I spoke in the debate on the King’s Speech to raise issues that are important to my constituents, especially on the economy, the NHS, education, and the environment. I welcome the Government's plans to secure energy supply, reduce inflation, and support the transition to clean energy. I raised concerns from constituents around waiting times and access to NHS dentists. I took the chance to call on the Government to provide more support for schools in providing mental health support for pupils, and lowing numbers of persistently absent students. I also called for the reintroduction of tax-free shopping to foreign visitors which could add up to £4.1 billion to UK GDP annually. Finally, I updated the House on the good news that work is beginning on the A417 Missing Link/Air Balloon project!
It was wonderful to see His Majesty deliver his first Gracious Speech as King, announcing the Government’s priorities for this year. I am grateful to you, Mr Deputy Speaker, and the House for giving me the opportunity to participate in this important debate.
It is customary in this House to commend the previous speaker, but in this case, I think I will just leave it at that.
I would like to see the measures in the King’s Speech formed by the Government into a coherent narrative, so that my constituents in The Cotswolds have a clear understanding of the direction in which we wish to take this country over the next few years. This is an important opportunity to present a long-term vision.
Our foremost priority is to see our economy flourish and to alleviate the burden of the cost of living. A key component of economic growth will be securing our energy supply, including through the introduction of modular nuclear reactors, which I mentioned when I intervened on the Secretary of State. It is interesting to note that, despite the recent geopolitical tensions, gas and oil prices have stabilised to pre Russia-Ukraine conflict levels. That stability will translate into tangible relief for households this winter, as we anticipate a notable reduction in winter utility bills. The Offshore Petroleum Licensing Bill, mentioned many times in this debate, will help to protect hundreds of thousands of jobs in the energy sector and support the Government’s bid to achieve energy security.
As the Secretary of State mentioned, we should use the revenue from licensing to help to fund the transition to clean energy and jobs and to support the Government’s pragmatic approach to reaching the goal of net zero by 2050, which I know is an important commitment to my constituents. The UK is one of the first countries to commit to ending unabated coal-fuelled generation and has cut emissions by more than 40% since the turn of the century. At the same time, our economy has grown by two thirds.
Inflation, as we all know, casts a wide shadow, affecting every facet of our lives and everyone from individuals and families to businesses, Government and local authorities. I am pleased that the King’s Speech opened and closed on a goal of reducing inflation to the Bank of England’s 2% target rate, but I am concerned that while the Bank of England unbundles quantitative easing, it is busily selling bonds at today’s yields, which will lock us into high interest rates for many years to come.
I cannot conclude my speech without making a plug for tax-free shopping, which I have been championing for many years, with the help of the Association of International Retail. I called a debate in September to discuss how extending tax-free shopping to EU visitors would create a new multibillion-pound shopping-led tourism market. Restoring tax-free shopping to foreign visitors to this country would directly create 78,000 new jobs in the UK, add up to £4.1 billion to UK GDP annually, and result in a net positive for His Majesty’s Treasury of £300 million each year. I hope the Ministers on the Treasury Bench heard that, because it is important. Such a policy would be a real win for retail businesses, manufacturers and hospitality venues up and down the country.
I want to take this opportunity to reassure my constituents that the Government are steadfast in their resolve to reduce inflation, which should create the opportunity to reduce interest rates. By the turn of the year, we expect to witness a significant decrease in the rising cost of essential commodities, including food and energy, which will shore up the finances of many households.
After the economy, the second biggest issue being raised with me on the doorstep is the NHS. I acknowledge the challenges, particularly in Gloucestershire, of prolonged ambulance waiting times and bed shortages. Strides have been taken to address those concerns and we are witnessing a commendable downward trend, but we are aware of the need to make further progress, particularly by strengthening social services to provide enhanced care at home for those who need it, so that people can be discharged from hospital quickly.
Despite growing waiting lists, the NHS is treating 10% more patients than before the pandemic, and 1.42 million people came off the waiting list in August compared with 1.29 million in August 2019. We have seen improvements in the backbone of our healthcare system—GPs and dentists—particularly in Gloucestershire, I am pleased to say. We have taken steps to improve the availability of NHS treatment, and from this month a number of local dentists will be providing some additional urgent capacity on a newly commissioned contract for both in and out-of-hours work, as well as a number of stabilisation appointments. Nevertheless, it is important to tackle the bottlenecks caused by strikes by junior doctors and consultants, which hinder waiting list reduction and harm patients’ prospects. Finally, I welcome the announcements in the King’s Speech on tobacco and vaping, which will be a step in the right direction of protecting the health of future generations.
