HL Deb 26 November 2003 vol 655 cc5-22
The Lord Chancellor (Lord Falconer of Thoroton)

My Lords, I have to acquaint the House that Her Majesty was pleased this morning to make a most gracious Speech from the Throne to both Houses of Parliament assembled in the House of Lords. Copies of the gracious Speech are available in the Printed Paper Office.

I have, for the convenience of the House, directed that the terms of the gracious Speech be published in the Official Report.

3.37 p.m.

Lord Ashley of Stoke

My Lords, I beg to move that an humble Address be presented to Her Majesty as follows:

"Most Gracious Sovereign—We, Your Majesty's most dutiful and loyal subjects, the Lords Spiritual and Temporal in Parliament assembled, beg leave to thank Your Majesty for the most gracious Speech which Your Majesty has addressed to both Houses of Parliament".

I would like to thank my noble friends the Leader of the House and the Chief Whip for the honour and privilege of moving this Motion. They follow very distinguished predecessors—that is, the late Lord Williams and my noble friend Lord Carter—both of whom were warmly regarded on all sides of the House.

Noble Lords

Hear, hear!

Lord Ashley of Stoke

My Lords, I must say that my noble friends the Leader of the House and the Chief Whip are also warmly regarded, but the Chief Whip is more warmly regarded early in the evening rather than late at night. His nocturnal votes are not the most popular pastime in the House of Lords, or anywhere else. My noble friend the Leader of the House was very distinguished before she entered this place; namely, when she was chairman of the Equal Opportunities Commission where she did sterling work on this vital issue. We were delighted when she pursued that work in the House of Lords; it was a great gain for the House and for women generally.

Perhaps I may make one small point. I know a local club that for many years excluded women. It stated that, "Women cannot come in this club", rather arrogantly and sometimes chortlingly. This year, it has decided to change the rules to admit women, but only because the law has changed. That is just one small example of the kind of work that my noble friend has done for a large section of the community. My noble friend has fought against outrageous discrimination and inequality in a valiant and sensible way.

I have known my noble friend the Chief Whip for many years, both here and in the House of Commons. Sometimes we quaintly call it "another place", but I prefer to call it the "House of Commons". Even then my noble friend was, with his presence and easy-going manner, misleading many people. In fact, he is as tough as old hobnailed boots and I suspect that he would be able to use that footwork in the business of doing his job. However, my noble friend is best known for the sterling work he did at No. 10 as PPS to the Prime Minister. There he learned the intricacies of No. 10 and the inner workings of that vital department of state. He also learned about the relationships between No. 10 and the many and various government departments. Would we not give a lot to know exactly what happened? But those secrets could not be in safer or more secure hands than those of my noble friend. I have tried to extract them without any success.

Years ago, when my noble friend and I first knew each other, we were both—then as now—warm supporters of the Labour Party, but I am afraid that I was a Labour government loyalist who sometimes kicked over the traces. It was only when I had kicked them over that I learned what Chief Whips are really like. On one occasion I made it quite clear that I would not vote for an important aspect of Labour policy, regardless of the arguments being put forward by the government. I had a message from the Chief Whip of the day to come immediately to his office, although the words he used were to accept an "invitation to come to my office". We all know the legendary tales of Chief Whips' offices. They are about bullying, twisted arms, and so forth. But I was not prepared to be intimidated and I had ready a blistering response. I marched into his office and sat down uninvited. We glared at each other across the desk. Then the Chief Whip reached down, opened a drawer—because of the tension and passion over votes in those days; it was a knife-edge government with a majority of only one or two and he could have been reaching for a revolver for all I knew—and pulled out a bag of sweets. Then he said, "I think you are one of the most wonderful people I have ever met", and proceeded to soft-soap me in a way that no mother would lay on for her child.

That episode taught me that Chief Whips are far more Machiavellian than they appear, and I suspect that the more placid and easy-going they seem, the more tough and aggressive they really are. We shall have to see how my noble friend talks to me after this speech. The Whips both in this place and in the Commons work together because what they want to do is to enact the measures in the Queen's Speech; that is their job. But, strangely enough, on the humble Address, they hold different views.

In 1966, in my second year in the Commons, I was invited to second the Queen's Speech. Then I discovered that, in the Commons, the mover and seconder are expected to focus on their constituencies. I must say that this led to some very fanciful speeches, as some of my noble friends will know. The shabbiest and drabbest places in Britain were described as glittering garden cities. It was unbelievable how stories could emerge from MPs about these wonderful places which really we should worship. They would go on in great detail about the grace, beauty and eminence of these places—so much so that it became difficult to resist the temptation to dash up to places like Wigan, Warrington and Wakefield to see them. But this is how it was in the House of Commons—a little different from here, I am hoping.

