Debate (1st Day)
My Lords, I have to acquaint the House that Her Majesty was pleased this morning to make a most gracious Speech from the Throne to both Houses of Parliament assembled in the House of Lords. Copies of the gracious Speech are available in the Printed Paper Office. I have, for the convenience of the House, arranged for the terms of the gracious Speech to be published in the Official Report.
Motion for an Humble Address
Moved by Lord Fowler
That an humble Address be presented to Her Majesty as follows:
“Most Gracious Sovereign—We, Your Majesty’s most dutiful and loyal subjects, the Lords Spiritual and Temporal in Parliament assembled, beg leave to thank Your Majesty for the most gracious Speech which Your Majesty has addressed to both Houses of Parliament”.
My Lords, it is a great privilege to propose this Motion and pay my own tribute to the Queen. Some, perhaps many, of us had our first introduction to the medium of television as we watched her coronation in 1953. In the years that have followed, this nation could not have been served more magnificently and with a greater sense of duty than by the Queen, always supported with dedication and style by the Duke of Edinburgh, to whom—slightly early—we send greetings on his 93rd birthday, next Tuesday.
It was also an enormous pleasure to have with us Prince Charles and the Duchess of Cornwall. Over the years, Prince Charles has shown himself to be not just a man of action in his efforts to help the employment position of young people—as I well remember—but a man of sound judgment. Perhaps I could add this: I would like to applaud the help and support that the whole Royal Family has given to the many voluntary organisations in this country. As many in this House will know, its support is utterly invaluable.
2014 is a year which sees many anniversaries. Next year, we have one which goes to our heart—the 800th anniversary of Magna Carta. As your Lordships will recall, this was the culmination of the barons’ revolt. Indeed, our gallant allies, the Liberal Democrats, appear to have started commemorating that part already.
Last year, the proposer of this Motion, my noble friend Lord Lang of Monkton, made an exceptionally elegant speech, but there was one point with which I disagreed. He suggested that the kind of people who make this speech—“old codgers” I think he rather offensively called them—have abandoned all ambition for an advancement. I contest that particular statement. I have been patiently sitting by my phone for the past 13 years, waiting for the call to come. Although it has not rung yet, I still have my hopes.
I am very grateful.
Consider my qualifications: instant recognition in the street. Only last week a gentleman outside this very House came up to say, “How very nice to see you, Mr Rifkind”. Think of my experience: I was in Margaret Thatcher’s shadow Cabinet back in 1976, when she called me in and said she wanted me to move to transport. “But I know nothing about transport”, I protested. She fixed me with an icy stare. “Fowler”, she said—we always had this close personal relationship—“Fowler, I did transport; you can do transport”. So I did, eventually becoming Secretary of State, which was hugely enjoyable, thanks partly to the high quality of the shadow Ministers, such as the noble Lord, Lord Prescott, with his wonderfully engaging transport policy of “Jaguars for all”. As a Westminster MP, I strongly agreed with this; when I can afford it, I personally follow it as well. A little later I went to Health and Social Security and stayed there for six years, with the help of some brilliant Ministers of State, such as Ken Clarke, with his dark brown Hush Puppies and his smelly cigars—or perhaps it was the other way round—John Major, who I have to say we very much hope we will see at some stage in this House, and Tony Newton, who we all very much miss to this day.
In this House I had tremendous support from my noble friends Lord Elton, Lord Glenarthur and Lord Trefgarne. Then there was my noble friend Lady Trumpington—no hand signals, please. She was a formidable ally, but if she had one fault it was a slight tendency to go occasionally off message. She did not really have her heart in Edwina Currie’s healthy living message. We could never persuade her into the woolly hat that Edwina prescribed for cold weather. It was even worse when one day she went off to a press lunch to extol the virtues of our health policy and our success in bringing down waiting lists. The next day the headline was, “Health Minister proposes licensed brothels on the NHS”. No. 10 was not amused. I loyally tried to placate them by saying that we would not expect everyone to be covered by free prescriptions, but I received the reply that the objection was rather more fundamental than that.
My noble friend is genuinely a great lady and it would be entirely inappropriate of me to use this occasion to say that you can read about her adventures in her recently published book. That would be doubly inappropriate, as I have a new book of my own coming out this week and actually it is cheaper than hers.
Obviously when I came to this House I expected my record to be noted and promotion to beckon. I then noticed one or two barriers. My last ministerial job had been in employment, where I was helped by John Cope, now my noble friend Lord Cope, who was absolutely superb and who achieved—I am sorry, John, I cannot read the rest of what you have written here. My second Minister was John Lee, now my noble friend Lord Lee of Trafford, making at that time a guest appearance on the Conservative Benches. Since then he has written an entirely useless book for many of us in this House: How to Make a Million—Slowly. We do not want to know how it can be done slowly; for some of us, speed is of the essence.
