U.K. Prime Minister David Cameron outlined his government’s final legislative program before next year’s election, with bills promised to change pension rules and make fracking easier.
Queen Elizabeth II, in her role as head of state, read out a speech to Parliament in London listing the plans of the coalition government. It featured measures ranging from changes to the electricity market to charges for plastic carrier bags.
The need for Cameron’s Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats to stick to the program they negotiated in 2010 and the difficulty of agreeing new measures meant this Queen’s Speech couldn’t follow the usual pre-election practice of making eye-catching promises. Instead, ministers aimed to rebut the charge from the opposition Labour Party that this is a “zombie Parliament” that’s run out of steam.
“It is easy to forget when we first came together in the national interest just how skeptical people were about how long the coalition could last and how much change we could effect,” Cameron and Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg wrote in a joint introduction to the speech. “The Queen’s Speech marks a significant step.”
The speech listed two pensions bills, one to change tax rules, allowing the over-55s to withdraw their savings, and removing the requirement to buy an annuity, and the other allowing the introduction of Dutch-style collective pension plans to permit savers to cut costs and pool risks.
“Big employers have been moving away from defined-benefit pensions schemes for years,” Pensions Minister Steve Webb told BBC Radio 4’s “Today” program. “We need to provide new options.”
As part of an Infrastructure Bill, the government will consult on ways to speed up permission for fracking, meaning companies won’t need separate agreements with every landowner under whose property the process is taking place. Cameron’s spokesman Jean-Christophe Gray told reporters later that the government is considering compensation to communities of about 20,000 pounds ($33,000) for each lateral well drilled underneath them.
“The coalition’s introduction of fixed-term Parliaments has changed the rules of the game,” Philip Cowley, professor of politics at the University of Nottingham, said in an interview. “Traditionally, the final session in any Parliament would be curtailed by an election, so governments can introduce bills designed to attract headlines, knowing they wouldn’t reach the statute book. They can’t do that now.”
With an election a year away, there are a number of measures aimed at shutting down areas in which Labour has attacked the government. A Small Business, Enterprise and Employment Bill will increase penalties for employers dodging the minimum wage and tighten rules on “zero-hours” contracts, under which staff aren’t guaranteed work.
Cameron’s Tories had 32 percent support in a YouGov Plc poll published today against Labour’s 36 percent. YouGov questioned 1,962 adults on June 2 and 3 for the survey, for which no margin of error was specified.
In his speech to lawmakers later, Cameron confirmed he would support any attempt by one of his party’s rank-and-file lawmakers to introduce a bill legislating for a referendum on membership of the European Union. Such a bill in the last session of Parliament ran out of time.
In a bid to halt damage to the environment from the 7 billion plastic bags that the government says were used in England in 2012, it will introduce a charge of 5 pence (8 U.S. cents) on each bag issued from October next year. The levy raised will go to charity and will apply to major retailers.
Ministers are also looking at how to update the century-old legislation governing compensation payable to victims of riots. It follows the 2011 protests in London, Manchester and the Midlands in which gasoline bombs were thrown and vehicles, homes and businesses torched. The draft bill will improve compensation for individuals and small and medium-sized businesses.
Seeking to encourage people who act heroically in dangerous situations, the government will introduce a Social Action, Responsibility and Heroism Bill to reassure those intervening in emergencies that the courts will take full account of the context of their actions in the event they are sued.
The day was a mix of politics and pageantry. The queen traveled by horse-drawn coach from Buckingham Palace to the Houses of Parliament, escorted by the Household Cavalry. As she arrived, the Union Flag of the U.K. was lowered and her Royal Standard raised over parliament.
Lieutenant General David Leakey, who has the title Gentleman Usher of the Black Rod, marched to the House of Commons, the lower, elected, chamber, to summon lawmakers to hear the queen, waiting in the House of Lords, the upper, unelected chamber. The door of the Commons was slammed in his face.
This ritual symbolizes the independence of the Commons from the crown: no British monarch has entered the lower house since 1642, when King Charles I tried to arrest five members in the run-up to a civil war that ended with his execution in 1649.
After Leakey summoned the Commons, lawmakers processed to the House of Lords. Seated on a gilded throne next to her husband, the Duke of Edinburgh, the queen read the speech from a goatskin parchment, ending by telling lawmakers: “I pray that the blessing of Almighty God rest upon your counsels.”
To contact the editors responsible for this story: Alan Crawford at email@example.com Thomas Penny, Eddie Buckle