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Queen’s Speech - Debate (3rd Day)

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 6:29 pm on 16th October 2019.

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Photo of Baroness Northover Baroness Northover Liberal Democrat Lords Spokesperson (Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs) 6:29 pm, 16th October 2019

My Lords, this has been a most unusual Queen’s Speech and I fully agree on that with the noble Baroness, Lady Quin. Usually, a Queen’s Speech occurs after a general election or as a Government complete one annual or biennial cycle of work and prepare for the next. However, we now have a Queen’s Speech at a time of national crisis pretending that there is not a national crisis, as if it were intended that the rather scanty measures outlined here would now be taken forward. Nevertheless, yesterday and today we have debated foreign affairs, defence, international trade and international development, but arching over all is Brexit.

We had an interesting speech, as we would expect, from the noble Lord, Lord Ahmad, although he clearly felt less comfortable dealing with Brexit and trade and the international challenges that we face there. Of course, we would expect his colleague to do his very best to respond to the 43 speeches in the debate and to write to all of us with a very full response, answering fully any points that he had failed to pick up. Something tells me, however, that this might not quite pan out that way.

Let us look at this Queen’s Speech. Perhaps here I could recommend a new book by Ian McEwan, Cockroach. It introduces an interesting concept that he calls reversalism. There are parallels to Nineteen Eighty-Four and doublethink, with which noble Lords might be more familiar. The Queen’s Speech states that we are working towards a new partnership with the EU,

“based on free trade and friendly co-operation”.

Other noble Lords have made reference to that. However, we already have totally free trade with the EU through the customs union and the single market. Therefore, what we are aiming at—doublespeak-wise—is less free trade, as the noble Baroness, Lady Quin, and others have pointed out.

Perhaps it means free trade with others. For most countries around the world, we have preferential arrangements by virtue of being in the EU, but maybe we want to improve these. No, largely we want to roll them over. How have we got on? The Government have just published where we have got to. Arrangement after arrangement was declared “not ready” for 31 October. This is just as well, when you look at some of the trumpeted new opportunities: Japan, 2.27% of UK trade; Canada, 1.41%. Those are the ones where there is something other than a zero to the left of the decimal point. There are others into which we have been putting lots of effort and resource: Albania, for example, which is 0.00% of UK trade, and so on.

I return to the Queen’s Speech. Its reference to “friendly co-operation” with the EU is presumably in keeping with the Downing Street memo, which states:

“We obviously won’t give any undertakings about co-operative behaviour, everything to do with ‘duty of sincere co-operation’ will be in the toilet”.

There is already evidence of that: pulling out of EU meetings and the policy of the empty chair. The noble Earl, Lord Kinnoull, has spelled out quite how damaging that empty chair is. I look forward to hearing from the Minister what its benefits are. It is no wonder that the noble Lord, Lord Cormack, noted that his party has behaved in a “shameful and stupid way”, particularly recently.

The noble Lord, Lord Jopling, bemoaned the “state … of my party” and spoke of an “extremist caucus” within it. That is not a reason to bow to it. The Queen’s Speech mentions “a sensible fiscal strategy”, yet the IFS says that we have become untethered as the Government seek to outspend Labour and at the same time damage our economy by leaving the EU.

The Queen’s Speech then says:

My Government will bring forward measures to protect individuals, families and their homes”.

However, anyone who read the impact assessments of Brexit would see that those needing the most help—the poorest, in the poorest regions—would be hit the hardest by leaving the EU. Listen also to my noble friend Lady Miller on the situation of UK citizens in the rest of the EU, who do not know where they will stand on pensions, health or anything else, and of course those who are in our country.

What of the United Kingdom itself? Did the Minister hear Jonathan Powell speak this morning of a customs border in the Irish Sea as being a step towards a united Ireland? Did he note that Nicola Sturgeon, who previously has urged caution on her party, this weekend let it off the hook and demanded a referendum on Scottish independence in 2020? Did he hear the noble Lord, Lord Wigley, say yesterday that the time had come for Wales—not even mentioned in the Queen’s Speech—to plough its own independent furrow? Risks of tariffs of 48% on Welsh sheep farmers would kill that industry, which would even change the ancient landscape of Wales, as the noble Lord, Lord Jopling, would recognise.

Then the Speech says:

“My Government will be at the forefront of efforts to solve the most complex international security issues”.

Can the Minister explain therefore why his right honourable friend the Foreign Secretary chose not to mention Syria or Turkey when he made a speech the other day at the NATO Parliamentary Assembly? Yes, he was asked about it in Q&A, but it was not in the speech he chose to deliver. At the forefront, was he?

Then we hear that the Government will,

“work alongside international partners to solve the most pressing global challenges”.

