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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.