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Queen's Speech Debate January 20, 2020, Economy and Jobs

Sarah Olney (Richmond Park) (LD I rise in support of the amendment standing in the name of my right hon friend the Member for Kingston and Surbiton (Sir Edward Davey).​

This, of course, is not my maiden speech, although it is the first time I have spoken in the Chamber after an enforced absence of two and a half years—not quite as long as the break that the Conservatives have taken in representing Newcastle-under-Lyme.

The hon. Member for Newcastle-under-Lyme (Aaron Bell) gave us a very entertaining maiden speech, for which I thank him. I welcome him to the House.This year is likely to be a watershed for the British economy and will have long-lasting impacts on the shape of our nation’s employment. After three and a half years of wrangling, we stand here on the verge of leaving the European Union. We will be abandoning the structures that have underpinned our economy for 40 years; that have enabled businesses across this country to grow their market without barriers or obstacles; that fostered relationships between individuals and organisations to their mutual benefit; and that gave us the easy access to a wider range of goods and services than we could produce ourselves. They gave our young people the option to travel freely across 28 countries, and gave us the benefit of the skills and experience of people who could travel freely back to us.

Although I reluctantly concede that Brexit is now happening, I continue to be baffled as to why. Given that delivering Brexit was the centre of the Conservative manifesto, I was hoping that my confusion could be cleared up by reference to their programme for government. The Queen’s Speech opens by telling us that the Government plans to make the most of the opportunities that Brexit brings for all the people of the United Kingdom, but there is no further mention of what the opportunities are or what the Government plan to do to make the most of them.

Dr Lisa Cameron (East Kilbride, Strathaven and Lesmahagow) (SNP) I thank the hon. Lady for giving way. She is making an excellent speech.

In relation to making sure that the economy works for everyone, does she agree that it is extremely important that the economy works for people with disabilities, so that they are able to get into employment?

We should also champion opportunity for people with disabilities to become entrepreneurs themselves and to run businesses, because without everyone being involved in the economy, it is really worth nothing at all for anybody.

Sarah Olney I thank the hon. Member for her intervention. I agree 100% with her points.

It is striking how often the words “maintain”, “continue” and, dare I say, “remain” appear in the briefing notes about the planned financial services legislation. The importance of the financial services sector to our economy is underlined, but the message is that, far from leveraging the opportunities of leaving the EU to enhance this key sector, every effort must be made to keep things exactly as they are. That is in direct contrast to the comments last week of the outgoing Governor of the Bank of England, who said that close alignment on financial services would not be in the UK’s interests, as we would effectively be surrendering control of regulations to a body over which we have no power. That surely highlights the conundrum at the heart of Brexit. Do we want close alignment with the EU to smooth the path of our ​exports, or do we want to take control of our own destiny and set our own rules?

The Queen’s Speech, alas, gives us no indication of the path that the Government plan to take.We see that conundrum highlighted further in the trade Bill. Its commitments to transitioning trade agreements that we are currently party to as members of the EU are undermined by the Chancellor’s comments at the weekend that he wishes to see no alignment with the EU.

We cannot transition trade agreements smoothly if we wish to renegotiate the terms on which they are agreed. Again, there is no clarity on what the Government have chosen—alignment without influence or frictionless trade? Are we to have cake or will we eat it? The Government announced their plans to set up a UK-based body to plead with the international community not to be unkind to UK firms. I wait eagerly to see whether this policy is more effective at protecting the interests of UK businesses than having a seat at the table of international rule-setting trade bodies.

The Liberal Democrats made changes to business rates a central part of our 2019 manifesto, because we recognise that urgent reform of this regressive tax is required to support small businesses and revive town centres. I therefore welcome the Government’s commitment to conducting a fundamental review of business rates, but I regret that they do not use their substantial majority in this place to commit to a more radical change.

The Government state in the briefing notes that they recognise“the role of business rates as a source of local authority income”,as if to warn us that we can have thriving town centres or well-funded local services, but not both. It is disingenuous of the Government to pretend that they cannot resolve this conundrum through proper reform of local government finance.

I welcome the Government’s commitment to protect and enhance workers’ rights as the UK leaves the EU, but regret that they have not provided more detail as to exactly how those rights would be upheld. Liberal Democrats would like to see employees on zero-hours contracts given the right to request a permanent contract after 12 months, but the Government only commit to enabling them to request a more predictable contract—a guaranteed single hour of work, perhaps.

It is disappointing that there has been no mention in the Queen’s Speech of reforming either the loan charge or the IR35 regime. The loan charge is causing intense distress to innocent taxpayers up and down the country that is unlikely to be alleviated by the recent recommendations from Sir Amyas Morse, and the IR35 legislation—a looming disaster for the self-employed in the private sector—is not mentioned either. The Chancellor has only committed to a review.

I take this opportunity to highlight the excellent neonatal unit at Kingston Hospital in my constituency, and the fantastic staff who work there. I should also like to mention the charity Born Too Soon, which does amazing work supporting families whose babies have to stay at the unit. To my deep and lasting sadness, we were once one of those families, so I feel qualified to welcome uncritically the Government’s commitment to paid neonatal leave for those parents who find themselves in that incredibly difficult position.​

The Prime Minister promised us a radical and reforming Queen’s Speech, but the most striking feature of its plans for the economy and jobs is its timidity and uncertainty. There is bold talk of making the most of the opportunities presented by Brexit, but very little detail. It is almost as though the Government are not really sure what they want to do with the Brexit that they secured a mandate for. If the best they can come up with is to commit to keeping everything just the same as it was, I am forced to wonder why on earth we are leaving the European Union at all.

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