Belfast Telegraph

Friday 19 September 2014

Queen's Speech 2014: Cameron's plans to combat Scottish Independence, tax relief on childcare, 'pooled' pensions and fracking made easier

Queen Elizabeth II sits with the Duke of Edinburgh as she delivers her speech in the House of Lords
Queen Elizabeth II sits with the Duke of Edinburgh as she delivers her speech in the House of Lords
HRH Queen Elizabeth II leaves Buckingham Palace to attend the State Opening of Parliament on June 4, 2014 in London, England. (Photo by Matthew Lloyd/Getty Images)
HRH Queen Elizabeth II leaves Buckingham Palace to attend the State Opening of Parliament on June 4, 2014 in London, England. (Photo by Matthew Lloyd/Getty Images)
The Imperial State Crown
The Imperial State Crown

A new law could make it easier to frack under people's homes for shale oil and gas, it has been announced in the 2014 Queen's Speech.

The Government is risking the ire of environmental campaigners and its own supporters with the Infrastructure Bill, which could include measures to change the law so that companies would not need permission from homeowners to drill under houses and land.

It is intended to remove a stumbling block for shale developers, who are already facing a "legal block" of thousands of people across the country denying them permission under trespass laws to drill under their properties .

But the move is likely to be highly controversial, with a recent poll finding that 74% of people opposed the move.

Ahead of the announcement in the Queen's Speech, the environmental campaign group staged a protest over the move at David Cameron's home, turning it into a "fracking site".

Greenpeace said activists in hard hats and high-vis jackets turned up on the doorstep of the Prime Minister's cottage in the Cotswold hamlet of Dean, Oxfordshire, sealing off the property's front gate with security fencing.

Protesters erected a sign which read "We apologise for any inconvenience we may cause while we frack under your home", and ordered complaints to be directed to Mr Cameron's office.

Greenpeace handout photo of David Cameron's home in Dean, Oxfordshire, being turned into a "fracking site" as environmental campaigners staged a protest over new laws which could pave the way for more underground drilling.
Greenpeace handout photo of David Cameron's home in Dean, Oxfordshire, being turned into a "fracking site" as environmental campaigners staged a protest over new laws which could pave the way for more underground drilling.

Activists later dismantled the protest after being ordered by police to leave the area.

Greenpeace UK energy campaigner Simon Clydesdale said: "We have to say the police have a point, you shouldn't be allowed to just turn up outside someone's home and start fracking under their garden without their permission.

"But following today's announcement, we're one big step closer to a law that will compel police to side with the frackers over home-owners.

"The Prime Minister is robbing millions of their right to say no to fracking under their homes for the benefit of a few energy companies.

"He should stop chasing this shale pipe-dream to focus on the real-world solutions that can boost our energy and climate security, like slashing energy waste and backing clean technologies."

The Government is pushing for the development of a shale gas industry in the UK, claiming it would create jobs and growth, reduce energy prices and cut the country's reliance on gas imports.

But opponents have raised fears that the process causes earthquakes, and can pollute water supplies, lead to inappropriate development in the countryside and damage house prices.

There are also concerns that exploiting shale gas could harm investment in renewables and undermine efforts to cut greenhouse gas emissions to tackle climate change.

'Pooled' pension scheme announced

Plans for giant "pooled" pension schemes with the potential to boost people's chances of getting a better retirement outcome have been unveiled.

Legislation unveiled in the Queen's Speech will enable "collective schemes" that spread the risk between members and could offer them greater stability over the eventual size of the pension they will end up with, while limiting costs to employers because of their economies of scale.

Similar pooled schemes already exist in the Netherlands and a consultation into collective pensions had previously been launched by the Government.

The new type of pension would be a middle ground between the two types of scheme which currently exist - defined benefit (DB) schemes, which offer people a guaranteed level of income when they retire and defined contribution (DC) schemes, which put the burden of risk onto the employee in terms of the eventual size of their pension income.

