Theresa Villiers – 2023 Speech on the Loyal Address

The speech made by Theresa Villiers, the Conservative MP for Chipping Barnet, in the House of Commons on 7 November 2023.

I would like to begin by highlighting my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests, which includes some shareholdings and a long-leasehold flat let to tenants.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Stroud (Siobhan Baillie) and my right hon. Friend the Member for Scarborough and Whitby (Sir Robert Goodwill) on the wonderful start that they provided for the debate. They both performed brilliantly, but I want to single out my right hon. Friend the Member for Scarborough and Whitby. We first met many years ago in 1999, when we were candidates in the European elections. He is a truly great parliamentarian, and he has always been a very good, kind and wise friend to me.

There is much to welcome in an ambitious and important set of legislative proposals in the first King’s Speech for 70 years. For example, the Data Protection and Digital Information (No. 2) Bill will modernise data regulation so that firms can grow while protecting privacy and ensuring that people can exert control over information held about them. Brexit makes that kind of regulatory reform possible. I advocated it as part of the work done by the Taskforce on Innovation, Growth and Regulatory Reform. Like my right hon. Friend the Member for North East Somerset (Sir Jacob Rees-Mogg), I think that this is just the beginning and that we need to go further, as it is crucial to our becoming more competitive and raising living standards.

The carry-over of the anti-boycott Bill is welcome. Singling out Israel for boycotts by councils is divisive and unjustified. The boycott, divestment and sanctions movement has driven increases in antisemitism, so I welcome the continuation of that Bill.

I am really pleased to see progress on leasehold reform, which is important to a number of my constituents who have suffered distress, anxiety and financial hardship as a result of the current system. I welcome the fact that the proposals announced today will make it cheaper and easier for leaseholders to extend their lease. This is a complex area, and we do need to take care to avoid unintended consequences that could jeopardise investment or unfairly penalise the funds on which so many people’s retirement income depends and which they may well have invested in freehold interests. However, I feel that, with careful scrutiny in Parliament, we can deliver reform that works for leaseholders and tackles the abuses that have occurred.

The ban on selling new houses on a leasehold basis is absolutely right, and I also welcome the additional protections and transparency measures for leaseholders, but constituents tell me that the rights they already have to challenge unreasonable charges are cumbersome and expensive to operate and it can feel like a very unequal struggle with the freeholder. I hope Ministers will bear in mind that the measures they are announcing today will work only if leaseholders can actually use the new rights they are being granted. With that in mind, scrapping the presumption that leaseholders pay freeholder legal costs when they challenge poor practice is a much needed change, and I welcome that aspect of today’s announcements.

Another landmark measure in this King’s Speech is the Renters (Reform) Bill, which is continuing its progress. It is absolutely right that we legislate to help renters and encourage more stable and longer-term tenancies. We also need to remember that landlords play a crucial role as housing providers. We should absolutely be tough on bad landlords, but we do not want to end up unfairly penalising the whole sector when a majority of landlords look after their tenants and their properties, and act responsibly.

Sadly, a number of landlords are already leaving the sector and selling their properties. We must ensure that we do not inadvertently intensify that and jeopardise the good rental stock available. Key to that is ensuring that the removal of section 21 is accompanied by a major improvement in the way the courts system operates. My constituent Paul Shamplina, the founder of the solicitors firm Landlord Action, believes that delays are worse than he has experienced in his 33 years in the sector. He has told me of three bailiff applications with Willesden court that have taken six months to be issued. In Swindon, it took three months to send a notice of issue for a basic N5B claim, and Central London county court took seven months to appoint a bailiff and grant transfer to the High Court for enforcement. Other constituents have told me about bailiff delays in removing tenants who have not paid rent for many months.

The Minister for the courts—the Under-Secretary of State for Justice, my hon. Friend the Member for Finchley and Golders Green (Mike Freer)—assures me that the courts are working flat out, that 1,000 new judges have been recruited and that digitisation is under way. That is welcome, but we need to make progress to ensure that our courts are working as efficiently as possible.

Action against crime is another crucial element of the programme in the Gracious Speech. Concern about crime is one of the issues raised most often with me on the doorstep in Chipping Barnet. In particular, I find it shocking that in modern Britain the Jewish community have such great fears for their security. The antisemitism and hate crime on display at recent mass protests have been both frightening and unacceptable. I have appealed directly to Sir Mark Rowley, the head of the Met, to apply the full force of the law against any law breaking at these protests. I was one of the signatories to a letter from Conservative MPs and Assembly Members asking last week that the protest planned for Armistice Day on Saturday does not go ahead. It would seem to be both insensitive and disrespectful to have such a protest on 11 November.

Turning to policing more widely, the Conservatives have delivered on our pledge of 20,000 additional police officers. That means the Met has more uniformed officers than at any time in its history. It could actually have had 1,000 more, and it is a regret that it fell short of its recruitment target. I am afraid that that is just one of a significant number of failures on policing by London’s Mayor, Sadiq Khan, who is the police and crime commissioner for London. In his seven years in office, we have seen the Met in crisis and poor clear-up rates for offences such as burglary, car crime and shoplifting. These are not victimless crimes, and they need to be taken seriously. Of course, we also need a tough approach on antisocial behaviour.

One thing that I am disappointed was not in the King’s Speech is a Bill to ban the import of trophies hunted from endangered animals. Such legislation has strong support, but the private Member’s Bill—the Hunting Trophies (Import Prohibition) Bill—has been blocked in the House of Lords. The ban is a manifesto commitment. We must do this, and I call on Ministers to bring forward such a Bill.

Lastly, I want to welcome the Bill to ban the live export of animals for slaughter and fattening. I have campaigned for two decades for that ban. This trade leads to serious and unnecessary animal suffering both on the long journeys and in destination countries that have lower standards of animal welfare than we do. These exports would have been banned years ago if that had not been forbidden by single market rules. Although no exports have taken place in recent months, there is as yet no law to stop them starting again. I regret the demise of the Animal Welfare (Kept Animals) Bill, though I appreciate that there were issues and problems with amendments, but now that we have a dedicated Bill to end this trade once and for all, let us get on with it. This Conservative Government have led the way on many animal welfare matters. Banning live exports would be a historic step towards a more compassionate and kinder treatment of animals. It is a benefit from Brexit, and I urge the House to support the Bill when it comes forward.