Meg Hillier – 2022 Loyal Address Speech

The speech made by Meg Hillier, the Labour MP for Hackney South and Shoreditch, in the House of Commons on 10 May 2022.

We finally have the Queen’s Speech, 30 Bills and what the Prime Minister calls “fiscal firepower,” but I cannot see that fiscal firepower in what is being done to support our constituents. I fear that many of those 30 Bills are, as many recent Government policies have been, mere headlines—or, worse, dog-whistle headlines that appeal to a certain section of our electorate but do nothing to solve the real problems that our constituents face.

I declare at the outset that I am a leaseholder of a property that is having cladding removed, and I concur completely with the hon. Member for Worthing West (Sir Peter Bottomley) about the challenges for that group of people and for leaseholders more generally. It is disappointing that there is still so much work to be done on leasehold reform.

In Hackney South and Shoreditch, as in many constituencies up and down the country, we need real support for the people who have been left behind. We see a huge challenge; one in two children are living in poverty after housing costs are taken into account. In London, 60% of households in poverty are working households, which is an increase from 44% only a few years ago. That is a reflection of the low pay too many workers are paid and the high housing costs in constituencies such as mine. We all know that employment is a huge opportunity, but it is not a route out of poverty on its own for many people in London because of these high living costs.

The cost of living crisis is not just hitting those in constituencies such as mine with those high prices, but biting everybody. It is now biting those who were just about managing—those who are on good incomes, but are hitting huge increases to their fuel bills. We know that the Government’s response to that, from the Klarna Chancellor, has been to lend the money now and people are going to have to pay it back later, further indebting particularly the poorest households.

We need much better support for those left behind. The Government talk about levelling up, but in Hackney we do not see much of this levelling-up fund. We are the seventh most deprived local authority area in the country, but in the Government’s approach to levelling up Hackney counts as priority 2. Constituencies such as Richmond (Yorks), Derbyshire Dales and High Peak, which are respectively the 256th, the 265th and the 202nd most deprived constituencies in the country, are being prioritised over the children in my constituency living in poverty—living in overcrowded conditions and too often sharing a bed with a parent up to their early teens because there is nowhere else for them to sleep—and over the people struggling because of the challenges of the pandemic.

Those people need support, and we must make sure—the Government need to hear this—that levelling up is not just about levelling up between different regions of the UK, but in parts of our amazing capital city. Of all people, the Prime Minister, who had the honour—the honour—of serving as the elected Mayor of London, should be aware of that, and shame on him that he is not tackling this head-on.

We need much better support for housing generally. I have more private renters in my constituency than I have homeowners and more social housing tenants than both of those combined, and all have real problems. The Government are finally unveiling their renters reform Bill—something we are all keen to see—but just abolishing no-fault evictions is not enough to solve the challenges of where people can live. Those people cannot now live in the private sector and grow a family, because even with no-fault evictions being abolished, if that does eventually happen, that will not make for a stable home, with rents escalating at the whim of the landlord.

John Redwood (Wokingham) (Con)

Does the hon. Member not understand that this Gracious Speech is all about levelling up and giving people more opportunity, and that there needs to be a surge of private investment into these places, with better-paid jobs, better skills training and better education? That is the whole point of it. Will she support that?

Dame Meg Hillier

Well, if that is the whole point of it, forgive me, but I cannot see that. I have the privilege of chairing the Public Accounts Committee, in which we have looked at the towns fund and the levelling-up approach, and it is a chaotic policy. It is a headline without proper detail and analysis of how to deliver it. Outside London, only the Bristol area has seen economic growth. This has been a challenge for every Government over many decades now, but the idea that headlines saying it is going to happen mean it will actually be delivered is just for the birds.

We see the huge increase in private renters, yet there is no real support for them. Where is the security if people cannot afford to buy their own home and cannot qualify for social rented housing? In my constituency, that is in massively short supply in any case, with hundreds—thousands—of families living in massively overcrowded conditions. We have all been on the doorsteps a lot in the last week and it is always a privilege to meet constituents, but when I keep meeting constituents who I knew when their children were toddlers, and whose children, who are now young adults, are still sharing the bedroom—two or three of them—while their parents live in the living room, it is not good enough.

There is no hope for those people, because the Government’s proposed Bills will do nothing to enable councils to build that important social rented housing, to give better rights to renters or to provide a proper stepladder for people to purchase their own home. Every policy so far has fuelled the equity of those who already own their home, rather than giving a real leg-up to wannabe first-time buyers in constituencies such as mine, where—I have said this repeatedly in this House, but I repeat it again—a modern two-bedroom flat will be on the market for about £750,000. That is just for a two-bedroom leasehold flat.

As of June last year, the median house price in my constituency was £600,000, but in many parts of it I would struggle to find a property for that price. That is a huge increase—9.1% over the past five years. A house in Hackney costs more than 16 times the average Hackney salary. Hackney has a range of salaries, but there are a lot of people at the poorer end. One in 35 people in my constituency are officially recorded as being homeless or in temporary accommodation. That does not include those who are overcrowded because there is no space for them, or those with no recourse to public funds who cannot possibly afford to rent privately even though they are working. They could certainly never buy a property and, as we know, rents are very high. We need much better support, and there is no real solution in the Queen’s Speech.

