HL Deb 23 November 2004 vol 667 cc5-20
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.

Baroness Lockwood

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".

It is a great honour to move this Motion, just as it has been an honour and a privilege to sit in your Lordships' House for the past 26 years and to have seen the House welcoming a continual influx of talented new Members nervous about their maiden speeches. Today I have perhaps more than my usual sympathy for them as I deliver this humble Address.

I must thank my noble friends the Leader of the House and the Government Chief Whip for giving me this opportunity. If I may just reverse the order, my noble friend Lord Grocott has the onerous responsibility of delivering the Government's business. He does so with disarming charm and affability, which takes him a long way and earns our affection and respect.

My noble friend Lady Amos brings many attributes to the great office of Lord President through credits gained in her varied and successful career, not least in the skill and dedication she showed in her different ministerial capacities at the Department for International Development and the Foreign and Commonwealth Office. My personal regret about her career is that she became chief executive of the Equal Opportunities Commission after my period as chairman. I am sorry that I did not have the pleasure of working with her in that capacity.

It was because of my own work as founding chairman of the EOC that I was offered a peerage in your Lordships' House. Now, when I look around, I see several Members who were associated with that commission. The noble Baroness, Lady Howe, the first deputy chairman, shares with me the scars of those early years of the commission's life. As we sought to influence the whole range of policy-making bodies across our society, we were faced with conflicting voices which caricatured us, on the one hand, as timid "fuddy-duddies" and, on the other, as interfering busybodies who went just too far. However, when the heads of many industrial and other institutions stopped defending their policies on the grounds that they employed more women than men, albeit in the lower ranks, and began proudly to boast of the achievements and aspirations of their daughters, we thought that our policy of education and persuasion, backed by strategic law enforcement, was just about right.

My noble friends Lady Turner and Lady Gibson were once members of the commission. The noble Baroness, Lady Platt, who often sits opposite me, succeeded me as chairman. The noble Lord, Lord Lester of Herne Hill, was invaluable in helping the commission to stretch to the limits the powers under the 1975 Act, through the establishment of new case law. On a different canvas, the noble Baroness, Lady Trumpington, then UK representative at the UN Commission on the Status of Women, helped to unite the international voice of women through her irresistible humour and sense of fun. It was good to be so involved in those days.

Now, of course, on all Benches in your Lordships' House there is so much talent shown by women who, in their own spheres, have demonstrated, and are continuing to demonstrate, the value of equal opportunities between women and men. I admit to indulging occasionally in a little self-satisfaction but, nevertheless, I am deeply conscious that there is so much still to be done 30 years on, particularly in the field of equal pay, as I am sure that my noble friend Lady Prosser and her new Commission on Women and Work know well.

I expect that, like me, noble Lords find an increasing interest in the future of this House. Recently, I was asked to speak on the question: "Is there a future for the House of Lords?" My answer in brief was simple and straightforward: "Yes, because the House of Lords is a survivor"?

For example, the controversial introduction of life Peers nearly half a century ago, in itself quite a revolutionary step, was accentuated by the inclusion of women. What would the noble Lords of that time think now of the 126 women Members who not only add colour to your Lordships' House, but make such a valuable contribution.

In 1958, however, some noble Lords appeared to be in a complete state of shock and thought that the introduction of women would be an unmitigated disaster, as Hansard records. Some were less than gallant about women in politics. One noble Lord, taking a more conciliatory approach, felt that the great function that this House had to perform was, "the revision of hasty and ill-conceived legislation". Yes, back in 1958, too. He went on to say: "That is not the particular métier of the female sex". He could not have been more wrong, as we now know through seeing women Ministers and other Front-Benchers alike skilfully debating the minutiae and implications of clauses.

The House of Lords not only survived, but took on a new lease of life. Even so, which of your Lordships would have thought, say 25 years ago, that within that short space of time, the third woman Leader of the House would be seen and that that third woman would be black, thus reflecting the cultural changes in our society and underlining the fact that, throughout our history, newcomers, whether they be political refugees or economic migrants, or even past conquerors, have brought new qualities and enrichment to our culture. When we come to think of it, the House of Lords itself has been a pretty good reflection of that history. No other institution, I venture to say, has been better or even as good at adapting—to survive.

