The speech made by Sarah Olney, the Liberal Democrat MP for Richmond Park, in the House of Commons on 18 May 2022.
It is a pleasure to speak in this Queen’s Speech debate, just as it was a pleasure to see Her Majesty yesterday at the opening of the Elizabeth line, our new railway line through London. As the right hon. Member for Ashford (Damian Green) has mentioned, it has overrun on both time and budget, but the small upside is that Her Majesty got to open the line that bears her name during her jubilee celebrations.
The line itself, with its innovation and infrastructure, the opportunity it has provided for thousands of young people to develop their skills and the level of ambition it shows for economic growth in this country, is actually a much better tribute to Her Majesty than the speech delivered in Parliament in her name last week. We are here today to talk about how that speech achieves economic growth, and I am afraid to say that there was really very little in it at all. I think we all know and accept that economic growth, particularly at this time, is absolutely vital to support not just our small and medium-sized businesses, but all the organisations that support employment and entrepreneurship across this country.
Yesterday, we saw the unemployment figures at their lowest levels since 1974. Conservative Members, not least the Prime Minister earlier today, have highlighted that that is a good thing, which it undoubtedly is. However, we also saw that, for the first time ever, there are more vacancies across the UK economy than there are people looking for work. I think we have to look at the serious implications of that, because it is going to be a real brake on growth. If we cannot fill those vacancies and businesses cannot get people into the skilled jobs they need to push forward, grow, create opportunities and provide economic growth, that is really going to hold this country back. So it is quite a serious issue as well as being some cause for celebration, as some people have said.
One thing to highlight—everyone has been saying this—is that we are now facing 9% inflation. That means wage growth, but greater wage growth acceleration in the private sector than in the public sector, as I am seeing in my constituency. I was on a visit to Kingston Hospital the other day, and I was told that its biggest issue right now is being able to discharge patients out of hospital and back home. However, it cannot discharge patients because it cannot get them care packages, and it cannot get them care packages because people do not want to work in care for very low wages when they can get better wages working in hospitality or retail. So we need to concede that there is perhaps a dark side, as it were, to the unemployment figures, and that is really going to inhibit growth.
Another thing we are beginning to see is that we are not trading to the extent of some of our partners across the world. According to the OBR, the UK has become a less trade-intensive economy. By the fourth quarter of 2021, UK exports remained around 12% below pre-pandemic levels, and trade as a share of GDP has fallen by around 12% since 2019—2.5% more than any other country in the G7. The Government pledged in the Queen’s Speech to
“continue to champion international trade, delivering jobs across the country and growing the economy”,
yet trade is declining and there is no determined plan for growth. They have talked about their free trade agreements with Australia and New Zealand, but we have highlighted on several occasions the potentially negative impact that they will have on British farming, and I do not think that the British Government are really listening to the concerns of farmers on this issue.
In my constituency of Richmond Park, businesses are telling me about the multiple barriers they face to trade that are having a direct negative impact on their ability to grow. A very successful and popular restaurant in Richmond town centre called Don Fernando’s has closed after 32 years because of myriad issues, not least the high cost of importing the food and drink from Spain on which it relied to deliver its high-quality Spanish cuisine. A drinks company has had complications with customs checks, with a complete lack of support or advice from HMRC, which left its goods in quarantine for almost three months. Obviously, any kind of food and drinks trader cannot operate when facing such delays and with fresh food or drinks being kept for that length of time. The Government really need to get on board with some of the issues being thrown up by Brexit red tape and customs checks, and they really need to work hard to unlock some of these problems if they want to support our small and medium-sized enterprises.
I want to highlight my disappointment that there was not more in the Queen’s Speech about insulation. We have talked a lot today about fuel prices, and that is a very real anxiety for many households across the country. We all know that one way of tackling that is to get to grips with some of our very poor housing stock, which obviously our low-income families are particularly impacted by. We need to see a great deal more from this Government to support households, particularly social housing tenants and their housing providers, to improve insulation and so improve energy efficiency in our housing. If we really got to grips with that now and launched a big drive right across the country, particularly for low-income families, think of the difference we could make when those fuel bills really begin to rack up in the autumn and winter. We could do that if we were really serious about it.
This is about not just the fuel bills our constituents are facing now and are dreading in the winter, but the Government’s net zero commitment, because we want to reduce carbon emissions and households are a serious contributor to them. We really need to get to grips with that issue if we are to meet our net zero commitments. I was interested to find that there are 1,690 installer businesses that meet the requirements to participate in Government schemes. There is such a great opportunity here for improving innovation, entrepreneurship and skills training right across the country, and the Government need to put some serious money and some serious thought into that as soon as they possibly can.
Finally, like other Members, I really welcome the mental health Bill, but I want to see a lot more from the Government to recognise the scale of the issue. The No. 1 problem in my constituency is access to health services of all kinds, and I am hearing concerns from constituents about dentistry, surgical procedures and GP appointments, but my experience is that the most critical issue is access to mental health services. The impact on our children of the pandemic and lockdown has been profound, and we are failing them if we do not get to grips with that impact. That impact is felt by our very youngest citizens, who were deprived of some of their early years of schooling and have so much socialisation and learning in a classroom to catch up on, and who face separation anxiety from their parents, as well as our teens and young adults, who have spent some of their critical socialising years in their bedrooms and are finding it difficult to reconnect with everyday society, especially as they move from school to whatever they are moving on to. They are finding it hard to move to university, training, further education or employment because they have missed out on some of that critical development.
I want to see the Government do a great deal more. I have multiple cases of constituents waiting for treatment. I have a young girl aged just 12 who was referred to children and adolescent mental health services in March 2021. Thirteen months later, she is still awaiting treatment. Her parents are absolutely desperate. She has been hospitalised twice and repeatedly sent home from school due to suicide attempts. Schools are under increased pressure and are struggling to cope with complex mental health needs and the sharp rise in those presenting higher levels of risk. The Liberal Democrats are calling for a dedicated qualified mental health professional in every school to provide first-level support for young people and also to help teachers struggling to deal with this issue.
There are multiple ways in which we need to respond to the challenges of our current economy and society, and I am afraid to say that the Queen’s Speech has failed in all these things. I urge the Government to do more on these issues.