Queen's Speech — Debate (1st Day)

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 4:29 pm on 25th May 2010.

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Photo of Lord Strathclyde Lord Strathclyde Leader of the House of Lords and Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster 4:29 pm, 25th May 2010

My Lords, it is a real pleasure to support the Motion of the noble Baroness, Lady Royall. Your Lordships, I hope, will understand if I begin by saying that the noble Baroness is someone for whom I, like so many others in the House, have the utmost affection and respect. She was, and I know will continue to be, a tough political opponent. That is good, for every Government is much the better for robust scrutiny in your Lordships' House. But she was, and is, far more than a gifted leader of her party. She was an outstanding Leader of this House; it is a great challenge, as well as a privilege, to have been asked to follow her.

I pay tribute particularly to the grace and patience and the unfailing charm and courtesy with which she discharged her duties as Leader under the most difficult circumstances. The whole House owes her a special debt of gratitude for her clarity and resilience in representing and defending its views and interests, and for the dexterity with which she steered us through testing and often-painful times for this House.

The way in which this House operates, by consent and agreement, is the way in which I hope it will always work. That system inevitably brings a Leader of the House and a Leader of the Opposition into the closest daily contact; a spirit of candour and trust is essential. I was not alone in this House in trusting the noble Baroness instinctively. She was always straight, always fair and always as good as her word. As the Leader of the House now, I can only hope to try to be the same, and I thank her most sincerely for all that she did.

I echo my noble friends in conveying our very best wishes to Black Rod, who has provided such splendid service to this House since taking up his post, and in recording our thanks to the Yeoman Usher for the professionalism with which he has stepped into the breach.

It is my happiest duty to join the noble Baroness in congratulating my noble friends Lord Ferrers and Lady Falkner of Margravine on their superb speeches. They are the living embodiment of the coalition which now graces these government Benches. Having heard my noble friend Lord Ferrers, I really cannot imagine why it took my predecessors so long to invite him to propose the humble Address. The noble Earl was a Member of Your Lordships' House well before my noble friend Lady Falkner of Margravine and I were born. He was in Government when I was a rather chubby little toddler-has anything changed?

Even now, when I hear him speak as ever with such wit and ease, it is hard not to feel still a little wet behind the ears. My noble friend carries four score years with striking grace. He is everyone's image of what a noble Earl should be like, only better. They say that his views do not please everyone; I doubt that my noble friend worries too much about that. He has never been a dull conformist, but his speeches are always worth listening to very carefully. They sparkle with originality, good humour, independence of mind and-I hope he will not mind my saying so, for he tries hard to hide it-deep wisdom. My goodness, if all of us served Parliament and country for more than half a century with the same dedication, dignity and decency as my noble friend, what a House this would be.

My new noble friend Lady Falkner has been a Member of your Lordships' House for only six years, but, having heard her again today, your Lordships will understand how she has carved out a highly respected role speaking, until recently, from the Liberal Democrat Benches on matters of justice. Indeed, it is said that even the noble Lord, Lord Lester of Herne Hill, sits in silence when she speaks. I am sure that, on that count alone, the whole House is in awe of her ability.

I am told that, among the noble Baroness's many charitable activities, she has toured British universities on behalf of the Coexistence Trust. Its mission is to promote mutual understanding between Jewish and Muslim communities worldwide. I wonder whether she had considered conducting a parallel exercise for the benefit of the party groups now co-existing on the government Benches. In that, I wish her the very best of luck. Today, my noble friend Lady Falkner has made a profound and thoughtful speech, and I very much hope that we shall hear more of her in the months ahead.

As this Parliament assembles, we have a very different Government in place. My noble friend Lord Ferrers said that it was unthinkable but, as in the 1890s, in 1916-22 and in the 1930s and 1940s, Liberals and Conservatives sit together in government. Who, as the cliché goes, would have predicted that?

When I spoke last year on this great occasion, I ventured to suggest that I might deliver my speech from a different place this year, and there was a good deal of friendly scoffing from the Liberal Democrat Benches over there. This year, I am relying on my noble friend Lord Shutt of Greetland that he has done his work and today there will be a fair bit of friendly cheering from the Liberal Democrats sitting over here-I hope. When we moved across the House, they simply could not bear to see us go. I am delighted, of course, that we have been able to arrange a reunion here on the government Benches in a new political partnership to provide the stable and lasting Government that this country needs.

