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The Queen's Speech 2014 - A 'things to do' list for the Coalition

Thursday, June 05, 2014

 

The last Queen’s Speech of this Parliament still contains a decent number of Bills, albeit a few less than previous years and two huge omnibus Bills on Infrastructure and on Business and Employment. 

The lighter programme has been blamed on the change to fixed term Parliaments which means we now have a full year to the election, whereas before the Queen’s Speech was normally in October before a summer election and the labour frontbench have pushed the idea of a Zombie Parliament. It was always the case, though, that the last session was truncated with election fever developing by January.

The Budget and next year’s Budget, with the Speech foreshadowing tax cuts and a married couples’ allowance will no doubt be more important electorally than these Bills but childcare allowances and pension reform will help the Government.  

The Lib Dems have been pushing the line that they have influenced key areas. A few more Bills may be added as a result of Backbench MPs that come top in the Ballot when the session starts.  The Tories would have liked a Bill on an in/out EU referendum but even a Private member’s Bill would not get through.

Childcare

It has already been announced that where both parents work they will get a tax free allowance for childcare of up to £2000 for each child under 12. The Lib Dems have been saying that the proposal is as a result of pressure for them but both parties will be claiming the credit at election time. Existing support will be extended for parents in self-employment or receiving Universal Credit.

Pensions Bills

The reform of pensions was the most dramatic announcement in the Budget.  People would no longer need to buy an annuity which would give them regular income until they die but will be able to spend more of their pension immediately when they retire.  

A Bill will implement this and the Conservatives will argue that they are giving people the freedom to manage their money as they wish, while Labour has not wanted to oppose the measure.  There are problems which need to be discussed in terms of what advice is available on managing pensions and because people may now be liable to income tax and inheritance tax. 

A second Bill will allow people to pay into a collective arrangement which should give them a better return over time and will give greater legal clarity to the different types of schemes. This results from the rare case of an MP being allowed to be a Minister responsible for an area in which they are an expert – in this case the Lib Dem Stephen Webb.

Infrastructure  

A large and controversial piece of legislation is in prospect here.

It will allow fracking exploration to take place under land without the owner’s permission and with minimal compensation (though there will be consultation about this first), make road building easier (the Highways Agency will be turned into a Government Company) and deregulate land use planning further.  

Some Conservative MPs have already warned that Government support for fracking and looser control of development in the countryside is already losing them votes. The changes in planning control look to be minimal though.  

The Bill will also exempt smaller housing developments of less than 50 houses from the need to meet the virtually zero carbon energy saving requirements that would have come into force in 2016 and larger developers will be able to offset the requirement by paying for energy saving elsewhere. 

The Lib Dems claim that the standard would have been abandoned entirely without pressure from them. There will be Species Control Orders for invasive, non-native species. The provision which was trailed will be to give communities the power to take a commercial stake in renewable energy projects above 5MW to encourage local acceptance of these projects does not seem to have appeared after all.

Limiting Negligence Claims   

One of the health and safety bugbears of the Conservative tabloids is addressed here.  The law will be changed so that people cannot be sued if an accident occurs when they are doing something for the benefit of society or any of its members, acting in a generally responsible way or acting in an emergency.  So it meant to protect the ‘have a go heroes and heroines’ beloved of the same papers but also people volunteering and running charity events.  In practice, changes in the balance of proof in these cases may have all sorts of legal consequences that will need to be debated.

Recall of Members of Parliament  

This was in the Coalition Agreement and a draft Bill was published in 2011 but its introduction has been delayed and Zac Goldsmith, the Conservative MP who has regularly pushed the idea, sees it as considerably watered down. It is certainly much more limited than the recall powers in many states of the US. The 2011 Bill would allow a recall to be triggered in two cases:-

  • Where an MP receives a custodial sentence of less than 12 months.  It is already the case that they would have to resign if they had a longer custodial sentence as has happened with MPs convicted of fraud over expenses.
  •  The House of Commons agrees that the MP has committed a ‘serious wrongdoing’ and so should be subject to recall.  The House Privileges and Standards Committee will have reported on each case though the whole House can always overturn their decision. 

10% of electors then have to sign a petition within 8 weeks for a by-election to go ahead.  The Political and Constitutional Committee of the Commons looked at the Bill and concluded that it was in danger of raising expectations among the public that could not be fulfilled. An open ended recall option may always be problematic.  The Democratic California Governor, Gray Davis, was recalled in 2003 after a campaign by Republicans after a sharp rise in energy prices and allegations that he had taken campaign funds from the companies. 

