My Lords, it is a privilege to open this day of debate on Her Majesty’s most gracious Speech.
The focus of today’s debate is home affairs, justice, constitutional affairs, devolved affairs and local government. The debate will enable us to explore some of the key themes of the gracious Speech, including laying the foundations for a fair, modern and global immigration system by seizing the opportunities of Brexit, doing more to redress the balance in the criminal justice system, and ensuring that victims receive the support they need and the justice they deserve. Both my noble friend Lady Williams and I look forward to hearing noble Lords’ contributions, given the wealth of experience represented on all sides of the House.
The Government are committed to making neighbourhoods safer and to ensuring that punishments fit the crime. People across the country are, rightly, appalled at the rise in violent crime. For that reason, the gracious Speech included a commitment to introduce legislation to ensure that the most serious violent and sexual offenders spend more time in prison, to match the severity of their crimes. The Government will also seek to strengthen community orders so that they deliver an appropriate level of punishment, address offenders’ behaviour, support people in addressing the potential underlying causes of their offending and provide reparation for the benefit of the wider community.
As well as getting tougher on criminals, the Government are determined to ensure that victims receive the support they need and the justice they deserve. To do that, we are accelerating plans to enshrine in legislation the rights to which victims are entitled, as set out in the victims’ code. We will publish the revised code in early 2020. We recognise that rights are meaningless without the means to enforce them. We want to legislate to ensure that victims understand the minimal level of service they can expect from criminal justice agencies and to increase the powers of the Victims’ Commissioner, who is already a powerful voice for victims. The Government will legislate for the new victims’ law to be consulted on early in the new year. These changes will ensure that victims of crime receive the very best support as well as the information they need at every stage of the criminal justice system.
For the families of murder victims there can be many unanswered questions. No one should endure the anguish of having a loved one murdered and then be denied the dignity of giving them a final resting place. That is why the Government have brought forward legislation to make sure that the Parole Board must take into account an offender’s failure to disclose the location of their victim’s remains. This legislation also addresses another situation where a failure to disclose information about victims causes particular distress: where offenders fail to disclose the identities of children who are the subject of indecent images. The Parole Board will similarly be required to take into account any failure to disclose the identity of victims when assessing offenders’ suitability for release.
Marriage will always be a vital aspect of our society and it is sad for those involved when a marriage fails, but when people take the decision to divorce, the legal process currently incentivises one spouse at the outset to make allegations about the other’s conduct to avoid otherwise waiting for at least two years of separation. The new process will remove the requirement to evidence a fact to prove that the marriage has broken down irretrievably. In the gracious Speech the Government reaffirmed their commitment to reform the current legal process, which can be especially damaging to any children of the relationship. As well as removing the conflict flashpoints inherent within the current legal process, the Bill will introduce a minimum timeframe for it. This will allow for greater reflection on the decision to divorce and for couples to approach arrangements for the future as constructively and co-operatively as possible.
Domestic abuse shatters lives and tears families apart. It is estimated that in the year ending March 2018, some 2 million adults between the ages of 16 and 59 experienced domestic abuse. The Domestic Abuse Bill and wider action plan will help to ensure that victims have the confidence to come forward and report their experiences, safe in the knowledge that the justice system and other agencies will do everything they can both to protect and support them and their children and to pursue their abusers. We need a society in which there is zero tolerance when it come to domestic abuse and which empowers people to confront it. This Bill will be a step towards doing that.
The Government are determined to seize the opportunities of Brexit and bring an end to free movement to ensure that the UK can deliver a new points-based immigration system which will prioritise people’s skills and contributions to our society. For years, politicians have promised the public an Australian-style points-based system. We will actually deliver on those promises. We also remain committed to ensuring that resident European citizens, people who are our friends, neighbours and colleagues, and who have built their lives here and contributed so much to this country, have the right to remain.
After Brexit, the Government will take forward measures to provide certainty and stability to ensure that the UK is a world leader in private international law. We will ensure that we can continue to have clear and effective legal rules in place for resolving cross-border disputes. For example, if a UK citizen is divorcing and seeking child maintenance payments from another parent living abroad, we will have an agreed international mechanism for resolving this. If a UK business is contesting a contract with an overseas party, an international framework will be available for resolving it. The availability of agreed international rules will give UK businesses, citizens and families the confidence to work, live and trade across borders and will help the UK to flourish as a trading nation as we leave the European Union.
I know that the House will want to join me in paying tribute to the brave police officers up and down the country who do so much to keep us safe. The tragic killing of Police Constable Andrew Harper this summer starkly illustrated how police officers put their lives on the line and sacrifice time and again to help others. In July, the Government committed to the recruitment of 20,000 police officers over the next three years. It is now only right that we give all police officers the protections they need to keep the population safe. That is why we are putting our commitment to a police covenant on a statutory footing. We will also introduce measures to strengthen the legal protection given to police drivers when pursuing a subject or responding to an emergency. This will ensure that the police have the protections they need to continue their vital work.
As well as further protections for our police officers, we will invest them with the power to arrest individuals wanted by trusted international partners. As it stands, people wanted for serious crimes by countries outside the EU cannot be arrested if the police come across them on the streets of the United Kingdom. This Bill is about making clear that, where a person is wanted for a serious crime in a country such as Canada or America and may be a danger to the public, we will get them off our streets faster and in front of a judge within 24 hours to allow extradition proceedings to commence.
We will also introduce measures to improve the justice system’s response to foreign nationals who abuse the system by committing crimes. Anyone coming to our country seeking to do so should be in no doubt of our determination to deport them. The Government are already working hard to improve the efficient and effective removal of foreign-national offenders from the UK, but tougher action is needed to stop abuse of the system, speed up the process for deporting foreign-national offenders and deter foreign criminals from coming to the UK. This Bill will significantly increase—from six months to five years—the maximum penalty for those who return to the UK in breach of a deportation order. This will send a clear message to criminals who seek to return to the UK in breach of the law: if you return, you will go to prison for a long time.
This Government have always been clear that we will tackle serious violence and make our streets safer. That is why, together with strong law enforcement, we are determined to stop young people being drawn into crime. We need to understand and address the factors that cause someone to commit violent crime in the first place. The new legal duty we will deliver will ensure that all agencies work together to share intelligence and identify warning signs so that we can intervene earlier, protect young people and prevent and reduce serious violence in local areas.
Nothing is more important than ensuring that people are safe in their homes. This Government will legislate to put in place new and modernised regulatory regimes for building safety and construction products, and ensure that residents have a stronger voice in the system.
One of this Government’s key priorities is the integrity and prosperity of the union that binds the four nations of the United Kingdom. We will continue to work with all parties in Northern Ireland to support the return of devolved government and to address the legacy of the past. We want to unleash the potential of every corner of England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland by bridging the productivity gap, levelling up opportunity and prosperity across the nation and starting an infrastructure revolution.
As set out in the gracious Speech, the Government will bring forward our offer on devolution in England and a White Paper, along with refreshed strategies for the northern powerhouse, the Midlands engine and the UK shared prosperity fund. We are committed to invest in every area of the UK to boost jobs, productivity and living standards and, once the United Kingdom leaves the European Union, we will have a unique opportunity to devolve and empower regions across the country.
The measures outlined in the gracious Speech set out a clear direction for the future of Britain: a country with safer streets where punishments fit crimes but criminals are supported to overcome the causes of their behaviour; one where victims are supported throughout the justice process and after, so that they can move on and rebuild their lives; a society that values marriage but accepts the modern realities of divorce and has no tolerance when it comes to domestic abuse; one that gives the most legal protection possible to brave police officers who risk life and limb to keep us safe; a nation that values immigration and has enough control of its borders to welcome the skills it really needs and reject foreign criminals from our shores; one that addresses serious violence at its root causes to keep our young people safe from harm; a United Kingdom where every constituent part and region has the necessary political will, the right infrastructure and the ability to make decisions in its own best interest; one where opportunity is levelled up and every single person can thrive. Over the coming weeks and months, I look forward to debating with your Lordships the many measures that I have outlined today.
My Lords, I draw the attention of the House to my relevant interest in the register as a vice-president of the Local Government Association.
I am delighted to see the noble Lord, Lord Bourne of Aberystwyth, in his place. This is my first opportunity to pay tribute to the noble Lord. I always enjoyed our friendly debates across the Dispatch Boxes. He was engaging and courteous at all times, both in and outside the Chamber. He was a very able Minister and is a real loss to the Government. I know he will continue to make informed contributions to your Lordships’ business, as he will today.
My focus today is a number of the proposals in the Queen’s Speech, covering areas in which I will have some involvement in your Lordships’ House in this Session of Parliament—however long it lasts. While this Session continues, and until Parliament is dissolved, I am absolutely committed to working with those on all Benches to improve the Bills that come before us. As the noble and learned Lord, Lord Keen of Elie, has told us, the debate today will cover home affairs, justice, local government, devolved affairs and constitutional affairs. I have seen only one of the Bills that is to be brought before us. With that proviso, I intend to set out my initial thinking and how I hope we will progress. My noble friend Lord Rosser will cover the areas that I do not reference. I look forward to all contributions from noble Lords to today’s debate.
Generally, I welcome measures that seek to address crime, in particular violent crime and thereby strengthen the public’s confidence in the criminal justice system. The types of crime perpetrated, and how they come about, change over time. We therefore need to update our response regularly and consistently. But addressing crime is about not only punishment but rehabilitation and addressing the problems in the first place, before we get anywhere near the involvement of the police, prisons or probation services. Longer prison sentences might get the Government a few favourable headlines in some of the tabloids, but do they punish, address offender behaviour and help with rehabilitation? That is the question we should be asking. Any Government who get the balance right and make positive inroads to both addressing offender behaviour and delivering proper rehabilitation will get, and truly deserve, praise for making our country a safer place, and save the taxpayer many millions of pounds.
Looking at some of measures announced in the Queen’s Speech, I am pleased that the Domestic Abuse Bill is making progress. I hope it can be speedily passed into law. If we do nothing else before this Parliament is dissolved, notwithstanding the issues around Brexit, I hope that this Bill will become an Act of Parliament. Domestic abuse is a wicked crime, perpetrated by those closest to you—those who should be protecting you, not making your life a living hell. There is no stereotype of a domestic abuser; they come from all walks of life. What happens to victims is wicked and evil, and totally unacceptable. Those who commit such crimes must understand that they will face the full force of the law, while victims must be confident that they have the protection of the state in all its forms.
From the Opposition Benches, I have been working hard, along with my noble friends Lord Rosser, Lady Gale and others, to get this important Bill passed into law. When the Bill arrives in this House, I will raise the issue of victims in some parts of the country being charged by GPs for a letter to confirm their injuries and that they have been a victim of domestic abuse, so that they can get access to services. That is terrible. It is wrong and the Government should put a stop to it. Perhaps the noble Baroness, Lady Williams of Trafford, will address that issue when she responds to the debate.
I welcome measures that will further support victims of crime, and the contributions of the noble Baroness, Lady Newlove, who is not in her place, will be important to those debates.
I hope the Government will take up the care and support of victims of modern slavery. The Private Member’s Bill of the noble Lord, McColl of Dulwich, was lost in the other place, which is most regrettable. It will be good if, in this Session of Parliament, the care and support afforded to victims in England and Wales is brought up to the same standard that victims enjoy in both Scotland and Northern Ireland.
The Prisoners (Disclosure of Information About Victims) Bill puts on a statutory footing a practice already in place. Criminals need to understand that their failure to provide the most basic closure to victims and their families will be quite properly taken into account by the Parole Board when they are seeking release from prison.
I agree with and welcome many of the proposals in the Serious Violence Bill. I support a multiagency approach to tackling the root causes of violent crime. An emphasis on intervention with young people and an acknowledgement that law enforcement alone cannot tackle violence is correct—I agree with every word—but that means the involvement of social workers, youth workers, community workers, teachers and other parts of the local government family, along with the voluntary sector. However, it will be no solution to the problem if further requirements and burdens are placed on local authorities without commensurate increases in the resources they have to deliver these new obligations. Unfortunately, it has been a recurring pattern for the Government to do that. We have heard time and again from the Government the standard response that local authorities have the powers to tackle these issues. Maybe they do, but they do not have the resources and that is a big problem.
On social care increases, too many times we have seen that when we have been allowed to increase resources it comes in the form of approval to increase council tax rather than in direct government grants. As noble Lords will know, council tax is a regressive form of taxation.
The proposals to recruit 20,000 new police officers are welcome but have to be seen in the context of the Government cutting a similar number of police officers since 2010. Experience has been lost and I have a Question on tomorrow’s Order Paper about the relationship between the number of officers and the number of crimes committed. The Police Protections Bill looks like a measure that we on these Benches can fully support but, again, the detail will be as important as recognising police bravery and supporting officers. What is proposed in the Bill needs to make a positive difference, not only in words but in deeds and proper actions.
Turning to the Extradition (Provisional Arrest) Bill, criminal activity does not respect borders and boundaries, and so making things as difficult as possible for criminals and making sure that they cannot evade justice is to be supported. It is, though, disappointing that these measures may have to be used if we no longer have access to the European arrest warrant, which has been a success in bringing people back to the UK—and in sending them elsewhere in the European Union if they are hiding in the UK—to face justice. Clearly that is another of those Brexit dividends we were not told about. This legislation will need careful scrutiny to ensure that we get the balance right.
Again, in principle I welcome the Divorce, Dissolution and Separation Bill. The noble Baroness, Lady Deech, has sought through private Members’ legislation to improve divorce proceedings many times and I will fully support her in anything she does to make these matters better.
The White Paper on English devolution, referred to in the Queen’s speech, seems, disappointingly, to carry on with the same confused patchwork of local government reforms that started with the Cameron Government. This is not a real devolution of power. I see no devolutionary zeal, only tired tinkering, and that is disappointing. The Labour Government elected in 1997 made radical changes to the governance of the United Kingdom. The one country that did not see radical change—other than the establishment of the Mayor of London and the London Assembly—was England, which still has very a centralised form of government. I do not see much progress here to deliver a new settlement.
