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The First 100 Days - The Queen's Speech 2015

Dr Ed GougeDr Ed Gouge gives his view on the challenges facing the new Conservative government and details the bills within the Queen's speech at the State Opening of Parliament on 27th May 2015.

David Cameron has won a remarkable general election victory as Leader of the Conservative Party but as Prime Minister his Parliamentary majority has been reduced from 76 to 12. Although the 2010-2015 Parliament saw frequent backbench rebellions, those Lib Dem MPs who were not Ministers and Conservative right-wingers rebelled on different things and so the Government’s majority was hardly ever in danger. 

Conservative MPs now have to be kept in line, hence the replacement of Michael Gove as Chief Whip by Mark Harper who has more subtle powers of persuasion. He has already told Conservative MPs not to make plans for trips over the next couple of months. Governments with small majorities have got by for fairly long periods, though both the Major and Callaghan Governments were worn down by the efforts to do so.  

Working with a small majority

A number of factors may make this easier for Cameron, at least for now:-

  • Cameron has not been popular with Conservative MPs on the right but, having pulled off a surprise victory, his prestige is high and they are not likely to want to rock the boat.  The fact that the EU issue, which split the Major Government, is going to be decided in a referendum  in which Conservative MPs will be able to campaign on either side, has pushed the issue out of the Parliamentary arena.  There will be arguments over whatever deal Cameron negotiates but there will be nothing like the Maastricht Treaty to get through Parliament. There will still be potential areas for rebellion though. Some Conservative MPs are unhappy with the idea of repealing the Human Rights Act and others may not want to see their constituencies disappear when the Boundary Commission reduces the number to 600, but neither of these issues will need voting on this summer.
  • The Conservative majority over Labour is 98 and so it is only if the other parties combine and turn up to vote against the Government that their overall majority will be tested.  The SNP has said that it will continue its practice of not voting on issues that only affect England and concessions on spending for Northern Ireland may keep the DUP onside for some votes. The four Sinn Fein MPs have not taken the Oath of Allegiance and so the Government’s majority will, in practice, be 16 anyway. On the other hand Scottish MPs can’t get back to their constituencies for the day or overnight, unlike many English MPs, and so, as long as SNP MPs decide to come for the week, they will be around the Palace of Westminster from Monday night to Thursday morning and Conservative Whips cannot be sure when they will suddenly decide to flood through the division lobbies for a vote.
  • As the Conservatives have been carrying through many of the policies that they wanted over the last few years much of the framework legislation in areas such as the NHS, transport and education  is already in place and so policies, such as an expansion of free schools or freezing rail fares, can be pursued without the need for Parliamentary approval.

Two obvious problems for the Prime Minister

Things can go wrong for Governments that cannot be anticipated but two problems are obvious:-

  • This is the first Conservative majority Government which has not also had a majority in the House of Lords. The combined Lib Dem and Conservative peers had a healthy majority over Labour during the Coalition but the Government still lost 99 votes in the Lords. Now Conservative peers are outnumbered by the Opposition Parties by about a 100, with many of Lib Dem Peers on the left of the party, and the votes of the Independent or Crossbench peers will be important. In fact, the Lib Dems are overrepresented compared with their national vote in a part of the British legislature for the first time.  Cameron could create Conservative peers but it will need a lot to change the balance and the House of Lords is already the largest legislature in the world after the Chinese National People’s Congress.  The Salisbury Convention holds that the House of Lords does not vote against legislation set out in the winning party’s manifesto. Peers will be busily thumbing through the Conservative manifesto but there have been mutterings about the relevance of the convention given that Governments have been elected with Parliamentary majorities in 2005 and 2015  but with the support of only about a quarter of the electorate.  Every piece of legislation that is amended will require an extra vote in the Commons if it is to be reversed with more headaches for the Whips and extra hours of voting for MPs.
  • Cameron may regret saying that he will not lead the Conservative Party into the 2020 general election. Already leading Conservatives are acknowledging that he will have to stand down, perhaps in 2018, to allow a new person to get established well before the general election, incidentally creating the same problem as Gordon Brown had, becoming PM without the legitimacy of an electoral vote. This will mean that Cameron’s authority in the party will wane by about 2017 and speculation about when he is going will start.  Any serious problems over, say, Europe or Scotland will make this worse. If things go well, Cameron could, of course, change his mind and stay on.

Legislation for the Conservative Government

The Government is keen to get major measures through the Commons this summer, although some bills are complicated and may be announced but not actually be brought forward until next session. Despite the cynicism of the voters about politicians’ promises a recent academic study by Judith Bara from Queen Mary College has shown that actually 88% of manifesto commitments have been carried out by parties over the last 60 years, once in office, so manifestos are important.

