Meg Hillier – 2016 Speech on the Loyal Address

Below is the text of the speech made by Meg Hillier, the Labour MP for Hackney South and Shoreditch, in the House of Commons on 18 May 2016.

I did not intend to be drawn on the issue of Europe, but I feel provoked by the hon. Member for Christchurch (Mr Chope) first to declare my firm support for remaining in Europe, and secondly to make it clear that remaining will protect the security of citizens. I spent three years negotiating on home affairs for the then Labour Government, and, in particular, on security and safety issues. I firmly believe that if countries are at the table, they can make a difference, as we have done and continue to do, but that if a country is not there, it cannot exert influence. If we vote “out”, the very next day we will be out of all the discussions that are necessary.

I refer the hon. Gentleman to the work done by the National Audit Office at the behest of the Public Accounts Committee, and to the Committee’s subsequent work in examining the costs. That is, perhaps, close to the audit that he was seeking. It clearly shows that the net cost of the United Kingdom’s contribution to the European Union is the equivalent of 1.4% of the UK Government’s total departmental spending. I believe that that is a small price to pay for the benefits of being part of a wider community, including the peace and security that that brings.

I believe that, as a whole, the Gracious Speech is rather short on detail. I hope to outline some of the issues that I think Ministers and Departments should consider as they flesh out their plans. There are, of course, headlines when Her Majesty reads out her speech, but what worries me, on the basis of my five years as a member of the Public Accounts Committee and one year as the elected Chair, is that there is often not much more in the speech behind the headlines. I hope that the Government will heed our concerns about good policy planning, because all too frequently we have seen policy built on sand. A political pledge may be made in a press release, for instance, containing no detail and, crucially, no proper cost and impact assessments.

Let me deal with some of the specifics in the speech. If the Government finally get it right with their pledge to provide high-speed broadband throughout the country, I shall welcome that, but I must confess to a slight weary cynicism, because we have heard it all before. The Public Accounts Committee has expressed concern about the use of taxpayers’ money to fund, in particular, rural broadband. The low-hanging fruit was taken first, and many innovative technologies were priced out of the market. There are numerous “not spots” all over the country. The policy has been so successful that the Government have had to include it again in the Gracious Speech. Like the Public Accounts Committee, I shall be watching the position closely—both nationally and in my Shoreditch constituency, the home of Tech City and Silicon Roundabout, where, believe it or not, there are still so many “not spots” and problems with speed that businesses relocate to gain access to faster speeds, especially for uploading purposes. It is striking that the former editor of Tech City News, the web news vehicle for that area, had to use his home address to upload the video he recorded each week to round up the local news because his office, just off Old Street, did not have the broadband width to allow it to be uploaded there. It is important that, as the Government roll out the measure, they ensure that alternative providers get a look-in. Therefore, I welcome the access to land and buildings that seems to be indicated in the publicity, but we will be watching and we will no doubt look at the issue more closely.

Unsurprisingly—it was well heralded—the Queen’s Speech included measures on devolution and directly elected mayors. As a Member for the borough of Hackney in London, I fully recognise that a directly elected mayor can be a very good thing. I pay tribute to my colleague, the Mayor of Hackney, Jules Pipe, who was directly elected mayor for the first time in 2002 and who has overseen stability and good public service delivery in our borough. However, in the rush to devolution—it is going very fast—it is vital that it be properly thought through.

We heard from the hon. Member for Christchurch, and we hear it from other Members, that there is concern in some areas about the need, or not, for a directly elected mayor. Although I recognise that the Government, as they are devolving power, money and responsibility, need to have someone accountable for that, other models may work in different places. Perhaps one size does not fit all.

