Responding to the Queen’s Speech – a nerve racking Commons occasion!
This afternoon I stood in a packed House of Commons for the most nerve racking speech of my career so far. After the pomp and pageantry of the Queen’s Speech (for which I had a bird’s eye view from the Lords Gallery) MPs debate the speech over several days. By tradition, the debate is initiated by two backbench MPs, formally presenting a “Humble Address” of thanks to Her Majesty. I was one of the MPs to be given that honour today.
While I am well used to speaking in the Commons, the Humble Address is a major Commons event for which the chamber is packed. The speech is meant to be a mixture of the serious and light hearted. The Commons has been described as the most formidable theatre of debate in the world. On this occasion most MPs across all parties wish you well but you are aware of the schadenfreude that might be felt if you crash and burn. It’s also an extremely rare occasion when all the party leaders are listening and the Prime Minister and Opposition Leader refer to you in their own speeches. So the stakes were high!
Anyway I managed to turn my back of an envelope notes scribbled on the train yesterday into a ten minute speech. To my huge relief, it seemed to go well and colleagues from all parties have been making kind comments all afternoon.
Here’s the Hansard official record of what I said, following Conservative MP Peter Luff, who mentioned his hero was Brunel:
It is an honour to second the motion on the Humble Address and a particular pleasure to follow my hon. Friend the Member for Mid Worcestershire (Peter Luff). I guess that that might be the first of several valedictory speeches we will hear from him over the next two years. When he does reach retirement after the next general election, the third age of life, I invite him to visit my constituency, where he will see the greatest concentration of Brunel heritage assets anywhere, including the Clifton suspension bridge, Bristol Temple Meads station and SS Great Britain. He will be most welcome.
I am sure that most of us, whether we saw it in person or watched it on television, will have enjoyed the pageantry of the state opening of Parliament. My first experience of royal London was as a school boy, when I stayed with my grandmother’s sisters in north London in the late 1970s and early 1980s. My Aunty Eve and Aunty Edith lived in Finchley. I was somewhat surprised, when walking down the high street, to see framed photographs of the local Member of Parliament at the time, Mrs Thatcher. It was something of a culture shock for a valleys boy from the mining village of Abercynon in south Wales. I do not know, Mr Speaker, whether there are such framed photographs of you or, indeed, whether there are framed photographs of the current Prime Minister in his constituency, but I remember at the Liberal Democrat spring conference in Sheffield a couple of years ago being somewhat startled to be confronted by enormous billboards paid for by Unite—an organisation which, if I may say so, funds quite a lot of mischief around the country—that were adorned with a curious image of a creature called Cleggzilla who was trampling public services before him. [Interruption.] Mischief, as I said.
Mrs Thatcher—this will not surprise you, Mr Speaker, or anyone else—is certainly not my political hero. My political hero is one of the other contenders for the greatest Prime Minister of the 20th century: Lloyd George. I first saw a statue of Lloyd George by Caernarfon castle and I visited the library and museum about him at Llanystumdwy—another boyhood holiday destination, Butlins in Pwllheli in north Wales, which is perhaps not quite so familiar to most members of the Cabinet. Lloyd George and Asquith laid the foundations of the welfare state, including the old age pension. I am therefore delighted that one of the key announcements in today’s Queen’s Speech is a further radical reform of the state pension that will correct an injustice that has been within the system for many decades for those who stay at home to look after their children. I am also delighted that the single-tier state pension is to be taken through Parliament by my Greater Bristol parliamentary colleague, the pensions Minister, my hon. Friend the Member for Thornbury and Yate (Steve Webb).
Lloyd George headed a Liberal-Conservative coalition that broke up 81 years ago. I understand that our current coalition colleagues recently celebrated the anniversary of their 1922 committee, but I am sure that rumours of a new 2015 committee are unfounded. I have heard the Prime Minister say that he has a better relationship with the 1922 committee than some of his predecessors. The Prime Minister and I were born within 48 hours of each other. For the avoidance of doubt, he is the older of the two, but I can see from this vantage point that genetics have been kinder to him than they have to me, particularly in the tonsorial department, both in colour and cover. While our family and school circumstances were quite different, we must have had similar cultural reference points and experiences during the 1970s and ’80s. I believe that he was a fan of The Smiths—though I understand that the feeling is not entirely mutual—while I preferred Duran Duran and ABBA, with my favourite song being “Dancing Queen”, which will not come as much of a surprise to many of my colleagues.
