we have cracked down on the sham marriages and the abuse of the family route. A Bill will be going through this Parliament to strengthen immigration controls. I have argued passionately for us to strengthen some areas of that Bill, but I recognise the important steps that have already been taken. It is a bit rich if all the Labour Front-Bench team and the shadow Home Secretary can do is criticise the target of reducing net immigration to tens of thousands, given that her Government made it so difficult to accomplish that. It is a bit rich coming from the party of open-door immigration, which boasted in office that there is “no obvious” upper limit on immigration—that was said by a past Labour Home Secretary, whom I shall not name for fear of embarrassing him. It is a bit rich coming from the party that failed to impose transitional controls on immigration from the eight countries from central and eastern Europe in 2004.
I am no clearer today as to what positive agenda the Labour party is offering this country to take it forward. As Winston Churchill once said of the Soviet Union, Labour policy is a puzzle inside a riddle wrapped in an enigma; it has no clear vision, no serious policies and no credible leadership. The Government have a clear agenda, of fresh reforms cast against a Conservative vision of a more prosperous and fairer Britain grounded in sustainable public finances, and in the virtues of rewarding enterprise, hard graft and saving. I commend the Gracious Speech to the House.
It gives me great pleasure to speak in the debate, and I seek to clarify some of Labour’s policies if we were to get into government next year. Some have actually been borrowed by the coalition Government, who have thought, “Yes, there is something in that. The public are interested in that.” However, they have produced a pale imitation of these things in their Queen’s Speech. Let me give some examples. Labour wants to tackle how people on low and middle incomes cope with rising costs. This year, for the first time, we have seen a reasonable rise in the national minimum wage, but that comes after three years of starving it and of costs going up by a far higher amount. We certainly welcome the measures to be tougher on employers who try to dodge paying the minimum wage, who try to make people work more hours than they were intending to or who try to make deductions from people’s pay. We would like more of such measures, but we have not seen many prosecutions. Time and again during questions Labour Members have asked what is happening about prosecuting people who are dodging the national minimum wage regulations. So, yes, let us get that legislation, but let us also get enforcement of it.
Does my hon. Friend agree that some of the delays we are experiencing in securing prosecutions are totally unacceptable? A case in my constituency has been rumbling on now for nearly a year and Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs tells us that it will be a further two months before it is even looked at.
That is precisely the point: there is not much point having the legislation if it is not properly enforced and if people get the idea that they can get away with things.
There is no suggestion from those on the Government Benches of anything as strong as our idea that, to be effective, the national minimum wage needs to be linked to median earnings. We would like it to be gradually raised to 60% of median earnings. We are also keen to see people incentivised to pay the living wage. One of our proposals is to give employers a tax break if they bring all their employees’ pay up to the living wage. That proposal is affordable because of the savings we would make on tax credits and housing benefit. We should make it possible for people in full-time work to pay their way without an enormous number of top-ups from the state.
Again, the issue of zero-hours contracts is one that the coalition has picked up. We urgently need to deal with it and we need legislation on it. I am pleased that the Government are introducing a provision on exclusivity, which will deal with people who have to be available to work for only one employer. They do not know whether that employer will give them even an hour or two of work, but they cannot take up any other offer of work. However, a lot more could be done and we would like people to be offered proper contracts if they are working regularly over six months. Let us look at what the Union of Shop, Distributive and Allied Workers has done in some of the big supermarkets. The need for flexibility has been recognised, but things such as annualised contracts and averaging out hours are looked at so that people at least know that they will have a reasonable income over a number of weeks, rather than not knowing the situation from one minute to the next. Such contracts work both for the employee and the employer, as they give a sense of flexibility and of security. The real problem with zero-hours contracts is that not only are they unpredictable in terms of what someone gets from week to week, but they do not allow people any employment rights. I am sure that is one reason why some employers try to avoid issuing proper contracts. We would like people who are working regularly to be put on proper contracts.
Let me now turn my attention to the energy companies. Our suggestion of a price freeze has been well documented and we are seeing some ruffled feathers in the energy companies, but why can this coalition Government not help people by introducing that idea of a freeze much sooner? As we have clearly said, it is not just about having the freeze; it is about then breaking up the market so that it works properly for people, and there is proper competition and a proper opportunity to beat down prices. People are very angry about the profits. Yet again, we see high salaries and very high profits, but people’s energy bills are going up. As my hon. Friend Kate Green mentioned, the only reason people managed to cope this winter was because it was so mild. If we have the sort of winters that we saw in the previous two years, people would find their bills astronomically higher, even given the coalition Government’s promise to take £50 off—although that amount has proved slightly elusive, in that it does not actually apply to everybody; the figure is up to £50. The more annoying thing is that we are paying for it through other means; in other words, other schemes that would have been financed by the Government have been scrapped, particularly the one to help with hard-to-heat homes. That is a double tragedy, because fuel bills will remain high and it is difficult to lower them in homes that are difficult to adapt. Ending that scheme, which means that more than 400,000 properties will not benefit from it, is a disaster both environmentally and, for the families concerned, economically.
With regard to the energy companies, we would like to have seen stiffer action much sooner. We have also said clearly that we would like much stronger powers for the regulator. We would also like to see powers extended to people suffering from off-grid issues, which are particularly acute in semi-rural areas, such as parts of Wales, as my hon. Friend Albert Owen mentioned. People there are reliant on the vagaries of oil deliveries or liquefied petroleum gas. They also have difficulty bargaining over price. Although some good work is being done, for example by oil clubs in my area, it is still very difficult to get the best possible deal. We would also like to have seen pensioners given the opportunity to receive their winter fuel allowance earlier in order to pay in advance and benefit from lower summer prices, rather than finding out halfway through the winter that they have bought only half of what they need and then having difficulties, both with price and delivery.
On fracking, there seems to be a bit of stampede, as if it is the be-all and end-all and the answer to all our energy needs. I am worried that there has been an overestimation of how easy fracking might be and how great the profits might be. I think that fracking will prove considerably more difficult in our country than it has been in the United States. When the Welsh Affairs Committee visited Lancashire to see what is happening there, I was struck by just how little we get from one well. It is like squeezing a tiny drop of something out of a stone. The hundreds of thousands of wells that would have to be sunk seem absolutely disproportionate to the amounts we would get.
The real question is this: why are we making such a huge effort to try to get something that we know is difficult to get—otherwise, we would have got it years ago—when really we should be trying to wean ourselves off fossil fuels altogether? We should be moving towards much greater investment in renewables. I am greatly disappointed that the Queen’s Speech included no mention of climate change or meeting our renewables targets. The renewables industry seems to have been left in limbo, whether it is wind energy being attacked or the Solar Trade Association, which is very worried about the current consultation. Will subsidies be reduced in the same way that feed-in tariffs have been? What is the situation with solar panels on rooftops? There is a lack of certainty, understanding and commitment to getting it right to ensure that we have the best possible uptake in the right places for solar energy.
Marine renewables also seem to have been pushed to one side and sadly neglected. Again, much more could be done to look at how subsidies work and to consider the opportunities to promote technologies that are more expensive and more difficult to develop, such as marine technologies, but that have such huge potential for our island.
As for the latest confusion about who can go on to whose land to undertake exploration for fracking sites, we need urgent clarification, because there seem to be conflicting stories. The Prime Minister has said, “No, nobody will be able to do that”, but that follows a letter to MPs from the Minister concerned stating that that is precisely what they are proposing. The situation is not clear and people have major concerns as a result.
Lastly, I want to deal with the major issue of housing. We all know how difficult it is, particularly for young people, to purchase a house or to afford rents. It is a struggle even in the less expensive parts of the country, where the ratios between what people earn and what houses cost are not good, but in London the disparity is enormous. London has very significant problems, and we need to look at them in a much wider context. Over the past few years, and particularly the past couple of months, we have seen the housing market in London grow away from the housing market in the rest of the UK, and at an even faster pace than it did before. That is leading to immense disparities in the cost of property, but it is also making London almost impossible to live in. If we add to that the fact that, because a huge amount of foreign direct investment—some 40%—tends to centre on London, we see that London seems to be growing in a way that is completely unsustainable. That is leading to huge problems with transport and housing, and people having to live further away and commute for even longer.
The question we must ask ourselves in the long run is this: do we need some far-reaching policies to redress the balance across the United Kingdom with regard to growth? I do not want to stop any regeneration programmes in London, which I think are vital for less well-off and more run-down areas, and I do not want to stop the people who are furthest from the work opportunities being given as much help as possible to access them, but we need to ask whether too many jobs are being created in London and not enough are being created elsewhere.
When people think of the UK as a place to invest, they almost invariably think of London. Whereas if they think of Italy, they might think of Milan as much as Rome; if they think of Spain, they might think of Barcelona as much as Madrid; and if they think of Germany, they might think of Munich as much as Berlin. We have a huge concentration on London, and it is becoming absolutely unsustainable.
We need a strategy not only because it would help other areas of the United Kingdom, such as Wales, the north-west and the north-east, but because it would also help London and the south-east. We did that with public sector jobs a few years ago, when the Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency was moved to Swansea and the passport office was moved to Newport, but we need to go further. I am sure that there are still some public sector jobs that could be moved out of London. But then we would have to consider whether we might create an imbalance between the public and private sectors, as we have seen in Northern Ireland.
