THE content of yesterday’s Queen’s Speech points up the limits of a timid government tied in partnership, writes Bill Jamieson
It is a grand occasion. Yet in key respects the Queen’s Speech is both a resonant celebration of the strengths of our parliamentary democracy and its weakness. The scarlet robes, the ermine and the flummery bring together Commons and Lords, the monarch and parliament, the constitution and the will of the people in one centuries-old display of ceremonial. It is a telling and timely reminder in a world of transient enthusiasms that our history did not begin yesterday.
But the content rarely lives up to the grandeur. As in the revolving spokes of a wheel, what it is not subtly defines what is. There are legislative changes to everyday life that form part of the government’s legislative programme that were absent from yesterday’s speech, and items which, seemingly effective, may prove difficult, if not impossible, to enforce. And there were items excluded, such as gay marriage legislation and minimum alcohol pricing, where the government does intend to legislate. “Just because something is not in the Queen’s Speech doesn’t mean the government cannot bring it forward as law,” Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt said yesterday. And, he could have added, vice versa.
There is much that is of legislative good intent. There are proposals to introduce a single weekly state pension of £144 to replace the current pension of £107 plus means-tested top-ups; measures to protect consumer rights; plans to exempt employers from having to pay the first £2,000 in national insurance contributions, announced in the March Budget. There will be legislation against out-of-control dangerous dogs (though not as yet former chancellors) and a law to ban the use of wild animals in circuses (backbenchers exempted?).
Yesterday’s performance will be widely seen as thin gruel, a Queen’s Speech lacking in boldness, vigour and resolution. It bears all the hallmarks – and the scars – of a fractious coalition. Plans for data communications legislation (“a snoopers’ charter”) have been dropped, as have proposals for standardised cigarette packaging.
What is not there will certainly overshadow what is. There is no mention of that single most important feature of our constitution: the sovereignty of parliament and, in particular, the growing pressure for a referendum on the UK’s membership of the European Union.
For reasons practical and political – the impossibility of Liberal Democrat support, the impossibility of binding a future government to such a commitment – it may be shrugged off as a necessary casualty. But this position is unsustainable. It is not just the political pressure from Ukip that overshadows Cameron. It is the threat to a constitutional settlement that yesterday was meant to define. Sovereignty is the living heart of a democracy. The more it is eroded and the longer it is diminished, the more the pulse will weaken and the breath grow indistinct.
And for many Scots the ceremony will have emphasised an increasing sense of difference. We are making our own way, albeit glacial, in lifestyle legislation such as alcohol minimum pricing and the ban on tobacco displays. This was a reminder less of our unity but of how much we have grown, and are growing, apart, and from a way of doing things that seems outmoded and arcane.
Centre stage in the Queen’s Speech were proposals to announce tougher immigration rules. In the deft euphemism of the spinmeisters: “We want to attract people who will add to our national life, and those who will not should be deterred.” While the speech was written before the dramatic upsurge of Ukip in the English local authority elections, the government clearly wants to respond to public concerns about foreigners “who abuse public services” by introducing tough new laws.
The political pressure on the government is real. The latest YouGov poll shows Ukip at 16 per cent, biting a big chunk from Conservative support. Only 49 per cent of Ukip supporters say Europe is the issue of utmost importance to the country, compared with 90 per cent worried about immigration and 73 per cent with the economy.
The problem is that as the UK government lacks the power to introduce controls at borders itself, it is asking others to do the checking for it.
The Immigration Bill will oblige private housing landlords to check the immigration status of tenants on pain of fines. It sounds plausible. But there are four million households in private rented accommodation across the UK and having to check the immigration status of everyone moving into the rented sector cannot but impose a huge amount of extra red-tape of the type the government has sworn to curb. It will also require a national register of landlords – one does not currently exist.
Business owners and managers will also face “tough action” against those who use illegal labour, including more substantial fines on top of the £10,000 for each illegal worker found to have been hired accidentally, and unlimited fines and imprisonment for “rogue employers knowingly and deliberately using illegal labour”.
The legislation also proposes to regulate migrant access to the NHS, ensuring that temporary migrants “make a contribution”. But distinguishing between temporary and permanent migrants will be a challenge. And GPs may not take kindly to an obligation to check passports to assess the nationality of patients. That, many may say, is a job for the police, not for doctors who have a duty of patient care. And it implies another tier of NHS managers to check the precise immigration status of everyone who uses the health service. Thus, even these limited, “at one remove” controls may struggle to get through parliament.
There are also plans in the Queen’s Speech aimed at making it easier to deport foreign terrorists and illegal entrants. The aim is to make it plain beyond argument to judges what the intent of current legislation is. Given the farcical run-around that Home Secretary Theresa May has repeatedly suffered at the hands of radical cleric Abu Qatada’s lawyers, only the brave would bet on a satisfactory outcome here.
There is another piece of legislation that will cause the Prime Minister grief but which was not in the Queen’s Speech – the Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Bill. This was introduced in January and will be carried into the new parliamentary session. Supporters believe the legislation is safe from mauling in the Lords because there is a liberal-minded majority and, in any event, there is a convention that peers do not block legislation that has been in a party manifesto. But gay marriage has never featured in any Queen’s Speech, let alone an election programme. A mutilated Bill may then return to the Commons where the Prime Minister will be under pressure to knock the changes out. But this would almost certainly require a whipped vote, and Conservative backbenchers may baulk at this.
It is a Queen’s Speech modest in ambition but intended to halt the erosion of government support among voters. Grand may have been the occasion. But the outcome may not be as grand as the government hopes.