By the London office
As the Great Sword of State and the monarch get polished ahead of tomorrow’s annual trip to the Palace of Westminster, it is time to muse on what we can expect from the final Queen’s Speech of the current Parliament.
With less than a year until the next general election the Coalition parties will be keen to bolster their appeal amongst the electorate, especially after the bruising European election results. For the Tory leadership, this will be about demonstrating to their backbenchers and core voters that they are listening and that UKIP is not an option. For the Liberal Democrats more is at stake as they have to demonstrate to their party and the electorate that they are still relevant and can make a difference in Government.
Despite the high stakes, there is continuing talk about the ‘zombie parliament’ and the suggestion that the Government’s programme is so lean that MPs and Lords will be treated to a Royal Haiku rather than a speech (will the Queen match the poetic skills of Herman, “wet rag” van Rompuy?). Fixed-term Parliaments and the dynamics of the coalition certainly have had an impact and we don’t expect that her Majesty will keep her Government overly busy in the coming months. However, we also wouldn’t be shocked if, similar to last Budget, we get a surprise announcement tomorrow.
With all this in mind we believe that tomorrow’s speech will include some vote-winners, something for industry and measures that will particularly excite the Westminster bubble, as both the last year of this Parliament and election campaigning begins.
Pension announcements and childcare costs constitute the two areas most capable of grabbing voters’ attention, especially after the universally praised pension reforms announced in the Budget. It is been widely trailed that Coalition plans for an alternative style of pension fund are to be announced. Dutch-style collective funds, of great interest to Steve Webb, (Lib Dem Pension Minister), are reported to be less vulnerable to the stock market and could increase some retirement incomes by up to 30%. The model has its critics but changes could be introduced to make this pension alternative a reality by 2016. The speech will also legislate for the tax-free childcare scheme announced in the budget. Under the scheme eligible families will be entitled to subsidies worth up to £2,000 per child.
The award for the most intangibly named Bill set to make an appearance in tomorrow’s speech goes to ‘SARAH’, the Social Action, Responsibility and Heroism Bill. Justice Secretary Chris Grayling MP has articulated that it will tackle the health and safety and ‘jobsworth’ culture, explaining that the Bill intends to “…set out very simple protections for those people who act in the interests of society, responsibly or heroically.” Some may perceive Grayling’s proposals as a Conservative attempt to wrestle back control of the ‘common sense’ policy agenda from UKIP’s straight-talking Farage, but perhaps ‘SARAH’ also helps to revive Dave’s Big Society (which was declared dead years ago)?
After the popularity of the March Budget’s ‘penny off a pint’ giveaway, it appears the Lib Dems are looking to get their share of pub-based gratitude with steps to help those on the other side of the bar. Nick Clegg is looking to establish new rules to ensure landlords receive fairer treatment from big pubcos.
Frackers rejoice – if included, the Infrastructure and Shale Gas Bill would confirm the Government’s eagerness for shale gas. Controversially, the Bill would alter trespass laws to allow gas companies to drill beneath private property without the owner’s permission. This change follows successful lobbying by industry who said that the potential of UK Shale would never be realised under existing rules. The infrastructure element of the Bill would provide the legislative tools necessary for overhauling the Highways Agency, transforming it into a Government owned, Contractor Operated company, a “GoCo”, following a similar model as Network Rail. Due to a recent European ruling, the Government will also have to look at data retention. Given that this is a contentious issue within the coalition and tensions have been raised further by the Snowden revelations, we expect the Government will merely plug the gaps left by the ruling rather than revive the controversial Communications Data Bill (which, fittingly, is also known as the Zombie Bill).
Of political interest…
A Recall Bill has been agreed in principle but the Government has not yet found the parliamentary time to bring it to the House so we expect an announcement on this. However, the question whether this will be sold as a Lib Dem or Tory idea. Due to Lib Dem opposition there will also not be a Referendum Bill. There are rumours similar to the last Queen’s Speech, that backbenchers will table a motion of regret about the absence of the Bill. However, unlike last year the Tory leadership may now actually welcome such a move.
Remember, Zombies don’t die easily…
Despite the ‘Queen’s Haiku’ and ‘zombie parliament’ jokes, there is enough here for the Government to do. In addition to the new announcements, six Bills are being carried over from 2013/14, the Parliamentary session will be a shorter one than usual, dissolving six weeks prior to the 7th May election, and as we all know there is plenty of recess!
Even though the parliamentary agenda may not be overly exciting the high volume of campaigning and electoral positioning that needs to happen will ensure a lot of work for all those interested in and affected by politics.