King’s Speech Debate

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Department: HM Treasury
Monday 13th November 2023

(8 months ago)

Lords Chamber
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Lord Forsyth of Drumlean Portrait Lord Forsyth of Drumlean (Con)
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My Lords, it is a pleasure to follow the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Durham. We all share his aspiration to ensure that children and families are supported, but in order to do so we need to create the wealth to achieve that. Governments do not create wealth, businesses do, and I am sorry that his speech had very little about that aspect.

I shall talk about how the contents of the gracious Speech are going to be delivered and about the accountability of the Executive to Parliament. In the last Session there were 30 Ministers and Whips in this House, and 14 of them were unpaid. I thought we ended the practice of having to have private means in order to be able to serve in government in 1911. In this Parliament, one extremely effective and senior Minister of State was forced to take demotion in order to receive a reduced salary. Another able Front-Bencher gave up altogether as he could not continue unpaid. All Ministers of State in this House are now expected to work for nothing. This includes senior Defence and Foreign Office Ministers, whose duties involve travel away, and therefore they are not even able to claim the daily £300-odd allowance that is meant to cover accommodation and other necessary costs.

Unsurprisingly, the result has been that Peers are unwilling to take up ministerial office as many simply cannot afford it, while others are resentful at being asked to do so. The less than satisfactory remedy has been to appoint new but inexperienced Peers with deeper pockets, some of whom disappear after a short time in office to the Cross Benches—no names, no pack-drill.

Having served in government in the Commons for more than a decade, I am acutely aware of how much more demanding it is to be at the Dispatch Box in the House of Lords. Although politer, the questions are penetrating—even from your own side—and well-informed, and Ministers are expected to answer for the Government as a whole. Great rafts of legislation, bristling with Henry VIII clauses that have not even been discussed in the other place, surge up the Corridor for detailed consideration long after the other place has gone to bed. The House of Lords sits for longer hours than the elected House. In the last Session, 7,937 amendments to Bills were tabled and, unlike in the other place, each one is considered, with any of us free to speak with no restrictions on time—something that the Liberal Benches take full advantage of. Of those, 2,680 were government amendments accepted by the House, together with 277 opposition amendments. In contrast, as most Bills in the other place are timetabled, few if any amendments are considered and debated at all. The truth is that the other place is no longer doing its job of scrutinising legislation effectively and holding the Executive to account. There is much talk of reform of the House of Lords, but the Lords is working, working hard and doing a good job; it is the other place that is in need of reform.

Ministers in the Lords cannot be paid a ministerial salary because the Government have increased the numbers of Ministers in the Commons to 95, the maximum number allowed. I would like to think this profusion of Ministers had nothing to do with extending patronage and reducing parliamentary accountability. However, there is certainly little evidence that it leads to better government.

There has clearly been blatant ministerial inflation. I am indebted to my noble friend Lord Young of Cookham for pointing out that Baroness Thatcher’s first Administration had two Ministers in the Department of Transport in 1979—a formidable pair, in my noble friends Lord Fowler and Lord Clarke. This morning—or at least earlier this morning—there were five Ministers, even though much of what they were responsible for in 1979 has been privatised. The DHSS had five Ministers and is now replaced by two departments with a total of 12 Ministers, six in the DWP and six in the DHSC.

The Ministerial and other Salaries Act 1975 imposes a limit on the number of Ministers of 109, while the House of Commons Disqualification Act provides that there can be no more than 95 holders of ministerial office in the Commons entitled to vote. There is agreement on all sides of the House that the current position is outrageous and that the Prime Minister should either reduce the number of Ministers in the Commons today—he has an opportunity to do so—or introduce a Bill to increase the statutory limit to 123. Successive Cabinet Office Ministers have agreed that the position is unacceptable but then move on, having done nothing to change it. Rishi Sunak, our Prime Minister, has promised to take difficult decisions to ensure good government and the long-term interests of the country.

Personal wealth cannot be a qualification for ministerial office. I welcome the appointment of David Cameron as Foreign Secretary in this House, but it would be rather awkward if he was paid and his Minister of State was not.

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Baroness Penn Portrait Baroness Penn (Con)
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I will be happy to write to the noble Baroness.

We have launched a nuclear revival. The Government invested to become a shareholder in Sizewell C in November 2022 and launched a capital raise process in September this year to bring in new project finance. We have launched Great British Nuclear to drive the delivery of new nuclear technologies beyond Sizewell and to develop the latest small modular reactor technologies, and last month we announced the shortlist of companies to build the new generation of small modular reactors. Beyond the initial focus on delivery, Great British Nuclear will be available to support further nuclear ambitions. It has the statutory backing and resources behind it to deliver against its long-term operational mandate.

