Queen's speech preview
- 29 May 2014
- From the section UK Politics
It's the final year of Britain's first fixed-term Parliament - and nobody quite knows how the novel experience of knowing when the next polling day will be will affect the conduct of business in Westminster.
It used to be that final sessions of a Parliament were short, if not necessarily sweet, affairs, with a Queen's Speech in November designed as re-election bait, followed by an election the following May.
That didn't leave time for any but the most essential legislation, and MPs would spend their time speculating about when the PM would drive to the Palace and seek a dissolution of Parliament.
This time round, the Queen's Speech will be the product of two parties who'll soon be fighting each other at the polls. And there will be the best part of a year to pass the measures it contains. As usual there are plenty of hints about possible bills - but only a few of them look capable of creating any real political heat.
Its backers had hoped the Modern Slavery Bill would have had its Second Reading debate before the end of the 2013-14 session, but it was not to be. The idea of new legislation to tackle the activities of 21st century slave-masters and people traffickers and protect their victims, had been pressed by an extremely active and effective All-Party Parliamentary Group.
A high-powered committee of MPs and Peers headed by Labour backbencher Frank Field recommended some considerable beefing-up of a draft bill published by the Government - and much will depend on the Home Secretary's response to their report.
Without a specific route or site affecting specific people and communities, the mooted Infrastructure and Shale Gas Bill probably won't trump HS2 for controversy - but its contents could spawn a whole family of HS2-style rows, across a wide swathe of the country.
It is expected to bring together separate proposals on fracking, roads and planning, making it easier, for example, for fracking companies to drill to find shale gas, without landowner permission, without breaking trespassing laws, and in return for only modest compensation.
The bill would also transform the Highways Agency, giving the current quango a structure similar to that of Network Rail. The plan was devised after the coalition shied away from a radical proposal to privatise the motorway network and trunk roads, which was dropped after concerns from Lib Dem ministers and senior mandarins.
It may also include measures to speed up planning for major infrastructure schemes, including a reduction in pre-application consultation and making it easier to change a project already in progress. (I'm assuming this Bill covers England and Wales.)
One of the most sensitive offerings within the Westminster village will be any Recall of MPs Bill.
Under the existing system, the current Parliament has, so far, seen the departure of MPs Eric Illsley, Denis MacShane and Patrick Mercer - plus Phil Woolas who was removed via the election court. But there is still pressure to give aggrieved voters some means of acting directly against MPs where they are thought to have misbehaved. A system to do this, Recall, operates in several US states, where a big enough petition by voters can unseat an elected official and trigger a new vote.
Recall was promised in the 2010 Coalition Agreement but has failed to materialise. But giving voters the right of recall in the event that their MP became involved in serious wrong-doing has raised some complicated issues - especially around how a recall might be triggered.
The proposals prepared by Nick Clegg, the Deputy Prime Minister, would have made the Parliamentary Standards Committee, the Commons in-house ethics watchdog, the gatekeeper of the process; they would, in effect be able to declare an MP "recallable". And constituents would then vote on whether to sack them.
The thinking was that an open process which allowed any MP to be challenged, for any reason, at any time, could easily be abused. Imagine a multi-millionaire with a bee in their bonnet being able to target MPs with well-funded campaigns - MPs can imagine it all too easily.
Recall radicals retort that a process controlled by MPs is effectively controlled by party whips and will therefore not be trusted by the public. They want a recall system triggered by a petition which would have to be signed by a healthy proportion of voters in the constituency concerned - a big enough percentage to ensure that there would have to be a real issue behind any recall attempt.
There has been a certain amount of Coalition pushing and shoving over the issue - in February the Lib Dems were accusing the Conservatives of foot-dragging but on April 8th, the Leader of the Commons, Andrew Lansley, dropped a broad hint that Recall would be in the Coalition's final Queen's Speech: "I cannot anticipate the contents of the Queen's Speech and the future legislative programme, but the House will know that, as indicated in the Coalition Programme, the Government remain committed to the implementation of a system of recall, and we continue to look forward to introducing proposals in that respect."
On this issue the key figure is the Conservative backbencher Zac Goldsmith, who has warned that a Recall Bill on the lines originally proposed will face a barrage of amendments, to rewrite it according to his views.
Meanwhile there's another anxiety; if the bill attempts to provide a statutory definition of what constitutes "serious misconduct," it will inevitably mean that the Courts will become involved in determining whether someone should remain an MP, because sooner or later someone is bound to challenge a Standards Committee ruling that some action does, or does not meet that threshold.
In the wake of the recent clutch of hospital and care home scandals, the government may decide to pick up the draft bill recently drafted by the Law Commission on the Regulation of Health and Social Care Professionals, either for actual legislation or, as predicted in the health committee's report on its accountability hearing with the General Medical Council pre-legislative scrutiny.
The report has been welcomed by most of the main professional bodies, including the Nursing and Midwifery Council, the Royal College of Midwives, the General Osteopathic Council and the GMC, whose chief executive, Niall Dickson, urged the government to include the Bill, adding: "If this Bill does not pass before the General Election in 2015, it will be a significant missed opportunity".
Not everyone was convinced, however.
The Professional Standards Authority for Health and Social Care, which oversees the statutory bodies regulating health and social care professionals (ie the regulators' regulator) was more sceptical, calling the proposals a "backwards step for public protection" and warning that some of the proposals would make it harder to protect patients from misconduct, would allow the regulators to settle some cases in secret, reduce public involvement in decisions and limit the authority's powers of appeal. (This may be an England-only Bill)
With only a limited amount of cutting-edge legislation to play with, the Private Members Bill process may fill the controversy vacuum.
I've already blogged about the prospect of a second bash at an EU Referendum Bill by this means, and over in the Lords, the former Lord Chancellor, Lord Falconer, looks set to offer an Assisted Dying Bill, which will be presented for First Reading (a purely formal presentation, with no debate) in the House of Lords on Thursday June 4th.
The bill - another rerun of a previous attempt - seeks to legalise the choice of assisted dying for terminally ill adults with six months or less to live. It should have sufficient time to be fully debated at Second Reading, probably in July, and considered in Committee.
And of course there are the last session's loose ends; the six bills carried over into this parliamentary year. The Finance Bill, the Consumer Rights Bill, the Deregulation Bill, the Wales and the Criminal Justice and Courts Bill will all be polished off, with their remaining Commons Stages dealt with in June and July, so they would probably clear the Lords by Christmas.
The last of these may see an interesting battle over knife crime, with amendments down from the Conservative backbencher Nick de Bois, calling for mandatory imprisonment for the second offence of possession of a knife for adults and juveniles.
The sixth Bill outstanding is the HS2 Bill - where the tortuous hybrid bill Committee Stage process looks set to extend beyond the next election.