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Response to 2016 Queen's Speech

AngelaSmith.jpgAngela Smith's speech to the House of Lords

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

Before I reflect on these excellent speeches, I think it appropriate in the year of her majesty’s 90th birthday, and when she is the longest serving Monarch in our history, to recognise that she has delivered over 60 speeches to Parliament since 1952 – and if in all those years she has ever sensed any repetition or contradiction she has never shown it.

It is my pleasure to warmly congratulate the NL King of Bridgewater and NL Baroness Goldie for their excellent and entertaining contributions. I confess, as they spoke, I had that uncomfortable feeling when on hearing first rate speeches one’s inner voice shouts ‘now follow that’.

My Lords, today’s proposer and seconder of the loyal address have followed the tradition of speeches that both they, their colleagues and this House can be proud of.

The NL King is well known for his distinguished and impressive political career in the other place before joining Your Lordships House in 2001. Having served as an officer in the Army he was elected to Parliament at a by election in 1970 and has served as the Secretary of State for Defence, Northern Ireland, Employment, Transport and Environment.

Despite such demanding positions, one biographical note reflected that “King never had a strong public profile compared to other members of the Cabinet”. But the explanation does him great credit because it reasons that he didn’t “…. draw attention to himself by elementary errors or public gaffes”.

That reputation for competence and attention to detail has followed him into this House.

The NL may not recall the first time we met. Indeed, it wasn’t until I was moving house recently and sorting out boxes of political papers that I was reminded – of a Conservative Party Conference in the 1980s, when I found the distinctive blue diary for that year, signed by the NL King.  My confession is that he was so nice to me I didn’t have the heart to tell him I was a Member of the Labour Party!

And how much we appreciated his comments on Sadiq Khan.

The NL Goldie is a relative newcomer to YLH having joined us in 2013, following a distinguished 6 years as the Leader of the Scottish Conservatives.  Clearly, her party’s recent successes in Scotland have their roots in her time as Leader.

And I commend her approach to Opposition when she wrote: Opposition is not about talking a good game, it is about taking the attack to government, challenging, calling to account, exposing flaws and weakness”.

And although fiercely loyal to her party, she’s also prepared to extend the hand of friendship across the political divide.  I love the story that after a particularly bruising political meeting she was happy to provide a lift home to Douglas Alexander, the Labour minister who was speaking. Clearly perfect qualities and skills for YLH.

She is also known for her sharp edged self-deprecating wit and we had a sense of that today.  Now that she has stood down from the Scottish Parliament we look forward to many more contributions from her. 

My Lords, our proposer and seconder today would have seen the QS in advance, and sworn to secrecy. Those who have served as Ministers will know that it is a closely guarded secret, and information is only provided on a need to know basis.

On the night before state opening, Ministers and a few special guests are invited to Downing Street, where in the delightful surroundings of the Pillared State Drawing Room, they can hear the Prime Minister brief them on the content – again in secret and no-one must breathe a word.

On the last occasion – so far- that I joined other ministers at this event, I was very surprised that a former Conservative MP, had joined us for the evening.

Being very curious, and knowing him reasonably well I asked what he was doing there.

“Sarah invited me” – the Prime Minister’s wife. “Lovely to see you – great to have you here”, I replied.

As the evening wore on a number of my colleagues, having seen me speaking to him asked me why he was there. I gave my best knowing look – “Sarah invited him” – and so we all had a very pleasant evening and heard all about the Queen’s speech and he happily chatted and mingled – and I have to say, many assumed that he might have had a surprise announcement to make.

As the evening drew to a close and we were speaking again and he said what a great evening it has been but “I don’t really know why Sarah invited me”

He drew out his invitation.  We gasped! It was for the Association of former MPs – for the following week!

And to his credit, he never said a word.

This is the 6th Queens speech for the current PM, but only the second as head of a wholly Conservative Government.

In case we had forgotten the Queen’s Speech reminds us that there will be a referendum on membership of the European Union. Many, including perhaps most of the Cabinet and the PM himself, had expected this speech after that Referendum. 

