Moved by Lord Sherbourne of Didsbury
That an humble Address be presented to Her Majesty as follows: “Most Gracious Sovereign—We, Your Majesty’s most dutiful and loyal subjects, the Lords Spiritual and Temporal in Parliament assembled, beg leave to thank Your Majesty for the most gracious Speech which was addressed to both Houses of Parliament”.
My Lords, it is a privilege—and in this year of all years, the year of the Platinum Jubilee, it is a great privilege—to move this Motion for an humble Address on behalf of your Lordships’ House. Although Her Majesty was not present to deliver the Speech in person, it gives us the opportunity in this House to thank Her Majesty for seven decades of steadfast and dedicated service to all parts of the United Kingdom and to the Commonwealth. Throughout a period of huge change, and with all its ups and downs, the Queen has been, and remains, a rock of stability in our nation.
My noble friend Lady Jenkin of Kennington, along with many other noble Baronesses, has long encouraged and campaigned for more women to enter Parliament and enter public life. It is worth reminding ourselves that, during the last 185 years, there has been a woman on the Throne for 133 of them. The monarchy has done more on this than any other institution.
We are also grateful to Their Royal Highnesses the Prince of Wales, the Duchess of Cornwall and the Duke of Cambridge for their presence today. His Royal Highness the Prince of Wales has carved out for himself a substantial role as Prince of Wales without parallel in our history, and is deeply committed, hard-working and on so many issues ahead of the times. It is these qualities which, through the Prince’s Trust and other ventures, have changed the lives of thousands of young people from all backgrounds, and we thank him for it.
At the end of the last Session, we had to endure many late nights and multiple voting in order to clear the decks so we could get here today, but we did it. I therefore hope the House will not think it controversial if I fleetingly thank my noble friends the Leader of the House and the Government Chief Whip for steering us here successfully. Of course, I also acknowledge the important role of the usual channels.
Her Majesty delivered her first Speech from the Throne in November 1952. Today’s Speech carries many echoes of that Speech of 70 years ago. In 1952, the gracious Speech spoke about the need to maintain economic stability and to place the national economy on a sound foundation and it emphasised the need for
“measures to curb inflation and to reduce the heavy load of Government expenditure.”
Some things never change. In 1952, the Motion for an humble Address was moved by the noble Lord Mancroft, the father of my noble friend. His observations of 70 years ago may strike a chord today, especially on the Benches opposite. He lamented the fact that
“we have been … over-legislated in this country. We have been glutted, filled, stuffed and stifled with legislation, most of it incompletely conceived and most of it … ill-digested.”—[
I think those words might find an echo on the Benches opposite.
Inflation was then, as it is now, rearing its ugly head—today triggered by the worldwide soaring price of energy, which is hitting millions of household budgets. This rather puts me in mind of Mrs Thatcher, who always saw the running of the national economy as akin to running a household. One bitterly cold December evening, she had invited newly elected MPs to Chequers, one of whom was Michael Portillo, who had just been put on the committee looking at the privatisation of the gas industry. As Mrs Thatcher worked the room, she asked Michael what was most preoccupying him at the moment, to which he said, “The gas Bill”, to which she replied, “Don’t I know? Chequers costs a fortune to heat.”
When I worked for Mrs Thatcher in Downing Street as political secretary, my responsibilities included her political speeches and, of course, the party conference speech. One year, the Liberal Democrats, through sheer bad timing, launched their new logo of a soaring dove just as their poll ratings had started to nosedive. So, it was put to Mrs Thatcher that she should include in her conference speech the dead parrot sketch from “Monty Python”. She had never seen the sketch; she had never heard of John Cleese. Nevertheless, after much persuasion but with considerable nervousness, she agreed to include it. However, just minutes before she was due to deliver the speech, she said, “I am still worried about the dead parrot sketch.” Someone said, “Don’t worry, Prime Minister, it’ll be fine. Everybody knows it word for word.” “No, no”, she said, “it’s not that. This Monty Python—is he one of us?” To which there was only one reply: “Prime Minister, he’s one of your strongest supporters.”
This coming 12 months will be a year of difficulty and hardship for many households, with challenges that would test a Government of any colour. Of course, the day-to-day thrust of political debate must and will go on—it is an essential part of our democracy—but our fellow citizens will be looking to our political leaders for something much more. They will be looking for practical and effective help to ease and improve the daily lives of individuals, families and businesses. That is why I welcome so many of the proposals in today’s gracious Speech: measures to enhance the security of energy supplies and so help to ease energy bills, reform of planning laws, support for the police, and preventing dangerous and illegal channel crossings. I also welcome the increased investment in the National Health Service and the much-needed support for mental health services.
Billions of pounds of taxpayers’ money is being invested in our public services. As important as any is the investment in defence—the defence needed to support the NATO alliance and keep our nation safe. People sometimes ask, “Can we afford to spend so much on defence?” Events in Ukraine have shown all too graphically that we cannot afford not to. The unprovoked attack on Ukraine and the further land grab by Putin, redolent of Hitler, show that we can never be complacent about threats to national security. How often have we made that mistake before? The First World War was supposed to be the war to end all wars: not so, as we saw in the 1930s. Then there was the new world order that was supposed to follow the collapse of the Communist world. Yet today, again we see in Europe brutal and unprovoked aggression. We should be proud of the leadership the United Kingdom has shown in supporting the courageous people of Ukraine, and proud of the cross-party support this commands. I hope and believe that the Government will strain every sinew to expedite the safe admission of refugees from Ukraine.