So there were Messrs Cope and Lee and then came the question of the third man—the third Minister. “I am giving you Strathclyde”, said the Prime Minister. “Strathclyde!”, I protested. “That’s a passenger transport executive. I’m doing employment, not transport”. “No, no, Lord Strathclyde—he’s a quite remarkable man. He’s the only man on the Conservative Front Bench who believes in an elected House of Lords”.
After that beginning, I was not going to get very far with him, and I did not. But surely, I thought, I was owed some debt for my period as party chairman. Then I remembered my efforts to modernise the party organisation and cut back the regional organisations. There was one region which was particularly difficult. I told my chief agent to tell them politely that they were to be amalgamated. A day later I received the reply that the officers there had said that I could jump in the Central Office lake. I was outraged. “Who is behind this revolt?”, I asked. “It’s a lady called Joyce Anelay”, came the reply. As one door closed, another slammed shut.
However, there was a fresh spark of hope when my noble friend Lord Strathclyde retired after, I must say, a very distinguished period as Leader of this House. There was speculation on who would follow him. I harboured the hope that my old friend, my noble friend Lord Lawson, might make it—surely he would need a new spokesman on climate change. However, it was not to be. Instead, another old friend, my noble friend Lord Hill, took over. Now here really was an opportunity. In the 1992 election, he and I travelled virtually every day with the Prime Minister, John Major. Many people put down our surprising success in that election to our support and advice. When I say “many people”, that was certainly the firm view of myself, my noble friend Lord Hill and our close families.
However, even at that time my noble friend Lord Hill showed great skill in defending his leader. In one of the cities that we visited, John Major was pelted with eggs. It was not the headline that the spin doctors wanted. So my noble friend Lord Hill invented the line that it was quite untrue to say that the Prime Minister had been pelted with eggs—they were aiming at Fowler and missed.
For whatever reason, my claim has so far been overlooked, but I have not given up. I am still sitting by my phone, and at this point I should like to pay genuine and sincere tribute to the skill and extraordinary ability and wisdom of the Leader of the House and, of course, his excellent and efficient Chief Whip—much good though any of that will do me. So, for the time being, I have to revert to the jungle of the Privy Council Bench, where the competition is so fierce that former Cabinet Ministers squabble about who is to ask a supplementary question first. I suspect that there will be many opportunities for such scraps in the forthcoming Session—which actually is not a bad connecting sentence.
The trouble with any legislative programme is that a hundred editorials condemn you for too many Bills and, if you are more modest, a hundred editorials condemn you for too few. I have worked out that on the basis of my service in the House of Commons and in this House, and given that a Division takes about 15 minutes, I have spent more than one year of my life voting in the Division Lobbies of both Houses—I repeat, more than one year. I hope the Whips are listening to that. They can nod if they are. Just one nod: I did not get very far with that. I did not think that they would listen. Of course, my voting does not take into account the times when I have been brought in to take part in a make-or-break vote on which the future of the country depends, but the vote never takes place. I should make it clear that that happens only in the other place.
I am firmly of the view that the less legislation, the better. I also take the view that that enables us to have more general debates. I would not mind having a debate on the Chilcot report, why there has been such a delay and why we cannot have the full transcript. I also would not mind having more debates on the Floor of the House on the many excellent Select Committee reports that this House publishes. Taking all that into account, my view is that the programme for the next Session is well judged. I very much support the measures on deregulation and infrastructure. I also support the provisions on pension reform. Back in the 1980s, I introduced personal pensions and step by step the position has been reformed. It is entirely right that the public should have good advice but also more freedom to take decisions concerning their own money.
Running as a thread through all this is a strengthening economy, which is much to the credit of the Prime Minister and his Chancellor of the Exchequer. It has been a tough and, at times, unpopular struggle to recover. It also has been to the credit of our coalition partners on the Benches behind me who put the national interest before party advantage.
I might add that, although perhaps as a resident of the Isle of Wight, I could wish that the same sturdiness had enabled them to support the parliamentary boundary proposals. At the next election on the island, we will have a constituency electorate of 111,000.
As the gracious Speech makes clear, two major issues overhang the next 12 months. The first is our future position in Europe. When I was first elected in 1970, I advocated in my election address a referendum on entry into the Common Market, much to the displeasure of Central Office. It is at least arguable that had we done that at the outset, we would have spared ourselves some of the trouble which has scarred British politics ever since. You do not have to be a Eurosceptic to support the Prime Minister’s pledge to have a referendum after a period of negotiation on the powers of the European Union. Given the results of the European elections from around Europe, it would be a brave man who argues that the structure needs no reform at all.
