The Queen’s Speech – A campaigner’s charter
Image used under creative commons license (Antonin Rémond)
As with every Queen’s Speech, the legislative programme announced at the opening of Parliament is a statement of intent. It doesn’t actually mean that everything that starts its passage through statute will finish up being implemented. Whether it is derailed in the Commons, given Cameron’s wafer thin 12-seat majority, or in the Lords, where a combination of Labour and Liberal Democrat peers could halt, delay or significantly alter legislation – this Queen’s Speech looks like a green light for scores of campaigns seeking the same ends.
As statements of intent go, this Queen’s Speech is nothing if not ambitious. As we expected, the EU Referendum, to be held before the end of 2017, will delight those on the right. Get ready for months and seemingly endless months of polls and studies telling us what we think about Strasbourg’s powers, our confidence in the Euro and the chances for British business outside the Union. But also factor into this equation a growing call from the Scots that, if the UK does vote to leave, they as a country do not support the move and should therefore hold a Scottish Independence referendum before 2020.
Elsewhere this legislative programme is littered with the prospect of many bitter wars of words and fierce lobbying. Trade Unions in particular will mount a vigorous defence of their right to strike. But, as well as introducing a 50% turnout threshold for strike ballots and an even stricter one for strike votes in essential services, it will force union members to opt into political funds, instead of allowing them to be run on an opt-out basis.
The full employment and welfare benefits bill, despite being sold as a commitment to working hard and getting on, appears to be more concerned with lowering the benefits cap meaning families out of work can now receive no more than £23,000 a year. It will also freeze most working age benefits and will be a green light to anti-poverty and inequality campaigners who will claim that child and other forms of poverty will increase whilst the rich get richer. Also on welfare and benefits, youth organisations are likely to ramp up their calls for more support into work for under 25s, rather than punitive measures that appear more stick than carrot. This is because after six months they will have to start an apprenticeship or training to continue to receive any help.
Housing experts and business may also have a field day with the proposals for housing association tenants to be able to purchase their own home. During the Election this policy was roundly criticised as doing nothing – even having an adverse effect – to solve the housing shortage. This may also incur the ire of private renters suffering from cripplingly high costs. Expect a rocky passage for this one.
On transport, the Queen’s Speech reiterates the Government’s commitment to HS2 – or a version of it. Highly controversial in the last parliament – especially for Conservative MPs on the proposed route – HS2 never made it out of the rail yard. This bill has been carried over from the last parliament and there is every reason to believe that, with determined campaigning and the opposition of a new Labour leader, that is where it will remain.
MPs and those who campaign on constitutional matters will also get stuck into the proposed legislation for English Votes for English Laws, which appeared rather hurriedly announced during the Election campaign as an appeal to voters worried at the threat of the SNP. UKIP and some Conservatives opposed the proposals when William Hague announced them, wanting them to go further, whereas others will say that it dilutes the role of our Parliament and actually increases the prospect of Scottish voters wanting a breakaway.
On the repeal of the Human Rights Act, it appears that all that will happen is the publication of a consultation document, Cameron having been frightened off by the prospect of strong opposition from the judiciary and near certain defeat in the Lords. In this respect, campaigners won before the legislation was even out of the blocks.
Everywhere one looks there is reason for strong charity campaigning. MPs, including from Cameron’s own side, will be vulnerable to effective lobbying and media attacks on both the substance of the Government’s agenda and Cameron’s inability to get things done. And we haven’t even mentioned the so-called Snooper’s Charter, the Policing and Criminal Justice Bill and the Extremism Bill.
In addition to all this strife and trouble, a further thorn for the Government is likely to come when George Osborne sets out exactly how he is going to make £12 billion worth of welfare and benefit cuts on 8th July. His Benefits Budget, as it will come to be known, will be the big statement of intent on the character of this Conservative government. With no 50p top rate of tax and no mansion tax, the attack on low paid families, long term unemployed and the disabled is likely to lead to the formation of a new coalition – only this time it will include those both inside and outside Parliament. Which way the new Labour leadership turns will be one to watch. Do they side with much of the media or a mix of SNP, Greens and Plaid. I think one can guess. Nevertheless, a larger group of voluntary sector organisations, all the way from CAB and Gingerbread to the Trussell Trust could collaborate very effectively to make life difficult for the Government.
So, one verdict on this Queen’s Speech is that it is a campaigner’s charter. Cameron’s majority by any standards is tiny. It only takes a handful of Conservatives to blink or be off duty for key votes to be lost. In the Lords where, for once, it is very much worth campaigners focusing their attention there could be significant difficulties just getting bills to the next stage. So, if good advocacy and campaigning can build alliances inside and outside of the palace of Westminster and, with Cameron focused very much on Europe, one can imagine only a small proportion of the programme announced on 27th May 2015 ever reaching the people for whom it was intended.