That leads me, almost neatly, into one of the great social reforms of this Parliament, and that is of course gay marriage. The right of same-sex couples to demonstrate their love and commitment to each other before their family and friends will be a lasting social reform of this Parliament. The legislation is brought forward by this coalition Government but supported by Members from all parties around the House. Bristol West has three Quaker meeting houses, a Unitarian chapel and a reform synagogue, so the country’s first same-sex marriage may well be in my own constituency—but, personally, I am still waiting for my own Prince Charming so that I may be able to take advantage of this new legal right.
Whatever the background of my constituents, my Lib Dem colleagues and I want to build for them a stronger economy and a fairer society where everyone is able to get on in life. We already know that by the end of this tax year the amount of pay that people can take home free of income tax will have been raised to £10,000. It was announced today in the Queen’s Speech that there will be a national insurance contributions Bill giving employers a £2,000 national insurance credit, enabling them to take on take on new employees. That means that a business could take on four adults on the national minimum wage and pay no national insurance. Moreover, 450,000 small businesses will have their national insurance bills eliminated completely. We have cut taxes for people in work and we are also cutting national insurance and reforming child care to enable people to enter or stay in employment.
In Bristol, the new enterprise zone around Bristol Temple Meads station will become a hub for media businesses. Bristol already has a worldwide reputation for film making, with Aardman Animations perhaps the most famous, especially for its cartoon characters, Wallace and Gromit. This summer, Bristol will be adorned with 80 statues of its most famous animated dog, and they will be sold at a “Gromit Unleashed” auction in order to raise money for the Bristol children’s hospital. Before that auction takes place, I would like to invite the Leader of the Opposition to come to Bristol to pose next to a statue of Gromit—I am sure the cartoonists would be delighted.
I came into politics to tackle the social inequality—particularly in education and health—that I found in the village where I grew up and in the city where I have lived all my adult life. Bristol has some schools where almost everyone achieves high grades and proceeds to university, but there are also some schools in the city where expectations historically have been the opposite. I am delighted that the Lib Dem policy of the pupil premium, brought into life by this coalition Government, is already giving extra resources for each child on free school meals and will make a huge difference to their life chances.
Health inequalities are also stark in Bristol. The biggest cause of early death is, of course, smoking. If I am allowed on this occasion to express one disappointment with the Queen’s Speech, it is with the lack of new measures to reduce the number of children taking up smoking. The regulation of lobbyists was also absent from the Queen’s Speech. I am sure that some will conclude that tobacco lobbyists will celebrate that as a double victory.
Many of us will be pondering the lessons and meanings of last week’s local election results. Perhaps, as Disraeli said,
“England does not love coalitions.”—[Official Report, 16 December 1852; Vol. 123, c. 1,666.]
I do not think so. All three main parties should be concerned about why people are turning to what might be thought of as marginal parties. Robert Kennedy, when trying to understand the appeal of Governor Wallace of Alabama, said:
“About one-fifth of the people are against everything all of the time.”
We need to think about how to counter this new, curious alliance of Nigels, who both advocate withdrawal from Europe and deny the human contribution to climate change.
On the European Union, Europhiles, such as me and many of my colleagues, and Euro-pragmatists in the Government need to make the case for Britain’s participation in Europe, and we need to do so with some urgency. On the EU, immigration and climate change, I believe that leadership, not followership, is required.
Finally, my most illustrious predecessor as MP for the historic city of Bristol was Edmund Burke. He had much to say on that matter and wrote to his constituents:
“it ought to be the happiness and glory of a representative to live in the strictest union, the closest correspondence, and the most unreserved communication with his constituents.”
He concluded his address to the electors of Bristol:
“Your representative owes you, not his industry only, but his judgment; and he betrays, instead of serving you, if he sacrifices it to your opinion.”
That is all very well, but I am afraid that in 1780 the electors of Bristol showed Mr Burke the door. In 2013 we have to listen as well as lead. I am not sure what Edmund Burke would have made of 38 Degrees.
I would like to thank all of my constituents in Bristol West for the hundreds of letters and e-mails they send me every month, and I am sure there will be plenty on this Queen’s Speech. It is with them uppermost in my mind and on behalf of my 92,000 electors in Bristol West that I say that it has been a pleasure and a privilege to second this Humble Address to Her Majesty, thanking her for her Gracious Speech today.