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Queen’s Speech - Debate (4th Day)

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 1:54 pm on 17th October 2019.

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Photo of Baroness Neville-Rolfe Baroness Neville-Rolfe Conservative 1:54 pm, 17th October 2019

My Lords, I also congratulate the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Bristol, now a fellow woman of the West Country, and welcome the noble Baroness, Lady Bennett. I agree with another West Country man, the noble Duke, the Duke of Somerset, about Stonehenge and the Salisbury line. I thank my noble friend Lady Vere for her typically clear and succinct opening speech.

I am a supporter of the Prime Minister’s focused approach, ending uncertainty and unleashing business investment by getting Brexit done—well done, Boris, on today’s progress—taking a grip on law and order, and committing to a responsible fiscal strategy, while investing in vital infrastructure.

We have a vast canvas before us today, as we have heard, so I will touch on three new areas. I turn, first, to the worrying trend of Labour Party thinking on property rights. In brief, it appears not to believe in them, at least for individuals. This goes against centuries of near consensus among all serious philosophers and mainstream British political parties that the security of private property is one of the fundamental bedrocks of our freedoms. Examples of this trend include: the suggestion by leading Labour figures—not those opposite —that victims of the Grenfell disaster could be rehoused for free, at the expense of the owners of dwellings that happened to be unoccupied at the time; that 10% of all companies’ shares should be donated to the workforce; that a proportion of football clubs should be given to their supporters; and that private landlords should be obliged to offer their tenants a right to buy at a discounted price, at the landlords’ expense. There are also suggestions that wide-ranging nationalisation could be at less than market value. No doubt there were some similar ideas in operation in Venezuela some years ago, before the consequences came fully home to roost.

Given the political situation over the last three to four years, all this has gone less remarked than it might have done. In particular, the so-called moderates on the Labour Benches have kept a deafening silence. This attitude, to my mind, represents a depressing shift in the political landscape, with which I fear we will need to grapple for some time.

I now turn to the world of regulators. On Wikipedia, there is a helpful list of the 69 UK regulators. The existence of 69 regulators implies a lot of regulation. I concentrate on economics, where much power is exercised by Ofgem, Ofcom, the Competition and Markets Authority, the FCA, the PRA and many others. This makes me uneasy. Regulators have a lot of power and are usually well paid. They are often grand and slow, and businesses fear them—especially small businesses. Regulators are effectively financed by the public at large, either directly or by fees, levies or fines. These ultimately find their way into the prices of consumer goods and services, yet there is little the public can do to hold regulators to account. They cannot, for example, throw them out as they can with Her Majesty’s Ministers by voting in a general election. I note that one advantage of regulators from the perspective of Ministers is that they distance them from decisions, which might be unpopular. However, ministerial comfort is not necessarily synonymous with public welfare.

Unfortunately, I detect that some regulators show signs of believing their own propaganda. Public choice theory leads us to expect that some will identify their own interests with those of the public at large. These problems are only to be expected economically, but the question is how best to prevent them from occurring. The answers are not easy, but ought to include some of the following: first, examining whether specific regulators are necessary and whether Ministers could take direct responsibility in some cases; secondly, giving regulators clear ministerial directions, which ought to be debatable in Parliament; thirdly, taking care in the selection of their officeholders; and, fourthly, reviewing their effectiveness, especially when they are given extra power. Today, that includes the CAA, which, rightly, was complimented earlier for its work on Thomas Cook. It also includes the Pensions Regulator and the financial regulators, mentioned by my noble friend Lord Leigh.

Another aspect of good government that interests me is the issue of follow-through. During my years at Tesco, I was often asked about the biggest difference between government and business. I find business much speedier and better at implementation. Since I joined this House, I have campaigned on a number of issues, and change—even if I have been brilliantly persuasive—has been rather slow. One of my early campaigns was for better vocational education and training, which are vital to business success and often done better in Germany, where I have also worked. My pleas were accepted, but it took years to get the necessary reforms through.

A second area was broadband and mobile, with connectivity constantly promised and well publicised by the charming Ed Vaizey. It is gradually coming on but we are not there yet. Perhaps the Minister can kindly offer some clarity on what we will get both in the short term and by 2025.

A third area was plastics and the impossibility of recycling intelligently when you move between local authorities with different systems. Three years have already passed and I am pleased to be able to congratulate my noble friend Lord Gardiner on the proposed new single system. I would like to hear more about it. I am less enthusiastic about the various new targets in the Environment Bill. Targets without an implementation plan are, frankly, virtue signalling and should really be avoided.

A fourth example was discussed earlier—simple legislation on online harm.

In closing, I come back to Brexit. If we can settle Brexit, people can move forward and find their mojo again, as happened after the misery of the 1970s, and business can invest in the capital and training that we need to improve productivity and bring about better growth.