The government unveiled a legislative programme ranging from Lords reform to libel and family justice
A bill to reform the House of Lords has been included in the Queen’s speech as one of three constitutional bills, but severe doubts remain that the reforms will reach the statute book, as David Cameron’s aides continue to pour cold water over the plans.
Tory MPs are expected to mount a rebellion, with Labour support, over the debate timetable for the bill and the need for a post-legislative referendum. The Liberal Democrats are for the moment relieved that the bill has made the programme. Ministers stressed on Wednesday that the reform could go through only if there was cross-party consensus.
The government set out areas of agreement between it and the joint committee: a mainly elected chamber, members elected on a system of single transferable vote, staggered elections with one-third coming up for renewal at a time, peers to serve 15-year terms, current peers to leave in stages, a reduced number of peers, and powers to expel peers. PW
The Cabinet Office is also stewarding a bill to switch from household to individual voter registration, a measure promised by the outgoing Labour government.
The new register is due to be in place by 2014. The Cabinet Office gave no details of whether electoral registration officers would still be able to impose fines on individuals who refuse to co-operate. There is deep concern that even more poor people will fall off the register. The number of registered voters in turn determines the shape of parliamentary constituencies.
The move away from registering on the electoral roll by household will be phased in from 2014, and by 1 December 2015 everyone on the electoral register will be registered under the new system.
In addition, the Cabinet Office says work will on winning Commonwealth agreement to reform the rules governing succession to the crown will continue. These reforms would remove the right of men to have preference over women in succession to the crown, and also remove any discrimination against Catholics. PW
Elderly people and disabled adults will be given more power to make decisions about the care and support they receive under a social care bill.
Building on a report by the Law Commission, which aimed to simplify an “often incoherent patchwork” of 60 years of social care law incomprehensible to all but a small legal fraternity, the bill will require local authorities to fit services around users’ needs, rather than expecting them to fit in with what is available.
The commission last year also said it was time to place a duty on councils to investigate abuse and neglect of adults, allow direct payments to be used to fund residential care and improve “portability” of entitlement to care and support services if people move from one council area to another.
Existing laws scattered around at least a dozen acts will be consolidated in a single statute, supported by new regulations and guidance.
The legislation will create a London health improvement board and establish Health Education England and the Health Research Authority as non-departmental public bodies.
But more fundamental reform that campaigners say is needed to end a “crisis” in England’s care system will not appear until the much delayed publication of a white paper, expected in the summer. Significantly, the Queen’s speech includes only a draft care and support bill, which makes no mention of financial arrangements for care. RR
Children and families
More flexible leave for parents, father-friendly access arrangements following relationship breakups, faster adoption processes and better help for special needs pupils will be included in a new children and families bill, designed to be a central plank of government policy.
Focusing on the shakeup of family justice to deliver a “fairer” system for parents, ministers signalled that the government did not accept last year’s family justice review, which warned against introducing a legal presumption of shared parenting. The review said such a move could create an “unacceptable risk of damage to children”.
However, the Queen’s speech included a consultation on legal options to strengthen the law in England and Wales to ensure that, “where it is safe and in the child’s best interests”, both parents are able to have a relationship with their sons and daughters after they split up.
The bill also sets out plans to speed up adoption and care proceedings and give more support to disabled children. The bill will create a six-month time limit for family courts in England and Wales to reach decisions on whether children should be taken into care and will require the court to take into account the impact of delays on the child. Many social workers argue that they are unable to tackle delays in other parts of the system – such as family courts.
In another long-trailed announcement, the new bill will stop local authorities in England from delaying adoptions in the hope of finding a perfect racial match for the child if there are couples waiting to adopt. RR
Justice and security
The government has accelerated plans to expand secret hearings into civil courts. Rather than moving to the preparatory white paper stage, a justice and security bill will be put through parliament this session.