A number of Bills will promote the idea of the Conservatives as the party of workers. The Queen’s speech appropriated some of the buzz words that Ed Miliband and some of the Labour leadership contenders have used – working people, aspiration, One Nation, economic security:-

A National Insurance Contributions and Finance Bill will carry out various tax pledges. The Conservatives promised to take all those on the Minimum Wage working full time (30 hours a week or more) out of income tax. At present they don’t pay income tax anyway if they work 30 hours a week as the personal allowance is already higher than their annual income but it does mean that the personal allowance will rise as the Minimum Wage rises, thus handing this aspect of taxation over to the Low Pay Commission that advises what the Minimum Wage should be. If it rises to £8 an hour by 2020 this will also deliver a fairly hefty tax cut to all workers on the 20% tax rate.  Legislation will prevent any rise in VAT, National Insurance or Income Tax before 2020.  The Government didn’t intend to raise any of these anyway but it does mean that economic growth, welfare cuts and efficiency savings in the NHS will have to pay for the manifesto spending commitments

Most apprenticeships are not going to younger workers and the Full Employment and Welfare Benefits Bill will be the vehicle for creating 3m new apprenticeships with an annual report on how this and the provision of employment generally is progressing. Unemployed young people will have to take on community work as soon as they sign on, if they have no previous work experience and automatic Housing Benefit for 18 to 21 year olds will end. The welfare cap will be lowered to £23000 a year for non-working families, probably only having much effect in London because of housing costs, and there will be a two year freeze on working age benefits, child benefit and tax credits.

A Childcare Bill will implement the commitment to raise the free provision of childcare for working parents of 3 and 4 year olds from 15 to 30 hours for 38 weeks a year.

The Government was already pinpointing ‘failing’ schools. An Education and Adoption Bill will now also define ‘coasting’ schools, those which have had a ‘prolonged period of mediocre performance’ and ‘insufficient pupil progress’. These will be given help to improve but then the Education Secretary will be able to dismiss the governing body and turn them into academies.  The Government already has powers to expand the number of free schools. Regional adoption agencies will look to place children beyond local authority boundaries and the Education Secretary will be able to take the adoption service away from a local authority.

A Housing Bill will give the right to buy with a discount to tenants in Housing Association properties. Some 500,000 already have this right but another 800,000 will now also be included.  For those in houses for over three years there will be a 35% discount and another 1% for every extra year of residence.  For flats it will be 50% and an extra 2% per year of residence.  The National Housing Federation estimates that somewhere between 15% and 35% of tenants will be able to afford the mortgage but this depends on what happens to interest rates. Local authorities will have to sell their most expensive 200,000 homes and the money will be used to build cheaper properties, regenerate brownfield sites and fund the Right to Buy.  Local authorities will need to help custom and self- builders registered in their area find land and community planning procedures will be speeded up.

Measures aimed at Economic Growth

Governments, of both parties, have been looking to cut red tape for businesses for the last 30 years and an Enterprise Bill will have another go but putting pressure on regulatory agencies.  The demand from small businesses to do something about late payments by large firms will be met with a new Small Business Conciliation Service. The Business Rates system will be reviewed but there is no indication that it will be replaced by, say, a turnover tax as some have suggested or even that there will be the radical overhaul that the Small Business Federation wants..

A HS2 Bill to take the provision for HS2 and its operation further will appear.  If Labour opposes it then things could be tricky as there are Conservative MPs whose constituencies are affected by the route and who are therefore opposed to the project.  This and Trident Renewal are two very expensive projects for which the Government will soon need to find the money.

An Energy Bill will create a new Oil and Gas Authority to regulate domestic oil and gas production from offshore waters.  The same powers will be devolved to the Scottish and Welsh Government. An SNP slogan when they made their breakthrough in the 1970s was that North Sea Oil is ‘Our Oil’. The SNP Government will now get some control but, of course, most of the oil has already gone. Local authorities will be freer to decide on planning permission for onshore wind farms over 50MW just as they can already on smaller developments.

A Cities and Local Government Devolution Bill will allow for the devolution of planning, transport, housing and policing powers to metropolitan areas and large cities starting with Greater Manchester and implementing George Osborne’s idea of a Northern powerhouse that will stimulate economic growth in the region. A related Buses Bill will give similar powers to combined local authority areas with an elected mayor.

A Bank of England Bill will change the organisation and remit of the Bank so that it is more clearly able to oversee monetary policy and financial stability.

Constitutional Bills

Many of the Queens Speech proposals such as the Right to Buy and Free Schools will not of course happen in Scotland and Wales.  There is a set of constitutional bills in the Queen’s Speech which take Britain a step further to a federal system and there will also be the legislation on the EU referendum. The Government proposes changing the standing orders of Parliament so that English MPs have to approve Bills affecting England only, though Alex Salmond has already questioned this.  Changes to Commons standing orders do not normally come from the Government and are also normally decided by a free vote of MPs:-

  • The EU Referendum Bill will require the Referendum to be held by the end of 2017 and the people that vote will be the same as for General Elections, thereby excluding EU citizens living in Britain. The SNP wants a majority in all four parts of the UK before a No vote can be legal.  There will also be an EU (Finance) Bill to implement the agreement among EU members about the EU budget which protected Britain’s rebate, and agreed no new EU wide taxes or types of member state contributions.
  • Despite press reports the Government did commit to a British Bill of Rights. There will be problems though. The European Convention of Human Rights on which it is based is part of the Scottish and Northern Ireland settlements.  The British Supreme Court already decides cases under the Human Rights Act and if the Act is replaced with a British Bill, then cases can still be taken to the European Court in Strasbourg, unless Britain withdraws from the European Convention which will have important international repercussions, as every other European country, except Belarus, has signed up to the Convention. We may not see the detailed legislation in this session of Parliament.

