Queen’s Speech 2014: first thoughts

Her Majesty The QueenWell, the Imperial State Crown is on its way back to the Tower of London and the Queen is having a well earned rest after her annual trip to Parliament to unveil the Government’s Legislative Programme.

There’s something in me that thinks all the pomp is a bit strange and anachronistic but also weirdly comforting at the same time. I guess it’s like whenever I go to a Church and hear the familiar rites that I knew off by heart as a young child even though religion has no part of my life now. As Sal Brinton writes on the party website, though, some of the silly rules can go a bit over the top:

Don’t get me wrong, I don’t mind the marching bands, the Queen in her regalia reading out the Government’s legislative plan for the coming year.

Parliament seems to go out of its way to lock itself in not just the last century, but the one before. For example, there is a ballot for peers to be able to sit in the Chamber, in their robes. Fine, as there are too many to all be seated in the Chamber. What is less well known is that a number of wives of nobles Lords take precedence over peers providing they wear court dress (tiaras, white silk long court gown, long white gloves are the order of the day). Bizarre…

…And then, after the Queen’s Speech the Lords is adjourned until 3.30. Why? So that everyone who wants to, and has booked weeks in advance, can go and eat an expensive and slow lunch. Still it must be one of the days that the catering operations in both Houses make a good profit, given the costs of the meal!

Perhaps it is appropriate that my office and the Lib Dem Whips office are both near the plaque marking the site where Guy Fawkes left his barrels of gunpowder…. Perhaps we should reform the House of Lords?

But what of the speech?

Stronger economy and a fairer society?

When you hear the words “stronger economy and fairer society” come out of Her Majesty’s mouth, you kind of know that if you are a serious political party portraying a unique message, you need something a bit more than these  ultimately meaningless words. I’ve been saying for a while that we need something that shows our soul, that shouts to the world about what makes us tick and why.  We can and should talk about taking millions of low paid people out of tax and creating 1.5 million jobs but we need more. And we have had so much good liberal stuff, championed and initiated by Nick Clegg himself to demonstrate our commitment to help the powerless against the powerful, to revolutionise attitudes and mental health care, to give families the choice about who takes the leave when they have a baby and to give extra money to disadvantaged kids in school.

More rights for the powerless

And that’s what we’ve done already.  This year’s offerings have much to please Liberal Democrats. There are things in most of the 11 Bills which are clear Liberal Democrat priorities and which give ordinary people more power. The coverage of that pint-pulling photocall with Nick and Vince may have been dominated by discussion of the dynamics between them but the new Statutory Code for pub landlords gives pub tenants much stronger protection against the excesses of large pubcos. Heavens, if Gareth Epps is pleased, it must be good. Greg Mulholland is quoted as saying in that PUBlicity blog report that he wants to go further still and will be seeking to amend it to include a free of tie option.

Strengthening of powers to those investigating complaint against the Armed Forces is another good idea.

And tackling modern slavery is one of the most important things to help some of the most vulnerable people in this country.

Liberal reforms

Childcare costs are a concern for every working family – and, in fact, often lead to one parent leaving work completely, especially if they have more than one child. Nick Clegg has been talking for years about providing help with these costs and the measure announced today will give up to £2000 a year per child to working families.

And then there’s pensions – the groundbreaking reforms announced in the Budget plus enabling people to invest in Dutch-style collective pensions. pooling resources so that people on lower incomes can have a chance of a larger pension. Steve Webb has to be one of the hardest working and productive ministers in this entire Coalition and pensioners will be thanking him for years to come.

The Serious Crime Bill has measures to prosecute for Female Genital Mutilation and recognises psychological harm caused to children  by neglect, something long championed by Liberal Democrat MP for Ceredigion Mark Wiliams.

The Infrastructure Bill gives local communities the chance to gain from renewable energy, and the environment gains from the 5p plastic bag charge.

Where are the fights going to come?

The recall of MPs’ measure isn’t going to satisfy Zac Goldsmith, but then anything more robust wouldn’t satisfy many Tory backbenchers so this Bill is very much the art of the possible. Zac’s more anytime for any reason approach could be open to abuse and it makes sense that once the electorate has made up its mind, there should be a good reason to turf an MP out. My advice to MPs would be to discuss this like adults and think how everything you say looks to the outside world.

I suspect extension of rights over fracking will also cause some controversy, too.