What the future holds for the House is still a matter for speculation. Personally, I foresee a time in the not too distant future for a largely elected House. Your Lordships may resist it, as the House did in February 2003, when, of the seven options, it voted overwhelmingly for a fully appointed Chamber. I openly confess to being one who so voted. But in the short intervening period, climatic change seems to have been persistent here too, and the tide of opinion for an elected Chamber appears more evident, or perhaps it is that the concept of an appointed legislative Chamber sits less easily in our more assertive, open society.

In any event, the idea of an elected element should not cause your Lordships too much discomfort. It is not a new concept here. At one time, Irish and Scottish Peers were balloted on who should represent them in the House. Now, we have that curious, some might even say bizarre, system by which your Lordships have chosen to fill casual vacancies among the remaining hereditary Peers.

But I have been speculating. The gracious Speech makes no mention of that matter for the coming Session. We must contain our impatience and await events. In the mean time, there is much in the Speech to occupy your Lordships. It would seem we are here for a long Session!

Personally, I welcome the underlying philosophy of opportunity and security. Opportunity is certainly now more widespread. Security means security in all its aspects, ranging from international terrorism, to personal security, real and perceived, as well as economic and social security.

Opportunity and security are complementary. I know that well from my own childhood in a poor, working class family. It is not easy to grasp opportunity if you do not have the confidence, the social skills and the know-how that social and economic security bring. So I warmly welcome this theme.

I also welcome the new equality and human rights Bill bringing together the existing legislation on sex, race and disability, with the opportunity to extend into other areas of discrimination, thus enabling the new commission to combat unfair discrimination wherever it may arise. Other Bills will complement that approach. No doubt they will be mentioned in the coming three days and my noble friend Lady Billingham may refer to one or two of them. In the mean time, 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".—(Baroness Lockwood.)

3.49 p.m.

Baroness Billingham

My Lords, I beg to second my noble friend's Motion for an humble Address. It is an honour and a pleasure to be invited to second this Motion today, even more so to follow my noble friend Lady Lockwood who is one of the most respected and longest serving Peers in the House. For years she was just a name to me, but what a name. She was a pioneer in the field of equal opportunities and helped to change the lives of all of us. She continues her outstanding contribution in this House. She opened doors to a new generation who found that they had a champion. The list of honours alongside her name bears testimony to a life of service, enrichment and personal dedication. More than that; she is a most delightful person, with a real twinkle in her eye and kindness in her heart.

Noble Lords

Hear, hear!

Baroness Billingham

But today, my Lords, I am under the very strictest orders—no heavy politics, no controversial issues, an absolute time limit and a lighthearted approach. So what on earth am Ito talk about if not the single currency, Corby or even climate change? What makes me in any way different from—I certainly could never be better than—your Lordships assembled here today?

Perhaps I could claim to have two distinguishing marks: first, I play bridge for the House of Lords; and, secondly, I play tennis for the combined Lords and Commons tennis team—my extracurricular activities, I suppose you could call them.

As for bridge, I have absolutely nothing to boast about, as my long-suffering partner, my noble friend Lord Harrison, would readily testify. But, I have one outstanding achievement: I found the cup—yes, the cup, the one and only bridge cup, priceless in value and history—which vanished mysteriously from the cabinet in the Bishops' Bar, where else?

Our supremo, otherwise known as the captain of bridge, the noble Lord, Lord Skelmersdale, was distraught. There were dark mutterings and angry attendance. Black Rod launched an investigation, but to no avail. The cup could not be found. Months and months passed. But I, with my gimlet eye, spotted it high up on a shelf, deep in the underground regions of the House. I was collecting my pager, since you ask. There it was, filthy and tarnished but undamaged. Holding it aloft, Bobby Moore style, I received a hero's welcome, with champagne corks a-popping and Black Rod ever after referring to me as Lady Pickles.

My second sporting venture is with the parliamentary tennis team. If I say, at the risk of being overly generous, that we are not terribly good, there would belittle fear of contradiction by anyone who has seen us play. In the few years during which I have turned out, I think that we have won three matches and one of those was the result of an opponent spraining an ankle during the knock-up.

