Queen's Speech Debate

22nd June 2017
David Gauke winds up the day’s debate on welfare and housing issues.
 

It is a great pleasure to conclude this debate on the Gracious Speech. I thank all hon. Members from all parties who have contributed. Members from all parts of the United Kingdom have covered a wide range of subjects and it has been a very good and insightful debate.

I will not respond to every Member who has spoken, but I will respond particularly to those who made their maiden speeches, beginning with the hon. Member for Kensington (Emma Dent Coad). It is difficult to imagine that there has ever been a Member of Parliament who has faced such a daunting challenge in their constituency in their first few days in office, and she has conducted herself with great sensitivity and energy. She made a very moving speech earlier today in which she spoke of her constituency generally, but she particularly and rightly focused on Grenfell Tower, the families she has met and the tales of the desperate situations that her constituents have faced. I congratulate her on the way she spoke and the way she has conducted herself as a Member of Parliament.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Berwickshire, Roxburgh and Selkirk (John Lamont) on an excellent maiden speech. He spoke powerfully about his constituency and his particular constituency focuses and showed his depth of knowledge of the borderlands. I also noted that he managed to deliver a perfectly timed speech, which is an attribute that I am sure will attract the attention of the Whips. I suspect he will be much in demand in future months.

I also congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Aldershot (Leo Docherty), who spoke of his town and told us much about its history. As a former soldier, he has an appropriate background for an Aldershot Member of Parliament. He paid tribute to his predecessor, Gerald Howarth, who was a good friend to many of us here. On that note, I also congratulate the hon. Member for Enfield, Southgate (Bambos Charalambous), who spoke about the tolerance and diversity in London and within his constituency, and about his own family’s story. He also paid generous tribute to David Burrowes, with whom I shared an office for five years and who is a good friend. I welcome the opportunity to wish him well, as the hon. Gentleman did.

I also congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Middlesbrough South and East Cleveland (Mr Clarke) on an excellent speech. He spoke warmly of all of his many predecessors and demonstrated a great love of Teesside and a desire to represent it as the first Conservative MP for his constituency for some time. They did not give maiden speeches, but I welcome back to the House the hon. Member for Eastbourne (Stephen Lloyd), with whom I suspect I will debate on many occasions, and my hon. Friend the Member for Richmond Park (Zac Goldsmith). I also thank the shadow Work and Pensions Secretary for her welcome to me in my new position. I congratulate her on her reappointment. Today may mark one of our friendlier debates, but I hope that we can have a constructive working relationship in the period ahead.

I referred to the maiden speech of the hon. Member for Kensington. Clearly, Grenfell Tower has cast a large shadow over our debate. There have been several excellent contributions, particularly that of the hon. Member for Westminster North (Ms Buck), who previously represented that part of London. It is a terrible tragedy and all our thoughts are with those affected and the families who are grieving.

Our priority is to ensure that the people affected by the fire get the financial help they need. We have staff on the ground who are handling people’s benefits claims sensitively and flexibly. For example, they are ensuring that payments continue if appointments are missed and that jobseeking requirements are suspended for as long as needed. The Department for Work and Pensions has also made sure that people’s benefits will not be affected by payments from the discretionary fund. The local authority has assigned key workers to affected households to ensure that they have continuity of support—wraparound support—and we are working closely with them to provide benefit advice and support.

Money is available from the £5 billion discretionary fund to meet funeral costs. The Department for Work and Pensions administers funeral expenses payments and the local authority also has funds to support people who cannot afford funeral costs. It is important that all parts of government work together to provide the necessary support for the people of Grenfell Tower and the surrounding areas.

The debate on Grenfell Tower has also shone a light on the wider issue of housing. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government set out the Government’s position. It is worth reminding the House that we have a proud record since 2010. We have overseen the building of nearly 1 million new homes and helped around 400,000 households to get on the property ladder through Help to Buy. However, with housing becoming increasingly unaffordable, there is much more to do. My hon. Friend the Member for Hertsmere (Oliver Dowden) made that point. We have set out our strategy in the housing White Paper and we are introducing a Bill to ban unfair tenant fees.