The government has come under severe pressure from MI5 and MI6 to draw up a law imposing a system of secret courts ever since it was disclosed that the security and intelligence agencies had been involved in the brutal treatment, and knew of the torture, of UK residents and citizens detained by the CIA.
So-called closed material procedures would allow sensitive evidence to be given in court but not seen by all the participants. Defendants or claimants and their courtroom representatives would be barred from the closed part of the hearing, removing the adversarial nature of the justice system.
Human rights groups and many lawyers, including those vetted to represent alleged victims of wrongful behaviour by MI5 and MI6, are alarmed at the proposals, warning that evidence that cannot be tested in court may be unreliable and could lead to miscarriages of justice.
Ken Clarke, the justice secretary, has said the powers are needed to reassure other countries, particularly the US, that they can continue to share intelligence without fear of it being exposed in British courts. The bill is designed to ensure courts can consider all the evidence in civil claims made against the government, so that the government does not have settle cases that it believes have no merit. OB and RNT
The bill to track everyone’s email, Facebook, text and internet use has proved to be one of the most controversial within the coalition and has been slow-streamed in the government’s legislative timetable after last-minute coalition talks.
The measure, criticised by civil liberty campaigners as a “snooper’s charter”, has been taken out of a more general Home Office and Ministry of Justice-sponsored crime and courts bill, which ministers need to get on to the statute book as fast as possible.
The decision to have a separate bill follows Nick Clegg’s insistence that it must be accompanied by the “strongest possible safeguards”. These are expected to include case by case oversight by a surveillance commissioner, a review of existing measures to protect the security of everyone’s data and the publication of a privacy impact statement.
Clegg has also promised that the internet tracking proposal will not be “rammed through parliament” and that open parliamentary hearings will be held to examine draft clauses of the legislation. The proposal has also attracted sharp criticism from the Tory libertarian right, with the former shadow home secretary David Davis calling it an “unnecessary extension of the ability of the state to snoop on ordinary people”.
The Home Office confirmed that the communications data bill was to be published in draft and slow-streamed in the government’s parliamentary timetable.
A briefing note said it would establish an “updated framework for collection, retention and acquisition of communications data” in the face of rapid technological change.
The Home Office said “strict safeguards” would include a 12-month limit on storing the data and measures to protect the data from unauthorised access or disclosure. The information commissioner will continue to oversee the destruction of this confidential data after 12 months. AT
The government signalled its determination to press ahead with banking reform in the Queen’s speech but intends to provide more details on 14 June when George Osborne delivers his Mansion House speech.
The white paper outlining how the government intends to force banks to detach their high street and investment divisions will be published alongside the chancellor’s set-piece speech next month.
In the speech, the Queen said: “Measures will be brought forward to further strengthen regulation of the financial services sector and implement the recommendations of the independent commission on banking.”
The commission, chaired by Sir John Vickers, also included recommendations on bolstering competition among high street banks by making it easier to move bank accounts. There were also proposals about “depositor preference”, which would allow savers to get their money back when a bank goes bust before other creditors – a move that is intended to reduce the need for taxpayer bailouts. Despite lobbying by the banks for this to be avoided, the government is expected to press ahead with the change. JT
A draft defamation bill was subject to close scrutiny in the last parliamentary session but now appears as fully developed proposals in this year’s legislative agenda.
The bill is intended to abolish costly trials by jury in most libel cases, curb online defamation through a new notice and takedown procedure, reduce so-called “libel tourism” and make it more difficult for large corporations to sue newspapers.
Lord Mawhinney, chairman of the joint Commons and Lords committee on the draft defamation bill, said current libel laws were “far too expensive, which is a barrier to all but the richest”.
In its response to the committee’s report, the government agreed to replace the test of “substantial harm” to reputation with a stricter test of “serious harm” that would have to be established in defamation cases.
“The bill will rebalance the law to ensure that people who have been defamed are able to protect their reputation, but that free speech and freedom of expression are not unjustifiably impeded by actual or threatened libel proceedings,” the Ministry of Justice (MoJ) said.
