The Queen's Speech: What was said, and what was left out
Home Secretary takes centre stage to warn of further terror attacks
Thursday 16 November 2006
John Reid kept options open on allowing police more time to question terrorist suspects without charge as he warned an attack on Britain was "highly likely".
The Home Secretary took centre-stage in the Queen's Speech, announcing Bills to tackle organised crime and anti-social behaviour and "rebalance" the criminal justice system. He also looks certain to introduce a counter-terrorism Bill within months, after a Home Office-led review of existing legislation.
Mr Reid gave a stark warning of the scale of threat Britain faces, saying the security services believed a "wave" of plots were being co-ordinated by al-Qa'ida. He agreed with Dame Eliza Manningham-Buller, director general of MI5, that at least 30 terrorist conspiracies were active.
"They do look as though they are being directed from abroad, specifically by elements from al-Qa'ida," he told BBC Radio 4. " They look as though they are being prepared strategically; that is, they fit in to a pattern."
The Queen's Speech promised the fight against terrorism would be "at the heart" of the Government programme over the next parliamentary year. Ministers will plug any gaps exposed by the Home Office review, learning lessons from the alleged airliner bomb plot thwarted in August.
They are refusing to rule out an attempt to increase from 28 days the period terrorist suspects can be questioned without charge, although a bid to bring in a 90-day detention period was thrown out by MPs last year. Sir Ian Blair, the Metropolitan Police Commissioner, is leading renewed calls for the amount of time given to be increased.
Mr Reid said: "I have made plain that if it's put to me on the basis of factual or evidential material that there is a requirement to go beyond 28 days, I would be prepared to take that back to Parliament." The Prime Minister's official spokesman said: "We've always said we believe 90 days is the right answer; we did so on the basis of the advice we had from police at the time."
One possibility is a giant Bill bringing together Britain's anti-terror legislation, which is now spread across four Acts of Parliament. It could contain moves to toughen the "control orders" system and allow "intercept" evidence in terrorist prosecutions.
The Criminal Justice Bill follows concern over crimes committed by offenders after release from prison and short sentences for repeat criminals. Mr Reid plans to give judges the power to extend the time served by the most serious offenders, change the law so courts cannot quash the convictions of " plainly guilty" offenders on a technicality and insist parole boards include a victims' representative.
There will also be a new offence making the possession of "violent and extreme pornography", such as images of rape, punishable by up to three years' imprisonment. Police will also get the power to shut " anti-social " premises, such as brothels, with just 48 hours' notice.
The Offender Management Bill toughens supervision of criminals after release. Probation officers will gain the discretion to increase the length or severity of community punishments and private and voluntary sector organisations will be invited to tender for probation contracts in a bid to drive up standards.
The Organised Crime Bill introduces "serious crime prevention orders" (so-called "super-Asbos") for gangsters who cannot be prosecuted for lack of evidence. They could impose restrictions such as curfews and limited access to bank accounts.
David Davis, the shadow Home Secretary, accused Mr Reid of " grandstanding" after a Home Office "annus horribilis". He said: "We've had a year of meltdown in the prison system, with foreign prisoners being released on the streets and murderers let out on parole to kill again."
Nick Clegg, the Liberal Democrat home affairs spokesman, said: "This is panic, push-button government at its worst. It is high time this frenzied law-making is brought to a halt, with unnecessary and illiberal legislation."
Richard Garside, of the Centre for Crime and Justice Studies at King's College London said: "One of the legacies of Tony Blair's time in office is the eye-watering number of crime-related pieces of legislation his governments have introduced. The year on year legislation binge has bloated the system and made it less fit for purpose."
Liberty, the civil liberties organisation, accused the Government of promoting "more rough justice through excessive criminal justice proposals".
The state pension age is to be increased gradually to 68 under the Pensions Bill aimed at tackling the rising cost of the old.
The Government claimed raising the pension age reflected increasing longevity and a trend towards people working longer. But one of the key reasons for the change was the Turner Report to Gordon Brown last November warning rising cost of pensions could not be supported. Pension age will rise from 65 to 66 between 2024 and 2026, followed by a rise from 66 to 67 between 2034 and 2036. The final increase from 67 to 68 will take place between 2044 and 2046.
