Labour Lords leader, Baroness Angela Smith speech to House of Lords, 10th May 2022
My Lords, I beg to move that this debate be adjourned until tomorrow. We know that Her Majesty the Queen would have been here if she were able to do so, and we send her our sincere best wishes. We look forward to her jubilee celebrations, when we can recognise the extraordinary service she has given to this country.
The roots of today’s proceedings, with the monarch reading the Government’s programme, go back hundreds of years. Even today, the Yeomen searched the Palace cellars in a ceremony dating back to 1605, when Guy Fawkes was found with a tonne and a half of gunpowder. Given the delays to the R&R programme, perhaps today they should have searched them for dry rot, fire risks and pestilence.
Another great tradition is the reception at Downing Street before the Queen’s Speech. In the evening before proceedings, the Prime Minister enlightens Ministers and a few special guests on the contents of the Government’s programme. Once, at one such event, I noticed that a former Conservative MP, David Atkinson, had joined us. I knew David fairly well though our Southend and Basildon connections, and I said, “David, this is unexpected—how lovely to see you here”. He smiled and said, “Yes, Sarah”—referring to the then Prime Minister’s wife—“invited me”.
Several of my colleagues who had seen us talking were very curious as to why he was present. I just smiled and said, “Well, Sarah Brown invited him”, as if I knew what was going on—why would he be there unless there was a special reason for his invitation? Gordon Brown, as Prime Minister, made his speech, and the evening continued in good spirits. As it drew to a close, still nothing had been said about David’s presence. As we left, he said, “I’ve had a lovely evening,” and then added, “But I really don’t know why Sarah invited me.” He drew out his invitation; it was indeed from the Prime Minister’s wife, but for a reception the following week for the Association of Former Members of Parliament.
Today we have heard two excellent speeches, and I congratulate both noble Lords on their contributions.
The noble Lord, Lord Sherbourne of Didsbury, has had a distinguished and very interesting political life, and brings his experience of being political secretary to Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and chief of staff to Michael Howard—now the noble Lord, Lord Howard. I was amused to see the noble Lord, Lord Sherbourne, profiled in an article entitled “Howard’s henchpersons”, but I am not convinced that being described as a “Quietly spoken, bespectacled gent who brings gravitas” really qualifies him as a henchman. Part of his popularity in his party is because he is known as a calming influence who “fixes things up and smooths things down”.
No wonder his colleague, the noble Lord, Lord Finkelstein, suggested in his Times column that he should be considered as the chief of staff for the current Prime Minister. I suspect he is too discreet to tell your Lordships’ House whether he did not get the call, or whether he did but turned it down. Either way, Downing Street’s loss is your Lordships’ House’s gain, and we look forward to his further contributions.
The noble Baroness, Lady Fraser of Craigmaddie, is relatively new to your Lordships’ House—as she alluded to, it is a year ago this week that she made her maiden speech—but she brings with her a wealth of experience from the third sector, especially her work on cerebral palsy as chief executive of Cerebral Palsy Scotland.
She made her mark in December, leading a debate on Scotland’s economic recovery, in which she referred to being “a proud Scot”, as she did today, and cautioned that those championing the unionist cause must not reduce it simply to accountancy. She added: “To ensure quality of life throughout the whole UK, we have to work together across all levels—economic, health, education, social and cultural, on devolved and reserved matters”.—[Official Report, 9/12/21; col. 2016.]
Speaking as a proud half-Scot, I can only add, “Hear, hear!”. The noble Baroness finished her contribution by saying that she is Scottish, Tory and a woman. I think I am correct in saying that she stood in the 2011 election for Holyrood. I ought to alert her that Wikipedia has the candidate in 2011 down as Stephen Fraser.
This debate takes place against the backdrop of local elections. I congratulate all those who won seats and commiserate with those who lost. Given that, across the country, our councillors dedicate themselves to their local communities, it is frustrating for them that they often take responsibility for the failings as well as the successes of their parties nationally. However, it is with some pride that I note that this is the first time that the Palace of Westminster has had a Labour council.
As well as looking ahead to the new parliamentary Session, this is also a time of reflection. Clearly, the last few years have been challenging, with Brexit, the pandemic and Russia’s shocking, unjustified attacks on Ukraine. If proof was needed of the interconnections and partnerships needed by nations, this is it.
Twenty-five years ago this week, we had the Queen’s Speech programme for the first Labour Government in nearly two decades. The 1997 programme was worlds away from what we have before us today. It was exciting, ambitious, and bold for the future of our country. It focused on education, economic growth and stability, and it ensured investment in new technology and jobs with a new, first minimum wage.
