Brown tries to put policy above personality

Measures for young and old in Queen's Speech but Cameron dismisses proposed legislation as 'half-baked'

Andrew Grice
Thursday 19 November 2009 01:00 GMT

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Louise Thomas

Louise Thomas


Gordon Brown and David Cameron offered two different directions for the country yesterday as the longest general election campaign in recent history got under way.

As Labour promised a "big choice" election, Mr Brown announced a series of new "guarantees" – to help young people find work; enable more elderly people to remain in their own homes and to drive up school standards. Contrasting them with the "gamble" of a Tory government, he said the election should not be about personalities as the Tories wanted but "a choice of the policies we pursue as a country".

In response Mr Cameron condemned the Queen's Speech as "half-baked", accusing Labour of behaving like an "irresponsible opposition" playing party-political games. He went on to demand an immediate election and said that Labour had run out of money, ideas, time and courage. He bemoaned the absence of any legislation to clean up politics after the MPs' expenses controversy – even though 11 changes were recommended this month by Sir Christopher Kelly's Committee on Standards in Public Life. Last night Sir Christopher said it was "disappointing" that the speech did not include the measures he proposed, but ministers insisted a new law was not needed because Parliament has already set up an independent body to oversee MPs' allowances.

Mr Brown, who claimed Labour's measures were "in the national interest", promised that thousands more jobless 18- to 24-year-olds would receive earlier help such as training or work placements from January. Graduates who do not find a job after six months on the dole will be able to apply for an internship, training or help to set up their own business. The measures, to be included in a "Back to Work" White Paper next month, will be funded from benefit savings from lower-than-expected unemployment. It will promise more help from the first day a young person signs on.

The Prime Minister received a boost when Barry Sheerman, a senior Labour MP, announced he had decided not to stand as a "Brown must go" candidate next week when Tony Lloyd, a Brown loyalist, comes up for re-election as chairman of the Parliamentary Labour Party. Mr Sheerman met Mr Lloyd yesterday and won pledges that Labour backbenchers would win more freedom to debate sensitive issues like MPs' expenses. Mr Sheerman told The Independent: "We have got to improve our ratings in the polls as a party, and the Prime Minister must [also] start to improve his ratings."

However, Mr Brown's critics have not ruled out another attempt to oust him before the election if his fortunes do not improve. Charles Clarke, the former home secretary, told the Commons last night that Labour's plans to enshrine its targets in legislation owed "less to good government than to a premature expectation of defeat". He warned they stemmed from a "school of thought which only benefit lawyers' bank balances and only render government more ineffective".

Accusing Labour of being "dominated by a political fear" of the Tories, he claimed the Queen's Speech would make it more difficult for the party to win the election. He said the "dividing lines" in the programme – a Brown trademark – made it difficult for him to support it.With the Commons likely to sit for only about 40 days before the election and the Lords for about 30, the shortest Queen's Speech since Labour came to power contained only 10 new Bills, some of which will not be passed due to a lack of time. Ministers will give top priority to providing free personal care for 280,000 old people in their own homes; combating antisocial behaviour; improving schools; a shake-up of banking regulation and a Fiscal Responsibility Bill to halve the deficit in the public finances over four years.

Although ministers believe the Personal Care at Home Bill will prove popular, the Tories will today launch a campaign against it. They claim Labour's proposed "national care service" would be funded by cutting disability benefits for pensioners, which could cost 2.4 million of them an average of £3,400 a year.

Rehearsing his election lines, Mr Brown said of the Tories: "Their policy is not a guarantee. It's a gamble for people facing the future without the help they should have." But Mr Cameron dismissed the Queen's Speech as "a Labour press release written on Palace parchment". He said it was an attempt to set dividing lines and embarrass the Conservative Party, adding: "What the Prime Minister is trying to do here is legislate a whole series of ideas saying that virtue is good, and then dare his opponents to vote against them. We're not falling for that one."

Nick Clegg, the Liberal Democrat leader, condemned a "fantasy Queen's Speech from a government that has run out of road". He added: "It won't give people the help and jobs they need in this recession and it won't fix our rotten politics."

Fiscal responsibility: 'Golden rules' replaced by multi-year plans

What is proposed?

The bill will enshrine in law the Chancellor's existing plan to halve the Budget deficit over four years, and enables Parliament to approve multi-year fiscal plans. More details will be published in the Pre-Budget Report. The legislation will effectively replace the old "golden rules" on balancing the budget over the cycle and keeping national debt down which were abandoned when the recession make a mockery of them. The obvious objection is that the new at could also be abolished in an emergency.

Chances of becoming law

Good. The Tories think it doesn't go far enough but won't stand in its way.

What the Tories would do?

George Osborne, the shadow chancellor, has spoken about a target of a balanced current budget and falling debt at the end of the forecast period, by around 2015, to be policed by a "powerful and independent Office for Budget Responsibility" that will hold government to account. Mr Osborne promises a "credible plan" if he comes to power but there are few details. At the party conference he set out some measures to bring down including a freeze on some public-sector workers' wages.

Sean O'Grady, Economics Editor

Banking: FSA will get power to veto excessive pay for bankers

What is proposed?

Bankers will be hit in the pocket if they are cavalier with investors' money under the Financial Services Bill. It hands power to the Financial Services Authority (FSA) from January to veto excessive pay and bonuses if it considers their contracts encourage bankers to take excessive risks. The Bill widens the FSA's remit to monitoring major foreign banks operating in Britain. It will also be given oversight of large hedge funds, many of which are based abroad.

Banks will be required to have "living wills", emergency plans that make it easier for them to be wound up should they fail. The Bill also sets up a Financial Stability Council to oversee the tripartite regulatory system of the Treasury, the Bank of England and the FSA.

