2015 06 – Parliament Notes

Parliament Notes

by Dick Barry

Parliament returned to business as usual on 27 May with the Queen’s Speech. It is published in full below.

Queen’s Speech

My Lords and Members of the House of Commons

My Government will legislate in the interests of everyone in our country. It will adopt a one nation approach, helping working people get on, supporting aspiration, giving new opportunities to the most disadvantaged and bringing different parts of our country together.

My Government will continue with its long-term plan to provide economic stability and security at every stage of life. They will continue the work of bringing the public finances under control and reducing the deficit, so Britain lives within its means. Measures will be introduced to raise the productive potential of the economy and increase living standards.

Legislation will be brought forward to help achieve full employment and provide more people with the security of a job. New duties will require my ministers to report annually on job creation and apprenticeships. Measures will also be introduced to reduce regulation on small businesses so they can create jobs.

Legislation will be brought forward to ensure people working 30 hours a week on the National Minimum Wage do not pay income tax, and to ensure there are no rises in income tax rates, value-added tax or national insurance for the next five years.

Measures will be brought forward to help working people by greatly increasing the provision of free childcare.

Legislation will be introduced to support home ownership and give housing association tenants the chance to own their own home.

Measures will be introduced to increase energy security and to control immigration. My Government will bring forward legislation to reform trade unions and to protect essential public services against strikes.

To give new opportunities to the most disadvantaged, my Government will expand the Troubled Families Programme and continue to reform welfare, with legislation encouraging employment by capping benefits and requiring young people to earn or learn.

Legislation will be brought forward to improve schools and give every child the best start in life, with new powers to take over failing and coasting schools and create more academies.

In England, my Government will secure the future of the National Health Service by implementing the National Health Service’s own five-year plan, by increasing the health budget, integrating healthcare and social care, and ensuring the National Health Service works on a seven day basis. Measures will be introduced to improve access to general practitioners and to mental healthcare.

Measures will also be brought forward to secure the real value of the basic State Pension, so that more people live in dignity and security in retirement. Measures will be brought forward to increase the rights of victims of crime.

To bring different parts of our country together, my Government will work to bring about a balanced economic recovery. Legislation will be introduced to provide for the devolution of powers to cities with elected metro mayors, helping to build a Northern powerhouse.

My Government will continue to legislate for high-speed rail links between the different parts of the country.

My Government will also bring forward legislation to secure a strong and lasting constitutional settlement, devolving wide-ranging powers to Scotland and Wales. Legislation will be taken forward giving effect to the Stormont House Agreement in Northern Ireland.

My Government will continue to work in cooperation with the devolved administrations on the basis of mutual respect.

My Government will bring forward changes to the Standing Orders of the House of Commons. These changes will create fairer procedures to ensure that decisions affecting England, or England and Wales, can be taken only with the consent of the majority of Members of Parliament representing constituencies in those parts of our United Kingdom.

My Government will renegotiate the United Kingdom’s relationship with the European Union and pursue reform of the European Union for the benefit of all Member States. Alongside this, early legislation will be introduced to provide for an in-out referendum on membership of the European Union before the end of 2017.

Measures will also be brought forward to promote social cohesion and protect people by tackling extremism. New legislation will modernise the law on communications data, improve the law on policing and criminal justice, and ban the new generation of psychoactive drugs.

My Government will bring forward proposals for a British Bill of Rights.

Members of the House of Commons

Estimates for the public services will be laid before you.

My Lords and Members of the House of Commons

My Government will continue to play a leading role in global affairs, using its presence all over the world to re-engage with and tackle the major international security, economic and humanitarian challenges.

My Ministers will remain at the forefront of the NATO alliance and of international efforts to degrade and ultimately defeat terrorism in the Middle East.

The United Kingdom will continue to seek a political settlement in Syria, and will offer further support to the Iraqi Government’s programme for political reform and national reconciliation.

My Government will maintain pressure on Russia to respect the territorial integrity and sovereignty of Ukraine, and will insist on the full implementation of the Minsk agreements.

My Government looks forward to an enhanced partnership with India and China.

Prince Philip and I look forward to our State Visit to Germany next month and to our State Visit to Malta in November, alongside the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting. We also look forward to welcoming His Excellency the President of The People’s Republic of China and Madame Peng on a State Visit in October.

My Government will seek effective global collaboration to sustain economic recovery and to combat climate change, including at the climate change conference in Paris later this year.

My Government will undertake a full Strategic Defence and Security Review, and do whatever is necessary to ensure that our courageous armed forces can keep Britain safe.

