Leaving aside the pageantry and flummery of the occasion the Queen’s speech is still an opportunity for a Government to set the tone for the forthcoming year.
This year’s was relatively short with only 11 new Bills proposed (although there are several substantial ones, including the mammoth HS2 Bill, to be carried over from the last session) and the Opposition seized on an opportunity to portray the Coalition Government as having run out of steam. So was that fair?
Well the first thing to say is that the Pensions Bills (there are two) are potentially a very big deal indeed, with the biggest shake up of the system that nearly everyone will rely on at some point and which most commentators agree is badly in need of it. Quite how the circle of introducing a right to not buy an annuity while encouraging people to pool their pots will be squared is one for the specialists; with Lib Dem Minister Steve Webb (a former Professor of Pensions Policy and by common consent a rare example of an expert running a policy area) up for a place in posterity’s pantheon if he manages it.
The main Bill directly affecting business is the Small Business, Enterprise and Employment Bill. It’s a bit of a rag tag of measures. Much of the pre-speech publicity focussing on a clause enabling pub landlords to challenge rent increases imposed by their breweries and so called ‘Pubcos’ - that was the reason for Nick Clegg and Vince Cable’s rather contrived photo-op in a pub on Monday. There’s also a clause to stop senior NHS managers taking redundancy packages and then returning to employment in similar roles (which you’d have thought they’d have been able to do without a specific law, but there you go…).
The Employment part of the Bill is a clampdown on companies paying below the minimum wage and some restriction (not a ban) on Zero Hours contracts. The most interesting part will probably be the provisions on access to finance, the detail of which is still being hammered out. It will put the British Business Bank on a secure footing and facilitate the consolidation of business support schemes into it. It is worth noting that the BBB will still only be lending through the commercial banks and other finance providers. There will be measures to clampdown on late payment to small businesses and steps to increase the transparency of company ownership.
There is also a sighting of that most common of legislative beasts, a Government drive to cut red tape. In future Ministers will have to declare their targets and report to parliament on how well they have met them.
There was also a National Insurance Bill aiming to simplify the system for the Self Employed and make it easier for HMRC to collect from avoiders and Bills focussed on combatting human trafficking and child abuse.
Finally the Social Action, Responsibility and Heroism Bill (about protecting the rights of ‘have-a-go-heroes’) was a great entrant for an old Westminster parlour game in which you imagine what would be contained in a Bill with a title opposite to a real one - so for example if there is an International Security Bill you imagine what would be in a Domestic Danger Bill. Just think what could be contained in an Anti-social Laziness, Fecklessness and Villainy Bill...