A Queen Speaks, and Parliament Opens.

I realise the title of this post sounds akin to a riddle, which is rather apt when you consider the interpretation one must do when listening to the subject of said blog post.

Yes, today marked the State Opening of Parliament, that traditional and grandiose event which sees the Queen setting out the legislative programme of the Government, just a year after the general election. She does this through delivering The Queen’s Speech, given in the presence of members of both the Commons and the Lords. It occurs at the start of each Parliamentary session, and forms the central part of the State Opening of Parliament. The purpose of the Speech, as previously mentioned, is to set out the Government’s policies and proposed legislative programme for the new Parliamentary session. How can the Queen propose legislation, if she is expected to be politically neutral within a constitutional monarchy, I hear you ask. Well, despite the fact that the Speech is delivered by the Queen, the actual content of the Speech is written entirely  by the Government (or aides and advisers, to be more precise) and approved by the Cabinet.

Following on from the State Opening, the Government’s proposed programme is then debated by both Houses. Did you know that in the Commons, the first motion is that the House send an address to the Queen thanking her for the Speech? Anyway, the subsequent Commons’ debate is a chance for MPs to speak on any matter of Government, and generally lasts several days.

Now, the State Opening of Parliament takes place when Parliament reassembles after a general election, and then subsequently at the commencement of each new Parliamentary session. Quirky UK constitutional fact: only the Monarch can call a Parliament together, and no business can take place until the Queen finishes reading.

Now, the proposed programme of Government contained within the Queen’s Speech today was, as ever, a means to signal the direction the Government wishes to head in for the for Parliamentary session. Moreover, it was also a coded message of sorts, covering both the issue of Prime Minister David Cameron’s legacy and the issue of unifying a split Conservative party currently at war over the upcoming referendum on the UK’s membership of the European Union. So what exactly was contained within the Speech? Permit me to enlighten you.

All in all, the Queen’s Speech was of the ‘One Nation’ theme typical of Mr Cameron.  It was a blend of the economic and the social, and touched upon national security concerns and the growing threat of radicalisation within the UK whilst promoting community integration. A total of twenty-one bills were announced, which included:

  • a Prison and Courts Reform Bill to overhaul education in prisons and give more control to governors,
  • an Education for All Bill to force failing local authorities to convert their schools into academies and,
  • a Social Work Bill to help children in care by making the adoption process easier.

Prisoners may be allowed to live at home after spending weekends in jail under plans for a new generation of satellite tags. Satellite tagging will be rolled out for the first time across eight police forces from September, prior to being extended nationwide as part of the biggest redesign of the justice system since the Victorian era. Whilst the Prime Minister thinks the move will ‘revolutionise’ sentencing by enabling prisoners to keep full-time jobs during the week and spend their weekends in custody, it is also likely to lead to a backlash from his Conservative MPs over ‘soft justice’.

Other announcements from the Speech included:

  • Giving two million  British ex-pats the right to vote, although this will come into effect too late for them to take part EU referendum,
  • New measures to promote driverless cars and a British ‘space port’ to launch satellites and passenger ‘space planes’,
  • Enabling the best universities to have the power to charge students more by increasing tuition fees,
  • Non-EU citizens are to be charged for using NHS – which should save £500m a year,
  • Legal right to faster broadband (10mbps),
  • A consultation on bringing sentences for dangerous driving into line with murder, and
  • An extremism bill which will establish sweeping new laws to ban hate speakers from working with children and other vulnerable groups.

The Government’s plan to give ex-pats the right to vote will represent the biggest expansion of the franchise since 1918. Ex-pats are currently barred from voting in the UK if they have lived abroad for more than 15 years.

Now, politics being as it is, the Speech did not solely occupy centre stage for that long. The ink on the Queen’s Speech was scarcely dry when there was talk of rebellion against Government proposals. The Home Secretary Theresa May could soon find herself locked in a battle with her fellow Tory MPs to pass a bill which would permit government bodies to monitor people’s internet use. Such measures feature in the Government’s Investigatory Powers Bill, which overhauls the rules on data collection and agencies’ capabilities, including a requirement for internet companies to hold connection records for a year. The Investigatory Powers Bill is undoubtedly controversial legislation, and quite unpopular, but the Government seems adamant in seeing its provisions implemented. Que sera, sera. (I have previously written about the so-called Snooper’s Charter, should you be so inclined to have a glance.)

