Miliband unveils alternative Queen's Speech

The Labour leader announces six economic bills that the party would introduce were it in power now.

The recent interventions by Tony Blair and Len McCluskey in the New Statesman shared one thing in common: a desire for Ed Miliband to set out a clearer alternative to the coalition's programme. Today, during a local election campaign appearance in Newcastle, Miliband will attempt to do that when he announces six economic bills that Labour would introduce in next week's Queen's Speech were it in power. They include a housing bill, a finance bill, a consumers bill (focused on energy, transport and pensions), a jobs bill, a banking bill and an immigration bill. 

The bills do not feature any new policies but do bring together those measures previously announced by the party, such as a reintroduced 10p tax rate funded by a mansion tax, a temporary VAT cut, a one year national insurance holiday for small firms, a jobs guarantee for every adult out of work for more than two years and every young person out of work for more than a year, the creation of a British Investment Bank and the introduction of a national register of landlords.

But while the alternative Queen's Speech is a reminder of how much policy has Miliband unveiled to date (his chief strategist Stewart Wood has commented: "We’ve got more policy proposals than almost any other opposition I can think of...And can you name a single policy Cameron had before his election campaign?") it will not lessen the pressure on him to say what Labour would do in 2015, rather than merely if it were in power now. In response, Miliband and Ed Balls rightly point out that the volatility of the economy - the government is borrowing £245bn more than expected in 2010 and the economy has grown by just 1.1 per cent, 4.9 per cent less than expected - means it would be irresponsible to make cast-iron pledges at this stage. But with just two years to go to the general election and Labour's poll lead looking increasingly soft, this stance will become ever harder to maintain. 

Here are full details of the six bills Labour would introduce. 

Housing Bill

Problem:

· The housing market has changes significantly in recent years. There are now 3.8 million households in the private rented sector, including more than one million with children.

· Many are being ripped off through hidden fees, which are costing tenants £76m per year.

· More than a third of all privately rented homes are not up to decent standards, with more than 15 per cent lacking minimal heat in winter.

The Bill would:

· Introduce a national register of landlords, to allow local authorities to root out and strike off rogue landlords, including those who pack people into overcrowded accommodation.

· Tackle rip-off letting agents, ending the confusing, inconsistent fees and charges.

· Seek to give greater security to families who rent and remove the barriers that stand in the way of longer term tenancies.

Finance Bill

Problem:

· Since the government’s Spending Review in the fourth quarter of 2010, the UK economy has grown by just 1.1 per cent – compared to the 6 per cent forecast by the Office for Budget Responsibility at the time.

· The lack of growth means that the Government is now borrowing £245bn more than they planned.

· Prices are rising faster than wages and people are now £1,700 a year worse off than they were in May 2010.

The Bill would:

· Reintroduce a 10p rate of income tax, paid for by taxing mansions worth over £2m.

· Stop the cut to the 50p rate of income tax for those on the highest incomes to reverse cuts to tax credits.

· Reverse the Tory-led government's damaging VAT rise now for a temporary period - a £450 boost for a couple with children.

· Provide a one year cut in VAT to 5% on home improvements, repairs and maintenance - to help homeowners and small businesses

· Put in place a one year national insurance tax break for every small firm which takes on extra workers - helping small businesses to grow and create jobs

Consumers Bill

Problem:

· Families are facing record fuel bills while energy companies are enjoying huge profits. Since the election average energy bills are £300 a year higher.

· Rail fares are rising by up to 9 per cent a year, after the Government gave back to private train operators the ability to increase some fares by up to another 5 per cent above the fare increase ‘cap’.

· Upon retirement a pensioner can discover that up to almost half the value of their pension fund has been wiped out by hidden costs and charges.

