The speech made by Robert Jenrick, the Conservative MP for Newark, in the House of Commons on 10 May 2022.
It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Wirral South (Alison McGovern). I agree with her last point in that I hope that this Session is the one in which we can finally right that particular wrong and pass a measure to enable victims of great scandals and tragedies to have the legal representation they require. My experiences of working with survivors of the Grenfell tragedy lead me to believe that individuals and their families need all the support possible to help guide them through that difficult period ahead.
I pay tribute to the hon. Member for East Dunbartonshire (Amy Callaghan) and welcome her back to the House. We all admire the courage that she has shown in the struggles that she has had in recent months and welcome her back to her place.
Today, the country is in a particularly perilous position. During the debate, we have heard about the constitutional issues that we face. We have heard about the geopolitical issues, with the war not so far away in Europe, and the work we are doing to support our brave allies in Ukraine, and to help them to win and Vladimir Putin to lose. However, here at home, we see a challenging economic situation—perhaps the most challenging in my lifetime.
First, the hit to household incomes this year and next will be the greatest since records began—perhaps the greatest for 100 years. There may be a recession later this year. I do not think that that is certain, but only a fool would bet against it, given the economic indicators. There is a real risk of the start of a new inflationary era, which should concern us all. Of course, it should concern the poorest in society the most.
Secondly, economic growth is stagnant. That should worry us the most in the long term. The economy needs to generate the good jobs and tax receipts to help people into good careers and fulfilling lives and to pay for public services. In an era when public services will only cost more with an ageing population, and given the urgent need to invest in our transition to net zero and the desire shared across the House to invest in levelling up and greater productivity, we will need those tax receipts more than ever. Yet they are not forthcoming. If the Bank of England and the Office for Budget Responsibility forecasts are to be believed—they have been wrong in the recent past—we will experience several years of anaemic economic growth. We have to come together to tackle that.
Thirdly, there are a number of major issues on which the House should come together to tackle failure. Energy policy is clearly one. This year, we are reaping the whirlwind of decades of poor energy planning. There has been a failure to invest in renewables as fast as we could have done, and in nuclear power and other conventional sources of energy. That is placing an intolerable burden on individuals and families.
The other issue that comes to my mind is housing and the repeated failure of Governments to build more homes of all types and tenures, from social housing to those homes that aspirational young people want to buy to get on the ladder. We need to do more on those fronts.
In that respect, I welcome the Queen’s Speech because on several counts it outlines Bills that may answer the challenges. A series of Bills looks at longer-term economic growth, from online competition to reduce the impact of big tech and its stranglehold on our online platforms, to gene editing to help our farmers and agriculture sector compete, to improvements in financial services, when the City of London’s position is by no means secure and needs to improve if we are to continue to hold our strong position in the international community, to transport and to education. However, more needs to happen.
The Queen’s Speech is not a fiscal event, as many Members across the House have said in one way or another, but we must recognise that we have to intervene and take further steps, first, to support the poorest and most vulnerable in society. I think it is inevitable that we will uprate universal credit. That will doubtless happen at the next fiscal event as usual, but there is a strong case for doing it on a one-off, exceptional basis as soon as possible to help those poor and vulnerable families get some extra money and to alleviate some of the pain for the months ahead.
Secondly, it is clear that taxes on working people are too high. The tax burden is at its highest level for more than 40 years and we will have to work to bring it down. I appreciate the Chancellor’s position that a tax cut will occur in 2023 or 2024, before the end of this Parliament, but that does not seem soon enough to me and my constituents. We need a more competitive tax system. That means work now, when household incomes of any level are under strain, rather than in a year or two, when, potentially, inflation will start to ease and the need for tax cuts will be somewhat diminished. I hope to see those two changes, among others, in the months ahead.
Let me look to the longer term and speak about three Bills in the Queen’s Speech of which I have some experience, having been responsible for them until recently. First, I was very pleased to see the Bill to reform the regulation of social housing. It originated under my right hon. Friend the Member for Maidenhead (Mrs May) when she was Prime Minister, from the experience of speaking to social housing tenants in the immediate aftermath of the Grenfell tragedy. As she said in her contribution earlier today, it was clear that too many of those individuals feel ignored and disrespected by the providers of their social housing. Some of those providers, particularly the largest housing associations, have a poor record of listening to their tenants and responding with good-quality housing and good-quality consumer service. This Bill will go some way to changing that by putting in place better regulation and a better, more consumer-focused regulator to respond to those complaints and concerns, and I strongly welcome its inclusion in the Queen’s Speech.