That is enough of the past, although one can say a very great deal about the people in this place whom I knew in the past, and the wonderful relationships those were. However, I want to focus on the present and say how warmly I welcome this gracious Speech. I know it is highly controversial but the moment a government seek to avoid confrontation is the moment they lose their fighting spirit. I think that would be fatal, so I am delighted that this Government are as aggressive as they are on all these major policies that we will debate across the Chamber as best we can.

All of your Lordships will have read or heard Her Majesty's Speech this morning with very great interest, and will have different interpretations of it. To me, this is the speech of a tough, dynamic and forward-looking Government. I am sure that the Leader of the Opposition has a slightly different view, but I have no doubt that these measures will be of enormous benefit to the people of Britain.

I should like to mention two Bills of special interest to me. The first is the draft Bill on disability. This draft Bill is badly needed by disabled people because they suffer great discrimination. But because it is a draft Bill, it may be a delayed Bill. I hope that the Government will take on board the message that a draft Bill is fine, but we do not want unnecessary delay with this Bill on disability.

Secondly, there is the domestic violence Bill. I was the first MP to raise the issue of domestic violence in the House of Commons in 1972. This followed a visit I made to Chiswick Women's Aid, where I saw over 130 women and children battered, bruised and absolutely defeated—refugees from violent husbands. I then realised that violence in the home is just as evil as violence on the streets. It requires very strong, tough government measures to combat it and make provisions.

There it is, my Lords. In my view, the measures in the Queen's Speech will help millions and millions of people in Britain. However, it is a controversial programme and I believe that we will have a very interesting and lively time ahead. So—fasten your seatbelts, and let us go! I beg to move.

Moved, That an humble Address be presented to Her Majesty in the following terms: "Most Gracious Sovereign—We, Your Majesty's most dutiful and loyal subjects, the Lords Spiritual and Temporal in Parliament assembled, beg leave to thank Your Majesty for the most gracious Speech which Your Majesty has addressed to both Houses of Parliament".—(Lord Ashley of Stoke.)

3.48 p.m.

Baroness McIntosh of Hudnall

My Lords, I beg to second my noble friend's Motion for an humble Address. To be asked to second this Motion is a great privilege and a delight for many reasons. Not least among them is that it gives me the opportunity to follow my noble friend Lord Ashley of Stoke for whom the words "a hard act to follow" are not a cliché.

My noble friend has been, to me, as I think he has been to so many people, an inspiration—from afar, in my case. He may be rather surprised to hear me say this as we were introduced only recently, but I hope he will not find my admiration unwelcome. I need not remind your Lordships of his long and extraordinary career. There can surely be few parliamentarians who command such respect and affection across all shades of political opinion.

Not only is it an honour—and it most certainly is— to be in this position today, it is also a considerable surprise. I had not the least inkling of what would follow until, on a quiet evening recently, I was minding my own business in a quiet office. I cannot remember what time of day it was, but I suspect that it was some time after midnight, as your Lordships might agree. I was suddenly aware that my noble friend the Leader of the House had entered the room and shut both doors, taking up a position between me and the means of escape.

My noble friend is the most courteous and charming of people, as your Lordships will agree. However, this mildly scary behaviour—as it was, to a lowly Back-Bencher with a less than perfect voting record—caused me for a moment to tremble. Was it all over? The same fear obviously crossed the mind of the noble Lord, Lord Ashley, at an early moment in his career. Did she have a pearl-handled revolver in her elegant handbag? My fears were groundless, of course. Like the best of Fairy Godmothers, she was dropping in to present me with this wonderful opportunity. Naturally, however, it came, as all fairytale special offers do, with a stern injunction: I was to tell nobody, on pain of—what? Best not to ask, but probably something nasty involving Whips, I surmised, so I took no chances.

Of course, I should not cast unjustified aspersions on Whips. As my noble friend Lord Ashley has already pointed out, they are on the whole a patient and long-suffering breed, currently led with distinction by my noble friend the Captain of the Gentlemen-at-Arms, to whose personal and political skills I wish to pay tribute. He is the only man whom I have yet met in my life who can make a bleary, weary group of grown-ups feel grateful that they have been allowed to stay up late. Persuasive powers like that might have brought him wealth and leisure—where did it all go wrong?

When I was appointed to your Lordships' House four years ago—which was another big surprise, and an even bigger surprise to some people than it was to me—I had been working in theatre for nearly 30 years. Of course, I wondered how I would adjust to what lay ahead. I had such a specialised range of experience: of watching people dressing up and making long speeches, of backstage crises, of stars at the front and chorus at the back, of understudies thrust into the limelight overnight, of insatiable critics, of endless speculation about who was in, who was out, who was up and who was down. How was that going to be relevant at all? Strangely enough, I felt at home almost at once— and to think that I once thought seriously about becoming a lawyer. Actually, I really did consider it, but decided early on that it looked too much like hard work—a truth which my noble friend Lady Scotland of Asthal, for whose brilliance and stamina I have unbounded admiration, clearly did not recognise until it was way too late.

