Whatever else may be said about the Queen's Speech, it cannot reasonably be claimed that this is a Government that looks likely to run out of steam. Indeed Gordon Brown's little sermons about the morally improving qualities of work are about to be visited upon the whole of Parliament, with a challenging legislative programme of 20 Bills, many of them controversial. It seems that at least one of Labour's election soundbites "the work goes on" will be honoured in the fullest degree.
And the work that is to go on promises to be stressful for the ministers concerned. In particular the new Home Secretary, David Blunkett, the new Secretary of State for Education, Estelle Morris, and the Secretary of State for Health, Alan Milburn, are charged with conducting a much more full-blooded assault on public-sector vested interests than was essayed by the Government in the last parliament.
Their case will be strengthened by the billions of pounds of extra funding trumpeted during the election, money which should in time deliver the teachers, nurses and doctors essential for the delivery of world-class services and, indeed, no less needed to secure a majority for Labour at the next election, only a few years away. Even so, there will be some spectacular scraps, and ministers may be unwise to take on quite so many powerful vested interests. Any government that choses to pick a fight with the police or the doctors or the lawyers or the teachers would find deep scars on its back: taking on all four in one parliamentary session may be taking bravery too far.
Which is not to say that the Government is mistaken about wanting to deal with these groups, who mostly managed to evade even Margaret Thatcher's restless reforming zeal. In the case of the police, it is little short of scandalous that scams by officers such as taking early retirement to evade disciplinary proceedings should have been allowed to persist for so long. Making chief constables co-operate with neighbouring forces, spend their money more wisely and just a hint of this for their forces to be judged much more closely on their comparative performance in the manner of the league tables used for schools and hospitals should be just the spur to efficiency that the police have been lacking for too long.
Most of the rest of Mr Blunkett's programme is similarly concerned with practical ideas to improve the criminal justice system rather than simply assaulting civil liberties. The big exception is the proposal to abolish the "double jeopardy" rule in murder cases, and to implement this retrospectively. While it may help the prospect of justice in the Stephen Lawrence case, it remains a dangerous course. It is wrong in principle that the stigma of guilt should be permitted to linger around those who have been found innocent of such a crime, no matter how contentious the circumstances. Similarly we hope that the Government thinks again about restricting trial by jury and revealing previous convictions to juries.
More welcome is the Government's determination to see through plans to involve private or voluntary organisations to sort out failing schools, and to want to see a much more decentralised decision-making structure in the NHS (although we are sceptical about the control freaks letting 75 per cent of NHS spending go directly into the hands of "frontline staff"). We are much more queasy about the probable extension of the private finance initiative, which may well prove to be a rather costly way of involving the private sector in public services. This is one area where caution is advisable.
For the rest, the free vote on fox-hunting is, again, a needless distraction; the proposals to reform the Lords promise to be, as ever, disappointingly undemocratic; while the moves to place media and communications under one regulator are probably welcome, although much will depend on the detail. There is however, in this busy schedule, one glaring, if unsurprising, omission a Bill for an early referendum on the euro. That is one fight the Government clearly still has no stomach for.Reuse content