“Empty rhetoric and hollow promises” – Kate Green on the Queen’s Speech

Kate Green
© UK Parliament/Jessica Taylor

Below is the full text of the speech delivered by Shadow Education Secretary Kate Green on the third day of debate on the Queen’s Speech.

Thank you Mr Speaker, and it is a pleasure to open this debate on behalf of Her Majesty’s opposition. Because nothing can be more important than our obligation to create a bright future for the next generation. On these benches, indeed I am sure across the House, we believe that every child, whatever their background, must be able to make the most of their childhood, and reach their full potential. As politicians, we have a solemn responsibility to ensure that the next generation will enjoy greater opportunities than we have had, and that Britain is the best country in the world to grow up in.

Regrettably, this Queen’s Speech is a missed opportunity. A missed opportunity that comes hard on the heels of a decade of Conservative failures that have betrayed our young people. 1,000 children’s centres closed since 2010, by Conservative governments. Schools funding 9% lower in real terms in 2019/20 than they were in 2009/10. Labour’s proud track record in lifting a million children out of poverty wholly wiped out by Conservative austerity policies, with more than five million children expected to be in poverty by 2024. Further education funding cut almost in half, and apprenticeship starts among under 25 year olds down by 40% since 2016. And the problems were there even before the covid pandemic.

Today, young people face soaring unemployment and the toughest jobs market for a generation. Yet young people in desperate need of new opportunities have been overlooked by the government. 16-19 funding for catchup has been woefully insufficient. Careers advice and guidance will be crucial after David Cameron’s government brutally slashed it – but the government’s proposals are too little too late. Apprentices, BTEC and vocational students have been repeatedly treated as an afterthought.

Mr Speaker, unemployment is forecast to rise over the course of this year, and the consequences of the pandemic will be with us for years to come, as huge parts of our economy and labour market experience profound change. If we are to seize this generational moment and deliver the fair, low carbon recovery we need to tackle the climate crisis – imperative if we are truly to pass on a bright future to the next generation – many people will need to retrain in new industries as old jobs disappear. But in this Queen’s Speech the government merely re-announced a months old commitment for a Lifetime Skills Guarantee that is simply not guaranteed.

It is not guaranteed because you cannot use it if you are already qualified to level three, you cannot use it unless you are getting a qualification that the Secretary of State has decided he thinks is valuable, and you cannot use it if you need maintenance support while you learn. If you are already qualified to level three in your existing field but need to retrain for a new industry, there is nothing on offer for you. Ministers have chosen to close the door on millions of people who need to retrain, and need to do so now. I’m at a loss to understand the Secretary of State’s position on this. Can he tell the House why a promised ‘guarantee’ will not in fact be available for some of those who will need it most?

On maintenance funding, we are awaiting ministers’ response to the government’s Augar review, now over two years old. Augar said that those in further education should receive the same maintenance support as those in higher education. Does the Secretary of State agree with that proposal, and if he does, why is it absent from the Queen’s Speech? And while everyone will agree that employers have a central role in creating jobs and training opportunities for young people, they do so in the context of a local economic and regeneration strategies driven by metro mayors and local leaders – who seem to have been sidelined in the creation of the local skills plans – and with the government having abandoned a national industrial strategy.

Mr Speaker, after a decade of Conservative damage to the sector, I desperately want the government to get skills policy right. Labour believes in a high skill, high wage economy that offers fulfilling, rewarding work – jobs in which people will take great pride. That’s why for years I, and my colleagues in the Labour Party, including my Rt Hon and Learned Friend the LOTO, in his speech opening the debate on the loyal address on Tuesday, and my RHF the Member for Ashton-under-Lyne during her time in this post, have championed lifelong learning, further education, and all those who learn and teach in the sector.

In contrast, in a startling if only partial conversion in the Party opposite after a decade that they have spent in power – including times when the Education Secretary and the Prime Minister sat around the Cabinet table and nodded through cuts to further education and a loan-based funding model that, by the government’s own admission, directly reduced the number of adults in education – we have reforms that offer at best a mere reversal of some of the worst excesses of Conservative ideology over the past ten years. It’s a desperate attempt to polish the windows having taken a sledgehammer to the foundations.

Our young people deserve better than this. There are so many measures that I believe the government could and should have included in the Queen’s Speech. Ministers could have gone beyond the platitudes on early years and set out a plan to reverse the damage their decade of cuts has produced, ensuring affordable, accessible, high-quality early years education and childcare for all children.

They could have set out how they will transform the national tutoring programme, creating the space for children to socialise and recover the time they need to develop and grow, ensuring no child loses out because of the damage that ministers’ failure to manage the pandemic has created. They could have addressed the horrifying rise in child poverty – a phrase not mentioned once in the Queen’s Speech – yet which is the driving cause of the widening attainment gap. They could have ensured that education professionals and school and college leaders’ expertise and hard work during the pandemic were recognised with a fair pay rise.

