Queen’s Speech — Debate (4th Day)

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 3:36 pm on 2nd June 2015.

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Photo of Baroness Smith of Basildon Baroness Smith of Basildon Shadow Leader of the House of Lords 3:36 pm, 2nd June 2015

My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness for her kind comments and welcome her to her new position. She and I spent many happy hours debating at the Dispatch Box and, listening to this list of Bills, I am sure that she has many happy hours ahead of her as well. We would have liked a little more detail on the extremism Bill and the housing Bill, but no doubt those will come during the debate.

Many commentators have referred to this Queen’s Speech as the first from a new Conservative Government for 23 years. That may well be, but it fails to recognise how successful the Conservative Party was in getting its way during the coalition years. All of us remember the bedroom tax; the bargain-basement sale of Royal Mail; tax cuts for the wealthiest; and cuts in legal aid, including, most horribly, even for victims of domestic violence. We saw under the last Government the marketisation of our NHS, which paved the way for handing so much more of it into private hands, and the massive hike in tuition fees. So this Queen’s Speech is not the first tentative steps of a party out of government for almost two decades, as some have reported, but it most certainly is the bold stride of a party that wants to build on the work that it has already started.

It is also a Queen’s Speech from a party that faces a new challenge. For the first time in history, a Conservative Government do not have an automatic majority in your Lordships’ House. To my colleagues on the Labour Benches, that does not sound too daunting: no Labour Government have ever had a majority in this Chamber, so we know what it is like. We know the challenges and responsibilities that it brings. During the last Labour Government, we lost around 500 Divisions—30% of all votes. In the last Parliament, with a significant coalition government majority, Ministers still lost 100 Divisions.

But we do not want to play the numbers game to see how many defeats we can now inflict on the Government with the new increase in opposition numbers. This Chamber, as we are all aware, is about far more than that. We are about ensuring better and more effective legislation. We are also about making sure that legislation is properly considered. We have a responsibility to ensure that our expertise is brought to bear on government proposals.

There will be times when we agree with the Government. There will be other times when the detail that we have is inadequate or insufficient and greater thought will have to be given to impact and implementation. There will be others still where we have a fundamental disagreement on principle.

On these Benches, we are used to working across the Chamber on issues of common interest to improve legislation. As the noble Lord, Lord Bates, knows from our debates over many hours, we have always been ready to discuss and negotiate—as indeed has he. It is not insignificant that when we debated the counterterrorism Bill in the last Parliament, the Government accepted or brought forward 40 amendments following weeks of debate in the other place where the Government resisted amendments including those that it accepted here in your Lordships’ House.

As my noble friend Lady Royall made clear last week, we, as a responsible Opposition, will continue to respect the principles of the Salisbury convention. However, the Government have to recognise that this House will fulfil its obligation of scrutinising and revising legislation. There is a challenge here for Ministers. In the last Parliament we were too often disappointed by ministerial responses. Comforted by their political majority—with notable and very welcome exceptions—some Ministers failed to adequately explain, engage or properly answer questions. We heard some of that at Question Time today—and it cannot continue.

The role of scrutinising legislation and holding the Government to account is the primary focus of this House. As I have said, it is not merely a numbers game but the constitutional role of the second Chamber. David Cameron should not think that he can railroad ill-thought out, ineffective or damaging legislation by using his narrow Commons majority to ignore the views and guidance of this House. Neither should he seek to create an avalanche of more Peers to make up the perceived difference.

In many cases the Conservative manifesto contained inadequate detail for us to fully understand the exact intentions of the Bills being brought forward. A prime example is the much-touted £12 billion-worth of cuts to the social security budget. I read in the press today that Ministers are still arguing about where and when the axe is going to fall. Will it be on child benefit; housing benefits; disability benefits; or a cut in the carer’s allowance? When is it going to happen? In two, three, four years’ time? At some point the Government will need to work it out. I am confident that today’s debate, with its impressive list of speakers, will identify a number of areas where the Government should welcome detailed scrutiny and seriously consider improvements.

Alongside the valedictory speech today of the noble Lord, Lord Eden, we will also hear maiden speeches from the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Salisbury and the noble Lord, Lord Kerslake, both of whom have valuable expertise—the right reverend Prelate through his work on homelessness and the noble Lord from his long-standing experience across the housing sector, including his time as head of the Homes and Communities Agency. The noble Lord has an insight into what our country needs in this key policy area. I look forward to his contribution and I hope that the Government will heed his wise advice.

This country needs a housing Bill, but the one being offered by the Government does nothing to address the greatest housing shortage for a generation. Ministers have to explain how forcing housing associations to sell off their stock at a knock-down discount is going to help those young people who fear that they will never have a home of their own, whether to rent or buy. This is not innovative thinking. This is a rehash of 1980s policy when times and circumstances were very different. When Margaret Thatcher introduced the right to buy for council housing, the waiting lists of those looking to rent were a fraction of what they are today. For those looking to buy, it was so much easier to get a mortgage, including from local councils, and it was still possible to earn an average wage and buy a home. While those sales undoubtedly benefited some, it was, has been and continues to be a nightmare for others. So we need the detail. Will the Government learn from the mistakes of the past or merely repeat them?

On the environment, many of us remember the Prime Minister’s pledge—probably in an overexuberant moment of delirium after he had hugged a husky—to be the greenest Government ever. Few believe he succeeded. The Queen’s Speech does not demonstrate a commitment to tackling climate change or air pollution when the UK has one of the worst records of any EU country for exceeding pollution limits, putting thousands of lives at risk.

On agriculture, the absence of an effective food and farming strategy is very worrying. The farming industry makes an enormous contribution to our economy and it needs co-ordinated government support.

