Meg Hillier – 2023 Speech on the Loyal Address

The speech made by Meg Hillier, the Labour MP for Hackney South and Shoreditch, in the House of Commons on 7 November 2023.

Before I start, I must declare an interest—I am a leaseholder and, as per my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests, I am a landlord—since I want to comment on both those issues.

First, however, I congratulate the right hon. Member for Scarborough and Whitby (Sir Robert Goodwill) and the hon. Member for Stroud (Siobhan Baillie) on proposing and seconding the Humble Address. Both were entertaining, and it is one of the pleasures of the parliamentary year to sit back, relax and have a few laughs. I thank them both for giving us that as we move on to the serious business.

It is always a pleasure to follow the right hon. Member for Maidenhead (Mrs May). I think she needs to join me on my campaign for slow politics, because clearly we have the same agenda here. Some of the best political decisions are those where we are looking 10, 20 or even 30 years ahead, and she is right that we need to be looking at net zero now and planning ahead. Unfortunately, though, this King’s Speech, and indeed the record of this Government led by the party of which she is a member, are thin gruel in that respect.

We have in this King’s Speech the offerings of what has really now become a zombie Government. I do not use that word lightly—I am not just a soundbite woman—but in a Parliament, where we too often break early because there is not enough business to carry on, there are many things that could have been in this King’s Speech to deliver for the people of Hackney South and Shoreditch and for those up and down the country.

It has to be acknowledged that this King’s Speech is not landing out of the blue in a new parliamentary term; it comes on the back of 13 years of this Government, who have led through chaos and created chaos. Austerity has left a long shadow and a lack of resilience in our public sector, and it is telling now. The wage freezes brought in by the former Chancellor George Osborne are now hitting and have, with the cost of living, created a perfect storm for our constituents up and down the country.

On the handling of Brexit, which the right hon. Member for Maidenhead knows about only too painfully, it was poorly delivered in the end, in the hands of her successor, and none of the promises of the early days of that campaign was delivered. We on the Public Accounts Committee see that through our work. We have produced 12 reports on the delivery of Brexit, all of which found the Government wanting. We have seen gimmicks at Budgets. Again, the former Chancellor was one of the worst for that—or best, depending on our point of view. The lifetime ISA, for example, has withered on the vine as a novel financial product that was not kept up, either by that Chancellor or by subsequent Chancellors. I will touch on that in a moment.

Of course, we cannot look at the King’s Speech without mentioning the premiership of the right hon. Member for South West Norfolk (Elizabeth Truss), who crashed the economy and has caused havoc in the lives of our constituents. In this Chamber, on these green Benches, it can sometimes seem that we are remote, but week in, week out I am on doorsteps in Hackney South and Shoreditch seeing the reality of people struggling to pay for the food that they need, living without food, going to the food bank when they can, and living in massively overcrowded conditions.

It is not long covid that is leading to a lot of those issues; it is long austerity—that lack of resilience in public services and the public sector; that lack of investment in schools, hospitals and other areas such as defence. Basically, most capital spending was frozen or reduced, and that has led to a growing problem. Whichever party is in power after the next general election, which cannot come soon enough, will have—to borrow the words of Laurel and Hardy—another fine mess to deal with in so many areas of the public sector. The Public Accounts Committee, which I have the privilege of chairing, regularly examines capital spending, as well as day-to-day spending, and we see the problems. Report after report highlights that issues were missed or not dealt with, and that we are now reaping the problems.

This King’s Speech and this Prime Minister promise change, but we see nothing of that in what has been announced. There is no real hope here for renters or those who want to buy their own home, and no plans to tackle poverty and to really level up. In Hackney South and Shoreditch—in fact, across the whole borough of Hackney—one in two children lives in poverty. In London in 2023, we have that level of poverty. In the borough of Hackney as a whole, which comprises two constituencies, 28% of people are private renters, 28% are owner-occupiers and 44% are social renters, while 77% of properties—nearly four in five—were leasehold properties, which means that leasehold reform is of particular interest to me and my constituents. The median house price in Hackney South and Shoreditch is £600,000. That is more than 16 times the median Hackney household income, so home ownership is out of reach for generation rent and for the people living in social housing, which is massively overcrowded, often with four children to a bedroom and many teenagers sharing bedrooms with their mothers because there is nowhere else to sleep. They have no opportunity to get on the housing ladder or to rent privately.

That brings me to the lifetime ISA. I have not seen the detail of the King’s Speech because I came here to talk about it, but the lifetime ISA cap for first-time buyers is still £450,000. The average first-time buyer in Hackney paid £595,000 in August this year, so that cap does not reach anywhere near what is needed. Even the Government’s proposed solutions do not keep up with demand, and their complete detachment from the reality of the choices that people have to make is a real issue.

