My Lords, first, I congratulate my noble friend Lady Merron and the noble Baroness, Lady Fraser of Craigmaddie, on their truly excellent maiden speeches. They have a great contribution to make to the House.
Listening to the gracious Speech, I had one big thought. The Government have a very carefully calculated electoral strategy, which we have already seen working, to some extent, in the local elections last week. The big question is: given the challenges post Covid, post Brexit and facing the technological revolution, do they have a coherent national strategy for the United Kingdom?
I was most impressed by the speech yesterday of the noble Lord, Lord Bridges of Headley, who really underlined the point that the gracious Speech was a missed opportunity. There is no commitment on social care, yet the Government are going to legislate on cancel culture—something of which, as chair of Lancaster University for seven years, I never had a single instance to deal with. There is no mention of employment rights, which are absolutely critical in the changing labour market of today and the future, but the Government want to legislate to suppress voting through the introduction of compulsory identification. Are these really the key national priorities?
On Brexit, there is no indication whatever of how we are going to build the new sources of competitiveness to counter the trade losses we are already suffering. In the first three months, our EU trade was down 19% more than our trade with the rest of the world. There is an example—the vaccine example—of how public/private partnership can do this, but there is no mention of that in the Queen’s Speech.
The Government will say, “Oh yes, we do have a big idea, and that’s levelling up”, but they are going about it the wrong way. The paradox of the Government’s policy is that they think you achieve levelling up by top-down action; it is a contradiction in terms. They are setting up all these new pots of billions, to be run by Whitehall departments, which will incorporate the directly political priorities of Ministers concerned about how they hold marginal seats.
I see this in Cumbria. Labour has lost four of the six seats it held in Cumbria, and we are now being showered with grants through the towns fund and all these other funds that the Conservative MPs are trumpeting. But there is no evidence that this Whitehall-driven approach can achieve the result of lessening inequalities between different parts of the country. I see the noble Lord, Lord True, smiling, but I am sure he agrees with me.
The way forward is to empower local institutions, to give mayors the powers they need and to create new, strong unitary authorities, which is what we hope to see in Cumbria. But this Government show no interest in this devolution agenda and are hitting local authorities harder. I am on Cumbria County Council. This year, we suddenly had £10 million taken out of our highways budget, just like that—no publicity, of course, from Mr Rishi Sunak. This is what is happening. When you look at the projections for public spending in the next few years, it is clear that local authorities will have to pay the price for these new funds that will be established. This centralisation is the wrong approach.
I think Gavin Williamson gets a very bad press, on the whole. I admire the fact that he is making a priority of further education, but the way to make sure that increased resources are spent well on further education is to align training policies with the needs of local areas and their employers. That means strong local institutions, not the kind of top-down approach that the Government are going in for.
I see not a strategy here but politics, and I think it is a great shame that a Government with a majority of 80 feel that they have to stoop to that.