This week saw the first Conservative Queen’s Speech for nearly 20 years. Freshwater’s Charlie Rainsford summarises the key points...
On Wednesday the Queen formally opened the new session of parliament with her annual Queen’s Speech. This year’s version looked to pick up much of work the Conservative Party left unfinished from their Liberal Democrats coalition, while also putting into action the kind of policies their former partners would not have been willing to let pass.
The speech began with the re-affirmation of messages found in the Conservative general election manifesto: a “one nation approach” and the continuation of the “long term economic plan”.
Headline announcements include provisions to legislate for a referendum of the UK’s membership of the European Union by the end of 2017. And, contrary to the supposed scoops in Wednesday’s papers, the plan to introduce a new British Bill of Rights to supplant the Human Rights Act was still referred to, albeit in such a way that puts it on the backburner in the face of likely backbench opposition.
While the Conservatives enjoy a majority in parliament, it will not be easy for the government to pass its legislative plan in full. One of the reasons for this is the Conservative’s slim majority of only 11 (not including the Speaker). With a cohort of backbenchers likely to be as, if not more, rebellious than the last, particularly when it comes to issues such as the British Bill of Rights, David Cameron and his new chief whip Mark Harper will have a lot of work to do to pass controversial legislation.
Meanwhile, the newly elected SNP MPs will be keen to make their mark. Already the subject of murmurings of distaste and a gentle telling-off or two from the Speaker about rowdy ‘non-parliamentary’ behaviour, the SNP bloc will be looking to make their voice heard on many key issues and try and get as good a deal for Scotland as possible.
Lastly, the make-up of the House of Lords could also cause the government a problem. While there are only eight Liberal Democrat MPs left in the Commons, they still have a solid presence in the Lords. Their joining of forces with Labour peers could provide an obstacle to the smooth passing of government legislation through the second chamber.
The legislation introduced in the Queen’s Speech has significant relevance to transport, infrastructure and related sectors. Below we set out some of the key polices we should expect to see developed over the parliamentary year to come.
One of the most prominent themes since the general election has been the government’s strong and continuing advocacy of increased devolution to cities in the UK. The Cities and Local Government Devolution Bill will see elected mayors and increased powers given to the governing bodies in certain cities. The newly elected ‘metro mayors’ will take on the functions currently with Police and Crime Commissioners along with new primary legislative powers to empower towns and cities.
The first intended recipient of these powers is Greater Manchester - devolution to which is seen as the first proper step in building the long-heralded ‘Northern Powerhouse.’ Cities around the UK will be given the chance to apply in an attempt to empower local governing bodies.
David Cameron’s government has promised to continue legislating for new high speed rail links between different parts of the country. The government will want the HS2 Bill to be passed as quickly and as smoothly as possible to give them the required planning powers to start the construction phase of HS2 Phase 1, which will link London with Birmingham. The bill will allow the government to compulsorily acquire or temporarily take possession of land required for the scheme.
The Buses Bill would give authority areas with a directly elected mayor the option to take control of their local bus network. This would provide the option to franchise bus services to areas willing to strengthen their local governance and promote a more integrated local transport system.
Construction and housing
A controversial new Housing Bill has been proposed by the government which seeks to allow residents in housing association properties to buy their own home at the same discount as council residents. It is proposed that the scheme will be funded by making councils sell their most expensive homes when they are vacant.
The government will also introduce measures with the aim of 90% of brownfield land having ‘local development orders’ on it by 2020. This is intended to make up for the reduction in housing stock from the extension of right-to-buy and increase the overall number of available homes.
The new government will legislate to make energy more affordable and reliable to businesses and families. They will give the Oil and Gas Authority powers to become a ‘robust, independent and effective regulator’, enabling it to maximise the economic recovery of oil and gas from UK waters.
The government will also seek to change the law, in line with its manifesto commitments, to give local communities the final say on wind farm applications. This will take the decision on permitting onshore wind farms away from the Secretary of State and into the hands of local authorities.
