Angela Smith speech to House of Lords, 11th May 2021
Can I first concur with the comments thanking Her Majesty the Queen. In her long reign she has seen this country weather many peaks and troughs. Peace, war, economic highs and lows, national optimism, and pessimism. Throughout it all she has remained steadfast and discreet, and in doing so has earned the gratitude and the affection of the entire nation.
As is tradition in both Houses for the QS, the proposers and seconders are usually a respected long-serving colleague and by a rising star. Admit that I am not entirely happy that the respected long-serving veteran is younger than I am!
As the proposer of the humble address, the NL Bates showed why he is held in such high regard in YLH. He once told me that he thought he was boring – My Lords, as his friends know and he showed today, nothing could be further from the truth.
He is perhaps best known for two things. Firstly walking – but not a gentle stroll for him. It’s usually a few thousand miles at a time to promote good causes and raise over a million pounds for charity. But also, for having resigned from the Government four times – and each time with honour and dignity. On one occasion because he considered he had insulted YLH by being just one minute late to respond to a question. I can understand why he’s not a member of Mr Johnson’s Government, where nobody ever seems to step up and take that kind of responsibility.
NL Sanderson of Welton is relatively new to YLH but has played a full and active role since she joined. She clearly has been in training for the Government whips office, as when I was reading her contributions in Hansard, several were along the lines of ‘May I remind the NL that the advisory speaking time is just 3 minutes’! She has made her mark mainly in the debates on the Domestic Abuse Bill – with thoughtful contributions that showed her genuine commitment on the issue. We look forward to hearing further from the NL.
Generally, when a Government lays out its programme for the Queens Speech it sets the tone, as well as the policies and proposed legislation, for the forthcoming session. That’s not always the case, as we saw with the QS of October 2019, when the Government’s programme lasted only a few days before, following the unlawful attempt, Parliament was prorogued for an election which led to a further QS in December 2019.
When we look back at previous Queen’s’ and King’s’ speeches, many have been made at times of great change and following momentous events in our nation’s history. In outlining its forthcoming legislative programme, a Government should define its values and vision – in effect, it’s moral purpose.
On 15 August 1945, VJ day, the State opening was very different to today’s scaled back event. The King and 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 plus homes, factories, schools were just rubble and in ruins.
That King’s speech was hopeful, ambitious, and visionary. 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. And, as the nation prepared for peace there was a sharp focus on the need to rebuild not just what had been, but also for what should be. It created homes and jobs - and our National Health Service was born.
That Government was also confident and ambitious for our relationship 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 – not just the scale of ambition and achievements, within a backdrop of the greatest challenge our country has ever faced. But for also providing the confidence that politics was a force for good.
The greatest challenge leading up to this Queens Speech has of course been the Covid-19 pandemic. Less violent and shorter than war that preceded the 1945 speech, but also with a profound impact 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 of our own household. We have had to adjust – drastically so – to new behavioural norms of social distancing, mask wearing, and a daily diet of meetings on Zoom and MS 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’s been a really tough year.
The parallel with 1945 is that the courage and ambition in preparing for the future shown then, is the step change that is needed today. There has to be a post-pandemic vision that doesn’t 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, the world is now more interconnected than ever before. My grandparents only left the UK once in their lives. Their parents never left these shores. My great grandfather never travelled on the ships he worked on in the East London docks. But their dependents, until the pandemic, would fly the Atlantic with the same ease as their great grandparents would take the bus into central London. So, when the virus struck, it swiftly travelled the world and changed all 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 that the Queen’s Speech appears to recognise this in relation to our commitment to Defence matters, even if some of the promised funding for our Armed Forces is making up for lost ground. But the recent proposals to cut UK aid to some of the poorest countries is so misjudged, not just in their interests but in ours too.
The QS says that the Government will continue to provide aid where it has the greatest impact. But the NLTL will recall the concerns of YLH about the Government reneging on its own legislative commitment to 0.7% of GNI. There doesn’t seem to be a bill to legalise that cut. Can we take the absence as recognition, finally, that the Government will stick by its legally binding commitments?
The second lesson for today’s Leaders – and one that must have challenged those in Government who are ideologically wedded to the notion of a small state – is that in order to effectively tackle a national crisis, major state intervention is essential. And that the foundations must be in place before a crisis beforehand. In terms of being ready for the pandemic, the UK was woefully under-prepared. So, in building for the future, we must develop national resilience to threats known and as yet unknown.
