Debate on the Address — [1st day]

Part of Outlawries Bill – in the House of Commons at 2:56 pm on 27 May 2015.

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Photo of Harriet Harman Harriet Harman Leader of HM Official Opposition, Leader of the Labour Party 2:56, 27 May 2015

I am sure the whole House will want to pay tribute to our armed forces. Since the last Queen’s Speech, UK military operations in Afghanistan have come to an end; 453 British servicemen and women lost their lives in that campaign and many more were injured. They served with valour and they deserve our gratitude, and we honour them here today. Our thoughts and deepest sympathies are with their families, to whom we pledge our enduring support.

I congratulate the mover and seconder of the Queen’s Speech. Traditionally, as has been said, the seconder is a rising star with a bright future ahead of them and the mover is someone of great distinction with an illustrious career behind them, so it is a pleasure to congratulate Mr Burns as the mover of this Queen’s Speech. He came into the House in 1987, shortly after I did, and I remember it well, because he cut a real dash then. [Laughter.] Many of us—well, me actually—thought he looked like a young Robert Redford; I know these days it is a bit more Jeremy Clarkson, but, believe me, back in the day he was real head-turner.

As everyone could hear from the right hon. Gentleman’s speech, he is outspoken and engaging, and irrepressible. He was public health Minister, but he did not let that stop him smoking—it was the red box in one hand and the fag in the other—and the fact that he is a Tory has, as we have heard, never stopped him being a passionate supporter of the US Democrats and Hillary Clinton’s No. 1 fan. His good humour did not desert him even when he was rail Minister dealing with the vexed issue of HS2. Nothing will stop him speaking his mind, except possibly you, Mr Speaker, and at a time when we politicians are thought of as all the same—too cautious, too guarded—no one could ever say that about him. He made a good speech today, and I congratulate him on it.

I also congratulate the seconder of the motion, Mrs Murray. She was elected in 2010, the first woman to represent her constituency and only the sixth woman ever elected in Cornwall. We are here to bring the issues of concern of our constituents to the heart of Parliament, and she is a fine example of that when she speaks about her beloved county of Cornwall—or as we know it, the county of Poldark. She does not just speak up for them; she gets things done for them. It is hard to believe that someone who was elected for the first time only in 2010 has already got two Bills put into law—the Marine Navigation (No. 2) Act 2013 and the Deep Sea Mining Act 2014. She comes from those Cornish fishing communities and shares not only their joys, but their sorrows. When only one year after she was elected her husband was killed in a fishing accident, we all admired the tremendous courage she showed in the face of such a tragic loss. Her speech showed her as she is—brave, determined and human—and at a time when people are sceptical about politicians, she is a credit to this House.

I congratulate Mr Cameron: he returns to the House as Prime Minister. [Interruption.] Although he and I have many differences, people have pointed out that in some ways we are quite alike. One of the things that we have in common is that we are both, by our own admission, interim leaders. [Interruption.] So, from one interim leader to another, can I give him some advice? I am sure he will understand what I mean when I say: beware the blond on the zip-wire.

Speaking of interim leaders, I turn to Angus Robertson. Let me give him some friendly advice about the thorny issue of seating arrangements in this House. The lion might be roaring in Scotland, but don’t mess with the beast of Bolsover!

We have come through a general election. We applied for the job but the right hon. Member for Witney got it. Even though we did not get the job we wanted, we have an important job to do for this country: holding the Government to account. Where he acts in the interests of the country, we will support the Government. When he does not, we will not hesitate to be a determined, forensic and vocal Opposition, and that is what every one of our 232 Labour MPs will do. The Chief Whip, Mr Harper is looking somewhat smug, sitting there on the Government Front Bench, but I remind him that the Prime Minister has only a slender majority, so he will not have it all his own way.

Britain faces a fragile future for our economy, our constitution and our public services. Although we are seeing economic growth returning, its benefits are not being shared and the economy remains fragile. Compared with other countries, Britain’s productivity lags behind. Tax revenues have fallen short of where the Government said in 2010 that they would now be, meaning that it is taking longer to reduce the deficit. Britain cannot succeed with low-skilled, low-wage, insecure employment and a race to the bottom. The path to economic prosperity and recovery must involve a high-skilled, long-term approach.

Our productivity is being held back by a lack of investment in training, infrastructure and industry. We will support investment in the skills that people need for the future. We will support measures that genuinely help to get people into work. We will support measures that help small businesses, the vital drivers of the economy. We will support investment in our infrastructure, particularly in affordable green transport systems. All of that will help productivity, but what we will not support are more arbitrary measures to undermine people’s rights at work. The Government have already made it so expensive that it is virtually impossible to go to an employment tribunal. That is not about better productivity; it is divisive, it is posturing and it is unfair.

The Government are bringing forward legislation on tax. We want a fair tax system. We do not want to see taxes going up for those on lower or middle incomes, but the Government must not repeat what they did in the last Parliament, which saw those on the very highest incomes prioritised for a tax cut. This legislation must not block off the possibility of the Government being able to raise taxes on the very highest earners, if that is necessary to protect public services. We believe that it is a matter of basic principle that those with the broadest shoulders must bear the biggest burden.

