By the London Office
Today’s Queen’s Speech truly reflected the nature of a Coalition Government as her Majesty began the speech with an impressive feat – managing to combine the slogans of both coalition partners in a hybrid super-slogan. However, we’re not sure that the Coalition’s “long-term plan to build a stronger economy and a fairer society” is ever going to catch on. The Queen went on to announce 15 new Bills (three in Draft) which, together with the six bills currently being carried over, will keep Parliament reasonably busy up to the General Election next year.
Continuing a theme from the Budget, pension reform was probably the major announcement of the Speech with two new Bills allowing pensioners to cash in their pension savings rather than buy an annuity and also introducing Dutch-style collective defined contributions.
Aside from pension reform, the key themes were business reform, energy, infrastructure and support for families.
The Small Business, Enterprise and Employment Bill will introduce a wide range of measures aimed at supporting small businesses, including i) improving access to public procurement and access to finance, ii) a commitment to tackle red tape and iii) the introduction of a new Statutory Code and independent Adjudicator to ensure that publicans who are tied to a pub owning company are treated fairly. The Bill will also be used to tackle National Minimum Wage misuse, to crack down on abuse in zero hours contracts and to introduce a public register of company beneficial ownership which is hoped to help tackle tax evasion and avoidance.
Infrastructure and energy
The Infrastructure Bill seeks to bolster investment in infrastructure (surprise surprise!) by allowing stable long term funding, delivering better value for money and relieving unnecessary administrative pressures. Measures include making it easier for developers to purchase and build on public sector land assets, as well as a new zero carbon standard for new homes from 2016 (which will not apply to small building sites). The Government will also support the development of gas and oil from shale and geothermal energy by clarifying and streamlining the underground access regime.
The Childcare Payments Bill will support families by covering up to a maximum of £2,000 of yearly child care costs per child, introduce tax-free childcare. The Government will also go ahead with free school meals for children in in reception, year 1 and year 2 in state-funded schools and will extend free childcare to more of the most disadvantaged two year olds. The Government will further recognise marriage in the tax system.
Other notable announcements
The Social Action, Responsibility and Heroism Bill is aimed at reassuring those who are acting for the benefit of society (i.e. those demonstrating a generally responsible approach towards protecting the safety of others or intervening in an emergency) by asking the courts to consider the context of their actions in the event that something goes wrong and they are sued for negligence or breach of statutory duty.
Following on from the publication of the Silk Commission Report earlier this year, the Wales Bill will devolve some financial powers to the Welsh Assembly.
A Recall of MP Bill has also been included in the Government’s programme. Zac Goldmith MP, who has championed this idea, has slammed the Bill as “worse than meaningless” and “a waste of Parliament’s time”. His disappointment with the Bill stems from the fact that the recall mechanisms would only be triggered if an MP is convicted in the UK of an offence and receives a custodial sentence, or if the House of Commons resolves that an MP should face a recall petition.
In the area of law and order, the Government will introduce the widely trailed Modern Slavery Bill, which will strengthen the powers to prevent slavery and human trafficking whilst also improving the support provided for victims of such crimes. The Serious Crime Bill announced will amongst other things, make it explicit that cruelty which is likely to cause psychological harm to a child an offence.
A zombie speech?
Despite much speculation amongst members of the media, it appears that expectations that this would be a Queen’s Speech lacking in content for a “zombie Parliament” were ill-founded. The announcement of ten new bills and the carrying over of six existing bills guarantees that Parliament will have an active year ahead. It also has to be said that Parliaments and Government should not be judged by the quantity but the quality of their legislation.
Labour’s initial reaction to the Speech has focussed on the fact that neither immigration nor the NHS were mentioned, describing this omission as “staggering”.