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Birmingham is a great city, with a great history, at the heart of England. It is the city of Chamberlain—the city that saw the foundation of municipal governance and municipal enterprise; the city of a thousand trades; the workshop of the world. It is a city with great strengths to this day—world-class companies such as Jaguar Land Rover, world-class sectors such as life sciences and world-class universities—but it is a city that has been hard hit. It was hard hit in the 1980s by Thatcher’s closures, when half our industrial base went. It is a city that still has high unemployment, and one in which too many are on low wages: about 24,000 are on the minimum wage, and in my Erdington constituency, average earnings are £60 less than the national average. It is a city now suffering the biggest cuts in local government history, with every single household losing £2,000 as a consequence of what this Government did in their first term. But, together with the region, it is a city that is ambitious for the future and determined to transform the west midlands into an economic powerhouse. It is determined also that we will not end up like the Ohio of Britain—a place that people fly over, but never touch down in.
My appeal to the Government is this: England cannot succeed without its heart beats, so that all of England succeeds. It is likewise with Great Britain, as all of Scotland and Wales must succeed.
Labour was the party of devolution—for Scotland, Wales and London. I welcome the more recent conversion of many Conservative Members, although the new Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, a man of great integrity, has been a long-standing supporter of this agenda. The Government’s approach, however, is still characterised by a poverty of ambition. There is still a reluctance to ensure a settlement for all of England, Scotland and Wales. There is a real danger of dividing our nations, as mentioned in a brilliant speech by my right hon. Friend Mr Hanson.
There is also a fundamental inconsistency. The Secretary of State will remember that when we debated the Localism Bill, I said that the Government were sometimes more Leninist than localist. How can the Government say, “All power to the people” and “Let the people decide”, and then say about the issue of mayors three years on, when people in the west midlands have decided—Birmingham and Coventry did not want mayors—“It does not matter what you have decided. We are going to decide for you, and if you want that radical devolution deal, you will have to embrace what we want, whether or not you want it”? That cannot be right.
There is another key problem about the new settlement: the Government cannot both empower and impoverish. What we have seen, following the general election, is a damascene conversion. What is the mantra now? It is “One nation, working people and compassion”. One nation? How can it be right that every household in Birmingham has lost £2,000, while in Cheshire East, which includes the Chancellor’s constituency, spending power has gone up? How can it be right that the west midlands has seen cuts to our police service twice as severe as those in leafy Surrey?
Still on the notion of one nation, how can it be right that carers and the disabled fear what the announcements might be when the Government finally spell out where they are going to get the £12 billion of benefit cuts at the very same time as this Queen’s Speech includes a Bill on tax that says to millionaires, “You need not worry for the duration while we are in power”? The broadest shoulders should bear the biggest burden, but that is not a characteristic of this Government.
As for the Conservatives being a “party of working people”, it is a party that would rob working families of benefits, rob workers of their rights and attack their trade unions in the world of work. A party of working people? Do not make me laugh! As for being a “party of compassion”, this Government will never be able to call themselves that, so long as the scandal of the bedroom tax remains on the statute book.
In conclusion, I saw the Chancellor today with a cock-sure Cheshire cat grin on his face. To be frank, he is out of touch with the uncertainty of the country, blandly asserting that the long-term economic plan is working. Millions of people are still struggling. There is uncertainty for them and uncertainty for our country now, with the European Union referendum ahead. Is it working? We have the biggest housing crisis in a generation, with home ownership falling and housing benefit bills booming, not least because so many people on low pay and in insecure work are paying high rents and cannot survive without housing benefit. Is it working? We also have a major problem with productivity in this country.
One thing I learned a long time ago in the world of work is that we can never succeed as a low-wage, insecure-employment, bargain-basement economy. What works for companies and countries is a high-wage, high-productivity economy. Ours, therefore, is a very different vision: a vision of a dynamic, devolved Britain where everyone has a chance to get on, where no one is left behind, and where there is true compassion. We are our brothers’ keepers. We will never abandon those obligations, no matter what the Government say or do.