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Queen’s Speech — Debate (2nd Day)

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 2:14 pm on 9th May 2013.

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Photo of Baroness Williams of Crosby Baroness Williams of Crosby Liberal Democrat 2:14 pm, 9th May 2013

My Lords, I begin by congratulating my noble friend Lord McNally on an impressive attempt to deal with the issue of offenders and the reoffending rates that are far too high in this country. Let me ask him in particular whether he can say something in conclusion about the fact that a large number of the young offenders in this country are illiterate. More than half the young men and women under the age of 20 who are in prison do not have the capacity to be fully literate, and that makes it almost impossible for them to get jobs, however hard they try. I am delighted that my noble friend has said that education is now increasingly seen as a key part of dealing with the whole issue of offenders, but it is also important to recognise that it has been a long time since we required young men and women in prison to undertake adequate education which would give them at least the basic ability to get some sort of job. It is therefore good news to hear these brave and radical proposals, and I was delighted that my noble friend Lord Dholakia, who has a distinguished record in the field, gave them such a warm welcome.

I want primarily to address two other matters, however, rather than the issues of prison and penal reform, which will be well covered in this House and on which there are many experts in the area. Those other matters are, first, the issue raised by the noble Lord, Lord Fowler, and, secondly, the even more toxic issue—if I may put it that way—of immigration.

With regard to what the noble Lord, Lord Fowler, had to say, many of us richly appreciate the courage he has shown for many years on the issue of press behaviour and the level of press complaints. Although it has served him no particular use in his career, he has had the courage to continue to insist on the crucial importance of addressing the issue of complaints against the media. In the past couple of years he has had immense additional support as a result of the emerging horrors of what some members of the press have seen fit to undertake—and, frankly, what some proprietors have seen fit to accept in the pursuit of larger and larger circulation. In addition to mentioning my great respect for the noble Lord, I also want to say that he was one of the few who made it clear that the original Press Complaints Commission was not doing its job and was at best papering over some of the issues that needed to be looked at. He has now, in a sense, come into his own with the Leveson report.

The debate today is about not only Home Office matters but also constitutional affairs. Perhaps I may therefore say one word on that issue. It is of the greatest possible significance that all parties in the other place were able to agree on a solution to the problem of the independence of the press versus the protection of victims from cruel and sometimes brutal treatment. As we well remember, those victims included some of the most vulnerable and innocent in our society.

It is constitutionally important to give true weight and accord to the relatively small number of issues on which the parties can together agree on a constructive solution. In the past few years the House of Commons has moved from possibly being seen as an ineffective rubber-stamping House to one where—largely because of the remarkable work of the Select Committees, and I have in mind the Select Committees on Public Administration, the Treasury and others—it has shown its real ability and talent in a way that cannot be limited or constrained by the Whips. We have seen what the House of Commons might be if it were given real respect for its decisions. Such respect should be shown now over the Leveson report and the outcome in terms of a committee to look at the press and the media. We owe a great deal to the noble Lord, Lord Fowler, for that.

We owe even more to reminding the Prime Minister that, in the light of what he has said, the constitutional value of using Parliament—a united Parliament of all parties—to uphold some of the best standards in public life, is absolutely critical. The consequences of rejecting that proposal now not only would be serious but would, in effect, say that powerful forces which are not prepared to worry about the criticisms made of them could have their own way in future Parliaments. I can think of few worse legacies to pass on.

The other matter to which I want briefly to refer is the toxic issue of immigration. I was in one or two areas during the recent local council elections, and friends of mine were in other areas such as Somerset, where the whole place was plastered with strong suggestions that the entire population of Romania and Bulgaria, adding up to 29 million people, would universally and collectively take some sort of Noah’s ark and immediately arrive in Britain to settle down in one constituency after another. Luckily for us, despite it having some considerable flaws, we have the BBC. Through “Newsnight”, the BBC undertook a serious and detailed study, as some of your Lordships may have seen, of the likelihood of many Romanians and Bulgarians deciding to hurry over to the United Kingdom to join the unemployment queues. One point that the “Newsnight” study made was that less than 1% of Romanians and 3% of Bulgarians showed any great desire to emigrate to this country. Of those who did, 0.4% in the case of Romanians had made any inquiries at all with recruitment agencies or other bodies about where they might live or what jobs they might get.