Now, a note of regret. I am sorry that coalition government means that your Lordships have been deprived of my noble friend Lord McNally's customary speech on this occasion. But good news: come Thursday, he will address the House in his new role as Deputy Leader of the House and a Minister of the Crown. I welcome him and many other colleagues, new and old, here for a new Parliament on the government Benches today.

The national crisis that we face may not be as grave as some of those that our two parties confronted together in the past, but it is grave indeed. We face almost unparalleled challenges in the modern era, at home and abroad. Our nation is at war. Our national treasure at home is utterly exhausted. Our social fabric is torn. Our politics has never sunk so low in public esteem. Many, particularly older people, have come to feel that the good times were in the distant past. Cynicism, mistrust and bureaucracy have seemed our nation's only growth industries. As more and more families have struggled to preserve the lives and the standards that they wish for, the state has grown bigger and bigger and ever more dominant, intrusive and desperately wasteful. If ever there was a time for new approaches, rooted in old values, it is now. That is what this coalition will offer.

I will not insult noble Lords by belittling the scale of the problems that we face or the compromises and sacrifices that will be needed to dig this country out of debt and despond, but it must and can and will be done. Our parties have joined with the utmost conviction to deliver the common programme that this country needs. This fresh undertaking of coalition will not fail from any fault of ours. Of course, our parties have differing perspectives, but our joint resolve is stronger for having discussed those differences frankly and come together with the common purpose set out in the gracious Speech: restoring freedom, fairness and responsibility.

My party and the Liberal Democrats have taken many notable stands together in this House over the past 13 years. We protected the right to trial by jury, limited the most draconian emergency powers to terrorist crimes, prevented the imposition of compulsory ID cards and stopped 90-day detention without trial-not a bad record for this House. So I am delighted that the new coalition will be reversing the erosion of the individual freedoms and liberties that this House has worked so hard to defend. We will abolish the ID card scheme, the National Identity Register and the ContactPoint database. We will protect trial by jury, introduce safeguards against misuse of antiterrorism legislation and restore rights to non-violent protest.

I can give the noble Baroness the Leader of the Opposition the answer to her question on Bills starting in the Lords. A number of Bills will begin their passage in this House, which will include, imminently, the local government Bill and the important academies Bill, which builds on the work of the noble Lord, Lord Adonis, to which I am sure the party opposite will give a fair wind.

The business of this House has never been to stop legislation but to improve it, and I look forward to working together on the work of scrutiny and revision. Of course, the Salisbury Convention will apply. There is no difficulty there. [Laughter.] We shall recognise where it applies, and when we see it we shall use our common sense to make it so.

I am acutely conscious of the great honour bestowed upon me in being appointed Leader of your Lordships' House. I can think of no higher privilege and will never forget my duty to the House as a whole. But I take office at a time of challenge and change, change that your Lordships cannot ignore. A new code of conduct comes into effect today. I can also announce that a new Commissioner for Standards, Mr Paul Kernaghan, former chief constable of Hampshire, will take up post shortly.

We must also deal swiftly with the issue of expenses. We have an opportunity to get this right. I want a system that will be transparent, easily understood and which provides no opportunity or temptation for evasion. We owe it to the reputation of the House to put that in place and, in consultation with your Lordships I will enable that to be done, once my noble friend Lord Wakeham and his committee have reported.

The powers and duties of the House will not change, but its shape cannot be fixed forever. We recognised that in 1958, 1968 and, indeed, in 1999. I know that, though there are some who bring forward Bills year after year to change this House, many of you will have heard with some disappointment words in the gracious Speech about reform. But if there is a demand for change, it must be addressed in a comprehensive way. Let me assure the House that proposals will be put before your Lordships at a formative stage and there will be plenty of opportunities ahead for the House to discuss this before we move forward.

I also believe that we should look afresh at our working practices. I do not think we should lose sight of the remarkable privileges that Peers already enjoy, such as the right, not given to Back-Bench Members in another place, to table amendments at three stages of a Bill, and to have each one heard and replied to. We should always keep our working practices up to date, and I shall discuss how best to do that with the Leader of the Opposition and the Convenor in the near future. Whatever we do, our aim should be to build on the strengths of this House. This Government will respect it as a central part of the legislative process. For my own part as your Leader, I will always endeavour to ensure that your Lordships' voice is listened to, as well as recorded.

We have a long and busy Session ahead. Our country's needs are great and its expectations of us high. I know that this great House will not fail to rise to the changing and evolving challenges before us. I support the Motion.

Debate adjourned until tomorrow.