Even more immediate is the referendum in Scotland. I sometimes think that those of us who support the union put the case in the wrong way. Of course, the financial issues are vital but the real argument is that together we have more influence and more power to defend our interests. As I said at the start, 2014 is a year of anniversaries. It is the anniversary of the start of the First World War and this Friday is the anniversary of D-day. In those wars we fought together to defend liberty and no country played a bigger part than Scotland and its men and women. My hope is that side by side we will continue to stand together in facing the problems that the world throws at us. The problems have not gone away, as the position in Ukraine graphically illustrates. It can hardly be doubted that together we are stronger. It is not just a financial argument: it is because we have shared so much over the years. I very much hope that those historic ties and the pure affection that exists between us will not be cast aside. I beg to move the Motion for an humble Address to Her Majesty.
My Lords, I beg to second my noble friend’s Motion for an humble Address. It is an enormous privilege to have been asked to speak this afternoon. Historically, the honour of seconding the Motion for an humble Address is given to fairly new and up-and-coming Members of your Lordships’ House, so having entered my 15th year here, it is really good to hit the ground running.
This is always a great day in the House and it is an astonishing thought that no one under the age of 62 has lived in the reign of a monarch other than Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth. Her record of dedicated service to the nation, now well into its ninth decade, is both remarkable and a genuine inspiration to the nation.
It is a real honour to follow my noble friend Lord Fowler, who I know is respected right across this House and far beyond it. I feel confident in saying that without the leadership he showed as Secretary of State for Health when the threat of AIDS first revealed itself, hundreds of lives would have been lost and many thousands more blighted. It is magnificent that he is still campaigning on this issue, and that his new book Aids: Don’t Die of Prejudice is due to be published next week. It is only £14.99 from all good bookshops.
I had the pleasure of serving on the Communications Committee under his chairmanship and it was a most informative and interesting experience. I have never confessed this to him before, but six months before, as a member of the Liaison Committee, I had strongly opposed the formation of the committee. Well, he was right and I was wrong; it has gone on to do some great work.
That of course is one of the strengths of this House: the way in which a range of expertise and knowledge is used not just to hold government to account through debate and legislative scrutiny but to take evidence, deliberate and then contribute to public policy. The range that we cover is quite remarkable. In the coming Session we shall have new committees on the digital economy and on the challenges facing the Arctic region. Our European Union scrutiny work is respected across the EU and I am very proud of the work done by the members of Sub-Committee D, which I chair. Our recent report on food waste has sparked a genuine national debate. I gently say to the leadership of the House that our sitting schedule does not have to be totally dominated by the legislative agenda; we have other valuable work to do.
One of the big changes that I have seen in my 14 years in the House is the increasing size of the House. This is testing both the procedural and operational capacity of the House, as well as its staff and facilities. I am sure that noble Lords will join me in thanking all the staff who do so much to make sure that we can do our job effectively. Not only are they efficient and good at what they do, but their friendliness and genuine commitment to the work of the House is remarkable.
On the subject of change, I am sure that the House will join me in thanking my noble friend Lord McNally for a decade of service as the Leader of the Liberal Democrats in the Lords, and as Deputy Leader of the House and Minister for Justice. He is not in his place today, but I do not think that the House will begrudge his day release; even for a Liberal Democrat, a whole-life tariff might have been a little harsh.
We wish him well in his new role as chair of the Youth Justice Board. He is a hard act to follow, but I can think of no one better to do so than my noble and learned friend Lord Wallace of Tankerness—or, as my computer spell-check likes to call him, Lord Tenderness. He has long earned the respect of this House for his work both in the Scottish Parliament and here in this House. I have one piece of personal advice, Jim, just between us: at the Dispatch Box, calm down. There is too much passion, too much irascibility. Just ask our noble friend Lord McNally; he will give you some tips.
It is one of the many conundrums of this House that while new Peers are invariably given an individually warm welcome, sometimes the overall impression is that new intakes of Peers are not entirely welcome. Well, I for one do welcome them and believe that the contribution made by the Peers introduced during this Parliament has been excellent. This House needs to be constantly refreshed with new thinking, approaches and experience if it is continue to be effective. We cannot afford simply to pull up the drawbridge behind us. It is worth reflecting that in this fast-moving world, the technologies that dominate our lives did not even exist a single generation ago.
The work that many of us do outside the Chamber also makes our contribution to this House all the more rich. Like many noble Lords, I am involved with the voluntary sector both nationally and at home in Suffolk. I am sure that we all stand together in gratitude for the contribution that volunteers make to the well-being of our nation. I was pleased to hear in the gracious Speech that the question of legal liability for people acting in good faith in the public good will finally be clarified.