It’s not what I would have written

No Queen’s Speech in the last 4 years has been as I would have written it. I’d be going for Single Transferable Vote for Local Government, taking on the power of infant formula manufacturers by incorporating the World Health Organisation Code on the Marketing of Breastmilk Substitutes, electing the Lords, getting rid of the “Bedroom Tax”,  I’d have had measures in there to directly tackle food poverty, tax the rich more, ban what has become known as “revenge porn” (although it strikes me that there is potential for amendments to the Serious Crime Bill on that issue – any Liberal Democrat MP want to take that one up?). Having said that, I doubt even Liberal Democrat majority government would let me and my wacky ideas within a million miles of the Queen’s Speech. If we’re judging this on the last Queen’s Speech of the Coalition, you can see a very strong Liberal Democrat theme running through it. The most popular ideas within it, on pensions, pubs and childcare, are very much associated with the party and reflect its values well.

Update: I’m hearing whispers that some Liberal Democrat MPs are trying to find a way to bring in an amendment on “revenge porn.” It’s a pretty complicated legal minefield but there is legislation from elsewhere that they can look at.

* Caron Lindsay is Editor of Liberal Democrat Voice and blogs at Caron's Musings

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26 Comments

  • I think the recall bill is worse than useless. Only an MP imprisoned AND losing the confidence of the Standards committee will face a petition. This would involve 10% of the electorate (around 8,000 people in a single constituency) signing up, and then the MP would face a by-election. From their prison cell.

    Can anyone think of an instance of an MP toughing it out that far? Bill Walker in the Scottish parliament is the only one who comes close but even then it wouldn’t have affected him as he resigned first.

    These proposals are so bad I’d be minded to vote against in the hope that with nothing on the statute book the reformists would be motivated to keep going. Surely better to put a useful bill before parliament and let MPs be seen to vote it down? I trust the electorate – 8,000 electors in a single constituency is a huge barrier and I don’t see why they should have to go through so many hoops before being allowed to have their say, when MPs passing those hoops would already have resigned.

    Finally – let’s extend it to councillors. There are plenty of bad and untouchable councillors out there. If the residents who elected me lose confidence in me, why should they not be able to have their say in the same way? 10% is about 1,000 people in my ward, so it would take an exceptional circumstance to trigger this.

  • Caron Lindsay Caron Lindsay 4th Jun '14 - 2:15pm

    That’s why there’s going to be a rammy about it – and why there will probably be amendments that Lib Dems will want to support.

  • A 10% of the electorate petition to trigger a recall election seems a high-enough hurdle for me for all elected offices, excepting only some of the smallest parish councils. Really, if 7,000-8,000 people sign a petition against a single MP, then there’s something seriously wrong; that’s not just going to happen for partisan reasons.

    Getting a rule right for people elected by PR would be more difficult. If someone represents only 10% of the electorate, they may be really hated by the other 90%; they’re still entitled to represent the people they represent. The extreme case would be something like Nick Griffin when he was an MEP.

    The same sort of problem applies to the list MSPs, AMs and GLAs – if they’re elected by 10% or so of the voters, then the other 90% shouldn’t be able to remove them. I don’t know how to combine recall with PR, so brilliant ideas requested.

  • Sue Doughty 4th Jun '14 - 3:34pm

    For me the best bit is the Modern Slavery Bill which addresses the shame of slavery still happening in the UK. Victims are to get more support including a commissioner and the bill provides advocates for child victims. Life sentences for traffickers and the ability to make traffickers pay redress to their victims. Good cross party including Labour’s Frank Field should produce a bill and a major step forward.

  • Andrew Colman 4th Jun '14 - 4:07pm

    Strongly agree with the changes to annuities and protecting those carrying out good deeds, but suspect the latter may not go far enough. Strongly disagree with childcare subsidy as (a) Its bribing parents with their own money (2) It subsidises low wages(3) it discriminates against stay at home parents (4) It sends the message that spending time with your kids is of less value than a minimum wage job (5) It discriminates against childless people.

    If fracking is such a great idea, the government should set up a fracking investment bond. This bond would cover potential damage from fracking underwriting insurance policies. On maturity, the bond will receive a significant proportion of the nations profits from fracking. If fracking is safe and a money spinner, these bonds will be very lucrative and make loads of money for investors. If fracking turns out to be unsafe ie loads of insurance claims, little profits, then the bonds will make a loss

  • Jake Thomas 4th Jun '14 - 4:18pm

    It’s worth highlighting the value of direct elections to national parks. it isn’t a sexy issue, but it’s long overdue and matter a great deal to those of us who live in them.

  • Simon McGrath 4th Jun '14 - 4:35pm

    It is hard enough for politicians to make difficult decisions that may be unpopular in the short term but the right thing to do. A 10% recall vote – orchestrated by people like 38 degrees will make it impossible.

  • I’m surprised there isn’t more being said on the profoundly illiberal measures in the Infrastructure and Shale Gas Bill, for instance to allow drilling companies to frack beneath peoples’ property without their consent and for minimal compensation, if any. This is surely an issue on which we can weigh in to exert a positive influence?

  • The recall bill has been turned on its head, from bottom up to top down.

