Queen’s Speech — Debate (4th Day)

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 10:21 pm on 14th May 2013.

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Photo of Baroness Jones of Whitchurch Baroness Jones of Whitchurch Shadow Spokesperson (Culture, Media and Sport), Shadow Spokesperson (Education) 10:21 pm, 14th May 2013

My Lords, first, I pay tribute to the impressive number of speakers in today’s debate, and the quality and range of the topics covered. I, too, congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Berkeley of Knighton, the noble Viscount, Lord Ridley, and the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Winchester on their wise and inspirational maiden speeches. I know that we all look forward to their future contributions with considerable interest.

There is a new enthusiasm in social media for the concept of crowdsourcing. We could do worse than apply this principle to the contributions today, because if we amalgamated all the proposals made by your Lordships we would have a much more substantial Queen’s Speech than the rather timid mouse of a legislative programme that we have been debating today. It seems that the Government cannot raise much enthusiasm for their own programme. We have already heard that the coalition is split on the legislation to increase staff/child ratios in nurseries, and now the Prime Minister himself is saying that he is relaxed about Back-Benchers amending his own legislative programme. What kind of leadership is this for the country at this time?

The country is crying out for leadership and action to tackle the 1 million young people out of work, the fall in family living standards, the lowest number of new home completions since the 1920s, inflated energy bills while energy companies’ profits rise, and the health service creaking at the seams. A Government on top of their game would be laying substantial proposals in front of us to tackle these issues head on.

What conclusions can we draw about the rather insubstantial policy offerings that we are debating here today? First, a number of the proposals make extra demands on local services that are not matched by additional local support. Local government is already struggling with a 33% cut in central government funding, and the projections are worse. For example, my noble friends Lord Hunt and Lady Wheeler, and others, have made challenging analyses of the Care Bill and raised some vital questions. Underpinning these issues, the Local Government Association estimates that there has already been a cut of £1.89 billion in social care funding, and more cuts in services are planned. It is a cruel deceit to suggest that social care provision can be modernised and integrated when the funding is not in place to make this a reality.

We support the principle set out in the Bill of capping care costs and giving family carers more support, although we share Andrew Dilnot’s concern that the cap is being set too high. There is concern that the Bill does not address the daily struggle of those seeking support right now. What reassurance can the Minister give to those people about the current and future funding necessary to deliver a modern, integrated care system?

On the issue of public health, rightly raised by a number of noble Lords today, I hope the Minister can reassure us that measures on plain tobacco packaging and minimum alcohol pricing will form part of the “other measures” to be laid before us in due course.

Secondly, on welfare reform, the Government appear determined to push on with the scapegoating of vulnerable people, including the disabled and unemployed, as well as of low-paid working families who are seeing their incomes cut. We have heard today how this is distorting public attitudes towards these groups. Meanwhile, the Government are doing nothing to raise families out of poverty. The Work Programme is failing to get the long-term unemployed into work, and the implementation of the universal credit system is beset by delays and problems.

We believe that, as a start, every young person who is out of work for more than a year should be offered a job guarantee to avoid a deskilled and demotivated generation losing faith in the prospects of fulfilling work. We would also introduce a compulsory paid job, linked to benefit entitlement, for every adult who was out of work for more than two years. Can the Minister explain what new proposals the Government have for creating meaningful work opportunities for young people and the long-term unemployed that might match this policy?

The one area of welfare reform that gives us some optimism is the Pensions Bill. I would be interested to know whether the Minister shares the views expressed in the insightful contributions of my noble friends Lady Hollis and Lady Drake in this regard, and whether he accepts their concerns about its potential implementation.

Thirdly, the Government are neglecting the country’s children by failing to invest in their economic, social and physical well-being. The recent report of the Institute for Fiscal Studies has concluded that, by

2015, the number of children living in absolute poverty will rise by 900,000 to 3 million and that, by the end of the decade, 3.4 million children—about one in four—will find themselves in relative poverty. This reverses all the progress made by the previous Government in tackling child poverty and is a real indictment of the callousness of this Government. Instead of reaching the target for rates of child poverty that are no higher than 5%, they will oversee an increase to levels of 27%. Is tackling child poverty still a priority for this Government and do they still intend to take the original targets seriously?

