Meg Hillier – 2019 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 19 December 2019.

It is a pleasure to welcome you back to the Chair of the House, Mr Speaker, and it is a pleasure to follow the right hon. Member for Maidenhead (Mrs May), because despite our political disagreements she and I agree on what she said about everybody counting and the Government’s being there for everybody. I thank the people of Hackney South and Shoreditch who re-elected me for the fifth time to stand up for them all—not just for the 73% of them who voted for me, but for the others who did not. I will stop at nothing to stand up for them in this House.

The Queen’s Speech is quite incredible. It talks about investment in education, the NHS and public services, but this Government have slashed spending over the past nine and a half years. The promise of more funding for schools comes now, but only after nine years of funding cuts that have led to an 8% per pupil funding decrease over the past decade. The Government talk about more police, but who was it who cut their numbers in the first place? The Prime Minister has been keen to talk about the past as though it were a different country; were he in his place, I would remind him that he has been not just the Prime Minister for a few hundred days but an MP and the Mayor of London. He cannot dodge responsibility.

I will of course welcome things in the Queen’s Speech that will deliver for the people of my constituency. It feels a bit bitter to hear talk about investment in broadband from the same Government who rigged the most recent broadband competition, particularly for rural broadband, so that only one bidder could win, but it is important that we invest in infrastructure in our country. Even in ​my constituency—even in Shoreditch—where we have the best tech businesses beating like a heartbeat for Britain, we have too poor a broadband service. I will join the Government in supporting investment in broadband if they will deliver in my constituency and across the country.

I cannot stand here today without highlighting the real challenges for the people of Hackney South and Shoreditch. As the former Prime Minister said, everybody counts. In my constituency, that includes half of our children who live in poverty after housing costs are taken into account. In my constituency, or across Hackney, 30% of deaths are still premature, and the leading cause of that is cancer, so investment in our health service for early diagnosis and treatment is absolutely vital. One fifth of adults, which is above average, still smoke in my constituency, compared with around 14% of the London population.

With a ratio of nearly one in 10, Hackney has the highest rate of diagnosed depression of any London borough. I would welcome a review of mental health support, but, as the former Prime Minister said, I think that we may need to be more radical than that, so I will be watching what happens closely. Hackney as a borough is the 11th most deprived of the 326 English local authorities. Although some people talk about our being achingly cool—they think of the hipsters with their beers and of our bread makers and our beer makers and so on—a very high percentage of my constituents are in great need, with more than a third living in financial poverty, earning 60% of median earnings after housing costs are taken into account.

I wanted this Queen’s Speech to say a lot more about housing. In my borough, it takes 17 times a person’s salary to buy a home. That compares with the London average of 13.8 times, which is pretty high, and the England and Wales average of eight times the amount, which is also high. It means that home ownership is out of the reach of so very many. In my constituency, there are more private renters than homeowners. Half of all households are represented in social housing, which is more than the other two combined.

A real stain on one of the richest countries in Europe and in the world is the fact that more than 3,000 families are living in temporary accommodation. Just in the past few weeks, a man wrote to me begging for help because for two and a half years he has lived with his eight-year-old son in one room in a hostel. We have a fantastic Labour elected mayor in Hackney, who is doing his utmost to resolve this housing crisis, which is costly to the individuals concerned, costly to our communities and costly to the taxpayer. Without more from this Government, it will be difficult—if not impossible—to deliver for those 3,000 families who need help, and for those children who will be living without a permanent roof over their heads and who will be celebrating Christmas in one room in a hostel or in short-term, inadequate temporary accommodation.

I would not want to suggest that this poverty is also a poverty of ambition, because boy, do my constituents want to get on in life. None the less, without those basic building blocks of primarily secure long-term, affordable housing, and swift and easy access to proper healthcare, to secure and properly paid jobs and to skills development, they will never get there. Some in my constituency earn enough money to work a four-day week, but many, ​many more work three or four jobs on poverty wages on zero-hours contracts just to pay the rent. There is also the invidious bedroom tax policy, which does not work. On one estate, the Wenlock Barn estate in Hoxton, 74 families are hit by this policy and they do not have an option to move to a different property. It is a cloud cuckoo policy, and if the Prime Minister is anywhere near honest about his desire to be a one nation Conservative, it is one that he would abolish right now.

All Governments should be creating a ladder of opportunity for the people of this country. This Government, or the Governments before them, have ripped away the lower rungs of that ladder, so it is a very long reach for too many of my constituents. I want to see some commitment from this Government that they will help my constituents.

Let me move on the specifics of the Queen’s Speech. Her Majesty talked about the Government continuing to “lead the way” in tackling climate change. It has been my great sorrow, in one of my responsibilities as the former Chair of the Public Accounts Committee—a role I hope to resume in this Parliament—to have pored over the detail of the Government’s policy on climate change. And what do we see? There was carbon capture and storage: three expensive competitions, wasting millions of pounds achieving absolutely nothing. There was the much vaunted green deal, with the noble aim of greening our homes, because, let’s face it, more domestic emissions come from housing than from aviation. But that scheme was scrapped as a total failure—predictably—and cost the taxpayer the equivalent of £17,000 per loan granted.

Caroline Lucas (Brighton, Pavilion) (Green)

The hon. Member is making a powerful speech. She will know that the Committee on Climate Change wrote to the Prime Minister yesterday to say that action on climate change is falling short. Does she agree that that will continue to be the case for as long as this Government do not commit to leaving fossil fuels in the ground, and that that means ending mass road building, mass aviation expansion and the mass subsidies to the fossil fuel industry?

