Good morning. Thank you very much for inviting me to this event to mark the new Parliament.
It’s probably not the event that many people thought you would be holding. If the pollsters had been right, you might have been discussing complex coalition arrangements – possible second elections – how to deal with the constitutional implications of Scottish MPs being needed to support a government trying to legislate for England and so on.
And instead we are talking about the programme of the first majority Conservative government since the 1990s. Politics is a strange business. You’d be surprised though how many people have come up to me and told me that they always thought that we would win – but they never quite got round to going down to the bookies to put their money on it.
To be frank, I am relieved for the country that we have a clear government for the coming years.
There are too many challenges ahead for it to be in Britain’s national interest to be in a state of governmental chaos. We may only have a majority of 12, and we may sometimes disagree – we’ve already had our first rebellion.
But we are a team. We have had enough of opposition and coalition – and we want to do what’s right for Britain. That will be our focus for the next 5 years.
Already this week we have a clear sight of 2 of the biggest challenges we face. The horrendous events in Tunisia give us a very clear view of the international security challenge that we have to meet. And the events in Greece are a reminder of the economic fragility in Europe.
We have already seen our fledgling recovery in the early part of the last Parliament held back by the Eurozone crisis. Even though we now have a fast growing economy and fast falling unemployment, we cannot afford to relax our strategy of rebuilding our economic foundations and balancing our nation’s books.
And then of course we have the renegotiation of our membership of the EU, and the referendum that was promised in our manifesto.
The government set out its broader vision in the Queen’s Speech with a dynamic programme of legislation. This is not an administration that is planning to sit on its hands for the next few years.
The key theme of that Queen’s Speech is that we plan to be a ‘one nation government’ that has made its number one priority to help working people who aspire to get on in life.
In the first instance the best way to deliver that support is by bolstering the economic recovery and that is why new legislation will help to create 2 million more jobs in this Parliament and also enshrine in law our commitment to creating 3 million more apprenticeships.
Signalling our intention to put Parliament at the heart of these changes, ministers will be under a duty to report to Parliament on progress towards achieving the highest employment rate in the G7 and on progress against meeting our target of creating 3 million new apprenticeships.
Whilst the government will drive forward these policies, it is vital that ministers are accountable to Parliament. That is why we have opted to require ministers to report to Parliament on our stated policy aims rather than creating arbitrary statutory targets as other governments have done.
In order to support working people and help them to get on in life, we will bring forward legislation to allow people to keep even more of the money they earn. To achieve this, the government will for the first time enshrine in law that the minimum wage will be tax-free.
Alongside this, new legislation will establish a 5 year tax lock law which will mean there will be no income tax, VAT or National Insurance rate rises in this Parliament.
All too often we forget that the changes we bring forward at Westminster will have a very real world impact upon peoples’ lives across the nation. The new tax lock laws will provide certainty to help families and businesses to plan for the future and prosper.
Our Enterprise Bill, which will be introduced later in the session, will cement the United Kingdom’s position as the best place in Europe to start and grow a business, by cutting red tape and making it easier for small businesses to resolve disputes quickly and easily. It will also include measures to reward entrepreneurship, generate jobs and offer people opportunity at every stage of their lives.
In addition to measures to boost the economy and supporting aspiration, but also carrying on the theme of ‘one nation’, there was a focus in the Queen’s Speech on legislation championing social justice.
The Education and Adoption Bill will strengthen powers to intervene in failing maintained schools and set up regional adoption agencies to help overcome the barriers which have slowed adoptions for too long.
The Childcare Bill will grant working parents 30 hours free childcare a week for 3 and 4 year olds and the Housing Bill will extend the Right to Buy for thousands of housing association tenants.
Many of the bills I have mentioned are ones where we can expect a broad consensus of support, but this government will not shy away from difficult legislation in this Parliament.
We will continue welfare reforms that help people into jobs, reducing the benefit cap further to £23,000, and freeze the main rates for the majority of working age benefits, tax credits and Child Benefit for 2 years.
There is a package of Bills that will strengthen defence and security of the realm, something that is particularly important given last week’s tragic events. This will include Bills in investigatory powers, tackling illegal immigration, extremism and ensuring that our criminal justice system is fit for purpose. It is imperative that we take all necessary steps to protect our country and our people.
The unacceptable actions of Edward Snowden and the march of technology have made it more and more challenging to anticipate and prevent terror plots. Our security services do a magnificent job protecting our country, and we need to make sure they have all the tools they need to do so.
But we also face huge challenges from organised crime and people smugglers and traffickers. We need to have the right means to fight these as well. This is a Parliament that will also feature constitutional matters heavily.
In the wake of the Scottish referendum, we are committed to a broad package of devolution measures.
For Scotland itself, we are beginning the process of implementing the Smith Commission report, which set out a range of extra powers to be given to the Parliament in Edinburgh.
We are also working on a package of measures for Wales, in the wake of the St David’s Day agreement and implementing the Stormont House Agreement in Northern Ireland.