The noble Lord, Lord Bates, has proved himself to be a very hard-working Minister on Home Office legislation and he has his work cut out in this Parliament. On immigration, the Government will have to clarify how a number of proposals will work in practice. Of course we support measures to tackle illegal immigration and deport foreign criminals—but, again, the Government are tough on rhetoric and weak on action. What of that pledge to cut net migration? Not only does it exclude illegal immigration, but the Government’s criteria would claim success when highly qualified professionals leave the UK to use their skills elsewhere and fee-paying foreign students choose not to come to the UK but instead go to study in China or the US. That would be a net fall in migration; a success for the Government, but of no help whatever to the UK or our economy.

In addition, around 500 fewer foreign criminals are being deported every year than under the last Labour Government, while at the same time we have seen substantial cuts in the UK Border Force. Mr Cameron may look very fetching to some in his police-issue Kevlar jacket as he joins the police on a raid to arrest exploited migrant workers, but that is no replacement for effective legislation. Many of these workers live in a twilight world of poverty and fear, and tackling that exploitation must be a priority, with action taken against those responsible. Legitimate, law-abiding businesses and local workers are paying the price for the Government’s failure, so I ask Ministers: will the Government reconsider the proposals put forward by us in the last Parliament to tackle this issue?

We have an extremism Bill, and we all understand that extremist statements that incite, encourage and support violence are dangerous and divisive, and have no place in a civilised society. Tackling the issue demands wisdom as well as calm and intelligent thought. When debating the extremism Bill, we will need to give careful consideration to exactly what new powers are to be brought in; a clear definition of extremism, including who actually defines it; and to ensure that any laws are used only for the purposes for which they are intended. Ministers will have to clarify what action will be taken to strengthen the community-led prevention work that was cut during the last Parliament.

We await the proposals, but perhaps I may highlight one serious issue, which is the commitment that Ofcom’s role should be strengthened,

“so that tough measures can be taken against channels that broadcast extremist content”.

That raises so many questions. I will look back and refer to the history of this. Most of us in this House will remember the 1988 regulations that banned the broadcasting of interviews with a number of organisations in Northern Ireland. Did it work? The broadcasters kept to the letter of the law, using actors to lip-sync to interviews. It was a farce and completely ineffective, and it was eventually dropped after six years.

On policing, we will challenge the Government to recognise the shocking impact of their policies during the last Parliament. The most senior counterterrorism officer in the UK, Assistant Commissioner Mark Rowley, has warned that the loss of mainstream policing teams and cuts in neighbourhood policing undermine counterterrorism work. In Essex, we no longer have any 24-hour police stations—not one—and we have 600 fewer officers than in 2010. Close to my home in Basildon is a large, clear road sign directing residents to the local police station. I went to the opening not that long ago. But do not bother turning up today, because the sign has lasted longer than the police station, which is now closed. Under the Government of a party that claims to be the party of law and order, police morale has never been lower—and these are the men and women who we need and expect to be at the top of their game.

We must tackle extremism in all its forms, whether Islamist extremism linked to the rise of ISIL, hate crime, anti-Semitism or Islamophobia. But the measures must be proportionate and effective, with checks and balances to prevent abuse.

The Conservative manifesto stated:

“New legislation will modernise the law on communications data”.

In the last Parliament, we debated and passed temporary emergency legislation on the collection and use of such data, then returned to the issue during the counterterrorism Bill. Some noble Lords will recall our criticisms of the Government in bringing forward inadequate, disproportionate and deeply flawed legislation at the start of the Parliament. Then, despite an excellent and balanced report from the Joint Committee, chaired by the noble Lord, Lord Blencathra, the Government failed to do anything to address the deficiencies in existing legislation.

Times have changed. Some people may look back with nostalgia to the Cold War, but the days when a man in a gabardine mac and a trilby kept watch while his colleague unscrewed the telephone to install a bug and hide a microphone in the plant pot have long gone. Those involved in terrorism, or in serious and organised crimes like drug and people trafficking, international fraud, hard core pornography, paedophilia and child sexual abuse, do so today with a sophistication and technical knowledge that many of us would struggle to comprehend.

Those who are victims of such crimes experience horrors that we can only imagine. We have a duty therefore to tackle such crime, but that can never mean that there are no boundaries as to how we do so. Citizens are entitled to seek security, safety and privacy, and there is a responsible balance to be met. Any legislation must be proportionate, necessary and effective, and its use limited to its necessity. There must be adequate and effective checks and balances to prevent abuse or misuse, but where that occurs there must be severe penalties for those who do so.

This is my first speech in this House as Leader of the Opposition. Therefore, finally, perhaps I may add a couple of thank-yous as well as an indication of how I intend to lead from these Benches. I very gratefully thank the members of the Labour group who have shown great faith in electing me, especially those many friends and colleagues who nominated me. But there is one individual to whom I and my colleagues in this House owe a debt of gratitude: my noble friend Lady Royall, or “Jan” as she is known to us all, from whom I have learnt much in my five years in this House. I know that it is a cliché, but those who heard her response to the Queen’s Speech last week will have seen that she really does leave a big pair of shoes to fill. I can only hope that I will go some way to doing that. There are similarities between us, and not just the ginger hair. As some noble Lords may have spotted, Basildon is an anagram of Blaisdon.

I have asserted that Labour will abide by the broad principles of the Salisbury convention, but I believe that the Government, and indeed the Prime Minister, have some way to go to learn how to work with this House and with Peers of all parties and none. If Mr Cameron and his Ministers choose not to, and instead seek to railroad through legislation not specified in the Conservative manifesto, we will be robust in our challenges and ready to take them to the wire in the interests of good government and good legislation.