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Queen’s Speech - Debate (6th Day)

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 6:16 pm on 22nd October 2019.

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Photo of Lord Layard Lord Layard Labour 6:16 pm, 22nd October 2019

My Lords, the first question one should ask about any Queen’s Speech is: what is the overall objective of government policy? Is it the nation’s wealth? Is it the well-being of the citizens? What is it? To have coherent government, you must have an overall objective against which to measure policy. More and more people worldwide are demanding that the objective should be human experience—the well-being of the people—and I agree with that.

How does the Queen’s Speech stack up against the objective of well-being? Not well, I fear. To see this, let me compare the Speech with a recent report from the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Wellbeing Economics. The report addressed the key issue of what priorities for public spending would be if it were targeted at the well-being of the people—at the things that people really worry about. It concluded that the top four priorities were: better mental health services, which many noble Lords have said; secondly, child well-being and schools; thirdly, further education and apprenticeships—the transition to work; and, fourthly, social care. Of those four objectives, none of the first three appears in the Queen’s Speech, although they are things that parents—and all adults—are crying out for positive action on. Instead, the Speech is full of punishments of all kinds and the new strategy for the nation’s physical infrastructure. Those are the main priorities in the domestic part of the Speech.

What about the social infrastructure of our country? Over the past 10 years, we have closed hundreds of children’s centres, youth clubs and community centres. We have produced a crisis in child mental health. What is the sense of spending what new money we have on, for example, building high-speed rail, before we have rectified the desperate shortcomings of our social infrastructure? Many argue that the top priority must be physical infrastructure because that is what the market is willing to fund, because it gives a financial return, but so does social infrastructure. I shall give some examples from the field of mental health.

The NHS programme for improving access to psychological therapies has been found, within two years, to save more in reduced welfare benefits and reduced physical healthcare expenditure than the total amount spent on the programme. The net cost of the programme is zero. Similarly, if you are worried about adolescent knife crime, a proven method is to train the parents of badly behaved youngsters when the youngsters are aged five to seven. This training has been shown to reduce anti-social behaviour 10 years later by well over half, and it costs very little. Remarkably, we used to have such training. We had 4,000 people trained as parent trainers but, under the coalition Government, those services were cut as part of the general cut to social infrastructure. Those people are still there and are ready for re-employment—if only we put our next available money into that kind of provision.

As has been said, we have to upgrade and accelerate the general rollout of mental health services in schools, and the teaching of life skills in the school curriculum. These are key to producing a happier generation of children, and a generation that causes less trouble to adults. What is so depressing about the Speech is its almost totally punitive approach to any kind of behavioural problem. The word “rehabilitation” appears once and “prevention” never appears, yet there are good psychological treatments and preventive programmes for all kinds of behavioural problems, such as domestic violence, which is rising in priority, and family conflict. Only small sums of money are needed to make major inroads into these problems. How much more important to do this than to build yet another bit of high-cost physical infrastructure.

On further education, I had high hopes of the Government because they said it would be a priority. Very little money has been provided so far—only one year of it—and no programme has been announced for how to deliver the universal rights to level 3, which the Augar report recommends, which in turn requires that we remove the cap on further education, just as we have removed the cap on university and higher education. All these deficiencies come from there being no clear overall objective of government policy to influence priorities. The time has come for every political party to commit to the objective of well-being and to support that with a social infrastructure strategy. I very much hope that the next Queen’s Speech will do just that.