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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.