My Government will work to reduce the threat from nuclear weapons, cyber attacks and terrorism.

Other measures will be laid before you.

My Lords and Members of the House of Commons

I pray that the blessing of Almighty God may rest upon your counsels.

A British Bill of Rights?

Dominic Grieve, Attorney General in the last government, used part of his speech to comment upon the proposal to replace the European Human Rights Act with a British Bill of Rights. The proposal has been put on the back burner to allow time for consideration of the effects of such a change. Grieve pointed to some of the more important effects.

Dominic Grieve: Let me turn to one of the key issues in the Gracious Speech: the suggestion that we will replace the Human Rights Act with a British Bill of Rights. At this stage I will simply make two or three points. First, I welcome the fact that the proposal has not been set in stone, fortunately, and that it appears we will be having a consultation. The proposal will be very difficult to implement in practice, and the reputational damage for this country could be disastrous. Let us start with the first and most obvious point, which is the fact that the devolution settlements in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland are underpinned by the Human Rights Act—it might be an inconvenient truth for some, but it is still a truth—and, in the case of Northern Ireland, by an international treaty with the Irish republic. I do not see how we can effect a change without first achieving a consensus that involves those parts of the United Kingdom, even if we have the power to do so, because it seems to me that to proceed without it would threaten the Union, which I was sent to this House to uphold.

Secondly, if we are to proceed down this route, the EU dimension needs to be considered. My hon. Friend the Member for Stone (Sir William Cash) has waxed eloquently against the charter of fundamental rights. I cannot think of anything more calculated to see the intervention of the European Court of Justice—not the  European Court of Human Rights—than if we end up being non-compatible with the convention and EU citizens end up bringing claims against the United Kingdom Government that cannot be adjudicated under the convention in our own courts or in Strasbourg.

Thirdly, the United Kingdom has been at the forefront of the development of human rights on our planet; it is one of the things of which we can be most proud. If we are going to dilute those rights and present the British public with something that is, in fact, the convention shorn of some of the protections it affords citizens, the consequences for the convention will be catastrophic. But other countries that have previously been willing to improve their human rights records, as a result of our leverage, will cease to do so, and one of the most powerful tools for improving human rights on our planet will have been irrevocably damaged. I find it impossible to see how that can be in our national interest.

Having said those things, I also recognise that there are flaws in the way in which the Court in Strasbourg has operated. I have many criticisms of some of its jurisprudence, and there was a period in recent years when it was quite seriously off the rails. However, one point that needs to be borne in mind is that we have recently carried out a major reform of the way the Court operates, thanks to the efforts of my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Rushcliffe (Mr Clarke). Our judiciary has changed its stance and approach to the Court, so there is now a much more robust dialogue. Consequently, the Court has substantially changed many areas of its approach. The ultimate irony is that we might be in danger of fighting yesterday’s battle, or indeed of snatching defeat from the jaws of victory. I therefore very much hope that there can be a full consultation so that all these matters can be aired.

Mr Graham Allen: Will the right hon. and learned Gentleman, with all his history in this field, tell us what he believes is the best way that Parliament can engage in that consultation? We have been told that we are not going to have a political and constitutional reform Select Committee, which would have looked at this, so would he suggest a special Committee created by the House to look at this at some length so that we avoid some of the pitfalls he has outlined?

Mr Grieve: The hon. Gentleman’s suggestion sounds like a very good one, and I certainly intend to engage in the debate as and when proposals are brought before the House.

I mentioned at the start of my remarks that we are living in a much more dangerous and difficult world than we were in 1997. Of course, one of the challenges facing the Government is prioritising what really matters. I have made the point that human rights matter because their promotion is so important, particularly in view of Russia’s behaviour in Ukraine and Crimea, so that ought to be a top priority. In the same way, I think that defence will have to be looked at again, and I am pleased that we are going to have a strategic defence review. Ultimately, some hard choices might have to be made, because at the moment I am left with the sensation not that the previous Government did things wrong over defence, but that it might need to be given a greater priority than it has at the moment.

Shrinking In Order to Reshape

In her devastating criticism of free market capitalism brilliantly expounded in her book ‘The Shock Doctrine’, Naomi Klein describes how right wing economists, politicians and corporations destroyed economies in order to rebuild them in the interests of the minority rich. If not bent on wholesale destruction, freed from the constraints of coalition, the Tories are intent on shrinking further the British state, ridding it of publicly accountable services such as education and housing. In a passionate speech, replying to the Queen’s address, Labour’s John McDonnell criticised the economic folly of successive governments and attacked the proposal to sell off housing association stock.

