This year’s Queen’s Speech sets out the government’s programme for the coming year. Of course, that programme has the potential to be blown off course quite enormously by the EU referendum in little over a month. If we vote to leave, David Cameron would likely be forced to resign before long if not instantly, and the programme of a different Prime Minister would doubtless look different.
But aside from that rather enormous potential obstacle, every government faces vicissitudes of a sort: internal party disagreements, pressure from the opposition, in the Commons and especially in the House of Lords, and external events forcing changes of tone, emphasis and even direction. So, even if Remain wins and David Cameron becomes Prime Minister, some of the stuff announced today just won’t happen, right? Wrong. Well, broadly wrong.
I took a look at how the legislation announced in last year’s Queen’s Speech has fared to get an idea. Most of the legislation that the government told Her Majesty to tell the government to do actually has passed into law. Some of the legislation was changed, albeit to varying extents, but very few pieces of legislation have just not happened.
Let’s take them roughly in the same order as the Queen did last year. First was the Full Employment and Welfare Bill, legislation which the Queen said would “help achieve full employment and provide more people with the security of a job”. This included controversial cuts to tax credits, which George Osborne later reversed. Still, it became the Welfare Reform and Work Act, which froze a series of benefits and lowered the overall benefit cap.
Next was the Enterprise Bill, to “to reduce regulation on small businesses so they can create jobs”. This included plans to devolve the power to extend Sunday trading hours to local authorities in England and Wales, which even after being watered down were voted down in the Commons. Nevertheless, it became the Enterprise Act, retaining a fairly non-controversial set of measures including boosts to apprenticeships and establishing a commissioner to help small businesses.
Then the Finance Bill, “to ensure people working 30 hours a week on the national minimum wage do not pay income tax, and to ensure there are no rises in income tax rates, value-added tax or national insurance for the next five years”. This was essentially the five-year tax lock that the Conservatives promised in the heat of a general election campaign and probably expected to barter away in a coalition agreement. This lock comfortably made its way into law partly through the Budget process and partly in the National Insurance Contributions (Rate Ceilings) Act.
Then a Childcare Bill, which the Queen said would “help working people by greatly increasing the provision of free childcare”. A Childcare Act extending the entitlement to free childcare to 30 hours a week for three and four year olds made it into law in March, after some minor tinkering from the Lords.
Her Majesty’s next announcement proved more controversial. Even the Queen’s brief précis of the Housing Bill located probably its most controversial feature: that it would “give housing association tenants the chance to own their own home.” The Bill suffered a series of defeats in the Lords, moderating the generosity of the starter homes scheme, and enabling local authorities to retain the proceeds of council house sales rather than sending them to the Treasury. But the extension of right to buy to housing association tenants became law as the Housing and Planning Act earlier this month.
Similarly controversial was the Trades Union Bill, which sought to introduce a 50 per cent threshold for strike ballot turnout, and introduce an opt-in process for unions’ political funds. Under fire from Labour and the House of Lords, the government agreed to a delay in changes to political funding and to review the possibility of online voting for strike ballots. But despite those and a few other concessions, much of the original legislation made it onto the statute book as the Trades Union Act.
The Psychoactive Substances Bill attracted attention on the day of last year’s speech because it meant that our geriatric hereditary monarch said the word “psychoactive” while sitting on a throne in the House of Lords. Quickly, though, attention turned to the government’s difficulties defining what the psychoactive substances they planned to ban were. Nevertheless, it made it into law – though the planned date for the legislation to come into force in April was shelved, with a new date still elusive.
The Energy Bill attracted some attention from Labour in both houses for closing the Renewable Obligation subsidy earlier than planned, but nevertheless happened and is now the Energy Act. You could tell a similar story about the Immigration Bill (now the Immigration Act) and the Education and Adoption Bill (now the Education and Adoption Act). Likewise the Cities and Local Government Devolution Bill (now Act), which provides for the election of mayors to new city regions and combined authorities, had a fairly easy ride to completion, as did the Armed Forces Act.
The Scotland Bill, which implemented the proposals of the Smith Commission on further devolution, passed the Commons unopposed in March and became the Scotland Act; the Northern Ireland Bill, which enhanced the provisions for investigations into unsolved Troubles-related deaths, became the Northern Ireland (Stormont House Agreement and Implementation Plan) Act.
Oh, and the EU Referendum Bill was passed. In case you hadn’t noticed.
The remainder of last year’s Queen’s Speech has not happened yet. But the legislation is still in the pipeline. The Extremism Bill, which would enshrine the government’s counter-terrorism strategy and introduce a new power for the Home Secretary to ban extremist groups, is undergoing pre-legislative scrutiny.
The Policing and Crime Bill, encompassing a range of disparate reforms to the police, is at report stage in the Commons. The Investigatory Powers Bill (the so-called ‘Snooper’s Charter’) was published as a draft bill and is undergoing scrutiny by a parliamentary joint committee, although aspects of the bill relating to bulk datasets came into force prior to the legislative process. The Wales Bill and Public Services Ombudsman Bill have also been published in draft form.
This may seem a dry run-down of legislation. That is, after all, what it is. But it’s important. The first lesson is that though the government has been preoccupied by the EU referendum and the consequent Tory splits, it has broadly done what it promised to do a year ago. There were unexpected additions, such as the higher minimum wage for over-25s.
Yes, the government has a slim majority, and a determined opposition, which both make it susceptible to concessions. But concessions are just that: concessions. The government, via the Queen, promised last year to divert the country in a more Conservative direction across a range of arenas. It has done just that. There will be more concessions and more rebellions over the coming year. Again, though, the country will become a more Conservative place.