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Queen’s Speech - Debate (4th Day)

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 5:01 pm on 17th October 2019.

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Photo of Lord Stevenson of Balmacara Lord Stevenson of Balmacara Opposition Whip (Lords) 5:01 pm, 17th October 2019

My Lords, this has been a very good debate which has ranged far and wide. It is right that it should do so, because it is an opportunity to reflect on where we are, where we have come from and where we might be going—although the timescales are rather difficult to read, as many noble Lords have said. I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Vere, for her clear and concise introduction, which got us off to a good start, and I thank the right reverend Prelate and the noble Baroness for their excellent maiden speeches. I think that we all picked up that they were coming from slightly different places, in different tones, but both presaged contributions to come that we all look forward to hearing.

Today we have been dealing with a small subgroup of Bills that are contained in the gracious Speech that was given earlier this week. I am not going to go through them one by one. My noble friend Lady Jones highlighted a number of points, particularly in her field of expertise, and I will turn to points relating mainly to the trade and BEIS briefs as I reach the end of my remarks. However, I am sure that the noble Lord, Lord Gardiner of Kimble, will respond to all the various points that have been raised in his usual courteous and effective way. He will make sure that no one is left out in any way, and letters will surely follow. We should look forward to them—the noble Lord writes well. I am particularly looking forward to his response, which I hope will be verbal and immediate, to the noble Duke, the Duke of Somerset, who gibed a little bit but I am sure had a serious point about HS2, which of course is the favourite infrastructure project of the noble Lord, Lord Gardiner. I see that the noble Lord smiles.

A number of noble Lords questioned whether this assemblage of Bills was more than just a party political broadcast or a manifesto rather than a programme for government. Well, that is a bit of a daft question since I have never known any Queen’s Speech that has not been an advertisement for the Government in charge and an opportunity to fly the flag for the future, and this is no different in any way. What is interesting is why it is so short. Looking back over the past few years, we have had virtually no ordinary work to do. In my experience, we normally deal with around 30 Bills a year—so about 90 Bills are stacking up somewhere. Where are they? What exactly has been going on?

I presume that it is the pressure of Brexit and preparing the secondary legislation for it that has squeezed the supply chain, but I do not think that we should complain about the relative paucity of the Bills before us. We should be asking what is happening to the rest of the stuff. Indeed, that point did come out in the debate. Many noble Lords have pointed out gaps that could and perhaps should have been filled by legislation relating to housing, energy, transport, the rural economy, productivity in particular, and regulatory issues. Are there more to come? Perhaps the Minister can respond, as there seems to be a bit of a black hole here.

The Bills in the list have deficiencies. Most of them appear to be around environmental issues arising from day to day, but others have come up in other debates, and I am sure that the Minister will also want to come on to those points.

We are in a rather odd situation, where we have the prospect of a Government who may continue for considerably longer than many people expect—but even if they do not, they will have a good go at it—and we will have to consider these Bills in due time and with due process. We should not be complaining about that but should focus hard on what they are and what they would do to the overall polity of our country.

I will start with points made by a number of noble Lords about broadband. The Bill that is being brought forward from DCMS is rather skeletal. It simply says in the notes:

“New legislation will help accelerate the delivery of fast, reliable and secure broadband networks to millions of homes”.

The Chief Whip, who is in his place, will recall endless discussions about what level we should set for the new USO under recent legislation—the Digital Economy Act and others. I think he will also acknowledge that this side of the House was strong on the idea that we should go for a gigabit economy. I am pleased to see that the Bill is now moving in that way as well.

“Roll out gigabit-capable broadband across the UK to achieve nationwide coverage as soon as possible so people can reap the huge benefits of the fastest, most secure and most resilient internet connections, regardless of where they live”,

is, I think, a quote from one of my speeches. It also has two good points that came up in the Bill which we should have resolved but did not: the question of access to blocks of flats where there are difficulties in identifying freeholders, and ensuring that new homes will be built with reliable and fast internet connection speeds available to those who wish to have them. These are good things. However, it is not entirely clear where we are on this; it sounds a bit like a briefing for a Bill to be considered in Committee rather than a Bill to be brought forward in Parliament. I would be grateful if the Minister when he comes to respond can give us a bit more information about the timetable, because, as many noble Lords have said, this is an important area.

We touched on the question of the Online Harms White Paper in an Urgent Question earlier, so I will not go into that in detail. I wanted to make a point then, but there was not time to do so, so I would be grateful for a response from the Government at some point on this. It may be the right thing to do to move forward in relation to the new thinking about the duty of care, and it may be that that will provide an overall solution that is better. However, there will no doubt be a gap between the aspiration for stopping the flow of pornography to those who should not be receiving it and making sure that suitable regulation is in place.

However, the particular problem I wanted to ask about is the question of the regulator. The brief we have on the Queen’s Speech does not say how the Bill will be shaped, because in essence it will be a pre-legislative scrutiny arrangement. But a key element in the Bill will be the question of the regulator. If it is thought that the regulation will be left until such time as the Bill has been through its pre-legislation structure, we are talking about three years before a Bill is likely to be appointed. Given the reaction to the Government’s announcement yesterday, in the House today and more broadly in the wider world, this is probably too long. Will the Minister consider this again and bring it back for further consideration? It would be possible to begin the process of setting up a regulator at least in parallel with if not in advance of the full legislation, and indeed there is a regulator sitting there waiting that could be adopted for that: Ofcom. I am sure that further thinking about this is necessary, and I would be happy to participate if that would be helpful.