British Prime Minister David Cameron (L)  Deputy Prime Minister and leader of the Liberal Democrats Nick Clegg (C) Leader of the Labour Party Ed Miliband (R) walk through the Members' Lobby before the Queen's Speech at the State Opening of Parliament  on June 4, 2014 in London, England. (Photo by Dan Kitwood - WPA Pool/Getty Images)
British Prime Minister David Cameron (L) Deputy Prime Minister and leader of the Liberal Democrats Nick Clegg (C) Leader of the Labour Party Ed Miliband (R) walk through the Members' Lobby before the Queen's Speech at the State Opening of Parliament on June 4, 2014 in London, England. (Photo by Dan Kitwood - WPA Pool/Getty Images)

DB schemes, such as final salary pensions, have been in decline in favour of DC schemes, as employers have found them expensive to run as people live for longer.

The Government plans to define schemes in terms of the "pensions promise" they offer to people, to clearly spell out whether the pension they are paying into offers them a full, cast iron promise about their retirement income, a promise on part of their pot or income or no promise at all about what they will end up with.

As announced in the Budget, the Queen's Speech also confirmed that people aged over 55 will be given new freedoms to cash in their pension as they see fit, subject to their marginal rate of income tax.

This will mean that from next April, people can use their pension pot like a cashpoint and they will not feel forced into using the money to buy a fixed retirement income called an annuity.

More than 300,000 people who retire every year with DC pension savings will get a much wider choice about how they access their pension savings as a result of the changes.

Everyone with a DC pension pot who is approaching retirement will be offered free and impartial help through a "guidance guarantee" as part of the new legislation.

Measures to boost savers that were previously announced in this year's Budget were also confirmed in the Queen's Speech.

New "super Isas" will come into place from July 1, when the limit increases to £15,000 and savers will be given the freedom to invest the full amount tax-free in a cash or a stocks and shares Isa, or any combination of the two.

The Government will extend the list of qualifying investments for Isas to include peer-to-peer (P2P) loans.

At the same time, annual subscriptions for children's savings, in the form of Child Trust Funds (CTFs) and Junior Isas, will increase to £4,000.

Plans to boost people on low incomes by reducing the tax they pay on their savings interest were outlined. Around 1.5 million people are expected to gain by an average of £156 and more than one million of these people, with total incomes of less than £15,500, will no longer pay any tax on their savings income.

From April next year, the starting rate of savings income tax will be lowered from 10% to zero and the band to which it applies will be extended to £5,000, from £2,880 in 2014.

Queen Elizabeth II and the Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh proceed through the Royal Gallery
Queen Elizabeth II and the Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh proceed through the Royal Gallery

Meanwhile, from January 2015, Treasury-backed body NS&I will launch one and three-year fixed-rate savings bonds for people aged 65 and over, which will be taxed in line with other savings income.

Interest rates will be decided at the Autumn Statement, but for costing purposes, the assumption based on current market conditions is that the one-year bond will pay a rate of 2.8% AER and the three-year bond will pay 4.0% AER, with investment limits of £10,000 per bond.

Tax-free childcare measures praised

New tax-free childcare measures worth up to £2,000 a year per child have been welcomed by campaigners, amid warnings that more help may be needed for the poorest families.

Under the Childcare Payments Bill, included in today's Queen's Speech, a new scheme is due to be introduced to give working families basic rate tax relief on money spent on childcare.

The legislation will entitle anyone who is responsible for a child to gain support with the cost of nursery, a childminder or other types of childcare.

For every £8 a parent pays for childcare, the Government will contribute £2, according to Treasury information, with support capped at £2,000 per child per year.

The scheme is set to be introduced in the autumn of next year, with families who have children under 12 eligible within the first year, the Government said.

It added that in the first 12 months, around 1.9 million working families are expected to benefit.

Liz Bayram, chief executive of PACEY (the Professional Association for Childcare and Early Years) said: "PACEY welcomes the Government's commitment to provide more financial support for parents through the tax-free childcare offer. We know that measures improving access to childcare will help to give more support to families balancing work and home life.

"However, PACEY believes childcare funding needs a complete overhaul. Whilst this is helpful news it will not make a difference to the most disadvantaged families."

Ben Black, founder of My Family Care, a firm offering childcare support to businesses, said: "This is good news. It is much more generous and broader than many of us dared hope for.

"It's also simple to understand and execute - something that has been wholly missing from previous childcare funding initiatives."

To be eligible for the support a parent and their partner, if they have one, must be in paid work, earning more than they would receive for working eight hours a week at the national minimum wage.

The parent's income and that of their partner should not exceed £150,000 and they should not be claiming Universal Credit, or other support for childcare.

