My Lords, this is my third Queen’s Speech debate as Leader of the Opposition, although it has been a while since the last one. After three Queen’s Speeches, three debates and three different Prime Ministers, the dire state of national governance means that I cannot rule out taking part in a fourth or even fifth debate in the coming months. It could be a bit like the proverbial No. 9 bus: you wait for ages and then three come along at once. On recent form, who knows how many Prime Ministers we could see in that time? It is therefore surprising that the first Bill of this Session and in the Queen’s Speech is not the Fixed-term Parliaments (Repeal) Bill.
As always, our proceedings started this afternoon with two memorable and quite remarkable speeches. The noble Baroness, Lady Anelay, has always enjoyed the respect of this House, both as a formidable and fearsome—as we heard—Chief Whip, and as a softer, highly regarded Foreign Office Minister. That softer side was evident in a friendship that she established at the Foreign Office with Palmerston, otherwise known on Twitter as “DiploMog”, the Foreign Office cat. Such was the affection between them that on the day that the noble Baroness left the Government, from DExEU, Palmerston suddenly decided that he would leave the comfort of the Foreign Office; he unexpectedly crossed the road and walked purposefully across Whitehall just to bid her farewell.
On her introduction to your Lordships’ House in 1996, the noble Baroness went through the same process as us all in choosing her title; but hers turned out to be slightly more expensive. After being told that she could not have Woking, she selected “Baroness Anelay of St John’s”, after the village, with an apostrophe. Garter King of Arms informed her that that was fine, but when he checked historic and ancient documents residing in the village, he decided that it should not have an apostrophe—so all the road signs had to be changed.
Few could match the theatrical style of the noble Lord, Lord Dobbs, and the flourish of his speech. I hope that, in future, we will see him in cameo roles as his books are filmed. Perhaps he could be the Alfred Hitchcock or Colin Dexter of the House of Lords. The noble Lord has an enviable reputation as both a writer and a politician, having worked at the highest levels of Conservative Administrations for many years. I can perhaps help him with his worries about being seen as a young, up-and-coming politician. He may recall that he was described by one national newspaper as, “Westminster’s baby-faced hitman”.
While the memory of the noble Lord, Lord Dobbs, is almost correct, I have to say in my defence that I feel that I swooned rather than died in his arms—and we were play-acting. But he told me some time ago, as we toured the bowels of the building, that he was writing a new book, based once again on the political machinations of Westminster. Noble Lords will understand my nervousness after he promised—or, perhaps, threatened—that I would be a character in such a future book. Ever since then, I have treated him with the utmost respect and laughed at all his jokes; I hope he has seen sufficient amusement from me today. The book has not appeared yet, but as he said, he is probably hampered by the fact that fiction can never be as bizarre as reality. His speech today was an impressive response. Perhaps he will say, “You may think that, but I couldn’t possibly comment”.
This was an unusual Queen’s Speech. We were expecting great things, given that Prime Minister Johnson tried, and failed, to have an unprecedented five weeks’ preparation rather than the usual five days. Normally, a Queen’s Speech comes after an election as an opportunity for the Prime Minister to put their mark on the forthcoming programme of government for at least the next year. However, with Mr Johnson clearly desperate for another election, this Queen’s Speech could be little more than the market testing of his manifesto for the next election, rather than a serious programme for the next Session.
Taking the programme at face value, we welcome legislation aimed at tackling domestic abuse, improving mental health, protecting children and young people from online harm, and dealing with the poor management of private pension schemes. Some of these important issues were already being considered by the previous Prime Minister and indeed in previous Queen’s Speeches. Others have been championed for some time by colleagues from across this House, including many from these Benches. However, a number of key issues are missing. Where is the promised veterans Bill? There is nothing on housing and there is more about being seen to be tough on crime than genuinely tackling the causes. We also have Brexit-related Bills on agriculture, fisheries, immigration and trade, all of which had already begun their legislative process but were subsequently abandoned.
