Queen's Speech — Debate (3rd Day)

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 5:07 pm on 8th December 2008.

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Photo of Baroness O'Cathain Baroness O'Cathain Conservative 5:07 pm, 8th December 2008

My Lords, the two opening sentences in the gracious Speech emphasised the overriding priority of ensuring,

"the stability of the British economy during the global economic downturn", and that the,

"Government is committed to helping families and businesses through difficult times".

So many times in the past I have spoken in your Lordships' House in support of families, and it is good to see that they are given such priority here. Sadly, however, it is not just families and businesses that are suffering from the downturn, and from the Government's mismanagement of the economy over the years, which has left us so ill-equipped to deal with the downturn. What about the pensioners? My noble friend Lord MacGregor has already mentioned this, but he is the only person in the debate so far to do so.

For pensioners, there is not a single crumb of comfort in the gracious Speech. They are from that generation who subscribed to prudence and saved and who are now genuinely terrified of what the future holds for them. I have gone through the gracious Speech again, paragraph by paragraph, hunting for just something that might give pensioners just the smallest whiff of hope that this Government are remotely interested in, or concerned for, them. I cannot find a single word. I suppose, on reflection, that I was stupid even to hope that there might be one. Ever since this Government took office on the "Cool Britannia" ticket, lauding pop stars and other young celebrities, the pensioners have become more and more ignored.

Let us not forget the raid on the pension funds—conservatively, with a small c, estimated to have taken more that £200 billion from pensioners. Of course, in view of the incredible waste of public funds over the past 11 years, that probably seems a pittance, but the effect of that pittance has been that our state pension is now one of the lowest in the developed world. This is an absolute shame. I hope that the Minister will address this issue in his summing up.

That brings me to the Government's increasing tendency to avoid answering difficult questions. With one or two notable exceptions, Back-Benchers can resign themselves to the certain knowledge that holding the Government to account is becoming very difficult. In the debate on the economy on 3 November, many questions were asked, but how many were answered? Or, to be fair, how many have been answered since? Am I the only person whose work in that debate was not given the courtesy even of one question being answered? I think not.

Pensioners are being given the same brush-off. They are still licking their wounds from the year when the Prime Minister—then Chancellor of the Exchequer—awarded them a 10p increase. How disgraceful. I ask the Minister: is there another plan to squeeze more out of pensioners? And what comfort will the Government give to those who have spent their working lives not only contributing to their ultimate state pension but also saving for a rainy day, which is what the great majority of that generation did?

I turn to saving. We are encouraged to save, but can somebody tell me how? There is a sentence in the gracious Speech that is intended to encourage saving, telling us that the Government will,

"bring forward proposals to create Saving Gateway Accounts to encourage people on lower incomes to save more by offering financial incentives".

What about offering financial incentives to pensioners to compensate for the raid on their pensions; for the fall in value of their contributory pensions resulting from the catastrophic fall in stock markets; and for the impact on their pensions of the maximum 1 per cent interest that they will get on their cash savings, when inflation is at least 4 per cent? What sort of example is that to encourage the younger generation to save?

Acres of newsprint have been taken up with analyses, speculation and second-guessing about the global financial situation. The Prime Minister has time and again expressed his belief that we really do not deserve to be in this situation—it is always somebody else's fault.

In the debate on 3 November, I mentioned my belief that setting up the MPC was fine, but that the FSA was directing the Government rather than the other way round. The then chairman of the FSA insisted that he should hold the positions both of chairman and CEO, despite the fact that all businesses were being forced to split the roles. The rot set in then, and the culture was established with the belief that they could do as they liked. How will the FSA be affected by the proposed legislation,

"to ensure fairer and more secure protection for bank depositors"?

Surely the time has come for the Bank of England, which knows about banks, to regulate them—not the FSA. This, I think, is what the noble Lord, Lord Wakeham, implied.

This debate is not about the social fabric of our country, but the economy impacts strongly on that. There is a lack of credible information coming from the Government. There is deep unease. All the references to global recession do not cut much ice in the towns and rural hamlets of this country. I mention them because they did not warrant one word in the gracious Speech. There have been many comments that Africa was ignored: that was a real shame. But where were British agriculture, British food and British farming mentioned? I will not be fobbed off by the passage in the gracious Speech saying that the Government,

"will bring forward legislation to promote local economic development and to create greater opportunities for community and individual involvement in local decision-making".

The Government should occasionally read local papers and see what people really think of the grandiose development agencies—I refer to the speech of the noble Lord, Lord Razzall. One of these agencies had taxi bills of more than £45,000 per annum for the two-day-a-week chairman.

The Government should also read how the previous Minister with responsibility for housing visited an area to "listen" to the concerns of local people who had spent a huge amount of time consulting the vast majority of inhabitants about a proposal to put an eco town on 87 per cent grade 1 land. The Minister declined an invitation to walk round the site, saying, "I've seen it from my car". She then spent more than an hour at the meeting place while her driver kept the car running the whole time. How eco is that? Do the Government really think that the words in the gracious Speech about creating greater opportunities for community and individual involvement in local decision-making will be met with anything other than derision in that area, and in rural Britain generally?

I remind the Government that they became the government of this country on the votes of 22 per cent of the electorate. That has given them the ability to ride rough, and rough it has been, over so many of their stalwart supporters, particularly those who have fought for this country. If I felt that we could believe anything that we hear from the Government, I might have hope. As it is, I cannot, because the gracious Speech failed lamentably to give me that hope.