The Queen’s Speech

EACH YEAR THAT PASSES seems to have its own character. Some leave us with a feeling of satisfaction, others are best forgotten. 2009 was a difficult year for many, in particular those facing the continuing effects of the economic downturn.

I am sure that we have all been affected by events in Afghanistan and saddened by the casualties suffered by our forces serving there. Our thoughts go out to their relations and friends who have shown immense dignity in the face of great personal loss.

But, we can be proud of the positive contribution that our servicemen and women are making, in conjunction with our allies.

Well over 13,000 soldiers from the United Kingdom, and across the Commonwealth – Canada, Australia, New Zealand and Singapore – are currently serving in Afghanistan. The debt of gratitude owed to these young men and women, and to their predecessors, is indeed profound.

It is 60 years since the Commonwealth was created and today, with more than a billion of its members under the age of 25, the organisation remains a strong and practical force for good.

Recently I attended the Commonwealth heads of government meeting in Trinidad and Tobago and heard how important the Commonwealth is to young people.

New communication technologies allow them to reach out to the wider world and share their experiences and viewpoints. For many, the practical assistance and networks of the Commonwealth can give skills, lend advice and encourage enterprise.

It is inspiring to learn of some of the work being done by these young people, who bring creativity and innovation to the challenges they face.

It is important to keep discussing issues that concern us all – there can be no more valuable role for our family of nations.

I have been closely associated with the Commonwealth through most of its existence. The personal and living bond I have enjoyed with leaders, and with people the world over, has always been more important in promoting our unity than symbolism alone.

The Commonwealth is not an organisation with a mission. It is rather an opportunity for its people to work together to achieve practical solutions to problems.

In many aspects of our lives, whether in sport, the environment, business or culture, the Commonwealth connection remains vivid and enriching. It is, in lots of ways, the face of the future. And with continuing support and dedication, I am confident that this diverse Commonwealth of nations can strengthen the common bond that transcends politics, religion, race and economic circumstances.

We know that Christmas is a time for celebration and family reunions; but it is also a time to reflect on what confronts those less fortunate than ourselves, at home and throughout the world.

Christians are taught to love their neighbours, having compassion and concern, and being ready to undertake charity and voluntary work to ease the burden of deprivation and disadvantage.

We may ourselves be confronted by a bewildering array of difficulties and challenges, but we must never cease to work for a better future for ourselves and for others.

I wish you all, wherever you may be, a very happy Christmas.

PM Attacked On Expenses ‘Silence’

(BBC) – TORY LEADER DAVID CAMERON has accused the government of a ‘big omission’ by not making any mention of MPs’ expenses in the Queen’s Speech.

Either ministers were ‘incompetent’ in not realising new laws were needed to implement reforms, or were afraid of Labour backbenchers, he said.

Sir Christopher Kelly, author of the reforms, said he was ‘disappointed.’

But deputy Labour leader Harriet Harman said laws had already been passed to allow reforms to be brought in.

Sir Christopher’s committee on standards in public life carried out a six-month inquiry in the wake of the scandal about MPs’ expenses and made a series of recommendations earlier this month to change the system.

While he was conducting his review the government rushed through legislation to set up a new body, the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority, with the power to implement the Kelly review’s recommendations.

But Sir Christopher said in his report that the new authority did not have sufficient powers and should be made responsible for MPs’ pay and pensions, as well as expenses, and be given tougher enforcement and investigation powers, among other changes.

‘It is disappointing therefore that today’s Queen’s Speech did not contain measures to address the changes we believe to be necessary affecting the remit, powers and independence of the new body being established to regulate expenses,’ Sir Christopher said in a statement after the Queen’s Speech.

‘There is no reason why the relatively straightforward legislation needed in this area should prevent the new regulatory body from getting other important changes under way.’

Mr Cameron said there were 11 separate measures which needed to be passed into law in order to implement the Kelly report; but accused Mr Brown of ‘a great big silence’ when challenged to bring them forward.

He told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme leaving expenses out of the speech was a ‘big omission.’

‘Either the government is incompetent and hadn’t realised that Kelly’s report requires these laws to be passed or they are frightened of their own backbenchers, or perhaps they don’t think cleaning up the House of Commons is as important as they said it was.

‘One of the most important legal changes that still has to go through is putting MPs’ pay and pensions on an independent statutory footing so that MPs in the future can’t fiddle with their own pension and their own pay.’

Liberal Democrat leader Nick Clegg also said new legislation was needed, specifically to force MPs to disclose their financial interests.

He had been arguing for days that the Queen’s Speech was a waste of time — as so little time remained for MPs to pass laws before the next general election — and the government should concentrate instead on sorting out expenses and the economy.

Following Sir Christopher’s statement, Number 10 said the prime minister was ready to bring forward any legislation needed to complete his reforms ‘on a cross-party basis as required.’

