Jacqui Smith: Is there any point to this year's Queen’s Speech?
VIEW FROM AN EX-MINISTER: The address on 18 May will have as much to do with the everyday business of parliamentary programming as it does with big politics.
Next Wednesday, the Queen will set out from Buckingham Palace to the Palace of Westminster to officially open the next session of parliament. Despite being eligible for a Freedom pass she’ll travel in a splendid horse drawn carriage accompanied by the Household Cavalry providing a spectacle for the crowds who will gather to see her.
Will the political spectacle live up to the royal bling? In my experience, the Queen’s Speech often involves an attempt to retrofit a political theme to a series of bills some of which deliver the key political objectives of government, but many of which are necessary but unlikely to be political headliners. For example, it’s hard to see how legislating on mother’s names on marriage certificates; guardianship; the Chief Executive of the Financial Conduct Authority; or compulsory purchase provisions will stir the country’s political sinews even if they are all worthy of their own day in the legislative sun.
Furthermore, this Queen’s Speech is inevitably overshadowed by the EU referendum campaign. David Cameron apparently toyed with delaying the speech until after the referendum. Given that there is talk of a post referendum reshuffle and there will certainly be a need for the Government to try to bring coherence back to its programme after a bruising ‘blue on blue’ battle during the referendum campaign, that’s understandable. However, the decision to go ahead now supports my view that Queen’s speeches are rarely the best vehicle for a government relaunch. This speech will have as much to do with the everyday business of parliamentary programming as it does with big politics.
So what will we see next Wednesday? The Queen’s speech is not usually a big outing for the Chancellor. Economic policy is a good example of something which is key for the government’s political programme but usually doesn’t need legislation. However, George Osborne’s budget statement foreshadowed several pieces of legislation for the next session. Education secretary Nicky Morgan has already announced the climbdown from the central announcement of his Budget statement – compulsory academies. Is there much left for an Education Bill? There are proposals for a national funding formula although this, like Local Government Funding reform, are the stuff of very lengthy and difficult consultation processes. There is also a commitment to ensuring that vocational choices are put on an equal footing in careers advice. This is important, but not the stuff of great reforming legislation. Perhaps it is in Higher Education that the most interesting reform proposals will emerge.
There could be a Bill to provide a legislative basis for the National Infrastructure Commission. However the more significant development is the likely departure of its energetic leader, Andrew Adonis to work with Sadiq Khan in London. An Energy Bill is needed for smart metering and it has been proposed to use it to ‘promote competition’ in the sector too. Following this week’s anti corruption conference and big talk on tackling tax evasion it would be surprising if this was not also signalled in the Queen’s speech.
A digital economy bill has been promised with a broadband universal service obligation. Business Secretary Sajid Javid has talked about looking at further provisions to lighten the supposed burden of employment law and, ironically, there is nothing government likes better than a Deregulation Bill.
Two months ago, I wrote here that the internal battles over the EU referendum risked making the business of government much more difficult. In particular, the Prime Minister and Michael Gove will need to work together to deliver the interesting proposals for prison reform. This should be a key plank of the Queen’s Speech and I expect it to be announced. Whether the details of the policy have been worked out is another question. The Prime Minister has also claimed that countering extremism will be a key theme for the programme. This will also require close working with another leadership contender, Theresa May. This is important, but difficult public policy. It will not be made easier by the ‘baggage’ in the room when May, Gove and the PM meet to discuss it. And if it gets to Parliament, we can expect the House of Lords to pore over the human rights, privacy and cohesion issues it will throw up.
A few Bills are ‘carried over’ from one session to another. May introduced the Investigatory Powers Bill in the last session and its scrutiny will continue in this session. Given that the early policy thinking on this was going on during my time as Home Secretary, I expect this one to run and run.
The government had previously proposed to legislate to protect whistleblowers in the NHS. However the person appointed as the whistleblowers’ champion by the Care Quality Commission recently quit before properly taking up her post. It may well be that Jeremy Hunt decides that sorting out the junior doctors’ contract and trying to get back to his supposed job of ‘keeping the NHS quiet’ take precedence over any great legislative plans.
Following the spat between the government and the House of Lords over tax credits, Lord Strathclyde was asked to review the relationships between the two Houses of Parliament. His report would probably require legislation – anyone for another run round Lords Reform?
As well as the pomp and ceremony of the Queen’s visit to Parliament, there are other interesting traditions. The Yeoman of the Guard search the Palace cellars – a tradition stemming from Guy Fawkes. A government whip is held at Buckingham Palace as hostage MP until the Queen returns safely. The Queen’s messenger, Black Rod will have the door of the House of Commons slammed in his face as he approaches. Ministers and their Shadows will make rather awkward conversation as they process towards the Lords to hear the Queen. What will David Cameron and Jeremy Corbyn find to talk about? And we are all asking whether Dennis Skinner will revive his tradition of heckling Black Rod when he arrives in the Commons. Previous favourites include ‘New Labour, new Black Rod’ in 1997 and ‘is Helen Mirren on standby’ in 2006 following the release of the film, ‘The Queen’. Last year, he claimed to be too tired as he’d had to get up early to prevent the SNP taking his usual seat. I hope he’s got his mojo back this year.
Jacqui Smith is former home secretary and chair of the public affairs practice at Westbourne Communications.
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