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Queen's Speech: Lots of style, but very little substance

'Snooper's charter' and plans for Lords reform confirmed in unusually short Queen's Speech

Andrew Grice,Nigel Morris
Thursday 10 May 2012 15:29 BST

The Government was facing a backlash from civil liberties campaigners last night after confirming it would press ahead with plans to set up some "secret courts" and to monitor people's online activity.

Outlining measures in the Queen's Speech, David Cameron also rowed back from his pledge to force reform of the House of Lords through Parliament.

As ministers came under fire for not including more measures to boost the economy after the country slipped back into recession, the Prime Minister insisted the Government's top priority was to spur growth. He told the Commons that plans for a mainly-elected second chamber could go ahead only if the political parties worked together and adopted a responsible attitude. But he went on to admit: "All parties are divided over this and we should be frank about that."

Mr Cameron had previously promised Nick Clegg that he would use every tool at his disposal to ensure that his deputy's flagship scheme became law. But yesterday he stopped short of backing Mr Clegg's blueprint for 80 per cent of the Lords to be elected, speaking only about "an elected element". The Prime Minister ruled out a referendum before a Lords Reform Bill is enacted, but left the door open to a public vote before the changes in any such Bill that gets through Parliament take effect.

Liberal Democrats insisted the plan was still very much alive after being included in the Queen's Speech despite vocal objections from Tory MPs. They warned that dumping it would be a dangerous "breach of faith" because it was included in the Coalition Agreement. But a source close to Mr Cameron said Lords reform could proceed only if there was "consensus" among MPs, adding: "This is not a priority for the Government. We are not going to allow everything [in Parliament] to be snarled up for it. If we can get it through, we will. If we can't, we can't."

Ministers face a battle over the Justice and Security Bill, which would enable civil courts to sit behind closed doors – and to consider evidence not shared with the public – when considering national security issues. Kenneth Clarke, the Justice Secretary, has argued that the powers are necessary to ensure other countries are happy to share intelligence without fear of it being exposed in British courts.

Ministers provoked dismay among civil liberties groups after confirming plans for surveillance of emails, text message and website visits. They said the moves were needed to track terrorists and criminals. The proposals have been condemned as a "snoopers' charter" by many MPs.

In an attempt to placate them, the plans were published in draft form, effectively delaying them for at least a year as Parliament examines them in detail. They are likely to be considered by a joint committee of MPs and peers who will have the authority to call internet service providers and civil liberties groups to give evidence.

A spokesman for the privacy watchdog, the Information Commissioner, warned: "We shall expect to see strong and convincing safeguards and limitations to accompany the Bill."

Shami Chakrabarti, the director of Liberty, said: "Politicians of all parties should remember the values we are all supposed to share. Whilst action on free speech is extremely welcome, proposals for secret courts and a snoopers' charter risk allowing no scrutiny for them and no privacy for us."

The Queen's Speech placed heavy emphasis on measures to support children and families. New legislation will make maternity and paternity leave more flexible, so time off can be shared between parents. Adoption laws will be overhauled to make the process swifter, and to make it easier for white parents to adopt black and Asian youngsters. Divorced fathers will get greater rights.

However, plans to reform the adult social care system face a further delay as they were presented only in draft form. All-party talks are under way on one of the thorniest problems facing the Coalition, but there is little prospect of detailed proposals being drawn up in the near future.

So, what legislation was in the speech – and what wasn't?

Jobs: In

The Enterprise and Regulatory Reform Bill is designed to give employers more confidence to hire staff by making it simpler to dismiss them – a concern among Liberal Democrats. It would encourage "settlement agreements" so workers could be paid off by consent. All claims to employment tribunals would have to be lodged with the conciliation service Acas to increase prospect of agreement. Shareholders would get more power over boardroom pay.

Controversy rating 4/5

Coalition friction factor 4/5

Growth booster 4/5

Crime: In

The Crime and Courts Bill sets up the National Crime Agency to lead the fight against crime. The Bill also shakes up the appointment of judges, allows magistrates to sit on their own and accelerates immigration appeals, as well as scrapping the right of appeal for relatives of British families who are denied visas to visit them. It also allows television cameras into English courts.

Controversy rating 2/5

Coalition friction factor 1/5

Growth booster 0/5

Banks: In

A Banking Reform Bill would force Britain's retail banks to separate their retail arms (lending to individuals and businesses) from their more risky investment banking activities. Designed to try to prevent the need for another bank bailout.

Controversy rating 2/5

Coalition friction factor 1/5

Growth booster 3/5

Families: In

Maternity and paternity leave will be made more flexible so mothers and fathers can share caring responsibilities. The bureaucracy surrounding adoption will be streamlined, particularly to enable inter-race adoption. When couples split, the law will ensure both parents have more equal access to their children.

Controversy rating 1/5

Coalition friction factor 1/5

Growth booster 0/5

House of Lords Reform: In

Perhaps the most controversial and difficult item in the entire speech. The Bill would cut the size of the House of Lords and make it a predominantly elected chamber. But it faces huge opposition from both Tory and Labour members. The Government hinted it would not try to force the measure through and could offer a referendum.

Controversy rating 5/5

Coalition friction factor 5/5

Growth booster 0/5

Surveillance: In

The Government has backed down and will now bring forward a draft Bill rather full legislation. The Home Office wants to give police and the security services powers to monitor new communication methods such as Skype. Leaked proposals to keep basic details of all mobile, emails and internet traffic prompted a civil liberties backlash and are likely to be watered down before a final Bill is prepared. There will also be controversy over the Justice and Security Bill, which will allow civil courts to sit in secret.

Controversy rating 4/5

Coalition friction factor 4/5

Growth booster 0/5

Pensions: In

Two Bills. One would replace the current state pension system with a single tier payment of £140 per week and raise the eligibility age to 67 by 2028. The other would assist the reform of public sector pensions.

Controversy rating 4/5

Coalition friction factor 2/5

Growth booster 3/5

Defamation: In

A Bill aimed at ending London's reputation as the libel capital of the world and bringing the law up to date with the internet age.

Controversy rating: 0/5

Coalition friction factor: 0/5

Growth booster: (minus) 1/5

Overseas aid: Out

The Coalition is due to legislate on its commitment to spend 0.7 per cent of gross national income on overseas aid by 2015. Its absence will please Tory right-wingers.

Universities: Out

The Tories wanted to legislate to liberalise higher education and make it easier to set up private universities. This has been shelved after protests from academics. The Liberal Democrats opposed any fresh reforms.

High-speed rail link: Out

The decision to go ahead with a London to Birmingham link is deeply unpopular among some Conservatives. Construction will not begin until after the next election, so the need for a Bill is not pressing.

Oliver Wright

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