Of course, some Romanians and Bulgarians will find their way to Britain and many more will find their way to Germany and Scandinavia but, frankly, the representation that our electors receive from UKIP bears no relationship to any serious study that has been made in any part of this country. What was UKIP’s reason for doing that? As we all know, it was a very good way of stampeding the forces so that there was no need to bother about the more serious issues of policy.

Having said that about the Romanians and Bulgarians, I shall turn for a moment to what I believe to be one or two of the serious problems that have arisen in this country due to the nature of our immigration policy, driven as it is to such an extraordinary extent by what one can only describe as political opportunism.

The first issue that I want to mention is the huge dependence of our universities on overseas students for obtaining excellence. Whether we like it or not, the 300,000 or so students—about one-third of the total—who come from overseas to study in British universities and colleges, which, quite properly, are inspected to ensure that they offer not a bogus but a genuine and honourable education, are of huge economic value to this country. Higher education earns something like £8 billion a year from the rest of the world through overseas students. However, equally importantly, as I think many of us understand, those overseas students give us access to an understanding of other cultures and other countries, and that, in turn, encourages not only exports but, more importantly, a high respect and a high liking for this country. It is very hard to overestimate the value of overseas students in a country such as ours but, if we are to adopt something like a national curriculum, it is all the more important that we also remember that we are part of the globe and that that globe is understood, through us, above all by human relationships.

Therefore, I argue that the Government should think very carefully about attitudes by the Home Office, the visa offices and, in particular, the UKBA towards overseas students. Sadly, they have begun to show real signs of discouraging people from choosing to come to this country—there has already been a substantial decline in the number of, for example, Indian and Chinese students. I advert not only to members of my own party or members of the Opposition but to the ringing warning given by the Mayor of London, Mr Boris Johnson, about the evident effect of these restrictions on the level and standing of overseas students wishing to come to this country to receive their education. I draw attention, in particular, to the abandonment of the so-called tier 1, which allowed people who studied here to continue for two years only—but two years none the less—after they had completed their degree studies in order to practise what they had learnt. That is crucial, for example, in professions ancillary to medicine and to medicine itself. Tier 1 has been withdrawn and replaced by an extremely complicated system, which depends upon the rules that apply to residents in this country.

One of the few phrases in the gracious Speech that I really dislike refers to the need to have people who can contribute to this country and not the kind of people who simply live off the country. It is perhaps worth mentioning that it is not only Russian oligarchs who contribute to this country but health assistants and nurses. They are part of the crucial fabric of the National Health Service and they enable it to deal with the large number of people who go to A&E. Heaven knows what we would do without their contribution. Contributions can be small and great—no doubt the right reverend Prelate will inform me, quite rightly, about the widow’s mite—but that contribution has been of extraordinary value to this country in many ways. It would be a great mistake to narrow it all down to whether somebody is a businessman or entrepreneur coming to this country often in order to live in a mansion house.

In conclusion, one thing that we have to be very cautious about in this country is our attitude towards other people who want to come here. Over the years we have benefited immensely from such immigration. I remind the House of the huge value of two great streams of migration to the United Kingdom. The first of those in recent years was the great Jewish entry between the wars. That has been immensely valuable to us in field after field—medicine, science and business. The second was the entry of Asian immigrants from east African countries after the rise of Idi Amin and others, who in turn brought to this country great entrepreneurial skills and great innovation. I hope that when we look at the gracious Speech we will bear these things in mind, particularly when we consider immigration and our treatment of those who want to come to this country.