It is an honour to open today’s King’s Speech debate on behalf of His Majesty’s Government.
Education is the key that unlocks the door to opportunity. Get it right, and it is the single most transformative thing that any Government can do. That is why this Conservative Government have spent the last 13 years doing just that. We have been taking the long-term decisions to ensure that the next generation have a brighter future, because we know what happens when Governments get it wrong—[Interruption.] When we started this journey in 2010—Opposition Members are going to like this—we inherited Labour’s legacy. It was a legacy defined by politicians saying, “Education, education, education” but failing to deliver. The results speak for themselves. At that time, more than a fifth of children left primary school without achieving basic levels of literacy and numeracy, and two fifths finished full-time education without even the bare minimum qualifications. That failure entrenched inequality and locked the door of opportunity. The education system worked against children from places like where I grew up in Knowsley. It was a system that widened the gap between the richest and the poorest in society.
Politicians often say that talent is everywhere but opportunity is not, and they are right. I know that, because I lived it. My failing comprehensive school left many of my classmates without those precious opportunities. Although some came to education later, many others never did—so much so that some are now in prison and others sadly have died many years before their time. It did not have to be this way. For five years, I sat next to those children. We all thought we had a bright future ahead of us, as children often do, but sadly that was not the case for too many of them. Education is about removing the barriers to opportunity and the belief that talent is everywhere. It is about the growth in confidence that our teachers inspire and the understanding that if the playing field is levelled, no one’s dream will be out of reach. That is what this Government are delivering, from the moment someone enters this world until they retire.
Let me make some progress before I take interventions.
Earlier this year, we announced the largest ever investment in childcare in England’s history. Very soon, we will be spending £8 billion a year. That investment will ensure that every child gets the best start in life. It means that working parents will be entitled to 30 hours of free childcare from the end of parental leave until their child starts school. To give parents the flexibility they need, we are rolling out universal wraparound childcare for primary school children from 8 am to 6 pm. These Conservative policies will end the choice that some working mums and dads feel they need to make between having a family and having a career, and it will save parents up to £6,500 a year.[This section has been corrected on
The generation having children now will not remember what was on offer under Labour, but let me remind the House: 13 years of Labour delivered only 12.5 hours of free childcare for some three and four-year-olds. That is less than one hour for every year in office. Our childcare package gives people wanting to start a family the confidence to do so. May I invite Angela Rayner, when she stands at the Dispatch Box, to finally offer Labour’s support for our record childcare investment? Can she tell hard-working parents in Wales why her party is not rolling out the same support that English parents will benefit from?
I know that the right hon. Lady, like me, did not grow up with privilege. I have heard her speak eloquently and passionately about the help and support she received from Sure Start, and I know she was grateful for that support. I am sure there were many positives from that programme—indeed, my best friend used to run a Sure Start centre—but there were also some serious failings in the design and delivery. First, Sure Start was not a universal offer, and it stigmatised people who used the services. Plus, it only helped families for the first five years of a child’s life, but any parent will say that challenges can arise at any time. [Interruption.] This is important: the National Audit Office found that Sure Start had failed to target the most disadvantaged families and was even unable to identify families needing support in the most disadvantaged 30% of communities. It simply did not reach the right people.
When we launched our family hubs programme, we ensured that the hubs provided a service to anyone who needed it. They are supporting families with everything from mental health to breastfeeding, and housing and debt services—challenges that many of us need support with. The service is universal, available to anyone. Family hubs support families with children of all ages, from conception to 19, or up to 25 for those with special educational needs. They join up services, ensuring that every family gets the right support at the right time. As part of that, the best start for life programme provides focused support during the crucial first 1,001 days of a child’s life, and I pay tribute to my right hon. Friend Dame Andrea Leadsom for her work to get that right.
Before I talk about how we have transformed our schools, I will address one of the key challenges we face in delivering opportunity: school attendance.
I will in a moment, honestly, but this is important. I want to address one of the key challenges we face, which is school attendance. Following the pandemic, we have seen a phenomenon where more children are staying home and not going to school. That challenge is not unique to the UK. At the G7, my counterparts from the US to Japan were all grappling with the same issue. I reassure the House that it is a top priority. We are making progress through our attendance hubs and mentoring programmes, as well as more specialised support for key cohorts, such as those with mental health issues or special educational needs. In just the past year, 380,000 fewer children are persistently absent, and we will keep driving at this issue until all our children are back in school.
I notice that the Labour party had a lot to say about attendance this morning, but Bridget Phillipson may have missed the 380,000 fewer children persistently absent in the past year. Yet again, Labour offers little more than empty words, with a touch of student politics. In Labour-run Wales, attendance rates are still far behind those in England. Last year’s attendance data showed that Wales only managed an attendance rate of 85.5%, compared with England’s 92.5%.[This section has been corrected on
I thank the Education Secretary very much for giving way. What was crystal clear from the King’s Speech yesterday was that, despite her grandiose statements here, education is not a priority for this Government. There were two re-announcements, nothing new and no new legislation, and her speech so far is revisiting old announcements, which is shocking, considering the crisis in our schools and colleges. She talks about persistent absence, so can she explain to the House why there was no announcement yesterday about bringing forward legislation for a “children not in school” register, which Ministers promised to do when they scrapped the Schools Bill in the last Session?
The progress we have made on education is phenomenal. The legislation we have put in place has enabled us to make many of these improvements, but we remain committed to legislating to take forward the “children not in school” measures, and we will progress those at a suitable future legislative opportunity. We continue to work with local authorities to improve the non-statutory registers, and have launched a consultation on revised elective home education guidance. There is a lot of work going on. The consultation is open until
This is a King’s Speech for the UK generally. Does the Secretary of State intend to say anything positive at all about Wales today?
As somebody who grew up in Liverpool, I have had many a fabulous holiday in north Wales. In terms of the education department, unfortunately Wales suffers from a poor Administration.
Let us move on to schools. Nowhere is the difference between Labour and the Conservatives clearer to see than in our school system. When we came into office, Labour had overseen a decade of decline in our schools. Fortunately, thanks to the tireless work of my right hon. Friend Michael Gove and, notably, that of the Minister for Schools, we have reversed that trajectory. Today, 88% of our schools are “good” or “outstanding”—up from just 68% under Labour.
By the end of the Labour era, we had plummeted down the international league tables: our children were ranked 25th for reading and 27th for maths. Now, we are up 10 places in both. Better still, the progress in international reading literacy study shows that when it comes to reading, English primary school children are the best in the west, coming fourth in the world—an amazing, phenomenal achievement, for which I thank our teachers, parents and children.
How have we done this? We have reformed the school system, putting teachers and experts—not politicians—in charge of schools. Through our free schools and academies programmes, we have empowered heads and focused on academic excellence, improving discipline and ensuring that schools are calmer, happier places to learn. We have built on the evidence, not the ideology, over the past decade.
The Education Endowment Foundation has carried out over 200 evaluations to understand which approaches are the most effective in closing the attainment gap. It has engaged 23,000 nurseries, schools and colleges and, as a result, teachers are better trained in the things that make a difference, and children are taught in ways that we can prove work, such as phonics and maths mastery. We have made our exams more rigorous and reliable; and we have changed how we teach for the better. And at every turn we were met with a barrage of opposition from the opportunists on the Labour Benches.
In 2011, the Opposition said that our literacy drive was “dull”. In 2012, they said that phonics would “not improve reading”. In 2013, they called free schools “dangerous”. All three accusations have been categorically proven wrong. Our results simply speak for themselves, and we are not stopping there. Our new advanced British standard will remove the artificial divide between academic and technical education, and place the two on an equal footing, bringing together the very best of A-levels and T-levels to form a single overarching qualification. Right on cue, what did Labour call this? A “gimmick”. Given Labour’s track record, that condemnation is a very good sign that we are on the right track.
The advanced British standard will ensure that every child studies a form of maths and English until they are 18, and equip our children with the skills they need for the future. They will be entering a very different workplace—one where artificial intelligence, and quantum and digital systems, are a big part of every working day—and they will be competing for the top jobs internationally, so we will be increasing the time spent in the classroom, bringing us more in line with other countries, including Denmark, Norway, France and the US.
The Government’s disregard for school pupils with special educational needs has never been clearer. The silent assassination of any new mental health Act has let down my constituents, who are struggling to get a diagnosis and to get continuous support in schools. Does the Secretary of State therefore agree that pupils and schools urgently need new legislation?
We published our special educational needs and alternative provision improvement plan in March 2023—the hon. Lady may have missed that as she was not yet in her place—and we have backed the plan with investment of £2.6 billion between 2022 and 2025. That will fund new and alternative provision places, and it is also a significant investment in the high-needs budget. We know that we need to invest in improving the special educational needs and alternative provision system, and I am happy to go through that plan with her.
The Secretary of State’s plans to increase maths teaching up to 18 are interesting. I wonder how she expects to deliver that when there is currently a shortfall of over 5,000 maths teachers and the retention of maths teachers is at an all-time low. How does she think she can deliver maths teachers to increase maths education when she cannot deliver enough for children up to the age of 16?
We have some initiatives in place. First, we are raising the starting salary to £30,000 for all new teachers across the country, and more in London. Secondly, we are increasing—in fact doubling—the premium we pay to maths, computer science and some science teachers to enable them to earn more. That is the plan. We are also updating our retention and recruitment strategy before the end of the year.
Anyone who wants a blueprint for a Labour Government does not need to look back to the ’90s and early-2000s, when Labour oversaw a decade of decline. No, they should look to Wales. After a quarter of a century running the education system in Wales, the Labour Administration preside over the worst-performing education authority in the UK. While in England we have increased the number of teachers by 27,000, the numbers have fallen in Wales. While our standards rise, Wales consistently has the worst results for maths and reading in the UK. Those are facts. Even before the pandemic, the head of the OECD said that the Welsh education system had not just “underperformed” but “seen its performance decline”. There is nothing that stifles opportunity more than an education system in decline under Labour.
I will in a second. We believe in the values that I have talked about—aspiration, standards and rigour—precisely because they deliver a brighter future for our young people, and one that means that, as they grow into adulthood, they can be sure that they are getting the skills they need to succeed in life, to get a good job and to earn a good wage. That is the purpose of education: to help ensure that we have the skills to prosper and that every young person can reach their potential.
I will; just give me a second. The hon. Gentleman might want to answer this point. One thing that Labour did do was set an arbitrary target of 50% of young people going to university—a policy that favoured the most advantaged in society and only widened the gap. Today, under the Conservatives, children who come from disadvantaged backgrounds are 71% more likely to go to university than when we took office.
Let me be clear: university is a brilliant choice. For many, it will be the best thing they ever do—life-changing—and a degree will be the first step on a wonderful career journey. But for some, in a minority of cases, it will be a ticket to nowhere, saddling students with debt and no prospects.
As a Welsh MP, I think that learners and teachers in my constituency of Cardiff South and Penarth would be shocked to hear the Secretary of State denigrate their work and efforts. The reality on the ground in Wales is that, in my constituency, I have seen new brand-new schools at Eastern High and Penarth Learning Community, and a brand-new further education college. We are also just opening a brand-new school in Fitzalan. They have all had significant issues with performance in the past, but have turned things around thanks to the dedication of their teachers and the support they have had from Welsh Labour councils and the Welsh Government. Will the Secretary of State apologise for denigrating and running down Wales?
I am happy to answer the hon. Gentleman’s question. I always want things to improve in Wales, and I very much care about the Welsh children. It is not my words; it is the OECD and the international league tables—which I believe they have actually withdrawn from now because they do not want the scrutiny. We have to be open and transparent and put ourselves forward for international scrutiny, and that is where these words are coming from.
The Secretary of State is being generous. I was interested in her comments about some university degrees not being of high value. I wonder how she seeks to calculate whether those degrees are not worth the same as others. Does she intend to use the longitudinal educational outcomes data that looks at average earnings? Does she acknowledge that children who wish to stay in areas such as Hull will earn less because wages are lower in certain areas, and that that has nothing to do with the degree? Would she reflect on the presentation given to the Treasury Committee recently, which said that outcomes in life and how successful someone is in terms of job and income are everything to do with their parents’ background and not the background or anything to do with the university that that person attended?
I am happy to come to that later. I am concerned about ensuring that children and young people in Knowsley, Manchester, Hull, Blyth, Teesside and all over the country get fantastic opportunities, so that their earnings rise. That is what we in this party will continue to do.
Before the Secretary of State moves on to what I assume will be higher education, I want to raise with her a serious problem particularly in inner-city schools in England: falling rolls and, therefore, falling income to the school, which usually means the loss of teaching assistant jobs and all sorts of other issues. This issue has affected rural areas a lot in the past, and special arrangements have been made. Is the Secretary of State aware of that? Is she considering what can be done to ameliorate this very serious problem, which damages the life chances of so many inner-city children?
The right hon. Gentleman made a good point. Local authorities usually work with us to capacity plan for demographic changes, which often happen from time to time—they go up and down. When we were first elected in 2010, we had to find 1 million more school places because the previous Administration had failed to do so. In some London inner-city schools, the pandemic has changed that more rapidly. We are looking at that and the impact that it has had on rural schools, as some have increases in demand. We are aware of that and we will work with schools on it. I thank the right hon. Gentleman for his question.
In a minority of cases, higher education could be a ticket to ride to nowhere, saddling students with debt and no prospects. That is bad for students, the taxpayer and the reputation of our universities, many of which are truly exceptional and admired all over the world. A meaningless and arbitrary target of 50% of students going to university focuses on the wrong thing: quantity over quality. That is why this Government introduced new powers to clamp down on rip-off degrees—something the Opposition claimed was an attack on aspiration. That could not be further from the truth.
Emma Hardy may want to listen to this point, because it directly answers her question. Average earnings for computing graduates five years after graduation can vary from £23,000—barely above the minimum wage—to £85,000, depending on the university. Students who choose computing probably listen to their parents and have thought about their future career. They think that they have made a wise and smart choice. The attack on aspiration would be to let the next generation spend their time and money, only to end up with a degree that does not help them to achieve their goals. Those who lose out from low-quality courses are not the universities but the young people who have been sold a false dream. Many of us will know those young people. Defending that is a short-sighted and, quite frankly, snobbish mindset that fails the very people whose education it is meant to help.
I make no apologies for this Government’s commitment to high-quality education, whether at school, college or university. We have already announced that we will introduce recruitment limits to reduce the quota of low-quality courses and account for earnings as part of the quality regime, so that students know that they will get value for money and a return on their investment. I will make no apologies for our work promoting apprenticeships and technical education as an equally valid route. I know how transformational a good technical education can be: it got me to where I am today. As the only degree apprentice in the House of Commons, I will always champion high-quality technical education. It changed my life and it has the power to change many more.
As Conservatives, we will always work to break down the barriers to opportunity. Today, there are more options to access high-quality technical education than ever before, but that has not always been the case. Under Labour, T-levels did not exist. Under Labour, high technical qualifications did not exist. Degree apprenticeships for jobs such as lawyers, accountants and space engineers did not exist. Skills bootcamps did not exist. The lifelong learning entitlement did not exist. Institutes of technology did not exist. Why? They were all introduced by this Conservative Government.
In case Opposition Members are confused about what institutes of technology are, let me tell them: they bring together education and business, providing skills in everything from aerospace to agriculture, and energy to engineering. Does that sound familiar? It should do; Labour’s big new policy of technical excellence colleges is, effectively, little more than a rebrand of something that already exists. We have already delivered it. Once again, Labour demonstrates that it has no new ideas. It has had 13 years to come up with an original idea, and has failed even that.
Apprenticeships are not a new idea, as demonstrated by the fact that I did one many more years ago than I care to admit. What is new is that people can become a doctor, lawyer, account or space engineer. They can take degree apprenticeships in the NHS, Goldman Sachs, Morgan Stanley, Amazon, KPMG, PwC—the list goes on. Any career they aspire to, anywhere, they can do now via an apprenticeship. In fact, there are now more than 680 standards, including 170 degree-level apprenticeships, all developed hand in glove with more than 5,000 employers, none of which existed under the Labour Government. Anyone doing one of those apprenticeships today is doing it because of the work of this Conservative Government.
Since 2010, we have seen 5.5 million people benefit from those apprenticeships. We want to support even more people to access these life-changing opportunities, which are now on UCAS. From next year, young people will be able to apply for them alongside undergraduate courses. My apprenticeship was my golden ticket. Today, thanks to this Government, millions more people are being offered the same opportunity. Hopefully, many future Secretaries of State will sit here, having gone through that fantastic route.
It is not just the younger generation who need opportunities. We are all living and working longer. Many of us will have a second career, including me—this is my chosen second career. For me, politics came after three decades working in international business. Like me, many people will want to change. Often, that will require new skills. Some 80% of the 2030 workforce are already in work today. We know that we need more people with new skills, unlocking new opportunities. That is why we launched skills bootcamps. These are free, flexible courses of up to 16 weeks, training people with an offer of a job interview at the end. They support people to gain skills in key sectors such as digital, HGV driving, civil engineering, electric vehicle charging installation or as a wind technician. Often, they are the first step into a brand-new career. Our new lifelong learning entitlement also removes barriers to gaining new skills later in life. People will have real choice about how and when they study, enabling them to acquire life-changing skills to improve their employment prospects. Both those programmes will give people the chance to transform their lives totally at any stage and any age.
This Government have been defined by our relentless drive to spread opportunity through better education. Yesterday, the King’s Speech continued that legacy. Today is the perfect time to take stock of the impact of those reforms. Those who entered school in 2010 are the first generation of children educated under this Conservative Government. They will take their A-levels and T-levels this summer, and their future is brighter than ever before. Standards of reading are higher, standards of writing are higher, and standards of maths are higher. The next generation are coming through, and their potential and their achievements are higher than ever before.
Let us never forget how the Labour party left us with an education system in decline—as, unfortunately, it continues to be in Wales. Labour left us with a limited childcare offer, declining standards in schools, poor technical education and an arbitrary target of 50% of kids going to university. And we know why: because they are political opportunists with empty words and meaningless promises, which will inevitably change.
That is the difference between us: Conservatives deliver. We have delivered the most generous childcare package in our country’s history; we have delivered the highest school funding ever; we have delivered more high-quality technical education than any other Government; and we have delivered for adults looking to learn new skills. As Conservatives, we do more than break the barriers to opportunity; we take the long-term decisions to create opportunity. Now and in the future, every child will benefit from a world-class education because of the decisions made by this Conservative Government.