Noble Lords over the last two days have given very short shrift to that. For anybody who was not here yesterday afternoon, I recommend that they read the forensic speeches by the noble Lords, Lord Kerr and Lord Ricketts, on Britain’s role in the world. I hope that the Ministers have now read it. Both Front-Benchers were staring down at their phones throughout the speech of the noble Lord, Lord Kerr. The noble Baroness, Lady Berridge, noted that I got up just to check that as he spoke; she looked at me with a question in her eyes. The noble Lord, Lord Callanan, received an amusing thing on his phone that made him smile—it certainly was not what the noble Lord, Lord Kerr, was saying.

The noble Lord, Lord Kerr, took apart the very notion that the UK still is playing a leading part in foreign affairs, let alone that it will in the future. He contrasted, for example, John Major’s role when the Kurdish area of northern Iraq was under attack—now the most settled area of that country—with what has happened just now in north-east Syria. On Syria, the noble Lord, Lord Ricketts, stated that we do not have,

“any discernible impact at all”,—[Official Report, 15/10/19; col. 89.] and my noble friend Lord Wallace said:

“A British foreign policy without European co-operation at its heart is like a polo: it has a hole in its centre”.—[Official Report, 15/10/19; col. 42.]

Those who have been here today will have heard the powerful speech of my noble friend Lord Campbell on how challenged NATO itself is today, despite global crises, including those in the Middle East, and how this is even now playing into the hands of Putin. There was the speech from my noble friend Lord Alderdice on what we must do to look at the character of conflict at all levels in the world today, and there was the most extraordinary contribution from the noble Baroness, Lady Helic, who said that she could not discern a UK strategy in foreign affairs and that we needed to rediscover our purpose—our moral spine.

The greatest crisis facing us today is surely climate change, as flagged up by my noble friend Lady Sheehan. The UK led in the EU in an ambitious approach to the Paris climate change agreement, which then had international effect. Had we the slightest ability to persuade the US not to pull out of that agreement? To what extent do we dare risk Trump’s ire—even when a poor boy is knocked down by an American, who then retreats to the United States? The noble Lord, Lord Ricketts, points out that we do not even have an ambassador appointed in the US, and it is not as if they have to learn a new language.

What are we doing to defend human rights worldwide? I know that the noble Lord, Lord Ahmad, takes his responsibility there seriously, but the Economist recently reported on an assessment of the UK at the UN. I quote:

“‘We’ve lost our marbles’, one diplomat is quoted as saying … Fearing defeat or retribution, Britain now champions fewer, less difficult causes. Wary of Chinese ire, it was loth to condemn Myanmar over the Rohingyas. It agonised over tabling a resolution on Yemen, fearing Saudi hostility”.

We can no longer count on automatic EU support. The UK, as everyone knows, failed to get a judge reappointed to the International Court of Justice in 2017, for the first time since we helped set it up. The Economist reports that there is,

“‘increasing nervousness’ about Britain’s chances of being re-elected to the Human Rights Council in 2021”.

Yet, as many noble Lords have said, there are many pressing human rights problems, including in Syria, which was raised by many noble Lords; Kashmir, mentioned by my noble friend Lord Hussain and others; China; Hong Kong; and North Korea. The noble Lord, Lord Alton, as ever, flagged up some appalling challenges. The Queen’s Speech did not even mention sustainable development goals, which the world is supposed to be addressing. Why not?

Where are we on security and defence? They cropped up less often than our strategy on foreign affairs generally, but the Government were urged to do more by the noble Lord, Lord Sterling, and the noble and gallant Lord, Lord Craig. The noble Lord, Lord Anderson, indicated that we would be retrenching rather than expanding, and will no longer have the leverage of influence via the EU that we have had until now. Before 2016, Britain mobilised EU money to support the African Union mission in Somalia, but France has since lobbied for the EU to focus on the Sahel instead, which has forced Britain to contribute more itself.

The battle raging over our membership of the EU is about so much more than our economic strength or global influence. The right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Coventry movingly recounted the story of his own family. His son married his German wife amid the ruins of Coventry Cathedral, with grandmothers there whose fathers had fought each other in the Second World War. As the noble Baroness, Lady Hayter, made very clear, the EU has been an outstanding project for peace.

Right now, we are in a national crisis, with Brexit unresolved and no outcome considered to give the UK a better deal than we have now. We do not yet know what will emerge today or over the next few days, but it is essential that any deal is properly scrutinised and the full impact of leaving the EU assessed. At the moment, the focus is on the Northern Irish border, but it seems that the plan generally is to diverge further from the EU, with an even harder Brexit than Mrs May proposed—as laid out by the noble Lord, Lord Hannay.

The Government’s figures suggest the cost could be up to £49 billion a year, threatening jobs and public services. If, as seems to be the case, the Government are aiming for a low-regulation regime, access to our biggest market will be even more limited. The Government have been fearful all along of letting any information get out. They are right; the real impact of what they are doing would be revealed. Now is the time that it must be analysed and then—as has been said by my noble friends Lord Wrigglesworth and Lord Taverne, and the noble Lord, Lord Hannay, and others—any deal must be put to the people in a vote with the option to remain in the EU. After that, we can have a proper Queen’s Speech and move forwards.