The Government promise legislation to implement new building safety standards. One of the casualties of cuts to local government funding has been the enforcement of building regulations. They are designed to ensure high standards, including on safety and the environment. Yet with fewer inspectors on the ground and government changes to planning laws, it is easier now for the unscrupulous or the ignorant to flout the law. While we welcome improving and monitoring standards, the Government have to understand that they have already hollowed out the current system. In addressing this, we want to ensure that any new regime is necessary, has real teeth and is not just warm words and another layer of bureaucracy.
We also have serious concerns about the proposed electoral integrity Bill. Clearly, we should do whatever is necessary to stamp out any abuse of the system, but we must also take care that the scale of changes is proportionate to the problem and does not have unintended consequences. I am not convinced that introducing photo ID checks meets that test, so we will need to scrutinise the detail. One of our priorities for electoral integrity would be to ensure that those who have the greatest stake in the future—16 and 17 year-olds—also have the right to vote.
Yet again, we have a commitment to outer space, perhaps a ruse of the Prime Minister to make another hackneyed joke about putting Opposition MPs into orbit. It does sound a bit pie in the sky to talk about outer space when the Government have delayed HS2, failed to make a decision on airport capacity, and cannot get their act together on lorry parks in Kent. It sometimes feels as if the Government live in a parallel universe.
I suppose we should not be surprised that Mr Johnson chose not to repeat David Cameron’s commitment, emphasised in the 2016 Queen’s Speech, confirming the sovereignty of Parliament and the primacy of the House of Commons. At the time, we felt it was an unnecessary reminder, aimed at your Lordships’ House, but as the Brexit crisis has unfolded, it is the current Prime Minister who has been forced to recognise the sovereignty of Parliament and Commons primacy.
In the last Session, your Lordships’ House dealt with around four dozen Bills and over 2,000 SIs. Many amendments and changes were put forward, with a fair number accepted by the Government or, if voted on and sent to the Commons, agreed in full or in part. When the Commons disagreed with our amendments, we respected its primacy. Recognising our constitutional role, particularly in such challenging political times, we rightly also considered and passed two hugely significant Bills agreed by MPs without government support. In our parliamentary democracy, it would have been completely wrong for this House to have rejected legislation that commanded the support of MPs, just because the Government did not like it. The Government were also right not to use this House, as some urged, to try to wreck that legislation.
We will continue to undertake our responsibilities and obligations regarding legislation with due diligence. It is therefore extraordinary that a member of the current Cabinet, having previously praised us for our maturity, wisdom, learnedness and experience, has now called for the abolition of your Lordships’ House. Indeed, he is previously on record praising the great benefit that comes from our independence. But it has to be said, that was before we disagreed with Mr Jacob Rees-Mogg. That probably explains his change of opinion more than his discovering an important point of constitutional principle.
There can be no doubt that we are living through extraordinary times. None of us can predict the future; at the moment we cannot even predict what will happen over the next week, with Parliament having an emergency and exceptional sitting on Saturday. It is not just because of the Brexit negotiations, unpredictable as they are, but, even more seriously, a consequence of being at a pivotal and troublesome moment in our nation’s history. Few that took part in the 2016 referendum, in good faith, could have imagined that we would be in such an uncertain position today, 1,207 days later. The 2017 Queen’s Speech talked about providing certainty and making a success of Brexit. Apparently, it was then a priority to build a more united country, yet we are more uncertain and divided than ever. Having been told so often that Brexit would be easy—that, freed from the so-called shackles of the EU, we would emerge phoenix-like, stronger and better than ever—many dared to believe those promises.
It is clear now that those promises were based on little more than a wing and a prayer. The rhetoric, false promises and hopeful statements, ministerial and otherwise, that accompanied the campaign and the years since have debased our democracy and our values. As competing pressures inevitably meant that a Brexit deal was tougher to nail down, the blame game began, with parliamentarians, lawyers and others labelled “traitors” and even “enemies of the people” for daring to fulfil their constitutional role. The added potency of terms such as “die in a ditch” and “surrender Bill” appear to be part of a clear sabre-rattling attempt to create hostility and conflict between the electorate and MPs.
I will pause while the noble Baroness, Lady Goldie, gets her phone. She is not guilty. I thought it was Boris Johnson making a quick call to check what I was saying.
