Queen’s Speech debate: the North East deserves better

Catherine spoke in yesterday’s debate in Parliament on the Queen’s Speech. You can read a copy of her speech below – or watch it here.

Catherine McKinnell: I congratulate the hon. Member for Chelmsford (Vicky Ford) on being so quick off the mark, and being the first Member to make a maiden speech in this Parliament. She made a passionate case for Chelmsford, and she is clearly not one for messing around. It is an honour to follow her.

We live in extremely challenging times, and the past year has certainly tested the resilience of Britain and its diverse communities more than any time in my adult life. I offer my heartfelt condolences to everyone affected by the absolutely appalling events at Grenfell Tower last week. Like millions across the country, many of my constituents have been deeply shocked by what happened. Like me, they want to know that the Government are doing everything in their power to ensure not just that the community and those affected have all the support that is available, but that every possible lesson is urgently learned, and changes are made so that such a sickening event, and avoidable tragedy, is never repeated.

We have also faced horrifying and senseless violence in both London and Manchester, and, again, I offer my sincere and deepest condolences to all those affected by the terror attacks. On the evening of the most recent incident, at Finsbury Park, alongside my hon. Friend the Member for Newcastle upon Tyne Central (Chi Onwurah), I had the privilege of joining a multi-faith community iftar hosted by Newcastle’s United Hebrew Congregation synagogue as part of the Great Get Together initiative in memory of our dearly loved and missed colleague Jo Cox. For me, that event – and all the moving Great Get Together events held across the country last weekend – could not have provided a clearer demonstration of Britain’s determination that hate and intolerance will not divide us.

What has also been made exceptionally clear over the last few months is the incredible professionalism, dedication and bravery of those in our emergency services. I express my deepest gratitude to them as well, knowing how tirelessly they work to keep us safe, not just during the horrific moments that we have experienced recently but all year round. As I was leaving the Great Get Together event in Newcastle, I stood at the gate with a local police officer, and together we looked back at the scene. Inside the hall, people of many faiths and none were enjoying a buffet, some breaking fast together, while outside a number of Muslims prayed together on the grass just by the entrance to the synagogue. It was a very powerful scene.

I am greatly honoured to be able to stand in the Chamber again today as the MP for Newcastle upon Tyne North, and I thank my constituents for re-electing me with an increased majority – which was particularly kind, given that 8th June was my birthday.

I am also proud to be part of the most diverse British Parliament in history, which contains more female, BME, LGBT and disabled MPs than any before, but make no mistake: there is always more work to do. What I am perhaps most heartened by, however, is the fact that my constituents re-elected me after we had championed a positive Labour message of hope and a better future for our local area and our country, as opposed to one of fear, negativity and division.

Newcastle upon Tyne North rejected a Conservative manifesto devoid of any vision, which, inexplicably, held that removing free school meals from infant school pupils and reintroducing foxhunting via a Government Bill in Government time were the sort of policies and priorities that the nation was crying out for. The Government have been forced to drop some of their worst plans, given that the outcome of the election has left their hands tied. However, I still worry that the content of the Gracious Speech shows that they are still not listening to what the public are saying about the urgent need for the economy, and the way in which the country operates, to work for the many and not just the few, so on behalf of my constituents I shall use the time available to me to set out a few of their many concerns.

This week, the Chancellor informed the nation that the Government are apparently “not deaf” to the message that they were sent at the general election, and that he has finally accepted that “people are weary of the long slog” of public spending cuts.

Well, I can tell him that people in Newcastle upon Tyne North are way beyond weary when it comes to that issue. I look forward to hearing what the Chancellor’s Damascene conversion will actually mean for public services in our area, including those provided by Newcastle City Council and Northumbria Police, which have had to make hundreds of millions of pounds worth of cuts since 2010, thus hitting people’s quality of life. There has been a seven-year assault on local services as a result of the choices made by both the coalition and Conservative Governments: my city and its communities deserve better than that.

