Leslie Griffiths (Baron Griffiths) – 2020 Speech on the Queen’s Speech

Below is the text of the speech made by Baron Griffiths in the House of Lords on 9 January 2020.

My Lords, I express my gratitude to the noble Baroness for the wide-ranging announcements in the speech she just delivered. I rise with some trepidation and no little sense of honour and privilege as I introduce our side of this debate.

We have a new Prime Minister. He has certainly earned the right to sit in the driving seat—we cannot deny that—but our job on these Benches is to remind him to fasten his seatbelt. We are all passengers on board now and must remain vigilant.

So many subjects crop up in this compendium agenda item, but I will limit myself to just three. My noble friends will no doubt pick up on others, and expert interventions from around the House will deal with a great deal. I will concentrate on education, the internet and transport.

I have been a school governor, a trustee and, for the last 10 years—and here I declare an interest; it is all in the register—chairman of the board of the Central Foundation Schools. I want to say that, because I believe it has given me a front-row seat, allowing me to see and be part of the reinvigoration of failing schools that have risen to take their place among the best schools in the country through initiatives such as Teach First, City Challenge and the establishment of academies in their first iteration.

We must also acknowledge the contribution made by the Liberal Democrats through the introduction of the pupil premium in their time in the coalition Government and thank them for this. In London and other cities I know, those initiatives and items have turned schools that were at a loose tether and in measures into front-ranking and high-achieving schools. It has been an honour for me to put in the spadework to achieve those objectives.​
In doing so, we have been able to define a model for education that works. We do not have to invent anything de novo. Just as much as a rail system, an airport terminal, broadband accessibility or other things mentioned in the Minister’s speech, I believe that education simply has to be viewed as part of our national infrastructure. It is not just roads and bridges; if you have an infrastructure strategy, it must include education.

From my own personal involvement in education over the decades, I can attest that investing in education yields measurable and immeasurable outcomes of the first order: skills, efficiency, culture, productivity, aspiration, mobility, personal development, well-being and citizenship. All this and more can be directly attributable to a properly focused and functioning education system. Alas, we have lived through 10 years when a lot of the progress looks to be coming towards disintegration. I have heard the measures proposed. The proposal to

“ensure every child has access to a high-quality education”

was clearly stated, with some figures put on it by the Minister. But the promise to

“increase levels of funding per pupil in every school”

while being welcome will leave us by 2022-23 only just at the levels that the Labour Government left as per-pupil expenditure in 2009-10. We have to recognise that what seem like alarming increases are increases of a relative nature.

At the same time, school budgets are having to pick up extra costs such as national insurance and pension increases. Pupil premium inputs have not increased with inflation and changes to the benefit system have diminished the number of people premiums without significantly compensating the families concerned. While we acknowledge the proper demands and expectations of Ofsted—of course we do—schools are telling me that they do not have the financial resources to implement them. Budgets for schools in the maintained sector are set in April, but in September for academies, while changes in teachers’ pay are decided in the summer. A simple thing could bring both budgeting exercises in line with each other, which would be an achievement in its own right. So budgeting becomes very hazardous for maintained schools, which have to take a guess at what the salaries are going to be later in the year.

“Education, education, education” is a mantra that we do not have to attribute to its source, but from an interview in the current number of the New Statesman I can add another sophism:

“Social mobility is something I care passionately about”,

says the subject,

“and the key to social mobility is education.”

All I can say is that that can be attributed to someone who I want to call my noble friend, although he usually sits on the opposite Benches: the noble Lord, Lord Howard of Lympne. We were at school together and know the advantage in mobility that education can provide.

All of us want education to improve. Can the Minister who replies let us know, I wonder, whether he is aware of the factors that have led to the success of London schools? Will he be prepared, instead of levelling things down from an admittedly unequal distribution ​of resource so that everybody gets the lowest common denominator, to level up to the success levels that we can now quantify and recognise from good practice over the last 10 years?

It was spelled out in the manifesto or the Queen’s Speech that

“We will legislate to make the UK the safest place in the world to be online—protecting children … and … the most vulnerable … and ensuring there is no safe space for terrorists to hide online”.

The duty of care has been well delineated in the online harms White Paper; of course we welcome these commitments and will do our best to support them. But we are not best assured by the turnover of those holding office as Secretary of State for this part of the Government’s work. It seems to be a launching pad for people with aspirations beyond DCMS—but what am I? I do not know anything about politics.

Nor do we feel able to continue the fruitful conversation already begun in this area until we have sight of the results of the consultation which, let us remind ourselves, ended in July last year. I attended seminars and conferences. I have held discussions with various interested parties throughout the period and since. We are told that more detailed discussion between the Government and unnamed “stakeholders” has been going on. This is a matter that demands cross-party, non-partisan collaboration. It is too important an area of our national life for it to become prey to the goings-on of party politics. I do not like being kept out of the loop. I hope that the promised pre-legislative opportunity will materialise before a final shape emerges in the form of a Bill. We need to get this provision right, or as right as we can make it, and it is vital for us not to cut corners as we find our way forward. I must plead with the Minister to give us some timetabling precision on this point.

The Government have pledged

“to bring full fibre and gigabit-capable broadband to every home and business across the UK by 2025”.

I thought that I had a good vocabulary; it has been enriched since people put me in charge of this brief. We ought all of us to gasp with astonishment at this seemingly simple promise for two reasons. First, the Government have brought forward their previous commitment from 2033 to 2025—by eight years. That means that if the target stated is to be reached—while I am not very good at internet gigabit stuff, I got 100% in arithmetic at O-level, so I can do this bit—BT’s current rate of progress, at 80,000 homes per month, will have to be increased fivefold to 400,000 homes per month. Have the Government received the nod from BT Openreach that this is achievable? Has it been costed? Will the £5 billion mentioned in the Conservatives’ manifesto be enough to do the job? There is so much more that needs to be said on these matters that I leave it to other noble Lords who will surely follow on later.

I come finally to transport, and I am not going into the aeroplane side of things. The proposed railway minimum service legislation sets a dangerous precedent on the right to strike. Nobody likes to be inconvenienced by strikes, especially on the railways. I am a regular user of Southern Railway and have been as frustrated ​as many others in this House by these actions, but this Government’s attempt to restrict the collective bargaining of rail workers, to scapegoat them, is reprehensible. Surely it is time to sort out the mess of underfunding and franchising that has characterised the entire history of our railway system since its privatisation in the early 1990s. Here is another Tory mess, I am afraid to say, that needs to be looked at in the round rather than dealt with by populist measures aimed against the workforce. Can the Government assure the House that we will not see a race to the bottom of deregulation and a slashing of workers’ rights in this and other areas, especially in the post-Brexit era?

The arguments for and against the continuation of the HS2 project have been very much in the news, and I commend the dissentient report made public earlier this week by my noble friend Lord Berkeley. However that project turns out and whatever decision is made—high speed, high cost; that is what it seems like—it should not be at the expense of the vast improvements needed in the commuter and inter-regional networks around our major cities in the Midlands and north of England. This is a time for joined-up thinking to produce joined-up transport systems. There can be no serious regeneration without adequate infrastructure of this kind. The House will welcome some reassurance and commitment on these points.

I look forward to sitting through the next endless number of hours as I listen to other people’s more splintered views, as I have been able to luxuriate in a few extra minutes. With that, I take my leave.