Baroness Smith of Newnham (LD)
My Lords, as the noble Lord, Lord Collins, has pointed out, the gracious Speech was in many ways rather lacking in the themes of today’s debate. That is very common. There is very little in the legislative sphere that your Lordships’ House is requested to opine upon in the course of the annual year or parliamentary Session. However, I suspect that the noble Lord, Lord Ahmad, thinks that he spends more time in your Lordships’ House answering questions than many other Ministers. That is precisely because there are so many issues of vital importance to this country, and globally, linked to his portfolio—which every time we hear from him seems to have expanded to another part of the world and another set of issues. Today, he has the undoubted pleasure of responding to the debate on foreign affairs, international development—which is still part of FCDO —defence, trade and Europe. Europe is of course the dog that does not bark at the moment, and received very few words in the gracious Speech.
However, if today’s debate has very little to do with legislation, that might come as a relief. As the noble Lord, Lord Sherbourne of Didsbury, put it in his witty moving of the humble Address, an earlier Lord Mancroft had bemoaned that we have been overlegislated in this country. That was 70 years ago, at the start of Her Majesty’s reign. The noble Lord, Lord Sherbourne, seemed to think that this would be of particular interest to the Opposition Benches; that for some reason we would think that there was too much legislation in the world. I have the advantage, in sitting on the Liberal Democrat Benches, of seeing the faces of the government party, and in particular the Conservative Privy Council Bench. I assure your Lordships that nobody looked more delighted at the idea that there was too much legislation than the noble Lord, Lord Forsyth of Drumlean.
We are all very happy to have a debate and discuss policy that does not necessarily link to legislation but, as the noble Lord, Lord Collins, pointed out, some areas of the gracious Speech were perhaps lacking. In his opening remarks, the Minister began to flesh out some of these areas and there are others that we will need to probe during this Session that link to defence expenditure. The rhetoric is one thing, but the reality might be different. Indeed, the noble Lord, Lord Sherbourne, pointed out that some people ask whether we can afford to spend so much on defence; his response, as is that of these Benches in many ways, given the crisis in Ukraine, is whether we can afford not to make that expenditure.
The gracious Speech talked about the Government playing a leading role in defending democracy and freedom across the world, including by continuing to support the people of Ukraine. In his opening remarks, the Minister spent much of his time explaining the Government’s commitment to Ukraine, which is very welcome, but he also made some comments that were a little unexpected, suggesting that Vladimir Putin has done nothing more than to foster European unity. If that is the case, do we really need a Brexit freedoms Bill or should we be looking at ways in which the United Kingdom can reunite with Europe? I am intrigued by the Minister’s comments in that regard, because there is clearly a need for greater co-operation with our allies in Europe and beyond.
I would like to press the noble Lord, Lord Ahmad, who will be responding, on the sorts of initiatives Her Majesty’s Government are taking beyond defence support for Ukraine. That is clear and welcome, but we have seen the Prime Minister go to Finland and Sweden and offer bilateral security commitments. That could be seen as very brave, but is it credible? What commitments is the Prime Minister offering that go beyond membership of NATO, and have Her Majesty’s Government thought through the implications of the words of our Prime Minister, occasionally, and of the Secretary of State for Defence and the Foreign Secretary, who do not always seem to be singing from the same hymn sheet? Their words could be seen as inflammatory in a way that perhaps is not intended. I would like to hear a little more about the extent to which the United Kingdom is working with NATO allies and prospective NATO allies, and to consider how far our commitments are credible and the United Kingdom can be a reliable partner.
That very much fits with some of the concerns raised by the noble Lord, Lord Collins: what are we doing on defence? It is easy for Ministers to say that we have made this major commitment to defence expenditure, but one of the biggest problems in the world today is inflation. One of the knowns about defence expenditure is that defence inflation is normally higher than the retail prices index. So will the Minister tell the House what calculations Her Majesty’s Government are making to assess whether the defence expenditure commitment is high enough? The rhetoric means nothing at all if we do not see something concrete emerging. I am sure the noble Lord, Lord West of Spithead, will raise various questions, perhaps about shipping and our capability in that sphere—I could be wrong; he may talk about something entirely different—but this is a very serious issue. Rhetoric is one thing; delivery is another.
This takes me to one of the Bills that was mentioned in the gracious Speech and on which we have been given a briefing: the Procurement Bill. It does not necessarily sound like something that fits in foreign affairs, but defence has been particularly lacking in this area and it is very clear that defence is included in the new Procurement Bill. It is all very well to legislate and have a wonderful procurement policy, and it may be that Her Majesty’s Government will bring forward legislation and we will amend it in such a way that all Members of your Lordships’ House will say, “What a fantastic Act the Procurement Act 2022 or 2023 is.”
However, an Act of Parliament is no use whatever if people engaged in procurement are not able to use it effectively, so what advice and comfort can Her Majesty’s Government give, particularly in the defence sphere, that defence procurement is going to improve and that we are going to see defence equipment delivered on time and within budget? That is an issue not of legislation but of good governance, and we need to see more of it.
The gracious Speech also talks about the benefits of Brexit. It will not surprise your Lordships to hear that, speaking from the Liberal Democrat Front Bench, I have found it quite difficult to find any benefit from Brexit. Apparently it is going to lead to growth. The noble Lord, Lord Frost, is looking across the Chamber, and he will be speaking shortly. I am sure he will disagree with me and will suggest that there are many benefits of Brexit. But so far, we are seeing not growth but labour shortages, raging inflation and stagflation. I admit that that is not all because of Brexit. Some of it is coming from war and the sanctions on Ukraine. When we had the emergency debate on Ukraine in the previous Session, I very strongly made the point, which I reiterate today, that however much we support sanctions against Russia associated with the war in Ukraine, it is important to be clear to the British public about some of the implications of sanctions because they do not affect Russia alone. We need to be clearer about that.
In winding up, I turn to the advice we have been given on the Brexit freedoms Bill. It suggests that a review has found about 1,000 pieces of legislation that could be looked at again, that all this legislation was rapidly negotiated in the past and had inadequate scrutiny, and that much of the law coming from the European Union was
“imposed and changed with minimal parliamentary scrutiny in the past”.
The briefing goes on to say, rather ironically:
“The Bill will significantly reduce the amount of time needed to make retained EU legislation fit for the UK, meaning the Government can more quickly implement the benefits of Brexit.”
Can the Minister explain to the House how it is better to be changing legislation so rapidly, seemingly with even less scrutiny than the retained legislation had in the first place? Surely the point of taking back control is to ensure that Parliament has a greater say and that we are not airbrushed. The echoes of Thomas Cromwell and Henry VIII should surely be excised from forthcoming legislation.