As we look around the world today, what do we see in so many places? Conflict and war, famine, ethnic cleansing, dictatorship, autocracy, the suppression of democracy and free speech, the denial of freedom under the law. In this year, the year of the Platinum Jubilee, all this should make us pause and reflect, not in a self-congratulatory way but to remind ourselves: are we not blessed to live in this country? It is in this spirit that I beg to move the Motion for an humble Address to Her Majesty.
My Lords, I second my noble friend’s Motion for an humble Address.
I am very aware of the immense honour that I have been given today, and while your Lordships have been enjoying Prorogation and what was hopefully a convivial lunch, I have felt the pressure of being the after-lunch entertainment. However, I am fortunate to follow my noble friend Lord Sherbourne of Didsbury who, with his exceptional speech, has fulfilled the duty of amusing your Lordships far more ably than I possibly could.
Certainly, the silver lining of this responsibility today is that in the preparation, I have had the good fortune and opportunity to get to know my noble friend Lord Sherbourne, whose stellar reputation for being a man you want standing by your side in challenging times goes before him. He is a man who knows what he likes, particularly in the culinary sphere, and I discovered that, when on official UK government business abroad, in countries where perhaps the cuisine might be a little exotic, he always had a secret supply of Mars bars, cashew nuts and Evian water to keep him going. I hope he has enjoyed suitable refreshments over lunch today, and I thank him for his kindness and support.
I also pay tribute to my noble friend Lady Sanderson of Welton, in whose daunting footsteps I follow this afternoon. She has had the misfortune to end up sharing an office with me, but her patience, advice and directions to this newcomer have been very welcome, and I am fortunate to be able to refer to her, in its fullest sense, as my noble friend.
I am delighted to see so many of you here today. It was in the debate following the gracious Speech last year that I made my maiden speech, but it was only a hybrid proceeding and numbers in the Chamber were still restricted, so, compared with today, it was empty. I live in hope that my future contributions to debates will attract such a full audience. Having joined your Lordships’ House during the strange times of Covid, I have very little concept of what it is to be normal in this place. For me, the Bishops’ Bar was where I went to pick up lateral flow tests, so I hope your Lordships will forgive me if I take a little longer than usual to pick up your ways and traditions.
My brief from the Chief Whip for this afternoon was to keep it light and “don’t be controversial”. I am doing my best, but it might prove a little difficult for someone who describes herself as a Scottish Tory Peer and a woman. I shall leave it to your Lordships to decide which of those descriptions, if any, is the most controversial. Thinking of women whom I admire from this place, I was particularly proud to attend my first State Opening of Parliament wearing a robe that was kindly lent to me by my noble friend Lady Sater—and which had previously belonged to Baroness Trumpington. I was told not to be crude, as well.
Like my noble friend Lord Sherbourne, I was drawn to the fact that this is Her Majesty’s Platinum Jubilee year, and it was a privilege to hear the Duke of Rothesay—as we call him in Scotland—read the gracious Speech. It strikes me that after 70 years, despite the remarks of my noble friend Lord Sherbourne, our generation probably do not appreciate the relative rarity in our country’s history of a Queen’s Speech, as opposed to a King’s Speech.
My research also led me to the proposer and seconder of the Motion in November 1952. I was given the impression that it was tradition for the seconder to be a younger Member. I appreciate that the definition of “younger” is rather loose in your Lordships’ House, but, in 1952, Viscount Buckmaster fulfilled the task. He described himself as being “in the autumn” of his “political life”, and opened his remarks by noting,
“I was privileged to be present at the Diamond Jubilee and so witnessed the end of the reign of one Queen—that of Queen Victoria—and now I am privileged to witness the beginning of a reign of another Queen, Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II.”—[
I am clinging for comfort to the fact that, when I fill out the Members’ survey in your Lordships’ House, I am still in the lowest of the age categories offered.
Turning to the gracious Speech, it was noted that we are in challenging times. I commend our commitment to supporting the people of Ukraine; surely none of us present in the other place to hear the address of President Zelensky will forget his bravery and fortitude. I, like many others, will continue to do all that I can from this House to ensure that we support the Government to fulfil this promise, not only through our Armed Forces and NATO but in the way we welcome Ukrainian refugees to the United Kingdom and in how we support organisations in Ukraine and neighbouring countries to help the most vulnerable victims of this war.
As a leader of a health charity, I was also pleased to note the commitment to reducing Covid backlogs in the NHS and provisions for the reform of the Mental Health Act. The opportunity to build on the Health and Care Act from the last Session and to put mental health on a par with physical health cannot be wasted.