I have three regular gentlemen partners.

Noble Lords


Baroness Billingham

My Lords, in the tennis playing sense, I hasten to add. Behave yourselves, my Lords. Sadly, my debut pairing with Michael Meacher was my last. He took to his bed for a week after an afternoon's exertions with me. My regulars are all from the other place and are indeed a hat-trick of delights: David Cameron, John Bercow and Sir Michael Spicer. Make of that what you will. The only thing on which we all agree is that I should play in the left court while they play in the right. In some cases—no names here I think—they play so far to the right that they are frequently aced down the middle. Could there be a political message for them from that experience?

But what we lack in skill and, in my case, mobility, we more than compensate for in competitiveness and spurious excuses as to why we lost. There are positives to be had. We have great fun, take valuable exercise and our opponents leave the court feeling like Roger Federer. Our results may be lose/lose but in reality, for all of us it is win/win.

I move swiftly on to my main theme for today. Survival is the word and image is the key. Let me be frank: I was quite relaxed when it appeared that only the blue bloods were under threat. It is quite another matter now when it appears that all of us are in jeopardy. Speaking totally selfishly, as one who has run the gauntlet of the ballot box for as long as I care to remember, the joy of a safe seat here on the leather benches was serendipity. Life, we were led to believe, meant life. Now ghastly prospects of elections, democratic accountability and even political transparency serve to threaten our very existence. The only programme is united action to save us from disaster, so I will lay my battle plan before you today.

If we are to survive, it is action now that can save us. Public support—indeed, public demand—are essential for our continued survival. We have to popularise and transform our image. Believe me, I know we can do it.

Very recently, I had a personal crisis to deal with and a potential disaster to deflect. Some of your Lordships will know that my daughter is married to Dennis Skinner's son. That is absolutely fine. But Dennis called his son Dennis. When a grandson arrived, I froze. Just suppose that history was repeated. I know that your Lordships will understand. It is quite one thing to be introduced as Dennis Skinner's mother in law but I surely could not be expected to go through life as Dennis Skinner's granny. There was a family conference; sanity prevailed; and we have a delightful little boy called Tom. Disaster averted.

In a similar way, we must look to our future. We need a huge swell of popular support. I can visualise it now: hundreds, no, thousands of placards waving enthusiastically, filling Parliament Square, reading "Hands off our precious Peers", "Save the Lords", and crowds chanting, "No ifs, no buts, save the Lords from swingeing cuts"—messages irresistible to decision-makers.

So how do we do it? Image, as I said, is the key. No more "old people's home" tag. No more being caught out on television having a little zizz on the Benches. As from now, as from today, we must institute a policy of zero tolerance, on-the-spot fines and an action plan. Nudge a nodder is the solution, with two nudges allowable if the offender is actually snoring.

I have to say that our personal dress codes need attention. I was most encouraged in that area by the noble Baroness, Lady Trumpington, who has already been mentioned this afternoon. As ever, she is ahead of us. When ordering a smart navy skirt from one of her catalogues, it was disappointing when it arrived as it was far too long. But the noble Baroness took it to be altered to 29 inches in length, just below the knee. That was an acceptable length and that was her choice. Sadly, as sometimes happens, the message was distorted. When she unpacked the garment, now amended, she found to her astonishment that it was a mere 19 inches long. By my reckoning that would just about reach halfway up the noble Baroness's stately thighs. Well, what an opportunity for a brand new look! I know that noble Lords on all sides of the House will join me in encouraging the noble Baroness in an early airing, in this Chamber and outside, of her daring new ensemble. What is more, we should follow her lead and radically update our wardrobes, captivating popular approval in so doing. We might even consider asking Trinny and Susannah to smarten us up.

A number of other simple adjustments would undoubtedly be great crowd pleasers. The Parliament Choir has been most co-operative. They have agreed to ditch Verdi's "Requiem" this year in favour of a blast of reggae, jungle, hip hop and garage. Believe me, they will undoubtedly rise to the challenge; they are well up to it, as the younger generation would say.

