Queen’s Speech - Debate (2nd Day)

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 3:34 pm on 19th May 2016.

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Photo of Lord Hunt of Chesterton Lord Hunt of Chesterton Labour 3:34 pm, 19th May 2016

My Lords, I am honoured to speak in the Queen’s Speech debate and join others in congratulating Her Majesty on her 90 years. It was a pleasure to follow the noble Lord, Lord Suri, who was born in India, as I was. We also obviously share the same belief in the importance of remaining in the European Union.

The Queen’s Speech outlined an ambitious programme, but curiously does not emphasise perhaps the greatest achievement of this Government—that of restoring full employment after the banking crisis in 2008. Indeed, that is why we have so many migrants, who have contributed to the dynamism in every aspect of UK life. But this growth has not been accompanied by adequate growth in our infrastructure, nor in industrial productivity. I shall return to that. Fortunately, the Government and the coalition Government inherited the successful infrastructure projects of the last Labour Government—first with the Olympic Games, then Crossrail and the beginnings of HS2. But they have failed to initiate the important project begun about the third London airport. We look forward to hearing the Minister’s reply about that and about what progress there is on HS2, which the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Durham referred to.

It is very important of course that our infrastructure enables the UK to catch up with other countries. All countries also need a strong and respected institutional infrastructure. One expects any government, but especially a Conservative government, to preserve and maintain successful institutions. But what do we see except undermining of the National Health Service, successful schools and the BBC? As a former head of the Met Office, I worry that we are also undermining the collaboration between the BBC and the Met Office to provide what was a world-class weather forecasting service, which we understand is to be given to a New Zealand company, still not determined. The Table Office would not enable me to ask a Question about that, so I mention it now. Equally important, the legal institutions of the public are being undermined, which are extremely important to the law. The Government have emphasised that they want a UK that is responsive to the needs of the most disadvantaged, but one of the most important of those is access to the law.

The Minister and other speakers mentioned the high international standards of UK science, as the noble Lord, Lord Rees, emphasised in his remarks. But the word “science” was not mentioned in the text of the Queen’s Speech and there is no section on it, hence my remarks on it under the heading of business. They did not explain that in many key areas of science, Parliament and government benefit only if the scientists and engineers, as well as the Government, can report openly on their work. The recent rather heavy asides from the Government that they may stop scientists being allowed to speak are extremely dangerous, and there was some retreat from the Cabinet Office’s earlier remarks. The air pollution dangers of diesel engines is an example. As I learned last night, there was a report to the Department of the Environment in 1993 about the dangers of diesel engines for air pollution and health, but it was not publicised nor reported to Parliament. Japan acted earlier to eliminate most diesel-engine cars in cities. I saw that in Japan and have never had a car with diesel engine. But the EU has not introduced the regulations that are needed although there has been a lot of scientific work, and some of that has not been adequately publicised.

The Queen’s Speech rightly identified the growth of information technology as vital to the modernisation of the UK economy and continued growth. The Government also need a broader strategy for other areas of technology. As a Rolls-Royce engineer pointed out to the House of Lords Science and Technology Committee when we were looking into the question of the effect on the science and technology base of the UK perhaps leaving the European Union, UK industries are not participating sufficiently in EU industrial research programmes. He ascribed this problem to the demise of the regional development agencies, which was an immediate knee-jerk reaction by the coalition Government when they began their work in 2010. There has been some slow reversal of that through local enterprise boards, but the money available to them is much less and they do not have the role of enabling small enterprises to work beneficially with the EU on industrial R&D projects.

The House of Lords committee also benefited from the advice of Siemens, a leading example of the many foreign high-tech companies that have invested in and set up branches in the UK. Although some economists say that it does not matter whether industries in this country are owned by UK or foreign companies, according to the Financial Times and many other commentators—starting of course with Lord Macmillan when he was here in the Lords—there are serious limitations in allowing everything essentially to be sold off. It is clear that where there are foreign owners, the strategic R&D work is often done in the countries where the companies are based, and we have seen the effects of this in some aspects of aviation, trains, steel and so on. The financial benefits of UK government investment in research often simply leads to the benefit of these companies in their foreign-based headquarters and overseas share-holders. As I said, the Financial Times laughed at the French because they had to have a French yoghurt industry, but it has now withdrawn from that point of view.

If companies are foreign owned, will HMG do more to improve networking and combined technologies for advanced industries? In some areas of Europe technological networks have been developed, some of which are as advanced as any in the world—I was involved in organising one in aviation and fluid mechanics. I am pleased to see that the UK Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council is now strengthening the network involvement of UK scientists and institutions. The future integration and collaboration between industry and government is likely to be much more conceptually advanced than at present. The new policy of the German Government on industrial software programmes is called Industry 4.0—it sounds much better in German. It connects technology and design in terms of the human, social and commercial aspects of companies. In an extraordinarily integrated way the software looks not just at one company or one product, but at how different companies can work into projects. This is far beyond anything we can see at the moment, but perhaps the Government’s catapult programme will begin to develop the kind of integrated approach adopted by the German Government, which was described last week at the German embassy. I am afraid that some German industrialists in the UK have commented that while Britain is very good at moving the deckchairs around in endless reorganisations of science and technology, perhaps we are not as effective as they are in Germany.

However, there is one very encouraging development in UK technology, and that is the design, construction and research associated with the Trident project, which was mentioned in the Queen’s Speech. But there is no question that it would be more effective and more likely to be accepted if there was a closer integration between the military project and civilian ship construction. At the moment there is a gap and indeed there is very little civilian ship construction in the UK. In France, for example, it is really rather different.

I have sought in my remarks to review our industrial and technological developments and I look forward to the Minister’s reply.