The Queen will open a new session of Parliament next week, on 9th of May. According to press reports the contents of the Queen’s Speech were agreed at a meeting of the Cabinet on 31st January. This is possible, as permission would be required to allow Parliamentary Counsel to draft new Bills which will be introduced in the early part of the next session. However, this is unlikely to have been the only and definitive Cabinet meeting on the subject. Not only because this is a Coalition Government where the legislative programme will be subject to negotiation between the two governing parties, but also the legislative programme and the Queen’s Speech often reflects the changing political mood. Indeed, that mood has significantly changed in the last two to three months.
David Cameron is said to have urged his Cabinet colleagues to ensure that in this Queen’s Speech there is less, but better legislation. He is particularly keen to avoid being accused of further u-turns after difficulties over the NHS reforms, elected police commissioners, forest sales and benefit changes. Peers inflicted eleven defeats on the Government during the passage of the Legal Aid Bill alone, more than any other legislation in recent times. Though, there has been some criticism in and around the House of Commons that Government business managers, in managing its legislative business, have not kept the House fully occupied.
Other press reports have also predicted a “thinner-than-usual” Queen’s Speech – which has been said could be about a dozen Bills – because the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats are “struggling” to agree a legislative programme to keep the coalition in business. Indeed, much of what was agreed in the Coalition Agreement in May 2010 has already been implemented in new legislation, where it was needed. Consequently the Coalition will need to find new common ground. That will start with the new Parliamentary session which is likely to include some measures which are not contained in the 2010 Coalition Agreement. Perhaps more significant will be the new Departmental business and structural reform plans which are expected soon after.
The Queen’s Speech at this point in the political cycle is important as it comes off the back of both mayoral and local elections and, after what has been a difficult two to three months for the Coalition or more particularly, the Conservative Party. And, from May onwards, the politics of getting elected is going to start slowly but surely encroaching again on the politics of governing. The government will begin to run out of time to do new big things and establish new big themes which could make a difference to the way they are perceived when the election finally comes around. This is also possibly the last Parliamentary session where the legislation enacted will have a visible impact upon the Electorate before the General Election in May 2015. But there is also a short term objective in keeping up the morale of backbench MP and party workers in the lead up to the Party Conferences in the autumn.
Therefore you could expect a small number of high profile measures. The press speculation has focused on House of Lords reform, same-sex marriage, the recall of MPs, curbs on executive pay, banking reform and the interception of communications which will, given their political significance within the Coalition Government, be poured over whether or not they are included in the next session.
However, some of these measures may attract significant backbench opposition from both the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats, probably with different targets. Government Ministers from the Conservative side will be cautious to pursue some measures such as international aid, and House of Lords reform ahead of what the British public see as more important legislative matters given the economic downturn. The trouble is addressing economic matters in the short term is not easy to do through legislation.
As usual there is a long shopping list of potential crime and home affairs matters calling for legislation, and as is the norm it is an eclectic range of issues from dangerous dogs, public order legislation to force marriages. In contrast, the legislative possibilities from some quarters of Whitehall, appears to be very light and even non-existent. In part that reflects the heavy duty legislation in the last session, for example, on education and welfare reform. But also reflects that some Conservative Ministers prefer to adopt other means to turn their policies into reality. It is also reflects timing, so for example it is unlikely that the current regulatory review of the communications sector will be speeded up to secure legislation in the next session given the Leveson inquiry and all the politics surrounding that.
In terms of local government, the legislative programme is likely to be less significant than it was in the 2010-2012 session. The Local Government Finance Bill will continue its path through the House, and may be joined by legislative measures on the abolition of the Audit Commission and establishing a local audit framework (at least in draft), changes to the law on adoption, Health and Safety of local community events, the regulation of Park Homes and electoral registration and administration.
However, there are a number of further possible areas where there is uncertainty, at this time, for example we await an overdue action plan on reforms to Special Education Needs and disabled services for children and, a White Paper on Adult Social Care which are both likely to require primary legislative changes. These could still be flagged up in the Queen’s speech; with any legislation introduced towards the middle and end of the session.
Of course, given the wide ranging responsibilities of local government and its interests, the contents of the Queen’s Speech will be significant regardless. We just have to wait and see.
This post is based on a Local Government Information Unit member briefing by Mark Upton, LGIU Associate.
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