John McDonnell: Earlier in the debate, the right hon. Member for Wokingham (John Redwood) suggested that we should have serious discussions in this Parliament about the future of our economy, and I agree with him. In the debate so far, I have found remarkable complacency about the situation that we are facing. In fact, all the structural weaknesses and other factors that were present before the last crash are now reappearing, and many economic forecasts suggest that there is a prospect of precipitating another crash over the next two years. Consumer debt is rising, as are costs. There has been no sustained pick-up in wages, productivity is stagnating and living costs are vulnerable to rises in interest rates and inflation. If the Budget on 8 July cuts £30 billion as predicted, that could push us back into recession as a result of reducing demand so dramatically.

The fundamentals of our economy remain completely unaddressed: we have an unbalanced economy; production, manufacturing and construction have still to recover to their 2008 levels; and the finance sector is oversized and unregulated. At the last estimate, 60% of the big five banks’ profits since 2011 have been lost as a result of scandals. There is now a current account deficit of 5.5%, and a massive outflow of capital from this country. We have a debt of 80% of GDP, the bond markets are extremely volatile and the eurozone is unstable. These are all the ingredients for another crash, yet we do not seem to be debating that at the moment, despite the continuous warnings from the Office for National Statistics and the Office for Budget Responsibility in recent months.

The Prime Minister wants us to believe that economic recovery is under way and that the crisis is behind us. At the micro level, for my constituents, the economic crisis appears every payday. Many of them are experiencing economic crises, hardship and insecurity on a regular basis. As a London constituency representative, I believe that housing market failure is at the heart of our economic crisis. We knocked on every door in my constituency during the election, and I know that we are now facing the worst housing crisis since the second world war. I have 4,000 people on the housing waiting list. There were 10,000 last year, but a manoeuvre by the Conservative council simply wiped 6,000 of them off and denied them eligibility to be on the list. Tonight, I have 200 families in bed-and-breakfast accommodation. I have families living in appalling housing conditions, with overcrowding, damp and insanitary conditions. I have families living in sheds. Shanties are now being built in my constituency to house families.

Rents in the private sector are between £1,200 and £1,600 a month for a little house. We have reinvented the back-to-back in my constituency, with some families living in the front of a property and others living in the back. The landlords of those properties are reaping something like £3,000 a month in rent. The buy-to-let landlords are making a fortune out of exploitative rents in my constituency. They fail to maintain their properties, but if the tenants complain, revenge evictions take place on a regular basis. This week, however, we have discovered that buy-to-let landlords have been given a £14 billion tax concession each year in recent years. Why? It is because, as the right hon. Member for Haltemprice and Howden (Mr Davis) said, successive Governments have failed to build council houses. It is also because they have sold off council houses. The sell-off of council houses in my area has resulted in the bizarre situation of a Conservative council now having to rent back some of the council houses that it sold off 30 years ago, in order to house families in desperate need.

Affordable properties are being built at a minimal level. At the same time, affordability has now been redefined as 80% of the market rent, so “affordable” properties are now unaffordable to most of the population in my area. We were told that there would be a cap on benefits, and that that would reduce rent levels as the message went out to landlords, but it has had no effect whatsoever because supply is not matching demand.

The legislation proposed in today’s Queen’s Speech on selling off housing association properties will simply exacerbate the problem. I fully agree with the housing associations’ view that it will simply deplete their stock. Worse, it will undermine the asset base against which they can borrow to build new properties. We are told that this proposal will be funded by the sell-off of councils’ higher-value properties, but that is absolutely unrealistic. The sell-off of more council properties will mean a greater depletion of council stock. In addition, the record of reinvestment and rebuilding following the sell-off of council properties has been abysmal: it is a record of non-delivery over decades.

The Government’s legislation announced today will permanently embed the crisis in our housing market for future generations. We are storing up a greater crisis for the future. My hon. Friend the Member for Islington North (Jeremy Corbyn), who is no longer in his place, said that these policies are socially cleansing whole areas of our city. Properties are being sold off, then sold on again to speculators and overseas property developers. Even those in the professions—the teachers, the firefighters, the police officers—can no longer afford to keep a roof over their head in London. As a result, working-class people and what could be described as middle-class professionals are being forced to move out. Alternatively, they live in an asset that they cannot sell because they are trapped and cannot find an alternative. Their sons and daughters are unable even to get on to the property ladder.