There has been much talk of measures around electoral integrity. I want measures in place that ensure that people who are entitled to vote are able to and to eliminate voter fraud, but any measure to require that identification be produced at the polling station must be introduced carefully and proportionately. From all the evidence I have seen, voter ID fraud is minimal. We cannot have hundreds more people who have the right to vote being refused it at a polling station. That would be totally unacceptable. We actually have a voter underregistration problem in the UK. Any measures brought in by the Government should address that problem as well as part of any voter integrity package, along with measures to make our elections safe from abuse and from unscrupulous campaigners who seek to benefit from the inadequacies of our electoral law, so that elections are free and fair. The noble Lord, Lord Young of Cookham, who is not in his place, has agreed with me numerous times at the Dispatch Box that our present electoral law is not fit for purpose and in need of urgent reform. That urgent reform should be put in place before we have a general election. The Government will have the full support of the Opposition to do that quickly if they choose to act on these matters, which they should do urgently.
In concluding, I repeat the point I made at the start: I will engage positively with the Government and all Benches in this noble House to improve proposals that come before us for consideration. When I agree with the Government, I will happily say so and support them, and where I differ, I will seek to persuade them of the soundness of my arguments. I always reserve the right, however, to divide the House if all else fails. I look forward to an interesting debate today and to the Minister’s contribution at the end.
My Lords, when the Prime Minister promises not to send a letter to the EU requesting an extension and does, and when he promises no border between Great Britain and Northern Ireland and then agrees a deal that would put such a border in place, the primary consideration becomes one of trust. Whether it is promises about ending free movement, ensuring the rights of EU citizens living in the UK, supporting our police or tackling violent crime, I suggest that this Government’s promises should not be trusted.
Sometimes this becomes apparently only when you look at the detail. The Home Secretary says free movement between the EU and the UK will end on
The Government say they are committed to ensuring that EU citizens resident in the UK have the right to remain, yet on
Further on Brexit and immigration, more than 20 organisations, including the Refugee Council, are currently in receipt of funding from the EU’s Asylum, Migration and Integration Fund to deliver a range of services aimed at supporting the integration of refugees in the UK. Can the Minister confirm this funding will cease immediately if the UK leaves the EU without a deal? Do the Government not think that the integration of refugees is important?
On Brexit and crime, it was the conclusion of the National Crime Agency lead on Brexit that the UK will be less safe and less secure if we leave the European Union, with or without a deal. As the noble Lord, Lord Kennedy of Southwark, said, we will no longer have access to the European arrest warrant, for example. Any measures that the Government introduce,
“to arrest individuals who are wanted by trusted international partners”, will be problematic. Extradition will take months, if not years, compared with weeks under the European arrest warrant. Remands in custody pending extradition over such an extended period are likely to be granted only in the most exceptional cases and, even if suspects are detained, it will create additional strain on an already overloaded prison system.
The Government say that they are committed to strengthening public confidence in the criminal justice system. That confidence starts with the certainty that offenders will be caught, and that requires an effective police service. The Home Secretary says that she will put criminals in fear, but it is innocent members of the public who are in fear, as the visible uniformed presence on our streets has all but disappeared.
On policing, the Government promise 20,000 “new” police officers over the next three years. We have lost 20,500 police officers since 2010, 4,800 special constables and over 7,000 police community support officers—the backbone of community policing. That is 12,300 fewer uniformed officers than in 2010, even after the Government’s promised 20,000 “new” officers.
It is not just about numbers, as the noble Lord, Lord Kennedy, mentioned; it is also about the loss of experience and the loss of diversity. Historically, there has been a much higher proportion of black and minority-ethnic officers among specials and PCSOs, whose numbers have dropped 30% and 42% respectively since 2010. Public confidence in the criminal justice system is not about an overwhelmingly white police force exercising stop and search with no reasonable cause to suspect any wrongdoing. That results in communities feeling overpoliced and underprotected.
We need to restore community policing with officers who reflect the diversity of the communities they serve. We need to get communities and the police standing shoulder to shoulder against the knife carriers, rather than create a climate where suspicionless stop and search makes some communities feel that they have to fight the police as well as the criminals. What targets are the Government setting in relation to the recruitment of black and minority-ethnic police officers in this drive to find 20,000 new officers, and how realistic is that target of recruiting 20,000 new officers in three years?
A few years ago, I met a PCSO who wanted to be a police constable. PCSOs have no power of arrest, are not trained or equipped to deal with violent offenders and never get involved in violent demonstrations. That PCSO told me that he could not afford the drop in earnings to the starting salary of a PC. PCs run towards danger and put their lives on the line for us every day they are on duty. He was on £30,000 a year as a PCSO. A PC at that time was on a starting salary of £17,000. With the erosion of police officer pay and conditions under this Government, no wonder 22,367 police officers have left the police service in the past three years.
To increase the size of our police forces by 20,000 over the next three years, we will have to select, recruit, train and equip over 42,000 police officers, if wastage continues at the same rate. That is 14,100 police officers a year—50% more than in the last financial year. In fact, in the past 20 years the police have never been able to recruit more than 13,100 officers in any one year. The recruitment, selection and training resources are simply not there, and the money that the Government are promising will not be enough to recruit, train and equip the officers that they are promising to deliver.
The Government say that they are committed to addressing violent crime by making serious offenders spend longer in prison. It is the prospect of being caught, not the length of the sentence, that cuts crime. We need a real violent crime strategy with objectives, targets, co-ordinated implementation of what has proven to be effective and proper long-term funding for initiatives that work, not a patchwork of piecemeal projects and a multitude of funding pots. As the Children’s Society put it in its briefing on this Bill,
“the Government runs the risk of implementing short-term ineffective responses to youth violence and knife crime. The current government approach to tackling youth violence through knife crime is punitive—The Children’s Society believe this approach is fundamentally misguided”.
More than anything else, we need to invest in our young people, addressing adverse childhood experiences and providing safe and healthy alternatives to criminal gangs and an education system that excludes no one. The Liberal Democrats will invest in our police, youth services and education system to ensure a fair society where even the poorest and most vulnerable feel safe.
My Lords, in the gracious Speech there is a reference to the integrity of democracy. I will address the simple principle that the integrity of democracy in this country depends on the survival of the constitution. We have a great number of problems. We are not providing the constitution with the protection it needs, if I may say so, from Parliament. We never have time to examine these issues as a whole. We examine them piecemeal and do not appreciate that each part of the problem adds up to one problem overall, so I will pick four examples.
First, there is the obvious one. To avoid a political difficulty, Mr Cameron, with a great deal of support in Parliament, and, let us not forget, with its certain concurrence, gave us the Brexit referendum. The public were led to believe that their decision in the referendum would be binding on Parliament. They did not choose the questions that they had to answer; the questions were chosen for them. We now know what answer was given. It did not coincide with the views of the majority of people in either of our two Houses. Simply because a referendum has no real place in our constitution, the constitution did not provide and could not be expected to provide an answer to a simple question.
In such a clash, who wins? Those who support Brexit assert—it has been asserted in this Chamber time and again—that a democratic mandate was given to the people and that this overrides Parliament. The same has been frequently asserted in this House the other way around: the ancient principle that ultimate sovereignty rests with Parliament. What a constitutional shambles! It is a salutary lesson to all politicians on all sides that if you mess about with the constitution it will bite back, and it is the public and nation who suffer the consequent injury.
Secondly, as part of a deal to create a coalition Government—in other words, to deal with a political difficulty—the then Prime Minister, Deputy Prime Minister and Parliament enacted a new principle: the five-year Parliament. The result is that, although the Prime Minister of the day failed more than once to obtain parliamentary agreement to the deal she had agreed with the EU, an absolutely central part of her legislative programme, the country was deprived of the only constitutional way to resolve the problem: a general election. There should have been one, but there could not be. I am not saying that we need a general election now—I keep off general elections or referenda in the present context—but I am reflecting that what I am sure was an unintended consequence of this enactment is that an important constitutional principle was undermined. Before the constitutional change was made, did anyone give thought to how it might impact on that constitutional principle? I regret to say that I doubt it.
I come to my third point. All parties are involved in this. Until recently, the Lord Chancellor held office as a major member of the Cabinet, among other things, and as head of the judiciary, with special responsibility for safeguarding the constitution, the independence of the judiciary and the rule of law. That office has now been downgraded. It is no longer the pinnacle of a political career. In truth, it is a relatively minor ministerial appointment, in Cabinet terms. It will be remembered that this important constitutional change was simply announced to the public, before any discussion with Parliament.
So far as the constitutional responsibilities of the Lord Chancellor are concerned, we now have a Minister for the Constitution; I wonder how many Members of this House know that. However, that Minister is not a member of the Cabinet. Like the Lord Chancellor, the Minister does not have to be a lawyer. Therefore, the Minister for the Constitution is not a member of the Cabinet and, like the Lord Chancellor, he or she may never even have read the Ladybird book on the constitution. I am not forgetting the Attorney-General, but he or she is not a Cabinet member either and, in any event, the basic responsibility of the holder of that office is to give independent-minded advice to the Government when the Government are his or her client.
I would love to enter into the Prorogation question in this debate, but I will not. For today’s purposes, I should love to know whether the Minister for the Constitution was consulted in any way, shape or form about the proposal that there should be a Prorogation in September. If not, what is he or she doing? Why do we have such a role? I would argue that in the interests of our democracy and the importance of our constitutional arrangements to preserve that democracy, the Minister for the Constitution should at least be in the Cabinet. I do not expect that we will ever get back to the old-fashioned influence and responsibility of the former office of the Lord Chancellor, but this story is a very serious indication of whether we are at all bothered about the constitution. As things stand, the constitution has been relegated in the government structure and the Cabinet hierarchy. Do we think that is a good idea?
I will make one last point before this turns into a lecture. I want to highlight an issue which may not have crossed all your desks. I am very grateful to the Delegated Powers and Regulatory Reform Committee report of January 2018. Your Lordships’ House had nothing much to do with the Taxation (Cross-border Trade) Bill, as it was a supply Bill and therefore not for this House. Nevertheless, our committee reported in very troubled terms on the delegated powers in the Bill, which involved a massive transfer of power from the Commons to Ministers, with over 150 separate powers to make tax law affecting individuals and businesses, running to thousands of pages. Can we bear in mind that the essential foundation of all our constitutional arrangements and the ultimate sovereignty of Parliament depends on the principle which literally goes back to Magna Carta, Clause 12—that there should be “no scutage nor aid” without consent? That moved across the Atlantic in the principle which the Americans took from this country and summarised as “no taxation without representation”.
The report is utterly courteous, but it is damning about the powers that the Bill—now the Act—gives to the Executive. One example will do. Section 32 creates a regulation-making power, subject to not affirmative but negative procedure. It relates to regulations of the widest possible impact, including those on VAT and customs and excise duty, and of course includes all the ability to disapply primary legislation and so on. This is all on the basis of a “public notice” published by the Minister or HMRC commissioners.
The Public Law Project, a national charity, drew my attention to a new statutory instrument made in purported compliance with these powers. It also made a legal argument that the regulations were ultra vires the parent Act and threatened a judicial review. It has now been conceded that, in law, it was right. But that is a temporary victory. The Act remains in force and so do the wide regulation-making powers. We are not even aware of it. This is a return to rule by proclamation, but because nowadays we all know that we dislike that and are very aware of Henry VIII and the Statute of Proclamations, what do we do? We have a “public notice”—a notice that the Treasury, not the Commons, considers appropriate. This is taxation by proclamation. The mind boggles.
I have said this frequently before, so forgive me, but I simply want to highlight that, as Parliament, we vest vast powers in Ministers, the Treasury, HMRC or any other government department, to create laws and change laws. The constitutional framework is shifting. We are building our constitution on softer sand; not loudly or so anybody notices, but it is happening.
For those noble Lords who are disturbed, let us not forget that criticism should be directed to Parliament. It is up to us. It is very simple: if we want to guard our democracy and its integrity, we must guard our constitution against temporary political advantage or expediency. We must be alert to it and we must fight it. Our constitution is wonderfully flexible, but even a wonderfully flexible constitution can be tested to destruction. That is what we must avoid.
Would the noble and learned Lord agree that in times such as this, it is so important that we rely on our tried parliamentary machinery, and that in recent times we have altered that parliamentary machinery without giving due thought to the consequences?
My short answer is “yes”, but it would be a very long answer if I explained why and what my reservations are about my “yes”.
My Lords, I begin by declaring my interests as set out in the register, in particular as chairman of the British Insurance Brokers’ Association and as a partner in the global commercial law firm DAC Beachcroft LLP.
It is a privilege to follow what I regarded as an outstandingly good speech by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Judge. It was my privilege to sit with him on the Constitution Committee for several years. Sadly, we are no longer on that committee and he has moved on to a much higher role in this House, but I welcome his words of reflection on the unwritten constitution. Because it is not written at the moment, we have the opportunity to write, for the first time, our constitution. That is something for which we should bear in mind his wise words.
I recall that we did have a great debate about all this. I am sad to see that the noble and learned Lord, Lord Falconer of Thoroton, is not in his place, because that debate took place on the very idea, put forward by the then Lord Chancellor, that we should in effect downgrade the position of Lord Chancellor, albeit by creating the Supreme Court and siting it elsewhere. In a way it also paved the way for the very situation that the noble and learned Lord, Lord Judge, has just outlined. The constitutional framework has shifted on to “softer sand”, to use his words. We should pause and reflect on that.
Overshadowing us is the fact that, as we are already acutely aware, while we debate so many important aspects of Her Majesty’s gracious Address, along the Corridor in another place the protracted and debilitating discussion of Brexit continues. I understand that the latest information is that we will be sitting through Friday, Saturday and Sunday of the coming weekend. No doubt we shall hear more about that.
