Chris Grayling – 2022 Speech on Achieving Economic Growth

The speech made by Chris Grayling, the Conservative MP for Epsom and Ewell, in the House of Commons on 18 May 2022.

Thank you very much, Madam Deputy Speaker; I will endeavour to fulfil that.

The right hon. Member for Leeds Central (Hilary Benn) is right about conciliation, but it is noticeable that the European Union is preventing the United Kingdom from participating in Horizon Europe, while allowing the Israelis to do so. That does not feel to me like an awful lot of good will from their side, and that is to be regretted.

I rise to support the Queen’s Speech. As we focus on economic growth, these are extraordinary and difficult times for our economy. We have had in this country to deal with an unprecedented series of problems, and so have our Ministers—something the Opposition often forget as they throw brickbats at them.

We now know from the World Health Organisation that the Government and the country handled the tragic circumstances of the pandemic pretty well. Many countries suffered and so did we, but we were far from being the bad performer that has been suggested. We also forget the continued impact of the pandemic in China, where there are severe lockdowns still. That is causing an economic ripple effect that contributes to the inflation problems we face. The sad reality is that when oil prices, food prices and the cost of household energy soar, those things are outside the control of any individual Government and there are few Governments that can wave a wand and solve them.

I am pretty supportive of much of what this Government have done and how they have gone about dealing with the range of issues that have arisen, but I make one simple point to the Minister and his colleagues: we cannot achieve growth by over-taxing our economy. The decisions that have been taken on tax have been taken, but the direction of travel needs to change, and soon.

We also need to step up our incentivisation of investment. If we are to deal with the huge energy challenges this country faces, we must do more. That means continuing our dramatic progress on wind and solar power; it means, I suspect, looking again at tidal energy and it means developing hydrogen. It must be said that we would be in a much more difficult position if this Government and the coalition Government before them had not placed such emphasis on renewables. That was clearly the right thing to do. However, we also need more domestic production of gas. There are those who say we should stop all fossil fuel projects now. I take completely the opposite view.

As the world rightly moves away from coal, something needs to take its place. Countries that have been dependent on coal are not suddenly going to make a complete switch to renewables or zero-emission nuclear power stations overnight, so gas, which is the cleanest of the fossil fuels, must be a short-term priority for us. Indeed, it is the move away from coal in parts of Asia that started the gas price surge in the first place. It is pretty clear that the world does not at the moment have enough gas for the transition to net zero, particularly as we deal with the consequences of the war in Ukraine, so we will see prices continue to remain high unless we deal with supply issues.

That is why it makes absolute sense—the Government are right to be supporting this—to have additional extraction of gas from the North sea. Frankly, we would be in dereliction of our duty if we did not look again at the potential to use shale gas to help us through. To those who say, “No more UK production”, I just say this: the emissions from a tanker of gas from Qatar are roughly twice those of a similar consignment from the North sea. I want to cut emissions. I also believe that we need a steady transition to net zero by 2050—but it is a transition. Burning fuel that generates twice the emissions makes no sense. Gas is a key part of our transition to net zero, and the more it can be produced in the UK, the lower our emissions will be. We also need to move rapidly on nuclear, and I welcome the Government’s commitment to that as well. We cannot achieve net zero without it.

Let me turn to the environment and conservation. If I have a disappointment in this Queen’s Speech, it is that the legislation on conservation I was hoping for has slipped beyond this Session. I hope that my right hon. Friend the Minister for Brexit Opportunities and Government Efficiency, who is in his place will make sure that it comes back in the next Session. We urgently need to take forward the progress we have made but also to put in place a modernised framework for wildlife protection in this country. For example, it makes no sense to have expansive protections in place for newts, which are numerous here, but not for creatures such as the hedgehog that have declined so much. I have pushed for the hedgehog to have greater legal protection and I look forward to this happening in the next Session, at least. But there are steps that can be taken now. When the levelling-up Bill comes before the House, I will table an amendment, if the Government have not already acted, to require a full wildlife survey of every development site, and if vulnerable species are found, there should be a legal duty to relocate them to an appropriate habitat elsewhere. No more should we tolerate developers cutting down all the trees on the site and clearing all the foliage, turning it into a wasteland, before they have even applied for, let alone secured, planning consent. We need growth, and we need more houses, but a cavalier approach to local wildlife cannot be the consequence.

In this Session I will continue to push Ministers to go further and faster on bottom trawling in marine protected areas. We have made a start in the first few areas, but there is much further to go. This is a really important of protecting our ecology. Having stronger environmental protections in our seas is one of the benefits that is deliverable now that we have left the European Union. It would not have been possible while we were still EU members.

Turning to broader issues on conservation, I applaud Ministers for the work they are doing internationally, and particularly what Lord Goldsmith is doing to support the Congo Basin. The leadership of my right hon. Friend the Member for Reading West (Alok Sharma) on COP26 and its aftermath has been exemplary. One of the key moments of the coming Session will be the negotiations at the Convention on Biological Diversity summit this year. I want the UK to play a key role in delivering what is needed—a renewed international drive on species protection and habitat restoration. WWF estimates that the amount of degraded land internationally where deforestation followed by over-farming has taken place is the size of South America. If we are going to tackle climate change, protect endangered species and deal with a global food shortage, we need to start recovering this land, restoring it for wildlife in some areas or properly managed agriculture in others, with a particular focus on creating sustainable livelihoods for the people in those areas. Our Ministers need to make sure that we set a path towards those goals as we finish our year of COP presidency and take part in the CBD discussions.

There is a lot to do in terms of a growing economy, the move towards net zero, and doing our bit internationally to secure a proper future for all our environments. I am glad to support a Government who, in my view, have made a good start, but there is still a lot to do.