But Ms Harman, who is also Commons leader, told the BBC: ‘I think that the things Sir Christopher has recommended can and will be taken forward by the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority.

‘I don’t want anyone to think that we have simply not taken the action that was necessary.’

Some recommendations, like the proposed ban on employing relatives, did not require legislation, she said.

She accused Mr Cameron of creating a ‘smokescreen’ adding: ‘It’s not true to say that loose ends have been left and we are somehow half-hearted about this.’

But she said: ‘I will need to reassure Sir Christopher that the things that he wants done, will be done, those legal changes that he doesn’t agree with can simply be dealt with by not bringing them into effect.’

Brown Draws Election Battle Lines

(BBC) – GORDON BROWN has put economic recovery at the heart of his final set of plans before the next general election.

Key measures in the Queen’s Speech include a crackdown on excesses in the City and a legal obligation to halve the budget deficit within four years.

Mr Brown told the Commons Labour was the ‘only party with the policies to build a long-term recovery.’

Tory leader David Cameron said Labour had run out of ‘money, time and ideas’ and called for an immediate election.

In a foretaste of the sort of arguments likely to be seen during an election campaign, Mr Brown said the Conservatives had been ‘wrong on every single issue we have faced in economic policy this year.’

And he hit back at Mr Cameron’s claims that he had used the Queen’s Speech to set out ‘fake dividing lines’ to trap the opposition ahead of a general election, which must happen by June at the latest.

Mr Brown told MPs the package of measures included in the Queen’s Speech were ‘not in the party interest but in the national interest.’

He mounted a robust defence of the government’s economic record and vowed to continue its ‘fiscal stimulus,’ telling MPs: ‘As a nation we will go for growth.’

He also announced what he said were four new measures to combat youth unemployment, including training guarantees and ‘high quality’ internships for graduates out of work for more than six months.

Mr Cameron dismissed the Queen’s Speech as ‘half-baked’ and a ‘Labour press release on Palace parchment’ and, in a sustained attack on Mr Brown’s ‘moral failure’ as a leader, he accused the prime minister of ‘desperately trying a few tricks to try and save his own skin.’

The Conservative leader said that in his obsession with trying to ‘get one over’ on the opposition the prime minister had ignored important issues such as immigration, the NHS, and cleaning-up politics, which he said were not mentioned in the Queen’s Speech.

‘They have run out of money, they have run out of time, they have run out of ideas, and as we have just seen from the prime minister, they have run out of courage as well,’ Mr Cameron said.

Liberal Democrat leader Nick Clegg attacked the Queen’s Speech as a ‘fantasy’ package full of ‘unnecessary’ measures.

Mr Clegg, who had called for the speech to be cancelled and the remaining Parliamentary time before an election to be used to clean-up politics, said there was nothing in the proposed legislation to help create jobs, boost bank lending and fix the UK’s ‘rotten’ political system.

Former Home Secretary Charles Clarke, a longstanding Labour critic of Mr Brown, said the PM’s attempt to set up ‘dividing lines’ with the Tories was wrong, telling MPs: ‘This Queen’s Speech shows that we are dominated by political fear of our opponents — that is not the way for Labour to win and makes it more difficult for us to do so.’

BBC Political Editor Nick Robinson said the Queen’s Speech effectively signalled the start of the general election campaign, with Business Secretary Lord Mandelson and other senior ministers even holding an ‘election-style news conference’ at Labour Party HQ, ahead of it.

It was a slimmer programme than normal, with 10 new bills, three carried over from the previous session and two draft bills.

But with an expected 70 to 80 days of parliamentary business remaining before an election the government still faces a race against time to get its programme through.

The speech includes a bill containing guarantees about children’s schooling in England, including extra tuition for pupils who fall behind and support for gifted learners.

Meanwhile, 400,000 elderly people will be promised help with care in their own homes, as part of the Social Care Bill, which applies to England only.

A Health Bill, which would have introduced maximum waiting times for some NHS surgery and consultations, has been left out of the programme, but the changes will be brought in through secondary legislation amending the new NHS constitution.

The government has also carried over a piece of legislation restating its aspiration to abolish child poverty by 2020 — despite missing its targets in this area so far.

The Flood and Water Management Bill, following the disasters of summer 2007, would give local authorities in England and Wales the lead responsibility for managing the risk of future flooding.

There is also a bill to cut down on the paperwork police officers have to fill in when carrying out stop and search operations, in England and Wales, and to extend the collection of DNA from sex offenders.

The crime and security bill also includes compulsory licences for wheelclampers and, following the deaths of several children, compulsory safe storage of air guns.

Elfyn Llywd, Plaid Cymru’s leader at Westminster, said: ‘If this is Labour’s shadow manifesto, they have lost the election.’