Chances of becoming law

High. The Bill will be published today and the Tories will not risk blocking it and being portrayed as bankers' friends.

What the Tories would do

They would abolish the FSA and return oversight of the banks to the Bank of England. George Osborne, the shadow Chancellor, has called for a ban on high-street banks paying cash bonuses above £2,000 to staff.

Nigel Morris

Education: Aim to guarantee good standards in schools

What is proposed?

The key plank of the Education Bill will be to give pupils and parents a promise of good standards in schools. The 38 guarantees will include one-to-one coaching for all children struggling to keep up in class at secondary school. Teachers will have to have a "licence to teach". The Bill will introduce new report cards giving details of each school's performance in activities such as exams and attendance. There will be legislation to pave the way for a reform of the primary school curriculum. Lessons about sex and relationships will be compulsory from the age of 15, with parents losing their right to withdraw their children from them. There will be tougher powers compelling councils to crack down on under-performing schools.

Chances of becoming law

It has a one-out-of-five chance of being implemented (and that is just because of the primary proposals).

What the Tories would do

The Tories have indicated they will oppose it. They believe that Labour has not gone far enough in tackling under-performance in schools. Where there may be some measure of agreement is over primary-school reforms.

Richard Garner, Education Editor

Social care: Guaranteed free home care for elderly and disabled

What is proposed?

A new national care service will guarantee free personal care at home for up to 280,000 elderly and disabled people with the highest needs. A further 130,000 will benefit from measures including adaptations to their homes so they can keep living in them. Officials estimate 400,000 people will benefit, although 166,000 already get free care. The measures will cost £670m a year. At present, everyone receiving state-funded social care at home is means tested; those with more than £23,000 savings must pay. Under the care service, care will be free regardless of wealth. The plans will not help the 400,000 people already in care homes. The King's Fund charity said the proposals "cut across" those in the Government's Green Paper which suggested a £20,000 charge might be levied at retirement to cover care costs.

Chances of becoming law

Low. The Tories have "grave reservations", claiming it will bring benefits cuts.

What the Tories would do

Establish a home protection scheme: people would pay a fee on retirement – estimate £8,000 – and have care home costs covered. The party plans schemes to help people stay in their own homes.

Jeremy Laurance, Health Editor

Crime: Crackdown on antisocial behaviour

What is proposed?

The Crime and Security Bill aims to boost the drive against antisocial behaviour. It introduces assessments for parents whose children face being given an antisocial behaviour order (Asbo) and imposes orders on adults whose children breach Asbos. The Bill adjusts rules on the DNA database to allow police to hold genetic information from everyone arrested for six years. It shortens the forms that officers have to fill in when they conduct stop-and-searches and brings in powers to ban men suspected of domestic violence from the family home. The Bill makes licensing compulsory for wheel-clamping firms.

Chances of becoming law

Reasonable. The Government considers the Bill a priority. The Tories are hardly likely to block it as they believe it does not go far enough.

What the Tories would do

They would introduce instant penalties for antisocial behaviour, such as grounding offenders for up to a month. They would amend the DNA database so that samples of people arrested for serious crimes are retained for three to five years but profiles taken in minor investigations were destroyed.

Nigel Morris

Energy: Duty for power firms to help vulnerable people

What is proposed?

Energy firms would be forced to help the poorest with their fuel bills for the first time as a result of the Energy Bill. Under the proposals, all utility providers would have to offer discounted "social tariffs" to vulnerable groups. Currently, the firms are under no obligation to provide the cheap tariffs, but do so under a voluntary scheme which will remain in place until 2011. The new Bill hands the industry's regulator, Ofgem, stronger powers to tackle what it sees as market abuse. The legislation also supports the construction of up to four carbon capture and storage (CCS) schemes, designed to cut pollution.

Chances of becoming law

Civil servants are hopeful that the Bill will become law ahead of the next election. Even if it does not, broad cross-party support means the measures should be implemented anyway.

What the Tories would do

The Conservatives will back the mandatory social tariffs, although they criticise the Government's record in helping to reduce the number of families struggling to pay their bills, which they say has tripled in five years. They will also back the Government's CCS plans.

Michael Savage, Political Correspondent

View from the marginals: 'It strikes me as a bit hypocritical'

Margie Arts, 67, Former lollipop lady

Barrow-in-Furness, Cumbria

Mr Brown is still not doing anything about injustice to pensioners. We are still being denied our yearly increase and there was nothing on council tax reform. Guaranteed personal care looked so good until you read the small print. I liked it when he talked about parental responsibility to stop youth disorder. I won't be voting for Mr Brown and this has made me less likely to.

Barbara Mitchell, 71, Retired

Kirklees, Yorkshire

There were measures in the speech on bankers' bonuses, but at least they do some work for their money! It really strikes me as a bit hypocritical. The expenses scandal is still very much in my thoughts. And as for the pledge to restore the health of the economy, Gordon Brown was the Chancellor who was meant to be managing it for 10 years. He now looks like a damaged figure. I would have liked to hear more on education, which I really think is in a bad state.

Michael Wager, 25, Customer services consultant

Cheltenham, Gloucestershire

You cannot argue with measures such as legislating to abolish child poverty but, like many other Bills, it applies to governments far in the future that the current Government has no control over. I agreed with Nick Clegg that the Queen's Speech should have been scrapped so that Parliament could concentrate on reforming politics after the expenses scandal.

Alan Phillips, 62, Charity director

Hove, Sussex

I am sceptical about new proposals brought in by any sitting Government six months away from a general election, particularly when that Government has had plenty of time to implement its vision. However, I believe that any responsible Government should have taken measures to ensure banks and other financial institutions make a significant contribution to society through taxation.

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