Baroness Smith of Basildon (Lab)
My Lords, I beg to move that this debate be adjourned until Wednesday 12 May. I first concur with the comments, particularly from the noble Lord, Lord Bates, thanking Her Majesty the Queen for opening our proceedings today. In her long reign she has seen this country weather many peaks and troughs: peace, war, economic highs and lows, national optimism and pessimism. Through it all she has remained steadfast and discreet. In doing so, she has earned the gratitude and affection of the entire nation.
As is tradition, the proposers and seconders—as we have heard—are usually a noble Lord I would call a “respected long-serving colleague” but whom the noble Lord, Lord Bates, called a “genial old codger”, and a “rising star”. I have to admit I am not entirely happy today that the “genial old codger” is younger than I am.
As a proposer of the humble Address, the noble Lord, Lord Bates, showed why he is held in such high regard in your Lordships’ House. He once told me—he is going to get nervous here—that he thought he was boring. As his friends know, and as he has shown today, nothing could be further from the truth. I think his generosity in his opening comments about your Lordships’ House and those who have seen us through the pandemic shows his generosity of spirit.
He is, as we have heard, perhaps best known for two things. First, walking—but not a gentle stroll for the noble Lord; it is usually a few thousand miles at a time to promote good causes. As we have heard from the noble Baroness, Lady Sanderson, he has raised over £1 million for charity—and indeed, he told me that on one of those walks he met his wife.
Secondly, he is well known for having resigned from the Government four times—each time, it must be said, with honour and dignity. On one occasion it was because he considered he had insulted your Lordships’ House by being just one minute late to respond to a Question. I can understand why he is not a Member of Mr Johnson’s Government, where nobody ever seems to step up and take that kind of responsibility.
The noble Baroness, Lady Sanderson of Welton, is relatively new to your Lordships’ House but has played a full and active role since she joined. She has clearly been in training as the up-and-coming rising star for the Government Whips Office because, while I was reading her contributions in Hansard, I found several along the lines of—it is a sign of the times—“May I remind the noble Lord that the advisory speaking time is just three minutes?”
She made her mark, as she said, in debates on the then Domestic Abuse Bill, with thoughtful contributions showing her genuine commitment to the issue. Her comments today show her willingness to work cross-party, which is how this House does its best work. Also, she showed her pride in being a Member of your Lordships’ House and her respect for the work we do. I hope she can convey that to some Members of her Government who are not quite as enthusiastic. She is clearly a welcome addition to this House and will greatly help our proceedings.
Generally, when a Government lay out their programme for the Queen’s Speech, they set the tone as well as the policies and proposed legislation for the forthcoming Session. That is not always the case, as we saw in the Queen’s Speech of October 2019, when the Government’s programme lasted only a few days before—following the unlawful attempt—Parliament could be prorogued for the election, which led to a further Queen’s Speech in December 2019.
When we look back at previous Queens’ and Kings’ Speeches—I have gone back roughly to Queen Victoria’s time—we see that many have been made at times of great change and following momentous events in our nation’s history. In outlining their forthcoming legislative programme, a Government define their values and vision. In fact, they define their moral purpose.
On 15 August 1945, VJ Day, the State Opening was very different from today’s scaled-back proceedings. The King and the Queen, buoyed by massive, cheering crowds, arrived at Westminster in an open carriage. The UK had emerged from the horror of war virtually bankrupt and with a massive financial debt to the United States. So much of our national infrastructure, including homes, factories and schools, was rubble and ruins.
The King’s Speech on that day was hopeful, ambitious and visionary, and, despite some of the most difficult challenges and obstacles imaginable, the Government’s vision was courageous, optimistic and determined. Our country could not just go back as if time had stood still since 1939: too many people had paid too high a price for life to return to what it had been before. As the nation prepared for peace, there was a sharp focus on the need to build—not just rebuilding what had been but building what should be. It created homes and jobs, and our National Health Service was born.
That Government were also confident and ambitious about our relationships with other countries across the world. They knew that peace was to be treasured and nurtured and that collaborative relationships were essential. Outward looking, those leaders were committed to playing a positive, leading role on the international stage. That speech remains inspirational to read, not just in relation to the scale of ambition and achievement against the backdrop of the greatest challenge that our country has ever faced, but for providing the confidence that politics was a force for good.
