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Queen’s Speech - Debate (5th Day)

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 5:00 pm on 21st October 2019.

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Photo of Lord Hodgson of Astley Abbotts Lord Hodgson of Astley Abbotts Chair, Secondary Legislation Scrutiny Committee 5:00 pm, 21st October 2019

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.