Queen’s Speech — Debate (4th Day)

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 7:02 pm on 14th May 2013.

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Photo of Baroness Armstrong of Hill Top Baroness Armstrong of Hill Top Labour 7:02 pm, 14th May 2013

My Lords, I, too, welcome the maiden speeches. I always welcome people from the north-east, even if they are on the opposite side, and I know the noble Viscount, Lord Ridley, quite well from being a Member of Parliament in the north-east. I was also very interested to hear that the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Winchester was born in and has such a close attachment to east Africa. I have a very close attachment to east Africa, so maybe we can have the odd conversation in Kiswahili.

I have a different approach to my speech because I always view the Queen’s Speech as the signal from the Government of their vision for the future and their aspiration for the country. Perhaps it is a bit ambitious to look at this Queen’s Speech from that perspective, but I will have a go and deal with detail when we come to the individual Bills.

The debate yesterday showed that whatever the analysis of how and why the economy is in the state it is, there is a consensus that more needs to be done to get growth. There is also the realisation that for the foreseeable future the country will continue to face economic hardship. I want us to think about what that means for the areas of social policy that we are looking at today.

The post-war settlement on public services and welfare, born out of the Beveridge report, was not just based on economic arguments but sought to look after those who had fought in the Second World War. It was based on the values of decency and on conquering what were then seen, and today would still be seen, as five great evils. Those values essentially spelt out the Britain that people had sacrificed for during the war. Those values are enduring. While the circumstances and context that we are living in have changed, the values are still there.

It is clear that we really need to reform the way in which public services—health, education and welfare—are delivered so that they are relevant to the vast changes in our society. Britain has never been a place where there has been a belief that the market on its own can deliver the values that our society is based on. That is as true now as it was in the 1940s. Our circumstances are very different: women expect to work and are expected to work, and the nature of work is vastly different, with many fewer unskilled workers and many more changes in any working life.

In his speech last week, the Prime Minister said that we are now in a “global race”. Globalisation has brought incredible changes to our society, many of which my parents’ generation—let alone my grandparents’ generation—would not recognise and certainly would not have envisaged. Of course, one is the level of migration around the world, but there is also the recognition in this country that migration—not all of it, but some of it—is critical to our economy and our future, even if some aspects of it give us problems. It is our job to tackle those problems.

To handle this global race, we need not only some immigration but a well educated and trained workforce. We need a healthy workforce. We still need a system that protects people when they are most vulnerable so that they will be able to retrain and re-equip themselves quickly to get back into the workforce. They will inevitably need to do that several times over their working lives, which means that they need to have real confidence in the public services that they rely on: education, training, healthcare and income support in hard times. They need confidence that their children, and increasingly their parents—that is you and I—will have responsive and high-quality services when they need them so that as working people they can continue to play their part in the workforce, the economy and their community.

My concern with the Government’s programme is that it seems more concerned with rhetoric—whether to appease the right wing of the Tory party or UKIP, I am never too sure—than properly to address the challenge of reform. Far too often, rhetoric replaces real, necessary reform. We need to reform the way in which public services work in order to see that real change in the relationship between the population and the services that will enable this country to properly play its part in that global race.

I want the Government to do this in a way that upholds the values that make this country what it is, and what in my view makes it great, and to move away from the rhetoric that makes it virtually impossible to achieve that objective: that everyone on benefits is a scrounger, that every immigrant is leeching from our National Health Service or other aspects of our society, that education is not able to deliver. The Secretary of State for Education keeps saying that he is committed to reform, but we have had no plan to tackle the shortage of school places, which is so acute in some areas, and proposals for the curriculum will take us back generations rather than offer a curriculum suited to the 21st century. Reforms in welfare have been overshadowed and in many senses threatened by the rhetoric around “scroungers” and the lack of candour on the part of the Secretary of State about the impact of the changes.

I wish that the Queen’s Speech had tackled the skills and training deficit, but it did not. We have a Bill on social care, which is hugely welcome. I suspect, however, that it is insufficiently radical and does not take us far enough into the real challenges that face us, but we will deal with that when we get the Bill.

The Government have become frightened of talking about reform in health. We had two years where we were supposed to be getting into real reform and real change, but they became worried about that and did not introduce the sort of reforms that would have transformed our health service for the future. The new Secretary of State has now been told, “Do whatever you can to get to the election without mentioning reform”.

Without real and radical reform, the Government will simply end up with cut after cut, so that people will lose confidence in the contribution that public services can make to securing and empowering them for the future. That will bring huge change to this country, change that I believe nobody wants. This is all very difficult, which I suspect is why the Government have simply avoided tackling it in the Queen’s Speech. We will all suffer from that.