Queen’s Speech — Debate (4th Day)

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 4:22 pm on 2nd June 2015.

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Photo of Baroness Hamwee Baroness Hamwee Liberal Democrat 4:22 pm, 2nd June 2015

My Lords, I, too, congratulate both Ministers on their promotions. As a colleague said, the noble Lord is no ordinary Conservative—therefore, my congratulations are rather warmer. I also congratulate the noble Baroness. It was no surprise at all to me that she was elected unopposed

The last debate in the last Parliament was on indefinite immigration detention, a topic which certainly deserves further attention—but there are so many topics and so little time today. Humane treatment is intrinsically right and important, and so are human rights. The Conservatives should be proud of their predecessors’ post-war achievements. Yesterday, I came into the Chamber as the noble and learned Lord, Lord Mackay of Clashfern, said this, putting it much better than I can. Whether we are talking about the convention or the court, I react against the idea of a British Bill of Rights, because that suggests that anything that is not British is inferior. Rights are rights, including rights for people whom we might not like very much. They are not something earned, and the term “deserve” has no place in our politics.

Reference is also made to “spurious” human rights and “bogus” asylum seekers—a similar kind of approach. Neither term is appropriate, unless and until, through proper process, they have been found to be so. Careless language can too easily validate xenophobia—and so, I fear, may some of the policies on immigration, but let us give them the benefit of the doubt and see what the detail is. Illegal working is already illegal, and seizing wages is unlikely to do more than to drive people further underground. As for cracking down on landlords, why should there not be a focus on the conditions endured by exploited occupants? Given the targets or ambitions for immigration numbers, it is ironic that the Conservatives talk up the problems of immigration. It must confirm a belief, which an awful lot of people hold, that the proportion of immigrants in our population is much higher than it actually is.

I accept that perceptions are important, and I accept the need to address the detail of people’s concerns; so, for instance, a requirement that recruitment agencies must recruit within the UK as well as abroad is sensible. I have a particular question about the labour market enforcement agency. I wonder whether the Minister can make clear how it fits into the review of the Gangmasters Licensing Authority. Are there different remits, or what? It is natural, too, to resent immigrants pitching up and immediately claiming benefits, although I know that they do so much less than the indigenous community.

Our policy must not raise expectations about reforms that cannot be met. The Conservative manifesto refers to a visa system which puts British people first:

“Across the spectrum, from the student route to the family and work routes”.

There are different views on how to achieve that. As one example, I believe—as I have said before, and will go on saying—that the family visa rules that do not support British citizens married to non-Britons with British children do not achieve this. Fluent English, which is also mentioned, is indeed a means to integration —I put it that way; not that a lack of it is a bar. But that raises questions about the availability and accessibility of the teaching of English.

We talked about integration and community cohesion a good deal during the passage of the Counter-terrorism and Security Act. I am sad that the nuanced, lower-key, persuasive approach to the counternarrative to terrorism does not seem to find a place in what we know so far about the extremism Bill. As has already been said by more than one noble Lord, during the passage of that Act we debated what the definition of extremism might be, but without reaching a conclusion. On banning orders and the proscription of organisations which fall short of existing thresholds, we need to take extreme care not to infringe that British value—freedom of speech. The counterextremism strategy is expected shortly. Can the Minister tell us what consultation is taking place, or will take place, on the construction of that strategy?

I hope we will be able to continue to address issues that we addressed in the previous Parliament, particularly on modern slavery, overseas domestic workers, supply chains and creating a tort of exploitation to allow for civil claims, which was dealt with in an amendment from the noble Baroness, Lady Young of Hornsey. We might also consider whether some of the young people who are going to conflict areas are, in a sense, trafficked. All this is very complex and needs a lot of sensitivity.

I shall say one word for now, and say more next week, on new psychoactive substances. If dealing with them is as easy as imposing a blanket ban, why did we go through so many hoops in the last Parliament?

All this requires resources, so a law to preclude raising income tax was one of the things that caused me to shout at my radio during April. My radio came in for a lot of abuse in April. I also abused it—and this is relevant to community cohesion—when I heard the policy on the right to buy social housing. It will be funded, and new properties provided, through the sale of all those high-value properties whose value local authorities, flush with cash, have failed to recognise and realise over the past few years. I congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Kerslake, on the coverage of his comments yesterday on this issue.

I did a word search in the Conservative manifesto and the word “passionately” is used only once, and that was in respect of a belief in home ownership. Of course I recognise the convention about the manifesto on which the Government were elected, and indeed that the Government are no longer “encumbered”—the Home Secretary’s term—by the coalition. Time will tell whether in addressing the detail of legislation, where the devil may reside, this House will be concerned with its workability or something more subversive.