To my shame, I did not immediately appreciate what a remarkable community I was joining when I first arrived in your Lordships' House. Now, whenever I look around, I remember that I am in the company not only of some of the finest lawyers, academics and politicians this country has produced but also of distinguished doctors, theologians, writers, producers, film makers, broadcasters, and even the occasional musician. Such is the diversity of your Lordships' House—a diversity which, although I fully support the need for further constitutional change as prefigured in the gracious Speech, I hope we shall never legislate away. In the end, politics cannot just be about politics; it is, and must always be, about people, and the expertise available in this House grounds our debates in lived experience, giving them a unique authenticity.

I have learned an immense amount in my short time here, especially from the opportunities that. I have had to work in committee, where the intellectual firepower is frequently awesome. It has also been fascinating, especially in the past week, to watch compromise being hammered out on difficult political issues. Trying to manage the business in this House is clearly sometimes akin to herding cats, and I doubt whether "fascinating" is the adjective that would first spring to the mind of my noble friend the Chief Whip to describe his job. There is manifestly room for improvement. Nevertheless, I hope that we shall not lose sight of the crucial role played by a robust revising Chamber in improving the quality and durability of legislation. I believe that the Government understand that very well, despite the occasional frustrations, and have frequently listened to the many wise voices to be heard from all parts of your Lordships' House.

On the subject of voices, I cannot let slip the opportunity to remind your Lordships of that excellent cross-party initiative, the Parliament Choir, of which I am proud to be a member although I was unable to sing last night, I am very sorry to say. It is a magnificent example of political harmony and the best fun that I have yet discovered to be had in the Palace of Westminster on a Monday night.

Taking the House itself seriously is one thing: taking oneself as a Member of it too seriously is quite another. I am sure that many noble Lords would agree that children are great deflators of pretension. I have two, more or less grown up, who have consistently failed to see my elevation to your Lordships' House as anything other than an opportunity to mock. There has never been any chance of getting above myself while they are around. I am delighted to say that neither of them is here today— delighted not because I do not enjoy being the butt of their jokes, but because they are both performers, one an actor and one a singer, and they are both working. They have chosen precarious professions but, thankfully, culture and the arts in this country have flourished under the present Government, and my children's generation of artists consequently works in a far healthier climate than has sometimes been the case in the past.

My daughter was born on 25th April 1979. That is too much information, I hear noble Lords cry, but please bear with me. Those of your Lordships adept at mental arithmetic will realise two things—first, that she arrived one week before the general election of that year, thereby managing to sneak in, just, as a child of the last Labour administration; and secondly, that she therefore reached the age of 18 one week before the general election of 1997, in which she cast her first vote. I hope that she voted the right way—I did not ask her—but the main thing is that she did vote.

In that, my daughter may have been influenced by her maternal grandmother, my mother, a lifelong if somewhat eccentric Liberal party supporter, who never missed an opportunity to exercise that democratic right. Indeed, on one occasion, the Liberals having sailed temporarily into the north of her regard, she chose to express her disapproval by voting communist— presumably on the grounds that they needed all the help that they could get in rural Hertfordshire. However, I did get a bit worried when, a couple of years later, she went on holiday to Albania.

There are in my view few more essential duties for a legislature than to ensure that belief in and support for the democratic process is maintained. I am proud that the Government have achieved real improvements in schools over the past six-and-a-half years, and have now reiterated their commitment to enabling wider access to higher education. Young people reaching adulthood today are better educated, better informed and more questioning than they have ever been, certainly than I was at the same age.

It must be a priority for all of us, whatever our political stance, to make sure that this new generation of electors sees participation in democracy as important and relevant—that they see their vote as something valuable that can make a difference. How we conduct ourselves as legislators contributes significantly to their perceptions, which is why we must strive to strike an appropriate balance between respect for the past, awareness of the present and hope for the future.

I fear that, like Jane Austen's Miss Mary Bennet, whose pianistic skills left something to be desired, I may have delighted your Lordships long enough. I look forward eagerly to the challenges of the forthcoming Session, confident in the expectation that the rollercoaster of life in this House will deliver as many thrills and spills in the year ahead as it has in the past 12 months. As Edmund Burke said more than 200 years ago, Those who carry out great public schemes must be proof against the worst delays, the most mortifying disappointments, the most shocking of insults, and, what is worst of all, the presumptuous judgements of the ignorant upon their designs". That is democracy. I beg to second my noble friend's Motion for an humble Address.

4 p.m.

