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My Lords, it is a pleasure to follow the noble Baroness, Lady McIntosh, following her dash from the Woolsack, and to join your Lordships in discussing two issues dear to my heart: education and health—or, as Tony Blair used to say, “schools ’n’ hospitals”. These are the everyday issues that our fellow citizens are concerned about: their health and that of their parents, their loved ones, partners and children, and, of course, where those children will go to school, college and university. What a joy it is and has been—a throwback, perhaps, to a gentler time—to take part in a debate in which there has been so little mention of the “B” word. Perhaps this is what political normality looks like. Do any of us remember?
I join other noble Lords in paying tribute to the noble Baroness, Lady Emerton. She has been a fine servant of this House and a source of wise advice on health issues. She will be sorely missed. It has been commented many times, in this debate and elsewhere, that there are perhaps too few nurses in the NHS. I am afraid that there are now too few in this House as well. We wish her well. Before I go any further, I refer noble Lords to my interests as set out in the register.
On education, contrary to some of the views expressed this evening, I believe that the Government have a track record to be proud of: hundreds of thousands more children educated in outstanding schools, hundreds of new schools and academies created, and the introduction of a wide set of reforms to standards on phonics, maths, the curriculum and qualifications that will help young people reclaim their right to be among the best educated in the world. I could not help but note that the noble Lord, Lord Storey, was not so impressed by these reforms, pointing to the results of the international PISA survey. In the interim, between his speech and mine—I hope he will not mind—I checked online. I noticed that the most recent published data was for tests sat in 2015. The 15 and 16 year-olds taking part had spent most of their life being educated under a Labour Government. Nevertheless, I share his urgency on improving school standards, but it is only fair, since the national curriculum was introduced in September 2014, to wait for future evaluations before we come to any final judgments.
In the last few years, school funding has been a growing pressure. The promised increase in the school budget to level up spending for the worst-funded schools is welcome, but it is further education that most needs our attention. FE has always been the Cinderella service among policymakers, usually because people in positions of power have little experience of it. The extra £300 million set aside for this sector in the recent spending round was good news, but it is only a one-year settlement. I hope that my noble friend the Minister can provide some comfort to your Lordships that it is only the first step of many towards a properly funded lifelong learning and further education system.
On health issues, I congratulate my noble friend and her department on a full slate of major reforms in the most gracious Speech. We are looking forward to the Health Service Safety Investigations Bill, which receives its Second Reading next week. I will reserve my comments on it until then. Perhaps in the interim, however, my noble friend could reassure the House that the Government are not putting all their eggs in this basket and that other separate but equally important patient safety initiatives, such as my noble friend Lady Cumberlege’s review of the safety of medicines and medical devices, will be acted on with the same energy.
The most gracious Speech also contains details of an important Bill that will determine the future regulatory system for the medicines and medical devices we rely on in the NHS. Does my noble friend agree that, on regulation, our aim for the future relationship with the European Medicines Agency should be to become an active and participating full associate member, but, if that is not possible, that we should use the opportunity to create the fastest, most sophisticated and joined-up system for bringing advanced therapies to patients anywhere in the world?
One way of achieving this goal is to ensure that the NHS has world-leading digital infrastructure. I know that my noble friend cares deeply about this topic, so can she tell the House how she will maximise the benefits of the UK’s health data assets for NHS patients? A significant investment by the Treasury in this project at the upcoming Budget would be a welcome sign of progress.
Finally, the Queen’s Speech was strong on promoting science and R&D. Nowhere does this matter more than in the life sciences and in health. Does my noble friend agree that a major focus for increased spending should be the National Institute for Health Research, one of our most effective research organisations, which has had only a flat cash settlement for the past 10 years? Funding this institution should be part of a collective strategy to reimagine the NHS as the world’s biggest and best R&D organisation. It will be patients who benefit the most from such an ambition. In these divided times, surely that is something we can all agree on.