The greatest challenge leading up to this Queen’s Speech has of course been the Covid-19 pandemic. Although less violent and shorter than the war that preceded the 1945 speech, it has also had a profound effect on our nation. Next week will mark the first time in over a year that many of us will be able to hug family members and friends outside our own household. We have had to adjust—drastically—to the new behavioural norms of social distancing, mask wearing and a daily diet of meetings on Zoom and Teams. At the worst end of the scale, almost 130,000 of our fellow citizens have died. Many others are suffering from ongoing physical and/or mental health conditions, and there have been huge economic consequences for both businesses and the workforce alike. It has been a really tough year.
The parallel with 1945 is that the courage, ambition and preparation for the future that was shown then are the step change that is needed today. There has to be a post-pandemic vision that does not lead to political apathy or cynicism but again sees the value of political engagement and offers an optimism grounded in providing the jobs, services and opportunities that our country needs.
If there are two significant lessons for this generation of leaders, they are these: first, as the noble Lord, Lord Bates, commented, the world is now more interconnected than ever before. My grandparents left the UK only once in their lives, and their parents never left these shores. My great-grandfather never travelled on the ships that he worked on in the east London docks, but—until the pandemic—their descendants would fly the Atlantic with the same ease with which their great-grandparents took the bus into central London. So when the virus struck, it swiftly travelled the world and changed our lives.
Part of this lesson comes back to the moral purpose of government. The global co-dependency of nations increases rather than reduces our international responsibilities. I welcome the fact that the Queen’s Speech appears to recognise this in relation to our commitment on defence matters—although, as I am sure my noble friend Lord West would point out, some of the promised funding for our Armed Forces makes up lost ground from the past. But the recent proposals to cut UK aid to some of the poorest countries is so misjudged—in relation not just to their interests but to ours.
The Queen’s Speech says that the Government “will continue to provide aid where it has the greatest impact”, but the noble Baroness the Leader will recall the concerns of your Lordships’ House about the Government reneging on their own legislative commitment to 0.7% of GNI. There does not seem to be a Bill mentioned in the Queen’s Speech to legalise that cut, so can we take this absence as a recognition, finally, that the Government will stick by their own legally binding commitments?
The second lesson for today’s leaders is one that must have challenged those in government who are ideologically wedded to the notion of a small state. It is that, in order to effectively tackle a national crisis, major state intervention is essential, and the foundations for that must be in place before the crisis actually happens. The UK was woefully underprepared for the pandemic, so, in building for the future, we must develop national resilience to threats both known and as yet unknown.
I turn to some specific proposals in the Queen’s Speech. The year in which the Queen came to the Throne, 1952, saw London’s worst ever pollution. That December, a combination of weather, coal-fired heating and exhaust fumes caused a thick smog over London which led to the deaths of thousands. It took four years for the new Clean Air Act to be passed and the decades since have seen massive improvements. Continued consideration of the Environment Bill therefore gives us an opportunity to revisit an issue which the noble Lord, Lord Goldsmith of Richmond Park, has described as
“the single greatest environmental risk to human health”.
Ministers will, I am sure, be aware of the recommendations of the coroner following the death of nine year-old Ella Adoo-Kissi-Debrah after finding that air pollution was a significant factor in her death.
I welcome the plans to repeal the Fixed-term Parliaments Act, a consequence of the 2010 coalition agreement which has been honoured more in the breach and lost any value it might have had, but other legislation affecting our democracy and constitution will have to be examined carefully.
The proposed electoral integrity Bill feels more like a voter suppression Bill of which the state of Georgia would be proud. There is no evidence that this legislation will be proportionate or even necessary. I have checked with the Electoral Commission, which clearly states that the evidence of proven electoral fraud is low. In fact, overwhelmingly, most complaints appear to relate to false allegations against candidates or—horror of horrors—inaccurate imprints on leaflets. Insisting on photo ID and making it harder to vote will not enhance our democracy. I had hoped that the Trump playbook was no longer required reading at No. 10.
Who can be anything but suspicious when the Government say that they want to
“restore the balance of power between the executive, legislature and the courts”?
We know what is behind this. It looks, sounds and smells like a power grab. Obviously, all Governments have the right to get their legislative programme through. We in this House play a useful role in scrutiny and revision, but the House of Commons has primacy and MPs, rightly, get the final say. Similarly, the courts, when asked, have a role in upholding the law and the constitution. At times—it is why I was so pleased to hear the noble Baroness’s comments—the Government have had an almost hysterical reaction to anything that suggests that absolute power should not lie exclusively with the Executive. Back in 2015, in my first week as Leader of the Opposition, the now Leader of the House in the other place threatened 1,000 new Peers to stop the Lords taking a different view from the Commons. Our unwritten constitution is based on a system of checks and balances, so we will examine these proposals with care, as any significant constitutional change merits.