As I like to highlight Scotland at every opportunity, I was pleased to hear my hometown of Glasgow mentioned, thanks to COP 26. The commitment to improving transport links across the UK not only will benefit the venerable members of the association of Scottish Peers but is important to supporting the very structure of our precious United Kingdom. The gracious Speech laid out a full programme of legislation for the whole of the United Kingdom, and I look forward to the expertise of this House engaging in some of the more technical aspects. I know there will be others, not just me, who are extremely excited at the prospect of many hours discussing GDPR reform.
Finally, I think I have at last understood why the Chief Whip asked me to second the Motion today, as it prevents me saying anything further in this debate over the coming days about Channel 4 and the importance of its commissioning to the independent production sector in Scotland.
Despite the challenges ahead, I look forward to this Session with optimism and hope. The Platinum Jubilee is an extraordinary historical moment, and how wonderful it is that we in this House have the opportunity to serve our United Kingdom and shape our future history. In this spirit, I beg to second the Motion.
My Lords, I beg to move that this debate be adjourned until tomorrow. We know that Her Majesty the Queen would have been here if she were able to do so, and we send her our sincere best wishes. We look forward to her jubilee celebrations, when we can recognise the extraordinary service she has given to this country.
The roots of today’s proceedings, with the monarch reading the Government’s programme, go back hundreds of years. Even today, the Yeomen searched the Palace cellars in a ceremony dating back to 1605, when Guy Fawkes was found with a tonne and a half of gunpowder. Given the delays to the R&R programme, perhaps today they should have searched them for dry rot, fire risks and pestilence.
Another great tradition is the reception at Downing Street before the Queen’s Speech. In the evening before proceedings, the Prime Minister enlightens Ministers and a few special guests on the contents of the Government’s programme. Once, at one such event, I noticed that a former Conservative MP, David Atkinson, had joined us. I knew David fairly well though our Southend and Basildon connections, and I said, “David, this is unexpected—how lovely to see you here”. He smiled and said, “Yes, Sarah”—referring to the then Prime Minister’s wife—“invited me”. Several of my colleagues who had seen us talking were very curious as to why he was present. I just smiled and said, “Well, Sarah Brown invited him”, as if I knew what was going on—why would he be there unless there was a special reason for his invitation? Gordon Brown, as Prime Minister, made his speech, and the evening continued in good spirits. As it drew to a close, still nothing had been said about David’s presence. As we left, he said, “I’ve had a lovely evening,” and then added, “But I really don’t know why Sarah invited me.” He drew out his invitation; it was indeed from the Prime Minister’s wife, but for a reception the following week for the Association of Former Members of Parliament.
Today we have heard two excellent speeches, and I congratulate both noble Lords on their contributions. The noble Lord, Lord Sherbourne of Didsbury, has had a distinguished and very interesting political life, and brings his experience of being political secretary to Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and chief of staff to Michael Howard—now the noble Lord, Lord Howard. I was amused to see the noble Lord, Lord Sherbourne, profiled in an article entitled “Howard’s henchpersons”, but I am not convinced that being described as a
“Quietly spoken, bespectacled gent who brings gravitas” really qualifies him as a henchman. Part of his popularity in his party is because he is known as a calming influence who
“fixes things up and smooths things down”.
No wonder his colleague, the noble Lord, Lord Finkelstein, suggested in his Times column that he should be considered as the chief of staff for the current Prime Minister. I suspect he is too discreet to tell your Lordships’ House whether he did not get the call, or whether he did but turned it down. Either way, Downing Street’s loss is your Lordships’ House’s gain, and we look forward to his further contributions.
The noble Baroness, Lady Fraser of Craigmaddie, is relatively new to your Lordships’ House—as she alluded to, it is a year ago this week that she made her maiden speech—but she brings with her a wealth of experience from the third sector, especially her work on cerebral palsy as chief executive of Cerebral Palsy Scotland. She made her mark in December, leading a debate on Scotland’s economic recovery, in which she referred to being “a proud Scot”, as she did today, and cautioned that those championing the unionist cause must not reduce it simply to accountancy. She added:
“To ensure quality of life throughout the whole UK, we have to work together across all levels—economic, health, education, social and cultural, on devolved and reserved matters”.—[Official Report, 9/12/21; col. 2016.]
Speaking as a proud half-Scot, I can only add, “Hear, hear!”. The noble Baroness finished her contribution by saying that she is Scottish, Tory and a woman. I think I am correct in saying that she stood in the 2011 election for Holyrood. I ought to alert her that Wikipedia has the candidate in 2011 down as Stephen Fraser.
This debate takes place against the backdrop of local elections. I congratulate all those who won seats and commiserate with those who lost. Given that, across the country, our councillors dedicate themselves to their local communities, it is frustrating for them that they often take responsibility for the failings as well as the successes of their parties nationally. However, it is with some pride that I note that this is the first time that the Palace of Westminster has had a Labour council.
As well as looking ahead to the new parliamentary Session, this is also a time of reflection. Clearly, the last few years have been challenging, with Brexit, the pandemic and Russia’s shocking, unjustified attacks on Ukraine. If proof was needed of the interconnections and partnerships needed by nations, this is it.