I also very much value my external role on the board of the Harwich Haven Authority. As a maritime trading nation, our ports should be drivers of job creation and growth. I hope that the forthcoming infrastructure Bill will encourage the road improvements to our ports that the sector has long been calling for. Stormy seas, hidden rocks, the occasional man overboard and even mutiny—and when I have had enough of the party, it is always good to go up to Harwich.
In 2010 many commentators believed that the first Queen’s Speech of the coalition would also be the last. It was—and for some still is—very difficult to comprehend that two political parties might manage their differences and produce a programme for government. We do not have much experience of coalition in this country, either as voters or when it comes to the machinery of government, and there is a lot to learn from the past four years. It is ironic that while the public are not showing any particular enthusiasm for coalition per se, their voting intentions make it a likely outcome again in the future.
I was president of my party in 2010. I was proud then, and remain proud, that my party did not shirk its responsibilities, either by telling voters to think again at a second general election or by permitting an unstable minority Government. At a time when the country’s finances were in jeopardy, the eurozone faced collapse and the global economic crisis continued to unfold, to do so would have been wholly irresponsible. My party has paid a heavy price for that decision, but even in hindsight I do not believe it was the wrong thing to do.
The irony is, all Governments are coalitions; compromises between different wings of the party, or even between No. 10 and No. 11, have to be thrashed out, and no one ever gets everything they want. But in the end, it is about balance. Next year the Government can reflect on their achievements, most notably in rebuilding the economy, for no Government has a greater responsibility than its stewardship of the public finances. I was very pleased to see the emphasis in the gracious Speech on stability and security for the economy, and a recognition of the importance of the role of small businesses.
The measures announced today on pensions, affordable childcare and apprenticeships are not about tomorrow’s newspapers but about people’s lives for decades into the future. They sit alongside raising the income tax threshold, reforming the pension system, introducing the pupil premium, the Green Investment Bank, equal marriage and fixed-term Parliaments. These measures all reflect long-term thinking and, I venture to suggest, will not be quickly overturned by any incoming Government. They say that success has many fathers, but a DNA test of those policies would show definite Liberal Democrat paternity.
The gracious Speech has outlined many measures for which proper scrutiny will keep us fully occupied, although I applaud the emphasis on the business of governing. I note that there are always calls for more and more regulation—and then we have to have a deregulation Bill to undo all the regulation that we have made.
To use the old phrase, we live in interesting times. There are some huge decisions facing our nation which will determine our place in the world. They will start with the choice that Scotland will make about its future and will go on to the general election next year and beyond. Debate in this House will no doubt be lively and, at times, fractious, but while our beliefs may differ, and despite what the cynics would have you believe, what unites us here in this House is a desire to do the very best for our country.
Motion to Adjourn
My Lords, I beg to move that this debate be adjourned until tomorrow. I warmly congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Fowler, and the noble Baroness, Lady Scott of Needham Market, on their speeches. They have continued the tradition of excellence by those moving and seconding the humble Address, and they were, if I may say so, a very fine choice by the noble Lord the Leader.
I am tempted to call the noble Lord, Lord Fowler, my noble friend, because he has done and said so many things over the years with which I have agreed, from seatbelts to sex—that is to say, same-sex marriage—but I recognise that by doing so I might be damaging both his and my reputation, and it would certainly not help his advancement.
The world will be grateful to him for the campaign he introduced on HIV/AIDS, when Secretary of State for Health, to provide information and reduce stigma, a cause which he continues to champion. In this House, he has always been willing to speak up for what he believes to be right, irrespective of party line: for example, on Leveson. I am not too sure that Baroness Thatcher would have approved of this independence of mind. In his diaries, he refers to a conversation on the then Mrs Thatcher’s reaction to the prospect of a change to the poll tax legislation:
“If this takes place then we will have to change the House of Lords. She particularly does not like the position where former Conservative ministers transfer to the House of Lords and then take on a new independence”.
Another diary entry reads:
“We have been defeated in the Lords on football identity cards, leading Mrs Thatcher to ask more or less rhetorically: ‘What’s happened to all those peers I have made?’”.
I guess that Mr Cameron might well be saying the same. However, his response is usually practical not rhetorical in that he just creates a few more Peers. In 2008 the noble Lord published a book entitled A Political Suicide: The Conservatives’ Voyage into the Wilderness—a great read if I might say so. I was wondering whether the next book might be a sequel, but clearly it is not.
