ECONOMIC recovery and “levelling-up” were at the top of the agenda in the Queen’s Speech, delivered by the Prince of Wales at the State Opening of Parliament on Tuesday morning.
The Queen did not attend the state opening of Parliament for only the third time in the course of her reign. The previous two occasions — in 1959 and 1963 — were owing to pregnancy. Buckingham Palace cited “episodic mobility problems” as the reason for her non-attendance this week.
The Prince of Wales read out the Government’s legislative agenda for the coming year, with the Duke of Cambridge in attendance as a fellow Counsellor of State.
Thirty-eight Bills were outlined in the Queen’s Speech, eight more than last year. The chief ambition, as expressed in the speech, was to “drive economic growth to improve living standards and fund sustainable investment in public services”, a riposte to those calling for a windfall tax of energy-company profits, which, the Government argues, would inhibit economic growth.
The Government said that this approach “will be underpinned by a responsible approach to the public finances, reducing debt while reforming and cutting taxes”.
The Levelling Up and Regeneration Bill aims to empower local authorities to drive economic growth, backed by the establishment of the UK Infrastructure Bank. The state-controlled fund has £22 billion in assets, but cannot operate until it is incorporated in legislation.
In his written introduction to the speech, the Prime Minister did not close the door on the possibility of further measures to help alleviate the cost-of-living crisis; but he cautioned that “for every pound of taxpayer’s money we spend on reducing bills now, it is a pound we are not investing in bringing down bills and prices over the longer term.”
Opposition parties and charities were quick to highlight perceived inadequacies in the Government’s economic response to increasing energy bills and high inflation.
Christian Aid's Chief of UK Advocacy, Sophie Powell, said in a statement on Tuesday evening: “There is nothing in this legislative programme that brings hope to all those struggling with a cost-of-living crisis. . . Where there should be an agenda for addressing the critical global issues of our time, like extreme poverty, rising hunger and a worsening climate crisis, there is a vacuum.”
The chief executive of Child Poverty Action Group, Alison Garnham, said that the speech was “a far cry from what struggling families needed to hear today. Government offered no short-term comfort for parents struggling to feed their kids in the face of rocketing prices, and no long term vision for ending child poverty.”
The Shadow Business Secretary, Jonathan Reynolds, told BBC News that “the first line of that Queen’s Speech should have called for an emergency budget” to tackle the cost-of-living crisis. The Labour Party has called for a windfall tax on energy firms to help ease the burden of increasing energy prices.
The SNP’s deputy leader in Westminster, Kirsten Oswald, called the speech a “missed opportunity”, and the Liberal Democrat Chief Whip, Wendy Chamberlain, said that more could be done, such as cutting VAT.
The legislative agenda for the coming year revives a long-standing Conservative Party policy to repeal the Human Rights Act and replace it with a Bill of Rights (Comment, 11 June 2021).
The proposed bill does not explain what the implication would be for the UK’s position as a signatory to the European Convention on Human Rights, but states that UK court decisions would take precedence over those made in the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg.
New police powers to control protests were announced in the speech as part of a public-order Bill. The Government had attempted to add such provisions to the Police, Crime Sentencing and Courts Act, which was passed at the end of April despite sustained opposition (News, 17 September 2021).
The proposed legislation targets tactics used by such groups as Extinction Rebellion and Just Stop Oil. In April, Anglican clergy celebrated communion during a blockade of an oil refinery in Essex (News, 14 April).
Ms Powell said that Government had “chosen to put eroding the right to peaceful protest above tackling major global issues”. She vowed that Christian Aid would “continue to speak out against such measures, and to raise our voices on the streets as we protest the causes of extreme poverty around the world.”
The Government’s target to reach net-zero carbon emissions by 2050 was mentioned in the Queen’s Speech as one of the aims of investment through the new UK Infrastructure Bank.
A separate Energy Security Bill aims to “deliver the transition to cheaper, cleaner, and more secure energy. This will build on the success of the COP26 Summit in Glasgow last year.”
The Bishop of Norwich, the Rt Revd Graham Usher, who is the C of E’s lead bishop on the environment, wrote of the agreement at COP26 that “progress was made . . . but not enough” (Comment, 18 November 2021).
For the second year running, the Government pledged to introduce legislation to ban conversion therapy. However, the Government’s briefing notes on the speech suggested that conversion therapy for trans people would not be included in the new legislation.
Campaigners were quick to criticise the omission. Jayne Ozanne, who campaigns for LGBTQA+ inclusion, said: “The Government’s own research shows that trans people are twice as likely to be offered conversion therapy, and it is utterly immoral that they have purposefully omitted them from the ban.”
Lawyers from the Ban Conversion Therapy Legal Forum responded to a provision outlined in the briefing notes that would allow conversion therapy to be delivered to adults who consent to the practice. “We are deeply concerned about a consent loophole,” they wrote, saying that it “will leave countless people at risk of abuse.
“The Government’s duty is to protect people from harm independent of whether they have consented to it or not, as consent here can never be truly free and without pressure.”