“It will ensure that the threat of libel proceedings is not used to frustrate robust scientific and academic debate, or to impede responsible investigative journalism.”
The bill would create a new statutory defence of responsible publication on matters of public interest, refining what was previously known as the Reynolds defence in libel cases.
On libel tourism, the bill will, according to the MoJ, tighten “the test to be applied by the courts in relation to actions brought against people who are not domiciled in the UK or an EU member state”.
Judges will be free to decide when it is in the interests of justice to hold a jury trial in defamation cases. OB
Crime and courts
The separate crime and courts bill will set up the National Crime Agency from next April, speed up immigration appeals and strengthen the powers of UK Border Force officers. It will also include proposals to introduce television cameras into courts, reform judicial appointments and allow magistrates sitting on their own to operate from community centres and police stations to deal with low-level uncontested cases within days or even hours of arrest.
News broadcasters have welcomed the inclusion in the Queen’s speech of a government undertaking to introduce legislation to allow them to film court proceedings.
In a joint statement, Sky News, ITN and the BBC said: “Following years of campaigning, we welcome this historic reform that marks an important step for democracy and open justice.
“The presence of cameras in our courtrooms will lead to greater public engagement and understanding of our legal system. We look forward to working closely with the judiciary and the government to ensure that justice will now truly be seen to be done.”
Broadcasters have been campaigning for this reform for several years. AT and JD
Plans for a flat-rate state pension initially worth about £140 a week were included in the Queen’s speech as part of a shakeup that will also bring forward an increase in the state pension age to 67 between 2026 and 2028.
Under the pensions bill, the basic state pension (currently worth up to £107.45 a week) and state second pension (also known as S2P, and formerly known as Serps) will be replaced by a single scheme, which the government says will cost no more than the existing system.
The reforms follow concerns that people are not being encouraged to save enough for their old age as they are being put off by the current system, which is too complex.
The government paper said it was “committing to ensuring that the state pension age is increased in future to take into account increases in longevity”. RJ
Public sector pensions
Ministers are pressing ahead with their controversial reforms of public sector pensions before a new strike on Thursday by tens of thousands of workers.
A public service pensions bill was included in the Queen’s speech, despite continued opposition from unions, who say the changes mean millions of workers will have to “work longer, pay more and get less” at retirement.
Civil servants, lecturers, health visitors, Ministry of Defence staff, immigration officers and off-duty police officers will be among those staging walkouts and taking part in other forms of protest on Thursday.
The government paper said: “It would establish a common framework across public service pension schemes. The changes would also ensure provision is sustainable.” RJ
Small donations bill
Designed to allow charities, notably small charities, to claim additional payments to help boost their income. Charities will no longer have to collect gift aid declarations on small donations, but will instead receive a top-up payment for donations of £20 or less. This will allow them to claim 25p for every £1 collected in the UK up to £5,000. However, charities will need a three-year track record of successfully claiming gift aid to be eligible for the scheme, to avoid fraud. There will be a limit on payments to charities that are linked to others. Those that benefit from the scheme will need to continue to make gift aid claims.
Reform of the electricity market to deliver secure, clean and affordable electricity and ensure prices are fair.
Enterprise and regulatory reform bill
Legislation will be introduced to reduce regulations on businesses, repealing legislation considered unnecessary and limiting state inspections. Competition law will be reformed with the aim of promoting enterprise and fair markets, and a Green Investment Bank will be established.
Groceries adjudicator bill
An independent adjudicator will be established to ensure supermarkets deal fairly and lawfully with suppliers.
Draft local audit bill
A draft bill will be published setting out measures to close the Audit Commission and establish new arrangements for the audit of local public bodies.
European Union (approval of treaty amendment decision) bill
Parliament’s approval will be sought for the agreed financial stability mechanism within the euro area.
Croatia accession bill
This will seek the approval of parliament for the anticipated accession of Croatia to the European Union