The Lord Chancellor is seriously considering my suggestion that throughout December he should don Father Christmas garb. What a festive pageant it would make, especially with his whole entourage dressed as Santa's little helpers. It would be a real crowd pleaser and a wonderful transformation for the Lord Chancellor's procession, sure to gain public approval, especially if he invited some of the younger visitors to sit on his knee in the grotto. Those are just a few ideas off the top of my head; already I can see noble Lords on all sides eager to come up with splendid suggestions of their own. Perhaps we should set up another Select Committee to drive the project forward.

In conclusion, so much is at stake. I am confident of a stunning transformation that will sway public opinion to such an extent that we can turn the tide of obliteration away from us. Who knows, we could remain unscathed and unassailed for many years to come—a second chance for the second Chamber. Between us, we can withstand the onslaught of the forces of democracy, and, with a little bit of luck, we will still be here for many years to come.

I beg to second my noble friend's Motion for an humble Address.

4.2 p.m.

Lord Strathclyde

My Lords, I beg to move that this debate be adjourned until tomorrow. How nice it is to move a Motion that, I doubt, anybody in this House will disagree with.

It gives me the very greatest pleasure to congratulate the mover and seconder of this Motion. The noble Baroness, Lady Lockwood, reminded us that she had completed 26 years in the House. Even if that is well short of our most senior Members, she is a truly venerable figure in our House. I hope that she does not mind my saying that earlier this year—I find this incredible—she celebrated her 80th birthday: 80 years young, as the saying goes. If I may say so—I mean this as no insult; in fact, quite the reverse—she is a true stalwart of the old Labour Party that did much for Britain over the years.

The noble Baroness was educated at that great institution Ruskin College, which has as yet survived the modernising zeal of this Government, and she has served the Labour Party for close on 60 years. This House rightly admires such loyalty and sense of public service. I admire her commitment to causes of fairness and justice, most notably in the field of education. The noble Baroness has the affection of this House; we hope to have her with us for many years to come.

The noble Baroness, Lady Billingham, is a far more recent arrival, as the noble Baroness, Lady Lockwood, pointed out. But she, too, comes with a long record of public service behind her, as a committed and dedicated teacher and in many other spheres. This afternoon she made a tremendous and entertaining speech. I noticed that there was not a single nodding head in the House as she spoke.

I have discovered that the noble Baroness is a patron of the Centre for Supporting Comprehensive Education in the United Kingdom. I cannot help wondering whether Mr Alastair Campbell is on that committee. In the 1990s, she was a respected Member of the European Parliament. I was delighted to hear that she is a very gifted tennis player, an attribute that we know to be greatly valued in new Labour circles. Sadly, I have never seen the noble Baroness play tennis, but, having heard her speak in the House today, I am sure that she has a deft touch at the net and a powerful forehand drive. I congratulate the noble Baroness on her speech.

We are also starting a debate on another speech: the last gracious Speech of this Government and this Parliament. All the Speeches have shared a certain character: they were usually long on legislation but were often weak in effect. I am afraid to say that this looks like no exception. The noble Baroness the Leader of the House will reply later. Did she hear Mrs Blair say the other day that she had cleared her diary for May? Everyone knows that this Parliament is fast running its course, but I count at least 20 or 21 Bills, not counting draft Bills. This morning, the Times claimed that there were 37 Bills in all. How will they fit into 38 days of legislative time before Easter?

Lord Grocott

Just agree them.

Lord Strathclyde

My Lords, it is wishful thinking by the Government Chief Whip that we should just agree them. I hope that the House will like it if I say that, unlike last year, we have no intention of pressing an amendment to the Motion on the gracious Speech. However, the proximity of an election will not reduce the House's duty to scrutinise all legislation hard.

I do not suppose that I am alone when I say that my heart sinks when I read of five or six Bills dealing with Home Office matters, including the unproven case for costly identity cards. Sometimes I wonder whether the Home Office does anything else but draft Bills, draft draft Bills and, all too often, draft daft Bills. I hope that we will not repeat last year's events, with vast chunks of re-written legislation being dropped into Bills at the last moment.

Can the noble Baroness confirm the actual number of Bills, and can she say how many will start in your Lordships' House? We need a more balanced programme than we have had in some past years, if we are to make major progress by Easter.