Twenty-five years ago this week, we had the Queen’s Speech programme for the first Labour Government in nearly two decades. The 1997 programme was worlds away from what we have before us today. It was exciting, ambitious, and bold for the future of our country. It focused on education, economic growth and stability, and it ensured investment in new technology and jobs with a new, first minimum wage.
Twenty-five years ago, we also restated our commitment to the international institutions, including NATO, and to bringing peace to Northern Ireland, leading to the Belfast/Good Friday agreement. This was a clear priority and built on the initial work of previous Prime Ministers. Alongside policies on devolution, it was a programme embracing and supporting the whole of the union. What an irony then that the party that describes itself as the Conservative and Unionist Party has brought us to the position where that union is under greater strains than it has been for many years.
The 1997 Labour programme was firmly rooted in what was in the national interest for the future stability, prosperity and security of our country. It had a vision of the kind of country and society we could be—dynamic, forward-looking and outward, and offering new opportunities for all citizens.
The programme before us today was trailed as a political relaunch for the Conservative Party after the horrors of the past few years. Is that really the test for a Queen’s Speech? It will be judged not on how loud MPs or Peers cheer or on tomorrow’s newspaper headlines, but on whether these measures make an impact on the quality of life of our citizens in the months and years ahead. As we emerge from the worst of the pandemic, the social, political and economic aftershocks continue.
Meanwhile, the unjustified war in Ukraine is teaching us hard lessons that peace and stability in Europe can never be taken for granted and that our relationship with our geographical neighbours is vital. As we heard from the noble Baroness, the courageous leadership of President Zelensky is inspiring. We stand alongside the people of Ukraine and are at one with the Government on the essential military support being provided. That unity is important, not just for the Ukrainian people but as a message to the Kremlin. We also share the sentiments of the Minister for Refugees, who described the Government’s record on Ukrainian refugees as an embarrassment. Whatever the reasons, the stark difference between the competence and urgency of the Ministry of Defence and the attitude of the Home Office should shame those responsible, and it has to be resolved urgently.
“Politics is the art of looking for trouble, finding it whether it exists or not, diagnosing it incorrectly and applying the wrong remedies.”
Will this Queen’s Speech be remembered as a programme for a Government who seek to address the major issues of the day, or will it justify Ernest Benn’s cynicism? What is today’s urgent issue on which the country is crying out for change? As families struggle to pay for the weekly shop and Elsie travels around on her bus pass because it is warmer than the home she cannot afford to heat, the issue that keeps people awake at night is how they can feed their families and pay their bills, and it is not going to get any easier. Inflation has hit 7%, with the Bank of England warning that it is getting higher, but growth is falling. If Ministers seem determined to ride it out, switching from Heinz baked beans to Tesco’s value brand is not going to make a difference and nor is a loan to help with heating bills when it has to be paid back later, so where is the action to deal with the crisis? It is not in this speech. The proposed energy legislation should be an opportunity for Ministers to show that they understand the seriousness of both the climate crisis and alarmingly high bills. We need a mix of energy sources, including nuclear, yet political pressure means that the Government have pretty much written off the cheapest, easiest and quickest way to provide energy and are kicking onshore wind into the long grass.
The most important issue for any Government is keeping their citizens safe and secure. The new economic crime Bill, or EC2, as it became known in your Lordships’ House, is essential. We had several very well-informed debates on the Bill that was rushed through Parliament at the start of the war in Ukraine and commitments from the Government to act, yet the implementation update released the day before Prorogation was desperately disappointing and failed to exude any sense of urgency. For example, there has been very little of substance to establish the register of overseas entities and their beneficial owners. I think I am right—I would be very happy to be corrected—that not a single related statutory instrument has been laid. We will press for an early Bill as reform of Companies House is critical, but Ministers need to understand that they cannot claim “job done” just through passing legislation without the resources and the political will to implement it.
The Government promise new measures to support the security services. We all know that the days when the man in the gaberdine mac and trilby put a bug in your plant pot have long since gone. Those who wish to harm our democracy, security and way of life are far more sophisticated and dangerous today. Given all that, will the Government look again and bring forward measures that make it harder for overseas money to be brought into our national politics? With the Elections Bill last month, that was made easier rather than the opposite. We need action on this issue, and this is the opportunity.
Many of us remember that extraordinary day and night in the last Session when the Home Secretary attempted to push through poorly defined anti-protest powers without proper parliamentary scrutiny and was rightly and overwhelmingly rebuffed by your Lordships’ House. Naturally, the Home Secretary was pretty miffed about that, but the long and short of it was that she failed to make the case for these measures. They went too far, were badly drafted and had not even been sought by the police. In fact, in some cases they would have made the police’s job harder without effectively tackling the key problems.
The bravery of protesters taking to the streets in Russia against the invasion of Ukraine should be at the forefront of our minds when we consider the rights of our own people to make themselves heard. I am sure that I am not alone in my apprehension when Ministers say they want—I quote from the speech—to
“restore the balance of power between the legislature and the courts”.
What would that really mean in practice? We cannot criticise other nations for human rights abuses if we fail to show an absolute commitment ourselves to the rights and freedoms here at home.
