The draft Queen’s Speech can be seen in two, very different, ways. On the one hand, it is a welcome effort to consult the public about the government’s forthcoming legislative proposals. On the other, it is just another opportunity for ministers to launch initiatives at a bored public. Unhelpfully, it could be both.
One, topical, way of judging the collection of new laws is to ask what the voters in today’s Crewe & Nantwich by-election might make of them. Would they, for instance, be impressed by the sub-set of Home Office and Ministry of Justice bills, committing the government to tighten airport security, to strengthen powers to allow scrutiny of people’s use of the internet and to reform immigration laws? There will also be a crime reduction bill.
The difficulty with such proposals is that, after 11 years in power, the need for them itself suggests the government has fallen behind the curve. Much the same could be said of ‘after the horse has bolted’ banking reforms. In fairness, no one can expect a government to predict every problem that might affect the country. But issues such as terrorism, the use of the internet and crime reduction have been the subject of repeated legislation. Yet Parliament will be asked to ‘try again’ in November.
The presence in the draft Queen’s Speech of legislation to allow councils to set a business rate supplement is a reminder of how limited the response to the Lyons Inquiry has been. The new power will make it possible to raise only half the maximum suggested by Lyons. It is unlikely to have gone forward at all if it were not for London’s Crossrail. Proposals for strengthening police accountability are, perhaps predictably, unclear: the government may choose to give councillors more responsibility or, alternatively, move to directly elected chief constables.
NHS reform will involve a constitution that will give patients rights and responsibilities, plus new arrangements to provide incentives for improved hospital performance. There is no move towards local accountability. Empowerment will be achieved by shifting power to local voters, though it will be necessary to await a green paper about precise details. Indeed, the draft Queen’s Speech seems to have announced several new bills well in advance of any real certainty about their purposes or detailed contents.
Being consulted is perfectly acceptable if the government has developed proposals about what it wishes to achieve. The prime minister has regularly been accused of not having a clear narrative of what his government is attempting to do: what is the big picture? The draft Queen’s Speech, sadly, does not take us much further towards understanding the government’s wider purposes.
The next Parliamentary session will be the last full one before the general election. Time is running out for New Labour.