Crucially, we need real support for a lost generation. Many people have been badly affected by covid, but I worry particularly about our children who have lost out on two years of education. Hats off to the teachers and schools that kept educating them, but for many children, however well the school did, if they did not have the technology at home and were clustered around one computer and a mobile phone with poor data, that would never be the same as a classroom experience. Schools did the best they could, and many did a very good job, but there is a challenge for children who lost out on education, and who, under the Government’s proposals, will go through the system without catching up.

I look forward to seeing what is in the Government’s Bill, but I have been talking to schools in my constituency about the cost of their energy bills, which is just one recent crisis. The cost increase on their energy bills means a choice between heating the school and keeping a teacher. It is either having our children freeze in a classroom but being taught by a teacher, or a warm school where children can concentrate on learning but they lose that crucial classroom teacher. That is the stark reality. I am happy to share with anybody in government the figures from schools that have provided them to me, and perhaps we could work together for a solution. It is vital that we pay the cost of catch-up. It is taxpayers’ money well spent to invest in the generation that will be the engine and the entrepreneurs of our future. My constituency may be poor, but there is no poverty of aspiration, and unless we give those children a leg-up and catch-up now, they will not get the advantages they should have.

We have seen the complete failure of the tutoring scheme, which the cross-party Public Accounts Committee highlighted as a concern early on. We said, “Where are these tutors who will go in and tutor?”, and of course that contract has been axed. We still need a lot of support. According to teachers in my constituency, children in years 7 and 8 are having to be taught how to do decent handwriting because they missed those crucial years at primary school. In some areas, pupils in years 7 and 8 are losing out because the qualified teachers are focused on the exam years. We all want our children to succeed, and the Government need to ensure that school funding is properly resolved. That funding has fallen in real terms per pupil by 1.2% for the most deprived fifth of schools, but has increased by nearly 3% for the least deprived fifth of schools. Is that levelling up? It does not look like it to me. The Prime Minister purports to be an intelligent man, and I am sure he can do the maths and work out that that means an awful lot of children are losing out.

I was pleased that the victims Bill is finally—finally!—perhaps going to appear. It has only been in three manifestos and four Queen’s Speeches. This is a crucial problem. My Committee has looked at the backlog in the criminal courts, and there are many factors behind that, some of which cannot be resolved through legislation. The sheer grind of day-to-day delivery and the governance of decent public services seems alien to the Prime Minister and his Front Bench. That aside, we need the victims Bill to support victims better. For example, a woman in my constituency was violently attacked by her partner in front of her seven-year-old daughter. She went to the police. The court case was set for two years after that violent attack, and it is no surprise that her partner has repeatedly broken his non-molestation order because he feels that he can get away with it scot-free. That is happening to victims of domestic abuse up and down the country. She has said to me, “I just want to move. I want shot of this. I don’t want to be reliving this, nor do I want my daughter to relive this over the next two years.” If the victims Bill is to mean anything on domestic violence, it needs decent options on alternative housing for victims, because so often that is the break that those people need, but they cannot get it. In my constituency, with such a shortage of housing, that is a huge and ongoing issue.

Mark Pawsey (Rugby) (Con)

The hon. Lady has referred on numerous occasions to the shortage of housing and how we need to get more houses delivered. Will she support the reforms to the planning system incorporated in the Queen’s Speech?

Dame Meg Hillier

I will support anything that delivers that housing. I have not had a chance to look at the detail, and I do not think we yet know all of it. Absolutely, if there is a bit of land where nothing is moving, we will look at that as an option for housing, but we cannot fit everything into an inner-city London borough. We need a better balance of housing, and we definitely need more affordable housing. In constituencies such as mine, we need more socially rented housing, because the other options are not real options.

People housed in temporary accommodation in boroughs outside my constituency often want to move back. I tell those on a five-year lease, “At the moment, thanks to the Government, that is often the best you’ll get.” But when the rent is as high as we see in the private sector, they worry because they cannot survive without some benefit top-up—if that fits in with the housing benefit cap—so they are stuck in a terrible cycle of never being able to have a permanent home.

I want to touch on a couple of other issues that were raised in a lengthy Queen’s Speech. The Prime Minister talks about Brexit being done, but he knows, and I know, that it is not done, is it? It is far from done. There was no planning after the vote in 2016 and there is a very long tail of changes that have been repeatedly delayed. We have seen import controls delayed once again. It is not even clear what will change—businesses and people are confused—and that lack of planning is coming home to roost. He can use the slogans, but we can see through them. He can peruse our Committee’s reports highlighting those concerns on any day he wants.

The Queen’s Speech had a whole chunk on divisive issues. The Prime Minister would love me to engage with them now, but I will not give him that satisfaction, because I want real results for the people in my constituency, not flim-flam and cheap headlines on things that he hopes will start culture wars between Members of the House and our voters. Everybody in the House and all our constituents know that the cost of living must be a priority and that levelling up must be a priority.

I was pleased to see the announcement of a UK Infrastructure Bank, but I am a bit puzzled, because the same Government created the green investment bank and, a few years later, sold it off to the private sector. If the infrastructure bank is to invest in green technologies, that is good—if it works—but why have we had a wasted decade on that opportunity?

The Queen’s Speech is not about bringing our country together and supporting people who need that; it is about division. Our Prime Minister has his head in the sand about real life and the real challenges for so many of our constituents in the cost of living and finding a home. There is no direction from the Government, who are flailing around, trying to come up with a list of headlines but unable to govern the country competently in the interests of the people I represent.