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Queen’s Speech — Debate (2nd Day)

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 12:41 pm on 9th May 2013.

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Photo of Baroness O'Cathain Baroness O'Cathain Chair, EU Sub Committee B - Internal Market, Infrastructure and Employment 12:41 pm, 9th May 2013

My Lords, it is a great honour to take part in the debate on the most gracious Speech. Reading through the speech several times, I was struck by how central to everything is the economic situation in this country and how we have to measure everything against that.

The first statement in the gracious Speech is:

My Government’s legislative programme will continue to focus on building a stronger economy so that the United Kingdom can compete and succeed in the world”.

I am fully aware that the debate today is considering constitutional affairs, equalities, home affairs, justice and law, but the state of the economy affects each and every one of those areas. We must arrange our finances to achieve the measures proposed; I suggest that we cannot debate any of them without considering the economy.

Despite all the valiant attempts of the Government to turn around the economic situation, and acknowledging that much has been done, the country remains in a fragile state. It is proving very hard to set the country back on the road to recovery. We can take some weak comfort from the fact that we are by no means in as serious trouble as many others. The message from the EU at the moment is decidedly grimmer, with members of the eurozone openly talking about huge and almost fatal difficulties.

It is imperative that we concentrate on the promotion of growth, on clearing up the financial mess left by the previous Administration, and on the necessity of creating new jobs, particularly for the young, who when they planned their futures, let us remember, never expected that youth unemployment would be one of the most worrying features of their post-school or post-higher education lives. The UK is to be given credit for having done much better than other EU member states, but so many young people today feel betrayed that the promises of good jobs in their bright future are not materialising.

Many of the measures proposed in the gracious Speech are excellent but will need a gargantuan effort to achieve. The energies and considerable resources of the Government must be focused on the economy.

Why am I speaking about the economy so much? The first reason is that I cannot take part in the debate on Monday, which will deal with the economy, because each Monday while the House is sitting—and occasionally when it is not—Sub-Committee B of the EU Select Committee meets to scrutinise documents, proposed directives and information from the European Commission and Parliament. The production of this mini-avalanche is relentless and the timetable is quite restricted. It is essential that we keep abreast and ahead. Secondly, I am convinced that the state of the economy is such that, as I said, every section of the gracious Speech can be measured against it.

Sadly, at a time when we face so many different and troubling challenges, the Government have decided to launch an astonishing attack on our tried and tested values by redefining marriage. Those of us who have been following the process in the other place knew perfectly well that the legislation was going to come here. It was perhaps wishful thinking that led so many people and sections of the population to believe that, because the Bill was not mentioned yesterday morning, it was not going to happen—mind you, that was put right within four hours.

Marriage is at the heart of our way of life, our communities and our country. The union of the two sexes, uniting men and women to each other and to their children, provides the foundation for human flourishing. We have heard today in this House a discussion about childcare and children not flourishing when they get to school because they have not had proper childcare. It is within the bounds of marriage that this happens.

Equality is put forward as the basic reason for this action by the Government, but very little more equality is needed. I think that we are talking more about equality in the name: some people want to say that they are married rather than suggesting that there is anything wrong with marriage at the moment or that marriage has equivalence with same-sex couples being together.

As everyone will remember, we had many discussions on the Civil Partnership Act. I remember clearly the noble and learned Baroness, Lady Scotland, agreeing that the Civil Partnership Act had caused more discrimination in another area. It is like pushing down one bit only for it to come up somewhere else. We were discussing the case of sisters—anyone who was there at the time will remember the injustice being done to them; your Lordships can look it up in Hansard. The noble and learned Baroness emphasised at the government Dispatch Box, “It is not for this Bill. I agree that it is discrimination, but it is not for this Bill at this time”. We accepted that, but when is it going to be tackled because, again, sisters are left out of it?

The evidence from social science is now emphatic that children do best when raised by their married mother and father. I mention just one example: a paper from the Institute for Fiscal Studies observes that, even by the age of three, there are “significant differences” in outcomes between children born to married parents and those born outside marriage. Children born to married parents showed superior social, emotional and cognitive development. There are many other studies which provide powerful evidence of the positive benefits of marriage. Should we throw this up in the air?

Marriage will continue to be the bedrock of society only if it remains the legal union of one man and one woman. The current plans seek to change the meaning of marriage. Such a complete rewriting of a fundamental social institution can have only serious and some unpredictable consequences. Many people question whether the Government have the moral authority to attempt this redefinition. Most people in this country object to its imposition over their heads; they want marriage to remain as it is.

It greatly saddens me that my party is pursuing such a radical and aggressive social agenda and in such an undemocratic fashion—and I repeat, “undemocratic”. I listened carefully to my noble friend Lord Fowler, with whom we have jostled many times on these issues. I say that there is no mandate to make this change since the idea is not in our manifesto—nor indeed is it in those of the other parties; my noble friend says that that does not really matter and that, after all, the dock labour scheme changes were not in the manifesto. Well, I consider that the dock labour scheme, which was wonderful and achieved a lot, is nothing like as important as the fundamental rocking of the state of social cohesion in this country.

The proposal to redefine marriage is unpopular and wholly unnecessary. I was very struck by my noble friend’s argument that the only power in this country lies with the elected representatives. It is a cogent case which I accept, but if there are elected representatives, what are they elected for? They are elected to listen to their constituents and to represent those thoughts—if they do not show them the error of their ways—in the national Parliament. It seems to me that in this case the representatives have all the power because, as my noble friend says, the only people with power in the country are the MPs. However, they do not have any responsibility, because they do not seem to be taking any responsibility to listen to their constituents—certainly not on this matter.