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Queen’s Speech - Debate (5th Day)

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 5:24 pm on 21st October 2019.

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Photo of Baroness Smith of Newnham Baroness Smith of Newnham Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Defence) 5:24 pm, 21st October 2019

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.