We should also think about what motivates the private sector companies to base themselves in London so much of the time. We need proper studies of that and a real understanding of how we can ensure that in future London can be lived in. This is about not just helping other parts of the country but making London a place in which ordinary people can live and, at the moment, that is becoming more and more difficult. We must look at the pattern around the whole country, because we cannot make changes in a piecemeal way. Currently, we are seeing the development of a city region approach, especially in Manchester.
Like London, some places are experiencing a slight overheating compared with their surrounding areas. We need to find ways of linking in those towns that feel they have been left behind, because, as we saw in the recent elections, they are the areas that are the most disaffected and the most likely to turn away from the main political parties. We need to look at the way in which they are linked in to their regional capitals, or to the wealth-generating parts of their areas.
Our plan for the UK should be about creating the right transport links that take people from the places in which they live to the places in which there is work, and putting the work in the places in which people live. We need to think globally. We should think not just about what we will do this year and next, but about what we will do in the next 30 to 40 years. If we do not do that, we will be playing catch-up all the time.
My right hon. Friend Margaret Hodge talked about needing 800,000 houses in the capital. That is a huge quantity. The Government are putting forward proposals for one new town, when in fact we need several new towns. We need to think about not only using every opportunity to improve the situation for people now and to build more affordable homes, but what we are going to do in the long term. How do we want the UK to look? We need to create a balance between where the work is, where the wealth is and where the transport is so that we get a much better balance across the country.
We should help those areas that have seen a decline in the more traditional industries and are struggling to attract some of the new industries as well as those areas that are over-heating, especially those in which young people and people on low incomes are struggling to live. Everyone would benefit from a much more strategic overview, and we should not be afraid of combining that with localism. That does not mean that we are against devolving funds to regions—we have announced that we would do that—or against promoting a municipal force, as was outlined by my hon. Friend Ms Stuart when talking about Joseph Chamberlain. It is not about decrying that; that is extremely important. It is about linking a local strategy into an overall vision for the UK. In that way, we can begin to tackle as one the issues of housing, work and transport, and making that a strategy that we want to follow for the future. I will not suggest exactly what that strategy should be, because that needs to come from all the regions and the countries of the UK working together. They should look at how the strategy works as a whole, and not just at how it works for their region, country or part of the UK.
It is a pleasure to follow the considered speech of Nia Griffith and the insightful comments of my hon. Friend Mr Raab. I congratulate the proposer and seconder of the Loyal Address, my hon. Friends the Members for Portsmouth North (Penny Mordaunt) and for Mid Dorset and North Poole (Annette Brooke), on their excellent speeches yesterday.
The Queen’s Speech states that the aim of the Government is to strengthen the economy and to provide stability and security. Today we are debating, among other things, the cost of living, which is a matter of huge concern to all our constituents. That is why tackling the deficit is so important. In 2010, the deficit was at an unsustainable 11.8% of GDP. That should be compared with a maximum of 3% which, even in the eurozone, is seen as essential for long-term stability. The necessary measures that this Government have taken will, according to The Economist, reduce the deficit this year to 4.8% of GDP, which is still considerably higher than that 3% but a huge improvement none the less.
Unusually, I pay tribute to the Treasury for the efforts it has made in recovering tax from tax avoidance schemes. The amount of money coming in now has greatly increased on previous years, and that is a tribute to the work that the Chancellor and his team have done in bearing down on some of the ridiculous tax avoidance schemes that they inherited.
What would the consequences have been of not making such a reduction in the deficit? The Government would have had great difficulty in raising money on the markets and in financing borrowing. For the taxpayer, there would have been higher taxes to pay the increased borrowing charges. Let us not forget that we pay about as much interest at the moment as we spend on our entire school system, and soon it will be more. For home owners and businesses, it would have meant increased borrowing charges through higher interest rates. Tackling the deficit is therefore key and the first step in keeping the cost of living down. Any party serious about being in government has to state how it will do that and continue to bear down on the cost of living, because 4.8% is still far too high.
As earlier speakers have said, the Government have done much more to tackle the cost of living. First and most importantly, they have increased the number of jobs—or helped to increase them, because the Government themselves do not create many jobs; in fact, there are fewer people working in the public sector now than at the beginning of the Parliament. Nevertheless, the Government have created the conditions in which 1.7 million new jobs have been created, which goes to the core of addressing the cost-of-living crisis. They have increased the personal allowance to £10,00—it is to go up again next year—which helps to increase take-home pay and is important in tackling the crisis. They have also frozen fuel duty and supported councils to freeze council tax.
At this point, I add a note of warning about the Opposition policy of freezing energy prices. One consequence of such a freeze, as we have discovered with fuel duty and council tax, it that when we have done it once, people expect us to continue and continue with it. What happens after 20 months of frozen energy prices? What happens to that policy? Will people expect it to continue? Will they say, “You have done it for 20 months, and we need it to continue”? Council tax and fuel duty, however, are to some extent in the hands of Government—they are taxes—but energy prices are not wholly in our hands.
Perhaps I can answer the question for the hon. Gentleman. We will have reformed the energy market by that point, so we will have stopped the excess profit earned—or taken—by the energy companies. That is the plan; it is not only about the 20-month freeze, but about reforming the energy market.
I understand that, and I think the energy markets need reform, but to expect that that will keep energy prices frozen, or at least at a stable level, when we are subject to world energy prices is to some extent pie in the sky. But we will see.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for giving way again. Does he agree that when world prices go down, energy suppliers should reduce our bills, rather than putting them up? Fair enough, when the prices go up, we expect our bills to go up—but should we not expect them to go down as well?
We would. In some cases, our bills have gone down, and in other cases energy companies are freezing them. Furthermore, through the ability to switch, which many people take advantage of, they can also cut their energy costs. All I am saying is that once we introduce a freeze, it is less easy than we might think to take the freeze away, because people will expect prices to remain the same, and we have been finding that with council tax and the fuel duty. It is essential that the Government look at every sustainable way to keep downward pressure on the cost of living for households.
I want to concentrate my remaining remarks on three areas, housing, health, and international affairs, which sadly have not been included as a subject for the Queen’s speech debate, although they were mentioned in the Gracious Speech itself. The Queen’s Speech talks about increasing the supply of housing, and we all agree that that is vital: we need to build more houses. The question is not simply one of numbers; it is also about the type of houses, where they are built and infrastructure.
With changing demographics, we need more housing suitable for older citizens, including extra-care housing, of which I am glad to say that more is being built in my constituency. It also includes building small, energy-efficient, single-storey homes, which many of my constituents say that they would wish to move into, if possible, but there are simply not enough of those homes. I saw an excellent example of such a development, which must have been built 20 to 30 years ago, when for some reason I happened to be passing through Newark recently. Unfortunately, we do not see that sort of development now. Why? Because developers tell us that such homes are not profitable, because they take up too much land. That shows a lack of ambition and imagination. Such developments would encounter much less opposition, because they can be seen as fulfilling a real need and keeping communities together by enabling older people to stay in the communities in which they have lived for so long.
Where houses are built is, of course, a matter of great controversy, but it is exacerbated by the irresponsible submission by developers of planning applications that are quite clearly outside democratically agreed local development plans. That is certainly the case in my area. I urge the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, whom I am glad to see in his place, strongly to resist such speculative developments, which fly in the face of properly agreed local plans.
Infrastructure is also a great concern. I worry that sometimes we look only at the narrow implications of development and perhaps suggest that problems can be addressed by, for instance, a controlled junction onto a new housing estate, rather than considering the wider knock-on effects of traffic across the whole area. In particular, once traffic lights are introduced, they are rarely removed or even modified to take account of subsequent development. We need to consider that. We tend to focus much too narrowly on the requirements of a specific development rather than those of the community as a whole.
I want briefly to speak about health. I have spoken on many occasions about the Mid Staffordshire NHS Foundation Trust and will continue to do so, both in order to speak up for my constituents and because I believe what has been happening there is of national importance and has national implications. Medium-sized district general hospitals provide services that are prized by local communities. They often provide out-patient services and elective surgery, but they also provide general accident and emergency provision—not the most complex, but everyday provision—and consultant-led maternity services and paediatrics. For that to be provided and, of course, for safety reasons, there is a need for them to come together with the larger hospitals through networking, buddying or mergers, but such provision should be possible. That is why I fully support NHS England’s review of the possibility of continuing consultant-led maternity services at Stafford. I have also urged consideration of the possibility that urgent care could be available at night to supplement the 8 am to 10 pm A and E service that should be provided, although I believe that eventually a return to a 24/7 A and E will be necessary, especially given the housing developments taking place.
We are told that specialisation means that centralisation is inevitable. I disagree and I was very glad, after a conversation last week with Simon Stevens, the new head of NHS England, to find that he views district general hospitals and community hospitals as important in providing not just community services but acute services. I hope that he will succeed. Those of us who live and work in large towns and rural areas need a decent, truly national health service and not one that is increasingly sucked into the major cities.
