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Speech in response to Queen's Speech 2017

Angela_outside_Oct2016.JPGBaroness Angela Smith speech to the House of Lords

My Lords, I beg to move that the debate be adjourned until tomorrow.

May I first join in wishing the Duke of Edinburgh a speedy recovery and thank Her Majesty and the Prince of Wales for being here today.

My Lords, we have just heard two excellent speeches. It’s a parliamentary tradition that the proposer and seconder of the Queen’s Speech should be an experienced sage and an up and coming newer peer. And as we‘ve heard today, it’s amazing how quickly can you move from one to the other. But my Lords, that hasn’t always worked out.

In March 1974, Noble Lady, Lady Birk was paired for the debate with the Noble Lord Taylor of Mansfield, who certainly qualified as experienced.  A former MP, he was then 79 years old and remained a very regular attender in YLH into his 90s. Lady Birk later became a Government whip.

Unfortunately, as Lady Birk made her way to the Chamber for the debate she tripped, cut her head and was unable to take part. The new Lords Leader, of the new Labour Government, Noble Lord Shepherd had to find a replacement with just minutes to go. He alighted upon the Noble Lord Brockway who then entered the Chamber preparing his speech in his mind, with no time to write anything down. But then, as ever, spoke with great style and thoughtfulness.

However, as was commented on at the time, at the age of 86 he could hardly be described as ‘up and coming’.  

The Noble Lord Forsyth made a particularly combative speech. In his early political life he was identified as a champion for the emerging new Conservative thinking and policies, and pioneered outsourcing and privatisation in local Government with great gusto.  As one article put it “he was preaching Thatcherism before the word was coined, even before Margaret Thatcher knew such a thing existed”.  Just think – if history had been just slightly different we might never have had Thatcherism – just Forsyth-ism.

A combative and conviction politician, the NL has had a long and distinguished career in Parliament, including as the Secretary of State for Scotland where I am told by Scottish friends that a great claim to fame is his bringing the Stone of Destiny to Edinburgh Castle and the premier of the film Braveheart to Stirling Castle.

No comments on the NL would be complete without a tribute to his amazing charity work.  Many give of their time and money, but few would dare to climb the highest mountains in Africa, Antarctica and the Americas as he has done for those causes he supports.

My Lords, the Noble Lady Baroness Bertin shares the NL Forsyth’s commitment to charity and is a trustee of the charity KIDS, which supports children with disabilities and their families – something that as we saw today has a personal resonance with her.

As the youngest, and one of the newest members of YLH, she still brings considerable experience of Parliament and Government having worked for David Cameron from 2005 until he resigned as Prime Minister. She is highly regarded by all who have worked with her.  She made a passionate maiden speech which impressed many in which she said: “the benchmark of a civilised society is how we care for the most vulnerable and equally how cared for, they themselves feel”.

Her speeches since then have shown her commitment to those with disabilities and learning disabilities, and today she has also shown us her natural wit and thoughtful approach. We look forward to hearing more from her.

The last time this House met was on 27th April and so much has happened since then. The Terrorist attacks in Manchester, London Bridge and by Finsbury Park Mosque have shocked, saddened and angered us all. As a nation we have been clear that we will not allow such evil to compromise our democracy, but we continue to be deeply affected as we recall those who have lost their lives and those whose lives are forever changed.

The sheer horror of the fire at Grenfell Tower, with the final number of fatalities not yet known has left hundreds homeless, and so many are deeply shaken and traumatized.  As well as the enquiries into the causes and the response it also raises deeper questions about our society that must be seriously and genuinely addressed in the weeks and months to come.

In all these events, we pay tribute to the dedicated, caring and professional work of our police, fire services, and our national health service staff and all  who put the needs of others first as they sought to help – in their response, we saw the best of humanity.

So my Lords, the back drop for this election and its aftermath has been challenging and emotional. It was also an unusual election.  It wasn’t due for another 3 years, so when the Prime Minister announced that she wanted to sweep aside the Fixed Term Parliaments Act and have an early election, she took the country, Parliament and indeed her own party by surprise – and perhaps for granted.

But she was clear about her rationale – it was about returning her as Prime Minister with a larger majority to provide strong and stable Leadership, with a clear mandate for the kind of Brexit she had outlined. Apparently it had nothing to do with the temptation of a 21 point lead in the opinion polls.