Scotland and Wales
In a move towards further devolution, the government have committed to enacting the recommendations from the Smith and Silk Commissions and bring increased powers to the legislative bodies of Scotland and Wales, respectively.
This will give Holyrood more powers over how it raises money, and Wales greater responsibility over planning decisions. Given the game-changing surge of the SNP in Westminster, the government will have to fight very hard to pass any legislation that fails to meet the high expectations of Scottish voters.
New Welsh Assembly powers include decision-making responsibility over all power projects up to 350 megawatts. Currently, Westminster has to ratify all such projects. The Assembly also now has the power to make decisions on any new fracking proposals. New transport powers give the Assembly responsibility over ports, taxis and buses as well as speed limits on roads. Finally, new electoral powers give the Assembly the power to decide the electoral system and voting age used in Assembly elections.
The highest-profile part of the government’s policy agenda, the EU Referendum Bill commits the government to renegotiating the UK’s membership of the European Union and would attempt to reform the organisation from the inside.
Alongside this, the government has committed to holding an in-out referendum on British membership of the EU. ‘Brexit’ was a constant topic throughout the election campaign and the Conservative government is clear on its intention to give the British people a chance to vote on membership.
Other things to note
In a jam-packed speech, there were many other pledges which the government will seek to deliver. The Trade Union Bill intends to introduce a threshold of 50% turnout on all valid strike ballots and maintain the requirement for there to be a simple voting majority for a strike to go ahead.
Unencumbered by Liberal Democrat concerns, the Conservatives will now be able to go ahead with their so-called ‘snoopers charter’ to reform how communications data is collected under the justification of fighting radicalisation.
The Conservatives are also committing to election pledges to lock Income Tax, National Insurance and VAT for the whole of the parliament.
In a move which has been championed by the new Business Secretary, Sajid Javid, the Enterprise Bill looks to drastically reduce the levels of business ’red tape’. The purpose of the bill is to promote entrepreneurialism and the strength of small businesses by making it easier for them to deal with disputes and queries. The government will look to save up to £10 billion during this parliament through several aspects of deregulation and setting up a ‘Small Business Conciliation Service’ to assist with business-to-business disputes.
The government hopes that these moves will benefit the national deficit as well as small businesses across the country.
Katja Hall, Deputy Director General of CBI:
“This is a jam-packed Queen’s Speech, with a strong focus on stepping up a gear on the economic recovery - locking in growth, creating jobs and boosting investment right across the country. With the starting gun on the European Union debate having been fired, the government must be careful not to let it overshadow the rest of its programme.”
David Sparks, Chair of Local Government Association:
“The Cities Devolution Bill is great news for our larger cities but we want to make sure the benefits of devolution reach all corners of England. Making decisions at a more local level will bring about huge economic and social benefits and with non-metropolitan England responsible for 56% of economic output the case for wider devolution is clear.”
Peter Riddell, Director of Institute for Government:
“The four proposed devolution bills present large constitutional challenges, not only in the nations and regions affected but also for the government of the UK as a whole. There is not going to be one solution for the whole of the UK, but the changes need to be coherent and consistent. The Institute for Government has stressed the need to strengthen relations between the various governments of the UK.”
Simon Walker, Director of Institute of Directors:
“The Government has got off to a solid start in the new Parliament with a focus on reducing red tape for small and medium sized businesses. But good intentions are nothing without delivery, and companies will be looking to the Business Secretary to spell out exactly where he will find £10bn worth of cuts to regulation.”
Frances O’Grady, General Secretary of the TUC:
“A government that claimed to be on the side of working people now wants to tip the balance of power against them with draconian restrictions on the right to strike. The real agenda is stopping public sector workers from fighting back against the extreme cuts and pay freezes expected in George Osborne’s budget.”
Jon Sparkes, Chief Executive of homelessness charity, Crisis:
“Ministers claim they will protect those with nowhere else to go, but the truth is that it’s very difficult to tell which young people are completely out of options until it’s too late. That’s why we’re urging the government to make sure all those who can’t live with their parents and are at risk of homelessness are protected.”
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