A Queen’s Speech preparing for coalition carnage
It's an exceptionally light, boring Queen's Speech this year. Which perversely, given the chaos to come, makes it one of this government's best.
Not that any departmental spinner would ever put it in such terms. Ask any minister you bump into in the Commons what the thrust of the Speech is and they will explain, without batting an eyelid, that this is all about the economy. David Cameron and Nick Clegg declare in the blurb accompanying the Speech that it's "unashamedly pro-work, pro-business and pro-aspiration". This sounds good and will make the headlines. But it ignores two things. Most of the announcements about national insurance contributions, pensions, childcare and a transferable marriage tax allowance were originally made in the Budget. Secondly, the truth of this year's legislative package is that it isn't really about anything much at all.
This was to be expected. It's the fifth and final year of a coalition government, a time when ministers are more likely to spend time falling out with each other in order to win over the voters than they are actually getting things done. These bills will still be working their way through the Commons and Lords at the start of 2015, remember. By then the knives will be well and truly out; Cameron and Clegg's parties will be virtually at war. That's why there are so many boring bills in this year's Queen's Speech: business managers can save the most tedious ones for the weeks leading up to a general election.
In this context, it's a wonder there's anything remotely controversial included at all. Instead these bills can be grouped into five categories the monarch definitely wouldn't approve of:
Policies it's impossible to oppose
Tackling tax avoiders
Extra powers for HMRC to get as much cash as possible.
Clamping down on the immigration… of plants, bugs and (probably) squirrels
There isn't an immigration bill included, but the infrastructure bill does include one set of provisions which will shut down Britain's borders. Those pesky "invasive non-native species that pose serious threats to biodiversity" are going to face officious-sounding Species Control Orders. The environmentalists in Ukip (are there any?) will be delighted.
The modern slavery bill will be supported by Labour, because it is fundamentally a good thing: extra powers for the police will "create a fairer society", help victims and ramp up the punishments.
Help for heroes
The social action, responsibility and heroism bill, which stems from the health and safety agenda, essentially creates a new defence of acting in the public good for anyone being sued for breaking the rules. Caped crusaders everywhere will welcome this. And it might just persuade people not to play things by the book when facing a real emergency.
Policies which pass the 'why wasn't this legislation before?' test
A zero carbon standard for new homes
Energy efficiency is such a no-brainer it hurts. But it needs decisive action like this to really make a difference. From 2016 builders will have to find ways to cut carbon emissions off-site if they can't make each property completely carbon-free.
General crime-boosting measures
Most of the policies announced in the serious crime bill will get voters wondering why this or that isn't the case. There's a long list of steps being taken: a new offence of possessing 'paedophilic manuals'; a strengthening of sentencing guidelines for computer hacking operations; new powers to seize and destroy chemical substances suspected of being used as cutting agents for illegal drugs. All of which you'd expect.
Criminalising child neglect
This is a big deal. It updates legislation from the 19430s about child abuse from a time when the impact of mental cruelty wasn't really appreciated.
Policies which are boring but important
The pensions tax bill and private pensions bill will end the system which forced people to buy an annuity. But you already knew that – it was announced in the Budget.
Armed forces ombudsman
The service complaints bill creates an ombudsman who will, hopefully, speed up the complaints process for fed-up services personnel.
Devolution to Wales
By way of a warm-up for the post Scottish referendum settlement, this legislation quietly shifts a significant chunk of tax-raising powers to the Welsh Assembly.
National Parks democracy
Proposals to begin direct elections to National Park authorities in England could shake things up in places like the Lake District. This is only a draft bill, though, so don't get too excited.
Policies to keep the Lib Dems happy
Er… just one entry in this category, because Nick Clegg has been busy taking credit for all the policies which don't stink of Tory. After an incomprehensible delay of 12 months, the deputy prime minister is pushing ahead with the coalition's diluted recall proposals. They're not popular and they'll make barely any difference – but are presumably being taken forward on the basis that there's not much else on the coalition's constitutional reform agenda.
Policies which are actually controversial
(That's right, there are one or two interesting bits to this Speech. You have to dig deep to find them, but they are there)
Making fracking easier
Extracting shale gas from the ground requires some genuine political courage, because there's deep suspicion across the country about what the process of hydraulic fracturing actually involves. The infrastructure bill will 'clarify and streamline the underground access regime' – and make the industry pay for its regulation. Also, fracking firms will be able to dig whatever the landowners' views are.
A plastic carrier bag charge
This is about as exciting as it gets this year. The proposal, to place a 5p charge on all single-use plastic carrier bags in England from October 2015, will genuinely cut down on their use. It will help to protect the environment. And it will hit everyone who uses supermarkets – making it, technically speaking, just a little bit regressive…
Kicking local authorities over planning
Another one from the infrastructure bill, this, which hands down wins the 'most interesting bill' award from this year's clutch. It's going to make the lives of planning authorities harder, which could worry some Tories who are keen to protect their back yard.