Reform of pensions is at the heart of the Government’s legislative programme for the coming year, in a Queen’s Speech which also offered a limited right for voters to recall misbehaving MPs, support for “fracking” to produce shale gas, and measures to help small businesses.
But Downing Street was forced to fend off Labour accusations that David Cameron is presiding over a “zombie Government”, after the Queen unveiled a legislative programme for the coming year featuring just 11 new bills.
Mr Cameron and Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg hailed the programme for the coalition’s final year as “unashamedly pro-work, pro-business and pro-aspiration”.
Heavily-trailed reforms abolishing the requirement for pensioners to buy annuities and allowing workers to join Dutch-style collective pension schemes would deliver the biggest transformation in provision for the elderly since the inception of the system, they said.
But a bill allowing voters to trigger by-elections to remove errant MPs – promised as an “early” priority of the coalition agreement in 2010 – was denounced by one of Mr Cameron’s own backbenchers.
Tory MP Zac Goldsmith warned that voters would feel “duped” by the Recall of MPs Bill, which allows them to launch a petition demanding a by-election only if their MP is jailed for less than 12 months or the House of Commons resolves that the MP has been guilty of “serious wrong-doing”.
In a tweet, the Richmond Park MP wrote: “At a time of mass anti-politics voting, what do our leaders suppose voters will do when they learn that they have been duped over recall?”
In a video message, Mr Cameron described the speech as “the next big step in our long-term plan for Britain”. The Prime Minister said: “These past four years together, we have taken some difficult decisions and endured some testing times, but our plans are working.
“This Queen’s Speech builds on all the progress we have made. Of course there is a long way to go, but today we are taking one further step forward in turning our country around.”
But Labour MPs pointed out that the speech contained no new measures on the NHS or immigration, and leader Ed Miliband said it failed to live up to the scale of the challenges Britain faces.
Warning that last month’s local and European elections showed “the depths of discontent with the direction of our country”, Mr Miliband said: “We would have a Queen’s Speech with legislation which would make work pay, reform our banks, freeze energy bills and build homes again in Britain. A Queen’s Speech which signals a new direction for Britain, not one which offers more of the same.”
Mr Cameron’s official spokesman said the Prime Minister “entirely rejects” the opposition characterisation of a “zombie” administration with little to do other than see out the months until the May 2015 general election.
The spokesman pointed to a statement in which Mr Cameron and Mr Clegg insisted the coalition was “still taking bold steps” to “take Britain forward to a brighter future”.
But the list of bills announced by the Queen in one of the briefest speeches of modern times – lasting a little under 10 minutes, only slightly longer than the seven-minute address in November 2009 – was shorter than in any other year of the past two decades. By comparison, Tony Blair unveiled 32 bills in 2004, 45 in 2005 and 31 in 2006.
Legislation announced to MPs and peers in the House of Lords at the ceremonial highlight of the Westminster year included:
:: A bill designed to protect people who find themselves in court after acting heroically, responsibly or for the benefit of others – for instance if they are sued for negligence or breach of duty after intervening in an emergency or volunteering to help others;
:: A Small Business Bill to set a deregulation target to be met by every future parliament, provide measures to help companies get credit from banks and crack down on expensive delays in the employment tribunals. Measures will also be brought forward to end the “revolving door” culture of big pay-offs for senior public servants taking redundancy and to tackle abuse of zero-hours contracts and failure to pay the minimum wage;
:: An Infrastructure Bill to support the development of shale gas by the controversial “fracking” process and maximise the exploitation of North Sea reserves in the hope of making the UK “energy-independent and in control of its own future and not reliant on foreign countries for oil and gas”. The Bill also seeks to boost house-building by selling off unused public land for development and to guarantee long-term investment in the road network;
:: A Childcare Payments Bill to make good on promises of tax-free childcare worth £2,000 a year per child;
:: A Serious Crimes Bill extending the definition of child cruelty to ensure it covers the most serious cases of emotional neglect and psychological harm, in a so-called “Cinderella law”. The Bill will also outlaw written paedophile material;
:: A Slavery Bill making the reporting of human trafficking a legal duty, introducing an Anti-Slavery Commissioner and increasing sentences for those found guilty of trafficking people into the country, often for prostitution or illicit work.