To sweeten the pill, the Government will restore the link between the basic state pension and earnings under the Pensions Bill, which is aimed at answering criticism of the Government's record on pensions before Mr Blair leaves office. The Bill will reduce the number of years it takes to build a bull basic state pension from 44 years for men and 39 years for women to 30 years for both. It will simplify state and private pensions, including abolition of contracting out for private defined contribution schemes. The state second pension will be simplified.
The Bill will modernise the contributory principle to ensure a fairer deal for women and carers, said ministers, by recognising caring contributions and further enabling carers to build up a state pension. The private pension regulatory system will be streamlined to make it easier for people to plan and save for their retirement.
Ministers estimated that by 2010, 70 per cent of women reaching the state pension age would have a full basic state pension compared to only 30 per cent of women now. Many women fail to qualify because they have broken their national insurance contributions by quitting work to care for children or parents.
The fifth and final immigration Bill of the Blair era follows the failure to deport more than 1,000 foreign prisoners at the end of their sentences. The fiasco cost Charles Clarke his job as home secretary six months ago and his replacement, Mr Reid, has condemned the immigration system as "not fit for purpose".
Under the Border and Immigration Bill, foreign prisoners will face automatic deportation, with little right of appeal, and be kept in prison until their removal. Immigration officers are being given new powers to seize cash and other assets from illegal immigrants and impose tough reporting restrictions on visa holders coming to work or study. They will also make further biometric checks on new arrivals.
A new status for asylum-seekers who commit serious crimes is being created, after the Afghan hijackers won a court battle to stay in Britain. The Bill will create a "restricted status" for such offenders, barring them from housing, benefits or jobs.
The Government also intends to create an independent Immigration Advisory Committee, which will advise ministers on "optimum" levels of immigration. There are plans to create a points-based system for economic migrants whose chances of being granted a visa will depend on their age, qualifications and experience.
Danny Sriskandarajah, associate director of the Institute for Public Policy Research think-tank, said: "We need efficient and flexible flows of workers and not measures that stigmatise migrants, the overwhelming majority of whom come to work and contribute to our economy."
Opposition MPs and civil rights groups have accused ministers of embarking on a programme of "rough justice" after they learnt that the Government was to press ahead with plans to curb the right to jury trial. Under the proposal in the Queen's Speech, serious and complex fraud trials would be heard by a judge alone after an application by the prosecution to the High Court and approval by the Lord Chief Justice. Lord Goldsmith, the Attorney General, believes some fraud cases are too complex and too long for jury trials.
Simon Hughes, the Liberal Democrat constitutional affairs spokesman, said: "The principle of trial by jury is at the heart of our judicial system. There may be some need for different procedures to deal with complex fraud trials, [but] the final decision as to whether someone has been honest or dishonest in a serious case should always be one for a jury." Shami Chakrabarti, the director of civil rights group Liberty, said: "Tough talk brings rough justice. Rough justice if you're evicted because your big brother's been in trouble, rough justice when you're accused of serious crime and denied a jury trial, rough justice when migrants are always equated with crime."
The government also set out details to create a specific criminal offence of fraud, whether by false representation, abuse of position or failing to disclose information.
A radical shake-up of education means further education colleges being given power to award degrees for the first time. The move is designed to bring about a major expansion of two-year foundation degree courses, available in subjects as wide-ranging as business start-up, film technology and sports journalism.
The upheaval is the biggest in higher education since the former polytechnics were awarded university status by the Conservatives in the early 1990s. The drive is expected to help widen the take-up of degrees amongst youngsters from poorer homes, and will help the Government reach its target of getting 50 per cent into higher education by the end of the decade. Traditionalists claim it amounts to a dumbing down of degrees.
But Sarah Teather, the Liberal Democrat education spokes-woman, described it as "a small step in the right direction", adding: "Root and branch reform of further education is desperately needed, not the tinkering around the edges so typical of this Government's recent record in education."
Dr John Brennan, chief executive of the Association of Colleges, said it would free colleges to use existing links with employers to "tailor degrees". "This will open up higher education, capturing people who never thought they could attend university,"
Under the Bill, the Learning and Skills Council - the government quango responsible for financing post-16 education - will be given new powers to remove principals whose colleges are failing or even "not improving".
