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Queen’s Speech - Debate (4th Day)

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 2:58 pm on 17th October 2019.

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Photo of Baroness Bennett of Manor Castle Baroness Bennett of Manor Castle Green 2:58 pm, 17th October 2019

My Lords, I am honoured to follow the noble Baroness, with whom I share a recently acquired—in my case—interest in fake ermine, and in many other animal welfare issues. I rise conscious that I have spent only a few days in this Chamber, yet already I have encountered great encouragement and kindness—something I will continue to rely on in the days ahead, as we face up to the stupendous chaos that is British politics.

That kindness is in spite of the fact that I am aware I am being looked at with some trepidation, arising from the knowledge that I am bringing into this House an unfamiliar kind of politics: the politics of Extinction Rebellion, of the anti-fracking stalwarts at Preston New Road and Misson Springs, and of the tree protection groups in my home city. I have been reminded of the words of a senior councillor in Sheffield who, when I invited him to join me in front of a tree-feller’s lorry in defiance of police orders, said: “You Greens are dangerous”, and scurried away. In introducing myself, I give noble Lords fair warning that we Greens are aiming to overturn the entire status quo. We want to radically transform our society, our economy, our environment and our politics. Yet I would argue—to borrow a phrase from the other side—there is no alternative.

Earlier, we heard the noble Lord, Lord Macpherson of Earl’s Court, referring to the Government’s growth strategy, yet we Greens know that there cannot be infinite growth on a finite planet. That is not politics; it is physics. This new kind of politics is just what your Lordships’ House, the other place, the whole country, needs. Things will not continue as they are. We must build something new, different and much better.

I speak regularly in schools, colleges and universities, sometimes through the excellent organisation Speakers for Schools, which I commend to noble Lords. Often, I begin with an apology. On behalf of my generation—I am 53—I say to this new generation: “I am sorry. We have made a right mess of things”. But my focus is always on hope. Together, all of the generations, from the climate strikers to the oldest Member of this House, can together build something new: a far better society.

I must, early on, offer my profound thanks to my noble friend Lady Jones of Moulsecoomb for her support. I know that she will enjoy hearing that phrase in the Chamber after the lonely years she has spent here working incredibly hard as the sole Green representative. I also pay tribute to the Herculean labours of Caroline Lucas in the other place. My noble friend Lady Jones has set a standard that I hope to live up to, of using this Chamber and its processes to best effect while never getting too comfortable.

I address noble Lords today specifically about the agriculture Bill. My first degree is in agricultural science, and I continue to be fascinated by the amazing and still barely understood ecology of the soil on which all our lives depend. On other occasions, I will have cause to speak further on the subject of tardigrades and nematodes, mycelium and rhizobium, but you may be relieved to hear that I am not going to do any more soil science today.

I have not seen confirmation of whether the Government’s agriculture Bill will match their previous versions. I would be delighted if the Minister, when answering, could shed light on that. I suggest that three key things should be changed. The first is the provision of healthy food as a public good—earlier, the noble Baroness the Minister referred to the Government’s aims for farming, and food was not mentioned. Secondly, the Bill must ensure that the Secretary of State has a duty to act, rather than just the possibility of acting. Finally, the promotion of organic agriculture should be prioritised as the only form of agroecology that has a recognised system of registration.

Today, however, I will follow the tradition in telling noble Lords a little more about myself, and so will range back to the personal, which, as we feminists have long known, is intensely political. So that noble Lords do not have to sit there wondering, the accent comes from Australia. I am told that I am the second Australian-born woman to enter this Chamber, and I look forward to hearing the experiences of the noble Baroness, Lady Gardner of Parkes, who was sitting opposite me earlier. Her accent has long graced this chamber, but that voice has far older antecedents. Noble Lords may not know that the first woman to speak in the other place, the suffragette Muriel Matters, who achieved that feat by chaining herself to the grille in the Ladies’ Gallery in 1908, was also Australian. At that time, my native land was known as “The Workingman’s Paradise”. It boasted the world’s first Labour Government, and it rivalled Finland as a leading place in global social progress. Today, Finland still proudly holds that place—for example, with a schooling system that provides an education for life, not just exams—while, sadly, Australia’s politics has deeply degraded.

My other political tradition is from Sheffield, or what was once known as the “People’s Republic of South Yorkshire”. Sheffield was home to the first women’s suffrage society in the UK, founded in 1842—yes, before London’s—and the adopted home of the socialist and gay rights campaigner Edward Carpenter. He was a Green before Greens had been invented. As proof, I offer the fact that he brought sandals to Britain, even making his own. Even earlier, Sheffield was home to the Chartist poet Mary Hutton, the wife of a pen-knife cutler, who wrote a poem entitled “On the Poor LawsAmendment Bill”, which spoke of the legislators and the great allowing the poor,

“To writhe with endless pain and misery”.

Noble Lords, particularly those on the Benches opposite me, might care to consider the continuation of that suffering today, two centuries later, and the parallels with the endless pain and misery of universal credit. I would like to think that it is uncontroversial to say that the duty of the Government is to alleviate the suffering of those most in need rather than to add to it. This is one reason why I have long been a champion of a universal basic income, something you will be hearing a lot more about from me.

But I am aware of the time, and so will leave you with one key point. We on this planet, and in this country, have enough resources for everybody to have a decent life, for the natural world to be restored and for the climate emergency to be tackled, if we share those resources out fairly. As the Green Party has long said, economic and environmental justice are indivisible. That is a mountain for all of us to climb. I hope that noble Lords will join me in that, because, to quote the American suffragette Susan B Anthony, “failure is not an option”.