Belfast Telegraph

Home News UK

'Queen's Speech for working people'

David Cameron has set out a packed agenda for the next 12 months in the first Conservative-only Queen's Speech for almost 20 years, with Bills to pave the way for an EU referendum, devolve powers to the nations and regions of the UK, and ban rises in income tax, VAT or National Insurance.

The Prime Minister told the House of Commons the package was "a Queen's Speech for working people from a One Nation Government that will bring our country together".

But interim Labour leader Harriet Harman said the Tory agenda was "unravelling" even before the Queen arrived at Westminster, after Mr Cameron omitted an expected Bill to scrap the Human Rights Act and introduce a British Bill of Rights.

The PM declined to say whether he had faced opposition from his own MPs to the repeal of the Act, but assured MPs that he would take action before the end of the Parliament, insisting: "Be in no doubt, we will be introducing legislation and legislating on this issue."

As debate began in the Commons following the pomp and ceremony of the Queen's address, Ms Harman indicated that Labour is now "sympathetic" to plans set out in the Speech to cut the cap on annual household benefit payments from £26,000 to £23,000 and said her party would also back a Bill enabling an in/out referendum on Britain's EU membership by the end of 2017.

Jubilant Conservative MPs, buoyed by the overall majority secured in the May 7 general election, mocked the Labour benches over the party's policy shifts since its defeat.

And Mr Cameron made clear that the policies announced represented a full-blown Conservative agenda freed from the shackles of coalition with Liberal Democrats.

He said election victory had given the Tories a mandate for a "clear programme for working people, social justice and bringing our country together", which would deliver full employment, extend the Right to Buy to housing association tenants, increase free childcare and create a "truly seven-day NHS".

Legislative changes will create a "tax lock" barring increases in the rates of income tax, VAT and National Insurance for the next five years, along with a legal requirement for anyone working 30 hours a week or less on the minimum wage to be taken out of income tax altogether, he said.

Further devolution is promised for Scotland and Wales, and measures will be introduced to give English MPs the final say on legislation affecting only England at Westminster. Meanwhile, cities and combined authorities in England which take on elected mayors will be offered devolution of powers over decision-making and budgets.

An Investigatory Powers Bill will revive plans to give intelligence agencies new tools to target communications data - branded a Snooper's Charter by critics - while a Trade Unions Bill will impose a 50% turnout threshold on strike ballots, with a further requirement in essential public services for strikes to be supported by 40% of those entitled to vote.

The speech set the scene for further austerity measures to eliminate the national deficit, confirming Chancellor George Osborne's plans to run the first budget surplus in 18 years in 2018/19.

A Full Employment and Welfare Benefits Bill will freeze most working-age welfare payments, including tax credits and child benefit, impose the £23,000 benefits cap and remove automatic entitlement to housing benefits for 18 to 21-year-olds.

It also creates a statutory duty for ministers to report to Parliament on progress towards achieving the Government's goals of full employment and three million new apprenticeships.

A Childcare Bill will provide working parents with 30 hours a week of free childcare for three and four-year-olds. And a Housing Bill will give 1.3 million housing association tenants the right to buy their homes, while requiring councils to sell off high-value properties and invest the proceeds into building affordable homes.

An Education and Adoption Bill will pave the way for the establishment of 500 new free schools and require "coasting" schools to become academies.

An Immigration Bill will target illegal working and require deported immigrants to make any appeals against removal after they have returned to their home countries.

An Extremism Bill will create new orders to tackle groups and individuals who promote "messages of hate". And a Psychoactive Substances Bill will ban so-called "legal highs".

An Enterprise Bill will aim to cut business red tape, an Energy Bill will give local communities the final say on wind farm applications, and an HS2 Bill will allow work to continue on the proposed North-South high-speed rail link.

Mr Cameron told MPs that the package provided "a clear vision of what our country can be - a country of security and opportunity for everyone at every stage of life".

Ms Harman said Mr Cameron's rhetoric about supporting working people had been stolen from Labour - and some of it had even featured on the notorious "Edstone" monolith setting out their promises.

But she added: "We fear that the reality of this Queen's Speech will be very different from the rhetoric. The Queen's Speech talks of One Nation, yet he sets the nations of the country against each other.

"The Queen's Speech talks of working people, yet he threatens basic rights at work.

"At a time when our economy, our constitution and our public services are fragile, we fear this Tory Government will make things worse."

Former deputy prime minister Nick Clegg, responding for the Liberal Democrats, said it was "dispiriting" to see Mr Cameron divert sharply from the more liberal stance he took in the coalition.

Calling for a cross-party constitutional convention to create a new settlement for a fractured UK, he warned that the PM had rendered Britain's future position in Europe "precarious" and offered only "piecemeal tinkering" on the constitution at a time when the United Kingdom threatened to "splinter entirely".


From Belfast Telegraph