Of course, there is the unpalatable issue of cost, and I shall not be afraid to address it in this place, as I have before. We will have to spend more on health, probably at least 2% of GDP. I have already suggested both in this place and in writing how we can do that, possibly by converting national insurance into a progressive national health insurance paid according to income and preserving an NHS free at the point of need. In my opinion, we must remove health from an increasingly sterile debate about taxation.
Finally, I want to touch on foreign affairs. I am proud to be a supporter of a coalition Government who have, with cross-party support, achieved spending of 0.7% on overseas development assistance. I am also proud to be a supporter of a Government who have introduced the Modern Slavery Bill, again with cross-party agreement.
Those things are vital, but I see four global challenges that we must confront. The first is to eradicate absolute poverty. The World Bank has set a target to get rid of it by 2030, and we as a country and a people need to do everything we can to support that. The second is to reduce income inequality. We have already spoken today about income inequality is in this country, and the World Bank has that we must concentrate on the 40% with the lowest incomes globally to reduce income inequality. I share that aspiration, as income inequality eventually leads to political instability and many other things.
Thirdly, there is climate change, which we cannot run away from and which any responsible Government must take fully into account in their policies. Fourthly, there is the whole matter of combating—not allowing—extremism. This relates to income and equality, but it is not just about income and equality as some of the most extreme people come from some of the most privileged backgrounds. We have to combat extremism everywhere and promote freedom of speech, thought and religion and the freedom to have no religion. That is the responsibility of this Government and this country. There is no magic solution to any of this, just constant, hard negotiation, peace making and engagement. We cannot do it on our own. We need to work with others to exercise our influence through the Commonwealth, the United Nations, the World Bank, the IMF and particularly the European Union.
I was fascinated yesterday when the Leader of the Opposition, my right hon. Friend Edward Miliband, began his remarks in response to the Gracious Speech. He sought to widen the debate from the usual Punch and Judy knockabout that goes on in this Chamber and the party political points. What was remarkable to me was the way in which, on the Government Benches, that was met initially with shock. That is the best way to describe it. There was silence and clear attention. After a few minutes my right hon. Friend’s speech achieved a response of baying, and things went downhill from there, but what he was trying to get across was fundamentally important.
Many of the speeches today have picked up on that theme and have handled sensitively the issues facing us as politicians in this Chamber about how people outside view politics, mistrust politicians and are concerned about how they feel that we in the Chamber have the capacity to influence events that are important in their lives.
I want to try to continue that theme today. I begin by isolating three elements. It is no longer the case, thank goodness, that the Gracious Speech is delivered in Norman French, as it used to be, but it struck me that there are three principles that France can still bring to our debates to elevate them. Those are liberté, égalité, fraternité. On the first—here I want to sound a note of welcome—Members in all parts of the House are delighted to see the modern slavery Bill being brought forward. I am sure it will be well supported by Members across the Chamber. That speaks to liberty, which is fundamental in any democracy. It is absolutely right that the Government are seeking to introduce that Bill and I hope that Opposition Members will give it fair wind before the next election—I am sure we will.
The next principle is égalité —equality. Here there are things that concern me and my constituents in Brent, who experience the second highest rate of low pay in London. Newham is the borough with the highest rate of low pay at 34%. In Brent 30% of people in employment earn below the living wage. That is of real concern to me because it means that 30% of my constituents look at the rest of society from a position of disadvantage and see the widening of the gap between where they are and where they perceive other people can legitimately aspire to reach. That is not good for society. Of course, it is not good for my constituents either. It means that they are struggling to put food on the table and to do right by their children and their wider family.
People are facing additional pressures because the local government settlement and the settlement put in place for clinical commissioning groups appear to be differentially disadvantaging communities like my own that are already more disadvantaged. Let us look at the funding for CCGs across the country. In Brent in north-west London, we have the highest incidence of tuberculosis and of diabetes in the United Kingdom, and yet £54.98 million is being taken from our CCG, NHS Brent, in this settlement. I looked down the list of all the other local CCGs to try to find a comparable figure, and thought I had—it was for NHS Coastal West Sussex CCG. The figure was £56.51 million, but when I looked again I noticed that there was no minus sign. I do not know what the particular health problems of people in coastal West Sussex are, but I am absolutely clear that their receiving a £56 million increase at a time when my constituents, in some of the most deprived wards in the capital, who have the highest levels of key diseases not just in the capital but in the country, are suffering a £54.98 million reduction does not speak to the principle of equality. I charge the Queen’s Speech with failing my constituents on that count.
I mentioned the local government settlement. The budget in my local authority is about £330 million—or was, I should say, because £104 million is being taken out of it. That is a cut of about 30%. My constituents, who rank second highest in London for lowest pay, are not just suffering in their wage packets. They are suffering because the services they would usually hope could pick up their families when they disintegrate, provide additional care for their elderly parents, and provide additional support from social services will not be there because local government is no longer able to provide them.
In the London borough of Brent we have just had the local elections. I am delighted to say that of the 63 council seats in Brent, of which my party used to have 41, we now have 56—a fantastic result. How quickly that will become bitter when those 56 enthusiastic, dynamic, determined people find that they are having to implement a 30% cut in services to the people they have aspired to represent and protect. That is what has happened to equality in this country. It is not just about low pay, although that is absolutely cancerous, or zero-hours contracts; it is also about the wider support that one used to be able to look to and expect to receive from one’s community but is no longer there.
Let us turn to fraternity. Another key missing ingredient from the Queen’s Speech was the issue of immigration. As my hon. Friend the Chairman of the Communities and Local Government Committee has said, there are key issues related to immigration that are about not race and ethnicity, but fairness. Nowhere is that more clear than in housing.
A mother in my borough who has been on the housing waiting list for 19 years came to me and said, “Mr Gardiner, when I first went on the housing list, I was told that, as a single young woman without any children I was not considered to be vulnerable and therefore I was not a priority. My daughter is now 18 and last month I was told that because she is now 18, I have no children and am not a priority. What’s going on?”
The point is that many boroughs allocate housing simply in accordance with need. Of course, medical and other needs such as overcrowding are important, but we do not understand that there are forms of entitlement other than need. The fact that someone who has been waiting for 19 years in their community—paying their dues, working hard, paying tax and being a good citizen—still does not have an entitlement to the security of a home is deeply corrosive of the principle of fraternity. It undermines social solidarity. That is the unfairness. It is similar to the unfairness in wages that immigration can bring in, because people come in and undercut wages. The principle is not one of race or ethnicity at all, but one whereby people say, “You are being unfair,” because the Government have a responsibility to ensure that people are being paid the minimum wage.
This Government have started doing that, but they need to do more, because the three principles of liberty, equality and fraternity must underpin our democracy. In this Queen’s Speech, they do not.
It is a pleasure to follow Barry Gardiner. I thought for a moment he was going to take us through the entire Napoleonic code, so we can be grateful that he did not do that. One part of the French example that I am sure Government Members would not want to follow is their exorbitantly high tax rate, which I understand has resulted in so many people leaving France that the Mayor of London is now Mayor of, in effect, the fourth largest French city. No doubt we can have regard to other aspects of French history.
I rise in support of the Queen’s Speech. Some on the left, and in the Labour party in particular, have mentioned the small number of legislative proposals, but I think that less, not more government is a good thing. State legislatures in some parts of the United States sit for only three or four months a year, and they manage to function in their societies perfectly adequately, with an executive, a judiciary and legislature, and get through their affairs without too many problems. Statist functionaries on the Labour Benches may well find it attractive just to produce Bill after Bill, but I do not find overweening Government attractive. There is the concept that less is sometimes more. Labour may of course find that difficult to understand, bearing in mind that we have seen more from Labour in all these areas—more debt, more of a deficit, more tax and more unemployment.
Yes, indeed, and careful consideration of measures is crucial. I practised law in the criminal justice system in Northampton for years before I entered the House, and I witnessed the criminal justice legislation repeatedly passed under the Blair Government and the subsequent Labour Government. Frankly, much of that legislation only served to grind to a halt the court process in England and Wales. It did not work, and in many cases it created further problems. It is important to get legislation right.
We want a Britain that pays its way in the world and a Britain that is more competitive. I wholeheartedly disagree with Labour Members who criticise concepts of profit and commercial endeavour. We want hard-working people and to give them peace of mind for the future, and this Queen’s Speech continues that series of policies. This Government have carried through such measures during the past four years, and will continue to do so for the next year.
For example, the deficit is down by a third. We still hear criticisms about how fast we are able to get down the deficit. As I have previously pointed out to the House, the reality is that for Labour to make such criticisms is rather like an arsonist criticising a firefighter for the time taken to put out a fire. The deficit is down by a third, and income tax has been cut for 25 million people by an average of more than £700.
The hon. Gentleman is praising the Government for reducing the deficit by a third—we are, of course, always pleased when the deficit reduces—but will he explain why they have not met their target of getting rid of the deficit over the term of this Parliament? I appreciate that the Parliament has a few more months to run, but it does not seem to me that they will hit the target of a 100% reduction.
