Keir Starmer – 2021 Speech on the Queen’s Address

The speech made by Keir Starmer, the Leader of the Opposition, in the House of Commons on 11 May 2021.

Before I turn to the Address, I want to pay tribute to Her Majesty. This was Her Majesty’s 67th Queen’s Speech. At a time of incredible personal loss for Her Majesty, it must have been one of the hardest to deliver, as she did this morning.

I congratulate the mover and the seconder for what were both fine speeches. The Address was moved by the hon. Member for North West Cambridgeshire (Shailesh Vara). He was typically erudite and engaging, and I should not have been surprised, because I am told he is a former winner of the coveted “rising star” award at the Conservative party conference, although I think that was in the year 2000. Perhaps his star has risen again today. As a season ticket holder at Arsenal, I am very glad to learn that he supports the reds. I am also told that he has a black belt in taekwondo, so I now know who to call on at the next shadow Cabinet meeting.

The seconder of the Address, the hon. Member for South Ribble (Katherine Fletcher), showed why she also is tipped as a rising star. She gave a fine, passionate speech. She is surely the only Member of Parliament who is also a qualified safari ranger, and once survived being charged by a rhino. Her speech showed how those skills have transferred nicely to the Westminster jungle.

We also remember those Members of this House who passed away in the last Session. In April we lost Cheryl Gillan, who served Chesham and Amersham with such distinction—I look up, because in this place I would normally see Cheryl sitting up there on the Back Bench. As a new Back Bencher in 2015, I had the privilege of working closely with Cheryl on a cross-party basis, and we quickly developed a mutual respect and friendship; I know that many hon. Members would say the same and will remember Cheryl, as I do, with warmth and affection.

It is a tradition during these debates to welcome new Members to this House, so of course I congratulate the new hon. Member for Hartlepool (Jill Mortimer) on her victory. She now has the huge honour of representing that great town; I hope that she will forgive me if I say that I hope it is not for too long. I wonder what plans she has for the 40-foot inflatable of the Prime Minister.

I turn to the Address. After a year of sacrifice, this is a seminal moment in our national story. As the hon. Member for North West Cambridgeshire spoke about the pandemic, let me start with this point. Even before the pandemic, Britain needed transformative change to reset our economy, to rebuild our public services and to strengthen our Union and our democracy for decades to come. That is because, even before the pandemic, there were 5.7 million people in low-paid or insecure work and 4.2 million children growing up in poverty. Class sizes were at their highest for 20 years, one in seven adults were unable to get the social care that they need, and Britain had one of the worst levels of regional inequality in Europe. Most shockingly of all, life expectancy stalled, for the first time in a century. Let that sink in: life expectancy stalled, for the first time in a century.

That is the record of the last 10 years. That is the record that the Prime Minister is trying to run away from today. We can see why: because in the past year, the pandemic has brutally exposed the consequences of that decade of neglect. Tragically, the pandemic has shown that if you live in low-quality, overcrowded housing, if you are trapped in insecure work, if you are one of the millions of people who are one pay cheque away from hardship, this pandemic will have been harder for you than for most.

Today we needed a Queen’s Speech that rose to the scale of the moment, that rewarded the sacrifices of the past year and rebuilt the foundation. Instead, this Queen’s Speech merely papers over the cracks. It is packed with short-term gimmicks and distant promises—this Government are never short of those—but it misses the urgency and scale of the transformation that is needed in our economy, in our public services and in our society, and it lacks the ambition or a plan to achieve it.

At the heart of this Queen’s Speech should have been a jobs plan—a plan to tackle unemployment, particularly the shocking levels of youth unemployment, and also to change how the economy works. That is not impossible. Just look across the Atlantic. There we see the kind of plan that is needed: a plan for long-term investment; a plan to make the economy more resilient, greener and more dynamic; and a plan to halve child poverty, to deliver a fairer tax system and to grow the economy from the middle out, not from the top down. But what do we see on this side of the Atlantic? A Queen’s Speech that pits regions against each other in a fight for limited funding, an economy still driven by chronic short-termism, a Government preparing to take money out of the pockets of working people and a Chancellor saddling businesses with debt when they need to invest.

This address spoke of plans to increase infrastructure spending. Well, about time! Britain should be leading the world on investment, but after 11 years of Conservative Government we are 124th out of 186 countries when it comes to capital investment in our economy, and the scale of what was in this address will not turn that around. This Queen’s Speech should also have provided a plan for better work. For too long, millions of people across Britain have worked longer for lower pay, so where was the employment Bill that was promised in the last Queen’s Speech and repeatedly promised by Ministers? Nowhere to be seen. What was needed was a game-changing employment Bill to end fire and rehire, to give proper rights to every worker from day one and to raise the living wage to at least £10 an hour and go further as quickly as possible. That measure alone would have boosted pay for 8.6 million workers. That is what a Labour Queen’s Speech would have delivered, alongside a green stimulus to create 400,000 jobs and a jobs promise for all 16 to 24-year-olds.