Twenty-five years ago, we also restated our commitment to the international institutions, including NATO, and to bringing peace to Northern Ireland, leading to the Belfast/Good Friday agreement. This was a clear priority and built on the initial work of previous Prime Ministers. Alongside policies on devolution, it was a programme embracing and supporting the whole of the union. What an irony then that the party that describes itself as the Conservative and Unionist Party has brought us to the position where that union is under greater strains than it has been for many years.
The 1997 Labour programme was firmly rooted in what was in the national interest for the future stability, prosperity and security of our country. It had a vision of the kind of country and society we could be—dynamic, forward-looking and outward, and offering new opportunities for all citizens.
The programme before us today was trailed as a political relaunch for the Conservative Party after the horrors of the past few years. Is that really the test for a Queen’s Speech? It will be judged not on how loud MPs or Peers cheer or on tomorrow’s newspaper headlines, but on whether these measures make an impact on the quality of life of our citizens in the months and years ahead. As we emerge from the worst of the pandemic, the social, political and economic aftershocks continue.
Meanwhile, the unjustified war in Ukraine is teaching us hard lessons that peace and stability in Europe can never be taken for granted and that our relationship with our geographical neighbours is vital. As we heard from the noble Baroness, the courageous leadership of President Zelensky is inspiring. We stand alongside the people of Ukraine and are at one with the Government on the essential military support being provided. That unity is important, not just for the Ukrainian people but as a message to the Kremlin.
We also share the sentiments of the Minister for Refugees, who described the Government’s record on Ukrainian refugees as an embarrassment. Whatever the reasons, the stark difference between the competence and urgency of the Ministry of Defence and the attitude of the Home Office should shame those responsible, and it has to be resolved urgently.
Looking at the programme today, the somewhat cynical words of Ernest Benn, who I understand is the great-uncle of my noble friend Lord Stansgate, came to mind. He said: “Politics is the art of looking for trouble, finding it whether it exists or not, diagnosing it incorrectly and applying the wrong remedies.”
Will this Queen’s Speech be remembered as a programme for a Government who seek to address the major issues of the day, or will it justify Ernest Benn’s cynicism? What is today’s urgent issue on which the country is crying out for change? As families struggle to pay for the weekly shop and Elsie travels around on her bus pass because it is warmer than the home she cannot afford to heat, the issue that keeps people awake at night is how they can feed their families and pay their bills, and it is not going to get any easier. Inflation has hit 7%, with the Bank of England warning that it is getting higher, but growth is falling.
If Ministers seem determined to ride it out, switching from Heinz baked beans to Tesco’s value brand is not going to make a difference and nor is a loan to help with heating bills when it has to be paid back later, so where is the action to deal with the crisis? It is not in this speech. The proposed energy legislation should be an opportunity for Ministers to show that they understand the seriousness of both the climate crisis and alarmingly high bills. We need a mix of energy sources, including nuclear, yet political pressure means that the Government have pretty much written off the cheapest, easiest and quickest way to provide energy and are kicking onshore wind into the long grass.
The most important issue for any Government is keeping their citizens safe and secure. The new economic crime Bill, or EC2, as it became known in your Lordships’ House, is essential. We had several very well-informed debates on the Bill that was rushed through Parliament at the start of the war in Ukraine and commitments from the Government to act, yet the implementation update released the day before Prorogation was desperately disappointing and failed to exude any sense of urgency. For example, there has been very little of substance to establish the register of overseas entities and their beneficial owners. I think I am right—I would be very happy to be corrected—that not a single related statutory instrument has been laid.
We will press for an early Bill as reform of Companies House is critical, but Ministers need to understand that they cannot claim “job done” just through passing legislation without the resources and the political will to implement it.
The Government promise new measures to support the security services. We all know that the days when the man in the gaberdine mac and trilby put a bug in your plant pot have long since gone. Those who wish to harm our democracy, security and way of life are far more sophisticated and dangerous today.
Given all that, will the Government look again and bring forward measures that make it harder for overseas money to be brought into our national politics? With the Elections Bill last month, that was made easier rather than the opposite. We need action on this issue, and this is the opportunity.
Many of us remember that extraordinary day and night in the last Session when the Home Secretary attempted to push through poorly defined anti-protest powers without proper parliamentary scrutiny and was rightly and overwhelmingly rebuffed by your Lordships’ House. Naturally, the Home Secretary was pretty miffed about that, but the long and short of it was that she failed to make the case for these measures. They went too far, were badly drafted and had not even been sought by the police. In fact, in some cases they would have made the police’s job harder without effectively tackling the key problems.