She claimed that the country was coming together but Westminster was not, adding: “unelected members of the House of Lords have vowed to fight us all the way […] We need a General Election and we need one now”, as it was “the only way to guarantee certainty for the years ahead”.

Well, my Lords we now have neither strong leadership nor certainty.  And certainty is not provided just by announcing that we’ll skip the next Queen’s Speech and unusually announce a two-year session of Parliament.  But my Lords, we should challenge the premise on which the election was called.

The Prime Minister had her mandate – she had an overall majority of 17 in the House of Commons – how long ago that must seem now as she sits around the table still trying to broker a deal with the DUP.

When the Prime Minister called the election, she had just got her Brexit Article 50 Bill through Parliament, unamended – the so-called ‘Clean Bill’ that she wanted.  Although I do wonder if David Davis, as he left the rather short initial talks with M. Barnier yesterday, privately wished the Government had accepted our amendment on protecting the rights of EU nationals and thus settled that issue so he could now focus on other matters.

But despite the PM’s complaints, there was nothing extraordinary or unusual about our tabling of amendments, the debates and the votes. It is what we do.  And on these benches we will continue to be a robust, challenging and responsible Opposition recognising the conventions of YLH.  This House has, and always will as an unelected House, recognise the primacy of the House of Commons. 

That was a central premise recognised in the Salisbury/Addison convention, reinforced in the Wakeham Report in 2000 and the Report of the Joint Committee on the Conventions chaired by my NF Lord Cunningham of Felling in 2005. Following this election of a minority Government, there has been discussion about whether the conventions of the House still apply.  So let’s be clear what they are.

The Salisbury/Addison convention recognised the legitimacy and the mandate of the 1945 Labour Government, with a majority of 146 in the House of Commons but only a handful of Peers in YLH.  The agreement in essence held that, given that majority, this House would not vote against manifesto items at Second Reading or introduce wrecking amendments.

Whenever our conventions have been re-examined the starting point and the end point has remained the same – that this House recognises the primacy of the Commons, and that has always guided how we conduct ourselves.

But My Lords, what is also clear in these Reports, and from our own experiences, is that the House of Commons has Primacy - not the Executive or Government.

Your Lordships House can advise, scrutinise, and propose amendments to the Other Place.  But at the end of the day, the House of Commons is, as the elected House, entitled not to accept that advice.  That makes the process sound more confrontational than it generally is, as in so many cases the terms and principles of our amendments are accepted.

And it is where the Strathclyde Report went wrong in trying to confuse the House of Commons with the Government.  They are not the same.

The last Queen’s speech in 2016 was very clear on this.  It said: “My Ministers will uphold the sovereignty of Parliament and the primacy of the House of Commons”. We agreed with that then and we agree now.

And if the Government is ever able to do a deal with the DUP the details should be published, along with costs.  There must be transparency.  And there must also be transparency about the legality and the political implications for the Good Friday Agreement – to which the UK Government is recognised as a co guarantor and should act with rigorous impartiality towards all political parties in Northern Ireland.

But even with a deal I suspect that there are a number of issues on which a Conservative/DUP Government might not find all the MPs of their respective parties in total agreement, particularly if the Prime Minister fails to put jobs and the economy of this country at the heart of Brexit negotiations.

To be clear, should the House of Commons send this House legislation that has been amended from the Government’s original intentions, then Ministers should not use YLH to seek to thwart the mandate of the democratically elected House.

This Government does not have the mandate that the Prime Minister sought.

This is the Prime Minister’s first Queen’s Speech. It is clearly not the speech she originally planned. It has been delayed, shorn of so much promised social legislation, and the first in decades to be delivered without a parliamentary majority.  And if it was delayed to wait for that ethereal deal with the DUP it is even more chaotic than at first thought. Perhaps it is chaos without coalition.

The first three paragraphs are on Brexit.  First the warm words, about getting the best possible deal and working with others. And then the harsh reality. Interestingly, the words ‘Great Repeal Act’ are not even mentioned – perhaps because such legislation was so misnamed. 

In addition to new Legislation on Trade and on Customs the Government has identified 5 areas where new national policies are required, and presumably new Primary Legislation: immigration, international sanctions, nuclear safeguards, agriculture and fisheries. These will be complex and often very technical.  The detail will be crucial. I urge the Government to publish its proposals early and ensure meaningful consultation.  Small mistakes could have serious consequences for our nation.

