Following the State Opening of Parliament, Shailesh Vara is given the honour of proposing the Loyal Address and, as is the tradition, takes the opportunity to promote his constituency.
I beg to move,
That an humble Address be presented to Her Majesty, as follows:
Most Gracious Sovereign,
We, Your Majesty’s most dutiful and loyal subjects, the Commons of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland in Parliament assembled, beg leave to offer our humble thanks to Your Majesty for the Gracious Speech which Your Majesty has addressed to both Houses of Parliament.
It is indeed a great honour and privilege for me and my constituents to move the Loyal Address, especially in this, Her Majesty’s 96th year. Her Majesty’s commitment and dedication to service of our nation is an example to all of us. Given Her Majesty’s age, may I say that by comparison the rest of us are no more than mid-career?
I also take this opportunity to welcome our new colleague to the House—my hon. Friend the Member for Hartlepool (Jill Mortimer), with whom I, for one, very much look forward to working.
We meet at a time unprecedented in our history—a time when there is a dark shadow over not only our country but across the globe as we deal with the covid-19 pandemic. Far too many lives have been lost and far too many people have suffered, both in the UK and across the world. When this is over—and it will be, at some point—the family of nations must work together so that if something similar happens again in the future we are better prepared. The heartbreaking scenes on our television screens from India are a constant reminder that no one is safe until we are all safe. Sadly, there are similar outbreaks in other countries too, such as Nepal, Thailand and Cambodia.
As we continue our fight against the virus, I am pleased that we have been able to offer help to others. We were the first country in the world to provide India with practical help, sending vital medical equipment to save precious lives. It is good that the UK has committed £548 million to the global COVAX initiative.
Over the past year, new speaking arrangements have meant that often when Members put in to speak, they do not get called, or if they are called, they have no more than about three minutes to say their piece. Mindful of the 17 speeches I was unable to give, and mindful of the broad nature of the Gracious Speech and the fact that there is no time limit on me today, I would like to put on the record those 17 speeches. On second thoughts, Mr Speaker, that look in your eye tells me that perhaps I had better save it for another day, when I very much hope I will be called.
Today marks the 11th anniversary of the Conservative-Lib Dem coalition being formed in 2010. Since then, the Conservatives have cemented their position as the party of Government, Labour as the party of protest, and the Lib Dems as a party that can all gather in this Chamber and still maintain social distancing.
When the Chief Whip asked me to propose the Gracious Speech, as well as being hugely honoured, I also felt a sense of humility. All of us have had our own individual journeys in being elected to this House. In my case, I was born in Uganda at a time when Uganda was still part of the British empire. My family came here in the early 60s, when I was still a young child, unable to speak a word of English. We settled in a deprived area in inner-city Birmingham, where I went to a local primary school. My father worked as a joiner on building sites. Those were tough times. It was legal to discriminate against people on grounds of race, and people did. Racial intolerance and prejudice were rife. The Prime Minister of the day was Harold Wilson, leading a Labour Government.
Getting elected to Parliament was not without incident. When I was a candidate in 2000 in Northampton South, the sitting Labour MP, Tony Clarke, tried to use my race and my Hindu faith against me in his efforts to get re-elected. Not surprisingly, he was roundly criticised in the national media. On the subject of my faith, there is a memorable moment that I have from when I was a Northern Ireland Minister, before I resigned over Brexit. I recall one particular visit in Belfast, when I was with a group of people, and we were discussing each other’s faiths. When I mentioned that I was a Hindu, a kindly looking gentleman smiled and asked me, “Mr Vara, would that be a Protestant Hindu or a Catholic Hindu?” Fortunately for me, we were distracted by the barman, who brought another round of drinks.
It has been a real privilege to serve the people of North West Cambridgeshire since 2005. It is because they selected me that I was able to be the Conservative party’s first non-white Minister in the House of Commons, and the party’s first non-white person to speak from the Dispatch Box. The point I am making is very simple: for someone with my background to be proposing the Loyal Address shows what a truly great and magnificent country we all live in.
North West Cambridgeshire is a relatively new constituency, and I am only its second Member of Parliament. As with all constituencies, it has its high and low points. In fact, on the low side, Holme fen is 7 metres below sea level and is the lowest point in Britain, and it is in my constituency. On the high side, it is wonderful that Peterborough United, otherwise known as Posh, have just been promoted to the championship. That being said, my other team, Arsenal, are clearly on a low point. Along with many others, we just live in hope.
My constituency is steeped in history. In 969 AD, Ramsey Abbey was founded, and it prospered for many centuries—that is, until news of its wealth reached King Henry VIII and his chief minister, Thomas Cromwell, who dissolved the monastery in 1539, and its possessions were claimed by the Treasury. I suppose that that was the 16th century precursor to nationalisation.