Devolution

The leaders of the three main national parties promised a further phase of devolution during the Independence Referendum campaign and the Smith Commission fleshed out some details. A Scotland Bill will give power over Income Tax, Air Passenger Duty and the Aggregates Levy to the Scottish Government and Scotland will keep a proportion of VAT. There will a power to vary some aspects of welfare benefits. Nicola Sturgeon has said that the SNP’s election mandate is for a more wide ranging devolution than Cameron is offering.

As Scotland gains more autonomy, Wales seems to catch up with the previous phase of devolution and Plaid Cymru has called the next stage a ‘third rate devolution’. A Wales Bill will implement the results of discussions between the various parties to devolve energy, ports and speed limits. The Welsh Assembly will also be able to lower the voting age for Assembly elections and, with control over local elections, may well introduce a PR system for these, as Scotland has.

A Northern Ireland Bill will implement an aspect of the Stormont House Agreement. An Historical Investigations Unit would look at Troubles related deaths.

Security and Policing

There are a group of Bills to do with security and policing issues, some of which will be controversial from a civil liberties point of view and are likely to have a difficult passage through the Lords:-

  • An Investigatory Powers Bill will meet the demands of the security services and police for information to deal with terrorists and paedophiles.  Phone companies and internet providers will have to keep emails, texts, web browsing details and records of phone calls. These proposals were vetoed by the Lib Dems during the Coalition.
  • The measures now appearing in an Extremism Bill to deal with extremists not suspected of terrorism were also blocked by the Lib Dems.  It will be possible to ban groups, close down premises used by people with ‘extremist’ views, issue Disruption Orders to stop individuals from promoting extremism, bar people from working with children, close charities funding terrorism and close TV channels where extremist views are aired.
  • An Immigration Bill will create an offence of illegal working and give a police power to seize the wages of illegal workers.  It will also become an offence for recruitment agencies to hire abroad without advertising in the UK and there will be a levy on visas for workers coming from outside the EU.  It will be easier to evict illegal immigrants from housing and seize their bank accounts. Illegal immigrants will be deported first and then have to appeal later, on human rights grounds, in almost all cases. An Enforcement Agency will deal with the worst cases of exploitation.  Criminals who are foreign nationals awaiting deportation will have to wear satellite tracking tags.
  • A Trade Unions Bill is not quite in this category but does raise civil liberties issues.  There will have to be a 50% turnout in a strike ballot for it to be legal and 40% of those eligible to vote must support a strike in essential public services such as education, fire, health and transport and these decisions will be time limited.  Trade union officials feel that this is setting an impossibly high standard given the problems of compiling an up to date list of members and their addresses and a standard that does not apply to other areas of voting. The hundred year battle over the political levy continues with the Government requiring a clearer process for trade union members to opt in.
  • A Psychoactive Substance Bill will bring the control of so-called ‘legal highs’ into line with other drugs and an offence of supplying, importing and exporting them will be created.
  • A Policing and Criminal Justice Bill will carry out a commitment by Theresa May to ban the use of police cells for emergency detention under the Mental Health Act, allow for more police-led prosecutions and amend the complaints system. People will not be allowed to be on bail for long periods without the police’s reason for this being checked independently. The role of the Police Federation will be enshrined in law and police officers will be able to be investigated even after they have left the force. An offence of wilful neglect or a mandatory reporting system will apply to child protection issues. The code for victims of crime will appear in legislation and a statement from a victim can be read out before sentencing or parole.

Other Notable Bills

As usual there are a few minor and tidying up Bills. The 2006 Armed Forces Act has to be renewed every five years and an Armed Forces Bill would do this in relation to the law on the Armed Forces.   

A Charities (Protection and Social Investment) Bill will strengthen the powers of the Charity Commission for England and Wales to regulate charities, following the critical investigation of the Commission by the Public Accounts Committee. Charities will be given clearer powers to carry out social investments. 

At present UK citizens living abroad can vote in General elections and European elections but not if they lived abroad for over 15 years. This limit will be removed, in a curiously titled Votes for Life Bill

There are, at present, separate Ombudsmen for Government Bodies, Local Government, Health and Housing and a Public Service Ombudsman Bill would potentially bring them all together in one service.

There was no mention of repealing the legislation on Hunting with Hounds. It is quite likely that Conservative MPs have already been bombarded with letters and emails from constituents opposed to any change and opinion polls suggest that the public generally is against a change, but the issue has strong emotional appeal in more rural areas.