I am pleased to hear noises from Labour Members about their wanting us to go faster in reducing the deficit. We are doing what we reasonably can, while adopting policies that will be fair across the board and across society, to make good the damage to the British economy that we inherited from the previous Labour Government. That is why we have created
1.5 million more jobs, which is an unprecedentedly large number of new jobs. They are quality jobs: in many cases, they are full-time jobs. I have heard Labour Members castigate such an achievement or try somehow to negate it by reference to the type of jobs created and the like, but these are new jobs that in many cases are giving people security and peace of mind. The huge volume of new jobs certainly beats the record of the previous Government and every Labour Government whom I can think of, going back generations. At the end of their term, unemployment was higher than the level they inherited.
I really cannot let the hon. Gentleman get away with the outrageous statement that the previous Labour Government caused a global economic crash that started in America. My right hon. Friend Mr Brown may have been very powerful, but I do not believe that he caused the economic crash that started in America. Is the hon. Gentleman really trying to tell the House that the global economic crash was caused by my right hon. Friend?
The economy that this Government inherited was 20th out of the G20 leading industrialised nations. It was at the bottom of the heap. That was the responsibility of Mr Brown, Tony Blair and the Labour party. That is the appalling legacy that we are seeking to improve.
Under this Government, there are 1.7 million more apprentices. We are looking to give people opportunities. Large numbers of apprenticeships have been created to do that. There are better standards and better schools for young people. Those are significant achievements of the past four years and the Queen’s Speech will follow through on them. Only by sticking to our plan will we secure a better and brighter future for Britain.
I accept, as Julie Hilling has pointed out, that there is more to do. That is why we seek another term. In my constituency of Northampton North, the rate of unemployment is 33% lower than it was in April 2010—the month before the general election. Youth unemployment is 41% lower than it was. However, there is more to do and the rate of unemployment is still too high. Like many colleagues on the Government Benches, I organise jobs fairs on an annual basis. During the last jobs fair that I organised, more than 2,000 people came through the doors and more than 40 companies were represented, including medium, small and large companies and charities. I accept that there is more to do, but we must stick to the long-term economic plan and get it right. The Chancellor of the Exchequer, the Prime Minister and all those on the Treasury Bench have been getting it right and we are seeing the results.
Her Majesty referred to the infrastructure Bill. Investing in infrastructure is a key part of the country’s long-term economic plan, because we have to think to the future, like the Victorians and many of our predecessors did. They thought of future generations. Stable long-term funding for the strategic road network is very important and is anticipated in the coming Session.
I have lobbied persistently—some might say nagged—on the issue of potholes. That might seem to many to be a micro-economic issue, but it is significant. In my constituency, and no doubt in other parts of the country, the issue of potholes is of serious and significant concern. I got together a petition to seek more assistance in that regard. I am happy to say that the Chancellor of the Exchequer announced in the Budget that he would allocate a further £200 million towards—
Not quite towards Northampton, sadly. We will find out in due course how much Northampton will get. However, I am very pleased that the Government have taken that move.
Motoring groups have welcomed that fund to fix roads, although, as ever, they wanted more. I, too, would like to see more money invested in our roads because the amount of road traffic only ever increases. There is an increasing number of incidents that are caused by poor quality road surfaces. Frankly, there are very human reasons why we need to fix the roads. They are dangerous for cyclists, pedestrians and other road users. The poor quality of our roads is a danger to life, as well as to livelihoods. The cost of compensation, insurance and the like is going up. That affects local taxpayers as well as national taxpayers. There are therefore raw economic reasons why we need to do something about potholes.
That is why I am very pleased that, thanks to the careful measures that the Chancellor of the Exchequer has taken over the past four years and to the fact that he has stuck to the path, sometimes in the face of a tsunami of criticism from the Labour Benches, he has improved the state of the economy to such an extent that he has been able to allocate £200 million to fixing potholes. Northamptonshire has bid for some of that, and I hope to hear relatively soon—as, no doubt, do other areas—how much my area will receive.
I think it right that local authorities bid for funding. As the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government will know, some local authority areas perform much better than others and have a better track record of getting it right. It is only right that they show why they can operate more efficiently and successfully, or perhaps more expeditiously than others, and why they should therefore be rewarded for their endeavours and competence.
One measure not in the Gracious Speech is the Medical Innovation Bill, which Lord Maurice Saatchi introduced today as a private Member’s Bill in another place. It is to be hoped that in due course it might find its way to this honourable House. It is a completely non-partisan and highly important measure that is designed to make it easier for doctors to treat those who are suffering from cancer and other life-threatening conditions more successfully.
If passed by Parliament, the Bill will allow doctors to take a step away from the well-worn path currently followed in the treatment of cancer. For some cancers, the treatment has not changed literally for decades, and doctors—oncologists in particular—know that they will follow that path with their patient, and that there will be the same result at the end of that path. They can even particularise to quite a fine degree how long a patient may have left to live. With proper safeguards—I emphasise that—and with the fully informed consent of the patient and the extra safeguard of a multidisciplinary panel that can oversee the patient’s authority and what the doctor wishes to do, it is right that doctors ought to be able to diverge slightly from that path to see whether something slightly different can work. Only through those methods will we allow doctors to continue their good work and eventually find a cure for cancer.
Does the hon. Gentleman agree that those who are suffering from multiple sclerosis and some cancers who have found that low-dose naltrexone can be effective will also benefit if that Bill is passed? At the moment, some GPs who are very much in favour of prescribing it are afraid to do so because of consequences under the present system if something were to go wrong.
Before Michael Ellis replies, may I point out that some Members have been sitting in the Chamber all afternoon? Five Members are waiting to speak and others have already spoken. The wind-ups will start at half past 4. We are running out of time and I hope we will be able to include everybody in the debate this afternoon.
Order. I regret that we are running out of time, as I mentioned, and it is my judgment that Members who have sat in the Chamber all afternoon would rather speak for a short amount of time than not at all. I therefore impose a time limit of seven minutes and I ask Members to work that out for themselves. Seven minutes for five speakers will comfortably get us to the wind-ups at 4.30 pm, but not if there are lots of interventions. It would be a shame not to hear all Members.
I am pleased to take part in this important debate. I am familiar with the refrain that you just issued to the Chamber, Madam Deputy Speaker, and I will definitely stick within that time limit and hopefully my speech will be even shorter.
Let me return to the remarks of my right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition in opening this debate on the Queen’s Speech yesterday, because he said something vital to this House, this Parliament, this Government and the country: that we in this House face a real challenge of relevance, legitimacy and standing in the eyes of the public. All Members from all parts of the House will have been out in their constituencies across the country, campaigning, knocking on doors and speaking to people in marketplaces, and so on, and that point will have come across crystal clear. The question is: how do we respond to that in the Queen’s Speech, the autumn statement and elsewhere in a way that makes sense to our constituents?
I want to focus on only one element—one that, sadly and tragically, is missing from this Queen’s Speech. For all the welcome news in the hard data in the claimant count analysis—including in my constituency, where the claimant count is down overall, although there is still a massive and enduring issue with long-term youth unemployment—for many people that is unfortunately not reflected in their satisfaction with being in work. The reasons behind that have not been referred to or engaged with by Government Members today, but that is the reality for many of my constituents.
The sad fact is that now, for the first time in the recorded history of this country, the majority of people defined as living in poverty are in work. Something is critically wrong with what we are doing. The fundamental question is whether or not we accept taxpayer-funded poverty pay where the Government—that is, the taxpayer—are asked to step in to prop up poverty wages. It is not all do with part-time work, zero-hours contracts, increased casualisation or agency workers; it is people in full-time work who cannot afford to feed their household, pay the rent, and so on.
I say simply to hon. Members on both sides of the Chamber that, with all the talk of rising employment, falling unemployment counts, and so on, if we do not deal with this fundamental issue, it will be a derogation of our duty as parliamentarians and also fly in the face of what we heard on the doorsteps, because it does not only affect our debates about welfare reform and how we create more jobs and good jobs; it also ties into those fundamental fears—fears of what people perceive and what the reality is—about immigration as well.
I have knocked on people’s doors, and the other day a woman in one household told me that she and her two children were both working full-time, yet their income was way below what they needed to live, not in opulence—not even taking two holidays a year, but one—but to do the basics of feeding their family and looking after each other. This also applies next door—these people are neighbours—where immigrant workers are living in multi-occupancy houses. They are on agency workers contracts and, because the national minimum wage, albeit pitiful as it currently is, is not adequately enforced, they are now being targeted by many who say, understandably in some ways, that it is their fault. Well, it is not their fault, and it is for us in this Parliament to do something about it: to protect the rights and conditions, the pay and earnings of everybody who works in this country.
I watched for six or seven minutes yesterday while the House was held rapt by the truth of what the leader of my party said in his opening remarks. It is worth putting them on the record once again:
“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.”—[Hansard, 4 June 2014; Vol. 582, c. 15.]
This far into the 21st century I would say, not only to my own colleagues but to those on the Government
Benches, that there is a point at which we have to make it clear that if we genuinely believe in dignity at work, that dignity has to be reflected in the way people are remunerated. We cannot do that overnight and we cannot do that if we are insensitive to small businesses, but we can do it with tax breaks to promote the living wage and by being serious about how we push up—over time, but more rapidly than we are—the national minimum wage. We can do it by dealing with the scourge of the abuse of agency workers. Too many agency workers are now in conditions where not only are they being recruited abroad, but they are being brought here and laid off after the 12-week period so that they do not receive the same protections as other people. We can do it not by completely ending zero-hours contracts, but by dealing with the abuse of them, where people who work regularly over a long time for an employer are not given the dignity and respect of being told, “You are doing a good job, we are going to keep you on. Here’s the contract.”
