Speaking in the debate on the Queen’s Speech, Charles Walker welcomes proposals to tackle abuse of zero-hours contracts, calls for more and better quality housing and the expansion of shared ownership to increase peoples’ stake in the community.
Mr Charles Walker (Broxbourne) (Con): Thank you, Mr Deputy Speaker, for calling me to speak in this debate on the last Queen’s Speech before the general election. I spoke in the debate on this Government’s first Queen’s Speech in 2010, absented myself from the next three and arrived just in time for the fifth.
There are many good things in this Queen’s Speech—that is obvious—but I was drawn to one key sentence, which states:
“A key priority for my ministers will be to continue to build an economy that rewards those who work hard.”
That is what it is all about. In Broxbourne, good men and women wake up every morning and head off to work in order to do the right thing: pay their mortgage, put food on the table for their families, raise their children and be good citizens. They are undemanding people, but they are the backbone of this country and they need to know that the Government are on their side.
I want to pick out two or three very important things from the Queen’s Speech. The first relates to zero-hours contracts. My background is as a recruiter and traditionally I have been pro flexible labour markets, but I find zero-hours contracts slightly abhorrent, to be perfectly honest. In a previous life, I used to write company reports for plcs, and one of the great lines I used to craft was, “Our people are our greatest asset.” It was corporate social responsibility nonsense. To be perfectly honest, a lot of what is written in company reports by large plcs is hot air and waffle.
I do not think that responsible employers should be going down the route of zero-hours contracts. They have a minimum obligation to the people who work for them, and I do not think that zero-hours contracts meet that obligation. Personally, I would do away with all these corporate social responsibility statements in company annual reports. I think they are meaningless. What we need to know is how these companies treat the people who work for them. How do they look after them? How do they pay them? How do they take care of them when they fall ill or when they have a mental health or physical health crisis? That is what it is all about and we as shareholders, politicians and the public need to ask demanding questions of the companies, because, other than the numbers, what is written on the pages of a company report is absolutely meaningless.
It is critical that the men and women in my constituency who own, manage and run small businesses are confident that the large multinationals are paying their taxes. I receive weekly complaints from hard-working men and women about letters they have received from Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs crafted in a very aggressive way. These people are working extremely hard. They are conscientious, law abiding and the backbone of the economy. It really sticks in their craw when they see large multinationals such as Starbucks and Amazon appear before Select Committees and readily admit that they pay no or almost no corporation tax in this country. We talk about remaining competitive and being attractive for overseas investment, but let us be honest: these companies are here because they need our markets and access to the 65 million potential customers who live in this country.
I am delighted that this coalition Government and this Conservative Prime Minister are looking at zero-hours contracts and corporate social responsibility, and that they will challenge and pursue companies that do not meet their obligations under the minimum wage. All of us in this place, regardless of where we sit, are on the side of the men and women who, day in and day out, try their damnedest to do the right thing. We are not here to protect the vested interest, be it in the City or large corporate boardrooms; we are here to look after those people who go out and vote. Corporations do not vote, but people running businesses in our constituencies vote, and they are the ones doing the right thing.
Mr Speaker, as you magically appear in the Chair to replace Mr Deputy Speaker, let me wind up by having one last thrash around the important issue of housing. Colleagues will be familiar with families—they come to our surgeries almost weekly—who are working extremely hard to do the right thing. They do not have high-paying jobs, and probably never will have, but they are making all the right decisions that we value and on which we place emphasis. Both adults are in work and are conscientious, and both are committed to their community, their workplace and their family. They have not had numerous children, but have perhaps limited themselves to one or two because, as they say, “That’s what we can afford, Mr Walker.” They have been on a housing waiting list for 10 years while living in a one-bedroom flat with two children. That is not right. We need a system that rewards such hard workers and people who try desperately hard to make the right and responsible decisions.
On the vexed issue of housing, it is simply an inescapable truth that we need to build not just more homes, but better homes—places where people actually want to live—and that we need to build communities, not boxes. Some of the recent development in the past decade or 15 years in my constituency is simply not up to scratch: it is just not good enough. If we are to persuade communities in this country to take more houses, people have got to want them, so they have got to be high-quality houses that will create a community and allow it to grow and prosper. I ask the Government and people in public life to be more imaginative about the provision of affordable housing.
One key thing in society is to give people a stake in society. It is impossible to imagine that everybody could afford to go out and buy their own home, even with Help to Buy—it is just not possible for people in every circumstance to raise the money to buy a home of their own—but it is possible to give them the opportunity to own part of a home through shared ownership. Shared ownership has been around for several years. We need to promote it and to make it more available. Their share does not have to be 50% or 75%; it could start at 5% or 10%. It would, however, give people a stake in their community.
Doing so would also overcome much of the hostility to social and affordable housing. I find it extraordinary that people who are good, kind and decent for 99.9% of their life turn up at my surgery shaking with rage about social housing being built, saying, “What type of people will we get in our community, Mr Walker? Who are these people?” I reply, “Well, they might be nurses, teachers or police officers.” “Really?” they ask. “Of course,” I reply. Those types of people now cannot afford to buy a home in many parts of the country, even with Help to Buy and the other great initiatives promoted by the Government. Let us be imaginative about housing, let us embrace new forms of ownership and let us give people a real chance of owning, living in or having a stake in a quality home in a quality community that gives them a high quality of life.
I have detained the House long enough. I am extremely proud to be a Conservative MP. I have enjoyed it immensely for the past 10 years and I hope that I will get another chance to be Broxbourne’s Member of Parliament after the general election in 2015. However, that is not in my gift, but in the gift of my constituents. What will matter next year is whether people feel confident that the Government will be sound in their management of the country’s finances. When people go and put a tick in the box—whoever they vote for—they will be thinking, “Which party offers me the best chance with my mortgage? Which party offers me the best chance of having a job that is secure and that offers the hope of promotion and advancement? Which party offers me the best chance of having a good school at the end of my road that I can get my children into, so that they have the best chance in life?” Those are the things that matter. My party does not have a monopoly on great ideas; there are many good people on the Labour Benches. I hope that in 2015 we have a mature debate about the issues that really matter to our constituents. I look forward to engaging in that debate, to touring the wonderful sunlit uplands of Broxbourne and to bringing joy and hope to those whom I represent.