Brown lays down election battle lines

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The Government unveiled its final legislative package before the general election today, with pledges to help the neediest pensioners and crack down on excesses in the financial sector.

With less than seven months to go before the country must go to the polls, the Queen's Speech set out a series of populist bills designed to draw the battle lines between the parties.

Legislation is being brought forward to ensure free personal care for 280,000 elderly and disabled people with the highest needs.

There will also be new guarantees for parents on schooling as well as a crackdown on "risky" bank bonuses, and a law committing the Government to halve its deficit over the next four years.

But with parliamentary time running out, few of the streamlined package of 14 bills are expected to make it to the statute book before the general election.

The programme includes a number of previously-announced measures, such as giving agency workers equal rights on pay, holidays and basic conditions, and introducing a binding commitment to abolish child poverty by 2020.

There will also be pledges to crack down on anti-social behaviour with compulsory parenting checks when youths are unruly.

In a move that will please Labour's Left, a ban on cluster munitions will be put before parliament. On the environment, legislation will be tabled to support carbon capture technology and improve flood defences.

However, expected commitments giving NHS patients the right to treatment within 18 weeks of referral by a GP - with suspected cancer sufferers being seen within two weeks - appear to have been dropped.

The Queen told the assembled MPs and peers: "My Government's overriding priority is to ensure sustained growth to deliver a fair and prosperous economy for families and businesses, as the British economy recovers from the global economic downturn.

"By the active creation of jobs, restructuring the financial sector, strengthening the national infrastructure and providing responsible investment, my Government will foster growth and employment."

The Personal Care at Home bill is intended to enable elderly and disabled people to remain in their own homes - rather than going into residential care - while laying the foundations for the new national care service promised by Mr Brown in his party conference speech in September.

Officials estimate that about 400,000 people will benefit from the measures in the bill, which will cost £670 million a year to implement.

They include a guarantee of free personal care at home for up to 280,000 people with the greatest needs - although 166,000 do already receive free care.

A further 130,000 who need home care will also benefit for the first time from other measures including adaptations to their homes - such as the installation of electronic pill dispensers - so that they can carry on living in them for as long as possible.

According to officials, the financial measures in the programme should ensure that future banking crises will "never again come at a cost to the living standards of Britain's families".

The Financial Services Bill will bolster the Financial Services Authority (FSA), giving it the power to tear up bankers' contracts which could promote risky behaviour.

Key banks and financial institutions will also be obliged to draw up "living wills" describing how they can be wound up without threatening the stability of the overall system.

The Fiscal Responsibility Bill will provide a "firm and binding statutory basis" for reining in the Government's spiralling debt in the wake of the credit crunch and recession, according to officials.

The Chancellor is expected to give full details of the recovery plan and legislation when he delivers his Pre-Budget Report (PBR) next month.

There are also high-profile moves on education, with a Children Schools and Families Bill due to introduce so-called "MOT" licensing for teachers, extend the information on schools available for parents, and guarantee one-to-one tuition for pupils who fall behind.

Meanwhile, it was announced that new South Africa president Jacob Zuma has been invited to make a state visit to the UK next March.

Dave Prentis, general secretary of Unison, said the Government had listened and has taken up issues which matter to people, such as care for the elderly, curbs on risk-taking and sharp practices by the financial sector, poverty and the environment.

"This is in contrast to the Tories and Lib Dems, who seem to think that Parliament should spend the next six months twiddling its collective thumbs.

"It's a shame that the Government won't have time to enact some of these proposals. We will be campaigning for cast-iron guarantees that they will be contained in Labour's election manifesto as firm commitments for a new Parliament."

Paul Kenny, leader of the GMB union, said: "It is high time that the Government took proper legal powers to cut bankers' bonuses. It is unlikely that the Tory party, which is fielding 63 bankers and financiers as candidates in the next election, will support the Government on this long-overdue popular measure.

"GMB members will welcome the new legal rights to standards in health and education. They will want to know if the Tory party supports the new legal right to see a specialist in two weeks if a GP suspects a patient may have cancer."