Brexit touches on all aspects of our lives, including those that we are debating today. My area of activity for the last 50 years has been the financial services sector, which leads the world and is vital to our entire social and economic fabric. It makes doing business possible and brings security into all our lives. Its business model is predicated on highly sophisticated and flexible modelling of risk and uncertainty, and it has done everything possible to make itself Brexit-proof. I pay tribute to the chief executive of BIBA, Steve White, and his team, for their skill in helping the industry prepare for whatever transpires. None the less, the current uncertainty is causing incalculable and unnecessary cost, stress and friction. A no-deal Brexit would still cause significant damage. As the Government seek to steer between the Scylla of a Government led by Jeremy Corbyn and the Charybdis of a no-deal Brexit, they do of course enjoy my full support.
Breathless after that, I will take this opportunity to praise this Government’s commitment to the continuing improvement of high-speed broadband coverage. It will improve people’s lives, be beneficial to commerce and provide the necessary foundation for the UK to emerge as one of the leading developers of autonomous vehicle—AV—technology. At the same time, I voice a note of caution. For us to remain at the forefront of AV development we shall need greater investment in infrastructure beyond 5G. I refer noble Lords to KPMG’s 2019 Autonomous Vehicles Readiness Index, which noted that, despite leading the way in other areas:
“The UK faces challenges concerning digital and physical infrastructure … It lags behind other countries in 4G coverage, global connectivity, quality of roads (especially smaller roads) and logistics infrastructure”.
The Law Commission has just published its second consultation paper on the regulatory framework for the safe deployment of automated vehicles in the UK, which noted that rural areas of the UK would be in serious trouble. What I am talking about is: in Wales, how on earth would a driverless car negotiate flocks of sheep? My experience as a Whip, by the way, is wholly unconnected. I welcome the Government’s proposals. Above all, this debate reminds us that there is going to be life after Brexit.
My Lords, I draw the attention of the House to my interests as a councillor and a vice-president of the Local Government Association. I join the noble Lord, Lord Kennedy, in expressing my gratitude to the noble Lord, Lord Bourne, for a positive and always very constructive working relationship.
The focus of my remarks today will be confined to some aspects of local government. Nearly 20% of total national spending on public services is through local government. Sadly, though not surprisingly, the two words not mentioned in the Queen’s Speech were “local” and “government”. The only conclusion that can be drawn is that the current Government have no interest in, nor concern for, local government. The sins of omission are as great as those of commission. Despite the fundamental place that local government has in the lives of everyone in our nation, this Government have nothing substantial to say on what they intend to do to enhance that offer.
The Government have accepted for at least the past four years that a crisis exists in the funding of care for vulnerable adults. The Prime Minister has told us that he will solve that crisis. I looked in vain for concrete proposals. Once again, the Government are ducking their responsibilities. The Association of Directors of Adult Social Services has put it bluntly, saying that social care in England is adrift in a “sea of inertia” caused by years of budget cuts and concluding:
“The system is not only failing financially, it is failing people”.
The Government’s only financial response is to pass on to hard-pressed council tax payers the burden of funding social care, with some additional national core funding, which will still mean a significant shortfall in what is required. Can the Minister provide a timetable for the publication of a White Paper with proposals for tackling this crisis?
At least the Government have recognised that there is a crisis in the funding of adult social care. The costs of care for vulnerable children is, if anything, a bigger funding crisis. The total number of looked-after children reached a new high of 75,420 last year, representing the biggest annual rise in the number of children in care in eight years. An average of 88 children now come into care every day and, overall, councils face a £3.1 billion funding gap for children’s services by 2025. Again, sadly, the government response in terms of funding is minimal in comparison to the need—just a share of the social care and children’s budget of £410 million, when the need is £600 million for children alone. Can the Minister provide assurance that policies are being developed by the Government to address what appears a startling abdication of responsibility for the most vulnerable children in England?
At the heart of these two immense failures is the bare fact that the Government are failing to develop policies for the fundamental reform of local government finance. They have previously committed to a multiyear provision of funding. That has failed, and local government finds that it is unable to plan for more than one year at a time because of it. That is simply not an efficient use of public funds. A major portion of the quantum of funds available comes from business rates. That tax is rightly criticised for no longer reflecting modern business practice. My party, the Liberal Democrats, has at least proposed a solution: replace business rates with a commercial landowner levy and increase funding for health and social care with a 1p rise in income tax. What are the Government’s plans?
Of course, a major element of the problem for local government is that key decisions are still taken in London. Where are the plans for a genuine devolution of responsibilities and funding? Perhaps the Minister can provide some clues.
The one glimmer of hope in the Government’s plans addresses the viability of some struggling towns. Of course, additional funding is to be welcomed, but deep-seated problems will not be resolved by one-off funding, as previous iterations have demonstrated. Councils provide essential, life-enhancing services. It is a shocking indictment of this Government that these needs are not being addressed.
My Lords, I congratulate the Government and welcome their initiative on the NHS. I assure them that, if they have the chance to put this in place, some of us on this side will ensure that it is well scrutinised and applied. I also welcome the long-awaited Domestic Abuse Bill. I hope that both Houses can come together to find the best way to ensure that this scourge is brought to an end.
I will pick up one minor point in this context. I welcome the Government’s initiative in bringing forward an SI on the alcohol abstinence monitoring requirement. When this was being debated about six years ago, I was involved, with the noble Baroness, Lady Finlay, in persuading the Mayor of London to run a trial with it; another trial was introduced in another part of the country. Under this scheme, those found guilty of offences, in many instances involving violence, but who manage to avoid prison, are given community sentences to which are attached a requirement that they should not be taking drugs or alcohol. Monitoring, to make sure they stay sober, has been introduced on an experimental basis. Last week, I had a meeting with the Minister responsible and I am pleased that this is being embraced with enthusiasm and it is now intended to roll it out around the whole country.
This helpful development links to the Domestic Abuse Bill, because much domestic abuse is linked to drugs and, more particularly, alcohol abuse. My major criticism is that people will be kept under review and required to be tested for a period of 120 days. In our jails, people who have problems with drugs and alcohol are given assistance to get sober while they are inside, but when their sentence is over and they go back into the community, they frequently go around in the same old circle and end up recommitting offences, in many cases linked to drug and alcohol abuse. I therefore question whether looking at people for 120 days is enough. I have suggested to the Minister that he should convene a meeting of interested charities and voluntary organisations. Recognising the pressure on resources, we have to look to all the areas where we can get additional assistance. This might involve the voluntary sector, perhaps using organisations such as AA, which have tried-and-tested experience in assisting people to get permanent recovery. A small conference, bringing together interested parties, might find a way to give longer-term assistance and support, well beyond the 120 days. That would benefit not just those individuals but also their families, who are so often affected by the violence arising from drug and alcohol abuse. That is my major, modest contribution to this debate.
From listening to the debate so far, I have a few comments. I listened particularly to the noble and learned Lord, Lord Judge, and others who picked up the issue of democracy. I spoke on Saturday about our failure as leaders to respond to changes taking place in our communities. Technology is moving quickly and we find ourselves falling behind. People are expressing views and participating by using technology in a way unthought of five to 10 years ago. My guess is that this will move even faster, yet we are very slow in responding to it.
We talk about the constitution, and Scotland immediately comes to mind. There will be a referendum in Scotland. There will have to be an amazing change if there is to be a shift in public opinion in Scotland away from that, so it is an important issue. Northern Ireland and Ireland looms up again, with big changes possible. Even Wales is now splitting in its old party system, leading to completely new ideas emerging there. I suggest that we must spend more time in this Chamber, where we have so much expertise in the constitution and the law, and look at what is around the corner and how we can adapt and try to embrace it in a way that we have not done so far.
The noble Baroness, Lady Pinnock, talked about the problems we have: the country is split between from one region to another and we have to address this and find ways for people in those areas to express their views. In turn, we must be more open to change than we have been so far.
My Lords, there is an air of unreality about this debate. I cannot recall debates on a Queen’s Speech being held in a state of such uncertainty. Nevertheless, there are two issues that the gracious Speech raises that concern me and that are worth commenting on, lest they go further. The first arises from this sentence:
“New sentencing laws will see that the most serious offenders spend longer in custody to reflect better the severity of their crimes”.
At first sight, it is hard to disagree with this—if there is something wrong, it needs to be made better—but the background briefing tells us that the main elements of the proposed sentencing Bill include changing the automatic release point from half way to the two-thirds point for adult offenders serving sentences of four years or more for serious violent or sexual offences.
I have to confess that I am in two minds about this. On the one hand, I dislike the system of automatic release before the full sentence has been served. As a former judge, I believe that sentences should mean what they say. When I entered practice some 55 years ago, the system was that offenders had to earn their release before the end of the sentence by satisfying the Parole Board, once they became eligible, that they should be released. That was the position under the Criminal Justice Act 1991, which provided that offenders had to be half way through the sentence before they were eligible. It was to relieve the pressure on prisons caused by a relentless rise in the number of prisoners that the system was changed from one of eligibility to one of automatic release. To move this system to the two-thirds point, closer to what the judge was saying, has some attraction, but I have concerns.
The gracious Speech goes on to say that the Government,
“will work to improve safety and security in prisons and to strengthen the rehabilitation of offenders”.
To move the release point to two-thirds will mean an increase in the prison population, according to the Government’s own estimate, by about 3,000. It is no secret that England and Wales already have more people in custody that any other western European nation, and it is well known that many of our prisons are overcrowded. This has consequences. As the Royal College of Psychiatrists pointed out in its briefing note, prisoners are dying at an unprecedented rate from suicide and physical ill-health, and mental health teams are finding it difficult to access prisoners who need help. How, it asked, are prisoners supposed to be treated and rehabilitated and enabled to prepare themselves if they are required to spend longer in these conditions?
The longer prisoners spend in custody, the more they become institutionalised and the more difficult it becomes for them to face up to what will happen if and when they are released. During one of my many visits to prisons when I was Chief Justice in Scotland, I met prisoners who had long since forgotten how to use a knife and fork when eating their meals, and for mental health reasons they found it very hard to sit at a table with other people at mealtimes. Rehabilitation matters, and overcrowding is an obstacle to progress. I hope that the Minister will explain how increasing the prison population to such an extent can be reconciled with the aim, which of course I support, of strengthening the rehabilitation of offenders.
I have time to mention one other concern. The gracious Speech says:
“Laws will be introduced to ensure that the parole system recognises the pain to victims and their families caused by offenders refusing to disclose information relating to their crimes”.
But this is already the established practice. We are told that making this a legal obligation will reassure victims, but I dislike the rigidity of a statutory obligation. Judges know all about this when they are faced with rigid rules which have been fixed by statute when it comes to the matter of sentencing.
One has to bear in mind too that under the established practice of the Parole Board, very occasionally mistakes are made. For example, Victor Nealon, having been convicted of rape, spent 17 years in custody beyond his tariff release date because he refused to admit his guilt. He was eventually released when DNA evidence showed that he could not have committed the crime. For him, his repeated appearances before the Parole Board were a prolonged nightmare.
There may be a variety of reasons why a prisoner does not disclose information, some of which he cannot control. I fear that a legal obligation may increase the number of mistakes, especially if the measure extends to any failure, as the noble and learned Lord, Lord Keen of Elie, said in his opening speech. I would much rather leave this to the discretion of the Parole Board, with all the sensitivity that it can bring to bear, unless it can be clearly demonstrated that there is a real need for this change. I would be grateful if the Minister could explain what the need really is for this to be a statutory obligation rather than for it to be left to established practice.
My Lords, I am delighted to respond to Her Majesty’s gracious Speech. Almost all the major Bills announced have been trailed from the time Boris Johnson became Prime Minister. I have no doubt that this announcement, disguised as the gracious Speech, will form the Conservative manifesto at the next election.
The Speech contains announcements which I welcome: for example, on bringing forward legislation on domestic violence and improving the treatment of victims of crime by the criminal justice system. Regrettably, however, these sensible measures have been overshadowed by the Government’s determination to project a macho, harsh image towards criminals by yet again increasing the severity of sentencing.
The problems in our prisons are well known and they have been debated many times in this House. This country has the highest rate of imprisonment in western Europe. There are 139 prisoners per 100,000 population in England and Wales, and 150 per 100,000 population in Scotland, compared with 104 per 100,000 in France and 77 in Germany. The severity of our sentencing has greatly increased. Last year, the average sentence for an indictable offence was 58 months—or just under five years. This is more than two years longer than the average sentence 12 years previously in 2006, when it was just under three years.
As a direct result of our high use of imprisonment, the state of many of our prisons is a national disgrace. In his annual report for 2018-19, the Chief Inspector of Prisons said that,
“far too many of our jails have been plagued by drugs, violence, appalling living conditions and a lack of access to meaningful rehabilitative activity”.
Prisoners and staff now feel less safe than they have at any point since records began. The number of deaths in prison has almost doubled in the past decade. Rates of self-harm by prisoners are the highest ever recorded. Assaults in prisons are also at the highest level ever recorded. The number of recorded sexual assaults in prison has quadrupled since 2012. Assaults on staff have tripled in the past five years.
Yet the Government now propose sentencing changes which will send even more people into already overcrowded and struggling prisons. They propose to increase the proportion of sentences to be served by violent and sexual offenders before they are released on licence from one half to two-thirds of their sentence. When those prisoners are released, the length of time for which they will then be supervised on licence will be less than it is now, despite the strong evidence that such supervision greatly reduces the likelihood of further offending.
It is perfectly obvious that the motivation behind that is to enable the Government to adopt a tough-looking stance in a forthcoming general election. When judges conclude that an offender is dangerous, they already have the power to pass an extended sentence. When they do so, the offender serves two-thirds of their sentence in custody, followed by an extended period of supervision in the community, so it is difficult to see what benefits the new proposals will have for public safety. The Government also propose to increase the minimum periods which life sentence prisoners must serve by changing the way in which tariffs are calculated and increasing the number of offences for which prisoners receive whole life tariffs.
