Not a Time for Just Wallpapering Over the Cracks

"We must match the scale of the moment that faces our people and our planet."

I’m proud to open today’s debate on behalf of the Opposition. I am conscious that one of the basic tests of qualification for government is to be trusted by the public with their money. If we don’t meet that test, then none of our ambitions, none of the changes we seek, can come to pass. So let me make one thing clear at the start—it is a test I intend to meet.

The recovery from the pandemic represents a crucial moment for Britain. This really is not the time for just wallpapering over the cracks. Instead, we must match the scale of the moment that faces our people and our planet.

We need a government which backs Britain—and that means an ambitious, bold plan for good jobs. We must end the insecurity and lack of opportunity in our economy for too many, and seize this moment to create a brighter future for people in all parts of our country.

The last year has been like no other. Families have given up so much and many have lost loved ones—coronavirus has shone a spotlight on what matters to us all. Our families and friends, our communities, our health and security.

After a decade of Conservative government, our public services were underfunded and underprepared for the pandemic. A shortfall of intensive care beds, unfilled vacancies in our NHS, a fragmented and underfunded social care sector and PPE stockpiles run down despite warnings.

This government had allowed the public square to become degraded and now we know the cost of that. The failure to increase Statutory Sick Pay in the middle of a deadly pandemic put many low-paid families in the impossible position of choosing to go to work to put food on the table or to stay at home and isolate to protect our public health.

Too many wages have stalled over the last decade, household debt is rising, and too many people live pay cheque to pay cheque. Those with the crucial everyday jobs that keep our economy running and our public services going were overlooked and undervalued. The government has done nothing for them and nor does this Queen’s Speech today.

Instead £2bn of public contracts awarded to companies linked to the Conservative Party. We are meant to believe that this is all a coincidence. The government are taking the public for fools.

Taxpayers deserve their money used to best effect—not squandered on contracts which don’t deliver, or line the pockets of the friends and donors of the Conservative Party.

The government says it wants value for money, but it failed to clawback the millions wasted on contracts that didn’t deliver for the NHS and didn’t deliver for taxpayers.

Let’s be clear about this Conservative government’s record. They talk in this Queen’s Speech about a skills guarantee. It was the Conservative government that cut Educational Maintenance Allowance, and has overseen a fall in the number of apprentices leaving millions of people without the skills they need to thrive.

They speak in this Queen’s Speech about investing in parts of our country. It was the Conservative government that scrapped Regional Development Agencies—the very bodies designed to make sure every part of our country could prosper.

They talk in this Queen’s Speech about levelling up. But it was this Conservative government who has cut 60 pence from every pound in funding to local councils, forcing them to close Sure Start and children’s centres, cut back on social care, libraries, leisure centres, degrading the very fabric of our local communities.

They want the public to think they’ve only been in power for one year. They haven’t. They’ve been in power for 11 years. And they’ve got to take responsibility for their own record.

Throughout this crisis, the Chancellor has pitched our health against our economy, treating it as a zero sum game with health on the losing side. To do so was short-sighted, misguided and dangerous, and the Chancellor must take responsibility for that.

In a pandemic of this kind, public health and the economy are two sides of the same coin. The government’s failure to act speedily, to push ahead with Eat Out to Help Out without sorting out Test & Trace, the refusal to back an October Circuit Break or level with the public about the risks of mixing at Christmas has caused huge loss and suffering as well as the largest economic decline in G7.

The furlough scheme has made a big difference, we called for it and we welcome it. But there are gaping holes in the scheme, meaning several million people have inexplicably been excluded for support.

Like a self-employed painters and decorators, freelance musicians or fitness instructors—who all work hard and pay their taxes, but for many, there’s been no safety net, no support. Why has the Chancellor ignored their cries for help?

Is it because they didn’t have his phone number? Is it because they can’t WhatsApp him, signed off—With love from DC.

The revelations yesterday about the bombardment of pressure on Greensill’s behalf by David Cameron are astonishing.

  • 45 text messages
  • Nine to the Chancellor
  • 12 to the permanent secretary

And when the former Prime Minister didn’t get his way he threatened to phone (and I quote) “the Chancellor, Gove and everyone else.” What an appalling way to bully government officials. And then, the Chancellor said he would push his team. How were they pushed? What were they asked to do?

This is not just a political row. This is about how our country is run—and for who—and real jobs and livelihoods are now at stake.

Instead of trying to help out dodgy finance companies with fishy wheezes for making money off the back of our NHS and small businesses, the Labour Party is fiercely proud of British-made goods and services and the people who make them.

From championing our industries from manufacturing to retail, our farmers, restaurants, pubs, and our great cultural sector, to businesses starting up now and during the pandemic we want and need them to succeed.

British industries are vital to our economic recovery, and the government should be working hand-in-hand with them, not scrapping their own industrial strategy.

