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Queen’s Speech - Debate (6th Day)

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 3:41 pm on 22nd October 2019.

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Photo of Baroness Sherlock Baroness Sherlock Shadow Spokesperson (Work and Pensions), Opposition Senior Whip (Lords) 3:41 pm, 22nd October 2019

My Lords, I thank the Minister for that introduction. She need not worry about repeating herself; I do that all too often—and I write my own speeches, so she has my sympathy. I am really looking forward to hearing speeches from around the House, but it is a disappointment that we will not get to hear the valedictory by the noble Baroness, Lady Emerton. I simply want to say for the record how much we on this side, especially my colleagues in the health team, have valued her contribution to the House, nursing education and the NHS more broadly. She will be greatly missed.

It feels slightly strange and unreal to be here discussing the details of Bills when out there, the Government only have eyes for Brexit. Indeed, the Prime Minister is champing at the bit to dissolve the Parliament which Her Majesty opened only last week with this gracious Speech. However, here we are, so we must do our job. The Minister has ably set out the Government’s vision for the future of Britain. As she said, the Prime Minister claims it is an ambitious programme which has at its heart a new vision for Britain and that the Government want to make the UK the greatest place to live, work and do business. This cannot be the greatest country to live in unless it is a great place for all our people to live in. We are interdependent, and the true flourishing of any of us depends on the flourishing of all of us, so my test of this speech and this programme is whether it can deliver on that vision.

The welfare state embodies a vision of Britain as a country where we take care of each other. We all pay into it and for it, because we all need it at some point. Some will need it more, but we do not know who that is going to be or whether it might be us. It supports those raising the next generation. It helps all of us at key life stages or in times of need—in pregnancy, sickness, unemployment or bereavement. It gives extra help to those who need it most: those with long-term illnesses or disabilities, or who care for others. It helps make work pay, and it supports us all in retirement. However, our system is increasingly losing its way. The past decade has seen massive cuts to benefits, damaging reforms, especially of disability benefits, and the awfulness that is universal credit. It has seen the demonisation of claimants and an explosion in benefit sanctions, often for the most minor infractions, which have combined to drive people into poverty and to take away their dignity. More and more people are struggling to make ends meet, dependent on food banks or even sending their kids to school hungry.

What, then, does the Queen’s Speech have to say about that situation? As we heard, there is one DWP Bill, the Pension Schemes Bill. We are in broad agreement with the stated aims of the Bill and we will crawl over the detail. My noble friends Lord McKenzie of Luton and Lady Drake will speak more about pensions later, but that is it: there is nothing on social security and the word “poverty” is mentioned nowhere, even though 14 million of our citizens—4 million of them children—are living in poverty. In-work poverty is on the rise and most poor children now live in working households.

What did Ministers think was going to happen when they set out to cut £37 billion from our social security system? The benefit freeze alone will have taken £4.4 billion from our poorest families by the time it ends next year. I was horrified recently to hear the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions refuse to rule out extending the freeze still further. To do that would be to deliberately and knowingly drive more people into poverty and deeper poverty, so I hope the Minister can reassure us that that will not happen. I trust that she will not say that that is a matter for the Budget, because while Ministers have been quite happy to trail tax cuts—there is always money for tax cuts—it is strange that there is never as much money when it comes to benefits for the poorest.

Labour has committed to a £3 billion programme to reverse the worst of the cuts, including the disgraceful two-child limit, and to begin to unpick the disasters of universal credit. A Labour Government would seek to change the culture and create a system dedicated to dignity, universalism and ending poverty. That is our vision of a country where everyone can flourish. Will the Minister tell us what the Government’s vision is?