Chris Goulden, head of poverty research at the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, said: "The Government has made important progress towards extending childcare support to all families who will be eventually moved on to Universal Credit. But this concession contains a major sting in the tail, with the extra costs expected to be borne by savings elsewhere in the welfare budget.

"Childcare is essential for working families. Not only can good quality early years education and care help support child development, but affordable childcare makes work pay for those on low incomes and helps to lift more families out of poverty.

"Bringing down the cost of childcare would have a significant impact on the ability of low income households to work. But this help should not be funded by cutting their help in other areas. This is more important than subsidising childcare for very high-earning families: most of the extra support will be going to families with higher incomes, including households where both parents are earning just below the additional rate tax threshold, set at £150,000."

Carrier bag charge to cut litter

New anti-litter measures will extend the 5p charge for single-use plastic bags already in operation in Northern Ireland and Wales to England from October 2015.

Scotland is expected to introduce a similar charge later this year.

The Government has bowed to pressure to introduce a charge  in England from October 2015 to help reduce the number of plastic bags handed out by retailers across the country, many of which end up as litter and harm the environment.

But small retailers will be exempt from the charge, to prevent imposing burdens on start-up and growing businesses, the Government said.

The charge will only apply to plastic bags, and not paper bags which only make up a tiny percentage - 0.1% - of bags given out each year.

But plans to introduce a charge in England, unveiled by the Lib Dems last year, have been labelled a "complete mess" by the parliamentary Environmental Audit Committee.

MPs on the committee warned plans to exclude biodegradable bags, paper bags and small retailers from the scheme risk confusing consumers and undermining the effectiveness and benefits of the levy.

Experts from Cardiff University's Welsh School of Architecture, who led a study into the effects of the charge in Wales, backed the plans in the Queen's Speech to introduce a bag charge in England.

Dr Wouter Poortinga said: "Our own research has shown that a small charge on bags is popular and a very effective way of changing behaviour.

"We found the bag charge made people more aware of waste and littering. And we also found that people became even more supportive of the charge after it was introduced."

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Government outlines drive to combat Scottish Independendence

The Queen has outlined the British Government's drive to keep Scotland in the UK with just over 100 days to go before the historic referendum on independence.

The ballot on September 18 formed part of her speech at the state opening of Parliament in Westminster - her last before the vote.

"My government will continue to implement new financial powers for the Scottish Parliament and make the case for Scotland to remain a part of the United Kingdom," she said.

In Holyrood, the devolved Scottish Government is working hard in the opposite direction.

Opinion polls have narrowed in recent months but the pro-union Better Together parties remain in the lead.

David Cameron's coalition said it "believes passionately" in the UK and wants to secure a "no" vote when polls close in 105 days.

The British Government said it would press on with a transfer of limited tax and borrowing powers agreed in the Scotland Act 2012.

From April 2015, stamp duty and landfill tax will be replaced with new levies set by the Scottish Parliament.

One year later, MSPs will have some control over the rate of income tax in Scotland.

While outlining the changes already agreed, there was nothing new proposed to coincide with the Queen's speech.

Unionist parties have all set out enhanced devolution proposals they would take into a future election after a "no" vote.

The SNP said the only way of guaranteeing more power was to vote for independence.

Before the Queen's speech, rival Scottish politicians set out competing visions for the country.

Voters get powers to boot out MPs

New powers allowing voters to kick out MPs who break the law are being introduced after years of delays over the move.

Constituents will be able to sack their MP if they are sentenced to up to 12 months in jail, under measures announced in the Queen's Speech.

Voters could also trigger a by-election if the House of Commons resolves that an MP has engaged in "serious wrongdoing".

Under the Recall of MPs Bill, a vote would be forced if more than 10% of constituents sign a petition over an eight-week period.

MPs are now only expelled from Parliament if they are jailed for more than one year. Less serious wrongdoing is punished by temporary suspension from the House.

The Government said the move will give constituents a direct voice when MPs have behaved badly.

But the move comes after years of wrangling that sparked bitter recriminations and rows between the two governing parties.

Recall powers formed a key plank of the coalition agreement by David Cameron and Deputy Prime Minster Nick Clegg in 2010 following widespread voter discontent about the House of Commons expenses scandal.

