We need your support to keep TheyWorkForYou running and make sure people across the UK can continue to hold their elected representatives to account.

Donate to our crowdfunder

Queen’s Speech - Debate (6th Day)

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 9:47 pm on 22nd October 2019.

Alert me about debates like this

Photo of Lord Watson of Invergowrie Lord Watson of Invergowrie Shadow Spokesperson (Education) 9:47 pm, 22nd October 2019

My Lords, a field of 60 speakers covering four government departments has produced wide-ranging and in many cases thought-provoking contributions. I have time to refer to just a few of them.

The noble Earl, Lord Devon, said he felt that simply being part of this debate was a surreal experience. Well, today is the sixth and final day of what is a rather surreal Queen’s Speech debate, as all noble Lords are only too aware that it is not a serious plan for government. But that is not its intention. It is merely a draft of the next Conservative Party manifesto, as noted by so many noble Lords. We shall be here again quite soon—although not necessarily on the same sides of the Chamber.

We cannot be oblivious to events taking place simultaneously in another place. Boris Johnson assumed the premiership with a promise to return to Brussels and open discussions on the withdrawal agreement. It took some degree of skill to negotiate an even worse deal than that concluded by Theresa May, but he has done precisely that. The Minister said in her opening remarks that the Queen’s Speech would deliver EU exit. Well, we shall see.

This phantom Queen’s Speech had nothing to offer on education, as many noble Lords have noted, with no commitments for new legislation or policy to improve our education system. It is now three years since we had an education Bill—although I suppose I should be careful what I wish for, because education legislation since 2010 has not been at all welcome or beneficial to the life chances of our young people, as the noble Lord, Lord Storey, said. Despite making a number of commitments that would require legislation, it seems the Government have now abandoned their own policies.

The Minister in her reply will no doubt claim that the Government outlined additional investment for schools in the recent spending review. Quite so, but that funding announcement has been massaged to make it sound much more impressive than it is. It talks of a £14 billion increase, but that represents the extra spending aggregated over the entire period from 2020 to 2023. It is not a measure of how much higher spending will be at the end of the three-year period than at the beginning—and it emphatically will not reverse the cuts of the past nine years.

Then there is the issue of the politicisation of the distribution of that funding, which will clearly favour the schools with the least disadvantaged pupils. Data analysis by BBC’s “Newsnight” last month found that overwhelmingly Conservative-held constituencies would be the beneficiaries of the proposed increase in schools funding. This reveals a clear targeting strategy by the Government with, one suspects, an eye on the general election.

The recent spending review committed the Government to “level up” funding for schools by 2021-22. But analysis shows that nine of the top 10 beneficiaries, in terms of an increase per pupil, are in Conservative-held constituencies. All but four of the 36 seats which get no uplift at all from this additional spending are Labour-held. As the Education Policy Institute commented:

“Levelling up doesn’t mean addressing social inequality. In this context, it means bringing generally more affluent schools up to the same level of funding as more disadvantaged schools”.

I think that most people understand that funding needs to be higher in disadvantaged than advantaged schools, and they understand why. Most people—but not, it appears, those in this Government.

Detailed analysis by the teaching unions has further demonstrated the strong link between deprivation and the scale of government cuts to school funding. Cuts to schools serving the poorest pupils are more than three times as deep as those to schools teaching the wealthiest. Of the 10 poorest local authorities in England, the cuts are above average in seven of them. Of the 10 most prosperous local authorities in England, the cuts are below average in eight of them. I do not expect the Minister to justify these shocking figures, because education is not her responsibility. But she should not worry, because even her DfE counterparts could not do other than concede that it was done for political advantage. Playing politics with the life chances of young people says all that needs to be said about the Government’s lack of fitness to govern.

Beyond schools, my noble friends Lord Bradley and Lord Young, and the noble Lord, Lord Aberdare, rightly spoke of their concerns about apprenticeship numbers. The Open University recently published its Access to Apprenticeships report, which clearly demonstrated a strong desire on behalf of employers to recruit more people with disabilities into apprenticeships and to close the gap in employment between those with and without a disability. Yet the Queen’s Speech had nothing to say on that subject or on the wider skills agenda. As my noble friend Lady Blackstone said, our FE colleges play a vital role in preparing young people for careers, but they could do much more if they were properly funded. I echo her call for funding to be raised to £5,000 per FE student, to match the figure in secondary schools.