New anti-litter measures will extend the 5p charge for single-use plastic bags already in operation in Wales and Northern Ireland to England from October 2015. Scotland is expected to introduce a similar charge later this year.
And members of the armed forces will enjoy a strengthened complaints procedure, overseen by a new service complaints ombudsman.
Meanwhile, the speech reaffirmed the Government’s determination to press ahead with reductions in the state deficit and its intention to “continue to cut taxes in order to increase people’s financial security”. And it confirmed plans to bring forward controversial changes to the Charter for Budget Responsibility which will require all future governments to “spend taxpayers’ money responsibly”.
TUC general secretary Frances O’Grady said: “This is not a Queen’s Speech for people at work.
“It is missing anything that will allow them to share in the recovery with a proper wage increase. It has nothing to ensure properly-funded public services, particularly the NHS. And there is nothing to rebalance the economy to ensure we create good jobs and a sustainable future.
“Of course, there are some measures that we welcome and some that we oppose, but this is an underwhelming programme that misses the main challenges that this country faces.”
But Simon Walker, director general of the Institute of Directors, welcomed the Government’s decision to focus on a relatively small number of priorities.
“With less than a year to go until the general election, the Government is right to focus on a small number of bills and targeted legislation, he said. “The overall message appears to be one of growth, innovation and help for people who want to start and grow a business.”
Chief Secretary to the Treasury Danny Alexander tried to claim credit for the Liberal Democrats for some of the most eye-catching elements of the Queen’s Speech package.
“The measures set out today bear the hallmark of our Liberal Democrat policies and values, with tax cuts for working people, extensive tax-free childcare, pensions liberalisation and much more,” said Mr Alexander.
“It confirms that Britain is back from the economic brink after the catastrophe of the Labour years. Let’s remember that this was a coalition forged at a time of crisis, with Liberal Democrats at its heart, that’s defied the predictions that it wouldn’t last, and is now delivering a jobs-rich and strengthening economic recovery.
“It sets the scene for the next 11 months, during which people will decide who they can trust at the next election with the economy.”
The deputy director general of the Confederation of British Industry, Katja Hall, said: “Given where we are in the political cycle, and the temptation to play to public opinion, it was refreshing to see this Queen’s Speech focusing firmly on the economic recovery.
“The last thing businesses wanted was a raft of new legislation, so they will be bolstered by targeted measures to cement long-term growth, promote jobs and raise living standards. The recovery is already motoring ahead and this Queen’s Speech should help step it up a gear.”
The president of the Adam Smith Institute thinktank, Madsen Pirie, said that the “modesty” of the Government’s programme was “very welcome”.
“Given the pressures on government by lobbies and interest groups, the Government has shown good sense by going instead for measures that will target individuals and groups with specific and useful help,” said Dr Pirie.
“Welcome, too, is the absence of measures to replace individual choices with new regulations. Critics might describe this as a modest Queen’s Speech, but in this instance it is a very welcome modesty.”
John Longworth, director-general of the British Chambers of Commerce (BCC), said: “Businesses across Britain will be relieved to see that the Government has opted for a streamlined legislative programme, meaning ministers can devote more time to delivering the best possible environment for economic growth and enterprise.
“Businesses hold governments accountable, not for how many Bills they pass, but for what they actually deliver.”
Labour housing spokeswoman Emma Reynolds told BBC Radio 4’s World at One: “I do think the Government is complacent and hasn’t come up with big solutions to what are very, very big challenges that our country faces, whether it’s the cost of living crisis or the insecurity people are facing both in the workplace and in their homes.”
But Liberal Democrat president Tim Farron said that the Queen’s Speech was “very substantial”, telling the programme: “I suspect the pensions proposals will be around for a generation or more and will be remembered. It’s about making sure they are fairer, cheaper, more secure, more reliable and potentially better for people.”
And Conservative chairman Grant Shapps told World at One: “Labour came into today determined to say that this was going to be a zombie parliament and there wasn’t going to be any legislation. Actually that’s not the case. There’s more legislation in this than in previous parliaments and – to borrow a phrase from the Queen – it has a long-term plan for this country.”