Queen’s Speech - Debate (4th Day)

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 3:44 pm on 27th June 2017.

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Photo of Lord Kennedy of Southwark Lord Kennedy of Southwark Shadow Spokesperson (Housing), Opposition Whip (Lords), Shadow Spokesperson (Communities and Local Government), Shadow Spokesperson (Home Affairs) 3:44 pm, 27th June 2017

My Lords, first, I draw the attention of the House to my registered interests: specifically, that I am a councillor in the London Borough of Lewisham and a vice-president of the Local Government Association.

As we debate the Motion on Her Majesty’s gracious Speech, our thoughts are with the victims and their families of the terrorist attacks—in Manchester, at London Bridge and Borough Market and at Finsbury Park mosque—and of the tragedy at Grenfell Tower. Our thoughts are also with the heroes of the emergency services, the security services and the NHS, who have all worked to protect and save lives, as well as on the many selfless acts of courage and kindness from members of the public, faith communities, charities and businesses. They have shown our country at its best, in the most difficult and tragic circumstances.

As the Official Opposition in your Lordships’ House, we will work with the Government in a constructive manner at all times and will robustly challenge where we think the Government do not have it right. Our aim is always to make sure that we pass laws that are fit for purpose. We respect conventions, including that the elected House has the authority that we do not.

The first job of government is to protect our citizens from threats that endanger our lives, liberty and well-being. Terrorism, and the fight against it, is never far from our minds, and combating it must be the number one priority for the Government. I support the review to be initiated to ensure that the Government’s counter- terrorism strategy provides the police and security services with the powers they need and that punishments and lengths of custodial sentences are correct.

There are, though, two other points to be made here. First, the Independent Reviewer of Terrorism Legislation has an important role to play here, and the recommendations he or she makes must be listened to carefully by the Government. There is no point, and it will serve no purpose, if the Government take further powers for the police and security services to keep us safe but do not resource them properly. Any review undertaken by the Government has to look at the question of resources and the lack of them and whether the powers presently at the disposal of the police and security services are adequately resourced. Providing new powers and new laws but no new money to back them is the worst thing that can be done, as it provides little or no protection and delivers a false sense of security.

Further, if new powers are sought, we as an Opposition will seek to ensure that there is proper parliamentary scrutiny and oversight. This is not the time for Henry VIII powers or regulations to be enacted without at least the affirmative procedures in place and, if necessary, we will propose amendments in your Lordships’ House to ensure that is the case.

The proposed new commission for countering extremism will have an important role to play, and it will be vital that communities are involved and are seen as part of the solution. It will not have gone unnoticed that, in the recent atrocities in Manchester and at London Bridge and Borough Market, the security services had been alerted by the Muslim communities to concerns about individuals who were later involved in these terrorist attacks.

Internet providers and companies that operate online must play their part in ensuring that extremist ideology in all its forms has no safe place to corrupt people online. I call on all companies that operate in this area to work closely with the Government to ensure this happens quickly and that they play their role in keeping us safe. There can be no excuse for not co-operating fully with the authorities.

I fully support the proposals from the Government to tackle the evil of domestic abuse. That must be stamped out. I fully support the noble Baroness in the work she does in that regard. We will support the Bill fully when it comes to this House.

I welcome in principle the proposals to introduce an independent public advocate to act for and support bereaved families after a public disaster and at public inquests. The intention here, though, must be to give families the best possible support and ensure that no stone is left unturned and no family is left out, marginalised or prevented from having their voice heard due to issues of costs and available resources. Families who have lost loved ones in previous disasters have proven, time and time again, that the truth will come out, no matter what is said at the time or how powerful the opponents are. The Hillsborough families proved that; the sense of injustice and the lies told, heaped on the tragedy of losing loved ones, drove them to do right by their loved ones. But it should not be like that. Victims and their families should have proper representation, funded by the state, right from the start.

The return of the devolved Administration in Northern Ireland is supported by everyone, on all sides of the House. It is vital that an Executive is formed and that normal working relationships are restored. The progress made in Northern Ireland over the last 25 years has been the result of a willingness on all sides to seek agreement, to co-operate, to build a better future for families and to live in peace, and that prize is too precious to lose. My parents came from the Republic of Ireland to make a life for themselves in London in the 1950s, and they retired there many years ago. I have numerous friends in the Republic and in Northern Ireland. I was in County Mayo the weekend before last and in Belfast a few months ago at a conference. The city is welcoming and friendly, and no one wants to return to the past. There should be no return to the hard border—it is in no one’s interest, north or south. The Government must redouble their efforts to get the Executive back on their feet, and we will support them in achieving that. Nothing in the arrangements for propping up the Government can be allowed to get in the way—these matters are far too important.