The up-and-coming noble Baroness, Lady Scott of Needham Market, has a distinguished record as a local and county councillor in Suffolk and brought that experience to the Lords. She was probably glad not to be fighting a Lib Dem seat in the recent council elections. She is a board member of Wings of Hope—not, I should add, an organisation that is looking to save her party from oblivion but one with the rather more laudable aim of a world in which every child has the right to a free education. In 2008, the noble Baroness stood against Lembit Öpik to be Lib Dem president, and won. I remember thinking that was an excellent step forward for her party, and indeed it was. I also warm to the noble Baroness for having a blog called “Because Baronesses are People Too”. Indeed, we are.
It is always an honour and a privilege to speak at the beginning of the debate on the gracious Speech, but I have a confession to make: I would so much prefer to be doing it from other side of the Chamber. This is not a matter of personal ambition; it is a desire for power to bring about the changes that our country and people need and deserve. We on these Benches will be doing everything possible to ensure that this time next year I will be leaning on that Dispatch Box.
Shortly before the Recess, the Benches opposite were beginning to get overconfident, but I think that last month’s elections may have restored a sense of reality and recognition of the challenges that we all face; especially in terms of the trust that must be restored in politics and our political system. Despite the impression given by the media, we should not forget that although UKIP won 27% of the vote it had the support of only 9% of the electorate, and while I respect those who exercised their democratic right to vote for UKIP I do not respect that party’s simplistic policies, which offer little more than a return to some rose-tinted past that did not exist.
William E Simon was perhaps wise when he said:
“Bad politicians are sent to Washington by good people who don’t vote”.
The fact that 64% of our electors did not see the point of voting and that some of those who put their cross on the ballot paper did so in the spirit of “a plague on all your houses” shows that we as national politicians have failed in many ways. We have failed to listen and to take action to address concerns. We have overpromised and underdelivered, and our parties have failed to respond to the myriad changes that we face. Too many people simply do not think that they have a voice. That is not so much in places such as London and the other great cities, such as Birmingham, Manchester, Liverpool, Exeter, Norwich and Sunderland—places where most people rejected UKIP outright—but in smaller market and coastal towns where people are crying out for help in a fast-changing world that they feel has been foisted upon them and that they can do nothing to stop. They think that those who run our country live on a different planet and they warm to UKIP’s easy but false answers to complex problems.
The Hansard Society’s 2014 Audit of Political Engagement found that 67% of the people polled said that politicians,
“don’t understand the daily lives of people like me”.
That is why those of us engaged in politics have to do more to connect with people and make meaningful offers in terms of policies. That is why it is crucial for national government, local government and businesses of all types and at all levels to work together to help revive struggling economies, to give people in our country hope for the future and to ensure that nobody gets left behind. Politics should be about hope, not fear.
This is a speech that in many ways should not have been; I have no doubt that it would not have been but for the gerrymandering of the Fixed-term Parliaments Act. Instead, while the country was aching for change and an election, for months we had days of debates without legislation and days of holidays when we should have been holding the Government to account. We cannot forget earlier legislation whose impact is now being felt and that has actually made things worse for many people: for example, the bedroom tax—as the noble Lord, Lord Freud, often calls it—the scope of which has now widened with both sides of the coalition equally culpable. I look forward to being part of a Government who will abolish what has ultimately been a pernicious attack on vulnerable people.
That impact is made worse by the housing crisis affecting millions in our country, including young people who have no prospect of buying a home and who should pay fair rents and not be exploited by rogue landlords and letting agents. Where is the legislation to address this? The fundamental problem is the lack of housing stock. The Bill that will enable a garden city to be built at Ebbsfleet is welcome, but the building of 15,000 new homes is a pitiful response to the crisis, so where is the legislation that would realise the aspirations of thousands of people who want and need a home?
The 2012-13 Session understandably had a huge hole in it because of the House of Lords Bill. That was bad political management, but last year we suffered from bad business management. Sometimes, a sitting after 10 pm was followed by days with little or no business. I ask the noble Lord the Leader of the House for an assurance that there will be no repeat of the disgraceful handling of the European Union (Referendum) Bill—government legislation masquerading as a Private Member’s Bill—when party politics took precedence over procedure.
I trust that the Bills mentioned today will be well drafted and complete. It has been a feature of this Government that Bills begin their legislative process while consultations are still under way and that sometimes agreements on policy have not been reached by the coalition partners. That begs the question: when will the “conscious uncoupling” end in divorce? The joyful union in the sunshine seems a lifetime away, since when we have had bickering followed by more upfront disputes. One has to wonder when the now joyless relationship will finally break down so that each partner can blame the other for unfulfilled promises before the phoney war ends and the real election campaign begins in earnest.