These changes also do nothing to increase the safety of the public. Life sentence prisoners who have served their minimum term are released only after a careful review of their case by the Parole Board, which must be satisfied that their risk is minimal before they can be released on licence. The proportion of offenders released on parole who commit a further serious offence is less than 1%, so it is difficult to resist the conclusion that the changes are simply a grandstanding gesture. The result of that grandstanding will be felt on every landing in every prison in this country. It will be felt by prisoners and by hard-pressed prison staff, who are struggling to cope in an overstretched and underresourced prison system. What is the Government’s estimate of the increase in the prison population which will result from their proposals on sentencing?
These changes will do little, if anything, to reduce crime. International surveys, including a thorough international survey by our National Audit Office in 2012, have shown that there is no connection between the level of imprisonment in a country and its crime rate. Rates of crime depend on a wide range of factors in society, including rates of employment, the extent of drug and alcohol misuse, levels of family breakdown, income inequality, mental health provision and the way in which a society supports its most vulnerable and marginalised members. In comparison with those factors, sentencing has only a marginal effect.
The best way to combat crime would be a strategy to reduce the use of prison, increase the use of community sentences, which are less expensive and more effective, and increase the resources devoted to social measures which can prevent or reduce crime. It is regrettable that the Government have abandoned sensible proposals floated by previous Secretaries of State for Justice which could have offset some of the damage which will result from the new sentencing proposals.
Until recently, the Government were canvassing the idea of introducing a presumption against short sentences.
I shall do that. It is an advisory limit, but I shall conclude now.
Short sentences are the most ineffective of all types of custodial sentences. They have the highest reconviction rates. They are not long enough for any serious attempt at rehabilitation, but they can result in offenders losing jobs, accommodation and family life.
Looking at the rehabilitation of offenders would do more to protect the public than headline-grabbing announcements designed to help win a general election rather than fight crime.
My Lords, this particular section of the Queen’s Speech is always a bit of a pot-pourri of issues because of the extensive responsibilities of the Home Office, the other home departments and the Justice Department. I extend my sympathies to my noble friend Lady Williams, who must contend with responding to 50 speeches on a wide range of subjects. I am afraid that I am about to add to her difficulties, for which I apologise, by raising yet another subject that has not been discussed much so far: the contentious issue of immigration. I do so because it is my view that no Government—neither the present Government, nor the coalition Government or the Labour Government that preceded them—have handled this issue well in recent times. They have handled it so badly that it has contributed to the distrust of the political and constitutional system that has been much commented on in the course of our debate.
However, with Brexit, there is an opportunity to reset our policies in this area to ones that are more sensible and command greater public support. This can be done in a number of ways. First, the Government should look not just at immigration per se but population trends as a whole—in short, the entire demographic picture of the country. The fact is that we are a very crowded country. For example, England is twice as heavily populated as Germany and three and a half times as heavily populated as France.
Moreover, the population of the UK is growing at its fastest rate in more than a century. The central forecast of the Office for National Statistics is that, if this growth continues, we will over the next 10 years add the equivalent of the populations of Greater Manchester and Birmingham to existing populations. I recommend to the House my noble friend Lord Hodgson of Astley Abbotts’s excellent pamphlet, Britain’s Demographic Challenge, which spells out some of the consequences of this extraordinary prospective increase in population. I accept that this is just a forecast, of course, but it is the central forecast of the main government forecasting body. Is this what we want? Is this what the public want? Not according to surveys of public opinion. The latest ones on this subject indicate that three-quarters of our present population think that the country is already overcrowded, and more than 70% think that the net immigration figure should be reduced to tens of thousands a year.
Secondly, we need to pay much more attention to the questions of social cohesion and quality of life, as opposed to the economic aspects of immigration. For example, the main body that the Government consult on immigration issues—it is referenced throughout the White Paper on immigration, produced in December last year—is the Migration Advisory Committee. However, with one exception, all the committee members are university economists. I am a graduate of the dismal science, so I am not likely to underestimate the value of good economic advice, but, frankly, that is ridiculous. The committee needs some social scientists, a local authority representative, a geographer—perhaps even someone from Population Matters, the organisation headed by Jonathon Porritt and Sir David Attenborough, because population is also a climate change issue. Certainly, a more holistic approach to this issue, rather than a purely economic one, is required.
Thirdly, in the course of their discussions on immigration, the Government have mentioned the example of Australia. Australia’s points system is actually not dissimilar to our own, but it has something that we do not have: an immigration planning programme and system, which sets out the number of permanent visas in a budget every year. The total is broken down into various categories—skilled workers, unskilled workers, families, et cetera—and there is some flexibility for trade between the various components. Canada, another country with extensive immigration experience, does much the same. It seems to me that we should learn from these countries with real experience in immigration of a kind that, until recently, we did not have.
Finally, all of these countries make a point of presenting the annual immigration plan to their Parliaments for an annual debate. I would prefer, as I have suggested, to look at the demographic picture as a whole rather than purely just immigration, but whichever way it is done, the idea of a kind of Budget statement and debate with parliamentarians, whatever their views on the subject, being able to dissect government policy, the reasons for their approach, and to come to conclusions. If this policy framework or even something like it was set up, we would have a system that was more accountable and transparent. In my view, it would give us a chance to have more sensible and sustainable population and immigration policies with a better balance between economic, social and environmental concerns. It might also reduce the distrust of ordinary people of government which, as I have mentioned, is now so evident. It would, in short, be good government—and, my heavens, we need some good government today.
My Lords, I have chosen to speak today in order to raise a pressing devolved affairs issue, but I turn first to some other matters. The proposed immigration Bill will be the third such Bill before your Lordships’ House since I joined it. The two previous ones created the legislative underpinnings for Mrs May’s really hostile but now compliant environment. I do not see any signs that this one will start to dismantle that. Indeed, talk of deportation has fuelled fears that many EU citizens could become embroiled in it if they fail to apply for settled status in time—Windrush revisited.
There are a number of asylum and refugee issues that also need to be addressed, in particular the right to work, family reunion and the destitution faced by too many who fall through the bureaucratic cracks when granted refugee status because they are not allowed enough time to move from asylum support to mainstream social security. Further, although these are not strictly speaking immigration issues, the Bill would provide an opportunity to put right a couple of injustices raised recently by the Joint Committee on Human Rights. One is the denial of citizenship to the offspring of fathers from British Overseas Territories who were not married to their mothers. When we recently debated this, the Minister agreed that,
“we need to remedy this sooner rather than later”.—[
Can she confirm today that it will be remedied in this Bill?
The other issue is the exorbitant fee of £11,002, of which only £372 represents the administrative costs, charged for children born here or who have spent most of their lives here who are entitled to British citizenship but who have to register that entitlement because of their parents’ status. The previous Home Secretary admitted over a year ago that the fee represents a “huge amount” and said that he would look at it, yet despite concerns raised repeatedly in both Houses and a critical chief inspector’s report, nothing has happened other than that the fee was not raised this year. It is nearly a year since the Minister wrote to me with an assurance that,
“we are actively considering what changes we might be able to make to the charging framework for children”.
Given that the new Home Secretary apparently raised the issue herself with the Home Office shortly before taking on her new role, can we finally hope for action and not just “active consideration”?
The gracious Speech also promised that Ministers,
“will ensure that all young people have access to an excellent education”.
All too often, such access is impeded by poverty. For instance, hungry children are not well placed to benefit from their education, however excellent it might be. Questions about the future of funding after March 2020 for the very successful national school breakfast programme have been met with the answer that decisions will be taken as part of the spending review. Well, the review statement has been and gone and I have seen no mention of the decision. This is urgent because schools need to start planning now. When will we have an answer?
Urgent too is the devolution issue I wish to raise concerning social security mitigations in Northern Ireland. Because of Northern Ireland’s special circumstances, a mitigations package to soften the impact of certain elements of so-called welfare reforms was agreed up to March 2020 by the Northern Ireland Executive. There is considerable anxiety in Northern Ireland about what is going to happen to this package in the absence of a functioning Executive. A recent joint report by the Work and Pensions Committee and the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee recommended that it be extended beyond next March, stating:
“The UK Government must act quickly to end the uncertainty”.
It argued that the circumstances—
“a potentially drastic impact on vulnerable people and no Assembly to extend the legislation”— are sufficiently exceptional to override questions of devolved competence.
The response I received to a recent Written Question on this was that:
“The Department for Communities in Northern Ireland is responsible for the delivery”, of the mitigation scheme, and that:
“A decision to extend … beyond March 2020 would be a matter for an incoming Minister for Communities in a restored Northern Ireland Executive”.
I am sorry, but this is simply irresponsible given that there is no certainty that the Executive will be restored in time.
The Department for Communities itself has made clear that:
“In the absence of a functioning Assembly it is considered that the only viable option for providing the legal authority for the Department to make mitigation payments beyond 2020 would be for the Westminster Parliament to bring forward appropriate legislation”.
But there is no mention of this in the gracious Speech. There is a clear civic and political consensus in Northern Ireland that the mitigations must continue beyond March 2020. In the absence of a local devolved Assembly, the UK Government must act. Will the Minister therefore give me an assurance that this will now be looked at as a matter of urgency? I am speaking at a civil society conference in Belfast this week and would like to be able to offer a ray of hope.
Of course, the mitigations package does not mean that Northern Ireland’s claimants have been immune from all social security cuts. The Cliff Edge Coalition NI told the joint committee that the largest financial losses were due to the cut in the real value of benefits and credits since 2011. Until the change in Prime Minister, Ministers deflected criticisms of the four-year benefits freeze with the assurance that it is coming to an end next year. Although that did nothing to address the significant loss in the value of benefits it has caused, it was at least reassuring. However, now Ministers are refusing to give a straight answer to questions about the future of the freeze. This is very worrying indeed, especially given concerns about the likely impact of Brexit on those on the lowest incomes.
In his introduction to the briefing on the speech, the Prime Minister assured us that,
“we will move forwards, towards a future in which our children, and their children, can grow up to live longer, happier, healthier and wealthier lives”.
If his Ministers cannot give an assurance that the benefits on which their families rely will again be index-linked, that promise rings hollow for the growing numbers of children living in poverty.
My Lords, this is a fantasy gracious Speech, because it comes from a Government who do not have a majority to carry out their programme and because there will be an early general election and another gracious Speech, with a Government who may look very different from this one. As Liberal Democrats, we are certainly looking forward to that election, which would have happened already had we not had a Prime Minister who was willing to use the Prorogation as a space free of Parliament so that he could go ahead with a no-deal or bad-deal Brexit without scrutiny or challenge.
I turn first to the criminal justice section of the Speech, which reads as if a good draft prepared by David Gauke, the former Justice Secretary, has been chopped and changed by the Prime Minister and his political advisers so that the good intentions—such as rehabilitation and multiagency co-operation to combat serious violence—remain in, but the resources are mostly diverted away from this work in order to keep many more people in prison for longer. Promising to do this is seen by some—I think wrongly—to be a vote-winner.
The sentencing provisions in both the sentencing Bill and the foreign-national offenders Bill, which will have wider inflationary effects on sentencing, will demand massive resources that could be much more effectively used in tackling the causes of crime and reoffending. What is the point of spending a lot more money than we already spend to feed, clothe, house and guard returning foreign offenders? We could have used that money more efficiently to prevent them returning in the first place, or more efficiently and quickly to return those we now identify—or, in many cases, fail to identify.
Prison is a very expensive resource. We need it to safeguard our citizens from dangerous, persistent and serious offenders while we attempt to turn them away from crime, but every unnecessary or excessive use of expensive custody diverts resources from crime prevention and contributes to the inability of overcrowded and understaffed prisons to carry out essential rehabilitation.
There is a phrase in the Queen’s Speech, quoted by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Hope:
“New sentencing laws will see that the most serious offenders spend longer in custody to reflect better the severity of their crimes”.
Using expensive custody as the sole barometer or signal of the seriousness or severity of a crime leads to ineffective policy. We must develop more cost-effective non-custodial sentences, or parts of sentences, which are seriously challenging to offenders and a more effective response to the seriousness of the crime than merely adding massively to the cost of the prison system.
The serious violence Bill has ambitions with which I entirely agree. However, I cannot think of anything that cannot be done without it; it seems to me an unnecessary Bill. On the other hand, the Bill dealing with the online procedures of the courts and tribunals is much needed, and has now been lost twice due to Prorogation or Dissolution, but did not appear at all in the gracious Speech.
I turn now to our constitution, on which the noble and learned Lord, Lord Judge, gave such stimulating thoughts. Ours is not an entirely unwritten constitution—some of it is written—but much of it is dependent on conventions and assumptions about how political leaders will behave. This is explained by our colleague the noble Lord, Lord Hennessy, as the “good chap” theory of government. These behavioural issues are particularly relevant to safeguarding the monarchy and promoting the rule of law. These presumptions have been tested much more severely than before during recent events.
When Her Majesty addressed both Houses, fresh in her memory will have been the Prime Minister’s advice, unanimously overruled by the Supreme Court, that Parliament should be prorogued for five weeks. It is certainly fixed in our minds, not least because it was followed by the public questioning by Ministers of the independence of the judiciary. These included the Prime Minister himself, who said in an interview in the Daily Telegraph:
“If judges are to pronounce on political questions in this way, then there is at least an argument that there should be some form of accountability. The lessons of America are relevant”.
Those lessons are relevant, but in an entirely negative sense. Trying to identify the political opinions of judges and choose them accordingly would be extremely bad for our country.