Lord Strathclyde

My Lords, I beg to move that this debate be adjourned until tomorrow. In doing so, it is my great pleasure to congratulate the mover and seconder of the Motion. In light of the gracious Speech, I do so perhaps for the last time if, as the Government intend, I and 91 other undesirable individuals are expelled from your Lordships' House next year.

Noble Lords


Lord Strathclyde

My Lords, I knew that noble Lords would probably react in that way. It has been a privilege to move this Motion year by year. It is one of the many courtesies of this House—a House whose nature I regret that the Prime Minister has never really understood. In a valedictory vein, perhaps I may say how much we on this side of the House miss seeing Gareth Williams in his place. The House has lost many good Members since we last met for the gracious Speech, but none—I can say it without causing the slightest shred of offence to anyone—leaves such a gap as Lord Williams.

However, the House is fortunate to have the noble Baroness, Lady Amos, as his successor. She took office in the most difficult circumstances and with a controversial Session lying ahead. I respect the way in which she has conducted herself during the past few months. As I work with her, I see how much she recognises her duty as Leader to the whole House. There will be tough give-and-take during the coming year if the Government persist with their divisive proposals, but when the noble Baroness speaks for the whole House as Leader, she can be sure that we on this side will always uphold her authority.

The noble Lord, Lord Ashley of Stoke, is a national institution. Indeed, he is more than that. He is perhaps the only national institution that has managed to remain untouched by change these past six years. The noble Lord represents all that is best in the House. He justly bears the high dignity of a Companion of Honour, richly deserved and nobly borne. He has unrivalled expertise and a commanding influence, born of remarkable courage in overcoming personal misfortune and turning it to the service of others. He has loyally supported his party in the Lobbies, but he has also managed to keep a strong and independent voice that has swayed many a Minister to come his way, just before the noble Lord strayed offside! Thanks to him, the condition of disabled people has time and again been improved by landmark legislation that he has inspired. One would not credit his four score years, but if there were ever an argument against a retiring age in your Lordships' House, the noble Lord is it.

The noble Baroness, Lady McIntosh of Hudnall, has a parliamentary career that is barely a tenth of the length of that of the noble Lord, but she too has an outstanding record of public service, most notably in her long period with the Royal Shakespeare Company and the National Theatre. She was also principal of a major school of music and drama. I hope that we do not become too theatrical in this House in what is bound to be a difficult Session, but if we do, we shall all turn to the noble Baroness for advice. The noble Baroness has made her mark here and speaks with authority. She made another outstanding speech today. We look forward, all of us, to hearing her even more in the future.

I have not counted all the Bills in the Queen's Speech, but to my ear, there were 26 or 27 Bills, not counting the Hunting Bill, and at least seven major draft Bills. Among these Bills are hugely controversial measures to change this House irredeemably.

This time next year, breaking an undertaking binding in honour on the Prime Minister and Privy Counsellors involved, given at the Dispatch Box, the House will have been purged of one fifth of all the Peers who do not support the Government, without any long-term reform plan being tabled. The office of Lord Chancellor will have been scrapped. The House will have lost one of its Cabinet members. The noble and learned Lords may be on their way out and a new Supreme Court may be being built—who knows where and at what cost—to solve a problem that few entirely understand. The policy was sprung on the world with no consultation before launch and not the slightest attempt at building consensus since. It does not make for a stable constitution or, indeed, a quiet life.

There are other major Bills that are complex and controversial and I wonder whether the noble Baroness the Leader of the House will agree with me that undertakings given at the Dispatch Box are a central part of the process of legislation. If the House cannot rely on an undertaking given about its own future in this very Chamber, how can we trust promises given on other Bills? I fear far more may have to be written on to the face of Bills if the word of Ministers cannot be trusted. Perhaps the noble Baroness will explain how the House can distinguish between a binding undertaking and one that can be dropped to suit executive convenience.

It is a very full programme and we should be in no doubt about that. We face the eighth education Act, the sixth transport Act, the 19th health Act and the 33rd Home Office Act in seven years. We are even promised another Fire Services Bill—but were we not slogging through a Fire Services Bill only a few weeks ago?

I believe that political achievement is not measured in the number of Bills but in the quality of public service. But now Bill follows Bill, follows Bill, follows Bill. And will another pensions Bill put right the robbery of the Brown years or the injustice of the annuity rules? Will another asylum Bill changing the law cobbled up the year before to sort out the fiasco the year before that end the chaos that increasingly makes up our asylum policy? We must all hope so. Will declaring war on the mums of Britain who care enough to take their toddlers to school put right an integrated transport policy that has disintegrated into shambles? And will the millions upon millions upon millions gushing down the plughole of more health reorganisation get a single suffering patient off a waiting list? And is there one person in this House who has been shaken by the hand by a grateful member of the public and told, "Thank God, your Lordships, I now feel safe about crime. The Prime Minister has put paid to the Lord Chancellor"?