Under the deal, they pledged to bring forward "early legislation" to introduce the powers but the move was repeatedly kicked into the long grass.

The proposals appeared to have been killed off earlier this year when the Liberal Democrats accused the Conservatives of scuppering the measure.

But the Prime Minister later declared his intention to revive the plans in the wake of fresh anger over the behaviour of MPs.

MPs had previously warned that a recall mechanism could be abused for party political advantage and fears were raised about the process turning into a "kangaroo court".

The Government said the measures announced today would be "transparent, robust and fair" but would not lead to MPs facing "frequent and unnecessary distractions".

Campaigners welcome Slavery Bill

Slave drivers and human traffickers could face life sentences under a crackdown to be announced in the Queen's Speech.

The new modern slavery bill aims to strengthen powers to punish perpetrators while offering more protection to those held in servitude and forced to work.

Measures include increasing the maximum penalty available for offenders from 14 years to life.

Criminals convicted of slavery or trafficking will face the "toughest" regime to confiscate their assets, while the proposed legislation will also give courts new powers to order perpetrators to pay financial "redress" to victims.

The bill also aims to enhance protection and support for victims, including the creation of a statutory defence against crimes they were forced to commit while enslaved other than serious sexual and violent offences.

Public bodies including the police, councils and immigration personnel will be obliged to notify the National Crime Agency about potential victims of slavery under the law and an anti-slavery commissioner will be appointed.

The government also intends to introduce slavery and trafficking prevention orders and slavery and trafficking risk orders to restrict the activities of convicts and others thought to pose a risk.

Loopholes which currently prevent the police and border force acting where it is suspected that human trafficking or forced labour is taking place on board vessels at sea will be closed.

Slavery has been defined in previous legislation as trafficking for sexual exploitation, child trafficking, trafficking for forced labour and domestic servitude.

Estimates of the scale of the problem vary widely but it is believed there are thousands of victims of sexual exploitation in the UK.

In April, the Joint Committee on the Draft Modern Slavery Bill warned the government's proposals did not go far enough and called for a "rewrite" to ensure criminal offences were simplified to ensure there were more convictions.

The new bill was welcomed by think tank The Centre for Social Justice (CSJ).

Its director Christian Guy said: "Modern slavery is an evil of our time.

"In our cities, towns and villages we find a shocking underworld where thousands of children and adults are forced into lives of squalor and abuse; treated as commodities.

"There are high hopes that this new Bill will force modern slavery from the shadows and bring Britain's fight against it into the 21st century."

But the CSJ also called for the government to include measures that would require businesses to publish information about how they attempt to eliminate slavery from their supply chains.

Mr Guy said: "This move would not be anti-business as some in Government might fear, in fact it gives British business the chance to lead in the battle against modern slavery."

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Laws to protect children beefed up

Stronger laws to protect vulnerable children and people who are at risk of child cruelty, sexual exploitation and female genital mutilation were promised today in the Queen's Speech.

It falls under the Serious Crime Bill which aims to tackle child neglect, disrupt serious organised crime and strengthen powers to seize proceeds of crime.

A new offence of possessing paedophilic manuals is to be created along with ensuring the Children and Young Persons Act 1933, which deals with cruelty to under 16 year olds, now clearly state that cruelty which is likely to cause psychological harm to a child is a crime.

The Bill will also extend the reach of the offences in the Female Genital Mutilation Act 2003 so that they apply to habitual as well as permanent UK residents.

The aim is to help legal officials to track, disrupt and bring to justice criminals who target vulnerable women and children.

Up to 23,000 girls under the age of 15 years could be at risk of female genital mutilation (FGM), also known as female circumcision or female genital cutting, each year and nearly 66,000 women are living with its consequences, according to a study based on 2001 census data in England and Wales.

Population growth and immigration from practising countries since 2001 mean the impact could be even greater given that it is often a hidden crime. It is a form of child abuse, largely carried out on children aged between the five and eight years old, which can have devastating physical and psychological consequences for girls and women, the NSPCC notes.

Efforts are also being made under the Serious Crime Bill to sharpen the tools that the National Crime Agency (NCA) and other crime fighting organisations have to try and tackle criminals. This includes new powers to seize detain and destroy criminal substances suspected of being used as cutting agents for illegal drugs.