But clearly he had to address the sense that Government was becoming paralysed by the focus on the referendum and consequential divisions in the Conservative Party. And it led to the best laid plans of Chief Whips being thrown to one side, as new timetables and new schedules had to be set to complete the business of the past session.

So to complete our deliberations on the Housing and Planning Bill we had, long, late sittings, crammed together. I really hope that we never again see a significant, non-emergency, Bill, being scheduled for four consecutive sitting days, with plans to regularly sit to midnight. 

If the country votes to leave the EU, it will have enormous and probably immediate consequences that will have to be dealt with. So, it would be helpful to understand whether there is a Plan B? Or is this Queen’s Speech the ‘Carry on Regardless’ version? 

We know that the longer in office, the Prime Minister becomes more conscious of his legacy, and this speech has been labelled the PMs ‘Life chances strategy’.

But what’s new? We heard today that the Government will bring public finances under control – similar promises were made in the Queen’s speeches of 2014 and 2015.  Yet with each budget, the Chancellor has to recognise his failure and readjust his deficit fighting plans, as debt has increased from around 60% of GDP in 2010 to over 80% today.

We’re told that the Government wants to increase living standards and tackle poverty – as we were in the two previous years.  And what was the Government’s big idea last year? ‘To redefine how child poverty is measured’.

In this Queen’s Speech it appears that attempt at redefining continues. The commitment to tackling poverty and deprivation is now to be through addressing family instability, addiction and debt. Yes, of course those issues must be tackled but they are as often a consequence of poverty as much as the cause.

We warmly welcome commitments to improving the life chances of children in care, supporting the hardest to reach families and educational excellence – but just saying so doesn’t make it happen. 

If we’re are seriously going to improve life chances for all, those commitments have to be supported and resourced. But the Government’s cuts to tax credits and universal credit, devastating cuts in support for those with disabilities, closing down Sure Start centres, ending the Educational Maintenance Allowance, make that commitment to ‘life chances’ so much harder to achieve.

And, as in the two previous years, the Government again commits to providing for more people to own their home – yet we now have the lowest level of home ownership in almost 30 years, and  the number of 25 -34 years olds owning their own home has fallen from 59% to 34%.  And it is getting harder and more expensive to rent.

There’s no point in promising broadband for all homes if so many people haven’t got one.

The Prime Minister has spoken of a relentless focus – and all-out assault – to tackle disadvantage and extend opportunity. He is right to do so, and his commitment is the test we shall apply to the Bills announced today. Over the next few days we will debate these measures and over the coming session consider the detail.

And in those Bills, where we share the Government’s objectives our scrutiny role will be to deploy the expertise in YLH and play our role in ensuring effective legislation that will work in practice.

When we see the new Prisons Bill, it may well fall into this category, especially given recent reports of violence and shocking conditions.  But merely passing responsibility to prison governors without adequate staff, resources, support and back-up will not do the job.

I am fascinated by the announcement reported in the press that the Government’s commitment to technology heralds the building of a space station or port for commercial space travel. My Lords, we haven’t been able to extract a decision from this Government for a new runway at Heathrow or Gatwick over the last six years.

Is it taking so long that we’re now by-passing air travel and heading straight for outer space?

I suspect those, particularly in rural areas who can’t even get a bus to the nearest shops or the hospital, just might think that their quality of their lives would be better improved by more buses than by more rocket ships. Perhaps we can pursue that in the buses bill.

Some measures previously announced have already fallen by the wayside. 

Despite the best efforts of the NL Nash to persuade YLH, and perhaps also his Ministerial colleagues, the Government has wisely dropped plans to force all schools to become Academies. 

I suspect the details of that policy may not have survived the forensic scrutiny of YLH, but The Education Secretary in promoting and defending the policy said she had “No reverse gear”. Perhaps not, but a U-turn doesn’t require a reverse gear - although the speed of this made it more of a handbrake turn that any boy racer would have been proud of. 

But let’s be clear, I’m not opposed to U-turns. It shows that the Government has had to listen, take other views into account and that it doesn’t have a closed mind.

My Lords, we will also have legislation that goes to the heart of national security.  We must at all times seek to ensure that we get the balance right between protection of  citizens from fear and harm, and protection from unwarranted intrusion into private lives and individual freedom.