The question remains: what powers will be passed down? We had a hearing recently with the permanent secretary at the Department for Communities and Local Government, who indicated strongly that, once mayors are elected with a manifesto, the negotiations over the powers they have may be reopened. How will that devolution be properly funded? Who will watch taxpayers’ money? We know that in the tri-boroughs—Westminster, Kensington and Chelsea and Hammersmith and Fulham—there was a discussion about having a local public accounts committee. That sounds like a great idea—I am in favour of public accounts committees, as you may understand, Mr Speaker—but we know that, for example, in Oxfordshire, the Prime Minister’s own county, when the council sought external auditors for its audit committee, it could find only one person. If in the whole of Oxfordshire, with the talent pool there, it could find only one person willing to be a lay person on the audit committee, that is a concern. There is also concern about resourcing and how we watch how taxpayers’ money is spent.

There is the issue of the retention of business rates. How will that work? In my area, we stand to gain quite a lot, but there is concern about redistribution to the areas where there are not businesses that would be able to accrue the business rates for the local tax payer. However, watching taxpayers’ money is key. Who decides what amount of money is right, for example, for Manchester? Once the Treasury has decided on the amount, it is for Manchester to come back and say it needs more. Who is to be the arbiter of that? It cannot be the National Audit Office in every case—it just does not have the capacity to look at that local level. We have lost the Audit Commission. Those of us who took part in the pre-legislative scrutiny warned that a lot was being thrown out when the commission was abolished. We have concerns and we will return to the issue as a Committee.

The Gracious Speech mentions mental health and the criminal justice system. My constituency hosts the John Howard Centre, a medium secure unit for people with serious mental health issues. I have spoken to patients in the unit who fear going back to prison because of the lack of mental health support in the mainstream prison service. Therefore, I wish the Government’s reforms of the prison service well. I also represent the Howard League for Penal Reform. I know that it will want the reforms to succeed, too. Again, the devil is in the detail and in the funding, of course. There has been a cut of about 20% in the budget of the Ministry of Justice. Eighteen per cent. of that 20% cut has been in prisons. We also know that there is a shortage of prison officers, so I will watch that one with caution.

The northern powerhouse is again mentioned in the Queen’s Speech. The Government heralds that, but we know from our work on the Committee that the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills is planning to move its policy team from Sheffield to that well known northern powerhouse—Victoria Street SW1. The team will join the 97% of civil servants working on the northern powerhouse who are already based in London. I may be a London MP but I know that that does not make sense. It is vital that the Government get the best input from around the nations and regions of the UK to ensure that policy is not London-centric.

David Rutley (Macclesfield) (Con)

I understand the point that the hon. Lady is making, but does she not appreciate that the whole point of the devolution thrust is to give more power back to the combined authorities and to local partnerships? That is what we are delivering, regardless of what happens to a small policy team or strategy team.

Meg Hillier

My point is that this is a litmus test for how seriously devolution is being taken. Whenever senior civil servants appearing before the Committee talk about devolving powers down, we always ask them how many civil servants will move from Whitehall to the regions. We ask them what the total percentage will be of the Whitehall civil servants who are going to shift, even if this does not involve the same people. If Whitehall is shrinking as a result of devolving powers and responsibilities to local regions and nations, we should see a reduction in the civil service. If not, we should seek an explanation for why that is not the case. We have seen some very fuzzy thinking on this, and the Committee is watching the situation closely.

The Investigatory Powers Bill has once again been mentioned in a Gracious Speech, as it did not make enough progress in the last Session. I strongly believe that we need to keep up with technology in order to keep citizens safe. In principle, therefore, I support the Bill, but I sincerely hope that the Home Secretary will listen and respond to calls from all the Opposition parties for appropriate governance and safeguards so that this legislation can gain cross-party support. We must unite against terror and those who wish our country ill, and we need to work together in that spirit to ensure that the Bill is the best bit of legislation it can be and that it achieves all its aims.

Talking about security brings me to the issue of tackling extremism and radicalisation. I do not believe that this can be done from Whitehall. It is important that Whitehall should set the framework, but the best way of doing this is to work at grassroots level. We have had the Prevent strategy in the past, but we need to ensure that we really work hard to deliver this, this time round. We need to do this in a spirit of unity, and it has been shocking to me over the past few weeks and months that senior Government Ministers—even the Prime Minister himself, from the Dispatch Box—have been casting aspersions on the Mayor of London, Sadiq Khan. That is beyond the pale. It is unacceptable that someone in his position has been pilloried in such a way when he is part of the solution and certainly nothing to do with the problem. I therefore hope that we can now move forward in a spirit of greater unity, because we need to tackle these issues as part of our long-term strategy to make our country secure.

