My Lords, this year, even more than most years, we expected and deserved a better Queen’s Speech than the one we got. Today’s debate does include some welcome Bills, including the mental health Bill, but the Speech falls far short of what we should have expected in meeting the risks and challenges that our public services face. In today’s debate, we have an opportunity to identify some of those risks and to raise some questions: what value do we put on public services, and what do we have the right to expect from them?
In the short term, some of the risks were totally predicable: the impact of Brexit on health, care and construction skills. Some were of course much less predictable: the impact of the war and of the pandemic on living costs. Nevertheless, these come after years of underfunding. It is not surprising, therefore, that people are beginning to falter in their conviction that public services are fit for purpose. An exemplar of this is the meltdown we saw in the Passport Office. What is really painful about this is missing the opportunity that the pandemic created to revalue and rebuild our public services, and to recognise the vital role that the care sector and care economy play in supporting the entire economic life of the nation. In fact, what this Queen’s Speech does, as many noble Lords have said, is to flag up the absence of policies which are capable of addressing the long-term infrastructure problems in education, health and social services, and the continuing and grave failure to plan for the skills of the future so that we can manage the existential problems destabilising the whole of our society and economy: an ageing society, artificial intelligence and climate change.
Many noble Lords—notably my noble friend Lady Pitkeathley—have spoken powerfully about the crisis in adult social care and the doubling of the number of people waiting for an assessment or a review for care to begin. The number has grown to 500,000 this year. A bounceback in the service has not happened because those people feel that they are not valued. Some 170,000 hours of care were lost last year and there is now unrelenting pressure on families and unpaid carers, who themselves could contribute so much more if they were seen as skilled workers and as key partners within the triangle of care. We are simply not valuing or mobilising the assets we hold as a country. We have a vicious, not a virtuous, circle. Perhaps the Minister can give us some assurances this evening that adult social care will get a bigger share of the health and social care levy. Without that, there is no way that the NHS is going to meet the backlog of care, let alone its other ambitions. This is because the NHS, as we have heard again across the House, is short by 110,000 staff, and this includes one in 10 nursing posts. The last health workforce strategy was in 2003. Can the Minister tell me when the next will come?
Where does the education service fit into this? My noble friend Lady Morris gave a wonderful speech on this issue this evening. Despite the optimism of the Minister, whom I respect very much, there is nothing in this Queen’s Speech or in the policy which will close the attainment gap between poor children and the rest. School funding levels have simply returned to the levels they were at in 2010. However, the crucial failure is not to have put in place measures to strengthen and stabilise the early years and childcare sector. The costs of childcare in this country are horrendous; the sector is increasingly fragile. We predicted this with the childcare Act of 2017, and I am sad to say that we were right. It bears down hugely on families, who are now facing horrendous cost of living issues. All that is offered is a review of childcare ratios—it is shocking. Can the Minister explain how this is going to improve access to high-quality care or help for poor children?
One solution the Government have offered is to cut civil servant numbers by a fifth because of Brexit. The Times demolished that assertion on Saturday, saying that
“many of the new jobs were driven by the longer term demands of Brexit” and that
“departments expanded to take on regulatory functions previously carried out by the EU. The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs … has trebled in size.”
In plant health, Defra has had to create 20 committees to replace the EU regulatory framework. Brexit is going to be a burden on the public and Civil Service for years to come. We need a new social contract between the public services and public servants in this country to ensure that, in the future, we have the public services that we need and deserve.