Leading article: No surprises, but a focus on the business of government


In the end, Gordon Brown managed to resist the temptation to insert any surprises into yesterday's Queen's Speech. No rabbits were pulled out of the hat in an attempt to wrong-foot the opposition parties. The Prime Minister chose to keep the parliamentary legislative programme he had pre-announced in July pretty much intact. This was sensible in the light of the torrid time Mr Brown has had in the wake of his mishandling of last month's snap election speculation. The public does not want stunts from the Prime Minister. It wants solid and considered government.

Indeed, one of the more encouraging aspects of yesterday's programme is what was downplayed. There was no concrete proposal to extend pre-charge detention for terror suspects beyond 28 days, despite strong indications from ministers that a new 56-day limit would be put forward. We must hope that this presages a retreat from this grossly illiberal and dangerous plan. All the evidence suggests that the introduction of what would effectively be internment powers for the police would do far more harm than good to the struggle against militant Islamism in Britain, regardless of any new powers of judicial oversight.

Some of the bills and draft bills announced yesterday are, naturally, welcome. Powers for local councils to impose charges on persistent non-recyclers and giving them the right to trial road charging schemes are sensible. Both these proposals have the potential to do a good deal for the environment by reducing the amount of refuse sent to landfill and also the emissions arising from road congestion. Plans to create a more personalised NHS should also be good for patients who, despite the vast sums poured into the NHS since 2000, are not receiving the level of service they have a right to expect.

Greater incentives for young people to go into training at 16 are also necessary if we are to reverse the skills gap that exists between the UK and the rest of Europe, although the Government would do well to acknowledge that the problems many children experience in education begin much sooner than at age 16. It is also plain that local authorities need a push to build more houses. Shortages of supply, especially in the South East, are having a socially divisive effect by helping to price first-time buyers out of the market. The proposals to extend flexible working rights for parents of older children should also be a welcome step towards correcting the skewed work-life balance that exists in much of Britain.

Other plans proposed yesterday are more depressing, in particular the building of more nuclear power stations. But what characterises this programme overall is a strange lack of ambition. There are to be no annual statutory reduction targets on UK carbon dioxide emissions in the proposed climate change bill, merely "five-year carbon budgets". Plans to devolve power within the NHS that Mr Brown hinted at before assuming power in June appear to have been discarded. Similarly, there is a failure to address the looming pension crisis head on.

The proposed constitutional reforms are piecemeal, rather than truly radical. If Mr Brown really wants to create a new relationship between MPs, the Government and the public, he must embark on a programme of electoral reform.

It is encouraging that Mr Brown has decided to concentrate on the business of government rather than on the scramble for short-term party advantage. But the inescapable message from yesterday's Queen's Speech is that the Prime Minister still needs to raise his sights.

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