Queen's Speech Debate

21st June 2017

Anne Main supports the Queen's Speech and highlights issues relating to St Albans.

It is a delight to follow the right hon. Member for Belfast North (Nigel Dodds), who made a very thoughtful and sensitive speech. Indeed, he expressed the sentiments of my right hon. Friend the Member for Wokingham (John Redwood), who said that, overwhelmingly, the country had delivered the parties that had promised to deliver Brexit. Only one party tried to offer some form of second referendum, and believe me, its members spent a lot of time stamping around my constituency. It is no secret that I was a leading Brexit Member of Parliament, and that 63% of my constituents had voted to remain. Even so—despite the onslaught on my constituency—the good people of St Albans returned me to Parliament for the fourth time, and I am very grateful for that.

Other Members have said today that they are not deaf to austerity and the problems that face our schools. I, too, am not deaf to the concerns that were raised in my constituency, and never intended to be. I think it behoves us all, whichever side of the argument we were on, to recognise that, overwhelmingly, the country voted to proceed with its decision to leave the European Union. They will not thank a single one of us who seeks to play political games with that, and they will not thank a single one of us who chooses to try to make a Government fall, fail, look stupid, or become mired in a business that would mean that nothing else happened and nothing got through.

I want to refer to other aspects of the Queen’s Speech, but I absolutely agree with my right hon. Friend the Member for Wokingham that it is probably the most weighty Queen’s Speech with which we have ever had to deal. I sincerely hope that we shall scrutinise it closely in all the months that lie ahead. It is a shame that the Liberal Democrats never seem to stay around to listen to or participate in any of the debates. I remember attending, with my hon. Friend the Member for Stone (Sir William Cash), a debate about a takeover of the London stock exchange by Deutsche Bourse. My hon. Friend was extremely concerned about the issue, but only five Members of Parliament turned up to scrutinise it. Eventually, it did not happen, but the point is that we all have a duty to ensure, as difficult issues arise, that we do not take a fixed, intransigent view, but try to adopt the flexible and pragmatic approach to which the right hon. Member for Belfast North referred.

I want to touch on some other things in the Queen’s Speech, because I know that we will have many nights of debate on Brexit. I am pleased to hear that the Government will work with BRE. People were trapped in Grenfell Tower. We do not know the reasons behind it all yet. People are saying that potentially it was the cladding, or it was to do with the stairwells. All of us have tower blocks in our constituencies that have been retro-fitted, amended or upgraded for insulation purposes, for example. In my constituency, and I am sure in others, there are blocks that are part privately and part publicly owned. It is only when something happens that the flaws are exposed. I have already written to my local authority—I am sure many Members have written to theirs—to ask it to evaluate the amendments that have been made to buildings of which they have a share or control. I hope that in the coming months guidance will be provided by the Government to local authorities on that matter because all sorts of things have happened to many buildings over the years and it is important that we understand what the impact has been on their safety standards.

I am delighted that the Queen’s Speech mentions helping to reduce motor insurance premiums. I and many other Members took part in a debate on that. The issue is affecting our young people, who are finding it impossible to learn to drive and to get their car insured.

 
 

In the last few years, the big driver of increases in insurance premiums has been the increase in stealth taxes, for which the hon. Lady and her Government voted.

 
 

There was me hoping for unity. I could say that it was also because the European Union decided to have equalisation and it pushed up the premiums for young women. I want to focus on my speech—other Members want to get in—and on the fact that many young people find it impossible to get affordable insurance on their cars without the bank of mum and dad. It is becoming a mobility issue for them. It is denying some of them the ability to get to work, to job opportunities or to university. I am pleased that we will look at that matter. It is long overdue.

I would also like us to look at extremism in universities and people being fearful for their personal safety because of their creed, colour, faith or gender. I am concerned about the rise of BDS— Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions—at universities. I went to a synagogue hustings; I am sure many colleagues did. I am appalled at the rise of anti-Semitism that is going on at our universities. I wish to highlight that as much as the anti-Muslim sentiment that has been expressed. I am pleased that the Charity Commission is looking into the matter. We should look at what is happening at some of our universities to ensure that no student feels that they cannot take up an opportunity at any campus in the UK because they feel they are unwelcome because of their faith. I said to the synagogues in my constituency that I thought the issue was a priority and I hope that we include that in the things we look at.