There will be change for England too, to ensure that we maintain a fair and balanced devolution settlement. The Cities and Local Government Devolution Bill, which is currently before the Lords, will fulfil the government’s commitments on devolving powers and budgets to boost local growth in England. In particular this will help to deliver on our pledge to build a northern powerhouse.
Similarly, legislation will be taken forward to bolster the Scottish and Welsh devolution settlements.
We will also finally start to end what has become our biggest constitutional anomaly.
We have a clear goal to strengthen the union in the wake of the Scottish referendum. That is why further devolution will be a major focus of this government. But the settlement must be a fair one.
That is why we will shortly come forward with our proposals for English votes for English laws.
The West Lothian question has been an issue for our democracy for the past 20 years, and has remained unanswered since then. Why should Scottish, Welsh and Northern Irish MPs vote on English measures that affect English constituencies in matters that are wholly devolved to the administrations in their own countries, and where English MPs have no reciprocal say?
Alongside our plans for English votes for English laws, we will continue with a programme of legislation to benefit people across the entire United Kingdom.
The majority of our Bills apply to all of the UK, and MPs from Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland will continue to play an important role and have a say on the big issues that affect the entire nation.
In regards to the relationship between the 2 Houses, we expect that the Salisbury Convention will be upheld. This government has been clear about our intention to implement the commitments in our manifesto. This government will engage with Parliament and ensure that MPs and peers have a chance to contribute to Bills, but ultimately we have a mandate to deliver our manifesto.
We are making good progress: already in this session 2 important constitutional bills, the Scotland Bill and the EU Referendum Bill, have been considered in Committee of the Whole House which allows as many MPs as possible to take part in the debate.
The first of these laid before Parliament for this session was the EU Referendum Bill, and I have no doubt that the referendum will be the defining political event of the first part of this Parliament.
The campaign will play a massive part in shaping the future of our country in the coming years. It will be a huge constitutional moment for us. As a government, we are absolutely of the view that we need to secure real change to our membership of the EU, and to give the country the chance to decide whether they want to accept the outcome of that renegotiation, or to vote to leave.
The Bill is likely to receive Royal Assent around the turn of the year, but there is much ground to be covered before we get to the referendum itself.
The Prime Minister secured the agreement of other member states to begin the renegotiation at the European Council last week. Now the hard work begins – and there is a lot to do before we reach a resolution of that process.
Of course one of the obvious questions that people will now ask is whether the coincidence of a Conservative government with a small majority and a major debate over our place in the EU means that this Parliament will just be a re-run of its predecessor between 1992 and 1997.
I want to be clear that I do not believe it will be. It is true that there are divisions of opinion in the Conservative party over Europe, but the situation now is very different. We have a Prime Minister committed to renegotiation and a guarantee of a proper referendum. This is not the 1990s all over again.
There are also few people today who would argue against the Prime Minister and say there should be no change to our relationship with the EU. Those people and organisations who want the status quo at all costs are just plain wrong and out of touch with what the people of this country want.
We need to renegotiate, have a constructive debate and then go on to win together in 2020.
Ladies and gentlemen, in the last Parliament we published record numbers of Bills in draft and we intend to publish legislation in draft wherever possible. Two of the bills currently before Parliament on charities and Scotland were published in draft in the last session and we will bring forward further draft legislation later in this session.
Wherever possible we will seek to make Parliament more accessible to the outside world. A small but important gesture is the introduction of the new format for explanatory notes which accompany bills. The old format was out-dated, but crucially many of the notes to bills were not explanatory – they didn’t do what they said on the tin. The new format uses plain English, a simplified format and better links to online content.
Whilst such a changes may appear to be small, we will seek to improve the processes and procedures wherever possible, especially when these make Parliament more accessible to the layperson.
This is an ambitious programme of legislation, but as Leader I am clear that Parliament should be given the opportunity to scrutinise all of these laws in full.
As part of this we have already introduced 9 new bills at the very start of the session. This ensures that Parliamentarians have as much time as possible to debate these new laws rather than waiting for the bills to be introduced and then having very little time to debate them, as has been the case in the past.
So what difference will any of these bills make?
This is a programme that will deliver results now for people across the entire UK, but crucially for the long-term as well. In this Parliament the programme will give working people certainty about their tax bills for the next 5 years and freeze benefits for 2 years, which is essential to help us deliver the government’s long-term economic plan.
Beyond this Parliament, the bills on Scottish and Welsh devolution will deliver a long-term constitutional settlement within a strong United Kingdom.
Within England we are delivering reforms that will open the way for a new generation on metro mayors, which will help create the northern powerhouse and help to share investment evenly across the country.
In summary, our legislative programme is ambitious and we have not shied away from the difficult issues, but it is a programme which is designed to support aspiration and establish a long term and equitable foundation for the working people, our constitutional framework and the public finances.
It is a programme that we believe will make a real difference.