There was no clearer message delivered during the election campaign than the growing alarm people are feeling about the Conservatives’ mismanagement and underfunding of our NHS and social care services. Anyone working on the frontline of our health service knows that it is at breaking point. Patients know it because waiting times are up – for surgery, treatment at A&E, an ambulance, mental health support, or to see a GP – while services and medicines are being rationed across England.  Hard-working, demoralised NHS staff are increasingly being asked to do more with less, which is unfair, and unsafe, for them and their patients. Scandalously, in the sixth largest economy in the world, we now have nurses turning to food banks after years of NHS pay freezes, which I again urge the Government to bring to an overdue end.

Of course, the pressures on the NHS are being exacerbated by seven years of punitive cuts to social care budgets that have left the system in crisis and far too many older and vulnerable people without the vital care and support that they need. Meanwhile, 1,000 EU staff working in the NHS in the North East remain in an unnecessary and unacceptable state of uncertainty about their future in this country. Our NHS, its staff and the people who use it deserve better than that.

There is anger that, as a result of the Conservatives’ funding plans, schools in my constituency will lose up to £800 per pupil by 2021-22. The situation is placing intolerable pressure on local schools, which now face the stark reality of bigger class sizes, losing teachers, cutting subjects and axing vital resources, and all at a time when the Government have been determined to press ahead with their totally baffling obsession with diverting funds towards free schools and grammar schools; I sincerely hope the latter are now dead in the water. Instead, I want to know what the Government are going to do about the 5,000 children living in poverty in my constituency and the 3,300 living in families with problem debt.

One of the biggest issues for thousands of my constituents remains their plight after enduring unfair changes to their pension age, with little or no notification. Their totally unacceptable treatment at the hands of this Government, after several decades of hard work, national insurance contributions, caring responsibilities and often a lifetime of discrimination, is a burning injustice that I will never stop fighting for the Government to rectify. My constituents deserve much better than that.

As I have mentioned, one of the most critical concerns for Newcastle and the North East is the creation of a fairer economy that works for everyone. We know that far too many people remain trapped in precarious, irregular and low-paid work. Of the new jobs created since 2011, one in nine is insecure. The people of the North East deserve better than that, and it requires the creation of long-term, good, skilled jobs.

I welcome the announcement in the Gracious Speech on growing Britain’s burgeoning space sector and on allowing satellites to be launched from the UK, but I will continue to press the Government to ensure that that will support businesses based in the UK, such as Spincraft in my constituency, to create and grow those good jobs of the future. I also remain concerned about Nestlé’s decision to offshore 300 jobs, including 110 from its Fawdon plant in my constituency, and particularly about the Government’s refusal to work with me, other hon. Members and the GMB union to work out how we can keep those jobs here.

It is unacceptable that Newcastle International Airport, the single largest employment site in my constituency, still has no certainty about how the Government intend to mitigate the impact of devolving Air Passenger Duty to Scotland in just over 10 months’ time. Nor do we know whether any deal with the DUP to prop up the Prime Minister’s Government will see APD in Northern Ireland on the table.

Kevan Jones (North Durham): Does my hon. Friend agree that the decision on APD will affect not just her constituency but the North East economy? Newcastle international Airport employs 3,000 people directly, but it sustains some 18,000 jobs throughout the north-east. It is an economic catalyst in the North East and any effect on that airport will have an impact on the North East economy.

Catherine McKinnell: My hon. Friend is absolutely right and comes to the heart of what the Government need to do. The Brexit negotiations have finally commenced. It is impossible to reiterate enough how important getting the right deal for the North East and its people will be, because my region possibly has the most to lose from a bad one. Almost 60% of the North East’s exports currently go to the EU. I believe it is imperative for the UK to remain within the Single Market. Taking the Single Market and Customs Union off the table before negotiations had begun was a categorical misjudgment on the Prime Minister’s part.

I understand that ad hoc meetings may have taken place, but there is still no commitment from the Government on how they will properly engage with the North East on its priorities for the Brexit negotiations throughout this historic process. Nor is there any clear means or a forum for that to take place. Alongside all the other pledges I made to my constituents during this election campaign, I will continue to fight for a Brexit that puts jobs and living standards first, because the people and businesses of the North East deserve much, much better than this.