I turn to the merits of the gracious Speech. We welcome the legislation on disability. It is a pity that it was crowded out of last year's programme. We welcome action against animal rights extremists, but it is long overdue. We welcome progress in the areas of mental incapacity and mental health, but I regret the fact that a mental health Bill is still only in draft form. We welcome those and other things.

There is much else that reflects some of the failures of the past few years. I may have missed it, but there seemed to me, at least, to be no mention in the gracious Speech of the flagship legislation on gambling. It has gone from super-casinos to "Don't mention the Bill" in a few embarrassing weeks. Can the noble Baroness confirm that that Bill is still a centrepiece of the Session's programme?

I am always intrigued by the language in the gracious Speech. This year, there is a lot of "tackling" about. It is a favourite word of the Home Secretary. The Government say that they will "tackle" problems of drug abuse; "tackle" anti-social behaviour; "tackle" juvenile crime; and "tackle" disorder and violence flowing from alcohol abuse. Mr Blunkett is the Vinnie Jones of legislation—tackling here, tackling there. Are not the things that he is tackling precisely the things that have got far worse on his watch? We are promised anti-drinking laws, but, unless I am mistaken, it was only a year ago that the House was being driven to legislate for round-the-clock drinking.

Another favoured word in the Speech is "modernisation". It has also become a discredited cliché". It is a buzz word of the noble and learned Lord the Lord Chancellor. I do not know why the noble and learned Lord is so keen on modernisation. After all, does he not look so well sitting there splendidly in his estate?

Noble Lords

Hear, hear!

Lord Strathclyde

My Lords, has he not grown into his office, since he pledged to abolish it? We shall do everything that we can to maintain him in the style to which he has become accustomed.

I hope the noble Baroness will confirm that modernisation of the constitution and institutions of this country will not include legislation to set up regional assemblies or to bring in all-postal ballots, both of which were, rightly as it has proved, resisted by your Lordships' House in the face of modernisation mania.

We are promised modernisation of the railway system. Does that mean closing rural railways, as announced earlier today? We are also promised modernisation of public inquiries—on the same day that we discover that the inquiry of the noble and learned Lord, Lord Saville, has cost £155 million and solved nothing.

Finally, we are promised modernisation of charity law. I wonder why. The gracious Speech states, rightly, that the voluntary sector is a great strength of this country. It has operated for 400 years under the present framework—why fiddle with it? It is working well—why change it?

Licensing, gambling and now charities, these super modernisations often end up causing more problems than they solve. So we shall look at this legislation very sceptically.

The new buzz word in this year's gracious Speech is "streamlining". We are streamlining the organisation of our railways; we are streamlining schools inspection; and we are streamlining tax collection. I am sure that we will get them dancing up and down the land by putting VAT men and tax inspectors under one roof. "We will reduce the cost of government", pledges the gracious Speech, and yet the size of the Civil Service has increased by 100,000 since 1997.

I get the impression that this is the Grand Old Duke of York's gracious Speech, half of it reversing the legislation the Government have themselves introduced and much of the rest addressing problems that they have neglected or delayed.

In scrutinising the legislation, while we will expedite what is good, we will work—as we always do—with Peers in all parts of the House. I know that the House will forgive me if I express particular regret that I shall no longer be standing shoulder to shoulder with the noble Baroness, Lady Williams of Crosby. The noble Baroness and I do not agree on everything—for instance, she no doubt welcomes the Bill to ratify the EU constitutional treaty, which I deplore—but we found ourselves working together in recent years.

The noble Baroness, who cannot be in her place today, told me last night that she was about to start a great six-week world tour. I hope that she does not mind me saying in her absence that the noble Baroness is a living national treasure. She is admired, even by her critics, as a beacon of lucidity, integrity and clarity of mind. Her speeches here always command the attention of the House; they are beautifully delivered and unflinching in principled defence of her beliefs. We share a passionate concern to defend Parliament and to strengthen this House in the face of mistaken efforts by the executive to weaken it.

In this context, I also very much look forward to working with the noble Lord, Lord McNally, who I believe is equally resolute in these matters. I warmly congratulate him on his deserved election to succeed the noble Baroness. I know that he is a generous man. He will forgive me if I end by offering to the noble Baroness, Lady Williams of Crosby, our warmest good wishes and express a desire—which will be shared, I expect, by everyone here today—that we see and hear her often in the House for many years to come.

