Queen’s Speech - Debate (5th Day)

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 4:32 pm on 17th May 2022.

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Photo of Baroness Wilcox of Newport Baroness Wilcox of Newport Opposition Whip (Lords), Shadow Spokesperson (Wales), Shadow Spokesperson (Work and Pensions), Shadow Spokesperson (Education) 4:32 pm, 17th May 2022

My Lords, today’s debate covers some of the most important issues to a well-functioning society. I am delighted to be speaking to them on behalf of Her Majesty’s Official Opposition.

Arguably, education, welfare, health and social care and public services are critical and central to the Government’s latest populist phrase, levelling up. That is why it is so regrettable that the measures announced in the Queen’s Speech do precious little to make a real difference—if any—in these areas.

Schools and universities across the UK have been profoundly impacted by the pandemic. It is well documented that there is a disparity in this impact between schools in deprived areas and in the most affluent, yet despite the scale of the challenges schools are facing—indeed, the Sutton Trust found that one in three headteachers are using pupil premium funds to plug general budget gaps—this Government’s response is a desperately sparse Schools Bill.

It is a gaping hole of a Bill and consists mostly of one-size-fits-all academisation—we do not have it in Wales, that is why I cannot say it—on which the data is lacking or mixed at best, and formal naming and shaming of truant children through imposing compulsory attendance registers for schools. It is narrow in scope with little ambition and sparse policy, with 32 clauses on the governance of academies and 15 clauses on funding arrangements. It gives it an ideological approach rather than looking at the evidence.

How many more times are the Government going to rearrange the classroom desks, hoping for a better outcome? Where is the wide-ranging, substantiated plan to support children’s pandemic recovery? Where are the proposals to improve teaching standards or tackle the absolute exodus of burnt-out school staff? Where is the vision to equip our students with the skills they will need in the industries of the future, in an ever more globalised and technologically advanced economy?

In stark contrast, Labour is ambitious for every single child and every single precious teacher. Our children’s recovery plan would train up to 6,500 new teachers and give them ongoing professional development. We should not settle for less than world-class standards of teaching. We would introduce breakfast clubs, as we have in Wales, so every child starts the day with a proper meal. We would have afterschool activities, so every child gets to learn and experience art, music, drama and sport, as enjoyed by pupils in the private sector on Wednesday afternoons. We would introduce mental health support in our schools, because every report tells us that children’s development has fallen behind in the pandemic.

There would be targeted and funded continued professional development for teachers, which is absolutely vital for the workforce. There would be extra investment, right from early years through to further education, to support those children at risk of falling behind, because attainment gaps open up early and they need tackling early. Gains made in the early part of this century imploded during the savage cuts to public services imposed by this Government over 12 long years. In order to address this appalling deficit, we would go further to lock in the gains of a recovery programme for the long term. To ensure that education readies pupils for a rapidly advancing world of work, we would provide professional careers advice and work experience for all.

In the Government’s plans, higher education fares no better than schools. Instead of introducing measures to alleviate universities’ challenging financial contexts or reduce the record high number of student complaints in 2021 about their courses to the OIA, the Government have seen fit to give struggling universities two baffling, and in places troubling, Bills.

The higher education Bill will consider minimum qualification requirements for student finance and a cap on student numbers. Both are vehemently opposed by universities. As well as its huge adverse impact on social mobility, which expert bodies such as the IFS have pointed to, it is coupled with a worse still carryover—the Higher Education (Freedom of Speech) Bill. Your Lordships may remember that my party in the other place voted against this Bill at Second Reading, such was our concern about its enabling of hate speech and the potential financial implications for universities. Culture-warmongering and wedge-issue politics, again unsupported by any evidence, simply do not deserve a place in any Queen’s Speech—not when so many real problems for higher education remain.

The Government’s approach on social care goes alongside their failure on childcare. It is not fair and is unworkable, because the least able will pay the most. If your house is worth £150,000, you will lose almost everything while the wealthiest in society are protected. As for social care, on which the Government have not planned for any new legislation, I can assume only that they think the measures contained in the recent Health and Care Act are sufficient to deal with soaring care costs and a staggering staffing crisis. There is no mention of dentists, so critical to people’s quality of life, who are leaving the NHS in droves. This week is the Alzheimer’s Society’s Dementia Action Week, and the focus is on the theme of diagnosis. An acute diagnosis is the current state of our social care. Do the Government even mention the forgotten and undervalued millions of unpaid carers?

When it comes to welfare, Labour is on the side of working people. That is why we have set out our plans to reduce the taper rate when we replace universal credit, to allow those on low incomes to keep more of what they earn.

I regret having to give such a pessimistic speech, but I am afraid I have little positive to say about the Speech’s health Bills or, I should say, its solitary Bill. We do, however, welcome the long-overdue overhaul of the Mental Health Act.

After 12 years of Conservative underfunding, the NHS went into the pandemic with record waiting lists, 100,000 staff vacancies and 6 million people waiting for treatment. For any of this to work, the commitments are dependent on a sustainable workforce—our fantastic front-line staff, of whom there are simply too few right now. My dear late mother suffered greatly with mental health issues and we were entirely dependent on the wonderful NHS service we had available to us to support her in-patient and out-patient recovery; I dread to think what would be available to us now. Crucially, Labour wants to guarantee mental health treatment within a month for all who need it, and to place specialist mental health support in every school, resulting in over 1 million more people receiving support each year.

There is also the lack of a women’s health strategy, which was promised by the Government at the end of last year but has yet to appear. This is coupled with the latest announcement of the Government’s delay to restricting advertising on foods high in fat, salt or sugar. The department’s own impact assessment shows that these promotions result in additional spending for an average household—in an acute cost of living crisis.

I hope I have begun to shine a light on where the Government are falling far short on our public services. I must point out that, if their party had the last Labour Government’s record on the growth of the economy, there would be £40 billion more to spend on them, without having to resort to punishing tax rises.

In conclusion, I have spent my life as a public servant—as a teacher, a councillor and the leader of a council. I genuinely despair of the Government’s legislative plans for health and social care, education, welfare and public services. They are lacking in ambition and vision, and I would have hoped that, out of a total of nearly 40 Bills, we might have seen one Bill of true substance in at least one of these critical areas that are so crucial to a well-functioning society. As it is, it will fall to us parliamentarians to probe and push and negotiate our way to legislation that delivers real outcomes and some hope for the public. If that means sitting here in this House until the early hours of the morning to defend the indefensible, so be it. After too many years of a Conservative Government, it is our duty, and we will willingly fight for what is right and proper for the people of Britain. We will continue to seek Labour’s vision that this is the best place in which to grow up and to grow old.