The Economy and Work

Part of Debate on the Address – in the House of Commons at 4:39 pm on 26th May 2016.

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Photo of Owen Smith Owen Smith Shadow Secretary of State for Work and Pensions 4:39 pm, 26th May 2016

I am delighted to see that the Chancellor has come back to join us for the close of what has been an excellent debate today, to hear the Opposition’s view that, by any stretch of the imagination, this Queen’s Speech is a desperate missed opportunity. It could have addressed the deep-seated problems in our economy or the poor quality of work experienced by so many under this Conservative Government. Time and time again this afternoon, I have heard right hon. and hon. Members lament those problems, and ask in their different ways where the meat was last week.

Where was the Bill to address the deep-seated problems in our economy, and the yawning inequality that is spreading across Britain? For example, where was the Bill that, as my hon. Friend Peter Dowd put it, could boost our economy through investment in our public services? What a question to have to ask on a day when the Government have sacked 250 BIS workers in the heart of the northern powerhouse in Sheffield. The Government should reflect on that.

The Government should also reflect on the question asked by my right hon. Friend Mr Howarth: where was the Bill was to revive manufacturing? My right hon. Friend Caroline Flint asked where the Bill on tax transparency was. My hon. Friend Mr Hepburn—that mighty place—made a barnstorming speech lambasting the Chancellor and the Government for preparing to flog off the Land Registry as another private sector monopoly.

The Government should also reflect on the powerful speeches by my hon. Friends the Members for Penistone and Stocksbridge (Angela Smith) and for Aberavon (Stephen Kinnock), who are continuing their fight to stand up for steel jobs just 24 hours after the brave steelworkers came to London to petition the Government to save their jobs and protect their pensions.

As my hon. Friend Yvonne Fovargue asked, where was the Bill to sort out education and the savings crisis in Britain? My hon. Friend Jonathan Reynolds asked where the Bill was that could deal with the rising tide of destitution that is sweeping Britain under the Tories. He reminded us that in the great city of Manchester there is now an emerging tent city. What an unbelievable token of this Government’s failure it is that people are living in tents at the heart of one of our greatest cities. Where were any of the Bills to deal with any of those problems? Where was the Bill to support the self-employed or to support carers? Where was the Bill to reverse the cuts to universal credit or to really deal with devolution?

I have my own question for the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions and the Chancellor: where was the Bill to save the steel industry? Today of all days, when we have had a half-baked announcement by the Work and Pensions Secretary—[Interruption.] I support the fact that there has been a written announcement, but decry and deplore the fact that he did not have the nerve to come to the House to explain what some of the downsides might be, because we have heard scant evidence from the Government on what this situation means for some of the steelworkers. [Interruption.] I have said I support it—he keeps chuntering. I support the production of the consultation document and the fact that he is looking at the issue, but he should have done it a year ago. That is the truth—he should have been addressing it long since.

When the Secretary of State replies to the debate, he will have the opportunity to give us some of the answers that we did not get from his right hon. Friend the Business Secretary today, such as who will definitely disbenefit as a result of the changes? What precedent will be set for other industries? Are we content to see other industries in future take a similar route and shift uprating of pension benefits from being in line with the consumer prices index to being in line with the retail prices index, with workers losing out? He needs to tell the House how he will ring-fence that so that it affects only steelworkers.

Now I come to think of it, where was any sort of industrial strategy in the Queen’s Speech? One of the most telling contributions today was made by Chris White. I do not know whether it is just because he looks a bit like me that the brother wants to come over to our side—[Interruption.] He could be a Welshman with an inside leg that length. He sounded like a Labour man when he spoke earlier. He asked, essentially, “Where is the industrial strategy? Wouldn’t it be marvellous if the Tories had one?”