Year by year, I begin to get the uneasy feeling that Ministers are drifting even further away from the real lives of our people. It happened to us in government, and this Cabinet is not immune. Something is stirring out there and people are beginning to notice. You can scrap jury trial, but you cannot scrap people's judgment on the failure of a government who have not delivered.

Of course there are things in this speech that we welcome. It is good to see the horror of domestic violence brought to Parliament's attention, as the noble Lord, Lord Ashley, mentioned in his speech. And for far too long the victims of crime and witnesses who often sacrifice much to bring criminals to justice have been treated as second-rate citizens by the criminal justice system. I welcome action on child protection, but hope that it will not lead to a new bureaucracy being built alongside the existing bureaucracies that have failed children.

It is right, too, to recognise that many people in this country have different life choices. They cannot marry but make lifelong commitments. Yet, as the noble Lord, Lord Alli, has said in the past, they face inheritance tax. This is a matter for free choice—tor a free vote—but can the noble Baroness the Leader of the House tell us whether the Bill extends the same privileges to other life partners who cannot marry, such as single siblings who live together or single children who care for an ageing parent over many years? Surely, they should not be thrown out of a lifelong home by the taxman any more than should gay partners when a loved one dies.

Good, bad or indifferent, this is a major programme requiring careful scrutiny. Will the Minister tell us how it will all be accommodated in a Session starting so late that no Bill can go into Committee until the new year? Before the last Session, this House voted for more Bills to go into Grand Committee in return for sittings ending at 10 p.m. We honoured that agreement. Last Session, we offered to put almost half the Government's Bills into Grand Committee. We delivered more time there than in the previous three Sessions put together, but the Government could not honour their part of the bargain. Night after night after night, this House went on sitting after 10 o'clock, often deep into the night, as the noble Baroness, Lady McIntosh of Hudnall, recognised. The Government had their cake and then scoffed up the cake that had been promised to the rest of the House. It was not the fault of the House or the Opposition, but the fault of an overlong, ill-prepared programme. As I listened to the gracious Speech, and counted all the Bills, I saw the same mistake being repeated.

We recognise our duty to carry the Queen's business. We are in the middle of a two-year experiment on working practices that should continue. We will join the Government in choosing appropriate Bills for Grand Committee, but the Government should not expect this House to accept a one-sided deal again or to be blackmailed by hints of holidays lost if an over-heavy programme is not waved through. How many of the Bills in the gracious Speech will start in this House? Will it be more than last year and will they all be ready before some of them were last year? When the Minister replies, could she clarify the position on the Hunting Bill? Do the Government intend to facilitate presentation of a ban Bill in the same form as last Session? If the Bill is returned, it must arrive in good time so that this House can suggest a better way forward.

Finally, I would like to ask about the Speakership of the House. This is the last year that the noble and learned Lord, Lord Falconer of Thoroton, is prepared to grace us with his presence as Lord Chancellor sitting on the Woolsack. We hear that an important announcement is to be made tomorrow on the report by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Lloyd of Berwick, on the Speakership. Can the Minister give an undertaking that time will be given for the noble and learned Lord to explain his thinking and that of his committee and for the House to be able to discuss it well prior to considered decision?

We must all be aware that, if the position of Lord Chancellor is to be abolished after 400 years, we will need to find someone to fill that space on the Woolsack. It must be someone of stature, experience unni and knowledge. Who better to have back on the Woolsack than the noble and learned Lord, Lord Irvine of Lairg? He could go from Lord Chancellor to Speaker in six months. We may even get a reference from his former employer and bring life and style back to those cold, empty rooms upstairs. There is a thought to close this speech and unite the House at the start of what I am sure will be a difficult Session. I beg to move that this debate be adjourned until tomorrow.

Moved, That this debate be adjourned until tomorrow.—(Lord Strathclyde.)

4.14 p.m.

Baroness Williams of Crosby

My Lords, I also congratulate the mover and seconder of the Motion with regard to the gracious Speech. In particular, I remind the House that I first met the noble Lord, Lord Ashley of Stoke, back in 1948 when he was a student at Ruskin College. He had arrived there having been a crane driver for several years—a profession that enabled him to understand better than almost anybody how to lift people from the bottom to the top.

The rest of the noble Lord's life has been devoted to doing exactly that—seeking people driven by disadvantage or the absence of a privileged background to the bottom of society and seeing how their potential can be most fully realised. I wish to place on the record that the noble Lord, Lord Ashley of Stoke, who subsequently became a student and later president of the union at Cambridge University, never forgot where he came from, who his friends were or how to help them. In a long life in Parliament, he has never for a single day forgotten that dedication to their purposes and benefit. As we all know, not only is the noble Lord, Lord Ashley, loved and admired in this House, but he is a man of immense courage.

