Only a few days to go: We’re raising £25,000 to keep TheyWorkForYou running and make sure people across the UK can hold their elected representatives to account.Donate to our crowdfunder
It is a pleasure to speak in this debate and to witness so many passionate maiden speeches from both sides of the Chamber. I pay tribute to Jane Hunt for her passionate and entertaining maiden speech. I am sure she will be justifiably proud of her contribution this afternoon. I would also like to pay tribute to my new constituency next-door neighbour, from whom we heard earlier. My hon. Friend Beth Winter spoke with passion and an awareness of the stark realities facing her constituents, as well as mine and many others across the country, due to the actions of this Government.
This is the first time I have had the opportunity to speak since Parliament returned after last month’s general election, so I would like to put on record my thanks to the people of Merthyr Tydfil and Rhymney, the constituency where I was born, raised and still live, for their continued support and for giving me the huge honour of representing them in this place for the third time in four years.
The Queen’s Speech did little seriously to address the poverty prevalent in Wales, including in my constituency, and across the UK. We need an end to austerity. Despite promises from successive Tory Governments, public services continue to be under huge pressure. That is simply not good enough for those who are living in poverty and need real action now. They are left with a legacy of almost 10 years of Tory austerity. Local authorities and public services are cut to the bone. The impact that austerity has had on frontline public services has been huge. Only last week I heard about local authorities being forced to cut the staff operating their CCTV, so that although cameras will remain in some cases there will be fewer people, if any, monitoring them. That will have a huge impact on the fight against crime and antisocial behaviour, given the Tory police cuts since 2010. Councils are forced to make these cuts due to Tory austerity—let there be absolutely no mistake about that.
The Gracious Speech also does nothing to address the shambolic system of universal credit, with many thousands across the UK and in my constituency forced into poverty and experiencing greater hardship due to the way the system is operating. The Government’s reforms do not go nearly far enough and they must act now to ensure that the benefit system stops punishing some of the most vulnerable people in our society. Need has increased, with demand at our food banks increasing. I speak to many of the wonderful volunteers in our food banks. It is fair to say that many, if not most, of the people using food banks are in work. That highlights the scandal of low pay, the scandal of zero-hour contracts and the high level of in-work poverty that exists in 21st-century Britain.
There was in this year’s Queen Speech a sense of déjà vu. Yet again, there is a lack of attention shown to the UK’s devolved regions, especially Wales and especially with regard to the investment that is so desperately needed. Some Welsh voters put their faith in the Tories for the first time. How let down they will feel as the Government fail to deliver a credible and properly funded industrial strategy for Wales. Many areas in Wales, including in my constituency, suffer from a lack of access to job opportunities. Many of the jobs and schemes available are focused in other areas. In the south Wales valleys it can be difficult and sometimes impossible to access them due to the geographical isolation of communities and the limited availability of public transport. That is yet another reason why it was deeply worrying to hear only more of the same from the Government on their plans for infrastructure investment. There were vague and loose promises, rather than firm commitments that are badly needed to improve our railways and public transport, starting with rail electrification across South Wales and the valleys, which is long overdue, and the infrastructure we desperately need to connect some of our most isolated communities.
The UK Government have stated time and time again that Wales will not lose a penny when we leave the EU, promising that the shared prosperity fund would replace the development funding that areas such as south Wales have received from Europe over many years. Now, however, with Brexit less than two weeks away, and after months of Members from both sides of this House calling for clarity on this fund, it is astonishing that we have still not heard any real detail whatsoever. The Brexit deadline is looming ever closer, and the people of Wales need answers and assurances on this fund. We need to know whether Wales will be worse off as a result of Brexit and we need to know that the new fund will directly benefit Wales. We need urgent clarity on how the fund will operate and who will decide on the priorities for the fund. We were promised “not a penny less, not a power lost” and this Government must now give us assurances that that is still the case.
I turn briefly to social care. In the Queen’s Speech debate on Thursday, it was clear that social care in England desperately needs real and emergency attention, not vague and empty promises. I want, in comparison, to praise the Welsh Labour Government for the social care system they have pioneered in Wales: investing more per head on social care than in England; doubling the amount people can keep before they are asked to pay for care to £50,000, the highest level of any country in the UK; and ensuring all domiciliary care workers get a choice of contract after three months of employment, ending the practice of enforced zero-hours contracts. In England, 49% of jobs in home care are zero-hours contracts. That demonstrates a true success story and what can be achieved when a Labour Government are in power. We do all of that despite operating on a budget from Westminster that has been cut by £4 billion since 2010.
I will end on the environment. I think it is fair to say that the Government need to be honest and clear about the climate and environmental emergency. We all know only too well that their target to reach net zero by 2050 is far too late to avoid dangerous and irreversible climate change. The Government simply will not acknowledge how serious the situation is—2050, frankly, is not good enough for my generation, let alone the young people whose futures are on the line. The Government’s policies are not sufficiently ambitious to meet their climate change targets. According to their official advisers, the Committee on Climate Change, the UK is even off track to meet its old climate change target of an 80% reduction in emissions by 2050.
I look forward to hearing some positive comments from the Minister this evening and hope that she can offer some reassurances that the Government will start to listen. With all due respect, we have had enough warm words—it is time for action.