These are complex issues. Our input will be constructive and in the national interest.

The work and the Report of the Joint Committee on these issues will be vital in our deliberations and I thank all NL who contributed to that Report, and to My Noble Friend, Lord Murphy of Torfaen for Chairing the Committee. We will want to work with the Government, to seek changes and improvements where needed, to ensure effective, balanced legislation that is fit for purpose.

We also make a plea to the Government not to bring forward framework Bills, but to provide as much detail as possible in well-drafted Bills. In the last session three Bills that started in YLH, Childcare, Devolution and Energy were introduced whilst deficient in detail and financial information.

Yet in some ways poor drafting provides an opportunity to show YLH at its best, and although not always recognised as such, extremely helpful to Government.

And it’s not just this side of the House that complains.  It was the NL Robathan who said of the Trade Union Bill: “I wonder whether the Bill was stitched together by some special adviser who was being paid too much; some teenage scribbler who should perhaps have been given greater and wiser direction”.

In choosing to examine the most controversial part of the Trade Union Bill by a Select Committee this House fulfilled with honour its duty of scrutiny.  In a cross party way, it forensically examined the detail and made recommendations that, whilst recognising the somewhat confused manifesto commitments, also provided for a sensible, fair, practical way forward.

Again, the whole House should be grateful to the NL Burns who chaired that Select Committee and to his colleagues, across the House, who showed this House at its best.

My Lords, we welcome the Commitment to uphold the sovereignty of Parliament and the Primacy of the House of Commons.

Following the tax credits vote, the NL Strathclyde produced his Report, ‘Secondary Legislation and the Primacy of the House of Commons’.  However, as recognised by our Lords Committees the content instead reflected the Government’s concerns about ensuring the primacy of the Executive over Parliament.

The dispute between the Government and ourselves over whether the motion on tax credits was fatal or not isn’t productive – and we’ll never agree. Where we can agree is that the Government clearly resented that challenge and before any motions were tabled we heard threats to create 150 more Government Peers or suspend Your Lordships House.

Yet in spite of that provocation the tax credits debate showed YLH, put in an unsatisfactory position with proposals that would have been better in Primary Legislation, seeking a way forward to provide the Government with the time and space to reconsider.  Which it did, and for which we are grateful.

My Lords, I’ve always been quite an admirer of the NL Strathclyde as a Leader of the Opposition. He is known in this House for being a wise and courteous man - and also as a wily political operator. He led the challenge to the Labour Government.  His voting record against the Labour Government is admired by many. In fact, he is an ideal role model for any Opposition Leader.

But I’ve said before I think there are two Lord Strathclyde’s. There’s the traditional model from Opposition, standing up for the rights of Parliament, in the interests of scrutiny and good governance. So many of us were surprised when the new modern NL Strathclyde produced his report.

I prefer and agree with the traditional model when he said: “I hope that no stones will be cast at this House for doing its job”. Wise words indeed.

So we endorse the recognition that it is Parliament and not the Executive that is sovereign and of course endorse the primacy of the Other Place.

But My Lords, if we reflect on the past year perhaps as a House we’re all adjusting to new circumstances. This is the first ever Conservative Government that hasn’t had an automatic Conservative majority in YLH.

No Labour Government has ever had a Labour majority in this House. We understand that it is at times challenging and frustrating. So I want to place on record, my thanks and appreciation to those ministers who have been willing to engage, to listen and where necessary to seek compromise and bring forward amendments. 

For YLH to do its job well, it requires Noble Lords to use their expertise, knowledge and skills to work effectively and co-operatively to scrutinise legislation – taking much time and often stamina!

Can I thank all NL who engage in many of hours of debate on Bills, propose amendments, seek clarifications and engage in seeking to improve legislation in a process that Governments should, for the most part, see as valuable and helpful. We respect, and will continue to respect, those well-established conventions that have served this House well.

I can pledge that we will continue to be a good, effective and responsible opposition.

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


Baroness Angela Smith of Basildon is Labour's Leader in the House of Lords. She tweets @LadyBasildon

Published 18th May 2016 

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