Perhaps I may couple the tribute to the way in which Jack overcame the sudden and apparently disastrous visitation—or catastrophe—of total deafness with a great tribute to his wife of 52 years. Pauline sat beside him, assisted him, fought for him, fought with him and showed immense dedication to her husband. I believe that she is, indeed, a great ideal and model to us all.

Therefore, it is singularly appropriate that the noble Lord, Lord Ashley of Stoke, should on this occasion move the vote of thanks for the gracious Speech. I know that he will be one of those who rejoice in the fact that the Queen's Speech includes a reference to a review on disabilities, on which he is perhaps, among us all, the finest authority of all.

As has already been said by my colleague the Leader of the Opposition, the noble Baroness, Lady McIntosh of Hudnall, is herself a woman of great distinction in the arts. She is an administrator of the arts—not only for the National Theatre and Covent Garden, but she is Principal of the Guildhall School of Music and Drama and, in addition, has continually dedicated herself to the improvement and widening of the field of the arts.

The noble Baroness modestly pointed out that she was one of the founders of the Parliament Choir—an organisation to which I have had the pleasure of listening on more than one occasion. She also told us that last night she was unable to contribute her lovely voice to the choir. However, she did not tell us that one reason for that was that she was engaged in an honourable and, indeed, utterly delightful family duty—welcoming her daughter as a graduate of the University of Manchester. I believe we all recognise that, on behalf of her mother, her daughter deserves our congratulations, even though she cannot be present today.

Perhaps I may warn the Chief Whip that the noble Baroness, Lady McIntosh, is capable of organising an artistic performance at the drop of a hat and may at any moment bring together the famous freedom chorus from "Fidelio" to frighten the Chief Whip in his more tyrannical moments.

I turn to the past legislative year, which was marked by substantial pieces of legislation from the Criminal Justice Bill on one side to the hospital foundations Bill on the other. The range of legislation was huge. However, I am sure that the House will understand if I say that, among those achievements, came the sustaining of great losses. I refer to the very famous and eminent Members of this House, such as Lord Shawcross, who was well over 100 years of age when he died, and the great judge Lord Wilberforce, who many—particularly on the Bench of judges—will recognise as one of the most eminent in the great story of English and British law.

Perhaps I may make a special mention of two of the great radicals who have passed from our midst: my colleague Lord Jenkins of Hillhead and, as has already been mentioned, Lord Williams of Mostyn. In their different ways—belonging as they did to different parties—both men were outstanding radical thinkers and radical practitioners. At least for me, the light has dimmed a little with their passing.

I also want to congratulate the noble Baroness the Leader of the House, Lady Amos. As the noble Lord, Lord Strathclyde, said, she took over in a difficult situation with calmness, steadiness, wisdom and good judgment. I absolutely agree with the noble Lord, Lord Strathclyde, that she has already shown that she sees herself as Leader of the whole of this House and not as Leader of any particular part of it. However, that is not in any way to doubt her own political commitments and political values. We all look forward to working closely with her over the years to come.

Perhaps I may turn now to the gracious Speech. On these Benches, there are some Bills that we warmly welcome; for example, the child protection Bill. Heaven knows—in the light of the terrible story of Miss Climbié—it is a Bill that we all profoundly welcome. Many, too, will also welcome the domestic violence and victim protection Bill. I understand that it will start in this House, and it is badly needed. I wish that were not so, but one cannot watch the stories on television and read about them in the newspapers without recognising that, tragically, domestic violence is one of the scars on our society that we have not yet got beyond.

I am pleased to welcome two further Bills; namely, the civil partnership Bill, which owes a great deal to my noble colleague Lord Lester of Herne Hill, who introduced it originally as a Private Member's Bill. We are glad that it is going forward. I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Strathclyde, that lasting relationships should have the civil benefits that go with sustaining them. It is right and proper that that should happen. I hope that one day it will go beyond couples of the same sex to couples of different sexes if they have made the necessary commitment to one another. It is important for children, for families and for partnerships. As someone who married in a church, I see no real rivalry between a marriage blessed in a church and a marriage elsewhere; although, clearly, sacramentally, they are very different.

Finally, in this context, we are glad to see the companies law Bill which, if it manages to ensure proper accounting and auditing of companies, is greatly welcome. It is very damaging for a country that depends on trade and finance, as we do, to have even the slightest doubt about the propriety of the actions taken by company directors. The Bill, which is not a partisan Bill, will be of great assistance to us all.

