At the start of the new Parliamentary session, Peter Aldous speaks in the debate on the Queen’s Speech and outlines the areas where he believes the Government needs to focus; more targeted assistance to help people with the cost of living crisis, helping everyone realise their full potential, address the challenges in energy supply and the transition to net zero, and reduce NHS waiting lists and the lack of NHS dentists.
I will try my best, Mr Deputy Speaker. It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Newport East (Jessica Morden). I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Southend West (Anna Firth) on her maiden speech and the hon. Member for East Dunbartonshire (Amy Callaghan).
I also pay tribute to my predecessor as MP for Waveney, Bob Blizzard, who sadly passed away at the end of last week. He was a formidable political opponent, he held passionate beliefs and he was a staunch advocate for Waveney. My condolences are with his family and friends at this sad time.
This Queen’s Speech was delivered against one of the most challenging backdrops in the past century: the war in Europe, following quickly on from the covid-19 pandemic, has exacerbated the challenges that people and businesses were already facing. Soaring energy and food prices, rising interest rates, and slowing economic growth are putting enormous pressure on budgets for families and businesses. The programme for government for the next Session cannot, on its own, address all the challenges that we will face over the next two years, but there must be a clear statement of intent and a decisive direction of travel.
There is a need to focus on the issues that matter to people on a daily basis, such as the cost of living, the ability to pay one’s bills without spiralling into debt, and the opportunity to have a well-paid and secure job with good prospects of career progression. We do not know what lies ahead in these increasingly uncertain times, so it is important that the Government are flexible. Where there is a need to bring in measures to address a particular pressing need, they must do so without delay.
I shall briefly highlight four issues, two of which are specifically covered in proposed Bills and two of which are not. First and foremost, on the need to address the cost of living crisis, the Government have brought in some measures to help to support families and businesses, but more targeted assistance is required to enable people to get through the coming year, which many are facing with fear and trepidation with the expectation of inflation at 10% and Ofgem’s increase in the energy cap looming in the autumn.
In Suffolk, 135,000 people already live in poverty. A survey in the Lowestoft Journal showed that 41% of people are in debt, and Citizens Advice, local councils and local charities are already working in overdrive to assist, advise and support people. Poverty among pensioners needs a particular focus due to prevailing high inflation, with the state pension and defined benefit and defined contribution private pensions all exposed. There may well be a need for review and reform, and I urge the Government not to hold back in introducing such measures.
Secondly, it is vital that people around the UK have the opportunity to secure a good job with good prospects for career advancement and the opportunity to realise their full potential. The schools Bill and the levelling up and regeneration Bill should help to secure that ambition. For a long time, Suffolk has received a poor education funding settlement and we must use this opportunity to address that inequality.
There must also be a focus on improving early years and special educational needs education. Although the Skills and Post-16 Education Act 2022, which was passed in the last Session, provides the framework for improving the further education sector, that sector remains poorly funded given the vital role that it plays in preparing people for the workplace, helping to improve the UK’s overall economic performance and eliminating the productivity gap. There may well be a need for fiscal support to encourage businesses to invest in people and skills. Last week, the Learning and Work Institute recommended that smaller businesses should be able to deduct 230% of the cost of accredited training from their tax liability.
Turning to the long-awaited levelling up and regeneration Bill, I acknowledge the enormous amount of work that the Secretary of State for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities and the Under-Secretary of State for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities, my hon. Friend the Member for Harborough (Neil O’Brien), have carried out in the relatively short period since their appointment in September to lay the groundwork in the White Paper that was published at the beginning of February. I urge them not to forget coastal communities. All around the UK, including in Waveney and Lowestoft, they are in many respects the forgotten powerhouse of the UK economy. They have a vital role to play in powering the nation as we embrace renewable energy; feeding the nation through sustainable and responsible stewardship of our fisheries; promoting global trade through our network of ports, large and small; and providing holidays at home rather than abroad.
Thirdly, on energy, the Energy Act 2013 was good legislation that played an important role in promoting renewable energy, particularly offshore wind, in which the UK is now a world leader. There is a temptation to leave well alone a regulatory framework that has worked well, but we have new challenges that must be tackled, particularly if we are to meet the 2050 net zero target. It is therefore right to build on the foundations that were laid nine years ago.
I briefly highlight some of the challenges that we need to address. We must promote and incentivise further investment on the UK continental shelf to add to last year’s North sea transition deal so as to ensure that that unique UK asset continues to play a lead role in powering the nation, generating rewarding and well-paid jobs, and ensuring a smooth transition to a net zero energy supply. A windfall tax would jeopardise that work, but there is a need for the major oil and gas companies to do more, following the good work of many innovative and smaller businesses. With regard to offshore wind, we need a framework that builds on the success of the last decade and that promotes investment in interconnectors and battery storage to absorb surplus wind, as well as facilitating the development of a modern onshore transmission network.
Nuclear power is very much part of the Government’s energy strategy. The Nuclear Energy (Financing) Act 2022, which was passed in the last Session, provides the framework for Sizewell C to proceed if the development consent order is issued. That enormous national infrastructure project, located close to my constituency, can play a vital role in levelling up and regenerating local economies; providing jobs during construction; and leaving a legacy of skills that bring lasting benefits to places such as Lowestoft and Waveney. EDF is committed to that strategy, but it is vital that the national Government provide the framework to ensure that it delivers those benefits by working with local businesses, colleges, charities and councils.
Hydrogen is the new kid on the block that presents boundless opportunities. Even at this stage, however, we do not quite know what precise direction it will take or the full scale of what it can deliver. Although the UK hydrogen strategy was published only last August, there is an urgent need for a route map if it is to realise its full potential. Community energy has an important role to play and we must remove the regulatory obstacles that prevent local communities from promoting their own projects.
An area of energy policy where we have not succeeded in recent years is the promotion of energy saving by retrofitting our homes and business premises. The green deal did not work and the green homes grant scheme was too low in ambition and lacked the capacity to have a significant impact. In the short term, to address the challenge of fuel poverty, we should look at extending the warm home discount, the home upgrade grant and the energy company obligation.
The Government must also produce a scheme that will deliver meaningful and significant enhancement of our whole building stock. That will probably require fiscal incentives, and local government will have an important role to play in overseeing and ensuring workforce planning, training and delivery. We need to revamp the strategy for the roll out of smart meters, which, I am afraid, has stalled.
The fourth and final issue that I will raise is the NHS. Although no Bill directly addresses our health service, and one might argue that there is no need for one as we only recently finished debating the Health and Care Act 2022, which has just received Royal Assent, this subject is of critical importance and concern to our constituents. People are worried that they cannot see their doctor; the Government need to work with GPs to address that concern.
NHS dentistry is the No. 1 item in my inbox. There are dental deserts all around the country, and urgent attention is required if these are not to merge into one area of Sahara proportions. There is a backlog of operations, many of them time-critical, that needs to be significantly and immediately reduced. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State is very much aware of these challenges, and regardless of whether or not there is specific legislation, they must be given the highest priority and attention.
In conclusion, there is a great deal to do and there are a great many challenges to confront, the like of which we have not seen during our lifetimes. We can get through this crisis, and the Government do need to have in mind the need to bring together a nation that has been divided first by Brexit and then by covid.