Through the nuclear fuel fund we will invest over £35 million, match funded by industry, to develop new domestic fuel production capabilities and to supply gigawatt reactors, SMRs and AMRs. On siting, we are developing a nuclear national policy statement that will cover the policy framework for deploying new nuclear power stations beyond 2025. As an initial step, we plan to consult on our proposed approach for determining new nuclear sites by the end of this year, with our aim to finalise a consultation on the NPS next year and complete parliamentary scrutiny to enable its designation in 2025. We will launch our consultation on alternative routes to market next month and, following our review of responses, deliver a report in 2024. I hope that responds to the questions from both the noble Lord, Lord Ravensdale, and my noble friend Lady Bloomfield, who are both great advocates for the nuclear industry. Perhaps I can write to the noble Lord, Lord Jones, to respond to his specific questions about the two sites that he focused on in his contribution.

However, we also need to recognise that data published by the Climate Change Committee shows that the UK will continue to rely on oil and gas to meet its energy needs even after the UK reaches net zero in 2050. That will include the use of gas for power generation and carbon capture usage and storage. That is why we are investing in the range of domestic energy supplies that we have available, including taking steps to slow the decline in the domestic production of oil and gas, which will reduce our reliance on hostile states and back a thriving industry in the UK that supports 200,000 jobs. It is important to recognise that the UK is a rapidly declining producer of oil and gas, and new oil and gas licences will reduce the fall in UK supply to ensure vital energy security, rather than increasing it above current levels, so that the UK remains on track to meet its net-zero 2050 commitments.

I say to the noble Baroness, Lady Blake of Leeds, that we recognise the unprecedented profits made by oil and gas producers after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. These profits represent not a return on investment but a windfall as a result of unprovoked war. It is therefore right that we introduced the energy profits levy on those windfall profits, bringing the tax rate on the profits of North Sea oil and gas producers to 75%. By 2027 the levy is expected to raise almost £26 billion, having already generated around £5.9 billion, helping us—as I said earlier—to pay half the typical household’s energy bill between October and June.

We also want to take a fair approach to decarbonising how we heat our homes, which is why we are giving people more time to make the necessary transition to heat pumps. We have increased the boiler upgrade scheme cash grants by 50%, to £7,500, to support consumers who want to make the transition now. It is one of the most generous grants in Europe.

I reassure noble Lords that, in taking into account the changes to the boiler and electric vehicles mandate and the ongoing licensing of domestic oil and gas reserves, we are confident that we can deliver our carbon budgets and capitalise on the opportunities for green growth. So I say to the many noble Lords who raised concerns in this area that we remain completely committed to our existing targets and to meeting net zero by 2050, compatible with the Paris Agreement ambition to limit global warming to 1.5 degrees.

We will continue to listen to and engage with the expertise in this House on climate and nature. I say to my noble friend Lord Lilley that our approach will be informed by evidence, pragmatism and rational debate. Our package of proposals and policies will continue to evolve to adapt to changing circumstances, to utilise technological developments and to address emerging challenges.

But we are in no doubt about the real and present threat that climate change and biodiversity loss represent to our economy and society, and there is no change in our commitment to tackling this challenge. The UK overachieved against its first and second carbon budgets, and the latest projections show that we are on track to meet the third. We are able to quantify the vast majority of carbon savings in the late 2030s, more than a decade away.

Environment and nature are the other side of the coin when it comes to tackling climate change. I reassure the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Norwich, who spoke so eloquently of his own work on ecology, that not only have this Government done more than any other on the environment and nature—including through the landmark Environment Act—but we remain committed to going further, through our commitment to end the net loss of biodiversity in the UK by 2030. I agree with the noble Baroness, Lady Hoey, that we need to put people and rural communities at the heart of this approach. We will not achieve this transition without the support and action of farmers and land managers.

My noble friend Lady McIntosh asked about the live animal export Bill and whether there is a means to restrict live animal imports from the EU. I say to her that there has never been a significant import trade for slaughter or fattening. For example, since 2019, only 91 cattle, 14 sheep and 20 pigs have been imported for slaughter from mainland Europe—so we do not see a pressing case to take action in this area. On my noble friend’s question about border control points, I reassure her that our new border control point at Sevington, covering the short straits, opens in April. Other border control points will open around the UK, securing our biosecurity with our new border targeting operating model.

A number of noble Lords, including the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of St Edmundsbury and Ipswich, raised concerns about the impact of recent flooding on farmers. The flood recovery framework provides funding for households and businesses affected by severe flooding, and it includes several grants and business rates relief.

I say to the noble Baroness, Lady Ritchie of Downpatrick, that I know that my noble friend Lord Caine spent several hours with her in communities affected by the recent floods. In the absence of the Executive, who could have acted swiftly, the UK Government are making money available to support those affected by floods, through the reallocation of existing funding.