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

4.14 p.m.

Lord McNally

My Lords, it is with a real sense of honour that I rise to make my first speech in this Chamber as Leader of the Liberal Democrats in the House of Lords. I realise that I follow, as the noble Lord, Lord Strathclyde, has said, one of the outstanding parliamentarians of this or any other generation, my noble friend Lady Williams. It would be trite to say that she will be a hard act to follow: she is an impossible act to follow. But follow her I must, and I shall do my best. I will be assisted, of course, by the fact that my colleagues, in their infinite wisdom, have given me the support of two deputy leaders in my noble friends Lord Wallace and Lord Dholakia.

I also take some comfort from the warmth with which my election has been received on both the Labour and the Conservative Benches. Indeed, the warmth has been so intense that it is beginning to give my colleagues some worry that they may have made the wrong decision.

Before I turn to the gracious Speech itself, I must take a brief look back at the year just gone to record my sorrow at the passing of three sources of considerable wisdom from these Benches. Lord Wigoder was a distinguished legal mind, a first rate Chief Whip of my party and a constant source of wise advice to me from the day I entered this House.

Lord Geraint and I shared a room for my first five years in the House. I confess that I learnt more about Welsh fat stock prices than was entirely necessary for my education, but I also benefited front one of the shrewdest—some would say cunning—political brains that one could ever come across.

Our third loss was Lord Russell—Conrad. I can give him no greater epitaph than that the grief at his passing was felt most keenly among the youngest members of our party, who felt that they had lost the oldest Young Liberal of them all. All three will be greatly missed not only on these Benches but in all parts of the House.

On turning to the gracious Speech, my first happy duty is to congratulate the noble Baroness, Lady Lockwood. She and I were senior officials of the Labour Party more than 30 years ago. She was then, as she is today, a fierce fighter on behalf of women for greater educational and political opportunities. Indeed, the many women now on the green Benches of the other place from the Labour Party owe their presence there in no small measure to the battles fought on their behalf by Betty Lockwood. She has always been a firm believer in education as a liberating force for women throughout the world, a passion that she holds to this day.

The noble Baroness, Lady Billingham, and I are of more recent acquaintance. I was aware of her distinguished record in education and as a Member of the European Parliament, but we have also formed a common bond in our belief that sport and access to sport can be a powerful instrument for promoting not only a healthier lifestyle but in deflecting people, particularly young people, away from crime and anti-social behaviour. My congratulations to them both on outstanding speeches.

Tomorrow we start four days of debate on the gracious Speech, at the end of which I look forward to speaking from these Benches. But this has, of course, been no ordinary Queen's Speech. A recent report in the Financial Times quoted an aide to Mr Milburn as predicting that this gracious Speech would be, as much about politics as it is about pageantry". We know that "a close aide" is usually journalistic code for the man himself. We also know that Alan Milburn has been given a key role in planning the next general election. Indeed, one can already detect that the Labour Party's election planning strategy is under entirely new management. Gone are that trusty team of Mandelson and Campbell, to be replaced by the new team of Gould and Milburn. That is a bit like replacing Jack the Ripper and Dr Crippen with Burke and Hare.

For what is clear from the gracious Speech is that, under the instruction of the focus groups of the noble Lord. Lord Gould, Mr Milburn is intent on robbing the grave of the Conservative Party of any right-wing policies that might appeal to the Sun and the Daily Mail. As a result we have a gracious Speech crafted for the hustings rather than a legislative year.

What is more, it is a programme intent on playing on the politics of fear. When researching these remarks, I re-read the speech made from these Benches by Lord Jenkins of Hillhead when he welcomed the new Labour Government in 1997. In that speech he warned new Ministers: If criminal justice Bills could have solved the crime problem, Mr Michael Howard would be more universally acclaimed today".—[Official Report, 14/5/97; col. 18.] Yet seven and a half years and some 26 crime, terrorism and related Bills later, we are promised more than half a dozen more. The Home Secretary has already started to crank up the climate of fear so that anyone who questions the wisdom of any particular piece of legislation will be instantly branded as soft on terrorism or soft on crime.

