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My speech in response to the Queen's Speech

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22 June 2017
queens speech Heidi Alexander MP

It is probably fitting that I am following the hon. Member for Stone (Sir William Cash) as I have promised myself that in this Parliament I will become for remain what he has been for leave during his parliamentary career.

This is the first Queen’s Speech debate in which I have participated since 2010, the year I was elected. If I am honest, I have tended to find the speech itself and the political debate that follows somewhat formulaic. Now we cannot say that that is the case. Events in the past year have hit the British people with a speed and ferocity that is unprecedented in my lifetime: the murder of our beautiful colleague Jo Cox; the referendum; the terrorist attacks in Westminster, Manchester, London Bridge and Finsbury Park; and, of course, the horrific fire at Grenfell Tower just two weeks ago. When our country is in such an awful mess, this Queen’s Speech is exposed as dreadfully wanting. It is dominated by last year’s obsession, Brexit, and this reality is made all the worse by the Government’s commitment to the most complicated and disruptive type of Brexit imaginable. The questions raised with me by my constituents about jobs, policing, schools, hospitals, homes and elderly care barely feature.

The truth is, however, that it is not just the Queen’s Speech that is failing people, but our politics more generally. Take the general election that we have just had. The public witnessed an election being called because of the fallout from last year’s referendum, but they got a campaign that left them none the wiser about how Brexit would be dealt with. They saw a Prime Minister who ran away from the TV cameras and who, when she did appear, was shaky, nervous and wooden. They saw Conservative politicians who could not answer questions about police cuts and counter-terrorism when a suicide bomber had murdered young families at a pop concert. They saw a party that could provide no guarantees about the pound in their pocket or the funding of their public services, and they feared for the homes of elderly parents. It is no wonder that a lot of people in many different parts of the country voted for change.

The past two weeks have cemented public perceptions of a Government floundering, out of their depth and out of step with the reality of life in Britain in 2017. There is no answer as to why it has taken four years to implement recommendations on fire safety in high-rise blocks. There is no ability to quickly rehouse people whose homes have burned down because of London’s appalling and acute housing crisis, and there is no prospect of quick answers about responsibility for that horrific fire because such a long supply chain was involved. The opportunity to squeeze profit and evade accountability may yet prove dangerously significant.

Joan Ryan MP

Does my hon. Friend agree that it is an abrogation of the Government’s responsibility if they do not give the assurances sought earlier today about proper resourcing and funding to enable local authorities to carry out safety checks and make changes that will ensure that residents know and feel that they are safe in their tower blocks or their low-rise accommodation?

Heidi Alexander MP
I agree with my right hon. Friend. The fact that some people will not sleep easily in their beds tonight is proof that the Government have failed.

Alex Chalk MP

I commend the hon. Lady on rightly pointing out the enormity of the tragedy, but does she agree that it does no service to the victims or their families to seek to politicise this before we even know the cause of this dreadful fire? We have to take the process in stages: find out the cause and then take the necessary action. To politicise this in advance serves no one and does not serve justice.

Heidi Alexander MP
I do not believe that I am politicising this. I am expressing the views of a significant number of my constituents and people who live in London.

On the day on which the election was called, I was stopped by a constituent at Lewisham station. He simply said to me, “We have to stop the damage Theresa May is doing to our country.” I put that statement on every one of my election leaflets. His concern was about Brexit, about his job in central London, and about his ability in the future to pay for his home and look after his kids. The repeal Bill that was formally announced in the Queen’s Speech will not make him feel better, although it is lauded by some as a positive thing. It will incorporate EU law into our domestic law so that we can decide at a later date which bits we keep and which we do not. That is okay as far as it goes, but there could be a massive sting in the tail.

The process might, for example, include repealing the European Economic Area Act 1993, which underpins our place in the single market. I see no circumstances in which I could vote for us to leave the single market. The Prime Minister might want us to think that the EU and the single market are the same thing, but they are not—the lie has to be nailed. I want to stay in the EU, but if Parliament is engaged in a damage limitation exercise, we must stay in the single market and in the customs union. I am not prepared to risk the queue of lorries at Dover and the queue of people outside Lewisham job centre that is associated with the alternatives.

The UK should be a country in which businesses want to invest, not a country that businesses want to leave. We need to maintain the ease with which British businesses trade with their European counterparts and sell to European consumers. We have seen the list of companies setting up operations overseas and considering their next move. In London, firms such as Deutsche Bank, Goldman Sachs and Lloyds of London are moving jobs to France and Germany. Yes, those are City firms, but we should also think of all the other jobs linked to our capital’s status as one of the world’s financial centres: in retail, hospitality and events management; and those of the couriers, cleaners and caterers who are up at the crack of dawn and sit on buses running through my constituency to keep this incredible city running.

Services account for nearly 80% of our economy. The single market is essential if we are to continue to trade freely and easily. If we do not put the economy first in Brexit talks, we will crucify our public finances, and we can then kiss goodbye to the extra investment needed in our schools, hospitals and elderly care. These are political choices. Do we prioritise the economy or controls on immigration in the Brexit negotiations? I choose the economy. We will have an immigration Bill at some point in the next two years, but we have no idea what will be in it. We have a two-year Session because the Government cannot draft an immigration Bill, a customs Bill or a trade Bill until negotiations have advanced and they know what to put in them.

In the meantime we tread water. As a country, we control immigration from countries that represent 90% of the world’s population. We have the more relaxed system of freedom of movement for the 10% who live in the countries closest to us, which by and large enjoy a standard of living that is either comparable to or approaching our own, but even within that more relaxed system, we could have had—and could still have—greater controls within the overall framework: the need to have a job, for example, or to be self-sustaining after three months of being here. We have the laxest approach to freedom of movement. We have chosen not to place conditions on people coming here, but then blamed the EU for our own failure to enforce conditions that could be part of the system.

We now have a revolt against that and all that it entails. The truth is that we already see people not wanting to come here. They do not feel welcome and the value of their earnings has dropped because of the devalued pound. Our hospital wards, care homes, building sites, farms and restaurants will be left scrabbling around for staff while the Government work out what on earth to do. We need immigration in this country. In 1949, the year my mother was born, more than 730,000 babies were born. Average life expectancy stood at 68. Fast forward to 1975, the year of my birth, and the number of babies born was down to just over 600,000. Nearly 30% of births today are to non-UK-born mothers and average life expectancy stands at 81. Our workforce of tomorrow—the people who will start businesses, work in public services and pay taxes—is partly dependent on immigration. We should be honest about that.

When we talk in Parliament about the causes of and solutions to our housing shortage, and about the pressures on our National Health Service, we should spend as much time focusing on our ageing population as we do on immigration. It is not a queue of migrants that I see at the doors of A&E; it is a queue of frail, disorientated older people. When I go door to door, even in a relatively young part of the country such as Lewisham, I am amazed by the number of older people living alone, barely moving out of one room. A failure to have an honest debate about that, and a failure to look at the evidence and come up with real solutions, will mean we spend the next few years focusing on completely the wrong priorities. That is my fear with the Queen’s Speech. It is my fear about how the Brexit debate dominates everything else, and it is the responsibility of our politics, irrespective of party lines, to find some answers.

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