Turning to some of the specific proposals:-
My Lords, 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 in the decades since we have seen massive improvements. Continued consideration, therefore, of the Environment Bill gives us an opportunity to revisit an issue which the NL 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 from the coroner following the death of nine-year old Ella Adoo Kissi-Debrah, after finding that air pollution was a ‘significant’ factor.
I welcome the plans to repeal the Fixed Term Parliaments Act. A consequence of the 2010 Coalition Agreement, it has been observed 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 is necessary. I checked with the Electoral Commission, and they clearly state that the evidence of proven electoral fraud is low. In fact, overwhelmingly, most complaints appear to be 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 the Trump Playbook was no longer required reading at No.10.
And, who could be anything but suspicious when the Government says it wants to ‘restore the balance of power between the executive, the legislature and the courts.’ We all know what’s behind this – and it looks, sounds, and smells like an ‘power grab’. Obviously, 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, this Government has had an almost hysterical reaction to anything that suggests that absolute power shouldn’t exclusively lie 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 1000 new peers to stop the Lords taking a different view to 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 time again we have raised our concerns about the way in which some contracts were awarded, fast-tracked, or agreed on the back of a fag-packet with the pub landlord next door.
And time and time again, we’ve been told that this was just responding to a moment of national crisis. At times that could have been true. And that is why inquiries into the handling of the pandemic are essential to ensure proper transparency regarding the role of ministers and advisers, if only to learn the lessons for the future and to inform policy. It is also 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’. MNF Lady Thornton will have more to say about this tomorrow. But surely, the greatest priority should be building up our NHS following the pandemic and also the social care reforms that are needed. With the latter I’m really not sure what the Government is committing itself to – if anything. All those involved, including providers and users, have called for something as ambitious as the establishment of the 1945 Government’s NHS. In a nutshell, Social Care needs its post-45 moment now and not be backheeled into the long grass when nobody is looking.
Professor Wessely and his team reported on Modernising the Mental Health Act in 2018, and the Government has now committed to implementing many of their recommendations. But even with this being Mental Health Awareness week, it’s still not clear how and when. We want to work closely with ministers to ensure essential and urgent improvements in this area.
The Government also says that it will promote the integrity of the Union. As someone who is both half-Scottish and committed to our union of nations, I haven’t seen enough evidence of that. Too often the Prime Minister’s belligerent attacks on those from other parties, or lack of interest in the whole of the UK, shows little respect for the Union. He needs to embrace better engagement and value the differences and strengths of the UK nations within the Union.
The commitment to strengthen devolved Government in Northern Ireland is welcome – and that means that Mr Johnson and 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. 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 cause such distress to thousands of tenants. Can the NL confirm that this means primary legislation, and pre-legislative scrutiny to ensure the Bill is fit for purpose.
Proposals on animal welfare are welcome but I am concerned that what was leaked to the press on importing so-called trophies which may have a loophole through which a herd of elephants could escape.
We welcome the On-line Safety Bill, despite the long delay since it was first promised. The NL will understand this House is impatient for progress on this issue.
The Government is making much of its Lifelong Learning and Training Bill. We on these benches share the belief that first class education, training and skills are the foundations on which our economy is built – and bring huge benefits to society. So, those commitments must come in parallel with measures necessary to create the economic climate and investment in future jobs that are open to all.
My Lords, when reading previous King’s and Queen’s speeches, I was struck at 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. In our first post-Brexit Queen’s Speech I had hoped to see something similar, especially relating to our new relationship with our closest neighbours. It is disappointing, therefore, that the references to our role overseas are so limited in their embrace of this interconnected world – and what it means for us at home.
That brings me back to the scale of ambition that is needed for the 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 policies and legislation that really delivers. We’ve heard a lot about ‘levelling up’ but without the powers and funding needed, it remains just words.
My Lords, within all the promised legislation, there are measures that we will support, some that we won’t, and others where we will work with the Government to improve. Over the coming days and weeks, we will debate this speech and then embark on the process of scrutinising legislation. We will fulfil our responsibilities with care and diligence. But judgement on this Queens Speech will not be in tomorrow morning’s newspaper headlines or broadcast interviews. It will be in the months and years to come of whether the Government has met the challenge and test of being ambitious enough to ensure that that our country offers a greater opportunity and optimism that genuinely changes lives.
I beg to move that the debate be adjourned until tomorrow, Wednesday 12th May.
Baroness Angela Smith of Basildon is Shadow Leader of the House of Lords. She tweets @LadyBasildon