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It is a privilege to follow Sir Paul Beresford and to be able to say a little in response to the Queen’s Speech on behalf of my constituents in Stalybridge and Hyde, Mossley, Dukinfield and Longdendale.
If I were to begin by saying something positive about the Queen’s Speech, I would say that it is good to have the opportunity to discuss some issues other than Brexit. Brexit is clearly very important, but in itself it does not solve any of the pressing issues in my constituency, and the neglect by Government of other issues in the last few years is now evident. But that is where my praise ends because, as I listened to the Queen’s Speech, I did not feel that this was a serious, considered programme for the future of the nation. It felt like something between a publicity stunt and a response to what people in focus groups list as all the things they dislike about the Conservative party. The last Conservative Government were notorious for being pretty soft on crime and reducing the number of police officers to unsafe levels, so this Queen’s Speech says, “We will recruit a load of police officers, even though there is no basic guarantee we will go back to the levels we had before we first came to power.” The last Conservative Government presided over some of the most miserly funding settlements for the NHS—since 2010, there have been very low funding settlements by historical standards—so this Queen’s Speech says there will be 40 new hospitals, although apparently the number now is barely six.
Many Conservative MPs have mentioned school funding today. The figures for my constituency are very depressing and I have just had an email telling me that 83% of schools in the country will have their funding reduced, effectively, next year, so I am afraid I am not convinced on that point either. I feel that the British people will see through all this.
Of course I recognise, and am pleased, that there seems now to be a recognition that austerity must end and that it has caused real damage, pain and suffering, but I do not just want the Government throwing money around to address their brand negatives; instead, I want it spent on the things that will make a difference, and for me that has to start with in-work poverty.
The number of people in Britain in work who are in poverty is a disgrace. I want us to spend money on some of the burdens that working families have difficulty with, whether it is school meals, uniform costs, prescription charges or in much bigger terms the social care bill when you need support as an older person. If we have money to spend, we should spend it there, and then I want to see us target resources on measures that will raise investment, productivity and wages.
That means acknowledging that the Government’s strategy of cutting corporation tax to the bone to stimulate private investment has not worked. Other countries with considerably higher rates of corporation tax than us have much higher levels of corporate investment. What we have now is a tax base that is simply insufficient to meet the kind of public services that people in this country expect, because we need to invest big money in some areas. For me there is no bigger area than transport. We need new rail infrastructure and subsidies to build urban transport networks that are comparable with what this capital city has—every morning my constituents tweet me pictures of the overcrowding on the railways—but instead of that every day what we get is a daily menu of possible cuts to HS2.
Although I appreciate this is probably unlikely from a Conservative Government, I also think that there has to be an acknowledgment that, while the gig economy has many upsides, for too many people, it makes them vulnerable because they have a fundamental lack of power and control over their own working lives. Whenever we on this side of the House propose an increase in employment rights, we are accused of wanting to return to the winter of discontent in the 1970s. I was not yet born during the winter of discontent, but I was a member of the Business, Innovation and Skills Committee when we did an inquiry into the working practices at Sports Direct, and I will never forget the evidence we received in confidence from members of staff: workers not being paid the minimum wage, one woman who had to give birth in the warehouse toilets, and young female employees explaining that they were promised full-time employment contracts but only in exchange for sexual favours.
I am not in favour of a return to the winter of discontent, but I am in favour of making sure that such employment practices have no place in modern Britain, and that requires fair and independent representation in the workplace.