I have no doubt at all that the Lord Chancellor and the Advocate-General for Scotland, who opened today’s debate, are resolute in their personal commitment to judicial independence. But I am not so confident of the Government as a whole, still less of their political advisers. We must never go down the road of political appointments to the judiciary, or of confirmation hearings designed to test a judge’s past and present political and social opinions. We appoint judges on the basis of their ability to set aside their personal opinions and use their knowledge and intellectual ability to interpret and define the law in accordance with the statutes that this Parliament has passed and the inheritance of common law.
We will face further constitutional issues with the withdrawal agreement Bill. There were repeated requests from members of the Constitution Committee to have advanced sight of the main clauses of the Bill, so that we could examine its structure and the mechanisms it uses. Clearly, any draft we saw would subsequently be affected by the changes made to the withdrawal agreement by the current Prime Minister, but it was necessary, or would have been better, for us to have had advance sight of some of it. It is likely to involve a massive expansion of the power of Ministers to act independently of Parliament. Will those powers be confined as much as possible? Will they be strictly time limited? How adequate will be the opportunities for parliamentary consideration of the orders made under the powers? This House, in a matter of a few months, has examined 500 Brexit-related orders. How are we going to manage that with the consequences of the withdrawal agreement Bill? Will this House be able to do the same if huge gaps in our law open up as a result of Brexit and need to be filled urgently? Henry VIII will be stalking our corridors, day and night.
Possibly as soon as next week, the focus and the Bill will shift from Commons to Lords. This House may be under extremely severe pressure to wave through unamended a constitutionally significant transfer of legislative power to the Executive.
I am the second Liberal Democrat to whom the noble Baroness has given that helpful advice, but I am on my last sentence: that it is our job to make sure that the Bill is properly examined.
My Lords, as other noble Lords have remarked, today’s debate takes place under the shadow of major developments as regards Brexit. However, Brexit will eventually, thankfully, finally come to a conclusion and it is important that in the interim we reassure our fellow citizens that we are not unaware of the many other problems and issues that affect their lives. In that sense, and the sense that we need to move on, I support the general approach of the Government’s programme. The Financial Times may have rather disobligingly dismissed the contents as “sunny optimism”—as if sunny optimism was somehow a crime—but, for me at least, some optimism is far from unwelcome.
The Queen’s speech gives an opportunity to step back from the day-to-day preoccupations and look at the wider picture. I wish to focus on two issues of which the Government need to be aware and take into account in their future thinking.
The first major challenge is the impact of the fourth industrial revolution—that of artificial intelligence and robotics. In the 1960s, Gordon Moore, the founder of Intel, devised what became known as Moore’s Law, which is that computing power will double every two years into the future. The sceptics laughed at Mr Moore but, so far, he has been proved right. We no longer have to confine ourselves to computing power; we now have the rapidly increasing programming power. It is this combination of computing power and programming power that will change the way we live and work.
It is estimated that between 7 million and 8 million jobs in the UK will either disappear or be radically reshaped over the next 20 years. The charges for Governments over that period will be to consider what geographic areas and spheres of economic activity will be particularly affected and then to take remedial action if we are to avoid what may prove to be intolerable strains on our social cohesion.
That circumstance takes me to my second point: the rapidly increasing population of the United Kingdom, as referred to by my noble friend Lord Horam. I have raised this matter in your Lordships’ House before, and again today I make it clear that this is not an attack on immigration or immigrants. I recognise that a level of immigration refreshes our society and economy. My concern is about the wider impact that each one of us—young or old, whatever our race, colour or creed, whether we arrived here five minutes ago or 500 years ago—has on our country. The numbers are stark. As my noble friend Lord Horam has pointed out, the population of the country is increasing by over 1,000 a day: roughly 400 from natural increase—the excess of births over deaths—and something over 600 from net immigration. The longer-term picture is no easier to understand and discern. The ONS suggests that by 2040 we will have more than another 7 million people in this country. My noble friend Lady Williams knows Manchester well and that its population is about 2.5 million. So, we are going to have to build three Manchesters over the next 25 years.
The Migration Advisory Committee, to which my noble friend referred, provides expert advice to the Government on these matters. Its work is valuable and no doubt its advice will be sought in establishing the promised points-based immigration system, but, as my noble friend also pointed out, it has one fundamental strategic weakness: that, following its terms of reference, it sees everything through an economic prism and in economic terms. However, demographic change is about much more than economic impact: it has huge quality of life impacts.
This is a big subject but let me give two quick examples. First, water. The Environment Agency says that by 2040-45 this country, especially in the south-east, will be running short of water. Some of this, of course, will be the result of global warming, but much more will come from the growth in population. Each of us on average consumes 140 litres of water a day.
Secondly, there is the impact on our environment and ecology. In 1970 the United Kingdom had 20 million pairs of farmland wild birds. By 1990 we had lost half of them, and by 2010 the number had halved again. Behind this came collapses in the less glamorous forms of life: insects, plants, fungi, lichens and bacteria. Is this all down to demographic change? Of course it is not, but growth in population is clearly playing a significant role. Does it matter? To many of us in this House, it does not matter that much because we will not be here in 2045 when these developments finally play out and we see the impact. However, there is surely a need for a calm, rational debate, discussing how to weigh up these many difficult, sensitive and often conflicting objectives, if only, and not least, to take into account the views of the generations who will come after us. So, when the Government produce an Environment Bill—pages 98 to 100 of the briefing on the Queen’s Speech—which does not even mention demographic change, I am inclined to despair.
My Lords, I add my name to the tribute paid by the noble Lord, Lord Kennedy, to the noble Lord, Lord Bourne of Aberystwyth, who, thankfully, is still in his place. He gained the House’s respect and admiration on devolved issues and we will miss his wisdom and knowledge at the Dispatch Box. He has been a true friend to Wales, and I thank him very sincerely for his massive contribution to the devolution process.
Like the noble Lord, Lord Wigley, who spoke on day 2 of this debate, I read the Queen’s Speech carefully, hoping to find some reference to Wales—something to show that the Government understood that for the devolved Administrations the process of the further transference of powers is important. From these Benches, my colleagues have, in the past, made the case for the powers highlighted in part 2 of the Silk commission’s report to be transferred to the Welsh Assembly: further powers over transport, energy, broadcasting and youth justice, among others. We have also made the case for the funding of Network Rail in relation to Wales and for new powers for Wales’s Children’s Commissioner. The list is not short, so I am surprised and disappointed that the Secretary of State for Wales was unable to find support among his Cabinet colleagues to address at least one of these issues.
Last year we deplored the Government’s decision to turn their back on major infrastructure projects in Wales: the electrification of the railway line from Cardiff to Swansea and the Swansea Bay tidal lagoon scheme. I look forward to hearing the Chancellor's Budget Statement at the beginning of next month, to learn whether, now austerity is apparently over, at least one of those projects will make it back on to his list and we will, at least, get a mention.
I am a federalist who has always supported devolution, believing that the devolution process Ron Davies talked of would eventually lead to the destination of a federal UK with a mature, mutually respectful system of government of equals. But progress is slow and, as the noble Lord, Lord Brooke of Alverthorpe, suggested earlier, opinions in Wales are beginning to diverge. This year we have seen a number of independence marches across the country—not as large as the People’s Vote march we saw outside Parliament on Saturday, of course, but equally focused and as quietly determined.
Those of us who live in Wales have become used to a new political term this year:“indy-curious”. It describes people—unionists, federalists and the hitherto uncommitted—who want to know more about independence and how it would work for the people of Wales. They are both Welsh and English speakers, who have watched the Brexit fiasco over the past three years and come to the conclusion, even before the Prime Minister’s latest plan to create a new economic border in the Irish Sea, that the prospect of Irish reunification is an increasingly real one, as is the prospect of Scottish independence.
The vision of a future UK consisting of Wales and England only is the one that the indy-curious find less than attractive. Just as remaining in the European Union is best for the UK’s economy and security, I believe that Wales remaining in the UK is best for Wales’s economy and security. However, the Government should understand that, if there are increased calls for independence for Wales, they will be fuelled by the pragmatism of the indy-curious and not necessarily just by nationalism.
A recent Welsh Government report, Reforming our Union, has concluded that this Parliament should allow Wales to hold an independence referendum if politicians who call for one win an Assembly election, and that the UK must be open to Wales voting to quit the union. In comments on the report, Mark Drakeford, the Welsh First Minister, himself a unionist, said that the parliamentary sovereignty model in which the UK Parliament is the highest form of authority in the land does not,
“provide a basis for the future”.
The fault-lines in our union are showing. The self-styled Minister for the Union, who is prepared cavalierly to break from the European Union and carelessly begin the dismantling of the UK by placing an economic border in the Irish Sea, needs to understand that giving himself a fine-sounding title will not in itself heal this fracturing union. That will require leadership and the ability to listen, to compromise and to put aside partisan opinions and make decisions that benefit everyone—but, above all, it will require a change in attitude.
English paternalism, however well meaning, has had its day. The devolved Administrations are reaching maturity and have their own visions of their future. I would prefer that future to be one that sees the nations of the UK working together as equals. If this union is to survive, the Government need to take action to secure it.
My Lords, it is a great pleasure to follow the noble Baroness, Lady Humphreys, whom I know well from the National Assembly and who always has valuable insights, for which I thank her very much.
This is a very interesting time to debate a Queen’s Speech. We have waited a long while for one and now I suspect that there will be two along in close succession, just like the proverbial buses. It is also interesting that it gives us the ability to look beyond the pathological obsession that we have had with Brexit as a House, and indeed as a Parliament, to some of the important things that need doing in our country. Let there be no doubt about it: out there, down at the Dog and Duck, people want us to get on to other things, and this gives us an opportunity to consider some of them.
There is much to welcome in the Queen’s Speech. I particularly welcome the Domestic Abuse Bill, which has massive cross-party support and will be one of the lasting legacies of the previous Prime Minister, Theresa May. I very much welcome it. Following on from what the noble Baroness said about devolution, it is important to note that we need some constitutional underpinning for the devolution settlement. It is important that the different arms of government speak together to exchange best practice on different policy areas, and it is important that we have some institutions to do that. In a very small way, in the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government, I set up a devolution forum whereby Scotland, Northern Ireland, Wales and England, or Westminster, could come together to discuss different policies. It was very valuable to be able to encourage other parts of the union in saying, “This works”, or, “This doesn’t work”, and I think that that should be picked up by other government departments. It is something that we really need to look at—it is unfinished work.
I personally welcome metro mayors, although there is more work to be done there. There is a gap in West Yorkshire, for example, that needs filling, but elsewhere it will be good to see what these proposals bring forward. I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Kennedy, that the English part of this dimension is the dog that has not barked, and we certainly have to look at that.
Perhaps I may say a few words about housing, which we have not touched on but is vital and is, believe me, one of the topics discussed in the Dog and Duck. We need not just action on building more houses but when doing so—we are in control as a Government on garden towns and villages, for example—we need to make sure that practice in best design is embedded there. We need to ensure that we improve our accessibility standards; there is a classic opportunity on the back of the Hackitt review to help both the disabled and all of us as we age. It just makes sense to do that. I know that the Minister is personally committed to these things but I would welcome some reassurance from her that we are committed to good design—I know that the Secretary of State is—to accessibility improvement for homes, to doing something on energy improvements in homes to meet our climate change targets and to providing cheaper energy for the people who live there. This is imperative; somebody—I think my noble friend Lord Duncan during Questions—said that the climate change agenda is the most important challenge we face as a world. That is certainly the case.
Integration is vital, and tied in with concerns about population growth is the important work we are doing on that. Some of this is driven by statute and some by government policy, but I would welcome reassurance on resources for the teaching of English to people whose first language it is not. There are a lot of those people, and this is something that people are very concerned about out there—our surveys have shown that there is unity on this.
The race disparity audit, which is also very much to the credit of the previous Prime Minister, Theresa May, has shown what we all suspected: that those with the worst life chances in our population by some margin are Gypsies, Roma and Travellers. They have atrocious outcomes in health and education. It is high time that we really did something for these communities. I know that we are committed to this, but I would welcome some timeline on what we are doing because it really is important.
There is also the definition of Islamophobia. This country led the world on the definition of anti-Semitism; it is very important that we do the same on Islamophobia. I am not sure whether this will be given statutory effect, but it is important and we have started that work. It would be valuable if the Minister could give some timeline for this and restate that commitment.
In this same area, hate crimes have gone up atrociously. The very important anniversary is coming up in 2020 of remembering Srebrenica and the dreadful genocide that happened there 25 years ago. It is an important commemoration year. We have a valuable British Bosnian population; as a Government we have a commitment to ensuring that this is properly celebrated, so I would like reassurances on what they are doing to back up Waqar Azmi, head of Remembering Srebrenica, in this crucial year.
There is much to welcome here, particularly on domestic abuse and climate change, on which there is much to do in terms of our commitments. We have the Conference of the Parties in Glasgow in 2020, which is a great opportunity to lead the world on this issue. These are the challenges that will face us when we are through Brexit. I know we will not be through all of Brexit for some time, but, at least when we are through the major decision on it, for heaven’s sake, let us begin to tackle the things that really matter to the people of this country and will matter for years to come.
My Lords, it is arguable that Brexit is not primarily about Europe. It was about other things: austerity, inequality and immigration. To a degree, it is also about the constitution. The distaste for and dissatisfaction with the constitution that emerged from about the 1970s onwards, particularly in Scotland, has been made far worse by the atmosphere of poisonous nationalism released during the Brexit controversy.
Some of the complaints about the constitution have been exaggerated—for example, the criticism of the judiciary and the Supreme Court, which founded its view on traditional ideas of parliamentary sovereignty going back to the reign of James I. Others were more serious. The subtle interaction, as mentioned by noble Lords, of convention, tradition and precedent has been undermined, partly by the Prime Minister and partly by the leaders of other political parties, including my own. It is striking that, apart from a few generalities, the Queen’s Speech said very little about these issues.