On levelling up, the Government need to understand one of the basic rules of politics: just saying something does not make it happen. It was over a year ago that they promised to “build back better”, with the Prime Minister heralding it as a “historic opportunity”, but, so far, they have not made the transition from slogan to substance. Legislation needs to match what people want and need for their local communities. We have always taken the view that resources should be targeted at those places in the greatest need. The Government should avoid getting bogged down in debates about structures and processes; what matters is people, their lives and their homes. For example, several Housing Ministers, and the Prime Minister, have promised to end no-fault evictions. With soaring rents, protecting private tenants is a crucial part of levelling up, so we look forward to that promise being fulfilled in the legislation.
It is clear that no one in government gave much thought to the implications for Northern Ireland when promoting Brexit. Having negotiated and agreed the protocol without any serious engagement with Northern Ireland means this is now the most serious political and economic crisis in a generation. We do not know what promises, if any, the Prime Minister has made to Jeffrey Donaldson and the DUP, but they are absolute in their opposition to the protocol. Other parties want to do what they can to make it work. The commitment in today’s speech to
“prioritise support for the Belfast (Good Friday) Agreement” is welcome, but I am not sure exactly what it means. It seems designed to mean whatever somebody wants it to mean while saying nothing about the Government’s intentions. The protocol was the Government’s answer to addressing this issue but, having been opposed by the DUP, it seems they are now flailing around.
Briefly, on the proposed legacy issues legislation—I have a particular interest as a former Northern Ireland Victims Minister—I appeal to the Government: please understand that this needs support from the widest possible coalition.
In 1952, the proposer of the Motion moved in your Lordships’ House today by the noble Lord, Lord Sherbourne, was Lord Mancroft—not the current holder of the title, unless he has an ageing painting in his attic, but his father. We heard in dramatic terms from the noble Lord, Lord Sherbourne, of his comments at the time but, at the end of that speech, he said of that very light domestic programme
“‘for this relief, much thanks!’”—[
He could not have said that about the last Session, during which 34 government Bills and 13 Private Members’ Bills gained Royal Assent. Part of the problem was that dealing with internal party distractions led to poor business management, with the result that in the last six weeks of the Session, your Lordships’ House was sitting longer and later than at any other time in recent memory. This House has an important role to play, but the way in which those final weeks were managed did not allow us to do our best work. I am conscious that a significant proportion of our active membership were introduced from 2015 onwards and have had little opportunity to see this House working more normally and at its best.
In previous debates on the size of the House, I have highlighted how David Cameron appointed more Peers per year than any other Prime Minister but, today, I can announce that his record has been well and truly broken. In under two years, Boris Johnson has appointed 84 new Peers—a direct snub to the Lord Speaker’s Committee on the Size of the House—but, even with a massive number of new Conservative Peers, the Government still failed to win the argument first time round on many issues.
The one President whom Her Majesty the Queen never met was Lyndon B Johnson, who said that the first rule of politics was to learn to count. That is a wise rule to follow on most occasions, especially when it comes to votes, but in our day-to-day work this House operates not on a numbers game—nor should it—but on the seriousness of our debates and arguments. As an unelected House, we understand our role and the constitutional constraints that we operate under. We are charged with scrutinising legislation and, when appropriate, revising it to send it back to the other place to ask the Government and MPs to think again. Sometimes it will be appropriate to do that more than once.
This House always appreciates it when Ministers, confronted with arguments that make a strong case for amending a Bill, are prepared to engage and discuss the detail. That is how we work at our best. I was struck fairly recently when a former Minister said to me, “It’s not like the old days”. He fondly recalled being able to take issues back to the department where he would be listened to if he made a case for change. So when were those halcyon days that he was talking about—10 years ago, or 20 years ago? No, just pre Prime Minister Johnson.
The Government have to properly understand the role of your Lordships’ House. With co-operation across the House from all quarters, we can get back to a more normal rhythm of legislation that allows us to do our best and most useful work.
My Lords, it is a great pleasure to be able to congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Sherbourne of Didsbury, on his speech this afternoon. I first met the noble Lord over 30 years ago when he and the late Lord Bell were trying with mixed success to persuade my then employer, an eccentric and wilful man, that in order to influence the Government you had to be reasoned and moderate not didactic and threatening. The noble Lord’s calm and thoughtful approach then, seen again so clearly in his elegant speech today, has been the hallmark of his career and helps to explain why he is held in such high esteem across the whole House.
The noble Baroness, Lady Fraser of Craigmaddie, has a very distinguished track record in the charity sector and made some very thoughtful contributions during the passage of the recent Health and Care Bill. She is, as she explained, a relative newcomer to your Lordships’ House but we will certainly look forward to future contributions from her. I am sure that, as her name flashes up on the annunciator, the Chamber will fill as people flood in to hear the pearls of wisdom that we have now come to expect from her.
One sentiment in the Speech with which we can all agree is the eager anticipation of the Platinum Jubilee next month. It will be a unique opportunity for the nation to come together and celebrate the unique service of our Queen, and I am sure that the whole nation is already looking forward to it. Certainly in Ripon we already have the crocheted EIIRs on every public railing across the city, and quite a sight it is.