That is the sort of fundamental challenge we heard on the doorstep to the legitimacy and the reputational standing of this place. I ask Ministers to respond to that, because this Queen’s Speech simply did not.
It is an absolute pleasure, as always, to follow Huw Irranca-Davies, and to follow my hon. Friend Penny Mordaunt, who spoke yesterday in proposing the Loyal Address. She gave a glittering speech on the Navy, on Portsmouth, and on the role of women in Parliament and in the armed forces. It was touching, witty and profound. It was a speech that my great aunt, the first British Conservative woman in Parliament, would have been very proud to hear. It was a speech that should make us all redouble our work to smash the glass ceiling that still holds back so many women and girls in this country and around the world.
In the week of the D-day commemorations, I want to join my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister and the Leader of the Opposition, who rightly paid tribute to the D-day generation who gave their tomorrows for our today and our democratic freedoms. It is a salutary reminder, at a time when public disillusionment with politics is so high, making it fashionable for people such as Russell Brand and others to attack and dismiss mainstream politics, of the great privilege and prize of democratic politics: free and fair elections that those in Iraq, Syria, Afghanistan, Zimbabwe and other places in the world have fought and died for.
As the Leader of the Opposition said in the thoughtful first few minutes of his speech yesterday, highlighting the growing public disillusionment with narrow, shrill, unduly dogmatic and self-interested politics before disappointingly reverting to type and failing his own high test, recent elections have shown us the strong public groundswell of anger at a politics and a model of big government people increasingly feel is not working for them. The Queen’s Speech is about specific Bills, but it is also a moment to reflect on the causes and implications of that. With the Scottish and the EU referendums looming, there is a real risk of disillusionment fuelling support for secessionist, pessimistic, backward-looking politics and leading potentially to the break-up of this great United Kingdom and the loss of the irreplaceable richness and strength in the union of our historic nations, so brilliantly described recently by Simon Schama, to be replaced by a smaller, shriller, narrower politics of self-interest within the disempowering bureaucracy of a centralising European Union. That is why I welcome the Prime Minister’s strong support for the United Kingdom and his insistence on governing for the nation not in narrow party interest but from the progressive centre, ambitious for a globally competitive and influential Britain. But to do that we need to understand—indeed harness—the causes of the disillusionment that we are seeing.
I do not claim any special insight on this, but it is a subject that has long been of interest to me. In 2003 I founded an independent movement called Mind the Gap! to look at the causes of disillusionment and, in 2005, a campaign called Positive Politics. I have written and spoken on it widely elsewhere. I want to make three quick observations.
The first is that this problem has been incubating for a long time, over the last 20 years. The inconvenient truth that we need to face is that it has done so under both main parties; from some of the sleaze in the early ’90s, through the spin of new Labour and the culture of anything-goes irresponsibility. That was enhanced by the former Labour Business Secretary, who said that he was profoundly relaxed about people getting filthy rich. He should not have been; he should have been profoundly exercised in building a culture of enterprise, philanthropy and respect for wealth creation. There was also the abuse of the democratic process in connection with the Iraq decision, some of the scandalous excesses of the expenses scandal and the public disillusionment with the way in which the bank bail-out was conducted and the way in which bank bonuses continue to be paid without so much as any criminal sanction. In America, people would be behind bars. That has fuelled the sense among the public of “one rule for us and another for them.”
My second observation is that this is not apathy; the people of Britain are not uninterested in their politics. It is anger, fuelled by an increasingly depressed and devastating combination of powerlessness and a sense of an unaccountable governing class, particularly in Europe but also in London. There is a sense that the citizens of this country are less and less able to take power and influence over their own lives at a time when, in their domestic lives as consumers, technology is empowering them evermore.
The third observation is that the United Kingdom Independence party, while successfully riding this wave of anger, has no answers or solutions, no serious policy programme and is in fact a toxic and divisive influence in British politics. The British people are not lurching to the right. They do not necessarily want to leave the EU today and they certainly are not racist and xenophobic. But they do yearn for a politics and a Parliament in which those in positions of power and responsibility take and exercise their responsibilities for those who are without them. We must set the highest standards of conduct not just in public office but in senior positions across our society: football, the media and in business. We must always work in the interests of the people whose
Parliament this is, who pay our bills and whose ancestors gave their lives 70 years ago to secure the freedoms we cherish.
It is in that context that I welcome the important steps taken in this Parliament to begin to put this country back on its feet: restoring the public finances; tackling the deficit; rewarding work and responsibility; our reforms to welfare, to pensions and to tax breaks for the lowest paid; empowering citizens; our long-term economic plan for a resilient economy; the localist reforms to give power back to communities; the reforms in the Home Office, in defence, health and education; our historic commitment to begin to tackle the problem of public disillusionment with the EU with the Prime Minister’s pledge to reform and to give the British people a referendum on the EU.
In the Queen’s Speech, I welcome in particular the measures on the economy, society and politics; the recall Bill, the slavery Bill, the social action responsibility Bill and the small business and pensions Bills. The truth is that the extent of the economic, social and political hollowing-out that we inherited will take more than four or five years to fix. It will require a better politics, economy and society, which has at its heart, as this Queen’s Speech does, an insistence on the notion of the reciprocal responsibilities that bind us. It requires a culture of political discourse that values what the decent majority of British people do—a culture of fairness and decency with universal values and standards that apply equally to all citizens. I believe that this Parliament and this Government have started to put this country back on its feet through key reforms to promote work and responsibility, citizen empowerment, more responsive public services and a sustainable model of growth and public finance.
I welcome this Queen’s Speech as a first step on a long hard road. The Leader of the Opposition began yesterday to point the way down that road, but I do not believe that the public think he has a serious programme of reform to deliver what we need. I believe that the people of Newark today, and the country next spring, will reward the only party that does.
I am very pleased to have an opportunity to speak in the debate. I wish that I could talk about the Gracious Speech, but in truth I do not believe there is very much to talk about, although I must say that I welcome the announcement of action on plastic bags.
My constituents cannot afford another year of complacency. They cannot afford another year of a Government who do not understand their situation and simply tinker at the edges. They cannot afford a year in which the Education Secretary proceeds with his plans to take our schools back to the 1950s, and in which the Government ignore the cost-of-living crisis faced by the people of Bolton West and do nothing to ensure that having a job means that people can afford to live, nothing to tackle the abuse of zero-hours contracts, nothing to address the widespread concerns about immigration, nothing to stop care workers being exploited, nothing to stop the privatisation of the national health service, the scandal of people being unable to see their GPs or the scandal of missed cancer and waiting-time targets, and nothing to freeze energy prices.
The Gracious Speech did not even include Bills that the Government have already produced in draft, such as the Wild Animals in Circuses Bill and the Bill to prevent smoking in cars. And what has happened to the legislation to regulate the taxi industry following the inquiry that the Government asked the Law Commission to undertake? Commentators have described this as a zombie Government, and I think that perhaps they have a good point. Government Members who spoke yesterday welcomed the next 11 months of lots and lots of general debates, but, much as I welcome the opportunity to discuss issues that are really important to the people of Bolton West, such debates are pointless if no action is taking to deal with those issues.
Members on the other side of the House talk proudly of the actions taken by their Government. They seem to think it is OK for there to be food banks in the fifth richest country in the world, and that it is OK to talk about jobs that are being created without any acknowledgement or understanding of the fact that they include unpaid jobs provided through Government schemes, jobs involving zero-hours contracts, jobs that have been transferred from the public sector, jobs that were created and then failed, and jobs in which people are self-employed. The fact that 30% of people who use the Atherton food bank in my constituency are in work provides evidence of the quality of some of those jobs. It shows that the quality of a job is important, rather than merely having a job.
Government Members make claims that they cannot back up with reliable evidence. Five million workers—one if five of us who are lucky enough to have a job—are paid less than the living wage. That is an increase of 400,000 in the last year alone. The situation is not just bad for those people, but bad for the rest of us. It costs the Exchequer £3.23 billion a year in in-work benefits and tax losses to support employers who do not pay their employees a living wage. Low pay is bad for the economy, and it is bad for the taxpayer as well. However, the Government have no plans to improve the national minimum wage.
One group of workers who are caught by both zero-hours contracts and abuses of the minimum wage are care workers. People who are doing one of the most precious jobs in our country, and whom we entrust to look after our elderly and disabled loved ones, are treated appallingly. Studies show that between 160,000 and 220,000 care workers are unlawfully paid less than the minimum wage.
When we talk about raising the minimum wage, we often hear scaremongering stories about jobs being offshored. Does my hon. Friend agree that, as care workers’ jobs cannot be offshored and will continue to be done here, there is no danger in raising their wages?
A great deal of nonsense is talked about raising the minimum wage. When we consider the cost to the people who are employed and the cost to the Exchequer, it is clear that we cannot continue to subsidise employers who could pay their employees a living wage.