Order. Before I call the Deputy Leader of the Opposition, let me say that we have a packed speakers list. I do not want to introduce a time limit, but if Members could think of each other and confine their remarks to seven or eight minutes to start with, that would be very helpful. I call the Deputy Leader of the Opposition and shadow Secretary of State for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities.
In opening this debate on behalf of the Opposition, Iusb want to offer a note of optimism after the miserable vision for this country’s future presented by the Government. Britain is crying out for lasting change that will see the ambition of our young people harnessed, the drive of our businesses rewarded, and the aspiration that exists around every kitchen table fully realised.
We promise our children and grandchildren that if they work hard, they will be able to get on, no matter what their background. We tell them that with enough graft, everyone has the opportunity to build a good life around what they do best and love most. But opportunity is built on security, so that people can live without fear that they might be evicted or lose their job for no good reason at all. It is built on the foundation of a decent wage and a secure home.
The Prime Minister and his party have taken a sledgehammer to those foundations on which a good life can be built. People can no longer be sure that by working hard they will get on, or that where they come from will not hold them back. The only certainty is that this Government will sit on their hands while working people graft and Ministers promise more of the same.
Last year, it was the then Home Secretary, Priti Patel, who led the second day of debate on the Queen’s Speech for the Government. This year, she was dancing away through her party’s conference with Nigel Farage—dancing the right away, we might say—but it is the current Home Secretary who is dancing to his tune. This week, she told us her answer to homelessness: “Take away their tents.” And her answer to crime? To waste police time arresting charity volunteers for giving the tents out. Then there is the Prime Minister, who is so weak that he does not dare put the proposals to us but does not dare to distance himself from them either. He chooses delay, while his Cabinet argues behind closed doors. We know who is leading this dance and who is following.
That is the story of this King’s Speech through and through: party before country. We needed a King’s Speech that would draw a line under 13 years of Tory decline, but instead we have a party so devoid of leadership that the only fight left in them is to fight among themselves. But while Cabinet Ministers argue over headlines, schools across our country are literally crumbling, with children cowering under steel props to stop the roof falling in. Is there any clearer example of a Government failing in their basic duties than the constant drip, drip of schools being added to the reinforced autoclaved aerated concrete list? At the current rate, over 2 million children are at risk of regularly missing school by 2025. That is one in four of all children currently at primary and secondary school. A lost generation of children in England are facing a tidal wave of mental ill health, unable to get treatment through the NHS.
Yesterday, we waited for a plan for our children and young people that would see aspiration and ambition for everyone, a plan to prevent a child’s background from being a barrier to their getting on, a plan to deliver a broad, inclusive and innovative curriculum, a plan to get to grips with the epidemic of persistent absence and mend the broken relationship between schools, families and Government, and a plan to enable every child to achieve and thrive. Yet this sorry excuse for a Government offer no plan for crumbling buildings, no plan to broaden the narrow, outdated curriculum, no plan for the children missing from classrooms since the pandemic, and no plan for the future.
One of the things that we did not hear about from the Education Secretary is the attainment gap between the wealthiest pupils and the most disadvantaged, which is growing, as evidenced by the Education Policy Institute and many other experts. We have seen that small-group and one-to-one tutoring can be a really effective intervention for disadvantaged children, yet the national tutoring programme is not due to continue beyond this year. Will the right hon. Lady join me in calling on the Education Secretary to extend the national tutoring programme and fully fund it so that schools can help the most disadvantaged pupils?
I will do better than that: I call on the Education Secretary and the Prime Minister to call a general election and let Labour take over. We will make sure that every child in this country has an opportunity. All too often, the prospects of children in Britain are limited by the circumstances of their birth, not opened up by their opportunities in life. Led by our formidable shadow Education Secretary, my hon. Friend Bridget Phillipson, Labour has a serious plan to boost child development and young people’s school outcomes, as well as to expand training routes so that more people than ever are on pathways with good prospects by 2035.
This starts at school. I do not think the Secretary of State understands that. I remember all too well feeling hungry all day at school and being unable to focus. I am proud to say that Labour will introduce breakfast clubs in every primary school. As my hon. Friend the Member for Houghton and Sunderland South announced, Labour will be on the side of children and families. We will boost standards across schools by reinstating the requirement for qualified teacher status, ensuring that teaching is a respected and valued profession. We will reset relationships with families, schools, teachers and school staff. And Labour will end the tax breaks for private schools to fund that investment in excellent state education for everyone.
The fact is that young people are caught in a vicious Tory doom loop, denied the opportunities their parents had, left behind by their Government from school to employment, and unable to rely on the security of a decent home and a secure job.
What the Tory party has successfully built is a boulevard of broken dreams. The Conservatives have broken their promises to renters, to leaseholders, to house builders, and to all those who dream of owning their own home. Like a bad Santa at Christmas, they are doling out broken promises in every direction. There is a broken promise to renters, with the ban on no-fault evictions kicked into the long grass in an indefinite delay and with the Government blaming a court system that they themselves have broken, appeasing the vested interests on their own Benches rather than doing the right thing for the country. There is a broken promise to leaseholders —not the integrated package of recommendations for enfranchisement, commonhold and right to manage proposed by the Law Commission, but more cherry-picking and space-saving from the Secretary of State. There is a broken promise to house builders: the Government said that they would bring back amended proposals to reform nutrient neutrality rules after their flawed first attempt was rightly rejected by those in the other place, including many Conservative Lords. We stood, and we stand, ready to agree on reform to build the homes that we need while protecting the rivers from pollution, but yesterday we heard not a word. The Government were never serious; they were just playing political games.
And what about first-time buyers? There are no targets, no ideas and no ambition. The Government were too weak to take on the blockers in their own party and deliver the change that our country needs. The dream of a safe, secure and affordable home is moving ever further out of reach. Instead of homes, all that the Government have built is a house of cards. That is the difference between us. We have a recovery plan for secure homes: a plan to build 1.5 million homes across the country, with a reformed planning regime that will unlock our potential. This is no time to wait. Let us get Britain building again with a generation of new towns, unlocking growth across Britain with the biggest boost to affordable housing in a generation. The Government cannot fix homelessness without increasing the supply of housing, and they cannot boost real growth unless workers have the homes they need. We will not duck the difficult issues as the Tories have. We would abolish no-fault evictions and fix the broken leasehold system once and for all. Labour is the only party that is serious about boosting the supply of new homes to buy or to rent and unlocking the dream of a safe, secure and affordable home for all.
The Labour party talks about 1.5 million new houses; we talk about 300,000 new houses over the next five years. Can you tell me exactly what the difference is?
I think the hon. Lady needs to ask herself whether her Government have ever delivered on any of their housing targets. They have not done so. They can pick a number out of the sky, but they have not delivered on it. They have not taken on the blockers in their own party, which is why we are in this decline and do not have the houses that we want in our country. But Labour will deliver those houses, will take on the blockers, and will make sure that people do have a home for life.
I had a sense of déjà vu when I listened to yesterday’s speech, because some of it sounded rather familiar. Let us take the pledge to
“increase housing supply and home ownership by reforming the planning system”.
That was not said yesterday; it was said back in 2014, nearly a decade ago—and home ownership rates are lower now than they were when the Tories came to power. Or let us take this line, from 2013:
“My ministers will continue to prioritise measures that reduce the deficit—ensuring interest rates are kept low for homeowners and businesses.”
Well, that went well! Since the Government’s disastrous mini-Budget, when they crashed the economy, interest rates have gone through the roof, and mortgage holders have been £580 a month worse off in the last year alone. Or let us take this one:
“My Government will help more people…enhancing the rights of those who rent.”
That was back in 2021, and almost identical words have featured in every single Gracious Speech in the current Parliament. However, the pledge was first made in April 2019, by the then Prime Minister, Mrs May. It is now five sessions, four and a half years and four Tory Prime Ministers later. They do not really like anything involving high speed, do they? Perhaps the Under-Secretary of State for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities, Jacob Young, will at least be able to say later whether he will commit to scrapping section 21 by next April, five years after they pledged to do so. If they do not have support from their own Benches, I can offer ours, and if they do not achieve that in their last King’s speech, we will do it in our first.
This Government have failed young people not only from school to housing, but into employment too. Yesterday’s announcements were utterly out of touch when it came to the basic foundation of decent work. Time and again—in fact, 20 times—Ministers promised an employment Bill that would not only protect workers but strengthen our broken labour market, boosting productivity, retention and growth. They promised that enhanced rights and protections were just around the corner, but they never came. The promise to introduce a single enforcement body, a measure that is backed by businesses and workers alike? Gone. The promise to make it easier for fathers to take paternity leave? Disappeared. The promise to end the cruel practice of fire and rehire? Up in smoke. Instead, the Government have done nothing but fail workers, the public and businesses by doubling down on their failed approach to Britain’s broken labour market. leading to the worst strikes in decades.
Now the Government are getting their excuses in early for Christmas, offering another sticking plaster to distract from the Conservatives’ track record of failure. We all want minimum standards of service and staffing, but it is Tory Ministers who are constantly failing to provide them. I know: I am an Avanti West Coast user. Only Labour can offer the change that Britain needs, with industrial relations fit for a modern economy where issues can be resolved before they escalate. We will bring in a new partnership of co-operation between trade unions, employers and Government, which will mean that issues are resolved before the need for strikes. We will learn from other high-growth economies that benefit from more co-operation and less disruption by updating trade union legislation so that it is fit for a modern economy.
Labour’s new deal is our plan to make work pay and help working people to thrive, tackling insecure work and ensuring good jobs and higher living standards in every part of the country. The next Labour Government will present an employment rights Bill to Parliament within 100 days of taking office. We will offer a new deal for working people, with zero-hours contracts banned; fire and rehire gone; basic rights from day one; and a genuine minimum wage taking into account the real cost of living that every adult will benefit from. We will go further and faster in closing the gender pay gap, making work more family-friendly and tackling sexual harassment.
Our plans will benefit not just working people but be good for businesses and the economy. They will help to keep more people in work, improve productivity and put more money in working people’s pockets to spend—the absolute route to real growth. That will also benefit businesses by ending the race to the bottom by ensuring that good employers are not undercut by those who use exploitative employment practices. By levelling up workers’ rights, Labour will be starting a race to the top, with a future of work that provides opportunity, affords dignity and fuels growth in every part of the country— [Interruption.] The public know you laugh at them, they see it all the time. Sorry, Madam Deputy Speaker, but I think Government Front Benchers need to listen. It would be good for them to understand what it is like for working people in this country after they crashed the economy, sent inflation sky high and put record numbers of tax burdens on working people. I really do think they need to listen.
The British people deserve a Government who match their aspirations; a country where families have more money in their pockets, decent pay and good jobs; a country where their children have the opportunity they deserve to thrive, where young people are not held back by their background; and a Britain where no one is written off and no one is left behind. [Interruption.] The Secretary of State chunters. Call a general election and let’s test.
Order. While I have hon. Members’ attention, I give a little reminder of the importance of addressing Members not directly—the word “you” means me—but through the Chair. I also give a little reminder of my advice on time limits.
I thank His Majesty King Charles III for delivering the Gracious Speech yesterday, as others across the House have done.
I make my contribution as the Member of Parliament for Aldridge-Brownhills, a patchwork of communities, each with its own identity and a uniqueness to be recognised and celebrated, echoing the industrial spirit of our past while looking to the challenges and opportunities of the future. It is this theme of opportunity that I want to focus on, starting with houses and homes.
It is well known in this place and beyond that, together with the Mayor of the West Midlands, Andy Street, I am a passionate advocate of a brownfield-first approach to developing new homes. In doing so, we can be that truly regeneration generation, building new homes and protecting our precious green belt and green spaces, for which I will keep advocating. I welcome measures in the King’s Speech to regenerate our town centres. By regenerating, reusing and recycling existing brownfield town centres and empty high street properties, we can adopt a circular-economy approach to housing. It can be a win-win.
Good regeneration is also helpful—in fact, vital—in protecting our green belts, which are critical to preventing urban sprawl. That is why they were created back in 1935, and they must continue to be protected to prevent areas such as those I represent from becoming subsumed into the suburbs of a greater Birmingham. Yes, I would have liked more mention of planning in the King’s Speech, building on the previous Session’s Levelling-up and Regeneration Act. It is about time we stopped using the green belt as a scapegoat for our country’s housing shortage.
Housing and homes are about not just building new homes but making the most of what we have and developing a mix of housing. That brings me back to my point on regeneration, but it also brings me on to another housing matter, which I am pleased to see come forward at last. That is leasehold reform. I must declare an interest as a leaseholder, as I am sure many other Members are, but I raise it because, far from its being an issue that affects only our cities, leasehold affects constituencies across the country, including my own. The Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities estimates that there are around 4.98 million leasehold homes in England. That is a lot of homes.
It has become apparent in recent years—and in my inbox—that a raft of problems can affect leaseholders. [Interruption.] I see the Housing Minister, my hon. Friend Rachel Maclean, nodding in agreement. Examples include extortionate service charges and the complexity of extending lease agreements and marriage values. That causes stress and uncertainty for leaseholders and barriers for buyers, and it is time we sorted it out. A report from the Law Commission has been sitting in DLUHC for some time, so I gently say to the Minister, “Can you get a move on with this, please, in the remaining time in this Parliament?”
A lack of transport can be a barrier to opportunity. Access to a good local train station will be transformative for communities such as mine in Aldridge-Brownhills. Stations can help to reconnect small communities, regenerate local economies and improve access to opportunity—to jobs, homes and education. There are currently only eight places with a population of 30,000 or more without an operational railway station situated within 5 km. Aldridge is one of them. I urge the Government to push ahead with the next stage of this important project and to work with me and Mayor Andy Street to deliver a train station in Aldridge as part of Network North. We are making progress, so let us continue to do that. My constituents deserve to share the benefits of greater connectivity.
Transport, housing, a safe community—all that matters, but so do skills to take advantage of job opportunities. I welcome the Government’s determination to strengthen education for the long term, and invest in skills and education both for the future and for today. Right now, the UK has 1.1 million job vacancies, yet there are still people seeking work. We have to ask why. It could be partially explained by the misfortune of having a deficit of highly skilled people to take those jobs. The skills shortage is set to cost our country £120 billion by 2030 due to a shortfall of 2.5 million highly skilled workers. That should not be the case. The UK is a renowned global leader in academic excellence in education, so why are we suffering from a shortage of highly skilled workers when we should be a high-skill, high-wage economy?
Maybe we are not investing enough in the right skills in the right areas. There is a mismatch between skills and industry that we need to address urgently. I know, from speaking to local businesses in my constituency, that there are vacancies for technicians, mechanics and toolmakers. Across the Black Country and the broader west midlands, manufacturing jobs are available, but there is a deficit of skilled people to take up those positions.
I am pleased to hear that the Government are focusing on that and in particular on apprenticeships and technical qualifications to ensure, most importantly, that our young people have choices and that they understand what those choices are. I am very fortunate to have in my constituency a company called In-Comm, which is one of the UK’s leading training providers, delivering engineering skills, apprenticeships, training and upskilling. The Minister with responsibility for apprentices is on the Government Front Bench. Maybe he would like to come along and visit, and see the amazing work that it does with businesses and young people.
I turn to the topic of safer communities, which was also a theme and focus in the King’s Speech. Safer communities are stronger communities and crime, sadly, is a scourge on our society. In recent years it has become all too prevalent in too many of our communities. Office for National Statistics data shows that in 2022-23 across the west midlands we recorded the highest rate of offences across England and Wales, with 178 knife crimes per 100,000 of population. That equates to a staggering average of 5,197 knife crime offences per year. But those are not just numbers, are they? Behind every number is a story—a family, a loved one, friends, colleagues, a community.
In my constituency, James Brindley fell victim to an unprovoked fatal stabbing in 2017 as he walked home from a night out. The James Brindley Foundation has a campaign to bring about positive social change and reduce youth violence. We urgently need the legislation now to deliver the promised ban on machetes and zombie-style knives, and for the police to have the powers to seize and destroy any weapon they find. That is something that I have campaigned for. Our local newspaper, the Express & Star, is also actively campaigning on that. Good work is going on locally, and it is connected to breaking down barriers to opportunity, but we need legislation now. I hope that measures will be included in the criminal justice Bill. Perhaps someone on the Government Front Bench will be able to confirm whether that is the case.
Local policing also matters when it comes to opportunity. [Interruption.] I am keeping an eye on the clock, Madam Deputy Speaker. I will get my skates on. I just want to touch on policing, bobbies and buildings, which are at the heart of our communities. We need safer communities to remove barriers to opportunity. That is why I am disappointed that our police and crime commissioner is pushing ahead with sweeping cuts to 30 police stations across the west midlands, including in Aldridge. That is a reckless choice from someone who is saving Quinton while sacrificing Aldridge. [Interruption.] I can hear people chattering, and I have said that I will bring my speech to a conclusion.
We need long-term decisions for the future, not short change for the short term. I urge Ministers to work with me and Andy Street, who knows the west midlands better than anybody when it comes to breaking down barriers of opportunity. I will continue to press the Government to do more for my constituents and to continue delivering opportunities for the people, businesses and organisations I represent.
Order. I stress how important it is that we think of others when we make our speeches; otherwise I will have to put on a time limit. Obviously, I will not do so for the SNP spokesperson, but I am sure he will also be considerate of others.
Thank you, Madam Deputy Speaker. It is a real pleasure to open for the Scottish National party on the day after the day before. I think of this as a constitutional Boxing day, when we assess the quality of the turkey, see how the hangover is getting on and make sure that the odd crown or tiara has not been left behind and that everyone got home with the right ermine robe.
That brings me to the first barrier. Do we have to do this so ostentatiously? Our constituents are suffering probably their worst cost of living crisis. Some of those emeralds and rubies that were described by the BBC yesterday probably cost as much as a local authority budget.
I know it is likely that the tribunes of the people will be presenting the next King’s speech and, keeping with their political pallor, maybe it will have a bit more measure and be a bit more in keeping with what this country deserves, particularly as it is going through a tough time. I already have constituents getting in touch with me who are quite upset about the sheer ostentatiousness of what we observed. [Interruption.] I will get to the substance.