The label “Made in Britain” is a sign of quality, a stamp that marks British manufacturing as amongst the very best in the world.

Yet the government is not making the most of our assets. Over the last decade, they have failed to support our manufacturing base, with so many jobs that didn’t return after the financial crisis, with short term sticking plasters that leave sectors such as steel and shipbuilding as an afterthought.

And we haven’t heard a word still about this government’s vision of how we will become global leaders in manufacturing and industry outside of the European Union or how we will help our cultural industries, our musicians, performers, our farmers and our fisherman who are suffering because of huge gaps in this government’s deal with our European neighbours.

In the last quarter, exports to the EU were down 18.1% and only up by 0.4% for countries outside the EU. They are lacking in ambition, and they are in denial about what businesses need to thrive in a new environment.

Take our automotive industry, it is the jewel in the crown of British manufacturing. Yet the UK has only one planned electric vehicle battery gigafactory with construction not yet underway—yet many are springing up all over Europe and across the world.

We can’t afford to be in the slow lane. That is why Labour is calling on the government to part-finance, in collaboration with the private sector, three additional giga-factories by the end of the parliament, putting Britain back in the fast lane of car manufacturing. If the batteries aren’t made here, the danger is the cars won’t be either.

There’s an irony here—that in the year we are hosting COP26 climate conference, this Conservative government was pursuing new coal mines in Cumbria, and have failed through sheer incompetence to deliver the Green Homes Grant they promised.

For the green future that we need to curb the climate emergency, we can choose to be world leaders. Or we can allow our communities, businesses and our workers to be left behind.

Tackling the climate crisis and creating the high-paid, high-skilled jobs in every corner of our country would have been front and centre of a Labour Queen’s Speech.

Let’s take another national challenge. More tax gets paid by shops on the local high street than when we buy online.

Some big businesses have made billions extra this last year, while others are on their knees. The government must ‘level the playing field’ between physical high street shops and town centres—and online retail giants. None of this is in the Queen’s Speech.

The UK has lost nearly 10,000 shops, 6,000 pubs, over 7,000 bank and building society branches and over 1,000 libraries in the last 11 years. All of this happened under the watch of a Conservative government who stood by.

These things matter to people, and I can tell you they matter to Labour. My Honourable Friend, the member for Oxford East has made that clear, time and time again in this chamber. Action was needed these last 11 years—and yet there was none—and it is needed even more now.

Alongside thriving businesses, we also need an economy that delivers for working people. That’s what the Labour Party is about. This pandemic has shown so clearly who our country’s key workers are.

After all, we weren’t clapping or banging pots and pans for management consultants we were cheering the delivery drivers, the posties, the supermarket workers, and our public service workers especially in our NHS and social care.

They’ve kept our country moving, and our families safe and they should be rewarded with a pay rise, not a pay cut. And any meaningful recovery means a new deal for key workers with investment in their skills, fair pay for a fair day’s work and security and a voice at work.

And the British people were promised new legislation to protect and enhance workers’ rights outside of the European Union, making Britain the best place in the world to work. The British people were told there would be fairness in the workplace, better support for working people, measures to protect those in low-paid work and the gig economy.

The government said it would protect the majority of businesses who do the right thing from being undercut by the small minority who seek to avoid their responsibilities to society. This was the absolute minimum we were promised and the government hasn’t even delivered on that.

Why is that? Because improving workers’ rights is not a priority for the Conservatives. British Gas workers know that more than any. They have played a vital role in this last year yet they have been fired and rehired on worse conditions.

Apparently, the Conservatives say this is wrong. We agree. I don’t know what the Chancellor thinks. So, if it’s wrong, why aren’t they actually doing something about it?

Creating good jobs in all parts of our country, tackling the climate emergency, making sure all of our town centres are thriving and prosperous, on supporting British industry and rights for workers—those would have been Labour’s economic priorities in the Queen’s Speech.

The challenges and opportunities facing our country are great, yet what the government is putting forward is small. After just 24hours, we can see how thin this Queen’s Speech is.

The foundations were not strong enough going into the pandemic and people deserve something better than what we had before. The Conservatives have taken for granted those who have kept our economy and essential services moving this last year and continue to undervalue all that our key workers do.

I believe all our high streets, our towns and cities can thrive again if people have more money in their pockets and we keep more wealth in our communities. We need jobs you can raise a family on, rights which give dignity, respect and support when you need it.

Those who work hard should reap the rewards, not just those with access to government ministers or those who believe they can avoid paying their fair share of tax.

I believe we will only help our country truly meet its full potential when whatever your start in life, wherever you live, whatever your accent, or your job—do not define your opportunities. We must be ambitious for all our country with real and lasting change.

These should be the tests of any government right now, and they are the tests I will hold this government to but from what we have heard this week these are tests the Conservatives look set to fail.

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