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

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 11:10 pm on 26th June 2017.

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Photo of Lord Davies of Oldham Lord Davies of Oldham Shadow Spokesperson (Treasury) 11:10 pm, 26th June 2017

My Lords, this has been an excellent debate. First, I congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Callanan, on his appointment, and the clarity with which he presented the opening statement, although I have to say to him that I disagreed with about 90% of it, which is par for the course in these discussions in this Chamber.

We had some very important contributions on fisheries and agriculture. Both the maiden speakers made excellent speeches and we welcome their contributions to our subsequent debates. But the thing about fisheries and agriculture is that we have to start again. The withdrawal from the common fisheries policy and the London fisheries convention is bound to be problematic, as is the establishment of a new agricultural regime. Although I appreciated the fact that several noble Lords expressed considerable optimism about what could be done, we have to recognise that at present the Government have given us very little insight into these important developments. Of course, this is against a background where they did not plan for Brexit because the Government of David Cameron had not expected to lose the referendum. It is not surprising, therefore, that there is very little consultation or discussion on two areas of policy, which have been spoken about this evening and about which on the whole we remain at this stage very much in the dark—the Government involved in aspiration rather than inspiration on these points.

As for the environment, it is the pursuit of the wrong policies that we criticise on this side of the House. Do we remember that David Cameron’s Tory Government was to be the greenest ever? Do we remember the days of the huskies and various concepts such as that? Yet there has been limited investment in renewable energy. Of course, the Government sold off the green bank. We are on course to miss key climate change targets, and we have to add to this the ending of the Department of Energy and Climate Change by the Prime Minister, Theresa May. As my noble friend Lady Jones mentioned in her opening statement, the amazing fact we have to adjust to is the appointment of Michael Gove as Secretary of State in the department. It is not surprising that the Prime Minister wanted to show her keen appreciation of President Trump when she went to see him. She must have approved very much of his attitude towards climate change, at least.

Of course, we approve of the capping of energy prices by the Government, who managed in this last election to catch up with the Labour proposals in the 2015 election. There was some sign of realisation that one of the things presently facing a very large number of people in the United Kingdom, many of them on low incomes, is the real cost of energy.

On transport, notwithstanding the contribution of the noble Lord, Lord Framlingham, Labour supports HS2. It is essential to meet the rail demands of both passengers and freight between London and the north. We did wonder why the election promise of a rail transport ombudsman has been jettisoned. Presumably the Government think that Southern railway is doing reasonably well and that passengers are reasonably satisfied with the service. If they think that, they need to have a substantial recasting of their views on the state of our railways. From all I can see, the main transport proposals in the Queen’s Speech seem to have been on automated cars, space travel and insurance controls over whiplash claims. These are all desirable features—I like to see the Government look to the more distant future—but scarcely crucial to the infrastructure of our national economy and its present needs.

There were many contributions on business and the state of the economy. It looks pretty clear that we are to have a surfeit of finance Bills, which cannot bring us too much confidence in this House. We all recall the last finance Bill, when the Chancellor proposed one approach to national insurance contributions and shortly afterwards—four days, in fact—the Prime Minister annulled those proposals. We cannot therefore expect too much from the finance Bills to come.

However, we hope that the proposals on tax avoidance will be reinforced. We have pressed on this issue ever since the Government appeared to be a somewhat late convert—I am talking about a decade ago—to the realisation that tax avoidance was going on at a colossal scale, not by individual citizens or, to a degree, by the wealthiest among them but by multinational companies that were often paying less tax than individual employees were paying. This requires a well-staffed, well-trained and invigorated department of the Inland Revenue, yet the Government keep telling us how important it is to scale down the government machine. It is so important, they say, that we should reduce the role of the state in our society even to the point of reducing the role of those who collect the appropriate taxes from those who should be paying them.

This is a Queen’s Speech which pays little constructive attention to the deplorable state of our economy. I could scarcely credit the opening statement by the Minister. The first person to demonstrate how erroneous the Minister might have been was the noble Lord, Lord Low of Dalston, who spoke from the Cross Benches and produced a devastating indictment of how the Government have run the economy over recent years. We all remember that the deficit, which the Government now claim full credit for having reduced, was meant to have been eliminated by 2015. The appalling cuts in public expenditure and the sacrifice of our people during the period of austerity were meant to be over in five years, but instead, we had an extension first by Chancellor Osborne until 2018 and, under the new Chancellor, we are going deep into the 2020s. It is not surprising that the people are rising up against austerity when the Government are showing such obvious incompetence about hitting the target that they said that austerity was designed to achieve.

I am grateful to my noble friend Lord Howarth of Newport, who clearly identified the nature of just what government cuts in our society have created. We have reached a stage at which food banks are part of our economy. We have a situation in which the Government boast about an extension in employment but more than 1 million of the people who are employed are on zero-hours contracts. That form of employment might be considered acceptable to the Conservative side of the House, but it is not acceptable to all normal people who are trying to run their household budgets when they do not know with certainty whether their employer will use their work any day of the week. We have also seen enormous cuts in all the services which our people value. There have been cuts to education and a sharp reduction in funding of our schools and the decimation of our further education colleges and lifelong learning provision. No wonder the Government are waking up to the fact that if they are going to improve the skills of our nation, they have to reverse some of the policies they have been pursuing in recent years with such thoroughness.

There have also been cuts to the police and warnings that they may not be able to guarantee our safety because there are insufficient police officers as a result of such cuts. There have been cuts to local authorities, about which we have complained incessantly in this House, often to the rather obvious derision of Conservative Ministers who seem to think that local authorities can fulfil their obligations with the most marginal resources, until the cuts begin to bite where they produce enormous damage to our people: of course I am referring to the tragedy in the London Borough of Kensington and Chelsea. That borough saved a certain amount on cladding and has £300 million in its reserves. That is the difference between a rich borough that knows where its resources are and how little it is prepared to spend on the needs of its people. It is quite clear. What stands out from this is the reference made by several noble Lords to our gross lack of effective expenditure on housing, particularly social housing. The Government have to change their tune on that, otherwise there is no doubt that the people will speak with vengeance against the Government if they carry on with their present strategy.

The problem for the Government is that they cannot run the economy. They keep talking about the necessity to improve productivity, and our productivity has slumped under this Government. We are down with Italy at the bottom of the G7 in terms of the effectiveness of our workforce. How can the Government pretend that they are developing the economy successfully when that figure is clearly identified for us?

Another point, which the noble Baroness, Lady Kramer, just referred to, is that we are running personal debt at a higher level than before the 2008 crash. If that is not a warning hint to the Government about the problems of our economy, I do not know what is.

The noble Baroness, Lady Rock, said that if you are going to get investment in the economy, you need certainty. Certainty from this Government? Certainty when they lost a referendum which the Prime Minister called in order to win and who was then forced to resign? Certainty when the next Prime Minister decided the majority was not sufficient to run the country successfully and then found that she had translated a small majority into minority government? Is that where certainty is meant to come from for our businesses and for investors? It is quite clear that this Government are on the rocks. Even the much-vaunted lead Minister on Brexit, David Davis, is in the extraordinary position that he made it quite clear to the nation that he intended to go to Brussels to define the priorities in the discussions and then conceded to European arguments on that matter on the very first day.

I have some sympathy for the Minister who is to wind up on this. We all recognise that he is a principled man who enjoys a great deal of affection in this House. But this evening, he has to respond to the challenges that have been laid down from this side of the House, and from many parts of the House, on the state of the economy, which is crucial to the welfare of the nation but at present is being conducted by a Government who offer us no hope.