Queen’s Speech

14th October 2019

Andrew Mitchell welcomes the Queen’s Speech and the principle of a one nation approach in Britain.

Rt Hon Andrew Mitchell MP speaking in the House of Commons, October 2019

I am most grateful to have the opportunity to contribute relatively early in this Queen’s Speech debate, and I draw the House’s attention to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests.

It is, of course, a great pleasure to follow the hon. Member for East Dunbartonshire (Jo Swinson), the leader of the Liberal Democrats. She and I worked together during the coalition Government—a rather good government, Mr Speaker, I hope you might agree—and I echo her comments about Paddy Ashdown, whose memorial service a number of us attended in Westminster Abbey just a few weeks ago. I worked closely with him during the coalition. He was a tremendous force for good in the international development world as well as being a great parliamentarian with a hugely distinguished career in politics behind him. I can honestly say that we miss him very much indeed in the international development firmament, so it was good that the hon. Lady chose to say what she did.

I also congratulate the mover and the seconder of the Loyal Address today, a task which I undertook 27 years ago, although it feels like only yesterday. I can still remember the fear and trepidation that attended me as I sat where my hon. Friend the Member for North East Derbyshire (Lee Rowley) is sitting and announced that the address was being seconded by

“an oily young man on the make”.—[Official Report, 6 May 1992; Vol. 207, c. 56.]

You can tell, Mr Speaker, that not much has changed in that respect.

I am one of those who believes that today’s Queen’s Speech encapsulates the most important principles of a one nation approach in Britain today. I have the privilege of being the secretary of the one nation group of Conservative parliamentarians and, away from the sound and fury of politics in the run-up to the approaching general election, there is much in the speech that can be welcomed. My hon. Friend the Member for Chatham and Aylesford (Tracey Crouch) set out several of the key measures that ought to carry strong support across the whole House.

The wings of the momentous decisions on Europe that we will be making in the next few days span the whole of British politics. The hon. Member for East Dunbartonshire said much about Europe that is of concern to all of us. However, she was, in a way, talking about a world before the referendum. Once the referendum had taken place, these arguments were put to bed. In my view, we are all committed to implementing the referendum result and I speak as someone who voted to remain and whose constituents declined to support that—but only just. I think that the sooner we are able to implement the result of the referendum, the better.

Why was it that we did not leave on 29 March? Was it not because Conservative Members consistently did not vote together for a particular Brexit proposal?

With the greatest of respect, the hon. Lady has something of a brass neck by intervening with that. Most Conservative Members, most of the time, voted in favour of a deal and it is the party opposite that has not voted in favour of a deal. I respect the result of the referendum and I voted for the deal on the past two occasions it came before the House, believing that at that point there was too little room for manoeuvre and that it was in the best interests of those I represent in the royal town of Sutton Coldfield to vote for it. So I can see no reason not to support the deal I expect my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister to put before the House shortly. The message I get, particularly outside the M25 beltway, is that people want this done. They want to move on. When the House meets in extraordinary circumstances next Saturday, they want a deal to be secured and for us to move on to the next phase. It will only be the next phase, of course, but it will be psychologically important to the markets.

I reinforce the point I made to the right hon. Member for Ross, Skye and Lochaber (Ian Blackford). Any form of Brexit is potentially so damaging to the interests of my constituents. I must put my constituency first, which is why I cannot vote for any form of deal. I want to make that plain and have it on the record. My constituents must come first.​

To be fair, across the House, nearly all of us are doing what we think is in the best interests of our constituents. In my judgment, the best interests of my constituents are represented by drawing a line and moving on. There are tremendously important negotiations to come, of course, but once we have left the European Union, as we are bound to do following the referendum, we can start to repair two key things that need so much to be repaired. The first is the deep, deep divisions that run throughout our society, throughout all our constituencies and throughout the four kingdoms of the United Kingdom. A second referendum, which will clearly be very much in contention over the next few days, is a ghastly prospect, particularly as it would put back yet further the important and necessary act of healing the terrible divisions that disfigure our country.