A government spokesman said: "It would provide for a step change in the delivery of further education by establishing arrangements to ensure all provision is either good or improving."
Tony Blair faced criticism from opposition parties and environmentalists over the planned Climate Change Bill amid warnings that it lacked measurable targets. Green groups praised the Bill as an important first step, but attacked ministers for refusing to set annual targets for cutting carbon dioxide emissions, despite the Prime Minister's insistence that binding year-on-year targets would be impossible to police.
The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs said the Bill would put the Government's long-term goal of a 60 per cent cut in CO2 emissions by 2050 into law, but the Government would only "consider appropriate interim targets". The Bill will create an independent carbon committee to help Government hit emissions targets, and ensure ministers report to Parliament on progress.
David Miliband, the Secretary of State for the Environment, said: "We are providing business with certainty over this Government and future governments' intentions and reaffirming the UK's commitment to taking action to meet our climate change goals."
Tony Juniper, director of Friends of the Earth, praised the Bill as a " crucial first step" in the fight against global warming. He added: "The next step is to ensure the Bill delivers the cuts needed through introduction of annual targets for reducing the UK's carbon dioxide emissions."
Phil Bloomer, director of campaigns and policy at Oxfam, said the Government was "taking climate change seriously, but not seriously or urgently enough".
Andrew Pendleton, senior climate analyst at Christian Aid, said: "If the Bill is underpinned only by a desire to hoard fuel stocks, we fear it will lack the teeth it needs to bring down urgently the dangerous greenhouse gas emissions that impact so savagely on poor people's lives."
Chris Huhne, the Liberal Democrat environment spokes-man, warned: "We need a Government that proposes solutions, not just targets. If targets alone solved problems, this would be the best-governed country in the world. Only the Liberal Democrats are showing how to tax pollution not people and meet our agreed targets, with the green tax switch."
The proposed Mental Health Bill aroused protests and a threat of a Labour rebellion over measures to enforce supervised treatment for the mentally ill even if they have not committed a crime.
The Government is reviving the legislation it proposed in a draft bill in 2002 but abandoned in March, this year, in the face of sustained opposition by mental health campaigners and charities. Campaigners said the plans to update England's 23-year-old laws would represent an abuse of civil liberties. But ministers are insisting they have to balance the rights of mentally ill with the need for greater protection of people.
"If the Government pushes ahead with this it will mean people with mental health problems have fewer rights than someone suspected of burglaries," said Jane Harris, campaigns manager of Rethink, the mental health charity. "It will be an abuse of our civil liberties."
The legislation was intended to answer disquiet in the wake of high-profile cases, such as the murders by Michael Stone of Lin and Megan Russell in 1988. Stone was regarded as a dangerous psychopath but an inquiry found gaps in his care. Under the 1983 Mental Health Act patients can be sectioned, but only if their condition is treatable.
The new law will propose three key changes: Supervised community treatment (SCT) for patients discharged from compulsory treatment in hospital; a new definition of mental disorder to scrap the "treatability test" and allow compulsory therapy if "appropriate" treatment is available; and safeguards for patients who lack capacity and are deprived of their liberty but are not covered by existing mental health legislation. It will be taken through the Commons jointly by the Home Office minister Gerry Sutcliffe and Health minister Rosie Winterton.
Ian Gibson, a Labour MP and former chair of the Commons science committee, warned: "There will be a big reaction to this legislation. I am very concerned at the inability of the Government to come up with a patient-friendly Bill. There is still too much emphasis on punishment."
Dr Tony Calland, of the British Medical Association, said mental health legislation should not be used to detain people whom the authorities simply want locked away
Paul Farmer, chief executive of Mind, said: "We urgently hope that the final process of this longdrawn-out saga will result in a piece of legislation that is not a wasted opportunity. It must provide compassionate treatment and care people with mental health problems. The 1983 Act needs updating. But it needs to provide care for people when they first need it, not leave them to reach a crisis state, or scare them from seeking help by the threat of compulsory treatment."
CHILD SUPPORT AGENCY
Errant fathers who repeatedly fail to pay maintenance could face curfews, electronic tagging and the suspension of their passports under measures to axe the troubled Child Support Agency.