My hon. Friend is right to express concern about carers, many of whom are women. Would not many of them benefit the most from Labour’s commitment to provide extra child care assistance so that their children can be looked after, as opposed to the Government’s promise of jam tomorrow in autumn 2015?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. Most carers are women, and most of them are now older women because of that very problem that people cannot afford to pay for care.
An investigation of 80 care providers established that nearly half of them were not complying with minimum wage regulations. A fifth of the adult social care work force are on zero-hours contracts. Many are not paid for travel time, and, unsurprisingly, there is a 30% turnover of care workers who work in people’s homes. This is not just bad for them; it is also bad for the people they care for. Imagine a situation in which someone does not know who will come into their home four times a day to get them up, to feed them and to put them to bed, and who does not know who will be washing their most private parts. Imagine the strain of their having to tell different people every day how to care for them, the strain on carers when their cared-for person is unable to speak up for themselves, or the worry for people of not knowing when carers will turn up and the panic when they think they might have been forgotten.
Then there are the mistakes that occur. Members will know that I speak from experience. My mum was given both her morning and evening tablets at the same time the other day because the carer accidentally gave her her evening tablets and then thought it would be a good idea to give her her morning ones as well. Another carer just gave her her evening ones instead of her morning ones, and, even worse, a new carer took my mother for her shower, wrapped her in a towel and left her to walk alone from the bathroom to the bedroom with the towel wrapped around her, Of course, my mother fell and has a head injury, and an arm injury that is still troubling her now several weeks later. I speak from experience and I know that this is exactly what is happening to hundreds of thousands of people every day when they cannot rely on the care service. Imagine the distress, too, of a cared-for person, day in, day out, having a parade of different carers.
Low pay, insecure work and zero-hours contracts are not just bad for the employee; they are bad for all of us. I fear that yet again my words are falling on the deaf ears of those who simply want to tell us that everything in the world is fine. Well, it may be fine in their world, but it is not fine in the world of the majority of my constituents in Bolton West.
Simply telling my constituents that things are getting better does not solve the problem. This Gracious Speech does not solve the problem that a third of private rented homes are non-decent homes. It will not build the affordable homes or the social homes for people and their children. It will not provide secure tenancies or affordable child care or raise the national minimum wage. It will not guarantee a job for the long-term unemployed. It will not freeze energy prices. It will not stop workers being undercut by the unscrupulous use of migrant workers. It will not make it easier for people to see their GP. It will not stop the privatisation of the health service, and it will not tackle the issues of dog welfare and dog control that put my constituents at risk; and, worst of all, it is not going to make work pay.
I hope that in 12 months’ time I will be welcoming all the things that I said this Gracious Speech will not do, and that I will be sitting on the Government Benches welcoming the next Queen’s Speech. Truly Britain deserves better than this.
I greatly welcome the Queen’s Speech and the provisions set out in it. Having served on the Modern Slavery Joint Committee with Members of the House of Lords, I particularly welcome the Modern Slavery Bill. There is a long list of things I could welcome, but I want to focus on energy and housing as they are the topics for today. However, in passing I think I need to reply a little to Julie Hilling, who spoke of the particular pressures that women, and perhaps women care workers, were under, by pointing out to her that 3 million people have been taken out of income tax by the raising of the tax threshold and that a large majority of them are women in low-paid jobs. I hope she will give us some credit for some of the good things we are doing.
Energy and housing are closely linked, because 27% of the carbon dioxide that is emitted in this country is produced from our housing stock. The link between energy, climate change and housing is very close indeed, therefore. I have long posed this question to those who give advice to Government and others: “If you’ve got £100 million to spend, what is the cheapest way of reducing carbon by the greatest amount?” The answer every time is to tackle housing. That is cheaper than paying for new generating equipment and cheaper than policies to cut carbon for transport, and it is certainly a longer-term solution than any gimcrack price fixing of energy policy.
I am delighted that we have doubled the amount of renewable energy which is contributing to electrical generation since 2010. I welcome our approach to generating energy, and I particularly welcome what we are doing to control energy and improve efficiency in housing. That has been a long-term interest of mine, and I steered on to the statute book the Sustainable and Secure Buildings Act 2004. I was very pleased that this coalition Government adopted the green deal, too. As a Minister I had the opportunity to sign through the first step forward in energy-efficiency for housing in October 2010, and I am pleased to see that there is going to be delivery on zero-carbon homes by 2016. The announcement is somewhat overdue. The Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government is in his place and knows my views about that. It nearly happened in 2012 and again in 2013, but it has happened in 2014: we have a clear announcement about the commissioning of allowable solutions, and we can now get the industry making the preparations it needs, building the confidence to invest that it needs and making sure that it can really deliver for us in 2016.
In parallel with yesterday’s Queen Speech, the Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, my hon. Friend Stephen Williams, made a written statement today on zero-carbon homes. I want to comment briefly on one aspect of that: what is described as a “small site exemption”. Perhaps the Secretary of State can give us a little more information on that. I remind him that there is no need to exclude small sites from the application of allowable solutions. We already have a system, very often played out through section 106, whereby if recreational facilities cannot be provided on site, a developer will contribute to a fund for those facilities to be provided elsewhere. That mostly applies to small sites, because they are the ones where a playground cannot be fitted in easily and so money is paid to enhance playgrounds nearby. He is going to be consulting on the small site exemption and I urge him to accept that my consultation number for the size of small sites should be zero homes and no bigger.
I wish to focus on one other aspect of energy policy as it affects housing efficiency, and it relates to clause 29 of the Deregulation Bill. Again, there is some history here. In 2003, the London borough of Merton won a High Court case allowing it to set energy standards for housing in its borough. That was strongly challenged by the then Labour Government and came at the same time as the Bill that became my 2004 Act was going through Parliament. I wrote into my Bill a clause that “legitimised” the Merton ruling, but the Labour Government and the local government Minister at the time took stock and decided that the embarrassment of challenging this sensible provision outweighed anything else. The Labour Government announced that they were not going to challenge the ruling, and the clause came out of my draft Bill, as it then was, and did not need to find its form in that legislation. I say to the Secretary of State that it was a good localism measure, predating the very good work he has put in place since 2010. I urge him to talk to his colleagues across government and persuade them that we do not need clause 29 of this new Bill, or that if we do, it should not come into force until zero-carbon homes are in place in 2016. Otherwise, we shall have a gap in the provision of energy performance for housing, which nobody wants and nobody needs. Let us be the greenest Government ever.
I draw the House’s attention to my indirect interest, as previously recorded in Hansard. We have had a wide-ranging debate that was opened by the Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change, who made the Liberal Democrat case for the coalition. Were he here, I would gently point out to him that there has not been a council tax freeze for about 2.2 million people on the very lowest incomes who have been hit by the changes in council tax benefit. The most passionate part of his speech was when he talked about energy bills, but I would remind him that energy bills went down when my right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition was Energy Secretary, whereas they have gone up during his tenure.
My right hon. Friend Caroline Flint then made what I think was a forensic speech, making the case for what could have been done in the Gracious Speech to do something about markets that do not work in the interests of consumers, which has dominated this afternoon’s debate. Sir Edward Garnier gave what I would describe as an hon. and learned master-class—one with which I was not familiar before—on heroic negligence.
The Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government assures me across the Dispatch Box that he will further enlighten us on the subject when he replies.
My hon. Friend Mr Betts, who chairs the Communities and Local Government Committee, in a typically thoughtful and well-informed speech, made important points about brownfield land, viability, the impact of migration and the importance of devolving power to answer the English question—a point reinforced by my hon. Friend Ms Stuart.
Several Members—led by Mrs Spelman and supported by Sir John Randall, my hon. Friends the Members for Ynys Môn (Albert Owen) and for Brent North (Barry Gardiner) and Sir Andrew Stunell—spoke passionately in support of the Bill to tackle modern-day slavery. There is not a single Member of the House who does not look forward to the day when that Bill reaches the statute book.
We also heard contributions from the hon. Members for Angus (Mr Weir), for South Basildon and East Thurrock (Stephen Metcalfe), for Fareham (Mr Hoban), for North Dorset (Mr Walter), for Brentford and Isleworth (Mary Macleod), for Stafford (Jeremy Lefroy) and for Northampton North (Michael Ellis),
A number of Members, including the Chair of the Select Committee and my hon. Friends the Members for Islington North (Jeremy Corbyn) and for Stretford and Urmston (Kate Green), raised the problem of the insecurity and expense faced by the 9 million people who now rent from private landlords, including a growing number of families. We know that many of them would like to buy their own homes but cannot afford to do so and that private renting is the most expensive form of tenure. On average, people renting privately spend 41% of their income on housing. For those in the social rented sector the figure is 30%, and for owner-occupiers it is 19%.
We also know that renting privately can mean insecurity—the point made yesterday by my right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition. How can parents of children starting school this September, for example, feel confident about a stable future family life when, with 12-month tenancies being the norm—that is a fact—they do not know for sure whether they will still be in their family home a year from now? Landlords can tell their tenants, “Of course I will renew your tenancy, but I want to increase the rent by 10%.” How can a family plan their future finances, and have a sense of future stability, when there is that degree of uncertainty about both their tenancy and their rent?
