Rachel Reeves has criticised the Queen’s Speech delivered on Tuesday as “thin” and told Rishi Sunak that “the challenges and opportunities facing our country are great, yet what the government is putting forward is small”.
Opening the second day of debate on the Queen’s Speech in parliament, the Shadow Chancellor told Sunak that the government should “seize this moment to create a brighter future for people in all parts of our United Kingdom”.
“Tackling the climate emergency, making sure that all our town centres are thriving and prosperous, supporting British industry and rights for workers, those would have been Labour’s economic priorities,” she said.
“We must be ambitious for all our country with real and lasting change. These should be the tests of any government right now, and they are the tests I will hold this government to but from what we have heard this week these are tests the Conservatives look set to fail.”
She said that after 11 years of Tory rule, “our public services were underfunded and underprepared for the pandemic”, pointing to shortfalls in intensive care beds, vacancies in the NHS and a “fragmented and underfunded social care system”.
“The Conservatives have taken for granted those who have kept our economy and essential services moving this last year and continue to undervalue all that our key workers do,” the Shadow Chancellor told MPs this afternoon.
She argued frontline workers should be “rewarded with a pay rise”, adding: “Any meaningful recovery means a new deal for key workers with investment in their skills, fair pay for a fair day’s work, security and a voice in the workplace.”
She said workers who have seen wage growth stagnate, who “keep our economy running and our public services going”, had been “overlooked”. “The government has done nothing for them and nor does this Queen’s Speech,” she added.
Referring to a recent report into the awarding of Covid contracts, the Shadow Chancellor told parliament that “instead, £2bn of public contracts have been awarded to companies with close links to the Conservative Party”.
“The government, they’re taking the public for fools,” she said. “Taxpayers deserve that their money is used to best effect, not squandered on contracts that don’t deliver or line the pockets of friends and donors of the Conservative Party.”
Reeves criticised Sunak’s approach to the health crisis, saying he has “pitched our health against our economy” and highlighted that “several million people have inexplicably been excluded from support” under the furlough scheme.
“Why has the Chancellor ignored their cries for help?” Reeves asked. “Is it because they don’t have his telephone number?” She reminded MPs that former Tory Prime Minister David Cameron had texted the Chancellor nine times in relation to Greensill.
“This is not just a political row. This is about how our country is run and for who. Real jobs and livelihoods that are now at stake. Instead of trying to help out dodgy finance companies with wheezes for making money off the back of the NHS and small business, the Labour Party is fiercely proud of British made goods and services and the people who make them.”
Reeves also highlighted the plight of British Gas workers, recently subjected to ‘fire and rehire’ tactics by their employer, describing it as “wrong” and arguing that the government should “actually do something about it”.
Also challenged on the issue by Labour MP Chris Bryant, Sunak claimed he “strongly” believes that the approach should not be used as a negotiating tactic by companies and said that the government is currently looking into it.
Boris Johnson has previously described use of fire and rehire tactics as “unacceptable”, and the government promised in 2019, nearly two years ago, that it would bring forward a new employment bill to improve people’s rights at work.
The Chancellor told MPs that GDP figures published this morning showed that the economic impact of the lockdown was less severe than expected, and that the Bank of England expects the economy to return to pre-crisis levels by the end of 2021.
The economy shrank by 1.5% in the first quarter of this year. This is smaller than during the first lockdown, in March last year, when first-quarter GDP had its biggest decrease since the end of 2008 at the height of the financial crisis.
Tory backbencher and former International Development Secretary Andrew Mitchell urged Sunak, in light of the figures reported today, to restore UK spending on aid to 0.7% of national income. The government recently cut it by £4bn to 0.5%.
Today was Reeves’ first parliamentary appearance since being appointed as Shadow Chancellor on Saturday. Keir Starmer carried out a reshuffle of his shadow cabinet following poor results for Labour in the local elections.
The session today followed a statement from Johnson, in which he announced that a public inquiry in to the handling of the pandemic will start in spring 2022. Starmer welcomed the news but asked why the process could not start earlier.
Today also followed Starmer’s response to the Queen’s Speech, which sets the legislative agenda for parliament, on Tuesday. The Labour leader said the address “merely papers over the cracks with short-term gimmicks or distant promises”.