My noble friend Lord Bassam, the noble Lord, Lord Lingfield, and the noble Baroness, Lady Garden, all highlighted the need to follow up on the Augar report. I fear that that will never see the light of day.

A strong case needs to be made also for maintained nurseries, which are once again facing the possibility of transitional funding running out due to a lack of long-term investment from the Government. The noble Baroness, Lady Boycott, highlighted the gap in children’s development when they first arrive at school. It is now widely accepted that the greatest contribution to social mobility is made in early-years settings, and that should be reflected in the way they are resourced to do their job. Labour will give each level of education the investment it needs as part of the development of a national education service, to transform educational opportunities for the next generation.

As my noble friend Lady Sherlock said, the welfare state embodies a vision of a country where we take care of each other. It is based—or ought to be—on a concept and an understanding of social solidarity. But that is a concept and an understanding that, it seems, are alien to many in the Conservative Party, particularly those who have now shouted and elbowed their way to dominant positions in the party and the Government. No wonder the noble Lord, Lord Young of Cookham, in his contribution bemoaned the decline of one-nation Conservatism.

Deep cuts to benefits over the past nine years have served to drive people into poverty. The noble Lord, Lord Willetts, rightly highlighted in-work poverty. However, the system of working tax credits introduced by a Labour Government to make work pay has been swept away—a process which, I have to say, was begun by a Government of which the noble Lord, Lord Willetts, was a member. How can it be right—how can it be regarded as civilised—to have a society in which even families where both parents are in work have to rely on food banks? Yet there was no social security Bill in the humble Address, and not even a mention of poverty.

Perhaps that should have come as no surprise, as the Government have banished the word “poverty”. They abolished the Child Poverty Act in 2016 and got rid of the target to end child poverty. That same year, the Social Mobility and Child Poverty Commission was renamed the Social Mobility Commission, but the Government have certainly not banished poverty, as several noble Lords highlighted in this debate.

The only DWP Bill in the Queen’s Speech was the Pension Schemes Bill, on which my noble friends Lady Drake and Lord McKenzie spoke forcefully. I think my noble friend Lady Bryan merits a response from the Minister on the wrongs suffered by WASPI women that she so effectively outlined.

On health, all we heard was repeats of previously announced spending plans, together with ill-defined proposals to reform the Mental Health Act and address social care. Many noble Lords, most forcefully my noble friends Lady Bakewell and Lady Wheeler, spoke of the urgent need for action on social care—which was, let us not forget, first promised by the Government in the March 2017 Budget, then in the 2017 election manifesto and again on the steps of Downing Street in July that year. The Government have consistently failed to deliver. This July, the Financial Times reported that the Green Paper had been ditched and that instead a White Paper would be published in the autumn of 2019. Here we are in the autumn, and still nothing has appeared. Perhaps the noble Baroness can explain that lack of action in an area where legislation is desperately needed.

In contrast, Labour has set out our vision for a national care service that includes free personal care for older people, a lifetime cap on care costs and immediate funding up front to deal with the crisis of nine years of cuts to council budgets.

Will the Minister explain why the mental health Bill announced by the Government 10 months ago did not make it into the Queen’s Speech? Will the Government now implement the recommendations of the independent review of the Mental Health Act asked for by so many noble Lords?

In conclusion, I hear some noises from the Government Front Bench in response to some of my comments. If I appear to be more political than some people might have expected, let me say that it is in response to a Queen’s Speech that is more political than people had a right to expect. I think it is appropriate, as this is a low point of the political and economic standing of this country. As noble Lords who have travelled abroad recently will know—I was in France at the weekend—you meet people who are incredulous about what is happening in this country, particularly within Parliament. When I speak to people of other nationalities, they laugh rather nervously when I say that I, too, am incredulous at some of the developments. I believe that I am not alone in that.

Today, the Prime Minister has failed once again to impose his will on Parliament. He is a discredited figure here, as well as abroad. The noble Baroness, Lady Barran, was apparently serious when she said in her opening remarks that this is a country “happy and confident” about its future. With the greatest respect, she needs to get out more, because that is very far from reality. I fear that the scars caused by the past four years will not heal quickly.

In a few weeks, no one will recall this Queen’s Speech, and nor should they. The next one will map out the future direction of this country, and we can only hope that the Administration who are dragging us down in the eyes of the world will not be its authors.