King’s Speech Debate

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Department: HM Treasury
Monday 13th November 2023

(8 months, 1 week ago)

Lords Chamber
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Baroness Hayman of Ullock Portrait Baroness Hayman of Ullock (Lab)
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My Lords, I congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Gascoigne, and the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Norwich on their maiden speeches in today’s wide-ranging debate. I am very pleased that there is another advocate for the north of England, so I offer the noble Lord the warmest welcome to the House. As someone who also feels passionately about our environment, I warmly welcome the commitment to it of the right reverend Prelate. I look forward to further contributions from them both.

My noble friend Lord Livermore clearly laid out our concerns about the current state of the economy, which have been reiterated by many noble Lords in today’s debate, including my noble friends Lady Drake, Lady Liddell, Lord Mandelson, Lord Sikka, Lord Hain, Lord McNicol, Lord Liddle and so on. My noble friend Lord Livermore spelled out Labour’s very different approach to turning around the economy and tackling the cost of living crisis, so I will concentrate my remarks on other aspects of the debate.

We are just weeks away from the UN climate summit, COP 28. With this in mind— and considering that the Government have time and again spoken up about their green credentials—the opportunity to use the King’s Speech to set out a clear vision for a greener future has been squandered. Instead, with one of the lightest legislative programmes in a decade, the Government have missed a vital opportunity to set out a positive agenda that delivers for people and the planet. Vague commitments to “lead action on tackling climate change and biodiversity loss, to support developing countries with their energy transition and hold other countries to account on their environmental commitments” are simply not good enough. It seems a little bit rich of the Government to pronounce that they will hold other Governments to account on environmental commitments when they are not exactly managing their own terribly well.

As we have heard today, there are huge health impacts from climate change and biodiversity loss. Does the Minister not agree with the WHO that:

“Further delay in tackling climate change will increase health risks, undermine decades of improvements in global health, and contravene our collective commitments to ensure the human right to health for all”?

My noble friend Lord Davies mentioned the lack of a mental health Bill—another thing missing in our approach to health.

The King’s Speech is a missed opportunity for nature’s recovery. Some noble Lords talked about peatlands, which are our largest natural carbon stores. They help to reduce flood risk, produce clean water and provide homes for many important species. The noble Baroness, Lady Sheehan, mentioned this in much more detail and the fact that the Government are still to ban retail sales of peat-based compost, as they promised to do by 2024.

We also heard about some of the direct and indirect impacts of climate change and biodiversity loss. The right reverend Prelate the Bishop of St Albans, for example, talked about the need to ensure that the impact on the environment is considered right across our political agenda. The noble Baroness, Lady McIntosh of Pickering, and my noble friend Lady Ritchie of Downpatrick talked about flooding and the lack of action on flooding. In government, Labour would set up a flood resilience task force to make sure there is better co-ordination between national and local government in emergency services and to give communities and local economies far better protection against flood damage. We would also appoint a Minister for Resilience within the Cabinet Office and overhaul local resilience forums, so that they are more ready to respond to emergencies such as floods.

Air quality was mentioned by a number of noble Lords. We know about the impact on health of poor air quality, and the Government simply do not have ambition on this. Food and farming, higher temperatures, changing rain patterns and extreme weather—all affect global food security. The United Kingdom Food Security Report 2021 says that climate and biodiversity loss are significant risks to domestic food production. With half of UK food imported from overseas, worsening climate impacts could lead to food shortages and price rises, which we have already been seeing. What exactly is the Government’s plan to tackle this?

We also know of indirect impacts from the current situation on climate change and our economy, such as increased poverty, migration and intensified inequalities. My noble friend Lord Hendy talked about this, as did the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Durham.

My noble friend Lord Whitty pointed out that there is nothing about water in the Speech. Nothing more graphically illustrates the 13 years of failed Conservative government than the tide of raw sewage that today spills down our rivers and into our lakes and washes up on our beaches. The noble Duke, the Duke of Wellington, spoke about this and the failure of our regulators to do something to tackle it. The Government must take responsibility for cutting back on the enforcement and monitoring of water companies and for the poor rate of prosecutions when the law is blatantly broken.

