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Queen’s Speech - Debate (3rd Day)

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 5:52 pm on 8th January 2020.

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Photo of Baroness Quin Baroness Quin Labour 5:52 pm, 8th January 2020

My Lords, I congratulate both maiden speakers in this debate. As a born-and-bred Whitley Bay girl, I particularly appreciate the title chosen by the noble Lord, Lord Parkinson of Whitley Bay, and share with him a deep attachment to the region that we both come from. I look forward to hearing from him in future and from the noble Lord, Lord Davies of Gower.

As has just been pointed out by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Judge, there is a promise in the gracious Speech to create a constitution, democracy and rights commission, an interesting proposal which so far is just that, without any further details concerning its remit or composition. However, given that the immediate backcloth to this Queen’s Speech was the general election of 12 December, perhaps an early task of the commission could be to look at that campaign and see what lessons should be learned for the future health of our democracy and the future conduct of elections.

Yesterday, in a truly excellent maiden speech, the noble Baroness, Lady Ritchie of Downpatrick, said that she wanted politics to recover from its recent battering and turn away from the world of lies, exaggerations, voter distrust and fake news. I have to say that I share her concerns entirely. Some examples of such practices have to be laid at the door of the Prime Minister, whose contradictory and colourful statements over the years have either entertained or, more frequently in my case, deeply alarmed us. He began the election campaign by saying that he had not wanted an election, even though I seem to remember that he desperately tried to get it through Parliament three times. He also said that he could not get his EU deal through Parliament, even though it had passed its first hurdle and was ready to be scrutinised by both Houses of Parliament. Perhaps it was the scrutiny that alarmed him, the Bill having managed to get through its first stage.

But there were other examples during the campaign that were not the direct responsibility of the Prime Minister which I found just as disquieting; for example, the doctoring of a TV interview into a fake video to make my right honourable friend Keir Starmer look clueless about Brexit when the opposite was true and he had given a fluent interview on the subject; or the fake Margaret Beckett website; or the so-called independent fact-checking website which turned out not to be independent at all but the work of one particular political party. I say “one particular political party” because I am not trying to give a party-political speech; I am trying to highlight malpractice that we should avoid in future. If there are examples of other parties, including my own, pursuing such a course of action, I would condemn that as equally unacceptable. Perhaps the party leaders could come together, either through the constitution commission or in some other way, to agree that such malpractice should be stopped and to recognise that if democracy is to survive in a world of fake news, standards of factual accuracy should prevail.

The Government talk in the gracious Speech of governing for all. In his introduction, the Prime Minister sets an ambitious goal of delivering

“for the whole of our great Union, investing in and levelling up every part of England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.”

Surely that is an aim that we can all subscribe to, but if the Government are really to bring people together, they have a responsibility to avoid triumphalism in their approach and to recognise that, although they have a handsome majority in the House of Commons, it has been brought about by our electoral system. Overall, the Conservative vote increased by only 1.2%. The Liberal Democrats, who are said to have suffered a crushing defeat—it certainly looks like that in many ways—saw their overall vote increase by five points. Of course, the Government were hugely helped by the unpopularity of the Labour leadership, as my noble friend Lord Reid and others have said. I was struck by this day after day when campaigning in my own part of the world. I am sure that was the reason the Prime Minister really wanted an election: so that he could capitalise on that unpopularity and use a majority to claim a mandate for all kinds of other policies, including Brexit, even though it is clear from looking at the votes cast that those who voted for parties that were either anti-Brexit or committed to another referendum won 53% of the vote as against 47% on the other side—an almost exact reversal of the 2016 referendum.

The Prime Minister says in his introduction that he is humbled by the trust that voters have placed in the Government. I can only hope that he really means what he says and, to borrow Labour’s phrase, will genuinely promote the interests of the many and not the few.