On employment and BEIS-related issues, I was pleased to see the allocation of tips Bill. I do not think there is anything more to be said about that. It is a good thing; it has been an outstanding issue that should have been addressed a long time ago, and I and pleased that it is happening. The territorial extent of it is interesting. The Bill extends and applies to England, Wales and Scotland, while employment law is a reserved matter for Scotland and Wales but is devolved to Northern Ireland. Could the Minister give us a bit more information about how the Government will make sure that this applies to all UK citizens? I say that in the particular knowledge that on the island of Ireland it has just been agreed in the Republic that a similar Bill should be brought forward—so we will have a situation in Ireland where the only part of the British Isles that is not covered by this legislation will be the Northern Ireland territory, which seems a little unreasonable.

A Bill is listed for national security and investment legislation. That is rather coded, but it would strengthen the existing power of the Government to scrutinise and intervene in business transactions—in other words, takeovers and mergers—to protect national security. I leave the Minister with three questions, which may be beyond the brief that he has been given but I should be interested in his response in writing. This is a more complicated area than the Bill would suggest.

We are in the midst of a revolution led by a Member of our House, the noble Lord, Lord Tyrie, at the CMA, affecting the regulatory structure for mergers and acquisitions. The proposal, which I think has been accepted by the Government, is that the CMA will allow the consumer a stronger role in any decisions affecting mergers and takeovers. It seems to me that the current situation—where we have a mix of statutory legislation, legislation related to listings on the Stock Exchange and other considerations, such as national interest powers which can be used at the discretion of Ministers—needs to be brought together. Is this the Bill within which that could be done?

That goes some way to answer the points made earlier by the noble Baroness about broader regulatory issues, because the whole regulatory framework, particularly if it is tied to changes to the auditing framework, which are also taking place, may require a more considered view before final legislation is brought forward. Otherwise, we are in danger of spawning more and more regulatory initiatives without thinking about the wider implications of them all coming together. I agree with her point.

I have only two more things I wish to raise. One is employment reform. I am concerned about the way in which BEIS is making proposals to bring into statute the recommendations of Good Work¸ the Matthew Taylor review of modern working practices. From this side, we have for some time been trying to find out from the Government exactly how far they are prepared to go on this report, and I would be grateful if the Minister could respond positively on this. They continue to say that the vast majority of the Taylor recommendations will be introduced through legislation, but the legislative proposals do not deliver that. There is a gap. The narrow point here is the long-standing issue of the difference between employees and workers. It is an easy thing to say but we need to think it through very carefully, because it lies at the heart of a lot of concerns about the gig economy and how we treat people fairly in employment.

The Government say that they are contemplating the single largest shift in employment status since the Employment Rights Act 1996. If that is the case, they should definitely be thinking hard about the present arrangements. We have two forms of employment status and two forms of taxation status, which I shall come to in a minute. Employees have superior rights and protections, including on dismissal and sick pay; workers have limited rights, including on the national or minimum living wage and working time protections. Not all workers are employees, but all employees are workers. The definitions are created by case law, not by statute, and their shape changes as formulated by judges, who have adapted the tests over the years. Recently, we have had cases involving Uber and Addison Lee which have materially changed the way in which employment rights are applied.

Taylor recommended that those employment statuses should be in legislation. Do the Government agree and will they do that? If so, will they also look at continuity of employment, because there are real problems in the gig economy around whether people are in continuous employment—something which could be sorted by statutory change? There is also the question of unfair dismissal, on which we have a different view from most of Europe. What about the taxation differences between who is an employee and who is not? All those things need to be picked up.

Finally, there is the trade Bill. I see the former Trade Minister in her place, and I am sure she will join me in saying that she is a bit disappointed by the Government’s approach to reintroducing what looks like the original trade Bill. Or is it? As I read it, one thing is different in the current one. A particular issue about data movement is not in the Bill included in the Queen’s Speech notes. That may be a simple mistake, and perhaps we can have some clarification on that.

The main point is that the Bill went through your Lordships’ House and arrived at the end of that process with, I think, 30 or 34 amendments. Quite a lot of these were government amendments. What is happening to them? Will they be reintroduced, or will the Government have to bring them back for discussion? There are a number of quite substantial issues relating to future trade arrangements. These are obviously highly contingent on what is decided on Brexit and may not be as imminent as necessary.

There was a very strong feeling in this House that what was originally based on a no-deal scenario, and only a transition Bill, had to be amended in order to provide a genuine way in which this Parliament would get involved in trade. It is not clear from the document and the narrative that we have been provided with for the Queen’s Speech whether this trade Bill will be taken in the same vein as the previous one, or whether any new amendments will be put in to reflect the changes made by the noble Baroness when she was Minister. If not, are the Government really ready to start again on a process which will end up in a document not dissimilar to that which was agreed by this House in March 2019?