Sir Peter Bottomley

I have two brief points. First, will the hon. Lady join me in commending Martin Lewis for spelling this out on MoneySavingExpert.com? Ministers ought to pay attention to it. Secondly, through her, may I say that I too am a leaseholder? I do not think I am affected by the Government’s proposals, but I should have put it on the record.

Dame Meg Hillier

The Father of the House and I obviously share support for the work that Martin Lewis does in bringing these consumer finance issues to the mainstream and managing to explain things that people think are complicated in an incredibly simple way.

No Chancellor should make these policies up at the Dispatch Box, because they wither. The Chancellor themself loses interest, as do subsequent Chancellors and the Treasury. The child trust fund has not kept up since the Government withdrew it, and there are many other examples like that.

I have a lot of constituents who are trapped in the private rented sector, with no security. The average two-bed rent in Hackney was just £2 shy of £2,000 a month this year. We have a huge challenge in that there is no security for those residents, including the security that is needed to bring a family up, because they get moved on far too quickly, yet we have seen the lack of the promised abolition of section 21 evictions in the Renters (Reform) Bill, which was introduced just before the King’s Speech and is expected to continue in this Session of Parliament.

The reason is that the courts are backed up. That is a valid reason, but whose fault is it that the courts are backed up? It is due to a lack of investment by this Government over the years. It is not just covid, because as we have highlighted on the Public Accounts Committee, the delays in the courts were there before covid hit; covid had an impact, but the delays were there. We will not be back to pre-covid court delay times until 2025. It is no wonder that private renters are living in despair. The promise of this measure being delivered has been dangled repeatedly, and once again we see it whisked away, leaving tenants with no security and no knowledge of whether they can make a house a home.

We have a big shortage of social housing in Hackney. We have 8,351 households on the wait list for council housing in Hackney. That is after stringent rules were brought in to reduce it, so that people had some hope. The current waiting time for social housing in Hackney is about 12 years for a three-bedroom property. It is simply unacceptable.

Renting is out of reach, home ownership is out of reach and there is not enough house building, which is why I welcome my party’s proposal to build significantly more homes. The Under-Secretary of State for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities, the hon. Member for North East Derbyshire (Lee Rowley) is on the Front Bench. He knows, because he does the maths and he has been a member of the Public Accounts Committee, that even the Government’s downward revised targets for affordable housing have not been met. They set a target and had to reduce it, and even that reduced target has not been met. That is happening while people are living in overcrowded and difficult conditions.

Leasehold reform is oft promised, but nothing has yet been delivered, and I would like to see it voted through. As a Labour and Co-op MP, I would like to see a move towards commonhold. There is work being done on that in other countries that we can build on. It is not a quick path—it is slow to deliver this—but that is another reason we need to get moving and start on it now. I commend the Father of the House for his pioneering work to champion the issues of leaseholders in this place.

The King’s Speech talks about delivering on the NHS workforce plan. Of course, the Public Accounts Committee took an interest in that as well. I welcome the NHS workforce plan, because it is a good start, but it is only funding the training of people listed in the NHS workforce plan for the first five years. There is no plan or long-term strategy for how we fund those health professionals who are working in frontline healthcare and hospitals, delivering for patients, which will cause a problem down the line. It is another fine mess waiting for any future Government.

I welcome discussion about how artificial intelligence is handled. I agree with the right hon. Member for Maidenhead about making sure that we keep the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act 2000 up to date with how the modern digital world is working. We need to do that in a calm, professional, cross-party way, because this should not be a political football. There will be difficult choices at the margins about—rightly—protecting civil liberties, rights and access to data and about protecting the most vulnerable in our society. We need to make sure that, in the heat of an election year, that discussion is had sensibly.

I also welcome the Prime Minister’s personal commitment to reduce smoking, which I think will be a game changer in public health for our children’s generation. I was pleased with the proposal on safeguarding of the future of football. It sounds like a bold promise, but I would like to see more detail. As a Co-op MP, I am a long-standing champion of Supporters Direct, which enables fans to part-own their club. If we go down that route, I am happy to support the Government, but we will wait to see the exact details. I am pleased that unlicensed pedicabs will finally be dealt with. I have worked with the hon. Member for Cities of London and Westminster (Nickie Aiken) to tackle that issue, and it is time that it is dealt with.

We have had too many broken promises from the Government. We now need delivery, but the King’s Speech does not do that. We have chaos in this country. People are struggling with the cost of living and we need change. Frankly, we need a general election. We need opportunity and hope, and the only way we are going to get that is with a Labour Government.