I know time is short but, on the upgrades to transport, the Government are consulting on their new independent commission on civil aviation noise. We are expanding airports, including Luton, and they are increasingly causing noise problems for residents. Luton airport uses the RNAV system, which is being reviewed. RNAV is concentrating the noise and the impact on a number of people, who now find it intolerable to live under the flight path. There has been a 150% increase in complaints as a result of the rapid expansion of Luton airport. If we are to expand Heathrow and those flights also stack over St Albans, it is vital that we look at the impact of that and at the noise nuisance that is cumulatively affecting residents in my constituency. During the campaign, a lot of people complained about the increased traffic over their homes and the constant irritation. Therefore, I encourage the Government to bring forward the independent commission on civil aviation noise. I know that many other constituencies will have problems if we ask our airports to expand.

I want to touch briefly on trains. It is no secret to anyone in the House who has heard me witter on for years that consent has been granted for a rail freight site in my constituency that I would rather did not happen. The application was made in 2006, yet 11 years later, I cannot get any facts or figures that show that that freight site is deliverable in terms of access on to rail. Since then, the Thameslink project has come in and it is being implemented—the biggest Government infrastructure upgrade in supporting passenger services. How can we allow permission to be granted on the basis of Network Rail’s blithe assurances that access to the paths can be delivered? It still cannot provide any timetables. It is amazing that we keep being passed from pillar to post. If the country is going to increase the number of rail freight sites, surely it is imperative that it can be shown that there is access to rail, without disruption to passenger services.

At the moment, Thameslink’s public performance has gone from 60% to 85%, but that is still below the national average of 91%. Despite having one of the most connected constituencies, and having commuters whose lifeblood and family life depend on getting in and out of the city in an effective manner, they still cannot get on a reliable train service. I make a plea to the Minister: while we are looking at infrastructure upgrades, bring in Network Rail. It has been responsible for 54% of the delays on passenger services, and 42% of the delays on Thameslink. I cannot understand how the opaque Network Rail system, where no one seems to be held accountable for anything, can be so disruptive, so inefficient and so ineffective in getting things to work properly, yet it is still regarded as the expert by successive Governments in terms of rail infrastructure upgrades. Therefore, please can Ministers, at the earliest possible opportunity, look into the Network Rail system? Do not rely on Network Rail’s assurances when other infrastructure projects come along. I am talking about the upgrade of HS2 and further access to high-speed rail. In my view, Network Rail cannot in its current state deliver accurate information to Ministers.

The Campaign for Better Transport has said that

“the London Mayor needs to safeguard more rail freight sites in its strategy”.

That is fine, but when freight sites such as the one in my constituency have been granted but no paths on to rail have been agreed, it says to me that we will have a lorry park in the green belt. The potential upgrades in respect of airport, freight and rail expansion need to come with intense scrutiny of what is going on behind the scenes. At the moment, there is not that scrutiny. I know that other colleagues will also say that Network Rail hides behind this opaque system of responsibility. When something goes wrong, the franchise company gets the blame, but often it is Network Rail behind the scenes, with delayed trains and overruns on upgrades and proposed improvements.

I do not want any other constituency blithely to grant planning permissions thinking that these things can be delivered when they cannot. I do not want other residents to have an RNAV focus of noise, and planes coming over their houses making their lives intolerable. Luton airport at the moment does not seem to be able to get its act together with the Heathrow airport expansion and flight stackings. These things are all interlinked and it is important that we come together as a House and ensure that major infrastructure projects are not developed haphazardly. Each one has to be looked at in terms of the knock-on effect on neighbouring constituencies. Each one has to be looked at in terms of the capacity that is already in place. Without line upgrades, we cannot have the increased movement of freight. Without proper noise monitoring, we cannot ascertain how injurious new flight paths will be.

I will end on that point. There is a lot to consider in the Queen’s Speech and I look forward to us doing so.

 

 

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