Vision off the menu as PM puts bread-and-butter policies first

Big extension in number of parents allowed to work flexible and part-time shifts<br /> Britain to commit to legally-binding targets to ensure reductions in carbon emissions<br /> First-time buyers targeted in plans to build three million new homes by 2020<br /> Legislation on terrorism and the EU expected to provoke fierce Commons battle
Click to follow
Indy Politics

Gordon Brown sought to get his government back on track yesterday by putting flexible working, affordable housing and education at the heart of his first legislative package as Prime Minister.

Mr Brown ignored demands for him to use the Queen's Speech to make a vision statement as he concentrated on bread-and-butter policies that he said would meet the rising aspirations of Britain's "hard-working families".

The only surprise was a big extension in the number of parents allowed to work part-time or flexible shifts so they can juggle the demands of work and looking after their children. At present, 3.6 million parents with children under six or who have a disabled child have the right to request flexible working, which is likely to be extended up the age scale over time. If it applied to children under 17, some 4.5 million parents could benefit. The policy also applies to people who care for adults.

Mr Brown trumpeted measures to raise the age for leaving education or training from 16 to 18 by 2015, the first such change since 1944, and to provide an extra three million homes by 2020, many of them for first-time buyers. For the long term, he claimed Britain would become the first country in the world to set out a legally-binding target to cut carbon emissions under a Climate Change Bill to reduce them by at least 60 per cent by 2050.

The Queen's Speech included 29 Bills, some of which will be highly controversial when they are pushed through Parliament. Although no details were given yesterday, ministers plan to double to 56 days the maximum period that suspected terrorists can be held without charge, reviving the debate that saw Tony Blair suffer a humiliating defeat on his proposal to raise the limit to 90 days in 2005.

There will also be heated debates over the Bill to implement the new European Union treaty to be signed next month. Mr Brown will come under pressure to grant a referendum, and over a plan to reform the system of how political parties are funded, which the Tories claim is designed to boost Labour at the next election.

There were bitter clashes between Mr Brown and David Cameron, who accused the Prime Minister of being "weak", recycling old policies or ones he had stolen from the Tories, and insisted that he could not be the change Britain needed. Mr Cameron accused the Prime Minister of "short-term tricks instead of long-term problem-solving". Mocking Mr Brown for deciding not to call an election this year, Mr Cameron added: "He knows how to talk about change but the trouble is he can't deliver change. That is what the whole country discovered this autumn."

The Tories insisted that they had proposed more flexible working more than a year ago. Mr Cameron challenged Mr Brown to say whether the Government had rushed out proposals to cut inheritance tax the week after the Tories vowed to do so at their annual conference last month.

The Prime Minister said this was not the case, and that government records would prove as much. Mr Brown considered inheritance tax reform ahead of his last Budget this spring, but decided to spend the available resources on cutting the basic rate of income tax from 22p to 20p in the pound from next April.

The Tories claimed that his successor as Chancellor, Alistair Darling, included changes in his pre-Budget Report at the last minute in response to their plan to raise the inheritance tax threshold to £1m.

The Prime Minister hit back by saying the Tory proposals would hand £1bn a year to the 3,000 richest estates in the country. He told Mr Cameron that he had flunked his "Clause IV" moment by refusing to stand up to his own party over grammar schools. On a range of issues, he claimed Tory policies were "confused contradictory and not thought through".

Mr Brown said: "On energy, housing, pensions, education, work-life balance, citizenship and anti-terrorism measures, the central purpose of this legislative programme is to make the right long-term changes to prepare and equip our country for the future and to meet the rising aspirations of the British people."

But Vince Cable, the acting leader of the Liberal Democrats, said: "The anticipation was acute – but the anti-climax is deafening. The legislative programme is firmly rooted in the Blair era. There is very little new. No ideas, no vision. Is this what we have been waiting for?"

Ministers replied that there were few surprises because the Government had outlined a draft programme this summer under constitutional changes designed to boost the influence of Parliament.

Mr Brown's allies said that the Prime Minister wanted to concentrate on "solid work on substantive policies", while portraying the Tories as lightweight and confused on policy. "We are seeing the battle lines for the next election," one said. "The contrast will be between experience, competence and substance, and a Tory party that is all show and does not have a serious agenda for government."

... and what wasn't in the speech

Pro-life MPs fear that the Government may try to avoid a row over abortion by making it impossible to table amendments to a Bill to tighten the rules for the termination of pregnancy.

Opponents want to to table amendments reducing the upper time limit for abortions from 24 weeks to 20 weeks or the European average of 13 weeks, but fear that a name change from the Human Tissue and Embryos Bill to the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Bill could make this impossible. Ministers deny the ruse, but the clerks are due to give a ruling on the Bill, which will be published on Friday.

Suspicions were also raised about the fate of 11 other Bills floated in the past but dropped from the Queen's Speech. The missing Bills were highlighted by Vince Cable, the acting Liberal Democrat leader. He said the list of "disappeared" measures included the Employment Simplification Bill on tribunals and enforcing the minimum wage; a Bill to combat corruption; the Sale of Student Loans Bill, allowing the sale of the student loan book to raise up to £55bn over 10 years; and the Marine Bill ratifying the international Wreck Removal Convention.

Government officials denied they had been shelved. They said many of these Bills were to be introduced in draft form for consultation before going through Parliament.

A Bill to impose charges on developers for using public-sector investment in roads, schools, and rail links to enhance the sale of housing developments was included in the draft Queen's Speech, but dropped at the time of the pre-Budget report. It is likely to be included in another planning measure.