Does the right hon. Gentleman accept that people out there are saying they want Brexit to be over? They do not want to get Brexit done; they want to get it over. The simplest way to get it over is to put the deal to the people, and then we could see Brexit as it really is, warts and all. The people could then decide, once and for all, whether this is what they want. Is it more money, more control and more jobs? No. People do not want it. Let us get it over, and let us have that vote. Otherwise we will not be getting it done; we will have years and years of trade negotiation and poverty.

I do not agree with the hon. Gentleman. I think he is arguing for a second referendum—a confirmatory vote. I cannot think of anything more likely to exacerbate and perpetuate these deep, deep divisions that disfigure our country than going on, month after month, for a second referendum. It is now for the House to decide whether we can secure a deal, and I very much hope the House will decide that on Saturday.

The second thing, and it bears upon the Gracious Speech, is that a resolution to Brexit at the weekend will allow Britain to re-engage internationally. As the House will be aware, our reputation has plummeted over the past three years. We have been absent from parade on a number of big issues where Britain had previously shown great leadership, such as migration, climate change, protectionism, terrorism and the desperate threats that the Kurds face today. Britain’s voice needs to be heard trenchantly on these issues and, over the past three years, Brexit has prevented that from happening.

Climate change, for example, was mentioned in the Queen’s Speech. I have talked to some of the Extinction Rebellion people who blockaded the streets around Westminster over the last week or so. It is easy to mock these people, but there is something rather noble about the cause they espouse. Talking to some of them while negotiating my way through Trafalgar Square on my bicycle has been interesting and constructive, but the problem is that, in attacking this Government, they are attacking the wrong target.

Britain has been a leader in tackling climate change at the major international forums of the UN and elsewhere. I pay particular tribute to important work by Lord Turner and his colleagues on the Committee on Climate Change. Britain has put its money where its mouth is in tackling climate change internationally, as well as domestically. Starting with the coalition, when I had some responsibility for these matters, we allocated some £7 billion for the international climate fund. For 2016-2021 we allocated £5.8 billion, from our hard-pressed taxpayers, for adaptation and mitigation of climate change. As the Prime Minister said, we are projected to spend £11.6 billion between 2021 and 2026. In addition, we are streets ahead of some of our European friends and neighbours in developing the technology, and here I highlight the Ayrton fund, which has allocated £1 billion for innovative technology. Britain has standards and an approach to climate change, both in adaptation and mitigation, that have been enormously effective. It is also worth bearing in mind that, this year, for the first time since the industrial revolution, we will consume more energy from renewables and nuclear power than from coal and gas.

I concur entirely with the right hon. Gentleman’s aspiration for Britain to continue to lead internationally on key issues such as climate change, but does he not agree that Britain’s role internationally will be diminished if it is no longer a member of the EU? Britain has played a leading role on these issues within the EU and internationally partly because it has been a member of the EU, and it will be difficult for us to retain our status if it departs the EU.

The argument the hon. Lady puts is the one that led me to vote to remain. I did not feel that the architecture of the EU was enormously compelling, but I did think that most of the problems, some of which I listed, were best handled by a more international approach. That is something where we are on the back foot. Nevertheless, it would be wrong not to conclude that, even outside the EU, working closely with our allies and partners in NATO, the United Nations, Europe and the Commonwealth, we can still have an immense footprint in tackling these important issues.

I wish to mention one way in which, under climate change funding, we can do more of this. We have seen Britain leading in the vital, world-changing area of educating girls. That was certainly done in the Blair and Brown years, and it was given a strong boost during the coalition years through the girls education challenge fund, which was designed to get 1 million girls into school in areas where they have been denied any form of education. Of course the Prime Minister, both in his current role and as Foreign Secretary, has made a staunch stand in favour of that.

