Queen’s Speech - Debate (3rd Day) (Continued)

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 7:08 pm on 26th June 2017.

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Photo of Baroness Royall of Blaisdon Baroness Royall of Blaisdon Labour 7:08 pm, 26th June 2017

My Lords, I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Naseby, about the priority that we should give to housing.

Today’s debate is taking place in the shadow of Brexit, which will have a profound effect on all the issues that are being raised today. The Brexit Secretary, the Foreign Secretary and the Trade Secretary bear a huge responsibility for selling the people of this country an economic and moral pig in a poke smeared in snake oil. Many commentators from the right and the left agree that the country is in crisis, with deep geographical, age, education and income divisions, and the measures set out in the Queen’s Speech are too small to heal the divides and to make life fairer in this country.

I am ashamed that in 21st century Britain, which for the moment is still the fifth-largest economy in the world, inequality is rife. Inequality and a lack of hope are inextricably linked. That is why so many of our young people and their parents voted for change in this election. Labour’s manifesto spoke to people’s concerns about austerity, unfairness and the current economic model, which delivers for the few, not the many. It spoke to the burning injustices highlighted by Mrs May when she became Prime Minister but about which she has done little or nothing.

The high-level Business and Sustainable Development Commission produced a report, Better Business, Better World, which recognised that business should be at the very heart of a new, open, global economic model. This model should not only be low carbon and environmentally sustainable, but should turn poverty, inequality and lack of financial access into new market opportunities for smart, progressive, profit-oriented companies. I do not think the Government have read the report.

Such a model must also take proper account of the society and the communities in which businesses are working. The public and private sector at all levels must reflect multicultural Britain and make use of all the talent available, including those who still face conscious and unconscious bias. It cannot be right that, in the UK, citizen directors of colour represent only about 1.5% of the total director population; that 97% of senior leaders in central government are white; and that there are no non-white CEOs of London boroughs, despite the ethno-diversity of the London population increasing to over 40%. The Government, to their credit, have commissioned many good reports, but now is the time for action on diversity.

As noble Lords may recall, I am strongly in favour of a year of service. I strongly urge the Government, in the national contributions Bill, to use the Bill to amend class 3 national insurance credits so that they can be extended to those engaging in full-time social action. That would make a real difference.

Workers are absolutely key to a successful economy, but too many have terrible insecurity in their working lives, with part-time work, zero hours, the gig economy and low wages. Matthew Taylor’s review of employment practices, mentioned by the Minister, will be extremely important in that context. I ask for the Minister’s assurance that the Government will implement future recommendations that tackle the abuses of insecure work and end exploitation in the workplace. In some instances, exploitation has been exacerbated by immigration, but Mrs May’s immigration targets are certainly not the way to deal with this, and would do untold harm to our economy and our public services.

Agriculture is historically a sector in which there has been exploitation of workers, but the Gangmasters and Labour Abuse Authority, the GLAA, has done much to mitigate the problems. However, the wider remit that it now has, together with fewer resources, means that, post Brexit, the situation for agricultural workers could worsen. There is also widespread concern among farmers, especially summer fruit and salad growers, that there simply will not be enough workers available to sustain their seasonal business. Will the Government take the logical step to reinstate the seasonal workers scheme, as well as provide increased resources for the GLAA?

People working in agriculture sustain our rural communities but, with lack of affordable housing, exacerbated by the 2016 housing Act, and low wages, younger people especially are moving away from rural areas. Labour is committed to reinstating the Agricultural Wages Board to underpin employment standards and wages, and I urge the Minister to make a similar commitment. The lack of high-speed broadband in rural areas is still a massive problem, and stifles entrepreneurship. It seems that the Government have not rural-proofed their policies, including with regard to transport. The cost of buses in rural areas makes life difficult for many, not least students attending college. As the BMA pointed out this morning, local funding cuts have led to reduced bus services and patients unable to get to appointments.

I live in the Forest of Dean, and am immensely proud that, despite the Government’s best efforts, the community has mobilised and we have a fracking-free area. We need a sustainable energy policy, which includes a ban on fracking, a practice which is harmful both for meeting our climate change obligations and for the environment.

I finish where I began. This country is deeply divided, and there is a growing sense of anxiety and frustration. No matter what the Minister might say, the measures contained in the gracious Speech will not enable our businesses and economy to reach the potential desperately needed at this critical time, and will not lead to the much-needed improvement in the lives of our fellow citizens. This Government are failing the country and failing its people, who deserve a more confident future, with hope for themselves and hope for their children.