This all adds to the precarious nature of living in London at the moment, as incomes fail to match basic living costs. Professor Guy Standing defined the “precariat” as people on zero-hours contracts or on the minimum wage, but many people on middle-range incomes—teachers, firefighters, the police, middle managers and small businesspeople—are now cascading into the precariat because they cannot afford the housing costs in our city. They are also faced with unstable employment, threatened by outsourcing or privatisation. They are no longer able to find a voice for their frustrations, either at work as a result of the undermining of trade union rights or, to be frank, within the political system itself at times.

We need to remind Governments to have an element of humility. This Government were elected by 25% of the electorate; 75% of the electorate failed to support them. That is why I issue this warning. There are real frustrations within our political system. People whom we represent are angry because successive Governments have not delivered the basics to them—new Labour and Conservative Governments alike. They have not provided people with decent jobs, decent wages or the ability to live in a decent home with a roof over their head and in a decent environment. Unless Governments acknowledge those frustrations and they are reflected in this House, they will be ventilated elsewhere.

If the Government fail to listen, opposition will surface on picket lines no matter what the legislation states. We will go back to the days of wildcat strikes, whether or not union members comply with the legislation proposed in this Queen’s Speech. These problems will be seen on the streets, just as we have seen tonight in Parliament Square, which has been blocked by people who are angry at not being listened to and angry at the production of this Queen’s Speech. We will also see more occupations, particularly among the people in our capital city who are desperate to have a roof over their head and are forced to squat. We saw an example last year, when a young man was evicted from a squat and froze to death on its doorstep later that night.

The Government have said that this is a one-nation Queen’s Speech, but I fear that this country has now been divided geographically and that people will be riven by division as a result. This is about inequality. The Government are not listening to the people who are suffering as a result of the recession and who are not seeing the sunlit uplands of the supposed recovery. If we in this House are not very careful, we are going to witness a population driven by anger losing faith in politics altogether. Yes of course we must have a rational debate on the Queen’s Speech, but there needs to be room for some compromises in the legislation. I urge the Government to take a common-sense approach to a situation that could, if we are not careful, develop into an elective dictatorship.

More Union Bashing

On 12 May Business Secretary Sajid Javid told the BBC there will be “significant changes” to strike laws under the new Conservative government. He told the BBC’s Today programme: “We’ve already made clear, in terms of strike laws, that there will be some significant changes…It will be a priority of ours. We need to update our strike laws. We’ve never hidden away the changes we want to make. I think it’s essential to make these changes.” The proposal is included in the Queen’s Speech.

Javid said that a strike affecting essential public services will need the backing of 40% of eligible union members. There will also be a minimum 50% turnout in strike ballots. He added that the government will lift restrictions on the use of agency staff to replace striking workers.

The proposals are designed to make it more difficult for workers to take strike action. However, he may find that they will have the effect of galvanising workers. If the proposals become law we can look forward to more workers giving their support to a strike they feel to be justified.

Interestingly, if the proposals were applied to general elections i.e. if a successful candidate required the support of 40% or more of those eligible to vote, Sajid Javid would not be an MP. In the general election on 7 May, Javid received 38.36% of votes of eligible electors. Furthermore, David Cameron would be deprived of eight members of his newly appointed cabinet. The eight includes Work and Pensions Secretary Ian Duncan Smith who received just 31.48% of eligible votes and David Mundell, the only Conservative candidate elected in Scotland, who received a mere 30.31%.

The proportion of votes from eligible electors received by the 21 cabinet members was:

David Cameron, Prime Minister, (44.12%), George Osborne, First secretary of State and Chancellor of the Exchequer, (58.61%), Teresa May, Home Secretary, (47.29%), Philip Hammond, Foreign Secretary, (59.74%), Michael Gove, Justice Secretary, (40.97%), Michael Fallon, Defence Secretary, (40.33%), Ian Duncan Smith, Work and Pensions Secretary (31.48%), Jeremy Hunt, Health Secretary, (44.38%), Chris Grayling, Leader of the House (42.36%), Justine Greening, International Development Secretary, (53.76%), Nicky Morgan, Education Secretary, (49.35%), Patrick McLoughlin, Transport Secretary (39.08%), Sajid Javid, Business, Innovation and Skills Secretary (38.36), Teresa Villiers, Northern Ireland Secretary (33.08%), Liz Truss, Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Secretary (33.15%), Greg Clark, Communities and Local Government Secretary (41.1%), Steve Crabb, Welsh Secretary (28.59%), Oliver Letwin, Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, Overall Charge of Cabinet Office (36.12%), John Whittingdale, Culture, Media and Sport Secretary (41.19%), David Mundell, Scottish Secretary (30.31%), Amber Rudd, Energy and Climate Change Secretary, (44.54%).