The three main issues in the Gracious Speech that I wish to talk about are housing, health and education. Obviously, I am as concerned about what has not been included as I am about what has been included in the sketchy details. In the Gracious Speech, the Government are making a commitment to building 1 million homes, but let us replay what happened in the last Parliament. At the beginning of the last Parliament, the Government committed to releasing public land to build new homes. When the Public Accounts Committee looked into this matter five years on, however, the Government could not say how much the land had been sold for, how many homes had been built on the land or whether there had been any appreciable value for money for the taxpayer. You really couldn’t make it up.

The Public Accounts Committee remains concerned about the pledge in this Parliament to release public land for home building. It is interesting that there is such a definite figure in the Gracious Speech, given that Ministers do not consider it necessary to count such numbers as an outcome. One of my colleagues on the Committee has pointed out that none of our constituents wants to live in a potential home; they want to live in real ones. We should not only count the homes that are being built but ensure that they are the right ones, and that means allowing local authorities to determine what is necessary in their own areas.

The Gracious Speech mentions tackling poverty and the causes of deprivation in order to give every child the best start in life. I represent a borough that is in the top 11% for child poverty and I believe strongly that the main foundation for tackling poverty and giving people the best start in life is housing. A stable home is a basic right. The recently passed Housing and Planning Act 2016 will do huge damage to my city and my constituency. It pulls the rug out from under Londoners on low and moderate incomes. It takes social housing away from local authorities to pay for the right to buy. In my own borough, 700 such properties will have to be sold in the next five years to pay for the right to buy for housing association tenants.

I do not begrudge people wanting to own their own home or having the opportunity to do so, but that must not happen at the expense of others who need affordable quality homes that are permanent and secure to live in. There is also pay to stay, which was introduced to push up rents for people on a household income of £40,000 a year. To some hon. Members, that might sound like a lot of money, but in London it does not stretch very far at all. The average property price in London is now £691,969. It has gone up about £7,000 since I last raised the matter in the House a few weeks ago. There has been an 85% increase in the past six years.

As of February this year, the median rent for a one-bedroom property in my borough was £1,399 per calendar month. To afford that, people would require a gross household income of £48,000. I do not know where people who are expected to pay and stay are supposed to go. They could not afford to buy their own home and they could not afford to rent privately. That particularly affects a number of pensioners in my constituency. There is also the problem of overcrowded households. Adult children who cannot leave because of those prices keep the household income ticking over. They are paying not for huge palaces, but often for overcrowded accommodation.

Under the Housing and Planning Act 2016 there is a proposal to replace, one for one, homes sold under right to buy, but that is not necessarily like for like. The replacement homes could be of a different size, in a different location or even in a different city, and of a different tenure. It is not good enough for the Government to sit back and allow that to happen. I hope they will work with Sadiq Khan, the Mayor of London, to come up with a work-around—a London solution—because the Act will not work as it is. I am fed up with hearing Ministers and the Prime Minister talk about starter homes being the solution. Starter homes in London would need a household income of £71,000 on average to be affordable. The average household income in my constituency is £33,000 and there are many households with an income much lower than that. Government policies are fuelling house prices, but not providing a solution.

The figures underline the crucial need to sort out housing in my borough, where 11,000 people are on the council housing register. In 2014-15, 1,338 social rented homes were allocated. At that rate people will have to wait a very long time. There are 2,286 households in temporary accommodation. My surgeries are the busiest they have ever been in the 20 or so years since I was elected. I thought the situation could not get worse when I was visiting people in bed-and-breakfast accommodation twenty-something years ago. It is worse now. There are people living in hostels for a year or 18 months and others being relocated a long way away from schools and family, increasingly having no hope and no security. I do not know where people will go.