Such an atmosphere and such an approach put a special onus and a special responsibility on this House to hold its nerve and to make sure that requests for powers which reduce civil liberties or infringe human rights are made to clear the highest of hurdles before they are conceded, if they are conceded at all. Unless we are willing to do that, we could well find ourselves losing, to the all powerful state, the very liberties which we are supposedly fighting crime and terrorism to defend.

There are aspects of the Queen's Speech which we welcome and which we will support in the months ahead. We will also use our considerable expertise on these Benches to hold the Government to account on foreign policy and defence as well as arguing for a robust consistency in making the case for Europe.

We will keep the issue of pensions and security in old age as a number one priority. We will continue to press for the early passing into law of a Civil Service Act to protect the political neutrality and integrity of our Civil Service. We will strive to ensure that the BBC emerges from charter review as a strong, independent, well financed iron pole of public service broadcasting. We will monitor closely the effectiveness of the Freedom of Information Act when it comes into force in January.

We will continue to press for a full second stage reform of this Chamber, releasing it from cronyism and political patronage. I have already marked down the noble Baroness, Lady Lockwood, as a supporter of that.

We will follow closely the Gambling Bill and the workings of the new Licensing Act to make sure, as the noble Lord, Lord Strathclyde, hinted, that the Government are not causing social problems at one end of their legislative programme while trumpeting their commitment to law and order at the other.

The Government can rest assured that the Liberal Democrats will be neither wreckers nor rubber stamps to the programme contained in the gracious Speech. However, we will insist that the Government explain and justify the case for each piece of new legislation and that the House of Lords uses all its powers of scrutiny to carry out its function as the advisory and revisory Chamber.

How much of the programme will be completed we do not know. That will depend on when the Prime Minister decides to go to the country. Some 30 years ago my noble friend Lord Steel of Aikwood once memorably sent members of this party back to their constituencies to prepare for government. In the coming months we will demonstrate in this Chamber and in the other place what has already been demonstrated in Scotland, Newcastle, Liverpool, Islington, Lambeth, Southwark and in dozens of other town halls up and down the country—that this is a party ready for government and ready to take its case to the country whenever the Prime Minister calls an election.

4.22 p.m.

The Lord President of the Council (Baroness Amos)

My Lords, it is a pleasure to speak to the Motion moved by the noble Lord, Lord Strathclyde.

I am delighted to congratulate my noble friend Lady Lockwood on moving the Motion with regard to the gracious Speech. My noble friend Lady Lockwood has considerable experience of this House. She has been an active Member of four of your Lordships' Select Committees and of course for the past 14 years she has been a Deputy Speaker.

Campaigning for equality and opportunity has been a central theme of my noble friend's life, which makes her a particularly appropriate mover of the gracious Speech. I hope that I will not embarrass my noble friend by telling the House that she has been an important role model for me as the first chair of the Equal Opportunities Commission in 1975.

My noble friend loves her native county, Yorkshire. She has worked to preserve Yorkshire heritage through her role at the Yorkshire Mining Museum—now the National Mining Museum—and she is also Chancellor of Bradford University and has been a Council Member of Leeds University.

My noble friend belongs to Soroptimist International. Definitions of soroptimist include "the best for women" and "the best of sisters"—both are equally apt descriptions of my noble friend. She combines great experience and wisdom with a common sense approach to tackling tricky questions and issues. When my noble friend speaks this House listens.

Education and sport have shaped the life of my noble friend Lady Billingham. Before she arrived in this House, my noble friend had a career of some 30 years in the classroom. Just think—three decades dealing with difficult behaviour, the odd tantrum and occasional enlightening moments in class. All those years living with long summer breaks, gossip in the staff room and with obscure, arcane and apparently nonsensical rules. Add to that my noble friend's experience as a Member of the European Parliament and some may argue that she had the best possible training for life in the House of Lords. My noble friend has also been a first class tennis player. She has played at Wimbledon and her contributions in debates on sport and other matters are very welcome in this House. I should like to thank both my noble friends for their excellent speeches and we look forward to their continued contributions.