I say to the noble Lord, Lord Whitty, and the noble Duke, the Duke of Wellington, who, among others, raised the reform of water regulation, that we are driving the largest infrastructure investment in water company history—an estimated £60 billion of water company capital investment by 2050—to meet storm overflow discharge reduction plan targets, which were recently expanded to cover all storm overflows in England, including those discharging to coastal and estuarine waters. But I will of course pass on to Defra the proposal from the noble Duke for the future of regulation in this area.

This brings us on to the theme of what is not in the King’s Speech, and to speak to the concerns raised by the noble Baronesses, Lady Sheehan and Lady Bakewell, around the ending of peat in horticulture. It remains our policy that we intend to legislate to restrict and ultimately ban the sale of peat and peat-containing products. We appreciate that there is good support for this from the public and from within Parliament.

I turn to the noble Baroness, Lady Sheehan, and the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of St Albans, who raised the subject of disposable vapes. The Government launched a consultation on smoking and the use of vaping earlier this month. As part of it, the UK Government and the devolved Administrations are considering restrictions on the sale and supply of disposable vapes, including prohibiting the sale of these products due to the environmental impacts that they have.

The noble Lords, Lord Whitty and Lord Livermore, and many others raised the question of employment rights. I say to noble Lords that, over the past year, we have proven our commitment to supporting workers by introducing a number of new employment rights via government hand-out Bills, including a new day one right to request flexible working; a new legal right to request predictable working patterns; additional protections for pregnant women against redundancy; a right to paid leave for employees whose child is receiving neonatal care; and a right for unpaid carers to one week of additional unpaid leave. Action is being taken in that area.

Perhaps related is the question of unpaid Ministers in this House, as raised by my noble friend Lord Forsyth. I and my noble friend the Lord Privy Seal have heard my noble friend Lord Forsyth’s plea and impressed the point at the highest levels. However, as he is well aware, the number of Ministers who are paid is set out in legislation, and to improve the lot of our Ministers who are unpaid we would need to legislate. Unfortunately, there is not currently the appetite to do that.

I turn to the remarks by the noble Lord, Lord Snape, who questioned the inclusion of the Pedicabs (London) Bill in the King’s Speech—

Lord Forsyth of Drumlean Portrait Lord Forsyth of Drumlean (Con)
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I am most grateful to my noble friend. I appreciate her courtesy in referring to what I said. As David Cameron is joining the House on a salary of £106,000, can we take it that his Minister of State will be paid?

Baroness Penn Portrait Baroness Penn (Con)
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My Lords, I could not possibly comment on that, but I join my noble friend in welcoming David Cameron to his new post. I think we will be very pleased to have someone of such talent and experience join your Lordships’ House.

To return to pedicabs, they are the only form of unregulated public transport on London’s roads. If we could deal with it through by-laws, that would be fantastic, but in fact it takes primary legislation to deal with that issue.

Many noble Lords, including the noble Lords, Lord Birt, Lord Grocott, and others, regretted the cancellation of High Speed 2 beyond Birmingham. We absolutely recognise the need better to support critical links between and within our cities and towns, but the reality is that High Speed 2 is crowding out investment to further these priorities elsewhere across the country. We have made the difficult decision not to extend High Speed 2 and, instead, to deliver the £36 billion of savings that we have allocated to Network North, an ambitious pipeline of alternative projects. The new plan will provide direct benefits to more people and more places and will do so more quickly than the previous plan for High Speed 2.

The noble Lord, Lord Birt, raised the need to upgrade the trans-Pennine rail route, which is absolutely a priority for this Government. The upgrade programme is expected to provide an extra two trains per hour and aims to reduce journey times between Manchester Victoria and Leeds from 55 to 41 minutes. The Government have committed £3 billion to date, and an announcement on future funding will be made later this year.

To the noble Lord, Lord Jones, I say that we are delivering a £1 billion upgrade to the north Wales main line, including electrification and improving journey times to better connect Wales with London and the north-west. We will now proceed with the steps necessary to implement this, including reflecting on the existing package of legislation before Parliament, necessary consultative steps, business case development, and our parliamentary and legal and fiscal duties.

Finally, the noble Baroness, Lady Bennett of Manor Castle, asked whether I stand behind the briefing that the first models of self-drive vehicles could be offered to market by 2026 if they are proved safe. The short answer, which at this time of the night will be appreciated by noble Lords, is yes.

So, this Government have a comprehensive plan to deliver a strong economy, secure energy supplies, a state-of-the-art transport sector and a safeguarded environment. From bringing down inflation and the national debt to growing the economy and tackling climate change, we are committed to making long-term decisions for the benefit of everyone across this United Kingdom. That is what the first King’s Speech in many a generation delivers, and I commend it to the House.