The third biggest issue raised with me when I speak to constituents is education. I had the pleasure of a productive meeting with the acting head of Cirencester College, which stands at the forefront of T-level education —a Government initiative that has witnessed a commendable increase in enrolment. With the increase from 10 to 13 T-levels Cirencester College is thriving, with a record 3,300-strong student body coming from a 60 km radius, underscoring its importance to our community. I share the acting head’s enthusiasm for the proposed advanced British standard and for increasing apprenticeships. I know the college is keen to be at the forefront of the ABS policy’s introduction, leading the way in shaping policies on advanced education. This enthusiasm stems from a belief that a blend of academic and vocational education produces rounded individuals who are better equipped for both the workforce and higher education.
None the less, we must not overlook the pressing need to address mental health concerns and absenteeism among youngsters in our schools. Government figures indicate that 54% of secondary school pupils who have some involvement with the social care system are persistently absent from school. Among other children, the figure is only 28%.
Since covid, I have worked closely with a number of schools in my constituency that have faced a growing problem with absent children or with pupils who require mental health support. Many of our teachers provide excellent help, but deep-seated problems in our society are not always recognised. Young pupils are accessing social media with their phones and setting alarms to wake them up literally in the middle of the night to see the next episode of their chosen thing. That is just one aspect of what is happening in our society today.
Our ambition to nurture some of the most highly educated pupils in the world is rooted in our desire to harness the full potential of new technologies. From groundbreaking medical advancements to the integration of AI, which we heard about in the statement to the House earlier, we are committed to modernising regulation to facilitate the growth and competitiveness of major tech firms in the UK. That has the potential to revolutionise this country, particularly in respect of some of its deep-seated problems, such as how to decarbonise and meet our 2050 targets. A series of Bills, including the Automated Vehicles Bill, the Digital Markets, Competition and Consumers Bill and the Data Protection and Digital Information Bill will be introduced to govern the actions of those global tech giants, ensuring a level playing field for established and emerging technologies.
Finally, after 15 years of campaigning for the A417 Missing Link/Air Balloon project in my constituency, I am glad to tell the House that construction is now beginning. The project will provide a safe dual road linking the M4 at Swindon to the M5 at Gloucester. What the House may not know, because I have not said this before, is that this is also an exciting project from an environmental perspective. Some 140,000 trees will be planted, a 38 metre-wide green bridge will span the road and a significant area of rare calcareous grasses will be planted. That should ensure that this big project produces a net biodiversity gain—among the first for a major road scheme in this country.
The Government must continue to build on their commendable environmental record; to lead the charge in combating climate change and particularly biodiversity loss, which has not been mentioned so far in the debate; to support developing nations in their transition to sustainable energy sources; and to hold other nations accountable for their own environmental commitment, as my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has so ably set out today.
My right hon. Friend is making an amazing speech, showing how much the Government have done for our environment. Could she give us an idea of the timetable for the small nuclear reactors and when the first one is likely to be licensed?
I thank my hon. Friend. We are working at pace to have the fastest competition possible. We have just moved past the first part of the process and will be setting out more details in the new year.
I declare my interest as a chartered surveyor. There is a scourge that we need to deal with in the Bill. I have lots of constituents living in homes on housing estates built in the past 10 years that are leasehold and have escalating ground rents. As my hon. Friend said, they did not understand the consequences when they bought those homes. We need to address that problem.
I agree. The other measure that must be introduced is to stop the scam of property developers building properties, selling the leaseholds and then selling the freehold to finance companies, which rip off the leaseholders without the leaseholders even being told that their leasehold has been sold. I have been campaigning on this issue for some time. It is the policy of some house builders in this country to do that after six months without even notifying the leaseholders. Considering that individuals might not be given the proper advice about the potential consequences during conveyancing, it is absolutely disgraceful. The final thing I will say about the leasehold reform Bill is that we need to extend the measures in the Building Safety Act 2022 to ensure that freeholders and developers are not able to escape their liabilities for building remediation work required for fire safety and beyond.