Mr Speaker, allow me to join you and Members across this House in thanking His Royal Highness the Prince of Wales for delivering the Gracious Speech and in sending our warmest wishes to Her Majesty the Queen. The whole House knows the reluctance with which Her Majesty made today’s decision, and her extraordinary service to this nation continues to inspire us all.
As we come to the halfway point of this Parliament, this country has seen off the biggest challenge that any post-war Government have faced, but the cost of the pandemic has been huge, with the biggest fall in output for 300 years, which necessitated Government expenditure of £400 billion. The aftershocks are still being felt across the world, with a global spike in energy prices and the impact that we are seeing on the cost of food. It is precisely because this Government got the big calls right and made the tough decisions during the pandemic that we had the fastest economic growth in the G7 last year—and will return to that status, by the way, by 2024—and therefore have the fiscal firepower to help families up and down the country with all the pressures that they face now.
We will continue to use all our ingenuity and compassion for as long as it takes—my right hon. Friend the Chancellor and I will be saying more about this in the days to come —but at the same time as we help people, we need the legislative firepower to fix the underlying problems in energy supply, in housing, in infrastructure and in skills, which are driving up costs for families across the country. This Queen’s Speech takes those issues head on.
Above all, we are tackling the economic challenges with the best solution of all, and that is an ever-growing number of high-wage, high-skill jobs, Mr Speaker. Jobs, jobs, jobs! We drive up employment by creating the right platform for business to invest; making our streets safer, with 20,000 more police; creating a healthier population, with 50,000 more nurses; funding the NHS to help it to clear the covid backlogs; giving the confidence that people know that they will be looked after in old age, by fixing social care; delivering gigabit broadband, giving the remotest parts of the country the access that they need; and using our Brexit freedoms to enable revolutionary technologies like gene editing to help our farmers to grow more nutritious and more productive crops.
It is that combination of public and private sector together that is tackling unemployment, with half a million more people on the payroll now than before the pandemic began, and it is that strength at home that enables this country to show leadership abroad, as we have done and will continue to do in supporting the people of Ukraine. So this Queen’s Speech delivers on our promises: it will not only take us through the aftershocks of covid, but build the foundations for decades of prosperity, uniting and levelling up across the country.
Mr Speaker, allow me to join the Leader of the Opposition in paying tribute to those colleagues we lost in the last parliamentary Session. Time will not dim our shock at the despicable murder of Sir David Amess, a friend to so many, who lost his life giving the service he loved most: a constituency surgery in a local church. Among the many legacies of Sir David, which include his amazing work on animal welfare and his campaign to support women with endometriosis, I am proud to say that today Southend-on-Sea stands as a city in tribute to him.
Yesterday we gathered at St Margaret’s Church to remember James Brokenshire, a true gentleman who faced his battle with cancer with enormous courage, generosity and strength of character. It was typical of our dear friend that even in the midst of his own battle, he was supporting and encouraging others to seek help, campaigning for better lung cancer screening and becoming the first MP to secure a debate on the issue on the Floor of this House. We willed him to pull through because the world needs more people in public life like him. His loss is felt deeply in all parts of the House, and by all those whose lives he touched.
Finally, we began the year joining Ms Harman in paying tribute to her wonderful husband Jack Dromey, one of the great trade unionists of our time, who, having married someone who would go on to become, in his words, the “outstanding parliamentary feminist of her generation”, will also be forever remembered, in his words, as Mr Harriet Harman, né Dromey. We all knew him as a man of great warmth, energy and compassion, and he commanded the utmost respect across the House.
The response to the Gracious Speech was magnificently proposed—self-deprecatingly, I thought—by my hon. Friend Graham Stuart, whose campaigning brilliance I saw at first hand, as he pointed out, when, as Back Benchers almost 20 years ago, he and I organised a demonstration against Labour’s plan to close community hospitals. The campaign group was called CHANT—Community Hospitals Acting Nationally Together. His memory of it is much more glorious than mine; I remember only a tiny handful of desperadoes. We were stopped almost immediately by the police, who turned us back, but my hon. Friend none the less succeeded in forcing the Government—the then Labour Government, I should stress—to perform a U-turn on the funding for community hospitals. As a great pace bowler—or a medium-pace bowler, it is probably fair to say these days—he bowled them middle stump. It is fitting that today he has proposed the response to the Gracious Speech for a Government who are delivering the biggest NHS catch-up programme in history, and who, far from closing hospitals, are building new hospitals—48 of them, in fact—so that we have the best health service in the world.
