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Queen’s Speech - Debate (4th Day)

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 4:50 pm on 17th October 2019.

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Photo of Baroness Randerson Baroness Randerson Liberal Democrat Lords Spokesperson (Transport) 4:50 pm, 17th October 2019

A Darth Vader outfit? Lots of Lego? Unicorn pyjamas? Oh, I am sorry, my Lords—that is the wrong list. That is my eight year-old granddaughter’s Christmas list. Unlike the Prime Minister, she likes to do her negotiating early. Actually, my granddaughter’s Christmas wish list compares rather well with the Prime Minister’s because she has a much better chance of achieving her list. As a girl who has been brought up with a sensible understanding of family finances, she has at least had one eye on the affordability of promises, which is much more than can be said of the Prime Minister. If he still believes in Father Christmas to help him out, then the leader of the Opposition clearly still believes in the tooth fairy to pop some magic money under his pillow.

As many noble Lords have said, it may be difficult to take this list of Bills seriously but the topics that we have addressed in today’s debate are absolutely at the crux of the quality of our lives and our future. We have heard a wide range of excellent speeches and contributions; I congratulate the noble Baroness and the right reverend Prelate on their excellent maiden speeches.

If we focus on the economic and social costs of the climate emergency, and of mitigating the impact of environmental damage, we see immediately that our membership of the EU is fundamental. It strengthens our hand when there are problems to solve. We pool our knowledge and expertise. After all, pollution does not stop at national borders. Our manufacturers want to make goods to the highest environmental standards, which you invariably find in EU regulations. As the noble Lord, Lord Bilimoria, pointed out, the CBI discovered that 18 of the 21 sectors it identified want regulatory alignment with the EU. Our EU membership is precious for maintaining our environmental standards, just as it is for maintaining our prosperity.

Many noble Lords, including my noble friend Lady Kramer, have emphasised that we are already paying the economic price for Brexit. Others have pointed out that, in this week’s race for a deal, it is usually not mentioned that this is the beginning of the process, with years of negotiation ahead; the noble Lord, Lord Macpherson, identified that period as a decade. This week, the Centre for European Reform reported that Brexit has already cost our economy £70 billion. That is £440 million a week, well ahead of the Prime Minister’s mythical £350 million for the NHS. As my noble friend Lord Razzall pointed out, our economy is already 3% smaller than it would have been if there were no plans to leave the EU.

In recent evenings my television watching has been ruined by dire government adverts warning that I need to prepare for Brexit which do not actually tell me how to do so, so I read the Government’s No-Deal Readiness Report with interest. It is salutary reading. I advise noble Lords to have a look at it if they have not already. It points out how many stages we would have to go through in future if we do not have facilitated free trade with the EU. Whatever decisions are made in the House of Commons this Saturday, this document is a useful reminder that it is much more complex to trade beyond the EU and without EU systems in place. The National Audit Office pointed out this week that only 25,000 out of a potential 250,000 businesses are fully prepared for Brexit.

The Minister called our transport systems the “lifeblood” that carries our economy. The success of our economy rests on the efficiency of our transport system. Although there are measures in the Queen’s Speech which we certainly support in principle, it does not provide the transport revolution we need. For fundamental change, we need a far longer-term approach to investment in sustainable transport. The idea of a national infrastructure strategy is sensible, but it was immediately undermined when the Chancellor announced £22 billion for road improvements and less than 4% of that figure for buses.

We need a public transport revolution that puts the passenger and the environment at its heart. We must invest to provide a fair deal for long-suffering commuters. We need to create a public transport system that tempts them out of their cars. Liberal Democrats would change the balance of spending on transport, spending much more on buses and trains. As my noble friend Lord Fox pointed out, we would have more money to invest because we, in government, would not face the costs of Brexit.

The Queen’s Speech completely overlooks bus services. Not only are they the most popular form of public transport—60% of all public transport journeys are made by bus, 4.4 billion journeys a year—but they tend to be used by the most vulnerable in society: the young, older people and poorer people. We are on the brink of an environmental transformation of bus services akin to the rapid revolution in energy sources that has occurred in the last decade. The electric bus has arrived, but government support is vital because, ironically, bus services have been declining in Britain as our roads become more and more congested.

The problem is that cash-strapped local authorities need additional funding to ensure that newer buses are used in their area, reduce fares and provide concessionary fares, particularly for young people. The way bus funding is distributed at the moment needs reform. It does not do the job it should. It needs reform to subsidise environmental improvements as well as the communities that have been most undermined by the decline of bus services.

I was very pleased to see the Williams Rail Review referred to in the Queen’s Speech. It is certainly needed. We have positive suggestions to make to the review on how we can retain a heavily reformed franchising system, which could include, for instance, co-operatives and employee and passenger representatives on the board. Unlike the Labour Party, we do not believe that it is a good idea to spend £196 billion on renationalisation, not least because the Department for Transport has hardly demonstrated its effectiveness in recent years.

We need to invest in a massive programme of electrification, which is the only sensible future for our railways. Commuter services outside London and the south-east are very patchy. We need a big expansion to improve existing services by reopening old lines and building new ones. Moreover, local authorities need to be far more involved in designing, supporting and running local services. We need legislation to ensure that integrated ticketing and the creation of proper transport hubs make for a really efficient system. It is a disappointment that that was not included.

The shadow hanging over HS2 was certainly not lifted by the reference to it in the Queen’s Speech. We see it as a vital spine running up the country, linking planned east-west services and fundamental to the regeneration of the north. Costs must be controlled, but not by truncating the route.

Finally, I want to mention the gap between the Government’s rhetoric on air quality and their lack of ambition. As Liberal Democrats, we have a comprehensive action plan of measures involving government, local authorities and individual action. It is needed to clean up the air that our children and grandchildren breathe. This can be done now and it can be done urgently. We need to create a greater sense of ambition about the improvements needed to do this.

We will continue to use every opportunity to act to stop Brexit. Our economy needs trade with the EU, our environment needs the standards it sets, and the workforce and families of Britain need the rights it has given them.