Queen’s Speech - Debate (5th Day)

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 7:05 pm on 17th May 2022.

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Photo of Baroness Eaton Baroness Eaton Conservative 7:05 pm, 17th May 2022

My Lords, I declare my interest as a vice-president and former chair of the Local Government Association, and as a member of Beckfoot Trust, which is a multi-academy trust, and the Leeds Diocesan Learning Trust.

I thank the Prime Minister for showing that this Government are serious about levelling up all areas of the country, as this Queen’s Speech seeks to enshrine the 12 missions into law. These missions will all be crucial if we are finally to tackle the inequalities in our communities. As a former council leader, I would like to put on record that councillors are as ambitious as the Government are for the people and places they serve. Given councils’ role in providing more than 800 different services to local communities, local government will be vital to ensuring that we can deliver on our promise to the nation.

As a former teacher, I am also passionate about ensuring that every child and young person has the best start in life. The Schools Bill seeks to achieve this by introducing measures that will deliver a higher-performing school system. The Bill rightly recognises the important role councils play as education partners. I know that the Local Government Association has commended the Government for that. In particular, the measures to allow councils to set up their own multi-academy trusts have been welcomed. Councils have an excellent track record in providing a high-quality education, with the highest proportion of schools rated good or outstanding. The plans to introduce a home schooling register have also been welcomed by councils, which have been calling for these reforms for a number of years. This shows that the Government are in listening mode and take action when they hear that things need to change. With this in mind, I urge the Government to listen to the call of councils that want to be able to deliver safeguarding checks on home-schooled children and hold the powers to take action against illegal schools. I would be grateful to hear the Minister’s views on this.

As the Government explore bringing the reforms in the SEND Green Paper forward, I urge Ministers to look at the complexities in the funding system that make it almost impossible for councils to transfer money for funding to the high needs block to best meet children’s needs.

I will briefly touch on the important issue of skills. Research commissioned by the LGA and carried out by the Institute for Employment Studies, published today, shows that in two-fifths of the country there are more vacancies than unemployed people. With the right powers, councils could do much more to ensure that everyone has access to targeted local support and the chance to learn new skills and find work. Locally led solutions are often the best way of fixing the national challenges we face. This is why I am pleased to see the Government introduce the Levelling-up and Regeneration Bill so quickly after the Queen’s Speech.

The UK remains one of the most centralised countries in the democratic world, so it can only be a good thing that the Government are seeking to pass power to local areas. All experiences of previous rounds of devolution deals have underlined the value of local collaboration and consensus. I trust that the Government will approach these new deals in the same way. In the same spirit, I know that those of us who sit on the devolution all-party parliamentary group would welcome engagement on how we can ensure that the Government’s plans reflect the diverse needs and aspirations of communities across the country.

Finally, I would like to touch on the women’s health strategy that has been announced. This presents an important opportunity to improve women’s health outcomes, particularly if the strategy adopts a preventive public health approach. I would also like to put on record the significant health and care challenges experienced by men. We know that 75% of deaths by suicide are those of men. In Mental Health Awareness Week, the Government demonstrated the importance of tackling poor mental health through their commitment to reform the Mental Health Act. Will the Government commit to addressing the very real male health issues by bringing forward a men’s health strategy?

To conclude, I share the Government’s ambitions to level up all parts of the country and look forward to working with the Government to deliver the proposals in this Queen’s Speech.