Goodness knows what changes we will see over the coming year in this Chamber, let alone the country. Surely the Prime Minister cannot be intending to create yet more Peers to further swell the Benches opposite in order to rubber-stamp his programme? This harms not only the Government’s reputation but the reputation of the whole House. Following the local and European election results, the coalition must have ditched at last its objective of creating a second Chamber that is reflective of the share of the vote secured by the political parties in the last general election. More Lib Dem Peers? I think not. Indeed, if there are any more Iagos with plots of deep malice on their Benches, we might see their numbers diminish.
Like the noble Baroness, we were sad in many ways to see the departure of the noble Lord, Lord McNally, from the Front Bench, but are delighted that he became chair of the Youth Justice Board, which, thanks to the efforts of Cross-Bench and Labour Peers, was saved from abolition at the hands of some unwise, unthinking Minister.
There has been much discussion about the number of Bills mentioned in the gracious Speech. The real question should be whether these Bills address the real challenges before our country. One has to wonder whether the speech had been finalised before the Government knew the results of the elections on 22 May. We will never know, but it really does not answer the big questions that we all faced on the doorstep about insecurity, unfairness and instability.
The media briefings have made the reduction in the use of plastic bags a key measure—all very important, but the fact that plastic bags take centre stage when there is no mention of the NHS and social care says it all about the coalition’s priorities for our country. Where is the Bill to put right the mistakes made in the Health and Social Care Act 2012, which has made a complete shambles of the NHS at a time when it is facing the worst crisis in its history? We need more than the measures to limit excessive redundancy payments across the public sector, which are a direct consequence of that wasteful £3 billion restructuring of our health service. Could the noble Lord the Leader confirm that there will be pre-legislative scrutiny of any health regulation Bill?
We welcome the small business Bill, which is a direct response to Labour’s policies but does not go far enough. The same can be said of legislation to improve the fairness of contracts for low-paid workers and legislation to impose higher penalties on employers who fail to pay their staff the minimum wage—again very welcome, but these are only part of the package we have advocated to ensure that work pays and workers are not exploited.
We strongly support the introduction of the modern slavery Bill and are proud of the long-term work and advocacy of the noble Lord, Lord McColl of Dulwich, which was the catalyst for the Bill.
The re-announcements on childcare are to be welcomed, as they were when they were first announced, but if the Government really believe that investment in childcare is critical, why will the measures not be introduced until 2015? Parents need improved childcare now.
Where is the Bill on forestry that was promised after the excellent report by the independent panel, published two years ago? The report provided a blueprint for safeguarding the future of our public forests and the Government welcomed the recommendations, promising to bring forward the necessary legislation.
As the Government take forward their programme, I hope that Ministers will take more care in assessing the impact of legislation: for example, on people’s ability to feed their families. I pay tribute to the noble Lord, Lord Tebbit, for visiting a food bank. He said:
“There was a systematic approach to uncovering the deeper problems which had brought people to the point where they simply did not have enough money to buy adequate food”.
One family every 35 seconds is now receiving a food parcel, and the Scottish Parliament’s recent report highlighted the fact that a growing number of people who use food banks are low-paid. So where is the Bill that will address these problems?
Food banks are one very visible sign of the inequalities now growing in our society, where wealth is increasingly accumulated by the few at the top. The gracious Speech says:
“My Government will continue to … build a fairer society”.
However, I would ask: when will they begin to build a fairer society? The Governor of the Bank of England said last week that inequality is “demonstrably” growing and risks undermining the basic social contract of fairness. So where are the measures to ensure that the “sense of society” mentioned by Mr Carney is restored?
Last week Save the Children published an excellent report, A Fair Start for Every Child, which examines the underlying drivers of poverty such as low wages, high prices and pressure on social security. It concludes that there is a very real risk as the economy moves into recovery that the poorest children will be left behind. Will the measures mentioned today ensure that these children are taken out of poverty? How will the Government bring about the bold and radical changes necessary to transform these children’s lives?
Over the coming year, the general election aside, the most important political event in our country will be the referendum in Scotland. I am a passionate believer in the union, and fervently hope that on 18 September the people of Scotland will confirm that they are too. Proposals for the future of devolution in Scotland in the event of a no vote have now been put forward by all the major political parties, including my own. More powers for the Scottish Parliament are guaranteed in the event of a no vote. I hope that the Scottish people choose to continue with the best of both worlds: a strong Scottish Parliament backed up by the strength and security of the United Kingdom.