Perhaps I may turn briefly to three Bills that are likely to be very much more controversial and to say a few words about our view on these Benches. The first Bill will be extremely difficult; namely, the Bill introducing top-up fees in higher education. As a former education Minister, I want to say just a few words about it. The gracious Speech refers to the need to deliver a world-class education system. I shall not carp at the improvements in schools, particularly in primary schools, which have been striking. I give due credit to the Government.

I must say directly, without the slightest qualification, that what has happened to our universities—not only under this Government but also under their predecessors even more—has been nearly disastrous. Without any question, 20 years ago, the British education system at the tertiary level was regarded as among the best—if not the best—in the world. Having been an academic lecturer in a number of British universities—I declare an interest for many years as a professor at the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University—I have seen both sides of the higher education problem.

But, bluntly, one cannot starve even a brilliant higher education system and expect it to maintain world class status. And it has not done so. Many of our finest academics have gone abroad. Most have gone to the United States, some have gone to Canada and some to Australia. Can anyone blame them? The average salary for a professor—not a senior professor—in the United Kingdom is currently £24,500. The equivalent: position in the United States is paid £54,000. The move from one English-speaking country to another—I assure the House that there are people out there all the time recruiting the best of British talent for universities overseas—is to see a steady haemorrhage of some of our finest brains. That cannot be allowed to continue if we really are believers in a world-class university system.

It is fair to say that both parties have steadily starved universities of the money that they need for proper research and development. Right now, universities estimate that they need £2 billion in order to maintain even their present level of research—let alone to improve it and to hold on to the most brilliant students. That £2 billion will not be forthcoming in the Government's proposals. At most it will be £0.5 billion, which will come out of student fees. A point that profoundly worries me is that, with every increase in the payment of student fees, the Treasury will withdraw some part of the money from general taxation.

There will be many arguments over who is right about the solution. My party makes no bones about saying that there has to be a substantial contribution from general taxation—and we would put up the top rate of taxation to 50 pence in the pound in order to meet that need. I do not press our case; there will be other opportunities to do so, but I do say that this House, more than any other—because it has so many Members who are knowledgeable about higher education—has an absolute duty to ensure that the universities get what they need to return to being world-class institutions, which tragically they are not at present.

I wish to mention two other Bills. Noble Lords will have to bear with me. I have not taken as much time as one or two other speakers and I do not intend to do so. I turn first to the asylum and immigration Bill. We have profound concerns about this measure because it addresses the most desperate people. We understand the desire of the Government to distinguish between economic migrants and real, persecuted refugees and asylum seekers, but we shall be seeking to protect those who are genuine refugees who have suffered torture and persecution, because we believe that that is an ultimate requirement of a civilised society.

I conclude with one or two words about House of Lords reform. Members on these Benches are unhappy about the fact that we are not seriously to address the possibility of establishing a ministry of justice of the kind we see flourishing in Scotland. Perhaps I may say that the Scots have made a better job of constitutional reform than those south of the Border. However, as regards Lords reform, I want to say simply that, having listened to many speeches on the issue of the right of a non-elected House to challenge the other place, Members on these and many other Benches in this House declare that it is not our wish to be a non-elected House. It is, above all, the wish of the Prime Minister. We wish that that were not so.

4.26 p.m.

The Lord President of the Council (Baroness Amos)

My Lords, it is a pleasure to support the Motion moved by the noble Lord, Lord Strathclyde, and it is a privilege to stand before noble Lords on my first State Opening as Leader of the House. However, I cannot do so without remembering my distinguished predecessor, Lord Williams of Mostyn. Although extensive tributes have been paid to Lord Williams, I do not think that enough can ever be said about the skills he brought to the job as Leader. I know that I speak for everyone in the House, Peers and staff alike, when I say that we still miss him greatly. We also lost several other Lords during the last Session, and the House is a poorer place without each and every one of them.

The last Session was at times hard for Members on these Benches. We suffered 88 defeats, more than any government since the 1975–76 Session, when the then Labour Government lost 126 votes. I hope that my right honourable friend the Prime Minister chooses carefully the basis on which he will judge my performance.

Last year in his opening remarks on the Queen's Speech, the noble Lord, Lord Strathclyde, said: Revising legislation—and revising it freely, responsibly and well—is what we are here for".—[Official Report, 13/11/02; col. 12.] I echo that. To enable us to be more effective, we also introduced a new package of working practices with a review period of two years. This represents a work in progress. Opinions have been expressed to me from all sides of the House about ways in which we can continue to improve the way we work and I look forward to further discussions on these areas during this Session. In his speech today, the noble Lord, Lord Strathclyde, expressed particular interest in these matters and I look forward to what I am sure will be at times combative discussions with the noble Lord.

My noble friend Lord Ashley of Stoke has been a great asset during the 11 years that he has been a Member of your Lordships' House. He is one of the great campaigners in this House. His diligent, fearless, independent-minded and highly successful work on disability rights has earned him enormous respect both in this House and outside. He brings real-life experience to the areas on which he speaks.