Perhaps I may also welcome the noble Lord, Lord McNally, in his new position as Leader of the Liberal Democrats in this House. The noble Lord brings considerable experience of working in both government and opposition. I look forward to the noble Lord's contributions. But I hope that the noble Lord will not take it personally when I say that I hope that his contributions will continue to be made while the Liberal Democrats are in opposition.

I know that we all look forward to working with those Members who have recently joined us. I must thank in particular the new Members on these Benches, many of whom arrived towards the end of the Session. They came into the House during its busiest period, so have had a tough induction. Fortunately, the Chief Whip has rarely had to ask noble Lords to stay very late. Last Session, thanks to the co-operation of all Members in the House, we saw remarkably few breaches of the commitment to rise by 10 p.m. on Monday to Wednesday and 7 p.m. on Thursday. I am pleased to say that these rising times have now been endorsed by the House.

It was a good day for this House earlier this month when we agreed to the working practices package, following the two-year experimental period. The changes are sensible and will, I hope, contribute to better working conditions for noble Lords on all sides and a more efficient use of the House's time.

Perhaps I may now turn briefly to the detail of the gracious Speech. In response to the noble Lord, Lord Strathclyde—yes, it is a full programme of 28 Bills. The Gambling Bill, mentioned by the noble Lord, commenced in the other place at the end of the last Session. Three themes lie at the core of the Government's legislative programme. First, reform has been vital to ensure that the investment in our schools, our National Health Service, our police forces and our public transport system is matched by a corresponding increase in their quality and standards. Continuation of that reform programme is an important element of the Queen's Speech and we will introduce in this House an Education Bill to improve the inspection system.

Secondly, improving and increasing opportunity is also at the heart of our proposed legislation. Opportunity means that all citizens have the chance to flourish, to harness and maximise their potential and to use their talents to build better lives for themselves, their families and their communities. It means widening access to good education, facilitating equal access to decent public services and allowing people to participate fully and fairly in the labour market and wider community.

When I arrived in this House the subject of my maiden speech was the need for a Human Rights Commission. I am delighted that the gracious Speech includes a Bill to create a commission for equality and human rights as well as proposals regarding disability discrimination.

Security for Britain and her citizens, both from domestic and international threats, is the third major theme of this year's legislative programme. The Government know that crime and anti-social behaviour on our streets and estates is a serious concern for people across the United Kingdom. We believe that it is unacceptable that the behaviour of the criminal few should bring misery for the decent majority. We are determined that Britain's hard-working families should live free from fear in safe and vibrant communities. That is why we will introduce the serious organised crime and police Bill to establish a single agency to fight serious organised crime. The drugs Bill will seek to implement legislation to provide tougher powers for tackling drug dealers, and to educate young people about the dangers of drugs.

Security is an important issue for Parliament too. Last Session there was increasing concern about security in our two Houses. While we all recognise the importance of taking security seriously, we must also ensure that Parliament remains accessible to the public so that people feel involved in politics and in the political process.

This is my second State Opening as Leader of the House. I am lucky to have had the opportunity to work in a co-operative way with colleagues on the government Benches and with Members on the other Benches, particularly the noble Lord, Lord Strathclyde, the noble Baroness, Lady Williams of Crosby, and the noble and gallant Lord, Lord Craig of Radley.

I have already paid tribute in this House to the noble Baroness, Lady Williams of Crosby. The noble Baroness will, of course, continue to be held with great affection by us all and, while we shall miss her wise words from the Front Bench, I am sure that we shall continue to have the benefit of her experience from the Back Benches.

The last Session also saw a change in the Convenor of the Cross Benches, with the noble and gallant Lord, Lord Craig of Radley, standing down. He was always a good ambassador for the Cross Benches. While I am sorry that he has stood down, of course, I welcome the noble Lord, Lord Williamson of Horton, to his first full Session as Convenor.

I also thank the chairmen of your Lordships' Select Committees and the Chairman of Committees, the noble Lord, Lord Brabazon of Tara, and his team of Deputy Speakers for their hard work.

Before I end, I would like us all to remember those Members whom we have lost during the year.

In the seven years that I have been in the House, there has been no such thing as a quiet Session. I am sure that this Session will be interesting and perhaps even controversial at times. That is the House of Lords at its best. I support the Motion.

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