It's a rather humdrum Queen's Speech for a weird period in the political cycle. With the EU referendum just weeks away, it's admittedly hard for the government to come up with a very thorough legislative programme, because we could be about to enter into a period of unprecedented constitutional change. But aside from the pedestrian proposals on offer, there was the usual litany of vague, meaningless and misleading promises about future law. Here’s the worst of them:
"Protection of children from online pornography by requiring age verification for access to all sites containing pornographic material"
The government keeps on promising this, as if doing so will magically make it happen. The vast majority of pornographic websites are in foreign countries, which the British government has no jurisdiction over. The government plans to get these sites to play ball by putting a burden on the British financial transaction provider to cease operations if they don't put an age verification check on their site. There's just one catch: most of these sites are free, so the financial transaction provider has no power over them.
They do, however, have the power to force British pornography websites to use age verification checks and are setting up a regulator to do exactly that. But they don't seem to know that this was already done, by Atvod, the regulator which they only just finished disbanding when they came up with the new proposals to do what it had already done years ago. Not only does the government not understand the internet, it doesn't seem to understand what it itself has been doing to regulate the internet.
There are other plans being considered, including measures against ad placement companies, withdrawing .co.uk domains, or outright blocking. None of them will prevent teenage boys finding porn if that’s what they want to do.
British bill of rights
Plans to scrap the Human Rights Act and replace it with a British bill of rights have been considered for a long time but they never seem to happen. This time last year, the government was promising quick action but the main change this year seems to be that the language used is even more vague, both in terms of content and timetable
"These rights would be based on those set out in the European Convention on Human Rights, while also taking into account our common law tradition."
It doesn't exactly suggest we're going to see details anytime soon. Rather hilariously, the document then says:
"The government will consult fully on these proposals when they are published in due course."
That 'due course' keeps getting longer and longer.
The government says these plans are to "restore common sense" to British law. But there is no common sense in the proposals. Ministers say they want British courts to be supreme, but that is a problem which does not exist. The supreme court is the supreme court, quite literally. There is no court above it. Strasbourg judgements apply not to the supreme court, but to parliament, which must 'take account' of them. What this entails in practise is a two-way conversation where both parties move towards each other's position.
Ministers have told so many lies about the Strasbourg courts they now have to make the solution to this imaginary problem fit a very real legal and constitutional landscape. They are trying to square a circle. It's not possible, which is why the plans are always promised and never delivered.
The government announced plans for a "new civil order regime to restrict extremist activity", which is not dissimilar to actions against extremists they promised last year. There’s just one hitch: they still can’t define what an extremist is.
This used to be easy: it was anyone who promoted political or religious violence or supported proscribed terrorist groups. But Cameron has grown increasingly keen to crack down on non-violent extremism too. And that's where he runs into trouble. After eight months of trying, civil servants have been unable to come up with a legal definition which would survive a minute in court. The first set of ideas – "vocal or active opposition to fundamental British values" – were scrapped because they were too broad to be legally useful. Other rewrites, for instance about respecting diversity, seem to outlaw conservative religious figures.
Ahead of the Queen's Speech, the Evangelical Alliance warned that "the definitions are so broad there could be many unforeseen consequences to fundamental freedoms in our plural multi-faith society". To come up with proposals for criminalising something you can't define is becoming a hallmark of this government. In this case it threatens to outlaw conservative religious thought.
A section on the investigatory powers bill assures the public that they are creating "enhanced authorisation and oversight arrangements" for surveillance law in the digital age.
In actual fact, the bill does the precise opposite. Page 254 allows police to search for digital information about you without having to ask anyone except for an authorised fellow policeman: no judges, no ministers, no oversight whatsoever, except for a sample of authorisations somewhere down the line sent to the investigatory powers commissioner for an audit. It'll be against the law for anyone to tell you that the police are searching for details on you.
Whatever else it is, it is not "enhanced authorisation and oversight".