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Queen’s Speech - Debate (6th Day)

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 5:21 pm on 22nd October 2019.

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Photo of Lord Howell of Guildford Lord Howell of Guildford Conservative 5:21 pm, 22nd October 2019

My Lords, it is a pleasure to follow the noble Lord, Lord Kakkar, who always speaks with great authority and wisdom on health, and on scientific research and innovation, which are key to our future and the whole health service. I normally burden your Lordships with my views on international and overseas affairs and the shifting world order, having had the privilege to be the first chair of your Lordships’ Committee on International Relations. I chose to intervene instead on this present set of topics for three reasons.

We are living on an angry planet, to pinch a heading from the Times leader this morning. From Chile to Hong Kong, Lebanon to Venezuela, every part of the Middle East, every European capital to our own streets, e-enabled protest, organised on an unprecedented scale and driven through communications technology that is constantly changing rapidly, has become the norm. This anger affects all the issues we are discussing.

Oddly, there is little or nothing in the gracious Speech about turbulent outside world events, except of course the eternal Brexit, despite their major impact on our lives and issues here at home. In particular it is a great pity—indeed, I find it rather shocking—that there is no mention of the Commonwealth in the gracious Speech, considering its central importance to the UK’s future world role, our internal and domestic cohesion, our care systems and many of our public services, and the importance to Her Majesty personally of the modern Commonwealth network. To have included a reference would have been no more than good manners, but manners, courtesy and vision seem all to be victims of the present Brexit debate.

My second reason for seeking to speak today is that the internal good health of our democracy and society, aspects of which we are discussing, is essential to our external impact and influence, and safeguarding of our world interests. The inner health of our society is currently, as several speeches have emphasised, not as good as it should be. We really cannot go around pressing on other countries our Westminster model, our welfare state model, our elderly care model or our education model if they do not work well here. As my noble friend Lord Dobbs said in a brilliant speech at the beginning of our debate on the humble Address,

“if we are to offer lessons to others, we must relearn those lessons ourselves”.—[Official Report, 14/10/19; col. 9.]

A third reason for my intervening today is that it had passed through my mind that our situation, both nationally and internationally, would be rather different this week from last week and the gracious Speech, which now seems rather a long time ago. I thought that, by now, the deal would be settled. Foolish me. I should have realised that frustration is the name of the game, and I am afraid that it is going to go on. I read that Mr Jacob Rees-Mogg wants it settled in three days. It occurs to me that we should perhaps consult the Bible to learn about getting things done in three days.

The issue that I want briefly to discuss out of today’s list is pensions, workers’ benefits and employment. I extend that to savings, workers’ benefits and rights and security generally. These have all come into the Brexit debate, especially workers’ rights: there is a constant fear, vocalised much by the Opposition, that they will be watered down if we are outside the European Union. In an interview on the “Today” programme this morning, Nick Robinson reached a new low in ignorance combined with interruptive boorishness with Mr Jenrick, the Housing Secretary. The subject was rights and benefits. I also watched a much more polite and effective Andrew Marr on this issue. Neither Robinson nor Marr have grasped the difference between the big business, corporatist type of legislation for workers, mostly coming from the EU, and the small-business-friendly social and employment legislation that we need and which is far better suited to both workers and business in the digital age. In the digital age and a service-dominated economy, we can do far better for working people, employer-employee relations and secure retirement than the old corporatist model, which is shaped largely by big companies’ lobbies, philosophies and pressures in Brussels. It is not a question of watering down but of a different and far better deal for millions of workers in the highly disruptive age we are living in, which will become more disruptive still. We must break away from the heavy, big-business, corporatist approach of the old EU.

The pensions system is very much part of this story. I welcome the new safeguards, as have some of my colleagues, but I fear that pensions reform of this kind does not go half far enough for what is needed in a modern and unified society. We talk about an economy which works for everyone, but it is simply not happening and my own political party needs, as do all major parties, to redesign its stances from the bottom up to meet these fundamentally democratic needs: a genuine sharing of capital ownership and the security and dignity that go with it, on a scale not hitherto contemplated. We cannot build a party of the future on out-of-date and out-of-relevance ideologies from the past.

We will thrive only as an open nation committed to and interwoven with an utterly interdependent world. We must have our own modernised and flexible welfare and support arrangements for a disruptive and dangerous world which is being totally transformed. The gracious Speech had ambitions, but it seems drafted with too little of this in mind. We have to up our game if we are to meet the colossal challenges coming fast towards us.