Lords Gallery: The key action in the Upper Chamber this week
Gary Connor looks at what’s on the agenda in the Lords this week
Foreign Policy post-Brexit
“The truth is that this government doesn’t care about foreign affairs. It doesn’t think it’s important any longer. Or else why would you have Boris there?” That’s the verdict of Lord Ashdown, who will lead this Thursday’s debate on foreign policy in the light of Brexit and the election of Donald Trump as US President.
Speaking to The House ahead of the debate, the former Lib Dem leader says he fears the UK has forgotten the importance of diplomacy, and risks seeing its influence on the world stage diminish. “We’ve got the best Foreign Office in the world and its wasting away,” he says.
With Europe under pressure from an isolationist US president, an aggressive Russian leader and the rise of new economic powers, Ashdown says the UK should be seeking to “deepen our integration and deepen our capacity for collective action with our European neighbours”. Instead, he says, the Foreign Office has been side-lined as the challenges thrown up by Brexit dominate in Whitehall. “Almost everything you love and admire about our country is now sublimated into the utter stupidity of trying to make the best possible sense of a most ridiculous decision.”
Ashdown believes the impact of Brexit on foreign policy is only beginning to be felt, and cautions against throwing away Britain’s “great international traditions” in order to secure new trade deals. In particular, he speaks of his fears that the government could “sell Hong Kong down the river” in order to further relations with China.
He also counsels that, in the era of Trump, the UK would be wise to maintain a strong, independent voice. “We’re going to have to learn that whilst we should concentrate on the core security issues at stake, there are going to be cases when both sides of the Atlantic disagree. And that’s a more mature kind of relationship.”
‘Stronger charities’ debate
Published in March 2017, the Charities Committee report ‘Stronger Charities for a Stronger Society’ called for a shake-up in the sector, including more training and skills development for trustees, and a greater focus on digital technology. Baroness Pitkeathley (L), who chaired the committee, tells The House that she is encouraged that it has been received so well by charities, and that the sector recognises that things have to change.
Pitkeathley will use Tuesday’s debate to quiz the government on their strategy for reform. “I’m hoping that our report will be a blueprint for charities going forward, whatever the government says,” she adds, pointing out many of them have already started implementing the report’s recommendations.
‘Crisis’ in foreign language teaching
Away from the main chamber on Thursday, the first of five debates in the Moses Room on Thursday is being led by Baroness Coussins. The crossbencher is concerned about the “crisis” in language education, specifically figures showing that a third of modern foreign language teachers in the UK are EU nationals.
Coussins – who co-chairs the APPG on languages – will be seeking assurances that their residency will be guaranteed post-Brexit. She’s also concerned about the lack of clarity on the UK’s continued participation in Erasmus – something that isn’t conditional on being a member of the EU – and claims the uncertainty is leading to “plummeting” university applications.
Women in public office
Shadow equalities spokesperson Baroness Gale (L) is concerned about the “slow progress” that has been made in increasing the number of women in public office, and will use an oral question on Tuesday to press the government on what they plan to do about it. “I do think our elected institutions should look like the people they represent,” Gale says, adding that positive action could be needed, such as the imposition of quotas.
A former general secretary of the Welsh Labour party, she reminds us that a 50:50 slate of Labour candidates led to a greater number of women being elected to the Assembly than men in 1999. “This is not a problem with the electorate,” she says, “but a problem with all political parties at a local level.”
Sanctions and Anti-Money Laundering Bill
The Sanctions and Anti-Money Laundering Bill – which will allow the UK to maintain its sanctions regime post-Brexit – receives further scrutiny this week, with votes more likely on Wednesday than Monday. Discussions are continuing behind the scenes, but several issues are likely to prove contentious. Baroness Stern (CB) has tabled an amendment that would force British Overseas Territories to produce publicly accessible registers of the beneficial ownership of companies within their jurisdiction.
Baroness Bowles of Berkhamsted (LD) has cross-party support for her amendment that would introduce a new corporate offence of failing to prevent money laundering. Former minister Lord Faulks (C) has his own amendment down, on a public register of UK properties owned by companies registered overseas. If it gets pushed to a vote, opposition parties are likely to support him.