Angus Robertson, leader of the SNP at Westminster, said there was little in the speech for Scotland and it was ‘all about positioning for the general election.’

Conservatives To ‘Kill-Off’ Queen’s Speech Bills

(Guardian) – TORY PEERS ARE READY TO BLOCK most of the government bills to be announced in the Queen’s speech today, threatening to mire the final days of Gordon Brown‘s government in frustration and delay.

Lord Strathclyde, the Conservative leader in the Lords, predicted that few if any of the bills announced amid today’s fanfare and pageantry would reach the statute book without the consent of Tory peers.

‘We all know that this Queen’s speech is all about better electioneering and politics rather than the better governance of the country,’ he told the Guardian.

‘If these measures were so important they would have been in the legislative programme last year rather than being left to the last moment of the fifth term. That does not suggest they have the greatest priority or urgency.’

The government is expected to launch a total of 15 bills, encompassing measures to provide residential care for old people, new controls on the parents of antisocial children and a fiscal responsibility plan compelling the government to halve the public deficit within four years.

But as the government takes parliament into a fifth session for the first time since John Major in 1996 – when the Tories had to jettison legislation before the election the following May – Conservative peers can use the government’s lack of an overall majority in the Lords to block bills owing to lack of time before an expected May 2010 election.

Strathclyde said the Lords would not abandon its responsibility to scrutinise. His remarks underline the degree to which the Queen’s speech will be seen as the first draft of a Labour manifesto rather than a realistic legislative prospectus.

He said: ‘There are now only 33 legislative days left in the Lords between January and Easter [the most likely date for parliament’s dissolution]. That does not give much time at all to carry out the Lords’ proper duty to scrutinise legislation. Historically the Lords has taken its job of scrutinising legislation very seriously. We should not throw away that reputation or duty at the last moment.’

Strathclyde said it was ‘too early to say which bills we will allow through, but we will have to look at each bill in turn.’

Tory strategists know they will have to tread carefully not to be seen to be blocking popular measures, something governments perennially accuse oppositions of in the runup to an election.

Sources in the Lords said that in practice the government would have to jettison vast tracts of bills in order to get non-controversial clauses through. Even if the Conservatives do not have an overall majority, they can use the government’s lack of time to extract concessions.

The Lords tend to spend as long as seven weeks scrutinising a bill. Unlike the Commons, all amendments can be selected for debate and no time limit is set on how long an amendment can be debated.

Labour has 212 peers, the Conservatives 190 and the Liberal Democrats 71. Bills most likely to reach the statute book are those carried over from the previous parliament, including the equalities bill, the child poverty bill and the constitutional reform bill.

It is also expected that the broadcasting bill will start in the Lords and so may have enough time to be rushed though.

Almost everything else will be the subject of desperate last-minute negotiation in the so-called ‘wash-up,’ when government and opposition whips cut deals on the bills and clauses to be salvaged.

‘Cancel Queen’s Speech,’ Says Clegg

Nick Clegg(BBC) – LIBERAL DEMOCRAT LEADER Nick Clegg has called for the Queen’s Speech to be cancelled and replaced with emergency reforms to ‘clean up politics.’

The speech this Wednesday will be used to set out the government’s legislation for the coming year.

Mr Clegg wrote in The Independent that the speech should not happen this year as there would be no time to pass the promised laws before an election.

Instead the time should be spent on reforms to restore trust, he said.

‘This Parliament has forfeited the right to do anything but focus on political reform,’ he wrote.

Mr Clegg said he wanted Parliament to quickly adopt new powers to sack corrupt MPs and to abolish hereditary peers.

He also called for the immediate adoption of a report, due this week, on reducing the power of whips in Parliament, whom he said ‘ride roughshod over the views of MPs.’

The ‘glitz and glamour’ of the Queen’s Speech, which also involves the state opening of Parliament, would be ‘based on a complete fiction’ because there were only 70 days on which MPs would be sitting in the Commons between now and the final date Parliament could be dissolved, he said.

He said laws took, on average, 240 days to pass from the first to last stage.

Wednesday’s Queen’s Speech will mark the beginning of a long election campaign, with many of the government’s new bills designed to draw dividing lines with the opposition, BBC political correspondent Iain Watson said.

It will include measures to help provide better care for vulnerable elderly people in England, to tackle underperforming schools and to limit excessive risk taking by bankers.

But Mr Clegg said it would serve as ‘little more than a rehearsal of the next Labour manifesto’ and ‘an attempt to road test policy gimmicks.’

He also used the newspaper comment piece to call for the establishment of a Committee on Electoral Reform, made up of 100 citizens, to consult on a new electoral system and take its proposals to a referendum.

‘The one gift this failed Parliament can give its successor is a fresh start,’ he said.

… (18/11/2009) – Conservatives To ‘Kill-Off’ Queen’s Speech Bills