We also have the Bell Inn in Stilton, one of England’s oldest and most famous coaching inns. As well as its association with Stilton cheese, it is where the infamous highwayman Dick Turpin is believed to have hidden for nine weeks while on the run in the 18th century. I am reliably informed that his ghost still resides at the inn. He will doubtless be pleased with the Government’s pledge to give greater protection to tenants. His ghost, however, is not on the electoral roll, and getting an ID card will be a serious problem, but he certainly continues to bring in the tourists.
Moving to modern times, there is a strong military presence, with RAF Molesworth in the south and RAF Wittering in the north. The size of my constituency is some 300 square miles, with plenty of farms producing the finest food in the country. My constituents are good, decent, hard-working people, ambitious for themselves and their families. They want a society that has equality of opportunity and allows them to rise as high as their ability and talent will take them, irrespective of their background.
This Gracious Speech delivers for the people. It is in the tradition of Conservative Governments, who have always sought to better people’s lives, especially the working class and the underprivileged. In the 19th century, the Conservative Lord Shaftesbury was leading the way. He pushed through various pieces of legislation to improve conditions for the mentally ill and children who were forced to work under appalling conditions, as well as championing education for poor children. An interesting point is that, in Shaftesbury’s first three years in Parliament, he saw four Conservative Prime Ministers: Lord Liverpool, George Canning, Viscount Goderich and the Duke of Wellington. I suspect that the 2015 intake can sympathise with the frequent turnaround of Conservative Prime Ministers, although I should make it clear that this Prime Minister is not going anywhere for a very long time. Disraeli spoke passionately about one nation Conservatism, and Margaret Thatcher encouraged home ownership for people who would otherwise be paying rent all their lives.
This Gracious Speech is for all the four nations: England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. After the massive financial support during the pandemic, I welcome the measures to create more jobs and drive economic growth, and the drive to build back better and level up opportunities across the country. On the health front, there will be additional funds for the NHS, tailored care for individual patients closer to home and improved mental health services, and the UK will lead the world in seeking new treatments for diseases such as cancer.
Education is for everyone at all stages of life. That means prioritising the early years and ensuring that the pupils who have missed out in the past year will be able to catch up during this parliamentary term, and 11 million adults will be able to benefit from the lifetime skills guarantee.
With COP26 in Glasgow later this year, it is great to see that the UK is leading the world in promoting new green initiatives to help to safeguard the environment. Protecting their citizens is a key role for any Government. I welcome the tough new measures that will be introduced, including the new draft victims bill, legislation for greater internet safety and a fairer immigration system, and tough measures to deal with people smugglers.
Speaking on the subject of law and order, I am reminded of the Chief Whip. Earlier today, he basically said to me that, if I were to cause a constitutional crisis today, it would be the Tower of London for me and execution. Actually, my constituency has form with the Tower of London and executions. In 1941, Josef Jakobs, a German spy, parachuted and landed near Dovehouse farm outside Ramsey in my constituency. Unfortunately for him, he broke an ankle and was unable to move. The following morning, he was found by two local farmers, who handed him over to the local Home Guard. Jakobs was tried and then executed at the Tower of London, but the significant point is that he was the last person to be executed at the Tower of London. I appreciate that it is the season of by-elections, but I have no intention of causing a constitutional crisis and adding to the Chief Whip’s woes.
Turning to the Gracious Speech again, I was also very pleased with the Government’s continued support for our armed forces and our strengthening of trade links with the rest of the world as we pursue our interests of global Britain. This Gracious Speech recognises the work required to deal with the pandemic. It respects our manifesto and the trust placed in my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister and his Government by the public.
I have known the Prime Minister since well before we were elected to this House. I have shared debating platforms with him, campaigned with him and campaigned for him. In all those years, one thing has been clear: he stands out because he really gets it and, importantly, he delivers. He really understands the working people of this country, what drives them, what their aspirations are for themselves and what they want for their country. That is why the people trust him. They did so when he was elected twice as Mayor of London, and when he led the Brexit campaign and then delivered on Brexit. At the last election, they trusted him by giving him the largest Conservative majority since Margaret Thatcher’s victory in 1987. In the same election, the Conservative party received the largest number of votes ever received by a single British political party in history. Over the past few days, in various electoral contests, that trust in my right hon. Friend has been reinforced, including in the recent by-election in Hartlepool; I referred earlier to my new hon. Friend the Member for Hartlepool.
This House is at its best when we work together. All of us are in the business of improving the lives of our fellow citizens. We may differ in our approach, but the aim is the same. There are on both sides many Members who have experienced inequality, poverty, racism and much more. So let us recognise that fact, and direct our energies less in divisive arguments and less on personal attacks, and more on constructive engagement. That is not to say that we should not have robust and challenging debate in order to deliver the best for the people of our country, whom we are here to serve. As for personal attacks, let us remember what Margaret Thatcher said:
“if they attack one personally, it means they have not a single political argument left.”
At this critical time in our history, it is especially important that we work together to rebuild as the United Kingdom emerges from this dreadful pandemic. There is every reason for optimism, and with this ambitious legislative programme,, set out in the Gracious Speech, we have a bright and prosperous future. I commend the Gracious Speech to the House.