NCA director general Keith Bristow said:"The trade in active pharmaceutical ingredients as cutting agents is a major enabler of criminal activity, generating substantial profits for drug dealers and making class A drugs cheaper and more available at street level. Without the use of such cutting agents, cocaine would be prohibitively expensive and consequently far less accessible.

"The existing powers are not sufficient as they do not directly target cutting agents. New powers will provide law enforcement with an effective tool to tackle the threat and prevent criminal groups profiteering from their sale."

There is also to be a new offence targeting people who knowingly take part in an organised crime and improve the ability to recover criminal assets.

On asset recovery and new offence of participation, the NCA's economic crime command director Donald Toon said: "Money is the motive behind the vast majority of organised crime. Making, and hiding, criminal profits drives the behaviour of serious and organised criminals. Therefore they need people in support roles and cashflow to prop up their activity.

"The NCA wants it to be harder for criminals to keep hold of their money and easier for law enforcement to take it off them. This is in part about denying them the ability to enjoy life on criminal profits, and in part about disrupting the cashflow which keeps their criminal activity alive.

"We also want it to be harder for criminal footsoldiers to hide behind the excuse of ignorance. The measures announced today by the Home Office close gaps in both these areas which criminals have increasingly sought to exploit. We welcome them."

Welcome for small business reform

Moves to help smaller firms win public contracts and speed up payments from their customers were welcomed by industry groups.

The Government said a Small Business, Enterprise and Employment Bill was aimed at making the UK the most attractive place to grow a business.

Measures will include help for small businesses to access finance, improve payment with their customers and giving them fair access to the £230 billion spent every year on public procurement contracts.

Red tape affecting small business will also be reviewed frequently to make sure they are either cut or remained effective.

Transparency around who owns UK companies will be strengthened, with a register of ownership, while small businesses will be helped to expand overseas.

John Allan, chairman of the Federation of Small Businesses said: "This landmark Bill will be welcomed by our members. It includes measures that we have pushed for in our discussions with government and all political parties over the last 12 months to help them support their growth ambitions, such as action on late payment terms for smaller suppliers and to beef up scrutiny of unnecessary regulation.

"We now look forward to seeing the detail when the Bill is introduced, and working with all parties in the Commons and Lords as the Bill progresses through Parliament before the election.

"The Bill marks the next stage in improving the operating environment for all small firms across the country."

Terry Scuoler, chief executive of EEF, the manufacturers' organisation, said: "The programme sets out a number of pro-growth and pro-work policies. Government must now keep momentum going for the next 11 months and not stall just as the economy is beginning to motor.

"It is also essential that the legislation proposed does not load any extra burdens onto employers or remove their ability to recruit and employ in a flexible way to suit their business."

The Bill includes measures to stop highly paid public sector employees keeping redundancy payments when they return quickly to a similar job.

New Ombudsman for Armed Forces

The way complaints are handled in the armed forces will be changed with the creation of a new ombudsman with increased powers.

A new Service Complaints Bill will see the creation of a new service complaints ombudsman with powers to review the handling of someone's complaint if they do not think it has been dealt with properly.

The ombudsman will also have the power to overturn a decision by the chain of command to exclude a complaint.

The provisions, which are hoped to improve the efficiency of the system and ensure the armed forces are held to account, come after past concerns that too many complaints, including allegations of bullying, are delayed or not dealt with properly.

In March the Service Complaints Commissioner (SCC) Susan Atkins found that the current system was failing and called for a new ombudsman to be set up without delay.

Dr Atkins said delay remained the main reason for unfairness in the services, with only a quarter of complaints in 2013 resolved in the 24-week target.

Under the Bill announced today, the SCC's role - a post created by the Armed Forces Act 2008 after recommendations following the deaths of four soldiers at Deepcut Barracks - will become an ombudsman with increased powers to reinforce the way complaints are handled.

The powers include the ability to investigate whether an individual complaint has been handled properly internally; the power to recommend action to the Defence Council; and the power to overturn a decision by the chain of command to exclude a complaint.

The SCC has not previously had any legal powers in relation to individual complaints, and there have previously been concerns within the armed forces that an outside regulator is incompatible with the chain of command.

The Bill will also allow payments to be made to charities and other organisations that support the armed forces across the UK, in a bid to limit restrictions on making certain charitable payments to organisations in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland that support the forces.

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