At the time of the last Queen’s Speech we were still in the depths of the coronavirus crisis, and it dominated public policy and debate. This year we are faced with two major new threats, one external and one internal. The external threat is of course the Russian invasion of Ukraine, which poses major short-term problems about how best to support the Ukrainians but also longer-term issues about peace and security in Europe. The internal threat is the economic crisis. We are faced with inflation on a scale not seen for decades, interest rate rises that will damage both businesses and households, a fuel price crisis that is already leading to many having to choose between heating and eating, and one in seven households living in food poverty. To meet these sorts of challenges effectively, a country needs to come together under trusted leadership. It needs social cohesion to meet the common threats and a Government to whom people can look up to promote the common good. So how do this Government and this Queen’s Speech match up to those requirements?
On the Speech itself, to put it mildly, there is no overarching theme. There are a series of populist measures to assuage the intolerant right, a series of measures which try desperately to provide some shards of benefit from the economic and security disaster of Brexit, and insipid and half-baked measures which enable the Government to claim that they are doing something about levelling up. Three proposed Bills exemplify these sub-themes.
First, there is the proposal to sell off Channel 4. The Government hate Channel 4 in its current form because of its news coverage and generally iconoclastic approach. They believe they know better than the company’s own management about what is good for it, and do so in the face of near-universal condemnation. The proposal also cuts across their alleged priority of levelling up. As Henri Murison, director of the Northern Powerhouse Partnership, put it:
“On the tests of whether it is good or bad for closing the north-south divide, the privatisation of Channel 4 is going to undermine levelling up. It is completely incoherent of government” he says, to promise two pieces of legislation—the other being the proposal for a levelling-up test to be applied to all government decisions—
“that completely contradict each other”.
As with the proposals on public order and human rights, the plans to privatise Channel 4 have everything to do with a populist ideology and, frankly, nothing to do with the common good.
Secondly, the Brexit freedoms Bill will, according to Ministers, allow the Government to repeal hundreds of pieces of EU law via statutory instrument—in effect, without any meaningful parliamentary scrutiny. The much-missed noble Lord, Lord Frost, said that such a process was justified because EU law was not really law at all. That statement was of course itself untrue, but in any event the principle of repealing primary legislation by secondary legislation is, as a general rule, anti-democratic and unacceptable. The fact that some of the legislation targeted relates to areas such as environmental protections makes this doubly so. There is a convention, widely accepted across the House, that we do not normally vote down statutory instruments. If this Brexit freedoms Bill becomes law—and from these Benches, we will oppose it—I hope that your Lordships will become more assertive and strike down offensive Brexit-related statutory instruments introduced under its provisions.
Thirdly, we have the levelling-up and regeneration Bill. This Bill may well contain some sensible measures—for example, giving communities more say on proposed developments and requiring owners of empty high-street properties to rent them out—but it completely fails to rise to the multi-faceted challenges of levelling up.
Of course, some missing Bills also tell us much about the Government. The Government have dropped their commitment to ban imports of fur and foie gras. At a time of food shortages, the slogan “Let them eat foie gras” might have a resonance in some quarters but I suspect it will have a limited appeal.
More significantly, although it is missing from the Queen’s Speech, the Government are threatening a Bill to tear up the Northern Ireland protocol to assuage the implacable DUP. They do so in the hope that the EU will then back down yet, as its response to the Ukraine crisis has shown, the EU under pressure tends to show resilience. Sabre-rattling across the Irish Sea is therefore both foolish and potentially extremely damaging to our national interests. It also fails to recognise that the vast majority of Assembly Members elected last week are pragmatic on the protocol and want practical reforms through negotiation, not its wholesale abandonment.
However, government is not just about Queen’s Speech legislation. It is also about expenditure and taxation, and the role of government as the bully pulpit to set the tone of national debate.
On expenditure and taxation, the household budget crisis, which is now affecting millions of people and is set to intensify as inflation and interest rates rise further, requires immediate action. Some specific things the Government could do, such as a windfall tax on oil and gas companies, should be a no-brainer. The arguments that such a tax would harm investment or the incomes of British pensioners are belied in the first case by the comments of the chief executive of BP, and in the second by the fact that the proportion of shares in these oil and gas companies owned by British pension funds is extremely small. The proceeds of such a tax could be spent on supporting the most hard-hit households.
The greatest single indictment of the Government is that, by the actions of the Prime Minister and some of his colleagues, they have lost all moral authority and with it any ability to appeal to people’s sense of community, responsibility and better values. Anybody who has done any canvassing in recent weeks knows that many people have simply given up on politics, because they believe that if government Ministers break their own laws, why should they listen to, believe in, or follow anything they say?
I do not know whether the Prime Minister and his colleagues realise how pervasive this attitude is. To take one example, in North Yorkshire there is a big programme to train apprentices. Sometimes the trainees break the college rules. When admonished, their response is now increasingly, “Why should we worry? The Prime Minister breaks the rules and gets away with it. If he can do it, why can’t we?”