We believe that the regulatory framework is simply not working effectively and needs changing. We would ensure that the polluter pays by expanding Ofwat’s powers to ban the payment of bonuses to water bosses until they have cleaned up their filth. We would make law-breaking bosses personally and criminally liable for their crimes, we would make monitoring of every water outlet compulsory and we would introduce automatic, instant severe fines for every illegal sewage dump.

Energy has been much discussed in this debate. A number of noble Lords talked about the Offshore Petroleum Licensing Bill. For example, my noble friend Lady Liddell clearly laid out Labour’s position on this, the noble Baroness, Lady Hayman, drew attention to the tax incentives that favour fossil fuels over renewables and my noble friend Lady Whitaker spoke of the need to move away from fossil fuels. We need an energy policy that delivers clean power, increases Britain’s energy independence and reduces our reliance on oil and gas derived from the North Sea. The importance of investment in nuclear was mentioned, in particular by the noble Lord, Lord Ravensdale, and the noble Baroness, Lady Bloomfield.

However, as my noble friend Lady Blake said, it is hugely concerning that clean energy generation and security have not been a priority. Instead, we have recently seen a number of announcements that instead delay important net-zero policies. Unfortunately, it still seems easier to get permission from the Government to build a new coal mine rather than build the renewable energy that we so desperately need. Although the Speech included broad commitments to seek to attract record levels of investment in renewable energy sources and to reform grid connections, we need specific policies to be set out in the Autumn Statement at the end of November so that we know what this actually means. Can the Minister confirm that we will have more detail shortly?

As we have heard, the problem facing the UK is not just one of energy supply but one of energy affordability. Energy bills are still rising. My noble friend Lord Lennie spoke about energy security and the high cost to consumers, and the lack of action and ambition on this. We now know that an estimated 6 million households are in fuel poverty. The King’s Speech offers no hope to families living in poverty, struggling to heat their homes this winter.

There were also a number of expected Bills that simply did not make an appearance. My noble friend Lord Livermore mentioned a number of these, so I wonder whether the Minister knows if we are likely to see them at all in the near future. One example is the expected transport Bill, which a number of noble Lords mentioned. In December 2022, the Transport Secretary. Mark Harper, told the House of Commons Transport Committee that, due to a lack of parliamentary time, the Government had not been able to put it forward just yet but that some of the measures might well be included in the 2023 King’s Speech. What exactly has happened to these promised regulations?

The Speech did not include measures to limit the powers of local authorities to make it more difficult to introduce policies such as ultra-low emission zones or 20 mph speed limits. Have the Government changed their mind on this?

A number of noble Lords also referred to HS2, including the noble Lord, Lord Birt, and my noble friends Lord Grocott and Lord Berkeley. How will the rail reform Bill tackle the big issue of capacity now that the Government have cancelled HS2 north of Birmingham, without any sign of any suitable alternatives? Rail infrastructure is vital for economic growth, connectivity and investment, as we have heard. We have heard about the Network North proposals and promises, particularly from my noble friend Lord Grocott. We also heard more broadly from my noble friend Lord Faulkner about the need for proper rail infrastructure in this country, and my noble friend Lord Jones talked about the importance of funding investment for Welsh rail. The north really needs a rail Bill that delivers, so what guarantees can the Minister give me on this?

Finally, let us end on a positive note on animal welfare. I am sure noble Lords who know me will not be at all surprised to hear how absolutely delighted I am with the inclusion of a Bill to end the live export of animals. However, despite the noble Lord, Lord Callanan, saying that animal welfare is a priority for the Government, my welcome is tinged with a touch of cynicism after what happened to animal welfare announcements in previous Queen’s Speeches.

Lord Callanan Portrait Lord Callanan (Con)
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King’s Speech.

Baroness Hayman of Ullock Portrait Baroness Hayman of Ullock (Lab)
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The kept animals Bill and the animals abroad Bill were in Queen’s Speeches. What has happened to the promised bans on the importation of fur and foie gras, for example? What will happen with the trophy hunting import Bill that just collapsed? How can the Minister guarantee that the Government will actually deliver the promised legislation this time, and what is happening about the outstanding pledges?

It is a bit depressing that this legislative programme is the best the Government could come up with. I gently suggest to them that it is, in fact, time for a change.