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My Lords, it is an honour to follow the noble Lord, Lord Sharkey, and so many others more qualified than I. This was my first Queen’s Speech and it was a surreal experience indeed—and not just because I sat between the noble Lord, Lord Pannick, and the erudite noble Viscount, Lord Ridley. Given the messy political reality of a legislative programme that will never see the light of day, this was, effectively, a party-political broadcast, and I question whether that is an appropriate use of Her Majesty’s ancient and regal authority.
As for the topics of today’s debate, I refer to the register. I am proprietor of a heritage-based social enterprise active in health and well-being, social care, and education. I am also a technology litigator with clients in the digital space, and I am a father of school-age children.
I am encouraged by support for integrated healthcare and the opportunity for the NHS to work more freely with partners. In Devon, I see how much volunteers, charities and private enterprise do to support public health and well-being: the more the Government can support local delivery of health and social care within communities, the better. I applaud the renewed focus upon mental health and highlight the need to ensure that everyone in society has ready access to a mental health professional—not because of mental illness but to support our mental wellness. I also strongly support the development of social prescribing. This will strengthen communities, improve health and decrease reliance on primary healthcare.
I note the commendable position that the NHS is not for sale in any future trade deal, but this must not preclude reasonable commercialisation. There are major benefits to be obtained by the secure use of anonymised health data at a national level. Given our single health system and our strength in data science, the UK must lead the world in the use of AI in healthcare, yet we lag behind in basic digitisation of medical records. What are the Government doing to address this?
In the digital space, the Government are focused upon online harms and a desire to make the UK “the safest place in the world to be online”. Though I support age verification, I sound a note of caution: in the brave new post-Brexit world, undue restrictions on internet platforms in the UK may well limit our access to cutting-edge ideas and technology. Rather than restrictive censorship, is it not better to encourage education in safe and appropriate internet usage? Rather than child-proofing the internet, it is more empowering to internet-proof our children and ensure that it is treated as a public space with enforceable public standards of behaviour.
Turning to culture and tourism, on which the noble Baronesses, Lady Doocey and Lady Bull, spoke so well, I applaud the work of the APPG on Arts, Health and Wellbeing, particularly its work on heritage and its contribution to healthy and sustainable communities.
While welcoming the recent announcement of funding to support public museums, I ask that the Minister acknowledge the huge contribution of private heritage to this sector. Historic Houses, of which Powderham is a member, preserves thousands of heritage landscapes, collections and buildings in their natural state, generating over 26 million visits each year—more than the National Trust—without any recourse to the public purse. Historic Houses is to our heritage what national parks are to our nature: thriving cultural centres alive within their natural environment. In comparison, galleries and museums are often lifeless efforts to preserve heritage outside its meaningful context—a form of zoo. Will the Government acknowledge that it is a national shame that these buildings are carrying over £1.3 billion in repair backlogs, with insurance and compliance costs now skyrocketing?
Finally, multiple heritage bodies have major concerns that the draft Environment Bill introduced today in the other place excludes heritage from its definition of the natural environment. It is dishonest to decouple our natural and man-made environments. We occupy the most man-made landscape in the world, and we need to be responsible for it.
Take the River Exe estuary as a simple example. The five miles of boggy marsh between my home and Exeter tell of over 3,000 years of human interaction with nature, from Bronze Age trading ingots through a major Roman city, to the medieval Countess Wear, creating England’s second biggest wool port. Thereafter we see England’s earliest canal, alongside acres of Dutch-drained early modern pasture, rearing England’s finest spring lamb. Then, we see Brunel’s remarkable atmospheric railway embankments, which stoically hold back the ever-rising sea levels to protect Exeter’s “green lung”—and Europe’s largest selection of car showrooms at Marsh Barton. The area is also, uniquely, an SSSI, a Ramsar site and a major RSPB reserve, not to mention the shellfish, cycle trails, foreshore and pubs, and England’s oldest sailing club. Nature and culture are indivisible in this landscape. As recognised by UNESCO’s Convention Concerning the Protection of World Cultural and Natural Heritage, the integration of culture and nature is essential to the sustainable development of both. We cannot and must not separate the two.