The speech made by Damian Green, the Conservative MP for Ashford, in the House of Commons on 18 May 2022.
It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Glasgow Central (Alison Thewliss).
I rise to support many of the Bills in the Queen’s Speech. In particular, I wish to support the contention that slow growth is the long-term bane of the British economy, going back many decades, so I wholeheartedly welcome the fact that the Chancellor has made raising productivity, and therefore growth, his main task. The urgency of the task is only amplified by the scary inflation that we are currently experiencing. He is absolutely right to emphasise that as the central purpose of his chancellorship. In his excellent opening speech, the Chief Secretary made the point that there are three pillars to the Chancellor’s approach. I was going to mention five; I hope the number having gone up so quickly is not another sign of rapidly rising inflation.
On top of the pillars that the Chief Secretary mentioned, I would add and commend the idea, which was in the Queen’s Speech, of spreading economic activity and opportunity all across the country. If all the UK was as productive as London and the south-east, UK GDP would be boosted by some £180 billion—as the hon. Member for Glasgow Central (Alison Thewliss) mentioned, many figures flying around today, but that is a very significant and simple one. We would all—all over the country—be significantly richer if we could make the less productive parts of the country as productive as the most productive parts. Therefore, those bits of the levelling-up Bill that are about spreading activity and opportunity are central to the success of our economic policy over the next couple of years. We may wish to return to the planning parts of that Bill in a later debate.
Skills, as the Chief Secretary to the Treasury mentioned, are essential, so I very much welcome the Schools Bill. School education is about much more than preparing for economic life, but consistently higher standards in our schools will give us a more productive workforce, and therefore greater wealth and, in the end, more leisure time. It is one of the bases on which we need to build not just a healthy society, but a healthy economy.
Science and technology, which my right hon. Friend did not mention, is the other element that I would add. Again, successive Governments, going back more than half a century—as far back as Harold Wilson—have emphasised the need to harness science more effectively to give us a long-term advantage in a competitive world. One thing we have learned over those many decades is that it needs to be done in a focused way. In that regard, the genetic technology Bill is particularly welcome. It covers one specific, but hugely important, area in which we ought to have an international advantage and that we should wish to exploit.
My right hon. Friend mentioned infrastructure. In a week in which we have seen Crossrail operating, we should all celebrate the fact that we can, even if slightly belatedly, build grands projects in this country. I hope that the transport Bill, when we see the details of it, will encourage not just Government activity but innovation, which is hugely important and the fifth point that my right hon. Friend mentioned. Innovation is the most difficult thing to legislate for. It requires an attitude of mind, a culture, that grows from a tax system that encourages risk taking, an education system that provides the necessary skills, and the opportunities for people to make a difference, particularly in their own area.
On that point, does the right hon. Member agree that climate education in schools—from primary through to secondary and vocational courses—is essential if we are to meet our legally binding targets of net zero by 2050?
I am sure that, like me, the hon. Lady spends a lot of time visiting schools in her constituency. I am struck not only by the standard of teaching in that area, but by the enthusiasm and engagement of young people on that issue, which is very important.
I am afraid, however, that the Government’s legislative proposals threaten to take us in the wrong direction in another innovative sector in which Britain is world class: the creative industries. Any Government would want to support, encourage, and, above all, listen to those industries when considering the future, but in that regard I have reservations about the media Bill. The Government’s own White Paper on broadcasting, “Up Next”, which was published last month, says:
“The UK’s creative economy is a global success story, and our public service broadcasters (PSBs) are the beating heart of that success. They produce great British content loved across the UK and the world over. The government wants it to stay that way.”
Good, so do I, and so do millions of people who value the BBC, Channel 4, as well as ITV and Channel 5; they all do a good job. What worries me, looking at the White Paper and the announcements made, is that the Government’s warm words are not matched by sympathetic actions. Let us take Channel 4 first. The Government had a consultation. There was an overwhelming desire to keep the ownership situation as it is, and that was ignored. In ignoring the consultation, the Government have argued that Channel 4 needs borrowing powers so that, in the end, it does not have to rely for borrowing on the state. Channel 4 has come up with a suggestion for a joint venture that would enable it to stay with its current ownership regime, but still access private capital. That was ignored. Instead, the Government insist on carrying on with privatisation.
If we care about a successful sector—the creative sector is successful and the many small businesses that make programmes for Channel 4 are particularly successful—we should listen to it when it tells us how best to strengthen it for the future. As a Conservative, I find it extraordinary that we have a Conservative Government who are saying, “The gentleman from Whitehall knows best” and that they are deciding how best to run this part of the sector, ignoring the small businesses that make it up. I thought that listening to small business was a core Conservative aim, but we seem not to be doing so.
Let us go from the abstract to the concrete. If this legislation goes through, which I hope it does not, Channel 4 could be bought by a big US player, in which case let us look in five years’ time at how much quirky, different, and innovative UK-based content is being made for Channel 4, particularly as it happens outside London and the south-east, outside the traditional broadcasting areas. It is also possible that ITV will buy it, which will mean a reduction in competition in the TV advertising market. Again, speaking as a Conservative, I thought that competition was one thing that we believed in and wanted to encourage.
Beyond Channel 4, the Government plan to move onto the BBC. They are rightly consulting on the future funding of this hugely important national institution, but it is slightly difficult to take a consultation seriously when, at the outset, the Secretary of State has announced her conclusion, which is that the licence fee has had its day. It is an arguable position, but it is unarguable that it makes the whole consultation look like a sham. The Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Committee, of which I am a member, looked at this issue last year and, broadly speaking, concluded that for all the disadvantages that it has—we know what they are—the licence fee was the least bad option for the coming years. Let us have a proper debate on this hugely important and complex issue, and not a sham consultation where the verdict has been given before the evidence has been considered. Again, let us listen to the voices of those who have made our creative sectors such a big economic contributor to the country and something to be really proud of in modern Britain.
In conclusion, there is very much that I welcome in the Queen’s Speech, but I hope the Government will listen on some issues, because, otherwise, there is a danger of stifling growth in one of our best economic sectors. Britain needs a thriving creative sector and the creative industries need a Government who will support and nurture them by creating a regulatory climate in which they can thrive, creating jobs and wealth, and also experiences and memories that the British people will share with each other. I am sure that this House will help the Government achieve that end.