Going rapidly through some of my points, the monarchy has of course been affected in a way that I think is very dangerous for the Head of State, with the wrong, unlawful advice that the Queen was given about the Prorogation of Parliament. Parliament itself has been treated in a most extraordinary way, with the Prime Minister suggesting at various times that he might not obey a vote of no confidence or legislation passed by the House of Commons. His view of Prorogation was the same as that taken by Charles I and we all know what happened to him.
As the noble and learned Lord, Lord Judge, said very properly in his remarkable speech, the tendency has been towards the Executive taking over the powers of the legislature—Henry VIII powers. I noticed some discussion in a newspaper article comparing Boris Johnson to Henry VIII, not to mention Anne Boleyn. With legislation, the effect has increasingly been of the Executive exercising Henry VIII powers to take over prerogative powers.
Parliament has been diminished by the way the referendum has been deemed, quite wrongly, the fount of sovereignty. After all, the referendum—whatever one thinks about the dismal quality of the campaign—was only an advisory mechanism and far too much weight has been imposed on it. It is very fortunate that we have well-meaning citizens such as Gina Miller who have taken up the role of challenging these tendencies in a way that the constitution itself has been unable to do.
We have had attempts to use Parliament or portray it as the enemy or the embodiment of the elite. That is very wrong. In passing, the Civil Service has been undermined and described as no longer being servants of the Crown, as the noble Lord, Lord Armstrong, observed. Instead, war is being waged against it by the phenomenon of Mr Dominic Cummings.
The law at least is powerful. It should be. The rule of law is so essential to the way we live. There were some interesting aspects to the famous Supreme Court case. One was that the court was absolutely unanimous in its judgment that the Prime Minister was wrong and had acted unlawfully. I notice that this view was also taken by Lord Justice Sumption. The constitutional position was stated very clearly and emphasised that judicial review is central to the procedures of the constitution. The judges are not enemies of the people; they are central to our freedoms.
Finally, I totally agree with what the noble Baroness, Lady Humphreys, observed about devolution. Devolution was threatened by the way the EU withdrawal Bill was pushed. It was very dangerous in its effect on Scotland. It also caused great dismay and disappointment in Wales and strengthened the cause of nationalism there.
In all these respects, we need to protect the constitution. It is being partly protected by the courts. Having had the great privilege of serving on the Constitution Committee with some of the distinguished speakers who have spoken, I suggest that the House of Lords and its constitution should remain the guardian of the way we live.
My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Horam, pointed out that the Minister will have a difficult job responding to 50 speeches on a rather eclectic variety of topics. I note that I appear to come at the end of a small group from Wales. I am not from Wales, but I am originally from Liverpool, so it is close enough. I might touch at the end on a devolved issue, not for Wales, but for Northern Ireland.
Exactly five years ago to the day, I arrived in your Lordships’ House with a mixture of excitement and trepidation, because the then Black Rod had led us to believe that when we were introduced we had to do a whole set of things and that if we started looking round and smiling at our families it would put us on a very dangerous path indeed. No smiling was to be done and no looking up at the Gallery. I very much hope that the noble Lord, Lord Woolley, and the noble Baroness, Lady Penn, who were introduced today, had a slightly easier and more fulfilling entry into your Lordships’ House. I also hope that at least one of them and I will still be alive in 2040 or 2045. Some of us are slightly below the average age in your Lordships’ House. We might still see a little more of the 21st century than the noble Lord, Lord Hodgson, suggested.
However, it never occurred to me when I arrived in your Lordships’ House that four of the last five years would be spent preparing for a referendum on the UK’s relationship with the European Union, having that referendum and trying to deal with its consequences. Far less did I anticipate speaking in a Queen’s Speech debate in October. After all, the expectation was that elections would be once every five years, so the likelihood would have been a Queen’s Speech in May or June this year and another after a general election next year. We are in a very strange time.
I also feel that we had a somewhat unusual Queen’s Speech; perhaps Her Majesty the Queen was reading something that looked a little closer to a Conservative Party manifesto than a standard gracious Speech. In particular, this afternoon when the noble and learned Lord, Lord Keen of Elie, made his introductory remarks it felt as if he was trying to read out a Conservative Party manifesto. One of the problems with party manifestos is that it is not wholly clear that they are intended to be read at all. If they are, they are not intended to be read out loud to an audience.
A set of proposals came forward, some of which were quite encouraging and others of which sounded a little worrying, depending on which side of the political spectrum one comes from. In the Prime Minister’s notes to the gracious Speech he asserts that,
“we will seize the opportunities that Brexit will bring to take back control of our borders … and we will pave the way for a new points based immigration system”.
The gracious Speech itself pointed out that Her Majesty’s Government remain,
“committed to ensuring that resident European citizens, who have built their lives in, and contributed so much to, the United Kingdom, have the right to remain”.
That is a very positive statement. It continues:
“The Bill will include measures that reinforce this commitment”.
Could the Minister reassure the House and those millions of EU citizens who have given so much of their lives to this United Kingdom that the legislation really will give them the rights they deserve? Another aspect of the gracious Speech and the accompanying notes was a very clear commitment to ending free movement for EU citizens. How do those two things go together?
Further, while, like my noble friend Lady Pinnock, I am delighted to see the commitment to adult social care and to the NHS, could the Minister reassure the House that the Government have assessed Brexit’s impact on the NHS and, in particular, the care sector, for EU nationals who work in them? A points-based immigration system, intended to bring in the brightest and the best, the most talented and the best educated, does not guarantee to bring in the people the care sector relies upon. There are some very real concerns embedded in the gracious Speech.
Finally, like other noble Lords I looked closely at the gracious Speech and noted the commitment to the United Kingdom, which is very important. Her Majesty announced that:
“The integrity… of the union that binds the four nations of the United Kingdom is of the utmost importance to my Government. My Ministers will bring forward measures to support citizens across all the nations of the United Kingdom”.
Can the Minister who winds up the debate give us examples of such measures? Can she reassure us that when the Prime Minister talked of the need for,
“a new vision for Britain”, he really meant “this United Kingdom”? Was it just an oversight? I hope so, because the UK and Northern Ireland deserve better.
My Lords, I begin by expressing my support for our Prime Minister, who is facing the Herculean task of ensuring that we leave the EU with a deal. The sooner we can draw a line under this and move forward, the sooner we can return to addressing other important domestic issues that have had to be neglected in the wake of the Brexit debate.
I very much welcomed this sentence in the Queen’s Speech:
“My Government remains committed to working with all parties in Northern Ireland… to address the legacy of the past”.
I pay tribute to all those who helped bring about the Northern Ireland peace process. I am aware of the huge effort and the immensely difficult compromises that this entailed.
However, I regret that there was no clause in the Queen’s Speech initiating a Bill to protect those former soldiers who have served in Northern Ireland. No one is above the law, but there must now be legislation to protect those whose selfless service has been to uphold the law. I welcome the Prime Minister’s commitment to action on this issue. It is quite wrong that our veterans are subjected to the threat of repeated investigations and potential prosecution in connection with historical operations many years after the events in question. When I served in Northern Ireland during the Troubles, the article of faith was that if we did the right thing and followed the rules of engagement, the system would always back us up. This was essential in inspiring confidence.
I have raised the case of former Life Guards Corporal Major Dennis Hutchings several times in this House. I declare an interest in that I served with him in this country and overseas, and I can confirm that he was an exemplary soldier. He has been committed for trial in a Crown Court in Belfast on a charge of grievous bodily harm with intent and attempted murder. The Northern Ireland DPP recently permitted the trial by jury of Ivor Bell, accused of an IRA killing, but prevented Dennis from having a jury trial. This cannot be fair.
The Supreme Court has now set a precedent in Dennis’s case. Any future trials of service personnel will take place without a jury. Many members of my regiment, the Life Guards, believe this to be a grave injustice and that scrutiny has been applied to the security forces in a way that has not been insisted on for others. I am also concerned that effective legal help is not being given to all ex-servicemen for non-High Court inquests and coroners cases, as these can lead to prosecution. Do the Government really want to see these loyal former servicemen sent to prison? I cannot believe that they do. In light of these words in the Queen’s Speech:
“My Ministers will honour the Armed Forces Covenant”, can the Minister give me an assurance that the Government will introduce the comprehensive legislation to protect these ex-servicemen without any further delay?
My Lords, I was delighted to see that the gracious Speech included a commitment to publish a White Paper,
“to enable decisions that affect local people to be made at a local level”, and to unleash regional potential. The word on the street is that we can expect to see that White Paper before Christmas. If we do, it will not be before time, because our current system of governance is close to being dysfunctional. For me, the big question is whether the Government have in mind further tinkering with this dysfunctional system, or whether they have the courage and the capacity to be bold and deliver proposals which genuinely address the flaws in the current arrangements—if not all at once, then over a period of time, and in all, not just some parts, of the country.
Our system is more centralised than that of any other developed country. To change that, the Government will need to reduce the power of Westminster and Whitehall by devolving significant power to localities to prioritise their spending. Are they prepared to do so, or are they only committed to the decentralisation of power to implement decisions which have already been taken at the centre? Maybe civil servants and Ministers still believe that they know better than the people of Gloucestershire, Northumberland, Cornwall or East Anglia. If they do, they should reflect on the fact that many people voted for Brexit because they felt that they had lost the power to shape their own lives. Simply repatriating powers to a sadly discredited centre of government will not be enough to meet their expectations. Instead, as the nine metro mayors urged recently, we should move quickly to a place-based approach to strategy and budgeting, starting with next year’s comprehensive spending review.
We have a system which not only is excessively centralised but has become increasingly fragmented—some might say confused. The landscape of local services encompasses county councils, district councils, mayors, combined authorities, local economic partnerships, police and crime commissioners, separate fire and rescue services, health trusts, clinical commissioning groups, children’s trusts and private sector providers. I could go on. Not surprisingly, citizens are confused and this mass of independent agencies often fail to co-operate and deliver services which make any sense to their clients. If noble Lords doubt this, they should ask any vulnerable, frail old person, fighting to make sense of the different forms, procedures and regulations required by one or other of the bureaucracies whether this all makes sense, because it does not. If merging some of the bodies is a step too far in the short term, we need to look at ways to better incentivise joint working, again perhaps using a place-based budgeting approach.
Inevitably, this level of fragmentation, which we have encouraged, has also led to reduced accountability. Exactly who is responsible for the success or failure of a particular project or service? Even at the National Audit Office, which I chair, we struggle on occasion to answer that question. Sometimes we even think that was the intention. Confused accountability leads to waste and a failure to accept responsibility and learn from mistakes. Any new arrangements need to clarify accountability rather than further obfuscate. There need to be new ways of ensuring that the non-statutory sector, the voluntary groups and the charity and not-for-profit groups, are genuine partners in meeting the needs of local communities. Many of them feel that they are not at the moment, and many feel unable to liberate the talents of their workers and volunteers. If we can do just some of those things, Whitehall civil servants—currently so stretched—will be able to devote their efforts not to the location of street signs but to issues which only national government can resolve, such as immigration, climate, the environment, trade and the productivity catastrophe, where our recent record has been lamentable.
It is 10 years since the then Chief Secretary, on my advice, launched a scheme called Total Place to improve the quality of services and value for money through better joint working between service providers, statutory and non-statutory. It was hugely popular, with more than 100 areas quickly committing to it. Sadly, the coalition failed to grasp its significance—shame on the devolutionists in the Chamber—but could we be on the threshold of a similar place-based approach to local government? Could we be about to revive Total Place—obviously, completely rebranded? I can only dream.
My Lords, it is a pleasure to follow the noble Lord, Lord Bichard; I much agree with what he has just said. I also associate myself with the remarks of my good friend, the noble Lord, Lord Kennedy of Southwark, about the noble Lord, Lord Bourne. As a vice-chairman of the Local Government Association, I know how true that its.
I welcome the gracious Speech, its measures on crime and the victims of crime outside and inside the home, on good education and a clean environment, and its strong tone of humane concern for those who are sick and old. This is anything but a programme for an extreme Government.
But, of course, when one listens to a gracious Speech, nothing strikes one more than the voice that reads it—that unique, unforgettable voice; how I dread the day when that should be stilled. It is the voice of serenity above turmoil, dignity above conniving, duty above self-interest, healing above rancour. It is the voice of stability, the voice of the United Kingdom.
The bedrock of our constitution is the Queen in Parliament. For my part, I have been sad in these last days to see the expressed will of the Queen in Parliament impeached and overturned. These are matters to which we must return, the fall-out from past legislation and recent decisions which we must review, but I do not want to dwell on them today.
I am deeply troubled by the tone and conduct of this Parliament. Each passing week, the problem seems more acute and the reputation of Parliament sinks lower, and the gulf between Parliament and much of the public grows wider. Was it not sad that on the one day that many of us had longed for, when people for once took some interest in the proceedings of Parliament when they were televised live to millions, a too-clever-by-half procedural device in the Commons denied the nation resolution and prolonged the agony that has surely rent our social fabric for far too long?
There are aspects of this deal that noble Lords will know I do not much care for, but enough—enough. The Spartans have sheathed their swords; let those on the other side show the same spirit of compromise. Let Fabius the Delayer come down from his high place and lay down his sword. Es ist genug. Let us move on.
Today, for the first time since May 1641 and profoundly mistakenly, we have a law that the House of Commons cannot be dissolved except by its own volition. Untouchability in the Commons did not serve us too well in the 1640s. That House avowed very high ideals, but it executed Ministers without trial, beheaded the Archbishop of Canterbury, committed regicide, abolished your Lordships’ House and dissolved into military dictatorship. I do not of course say that the House protected by the Fixed-term Parliaments Act—in my view, a written antidote to any cry for a written constitution—is capable of such excesses, but a sense of inviolability inevitably has a behavioural effect. The fixed-term Act protects a Commons reckless of past promises and the popular will. That is a view I know some contest, yet, unequivocally, as proved by its own votes, that inviolable House is unwilling to face the general election that Mr Johnson has offered and test the verdict of the people as to whom they trust to carry the nation forward.