Pubs 

I don’t know of any survey of how CAMRA’s 150,000 members vote, and they will not necessarily all vote for Nigel Farage, but they will certainly welcome the legislation designed to curb the Pub Companies who CAMRA sees as focusing on short term profits to the detriment of pubs and their landlords.  The Government has promised to set up a regulator and CAMRA want it to control rents and give landlords more freedom as to which beers they buy. There will be a statutory code.

Company Law

A Bill will make ownership more transparent and responsible.  It would end ‘bearer shares’ which do not reveal ownership and restrict instances where a company is named as a director rather than a person. 

A corporate ownership bill making it easier to punish directors who ignore their responsibilities and break the law by increasing the disqualification period and awarding compensation to victims. 

The bill will also introduce a public register of beneficial ownership i.e. individuals derive benefits from ownership held by another party.  Some of the cost of insolvency law will be reduced.

Small Business

Governments have been introducing measures to help small businesses for the last 30 years but there will be a few more steps this time including getting each Minister to review regulations, improve access to finance and to public contracts.  A Small Business, Enterprise and Employment Bill will include this together with the provisions on company law and pub companies.

Higher Salaries 

A popular measure, which will also go into the Small Business. Enterprise and Employment Bill, will be to limit the redundancy pay of higher civil servants and NHS directors who then go on to work in a similarly highly paid job.

Zero Hours

Labour has been developing policy on zero hours and the Living Wage and here the Coalition are looking to catch up to a degree.  Employers will not be able to insist that employees on zero hours work only for them and the Minimum Wage will be more strictly enforced. This will also go into the Small Business, Enterprise and Employment Bill.

National Insurance and the Self-Employed

The process of paying national Insurance will be simplified but there will be a clamp down on avoidance including offshore intermediaries.

Modern Slavery

The Government has published a draft Bill which simplifies existing offences, increases maximum sentences to life imprisonment, introduces civil orders to restrict the activity of those who pose a risk and those convicted, create an Anti-Slavery Commissioner, and establish a legal duty for public authorities to report potential victims.

A report by a Joint Committee of the Commons and Lords was highly critical of the draft Bill and proposed significant changes such as special provisions for children, the right to compensation and ensuring that imports are not produced as the result of slavery.  The Government has incorporated some of these proposals.

Emotional Abuse of Children

The so-called Cinderella Law would allow prosecution of parents for emotional abuse in the same way that they can be for physical abuse and has led to considerable debate in the media on the merits of the law entering this area. At present social workers can carry out a civil intervention. The Conservative MP and part-time judge, Robert Buckland, has campaigned on the issue and the Lib Dem MP, Mark Williams, introduced a private members’ Bill and the Government then decided to carry out a consultation.  This will go into the Serious Crime Bill.

Serious Crime

A raft of measures here including better recovery of assets of criminals, sentences for attacks on computer systems to reflect the damage they cause, seizing chemical substances suspected of being used as cutting agents for illegal drugs, applying the Female Genital Mutilation Act to habitual as well as permanent UK residents ,people suspected of terrorism overseas to be prosecuted in the UK, a new offence of knowingly participating in an organised crime group, and a new offence of possessing paedophilic manuals

Service Complaints

The existing Commissioner would be turned into an Ombudsman with stronger powers

Riot Damages

The present legislation is the 1886 Act which naturally does not include provisions such as damage to cars and a new Bill will also deal with the complaints of those affected by the Croydon riots that the compensation process was very slow by setting up a Riot Claims Bureau. Replacement will be on the basis of a new item rather than an item of the same age.

Charities

A Bill will protect charities against people who are a known risk and make it easier for the Charity Commission to take action against abuse by individuals and organisations.  The Public Accounts Committee gave the Charity Commission a going over at a recent Select Committee hearing for its lack of action in this area.

National Parks

The restrictive planning policies of the National Parks Authorities, governed by nominated members from the local authorities that make up the area, have often been a matter of local complaint.  The Bill will provide for the direct election to these and the Broads Authority but only some of the members.  Given the low turnout for the Police Commissioner elections there must be some concern as to how effective this will be.

Plastic Bags

A 5p charge for plastic bags, already successfully trialled by the Welsh Government, will only apply to large shops and does not need legislation. A research competition is underway to invent a completely biodegradable bag.

Bills Carried Over 

At least six bills will be carried over from the previous parliament, including the Consumer Rights bill, the Criminal Justice and Courts bill, the Deregulation bill, a second Finance bill, the HS2 paving bill and the Wales bill.

Missing from the Speech

A major disappointment for some MPs and the RSPCA will be the absence of a Bill on Wild Animals in Circuses.  The Government had proposed a licensing scheme but a campaign by The Independent and a roasting of the Minister by backbench MPs led them to agree to a ban but this will not now come in before the election unless a Private member’s Bill which the Government accepts is brought forward. A Communications Bill on greater access to the spectrum also never made it to the Queen’s Speech

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