Queen's Speech sets out Coalition government's final year agenda

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Friday, June 6, 2014

File:Queen Elizabeth II delivering 2013 Queen's Speech.jpg

Queen Elizabeth II, opening Parliament in a similar event last year.
Image: VOA.
(Image missing from commons: image; log)

Queen Elizabeth II formally reopened Parliament on Wednesday and announced the legislative agenda of the UK government for the final year of the Coalition's five year term. New measures introduced covered crime, the economy, energy and house building.

Business and economy

The next year of legislative changes would, the speech claimed, "deliver on [the government's] long-term plan to build a stronger economy and a fairer society". On economics, it promised the government would continue to lower taxes, produce an updated Charter for Budget Responsibility to "ensure that future governments spend taxpayers’ money responsibly", and continue reduction of the deficit.

On employment law, the Queen's Speech announced reduction in employment tribunal delays and plans to try and "improve the fairness of contracts for low paid workers" — a response to "zero-hours" contracts. The Institute of Directors support reforms to zero-hours contracts, specifically by removing "exclusivity" clauses. The speech also announced the introduction of a "collective pension" system similar to schemes in use in the Netherlands.

The government is also to increase penalties on companies that do not pay employees minimum wage, and reform National Insurance contributions by self-employed people. The government also plans to extend the ISA and Premium Bond savings schemes and abolish the 10% tax rate on savings. The speech also promised more house building, and also to introduce legislation to reduce the use of plastic bags.

Crime and law

The speech announced the government would seek to pass a new Serious Crime Bill "to tackle child neglect, disrupt serious organised crime and strengthen powers to seize the proceeds of crime". Another bill will be introduced to deal with modern slavery and human trafficking and to support victims of these offences. The speech also said the government "will lead efforts to prevent sexual violence in conflict worldwide".

The Serious Crime Bill would also include an increase in the sentence for those who bring about "cyberattacks which result in loss of life, serious illness or injury or serious damage to national security, or a significant risk thereof". Under the Computer Misuse Act 1990, these are currently subject to a ten year prison sentence, but the punishment would now risk imprisonment for life. Punishment for cyberattacks that cause "a significant risk of severe economic or environmental damage or social disruption" would increase from the current ten year maximum tariff to fourteen years.

Jim Killock from the Open Rights Group said existing laws already allow effective prosecution of those engaging in cyberattacks.

The speech also announced legislation would be introduced "to provide that where a person acts heroically, responsibly or for the benefit of others, this will be taken into account by the courts".

Constituents would be able to "recall" an MP who had been found guilty of misconduct under a proposed law that will be debated. The Conservative MP Zac Goldsmith described the current plans as "meaningless" and said voters had been "duped". The Bill would force a by-election if 10% of voters signed a petition within eight weeks, but only if a Commons committee had decided the MP could be recalled. This latter requirement will make it "impossible to recall anyone" according to Goldsmith.

Business minister Michael Fallon defended the recall proposals: "we have to protect MPs from being recalled by people who just disagree with them[...] What you have to ensure is an MP can't be hounded out just because people disagree with them back in their constituency."

Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg said he agreed with Goldsmith the bill was not perfect, and he wanted "a radical California-style recall" system, but he had settled for a "modest" bill to satisfy "Conservative Party resistance". Goldsmith claimed Clegg had been "the architect of the current Recall Bill".

Tim Aker, head of policy for the UK Independence Party, said: "The decision to only offer recall voting on a signed-off-by-Parliament-basis reflects a political class that does not know, does not trust and certainly does not represent its people."

Fracking

Green MP Caroline Lucas spoke in opposition to the government's fracking proposals.
Image: The Health Hotel.

The speech included measures to make it easier for businesses to engage in hydraulic fracturing ("fracking") of shale gas. The Institute of Directors said laws "must be updated if the UK is to enjoy the benefits of our shale potential", specifically by scrapping laws on trespass to allow the gas extraction to occur. The British Chamber of Commerce also support such a reform: "While fracking may be unpalatable to some, it is absolutely essential, and business will support legislative measures to exploit Britain's shale gas deposits". Activists from Greenpeace fenced off Prime Minister David Cameron's home in Oxfordshire with a sign reading "We apologise for any inconvenience while we frack under your home", and delivered a £50 cheque — identified as the maximum compensation suggested for property owners.

Simon Clydedale from Greenpeace UK said of the fracking proposals: "The prime minister is about to auction off over half of Britain to the frackers, including national parks and areas of outstanding natural beauty like the Cotswolds. Fracking won't deliver energy on a meaningful scale for years, if ever, by which time we'll need to have moved away from dirty fossil fuels and towards high-tech clean power if we're to head off dangerous climate change."

Caroline Lucas, Green Party MP, spoke in opposition to the fracking proposals after the Queen's Speech: "Not only does this bill defy public opinion, it denies people a voice. To allow fracking companies to drill under people's homes and land without their permission is to ignore public interest in pursuit of the vested interests of a few." A poll conducted by YouGov found 74% of respondents opposed the plans.

Reaction

Following the Queen's Speech, politicians from all parties debated the direction of the government in the year ahead.

Prime Minister David Cameron said that the Queen's Speech showcased "a packed programme of a busy and radical government", whose "long-term economic plan is working but there is much, much more to do", and it would "take the rest of this Parliament and the next to finish the task of turning our country around".

Labour leader Ed Miliband said: "We would have a Queen's Speech with legislation which would make work pay, reform our banks, freeze energy bills and build homes again in Britain. A Queen's Speech which signals a new direction for Britain, not one which offers more of the same."

Cameron described Miliband as having a "rag bag, pick-and-mix selection of statist Seventies ideas [... a] revival of Michael Foot's policies paid for by Len McCluskey's money" — a reference to controversies surrounding the substantial funding Labour gets from trade union Unite.

Liberal Democrat president Tim Farron said of the Queen's Speech: "I suspect the pensions proposals will be around for a generation or more and will be remembered. It's about making sure they are fairer, cheaper, more secure, more reliable and potentially better for people."

Plaid Cymru MP Elfyn Llwyd said: "This was an uninspired Queen's Speech delivered by a government that has well and truly run out of steam."

Angus Robertson, the leader of the Scottish National Party in Westminster, said the Queen's Speech barely mentioned Scotland: "The absence of any mention at all of the Westminster parties' plans for Scotland in the Queen's Speech is extraordinary. [...] In this – the year of the biggest opportunity in Scotland's history – Scotland hardly even gets a nod at Westminster, and not a single mention of future plans for improving government in Scotland."

The speech made brief mention of Scotland: "My government will continue to implement new financial powers for the Scottish Parliament and make the case for Scotland to remain a part of the United Kingdom."


Sources

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