This was a King’s Speech designed to revive the Government’s catastrophic fortunes—they have been 20 percentage points or more behind in the opinion polls for about two years. This was an opportunity to reacquaint themselves with the British public’s affections. How did they get on? The sad news for Conservative Members is that the answer is: not particularly well. I doubt they want to see this morning’s headlines, which say that it was a dud, a dead duck, a missed chance, a failed opportunity—and that is only the Tory press. There were some real crackers, including “The Kingzzz Speech”. One newspaper said that Colin Firth’s one was better. I particularly liked the description “insipid” that featured in The National—probably the finest publication in the UK—because it was mine.
This King’s Speech had to work for the Government, as they are looking for something to get them out to the stump to “stand up and fight”, as the Leader of the House said. They wanted red meat, but this King’s Speech was like last week’s boeuf bourguignon. It was not a fillet steak so much as offal, both literally and figuratively.
They were looking for populist measures to get them out there, and what did they get? A smoking ban. This is the biggest congregation of right-wing Tories we will ever see assembled on these Benches, and I hardly thought they would be standard bearers for progressive liberalism. Even the Liberal Democrats have not proposed a smoking ban. I support it, and I think it is great, but imagine a lily-livered liberal like me supporting a Tory measure. I do not know whether that is good news or bad news for them, but it is certainly not the red meat they wanted.
There are so many contradictory and confusing things in the King’s Speech. The Government have styled themselves as the friend of the motorist—the scourge of 20 mph neighbourhoods—who will get rid of clean-air zones so that people have to breathe exhaust fumes for the next few years. But what have they gone and done? They have only gone and planned to legislate for self-driving cars. So much for being on the motorist’s side. There will not be any motorists any more. That is one measure that particularly intrigued me. I suppose they could be the scourge of 20 mph neighbourhoods with an algorithm—that’s the modern Tories for you.
This was a last-gasp King’s Speech. It was a bit like that 14-year-old looking for a pack of cigarettes in some future corner shop. This King’s Speech confirms almost everything we know about this Conservative Government. It is a legislative programme from a “can’t be bothered” Government with nothing more to say, who are just waiting to be put out of their misery.
The theme of today’s debate is “Breaking down barriers to opportunity.” The opportunity that the whole country wants is the opportunity to kick the chaotic Tories out of power, and the barrier to that is their refusal to give us a general election so that we could achieve that objective.
Another opportunity that Scottish National party Members are looking for is the opportunity to get my nation away from this place. This King’s Speech was delivered by a Government we did not vote for, and who are doing things that we do not approve of and that we do not want. Would it not be better if my nation were governed by the people who live and work in Scotland?
Just by saying that, even I might be labelled an “extremist”. There was lots of talk about the red meat that was supposed to be included in all of this—all this stuff about turfing homeless people out of their shelters on the streets of the UK—but another thing the Government were considering was extending the definition of an “extremist” to cover people who sought to undermine the integrity of the UK. That is my political mission. My job here is to ensure that the UK is undermined and that my nation becomes free and independent. I do not know whether the Government are now thinking about extending the definition of “extremist” to cover half the people in Scotland who currently support Scottish independence—I am looking forward to seeing them try to bring that one in.
Of course, very few Bills in this King’s Speech apply directly to Scotland, which was not even mentioned in the King’s Speech. I have been listening to the pain of my hon. Friend Hywel Williams, who notes that it contains no mention of Wales either. Apparently, we are told in some of the documents that 20 of these Bills somehow apply to Scotland, but they barely touch the sides of the Scottish experience and the conditions that my constituents are living in just now. We are looking for practical measures that deal with the reality of the situation for our constituents, such as proposals to deal with the cost of living crisis and to help people through this winter and with their energy bills, which will remain sky high. Nothing in the King’s Speech does that.
The Scottish Government, my colleagues in Edinburgh, are having to pick that up, with the transformative Scottish child payment. The one thing we have in our gift that we can deliver to the Scottish people is freezing council tax, and that is exactly what we are doing. Where we are in charge and have the responsibility, we will make that difference to the living standards of people in our nation—something this Government are not prepared to do and I am proud that our Government are doing it.
I am setting out the opportunities that we will give to bring dignity back and to tackle the real issues that are being experienced. It seems as though the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities and the Department for Education are leading this debate, but nothing in this King’s Speech deals with either of those areas. Thank goodness that is the case in education; I say that after listening to that drivel from the Secretary of State, with the Government’s ideological venture in education. It has absolutely nothing to do with Scottish education and so we can get on with making sure that we deliver for our children.
While the Tories are fascinated with taking on poor degrees and university courses, we are making sure that young people in Scotland get the destinations they deserve. We have seen fantastic figures, with 95.7% of 2022 school leavers in Scotland having now secured that positive destination; they have gone into work, training or further education. The national 5 pass rate is up from 78.2% in 2019 to 81.6% in 2022, which was our best exam year ever. Higher exam pass rates increased from 71.7% in 2007 to 80.3% in 2022. Thank goodness we do not have the Tories involved in any of our devolved services, because if they were, we would end up being subject to that drivel we have heard. Of course, we also have no tuition fees in Scotland, which means that students from Scotland do not have the crippling, sky-high debt that these Tories seek to burden our young people with at the beginning of their lives—thank goodness for that.
Of course, there is one Bill that totally applies to Scotland: the Bill that seeks to have an annual licensing round for North sea exploration. It perplexes me, along with many people in Scotland, because I remember—you were here too, Madam Deputy Speaker, so you will remember—that during the debate about Scottish independence the Government and the “Better Together” side told us that Scotland’s oil and gas was just about to run out. We were told that we were cursed with this stuff and that even having it would impoverish us, but now we find out that North sea oil and gas will liberate us from foreign reserves, reduce bills and give the nation the energy security it needs. What a remarkable resource we have in the North sea: it can simultaneously be running out and a curse, while rescuing the UK from its current conditions when it comes to oil and gas. That, of course, is all absolute bunkum.
Apparently, we will get to net zero more efficiently by taking more carbon out of the ground, burning it and then releasing it into the atmosphere. No one believes that sort of bunkum science other than the Tories. This Government have already watered down the climate targets, pushing back the deadline for selling new petrol and diesel cars and the phasing out of gas boilers. By far the best way to improve energy security, cut bills and support workers is through investing in more renewables.
Extracting more oil from the North sea will not help energy security in Britain or reduce bills. Our oil is owned by the big companies, such as Shell and BP, which extract it and sell it into the international markets. We then buy it back at market rates. The new licences will make no difference. The way to reduce dependence on foreign oil is to reduce dependence on oil—it is as simple as that.
After 14 years, is this really the best the Tories can do? They are now at the stage where they are wanting change—change from themselves. Yes, we all want change, but the change that we all require and need is to get rid of the Conservatives. At some point in the course of the next year, they will meet their destiny with the British people, which I suppose and suggest will not be good for them. The King’s Speech has not worked for them. They probably have one last chance and effort when it comes to the autumn statement, but I do not think anybody is expecting them to get out that way.
I do not just want rid of this Conservative Government; I do not want the Westminster Government impacting and affecting decisions made in this country. We will get there, Madam Deputy Speaker, first by making sure that they are replaced and then making sure that Scotland has the opportunity to decide its own future. Believe me, when that opportunity comes, Scotland will make its position dead clear and we will be leaving this place for good.
Pageantry is one of our country’s greatest strengths, with yesterday’s state opening of Parliament reaffirming our standards and values to the world. I am proud of our royal family, our country and our democracy. It saddens and concerns me that a significant minority do not share my views. Some of them plan to march in London during this Remembrance weekend, which is a time reserved for quiet reflection about those who have died serving in our name. They gave the ultimate sacrifice.
The right to protest peacefully in this country is long held, and rightly so. However, Saturday’s march must be banned. Not only is it disrespectful, but there is a genuine risk of disorder, potentially on a large scale. I urge those who are genuinely concerned about the war in Gaza to stay at home on this special weekend of Remembrance. To those who do attend, I say there can be no other reason other than to cause trouble.
As for the King’s Speech, I have mixed feelings. With a year to go before an election, I am always looking for red meat—certainly for a far stronger narrative. To be fair, no Bill alone can tackle the huge challenges the country faces, such as our debt, foreign wars and the consequences of the pandemic. What the nation is looking for is a healthy dose of common sense, a re-emergence of British values and an end to all this wokey, politically correct nonsense that is corrupting all that we hold dear.
A ban on smoking and the Orwellian driverless car are not top priorities either. The British people are crying out for a clear choice. For too long, with our high taxes and bloated state, we have aped those on the Opposition Benches, spending money that we simply do not have. Courage and conviction are needed now, and we did see hints of that in the King’s Speech. Tougher sentencing, more money for our armed forces, and more doctors, nurses and dentists, to name but three, are all positive and are to be welcomed.
However, words are easy; it is backing them up coherently that counts. For example, a new ambition to raise defence spending from 2% to 2.5% is good news, but arbitrary targets are meaningless. Would it not be more sensible to calculate what we need to defend our island and fulfil our NATO obligations before we even think of setting targets? Our armed forces are under-resourced—and this when the world order is under threat.
Another ambiguity is the new licensing regime to extract oil and gas from the North sea. While totally sensible, punitive taxes are hardly going to encourage companies to take such a risk. To secure investment, countless jobs and our energy security, the industry urgently needs low taxes. Oil and gas will continue to play a role in our economy for many years to come. To deny that will condemn the country to abject misery. Why was there not a Bill to redraft the Climate Change Act 2008, which will simply impoverish us, and scrap all the green taxes? I am all for reducing carbon emissions, but not until the renewables are reliable and affordable. And let us not forget nuclear, which will be a crucial part of the mix.
Welcome, too, is the reform of tougher sentencing for serious offenders. But, while those offenders will spend more time in jail, those committing less serious crimes will evade it because we have reached full capacity. New prisons are being built, but not fast enough.
One Bill that I would like to have seen in the King’s Speech is one reintroducing national service for those who need a hand up, and that number is sadly growing. We already spend billions of pounds on encouraging reliance on the state. Let us spend that instead on instilling in people that life is about contributing, about service, and about taking responsibility for one’s self.
I hope most sincerely that the much-awaited autumn statement will go some way to answering some of my concerns. What we need right now is a clear vision based on sound Conservative values. We are Conservatives, so let us start acting like them before it is too late.
I am grateful for the opportunity to speak in this debate. The Secretary of State’s attack on Sure Start, which was dismantled by the Conservatives, was completely ill-conceived. The one area where I thought she did have a point was in her attack on the state of secondary education when she was a pupil and the Thatcher Government were in charge. Thankfully, the Labour Governments that followed have addressed those very serious problems that she suffered from when she was at school.
In opening the debate, my right hon. Friend Angela Rayner was absolutely right to take the Home Secretary to task for her attack on people forced to sleep on the pavements in tents, and for her description of them having made a “lifestyle choice” to do so. It is hard to understand how somebody holding such a crucial role in the government of this country can have no grasp of the harsh realities facing far too many people during the current crisis.
In opening the debate on the King’s Speech yesterday, the Prime Minister spent some time, quite rightly, talking about the situation in the middle east. I want to take the Home Secretary to task again for her description of those taking part in the recent Palestine marches as having taken part in a “hate march”. She owes those marchers an apology. No doubt she has not spoken to any of them, but the constituents whom I have spoken to who have been taking part in those marches have no truck at all with the appalling massacre and hostage-taking by Hamas. They are definitely not motivated by hate; they are motivated by distress and compassion. They see appalling images, refreshed on their screens hourly, of children being killed and maimed. Some have told me they cannot sleep at the moment because of their distress at what is happening. They want it to stop. Surely we all want it to stop. The Home Secretary may reach a different conclusion from those who have been on the marches, but she is absolutely wrong to impugn their motives so unfairly. Unlike Richard Drax, I think that the Metropolitan Police Commissioner is absolutely right in his decision about the march this weekend; there is no lawful basis for a ban.
I am glad that the Prime Minister has made a renewed commitment to deliver a two-state solution—two secure states alongside each other in peace—but we have all been saying that for so long and nobody has done anything to make it happen. The Government of Israel have for years been undermining that prospect. One of the criticisms they will have to answer when the fighting stops is why their soldiers were off protecting people living in the still-expanding illegal settlements in the west bank when they should have been protecting Israeli citizens in their own country, who were left undefended in the Hamas attack. The renewed commitment to a two-state solution from the Prime Minister, which I welcome, must be delivered once the fighting stops.
Like others, I was struck by omissions from the King’s Speech. It refers to proposals being published to reform welfare and support more people into work, but there is no sign of any Bill. The Government have been undertaking a rushed consultation lasting only eight weeks over major proposals to change the descriptors for the work capability assessment. On the Work and Pensions Committee, we have heard from organisations such as Citizens Advice about the deeply unsatisfactory nature of that rushed exercise, and the consequences for people who are out of work on health grounds. The Government’s own Equality and Human Rights Commission has said that
“the consultation period is insufficient to enable disabled people and their representative organisations to respond meaningfully.”
The Select Committee asked on a unanimous cross-party basis that the consultation be extended so that it can be done properly. Unfortunately, the Secretary of State rejected our request.
There will have to be legislation to make whatever changes are decided on, but there is no mention at all in the King’s Speech of a Bill to do it. There is a puzzle here, because the Government have announced that they plan to abolish the work capability assessment in a couple of years anyway. That will require legislation, but there is no Bill to do any of those things in the King’s Speech. There are press reports that the Government intend to inspect benefits claimants’ bank accounts regularly. That will also require powers, but there is nothing in the King’s Speech that would have that effect either.
There is no pensions Bill. The Government consulted on proposals for the consolidation of defined-benefit pension schemes in 2018. Finally, after five years, the Government responded to that consultation in July this year. Consolidation is important for the ambition to secure more pension scheme investment into the UK economy, as set out by the Chancellor in his Mansion House speech. In that speech, he spoke of
“introducing a permanent superfund regulatory regime”.
The commitment of the Minister for Pensions to having a permanent regulated regime for superfunds as soon as parliamentary time allows was very welcome, but there is not a Bill. The aspiration that the Chancellor set out not very long ago will not be fulfilled by this King’s Speech.
In evidence to the Work and Pensions Committee, the chief executive of Clara-Pensions said that in an “ideal world” legislation for superfunds “would be enacted today.” Luke Webster of The Pension SuperFund said that the direction of travel set out in the Department’s response was
“very helpful and having that properly defined in regulation would give a lot more confidence to investors and those involved in delivering these proposals.”
But there is no Bill.
As my right hon. Friend the Member for Ashton-under-Lyne pointed out in her opening speech, there is no employment Bill either. Ever since the Taylor review six years ago, Ministers have promised a Bill to regularise the status of people working in the gig economy, ensuring access to a pension scheme and other rights that Parliament has determined they should have. It was in the Queen’s Speech in 2019, but yesterday it was missing once again.
Today the Trussell Trust announced the highest ever level of food bank demand. In the six months to September, more than 1.5 million emergency food parcels were given out—16% more than in the same period last year. Nothing in the King’s Speech addressed that disgrace.
It is a pleasure to speak in this historic debate following the first King’s Speech in more than 70 years.
Opportunity manifests in many ways, but one thing is clear: it is the Conservatives who are the party of opportunity. As a comprehensive school student during the Thatcher years, I was inspired to look for opportunities and seize them—not to expect to be given a handout, but to work hard as a way to achieve my ambitions. I recognise that I have been very lucky. I have had many opportunities and some successes along the way, and one reason I sought election to this place was to help to give other people better opportunities, whatever their background or whatever may befall them.
Key to opportunity is the economy. That is the case for everyone, whatever walk of life they are in. Too many people sneer at the private sector and criticise the profit motive, but it is entrepreneurs who take the risks and make the investments, and businesses that create the jobs and generate the wealth. Without them, there would be no money to pay tax and therefore no money to deliver the excellent public services we all deserve and want.
I was delighted that His Majesty began his Gracious Speech by stating that his Ministers’ focus was on increasing economic growth. We need to remove the barriers to growth if we are to remove the barriers to opportunity. That means reducing regulation, incentivising investment and lowering taxes, all in a fiscally responsible way. I am particularly pleased that the Government have committed to addressing the drivers of low growth over increasing the national debt. That is in marked contrast to the Opposition’s solution of more tax, more borrowing and more debt, but we should not be surprised; after all, that has always been Labour’s way, and we know the shadow Chancellor is a fan of “cut and paste”.
I share the Government’s firm belief in the ability of education to break down barriers to opportunity and improve life chances. We are doing that in Aylesbury, where our excellent schools strive to give every child a brilliant start in life. Buckinghamshire is renowned for its grammar schools, and deservedly so, if my recent visit to Aylesbury High School is anything to go by. The spirited questions from its sixth formers reminded me somewhat of this place. However, it is not just academic education flourishing in Aylesbury. Since my election I have been a strong supporter of Aylesbury University Technical College, and I am extremely pleased to have been able to help to secure its long-term future. I am also pleased to see the Minister for Skills, Apprenticeships and Higher Education, my right hon. Friend Robert Halfon—who I know is an equally ardent supporter of UTCs—on the Front Bench.
I warmly welcome the Government’s commitment to high-quality technical education, affirmed in the King’s Speech, and the parity of esteem that will be achieved with the introduction of the advanced British standard. That is how we open up more opportunities for young people, by providing options and educational choice—quite the contrast, once again, with those on the Opposition Benches, from whom all we have heard is the politics of envy in the form of taxing independent school fees. That is red meat for the militant left, but not a feasible plan for the Government. What better illustration could we have of the fact that on the Conservative Benches we believe in opportunity for all, whereas the Labour party believes in division?
Moreover, where better to illustrate the Conservative commitment to opportunity than my own county, where Buckinghamshire’s Conservative council runs the Opportunity Bucks programme to address education, health and income inequalities? While Buckinghamshire as a whole may be a wealthy county, parts of Aylesbury struggle with considerable deprivation. To tackle that, ambitious plans are in place for the redevelopment of our town centre. I look forward to working with the local business community, local councillors and the Levelling Up Minister, my hon. Friend Jacob Young, who is on the Front Bench, to ensure that the right long-term decisions are made for Aylesbury to remain a great place to live, work, visit and invest.
Unfortunately, these days it can be something of a challenge to get to Aylesbury and experience all that it has to offer, as a result of appalling traffic congestion. Much of that could be overcome by the rapid construction of the link roads that have been planned to circle the town, so the formal announcement in the King’s Speech of Network North is a welcome way to speed up the approval of funding for the south-east Aylesbury link road and the eastern link road project.