I want to see, as a result of the Queen’s Speech and of policy development, Britain doing much more to clean up the oceans of the planet. That is a good use of the development budget; millions of very poor people earn their living from the seas. Plastic has now reached almost the remotest places on earth. It has been found 11 km deep in the ocean and even on the island of St Helena, which is thousands of miles from the nearest landform and where, incidentally, the airport is proving to be such a success. By 2050, there will be more plastic than fish in the oceans of our planet. The Government’s policy domestically has been very successful in terms of curtailing the use of plastic bags and microbeads, and from April next year we will ban plastic straws. The Government have also been very successful in using the market to achieve these desirable results wherever they can. This is an area where British leadership could have a big impact. So I urge the Government to put not only the money from the international development budget—or a proportion of it—but the considerable intellectual weight of British thinking and activity in the international forums behind that initiative.

The next point I wish to make about the Queen’s Speech certainly complements a one nation Queen’s Speech and, I hope, a one nation Budget in due course. I wish to stand up for capitalism and free markets, which are under great pressure, not least from the Leader of the Opposition, as was said earlier. We need to do more to stand up for capitalism and free markets and to explain why free enterprise has been such a powerful engine of advancement and social elevation, particularly for those who are among the least well off. It has always been the case that Governments have hedged around the free market system with rules, taxes and laws to stem excesses and excessive greed.

We recently watched the sad demise of Thomas Cook—now mercifully in the hands of Hays Travel—with a consequent loss of livelihoods and jobs and the inconvenience caused to hundreds of thousands of people who were coming back from their holiday. Is it right in Britain today that the chief executive officer of that company has been paid £8.3 million since 2014, with a £2.9 million bonus in 2015? The two chief financial officers have been paid £7 million since 2014, and the non-executive directors have been paid £4 million, including £1.6 million for the non-executive chairman. Effectively, these were the directors of the UK’s oldest travel agency, and they appear to have presided over the destruction of the business while awarding themselves collectively £47 million in pay and bonuses in the past 10 years. I submit that that brings the free enterprise system and the laws that this House should make into disrepute.

Sixty-one FTSE 100 companies do not pay the living wage to their employees. The living wage was championed effectively by the Prime Minister when he was Mayor of London and by the former Chancellor, George Osborne. For those 61 companies, the average chief executive pay is just under £4 million per year. The arguments for capitalism and free enterprise are under attack, as we shall see in the forthcoming general election. They need to be explained, defended and propagated. One of the ways in which we do that is by demonstrating fairness in the way that the system works.

Let me conclude on another point relating to one nation fairness. It has to do with homelessness. Led by our West Midlands Mayor, Andy Street, we are doing our best to eradicate this problem. Last Friday, our mayor was at Aston Villa with 130 people who slept out voluntarily to raise money to help to tackle the curse of rough sleeping. Throughout the west midlands, good progress has been made in offering rough sleepers accommodation: via Housing First we have got 94 people into accommodation—far more than the other two pilot areas have achieved. Housing First also provides the support that individuals need, including drug and alcohol programmes and mental health support. We all understand and know of the complexities involved. Progress is being made, but it is not just about money. The Government have been pretty generous, with £100 million going towards the rough sleeping strategy. In Sutton Coldfield, we currently have four rough sleepers. We have two extremely well-run food banks that operate and help in a wider area than just the royal town. One man has been sleeping rough in our park for more than 20 years.

The reason I mention that is that I do not think any of us can sleep easy knowing about the extent of rough sleeping throughout Britain and in our cities. In November 2018, the count of rough sleepers in Birmingham stood at 91. That was an increase from the previous year and a big increase indeed since 2010. The number of new homeless is showing no signs of slowing. It is a complex and difficult problem and it is not just about finance and funding, but I hope that this good, one nation Queen’s Speech, which I strongly support, will not neglect this vulnerable cohort in our communities and will regard reversing this most unfortunate trend as a very high priority indeed.