Maggie Jones on a Tory legislative programme that avoids tackling the big issues facing Britain
By any measure, the UK is currently facing huge challenges, economically and environmentally. So having won power in 2015, this Queen’s Speech was an opportunity for the Conservative’s, free of the constraints of Coalition, to lay out a decisive programme of action. Instead, it sadly represents a catalogue of missed opportunities and failed ambition.
Economically we are sliding backwards.
All the key indices of success – growth, wages, investment and productivity – are being revised downwards. Exports are struggling despite the weak pound, and manufacturing and construction outputs are down. It is widely acknowledged that we’re becoming too reliant on consumer borrowing and debt. Meanwhile, the Chancellor’s own personal pledge – to balance the books by 2015 – has proved to be an elusive failure. So, we now face we drawn out austerity with a lack of a proper investment strategy to get the economy moving again.
More specifically, the programme lacks measures to tackle the poor banking culture which led to our previous financial crisis. Huge bonuses are continuing to reward short term profit at the expense of long term investment. The scandal of the BHS Board – stripping out the value whilst leaving the taxpayers to bail out the pension fund – highlights a lack of corporate governance controls. The Panama papers have exposed the contempt many wealthy businesses and individuals hold towards our taxation system. If ministers had the courage to address these endemic issues in the Queen’s Speech they would surely have proved to be hugely popular with the electorate.
Similar criticisms can be levelled at the lack of a coherent energy and environment strategy.
In December, the government were party to a historic agreement in Paris to tackle climate change but it required each signatory to draw up specific proposals on how to achieve this. Since then, there has been a deafening silence from the UK government, the policies of which have instead reversed our previous progress towards climate safety. Other governments are pressing on with investment in renewable energy whilst ours cuts subsidies and pushes fledgling renewable innovators into bankruptcy.
Ministers also seem intent on ducking the rather urgent environmental crisis caused by poor air quality – which is killing thousands of people each year. Despite the recent ruling of the Supreme Court that the UK government was in breach of the Clean Air Act and should take action to rectify this, its response has been poor. So much so, that they will shortly be back in court to explain their lack of a meaningful response.
Once again, had they taken bold action on the issue rather than prevaricating it would have been hugely popular. In contrast, London’s new Mayor, Sadiq Khan has shown the way by taking immediate and decisive action – doubling the size of the clean air charging zones with a much tighter timescale.
Sadiq has also taken immediate action to quadruple the proportion of affordable homes in new developments and to insist that new homes are marketed to Londoners for six months before being made available to foreign investors. His policies contrast with the government’s failures on housing, which has resulted in 200,000 fewer home owners, a squeeze on the supply of social housing and a 33% increase in the number of families accepted as homeless.
In London and other places, Labour is showing what can be achieved if you invest in communities and act on local concerns. This is why we welcome moves for further devolution. But the shift in power has to be matched by fair funding. So far, cuts to local government have hit the most deprived areas the hardest. So we will scrutinise carefully the funding formula which follows any further devolved responsibility.
Although we welcome some of the measures in the Queen’s Speech, our overall assessment is that the programme fails to address the key issues now facing our country. It’s both a wasted opportunity and a failure of leadership, and these themes will no doubt form a backdrop to the deliberation on bills in the months ahead.
Baroness Maggie Jones of Whitchurch is a Shadow DEFRA and DECC Minister in the House of Lords. She tweets @WhitchurchGirl
Published 25th May 2016