That would go some small way to begin compensating for the huge disruption and devastation that has been caused in my constituency by the construction of phase 1 of High Speed 2. It is a blight we see every day with woodlands being felled; it is a blight we feel every day sitting in yet more traffic as HS2’s heavy goods vehicles ruin our roads. Funding that comes from the cancellation of phase 2 of HS2 would be an important contribution to greater connectivity for individuals and firms alike. As the Federation of Small Businesses told me recently, connectivity is absolutely key to the success of companies across the country.
I will briefly address another barrier to opportunity: involvement in the criminal justice system. As the House knows, prior to my election, I served as a magistrate and was a member of the Sentencing Council and a non-executive director of His Majesty’s Prison and Probation Service. My determination, and even passion, to improve the criminal justice system is one of the principal drivers of my work in this place. Over the past few years, we have seen a welcome increase in the emphasis on getting former prisoners into jobs, because we know that paid work can dramatically reduce the risk of reoffending. A job provides not only an honest wage but a sense of worth. Sadly, however, too many ex-offenders do not yet have that opportunity. That is partly because short prison sentences do relatively little to reduce reoffending, so I am pleased that the Government are embarking on radical sentencing reforms, especially by increasing the focus on robust community orders.
The concept of a virtual prison is one that we should also explore—to seize the opportunities afforded by digital innovation to create opportunities for personal change, growth and success. It is also right that for the worst offenders, the entire prison sentence will be spent behind bars, and that, for the most appalling crimes, life will mean life. That, too, represents opportunity: the opportunity for victims of crime to know that justice has been done; and the opportunity for the public to be safe, secure and protected from harm—the Government carrying out their first and prime duty to their citizens.
Whether in justice, in education or in the economy, the King’s Speech sets out Bills for the months ahead that show a brighter future for our country—a brighter future that can come only from this Conservative Government.
It is a pleasure to follow Rob Butler in this King’s Speech debate.
After 13 years of Tory Government, and three Prime Ministers in the last year and a half, this King’s Speech offered us pretty thin gruel. There was no real vision for the future, there was nothing like a plan to get there, and it was nowhere near adequate to meet the challenges this country is facing. The Speech contained just 21 Bills, six of which have been carried over from last year’s parliamentary Session. Many of those included, such as on leasehold reform, turn out on closer inspection to be pale shadows of what was promised by the Government. There are Bills that nod towards the need for reform but do not actually deliver meaningful change, or delay it so long as to be meaningless. They sit alongside such towering legislative ambitions as a Bill to license pedicabs in London.
That legislative programme leaves the challenges that my Wallasey constituents are facing virtually unaddressed: taxes are the highest they have been for 70 years, mortgages are up, rents have skyrocketed, the cost of living squeeze goes on, inflation remains the highest in the G7, and food inflation is higher still. Growth is projected to be zero next year, and the Bank of England has put the chance of a recession at 50:50. After 13 years of this Government, our rivers and seas are filled with sewage, our schools are crumbling, 94% of crimes go unsolved, our transport system is in chaos, and over 7.5 million people are on an NHS waiting list. Where in this King’s Speech were those things addressed?
Food insecurity was once rare; now, in the past year in a rich G7 country, over 11 million of our fellow citizens have experienced it. In my constituency of Wallasey, the number of emergency food bank parcels provided by the Trussell Trust has increased by 57% since the last general election. On the Wirral as a whole, over 16,000 people received emergency food parcels last year, a third of whom were children, and in the country as a whole, nine children out of 30 in a class are growing up in poverty. This legislative plan does not even mention, let alone begin to address, the daily struggles and hardship that millions of people in this country are now facing.
As my right hon. Friend Sir Stephen Timms mentioned, there were some notable omissions from the speech, including a promised reform of the Mental Health Act 1983; an employment Bill to give workers a fairer deal; and the Tory manifesto promise to ban conversion therapy for LGBT+ people. There was no sign of the promised reform of audit rules—boring to some, but quite important to the good working of our economy—and as my right hon. Friend pointed out, the promised reform of pensions was also absent. Despite the Prime Minister’s much-vaunted summit, there was no regulation of artificial intelligence anywhere to be seen, either.
We have a Government who have long since ceased to govern, who seem uninterested in tackling the serious issues our country faces and who seek division, rather than solution. We have a programme for the final year of this Parliament that was briefed out by senior Tories as being designed to set “traps” for Labour in the forthcoming general election campaign. The offshore petroleum licensing Bill is one such example: the industry says that the Bill will make no difference whatsoever, and the Secretary of State has been forced to admit that it will not lower energy costs for consumers. While rough sleeping is up 74% under the Tories, we have a Home Secretary who, instead of solving the problem of the housing shortage, wants to make it illegal to give tents to the homeless. She claims they are indulging in a “lifestyle choice” by having the temerity to sleep on our streets. We have five criminal justice Bills that toughen sentences for convicted criminals, but have nothing to say about the huge and growing backlogs of criminal cases —some of which are taking two years even to get to court—or about the plummeting arrest and conviction rates for serious offences. They are tinkering, not dealing with the real issues.
Rather than do the day job, this tired and incompetent Government are grinding to a halt. They seem much more preoccupied with pursuing their own internal factional fights than addressing the growing needs of the country. Even now, it is possible to discern the looming battle to be the next Leader of the Opposition commencing between the current Home Secretary and the Trade Secretary. We can spot the dwindling band of Boris Johnson supporters publishing absurd, conspiracy-laden books such as “The Plot” to explain his defenestration, when the rest of us only need to follow the covid inquiry to appreciate what the real explanation is. As the previous Prime Minister, Elizabeth Truss tours the world proclaiming that despite her catastrophic 44-day tenure in office, she was in fact right all along, we can see that the Tory party can never be the change that this country is crying out for.
The change Britain needs is a mission-led Labour Government embarking on 10 years of national renewal—a Government who will secure the highest growth in the G7, make Britain a clean energy superpower, build an NHS fit for the future, make Britain’s streets safe, and break down the barriers to opportunity at every stage. It is long past time for this flailing, divisive Tory Government to recognise that the country needs real change, and to call a general election so that the country can have the new start it deserves—and sooner rather than later.
Thank you, Madam Deputy Speaker, and I apologise for asking you to figure out the difference between those housing numbers earlier.
It is a total pleasure to speak in this debate on His Majesty’s Gracious Speech. As the Secretary of State stated, one of the best ways to break down barriers to opportunities is through education. Outside parenting, teachers and our schools are crucial to providing the life skills that ensure people from more disadvantaged backgrounds can break through any barriers. They enable them to do whatever they want to do with their lives. As the Sutton Trust has said:
“A young person’s future outcomes should not be determined by their background or economic circumstances.”
Boosting social mobility through education is the way we get talented young people to develop their ideas and improve the world for all of us.
Changing the education system to make sure it works for everyone is one of the reasons I got involved in politics. I wrote a report for the One Nation Conservatives over three years ago, and last year I was very pleased to see so many commissions coming to much the same conclusions. The Times education commission said that our curriculum is too narrow at the top and is not providing the skills that universities and businesses want. I agree with that, and so do all the employers I speak to. That is why I am so pleased with the Prime Minister’s announcement about the advanced British standard, although I have made my views clear on the title. I do think we need to change it.
As I wrote in my report three years ago, I agree that putting vocational and academic subjects on a par with maths and English until 18 is an excellent idea. We are not talking about everyone doing maths A-level; we are talking about functional maths that might be related to a vocational subject or to life in general. One third of young people have to retake their maths and English GCSEs, over and over again in some circumstances. I have talked to young people about this, and I know it is very dispiriting and a blight on their education, so why are we still having these high-stakes exams at 16, when the key assessment point is in fact at 18? Very few other countries copy our approach. We should provide a system to assess at 18, get the curriculum right and remove the barriers of GCSEs. Most other countries start their technical education at age 13 or 14. I have always advocated a 13-to-18 curriculum, because not starting early will limit experience and exposure to many subjects, including technical education.
My final point is that I must regret the absence of a Bill to introduce a register of children not in school. The House will recall that I introduced such a Bill in the previous Session, after the measure was dropped from the Schools Bill. Before I introduced my Bill, I consulted teachers, educational think-tanks, children’s charities, teaching unions, the Children’s Commissioner and also Ministers. Parents have a right to home school children, and my Bill would have done nothing to prevent them from doing so. Its aim was to ensure that vulnerable children are identifiable and can be supported. There is a crisis in attendance post covid, and we have to tackle it before these children miss out.
My Bill fell at the end of the last Session, but I note that the Schools Minister has committed to introducing legislation at “a future suitable opportunity”. What more suitable opportunity could there be than the one we have now? I was deeply disappointed at the lack of such a Bill in the Gracious Speech. The wording of my Bill provided a ready-to-run solution, with support from across the House and across the education system. I urge Ministers to look at this again, and in the meantime I will continue to look at ways of getting this much-needed register in place.
This debate is entitled “Breaking down barriers to opportunity”, and I look at the issues facing people in my community: poverty, low wages, the disgraceful two-child policy on benefits, systematic discrimination, inadequate housing, poor air quality and so on. They affect so many inner-city and other communities across this country, and I do not see any answers in the King’s Speech. On the environmental issues that the King managed to stumble across when telling us about the new policies, we are told that, somehow or other, new oil drilling and new fracking will improve the environment, make the world sustainable and put us in line with all the conventions that the Government have signed up to over the past few years. I just think that this debate is slightly surreal in its title, and in how the Government have addressed it.
I want to say a couple of things about education. In schools—certainly in England—there are deeply stressed teachers and deeply stressed students. We have a mental health crisis affecting all elements of staff within our schools and in particular young people. The mental health crisis goes right down into primary schools. At later stages, we have grotesquely indebted graduates and, in some cases, parents deeply in debt or having problems just trying to find childcare for their children to continue in work. It is not as if we are giving all our children a great start in life. The teaching unions’ strikes over the past year have been about wages, but they have also been about workload and the quality of education delivered in our schools. They have also demanded the full funding of the pay settlement that was agreed to ensure that school budgets were not slashed. The Government then did a volte-face on that. Having accepted that they would refund the schools to pay for the settlement, they have tried to get out of that. We need a catch-up process on our teachers’ salaries. Teachers have been so badly treated by this Government.
In an intervention on the Secretary of State—she kindly gave way—I raised the issue of falling school rolls. She answered that the Government are aware of and investigating the problem. In my constituency, along I suspect with those of many colleagues representing inner-urban areas, there is a problem of falling rolls. That is partly because of people moving out of urban areas, partly because of a lower birth rate and partly because of home schooling. There is a whole variety of issues, but the reality is that many schools have seriously falling rolls, and therefore are questioning their survival. Each school is asked to deal with the problem on its own, along with the local education authority where it is a maintained school. The teaching assistants go first, and the other support staff second. The teachers go third, and all along the line, the after-school activities and so on are all cut back and dealt with.
Successive Governments have understandably had to deal with this issue in rural areas, and they have come to a funding arrangement that has often protected rural schools, albeit with quite low numbers. I suggest the same principles should now be applied to inner-urban communities, too, because keeping a local primary school within walking distance for all children is important as part of the glue of the community, and I hope that issue can be addressed quickly. We do not have an integrated education system. We have far too much competition within the education community, and we have local authorities trying to juggle maintained schools, free schools and academies. They have great difficulty therefore in planning for future educational needs.
In the couple of minutes I have left, I will reflect on the statement earlier concerning the situation in Gaza and the demand for a ceasefire, which I strongly and fully support. All deaths are deplorable. Some 1,400 were killed in Israel, which is utterly deplorable, and a vile act was undertaken to kill those people. We now have more than 10,000 dead in Gaza, including 4,000 children who have been killed. The statement by Netanyahu of permanent occupation in Gaza suggests to me that they are trying to expel the entire population, and a new Gaza will therefore be created in the Sinai desert. That is the prospect we face. Somehow or other, our Government were incapable of voting at the UN even for the minimal request in the Brazilian-authored resolution of a humanitarian pause at that time, and they still refuse to join the global call by a whole range of organisations for a ceasefire. That surely has to be the urgency of it.
This morning on BBC Radio 4, Mr Mustafa Barghouti, an independent member of the Palestinian Authority dedicated to non-violent resistance of the occupation, spoke at length and with great heartfelt feeling of the occupation over 70 years, the settlement policy in the west bank and the continuing and increasing settler aggression towards the Palestinian people. His voice should be listened to carefully. If there is to be a long-term settlement, it must be the end of the occupation, the end of the settlement policy and justice for those hundreds of thousands of Palestinian refugees living in camps in Jordan, Syria, Lebanon and the diaspora all around the world.
What is happening at the moment is ghastly beyond belief. We are watching in real time on television human life being destroyed with weapons, some of which have been in part supplied from this country. Cannot our Government just wake up to the simple humanitarian demand that millions of people in this country are making, and will be making in a peaceful march on Saturday, not in competition with the Remembrance weekend but part and parcel of it?
We are remembering the horror of all those who lost their lives in two world wars and many other wars, and trying to bring an end to this ghastly conflict to save lives from being destroyed in Gaza and anywhere else in the middle east. Surely we can have that voice and make it clear from this House that we support a ceasefire now.
I am sure that there is much to welcome in the King’s Speech and much to ponder on the theme of “breaking down barriers to opportunity”, but I was warmed to my theme by Pete Wishart, who is no longer in his place. I always find him entertaining in the House—I always disagree with everything he says—but I think he is entertaining as Shakespeare’s clowns are entertaining. Today marks the 400th anniversary of the publication of Shakespeare’s first folio, which was the first time that Shakespeare’s plays were published in a printed edition. There were 36 plays in that first folio. Shakespeare is being celebrated across the media today, so, as chair of the all-party parliamentary group for Shakespeare, I thought it would be remiss not to mark this significant anniversary.
The folio probably represents a foundational moment in our culture, and it is relevant to today’s debate on opportunity. Some of my constituents and others might be saying, “Why is the MP for Halesowen and Rowley Regis talking about a dead playwright? Why is he important? What has he got to say about our contemporary world?” I would argue that the folio gives us an opportunity to reassert the continued importance of Shakespeare’s works in the modern world, particularly in our cultural heritage and education system. The performance and understanding of Shakespeare’s plays is essential for the education of our young people.
I recently took part as a judge in a competition organised by the Coram Shakespeare Schools Foundation, which asked young people to reimagine a Shakespeare speech in the contemporary world. Some incredibly creative ideas were put forward.
The discipline required to understand Shakespeare is vital. Many of us may have had bad experiences at school. I remember studying “As You Like It” at O-level, and that put me off—it took me until I was doing an English degree five years later to get into Shakespeare. But the discipline and creativity of putting on performances are critical to the education of our young people and the protection of the cultural heritage. Shakespeare is a central part of our national culture.
I want to mention the Rose Revealed project in Southwark. In 1989, archaeological digs were done under a building in Southwark, which revealed one of the original Shakespearean theatres—the Rose theatre—where some of the plays of Shakespeare and Marlow were performed. The second phase of the project is to do further work on that site to create an exhibition centre celebrating the works of Shakespeare and his contemporaries, with a broader vision to create an Elizabethan quarter on that side of the river in London. Many other organisations across the country support Shakespeare education and the performance of Shakespeare: the Royal Shakespeare Company, the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust and my alma mater the University of Birmingham, which has the Shakespeare Institute in Stratford doing incredibly important work to promulgate Shakespeare and promote his works.
There is a second reason why celebrating and talking about the folio and Shakespeare is important today. We live in a time when the international order is under threat. We have conflicts throughout the world: the Russian invasion of Ukraine, and we have spoken about the situation in Israel and Gaza. Members may ask, “What does Shakespeare have to do with that?” As I mentioned in a recent Prime Minister’s question after Volodymyr Zelensky’s visit, I know from my contacts with the Ukrainian Shakespeare Centre that Shakespeare’s plays—in particular, Hamlet—have been put on in air raid shelters in Ukraine as an act of defiance against Russian aggression. That is an incredibly powerful statement of how a great example of our culture can be used to support democratic values and assert the power of creativity against brazen aggression.
In that sense, Shakespeare is part of our soft power. What do we mean by soft power? I had a conversation with Professor Michael Dobson, who runs the Shakespeare Institute, who said that Shakespeare’s plays and their performances are a kind of conversation in which he represents humanity in all its plurality in an eloquent and vigorous way. Shakespeare characterises all that is best in British culture, while still inviting those of other cultures to join that conversation. Shakespeare is an important part of our soft power, but not in the sense that he is a commodity we can trade around the world. Those plays and performances are a critical way of bringing people together and asserting the power of creativity in our world. That is an important dimension of why we need to celebrate the folio today.
Let me come to my final point about why I am banging on about Shakespeare in the Kings Speech. Feste, a character in “Twelfth Night”, said:
“I can yield you none without words, and words are grown so false I am loath to prove reason with them”.
Shakespeare wrote those words all that time ago, but in our politics, in some ways, words have become false and it is very difficult to prove reason with them, because we are living in this world dominated by social media, the soundbite and—sometimes—false language on both sides of the political divide. It is important that this House considers and celebrates the first folio anniversary, because perhaps we can learn from Shakespeare’s eloquence and the conversation that is the central feature of his plays, as we seek to resolve some of the most profound domestic and international difficulties that we have faced for many years.
The Government are out of ideas and without direction, either unwilling or unable to make the big decisions to give us a brighter future. What a wasted opportunity, especially when it comes to action to tackle the nature and climate crisis. What better opportunity was there to empower communities and businesses to break down barriers to tackle the biggest issue of our generation? I am pleased that the Government announced recently that they will introduce a natural history GCSE, but considering the abysmal nature of what was in the King’s Speech on tackling the climate crisis, it seems to me that the Prime Minister should be the first person to take it.
Climate education should not stop with schools; local authorities could organise citizens’ assemblies, as we have proposed many times. There are so many opportunities to educate people about the dangers of our not getting this right and failing to reach our 1.5° target by 2050, but those on the Government Front Bench continue to ignore them. They continue, too, to ignore the opportunities that would arise from a green transition. A nature or climate GCSE could grow the careers and skills we need to tackle the climate emergency and get to net zero, but this Government’s attitude is that everyone except them must meet their commitments.
