Queen’s Speech — Debate (4th Day)

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 9:52 pm on 2nd June 2015.

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Photo of Lord McKenzie of Luton Lord McKenzie of Luton Shadow Spokesperson (Communities and Local Government) 9:52 pm, 2nd June 2015

My Lords, I begin by sending best wishes from these Benches to the noble Lord, Lord Eden, and our congratulations to the maiden speakers today, the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Salisbury and the noble Lord, Lord Kerslake. I also congratulate the two Ministers who have, I think, both been promoted since the previous Parliament. I should mention the noble Lord, Lord Wakeham, given his earlier experience. He is on the record and has got a name check this evening. I promise to continue to do that so long as he does not keep banging on about the 1992 election in which I was a candidate. It would be very helpful.

This has been a wide-ranging debate covering a number of important policy areas. I propose to refer to just some of them. We are asked to accept that the context is a programme which backs working people, is about social justice and brings our country together, but assertion and repetition do not make that a reality. In her opening speech from these Benches, my noble friend and leader Lady Smith of Basildon touched upon measures in the Queen’s Speech which address the most serious issues facing our country about how we protect our security, liberty and democracy. She probed, as did other noble Lords, particularly my noble friend Lady Henig, the consequences for neighbourhood policing and, indeed, our national security of cutting the number of police officers and, given the pressures and influences which face many young people today, the importance of maintaining that community work which helps tackle extremism and encourages young people away from that path. That is an issue which exercised many noble Lords in today’s debate. My noble friend gave our support to the measures to tackle illegal immigration and to deport foreign criminals, and expressed concern about the lack of new measures to make it illegal to exploit migrant labour to undercut local wages and jobs.

Like many other noble Lords, my noble friend spoke about housing. That we have a housing crisis in our country cannot be denied. While there was a welcome spurt in the number of housing starts at the beginning of this year, experts express concern about whether it is sustainable. Even if it was, some 40,000 per quarter still falls well short of the new homes that we need each year to keep pace with population changes, let alone tackle the housing backlog. We are simply not building enough new homes and have not done so for a considerable time. The prospect of owning or renting a home on affordable terms receded under the previous Government, despite a plethora of initiatives that provided the lowest level of housebuilding in peacetime since the 1920s, where the number of homes built for social rent ended at the lowest rate in more than 20 years. With more families having to look to the private rented sector, with rents rising, benefits being cut and evictions rising, it is hard to see the thread of social justice weaving through housing policy. Indeed, we see rough sleeping reaching the very doors of Parliament. It is in this context that the new Government’s policies must be judged.

In this regard, we have been considerably advantaged by the maiden speech of the noble Lord, Lord Kerslake, who brings particular expertise on the subject, which adds to the powerful contributions that we have come to expect from the noble Lord, Lord Best, and my noble friends Lady Hollis and Lady Warwick. A number of noble Lords added their voices; the noble Lord, Lord Cameron, in particular is angry about the cataclysmic effect of the proposals for the right to buy on rural areas.

Many have raised concerns about the extension of the right to buy to housing association tenants on a number of counts. Given the ability of housing associations to invest in new social housing, and given that that is dependent in part on borrowing against existing stock, how does this help to meet housing need? How is it consistent with charity law? Funding the discount and the cost of replacement housing from the sale of higher-value council houses is clearly fraught with difficulties on a number of fronts. It contributes to the depletion of social housing and widens divisions between where richer and poorer households are located.

The Government have promised that every home sold under the proposals will be replaced on a one-for-one basis with another affordable home. However, we are not encouraged by the delivery of an equivalent commitment when discounts for council houses were widened: the LGA reports that this has delivered fewer than half the homes that it should. So we need to be convinced that the policy will not lead to a diminution of affordable housing. In short, we need answers to the questions posed by many noble Lords in this debate, particularly the 10 questions posed by my noble friend Lady Hollis.