This address should also have included a clear long-term recovery plan for our NHS, but with waiting lists at a record high of 4.7 million, what we have heard today will come nowhere near the scale of the change needed. And it is unforgivable that there is no clear plan to fix social care. I remind the House that it is now 657 days since the Prime Minister stood on the steps of Downing Street and said that

“we will fix the crisis in social care once and for all…with a clear plan we have prepared”.

Yet 657 days on from that promise, what did we hear in this address?

“Proposals on social care reform will be brought forward.”

No legislation, no new funding, no details, no timescale. Failure to act for a decade was bad enough, but failure to act after the pandemic is nothing short of an insult to the whole nation.

It is a similar story on skills and education. I care passionately about this. My dad was a toolmaker who worked on the factory floor all his life, and I know that it is only through world-class skills training, sustained investment and changing the way we think about vocational training that Britain can compete in the 2020s and 2030s. The Prime Minister’s rhetoric on lifetime skills is all very well, but the reality is different. Over the last 10 years, funding on adult education has been slashed by a fifth, and the number of apprenticeships fell by 200,000 in the three years to 2020, so we will judge the Government on their record, not on the rhetoric that we hear today.

It is the same story on crime and policing. Since 2015, recorded violent crime has doubled and antisocial behaviour has gone up in every area of England and Wales, yet the Conservatives call themselves the party of law and order. Violent crime has doubled and antisocial behaviour is on the up in every area in England and Wales. They have been in government for 11 years. And our courts now have a record backlog, meaning victims waiting years to get justice. Yet the Queen’s Speech will do nothing to address this. I know there is draft legislation now promised on a victims law, but the promise of a victims law has been in the last three Conservative manifestos. Six years ago, I introduced a private Member’s Bill for a victims law, with legally enforceable rights. It had cross-party support. There is cross-party support now. So it is not a draft Bill we need—it is urgent legislation.

The address also promised much on housing, but for many home ownership is further out of reach than ever. Among the under-45s home ownership has fallen by 800,000 in the last decade—a decade of neglect. House building targets are almost never hit, and rough sleeping has more than doubled since 2010. I see nothing in today’s address that will buck that trend or even attempt to repair the damage of the last decade. If the Prime Minister wanted to act, there is one area where he is guaranteed cross-party support: the cladding scandal. The Grenfell tragedy was four years and three Queen’s Speeches ago, yet thousands of people are still trapped in unsafe buildings, and hundreds of thousands of leaseholders are caught up in homes they cannot sell or afford. People are facing bankruptcy and great anxiety. If anybody needed any reminder of the danger of this, they should look no further than the fire in a block of flats in east London last week. There is no excuse for the Prime Minister’s inaction on cladding; that should have been in this address.

At a time when the United Kingdom is divided and public trust in our democracy is shaken, this Queen’s Speech was also an opportunity to rebuild the foundations of our democracy. Instead, what does it do? The electoral integrity Bill would make it harder for people to vote, it tramples on civil liberties and it discriminates. The Prime Minister must know that by introducing compulsory voter ID he will suppress turnout; it will disproportionately impact ethnic minorities and it will weaken our democracy. Labour will have no part in that. We also oppose plans in the judicial review Bill to weaken the power of our courts and curtail the right of judicial review. This Government simply fail to understand that our independent judiciary are a strength for our country, not a weakness.

And where is the legislation to fix the broken lobbying laws? The Prime Minister has chosen instead to put his faith in the Transparency of Lobbying, Non-Party Campaigning and Trade Union Administration Act 2014—the Cameron Act. Where did that end? It ended with a Conservative Prime Minister being paid huge amounts of money by dodgy companies almost immediately after leaving office. Come to think of it, given the state of the Prime Minister’s current finances, I can see why he is reluctant to change that bit of legislation.

There are parts of the Queen’s Speech we will look to work with the Government on. Legislation to ban conversion therapy is long overdue. Conversion therapy is always wrong and indefensible, so we will look very carefully when legislation is brought forward, which must be done soon. We will also look carefully at the draft online safety Bill. That has been much delayed, and we need urgent and effective legislation. And we are always willing to work, on a cross-party basis, to end violence against women and girls. We will bring forward our own proposals on this in the coming days, but of course we will look at any legislation the Government bring forward in this area. Action on Russian and hostile state interference is also long overdue, and progress has been promised for nearly two years. So we will look closely at the promised counter-state threats Bill to see whether we can work constructively to bring about the change that is needed. But those are small glimmers in a Queen’s Speech that shows that the Government still do not understand what went wrong in the past decade and have no plan for the next.

This is the time for a transformative agenda to rebuild Britain’s foundations after a decade of neglect and a year of national sacrifice—to change the foundation of our economy, invest in the future, solve the social care crisis, clean up our politics and clean up the mess that this Government have created over a decade—but, once again, it is a chance that has been squandered.