The Queen’s Speech for this session differs from its immediate predecessors in three ways. First, this is likely to be the last full session of this Parliament; second, it will be the first session of any Parliament with the transitional House of Lords; and thirdly it is the first Queen’s Speech post devolution.
On the first, the Government must have been looking for a suitable legislative backcloth for its re-election campaign, and, for reasons I will explain, I believe they have failed. On the second, how the new House will discharge its responsibilities is anybody’s guess – but my view is that the Government may be greatly inconvenienced by frequent displays of independence. The tabling of an amendment to the Queen’s Speech with a view to voting on it is itself an innovation for their Lordships. On the third, the Government should indicate which of the Bills in the Queen’s Speech are UK Bills, and which only apply to England and Wales. Not only would this enable MP’s to focus more clearly on the legislative programme, but it would also reveal that much of the programme only covers England and Wales, highlighting the still unresolved “West Lothian” question.
The Government will find this a difficult Queen’s Speech because many of its measures will cause division and dissent within their own ranks; and because the Bills as a whole do not constitute a clear theme. A bit of re-nationalisation of part of Railtrack, balanced by a bit of privatisation with the Post Office and Air Traffic Control. A bit of de-regulation with the Cabinet Office’s Bill, outweighed by massive new regulation elsewhere. Some liberal Home Office reforms in the Sexual Offences Amendment Bill, with some less liberal measures in a Crime Bill. (Whether the Queens Speech turns out to be tough on crime remains to be seen. But it will certainly be tough on the Home Office, with some 10 separate Bills.)
The dissent and division within the Government’s own ranks will come on the Freedom of Information Bill, seen by many Labour MP’s as a betrayal of the original commitment, and also running into criticism from the Public Administration Select Committee. The abolition of Trial by Jury for some offences; the privatisation measures and possibly the Bill to reform the Child Support Agency may run into trouble with Government supporters. Listening to Government backbenchers on the first day of the debate, I was struck by the numbers warning the Whips they could not rely on their support – warnings which did not all come from the usual suspects.
So the spin-doctors will have to work overtime to sell this as a unifying Queen’s Speech with a clear theme. We have been told that it is green, enterprising, fair, tough on crime – all of which suggests that it is beads with no string. What the voters were hoping for was re-assurance on delivery on key services, but their hopes remained unfulfilled.
As Shadow Leader of the House, I note the ambitious size of the programme. Last year, we had some 18 Bills and the memories of the guillotines and the shambles of the Greater London Authority Bill are still fresh in my mind. Now we have some 28 Bills, many of them contentious, and with the House of Lords navigating in uncharted waters. It may be, in a year’s time, we have the same rush that we saw a fortnight ago. I would have hoped that the Government had learned something from the disarray of the last days of the last Session, but it looks as if they haven’t.
The Opposition is likely to focus on the Transport measures, and depict them as yet further attacks on the motorist, without delivering a sensible package of alternative modes of transport. The Government is clearly sensitive to this criticism, as the pre-Budget statement announced the prospective abandonment of the fuel duty escalator. But if that relief is counter-balanced by fresh imposts, the Government will find themselves back on the defensive on transport.
Despite the number of Bills, the Government have not found time for one of their major Constitutional commitments – a Bill to introduce a Referendum on Proportional Representation. Nor is fox-hunting likely to reach the Statute Book. Not only will the Burns Committee not report until after the last date for second reading of Private Member’s Bills; but the House of Lords is likely to regard the measure as an anti-libertarian one, rather than an Animal Welfare one.
Whatever else the Government say at the next election, they won’t be able to say they delivered all their promises at the last one.