The Queen's Speech sets out the Government's agenda for legislation to go through Parliament over the next year. With only one more Queen's Speech before the 2015 election, at least as much attention is being paid to what is missing from this year's plans as to what is in them.
What was in...
by Nigel Morris
The Coalition’s priority over the next year will be to boost economic growth, tighten the immigration system, overhaul pensions and social care and increase consumer rights, David Cameron said today.
The Queen’s Speech contained 15 Bills and another four in draft form. Although the package appears thinner than in previous years, the measures will make significant changes to the welfare state – and make clear the Government is determined to press ahead with building the first major railway link north of London for almost 120 years.
In response to growing public concern on the issue, several measures are promised to “ensure this country attracts people who will contribute and deter those who will not”.
Migrants’ access to public services, including health care, will be controlled, with temporary visitors expected to make a contribution, potentially through bonds paid before a visa is issued. Landlords will be required to check tenants are in the country lawfully, while fines will be increased for companies which recruit illegal immigrants. But details of how the hospital and housing moves will be enforced are not yet clear.
The Government pledges to make it easier to deport foreign criminals by putting into law existing rules obliging judges to balance the national interest against a prisoner’s right to a family life.
A Care Bill will introduce a £72,000 cap on the amount elderly people in England have to pay for social care to ensure they do not have to sell their homes to afford care in their final years.
People caring for elderly and disabled relatives will be given the right to request support from their local councils.
In response to the Mid Staffordshire scandal, Ofsted-style ratings will be introduced for hospitals and care homes. A new watchdog will be created to tackle problems with care standards.
A new single-tier pension, worth about £144 a week at current prices, will come into effect in 2016. It will replace the current system of a basic rate pension augmented by an earnings-related payment.
A Pensions Bill will also raise the retirement age to 67 in 2026 and stop overseas pensioners automatically receiving payments because their late husband or wife was born in Britain.
Legislation no longer considered to have any practical benefit will be scrapped and regulators will be obliged to consider the impact of their decisions on growth. Meanwhile, self-employed people will be exempted from health and safety rules.
All companies will be made exempt from the first £2,000 of National Insurance contributions. The Government says the move will mean about 450,000 businesses will no longer pay any NI contributions, and make it easier for small firms to recruit staff.
A draft Bill will consolidate consumer rights, split between eight separate pieces of legislation, into one place. It is also designed to update rights by extending them to cover goods bought online and from faulty digital downloads.
High Speed 2
The first steps towards constructing a high-speed rail link between London and Birmingham – and eventually to Northern England – are taken in two Bills. They give the go-ahead to the Government to build the line and powers to operate it, as well as permission to spend the money required for the project and compensation of householders affected.
Anti-Social Behaviour and Crime
A “community trigger”, obliging police and councils to act when several households complain about nuisance neighbours, will be introduced. Other anti-crime measures include tougher controls on dogs which are dangerously out of control, making forced marriage a criminal offence and increasing fines for illegally importing firearms.
What was left out...
by Oliver Wright
Almost as much can be told about the political priorities of the Coalition’s final years in Government by what has been left out of the Queen’s speech than what has been included.
Priorities once championed by David Cameron and Nick Clegg in happier times were conspicuously missing from the list of new laws to be considered by Parliament.
Three months before becoming Prime Minister last year, David Cameron said commercial lobbying was ‘the next big scandal waiting to happen’.
But even when The Independent proved how prophetic his words were - by exposing the Bell Pottinger scandal - plans to introduce a statutory register of lobbyists appear to be on ice.
A proposal to regulate the industry was included in the Coalition agreement and in January last year ministers introduced a consultation paper on the plans - but since then silence.
Downing Street yesterday insisted it was taking time to get the details right and would set out more information “in due course”. However the minister in charge of the plans has not met single interested party in the legislation since taking up her job in September.
Alcohol pricing and plain packaging for cigarettes
In his introduction to the Government’s 2012 Alcohol Strategy David Cameron announced: “We are going to introduce a new minimum unit price”.
However, fearful of a backlash from consumers over price rises and criticism from retailers for the effect it would have on sales, the Government is now in full retreat.
Not only has the measure not been included in the Queen’s Speech but Downing Street has privately admitted that it won’t be brought forward before the election.
There is also no mention of a plan to introduce plain packaging for cigarettes which has long been urged by health campaigners. The Government is facing a fierce backlash from the cigarette industry that claims the measure would dramatically increase smuggling costing the Treasury millions. The Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt yesterday claimed he was still examining the move – but it is still unlikely to form part of the Government’s agenda before the next election.
Even some Tory MPs questioned whether the lack of the measures in the Queen’s speech were more about votes rather than health.
“Did Mr Crosby (the Tories election campaign coordinator) have any involvement in advising on dropping these public health measures?” asked the former GP Sarah Wollaston.
Recall of MPs
In a sign that constitutional reform is well and truly dead plans allowing voters to force a by-election where an MP is found to have been engaged in serious wrong-doing has also been ditched - for this year at least.
Pressure for recall came after the expenses scandal – and was again in the Coalition Agreement. However it is now very unlikely to be included in this Parliament.
In the Coalition Agreement the Liberal Democrats and the Conservatives agreed to enshrine in law a commitment to devote 0.7 per cent of GDP to international development.
Though the Government is currently meeting this target, it could drop it at any time. At the weekend the Foreign Secretary William Hague sought to play down the significance of legislation, insisting the “main point” was that the target was being met.
But anti-poverty campaigners criticised the “missed opportunity” and said it had practical consequences in the developing world who could not rely on future aid payments. There are also fears that ministers are planning to “raid” the development budget to pay for areas like defence which will take significant budget cuts in the spending review due in June.
The Government has also dropped plans to bring forward a Communications Bill - dubbed the ‘snooper’s charter’ by critics – that would have allowed unparalleled interception of data used in online communication and voice calls over the internet. The Home Secretary Theresa May described the new legislation as “vital” in helping the police stop cybercrime.
But the Liberal Democrat leader Nick Clegg vetoed the plans – which were deeply unpopular with his party and has promised that the Bill will not go ahead while his party remains in power. The Home Office insist they are looking at other measures to tackle the problem.