The period ahead will present the Government with difficult choices and hard decisions. In taking them, they need, as far as is humanly possible, to bring the country together by being seen to act fairly and honestly. To get through the economic crisis with the least amount of social harm, people need to feel that we are all in it together, that the broadest shoulders are bearing the greatest burdens, and that government understands their problems. They require this of all politicians, but government bears an especial burden. Sadly, this Queen’s Speech and this Government completely fail to rise to the challenges that we as a country now face.
My Lords, it is a pleasure to follow the noble Baroness, Lady Smith, and the noble Lord, Lord Newby, and I join them in congratulating my noble friends Lord Sherbourne and Lady Fraser on their excellent speeches. Like all of them, I thank His Royal Highness the Prince of Wales for delivering the gracious Speech and send our warmest wishes to Her Majesty the Queen. The whole House knows the reluctance with which Her Majesty made today’s decision, and her extraordinary service to this nation continues to inspire us. We look forward to the jubilee celebrations in the next few weeks and, together with the Commonwealth Games, we should have a great few months. I am sure we will all enjoy them, as we will actually have time to leave your Lordships’ House, I hope, on some early evenings.
I am honoured to stand here again today as Leader of the House ready for a new Session of Parliament. Your Lordships’ House plays a vital role in shaping the laws of the country. As the noble Baroness said, in the last Session this House debated and passed 34 government Bills and 13 Private Members’ Bills, sitting for over 1,500 hours, which I know took a lot out of all of us. As the noble Baroness rightly said, the early hours involved impressive levels of stamina and commitment. I thank your Lordships for everything they did over the last Session.
Looking ahead to the new Session, we have important legislation to scrutinise. I have no doubt that this ambitious programme will, as ever, benefit from your Lordships’ wisdom and expertise, and that your Lordships will help to ensure that the legislation can be as effective as possible.
At State Opening in May 2019, I remarked that we were grappling
“with the most significant peacetime event in our nation’s history”.—[
However, the challenge of Brexit was followed not by a benign period but by the immense disruption and profound impact of Covid. Now, as we move past the pandemic, war has broken out in Europe with Putin’s illegal invasion of Ukraine. I am sure noble Lords will agree that we are, I am afraid, once again in turbulent times.
The past year has been challenging for our parliamentary community in many ways. I will take a moment to particularly remember Sir David Amess MP, who died serving his constituents. A veteran parliamentarian of almost four decades, he was admired across both Houses for his good humour, kindness and dedication to public service. I also remember colleagues from across both Houses whom we have sadly lost over the last 12 months.
This year also marks five years since the Westminster Bridge attack, of which I and many noble Lords have first-hand memories. We remember PC Keith Palmer, who tragically lost his life in the line of duty, protecting all of us and Parliament.
Last summer, over 1,000 of our Armed Forces personnel were deployed on Operation Pitting, airlifting 15,000 people from Afghanistan to safety on more than 100 flights—the largest British evacuation since the Second World War. I know that the whole House will want to acknowledge the bravery of those men and women. We were glad to see many of those soldiers on parade here in November. We pay tribute to all those who serve, and have served, in our gallant Armed Forces. Defence of the realm is the first duty of government, and we will continue to invest in our Armed Forces and maintain NATO’s collective defence in light of the significant security challenges we face. In the face of Putin’s aggression, we are proud that the UK has led on sanctions, humanitarian aid and, of course, in providing defensive weapons to the brave Ukrainian armed forces defending their country—over 20,000 of whom have been trained by British troops since 2015. Slava Ukraini.
The last State Opening took place amid Covid precautions and, as a result, was a much pared-back affair. It was slightly shocking when I came in today and saw so many of your Lordships here. It is fantastic to see all noble Lords and, once again, for us to be such an integral part of such an important day here in Parliament and for the country. On behalf of your Lordships, I congratulate Black Rod, her staff and the doorkeepers on making today’s ceremony such a success and I thank the police service for working tirelessly today and in advance of State Opening. I thank the House staff for their enduring professionalism in ensuring that your Lordships’ House runs smoothly all year round and particularly for their efforts over the last Session. I know that we have asked a lot of them over the last few months and they rose to every challenge we gave them—we all thank them very much for that.
My thanks also go to the noble Baroness, Lady Smith, the noble Lord, Lord Newby, their respective Chief Whips and the noble and learned Lord, Lord Judge, for their ongoing co-operation and good spirits—most of the time, I think we can say—through the usual channels. The Chief Whip and I genuinely appreciate the constructive and positive relationships we have; we know that we have stretched them at points, but we look forward to working closely together again over the coming Session.
Finally, I am delighted to add my congratulations to my noble friends Lord Sherbourne and Lady Fraser, who have so ably proposed and seconded the Motion for the humble Address. There are few Peers as universally liked and respected across the House as my noble friend Lord Sherbourne. He is a rare and wonderful mix of enjoying a good gossip while being a soul of discretion. He sees the best in people, except of course if they drop litter—the subject of several speeches in this House and at least one letter to the Times. Prior to taking his seat in your Lordships’ House, my noble friend had a distinguished career. He must have worked for more Conservative leaders than anyone else alive: Ted Heath, Margaret Thatcher, John Major and Michael Howard. Anyone who can work for both Ted Heath and Margaret Thatcher, and command the confidence of both, has a unique quality or an extraordinary range of political flexibility. I have been told that it is perhaps the same flexibility—and I have seen this—that leads him to say, when out at lunch, “As you know, I never eat puddings”, yet somehow immediately order one and enjoy it very much. So amicable is my noble friend that even Ted Heath, who was not noted for his forgiveness, kept cordial relations with him through thick and thin. I understand that he did not even complain when my noble friend lost his briefcase in a New York limo, containing the only copy of a speech that Ted Heath was about to deliver. I think the cordial relations remained because it was discovered in the nick of time.
