On Wednesday morning the Queen addressed Parliament and set out the incoming Government’s legislative programme.
The Sovereign’s short address most notably avoided any direct reference to legislation to repeal the Human Rights Act 1998, with the carefully-worded text saying instead that the Government “will bring forward proposals for a British Bill of Rights”. Otherwise, the speech made reference to some to 21 forthcoming Bills (not all of which are covered here). The brevity of the Speech contrasts with the lengthy background briefing material – 103 pages – released by Number 10.
Economic and constitutional issues dominate the Government’s programme. The first paragraphs of the Speech inevitably referred the Government’s “long term plan” for the economy. There is to be a Full Employment and Welfare Benefits Bill, as well as a new Enterprise Bill. The former will reduce the annual benefits cap to £23,000. The latter had been trailed by the new Business Secretary Sajid Javid in a speech on 19th May and is said to be a further deregulatory measure, aimed at cutting the costs of red tape by £10bn. Mr Javid said that the new legislation will cover “independent regulators”, but what that means, and which regulators could be brought with scope, is far from clear. The aim of the proposed Enterprise Bill does, however, strongly echo the last Queen’s Speech under a majority Conservative administration. It was delivered in October 1996 and sought, among its other objectives, to “promote fewer, better and simpler regulations to reduce unnecessary burdens on business”.
There will be legislation to prevent any “rises in income tax rates, value added tax or National Insurance for the next five years.” This precise formulation would, however, appear to allow for changes in the scope of these taxes as well as increases in other taxes, should economic circumstances necessitate so doing.
Some of the most politically sensitive matters involve the UK’s constitution. There will be a Bill to provide for an in-out referendum, before the end of 2017, on membership of the EU. It remains to be seen whether, given the experience of the referendum on Scottish independence, the question here might be phrased so that supporting the status quo would be the “Yes” option.
The Conservative manifesto commitment to legislate to “scrap Labour’s Human Rights Act” has been none-too-subtly watered down to “bring forward proposals for a British Bill of Rights”. This very probably means that there will be at least one round of wide consultation on how to implement the manifesto pledge.
It would seem quite likely that Ministers – including the new Lord Chancellor and Secretary of State for Justice, Michael Gove MP, who will be charged with delivering the British Bill of Rights – may have realised fairly quickly after the election that the bold commitment to ditch the HRA is far more complicated to deliver in practice than by a simple Bill to repeal it. For example, the HRA is woven into the current devolutional settlements in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland (where the Good Friday Agreement of 1998 notably includes an obligation that: “The British Government [sic] will complete incorporation into Northern Ireland law of the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR), with direct access to the courts, and remedies for breach of the Convention, including power for the courts to overrule Assembly legislation on grounds of inconsistency.”).
There are to be three separate Bills for each of the smaller devolved parts of the UK, in order “to secure a strong and lasting constitutional settlement”. The question of English votes for English laws will also be addressed and is covered by a reference in the speech to “changes to the Standing Orders of the House of Commons”, aimed at requiring that decisions affecting England should be taken by a majority of English MPs.
There is to be legislation in England to ensure that 30 hours of free childcare per week is provided, for 38 weeks of the year, to working parents of three and four year olds. The ‘right to buy’ will be extended to tenants of housing associations. Further powers of intervention in sub-standard schools will be set out in an Education and Adoption Bill, including proposals to turn more schools into academies. Local government arrangements in some English cities will be reformed to provide, according the Speech itself, for “elected metro mayors, helping to build a Northern powerhouse.” [This may be the first time that the Queen has used that particular phrase.]
The Speech refers to measures aimed at putting the NHS on a seven-day footing and at integrating health and social care. There will also be legislation about investigatory powers, the detail of which may require some further scrutiny in due course.
There is no reference in the Speech or the background material to any specific civil justice measures nor is there any reference to the draft Riot Compensation Bill that was published by the Home Office in early March this year.
The vulpine population will remain at large for the time being at least. The Speech does not mention the proposed free vote on repealing the Hunting Act 2004, which prohibits the hunting of foxes with hounds. That said, the Environment Secretary has promised a vote on this issue by 2020. It remains to be seen whether the new administration finds it easier to overturn this legislation from the Blair era than it does to bring an end to the Human Rights Act.
About the Author
Alistair Kinley is BLM’s Director of Policy & Government Affairs.
Alistair is responsible for BLM’s engagement with government departments and regulators on policy and public affairs issues and consultations affecting the firm and its customers. He coordinated BLM’s market-facing activities in connection with the Insurance Act 2015 and the consultations which preceded its publication and introduction in Parliament.
He is a member of the Civil Justice Council (CJC), a regular speaker and experienced commentator on legal and procedural reforms and was a contributing editor to the Law Society’s Litigation Funding Handbook (September 2014).