Bad cases do not make good laws. The profound crisis provoked by this Parliament’s failure to do what the people by lawful majority asked should not stampede us to more incautious constitutional change. Before that—and how much I agreed with the wise speech of the noble and learned Lord, Lord Judge—we should examine the harm and conflict flowing from some recent innovations thrust into our long-standing constitutional law and conventions. I do not exclude from that referendums, first or second.
I am an optimist. I believe that we can rebuild conventions, and the common sense and flexibility that convention both encourages and requires. We can treat our opponents with more respect. That should begin with a Prime Minister who backed Mrs May’s compromise and now offers us another, and who has been subjected to a campaign of personal vilification and who is no would-be dictator. Rather, he is a widely read, deeply civil, good humoured, humane and liberal-minded person, whose optimism appealed across all divides as a twice-elected Mayor of London and wishes to do so again.
We politicians cannot heal this nation without seeing in others opposite the sense of duty, decency, principle and concern for the common weal that motivates almost all who turn their hands to the hard, high vocation of public service. Healing cannot come without respect. Agreement cannot come without compromise. Conflict cannot be ended without permitting a 12 year- old boy to walk home with his father without a police escort.
“O wad some Power the giftie gie us
To see oursels as ithers see us!
It wad frae mony a blunder free us,
An’ foolish notion”.
I beg that we should hear and heed the tone of the gracious voice of the United Kingdom.
My Lords, I want to acquaint noble Lords with the position on the Urgent Question and Oral Statement. The Statement has not yet started in the House of Commons, so we will have to delay our Question and Oral Statement. Let us say that it will not be before 6.15 pm and hope that they will have started it by then. Otherwise, we will have to be flexible again.
My Lords, when the Prime Minister of Britain breaks the law by illegally suspending Parliament and openly pits elected parliamentarians against the people, we are sailing perilously close to a nasty form of authoritarianism that has led to dictatorship in the not-too-distant past. In threatening to circumvent the Benn Act and the law, the Prime Minister is courting the basest form of populism. The UK’s unwritten constitution makes it clear that we are a representative parliamentary democracy and not a one-man banana republic or dictatorship. While it is undeniable that the British people voted by a narrow margin for Brexit, it was never clear what form that might take. Over three years later, it seems reasonable to offer the electorate a say on the form of Brexit now proposed.
As a historian, though not as distinguished a one as many noble Lords in the Chamber today, I will make a couple of historical allusions. First, Boris Johnson should beware of what happened to Charles I when he tried to bypass Parliament and rule from 1629 to 1640 with his eleven years’ tyranny, a historical period mentioned by the noble Lord, Lord True. This led not only to civil war and the execution of Charles I, after his impeachment and trial, but also the trial in Westminster Hall and execution of his chief adviser, the Earl of Strafford. Dominic Cummings should remember that fact when he next advises the PM to bypass Parliament. While I would not press the parallel too far, there is a case for impeaching Cummings and locking him up in the Elizabeth Tower.
My second historical allusion takes me to Russia. In 1991, another Boris, Boris Yeltsin, deliberately orchestrated the disintegration of the USSR, so that he, as President of the Russian Federation, could seize power in the rump of the old Soviet Union. Our own Boris is willing to do the same, taking risks with the union in Scotland and Northern Ireland, in order that he can hang on as PM of a little England with just Wales attached. Furthermore, as is the penchant of our PMs and their advisers, the Queen’s Speech itself repeated an old Soviet slogan. We heard Tony Blair promote Vladimir Ilyich Lenin’s phrase: “Education, education, education”. Boris Johnson’s Queen’s Speech advocates a “new economic policy”. Is he, or his advisers, aware that the “New Economic Policy”, or NEP, was announced by Lenin in 1921, and later abandoned by Stalin in his “great break” with the past, leading to mass collectivisation? Premier Johnson is now promoting his own great break with the EU, at great economic cost to the country. Have I gone to sleep and woken up in the Soviet Union, led by a megalomaniac pursuing policies of economic ruin? Perhaps the PM’s advisers need a bit more “Education, education, education”.
In conclusion, this country’s unwritten constitution, the rule of law and our representative democracy are the envy of the world. Those who seek to undermine it do no service to the British people and the cause of democracy, which we all rightly cherish.
My Lords, it is a pleasure to contribute to this debate. I will speak primarily on the climate emergency. I would have spoken in the debate on Thursday, but I had, in parallel with it, a meeting of the Committee on Standards in Public Life, the work of which is needed at present, as the noble Lord, Lord True, reminded the House. I therefore missed the introduction to that debate by the noble Baroness, Lady Vere of Norbiton, but I was careful to read it and was able to listen to much of the remainder of the debate in the afternoon. Many noble Lords spoke about the need to revolutionise our transport system, the technology of power generation and the lifestyle choices that we make. I will focus on another vital ingredient of tackling the climate emergency which is relevant to today’s subject: the need to tackle carbon reduction in our built environment. That crosses so many ministerial and departmental policy silos that I could have spoken in any debate. I hope that, when she winds up, the Minister will be able to give reassurance on some of my points.
The heating, lighting and powering of buildings is responsible for about one-third of the United Kingdom’s CO2 emissions. That includes our homes, schools, hospitals, care homes, offices, factories and shops. It also includes colleges, universities and civic buildings. I point out to the noble and learned Lord, Lord Keen of Elie, that it also includes courts and prisons—we are clearly going to be needing some more prisons. It includes national and local civic buildings and places of entertainment and worship. The typical house emits more carbon dioxide in a year than a typical car. Yet public policy is focused towards cutting emissions from road vehicles, for which significant subsidies are available, with public policy on saving energy for buildings actually going backwards since 2015. I speak as the Minister who was responsible for getting the zero-carbon homes policy ready to go live in 2016, only to share the frustration and anger of the industry when that policy was abandoned by the new Conservative Government in 2015, together with the scrapping of the Green Deal, which aimed at upgrading the performance of existing homes. However, I acknowledge the work of the previous Chancellor, Philip Hammond. His Spring Statement this year gave notice of the future homes standard, aimed at resuming forward progress. I am sure it is completely coincidental that he has since had the Tory Whip removed.
The Government are now consulting on new, higher standards of energy performance for new homes. If they go forward, these would come into force in two stages in 2025. The Government dress up this nine-year delay in reaching the standard that was going to come into play in 2016 as evidence of their being “the greenest Government ever”—I think that comes under the heading of “classic Dom”. We have had a Queen’s Speech with almost nothing to say about the urgent steps needed, in every policy area, to combat the climate emergency. We have got an Environment Bill, and it offers some useful and interesting ideas but, as drafted at the moment, it will make no measurable impact on cutting CO2 emissions. We have a belated consultation on introducing higher standards for newer homes, but that will not be until 2025. There is absolutely nothing planned to raise the energy performance of the 20 million homes that are already built and whose planned life extends beyond 2050. There is nothing about raising new building standards for all the other kinds of buildings, new or existing. There is nothing even about enforcing energy performance certificates for homes, nor displaying them on all the other buildings to which the public have access. That would be the safest of nudge policies, yet the current Government have deliberately allowed them to fall into misuse and no use. I asked a Question about how many of the Government’s buildings actually had a display energy certificate—which, incidentally, is a legal necessity—but they have not got the slightest idea.
The Liberal Democrats have plans to tackle all these things and more and an intention to reach the target of carbon neutrality for our country in 2045, not 2050. The climate emergency requires urgent action on all fronts now. The built environment has to be rapidly moved up the Government’s agenda for action. Sadly, the Queen’s Speech is a feeble and disappointing signal of their intentions.
My Lords, the gracious Speech is welcome in identifying a range of measures of domestic importance and not focusing exclusively on Brexit. However, Brexit is the fundamental issue facing the nation. A combination of unique developments has resulted in the debate surrounding Brexit putting our constitutional fabric under intense pressure.
The debate on Brexit is toxic and it is binary. We are used to the politics of justification, with each side able to engage with the other. What we now have is the politics of assertion, with each side shouting at the other and not being interested in the response. The language is stark and often takes the form of accusation and abuse. The nature of the debate is exacerbated by, and contributes to, the tensions that now exist and which pose a serious threat to the Westminster model of government. Those engaging in the debate are so consumed by the moral superiority of their policy goal that they treat our constitutional arrangements as secondary to achieving that goal.
At the heart of the Westminster system is the concept of accountability. There is one body responsible for public policy—the party in government. Collective responsibility ensures that it is a united entity, accountable between elections to Parliament and at elections to electors. Parliament scrutinises and challenges the Government but does not seek to substitute policy of its own. MPs have always privileged party above the interests of the House of Commons. Party, however, has facilitated accountability. We are in an exceptional situation where no one body is accountable. Electors cannot hold themselves to account for the outcome of a referendum. Electors cannot hold to account a transient majority comprising an ad hoc amalgam of parties and independents in the House of Commons.
The position we are in derives from the collision of two concepts of democracy. We had an exercise in direct democracy in the form of a referendum, and an exercise in representative democracy the following year, producing results not clearly compatible one with the other. The House of Commons has sought to wrest control of public policy from the Government. That, as I have argued before, is not “taking back control”: you cannot take back something you did not have in the first place. Because a transient majority cannot be held to account, it is an exercise in power without responsibility.
It is a unique situation and it is important that we do not seek to generalise from an N of one. We need to stand back and make sense of what is happening, not rush to judgment with calls for reform of the constitution. We hear calls for a written, or codified, constitution. It is not clear how, had we had one, the present situation would be any different. It is not so much an answer as a displacement activity.
The gracious Speech has the merit of not rushing to judgment and advancing any constitutional reform. I welcome that. I also caution the Government against listening to those who, in their failure to grasp the principles of our system of government, advocate change to bodies that produce decisions with which they disagree, be they the courts or this House. Perhaps my noble friend Lady Williams will confirm that the Government have no plans for changes to our constitutional framework and that Ministers will comply not only with statutory obligations but with the expectations and moral obligations imposed by conventions of the constitution.
Our system of government is sound, but recent events have undermined popular support, especially for the House of Commons. The most recent Hansard Society Audit of Political Engagement showed that only 25% of those surveyed had confidence in the Members of the House of Commons in handling Brexit; 73% had not very much or no confidence. Furthermore, 42% of those questioned agreed with the statement:
“Many of the country’s problems could be dealt with more effectively if the government didn’t have to worry so much about votes in Parliament”.
That is a remarkable finding, impossible to imagine in earlier years.
The challenge for parliamentarians, especially Members of the other place, is to recognise that the solution lies not with constitutional reform but with their own behaviour. They are part of the problem. They need to become part of the solution. That requires a degree of balance and self-awareness that has been sadly lacking.
My Lords, my contribution to this debate on the humble Address considers the forward direction for housing policy in the UK and is Brexit-free. I draw attention to my housing interests in the register. This Queen’s Speech was virtually silent on housing, yet the issue is often cited, particularly by those aged under 40, as their most pressing concern. As the Affordable Housing Commission, which I chair, has found, rents now often absorb well over 40% of a household’s income, leading to arrears, debt and personal problems. From the most affluent suburbs to the most modest council estates, so many young people in their 30s must stay in their childhood homes because the only alternative is a privately rented flat at a rent they cannot afford. Buying a home has become a distant dream, especially in the southern half of England. Rough sleeping is more visible on our streets and acute shortages mean families and children living in temporary accommodation, such as bed and breakfast hotels, on a scale unseen for many years. Housing costs and conditions so often lie behind the other social ills of poverty and ill health.
Your Lordships might expect me to be horrified that no announcements were forthcoming in the Queen’s Speech to address these pressing problems of housing scarcity and affordability, but if the absence of new measures means continuity in the pursuit of policies now in the pipeline—a continuation of a direction of travel set by Mrs May and her Housing Ministers—no news may well be good news. I have paid tribute in this Chamber to the way the previous Prime Minister sought to reshape housing policy during her tenure. In a seminal speech at the end of her period in office, to the September conference of the National Housing Federation, she talked of government becoming the victim of a single-minded drive for home ownership, when the most pressing need was for homes at modest rents.
On Mrs May’s watch, some of the highly unfortunate measures in the Housing and Planning Act 2016 were scrapped or abandoned: an end to the forced sale of the best council housing to pay for an extension of the right to buy; abandoning the horrid “pay to stay”, whereby council tenants would have to pay more if they made a success of their lives and increased their earnings; and scrapping the plan to end secure, lifetime tenancies in the social sector. More positively, the cap on borrowing to build council housing was abolished, which is now leading to an emerging new stream of affordable accommodation. Indeed, we even have a model for what council housing for the 21st century should look like, following the award of the coveted Stirling Prize for architecture to Norwich Council’s new street of 105 energy-efficient, secure, well-designed family homes in a real community setting. As one new tenant there remarked, “I feel like I don’t rent it, I own it”.
This direction of travel has also embraced reforms to private renting, including abolishing agents’ letting fees for tenants, a commitment to end no-fault evictions and the creation of a new ombudsman for private landlords and their tenants. Housing associations have been given access to new funds for social rent, which has started the return to building what is really needed rather than being pushed into letting at rents mistakenly termed affordable, but which are, in so many areas, beyond the reach of people in the lower half of the income range.
All these changes from Mrs May’s Administration —I pay tribute to the noble Lords, Lord Barwell and Lord Bourne, and Toby Lloyd, who advised her—represent steps in absolutely the right direction. They should lead, if undisturbed by any countermeasures, to government acceptance that what is needed is for at least a third of their target of 300,000 homes a year to comprise homes to rent within the means of those on average incomes and below. We all know that this has to mean a significant increase in the levels of grant to social housing landlords, but we also know that investment in affordable new homes pays for itself—unlike, for example, the £1.7 billion a year spent on temporary accommodation for homeless families. Paying grant up front saves far more further down the line, not least in finally reducing the housing benefit bill and in cutting social care and health costs. I add that, while waiting for the payback on capital investment in new homes, social security policy must keep up. Shockingly, benefit freezes and caps mean that increasing numbers of the poorest households are having to make up a shortfall on the payment of rent out of the benefits intended for their living costs.