Rather than protecting our children’s future, the Government are protecting the interests of the fossil fuel giants. How can they seriously claim to be leaders on net zero action while introducing legislation to hold annual oil and gas licensing rounds? That is particularly shocking when compared with their unforgivable failure to allocate a single new contract for difference for onshore wind farms in the recent auction round. I would like to hear how the new legislation will bring down energy bills for a single one of my constituents. Research from Uplift confirms that most of the oil produced at Rosebank will be shipped abroad and sold on the global market to the highest bidder; it will secure the future of the oil and gas giants, but not the UK’s energy supply.
Not only does the new Offshore Petroleum Licensing Bill fly in the face of our climate commitments, but it will have wide-ranging and long-term negative impacts on the sustainability of our oceans and marine life. As I say, we need education on this across the House and across the board in all our communities. Educating young children is a good start, but it seems to me that a lot more of the older generations need that education too.
When will this Tory Government embrace the clean, green energy of the future and stop delaying our path to net zero? We need more grid capacity and more Government action to capitalise on green jobs and technology. New green jobs do not fall out of the sky; they start with proper career options for young people that they can start now so that we can see the energy transformation we need.
We hear from Tory Ministers that they hope to attract more investment in renewables, but their words do not match their actions. We cannot afford for our Government to miss any more of their own targets. That, too, should be part of our education—that if we say we will do something, we should actually deliver. We must take people with us on the green transition, and education is the first step.
There are so many untapped opportunities. UK solar power deployment is already significantly behind target. The smart export guarantee should incentivise households to invest in solar panels by allowing them to sell the excess electricity they produce back to the grid at a better price and recover the cost of their investment much faster. Again, educating householders in how they can invest in the net zero transition is an important part of the puzzle. If we do not communicate properly with our citizens about what they can do to tackle the climate crisis, where will we be?
Under the current system, it takes decades for householders to break even. Householders are confused, and we need to ensure that there are trusted sources where they can obtain information about how to tackle the climate crisis and break down the barriers that we are discussing today. There must be that change to bring about the revolution in rooftop solar that carries so many benefits for people and the planet. The cheapest energy is the energy that we do not use, and reducing energy waste will lower bills and cut carbon emissions. We urgently need to upgrade our housing stock to guarantee warm and comfortable homes for everyone, long into the future.
One in four private renters live in fuel poverty, and 1.6 million children are living in privately rented cold, damp or mouldy homes. Landlords have contacted me saying that they cannot afford to upgrade their properties to energy-efficient standards. That, too, is just a bit of education, a bit of knowledge that we must share as a matter of urgency. I believe that local councils are best placed to be the trusted sources of that type of information, but the Government must see them as partners and people to engage with, and give them the opportunities and resources that they need in order to share the information that is so badly needed in our communities.
Some subsidy schemes are available to landlords, but they are not open to all landlords and they can be difficult to access. We Liberal Democrats propose that all landlords should be allowed to offset their spending on insulation and energy-saving improvements against their income tax. Only through well-targeted incentives for landlords will we make the difference for tenants who are struggling to pay their bills. If the Government disagree with our proposals, I ask them to suggest an alternative. All we have seen so far is that from 2025 landlords will no longer need to meet the energy performance certificate C standard.
There has been yet more delay. When will we see action to ensure that families do not live in poor-quality housing that is badly insulated, making their energy bills more expensive? We need the landlords on board. We need a Government who are prepared to use both a carrot and a stick, and we need a Government who are prepared to put out the necessary information and enable it to be pooled—and I would say, yet again, that councils are best placed to do that. E3G has found that raising the energy standard to C rating for privately rented homes would save bill payers about £570 a year. The Government should hold firm, and help landlords to meet these targets and keep homes warm this winter.
Since the last King’s Speech, we have not reduced our dependence on oil and gas, we have not allowed households to make more sustainable choices, we have not put out that important piece of education that people need, we have not organised the citizens’ assemblies for the sharing of information that we require so urgently, and we have not protected households from rising energy bills. Too many households face another difficult winter. The Government’s failure to deliver is becoming their trademark, and judging by the King’s speech that will not change any time soon, although I still hold out hope that it will. The Government should prove me wrong—or right.
I fear that the chair of the all-party parliamentary group for Shakespeare, James Morris, has opened a can of worms with his quotations. I hate to say this, but most of us feel that yesterday was Much Ado About Nothing. In fact, I think it was less Shakespeare and more “upstart crow”.
I listened to the Secretary of State’s introduction to the debate. We have heard her personal history a number of times, and there is the benefit of not having to buy the inevitable autobiography when it comes out, but I would have expected her to have learnt, as most of us have, that it is best for children to maximise their educational opportunities when they go to school, and if they are to do that, they should not be going to school hungry. What worried me about the King’s Speech was that there was no attempt to address the problems of poverty in our society.
I am never completely sure what the debate on the King’s Speech is about, because we know what the Government are going to do and there is little influence we can have on them. To a certain extent, though, now that we have the autumn statement, maybe this is an attempt to shout through the Chancellor’s letterbox to say that there are issues that the King’s Speech has not addressed, and one of them is poverty. I do not want to rattle through the figures too much, but we all know that 14 million of our fellow citizens are living in poverty at the moment, that 4.2 million of them are children, and that two thirds of those children are living in households where someone is at work. What does that say about low pay?
The Government also need to be clear that unemployment is rising steadily. We now have up to 1.5 million unemployed. When I was first on the shop floor, unemployment benefit did actually get people through. Back then it was 28% of the average wage, but now it is 13%, so we are forcing people who are unemployed into a life of poverty. The number of people certified as unfit to work is also rising rapidly, and I think part of that is because many of them are on the 7.9 million-long waiting list for operations and treatments to get them back into work.
I can remember having a debate in this House nearly five years ago when the UN rapporteur Philip Alston reported on our social security system and its implications for people in our society living in poverty. He said that our social security system meant
“the systematic immiseration of a significant part of the British population”.
That shocked us, because he also started using a word that we had not used for generations: “destitution.” Last week, his successor Olivier de Schutter reported that the situation was getting significantly worse.
If we do not believe the UN rapporteur, then the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, which we have cited across the House time and again when we have needed advice on how to tackle poverty, reports that 3.8 million in our country are now living in destitution, including 1 million children. It defines destitution as
“when people cannot afford to meet their most basic physical needs to stay warm, dry, clean and fed”.
It reports that destitution has increased by 148% since 2017. That is not a society any of us wants to live in. I have looked at the foundation’s detailed research, but what I found most interesting was when it actually talked to people and asked them, “Just give us an example of your experience.” There is a whole list of quotes, but this is the one that got to me:
“Me and my partner survive on one meal a day. We make sure my daughter is eating. She has three meals a day, but me and my partner, we are lucky if we have one meal a day.”
That cannot be right, can it? In any society, that cannot be right.
There is a whole series of other quotes in which people talk about going hungry because the food bank is open for only a limited number of days, or because they get only so many discretionary opportunities to receive food from the food bank. As my right hon. Friend Sir Stephen Timms said, the number of people using food banks has shot through the roof again.
So this is an appeal to the Chancellor to do something in the autumn statement, in a couple of weeks’ time, to help our children out of poverty. In the pandemic, it was recognised by the Government that the safety net was not working, so with our unanimous support they added an extra £20 a week to universal credit to see people through. That needs to be done now, just as a first step. The cost would be between £5.5 billion and £6 billion. That sounds a lot, but given the overall weight of Government spending and the impact it could have on lifting children out of poverty, it would be a significant investment. We have also previously debated scrapping the two-child limit, which would lift 250,000 children out of poverty. I also want to make sure that children are not going hungry, which is why free school meals for all pupils will be critical as a foundation stone for the future.
In many of our areas we have people living in poverty because they cannot afford the rent. On Sunday night, a family of constituents came to my home. They are in a property in my constituency. To get on a council housing list, you have to live there 10 years and then you have to wait for five or six years. By that time, some children have grown up. This family came into my house and we sat down. Both parents are in work—one works in childcare—but they cannot afford the rent because the housing allowance no longer anywhere near matches what is needed. The Government need to now consider ending the housing allowance freeze and restoring it just to the 2015 level of 50% of market rents.
There is a brutal form of social security policy in this country: no recourse to public funds. What that means is that the children of migrants, who have done nothing to deserve it, are forced into poverty because their family has no recourse to public funds. I urge the Government and the Chancellor in the autumn statement to do something to lift our children out of poverty. There is a range of measures that are completely affordable and that could have a dramatic impact on the lives of children in our country.
A final point from me: no debate can go on without mentioning the children of Gaza—the 4,000 who have been killed and the 1,000 we think are under the rubble. That is why our calls today for a ceasefire are so important. Sometimes when we have these debates, political calculation overtakes us. When we come into the Chamber, our humanity and sometimes our ability to express our concerns ends there because of the politics of a situation. I thought we saw today, across the House in many respects, the real concern there is about the children of Gaza. I just hope the Government can bring themselves to lead the call for an immediate ceasefire, because I cannot see any other solution to ending that suffering.
It is a pleasure to speak in this debate and a pleasure to follow John McDonnell. He always focuses on child poverty in these debates, and that is the right thing to do. What he refers to in his constituency is replicated across the whole United Kingdom. On food banks, for instance, just last week in my Strangford constituency there was a front-page article about food banks. There has been not a 16% increase in the use of food banks, but a 72% increase. That is incredibly worrying. It is not just those on low incomes who are finding it harder and harder to pay their bills; it is also those on middle incomes. He is right to make those points and I support him entirely.
Thank you, Madam Deputy Speaker, for allowing me to speak. What a poignant first speech delivered by His Majesty the King in his role. It was a privilege to be a part of that audience yesterday, to witness his instructions for the delivery of the Government’s aims, and to today represent the good people of my constituency of Strangford, his loyal subjects, as we seek to ensure that the needs of our community are met within those aims. Watching the pomp, pageantry, tradition and history—the whole procession and the King’s Speech for the start of Parliament—makes me feel incredibly proud to be British.
I very much welcome the apprenticeship scheme that the Secretary of State outlined. I also welcome the measures on childcare provision—good news. It might be low-hanging fruit, but the tobacco legislation is also to be welcomed. It may not be earth-shattering as such, but it is important because it will, hopefully, make a change. I also welcome the increase in Ministry of Defence spending. My request within that Government commitment is that perhaps we could look at recruiting more Territorial Army personnel in Northern Ireland. The reserve forces in Northern Ireland are well-recruited. There are opportunities and I believe we should be doing more, legislatively, to ensure that people can join the Royal Navy, the Army and the RAF in Northern Ireland.
I want to make three points, so I will call it a Presbyterian sermon. I am not a Presbyterian, although I am married to one—I am a Baptist—but a Presbyterian sermon is in three parts.
The right hon. Gentleman always has a good point to make.
The title of today’s debate, “Breaking Down Barriers to Opportunity,” resonates with me in a few ways. I seek assurance from the Government that their commitment to breaking down barriers extends to Northern Ireland. I secured a Westminster Hall debate before Prorogation on contracts for difference, and Wera Hobhouse has just spoken about the importance of having them in place. I know the Minister will forgive me for raising the matter again so soon, but this is a new Session with new goals and, I hope, a new approach. Contracts for difference are much wider than simply an energy issue; they are also about the Northern Ireland economy.
I am a great believer that the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland is better together and, for me, it is important that we all feel the benefits of the King’s Speech by making sure that Northern Ireland plays its part in the economy of this great nation. It is about building a Northern Ireland supply chain, and Northern Ireland’s desire to contribute to the Government’s net-zero target and to reaching that target together equally across this great kingdom. It is about jobs. It is about science, technology, engineering and maths opportunities for ladies and women. It is about new skills, as the Education Secretary said, and it is about Northern Ireland’s desire to be an integral part of providing support for low-carbon delivery across the four nations of this great United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland.
I love history, and it is no secret that I love this place. It always resonates with me that the four nations become one in Central Lobby, which is what I hope for. The barriers to opportunity must be torn down, and I look to the Government to make sure that happens through the contracts for difference scheme.
I know the Government intend to commit over £1.6 billion to the green climate fund—the biggest single international climate pledge that the UK has ever made—yet I feel there is a barrier within the UK, which can be brought down to help achieve our climate pledge while improving the local economy in Northern Ireland. Extending contracts for difference to Northern Ireland is an essential component of that work, and I hope Northern Ireland’s barrier to opportunity will be broken down. Green energy can deliver job opportunities, so we must break down that barrier.
The obvious barrier to opportunity in Northern Ireland is the Irish sea border. That physical barrier is detrimental to all in Northern Ireland. Unfortunately, the Prime Minister made only a fleeting reference to Northern Ireland yesterday, and the fact is that this issue has not been resolved. He referred to the Union, but he did not go into any details. As someone who believes in the Union, I would have loved to hear more from the Prime Minister.
The barrier to democracy erected by the European Union is still fully in place, as my constituents are subject to laws created by a process in which they have no elected representation. My hon. Friend Gavin Robinson is also here, and we both recognise that local representation makes an important difference. At the moment, we are denied that representation. The barrier remains, as the DUP remains unable to take its place in devolved authority at Stormont until further steps are taken to restore our opportunity to operate as a fully functional member of this United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland.
I now move on to the third part of my Presbyterian sermon. I say this respectfully to the Minister—I always try to be reasonable in my comments—but the Government continue to bury their head in the sand on child benefit thresholds. This is DUP policy, and we moved a ten-minute rule Bill on this subject before Prorogation. I have raised this issue over and again, and I will continue to do so until the Government acknowledge that the 10-year freeze equates to a reduction in child benefit thresholds. It has created barriers to opportunity, and to much-needed extra funds, for working families, which is unacceptable. It is a barrier not only for us in Northern Ireland, but for us all in this great United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland; it is a barrier in Scotland, Wales, England and Northern Ireland.
Another barrier to opportunity for working families throughout the UK is that they are afraid of accepting small pay rises for fear of dealing with His Majesty’s Revenue and Customs, and that while prices have escalated, their wage is stagnant. Something has to break and it must not be, and never can be, the working family. The right hon. Member for Hayes and Harlington referred to that clearly and I am saying the same thing. For them, I ask the Government to include this matter in the list of priorities for this coming year.
I am coming to the end of my speech, within the timescale that you asked us all to adhere to, Madam Deputy Speaker. However, let me highlight that all of us here have the tools not only to build barriers in society, but to break them down. Let us break them down together and make sure that we make the right choice, prioritising our economy, our Union of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, and our working families in this new Session. May God bless the King, and this Government, as they deliver his and their goals and aims in this year.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for sticking to the guidance. As I said, I am more relaxed now, because there have been a couple of drop-outs.
On the anniversary of the Disability Discrimination Act 1995, I have to say that it is disappointing that not much in the King’s Speech delivered for disabled people. After 13 years of Conservative-led Governments, disabled people feel that they are an afterthought and that their rights are not fully protected and promoted in this country. It is shocking that we are still having these conversations in 2023. Progress has gone backwards, not forwards. It is well documented that the pandemic and the cost of living crisis have had a disproportionate effect on disabled people. That comes on top of the fact that extra costs are already associated with having a disability.
Earlier this year, disability equality charity Scope released updated research on the extra costs associated with having a disability—the so-called disability price tag. When Scope last calculated the price tag, in 2019, it stood at an average of £583 per month for households containing at least one disabled person. Over the past four years, that has risen to a shocking £975 per month, which equates to 63% of household income. That means that disabled households need to find almost £12,000 extra per year to achieve the same living standards as non-disabled households. The impact of the rising costs is exacerbated by the fact that disabled people also tend to have lower than average incomes. In its January 2023 report, the Resolution Foundation found that the gap in household income in respect of adults with a disability and adults without one was about 30% when including disability benefits, and 44% when excluding them.
Ministers tell us that they have brought forth a number of measures to improve disabled people’s rights and tackle the barriers they continue to face, so let us have a look at some of them in turn. First, we come to the national disability strategy, which was announced in the 2019 Queen’s Speech. The strategy was much delayed before its eventual publication, in the summer recess of 2021. Although claiming to be bold, it introduced little new policy for disabled people and instead relied on other pieces of Government work. It was then held up by a lengthy court case brought by disabled people who disputed whether the consultation process had been lawful. Had the Government engaged in proper co-production, the court case would not have been necessary.
Next came the disability action plan, which was quietly announced in December last year. After months of waiting, the proposals for the plan were published during the summer recess—again—and the consultation closed a month ago. Disappointingly, the plan does not contain a cohesive set of actions to bring about the changes disabled people so desperately need.
Thirdly, we have the health and disability White Paper that sets out some plans to reform employment support and disability benefit. Its most significant proposal is the scrapping of the work capability assessments, which has left many people concerned that the system will rely solely on the flawed personal independence payment assessment.
All this should be considered in the context of the United Nations convention on the rights of persons with disabilities, which seeks to ensure that disabled people’s rights are promoted and protected. In 2016, an investigation found that “grave or systemic violations” of disabled people’s rights had taken place because of welfare reforms in the UK since 2010. In 2017, at the first periodic review, the Conservative Government were judged to have taken insufficient action to implement earlier recommendations. The next review is ongoing, but the Minister for Disabled People, Health and Work, Tom Pursglove, who was on the Front Bench earlier and I wish was now, caused further concern by refusing to attend an evidence session in August 2023.
The Government must do better. Twenty-four per cent of the UK population identify as disabled, and we must stop letting them down. We must break down the barriers that exist in society. Ministers should be taking every opportunity they can to co-produce policy with disabled people, who are the experts by experience, and to ensure that their needs are being met in every part of life.
It is a pleasure to follow my hon. Friend Vicky Foxcroft. I thank her for the work she does and for being a champion for disabled people.
Watching the King’s Speech was quite an occasion, as it is a moment in history. Jim Shannon painted a picture of how significant it was, but the irony was not lost that the King arrived in a gold-plated, horse-drawn carriage to announce legislation on banning pedicabs at Westminster tube. It just shows that, however grand the occasion, there is nothing like a Conservative Government to bring it down into the gutter—and much else did follow that.
The test of any King’s Speech must be whether it makes life materially better for the people we are all here to represent, and whether it makes the country we love stronger, more confident and more resilient in the face of global uncertainty. By those measures, it can only be marked as another missed opportunity.