The bravery of protesters taking to the streets in Russia against the invasion of Ukraine should be at the forefront of our minds when we consider the rights of our own people to make themselves heard. I am sure that I am not alone in my apprehension when Ministers say they want—I quote from the speech—to “restore the balance of power between the legislature and the courts”.
What would that really mean in practice? We cannot criticise other nations for human rights abuses if we fail to show an absolute commitment ourselves to the rights and freedoms here at home.
On levelling up, the Government need to understand one of the basic rules of politics: just saying something does not make it happen. It was over a year ago that they promised to “build back better”, with the Prime Minister heralding it as a “historic opportunity”, but, so far, they have not made the transition from slogan to substance. Legislation needs to match what people want and need for their local communities. We have always taken the view that resources should be targeted at those places in the greatest need. The Government should avoid getting bogged down in debates about structures and processes; what matters is people, their lives and their homes.
For example, several Housing Ministers, and the Prime Minister, have promised to end no-fault evictions. With soaring rents, protecting private tenants is a crucial part of levelling up, so we look forward to that promise being fulfilled in the legislation.
It is clear that no one in government gave much thought to the implications for Northern Ireland when promoting Brexit. Having negotiated and agreed the protocol without any serious engagement with Northern Ireland means this is now the most serious political and economic crisis in a generation. We do not know what promises, if any, the Prime Minister has made to Jeffrey Donaldson and the DUP, but they are absolute in their opposition to the protocol. Other parties want to do what they can to make it work.
The commitment in today’s speech to “prioritise support for the Belfast (Good Friday) Agreement” is welcome, but I am not sure exactly what it means. It seems designed to mean whatever somebody wants it to mean while saying nothing about the Government’s intentions. The protocol was the Government’s answer to addressing this issue but, having been opposed by the DUP, it seems they are now flailing around.
Briefly, on the proposed legacy issues legislation—I have a particular interest as a former Northern Ireland Victims Minister—I appeal to the Government: please understand that this needs support from the widest possible coalition.
In 1952, the proposer of the Motion moved in your Lordships’ House today by the noble Lord, Lord Sherbourne, was Lord Mancroft—not the current holder of the title, unless he has an ageing painting in his attic, but his father. We heard in dramatic terms from the noble Lord, Lord Sherbourne, of his comments at the time but, at the end of that speech, he said of that very light domestic programme “‘for this relief, much thanks!’”—[Official Report, 4/11/1952; col 8.]
He could not have said that about the last Session, during which 34 government Bills and 13 Private Members’ Bills gained Royal Assent.
Part of the problem was that dealing with internal party distractions led to poor business management, with the result that in the last six weeks of the Session, your Lordships’ House was sitting longer and later than at any other time in recent memory. This House has an important role to play, but the way in which those final weeks were managed did not allow us to do our best work. I am conscious that a significant proportion of our active membership were introduced from 2015 onwards and have had little opportunity to see this House working more normally and at its best.
In previous debates on the size of the House, I have highlighted how David Cameron appointed more Peers per year than any other Prime Minister but, today, I can announce that his record has been well and truly broken. In under two years, Boris Johnson has appointed 84 new Peers—a direct snub to the Lord Speaker’s Committee on the Size of the House—but, even with a massive number of new Conservative Peers, the Government still failed to win the argument first time round on many issues.
The one President whom Her Majesty the Queen never met was Lyndon B Johnson, who said that the first rule of politics was to learn to count. That is a wise rule to follow on most occasions, especially when it comes to votes, but in our day-to-day work this House operates not on a numbers game—nor should it—but on the seriousness of our debates and arguments.
As an unelected House, we understand our role and the constitutional constraints that we operate under. We are charged with scrutinising legislation and, when appropriate, revising it to send it back to the other place to ask the Government and MPs to think again. Sometimes it will be appropriate to do that more than once.
This House always appreciates it when Ministers, confronted with arguments that make a strong case for amending a Bill, are prepared to engage and discuss the detail. That is how we work at our best. I was struck fairly recently when a former Minister said to me, “It’s not like the old days”. He fondly recalled being able to take issues back to the department where he would be listened to if he made a case for change. So when were those halcyon days that he was talking about—10 years ago, or 20 years ago? No, just pre Prime Minister Johnson.
The Government have to properly understand the role of your Lordships’ House. With co-operation across the House from all quarters, we can get back to a more normal rhythm of legislation that allows us to do our best and most useful work.
Baroness Angela Smith of Basildon is Shadow Leader of the House of Lords. She tweets @LadyBasildon