A further example of the Government’s disregard for the welfare of young children is the ill conceived plan to increase child/staff ratios for nurseries, an issue that has been raised by several noble Lords. We said at the outset that such an increase would threaten the quality of childcare while being unlikely to reduce childcare costs, and this view is now echoed among professionals in the sector.

We are grateful that, rather belatedly, the Deputy Prime Minister is beginning to raise the same concerns. What is the status of this flagship policy now? Are the Government going to press ahead despite the overwhelming concerns expressed? When are we likely to see the carry-over Children and Families Bill in this House? I am sure that a large number of my colleagues would like to contribute to that debate. Perhaps the Minister can enlighten us as to the proposed timetable.

The Government’s disregard for the physical health and well-being of children is all too well illustrated by their policy on school sports. Under the previous Government’s school sport partnerships, the proportion of children taking part in weekly sport increased from one in four to more than 90%. As we have heard today from my noble friend Lady Billingham, the Government’s decision to unravel this provision, followed by a partial U-turn, has left a fragmented and underfunded service with no funding guarantees. That this should happen in the aftermath of our stunning Olympic success is a real tragedy. School and community sport need long-term funding commitments and an integrated programme if we are ever to repeat our global sporting success. Perhaps the Minister could enlighten us as to what plans the Government now have for how that might be achieved.

Another way in which Michael Gove has let down this country’s young people is his failure to grasp the importance of the arts and creativity in education. His tenure has been marked by grand announcements and policy shifts followed by rethinks and retreat. Not surprisingly, as described by my noble friend Lord Puttnam, Mr Gove has had a demoralising effect on the whole teaching profession. The example of the proposed EBacc was a case in point, with no status given to art, music and drama in the original proposals. The new curriculum proposals represent only a partial reprieve and the whole redesign of the curriculum has been marked by secrecy and intrigue when it should have been an open and transparent national debate about appropriate learning for the next generation of young people. Incidentally, confidence in the Government’s proposals is not helped by Michael Gove’s admission that research he recently quoted about children’s knowledge came from Premier Inn and UKTV Gold studies. Could the Minister explain how the new curriculum proposals will be debated in this House and what opportunity will exist for a real input into the final design?

The cultural legacy of the next generation is being squandered in so many ways, not just through the failings of education. The Secretary of State at DCMS has belatedly and ineffectively caught up with the economic contribution of the arts but fails to address the wider contribution, which is about our identity, ability to express ourselves, and health and well-being as a nation. This point was eloquently made by a number of noble Lords, including the noble Lord, Lord Berkeley, whose impressive maiden speech we have all applauded and whose godfather’s centenary I celebrated only last week. The Arts Council has been struggling with the burden of 30% cuts, with more to come, and local authority arts funding is being cut, sometimes to the bone. Nothing in the Queen’s Speech gives any comfort or optimism to those who see the potential of a strong local, regional and national arts presence in the UK.

A number of noble Lords raised concerns about the delay in implementing Leveson and the process of resolving the two competing royal charters. I share these concerns. Similarly, there has been a gaping silence where the communications Bill might be. We have been promised and promised again a White or Green Paper, but deadlines come and go and nothing has materialised. We need urgent action to protect children and tackle the highly concentrated and monopolistic nature of the industry. Can the Minister tell us when the communications Bill might be expected?

Finally, what kind of legacy do the Government offer young people on the environment? Whatever happened to the heady days of claiming to be the “greenest Government ever”? Who can remember the last time the Prime Minister even mentioned the green agenda positively? Not surprisingly, the Government’s proposals hold out little hope for those of us who care about these issues. Meanwhile, as CO2 emissions reach record levels, Tory MEPs have just sabotaged attempts to reform the EU Emissions Trading Scheme and the Chancellor is continuing to veto the introduction of a decarbonisation target in the Energy Bill. Can the Minister explain why, against this backdrop, consumers are faced with soaring energy bills while the profits of the energy companies continue to rise? How will the Government address the powerful critiques from several noble Lords of their failure to implement effective market reform in this area?

In conclusion, there have been many more thoughtful contributions today and I am sorry that I have not been able to reference them all. I am sure that the Minister will prove more skilled than I am at that. As I said at the outset, we have the makings in this debate of an alternative Queen’s Speech that could prove to be radical and exciting. I have certainly learnt a great deal and taken copious notes. I hope that, in the aftermath of the next election, we on this side of the House will be able to produce a Queen’s Speech that rather more successfully addresses the challenges of the nation that we have debated today.