Secondly, a Bill will be introduced to complete the journey towards leasehold reform. In the previous Queen’s Speech, I started the first half of this two-stage legislation, which I hope will enable any leaseholder in this country to easily enfranchise their property. Leasehold is a product of our history. It is a feudal system that has little place in today’s society. We are the only major developed economy in the world to continue with that system and it does now need to come to an end. I hope that this will be an ambitious Bill that not only enables people to enfranchise their property and to purchase a share of freehold, if that is what they want, but leads to the end of leasehold. I hope that we as a House can set an end date for that system, from which point we can move wholeheartedly towards commonhold, a better system that is used and enjoyed by citizens and homeowners in every other major developed country.
Thirdly, I am pleased to see the levelling up and regeneration Bill included in the Queen’s Speech. There are two elements of this that matter to me. The first is devolution: enabling more devolution deals to be done with cities and counties across the country, those deals to be done faster, and greater power and responsibility to be handed to local communities.
Reflecting on my period as Secretary of State for Housing, Communities and Local Government during the pandemic, I am very clear that the one area of our state that performed consistently well during that crisis was local government. Almost every other Government Department or area of state has, at best, a mixed record; there are triumphs and failures. Within local government, it is mostly a story of success. It is also a story of thrift and value for money.
As Secretary of State, I gave £9 billion to all the local councils in England to help to get them through that period—to look after the homeless, to dispense grants to our local businesses, to look after the most vulnerable, to do local contact tracing and many other responsibilities. That is a fraction of the funding that we gave to other areas of the state. If I have one regret it is that I did not win the battle within Government for contact tracing to be done exclusively by local government rather than the expensive system that was ultimately created of track and trace. The record of local government is good and we should build on it with further devolution.
Matt Western rose—
I am conscious of time, but I will give way briefly to the hon. Gentleman.
I just want to applaud the right hon. Gentleman for what he said about the terrific work of local government throughout the pandemic and about the action that it took. However, the Government did promise to do everything necessary to support local authorities financially through that time, “whatever it takes”. Unfortunately, local authorities such as Warwick District Council and Warwickshire County Council, in my area, are really struggling now because they did not receive that support.
I hear the point that the hon. Gentleman makes. I would dispute that. Today is probably not the right moment to do so because time does not allow. The point I was making is that, whereas there is waste in the record of most other areas of government in their response to covid, I do not think that that is the case with local government. Local government carried out those crucial services quickly, in a way that worked for local communities, providing good value for money. That should lead us to do more devolution wherever we can.
The second half of that Bill will be about housing and planning, a subject which I know well, and I have scars on my back to prove it. As there is limited time today, I simply say that it is a matter of the greatest importance to this country that we build more homes. Successive Governments have failed to do that. There is always an excuse: we do not want to build on green fields; we do not want to spoil the look and feel of a local community; we do not want to over-develop an area. We have to get those homes built because we are letting down hundreds of thousands of our fellow citizens. People are homeless today because we are failing to build those houses.
Young people’s rightful aspiration to get on the housing ladder is being neglected because we are not building those homes. If I had to guess, I would say that the number of homes that we built in the first year of this Administration under the Prime Minister and myself—almost 250,000—will be the high watermark of the number of homes built in this country for several years to come, and that the Government will miss their 300,000 homes a year manifesto pledge by a country mile. The only way in which we will get back to 250,000 homes a year and exceed it is if we together, on a cross-party basis, agree that that is not good enough and that we need to build more and find ways of doing so. Otherwise, we will consign hundreds of thousands of our constituents to a life, at best, in secure rented accommodation and, at worst, in very insecure rented accommodation or life on the streets. That is not good enough. That is not the society in which I want to live. I hope that Members on both sides of the House, of all political persuasions, will approach that planning Bill with that frame of mind.