We will drive that forward by investing £7.1 billion through the affordable homes programme, implementing the Homelessness Reduction Act 2017 and continuing to support the regeneration of housing estates. We have not built enough homes in this country for generations. We need to build more of the right homes in the right places and ensure that the housing market works for all parts of our community.

Let me deal with some of the welfare issues that have been raised in the debate. Our welfare reforms are restoring fairness and supporting people into work. Having a welfare system that offers work for those who can, help for those who could and care for those who cannot is part of our plan to build a fair society for all. The Government have improved the chances of finding employment and we will continue to build on that achievement.

The employment rate stands at a joint record high of 74.8% while the employment rate for women is at a joint record high of 70.2%.

 

It is all zero-hours contracts.

 

There is a sedentary comment that it is all zero-hours contracts. The employment numbers that came out last week are striking because the increase was overwhelmingly a consequence of full-time employment. We must bear in mind that those on zero-hours contracts constitute, what, 3%? [Interruption.] Less than 3%: 2.8% of the overall workforce. The majority of those people, when surveyed, say that that is what suits them. Moreover, the average number of hours worked by people on zero-hours contracts is 25. Let us not mischaracterise the nature of our labour market.

Let me now deal with universal credit, a landmark reform of the welfare system that will maximise people’s chances of getting work, staying in work, and progressing into better-paid work. Universal credit is working. People move into work faster, and there are encouraging signs in that connection. The roll-out of universal credit continues to deliver to plan. It is being rolled out in a gradual, safe and secure way to ensure a successful delivery and the best service for claimants. The programme has recently passed an important milestone, with well over a million claims made and the number of claimants higher than the number of people claiming jobseeker’s allowance.

 

I am grateful to the Secretary of State for giving way, because I am aware that time is short. Does he agree that the current taper is simply inadequate in comparison with what we planned a few years ago? Given that taper, what is the advantage of going into low-paid work?

 

We reduced the taper rate recently, so we have taken steps in that direction. One of the attributes of universal credit, however, is that it does not have the cliff edges of the legacy system that we have run up to now, which features all the disincentives to work for more hours and take on more work. We believe that one of the great benefits of universal credit is that it will always be sensible to do more work. I do not know whether I am being over-ambitious, but one of my objectives as Secretary of State is to convince Opposition Members at some point that this is an important and beneficial reform, and that they should get behind it rather than opposing it. That, however, remains to be seen.

Let me now say something about disability and health. There are more than half a million more disabled people in employment than there were three years ago, and the unemployment rate is at a record low. However, we know that we have further to go. My right hon. Friend the Member for Chesham and Amersham (Mrs Gillan) spoke about the disability employment gap, and referred to our excellent record on the issue. I want to put on record that the Government are committed, and remain dedicated, to continuing our work in improving employment outcomes for people with disabilities and health conditions. We have made a commitment to get 1 million more disabled people into work over the next 10 years. That will enable them to enjoy the benefits that we know good work brings.

Let me now deal briefly with the issue of pensions. We are committed to ensuring economic security for people at every stage of their lives, including retirement. We are also clear about the fact that fairness must be maintained between the generations. The new simplified state pension provides a firm foundation on which to plan for retirement. Alongside the state pension, automatic enrolment has been introduced to ensure that the UK builds pension systems that enable individuals, with the help of their employers, to save towards achieving the lifestyle to which they aspire in retirement, and which is sustainable in the future. About 10 million people will be saving more for a private pension to top up their state pension by 2018.

The Government have worked hard to improve people’s lives. We are focusing on delivering more housing, and we have introduced successful welfare reforms on which we will continue to build. I am proud of this Conservative Government, of what we have achieved to date, and of what we have committed ourselves to achieving in this Parliament.

This is an important Gracious Speech. Part of what we will continue to do as a Government is ensure that we get people to work, reform welfare and deliver for the British people. Consequently, I commend the Gracious Speech to the House.

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Surgeries

David holds regular surgeries at various places in the constituency, including Rickmansworth, South Oxhey, Berkhamsted and Tring. 
 
Forthcoming dates:

2018
12th January - Berkhamsted
2nd February - Rickmansworth
9th February - Tring
23rd February - South Oxhey
9th March - Berkhamsted

Call 01923 771781 to make an appointment.

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