Instead, the Secretary of State has decided that it’s more important to focus on free speech on university campuses. Free speech and academic freedom are important, Mr Speaker. But to suggest that we should use up valuable legislative time – while the Employment Bill has been quietly dropped, while nearly two years after the PM stood on the steps of Downing Street to tell us he had plans for social care ready to go, and nothing has appeared – well, people up and down the country will think – that is the wrong priority.

We need to get this into perspective Mr Speaker. Only six out of 10,000 events on campus were cancelled. Four of those were simply because of a lack of paperwork. One was a pyramid scheme. Now, Mr Speaker, I do understand that Conservatives responsible for a decade of economic mismanagement might struggle to recognise a pyramid scheme when they see one. But I am surprised that the Secretary of State wants to protect the ability to promote such schemes on university campuses.

Much more concerning, though, the universities minister was forced to admit yesterday that this flawed legislation could have dangerous and troubling consequences, including potentially protecting holocaust deniers. And I say very gently to Honourable Members opposite, many of whom have a proud track record of defending free speech, that handing over the power to determine whether free speech complaints on campus are justified to the OfS, a government regulator with an unqualified former Conservative MP appointed as its chair, smacks of the kind of thought-control we’d rightly condemn in authoritarian governments around the world. But it’s not the way we do things in this country – and I hope the Secretary of State will think better of what it is he’s proposing.

Mr Speaker, perhaps the most surprising thing about the Queen’s speech was the absence of anything meaningful for one of our most precious assets – children – and their learning and wellbeing in school. Although we know the SoS is determined to send more schools down the path of academisation. He says there will be a ‘try-before-you-buy’ model for schools considering this route – I have no idea how this will work – can the Secretary of State enlighten us? Most parents don’t care about the structure of their children’s school – and they’re right. It’s not structure that determines a school’s performance, but high-quality teaching and excellent school leadership. We see that in both the maintained and academy sectors.

Prioritising favoured structures at a time when schools’ role in helping children to bounce back from the pandemic could not be more important once again shows the Sec of State has the wrong priorities. Especially when schools are struggling with a stealth cut to their budgets because of changes to the Pupil Premium, while it’s rumoured that the National Tutoring Programme is being taken out of the hands of experts and given to Randstad, a multinational outsourcing company.

Can the Secretary of State confirm the media reports that Randstad will be running the NTP next year? Can he tell the House what expertise in education, teaching, and learning they will bring? In fact, can he tell us why they were able to win this tender at all? Was it because his Department decided to lower the quality of provision required in order to cut corners on price? Those are questions the Secretary of State should answer. But let me conclude by addressing the perfectly reasonable question – what would Labour do to guarantee a bright future for all children and young people. Let me tell the House what would have been in a Labour Queens speech this week.

We would have started with a credible, radical plan to enable children and young people to bounce back from the pandemic. A plan that created time for children to play, to learn and develop, that gave the teaching profession the recognition and support they need to guarantee a world-class education for every child, and that ensured the National Tutoring Programme reached all children who need it. We would have detailed proposals for children’s wellbeing, catch-up breakfast clubs guaranteeing every child a healthy breakfast, and creating more time in the school day for children to recover lost learning and time lost with their friends and teachers.

We would have delivered a credible plan to support young people into work. We would have implemented policies outlined earlier this year by my Hon Friend the Member for Stalybridge and Hyde, that would have guaranteed every young person not in education or employment a job or training opportunity, to end long-term youth unemployment. We would have ensured the apprenticeship levy was used to create opportunities for young people – as we suggested with our proposal to use the underspend from the apprenticeship levy last year to create 85,000 youth apprenticeship opportunities.

Most important, we would be working right across a Labour cabinet to end the scourge of rising child poverty, which is scarring the lives of millions of children. Tackling child poverty will always be a priority for Labour, and I am proud that my Hon Friend the Member for Ilford North will be leading our programme of work on this within the shadow cabinet.

Mr Speaker, before I came into parliament, I spent a decade of my life working for and championing a brighter future for young people – because while children make up 20% of the population of this country, they are 100% of our future. They’re ambitious, optimistic, imaginative, creative, excited about the world they’ll grow up to. They have so much to offer, and our job as adults is to give them every opportunity to make the most of their childhood and their future. So, let’s not let them down with empty rhetoric and hollow promises. Today let’s commit that we will truly deliver a programme of change that transforms children’s lives, that fulfils the promise that this will be best place to grow up, and that, in creating a brighter future for young people, gives the promise of a better future for every one of us.

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