We also know that very frequent turnover in properties is not very good for landlords, because properties lie empty and they lose out on rent during that period. It is not very good for tenants, as I have just explained. The one group of people it is good for, of course, is the letting agents, who can charge fees every time there is turnover, both to landlords and tenants. I think that the House will agree that the industry has been poorly regulated. Parts of it have developed some very bad habits, including charging hidden fees for having pets and dealing with inventories and references, all of which are on top of the large amounts of money that people have to find for rent in advance and for a deposit. Many people have to borrow to meet that bill in order to get a home, which is why we would stop lettings agents from charging fees to tenants—as is now the case in Scotland. After all, when we buy a house, it is the seller who pays the estate agent, and not the buyer; that is the parallel. I welcome what the Government propose to do in relation to transparency, but it does not tackle the root of the problem.
To be fair to Ministers for a moment—[Interruption.] I shall be fair; I am always fair. They claim to get the problem of insecurity and uncertainty in the private rented sector judging by the “Better tenancies for families in rental homes” document. It talks about longer tenancies to enable greater stability and rent review clauses that are index- linked to inflation, and yet when we recently announced that we would give greater security by offering three-year tenancies as the norm and peace of mind that any subsequent rent increases would not be excessive, what happened? The former Housing Minister, and now the Chairman of the Conservative party, instantly denounced them as Venezuelan-style rent control.
Then somebody in No. 10 Downing street suddenly thought, “Hang on a minute, didn’t we say something vaguely positive about this in that CLG document?” Lo and behold, the Prime Minister came to the Dispatch Box and said that he was in favour of longer-term tenancies. So, Venezuela, having hoved into view, then disappeared off the scene, but the Prime Minister denounced the idea of rent control.
“on the rents issue, we put forward that policy at our conference last year.”
We have three different Members of the Government and three different positions, at least two of which fully support our policy. I say to Mr Raab, if he is still in his place, what is really a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma is tenants wondering what the Government really think on this question of greater security for tenants. The only possible explanation, in the absence of any legislation in the Queen’s Speech to give people that security and greater certainty about rent increases in years two or three of what we have proposed in the three-year tenancies, is that the Government are willing to concede the point, but are unwilling to lift a single legislative finger to give tenants that greater security and peace of mind.
The only conclusion I can draw is that the Government are ideologically averse to the state using its power on behalf of those for whom markets do not work, and it is exactly the same issue in relation to the energy market. I simply say that it is not much use to all those tenants who find themselves in that position. It is the difference between us and the Government. We will give tenants greater security as of right, and the Government will not.
On building the homes that we need, I welcome the proposal in the Gracious Speech for an urban development corporation to support the building of the Ebbsfleet garden city. However, I say to the Secretary of State that the statement from his Planning Minister, Nick Boles, that he would not require a particular level of affordable housing in Ebbsfleet—he said that in answer to my hon. Friend Roberta Blackman-Woods in the House recently—is frankly astonishing. Are Ministers saying that in all the garden cities that all of us from all parts of the House want to see built, there will be no requirement for affordable housing? What will that do to the housing benefit bill given that there has been a staggering 60% increase in the number of working people claiming housing benefit since the coalition took office? As my hon. Friend Nia Griffith said, we are talking about 400,000 more people. If that does not reinforce the point that was made yesterday by my right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition that for many people in this country work does not seem to pay or reward them, then what does?
My hon. Friends the Members for Bolton West (Julie Hilling), for Ogmore (Huw Irranca-Davies) and for Brent North all spoke eloquently in their own way about the effects of insecurity and low pay on people’s sense that they lack liberty and equality, and on how as a result they do not feel a sense of fraternity in our society.
We want to see the details of the housing and planning measures announced in the Gracious Speech, but after four years of announcements and headlines, the truth is that the Government’s record is not much to shout about. Four years in, the number of homes completed has been lower in every single year that the Secretary of State has occupied his post than it was in any of the 13 years of the previous Labour Government. We built more homes than the coalition. The number of social homes completed last year was the lowest for at least 20 years—the Government’s own figures. That is not surprising. Why? The first act of the Secretary of State on housing was to say, “I have a good idea. Let’s cut the capital budget for affordable housing by 60%”—surprise, surprise, the lowest figure for at least 20 years.
Far from having the “self-build revolution” promised by the then Housing Minister, Grant Shapps—he said that the Government would double the size of the sector—the number of self-built homes is at its lowest level for 30 years. For people who want to get a foot on the housing ladder, it now takes a lot longer to save for a deposit, but even when they get to that point, they find that house prices are now rising nationally at 8% a year and in London at 17% a year. No wonder that the Governor of the Bank of England recently said that Britain’s housing market has deep structural problems and that the failure to build enough homes and rising house prices are the biggest risks to financial stability.
As I have said before from the Dispatch Box to the Secretary of State, we support help for people to realise their dream of home ownership, especially first-time buyers. But, if the Government simply increase housing demand without increasing housing supply, which they have not, all that happens—and indeed it is happening—is that prices continue to rise out of the reach of people who want to get their foot on the ladder. That is what is missing from the Queen’s Speech—a recognition of the structural problems in the land market and the house building market.
Much of the focus has been on planning, and there is more to come, but as my right hon. Friend Margaret Hodge pointed out, there is planning permission for 20,000 homes in her borough, but I think she said that fewer than 1,000 of them—
Only 500 of those homes have been built. The problem is not the planning permission, because more than 19,000 houses with planning permission are waiting to be built; they are simply not being built. What is the structural problem? In part, it is because 30 or 40 years ago two thirds of houses in this country were built by small and medium-sized builders, but by 2012 that figure had fallen to a third. That is a profound change in the structure of the house building market. As the number of small builders has declined and as the big firms have grown even bigger, it has become easier for the dominant firms to buy up land. As Kate Barker found in her report 10 years ago—many Members know that this is true—it is not always in the interests of those big builders to build out the sites on which they have got planning permission as quickly as possible or as quickly as the nation needs.
The truth is that to get the number of houses we require to be built, there has to be a change in how the housing market works—something that Ministers have simply failed to acknowledge. We have to get more firms into house building to build homes and to provide competition, because the high cost of housing is driven by the high cost of land. That is why, compared with the rest of Europe, we have really expensive homes with really small rooms in this country. Not enough land has been released for housing development and, by the time land is given planning permission, it is often prohibitively expensive. That creates an incentive to bank land rather than to build on it.
Those who argue that land banking is not a problem forget what the Office of Fair Trading found in 2008. It said that strategic land banks bought with options, which accounted for 83% of land banks, were worth 14.3 years of production, and that that would be enough to build 1.4 million homes, which would be a welcome addition. What is more, under the current system there is very little that local authorities can do about land banking. Compulsory purchase order powers are little used because they are complex, legalistic, difficult and so on, so authorities, on behalf of the communities that they represent, have no effective way of bringing land forward to the market. That is why we would create greater transparency by ensuring that developers register the land they own and have options on—[Interruption.] The Secretary of State is chuntering, but he is in favour of transparency, so will he support that measure?
We want to give councils and communities the power to charge developers escalating fees for sitting on land with planning permission to incentivise them to build and, if they do not, to release the land. The Secretary of State has denounced the idea, but of course it was supported by the hon. Member for Grantham and Stamford before he was given the job of Planning Minister. As a last resort, we would give local authorities the power compulsorily to purchase land and to assemble land so that we could make progress. The purpose of all those measures is to address the imbalance of power between local communities and developers. I say to Ministers that the land market and the housing market are not working and that is why there is this fundamental problem. There is not enough competition and I do not understand why a Government that includes a party that prides itself on being an apostle for competition is doing nothing about that.
My final point is about how we can get consent and get the houses built in the right place. I congratulate the local authority of the hon. Member for Fareham on the leadership it has shown—he outlined that for the House this afternoon—in recognising that there is a need for more housing and saying where it would like it to go. That is the essence of the deal. We have a much better chance of getting communities to come forward and take responsibility for meeting housing need in their area if they think that the sites they identify are where the housing will go. As we have heard in debates in this House on many occasions over the past two or three years—this is the reason the Planning Minister sometimes gets a tough time—it does not work like that. Developers say that the land is brownfield and too expensive, that they cannot build a lot there and that they want to go for a greenfield site. That has to change.
The fundamental problem with the Gracious Speech is that it does not get why so many people voted the way they did or did not vote at all on
It would be churlish of me not to thank Hilary Benn for allowing me a few moments to reply to the debate. I always enjoy following him and thought that he was particularly on form today. I always look forward to his unique combination of Lady Bracknell and Joseph Stalin.
We few, we happy few, we band of brothers—and, of course, sisters—are here to debate the Queen’s Speech, while our comrades in arms are 100 or so miles to the north marching the streets of Newark. I want to make it absolutely clear that if anybody in Newark is watching this debate on the parliamentary channel and has not been to vote yet, I would not be offended if they left immediately to do so.
Many people have spoken in the debate and, although I think it is quite unusual to do so the following day, I compliment my hon. Friend Penny Mordaunt on an excellent speech. We all enjoyed it and never did I believe for a moment when we were putting through the Localism Act 2011 that it would eventually lead to a namesake of mine snuffling through the undergrowth of my hon. Friend’s constituency. I wish that mammal every success.