The Bill would:

Energy:

· Abolish Ofgem and create a tough new energy watchdog with the power to force energy suppliers to pass on price cuts when the cost of wholesale energy falls

· Require the energy companies to pool the power they generate and to make it available to any retailer, to open the market and to put downward pressure on prices

· Force energy companies to put all over-75s on their cheapest tariff helping those benefiting to save up to £200 per year

Train

· Apply strict caps on fare rises on every route, and remove the right for train companies to vary regulated fares by up to 5 per cent above the average change in regulated fares.

· Introduce a new legal right for passengers to the cheapest ticket for their journey.

Pensions:

· Tackle the worst offending pension schemes by capping their charges at a maximum of 1 per cent;

· Amend legislation and regulation to force all pension funds to offer the same simple transparent charging structure so that consumers know the price they will be paying before they choose a particular scheme;

Jobs Bill

Problem

· There are nearly 1 million young people out of work.

· The number of people out of work for two years is half a million – the highest since the end of the last Tory Government in May 1997.

· Since David Cameron became Prime Minister, the number of unemployed people has risen.

The Bill would:

· Introduce a Compulsory Jobs Guarantee, a paid job for every adult who is out of work for more than two years. People would have to take up those jobs or lose benefits. The £1 billion costs can be funded by reversing the government’s decision to stop tax relief on pension contributions for people earning over £150,000 being limited to 20 per cent

· Guarantee a 6 month paid job for all young people out of work for over a year, paid for by a bank bonus tax. Those offered a job would be required to take it.

· Require large firms getting government contracts to have an active apprenticeships scheme that ensures opportunities to work for the next generation.

Banking Bill

Problem

· Lending to businesses is falling month on month, including a fall of £4.8bn in the three months to February according to the latest Bank of England figures.

· The Government’s schemes, such as the Merlin deal, the National Loan Guarantee Scheme and the Funding for Lending Scheme have all failed to help businesses.

· The Treasury has allocated just £300m in funding to their Business Bank, which isn’t a real bank, is staffed by BIS civil servants and is still not up and running.

The Bill would:

. Create a real British Investment Bank on a statutory basis, at arms length from government and with proper financing powers to operate like a bank.

. Set out that one of its purposes is to support small and medium sized businesses, including across the regions of the UK through regional banks.

. Provide a general backstop power so that if there is not genuine culture change from the banks they can be broken up.

. Put in place a Code of Conduct for bankers so that those who break the rules are struck off.

. Toughen the criminal sanctions against those involved in financial crime.

Immigration Bill

Problem

. In certain sectors there is evidence that workers, particularly migrant workers, are being exploited by being paid less than the minimum wage. A recent Kings College study found that between 150,000 and 220,000 care workers are paid less than the minimum wage.

. Enforcement is weak. There has not been a single prosecution for non-payment of the National Minimum Wage in the last two years.

The Bill would:

· Double the fines for breaching the National Minimum Wage (NMW) and give local councils the power to take enforcement action over the NMW

· Extend the Gangmasters Licensing Authority to other sectors where abuse is taking place.

· Change NMW regulations to stop employers providing overcrowded and unsuitable tied accommodation and offsetting it against workers’ pay.

Ed Miliband delivers a stump speech in Worcester town centre on April 25, 2013. Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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Who is the EU's chief Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier?

The former French foreign minister has shown signs that he will play hardball in negotiations.

The European Commission’s chief Brexit negotiator today set an October 2018 deadline for the terms of Britain’s divorce from the European Union to be agreed. Michel Barnier gave his first press conference since being appointed to head up what will be tough talks between the EU and UK.

Speaking in Brussels, he warned that UK-EU relations had entered “uncharted waters”. He used the conference to effectively shorten the time period for negotiations under Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty, the legal process to take Britain out of the EU. The article sets out a two year period for a country to leave the bloc.

But Barnier, 65, warned that the period of actual negotiations would be shorter than two years and there would be less than 18 months to agree Brexit.  If the terms were set in October 2018, there would be five months for the European Parliament, European Council and UK Parliament to approve the deal before a March 2019 Brexit.

But who is the urbane Frenchman who was handpicked by Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker to steer the talks?

