Hardened times

MaeveSherlock-2-4x3.jpgMaeve Sherlock on the desperate need for a government that will get our economy and society working again

If there were a prize to be won for ‘Worst Queen’s Speech of the Decade’, not only would the current government win hands-down for last week’s lacklustre offering, but David Cameron would also get to take the wooden spoon home and keep it. There are eleven bills:  some minor in scope, none ground-breaking.  Two are about the same issue – private pensions; even though the last Pensions Bill only received Royal Assent on 14 May! Indeed, it is difficult to conclude that a strategic approach to reforming a single issue would require three bills in a given calendar year. 

The other legislation announced contain some measures that are welcome, as far as they go. One of the themes of the 2014 Queen’s Speech – and of much of the Coalition’s recent action – is that it often seems to focus on subjects where Labour has made the running. We adopt a policy which proves popular because it’s badly-needed, so the government rushes out a cut-price, half-hearted version to try to counter it.

While imitation is of course the sincerest form of flattery, the trouble with these rip-off versions of previous Labour designs is that don’t stand up well to careful scrutiny. They may appear okay at first glance, but don’t look too closely at the seams. Remember what happened over energy prices? Well, a similar approach is afoot on both housing and zero-hours contracts.

The biggest problem with the latest Queen’s Speech is that it just isn’t up to the job our country needs. Ministers seem to believe that because there is some growth, everything is going to be fine. But while any growth is welcome, something serious has happened to our economy: the link between national wealth and the state of family finances has been broken. 

Since the start of the Coalition, working people have seen their pay fall by £1600, and by the end of this parliament households will be £974 a year worse off because of tax and benefit changes. George Osborne may think things are going well but that isn’t how it feels for millions and millions of families. We still have a cost of living crisis. Foodbank use is soaring. Personal debt levels are dangerously high. Too many people are trapped in low or zero-hours contracts. And many of those who can’t afford to buy their own homes are stuck renting poor quality housing with exorbitant rents. 

A Labour Queen’s Speech would be so different. 

Our government will take proper action to tackle exploitative zero-hours contracts. We will take on the scandal of low pay by rewarding hard work with a higher minimum wage, ramping up enforcement and increasing the penalty for non-compliance to £50,000. We will help businesses to pay a living wage through Make Work Pay contracts. We will tackle the problems of youth and long-term unemployment by investing in creating guaranteed compulsory jobs for every young person out of work for a year, and for others after two years. 

We will also tackle the problems in our social security system: through reforming tests for disability benefits, abolishing the hated Bedroom Tax, and by introducing a Basic Skills Test for all new claimants of Jobseekers Allowance (to intervene earlier and prevent long-term unemployment).  And we will get serious about housing, building 200,000 new homes a year by the end of the next parliament, and taking action to ensure longer tenancies and the end of letting fees. 

What Britain needed last week was a Queen’s Speech designed to get both our economy and society working properly again, and in the interests of everyone not just the lucky few at the top. It is clear that the Coalition has run out of ideas and steam. What Britain needs now is a Labour government.

Baroness Maeve Sherlock is Shadow Work and Pensions Minister in the House of Lords. She tweets @MaeveSherlock

Published 10th June 2014

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