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I am grateful for the opportunity to speak in today’s debate. I start by thanking the people of Feltham and Heston for re-electing me, and for the trust that they have placed in me to be their Member of Parliament.
We were lucky to have a Queen’s Speech at all this year, following a snap election that did not go according to plan and a coalition that has not yet gone according to plan. It is a Queen’s Speech that the Queen had not planned for, and that today saw 13 commitments from the Tory manifesto go unmentioned. We could be forgiven for thinking that the contents of this shortened Queen’s Speech will not last the two years that the Government intend. With the Queen’s Speech being as wafer-thin as the Prime Minister’s majority, there is a lot more to come in the next two years.
With the challenges that we face, it was more important than ever for the Queen’s Speech to tackle the issues facing this country and leave a legacy for our nation. It should have been a Queen’s Speech that gave hope to a nation and tackled the issues that we heard our constituents talking about at the election: a better future for our NHS; an increase in community police officers, with greater powers to tackle drugs and antisocial behaviour; more funding for our schools, which are now grappling with the impact of the estimated 8% cuts to pupils’ education; the cost of education for young people going to university; more affordable housing for our families; and a Brexit that puts jobs first, that seeks the closest possible economic relationship with our neighbours, and that delivers the improvements in quality of life that people want.
After a difficult year, we have a nation that wants to believe that better is possible. The London mayoral campaign last year showed the Government driving the language and politics of division, and Sadiq Khan’s victory was as much a victory for Sadiq and Labour in London as it was a victory for Londoners, and for the values of respect and inclusion that this country stands for.
We remember our friend Jo Cox and her inspirational life of love and of passion, so tragically cut short by hate. We think about the EU referendum, the rise in hate crime and Islamophobia and, more recently, the attacks in Westminster, Manchester, London Bridge and Finsbury Park, and the devastating fire at Grenfell Tower. They are all part of a growing sombre mood, but one that goes beyond terrorism to much that is of our making and down to the choices that the Government have made.
Some of the challenges are made clear in the 2017 social progress index, published in the past couple of days, which shows the UK ranking 12th in factors relating to basic needs, wellbeing and opportunity. Social progress has not increased in the past four years, and we are going backwards on key measures. The report’s results also show how widespread the impact of austerity has become. There is disillusionment about the affordability of housing, rising crime, growing intolerance and poor health outcomes. Far from our seeing quality of life improving, things show every prospect of going backwards. Is it not devastating that we, as a developed country, risk creating a homeless generation with people being unable to get on to the housing ladder or living in cramped accommodation where they work? Our children and our families deserve better.
Destitution in the UK is on the rise. A report by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation a year ago highlighted some key facts. The general public consider people to be destitute when they cannot afford to buy the essentials to eat, stay warm and dry, and keep clean. About 1.25 million people, including 300,000 children, were in that situation at some point a year ago.
After seven years of austerity, it is becoming increasingly apparent that there are those in this country who are suffering deeply due to the Government’s policies. People are struggling to make ends meet. We live in a country where nurses are having to go to food banks, where last summer almost 10% of tenants in the UK fell behind with their rent payments, and where the percentage of council tenants on universal credit in rent arrears has increased to a critically high 86%.
The Chancellor said in his Mansion House speech this week that we need a stronger economy to generate tax receipts that we can invest in our public services. Let us put aside for a minute the £20 billion that the Conservatives’ corporation tax cuts have cost this country; on his basic point, the Chancellor is right. The problem is the backdrop of an underperforming economy. We see GDP growth slowing in the first quarter of this year, wage growth slowing—the Governor of the Bank of England, Mark Carney, has called it “anaemic”—and proof with every step that the Government have taken that we cannot cut our way to prosperity.
Prices are rising and wages are stagnating. We need much more thought about how we Brexit, about transitional arrangements to stop a cliff-edge of tariffs and non-tariff barriers, about remaining part of the customs union and of a reformed single market, about protecting the rights of our young people, and about ensuring that we as a nation are not worse off.
If we want a proper growth plan, we need a wider economic plan for the future—and one for the long term. On the productivity crisis, UK productivity lags way behind that of other countries. We also invest far less than the OECD average in research and development. Improvements in UK living standards are much needed, and to achieve that we need wages to grow. Our future income will depend on increasing output per hour.
I welcome the Government’s proposed new modern industrial strategy, which the Labour Opposition have called for. There is much that we share with the Government regarding how we move forward, but we can go much further. I would have liked a productivity Bill in the Queen’s Speech to address the issues that we need to face to deal with our productivity challenge. The Government have made positive moves—the productivity plan and the national productivity investment fund—but, as the Business, Innovation and Skills Committee has said, the productivity plan was
“more of an assortment of largely existing policies” than a new plan. The London School of Economics has said that although there are individually sensible policies, it is difficult to discern a clear growth strategy emerging from the plan. Without such a vision, it is likely that shorter-term considerations will dominate. We need a renewed and much more centralised plan that takes a holistic approach to the many ways in which we can drive up our productivity. We are looking for proper and solid partnership between business and Government, a much more thoughtful sense of how our wider net of tax reliefs can make a contribution, and new strategies for entrepreneurship that include women and business.
We need much more thought about how social and economic progress for all our communities go hand in hand. In the light of the growing uncertainty we face as a nation, and the need for us to consider much more thoughtfully the turning point we face, we need a strategy for how we go forwards and not backwards as a nation.
The Queen’s Speech lacked a positive vision for our country’s future. It should have had a vision for an end to unemployment and underemployment, with food banks becoming a thing of the past; a vision for children growing up without mental health issues; a vision for a nation that is proud, confident and prosperous; and a vision of a nation happy, with diverse communities living side by side with mutual respect. A vision of a better society was what our country needed, and I am sorry to say that this Queen’s Speech did not deliver it.