It seems that my noble friend has an issue with speeches. On another occasion he was woken by a phone call from Mrs Thatcher saying, “This speech simply will not do”. That was a problem, as she was due to deliver it later that day, so he rushed to No. 10 to work up a new version. “Job done”, he thought, “Excellent”, and they got in the car to Battersea heliport. Unfortunately, her car stopped mid-journey when she discovered he had left the final pages of her peroration in the study. Cue a bit of a fracas and a rush back to No. 10, but once again all was well.
I also congratulate my noble friend Lady Fraser. As the first professional choreologist in your Lordships’ House, I am sure everyone will agree that her speech was as eloquent as, no doubt, her choreographic work is. Noble Lords will know of the important work—I think my noble friend mentioned it—that she does as CEO of Cerebral Palsy Scotland, a fantastic organisation that helps those with cerebral palsy build skills, knowledge, confidence and relationships. As the noble Lord said, my noble friend Lady Fraser demonstrated her compassion and expertise in your Lordships’ House during the passage of the Health and Care Act.
I have heard my noble friend describe herself as a unionist by descent, given that her great-grandfather sat in the other place as a Unionist MP. At her home in Dunbartonshire before the 2014 independence referendum, she installed a couple of wildlife cameras in the grounds, no doubt hoping to catch glimpses of hedgehog or roe deer. She did not record much animal life, but at the height of the Scottish referendum campaign, she was able to amuse friends with videos of “Yes” supporters ripping down and driving off with the “No” banners she had put up in various hapless ways. In resilient fashion, when the cameras found the banners scattered around, she put them back up. Resilient to the end is my noble friend.
Naturally, for someone with a Glasgow postcode, the usual question is “Rangers or Celtic?”, but not for my noble friend Lady Fraser. Leicester City is her secret pleasure, a fact I know the noble and learned Lord, Lord Judge, will be delighted to hear—another fan in the House.
There have been a number of changes on the Government Benches over the past year. I am incredibly grateful to my current Front Bench team for their hard work and support, and I put on record my thanks to those who have stepped down over the last 12 months: my noble friends Lord Bethell, Lord Agnew, Lord Frost, Lord Wolfson and Lady Berridge. Fortunately, we continue to benefit from their involvement in the work of the House from the Back Benches. Meanwhile, we have welcomed to our Front Bench team my noble friends Lord Harrington, Lord Kamall and Lord Offord, as well as many Peers across the Benches of the House. As my noble friend said, we look forward in this Session to everybody being able to participate here in person, in our usual manner.
The legislative programme set out in the Queen’s Speech represents a comprehensive and ambitious agenda. We will focus on growing and strengthening the economy to help address the cost of living pressures, mentioned by all contributors today, that are being felt by people across our country. We will level up opportunity in all parts of the UK. We want to ensure that everyone, no matter where they live, shares in our joint success. The levelling up and regeneration Bill will empower local leaders to drive growth and prosperity in their communities, while the transport Bill will improve connectivity across the length and breadth of our country. We will support households and help more people into work. We will drive the transition to cheaper, cleaner and more secure energy. We will raise school standards and improve the quality of education across the country, and, of course, we will continue to tackle the Covid backlogs in the NHS to ensure that everyone can access the healthcare they need.
Outside the EU, we will harness the benefits of Brexit to generate growth. We will cut unnecessary red tape and bureaucracy through the Brexit freedoms Bill, reforms in the procurement Bill will help to support small businesses, while the implementation of our first free trade agreement since leaving the European Union will open up new trading opportunities for British businesses. I know we all support the continued success and integrity of the whole of the United Kingdom—this is, of course, of paramount importance to the Government—including the economic bonds between all four nations. We will continue to prioritise support for the Belfast/Good Friday agreement.
We will make our streets safer with public order and national security Bills, we will tackle the scourge of modern slavery, an issue I know that your Lordships hold dear, and we will further strengthen powers to tackle economic crime. We will push ahead with the Online Safety Bill, making the UK the safest place in the world to be online, while defending free speech.
This Government will continue to provide the leadership needed in these most challenging times. At home, we will introduce a Bill of Rights, prevent public bodies engaging in boycotts that undermine community cohesion, ban conversion therapy and push ahead with the higher education Bill, protecting freedom of debate on university campuses. Abroad, we will continue to stand shoulder to shoulder with Ukraine and defend democracy and freedom across the world.
This is a Government elected with a clear vision for the future of our country. We face challenging times at home and abroad, and we remain determined to deliver for the British people. I support the Motion.
Debate adjourned until tomorrow.