It is a missed opportunity to address one of the biggest economic challenges our country faces. The very bond of the British contract is broken—the promise that if people are willing to work hard and play by the rules, in return they can get on in life and do well, and that through our generational effort, our children can go on to do even better. That contract has not just been reneged on; it has been torn up. People in Chadderton, Oldham West and Royton, and right across Britain, know that and they feel the betrayal every single day: families working all the hours God sends, but still unable to make ends meet; young people starting off in life unable to get on the housing ladder; and older people denied the care they need and deserve to live well into older life.
It is a fact that life has always been challenging for working people, but it has not always been this grinding. There was so much missing from the King’s Speech on social care, the environment and nature, child protection and a range of other issues. It was completely hollow and void of ideas and solutions to the issues facing the country. As the proud chair of the Co-operative party, it is disappointing to see the Government fail to take the opportunity provided by the King’s Speech to seize the many solutions put forward by our movement to address those challenges.
As Labour’s sister party for almost a century, co-operators believe in enterprise, grassroots organisation, and that the wealth and value we create together can and should be used to build stronger communities and stronger economies that we can all share in. We believe, too, that ownership matters, because it drives decision making and ultimately determines where the dividend is returned. On energy, for instance, the Labour and Co-operative parties together have a shared commitment to bringing back community energy as a blueprint to safeguarding energy security and investing in cheap, clean renewable energy that is produced and owned right here in the UK. Instead of investing in non-renewables that help only multinational oil and gas giants, the Government should be backing local communities to produce and own their own renewable energy. Labour’s local power plan sets out how to do that, with a bold ambition for 1 million new owners of energy producing 8 GW of energy by 2030.
We also fail to see any action on retail crime, despite an announcement in the Criminal Justice Bill. It is a crisis and a blight on our high streets that stores such as the Co-op Group are victims of significant retail crime. The Co-op Group reports that 175,000 incidents were recorded in the first six months of this year alone. Retail crime should be a stand-alone offence. Shopworkers enforce the laws set by this House, and they should be afforded the protection of it, too.
The Government’s agenda for this Session also neglected to address the ownership that people desperately need over their local communities and the places that really matter to them. Our high streets have been hollowed out. We see the empty, boarded-up buildings; the pubs, shops and community hubs on which we have relied closing down; and the services on which people depend disappearing. Again, the Labour and Co-operative parties can contribute to the solution. By strengthening the Localism Act 2011 and introducing a genuine community right to buy, we can address head-on that issue of community loss. We can encourage communities to come together to buy at-risk pubs, shops and other assets to make sure that they are protected for future generations.
We believe that words are one thing, but there is nothing like action to show what change can achieve. For instance, in my own constituency, when the Daisyfield Inn, a local pub in Bardsley, was at risk of closure, we managed to secure an asset of community value protection on the register of that building. Now, not only has it been retained for the local community, but it has a community allotment out back to help local people fight isolation and to bring the community together even more. It can be done; the model is there, but we can do even more.
Oldham Athletic Football Club, our pride, is now backed by local power, because Boundary Park and the fields next door used for training—Little Wembley—are now also an asset of community value. We recognise that, beyond the bricks and mortar, these are meeting places—they are the fabric, the glue, the identity, the belonging, the past, the present and, with effort, the future, too. Another blueprint for change offered by the Labour and Co-operative parties—yet another chance missed by the Government—really breaking down the barriers that we are talking about here today.
People feel that the economy is not working for them, and that power is being taken away from them. We believe that if we can double the size of the co-operative sector, where more people have a stake in the future, where businesses are rooted in the community, and where decisions are being made for the benefit of the community, not for short-term dividend payment extraction, we will see an economy that is more resilient and more robust, and that will benefit the UK as well. It has been proved that these businesses are more productive, more resilient, and more equitable, because co-operatives are more than twice as likely to survive the early years of trading when compared with other styles of businesses. We have seen that in huge sectors right across the UK. With just a little more effort, we can see them grow even further.
What would that mean for the UK? According to research commissioned by Co-operatives UK, just last year alone the turnover of the co-operatives in the UK contributed £41 billion to the UK economy, an increase of 3.7% on the previous year. This is not a small-fry contribution; it is a significant part of our economy. Instead of wealth being concentrated in the hands of a small number of people at the top, ownership is spread in the communities where the co-operatives operate. That is important for the local community and important for the country overall.
In the end, what we see from the King’s Speech is what we have seen for the past 13 years: a country that is fragmented socially and economically and a Government who have run out of road, out of ideas and out of solutions to fix those problems. Surely the only way now to repair the cracks in the foundations and to give Britain hope again is to call a general election, not provide a King’s Speech.
We might have a new monarch on the throne, but what we saw yesterday was a complete abdication of responsibility from the Government, who have, as my hon. Friend Jim McMahon just said, completely run out of ideas. With no answers to the cost of living crisis and other problems of their own making over the past 13 years, their default response now is just to distract, delay and, as we see with the Offshore Petroleum Licensing Bill, sow division through political point scoring, rather than doing what is right for this country’s economic future and for the planet. The Energy Secretary herself has conceded that we cannot rely on that Bill to bring energy bills down, so who does benefit from the Bill, if not consumers? Could it be the oil and gas companies, making record profits, which are handed billions in taxpayer subsidies?
Doubling down on fossil fuels is not the answer. Clean, cheap home-grown energy is the only way to make us energy secure. As the Prime Minister stumbles in the starting blocks in the race for net zero, or indeed seems to be going backwards, Labour stands ready to lead the sprint for renewables with all the opportunities that they will bring—whether it is green jobs in communities that are making the transition away from dirty fossil fuels; whether it is community power, which we have heard about; or whether it is economic regeneration and technical advances. There is so much potential.
It was a relief that the Renters (Reform) Bill came back before Parliament just before Parliament prorogued and was carried over, but frankly the Bill is not good enough. The ban on no-fault evictions is still being kicked down the road, for probably years into the future. More than 60,000 section 21 notices have been served since the promise to ban them was first made. While we wait for the Government to act, thousands more will become homeless through no fault of their own—victims of a Government pandering to the wealthy property-owners on their Back Benches.
The Renters (Reform) Bill was supposed to transform the private rented sector, but it will remain legal for landlords to discriminate against tenants on benefits. There will be no statutory decent home standard in the private sector, and local housing allowances will remain frozen, meaning that the vast majority of privately rented homes in places such as Bristol will remain unaffordable for people on housing benefit. Given that we have not heard anything from the Government this week, I certainly hope that we will see something on that in the autumn statement. We talk about opportunity. The opportunity to have a decent home and a roof over their head is being denied to so many.
I am pleased that the leasehold and freehold Bill will be introduced. Even the Secretary of State for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities has admitted that the leasehold system is “outdated” and “feudal”, but it is disappointing to see such a half-hearted attempt at reform again. It is good to see a ban on leaseholds for new houses, but houses make up only 30% of leasehold homes in England. There is no reason why flat-owners deserve less protection and higher costs. That is yet another Tory U-turn that will leave far too many flat-owners facing extortionate bills and ground rents for homes that they already own. Given that the Home Secretary’s recent announcement on tents was not taken up, at least they will be safe in the knowledge that they can switch to sleeping under a dual carriageway in a little tent of their own for the foreseeable future.
I am trying to be positive, but there is not a lot to go on. That is evidenced by the fact that no Tory MPs are waiting to speak, and the last Tory MP who did speak, James Morris, managed to get through 10 minutes without mentioning anything at all in the King’s Speech, though he told us an awful lot about Shakespeare, which I guess was educational in its own way.
I am pleased that we are finally getting a Bill to ban live exports, even if it has been more than seven years since we heard all those promises during the 2016 referendum campaign. It was one of the Leave campaign’s flagship things. I know people who voted for Brexit only because they thought that there would be a ban on live exports, so it has taken the Government a long time, and where are the other promises that were made on banning imports of fur and foie gras? They were supposed to be a Brexit bonus too.
In another example of better late than never, I welcome the long-overdue football governance Bill, finally giving us a chance to realise recommendations from the fan-led football review. We desperately need greater parity across the footballing pyramid in this country to protect the future of the game and ensure that the excessive wealth of the top clubs reaches the lower leagues and grassroots football.
On crime, of course Labour supports the need to bring in tough sentences for serious and violent offenders, but this is not the first time the Conservative Government have made such promises. Since 2010, almost 4,000 convicted rapists have received sentences of less than seven years. It is no surprise that this Government are all talk and no action. We have a record backlog in our courts, with more than 65,000 cases waiting to be heard in the Crown courts. That is thousands of victims waiting for justice to be done. Two thirds of English and Welsh prisons are overcrowded and as of last month we had barely 500 prison places left, which raises the question of where those extra prisoners will go. That is just not joined-up thinking; again, it is making grand statements without making the investment in our public realm that is needed to back up those promises.
This debate is as much about what was not in the King’s Speech as what was in it. There was no mention of the long-awaited employment Bill or pensions reform; no register of children out of school; no commitment to reform the dental contract, which dentists and my constituents are crying out for and which Labour will deliver; and nothing on tackling the climate or nature emergencies. I am told we will need primary legislation to ratify the global ocean treaty, which the UK signed with some fanfare earlier this year. Where is that legislation? It will be a very short piece of legislation, but why the delay?
It is not as if this is a Government bursting with ideas, full of ambition and struggling to find space in the parliamentary timetable for all the urgent and inspirational things they want to do. We will have to wait for next year’s King’s Speech for that. Given that the Government seem to have so few ideas, why have they stalled on some of the things we already know they have been looking at? Where is the mental health Bill, for example? We have had the draft Bill and plenty of time for pre-legislative scrutiny, so why is this Bill dragging on and running out of time when reform is so desperately needed? And why, five years on, are the Government still procrastinating over a ban on so-called conversion therapies? LGBT+ people deserve better than to be told that their sexuality or gender identity can be cured. When will the Government follow Labour’s example and back a full, inclusive conversion therapy ban?
What this King’s Speech reveals is that we have a Government devoid of compassion, of leadership and of conscience, exemplified by a Home Secretary who describes homelessness as a “lifestyle choice”. Demonising the most vulnerable in society is a political choice. Overseeing the managed decline of the NHS is a political choice. Trashing the UK’s international climate reputation is a political choice. Letting that trickle-down mini-Budget crash our economy last autumn and lead us into a cost of living crisis was a political choice. Those are the actions of a Tory Government who for 13 years have put self-interest over the interests of the country. It is time to give the people of Britain a chance to choose. This King’s Speech shows that the country needs a general election and a Labour Government.
When we scrape away all the pomp, the ceremony and the pageantry of yesterday, there is a consensus—on the Opposition Benches at least, if it has not yet dawned on the Conservative side—that this is a decaying Government who are not really governing. Rather, they are presiding over a country in decline. That is evidenced by the acres of empty green Benches on the Government side of the House. Our job is to be unconvinced by the Government, but the Conservatives are so unconvinced by their own legislative agenda that only one Back Bencher has joined them for this part of the debate—the best part, if I say so myself, since I got to my feet.
This Government are defined by chaos and falling from crisis to crisis, and my constituents certainly cannot wait to see the back of them. They are completely unfit for the challenges that all our constituents face today. They have no clue, I believe, about the scale of the challenge and no comprehension of what is required to meet the social, economic, political and global insecurities that rip through communities up and down the country.
We could have had a King’s Speech rooted in prosperity, rooted in resilience, rooted in that word that the Conservatives love to use: aspiration. We could have had a King’s Speech about tackling the big challenges of our time and seeking consensus for the long-term structural changes needed to take on those policy challenges, whether they be improving living standards, which our constituents are desperately crying out for—our living standards are falling massively behind those of our western European counterparts, and the Government do not even seem to recognise that, never mind have a plan to deal with it properly—or our decaying national infrastructure and public services. The Conservatives have managed to turn climate change into a culture war issue, with all kinds of nonsense on the issue of the net zero transition coming not just from some junior Parliamentary Private Secretary, but from the Prime Minister himself. Look at global affairs and international security.
All those challenges require a sensible, level-headed approach, but we have a Government who know their days are numbered and are rushing to an imaginary constituency based on about 500 people in the constituency of the previous Prime Minister but one, where even opposition to clean air zones will set and define their governing and political strategy. It hardly instils any confidence when we see the Prime Minister—quite correctly—trying to form a global coalition to deal with things such as the regulation of artificial intelligence, but using that summit as an audition for a job back in California. In the Bills set out in the King’s Speech, many of which are old announcements simply being re-announced, we see a poverty of ambition that my constituents certainly cannot afford.
I know that this is the great unspoken iron-clad consensus between the two main parties in this Chamber, but we also have not seen a plan to deal with the damage of Brexit. That is an issue that will not even speak its name, but it has damaged us—it has damaged our standing internationally, it has damaged our economy, and it has damaged the country’s reputation with our closest neighbours in Europe. We have not even started to think about the huge project of rebuilding and strategic redesign of the public realm, public services and national institutions needed post-pandemic. Nobody talks about “building back better” any longer—it has almost been erased from the public consciousness and public debate—yet we know that that is exactly what will be needed.
And yes, many colleagues on both sides of the House have said much that I agree with in terms standing up for the international rules-based order, which is massively challenged by a war in Europe right now, and, of course, by the situation between Israel and Gaza. If someone calls for a ceasefire to that conflict, they are somehow labelled an extremist, and we have a Home Secretary who wants to turn it into a culture war issue by describing those protesting for a ceasefire as taking part in “hate marches”. Are we to believe that the Home Secretary—one of the great offices of state—really believed that tens of thousands of antisemites marched through the streets of London, and her response was to write an open letter? Her position would be untenable if that were actually the case. But so radicalised and desperate to lead her party has she become—presumably when they are on the Opposition Benches—and so weak is the Prime Minister in not reining her in, never mind thinking about sacking her, that this is the position of the Conservative party today.
I am not a conservative, but we need a Conservative party that is at least rooted in the real world. There are many good Conservative Members, some of whom I have personal friendships with, and there might even be one or two here right now—let us not overstate it, mind you—but I say to them: “Take your party back from this madness, because it drags the entire political country into the sewer, and we all deserve much better than that.” All this nonsense about homelessness being a “lifestyle choice”, and wanting to attack charity workers who hand out tents to give people a semblance of shelter from the rain and the cold. What is this rubbish? They have the cheek to call themselves Conservatives, but they have contempt for institutions, contempt for the law, contempt for norms. Conserve what exactly? A Conservative party utterly unrecognisable to its own traditions—many of which are fine; many of which I do not agree with—and massively out of control. Think of the challenges we face—climate change, technology, ageing populations and all the rest of it—and the institutions we need in order to meet those challenges. In, I think, a report for a think-tank, the former Cabinet Secretary Mark Sedwill said recently that Palmerston would recognise many of the institutions that exist on Whitehall today.
This month marks 25 years since the passing and signing of the Scotland Act 1998 that established the Scottish Parliament—an institution that the Government detest with every fibre of their being. It has increasingly become a Parliament that is about mitigating the worst excesses of the Government’s agenda and policies over many, many years. I do not want a Parliament of mitigation; I want a Parliament of aspiration. Scotland can only become prosperous, fair and resilient, and its aspirations can only really be realised, when it becomes independent and is back in the European Union.
It is a pleasure to speak in this debate, to follow Stewart Malcolm McDonald, and to represent my Lewisham East constituents as we debate breaking down barriers to opportunity and other relevant issues. However, it is concerning to me—as I know it is to the public—that the Government have not addressed in the King’s Speech the many crises that impact our country.
Because of 13 years of Conservative Government, we have seen multiple failings. To name a few, we have seen a failure to tackle the cost of living crisis; the shameful watering down of net zero targets; the mishandling of the covid-19 pandemic; the personal protective equipment scandal; partygate; the wrecking of the economy through an unfunded mini-Budget; constant incidents of sleaze; and court delays and backlogs. We have already heard about many of those issues in the Chamber today. We have also seen high mortgages and rents; school buildings crumbling; sewage pouring into our streams and rivers, while water companies are allowed to get away with paying large bonuses; long NHS waiting lists; a shortage of doctors and nurses; and an inability to get GP and dentist appointments.
The cost of living crisis has seen a hike in the cost of food, high gas bills, high electricity bills and high rents. People are even struggling to buy clothing and furniture, and children are going to school hungry. The use of food banks is becoming a norm—they are used by middle wage earners and low wage earners, by people on benefits and people on none. It is an example of deprivation, disadvantage and, ultimately, poverty existing in our country. I have to ask: is this the best the Conservative Government have for our country? It is shameful. Some people are not able to wash their clothes or to have frequent showers. Poverty is on the increase, and this Government are closing their eyes to it.
Child poverty stops our young people from reaching their full potential. According to the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, the number of people experiencing extreme poverty increased by 61% between 2019 and 2022. Children are particularly hard hit: the number of children experiencing destitution has almost tripled. Furthermore, according to the Child Poverty Action Group, there is evidence that children from minority ethnic groups are more likely to be in poverty. That is not acceptable, but the Government have not addressed it. Why have they not done so?
The King’s Speech clearly does nothing to combat the major challenges facing families in Lewisham East and across our country. Meanwhile, Labour will provide breakfast clubs in every primary school to prevent children from coming to school hungry, which will break down the barriers to learning. A potential Labour Government will ensure that there are more specialist teachers, a modern curriculum and better training and apprenticeships, so that every child and young person is geared up to learn and ready for work. Housing is also crucial to support a child’s learning—a warm home and no overcrowding, as well as a place to eat, to study, to play and to sleep, and no mould or damp.
Why is it so difficult for this Government to support their people and their country? Is it because of five Prime Minister and seven Chancellors in 13 years? Labour will improve the standard of living for families and communities, and it will build, build, build more homes. In fact, if elected, Labour will build 1.5 million homes over the next Parliament. It will also ensure that people receive a fair wage. We need to raise the floor on wages to reverse the Tories’ low-wage economy. I ask again: why is it so difficult for this Government to support their people and their country? I think it is because we know that at the heart of the Conservative Government is the ability to sound plausible, but the inability to be responsible.
As I close, I will focus on the lack of funding and national guidance to tackle the delays in and the unavailability of respiratory diagnosis. This has been a well-known issue since the pandemic. According to the organisation Asthma + Lung UK:
“Right now, thousands of people with lung conditions across the UK are suffering. They’re scared, alone and exhausted.”
Those are not my words, but its words. I call on the Health Secretary to set out funding and national guidance to tackle the current crisis in respiratory diagnosis. If people cannot work or receive proper education because they are off sick due to their loved ones’ or their own health condition, that is a barrier to their learning. When will the Government fix it?
