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[1st Day]

Part of Debate on the Address – in the House of Commons at 6:11 pm on 21st June 2017.

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Photo of Meg Hillier Meg Hillier Labour/Co-operative, Hackney South and Shoreditch 6:11 pm, 21st June 2017

As ever, it is a pleasure to follow Mr Grieve. I thank him for his thoughtful contribution and want to pick up on a couple of the points that he made.

Overall, this is a very thin Queen’s Speech. It avoids big issues, some of which I want to talk about, particularly education, housing and health. I will come to those, but Brexit is clearly the dominant issue for this Parliament, and it is notable that the speeches preceding mine have focused almost entirely on it.

Before I talk about Brexit, though, I think it is right that I thank the voters of Hackney South and Shoreditch for returning me for the fourth time as a Labour and Co-operative MP. I was returned with 79% of the popular vote—a sign not of my personal popularity, but of people’s great impatience with austerity. There was no light at the end of the austerity tunnel for many of my constituents. While many people describe my area as achingly cool, in many parts it is still achingly poor.

People were pleased to see the Labour manifesto offering a glimmer of hope, but they were mightily concerned about Brexit as well. Some 78% of them voted to remain in the European Union last year, but now they do not even know what the Government are proposing in the negotiations on leaving. That approach risks a Brexit that will damage the British economy, jobs and living standards. We already see the pound 50% lower against the dollar and 10% down against the euro since the decision was made a year ago, and in April inflation rose to 2.6%, its highest rate for three and a half years. Constituents on the doorsteps said that they were noticing their shopping being more expensive, and that is just the beginning of the impact. It is vital that the Government set out a clear agenda for what they want to achieve.

There are two issues that I think are absolutely essential, one of which is the single market. I would prefer us to maintain membership, but at the very least we need access to it, for all the reasons that Mr Clarke eruditely explained, which I do not need to repeat. The other is EU citizens in my constituency, who still greet me on the doorstep in tears, a year later, because of the Government’s woeful delay in deciding their future. It is heartening that there are press reports that there might be some fast-track measure, but there was nothing about that in the Queen’s Speech.

The right hon. and learned Member for Beaconsfield picked up a point about the great repeal Bill, and we need to be careful about that. The Queen’s Speech identified a few items that the Government will particularly focus on, but this is the Government who promised to reduce quangos, and the Bill runs the risk of creating more as we transpose many regulations from European law to British law. The Queen’s Speech referred to nuclear, but we could also talk about medicines or animal rights. All those issues will have to be transposed. Frankly, if there is another general election and hon. Members lose their seat, I suggest that they go for a public appointment, because many bodies will have to be created in order to deliver that law. That, however, gives no comfort to my constituents who are worried about the cost of living.

The issue of costs and budgets brings me to education. The Government promise in the Queen’s Speech that they will

“work to ensure that every child has the opportunity to attend a good school”.

All children in my constituency attend a good or outstanding school, but my constituents are very angry about education. I have now fought four general elections in my constituency, and several elections prior to that in other places, and I have never seen such a groundswell of anger from parents, teachers and pupils—so much so that there were seven assemblies in Hackney one Friday during the election campaign. The people there were ordinary parents, not political activists—not that there is anything wrong with political activists—who were galvanised into action by the threat to our children’s future.

During the work that we have done in the Public Accounts Committee, which I had the privilege of chairing in the last Parliament and hope to chair again, the Government have kept telling us that the overall schools budget in England is going up and has been protected in real terms. However, they have not provided for an increase in funding per pupil in line with inflation. On average, that will rise from just over £5,440 in 2015-16 to £5,519 in 2019-20, which is a real-terms reduction.

Added to that, there is the proposal to change the funding formula—there has been some indication that that might be changing but, again, no details. The change would mean that schools in my borough of Hackney would lose 2.8% of their funding—the highest percentage cut in the country alongside that to two or three other London boroughs—which would be more than £5 million a year. Our schools are among the best in the country, thanks to the investment of previous Governments, and it would be short-sighted and frankly bonkers to cut that away now.

We can add to that the existing efficiency savings that schools are being expected to make, which the Public Accounts Committee looked at only a few months ago. That £3 billion of savings, which needs to be found by 2020, includes £1.7 billion through the more efficient use of staff—we know that that already means that teachers and classroom assistants are losing their jobs—and £1.3 billion through more efficient procurement. I am all for efficiencies and for spending every tax pound as efficiently as possible, because we can then spend what we save on other things, but these are often false economies. One headteacher in my constituency is looking at four-and-a-half-day weeks, while others are seriously considering whether they can maintain the full secondary curriculum or if they will have to cut it.

Then there is capital funding for schools. There was no real mention in the Queen’s Speech of changes to the schools agenda—including on grammar schools, so we assume that that proposal has bitten the dust. We need nearly £7 billion of capital funding just to bring existing buildings across England up to scratch, yet we have seen a free schools programme that is expected to cost £9.7 billion by 2020. In London alone, four sites have been bought for £30 million or more each, and only recently I heard of a school in Hertfordshire in an old office block with no sports facilities or playground. The children do their PE in a public car park. Members of all parties have raised with me their concerns about similar examples. We need to invest in our children for this country’s long-term future. Our hope for the future, especially with Brexit looming, is that our children will get the best possible education and start in life. Whatever happens, we face choppy waters on immigration with the potential abolition of free movement.

There was also nothing about housing in the Queen’s Speech, except the banning of unfair tenant fees. I draw Members’ attention to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests as someone who lets a property. I will personally support that ban, as I hope that my party’s Front Benchers will. However, it is an important but small element. The last Government promised to build 1 million homes in the Parliament to 2020, and I wonder whether that is still a target. What we need to see is not the Government talking about

“fairness and transparency in the housing market” and helping to

“ensure more homes are built”,

but real numbers and real targets. I look forward to the estimates debates, when we can ensure that we attach money to those words.

Housing is one of the biggest crises in my borough. Education is in crisis at the moment, having been very good, but housing has been a dripping problem for some considerable time. There are problems with home ownership, with prices having risen by 83% since April 2011. Since that year, private sector rents have increased by 27%. In January, the median rent for a three-bedroom property in Hackney was £550 a week, or just shy of £2,500 a calendar month. That is just the median, so many are more expensive. Most people have no hope of getting on the housing ladder in Hackney.

There are also huge issues with social housing. Many households that I see are doubling up, with one family living in the living room and another in the bedroom. That is a real tragedy, because without a stable home, children cannot have a good start in life. If we could sort out housing in Hackney and stop the cuts to education, we would give our children great hope. We have 500 new people applying to be added to the waiting list every month. People do not really move along the waiting list unless they have a serious health problem.