Today’s Queen’s Speech will be the first one from a Conservative government in almost 20 years and it promises to contain a number of major policy announcements.
Queen Elizabeth II is set to give the speech at 11:30 BST (06:30 ET) to mark the official opening of Parliament.
Most of these were previewed in the party’s election manifesto — including an extension of the Right-to-Buy housing policy, a tax cut for low-income workers, the replacement of the Human Rights Act with a British Bill of Rights and a commitment to a referendum on Britain’s membership of the European Union.
Yet with a majority government having been a highly unlikely outcome in the General Election, Prime Minister David Cameron may not have expected to be able to pass all of his pre-election promises into law. A number of media commentators have suggested that he was hoping to ditch some of the more challenging policies in coalition negotiations that now won’t take place.
Nevertheless, the Queen’s Speech will give us a window into the government’s plans for this parliament allowing the Tory leadership to make its priorities clear as a signal to its own backbenchers as much as to the general public.
Here are the key things to look out for:
- EU referendum pledge — there is little doubt that there will be a commitment to hold a referendum on Britain’s membership of the European Union. What will be interesting is whether there are any hints given about when it will be held, with rumours suggesting it could come as early as next year. Also of interest will be the extent to which the government is comfortable signalling that it wants to campaign for an ‘In’ vote, and its attitude to likelihood of treaty renegotiations with Britain’s European partners, a condition that Cameron has set for the country to remain part of the union.
- British Bill of Rights — the Conservatives have pledged to scrap the Human Rights Act in order to remove British courts from the jurisdiction of the European Court of Human Rights, which frustrated the previous government’s attempts to deport fundamentalist Muslim cleric Abu Hamza from Britain and ruled that the UK’s suspension of prisoners’ right to vote violated the Act. However, rumours this morning from the BBC suggest the Queen’s Speech will contain a commitment to consult on the proposal rather than to pass legislation following discomfort expressed by both party backbenchers and the public.
- Right to Buy extension — the right to buy scheme is the policy of allowing council tenants to purchase their houses at heavily discounted prices. The Conservatives have proposed extending this policy to around 800,000 housing association tenants, with the goal of boosting home ownership. The only hurdles to overcome here are a) the government doesn’t actually own Housing Association properties and b) the promise to build a new affordable home for every one sold does not stand up to scrutiny.
- Increasing the tax free allowance for the low paid and free childcare — the government plans to announce that those working 30 hours a week on minimum wage (£6.50 an hour for those over 21) will not have to pay income tax on their earnings. Free childcare for three and four year-olds will also be extended to 30 hours a week.
- Devolution of powers to Scotland — the arrival of 56 Scottish National Party MPs in Westminster will be a firm reminder to the Conservatives of the Vow made during the Scottish independence referendum by all of the main party leaders to devolve further powers to Scotland. Under the recommendations of the Smith Commission, a cross-party commission set up to analyse which powers could be devolved, Holyrood could gain control of income tax rates, a proportion of the VAT raised in Scotland, air passenger duty and control of the Crown Estate.
- A counter-terrorism bill — the proposed new bill is expected to place major restrictions on organisations and individuals who authorities believe could pose a “threat to the functioning of democracy.” Measures are likely to include extending existing police powers to clamp down on “harmful activities” of extremists and changing the legal definition of “harmful” from “public disorder, a risk of harassment, alarm or distress” to also include activities deemed to be for the “purpose of overthrowing democracy.”
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