It is a pleasure to speak on His Majesty’s first King’s Speech, but in communities such as the one I represent in Batley and Spen there is a growing feeling that Britain is no longer working. People are facing a struggle to get a GP appointment, hospital appointment or dentist appointment; they rarely see a police officer on the streets, despite feeling that crime and antisocial behaviour in their community are rising; they are waiting months or even years for an education, health and care plan for their child with special educational needs, seeing them struggle without the support they need and witnessing the impact on their mental health; they are sending their children to school knowing that teachers are overworked, overstretched and without the resources they need to give their child the best start in life; they are just accepting that home ownership is not a likely reality for the younger generation; or, at the end of the month, realising that their hard-earned pay or pension barely covers the increasing bills.
This is the broken Britain the Conservatives have presided over during 13 years of national decline. This King’s Speech could have started the hard work to get Britain’s future back. Instead, what we saw yesterday was a Government desperate to distract from their appalling record by engaging in dangerous and divisive culture wars and announcing yet more gimmicks. Rather than getting on with the serious job of governing, they announced a series of Bills that fail even to scratch the surface of the fundamental reform and renewal that our country needs.
In the area where I live and that I represent in Batley and Spen and across the Spen valley, this sense of broken Britain is clear to see, and I hear it from my constituents all the time. Over the last few months, we have seen the closure of Batley baths, and I and others are currently fighting hard to save Batley sports and tennis centre, Cleckheaton town hall and Claremont House dementia care home in Heckmondwike from closure. The loss of these precious public buildings and services would have a severe impact on local families and communities. For example, local leisure centres are not just places where residents go to exercise and keep physically healthy, although that is crucial if we are to reduce the long-term pressure on the NHS; they also provide opportunities to socialise and meet new people, combating loneliness and social isolation, and significantly improving mental health and wellbeing.
The loss of such facilities hits towns and villages hard and for many years, so we need to act quickly to save them, but since 2010 Kirklees Council has lost £1 billion in funding. If the Conservatives had kept Labour’s funding formula, Kirklees would currently be in surplus. Instead, Kirklees Council is forced to make impossible decisions about which public services it has to cut. The King’s Speech should have included a Bill to fix the broken funding formula for councils and to save vital local services, but it did not. Instead, it leaves us in Batley and Spen facing the loss of facilities when we need them the most. After last year’s disastrous mini-Budget, our communities are paying the price for the Conservatives’ costly mistakes and mismanagement. It breaks my heart to see the impact of this on the community I love, that I am so incredibly proud to represent and that has stood by me in the most difficult of times. Unlike the current Home Secretary, I believe that strong leadership does not need to be devoid of compassion. It should be about bringing people and communities together, not pushing them apart, and that can take many forms locally, nationally and internationally.
Events in the middle east are at the forefront of many of our minds after the despicable terrorist attack on
We must also ensure that international law is upheld, particularly with regard to the principle of proportionality and the serious issues of forcible transfer and the taking of precautionary measures when it comes to protecting civilians. The actions of Hamas on
As hard as it feels, we must also stay resolute in the hope that there can be a prospect of a lasting peace in the future. I, for one, will work with colleagues and friends across the House—Jewish, Muslim, Christian or, like me, of no particular faith—to do everything I can to make the all-too-distant vision of a two-state solution more than just words repeated periodically in this place to make us all feel better, but an actual reality for Israelis and Palestinians alike, because they have been let down for far too long.
It takes hard diplomacy, however, and a Government willing to bring people together to de-escalate tensions and provide the leadership and road map to discussions and a political settlement. The Government’s Economic Activity of Public Bodies (Overseas Matters) Bill, which has been carried over into this Session of Parliament, does nothing to help that situation. It is a badly drafted and unworkable piece of legislation. It restricts councils and other public bodies from taking ethical investment and procurement decisions, and it singles out individual countries for different treatment. That cannot be the basis of a foreign policy that seeks to heal divisions and unite people, especially when the stakes are so high. In the light of recent events, I hope that the Government will reconsider their approach to that divisive Bill.
As we head towards a general election next year, people across Batley and Spen and the Spen valley will be looking for a Government who bring people together, who value and protect our communities and who are willing to get on with the serious, hard work of governing. This King’s Speech does not offer the change we need. It offers more of the same to a country desperate for change.
We on the Opposition Benches have begun setting out how the next Labour Government will get on with the hard work involved in getting Britain’s future back, by giving back control to local communities and by rebuilding Britain as a country where opportunities spread across the United Kingdom, where a hard day’s work is valued again, where public services are cherished, where communities are enriched, where families have the security and prosperity they deserve, and where our children and young people can look to the future with hope. That is the change that the country and the people of Batley and Spen are crying out for, and that is the change that I know the next Labour Government will deliver.
I rise to speak in response to the Gracious Speech, and it is a pleasure to follow so many excellent speeches, particularly that of my hon. Friend Kim Leadbeater. There have been so many speeches from the Opposition Benches, and not very many from the Government Benches. Interestingly, some of those on the Government Benches were not particularly supportive of the Gracious Speech.
This King’s Speech fails to undo the damage of 13 long years of Conservative rule inflicted on this country and most of its people. There are any number of topics that I could have chosen to speak on to illustrate the damage that the Government have done to my constituents’ lives and hopes, and how the Gracious Speech has failed those constituents. However, I have time to cover only one topic: housing. The topic on the Order Paper for today’s debate is opportunity, but we know that opportunity is only possible if someone has a safe, secure and truly affordable home.
Politicians often use the term “housing crisis”, but we are seeing multiple housing crises. There is a crisis in the private rented sector, a crisis for leaseholders—in fact, a crisis for most mortgage holders—a crisis for those entangled with shared ownership, a crisis among housing associations, and a crisis for those with no home and no hope of having a home. There is also a crisis in home building, with far too few homes being built.
What do we see in the King’s Speech to tackle that multi-headed hydra on housing? A ban on no-fault evictions, first promised in 2019, and a weak, watered-down version of leasehold reform. The party of Macmillan, which once built hundreds of thousands of homes for our heroes, has been reduced to banning tents. The once-grand Conservative party has been reduced to declaring war on tent fabric. How does the housing crisis look to my constituents in Hounslow, Isleworth, Osterley, Brentford and Chiswick—those in what we euphemistically call “housing stress”?
I will start with homelessness and homeless families. All the schools in my constituency have a number of homeless children. Can the Education Secretary imagine the impact that has on children and their parents? First, being homeless means having no settled future; not knowing when children will start a new school, or whether they will need to be pulled out just as they have made friends or move on before their next set of key exams. It means no space to do homework for those in overcrowded conditions. It means mothers living in one or two rooms in a big shared house wondering whether it is safe to leave the baby or the toddler alone while going to the toilet or to the kitchen. It means families with three or four children living in a one-bedroom flat or bunking up with friends or relatives, and children sleeping on sofas and sitting on buses for hours to get to and from school.
The housing crisis is a poison; one that is touching so many in west London who are priced out of even being able to rent a home, let alone buy one. Ending no-fault evictions will not help my constituents who do not have a tenancy, or those who do but whose landlord is selling up. How can one expect one’s children to grow up healthy when there is mould in every single corner of one’s home? How can someone look after their own wellbeing when the threat of eviction is hanging over their head and no landlord will rent them a home because they do not earn at least £60,000? The monthly rent for a one-bedroom flat in even the cheapest part of my constituency is £2,000—more than many of my constituents earn. No wonder home ownership is but a distant dream.
We need a multi-pronged approach with a proper programme of house building and a sweeping set of reforms to the current systems, especially in regard to leasehold—perhaps I should call it “fleecehold,” as many of my constituents do. It is a “feudal” practice—not my word, but that of the Secretary of State for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities—that has left many of my constituents trapped in a serf-like position. He promised me in the Chamber that he would grasp the issue and used rather emotive language about “Applying a vice-like” pressure, yet it appears that his grip has soon weakened. I am sure that the developers and freeholders are relieved about that.
I will give just some examples of the impact on my constituents. One constituent had a 300% increase in building insurance costs despite no change in the building. Another constituent had service charges doubling in a block even though the lifts have been left broken and the intercom out of action. A constituent was unable to move with their partner and children to a bigger home because of a quirk of the Help to Buy system. I could go on. Those problems all stem from the huge flaws in the leasehold system—huge flaws that the Government’s modest set of tiny, limited changes does not start to address.
The shadow of the building safety crisis still hangs over many of my constituents. It has been six years since more than 70 people died in the Grenfell fire, and more than a decade since six people died in the Lakanal House fire. Constituents—mine and others across the country—are still waiting for vital building safety work to begin, despite it being promised months ago for their blocks. Many are not even eligible for support, because their building is less than 12 metres high.
The Government have once again failed leaseholders with the crumbs on offer. No more leasehold houses to be built—big deal. Developers should never have started building leasehold houses in the first place. I am pleased that my hon. Friend Matthew Pennycook has said what a Labour Government will do: ban the sale of new leasehold flats as well as houses, and fix the mess in the leasehold system to ensure that existing leaseholders can move to commonhold. Commonhold must become the default for flats and render leasehold obsolete, and freehold must be the norm for new houses. Labour would enact the recommendation of the Law Commission’s report. We will do what this Government have failed to do.
The Government’s failure to fix our broken leasehold system is part of a much wider problem: a failure to understand the housing crisis across this country. Once again, the Prime Minister is out of touch with the crisis in the country. This King’s Speech should end the myth that the Conservatives are the party of home ownership. As my right hon. Friend Angela Rayner said, the Prime Minister caved in to the demands of his own Back Benchers and got rid of housing targets. He caved in to pressure from freeholders and dropped real leasehold reform. He caved in to the pressure from private landlords and watered down rental reform—a watered down Government, with a watered down King’s Speech.
I want to start by acknowledging the lifetime of service and commitment of Her late Majesty. I also acknowledge that, yesterday, we heard the first King’s Speech in more than 70 years. It was an historic day.
I am pleased to be speaking in this debate on such an important area—breaking down barriers, inspiring the next generation, and making our country fairer and more equal. That is why we are all here. It is certainly why I stood for election to this place back in April 2019. But, after the last 13 years, this Conservative Government have given up on governing. Rather than tearing down barriers to opportunity, they are putting them up—left, right and centre. They have left our country with stagnant growth, skyrocketing mortgages, crumbling schools and hospitals, a cost of living crisis, and the people of Newport West with very little faith in this UK Government.
The Leader of the Opposition, my right hon. and learned Friend Keir Starmer, has set out clearly the five missions that drive us. Of the five, three are especially relevant to Newport West. We will take back our streets from gangs, drug dealers and fly-tippers, with stronger policing, guaranteed patrols in town centres and more criminals put behind bars. We will break down barriers to opportunity so that every young person is ready for work and ready for life. We will switch on Great British Energy, a new British company giving us cheaper bills, new highly paid jobs and security from tyrants such as Putin. That is a plan to get our country on track, move us on and forward, and bring our country together.
When I spoke in the debate at the start of the last Session, I shared an email that I received from a resident of Newport West, and I want to mention part of it again. She said:
“We are in a position right now where we’re not coping. Our energy bills have risen by 54% and I am afraid that myself and many others will not be able to provide for our families.”
Nothing has changed since my constituent wrote to me, and nothing the Government have said this week will address those concerns or deliver the change that all my constituents need.
I heard from a carer in Newport West who earns just over the universal credit threshold. She said:
“I literally can’t afford to be sick. Statutory sick pay doesn’t cover my wages.”
In other words, in 2023, British workers have to make a choice: do they do the unthinkable and go to work while sick, or stay home and go hungry? The cause of their fear and concern, and the uncertainty facing so many people in Newport West and across the country, sit firmly at the door of this Prime Minister and his tired Conservative Government.
Thanks to the Tories, we find ourselves in a desperate situation, not just in all parts of the United Kingdom but here in this House too. The Tories closed up shop and sent us home early on nearly half of all sitting days in the last Session. I was elected to deliver, to get things done and to make life better for the people who sent me here, and I should be allowed to do that, but this Conservative Government are stopping us all from doing that. They are a zombie Government, paralysing Parliament, with Ministers unable to fill parliamentary time with substantive legislation to tackle the problems the country faces because, after 13 years in office, they have already failed.
The Prime Minister promised to halve inflation, yet our country is set to have the highest inflation of any G7 country this year. We see food prices soaring and petrol prices are once again on the rise. Inflation is set to be higher at the end of this year than forecast when the Prime Minister took office last year. Meanwhile, Labour analysis has found that mortgage holders are hundreds of pounds a month worse off compared with last year. The Tory mortgage bombshell is alive and well and causing misery to thousands of people across the UK.
The Prime Minister promised to grow the economy, yet the UK’s growth is set to be almost non-existent this year—the second lowest in the G7 and three times lower than the advanced economy average. The tax burden is at a record high, on the watch of every Tory MP sitting here in this House—or not, given the empty Government Benches. The next time they send us home early, let us remember that they are making the choice to avoid their responsibility to the people who elected us to this House.
The Prime Minister and his friends have let down the people of Newport West, of Wales and of our United Kingdom. The only way—the best way—to change course, to deliver for our people and to move forward is with a Labour Government, and the sooner the better.
I think the best word to describe what was in the King’s Speech is “inadequate”. It is clear that the Government have neither the energy nor the vision to deal with some of the difficulties facing so many people in our country. The disappointment of the speech adds to the general feeling of decline over the past 13 years. What the country really needs is change. That is the sense I get from each and every person I go out and speak to: it is time for a change. What they really need is a mission-led Labour Government focused on putting right the mistakes of the past 13 years.
We heard a perfect illustration of the Government’s governing by slogans from the Education Secretary at the Dispatch Box earlier when she talked about the idea of low-value degrees. She and other members of the Government often use that phrase, but they have utterly failed to define it. Every time they try, they realise that it is impossible to work out.
I am going to quote that well-known socialist Lord Willetts, who I believe still holds the Conservative Whip over in the House of Lords. We talked at the Treasury Committee about the impact of somebody’s degree on their life chances. I questioned him about evidence from the Resolution Foundation, which said that
“it is clear that much of what happens post-university is still determined by certain socio-economic characteristics chosen for us by chance at birth”.
It added that
“the IFS have utilised anonymised tax records and student loan data to show that”— this is the bit that I hope the Education Secretary is listening to—
“even accounting for institution attended and subject studied, graduates from wealthier families earned more.”
That is the evidence that we have been given. It was collected from anonymised tax data, and it shows that even among people who do the same course at the same university, if someone comes from a wealthier background, they go on to earn more.
I put that to Lord Willetts—I am sure Members understand that he is not a well-known socialist—and he said, “That is absolutely fair.” He absolutely acknowledged that that is the case. He said:
“It is indeed the case that your background, even if you partly overcome it in your time at university, for any given degree, then has an impact in the labour market. The presumption”— this is how he explained why some people do better at university than others, and why background is important—
“is that this is to do with all the networks and the social capital and the wider opportunities you bring to your hunting for jobs after you have finished your time or in your last year at university.”
So the background, the networks and the social capital of the parents had the greatest impact on how well someone did at university.
That is exemplified by the way in which this Government seem to operate, and their apparent view of teachers. Teachers do an amazing job, as do many of the people in universities, but they are not divorced from the environment in which they exist. Someone may go to university and have to work without that social capital or network. Another example given by Lord Willetts related to the unpaid internships that many employers continue to offer. If people are not able to take those up, they will not have the same opportunities as others.
Lord Willetts also gave some interesting evidence about degrees. He said that people from lower socioeconomic backgrounds tended to go for degree courses in which they were trained specifically for one occupation, because, he said, they were unable to take the risk. Those people do not want to study a subject such as history—which, I should point out, is the degree held by most top CEOs in the FTSE 100—because they sense the risk of not being employable. We already have a two-tier system in our university jobs market and in our degrees market. This attack that suggests that somehow universities are responsible for the inequalities in our country that so many people face is ludicrous. Once again, the Government are pushing the blame on to someone else rather than accepting the fact that inequality has grown on their watch. If they really want to address the need for aspiration and social mobility, they need to consider addressing the background that so many people come from.
I am grateful to the hon. Lady. We used to serve on the Education Committee together, but I think that her argument is fundamentally wrong. If it is not wrong, why are there some incredible universities—I am thinking of Nottingham Trent University, the University of East London, which I visited last week, and Staffordshire University—with an extraordinary number of disadvantaged students, who do not have the networks and so on to which the hon. Lady referred, but many of whom get good jobs and good skills? If that is the case, it is not to do with networks; it is to do with good teaching at good universities.
I have the utmost respect for the right hon. Gentleman, and I remember his love of Nottingham Trent University from when we served together on the Education Committee. There are some examples of universities doing great things to generate the correct networks for pupils, but the anonymised data, including the anonymised tax records, show that even when all that is taken into account—and of course there are excellent universities doing excellent work—what determines the jobs that people get when they leave university is their parents’ background. Those are the facts. The right hon. Gentleman can have alternative views, but he cannot have alternative facts.
In the context of schools and teachers and the difficulties that people may experience when they go to work, I now want to say a little about women with endometriosis. I have spoken about this many times in the Chamber. One in 10 women have the condition—it is as common as diabetes or asthma—but if I asked everyone in the Chamber about it today, I would probably find that many had never heard of it. It is a debilitating condition that affects a woman’s entire body, and is often linked to the menstrual cycle.
Many of the women I have spoken to who have the condition want to work and to do well. Indeed, many work as teaching assistants in schools or as teachers, because it is a female-dominated profession. Our survey established that half of them took time off work often or very often because of their condition, two fifths worried about losing their jobs because of their endometriosis and a third believed that they had missed out on promotion opportunities because of it, while 90% said that it had had an impact on their long-term financial situation, and one in six—remember, this condition is as common as diabetes or asthma—had had to give up work all together.
All that is required to keep these women in work are the usual reasonable adjustments and a consideration of the way in which work is structured. Some great cross-party work has been done on the menopause, and policies in the workplace seem to be changing, but I would have really liked to see in the King’s Speech a measure to address endometriosis and some of the other conditions affecting women.
Locally in my constituency, the Hull and East Yorkshire endometriosis group, which is full of amazing, formidable women, is working with the trade unions to create a rights charter and to encourage workplaces to look at how women with endometriosis are treated. But again, we did not see anything on rights at work in the King’s Speech. There was no employment Bill. There was no new deal for working people. There was nothing. Fundamentally, if we want to get the changes that people need—the genuine opportunities for all people from all backgrounds and the opportunities for women to continue in work—what we need is a Labour Government.