The Chancellor has waxed lyrical of late about a “northern powerhouse”, about the economic potential of the great cities of the north of England, about how size matters and about connectivity, although this rhetoric has actually run ahead of the reality: so far the northern powerhouse is just one agreement with Greater Manchester, albeit an important one. It is somewhat ironic that having been part of a Government who—with a little help from the Liberal Democrats—battered local authorities for most of the last five years, this Administration are now seriously turning to the public sector to boost local growth in England.

Local government has had its resources reduced by some 40%, with more to come, as we hear from my noble friend Lord Beecham and the noble Lord, Lord Shipley. It has been the biggest hit in the public sector, and in a manner that hits the poorest areas the most. Despite assertions of localism, on too many occasions the previous Government demonstrated that they were not prepared to trust local government, a point that the noble Lord, Lord Sherbourne, made—not on planning, finance or even the minutiae of parking arrangements or waste disposal—and they had a habit of passing responsibilities to local government without the money, council tax support and aspects of the old social fund being just two examples. As my noble friend Lord Beecham set out, devolution arrangements must be predicated on fair funding. Therefore there is a degree of suspicion about intent, although we should acknowledge that there has been some devolution in the form of city deals and growth deals, and the current Bill presages the introduction of further powers for combined authorities and other areas.

Just as local government has already demonstrated its ability to cope with savage budget cuts, it has shown a willingness to engage in innovative ways and step up to the plate. Manchester, the one example where the 10 authorities have a long history of collaboration characterised by consistent leadership and hard work over many years, is a prime example. Its agreement with the Government encompasses being a co-commissioner of the next phase of the Work Programme, as well as devolution of the current funding and decision-making for health and social care within Greater Manchester.

We support devolution but believe that it should be part of a UK-wide plan, not a series of one-off deals with the Chancellor and not just limited to great cities or just one great city, but should include the rural areas—a point proved by the noble Lord, Lord Curry. Our work on the Bill will seek to ensure that no area is left behind. The LGA in particular enthuses about the economic benefits of devolution and the benefits of decision-making at local level, but not limiting that to metropolitan areas. It points out that non-metropolitan England accounts for 56% of economic output.

The published legislation is drawn in very broad terms, with significant powers for the Secretary of State to agree to transfer to a combined authority, functions of local authorities, other local public services and powers devolved from Government—much wider powers than can currently be conferred under the 2009 Act. However, we know that any deal will depend upon the councils agreeing to have an elected mayor. There is no requirement for a referendum to determine whether the public want one, and once signed up to it, there is no going back. The Secretary of State can by order require that any function which is a function of a combined authority can be exercisable only by the mayor. With the consent of appropriate authorities this can include the role of the police and crime commissioner. I do not want to disappoint my noble friend Lady Henig, but I doubt whether that will be a route to having an increased precept to help with the underfunding of our police services. Therefore there is potentially a very significant concentration of power under these proposals, but we need to be clear that having only one acceptable governance model—the elected mayor—is not a barrier to devolution.

We support the devolution and integration of health and care services but need to be satisfied about whether the model can be imposed on areas and whether it requires another structural upheaval. We particularly do not want to see devolution of responsibilities without proper funding again, passing the buck of the tough decisions to local authorities without the security of the funding to go with it.

So far as the energy Bill is concerned, I should just say that we welcome the creation of the Oil and Gas Authority and will continue to scrutinise the Government to ensure that the UK gets the maximum economic benefit from our oil and gas reserves. As for onshore wind farms, we consider the Government’s lack of support to be short-sighted and lacking commitment to climate change. Of course we need to be sensitive about the siting of such facilities, but we should acknowledge that they provide the most developed form of clean energy that is available.

The election result has not cast my party in the role it had hoped for, so our focus must remain on scrutinising, challenging, and holding the Government to account, and to be a voice for those who would otherwise not be heard. Taking this programme overall, it will be much needed.