Meg Hillier

I thank the hon. Lady for her point, which I am sure she will be making more firmly later.

We have to look at this issue in the long term. Let us be clear: Governments of different colours did not deal with it early enough or properly, but we now need to tackle it, and a Government with a majority of 80 have every opportunity to be bold and ambitious in this direction. But they privatised the green investment bank, which became the Green Investment Group and now does not even need to deliver on any of its green principles. There are very few guarantees about where that money will go. Had the green investment bank remained in public hands, we would have had a huge opportunity to invest in emerging green industries to create jobs and opportunities as well as tackle climate change issues. But that was another squandered opportunity.

In order to compare this situation with what Labour in power can do, I turn to my own borough—the Labour-run Borough of Hackney—which has set bold targets to tackle climate change, and is achieving those targets. Already, half the electricity for the council and local schools is generated from renewable sources, and that will rise to 100% by April next year. Only very ​recently, the council established a publicly owned clean energy company that will maximise all council-owned roof space to generate renewable electricity. The council is also decarbonising its vehicles and tackling many other issues. I do not have time to go into everything today, but it is setting an example to show what can be done. If one London borough can do this, what could a Government do if they set their mind to it? This Government really need to step up. Of course, we await reshuffles, but I invite the relevant Minister to come and see what my borough is doing; we can show them how we are leading the way.

The Queen’s Speech also touched on “swift justice” for knife possession. There is a scourge of knife possession among our young people in particular, and too many people in my borough are fearful of walking their own streets because of the impact of knife crime. Only during this election campaign, another young man’s life was lost and another family are bereaved. I am angry and disturbed for the families I visit who have lost loved ones and whose lives have been devastated as a result of knife crime. However, I urge the Government to tread carefully. Yes, knife crime is a scourge, but if we simply say that we will criminalise more the people who carry knives, people will choose to carry other sharp weapons. We will need to look closely at the detail of that legislation to ensure that it achieves what it sets out to—not just a headline.

The Queen’s Speech included new rules requiring councils, police, schools and housing associations to work together. Of course, the Labour Mayor of London set up the violence reduction unit to do just that, and my constituency has the Hackney Integrated Gangs Unit. Once again, I genuinely and openly offer the Government the opportunity to come and see what we are doing locally in Hackney. We do not have all the answers, but we are tackling this issue—unfortunately, from bitter experience of the impact on our community.

It rather surprised me to hear Her Majesty talk about setting up a royal commission on justice. I do not think this is really necessary. I could refer the Government to a slew of Public Accounts Committee reports and concerns raised on probation, where we have seen a failure of the modernisation of the system and an attempt to reverse those changes; on prisons, where we have seen a slashing of prison officer numbers and huge issues there; on chaos in courts and tribunals; and on a huge IT project that is behind schedule. The problem is that several Secretaries of State for Justice were throwing everything in the air wanting to change everything overnight, and that is a recipe for chaos. We need to go back to the basics—to stability. We must not have stop-start and reversal; we must make sure that there is proper investment in our criminal justice system. A royal commission worries me. It kicks the can down the road as there is a danger that we will never actually deliver. A royal commission can take a couple of years and then the Government have to consider it. We do not have that time to wait. Actually, it is much simpler than that. I hope the Government will look at those bits of our work and make sure that they take those points on board.

I am interested in the national skills fund. I hope—maybe too much—that this might mean investment for people in low-paid work who want to improve their skills, as the Labour manifesto proposed. I hope that it will end the barrier to skills and training in further education ​that is the loan system. Many of my constituents who are women returning to work, had been in low-paid jobs and had children do not want to take the risk of a loan in order to possibly get a better-paid job. They cannot afford that, they do not have the credit record for it, and they are very nervous about it. If the national skills fund supports them, then fantastic. If it also makes sure that our young people are training in the tech skills—the global skills—that many of my tech businesses in Shoreditch find hard to get in the UK, then great. As I said at the very beginning, if there is something that the Government are doing that will help my constituents, I will work with them on that, but I wait to see the detail.

On immigration, I am sadly an expert in the failings of the Home Office in this area, as one of its top six customers among the 650 Members of this House in representing constituents’ concerns. I represent the world in one borough. People from across the world come to my surgery telling me their problems with immigration. We have 40,000 European citizens in Hackney, as well as many Commonwealth citizens. The hostile environment is a reality in my borough. When leave to remain was reduced from five years to three years, guess what—that meant that constituents had to pay two fees before they could apply for their citizenship. Then, in a very mean-spirited way, it was reduced to two years, so they have to pay three times the fees before they can qualify for citizenship. Many of my constituents really struggle with those costs. Of course, I want a fair system, a clear system and a faster system, but we should not be putting up barriers to people who have demonstrably shown that they have a legitimate right to be here and are being pushed through a bureaucratic process that delays their eventual proper opportunity to fulfil work and family hopes and to contribute to our communities and our economy.

The Government have talked about investment and borrowing in this Queen’s Speech. That is a very simple phrase and I look forward to seeing the detail. Her Majesty talked about the Government

“keeping borrowing and debt under control”

and “a responsible fiscal strategy”. Let me assure the Government that if I am returned to the position of Chair of the Public Accounts Committee—or, indeed, even if I am not—I will hope that that Committee watches every penny and pound of taxpayers’ money that is being spent. I will be challenging the Government on the efficiency, effectiveness and economy of every promise made in this Queen’s Speech and every plan that emerges from it. But above all, I will challenge, cajole, criticise and at every stage make sure that this Government are doing what they can to deliver for the best interests of my constituents in Hackney South and Shoreditch.