I am delighted to be able to speak in this important debate. I thank you for granting it, Mr Speaker, and my hon. Friend Valerie Vaz for securing it. I wish to follow everyone else in congratulating the new Members, Kirstene Hair and my hon. Friend Marsha De Cordova, on making superb, notable maiden speeches.
I want to confine my remarks to the procedural debate and the arguments we are putting forward, which I believe are solid and sound. Let me start by pointing out that the result of the general election has changed the role of this Chamber; power has shifted from the Executive to Parliament. There have been few times when we, as Back-Bench MPs, have had a greater ability to influence and shape Government policy. It is all very well Members suggesting that this is a needless debate, but I do not think that is true; people can stretch the truth thin enough, but when they do that others can see through it. It is true that a lack of time has been allocated to Back-Bench business, private Members’ Bills and Opposition day debates, and people can see that that is an attempt to stifle the role and influence of this Chamber. I sincerely hope that Back Benchers, of all parties, can also see that.
At the Prime Minister’s recent relaunch, she reached out to the Labour party, asking us to
“contribute and not just criticise”.
That is a worthy sentiment. Although I may disagree fundamentally with the right wing of the Conservative party, the Prime Minister’s plea to Labour was an attempt to stifle the Back-Bench voice in this Chamber. I am willing to work with parliamentary colleagues, but I would never vote to cut workers’ rights or to privatise even more of our public sector services. I accept that I will be unable to convert many in the Conservative party—perhaps not any—to the benefits of re-nationalising our railways, abolishing university tuition fees, or increasing spending on social care or on other public services, although there are many sound arguments for doing such. However, there are areas of consensus, and issues that can bridge politics.
I had hoped the public sector pay cap would be such an issue. I had hoped that some Conservative Members would be outraged by the Chancellor’s alleged comments, which were widely reported, about public sector workers—the idea that nurses, teachers, firefighters, police officers and prison staff were “overpaid” and receiving a “premium”. I would like him to tell that to the student nurse who contacted me over the weekend as she faced the prospect of sleeping in a colleague’s car, because there were no trains after her night shift and she only had £10 to last the week. I hope eventually we will see the lifting of the pay cap. If it does not come from Conservative Members, perhaps their colleagues in the Democratic Unionist party can exert their influence and give public sector workers the pay rise they deserve.
I will look beyond the Prime Minister’s offer to “contribute”, as there is little prospect of her ever listening to a lowly Back Bencher, particularly a socialist, trade union supporting Labour MP like me. So perhaps there is more prospect of reaching out to other Back Benchers, not just to criticise, but to contribute. Other right hon. and hon. Members have made reference to the Westminster Hall debate on
I ask Conservative Members to look at the comments from the Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, Guy Opperman, who was here just a few minutes ago. He is not a bad individual and I get on with him incredibly well, but it is outrageous to suggest that women who have been forced to wait longer for their state pension should be offered apprenticeships. For the Members who were not there, I can tell them that I have never heard anything like what I heard from the public gallery; there were gasps and cries of “Shame!” when the Minister made that outrageous suggestion. He did a disservice to the women affected, the Conservative party and the Government.
Although I do not have a great deal of interest in the reputation and popularity of the Conservative party, I expect many Members sitting opposite do. I certainly know that, privately anyway, many may disagree with the Government’s position on the WASPI women and strongly believe action should be taken to right this wrong. As Back Benchers, we have not only a voice in this Parliament, but the ability to shape policy and, in this case, improve the lives of millions of our constituents. I know we do not want to have a re-hash of the debate, but I am trying to deal with the point that Mr Rees-Mogg made about how we could be addressing important issues, as this is a crucial issue.
With all due respect to the Leader of the House and the Government, who determine the business, in this Session we seem to get involved in a lot of displacement activity; we are debating the same things over and over again, without a vote on the motion. If we do not have a resolution, we simply cannot move forward. We need to demand of the Government—this needs to come not only from the Opposition, but from Back Benchers—that they do something. I can assure Members that if we have consensus, or we are dealing with sensible policies or sensible Bills from Members from any party, I will give such matters my full consideration, and I hope others would do the same.
I ask Conservative Members to recognise that they have the power to demand change for the WASPI women. If the Government will not budge, we will have to demand and obtain a meaningful vote on the Floor of the House. I know the extent of the changes we can achieve will be determined by those willing to break the Conservative Whip, but Back-Bench MPs had only a small voice in the last Parliament. Now the arithmetic has changed and, in this Parliament, we have the power if we choose to exercise it. WASPI is one campaign where I know we have the numbers, and other hon. Members may be able to identify other issues or concerns; I have a whole bagful in relation to the Coalfields Regeneration Trust, the Homes and Communities Agency and so on. If we have a basis for consensus, we can achieve policy changes. If, as I suspect, we have a legislature that does not wish to legislate, I urge and implore all Members to make this Parliament the Back-Bench Parliament.