On other Bills referred to, there is a serious and immediate need to improve mental health services and we look forward to seeing the proposals. Previous promises that there should be parity of esteem between physical and mental health services have not been met.  Just saying that something should be so, doesn’t make it happen, but with goodwill and appropriate resources new legislation has the potential to make a real difference.

We welcome stronger action to tackle domestic violence and abuse. Since 2010, cuts to local authority funding have seen one in six specialist refuges close in England and one third of all referrals are turned away. Refuges are key to tackling this crime and should be seen by the Government as part of the solution. And perhaps this is also an opportunity to revisit the Coalition Government policy that removed legal aid from victims of domestic violence in child custody cases.

The promised full public enquiry into the horror of Grenfell Tower is welcome and it must be to both learn lessons and hold those responsible to account. Those who have suffered must have their voices heard and both process and information must be open, totally transparent and hold the confidence of the local community and those affected.

And my Lords, we welcome that the Government has taken up the issues raised by my Noble Friend, Lord Wills in his Private Members’ Bill in introducing an independent public advocate.  Such an advocate should play a key role in supporting bereaved families through any official process or enquiry that can sometimes seem distant and without their needs and views at the centre. But that office must be fully independent and resourced. And it must not in any way be used to avoid the normal legal processes or potential legal action, or in any way linked to legal aid, which should not be ruled out for such cases.

The Government has also pledged to review its Counter Terrorism strategy.

With the expertise and knowledge in YLH, we will want to fully engage with any review and discussions that seek to make our communities safer and to prevent such criminal and terrorist atrocities as we have seen.

When the Prime Minister announced, as her starting point, that she was prepared to tear up the Human Rights Act, if it “…got in the way”, she was perhaps looking at the issue from the wrong end of the telescope. The greatest and foremost human right, is the right to life.  And the first duty of any Government is the safety and security of its citizens.

Before any rush to new legislation the starting point should be to examine the existing laws, enforcement and resourcing. This needs wise judgement.  It requires intelligence and experience – and must be effectively resourced.

If we had more police officers, more community officers and the capacity for more intelligence operations would that make a difference? We know that our police and security services have foiled numerous attacks, so do they need new powers or are the existing ones adequate but need better resourcing? Should we better resource the Borders Agency? And how do we prevent people becoming radicalised through misplaced ideology or racist hatred?  Unless we examine the hardest questions we do ourselves and our communities an injustice.

But my Lords, this Queen’s Speech is as much about what is not in it, as what is. The promised commitments in the Conservative Party Manifesto on scrapping the Pension triple lock, the means testing the Winter Fuel Payments, Grammar schools, and even yet another promise for a further vote on foxhunting. These have, with many others, all bitten the dust, despite this now being a two year session. Were they ditched for a deal that may never be agreed?

And despite the issue dominating part of the election campaign, the Government still couldn’t find room for anything meaningful on social care, other than that it should be improved and there will be proposals at some later unspecified date.

And finally, it seems that the Spaceflight Bill has been announced again.  So we want to leave the EU, but fly off into outer space.  I don’t know if this is an attempt to seek voters elsewhere, but I say to the Government, before it heads off into New Worlds, it should focus on transport on planet earth. We have the on-going and never ending chaos of Southern Rail – and still no firm decision on a third runway. 

My Lords, there are some positive individual proposals within the Queen’s Speech but on the whole it is undoubtedly a disappointment. Half-echoing Ted Heath’s infamous “who governs?” when calling and losing the February 1974 general election, the Prime Minister went to the country on the dividing lines of strong and stable Government or a coalition of chaos. How she must regret using those words.  In calling the election she has weakened herself and her Government.

These are troubling times for our country with so many difficult issues needing a strong capable Government. In such times, Governments have to rise to the challenge.  Those key issues that affect, and even blight, the lives of so many of our citizens have not been effectively addressed.  Should this session last two years the bulk of the legislation will be Brexit related – but the issues that people are worried about like housing, like jobs, like the quality of life, and hope for future generations, will not be improved by the measures before us today.

As the official Opposition, and indeed Government in waiting, we will continue to maintain our constitutional role of scrutiny and challenge with responsibility – and at all times act in the best interests of our nation and the challenges we face.

I beg to move that this debate be adjourned till tomorrow.


Baroness Angela Smith of Basildon is Shadow Leader of the House of Lords. She tweets at @LadyBasildon

Published 21st June 2017 

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