Pomp and circumstance were in full effect today, with Her Majesty the Queen taking to a brand new carriage for the short journey from Buckingham Palace to the Palace of Westminster. But this was far from a social call. It was for the Queen to perform the State Opening of Parliament and to announce the Coalition’s legislative agenda for the coming year – the last time the Queen will do so before the General Election in 2015.
Before the State Opening of Parliament, the Prime Minister and Deputy Prime Minister said the Coalition’s final Queen’s Speech would be “unashamedly pro-work and pro-business” and the speech indicated that the Government would focus on helping smaller businesses while cracking down on those which abuse employee rights. The Government will be looking to reduce bureaucracy which particularly hampers small businesses while at the same time seeking to improve access to lucrative contracts in government and public sector procurement. Companies which fail to pay the minimum wage will face harsher penalties and the Government will take action on the abuse of zero hour contracts. The most ambitious announcement was a commitment to increasing the number of apprenticeships to two million by the end of this Parliament.
The announcement that has perhaps attracted the most attention has been the reform to the pension system, which will allow individuals to exercise more discretion than they were previously able to. One Bill to go before Parliament will entail a reform to annuities, which will remove the obligation to buy an annuity with pension savings and instead allow individuals to withdraw retirement incomes in a lump sum, an announcement that formed the centrepiece of the Chancellor’s Budget earlier in the year. The second Bill will allow employees to pay into collective pension funds shared with other workers, which aims to cut costs and encourage saving.
The legal system is to face some tinkering as the Government looks to tackle areas where the law has suffered from ambiguity in the past. This includes a Social Action, Responsibility and Heroism Bill which will offer extra legal protection for people being sued for negligence or breach of duty if they acted heroically or in the public interest. There will also be criminal sentences for those assisting organised crime syndicates, such as accountants who launder money. Meanwhile there will be tougher sentences for cyber-criminals, which is an increasing problem in an ever-expanding digital world.
Reforms to social care will allow the Government to tout its credentials in supporting working families. The Government will be looking to ensure that childcare becomes affordable for all by introducing a new state-funded childcare subsidy worth up to £2,000 a year to replace the existing employer-funded scheme. The most disadvantaged families will receive childcare for free. It was also announced that all infants will receive a free school meal.
There was also some sign that the Government will take steps to increase the supply of housing, though it has yet to set out concrete measures. There may be concerns from some home-owners that the Government is infringing on their property rights, as it was also announced that energy firms fracking for shale gas and geothermal energy will be allowed to run pipelines on private land without permission –though in many cases this will take place more than a mile underground.
Closer to home, the Government announced that it will bring forward an updated Charter for Budget Responsibility which forms the Government’s broad policy on tackling the deficit and national debt, and includes the setting of the welfare cap. Most significantly, the Government will push through a new law whereby MPs will face the power of recall by constituents in cases where the MP is given a jail sentence or if the House of Commons resolves that an MP has committed “serious wrongdoing”. Subsequently, a petition of ten per cent of constituents will trigger a by-election. Not all MPs have been impressed by this measure however – one Conservative MP, Zac Goldsmith, has said the criteria for recall is so narrow as to render the power “meaningless”.