My Lords, it is a pleasure to follow the noble Lord, Lord Storey, and I am grateful to him for welcoming me to my first time speaking in this place on these issues of education, public services and health. It is a real honour to be asked to do this.
Today’s debate has addressed some of the reasons that brought many of us who have contributed into public life in the first place. Your Lordships could really sense that passion across the Chamber all afternoon and into the evening. My noble friend Lady Wilcox of Newport and other noble Lords, including—this is not an exclusive list by any means—my noble friends Lady Morgan, Lady Morris, Lady Andrews, Lady McIntosh, Lady Lawrence, Lady Blower and Lady Warwick, the noble Baronesses, Lady Walmsley, Lady Brinton and Lady Finlay, and the right reverend Prelate made well-informed contributions. So many women in this debate did so and it has been a pleasure to hear them all. However, they all set out the deficiencies in the Government’s plans for education, welfare, health and public services.
What we needed was a Queen’s Speech that rose to the challenge of rewarding the devotion of families, teachers, pupils, patients and carers over the pandemic. It offered none of this, just short-termism and distant promises, with no sense of the urgency or appreciation of the scale of the task that we face.
The tone of this debate has been constructive, but the unmet ambition and frustration with the Government is palpable. The noble Lord, Lord Kirkham, to be fair to him, wants to close the attainment gap and I applaud him for that. However, I gently point out that the Government’s leadership in priority areas has so far been nowhere near that implemented in the London Challenge led by, I believe, my noble friends Lady Morgan and Lady Morris, although there were no doubt many others involved. The Government could step up and deliver for areas like mine in the north-east.
As my noble friend Lady Wilcox of Newport set out so well, the Government’s legislative plan—or lack of—for our children simply does not recognise the urgency of the action that UK schools and universities need. As she said, it is only though world-class skills, training and sustained investment and by changing the way that we think about vocational training—as the noble Baroness, Lady Falkner, and my noble friends Lord Hanworth and Lord Jones said—that Britain can compete in the 2020s and 2030s. The Prime Minister’s rhetoric on lifetime skills is all very well, but the reality so far is very different, I am afraid.
All the evidence suggests that it is in a child’s earliest years that interventions make the most difference, so it is utterly damning for the Government that half of all children starting reception are deemed to be not ready to start school. We will judge the Government on their record and not on their rhetoric—inadequately small measures and token gestures, as pointed out by my noble friend Lady Morgan, and no proper recovery plan. We need sustainable policy and investment, she said, and I agree.
Even when the Educational Endowment Foundation is warning that Covid may have led to a 17% increase in the already vast educational attainment gap between disadvantaged pupils and their peers, there are no proposals to support children’s pandemic recovery. Equally astoundingly, there are no proposals to improve teaching and tackle the exodus of school staff from our classrooms.
Labour would use this opportunity to support every child’s recovery from the pandemic with new opportunities to learn, play and develop, through our children’s recovery plan. We would end the unfair tax breaks for private schools and spend the money on improving education for all our children. By delivering 6,500 new teachers and professional careers advice and guidance for every child, we would provide a brilliant education for every child to equip them with the skills they need for work and for life.
“This is an empty Bill and a discredited catch-up programme,” said my noble friend Lady Morris, calling for standards not structures. You know why the Government are doing this? Because they are out of ideas; they are tired, distracted and unable to champion the needs of our children.
We heard a thoughtful speech from the noble Lord, Lord Addington, on dyslexia and technology, so what about a Bill to look at services for children with those additional needs, to support them, their educators and their parents? New ideas, imagination and a determination to deliver excellence for all children is what we want from the Government—they would have our support—but what we have is an all but empty Bill.
On health, there is only one small Bill. After a decade of Conservative underfunding, the NHS went into the pandemic with record waiting lists and 100,000 staff vacancies. There are 6,400,000 people currently waiting for treatment and 1,600,000 million people waiting for mental health support. The Government’s response? No legislation, no new funding, no details and no timescales. A failure to act for a decade was bad enough, but a failure to act after the pandemic is nothing short of an insult and a ticking time bomb. As my noble friend Lord Young said, we need to find a way.
I should just like to mention to the Minister somebody called Ian Weir. He lived in Darlington and died when he was, I think, 43 years old from a heart condition. He had been waiting for treatment for about a year and a half and died while on a waiting list. It was his death that led the then Health Minister, Alan Milburn, to introduce national service frameworks for heart conditions to impose targets and obligations on providers. Those decisions, that energy, that commitment and that determination to do something are still saving lives to this day.
However, we are now going backwards. Female life expectancy in the north-east is getting shorter, for example. That is shameful. More shameful still, however, is the Government’s passivity in the face of this preventable disaster. As my noble friend Lord Bradley explained, the Mental Health Act has long needed an overhaul. However, as he said, we do not currently have a sustainable, long-term workforce plan, which is necessary for the reforms to work properly. The Government are silent on this critical fact, whereas we would bring in an additional 8,500 new mental health staff to treat more patients and drive down waiting lists. It should please the noble Baroness, Lady Hollins, who made a well-informed and thoughtful speech, that we would guarantee mental health treatment within a month for all who need it and place specialist mental health support in every school, resulting in over 1 million more people receiving support each year and saving money in the long run.
Nearly two years on from the Government promising, as they put it, to fix social care, all we heard in this Queen’s Speech was that
“proposals on social care reform will be brought forward.”
I should hope so but, so far, that simply is not good enough. The noble Baroness, Lady Pitkeathley, is right: we are missing an opportunity to support carers and their families. She made some practical suggestions that would help. The noble Baroness, Lady Jolly, appealed to the Government to act and to rethink how young carers are themselves cared for by local authorities and schools. Too many fall through the cracks at present. The Government could and should act.
It is clear that the Government just do not have an ambitious, coherent strategy to revitalise health, education, welfare and public services. This is a mid-term Government with a huge majority. They should be making bold, difficult choices but are simply not meeting the scale of the challenge, with the UK facing crisis upon crisis in terms of the cost of living, mental health treatment, waiting times and educational attainment. Britain deserves better. We on these Benches want to form a Government. We have the energy, ambition and creativity needed but, until that time, we will use our role as parliamentarians to probe, push and negotiate our way to the better legislative package that our public deserve.