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Queen’s Speech - Debate (4th Day)

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 1:12 pm on 17th October 2019.

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Photo of Lord Fox Lord Fox Liberal Democrat Lords Spokesperson (Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy) 1:12 pm, 17th October 2019

My Lords, I join in the congratulations on the speech of the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Bristol—a city from where my father’s family emanated—and I look forward to the speech of the noble Baroness, Lady Bennett, later on.

I too played bingo with the speeches, and the words “fiscal responsibility” were also included in my game. However, I sign up to the definition given by the noble Lord, Lord Macpherson, of “fiscal incontinence” to define what we have been seeing over the last year or so. If you do not want to listen to us, the Institute for Fiscal Studies has been very clear in its own analysis. The Government have of course broken their 2% rule, and, in the institute’s words,

“there … isn’t space … for … permanent giveaways”.

It dubs the spending round as on a par with Labour’s 2017 manifesto plans—which of course Mrs May called the “magic money tree” manifesto. So “fiscal responsibility” would not be a way of describing the Government’s performance. In addition, looking at the Budget ahead, the time that the Government have given the Office for Budget Responsibility to produce its analysis of the economy is very sharp, to say the least, when it does not yet know the Brexit environment for which it has to make that announcement. Again, that is hardly a prudent move.

The shadow of Brexit hangs over this debate and most others. Many people acknowledge that the economy and business need some sense of certainty, but the idea that whatever Boris brings back and is voted on will deliver certainty is of course foolish. Again, the noble Lord, Lord Macpherson, encapsulated that when he talked of “interminable trade negotiations”. There will be years, if not decades, of upset and lack of stability for our business communities. My noble friend Lady Kramer set out the challenges facing the manufacturing sector in this economy, and its desire for regulatory consistency and the need to avoid regulatory divergence. She also set out the pressures on the service sector, which is the larger part of our economy.

It is clear that no sensible commentator predicts that UK services will benefit from losing their current level of access to the European Union. Yet this minority Conservative Government march on. As the noble Lord, Lord Hain, set out, this Government’s ambition is to compete with the EU, and they will compete on the grounds of lower regulatory standards—a point also made by the noble Baroness, Lady Jones. We saw good evidence of that when the Government dropped the international Trade Bill, which your Lordships worked long and hard on, which set out those standards. That Trade Bill was agreed in your Lordships’ House and then parked for months. Perhaps the Minister can tell us how the new trade Bill that appears in this Queen’s Speech will differ from the one that we worked so hard on in your Lordships’ House.

It is useful to look at a Queen’s Speech—even one that will not pass into legislation—because it indicates a direction of travel and the way a Government think. Nothing sums that up better than the Immigration and Social Security Co-ordination (EU Withdrawal) Bill, which would repeal EU free movement laws. It is wrong on many grounds, but it is disastrous for the economy and for British science. Plans to abolish the cap on numbers under tier 1 exceptional talent visas are wholly insufficient, and the Bill also fails to take into account the contribution made to the British economy by people who fall below the tier 1 threshold.

The points system disregards the need for vital but lower-paid workers in our economy—look at agriculture, the care professions and the hospitality industry—and it does not stop there. Her Majesty’s Government, and the noble Baroness, Lady Vere, make much of plans to deliver full-fibre Britain. To do this, BT says that it needs an extra 35,000 people. Where do the Government think these people will come from? Where is this infrastructure, if it were ever to emerge? Who will build this? The Liberal Democrats would guarantee the rights of EU citizens in the UK now, and we would continue to welcome new entrants. They are a vital part of our economy.

The Minister talked about work being “fairer for all”. For that to be true, we need a thriving economy that provides opportunities for people in every economy, which will require a major rebalancing of our currently unequal regional economies. To do this, we need to convert the industrial strategy into a much more overt regional prosperity strategy. We need ambitious goals on which to focus, and for that we should change the Industrial Strategy grand challenges. I suggest: delivering carbon neutrality; creating a transport revolution; ushering in an era of zero-carbon housing and commercial buildings; and developing world leadership in health and well-being innovation.

Three key enablers will help us to meet these challenges. First, we must embrace the digital revolution, but in a way that is inclusive and a force for good, delivering well-paid jobs. Secondly, we need to create a national skills strategy with Cabinet-level accountability across government, which will have to deliver a skilled workforce—not just a future workforce, but the present workforce upskilled through lifelong learning accounts. There must be a major expansion of all apprenticeships, including higher-quality ones.

The third point is the science budget. I think all parties agree on an increase in the science budget. To address that, we need the finance, and the Liberal Democrats will expand the British Business Bank to perform a central role in the economy. We have to ensure that small, medium and entrepreneurial businesses have access to capital. This is not happening at the moment, and it is pulling back the supply side of our economy.

The business elements of this Queen’s Speech fail on two counts. First, they are clearly not part of a sensible, deliverable legislative programme. Secondly, they fail as an election manifesto. This is not intended to draw the nation together. This Speech reveals the narrow, divisive plans the Government have for this country. By promising things they know they cannot deliver, the Tories are playing a dangerous game. By pointing the blame at others, the Tories are creating an environment of aggression and fear. By cynically playing on these fears, the Tories are dividing and hoping to rule people in this country. I have more faith in the robustness of our democracy and the spirit of the British people. They will see through this cynicism.