What was known as the Queen’s Speech, now the King’s speech, was seen as an opportunity by the incumbent Government to lay out an ambitious policy agenda for the future. What we have seen from this King’s Speech, at what many might call the fag end of this Government’s time in office, is anything but ambitious. It is a collection of measures to try to cause division in the country. This Government do not want to fight the next election on their record in office, so they will fight it on what they say Labour will do. They will try to describe what is mainstream as extreme in order to promote their right-wing agenda as moderate—for example, by watering down our climate change commitments.
I will go even further and suggest that the Government want to placate even more of the Prime Minister’s right-wing colleagues by bringing about the notion of climate scepticism, as though our nation’s fears and worries about climate change are overblown and unfounded, when in fact the evidence of excessive flooding and heatwaves has appeared before our own people’s eyes. The use of the word “scepticism” is designed to conjure up a vision of the past, where Euroscepticism appeared to vanquish those who wished to remain in the European Union. Well, we have all seen how that played out. If climate scepticism catches on in the UK, it will do the same damage to our emissions targets and our reputation that Euroscepticism did to our trade, our economy and our reputation.
This Prime Minister, in order to try to distance himself from the previous Conservative incumbents in No. 10, is now trying to make out that he is a break from the past, where there was once cross-party consensus, through environmental measures and the likes of the cancellation of HS2. He is trying to dissociate himself from 13 years of Conservative Government failures, and to present himself as something new. The trick that he is trying to deploy is to bring forward measures that I would describe as counterintuitive. By playing down the need for strong environmental protective measures and the need for HS2 to go to Manchester, he is being different for difference’s sake. Climate science tells us that cleaner cars and well-insulated homes will save energy and help the progress towards net zero. Economists do not just look at the cost to the nation of HS2; they look at the best estimates, which by the Government’s own analysis suggest that the completion of HS2 to Manchester would have brought £24 billion a year to the north’s economy and created 96,000 jobs. It would have improved capacity and connectivity and closed the productivity gap with London.
The Prime Minister thinks that the public will be fooled into thinking he is a different Prime Minister with a fresh agenda for the future and forget the fact that he has been in government since 2018. The crime—I nearly said “the crime minister”; it is a crime, some of the things that I think are going on on the Government Benches. The Prime Minister has been in the Cabinet for more than four years, was Chancellor of the Exchequer for two and has now been Prime Minister for a whole year, so it is not as though he is new to being in government.
Providing solutions to problems that do not exist is part of the Prime Minister’s agenda. Labour is not in government now, so it is irrelevant whether we would promote the annual issuing of North sea oil and gas licences. If we were in government and those licences had already been granted, as is likely to be the case, the decision would already have been taken. If those licences were not already granted, a Labour Government would have the choice and do what was best for the UK. In addition, the Government are fabricating policies that the country would get under a Labour Government, such as a meat tax, car sharing and seven different types of bins.
What have we seen in this King’s Speech? We have a sentencing Bill that will require whole-life sentences for the worst murderers. It would mean that rapists could not be released early and make shorter sentences more likely for lesser crimes. That sounds okay on the face of it, but it has more to do with the fact that prisons are full and the Government’s building programme cannot keep pace with convictions. I have a constituent who is a victim of rape and has had to wait five years for her case to come to court. There is more of a problem getting rapists into prison in the first place, with a conviction rate of only 2%, never mind letting them out early. There are many problems with the criminal justice system. Sentencing is a good headline, but it is not the answer to the system’s many woes.
This Government are running out of steam. They should call a general election tomorrow, because the country is crying out for change.
It is a pleasure and a privilege to close today’s debate for the Opposition on what we hope will be the last King’s Speech from a Conservative Government for many years, because the general election cannot come soon enough and the British people should have the opportunity to have their say.
Opening the debate today, my right hon. Friend Angela Rayner powerfully and movingly set out Labour’s case that this Government have let down our country and our people: our schools—crumbling; our skills system—broken; our housing market—failed. Our country cannot go on like this. What we need is change, and the time for change is now. Crucially, the only party to deliver the change that we all need is today’s changed Labour party.
Today’s contributions from so many of my colleagues have spelled out the urgency of that change. We heard from many of my hon. and right hon. Friends on the challenges our country is facing right now and the actions a Labour Government would be taking on the side of working people. My right hon. Friends the Members for East Ham (Sir Stephen Timms) and for Hayes and Harlington (John McDonnell), and my hon. Friends the Members for Wallasey (Dame Angela Eagle), for Lewisham, Deptford (Vicky Foxcroft), for Oldham West and Royton (Jim McMahon), for Bristol East (Kerry McCarthy), for Lewisham East (Janet Daby), for Batley and Spen (Kim Leadbeater), for Brentford and Isleworth (Ruth Cadbury), for Newport West (Ruth Jones), for Kingston upon Hull West and Hessle (Emma Hardy) and for Preston (Sir Mark Hendrick) all set out very clearly the difference a Labour Government would make to our country.
One of the divides that such debates show so powerfully is between the core beliefs of our parties. Today it is distinctively Labour to believe that government can be and must be a force for good in people’s lives—not just administration but transformation, and not just keeping the show on the road but defining the road ahead—and only Labour understands that the purpose of government is to extend freedoms, to extend opportunities, for each of us and for all of us.
When we talk about opportunity, we mean that in its widest sense: educational opportunity for all of our children to be ready not just to live and work in our world but to understand and enjoy it. We want a country in which all our children, regardless of background, can achieve and thrive—economic opportunity, setting up our young people to achieve and succeed in the economy of today and tomorrow, with the chance not just to get by but to get on; social opportunity, so that families are not judged but supported, and so children and young people know that the future is for us all to shape together, not to face alone; cultural opportunity, to experience art, music, sport and drama, to get involved, to engage, to write, to participate, to pursue and to perform.
That is what we mean when we talk about opportunity: opportunity for each of us and for all of us. The change that Labour will bring is our determination to ensure that background is no barrier to opportunity, that excellence must be for everyone, and that high and rising standards for all our children and in all our schools are once again reality.
The speeches we heard yesterday from the Prime Minister and earlier from the Education Secretary were not about breaking down barriers to opportunity; they were missed opportunities. Let us think of all the issues that we might have heard about today. After all, the Department for Education’s own risk register, published back in the summer, lists six of them—six issues that the Government know they need to tackle, and on which they refuse to act. What of them? On industrial action, they have overseen some of the most sustained strikes in our schools for decades and have no plans to address the reasons for them. On education recovery after the pandemic, the Prime Minister said in his own words that he had “maxed out,” and the Education Secretary has given up.
On school building collapse, we heard not a word—although the Secretary of State has been keen to tell us that kids love nothing more than a Portakabin. On looked-after children, we heard not a word. On high-needs cost pressures on the special educational needs and disabilities and alternative provision system, we heard nothing at all. On cyber-security, we heard zero. On issue after issue, we have seen no evidence that the Government have learnt and no sign that they are ready. They are sleepwalking into disaster.
This goes far wider, as there are no plans for early years education; no plans to tackle the persistent absenteeism in our schools; no plans for a better and more effective school inspection and improvement system; no plans to tackle the growing problem of children who are missing altogether from our schools; no plans to deal with the exodus of qualified teachers from our schools and the growing crisis in recruitment; no plans for children’s social care or to tackle the crisis in provision facing children with special educational needs and disabilities; and no plans for fairer student finance. There is not a thing.
What did the Government give us in that very thin set of priorities? We got just a post-dated cheque on post-16 qualifications—a promise and no plan; an attack on our universities, on the young people who attend them, and on their hopes, dreams and aspirations. The Conservatives’ determination is never clearer and never sharper than when they see the chance to kick at the ambitions of their favourite target: other people’s children. Of course, it would be easy to stand here and say that the answer is simply fiscal, but it is not just about levels of spending—it is also about choices and priorities.
We heard some imaginative and creative storytelling from the Secretary of State about Labour’s record in government, but I am very proud of what we achieved. I saw with my own eyes and experienced the difference that our record in power made in my community and for a generation of children. Millions of children were lifted out of poverty; and we had high standards in our schools, better supported teachers, Sure Start, the education maintenance allowance and Building Schools for the Future.
That is a record of which we are very proud, and the Government have nothing to speak to on this. Thirteen years ago, the share of total public expenditure on education and social protection relating to families was 16.3%, but by last year it had fallen to just 11.6%. There has been an almost 30% drop in the share of Government spending on the next generation. This is a story not of tough decisions for long-term change, but of Conservative Members making easy choices for short-term gain. For 13 long years, they have chipped away at opportunity, Budget after Budget, with law after law, chasing headlines, not tackling issues, and taking chances away from our children, ravaging the opportunities of a generation. I would say that the Government have balanced the books on the backs of our children, but they have not even managed that. Taxes on working people are at the highest level for almost 70 years and public sector net debt has risen to almost 98% of GDP. Theirs is a record of failure and of shame.
Labour’s focus on opportunity will start with our youngest children. The Government’s childcare entitlement expansion comes with no plan for delivery and no workforce to make it happen. Labour is determined that childcare is more than work choices for parents—it is life chances for children. That is why we have asked Sir David Bell, the former chief inspector of Ofsted and former permanent secretary in the Department for Education, to lead our work on setting out the standards and workforce we need for the early education our children deserve. We need high and rising standards, right from the start. We need the best start to every education and every life. We will bring early language interventions—some of the best evidenced of all of our educational approaches—into settings and classrooms across our country. We will bring high and rising standards for all our children, into all our schools. We will bring breakfast clubs to every primary school, in every corner of our country. We are determined to tackle the huge surge in mental ill-health among our children, with mental health support in every secondary school and mental health hubs in every community. We will address the growing challenge of persistent absenteeism, which is now on track to mean 2 million children regularly missing school by 2025—that is one in four of our children.
That is because today there is no greater failing by this Government than standing by, as more and more children miss school for days on end, term after term. They are a lost generation, missing from England’s schools. High and rising standards mean children must be in school for the education they deserve. It means a reset of the relationship between families, schools and government. I pay tribute to the Children’s Commissioner for England, for whom the epidemic of student absence from our schools has rightly been a concern that she has pressed with the Government, and to Sky News, which has been relentless in pursuing the issue.
We will review the curriculum so it is fit for the age we live in and the future we need, filled with the knowledge our children need to achieve and thrive, woven through with the speaking, listening and digital skills that our children need to succeed—high and rising standards in every classroom and every school.
We will use the money raised from ending the tax breaks that private schools enjoy to invest in 6,500 more teachers. We will ensure all new teachers are qualified. We will drive change in how Ofsted reports on our schools, ending one-word summaries and empowering parents to be partners in the push for better. And we will deliver proper careers guidance and worthwhile work experience for all our children, in every school—high and rising standards, through every year of school, so our children are ready for work and ready for life.
We will reform the failed apprenticeships levy into a growth and skills levy. We will devolve skills budgets to combined authorities to bring decisions closer to our local communities and economies. We will bring in a new national body, Skills England, to drive the change we need to see across Government and beyond. And we will reform student finance to bring fairness to a system that punishes new graduates, young workers, those starting a family and those delivering our public services—high and rising standards for all our young people throughout their education and their lives.
By-election after by-election, from Tamworth to Rutherglen, from Selby to Mid Bedfordshire, makes it clear that Britain is longing for change. Speech after speech from Ministers tells us they are out of ideas, out of ambition and out of time. The choice, whenever it comes, in the months ahead, will be a simple one. Today, it is clearer than ever that only Labour can bring the change Britain needs. I call upon Government Members to end the wait, to put country before party and to deliver a general election now.
It is a privilege to follow Bridget Phillipson. Both she and I entered the House of Commons aged just 26, grew up in working-class families in the north-east and think that she would be a better leader of the Labour party than the current one.
The title of the debate is “Breaking down barriers to opportunity”. It is testament to the progress that the country has made that myself, the Secretary of State for Education, my right hon. Friend Gillian Keegan, the deputy leader of the Labour party, Angela Rayner, and the shadow Secretary of State for Education, the hon. Member for Houghton and Sunderland South, are all from working-class families in northern towns and are now responding to the King’s Speech in the mother of all Parliaments. I think that is a good thing.
It is a huge honour to close the debate on His Majesty’s Gracious Speech, the first in over 70 years, and on the vital issues of unlocking the great potential of our young people and unleashing opportunities across all parts of our country, on behalf of the Government. As has been widely acknowledged during the debate, education is one of the most powerful levers we have to help achieve this Government’s defining mission of levelling up economic growth, improving people’s quality of life and restoring the pride in the places they call home.
I thank everyone for their contributions to the debate, in particular my right hon. Friend Wendy Morton, my hon. Friends the Members for South Dorset (Richard Drax), for Aylesbury (Rob Butler) and for Meon Valley (Mrs Drummond), and who could forget the chair of the APPG for Shakespeare, my hon. Friend James Morris.
Like my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Education, I started my career as an apprentice, before spending nine years in Teesside’s chemical industry, so I am especially passionate about ensuring that the next generation has the best possible choices and opportunities.
As the Prime Minister has said, for the next generation, and indeed for our country, that means taking difficult decisions for the long term, so that we lay the foundations for sustained success, enabling people everywhere to build a brighter future. And in that, as my right hon. Friend, the Education Secretary, has rightly said, we are building on a proud record.
Huge credit must go to the Secretary of State for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities, my right hon. Friend Michael Gove and the Minister for Schools, my right hon. Friend Nick Gibb, for their ambition and vision back in 2010 for taking on the soft bigotry of those who believed that some are pre-destined for success while others are not.
None the less, we know that there is more to do to equip children starting school today to take up the jobs of tomorrow, starting with no more rip-off degrees, no more arbitrary targets for university, and no more assumptions that university is the only route to success. Instead, we are giving every generation real choices and a commitment to a real return on their investment.
We are giving a commitment to a real return on their investment, their hard work, their hard cash by delivering more high-quality technical education—
Thank you, Mr Deputy Speaker. As I was saying, we are giving every generation real choices and a commitment to a real return on their investment, their hard work and their hard cash by delivering more high quality technical education than any other Government, through T-levels, Higher Technical Qualifications and apprenticeships. We are also delivering for adults looking to learn new skills through skills bootcamps, the Lifelong Learning Entitlement—bringing universities, colleges and businesses together through Institutes of Technology. We are demanding excellence all round for academic and technical routes.
Our family hubs and “Strong Start for Life” programmes will also provide wide-ranging support that joins up services, including targeted help during those first critical days of a child’s life, giving the next generation the best possible start in life.
Just as we are making sure that all children and young people are set up to succeed, so we are making sure that every part of our country is set up for success. The White Paper that preceded our great Levelling-up and Regeneration Bill, which I am delighted to say is now on the statute book, recognised a fundamental truth: that while talent is spread equally across the UK, opportunity is not. Although our country is such a success story, not everyone shares equally in that success. We are putting that right by shifting opportunity and power decisively towards working people and their families. We will empower local leaders and invest billions to: create high-skilled, well-paid jobs; improve transport; improve health outcomes; protect community spaces; invest in research and innovation; and increase pride and belonging. Since taking on the job of Minister in the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities, I have seen what a difference this is making in places such as Middlesbrough, where I grew up, Keighley, Grimsby and Hull, because, for prosperity to be shared, we must first attract the good jobs that our towns and regions need by creating the right environment for businesses to operate in.
A wind farm manufacturer who is looking at where to base their next production facility needs a reason to pick Redcar or Hull over Antwerp or Rotterdam. Only by investing in the full package of incentives—from skills to infrastructure, business environment to quality of life—can we make this happen. That is exactly what we are doing through the UK’s network of freeports, which offers a comprehensive package of measures, comprising tax reliefs, customs, business rates retention, planning, regeneration, innovation and trade and investment support. They also create opportunities in left-behind communities. I am thinking of my own constituency of Redcar and Cleveland and the Teesside freeport where BP is investing in carbon capture and storage. It has partnered with Redcar and Cleveland College to provide scholarships for young people to train as clean energy technicians. We are providing the skills that are preparing people for the jobs of the future, so that they can embrace the opportunities that are being created by this Government. But that is not all. We have listened to those who feel that their communities have been left behind. Through our £1.1 billion long-term plan for towns, we are putting power and flexible funding in the hands of local people, so that they can invest in what is most important to them. Towns such as Mansfield, Great Yarmouth, Blyth, Oldham, Grimsby, Merthyr Tydfil are just some of the 55 communities that will receive this support.
As this Government invest in creating opportunity and driving aspiration across our Union, we are channelling the investment that our towns and regions need to succeed, led by local leaders who know their communities best. In 2010, Greater London was the only area in England with devolved powers. We want more to follow, bringing decision making closer to the people it affects. Now, under this Government, we have 10 areas with implemented mayoral devolution deals, and five deals in the process of implementation.
Devolving education and skills is at the heart of our devolution framework, because unless there are good schools with high standards, and institutions offering qualifications that employers value, prosperity cannot be shared across all communities. When we think about disadvantage, all of us will be acutely aware that disadvantaged children have been disproportionately impacted by the pandemic. We are determined to support them to catch up and reach their potential, which is why we have invested in education recovery programmes such as the recovery premium, the national tutoring programme and the 16-19 tuition fund.
Unlike the Labour party, we will never accept that family background or geography should ever dictate destiny. Long before there was a levelling-up Minister, levelling up was exactly what we had been doing over the past 13 years in our schools, in our world-class universities, on skills and through apprenticeships, reversing a decade of decline, low expectations and low ambition. The rewards that we are reaping now are very real. We have better schools than ever before, with schools in some of the most deprived parts of the country producing some of the best results. More young people from state schools are going to our best universities. Our nine and 10-year-olds are topping the league for reading in the west. We have the best universities in Europe.
While others talk the talk, we walk the walk, and just as we have succeeded in turning the tide in education and skills, so we will succeed in turning the tide for people and places long taken for granted by the Labour party. As we have seen from today’s debate, levelling up growth, opportunity, prosperity, pride and belonging for everyone in all parts of our country to contribute to and share in is a mission for us all—but there is only one party that can be trusted to deliver.
Ordered, That the debate be now adjourned.—(Andrew Stephenson.)
Debate to be resumed tomorrow.