I speak also for people in private sector accommodation. I meet people in good jobs but not well-paid jobs—people in their 40s who have rented privately quite happily all their lives, and who suddenly find themselves priced out. They cannot buy and they cannot rent. Heaven forbid that they are on any housing benefit. People on low incomes in London require some housing benefit to pay the rent, but landlords do not want to look such people in the eye. Where do those people go? We are hollowing out London. People on low and moderate incomes cannot afford to remain in London. That must be tackled. The Gracious Speech could have and should have included a clear outline of how the Government will work with London. I hope the Housing Minister will take the matter up.

In the Gracious Speech there is the promise of a seven-day NHS, but in a series of reports the National Audit Office and the Public Accounts Committee have concluded, on a cross-party basis, that the NHS budget is far too squeezed. It is like a balloon—if it is squeezed in one place, the bulge moves somewhere else. Earlier this year we saw acute trusts nearly bursting, with three quarters of them in deficit. The proposal for a seven-day NHS has not been costed. NHS commissioners and providers in 2014-15 had a deficit of £471 million and the Public Accounts Committee concluded:

“There is not yet a convincing plan in place for closing the £22 billion efficiency gap and avoiding a ‘black hole’ in NHS finances.”

There are not enough GPs to meet demand and NHS England does not have enough information on demand, activity or capacity to support decisions on general practice—another conclusion from the PAC—and a target of 4% efficiency savings for trusts is unrealistic and has caused long-term damage to trusts’ finances.

Workforce planning is dire, with a 5.9% shortfall in clinical staff nationally. That masks a number of regional variations. There is a vacancy rate of more than 7% for nurses, midwives and health visitors, and a vacancy rate of 7% for ambulance staff. We have seen the fiasco of the handling of the junior doctors contracts. If the Government are planning to legislate on a seven-day NHS, they must do the maths, which are pretty basic. It is about time somebody gave the Health Secretary a simple calculator. We see from a number of reports that GP services are being squeezed and acute trusts are bursting. Increased demand for specialist services will squeeze acute trusts even more. There is an over-reliance on expensive agency staff and locums. The basic maths is not being done and much more needs to be done to ensure that this proposal is deliverable.

Currently, the seven-day NHS is a notion, a promise, a hope, but the evidence shows that it is not planned, it is not funded and it is not realistic. The Government must address these fundamentals. I think that there is cross-party support on both sides of the House for our national health service. It is something we all treasure and love, and that we all know is there for us when we need it. But it is not going to be there if we allow this approach to continue. There has to be a better approach.

Education was mentioned in the Gracious Speech. My borough needs no lessons in educational excellence. Thanks to the London Challenge, decent funding, committed teachers and headteachers, and the vision of our mayor, Jules Pipe, we have some of the best schools in the country, and a number that are ranked in the top 1% nationally. When I was selected to run for the seat 12 years ago, I was asked what I thought about university tuition fees. I pointed out that so few pupils in Hackney went to university that it really was a bit of an academic question in my borough. Now we see scores of young people going to Oxbridge and Russell Group universities. It has been a major success.

But I really worry now. It is easy for the Government to talk about raising excellence for all, but London is under threat. When they talk about fair funding, what they really mean is reducing funding in London. That is unjust, foolish and short-sighted, and it risks putting back the progress made by and for London’s young people. Nationally there are lessons to be learnt from London, but we must not hammer London while trying to resolve issues in the rest of the country.

There is a lot to look at in this Queen’s Speech, and my Committee will be busily examining it, but I really hope that the Government will learn lessons from some of their policies, particularly on housing and the funding of the health service, and that they will work out a better way of having a stable financial footing for these policies, so that where policies are good, they are deliverable, and where they are not good, we get a chance to amend them, and not just through secondary legislation, but in primary legislation that is debatable and amendable in this House, and the Lords must not be so neutered. The penultimate paragraph in the Queen’s Speech talks about the primacy of the House of Commons, but it is really vital that the experts in the Lords get their say too, to ensure that these polices are better. It is no proud thing for a Government to introduce policies that increase poverty, deprivation and inequality. I fear that, without proper scrutiny and detail, that is what will happen as a result of this Queen’s Speech.