The Child Support Bill will scrap the CSA, which was accused of causing a bureaucratic nightmare for families. It will be replaced by a streamlined body, and rules to encourage separated or divorced parents to reach private settlements.
The CSA was set up by John Major, then Tory prime minister, in 1993, but has been dogged with complaints. It has a backlog of 300,000 cases with £1.2bn outstanding and £1bn in uncollected payments written off.
The changes, likely to win cross-party support, follow a review by Sir David Henshaw. The details will be in a White Paper soon. It will be followed by a consultation period before the bill is taken through Parliament by John Hutton, the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions.
Under the Bill, deserted lone parents left to bring up children will no longer be forced to make formal claims, even if they have reached a private agreement with their ex-partners. The legislation will allow more lone mothers or fathers to keep their maintenance on top of state benefits. Now, those on benefits lose some or all of their maintenance if payments take their income above the qualifying threshold.
The additional aid promised under the new Bill will be coupled with tougher measures to pursue errant parents who pay little or nothing. Absent fathers or mothers who refuse to pay for their children's upkeep will be pursued by private bailiffs. Passports could be suspended. Existing laws allow courts to seize the driving licences of parents who fail to pay maintenance but these powers are rarely used because they claim they would destroy their work chances
Tough new regulations designed to crack down on rogue estate agents are to be introduced. All agents will be forced to join a scheme to allow victims of bad practice to claim compensation.
Agents will also have to keep full records of their work, and Trading Standards officers will inspect their archives, under proposals in the Consumers, Estate Agents and Redress Bill.
The Office of Fair Trading will also get increased powers to take action against rogue agents. Energy and postal firms will also have to offer redress to customers, and the Bill will also merge the National Consumer Council, Energywatch and Postwatch into a single consumer watchdog. The Queen's Speech declared that the Bill will "introduce the most wide-ranging reform of consumer protection for many years."
Stephen Carr-Smith, the estate agents ombudsman, said: "This is very good news for the consumer and also very good news for the industry because it means that every single estate agent has got to have their activity judged against a code of practice by an independent ombudsman. The estate agents who can't abide by a code of practice will have to go to the wall, and good riddance."
But the Association of Residential Letting Agents (ARLA) warned the Bill would not protect consumers against unlicensed letting agents. Its chief executive Adrian Turner said: "This is a lost opportunity to protect the consumer in that part of the private rented sector the professional bodies cannot reach."
Steven Gould, the director of regulation for the Royal Institute of Chartered Surveyors, said: "This is a missed opportunity. RICS welcomes the Government's commitment to introduce independent redress across this sector, but we feel redress alone is insufficient.
"Consumers should have confidence when they walk into an estate agency that it is a properly regulated business. The present proposals do not offer them this option."
...not in the speech
Jack Straw was under pressure to bring forward a vote on reform of the House of Lords before the end of the parliamentary year. The Queen's Speech pledged that ministers would "bring forward proposals" for reform, but stopped short of promising a vote during the next session.
The speech pledged that the Government would "continue its programme of reform" and would "work to build a consensus on reform of the House of Lords and will bring forward proposals".
Yesterday Mr Straw said he was in "intensive talks" with the other main parties at Westminster and promised that MPs and peers would have a free vote on the proposed make-up of a reformed upper house.
But Simon Hughes, the Liberal Democrat constitutional affairs spokesman, urged ministers to bring forward a White Paper before Christmas and arrange a vote early in the new year.
He said: "It is disappointing we do not have a commitment to a vote. I hope a hope becomes a commitment. I am keeping the pressure on Jack Straw on this issue."
Ministers were sharply criticised over their failure to bring forward a Marine Bill to protect the seas around Britain from damage. Campaigners had hoped for a measure, which was promised in the Labour election manifesto.
Chris Huhne, the Liberal Democrat environment spokesman, said: "The disappointment is that the Marine Bill has been dropped. It is desperately needed to ensure protection of our seas from environmental damage."
The Government decided not to bring forward a full Bill on transport policy. Instead a draft Road Transport Bill will be published next year proposing expanded powers to implement road-charging schemes to cut congestion.
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