The contents of this year’s Queen’s speech have to last for twice as long as usual. The speech for 2018 has already been cancelled to provide more time to scrutinise Brexit legislation, making the parliamentary session two years long. This doesn’t mean MPs won’t get holidays. But it does mean there won’t be the usual session-end cut off, which can lead to bills simply not making it onto the statute book because of a lack of time.
The speech includes proposed measures on protecting tenants from unfair rental fees, strengthening measures against domestic violence and reducing motor insurance premiums.
But it is abundantly clear that Brexit will dominate parliamentary proceedings for the next couple of years. Interestingly, the speech referred to building the “widest possible consensus” on this. There have been moves in parliament to suggest a cross-party approach and it’s possible that Theresa May will be seeking to bind the Labour party in to the Brexit process.
Leaving the EU means there are plenty of EU laws and rules that will need to be replaced in one way or another. The bill that will enable European law to be repealed is notably no longer being referred to as “The Great Repeal Bill” and is now just “Repeal Bill”, although this change of name is most likely because of parliamentary rules rather than any downgrading of the purpose.
There will also be a raft of bills on topics usually covered at a European level. As expected, there will be bills on agriculture and fisheries. There will also be bills on customs, trade and immigration. However, the speech contained little detail on these, as is normal. The speech is an agenda setting exercise; the detail comes later as bills and briefing notes are published.
Queens speeches are of necessity brief. They can’t contain a lot of propaganda or argument, so there will be some unpicking to do to work out what lies ahead – particularly what is meant by devising a new immigration system that is “fair and sustainable”.
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The terrible fire at Grenfell Tower and the plans for a public inquiry were highlighted in the speech. Interestingly, the government also has plans for an independent public advocate, who would work with victims after public disasters and support them at inquiries. May perhaps thought about this following meetings with families affected by the Hillsborough disaster, when there was little in the way of obvious, immediate support.
There are no immediate proposals on social care, which perhaps reflects the fiasco that followed the launch of the Conservative party’s election manifesto. But there are plans for a consultation. The government would be wise to involve as many parties and organisations as possible in drawing up future plans. This is one of the biggest problems facing the government and getting it wrong, in either policy or presentation terms, would be politically extremely damaging.
No mention was made of the state visit offered to US president Donald Trump. Normally, these visits are listed in the speech, and indeed, the visit from Spain’s Prince Felipe was mentioned. This may well be confirmation that Trump’s visit is on hold – although this was quickly denied by Conservative spokespeople after the speech.
Nor are there plans to present bills on fox hunting or grammar schools – also important elements of the Conservative manifesto. We heard nothing about the long standing commitment to reducing net migration to the tens of thousands either.
It is possible that some topics were dropped simply because parliamentary support is not there. Foxhunting and grammar schools are divisive issues and the whips will know that government time would be wasted trying to get them through. It is also a PR disaster, when you are already perceived by some as being out of touch or not managing big issues, to be seen as prioritising “fringe issues”.
It is worth recognising, though, that the government is not the only body producing Bills. Backbench MPs get the chance to produce Private Members Bills and sometimes a quiet word with a supportive MP can result in a Bill the government wants to see tried out.
The significance of the Queen’s speech is only partly in the content. The ceremony is followed by several days of debating in both houses of parliament, and a formal vote which is scheduled for Thursday June 28 in the House of Commons.
This is the point at which opposition parties can attempt to defeat the government, and Theresa May will need a majority vote in favour of her plans. There can also be amendments to the speech motion. The most recent of these was under David Cameron when an amendment regretting the lack of a Bill on an EU referendum was proposed in 2013. This year, opposition figures have been suggesting there will be significant amendments, which could make life very difficult for the prime minister.