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It is a pleasure to be able to speak in the debate, which was opened by a Worcestershire colleague—the Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills and President of the Board of Trade, my right hon. Friend Sajid Javid, whom I am delighted to welcome to his new role—and which will be closed by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, who visited Worcester during the general election campaign. I thank them both greatly. Disappointingly, Mr Umunna, who opened the debate for the Opposition, did not visit Worcester, but he may have got lost while looking for Wichita, which, apparently, he had visited on previous occasions.
I congratulate all Members on both sides of the House who have made maiden speeches. We have heard some excellent speeches from Members who will speak up for their constituencies with great ability in the years to come.
There is much to welcome in the Gracious Speech. As a one nation Conservative who has always been proud to call himself that, I was particularly pleased to note that the phrase “one nation” ran through it. Recently, while reading Douglas Hurd’s biography of Benjamin Disraeli, I was delighted to discover that it was not, in fact, Disraeli who came up with that phrase. He talked about the division between two nations and the need to bring them together, but it was actually a Worcestershire Member of Parliament, Stanley Baldwin, who coined the phrase “one-nation Conservativism”, and I am delighted to be speaking in that tradition.
I was pleased that the very first line of the Gracious Speech referred to the need to bring opportunities to the most disadvantaged, because our party has always been the party of opportunity. The speech was right to focus on making work pay. I particularly welcome legislation that will raise the income tax threshold, and will take many workers on the national minimum wage out of tax altogether. I supported that in a speech that I made three years ago in the Chamber. I remember being heckled by Liberal Democrat Members in front of me who said that I was supporting their policy. I look forward to seeing a Conservative Government deliver that policy, showing that the Conservatives are on the side of working people.
I welcome the ambition to deliver full employment. In that respect, the progress we are seeing in Worcester is a good example to the rest of the country. Before I became an MP in 2010, we had 2,700 people unemployed in Worcester. Since then, unemployment has declined to less than 1,300 today. Youth unemployment in the city has fallen by almost two thirds, and the number of apprenticeships has doubled. However, we need to see a continuing increase in both the number and the quality of apprenticeships. I was pleased that the Gracious Speech included plans to increase their number from 2 million to 3 million in the country as a whole. I have challenged Worcestershire, which last year celebrated hitting its target of 10,000 apprenticeships, to achieve a total of at least 15,000 in the years to come.
The Gracious Speech was right to back small businesses by removing red tape, but we also need to get finance flowing, and to reform business rates. Having served on the Business, Innovation and Skills Committee during much of the last Parliament, I was keen for our recommendation for root-and-branch reform of business rates to be adopted, and I was pleased to hear what my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State said about that in his opening speech.
It is right to give more people a chance to work by extending free childcare. It is also right that the Gracious Speech focused on improving productivity, thus addressing one of the points raised by Jack Dromey. However, it is also right that we consider devolving more power to local communities. Devolution and localism can work. I am an unashamed fan of the concept of Total Place, which means looking at things from the bottom up rather than from the top down. That can be done not through artificial regions, and not only through big cities, but through our counties, which are a key part of England’s and of Britain’s make-up. My hon. Friend Henry Smith has done important work in promoting the right of counties to be treated as part of such deals, and I look forward to seeing how he can work with the ministerial team to deliver that in the years to come.
Worcestershire has never done well when it has been lumped in with a region, and where Birmingham has called all the shots. We missed out during the time of Advantage West Midlands, and we have done much better with our own local enterprise partnership. It was noticeable, even in recent years, that Labour-led Birmingham city council sent officers to object to the south Worcestershire development plan, on the basis—unbelievably—that it created too many jobs in our part of the world. That approach did not endear the Labour party to people in Worcestershire.
To make devolution work across our counties, we need fair funding, and I am delighted that fair funding for schools is a core manifesto commitment of the Conservative party. I look forward to working with the Education team on the delivery of that commitment, but we also need to see fairer funding in health and in local government for our counties and our rural areas. We need infrastructure delivered across the UK—linking not only north and south, but all our great cities, giving them better connectivity to the capital. We need local authorities incentivised to provide affordable housing on brownfield land, and I am delighted that as a result of the election we are going to keep the new homes bonus and Help to Buy, which will continue to make a real difference to my constituents’ ability to buy affordable homes in which they can live.
I welcome colleagues from across the UK, and I recognise the need to meet the aspirations of every part of our United Kingdom, but that needs to include England and England’s shire counties. We need to restore balance to the Union, and I look forward to supporting English votes for English laws to achieve that. We can go together as one nation under one flag, as a United Kingdom, as we did on the battlefields of Waterloo all those years ago in 1815. The Duke of Wellington described that battle as the “damned…nearest-run thing” he had ever seen in his life. My constituents in Worcester can now apply that epithet to the victory of the Worcester Warriors in the championship, after 160 minutes of spectacular rugby and by only one point. Worcester is rightly back in the premiership; I look forward to this Gracious Speech taking us into the premier league with our economy.