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My Lords, as the noble and learned Lord, Lord Falconer, has reminded us, the Prime Minister has offered us what he calls,
“a clear programme for working people, social justice, and bringing our country together—put simply, a One Nation Queen’s Speech from a One Nation Government”.
It is therefore clearly our responsibility to evaluate the Government’s programme against that yardstick, and to measure the gracious Speech on its potential for national unity and social justice, at every point.
I know that today’s debate will reveal the breadth and depth of expertise in these matters in your Lordships’ House and I look forward especially to the maiden speeches of the noble Lord, Lord Lisvane, and the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Leeds, whose experience in bringing together the dioceses of Ripon, Bradford and Wakefield makes the constitutional issues facing this House look entirely straightforward.
It is clear that in spite of commitment to one-nation government, there is no longer a national political party that can with credibility claim to be strongly representative of the whole union. The question we shall need to press is whether the proposed package of constitutional reforms hangs together as a coherent entity, rather than looking like a series of patches designed to fix a succession of pressing issues without any clear direction of travel. The constitution, as we know, is a machine with many moving parts and the scale of the challenge here is to recognise that any adjustment to one part affects the whole machine. We must ask if the Scotland Bill, the proposals for English votes for English laws, the Bill of Rights and the Cities and Local Government Devolution Bill are likely, taken together, to enhance our sense of national identity and the functionality of our Parliament.
From these Benches, we pressed some of these questions in our pastoral letter, Who Is My Neighbour?, published in February. Without fuller attention to the big question of what we want a future United Kingdom to look like—how much self-government its constituent countries ought to enjoy and how they should interconnect with others—then incremental responses to pressing political demands may, contrary to the intention of the Government, edge us towards break-up. That is why I continue to believe that a constitutional convention offers us the best way to consider these large questions in the round, rather than piecemeal. It offers us a reminder that the constitution belongs to us all and not just to the Government of the day. This could be a genuinely one-nation Government’s major contribution to our United Kingdom’s future.
In the Cities and Local Government Bill there is much to applaud in the plans for increased devolution and the overall aim of boosting growth and employment. Last year in the debate on the Queen’s Speech, I mentioned that my conversations in the East Midlands point to a clear consensus that the balance of power between local and central government was not right. Our councils are placed in the impossible position of having to take responsibility for abolishing front-line services, both wanted and needed by our local community. I went on to argue that an erosion of trust and confidence between the electorate and the Government had reached critical level, and that the concept of localism required urgently to be refreshed.
That concept also requires new habits in our town halls and local government structures, new collaboration across boundaries and new partnerships. Noble Lords will forgive me if I mention in passing the re-interment of Richard III as a vivid example of collaboration between city, county, universities and cathedral as a model on which to build for the future. Our own elected city mayor in Leicester has rightly said:
“These proposals make sense in metropolitan areas, but it’s important that differences in local political geography are recognised … We already have a directly-elected mayor in Leicester, with a clear mandate—but what’s important is that we don’t get left out, just because the area around us is more rural than it is in Manchester”.
As for English votes for English laws, the need to see the connections between changes is vital. The greater the devolution to Scotland and other parts of the United Kingdom, the more acute the West Lothian question becomes. The Government’s proposals raise two immediate questions. Do the arrangements in the other place require to be mirrored in some way in this House, especially at votes at Second Reading? Should Bishops perhaps confine ourselves to English-only issues? Secondly, how do the Government intend to address the challenge already mentioned, of not creating effectively two classes of MP by their proposed changes in the Standing Orders?
As many have observed, there is a clear connection between issues surrounding Scottish independence and the EU referendum. A no vote on the EU would hasten the demise of the Union and lead within a generation to a rump nation shorn of Scotland and of membership of the EU and without strategic influence internationally. The Bill of Rights will surely test the capacity of the Government to demonstrate statesmanship rather than gesture politics and to act in the service and interests of all citizens. In that context, the Children’s Society, of which I am a former chair, has said:
“Turning the clock back by scrapping the Human Rights Act would be reckless and threatens to weaken children’s rights”,
“Each year The Children’s Society uses the Act to successfully challenge poor treatment of vulnerable children. For example, it protects children by banning men suspected of grooming from contacting girls, and making sure that local authorities which fail to protect children are held to account”.
The Prime Minister’s commitment to social justice reads directly into any proposals that the Government bring forward in this area.
The same will obviously be true of the proposed changes to the welfare system due to receive your Lordships’ attention later this week. If this is to be done in the service of one nation, many questions arise. Is it sensible for the benefits system to continue to subsidise low-paying employers? Does this directly inhibit productivity? Is it not true that strong networks of community and neighbourliness measurably ease the pressure on the welfare system? Is it not therefore imperative that the bedroom tax be abolished since it is contemptuous of communities’ and people’s need for neighbourliness? Welfare reform needs to address the reconstruction of community if it is to serve a genuinely one-nation programme.
This will be my last parliamentary term before my retirement in July. With others on these Benches, it is an immense privilege to lead the Prayers each day for the uniting and knitting together of all persons and estates within the realm. For that reason, one-nation government will receive the support of this Bench but also consistent challenge where policies fail to address the need for that unity for which we daily pray.