My question to the Minister is simple: can we take the lack of mention of housing issues in the Queen’s Speech as a positive sign that there will be no turning back from the path chosen by Mrs May? Will the Government take forward her important consumer reforms for the private rented sector and continue to pursue energetically her programme of supporting a new era for council housing, and will the upcoming Budget herald significant extra investment in the development of truly affordable rented homes?
My Lords, I wish to concentrate of the Government’s promise to,
“protect the integrity of democracy and the electoral system”.
It has been suggested that their intention is to address only an alleged, tiny and peripheral problem of impersonation at polling stations. I shall come back to that later. Far more important and urgent are a number of reforms which are necessary, and which have been the recommendation of the official bodies that advise Parliament, to make our electoral law fit for purpose.
First, following the Supreme Court judgment last year, election candidates and their agents need the clarity of the recent codes of practice from the Electoral Commission to be approved. Without them, the dividing line between national campaign and constituency campaign expenditure will remain a dangerous legal minefield for all those involved in elections.
Secondly, and similarly, it would be unthinkable to trigger a general election in the next few months without implementing the unanimous recommendation of the Information Commissioner’s Office, the Electoral Commission and the DCMS Select Committee that there must be effective transparency for all online political messages. This should apply especially within the short campaign period for an election and for a referendum, but the law must move on from the analogue age to embrace digital campaigning. Facebook and the other platforms have recognised the need for this, but surely it should not be left to those commercial organisations to protect the integrity of our electoral process.
Thirdly, legislation for a possible people’s vote referendum has already been drafted by the cross-party and non-party group that I convened last year. We were able to demonstrate that the objections of the Brexiteers that it would take too long to implement were unfounded. It could be done in weeks. Indeed, a legal source said today that it could be done in six weeks, as was the case in 1975. The timetable we presented to the Cabinet Office envisaged a one-clause paving Bill to enable the Electoral Commission to begin its consultations immediately, while the fuller Bill would remove the defects of the 2015 Act. The choice would be much simpler than in 2016. The Government’s proposal would have to be clearly stated in a White Paper as an alternative to the equally clear proposition of remaining exactly as we are now. Where there is a political will there must surely be a parliamentary way. If diehard MPs or Members of your Lordships’ House attempted to filibuster, they would surely be exposed as wishing to sabotage the “will of the people”—to use the expression that they themselves like to use.
Fourthly, in its recent report the Electoral Commission highlights the extent to which the register is neither complete or accurate; it should surely be a priority task for government to improve the integrity of the electoral system to make it as easy as possible for all eligible citizens—at home or abroad—to register and then to vote. We should be improving the number of people voting, rather than discouraging them from doing so as active citizens.
The commission chairman highlights that only 71% of young people aged 18 to 34 in Great Britain are correctly registered and that, overall, 17% of eligible voters here are not correctly registered at their current address. These are major defects and they require immediate attention. These issues must be taken alongside the entirely justifiable challenges put before your Lordships this afternoon by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Judge, and echoed by the noble Lord, Lord Morgan, and my noble friend Lord Beith. Our constitutional settlement is very vulnerable.
By contrast, the incidence of fraud at the polling station is minuscule. The additional cost to local authorities of providing the new ID for the millions who have no passports or driving licences should itself be challenged as dubious value for money. More relevant, surely, would be to sort out the problem identified by the RNIB with the “tactile voting device” provided for blind and partially sighted electors. The court judgment that these arrangements are a,
“parody of the electoral process”, should lead to urgent government action.
I appreciate that the Minister replying to this debate will not be able to answer all these points, but I expect a detailed response from the Cabinet Office Minister in due course—when one is recruited. Apparently, no Cabinet Office Minister is answerable to your Lordships’ House at the moment.
Meanwhile, I make a plea for a much needed change in the level of public discourse. It has fallen to very unsatisfactory depths. Ministers’ talk of “saboteurs”, “the surrender Act” and “the people versus Parliament” may suit the short-term machinations of Mr Cummings, but it is doing long-term damage to our body politic. In the Times on
“Talk of betrayal will rebound on the Tories: Distrust is not a genie that can be put back in the bottle once those in power have exploited it”.
My noble friend Lord Paddick referred to the need for trust in our political system, and the noble Lord, Lord Cooper, pointed out recently that his focus groups were horrified by the extent to which people misunderstood what the Government were putting before them. Oversimplified slogans do not help to reinforce trust. Given that the only sure way to avoid years of Brexit bickering—whether with the Johnson deal or even no deal—is to stop Brexit now, the slogan “Get Brexit done” is a recipe for yet more disillusion, alienation and a genuine feeling of betrayal.
My Lords, I welcome the gracious Speech. I will focus on local government in a rural setting, and family law.
I hope the Minister will join me in applauding the initiative of North Yorkshire County Council in setting up what I understand is the first ever rural commission in England to look at issues such as housing, farming and transport to save North Yorkshire’s most rural communities from decline. There is a need for affordable homes in the rural setting—I pay tribute to the words of the noble Lord, Lord Best—particularly to allow older farmers to leave the farm and move into smaller accommodation, allowing the next generation to step into their farming shoes.
At the heart of rural communities lie farms and other rural businesses, as well as market towns, often in remote, isolated areas where transport is sparse and hospitals and GP practices are some distance away. While North Yorkshire is certainly one of the most beautiful counties in England, it is also one of the sparsest of all, with 85% of the county classed as—to use a new term—super sparse. The commission will report in a matter of months and will consider the particular challenges of deeply rural communities and make recommendations to maximise their sustainability with regard to housing, farming, transport, connectivity— such as broadband and mobile phone—and access to public services. I hope that its recommendations will not fall on the deaf ears of urban government, which is represented broadly in London.
Secondly, in the brave new post-Brexit world, the gracious Speech sets the scene for our future. In this regard, the immigration Bill sets out the procedure for ending free movement of people. That is a matter of personal regret to me, as I have enjoyed a number of opportunities, both as a student and having worked elsewhere in the European Union. However, a matter of greater concern and regret is that the position of almost 2 million Britons living in other European Union member states has still not been made clear. I believe that this is a missed opportunity and a great omission in the gracious Speech. What skill level and salary will be set for those from other European countries, or from Commonwealth and other countries? Will those skill sets be swept aside in the points-based system?
Will my noble friend assure the House today that we will continue to attract and make welcome workers from EU countries whom we hope will work on our fruit and vegetable farms and deliver our health and social care? Will the Government commit to increasing the number of those entering under the seasonal agricultural workers scheme? How does my noble friend imagine that the Government will address the current shortage of veterinary surgeons? Without all those workers, our rural economy will grind to a halt.
I welcome the Bills outlined in the Queen’s Speech which will help families. Examples include the Divorce, Dissolution and Separation Bill, which will minimise the impact of divorce on children in particular; and the private international law (implementation of agreements) Bill, affecting judgments handed out where one or other parent lives abroad. I speak with particular interest as co-chairman of the APPG on Child Contact Centres. However, are we seeking unilaterally to amend the Hague conventions which apply in this regard, because that would seem a very odd approach?
Most welcome are the Bills setting out new regimes for agriculture, fisheries and trade, changing measures that have been in effect for more than 40 years. Expectations run high that the Environment Bill will set out the means to protect our environment in the way that European Union policies have protected our waters, rivers and coasts in particular. Can my noble friend assure the House today that the level of protection from the new agency, the organisation for environmental protection, will be at least as strong as that currently exercised in the European Union? Will there be a role for the UK courts, taking up the previous jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice?
Finally, many of the decisions currently taken by the Scottish Parliament and the devolved Assemblies have been passed to Whitehall through the common frameworks. Can my noble friend commit to the House that they will be wound up in four rather than seven years, so that important decisions on fisheries, agriculture and other policies can revert to the devolved Governments?
My Lords, I want to raise two quite separate issues to the House. I am a member, with two MPs, of the review of sexual exploitation. We heard very disturbing evidence about the border police and the Border Force. There is a difference between entry passengers by air, who are carefully checked, and entry passengers at maritime ports, particularly Dover, where there is little, if any, checking at all. There is a lack of information for border control as to who is travelling. People can just turn up, buy a ticket and get on either the train or the ferry and come to the United Kingdom. There is no advance information.
We were told that Dover was a major route for victims. Albanians are arriving through Holyhead—traffickers and victims—and we know that a number of Albanian gangs are working, very effectively from their point of view, in England. How did they get in? Presumably, by the maritime ports or through St Pancras.
This is a very wide issue, not an EU issue at all. Border control cannot identify those who may be crooks or undesirables without advance information as to who they happen to be. There is a balance between stopping vehicles and interviewing those in cars or lorries and ensuring that queues do not reach for miles and miles. It looks as though the balance is in favour of getting the vehicles through.
There is also a problem with leaving by maritime ports. There are exit checks with the National Border Targeting Centre, but they do not come back in time, and within 45 minutes or so people are on the way to France. As I said, St Pancras is very important for people coming in and going out. There are not necessarily sufficient checks there, although they are better than at the maritime ports. I understand that there was a ministerial oversight team some time last year but, as far as I know, there has been no report and nothing done.
I am co-chairman of the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Human Trafficking and Modern Slavery, and we are very concerned about the entry for sexual exploitation or forced labour of victims coming through one or other of those ports. The Government are committed to a single entry policy for all immigrants.. Will the new policy pay particular attention to the need to intercept foreign crooks and other undesirables, particularly traffickers and the victims of traffickers across borders?
A foreign-national offenders Bill has been announced. Will the Government consult organisations experienced in the field, including the Human Trafficking Foundation, of which I am a vice-chair, so that work to help victims can be strengthened by renewed government efforts on prevention, which has been seriously overlooked?
My second issue is how best to deal with drug and drink addicts who are repeat offenders. There was reference in the Queen’s Speech to rehabilitation. Serial addicts go in and out of prison. In prison, they have access to drugs. Out of prison, they have no money to feed their addiction, so they end up back inside. There are alternatives. I suggest one to the Government, which is a residential clinic. It should be a requirement of probation that people go back to prison if they do not co-operate and stay, so there would be a tough regime. There would be work on the addiction and we would hope for rehabilitation. We would save a lot of money long term. Up front it would be expensive, but cost effective. Would the Government at least consider a pilot scheme? It would be well worth a trial for the benefit of the courts and prisons, which are both clogged up, and to address the high cost of reoffending.
My Lords, I want to say something about housing but I first pay tribute to the noble Lord, Lord Bourne, for his work as a Minister, particularly in relation to the private rented sector. It was always a pleasure to work with him.
I declare my vice-presidency of the Local Government Association. The Queen’s Speech says very little about housing. Indeed, in the five days of our debate, there is no mention of housing as a topic, despite the Government’s continual claims that they are committed to solving the housing crisis. The truth is that there is an absence of both money and clear policy objectives to solve that crisis. Some extra money was put into reducing homelessness over the summer, but it was insufficient. As the noble Lord, Lord Best, reminded us, at the Housing 2019 conference, the then Prime Minister, Theresa May, said that social housing has been a,
“victim of the single-minded drive for home ownership”.
She was right, but the big new idea of the current Housing Secretary seems to be to extend the right to buy to housing association properties. The problem he needs to solve first is the lack of supply of properties that people can afford to live in. This initiative seems more likely to worsen the housing crisis.
There is rising homelessness caused by the lack of supply of social homes. There are 277,000 people homeless in England today, with 7,000 families in bed-and-breakfast accommodation costing £93 million in the past year. There are 62,000 families homeless in England in temporary accommodation. Shelter reports that 3 million social homes are needed over the next 20 years, yet the Government built only 6,500 in the past year. Our waiting lists for social housing have a million people on them and the dream of home ownership is out of reach for many people. So I ask the Minister this specific question: will the Budget due next month start to address this serious lack of resources?
In London in June, the Greater London Authority and the G15 group of housing associations said that the government grant for affordable homes in London needed to increase sevenfold, to £4.9 billion a year. That is evidence of the scale of the problem that the Government need to address. Meanwhile, in the past two years, the 50 biggest housing associations have built more homes for market sale than they have for social rent. Given all the evidence, I conclude that the Government should suspend the right to buy, not extend it.
In this Queen’s Speech, I welcome the building safety standards Bill to improve high-rise safety, in particular, proposals around accountability and the enforcement of compliance. There are suggestions that there could be a Bill on reforming leasehold and commonhold; that would be welcome, as would the further strengthening of regulation in the private rented sector. Regarding the private rented sector, I hope that the Government will proceed with ending the Section 21 “no fault” termination of tenancies at six months. Can the Minister confirm the timings on that?
Today, the average price of a home is eight times average wages. In London and the south-east, it can be 12 to 15 times. Only 38% of people under the age of 34 own their own home. Thirty years ago, it was two-thirds. Generation Rent has pointed out that four in 10 young people live in the private rented sector. Twenty years ago, it was just one in 10. I conclude that the priority should be increasing the supply of new housing and doing so sufficiently to make housing genuinely affordable for those on average and low incomes.
Today, there is a welcome increase in the building programmes of local councils but we need much more. That means greater leadership and finance from the Government now that they claim that austerity is over. It needs a willingness to capture more of the rising value of land with planning permission for community benefit. It means an increase in capital investment in social housing to reduce the high levels of housing benefit going into the private rented sector, which now has to provide accommodation for one in five households.
As we work towards housing costs not exceeding a third of a person’s income, we need to stop calling homes affordable; self-evidently, the Government should not call homes affordable when they are simply not for so many people.