In recent years we have seen the rhetoric reach new levels of toxicity in an increasingly desperate attempt to lay responsibility at the door of others. Each time the negotiations get difficult, there is a blame game to point the finger at anyone but the Prime Minister. But at what cost? Whatever the outcome of the Brexit debacle, what comes next will seal the future and values of our country for at least a generation.
So where do we go from here? Reflecting on the debate since 2016, it feels as though the values that have underpinned British Governments since 1945, including Conservative-led ones, have been jettisoned. I am talking not about specific policies, but about the conventional wisdom that it is the duty and responsibility of government in its widest sense to seek to unite rather than divide and to act for the whole nation rather than any party or narrow interest. While the upping of that at times dangerous rhetoric is designed to win votes, the public are more dispirited and have a greater sense of disappointment, disengagement and disillusionment about Parliament and politics than ever. They see the escalating rows over Brexit with no unifying conclusion, which ensures that the other concerns and issues that affect their everyday lives fall by the wayside. The current tone of public discourse and debate means that too many of our citizens, young and old, have so little confidence and optimism that they either lose hope or would rather be cold and wet protesting outside than ever think that they could be in here making the decisions to bring about the change that they seek.
I believe, and I think this House believes, in the power of government for good—in its power to effect change and its duty to provide hope and optimism for the future. The bungling of Brexit has sapped the energy, ambition, intellect, creativity and finances of our country. The brightest and the best could have been directed towards the greatest challenges of our generation. Instead, they have been pulled one way and then another in trying to cope with Brexit. Where is that strategic vision and national collective ambition?
Today, for all the new technology that wallpapers our everyday lives, at times it can feel as though we are in an era of make do and mend. Any Government with a sense of purpose would at least try to define, with honesty, a route to some sunny upland or other, which Mr Johnson’s regime is sadly lacking. So it is little wonder that today we see so little of that hope and optimism, referred to by the noble Lord, Lord Dobbs, that is the backbone of any modern state. Our young people have to believe that there is a future with a personal, professional and selfless opportunity to be able to work; to be able to own or rent a secure and affordable home; to be able to trust in a health and care system for them and their families; and to be able to believe that the environment will be cleaner and better for their children, and that they will be safe and secure. Those are modest desires, which a good state should enable, if not trying to create a utopian view of the good society, then at least aspiring to be a better one.
Given that this Queen’s Speech is a pitch to the electorate, can it deliver that optimism to bring about a different, better future? Robert Kennedy was inspirational. Quoting George Bernard Shaw, he said:
“Some men see things as they are and say, why; I dream things that never were and say, why not”.
Those words are so apt. It is not just about government. We need to encourage others to share that dream and ask, “Why not?” It may sound a little whimsical, but that is what successive and successful Governments have done when making the case for office, rather than having base arguments about the left and right of politics. They have been able to engage others to share that optimism, share that vision and have confidence that the Government will enable the delivery of that vision.
It is really hard to define what generates public optimism, but there are pivotal points in our recent history to which we can look for guidance. A war-weary public, while grateful to and admiring of Churchill, was enthused by the hope of a new Britain under Clement Attlee. The white heat of technology promised by Harold Wilson engaged those who sought a more forward-looking, socially liberal society. Margaret Thatcher gauged the temperature of Britain during the industrial strife of the 1970s and, despite my strong disagreements with much of her programme, initially had a vision and successfully convinced others to share it. Tony Blair’s “Britain deserves better” resonated with young and old alike, and things did indeed get better.
There is no quick way of turning this dire state of affairs around, but it is incumbent on us all to find a way forward. It is not enough to have a manifesto, or even a Queen’s Speech, with promise. It has to be more about genuinely making a difference on the issues that matter to us citizens, not about issues that matter to Westminster. The relationship between the public and the institutions of state and politics has been strained to the limit. An attempt to win votes by stretching it just a little further is doomed to a failure greater than losing an election. That is the big responsibility for government today. Who knows? In seeking to rebuild that trust, we may help not only to heal divisions, but in time to bring about the new optimism that we need, followed by a renewed commitment in our politics to deliver the legislation and honour that promise.
I beg to move that the debate be adjourned until tomorrow.