Our political and constitutional system is fragile, too. Big changes are under way, and no one should be in any doubt that there needs to be further reform. The Prime Minister must keep the promises on further devolution to Scotland, to Wales and to Northern Ireland, and there will need to be change in England and in this House, but to get change that is fair and lasting, it must be done in a way that builds the broadest possible consensus. The Prime Minister must seek agreement and he must break his habit of divisiveness. Of course the Scottish National party wants to break up the Union—it wants people to have to choose between being Scottish and being British—but it would be utterly irresponsible for the Prime Minister to continue what he did so shamefully in the general election, which was to set the English against the Scots. [Interruption.] We saw him do that. No party, especially one that claims to be “one nation” should set the interests of a family in Gloucester against the interests of a family in Glasgow or Glamorgan. Let us be in no doubt: the worst possible outcome for Scotland would be the SNP demanding full fiscal autonomy, which they knows does not add up, and a Tory Prime Minister giving it to them.

Let us continue with the much-needed process of constitutional evolution, but whether on the Prime Minister’s proposals for English votes for English laws or on constituency boundary changes, he must proceed in a way that is absolutely in the interests of the country, and not just in the interests of his party. If there are to be any changes on party funding, they must be made on a fair, cross-party basis, not just rigged in favour of the Tory party. When it comes to devolution to the English regions, with local councils facing unprecedented cuts, especially in the north and some of the most deprived areas of the country, local government cannot be empowered by being impoverished.

On Europe, we will support the Government’s Bill for a referendum on Britain’s membership of the European Union. [Interruption.] We believe that it will be better for Britain if we stay in the European Union. It is important for the future of this country, which is why 16 and 17-year-olds should have the right to vote in the referendum—it is their future, too. Our continued membership is important for our economic prosperity, but that prosperity has to be more widely shared across this country, and a crucial part of that includes stopping unscrupulous employers exploiting migrant workers and undercutting wages. Our membership is also important for our place in the world. Europe does need to change, and we want reforms, so we wish the Prime Minister well with his new best friend, President Juncker.

Turning to human rights, there is normally a degree of unravelling of the Government’s legislative programme after any Queen’s Speech, but this is the first time I have known it to start unravelling before Her Majesty has even spoken. Leaving aside a woman changing her mind, this looks like its a classic “Gove special”. On the Human Rights Act, the Government are clearly still working on the back of that envelope. We have heard the grandiose rhetoric; we are yet to see the proposals. Let me make this clear: if they seek to undermine basic human rights, take us out of the European convention or undermine our ability to stand up for human rights abroad, we will oppose them all the way. In the meantime, we will be keeping an eye out for another group that might need their own rights—the poor foxes.

We have a fragile economy, a fragile constitution and, sadly, fragile public services too—top of that list is the national health service. The Government should be straining every sinew to protect and improve our health service, but where is the effective action so that people can get to see their GP, so that patients in accident and emergency are seen promptly and so that people, especially those needing cancer treatment, do not get stuck on waiting lists? The Prime Minister has got form on this: he has made promises before on the NHS and he has broken them. Whatever is in this Queen’s Speech, we know that you cannot trust the Tories on the national health service. [Interruption.] We will see.

Turning to education, we will hold the Prime Minister to account for his latest promises on childcare. The rhetoric might be promising, but the reality is that children’s centres have closed and the cost of childcare has soared. The average family are now paying £1,500 more per year for nursery fees than they would have been in 2010. Parents do not need more empty promises; they need childcare they can afford.

On welfare, we back measures to get people into work to achieve full employment and thereby get the social security bill down. That is why we put in our manifesto a commitment to a compulsory jobs guarantee for young people and the long-term unemployed. We support a cap on household benefit entitlement. The Government are now planning to reduce it and we are sympathetic to that, but that makes it even more important that the jobs are there for people to move into, that childcare is there, particularly for lone parents, and that there are adequate funds for discretionary housing payments. All that is necessary to ensure that this measure does not put children into poverty, increase homelessness or end up costing more than it saves.

On housing, we want more people to be able to own their own home and more affordable housing that people can afford to rent, but the Prime Minister has a poor record on this, too. The percentage of people who own their own homes is at its lowest for 30 years and now the age at which people can afford their first home has risen to 33. In the last Parliament, when the Government increased the discount for people buying their own council homes, they promised that for every council home bought another would be built. They did not keep that promise. For every 10 council homes bought, only one replacement council home has begun to be built. Now the Government plan to extend the right to buy to housing association tenants and are making more promises, but they have not said how it will be paid for. It will clearly lead to fewer affordable homes and there is an emerging view that, because it is uncosted and unfunded, it is unworkable.

A fundamental priority for every Government is to protect our security, never more so than from the threat of violent extremism. We await David Anderson’s review and will look at the detail of the Government’s wider proposals. If the Government bring forward extra powers, we will want greater accountability for the use of those powers and we will want to see the strengthening, not the watering down, of community-based counter-radicalisation programmes.

The rhetoric at the beginning of this Queen’s Speech is well honed. Indeed, the best lines look uncannily like we wrote them. [Interruption.] Actually, we did not just write them, we engraved them on a tablet of stone, but that is another story and we will perhaps not go there. We fear that the reality of this Queen’s Speech will be very different from the rhetoric. The Queen’s Speech talks of one nation, yet the Prime Minister sets the nations of the country against each other. The Queen’s Speech talks of working people, yet he threatens basic rights at work. At a time when our economy, our constitution and our public services are fragile, we fear that this Tory Government will make things worse. As the dust settles, the real question is whether this Queen’s Speech will improve our country, our communities and people’s lives. That is the test that will be set for this Government and that is the standard to which we, as the Opposition, will hold them to account.