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It is always a pleasure to follow Catherine McKinnell, but it has been uplifting to hear the maiden speech of my hon. Friend James Cartlidge. He has unashamedly given us a speech full of ambition, pride and hope for the future of his constituency, and he also delivered it entirely without notes. It was somewhat reminiscent of your own style, Mr Speaker, and perhaps that is something for the future.
It is a sense of ambition, pride and hope for Britain that comes through so clearly in this Queen’s Speech. It continues the work to tackle the most important problem this country faces, which is the recovery of our economy. Without a strong economy, we simply will not have the money to ensure a stronger NHS, to invest in our education system or to support the most vulnerable in society, but because our plan for Britain has been a plan for recovery, we are already starting to see the fruits of it.
Last year our country grew faster than any other G7 country—a trend that looks set to continue—and we have also seen record levels of employment. Wages and living standards are now rising, and it is clear that the economy is mending. The Queen’s Speech also underlines that, if we are to build a true recovery for the long term, it is important that we continue to tackle the issue of productivity, because that is the most important driver of prosperity in this country.
Britain is a natural nation of entrepreneurs. I saw that at first hand during my childhood, with a father who built a business to be able to support his family, and I believe that that strong work ethic pervades our society. There is no lack of ambition or hard work in Britain, but we need to tackle the issue of productivity. It is a problem for most mature markets, including the US, Japan and, indeed, most of our European neighbours. The difference in Britain is that, for too many years, there was under-investment in our infrastructure and over-regulation of our business. That quite simply put us at a disadvantage, which makes it all the more important that this Government are taking action now.
The Government have already done much to increase our productivity over the past five years, giving priority to investment in infrastructure, particularly roads. However, as I touched on earlier in an intervention on the Secretary of State, I want to challenge the Government to go further with their investment plans for infrastructure and make sure that they also include rail infrastructure, because that will help us continue on the path to success.
We have also built strong foundations with regard to skills, nowhere more so than in the excellent work being done on expanding apprenticeship programmes. There have been more than 3,000 new apprenticeships in my own constituency in recent years. On innovation, the Basingstoke College of Technology has to be applauded for leading the way in working with university partners to develop a new work-based university centre to promote a degree-level apprenticeship in the digital, engineering and construction industries. Such innovation is so important for the future.
It is right that increased productivity continues to be at the centre of this Government’s thinking. I urge the Minister to celebrate the fact that the Cities and Local Government Devolution Bill will give cities control of the levers of growth to rebalance our economy; that the enterprise Bill will help to tackle problems of over-regulation; and that the Education and Adoption Bill will continue the progress that has already been made in driving up standards in our schools, which is so important in tackling the problem of productivity. That drive to improve productivity rightly pervades the Gracious Speech.
Infrastructure, skills, technology and regulation are all important ways to tackle productivity, but any country will maximise its productivity only when it can use the full entrepreneurial talents of all its people. We are already seeing record levels of employment, particularly among women, but we must ensure that our ambition for Britain is high and that at the heart of that is a high ambition for British citizens, with no individual being held back from reaching their potential because of prejudice or a lack of opportunity to succeed. That is one nation Conservatism: maximising the talents of every child in school; making it possible for parents to go to work and balance their family commitments—the Childcare Bill is welcome in that area; providing support for those who take the risk and create their own businesses, but making sure that gender, ethnicity, religion and sexuality do not hold people back. We need to unleash the spirit and potential of our nation. The Gracious Speech is full of ambition for Britain and it deserves the full support of this House.