Queen's Speech — Debate (1st Day)

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 3:37 pm on 3rd December 2008.

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Photo of Lord Falconer of Thoroton Lord Falconer of Thoroton Labour 3:37 pm, 3rd December 2008

My Lords, my noble friend had the good sense to sell it. The current success of the Dome, now known as the O2 Arena, owes much to her. Before she arrived on the Dome scene, I was able to achieve what no other Minister in government, before or since, has achieved—namely, to have every single national newspaper call for my resignation on the same day. I waited patiently for the storm to pass; 10 days later, the Daily Star started its leader column with the words:

"Lord Falconer should not resign".

It was a Brownesque comeback, you might think—but no; it went on:

"Lord Fatty should be placed on the top of the Dome and they should both be burnt to a cinder".

Like politics today, things that start well can very quickly go sour. The gracious Speech recognises that overshadowing all our deliberations in the next Session will be the economic crisis. The Government have, I believe, been clear-eyed and decisive in the moves that they have taken to rescue the banking system. The gracious Speech focuses on helping families and businesses through difficult times, improving the resilience of the financial sector, including improving banking practice, promoting local economic development and reforming the welfare system. These are the right priorities, which will contribute to our recovery and provide long-term reform. I greatly welcome a stronger voice for the tenant and the focus on regional economic development. As the chair of a south London and south of England housing association and of the Newcastle and Gateshead City Development Company, I know the importance of both these issues. I formally declare an interest as chair of AmicusHorizon housing association and the Newcastle and Gateshead City Development Company.

I profoundly hope that the coroners and death certification Bill will improve the lot of victims and their families, in particular the families of the victims of murder and manslaughter. All too often, the families and partners of murder and manslaughter victims suffer twice. First, there is their appalling loss. Our state systems are initially sympathetic, but then the justice system, the health system and sometimes the Foreign Office when the crime occurs abroad, are often insensitive to the needs of those families. Organisations such as the North of England Victims' Association, which offers support after murder and manslaughter and support after murder and manslaughter abroad, provide without fuss, funding or credit a degree of support for these victims, which they seldom see from the state, except from the family liaison officers provided by the police.

We in this House can contribute much to the development of the programme outlined in the gracious Speech, as we proved in the previous Session. There was the Pensions Bill when this House persuaded the Government to introduce greater gender equity into the Bill; the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Bill where the debates in the House were of the highest quality; and the Planning Bill, when the Government, strongly supported by heavyweights on our Benches, persuaded the House that the Government's proposed scheme was right, but at the same time they accepted significant amendments proposed by the House.

In her maiden speech, the noble Baroness, Lady Manningham-Buller, demonstrated how less is more. It took her three minutes to shake and then stir the Government to stop dead in its tracks the 42-day pre-charge detention proposal. The strength of this House continues only as long as the quality of our contribution and the reliability of our judgments remain as high as they are now. New entrants, such as the noble Baroness, Lady Manningham-Buller, the noble Lords, Lord Pannick and Lord Judge, and my noble friends Lord Myners and Lord Mandelson suggest a continuing supply of very high octane fuel for many years to come.

However, I should say that the existing fuel stocks are still pretty powerful. There is the ever-youthful noble Lord, Lord Strathclyde, possibly suffering from anorexia, whose jokes keep getting better and better. In the dark times to come, when all other sources of humour fail, he can rally our spirits by reminding us of his support for a fully elected House. The noble Lord, Lord McNally, as incisive as ever, is, sadly, increasingly an isolated figure. He was cruelly abandoned by his co-conspirator from St Albans, my noble friend Lady Ashton of Upholland, who feels, understandably, that after a year of leading your Lordships, leading the disparate peoples of Europe will be a breeze. I fear that her conspicuous talents will ensure that she is away from us for five years rather than one. The noble Lord's cares are alleviated by the promotion to the Liberal Democrats Whips' Office of the noble Baroness, Lady Garden, who has made such a significant mark on the House, making it one where success has become a family business—there is something of a tradition of that here.

My noble friends Lady Royall and Lord Bassam are two of the most popular figures in the House, both disdainful of oratorical flourishes. Never, however, underestimate the political acumen of this team. They have the most powerful commodities in politics: trust and friendship. I predict that they will be with us for many years to come in their leadership roles.

They are joined by my noble friend Lord Mandelson, a man born for your Lordships' House, entering the unashamedly guacamole period of his political life. My noble friend is above all a man of talent, originality and political courage. For all of us, and for your Lordships' House, it is "back to the future" in so many ways: to 2001, when my noble friend was last in the Government, and to 1895, when last a Prime Minister, the biggest box-office draw in government, was in your Lordships' House.

There is also a departure. My noble friend Lord Grocott is sadly no longer Chief Whip. Happily, he has decided to stay among his people in Telford. What little time off he has from soliciting their views he spends with us, and we are grateful for that. My noble friend's part in the past decade will only be known when history comes to be written. Those noble Lords who thought that the Labour Government have made mistakes should have seen the ones we would have made had my noble friend Lord Grocott not been there. How often he would take me to one side when I was in government and say, in the friendliest way possible—usually about Lords reform proposals—"Strewth, Charlie, where do you think the Ministry of Justice gets these mad ideas from?". I do not know if he noticed my face reddening.

Over the past year, your Lordships' House has owed much to the noble Baroness, Lady Hayman, the Lord Speaker. She has, with patience and skill, and often in the face of sharp-elbowed politicians, found a place for herself, frequently providing leadership on a range of issues without impinging on your Lordships' desire for self-regulation. Our influence as a House depends on the quality of what we do. To have as our Lord Speaker a person whose values reflect the best of this House makes us, both inside and outside, immeasurably stronger.

In the forthcoming political season, above all else, leadership is required. The United States of America has been much derided by the world for its inwardness and failure to understand the cultural sensitivities of different places but its people have, in the past month, elected a leader who is of a different ethnic group from 80 per cent of them. In the course of the campaign, his wife was abused, he was called a terrorist, his friends and his preacher were vilified, his aunt was exposed as an illegal immigrant and the de facto leader of his political party pointed out that he was black. His dignity and calm in the face of that remorseless attack smack of real leadership.

In the UK, we have a Government who are prepared to put their own survival at stake to do everything required to beat the recession. Whatever else new Labour is about, it is about putting the sensible and fair management of the economy above other considerations. Times are difficult. Our role is to challenge, to provide ideas, to amend and to improve. However, it is also to support, to assist and to contribute in a time of national crisis.

We have much work to do in the coming session. Never has there been a time when insight and quality mattered as much as they do now. We must play our role. We can do so confident that, as the gracious Speech shows, we have a Government who are willing to lead. I beg to move the Motion that an humble Address be presented to Her Majesty.