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My Lords, when thinking about what to say today about last week’s gracious manifesto, I found myself facing two challenges. The first was how to address commitments that seem unlikely to be implemented before another Queen’s Speech following a general election. The second was that the Speech itself had little to say about two of the three issues I wish to cover. A third challenge is that most of what I want to say has already been said, more eloquently and better, by other noble Lords.
The first issue is education and skills. The Speech states that:
“Ministers will ensure that all young people have access to an excellent education, unlocking their full potential and preparing them for the world of work”.
It is hard to argue with that. The extra £400 million promised to further education is welcome, but it will hardly make up for years of underfunding. FE funding has declined by 30% over the past 10 years, at a time when colleges’ role in skills training is more important than ever, with the additional challenge of delivering T-levels.
“to give my all to make technical and vocational education the first choice for anybody with the aptitude, desire and interest to pursue it”.
T-levels should be central to that laudable aim, as should apprenticeships, which were not mentioned in the Speech. I hope that the Minister will be able to say rather more about exactly how the Government’s strategy will achieve this aim beyond providing extra funds and stating ambitious goals that no one could disagree with. For example, will they continue to support and extend the careers strategy led by the Careers & Enterprise Company and already showing encouraging results since its launch in 2017? What action will they take on the FE and technical education recommendations of the Augar review? How will they engage employers, including SMEs, both in expanding and improving apprenticeships and in meeting a greatly increased need for work experience?
My second topic concerns the creative sector. Your Lordships may be tired of being reminded that the creative industries make up one of the largest sectors in the UK economy, although perhaps not quite as large as tourism, as well as being the fastest growing, but the conditions that have made this success possible need to be safeguarded, including in relation to music, freedom of movement and a strong music education system, as powerfully argued by my noble friends Lady Bull and Lord Berkeley of Knighton. How will the Government ensure that UK musicians will still be able to travel, tour and perform abroad after Brexit without prohibitive costs and bureaucracy, while at the same time we can continue to attract top musical talent into the UK?
What are the Government’s plans for the future of the national plan for music education, launched in 2012 with the aims of giving all schoolchildren opportunities to experience and take part in music and singing? This was a notable achievement, but it needs to be refreshed. The current funding for music education hubs runs out next March. It should be renewed and increased to a more realistic level, and the effectiveness of the plan’s delivery should be reviewed to ensure that all children benefit, so that the risk of a two-tier music education culture, described by my noble friend Lord Berkeley, is avoided.
Last week, the Durham Commission on Creativity in Education published its report emphasising the urgent need for the teaching of creativity in schools to be prioritised, not just for the benefit of the arts but for all disciplines. I hope that the Minister and her colleagues will look closely at its recommendations, including for the establishment of a funded national plan for cultural education.
I will comment finally on broadband access. The Government promise to:
“Roll out gigabit capable broadband across the UK”,
and have pledged £5 billion to support this goal in the hardest to reach 20% of the country. But with a home on a hillside in rural Carmarthenshire, I count myself lucky to get broadband speeds of 10 megabits per second, if conditions are favourable and the oak trees across the valley are in the right alignment. I take the promise of 1,000 megabits with a pinch of salt and ask some questions. How much of the £5 billion will be used for developing new technologies to serve locations where a physical connection—for example, via fibre—is just not feasible? How will this UK-wide commitment apply to the devolved nations, including Wales, and how much of the funding will be allocated to them?
Thirdly, I am slightly puzzled by the lack of mention of mobile phone coverage. Will the Government look at enabling roaming in areas such as my own, where the number of providers with coverage is very limited? If you are not on the right network, you do not get any mobile phone coverage.
These issues may not have as much popular appeal as the NHS, crime and policing, social care, the environment and others addressed in the gracious Speech, but tackling all those requires resources. Skills, creativity and digital access are essential to generating those resources, so I hope they will be given due prominence in a Queen’s Speech from a Government able to implement their proposals.