I congratulate Dehenna Davison on her excellent and powerful maiden speech. As a fellow MP representing the north-east and as an advocate of the One Punch Can Kill campaign, I am sure there are many challenges that we will face together.
I rise to talk about the NHS and social care, but I will also talk about other aspects of this Gracious Speech that will either affect, or not affect enough, the community that I represent in Newcastle. Any additional funding that is to be enshrined in law as part of the multi-year funding settlement is of course welcome. However, I worry that the gesture might be more about politics than about dealing with the real challenges that our NHS faces. Many of us agree that one area in which we need substantial answers is social care. NHS leaders warn us that hospitals are being overwhelmed by people who have nowhere else to go, and any additional funding risks being wasted because of this issue.
The Conservative manifesto has pledged to build cross-party consensus on a long-term solution, and if the Government are serious about doing that, I absolutely welcome it because I believe that that is where the solution lies. There are good reasons to be optimistic. There is already broad agreement on what a deal would look like, and we all know how important social care is to our constituents. Indeed, if we cannot put adult social care on a sustainable financial footing, then the frail, the elderly, and the most vulnerable and their families will pay the price, and the public will not forgive us. Let us make a start on building that consensus to fix social care now.
Moving on to education, the idea of levelling up school funding by increasing minimum per-pupil funding will in fact disproportionately benefit schools with less challenging intakes. Because they benefit less from the disadvantage elements in the funding formula, most disadvantaged schools are already over the new threshold. Some beneficiaries no doubt need extra funding, but there must be a better way of ensuring that it reaches them than the regressive method designed by the Government. I note that the Education Policy Institute said that the north-east will benefit the least of any region outside London despite the fact that we have consistently had the lowest performance in England on the Department for Education’s attainment 8 and progress 8 outcome measures. Our children’s potential is being wasted, and we cannot let that happen.
The north of England, the north-east in particular, also suffers from a persistent and growing productivity gap with the rest of the UK. I have long made my concerns known that leaving the EU will make the gap more difficult to close given that the evidence indicates that the north-east will be hardest hit by any form of Brexit. However, an important part of the answer for tackling the north-south productivity gap while also tackling the climate crisis lies in having the best transport connectivity. The inclusion of HS2 phase 2a in the Queens Speech is therefore good news, and I hope we can now make progress on getting HS2’s benefits to the north.
I take a special interest in the east coast main line, which I travel up and down every week, but my interest is not purely self-motivated. Upgrading it is essential for the north-east, not least to ensure that it also benefits from HS2, which is why I established the all-party parliamentary group on the east coast main line. The group will be re-established, and I encourage new Members to join it. We urgently need to improve capacity, so we need HS2 and Northern Powerhouse Rail, and I completely reject any suggestion that this is an either/or choice. I call on HS2 Ltd, the Government, Network Rail and Transport for the North to work together to produce credible, timely and properly funded plans to upgrade the east coast main line so that the north-east can fully benefit from the introduction of high-speed rail. After decades of under-investment, we have an opportunity to transform rail capacity and connectivity in the north-east and attract investment, boost skills and opportunity, level up communities across the north, and create sustainable transport infrastructure. We need to take it.
Overall, the Gracious Speech was light on detail, but there are some causes for celebration. I welcome the domestic abuse Bill, which is an opportunity to drive cultural change, and, as the TUC said, transform
“domestic abuse from a criminal justice issue to one that is ‘everyone's business’, tackled by health and social care, housing, education and employers”.
I also welcome the inclusion of the animal welfare and sentencing Bill and pay tribute to the work of Anna Turley, the former Member for Redcar, who campaigned tirelessly on the issue after a particularly horrific case in her constituency came to light. There are some great opportunities for the north east if the Government make good on their promises, and I for one will be watching closely to see that they follow through.