Our welfare state pools risk across our population and across lifetimes. It is the companion service to the NHS, which also works on the basis that we pool our risk because any of us can get sick. It is because of that underlying vision that the NHS is more than just a public service: it embodies how we as a nation see ourselves as an interdependent community. I am sorry to say, however, that our NHS is struggling and there was not much comfort in the Queen’s Speech. Most of the funding announcements had previously been announced and most of the proposals—for example, for a long-term plan, reforming the Mental Health Act and addressing social care—are very much in the future. Right now, across the NHS, services are missing financial and performance targets. People are waiting ever longer for treatment and a shortage of staff threatens the quality of patient care. Where is the urgent concrete action to deal with these problems?

Meanwhile, social care is in crisis: adult social care is badly failing those who rely on it, with high levels of unmet need and providers struggling to deliver the quality of care that vulnerable people need and have a right to expect. However, the funding announcement on social care had previously been announced and £500 million has to be raised by councils themselves, even though those in the industry had made it clear that that was, in their words, a “short-term sticking plaster”. Without more funding or a detailed plan as to how we get there, older and disabled people will continue to be left without the care they need, and carers will increasingly buckle under the strain.

Labour has set out its vision for a national care service, but we do not know what the Government’s vision is. The Prime Minister promised us that he had a plan to fix the crisis once and for all, but I see no plan, just endless consultation. One has to assume that the ever-delayed Green Paper has perhaps finally bitten the dust. If so, we are left with no proposals and no legislative timetable for a social care Bill in this Parliament. I hope the Minister can contradict me because, if not, that simply is not good enough.

Mental Health was too often addressed in similarly broad terms. It is now almost a year since the independent review of the Mental Health Act was published, but we still do not have a White Paper. Ministers announced a mental health Bill in December 2018 but we still do not have one. There are urgent problems: mental health beds are closing; the mental health estate is crumbling; the CQC has recently reported chronic staff shortages and deteriorating services; children and young people are waiting more than a year for mental health services and many have been turned away because they were not yet bad enough. Can the Minister tell us when will we see some action? My noble friend Lady Wheeler will say more about social care in her contribution.

I am afraid that that pattern of revisiting old promises with slightly vague offers of new ones permeates the Queen’s Speech. In education, again, we are short on commitments to new legislation or policy. Even previous ministerial commitments that need legislation have not made their way into the Queen’s Speech. For example, Ministers said they would introduce a schools’ level-funding formula “as soon as possible” but where is it?

Only a few weeks ago the Secretary of State said that he would,

“put the school uniform guidance on a statutory footing”,

and will do so when a suitable opportunity arises. School uniform costs are rocketing and something is needed, but where is the legislation? Where is the guidance? Furthermore, despite specifically consulting on primary legislation to regulate home education, there is no sign of it in the Queen’s Speech. Can the Minister tell us why and when it will be brought forward? My noble friend Lord Watson of Invergowrie will talk more about education across the spread in his contribution.

The DCMS is the final area covered today but the key announcements on broadband rollout and online harms were covered in part by my noble friend Lord Stevenson of Balmacara on Thursday and my colleagues will pick that up later, so I will not dwell further on it here. However, I want to note the widespread disappointment that Ministers did not use the Queen’s Speech to commit to reverse the cuts to BBC funding for the over-75s licence fee. That should never have been dumped on the BBC in the first place and I urge the Government to review it. Labour will; will the Minister please do likewise?

We have looked at this programme through the lens of some of our most important public services and the welfare state as a safety net for all of us. Does that vision stand up to scrutiny? I do not think that it does. It is not enough just to declare that you want to make Britain great again. If we want a country where all our people can flourish and where they can fulfil their potential and contribute to the flourishing of the nation, government must will the means as well as the end.

We do not need another decade of cutting taxes for the better-off while slashing benefits for the poorest, of letting our most important public services lurch from crisis to crisis and of abandoning vulnerable people to the care of friends and family. We need a new era characterised by mutual care and by a determination to tackle inequality, protect the vulnerable and give every child the best possible start in life, wherever they live and however unwisely they chose their parents. That is the vision that I want to see and I urge the Government to follow that instead.