The Queen today unveiled the Government’s legislative programme for the year ahead. Anyone who hoped that UK politics might be quieter and less fractious after the high drama and histrionics of the EU Referendum debate will be sorely disappointed – the Government intends to try to steer a number of deeply contentious bills through Parliament. Top of the controversy list will be the long-anticipated British Bill of Rights – a Conservative manifesto commitment to give UK lawmakers sovereignty over EU law when it comes to human rights. This legislation divides opinion profoundly, even amongst Conservatives. If it removes the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR) from UK law, it will invoke the ire of civil liberties campaigners and could imperil UK membership of the EU (regardless of how the Referendum goes). However, if – as rumoured in the press this week – the new Bill still incorporates the ECHR then Cameron will face a rough ride from his own Eurosceptic backbenches as presaged by a recent warning from Iain Duncan Smith. The Higher Education and Research Bill is set to reform the higher education sector and, if it implements the policies set out in the Government’s White Paper (published at the start of this week), could pave the way for an increase in UK tuition fees and provoke opposition not just from Labour but also protests by students. The NHS (Overseas Visitors Charging) Bill aims to do just that – charge overseas visitors for any treatment they receive whilst visiting the UK. This Bill is also likely to provoke fierce debate and is unlikely to endear the UK to our overseas partners.
Building on a number of keynote speeches by the Prime Minister earlier this year, the legislative programme was intended to cement the Government’s reputation for social and public service reform (and, cynics might suggest, to set the terms of the Prime Minister’s desired legacy). As well as higher education reform, there was also the Local Growth and Jobs Bill which will allow local councils to retain business rates, a Children and Social Work Bill to facilitate swifter adoption processes, improve standards in social work and opportunities for young people in care, and a National Citizen Service Bill to place National Citizen Service on a permanent statutory footing. The Education for All Bill will pave the way for further academisation but looks likely to stop short of mandating that all schools become academies. The Bill will now only seek to convert schools in poor areas, while setting out a roadmap to all schools becoming academies at some point in the future.
Law and order was also a dominant theme, most notably seen with ambitious plans for prisons reform that will be set out in the Prison and Courts Reform Bill. Older, inefficient prisons will be closed and new ones built that better support work and rehabilitation opportunities for prisoners. Action will also be taken to provide improved mental health provisions for individuals in the criminal justice system. The Queen’s Speech also included an Investigatory Powers Bill which is likely to include ‘snooping’ measures that will incense the civil liberties lobby, and a Policing and Crime Bill aimed at improving accountability for police forces in England and Wales. There will also be a Counter-Extremism and Safeguarding Bill to tackle radicalisation which is expected to include a number of far-reaching measures, such as: new powers to protect children and to restrict the activities of fanatics as well as to intervene in unregulated schools which “teach hate” and “drive communities apart”. Vetting rules are expected to be adapted to enable employers to check whether an individual is an extremist and bar them from working with children.
There was also legislation to support the UK’s burgeoning hi-tech economy. The Digital Economy Bill is expected to create the right for every household to access high speed broadband and grant further protection from spam and nuisance marketing, and the Modern Transport Bill will include measures to pave the way for driverless cars and a UK spaceport as well as taking action against drones. The Intellectual Property (Unjustified Threats) Bill is intended to reform the law regarding unjustified threats of infringement proceedings for patents, trade marks and design rights and is designed to support UK efforts to be the best place in Europe for innovation and the patenting of new ideas.
Although this Queen’s Speech included fewer bills than last year (and many of the ‘new’ bills were announced last year but were never introduced), it is likely that the Government will face a tough time to get the full programme onto the statute book. This is not a cautious or timid legislative agenda and, with a majority of just 16, a lot will hinge on how well the Conservative Party reunites in the wake of the EU Referendum and how obstructive the House of Lords chooses to be.