Downturn forces Brown to scale back Queen's Speech

Bills axed so Government can focus on the economy
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Indy Politics

Gordon Brown's legislative programme for next year has been streamlined at the last minute to enable the Government to focus on the ailing economy. Previously announced plans to curb cigarette sales, set up a giant database of phone records and boost protection for ancient monuments are to be delayed by ministers.

As alarm grows in Labour ranks over the muted response to the pre-Budget report (PBR), this week's Queen's Speech has been overhauled to put the emphasis on helping small firms and families. Six months ago, Mr Brown announced plans for at least 18 Bills for the Queen's Speech, which sets out the Government's plans for the next parliamentary session. But several have been stripped out, with at least four being postponed by the Government. Final changes to the list of measures for the Queen's Speech on Wednesday were agreed last week by ministers.

The move will leave space for the Government to announce emergency economic plans, including legislation to force the banks to lend more money to cash-strapped small business. A Government source said: "A lot of it will be on the economy and, in the medium-term, what we can do to deal with the upturn."

Alistair Darling, the Chancellor, confirmed yesterday that additional measures to stimulate the economy would be required. "You'd be very foolish indeed to say, 'Well, that's the job done'," he said. "This is something that needs constant attention."

And yesterday it seemed that the moves he has already made might not have had the desired impact with the public. An Ipsos Mori opinion poll for The Observer suggested a slide in Labour support since the PBR seven days ago. It put the Tories on 43 per cent (up five points) and Labour on 32 (down three), a lead of 11 points, enough for a comfortable Commons majority. The Liberal Democrats also recovered three points to 15 per cent. Voters also cast doubt on Mr Darling's attempt to stimulate growth by cutting VAT from today, with just 6 per cent saying they would spend more as a result.

The Queen's Speech – being delivered against the gloomiest economic backdrop by far since Labour came to power in 1997 – will still contain contentious measures on health, welfare and policing. Mr Brown will tell MPs this week that its underlining theme is promoting "fairness". But a Tory spokesman said: "It's no wonder they are trimming back the Queen's Speech. They have run out of ideas and the only good ones they have got are Tory ideas."

A new NHS Bill will set out plans to drive up hospital standards by fining poorly-performing hospital Trusts or even shutting them down. The long-term unemployed will be required to retrain or have their benefits docked and lone parents will have to return to work earlier, schemes that critics say should be abandoned because of growing dole queues.

A Crime and Policing Bill will make policing accountable to local elected representatives and usher in fresh proposals to tackle binge-drinking. But it is unlikely to include plans to force shops to keep cigarettes under the counter amid fears that hard-pressed retailers could lose sales as a result.

The Communications Data Bill, which would allow the state to collate information about telephone calls, emails and internet visits, was being delayed. It will be absent from the Queen's Speech, with only a commitment for a consultation document on the scheme. The Heritage Protection Bill, overhauling the listing system for historic buildings and monuments, has also been dropped.

Off the agenda: Missing measures

Bills expected to be delayed or dropped include:

*Communications Data Bill

Requires telecommunications companies to retain information of numbers people ring, email addresses on messages and web-browsing habits. Critics fear it paves the way for the details being sent to a giant government database

*Heritage Protection Bill

Reforms the listing systems for monuments and historic buildings to make it more consistent and easier to understand. Also scraps rules that prevent major museums from returning works of art looted by the Nazis to their original owners

*Victims and Witnesses Bill

Increases the protection in court for witnesses who could be intimidated. Stops criminals from profiting from their memoirs or films of their exploits. Reforms the law on defences to murder. Its provisions could be delayed or transferred to other Bills, which would cause protests that the plans were being downgraded

*Transport Security Bill

Gives the Royal Navy increased powers to fight piracy and terrorism at sea, particularly relevant this week. Also requires airports to have a proper security plan and meet the cost of it. Both provisions expected to be transferred to other Bills to save time.