I know, by the way, that my hon. Friend has personal experience of healthcare in a less fortunate country. He was lying in bed with a fractured rib after a skiing accident in Chamonix when three men in white coats arrived claiming that they were there to perform the operation. On closer inspection, they turned out to be my right hon. Friends the Members for Haltemprice and Howden (Mr Davis) and for Sutton Coldfield (Mr Mitchell) and my noble Friend Lord Lancaster. At that point, it is said, my hon. Friend levitated miraculously from his bed and made his escape. His speech today was in the finest traditions of this House.
I was delighted that the motion was seconded by my hon. Friend Fay Jones. Some more seasoned Members will recall the 14 years of service rendered to the people of Cardiff, North by her father, Gwilym, who joins us in the Gallery today. I am delighted to see him there, and I am sure he will be filled with admiration at the speech just delivered by his daughter. I know that my hon. Friend sadly lost her mother earlier this year, and I have no doubt that she too will be simply bursting with pride as she looks down on us today, because while my hon. Friend may have been an MP for only a few short years, she has already established herself as a fantastic campaigner. As she said herself, that included changing the law to ban cyber-flashing, saving Brecon barracks, and—with 1st The Queen’s Dragoon Guards—securing the return of a permanent Welsh regiment in Wales. Nor was she prepared to remain silent while the Leader of the Opposition’s colleagues in Cardiff tried to keep Wales in perpetual lockdown. She is a tireless advocate for Welsh veterans and the armed services generally, an issue that is personal as well as political for her.
As a fellow enthusiast for dogs at polling stations, I was delighted to see my hon. Friend take Nancy the Labrador to the polling station on Thursday. Nancy is, of course, named in honour of Nancy Astor, a great Conservative woman who certainly left a mark on this place and this country, and whose influence and achievements I am sure my hon. Friend will emulate in the long and successful career that so clearly awaits her. It was a pleasure to hear from her today, and I thank her for seconding the motion.
On Sunday, I spoke to my G7 counterparts, together with President Zelensky, urging our international partners to join us in going further and faster in supporting Ukraine. I am sure the whole House will share my sorrow and revulsion at events in Mariupol in eastern Ukraine, which has endured weeks of merciless Russian bombardment and some of the worst atrocities of the war. At the same time, I am pleased to report that our brave Ukrainian friends are succeeding in repelling the Russian assault on Kharkiv, defending their second city with the same fortitude that saw off Putin’s attack on their capital. We should be proud that, when the very survival of a great European democracy was in peril, our United Kingdom has led the way, providing Ukraine with the weapons to defend itself and helping the world to impose the toughest economic sanctions on Putin. As I walked through the streets of Kyiv last month, I saw at first hand what the wholehearted support of this House and this country has meant to the brave people of Ukraine, so let the message ring out from this Chamber today: we will persevere in our support for the Ukrainians until Putin has failed and Ukraine has won.
During the pandemic, this Government worked night and day at extraordinary speed to protect lives and livelihoods across our whole United Kingdom, whether by injecting £400 billion of direct support to the economy and supporting jobs through our world-leading furlough scheme, by becoming the first country in the world to administer and approve covid vaccines, or by delivering the largest testing programme and the fastest vaccine booster campaign in Europe. All this allowed us to retain one of the most open economies and societies across the continent—which we would not have done, by the way, if we had listened to the advice of the Labour party—with the fastest growth in the G7 last year.
Now we will bring that same urgency, impatience and determination to deliver on our mission of getting our country back on track and easing the burdens on families and businesses across the land. That is why we have already committed £9.1 billion to assist with energy costs alone. We are giving back £150 to people in their council tax, cutting fuel duty, increasing the warm home discount, creating a tax cut for 30 million workers by raising the national insurance threshold and delivering the biggest ever increase in the national living wage, worth an extra £1,000 a year to those working full time. But however great our compassion and ingenuity, we cannot simply spend our way out of this problem; we need to grow out of the problem by creating hundreds of thousands of new high-wage, high-skilled jobs across the country.