My noble friend is also a very brave man. Not only did he contest Finchley in 1951—and we all know who later made that constituency famous—but he was also PPS to another of this House's great campaigners, and someone to be feared; namely, the late Lady Castle of Blackburn.

My noble friend lost his wife Pauline this year, after more than 50 years of marriage. Lady Ashley was a huge support to him, and I know the whole House will join with me in sending my noble friend our deepest sympathy.

Noble Lords

Hear, hear.

Baroness Amos

My Lords, my noble friend Lady McIntosh of Hudnall has had a glittering career in the arts. The noble Lord, Lord Strathclyde, and the noble Baroness, Lady Williams of Crosby, have already alluded to it. Like my noble friend Lord Ashley, she brings real expertise and experience to the areas on which she speaks in this House. Despite her busy career outside, she is a diligent attender, and our debates on theatre and the arts would be much poorer without her. My noble friend also has a keen interest in public health and was a member of the Select Committee on stem cell research.

As my noble friend herself said, the arts run in her family's and her friends' veins. In particular, she mentioned her children. Her daughter, Flora McIntosh, recently sang soprano solo with our Parliament Choir when it performed Haydn's "Nelson" mass, while my noble friend, a founder member of the choir, supported her from the chorus. I congratulate both my noble friends on their speeches.

Two themes run through this year's Queen's Speech—the future and the commitment to fairness and social justice for all, which has been at the centre of this Government's programme during the past six years. Tomorrow we shall start substantive debate on Her Majesty's gracious Speech. The Government are bringing forward a legislative programme that will continue their successful and effective reform of public services, as well as measures to create safe and secure communities, provide lifelong opportunities and social justice and improve the day-to-day quality of life—all underpinned by modern democracy.

The Government remain committed to reform of your Lordships' House. In the absence of any agreement between the two Houses, the Government published a White Paper on House of Lords reform. The consultation period ends in December, and in the new year the Government will bring forward a Bill that represents the next steps in Lords reform. That Bill will fulfil the Labour Party manifesto commitment to remove the remaining hereditary Peers in this House. It will also establish an independent appointments commission, accountable to Parliament rather than to Ministers.

Each and every one of us has a strong view on House of Lords reform, and I am sure that our debates on that Bill will be extensive and interesting. I am sure that the House will conduct itself in its usual sensible and dignified way in relation to the Bill and the rest of the Government's legislative programme this Session.

The noble Lord, Lord Strathclyde, asked me specifically about those Bills which will begin here, in the House of Lords. Major Bills expected to start in the House include the energy Bill and the companies Bill. They will contribute to continued economic stability and quality of life. The domestic proceedings, crime and victims Bill will put victims first and crack down on domestic violence, protecting victims of one of the great hidden crimes of our age.

Bills will be introduced to establish a Northern Ireland judicial appointments commission and to improve the system of public audit in Wales. There will also be plenty more to come in our efforts to establish a modern democracy.

We have an impressive set of Bills starting in this House this Session. Those that I have outlined do not make up the complete list—other important Lords' starters will be introduced. That this House is being entrusted with starting the scrutiny of so many important Bills is recognition of the important work that we do.

The gracious Speech also outlined several draft Bills that the Government will publish this Session, with the potential for pre-legislative scrutiny. That is an area that was of particular interest to the noble Baroness, Lady Williams of Crosby, when she made her speech on the gracious Speech last year. They include Bills on the criminal defence service, charities law, the law relating to disabilities, enabling a referendum on the adoption of the single currency, school transport and ID cards.

There is no doubt that this will be a challenging Session, not least because at the centre of the programme are Bills that will have a direct impact on this House. It is safe to say that this Session will not be dull. I already have direct experience of the House asserting its authority. I returned to the House from the state banquet last Wednesday, ready to sit all night playing ping pong, as my three year-old niece describes it. But it was not to be—the House had adjourned. However, many noble Lords had not gone home, and there was much laughter and a great deal of camaraderie in the Bishops' Bar. So I know that this House is independent and intends to remain so.

I have been shown enormous courtesy and given a great deal of support by the Members of your Lordships' House. I thank my noble friends, the noble Lord, Lord Strathclyde, and the noble Baroness, Lady Williams of Crosby, for the very kind comments that they made this afternoon. I have no doubt that there will be times in this coming Session when patience and good will will be at a premium. I know that this House will be responsible in the way in which it manages its business.

There is still plenty to do. The programme is only part of the Government's reform and delivery programme, but there are important measures that the House will debate in the next few days and in the coming months. I support the Motion.

On Question, Motion agreed to, and debate adjourned accordingly until tomorrow.