    Originally it was supposed to be a bottom up control to enable electors to unseat their MP if enough of them were sufficiently enraged. Zac Goldsmith claims that with a sensible hurdle percentage of voters there is no example worldwide where it has been used by a disaffected minority to unseat an MP on narrowly political grounds. Maybe, but I remain unconvinced that recall is necessary anyway. With 650+ MPs the occasional (and it is occasional) bad apply doesn’t threaten the system and all parties understand the reputational risk of supporting those seen as bad apples.

    What is now proposed is a top down system that most certainly could be used to discipline errant MPs (as in those that disagree with the party leader). That is something that no liberal should support so I can’t imagine why Clegg does. Oh, wait …

  • @GF – Are you serious? The “recall” mechanism is frequently used in the USA in blatantly political grounds, most recently the 2012 Wisconsin gubernatorial recall election.

  • It’s not what I would have written

    I agree with Caron– it is not what I would have written either.

    Yet another example of a failure to make coalition work.

    How many Queens speeches does it take for the fan club to recognise that there are people at the top of our party who are just not very good at this coalition style of government?

  • For the second time in a week I can agree with Simon McGrath about something.
    I am sceptical about the value of this recall gimmick.
    I am less worried about 38 degrees than I am about unaccountable media moguls who would be able to manipulate such a law to take revenge on for example MPs who fought against phone hacking.

  • Tony Greaves 4th Jun '14 - 9:07pm

    Oh any recall mechanism is illiberal and wrong. As always with these things it’s some of the good guys who will end up in bother. Unintended consequences but the powerful corporate interests will go for their enemies and not necessarily in ethical or even legal ways. You read it here first.

    Tony Greaves

  • Richard Dean 4th Jun '14 - 9:34pm

    @Tony Greaves
    … but the words were in some kind of private code so you didn’t understand it here. What’s illiberal about an electorate being able to require a non-performing representative to check for continued support?

  • Maybe there could be a recall law for media moguls.

  • jedibeeftrix 4th Jun '14 - 9:57pm

    @ John – “I’m surprised there isn’t more being said on the profoundly illiberal measures in the Infrastructure and Shale Gas Bill, for instance to allow drilling companies to frack beneath peoples’ property without their consent and for minimal compensation”

    and yet lib-dem’s re terribly keen on taxing peoples homes. how illiberal!

    plus ça change

    @ Richard – i too am fascinated at this endlessly malleable term “liberal”, and its evil arch nemesis “illiberalism”.

    Code for “things i don’t like”?

  • @Tony, considering how ineffectual this power is, I think even the most nefarious of media mongols would do well to use it, let alone abuse it.

    I actually think there is something to be said for making it that MPs are wholly immune to the electorate once elected; however, that being said, it would have to be a very carefully implemented and balanced piece of Law, if one wishes for it to be fair, whilst not open to abuse. This particular power is little more than a gimmick – heck, maybe even calling it a gimmick is giving it too much credit.

  • “MPs are wholly NOT immune”

    Sorry.

  • Just to remind ourselves that this debate about the power of ‘recall’ dates back to the early days of the Coalition

    http://lallandspeatworrier.blogspot.co.uk/2010/07/clegg-continues-to-be-obscure-on-right.html

  • MBoy – that’s not my claim but rather that of Zac Goldsmith that I was reporting. I was thinking that the Clinton/Lewinsky affair was in essence an extra-constitutional attempt at recall by whipped up faux moral outrage. Whatever! It’s fraught with unintended consequences and simply not worth the candle.

  • Stephen Donnelly 5th Jun '14 - 12:39am

    I’m very uncomfortable with the recall bill for the reasons Greaves, Tilley and McGarth give. It gives bullying power to powerful vested interests.

    Liberals can be on either side of the debate about tracking. Drilling one mile under your house does not effect your individual freedom in itself, unless you believe that that there will be other consequences. The evidence seems to show that if properly regulated, it will be quite safe. The main issue is the local environmental damage in the vicinity of the drilling, and it is that aspect that we should concentrate on.

  • Phil Rimmer 5th Jun '14 - 11:01am

    John Tilley and Tony greaves are spot on about recall. A populist gimmick that will hand power to wealthy vested interests willing to throw money at removing their opponents.

    Another Queen’s Speech and yet another litany of wasted opportunities for Liberalism. Worse, some of the items may well reduce civil liberties.

  • Tony Rowan-Wicks 5th Jun '14 - 12:51pm

    I do hope that NC’s team can get a grip on these bills, as they are a sink or swim agenda for our party. Being superficial will not be good enough and NC depends on our input working positively. I still say if any bill is part of a Tory agenda which runs counter to our principles we vote it down, bill by bill, and create the right end to the coalition.

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