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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?