Next Thursday will see the beginning of the World Cup, when I am sure that all Members of this House, including our Scottish colleagues, will be backing our boys. On this side of the House, we hope and believe that England could go far, contrary to the Home Office’s pessimistic assessment, which was recently flushed out by my noble friend Lord Rosser. To win games they have to be fit and work as a team in order to meet the challenges of their competitors.
Likewise in the globalised world of the 21st century, where competition from the developing and the developed world is getting stronger, each and every part of our country needs to be fit, with economic growth and sustainable quality jobs, and each and every member of our society needs to have the opportunity to realise their potential for their own well-being and that of their community. It is clear from the recent election results that too many people do not feel a sense of personal or community well-being; they feel insecure, ill equipped to deal with change, and a deep sense of unfairness. With this Queen’s Speech the Government had an opportunity to respond to some of these challenges, but I fear that that they have failed to do so.
We on these Benches look forward to the year ahead, when we will scrutinise the legislative programme and seek to amend where necessary and appropriate. We will do so in the knowledge that by this time next year the people of this country will have had the opportunity not just to give a verdict on this Government but to change the direction of our country. I hope that through our work in this Chamber and outside, all noble Lords from all parties and none will help to ensure that more of our citizens have greater trust in politicians and their ability to bring about change that is relevant to, and will improve, their lives. In this way they might feel that it is important for them to exercise their democratic right to vote. I certainly hope so. I beg to move that this debate be adjourned until tomorrow.
My Lords, today is a day for tradition: the tradition of the gracious Speech, with the Crown, the Cap of Maintenance, the Sword of State; the tradition of the heralds and the steady tramp of the Gentlemen at Arms; the tradition of a good lunch followed by the debate on an humble Address; and perhaps the most enduring tradition of them all, the predictable attack on the Government’s programme by the Leader of the Opposition.
Once again, I am glad to report that everything has gone off well, but the smooth running of the day did not happen by accident. There is a reason why everything seems to go like clockwork; it is the huge amount of effort behind the scenes by all those who have been planning, moving furniture, polishing, sweeping and cooking. Therefore, on behalf of the whole House, I should like to record our thanks to Black Rod and his team, the estates staff, the refreshment department and everybody else who has played their part.
I should also like to thank the noble Baroness, Lady Royall, for moving the Motion to adjourn and for the way she has worked on behalf of the House throughout the past year. She and I might disagree politically, but we have a shared affection for this House and how it operates. I should also like to thank my noble and learned friend Lord Wallace of Tankerness for the support he provides as Deputy Leader of the House, although I think the House misses the entertainment that was provided by my noble friend Lord McNally slamming files on the Dispatch Box. I also thank the Convenor of the Cross-Bench Peers who plays such an important part in helping keep the rest of us sane.
It is a particular pleasure for me to congratulate my noble friend Lord Fowler on his speech. As he said, he and I first got to know each other during the 1992 general election campaign when we both lurched around the country day in, day out, on the Prime Minister’s battle bus. My noble friend was always calm. Well, he was nearly always calm—I remember an occasion in Scotland. But he was always cheerful and always ready with wise advice. I had not realised until a few moments ago that my noble friend would welcome yet another return to the Front Bench. I forget how many political resurrections that would make, but I think it is better if I am straight with him. I am sorry to disappoint him, but he is far too young. However, I can easily see why successive leaders of my party turned to him when they needed help. As my noble friend himself put it in an untypically Eeyore-ish diary entry I found from 2001:
“Already used by Thatcher, Major and Hague, now in the service of my old pal Clarke. I am a media Jeeves for the politically oppressed”.
Jeeves could, of course, always be relied upon to get Bertie out of scrapes, but he is also famous for his erudition. Like Jeeves, my noble friend knows a lot, but, unlike him, he wears his learning, and his many achievements, very lightly. He was a great reformer in the Thatcher Government of the 1980s, and he was also a supremely effective Secretary of State. He ran the combined Department of Health and Social Security for six years, which is a sign of his remarkable resilience. He is a great campaigner, using the skills he learnt as a journalist on the Times, whether on seatbelts early in his political career or on press regulation more recently. His work on AIDS, given the very different climate of the 1980s, was not just far-sighted but brave. Countless thousands of people around the world have reason to be grateful to him.
I also add my congratulations to my noble friend Lady Scott of Needham Market on her speech this afternoon. A champion of local government in her native Suffolk, she got early experience of life in a coalition when she was leader of the Liberal Democrat group on Suffolk County Council, admittedly in a Lib Dem/Labour coalition. Oddly, that experience did not put her off coalition of a different hue, as she explained when she became president of the Liberal Democrats and was so from 2009 to 2011. I put this great flexibility down to her membership of an a cappella group, which, as noble Lords will know, is a group which sings in harmony without instrumental accompaniment. I think my noble friend’s skills might come in useful in the months ahead. We all look forward to the Liberal Democrat Benches singing in close harmony.