A centre-right career politician, Barnier is a member of the pan-EU European People’s Party, like Juncker and German Chancellor Angela Merkel.

A committed European and architect of closer eurozone banking integration, Barnier rose to prominence after being elected aged just 27 to the French National Assembly.  He is notorious in Brussels for his repeated references to the 1992 Winter Olympics he organised in Albertville with triple Olympic ski champion Jean-Claude Killy.

He first joined the French cabinet in 1993 as minister of the environment. In 1995, Jacques Chirac made him Secretary of State for European Affairs, teeing up a long and close relationship with Brussels.

Barnier has twice served as France’s European Commissioner, under the administrations of Romano Prodi and José Manuel BarrosoMost recently he was serving as an unpaid special advisor on European Defence Policy to Juncker until the former prime minister of Luxembourg made him Brexit boss.“I wanted an experienced politician for this difficult job,” Juncker said at the time of Barnier, who has supported moves towards an EU army.

 

Barnier and the Brits

Barnier’s appointment was controversial. Under Barroso, he was Internal Market commissioner. Responsible for financial services legislation at the height of the crisis, he clashed with the City of London.

During this period he was memorably described as a man who, in a hall of mirrors, would stop and check his reflection in every one.

Although his battles with London’s bankers were often exaggerated, the choice of Barnier was described as an “act of war” by some British journalists and was greeted with undisguised glee by Brussels europhiles.

Barnier moved to calm those fears today. At the press conference, he said, “I was 20 years old, a very long time ago, when I voted for the first time and it was in the French referendum on the accession of the UK to the EU.

“That time I campaigned for a yes vote. And I still think today that I made right choice.”

But Barnier, seen by some as aloof and arrogant, also showed a mischievous side.  It was reported during Theresa May’s first visit to Brussels as prime minister that he was demanding that all the Brexit talks be conducted in French.

While Barnier does speak English, he is far more comfortable talking in his native French. But the story, since denied, was seen as a snub to the notoriously monolingual Brits.

The long lens photo of a British Brexit strategy note that warned the EU team was “very French” may also have been on his mind as he took the podium in Brussels today.

Barnier asked, “In French or in English?” to laughter from the press.

He switched between English and French in his opening remarks but only answered questions in French, using translation to ensure he understood the questions.

Since his appointment Barnier has posted a series of tweets which could be seen as poking fun at Brexit. On a tour of Croatia to discuss the negotiations, he posed outside Zagreb’s Museum of Broken Relationships asking, “Guess where we are today?”

 

 

He also tweeted a picture of himself drinking prosecco after Boris Johnson sparked ridicule by telling an Italian economics minister his country would have to offer the UK tariff-free trade to sell the drink in Britain.

But Barnier can also be tough. He forced through laws to regulate every financial sector, 40 pieces of legislation in four years, when he was internal market commissioner, in the face of sustained opposition from industry and some governments.

He warned today, "Being a member of the EU comes with rights and benefits. Third countries [the UK] can never have the same rights and benefits since they are not subject to same obligations.”

On the possibility of Britain curbing free movement of EU citizens and keeping access to the single market, he was unequivocal.

“The single market and four freedoms are indivisible. Cherry-picking is not an option,” he said.

He stressed that his priority in the Brexit negotiations would be the interests of the remaining 27 member states of the European Union, not Britain.

“Unity is the strength of the EU and President Juncker and I are determined to preserve the unity and interest of the EU-27 in the Brexit negotiations.”

In a thinly veiled swipe at the British, again greeted with laughter in the press room, he told reporters, “It is much better to show solidarity than stand alone. I repeat, it is much better to show solidarity than stand alone”.

Referring to the iconic British poster that urged Brits to "Keep Calm and Carry On” during World War Two, he today told reporters, “We are ready. Keep calm and negotiate.”

But Barnier’s calm in the face of the unprecedented challenge to the EU posed by Brexit masks a cold determination to defend the European project at any cost.

James Crisp is the news editor at EurActiv, an online EU news service.