Following the General Election, the Conservative Government’s programme was outlined in the Queen’s Speech on Wednesday. When Britain is facing a fragile future – in our economy, public services and our politics – the test for the Queen’s Speech is whether it will make a positive difference to people’s lives. As we enter into a new Parliament, it is vital the Government is held to account and that the reality of the legislation the Government puts forward matches the rhetoric of this week’s Queen’s Speech. On the economy, although some economic growth is returning, its benefits are not being shared and we need to focus on Britain’s productivity which lags behind other countries. Britain cannot succeed with low-skilled, low-wage, insecure employment and a race to the bottom, and our economic recovery must involve a high-skilled, long-term approach. I will support investment in the skills that people need for the future and genuine help to get people into work, as well as measures that help small businesses and investment in our infrastructure. However, I will not support arbitrary measures to undermine people’s rights at work. The Queen’s Speech included measures for constitutional change. I support further devolution to Scotland, Wales and the English regions. However, any change needs to be fair and lasting and done in a way that builds the broadest possible consensus. For example, on proposals for English votes for English laws or on constituency boundary changes, the Government must proceed in a way that is best for the country and not party-political interests. There has been a lot of media interest in the proposal for a referendum on Britain’s membership of the European Union. I will support this Bill which will allow the referendum to go ahead. However, I believe that it is better for Britain to stay in the EU. This is an important issue for the future of our country which is why I also support calls for 16 and 17-year-olds to be able to vote in the referendum. I was disappointed that the Queen’s Speech failed to set out a Bill to address the difficulties in our National Health Service when it has become harder to see a GP, our A&E services are in crisis and waiting lists are up. We need measures to help people get to see their GP and help patients in accident and emergency to be seen promptly. In the weeks and months ahead it will be the vital role of the Opposition to examine the detail of the Government’s programme to ensure it really improves our country, our communities and people’s lives.
I know from the large number of e-mails and letters I have received that there is real public concern about this issue. Indeed, over 170,000 people have signed a related petition calling for an outright ban on seal culling in UK waters. I support high animal welfare standards and believe we need to ensure that all animals are treated with care and compassion. It is also vital that we protect and preserve our wildlife and marine environment. The previous Labour Government had a strong record in this area and I hope the current Government build on this. As I am sure you are aware, there are a number of licensing restrictions concerning the killing of seals in UK waters. These are intended to ensure that fish populations are protected and the UK fishing industry has a secure future while also maintaining seal numbers and respecting animal welfare concerns. I strongly support the UK fishing industry and I would not want to see changes to licensing rules that affect this. I appreciate, however, that there are concerns around the enforcement of current licensing laws and reporting requirements. I also believe that the shooting of seals should be a last resort and I would like to see other methods used where possible. I hope, therefore, that the UK and Scottish Governments listen and respond to these important concerns and ensure that the current licensing regime strikes the right balance. I can assure you that I will continue to follow this issue closely and bear in mind the points you raise if and when this is debated in Parliament.
I believe that upholding and promoting justice, equality and human rights should be absolutely central to Britain's domestic and foreign policy. That is why I am proud that the previous Labour Government introduced the Human Rights Act, which protects basic rights such as the right to a fair trial, the right to life and the right to privacy. The Human Rights Act remains a crucial check against unaccountable state power and vested interests and I fear that the Government's plans to abolish it would severely weaken the rights of British citizens. I fought the General Election on a manifesto that included a commitment to uphold and reform the Human Rights Act and that recognised the Human Rights Act has helped give some of our most vulnerable citizens, including disabled people and victims of crime, a powerful means of redress. I therefore share your deep concern about the Government's intentions in this area and I also recognise that replacing the Human Rights Act with a new Bill of Rights could cause real legal and practical problems across the UK. It will be vital, therefore, to closely scrutinise any proposals the Government bring forward on this issue and I can assure you that I will bear in mind the points you raise.
I believe there can be no place in a civilised society for animal cruelty and I believe that the vast majority of the British public also support the ban on hunting with hounds that was introduced by the previous Labour Government through the 2004 Hunting Act. I fought the General Election on a manifesto that included a commitment to defend the hunting ban and to build on the strong record the previous Labour Government had on animal welfare. As you know, however, the Conservative Party's manifesto included a commitment to give Parliament the opportunity to repeal the Hunting Act on a free vote, with a government bill in government time. I know there is real concern among many people and organisations such as the League Against Cruel Sports that that there may now be an attempt to repeal the Hunting Act in the near future. I can assure you that I will oppose any attempt to repeal the Hunting Act and that I will continue to bear in mind the points raised by constituents on this issue. I also believe that holding a vote on repealing the Hunting Act distracts from the real issues that are facing many rural communities - low wages, the shortage of affordable housing, improving infrastructure and protecting public services.