As the right hon. Member for Leeds Central said, apart from the wonderful speeches from my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change and Caroline Flint, the speeches started with my hon. and learned Friend Sir Edward Garnier talking about heroic negligence. He is a distinguished lawyer, which I know to be a fact, because when my permanent secretary was the chief executive of a local authority, he tried to sue me for defamation and my hon. and learned Friend managed to save my house and my skin. I realise that he was teasing me terribly. I have looked and I can find no reference to heroic negligence. I am taking my courage in my hands to contradict a distinguished QC. As far as I can see, this is just a defence to a charge of negligence, where one can say one has done something in the common interest and shown unnecessary valour. That does not involve, as far as I can see, disappearing into a phone box and changing into an outfit where one wears one’s knickers over one’s shirt. I think we may be able to satisfy my hon. and learned Friend.
My right hon. Friend Mrs Spelman, my right hon. Friend Sir John Randall and other right hon. and hon. Members referred to the modern slavery Bill, as did my hon. and learned Friend. We are pleased with the support for the Bill. My right hon. Friend the Member for Uxbridge and South Ruislip mentioned that he had been to the 105th birthday of Sir Nicholas Winton, who is widely known in the House. It is appropriate that on this day, when we are celebrating the 70th anniversary of the liberation of Europe, we remember that Sir Nicholas was responsible for the liberation of many young people in the Kindertransport, and we wish him many more birthdays to come.
My hon. Friend Stephen Metcalfe welcomed the help for small businesses and spoke cogently about the problems of small businesses getting finance from the banks. He spoke also about a problem in his constituency, which I have shared. It is right that we are addressing that problem. My hon. Friend Mr Raab said that it was massively important that we were bringing down the deficit and ensuring that personal and banking debt were reduced. My hon. Friend Mary Macleod spoke about the Government’s many achievements and the excellent quality of housing in her constituency, which I had an opportunity to see recently.
My hon. Friend Mr Hoban talked about the way we are dealing with the housing market, and my hon. Friend Mr Walter spoke about solar power and was a strong advocate of local power. My hon. Friend Jeremy Lefroy talked about recovering tax from tax avoidance schemes and what we were doing to deal with the deficit. My hon. Friend Michael Ellis managed to elicit from Labour that they wanted to out-Thatcher Thatcherites by going faster and deeper with the cuts, which I thought was amazingly interesting. He also spoke about the new jobs and better standards in schools, and talked interestingly about potholes.
My hon. Friend George Freeman gave strong support to the Union and made a persuasive case for turning the anger of the electorate into empowering the electorate. My right hon. Friend Sir Andrew Stunell talked about improving energy in building. I cannot look at a copy of the building regulations without thinking of him. The measures on small sites are not there to help the larger developers; they are to help small builders. As Opposition Members tried their best to bankrupt the housing sector, we are trying to get some builders back in.
We have heard a lot in this debate, but one thing is clear: an economy under the Opposition would mean an economy in reverse, a stifled rental market, a choked-off energy market, and an overtaxed labour market. In fact, it would be a miracle if any market was going in the right direction.
This Government have spent four years laying the foundation for a sure recovery by cutting Labour’s budget deficit, sticking to our long-term economic plan, and keeping taxes down for hard-working people. The Opposition may say that some grand Whitehall housing targets would make the difference, but we have heard that before from the previous Prime Minister. As soon as they were announced, with the curse of Jonah, the house-building programme plummeted under Labour. We have reversed Labour’s shameful housing market trend, which dragged us down to 1920s start levels. We have begun work on more than 445,000 houses since 2010. Planning permissions for 213,000 homes were put in place only last year. The Help to Buy equity loan scheme has helped more than 30,000 people to buy or reserve a new home—something I understand the Opposition now support. Home ownership is no longer a pipe dream but a reality for thousands of first-time buyers.
A contribution in my constituency will be the local plan that my two local authorities are working on. One of the difficulties is the green belt, which is very precious to them. The current Planning Minister, my hon. Friend Nick Boles, and his immediate predecessor have emphasised that these sites could be removed from the green belt only in exceptional circumstances and that doing so in order to make up the housing site numbers was not exceptional. Unfortunately, some councils—I will not name them—are not heeding that advice, and apparently neither are some planning inspectors. Assuming that my right hon. Friend agrees with the Minister, would he be able to circulate this important message to local authorities as they develop their plans?
Yes, indeed. We did that, I think, as recently as a couple of months ago. An exceptional case has to be made for housing on green belt. We know from the Solihull case that an exceptional case has to be made not only in terms of taking things off the green belt but putting things on to it.
The Opposition claim that there are half a million unbuilt houses with planning permission due to land banking; indeed, we have just heard that. I have to say that that is not entirely correct. Some 90% of those houses are currently in the process of being built or are about to be started. Our reforms on planning conditions in the infrastructure Bill will help to speed up the process. We have taken a series of steps to kick-start stalled sites, such as scaling back unreasonable section 106 agreements—all measures that the Opposition have opposed.
This Government have turned Britain around. We are safeguarding the public finances, there are 1.5 million more people in work, income tax has been reduced for 24 million people, and the deficit is down by a third. [Interruption.] If Huw Irranca-Davies wants to intervene, he should stand up and ask. [Interruption.] I will not give way at the moment.
This is the sort of decisive action that the Opposition can only dream of. Labour Members talk about the cost of living crisis and claim to understand it, but they failed to protect hard-working people when they had a chance. Instead, they doubled council tax, escalated fuel duty, and watched as building sites downed tools and shops were boarded up. In contrast, this Government are protecting people who want to get on and do the right thing by putting taxpayers at the heart of decision making.
I thank the right hon. Gentleman for giving way and for his advice on standing up. In standing up for my constituents, may I ask him to address the nub of my speech? The fall in the claimant count in my constituency, despite continuing long-term problems and long-term unemployment, is welcome news, but underneath that is the issue of poverty pay. Does he accept the situation under this Government whereby more people are in poverty and in work than in poverty and out of work? Is that acceptable?
We have been very clear that we want an increase in the minimum wage and want to do things to prosecute employers who do not pay it. We want to see people on the ladder. We do not take the Labour view: “You know your place and you’ll never get any better.” We believe that once people get on the employment ladder they will get a better job, move on and get promoted, and then reach a point when they want to put something back into society. There is nothing wrong with the dignity of labour.
I thank the Secretary of State for giving way. Going back to planning regulation, will he reconsider the question of the lack of planning requirement for the transfer of office accommodation into housing? When a transfer takes place there is no social housing obligation. Does he not realise that it is quite an important issue in areas such as mine?
It is exactly the same as it is for housing in the rest of the country. We found that placing those numbers created an unnecessary burden nationally. We are happy for local people to come to an agreement on the mix and some minor adjustments have certainly helped, but building 50% of nothing is still nothing.
I can announce today that we will introduce new measures to allow London home owners to rent out their homes on a short-term basis to visitors. Londoners currently have to apply for planning permission from their council, with extra red tape, confusion and cost. Ending that outdated rule from the 1970s will allow Londoners the same freedom that home owners across the rest of the country enjoy. It will not mean that homes will be turned into hotels or hostels, but it will allow hard-working families to earn extra cash when they themselves go away. In our fifth parliamentary year, this Queen’s Speech builds on the foundations we have laid.
Albert Owen, who is not in his place, expressed concern about new homes in Wales. I understand why, because the number of new homes in Labour-run Wales has fallen. House builders have shifted their business across the border to England, because the Welsh Government are so anti-business. The devolved Administration in Wales have hit the housing market with a mountain of red tape and have failed to support home ownership. Some builders have estimated that it costs up to £13,000 more to build a house in Wales than in England. It is a matter of public policy and the regulations hurt business and jobs.
Members do not need to take my word for that, because the Federation of Master Builders has stated that the Welsh Government’s waste plan is “counter-productive” and is
“going to drive the industry further into the doldrums”.
The Home Builders Federation has warned that the cost and regulation of building seem to be increasing:
“For example, proposed change to Part L of building regulations on energy and carbon efficiency could potentially add nearly £20,000 to the build cost of each new home in Wales.”
That is not satisfactory.
Labour Front Benchers will forgive me for saying that two Labour Back Benchers made immensely interesting speeches. Ms Stuart spoke powerfully about Birmingham and Joseph Chamberlain. I cannot help believing that he would have laughed his socks off at her contribution and the idea that he would stand around and wait for the Government to grant some powers. He took the powers and I think that frightened this Chamber enormously and led to a lot of the regulations that pushed down on local government. I think that the general power of competence and the city deals are the future, and local government should grab that opportunity.
In the remaining minutes, I just want to say that the speech of Mr Betts really reflected the massive importance of housing in any social change. The changes we are attempting to make to get more private money into the private rented sector are about trying to build more resilience. Whether the hon. Gentleman sits on the Opposition or Government Benches, the truth is that there will be no public money for a massive house-building programme. We can only do that by making it attractive for private money to come into the private rented sector. That was our concern about the proposals made by the hon. Gentleman a few weeks ago. My point is that they gave uncertainty in suggesting that they might be a harbinger of Venezuelan rent controls.
I commend the Queen’s Speech to the House.
The debate stood adjourned (
Ordered, That the debate be resumed on