I hope that the procurement Bill, to give SMEs greater opportunities to secure government contracts, will provide for greater examination of how contracts were awarded during the pandemic to ensure that better protections are in place in the future. Time and again, noble Lords across the House have raised concerns about how some contracts were awarded—fast-tracked or agreed on the back of a fag packet with the pub landlord next door. Time and again, we were told that this was just responding to a moment of national crisis. At times, that could have been true, and it is why inquiries into the handling of the pandemic are essential to ensure proper transparency regarding the roles of Ministers and advisers, if only to learn the lessons for the future and to inform policy. It will also be an opportunity to reflect on whether the relevant ministerial and advisers’ codes are fit for purpose.
The NHS reform Bill appears to be another top-down reorganisation, this time to undo much of the coalition Government’s so-called Lansley reforms. I am sure that my noble friend Lady Thornton will have more to say about this tomorrow, but surely the greatest priority, as outlined today by the noble Baroness, should be to build up our NHS following the pandemic and to bring to social care the reforms needed. On the latter, I am not sure I really understand what the Government are committing to—if anything. All those involved, including providers and users, have called for something as ambitious as the 1945 Government’s establishment of the NHS. In a nutshell, social care needs its post-1945 moment now; it should not be back-heeled into the long grass when no one is looking.
Professor Wessely and his team reported on modernising the Mental Health Act in 2018 and the Government have now committed to implementing many of the recommendations, but, even with this being Mental Health Awareness Week, it is not clear how and when. We want to work closely with Ministers to ensure essential and urgent improvements in this area.
The Government also say that they want to promote the “integrity of the union”. As someone who is half-Scottish and committed to our union of nations, I have to say to the Leader that I have not seen enough evidence of that to date. Too often, the Prime Minister has made belligerent attacks on those from other parties and shown a lack of interest in the whole of the UK. That shows little respect for the union. He needs to embrace better engagement and to value the differences and strengths of the UK nations within the union. As the noble Lord, Lord Bates, said, we hope that the meetings about to start between the four nations will lead to progress in that area.
The commitment to strengthen devolved government in Northern Ireland is welcome, but it means that Mr Johnson and his Ministers really do need to up their game. Both Tony Blair and Gordon Brown would meet Northern Ireland’s political leaders and travel there, particularly when times were difficult, and we would like to see that same commitment from the Prime Minister.
I hope that the commitment to enhance renters’ rights means that Ministers will finally act on their promise to ban unfair evictions, which we will support, as they cause enormous distress to thousands of tenants. It would be helpful if the noble Baroness could confirm that this means primary legislation and pre-legislative scrutiny to ensure that the Bill is fit for purpose.
The proposals on animal welfare are welcome, although I am concerned about a story that was leaked to a press on a proposal on importing so-called trophies, which may have a loophole through which a herd of elephants could escape. We would be very grateful if the noble Baroness could look at that.
We welcome the online safety Bill, despite the long delay since it was first promised. The noble Baroness understands that this House is impatient for progress on that issue.
The Government make much of their lifelong learning and training Bill, and we on these Benches share the belief that first-class education, training and skills are the foundations on which our economy is built and in themselves bring huge benefits to society. Those commitments must come in parallel with measures necessary to create the economic climate and investment in future jobs that are open to all.
When reading the previous King’s and Queen’s Speeches, I was struck by how important it was to successive Governments that our relations with other countries were cordial and positive. As an outward-looking, forward-facing nation, that was important to us, so I had hoped to see something in this first post-Brexit speech about our relationship with our nearest neighbours. It is disappointing that references to our role overseas were so limited to the embrace of an interconnected world and what that means for us at home.
That brings me back to the scale of ambition needed for a post-Brexit, post-pandemic UK. I welcome the words in the speech about delivering a national recovery, but it really has to be more than political rhetoric, with politics and legislation that really deliver. We have heard a lot about levelling-up, but it needs the powers and funding to make it happen.
Within all the promised legislation, there were measures that we will support, some that we will not and others that we will work with the Government to improve. Over the coming days and weeks, we will debate this speech, embark on the process of scrutinising legislation and fulfil our responsibilities with care and diligence. But judgments on this Queen’s Speech will not be in tomorrow’s newspaper headlines or in interviews but in the months and years to come, on whether the Government have met the challenge and test and been ambitious enough to ensure that our country is offered a greater opportunity and the optimism that genuinely saves lives.