It is my sincerest hope that, moving forward from the tragic fire at Grenfell Tower, we will never again hear the nonsense that we have heard about red tape and health and safety laws and regulations. The rule that there should be two—or is it three?—regulations out before a new one is agreed should be confined to the dustbin, where it belongs. What we saw in Grenfell Tower was a catastrophic failure of regulation or of its proper application. It was an unimaginable tragedy in one of the richest countries in the world, in the richest borough in the United Kingdom and probably the whole world. The updates from the Government have been welcome. They have highlighted the complete failure of Kensington and Chelsea Council, in contrast to the wonderful help and support from businesses, charities, faith communities and the local public, along with support from the Red Cross and the various government agencies on site and other local authorities. All of them deserve our thanks and praise.

I still find it shocking that the leader of Kensington and Chelsea Council has not resigned. You would have thought that, out of a sense of honour and accepting responsibility for the complete failure of the administration to deliver on its responsibilities, he would have resigned immediately, but he is still hanging on to office. Councillor Nicholas Paget-Brown, it really is time to go.

I pay tribute to the emergency services, which came to the aid of their fellow citizens at the time of unimaginable horror: the police, the ambulance service, the doctors and nurses, other NHS staff and the fire service. The firefighters, brave men and women, who were unable to seek the advice of a structural engineer from Kensington and Chelsea Council to confirm whether it was safe to enter the building, took the decision to enter the burning building anyway and save people’s lives. They are true heroes, each and every one. They rightly deserve our thanks for the work they have done, for their bravery and their courage. We can never repay the debt we owe them.

When we look back before this tragedy, though, there is not one group of heroes that we all praise. With one group of firefighters, the previous Mayor of London, Boris Johnson, who is now Foreign Secretary, had such a bad working relationship that he spoke about them in such an unfair manner and would never listen to them. They have had their pensions cut and their terms and conditions changed. They do a unique and very special job. They are the same people—the same heroes we praise today—and they deserve to be treated better. I hope that the Foreign Secretary reflects on some of his previous, ill-judged remarks and how unwise they were then, and that we will have no more of it from him. If we can do nothing else, they deserve to be listened to and treated with respect, as they have been in the past.

Housing is one area where we have to do better. The Prime Minister told us that,

“we simply have not given enough attention to social housing”.—[Official Report, Commons, 22/6/17; col. 169.]

I would qualify that statement by saying that the Government have given plenty of the wrong attention to social housing, and that is part of the problem. We should build more council housing, at proper social rents that people can afford. The affordable rent model supported by the Government in most parts of London and some other parts of the country is unaffordable. People in many parts of the country are trapped in a perfect storm. They are unable to raise the deposit to buy a home, there is no social housing at genuinely affordable rents and people are forced into renting in the private sector at a cost that makes it impossible for them to save for a deposit to buy their own home. That is why home ownership is on the decline.

A number of proposals from the Housing and Planning Act have been dumped, and I hope that many more will go in the next few weeks and months. We need a proper plan to improve the type, quality and number of houses built. However, to achieve that, the Government have to give way and let the public sector build at a level probably not seen for 40 years. The banning of unfair tenants’ fees is a measure that we will support, as we will other measures that improve housing and seek to meet the demand for quality homes fit for people to live in and thrive.

I grew up in council accommodation that was warm, safe and dry. It was provided at a rent that my parents could afford to pay while bringing up their family. As a child, I did not realise how lucky we were as a family. My three siblings and I are now all home owners, and we are better off than our parents were at this stage in their lives. That is what most people aspire to for themselves and for their children. This Government have completely forgotten about that, and they need to get back to it in addressing the housing crisis.

In conclusion, I look forward to all the contributions today from noble Lords. In this two-year Session of Parliament, we as an Opposition will make our points robustly but fairly. When we think the Government have got it wrong, we will say so, and when we think they have got it right, we will say so, too.