Queen's Speech — Debate (5th Day)
Baroness Randerson (Liberal Democrat)
My Lords, we cannot legislate our way out of debt, although I seem to recall that Gordon Brown tried to do so when he was Prime Minister. However, we can use legislation to encourage enterprise, stabilise the banking system, encourage businesses to create more jobs and stimulate green investment. All those key issues were tackled in the gracious Speech, which outlined measures that reinforce the coalition's policies for promoting growth by emphasising regional growth, rebalancing the economy away from the disastrous over-reliance on the finance sector under the previous Government. Then there is the policy of encouraging the growth of SMEs, emphasising the importance of manufacturing and developing skills.
I want to draw out two measures announced in the Queen's Speech. The first is the Groceries Code Adjudicator Bill, which is all about the small producers being empowered to stand up to the big retailers to get a fair deal, not just for the small producers but for the consumers as well. The noble Lord, Lord Myners, who is not in his place, mocked the Bill earlier this afternoon. I fear that he might regret that, because the farming unions and consumer organisations are probably even now penning letters and e-mails to him to put him right on the importance of the Bill. It has been a very long time in coming; the first record that I found of the debate on it was in 1998 when Colin Breed, a Liberal Democrat Member in the other place, produced a report on supermarkets and competition, which led to the Competition Commission producing a voluntary code of practice in 2000. Like so many voluntary codes, it was ineffective because suppliers were afraid to make complaints. The issue was discussed very many times in the new Welsh Assembly; in the 12 years I was there I heard the debate year after year about the power of the supermarkets and the complaints of the farming unions about that power.
Another report came in 2008, and in 2010 the Competition Commission produced the groceries supply code of practice. Andrew George MP has said that the problem with that is that it is like having the rules of rugby without the referee. We need the adjudicator-we need the referee. During the passage of the Bill, I look forward to having the time to debate the place of financial penalties and the need for a third-party complaints process. I am glad that the Bill encompasses both of those.
Unlike the noble Baroness, Lady Noakes, the second Bill that I wish to welcome is the one that includes provision to establish a green investment bank. Indeed, the bank is already up and running in skeletal form, and loaning money. Globalisation of the economy has led to such fierce worldwide competition that it is sometimes difficult to see where we can have the edge as a nation in competition. We clearly cannot sell ourselves as a low-wage economy throughout the world, so we must choose sectors where we have the technical advantage. The green economy should be one such sector. It has the advantage of being good for the planet as well.
Over the last two decades, I have been increasingly frustrated at the number of cutting edge initiatives on renewable energy that have been developed in my own home country of Wales and have been rejected for development funding-either commercial funding or government grants and loans-on the grounds that they are too risky and an unknown quantity. Hey presto, a couple of years later those same initiatives have been adapted and adopted in other countries in Europe, usually in Scandinavia, where they have taken the initiative and are now at the head of the field. This is an example of how the finance sector in Britain does not look sufficiently long term at investment issues. I believe that the green investment bank will help to change that outlook and provide that vital funding.
It is customary in debates such as this to regret desirable proposals that have been omitted from the Queen's Speech, but I welcome one omission. I was very pleased that there was no reference to the introduction of regional pay. I have not been able to follow the logic that argues that higher public sector pay crowds out private sector jobs, especially at a time of high unemployment. I do not believe that the evidence has been correctly interpreted. I accept that the UK is not economically homogenous and I know that the previous Labour Government introduced local pay in the courts system, apparently successfully, so I await the outcome of the Government's consultation on this but am very pleased that there is nothing in this Session.
Finally, I want to express my regret that there was nothing in the Queen's Speech on the reform of the Barnett formula. There is now wide agreement that reform is overdue; indeed, there are ongoing talks between Governments on the issue and I hope that they will soon bear fruit. I know that there is irrefutable evidence that the formula short-changes Wales and I believe that the Government accept that. I understand with the upcoming referendum in Scotland that this is not an easy time to change the formula. I understand that in the middle of an economic crisis it is not an easy time to change the formula. But there is a short-term solution that would not impact on Scotland and not cause massive financial implications for the Government -that is, the introduction of a so-called Barnett floor mechanism that prevented any further convergence in funding between Wales and England. I remind the Minister that Wales is officially the poorest part of the UK. In order to be true to the Government's aim to stimulate regional growth, it needs special attention.