So much for the traditions. But if some things do not change, this final Session of Parliament will be different in one major respect: for the first time in history, we already know the precise date of the next general election. This may be bad news for the bookmakers, but it is actually good news for legislators. Much as we may enjoy the speculation, we will not have to have all those endless conversations in corners about whether the Prime Minister will call an early election or not, and we will be spared the paralysis that usually strikes Government in the last year of a Parliament as officials and Ministers put things on hold as they wait to see what the Prime Minister will decide about the timing of the election. This time, we know. That means we can carry on working right up until the Dissolution at the end of next March, and that is what the legislation set out in today’s gracious Speech will enable us to do.
Contrary to what the noble Baroness, Lady Royall, suggested, it will be a full programme for what will be a shorter-than-usual Session, and it follows a full legislative programme last Session, when we passed 22 Acts that: reformed the financial services market; established the simpler and fairer single tier state pension; reformed the adoption system; implemented the employment allowance; reformed the energy and water markets; and introduced a cap on costs that people will have to pay for care. These were big reforms that will deliver real benefits to millions of people. The House has also been busier than ever in holding the Government to account through debates and Select Committee work. Thanks to reforms introduced in this House last year, we had 50% more Questions for Short Debate in the previous Session than in the one before. It was also the busiest ever Session in terms of Select Committee activity. As well as our usual investigative and scrutiny committees, we had three ad hoc committees, three pre-legislative scrutiny committees and two post-legislative scrutiny committees. The work performed by all these committees is remarkable, and I place on record my thanks to noble Lords and members of staff who participate in this vital part of our work.
Over the past four years, this Government have achieved an enormous amount; if I am honest, far more than many of us might have thought likely back in 2010. The economy is set to be the fastest growing of the major economies this year; the deficit is falling; and employment is at a record high, with 1.5 million more people in work than in 2010, with the greater feeling of independence and security that having a job brings. Long overdue reforms in education and welfare are bearing fruit, but there is still more that we must do to secure Britain’s future. That is the platform on which this Session’s legislation, outlined in the gracious Speech, will build.
The legislation will help businesses of all sizes by removing unnecessary regulation. It will support investment in the country’s infrastructure, reducing our energy dependency on others and driving the growth we need to create even more jobs. It will help people to live a safe and secure life by taking measures against those who seek to profit from the misfortune of others, whether from modern slavery or from other serious crime. It will help to ensure a better retirement, with greater financial security in old age, and, at the other end of life, it will help families with young children with the costs of their childcare.
Three new Bills will start their passage in your Lordships’ House: the infrastructure Bill, the serious crime Bill and the Armed Forces (service complaints and financial assistance) Bill. In addition, four Bills will be carried over from the previous Session: the Consumer Rights Bill, the Criminal Justice and Courts Bill, the Deregulation Bill and the Wales Bill. Therefore, there will be much to keep us busy in this Chamber in the months ahead. There will be things on which we agree as well as disagree, and I hope that we will work on them in our usual constructive way.
However, whatever our differences may be in the run-up to the general election, I know that one issue will bring us together: our common desire to keep the United Kingdom united. It is not possible to exaggerate the significance of the vote that will take place on 18 September. In just over 100 days, the people of Scotland will have to make the most momentous decision they have taken in more than 300 years. Some have suggested that Members of your Lordships’ House should play no part in the debate about Scotland’s future. To them I say: we have had many Scots in this House who, proud of their inheritance, have enriched our national life in so many ways—in the arts, in business, in education, in our Armed Forces, in politics and in public service. Who is better placed than them to understand the appeal of the heart as well as the head? Of course they should speak out. However, so should Englishmen like me, who cannot claim one drop of Scottish blood yet nevertheless feel passionately that together we are so much stronger and so much more generous-spirited than we would be were we to go our separate ways. As this August we start to commemorate the sacrifices made in the Great War by men and women from all parts of the United Kingdom, it is a good time to reflect on our shared values and our shared history, remembering that the whole is far greater than the sum of its parts. The next general election is important, as general elections always are. However, the vote on Scotland’s future is not just about five years, but for ever.
The next year is therefore one of great significance. This House, as always, will be central to the debates that will shape our very future. I know that we will take our responsibilities seriously, questioning, probing, refining and, yes, improving legislation. I am enormously proud of the work we do in this House and the way in which we do it. I have no doubt that once again we will rise to the challenge of a new gracious Speech. It is in that spirit that I am delighted to support the noble Baroness’s Motion to adjourn the debate.
Debate adjourned until tomorrow.