Another headline from the day saw previous Cabinet minister, Iain Duncan Smith accusing the Prime Minister of watering-down important elements of the legislative programme in his ‘helter-skelter pursuit of the [EU] referendum’. Among his concerns was scantly detailed or missing proposed bills: missing from the Speech was the Sovereignty Bill, which had been promised after the EU renegotiation deal as a means of bringing power back to the UK (‘bringing power back’ from the ECJ, that is. I despair, truly.) The former Work and Pensions Secretary argued that the Sovereignty Bill was abandoned because it would only serve to draw attention to the failure of Mr Cameron’s secured EU renegotiation deal. Beware the Ides of March indeed.

Speaking of the Sovereignty Bill, there is an interesting theory circulating that the EU referendum may just be behind the mysterious case of the missing legislation. The theory submits that one Boris Johnson’s defection to Camp Leave may have resulted in the proposed legislation being quietly shelved. This actually makes some sense, if you consider the context and background of the proposed bill. After all, the Bill was designed to tackle the powers of the European Court of Justice, and would uphold the sovereignty of UK Parliament. (Every time I hear the words ‘Parliamentary sovereignty’ used in the EU debate, I am fighting the temptation to launch into a constitutional law rant, let me assure you.) The theory claims that the Bill was also meant to reassure Mr Johnson, considering his reservations about the influence of the ECJ. Arguably, Mr Cameron proposed the Bill in an effort to get Mr Johnson on the side. Since Boris opted to campaign for the UK to withdraw from the EU, there has not been any discussion of this bill. I’ll leave you to determine whether this is a coincidence or not, but what I will tell you is that the futility of the whole debacle and superficial nature of the sovereignty exercise was revealed today. If the Government was truly convinced of a need to assert UK Parliamentary sovereignty, the Bill would have been included in the Queen’s Speech.

Regarding scantily-addressed Bills – what else could it be than the widely-heralded and yet ridiculously-delayed UK Bill of Rights? Today only a consultation on proposals was mentioned, apparently to be published in due course. Meaning that we will probably see publication of same around about the time of the next Queen’s Speech. If you recall, the Conservative manifesto from the General Election in 2015 had promised to ‘break the formal link between British courts and the European Court of Human Rights’ and to ensure the UK Supreme Court was the ‘ultimate arbiter of human rights matters’.In an effort to ensure this upholding at rights at domestic level, the party naturally pledged to scrap the Human Rights Act 1998. (Can you ascertain my disdain of this proposal, by any chance?)

The inclusion of proposed social reforms within the Speech is telling. As I previously referenced, Mr Cameron must have his legacy as Prime Minister on his mind, and must hope that social reform will be a central feature of his legacy. I also previously mentioned the upcoming EU referendum; alas even the Queen’s Speech had the shadow of the EU referendum hanging over it. (Note: everything and anything political has the spectre of the EU referendum accompanying it these days. We cannot escape it.)  It is notable, for example, that the flagship justice bill incorporating substantial prison reform comes from Michael Gove, with whom David Cameron’s previously-close relationship has been strained by their opposing views. Moreover, the EU referendum issue and the issue of Mr Cameron’s legacy neatly entwine here: he wishes to be remembered for his social reform, and he has opted to delegate substantial social reform within prisons to Mr Gove. Post-referendum unity within the Conservatives is clearly also on the Prime Minister’s mind. But whilst the prison reforms are designed to empower offenders and give prisoners a chance to get their lives back on track, it remains to be seen whether this, in conjunction with the other planned social reforms will be enough to bring the Conservative party together once more.

Mr Cameron says the Speech came from a ‘progressive, one nation government’. Whether you agree with this description or not, this is the chosen agenda which he will turn to post-referendum in an attempt to unite the Conservative party. Whether it will be sufficient enough, we shall have to wait and see.

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