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:-

Two obvious problems for the Prime Minister

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

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:-

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:-

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.