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Politics & Law Series: Expert Comment

Queen's Speech 2017

Experts from City, University of London comment on the Bills announced in the Queen's Speech.

by City Press Office (General enquiries)

The Queen announced the government's legislative programme for the next two years at the State Opening of Parliament today.  Academics from City, University of London offer their views.

Social care

The speech stated that proposed reforms to social care funding will be put out to consultation.  Professor Julienne Meyer CBE, Professor of Nursing: Care for Older People, School of Health Sciences, argues this won’t work in the long-term.

How much longer will we bury our heads in the sand? The sums just don’t add up.  Without addressing the funding crisis, we will place at risk not only the lives older people, but also our own future. We are all going to get old.

Government power and aspiration

The most important indication from the Government's vision for the next two years is that it is lacking the power it needs to make strong policies, according to Professor Richard Murphy of the Department of International Politics.  He believes the lack of detail over key Brexit issues, such as migration, may frustrate 'leave' voters and continue political unrest.

What this speech might suggest most strongly of all is that the UK’s political turmoil is far from over.  No one, it seems, can take control at present.  And that is the most worrying suggestion that this speech implicitly makes.

Professor Murphy argues the speech shows low aspirations from a Government that is ignoring bigger issues in society, in favour of Brexit policies.  He adds there are no measures in the speech from the Conservatives' partners, the DUP, showing a "true minority administration".

That is reflected in the fact that many of the remaining proposed bills are notable for their lack of aspiration. No one disputes that some of the consumer rights issues have relevance, but none suggest a government tackling the big issues of the day.  What they instead suggest is that whatever the government wanted to do has been abandoned: measures to tackle social care are noticeable by their absence, for example.  So, too, has prison reform been abandoned.

A lack of any mention suggests, unfortunately, that university sector reform remains on the agenda.  In contrast, financial reform comes down to peripheral issues: the continuing vulnerability of the financial system a decade after the global financial crisis is less important than letting fees, apparently, even if the latter are objectionable.

Professor Murphy believes the Government is being led by politicians "who do not believe in the task they have been given", as they prepare for Brexit with a Queen's speech focused on the issue.  He says this highlights their "loss of authority" and suggests the EU already has the upper hand in negotiations.

The tone is, then, of a government resigned to sitting in Westminster for as along as possible, achieving a goal to which it has little commitment and even less ability to control, whilst all the time hoping that the proverbial ‘events’ that on occasion swing the fortunes of a government might just restore its popularity with the electorate, who might  in the meantime be the most disempowered group in all this.

The Repeal Bill

The ‘Great Repeal Bill’ has now become the ‘Repeal Bill’.  Dr Elaine Fahey, Reader in Law and Associate Dean (International), City Law School, examines how the Bill has become significantly weakened in the Speech.

In a White Paper in February 2017, a proposal was made for a so-called ‘Great Repeal Bill’ to remove the European Communities Act (ECA) 1972 from the status book and convert the acquis, the body of EU law into domestic law.  It provided that, wherever practical and appropriate, the same rules and laws would apply on the day after the UK left the EU as they did before.

Dr Fahey states the Great Repeal Bill’ was supposed to be legislation of fundamental constitutional significance because it was a proposal to paradoxically ‘cut-off’ a prolific course of law, preserve that source of law and provide for its future preservation, using a ‘one-size-fits-all’ framework.

The Queens Speech of 21 June is a remarkable fate for the Bill, from a significantly weakened Executive since its February development.  In the Queen's Speech, the word ‘Great’ has been removed, demoting it to a ‘Repeal Bill’.  It outlines a particularly hard and even brash Brexit overall, despite the ongoing nature of the negotiations and significant political opposition in the hung parliament outcome, which does not appear particularly nuanced to the nature of the current negotiation process.  It aims to provide for a ‘functioning statute book’ from the Bill.

This feat appears mostly impossible given the thousands of acts and instruments of EU law likely to be on the UK statute book and hundreds of agencies and institutional frameworks requiring development, flows of data, information, goods, people and services needing to be addressed in the legal vacuum of Brexit.

Dr Fahey raises concerns about the place of the secondary legislation in the Bill which will give ministers the power to bypass parliament to make rapid changes to domestic law.

The Bill now proposes to repeal the ECA and convert all EU law into UK law as previously outlined.  However, what appears significantly more troubling is the place of secondary legislation in the Bill, whereby ministers will gain substantial powers to by-pass parliament to make swift changes to domestic law.  Another odd formulation in the Queens Speech is that it allows changes to be made to domestic law by secondary legislation to reflect the content of a withdrawal agreement - outlining thus the power to amend significant foreign policy.  

The scope and depth of the Repeal Bill is remarkable- seeking to ‘replicate all common UK frameworks created by EU law in UK law’ (surely a typo seems present in the ‘common UK’ rather than ‘EU’ reflecting its rushed delivery).  It suggests thus that, for example, EU agencies may have to be copied/ redesigned/ reestablished in the UK on a grand scale.

Dr Fahey describes the Speech as "underwhelming", adding that the Bill seems to raise more questions than it answers.

Despite the Brexit talks just beginning there is an odd phrase in the Bill providing for a transitional arrangement, which seems possibly disconcerting at this point for many businesses and individuals, given that such matters are still the subject of the negotiations.  Is it a transitional framework from the ‘freeze in time formula’?  More questions than answers appear to be the outcome of this speech.

It is overall an extraordinarily underwhelming and unsophisticated Bill, despite its dominance of the Queens Speech and the dominance of UK political and legal life since the 23rd June vote in 2016.  It reflects a distinctive lack of intellectual and administrative reflection upon the enormous constitutional, administrative and legal challenges that the UK appears to have entered into through its Brexit.

Dr Fahey will be speaking at The Global Reach of EU Law: The UK as Future EU Rule-Taker and the Brexit Debate on Monday 26th September at 1:00 pm at City, University of London.  Further details and registration here.

Automated and electric vehicles

Professor Keith Pullen, Professor of Energy Systems, School of Mathematics, Computer Science and Engineering, welcomed some of the measures in the Automated and Electric Vehicles Bill.

“The two revolutions of automated and electric vehicles are just beginning and will affect the automotive industry more than any other issue in the last 100 years.  They will transform the way we use cars and ownership and cannot be ignored for long.  In time there will need to be more new legislation since the way on which tax revenue is raised will need to change given electric ‘fuel’ is hardly taxed relative to fossil fuels.  The current model of personal ownership of vehicles and parking charges is also likely to change radically.”

Right to be forgotten

The proposed Data Protection Bill and 'right to be forgotten' could affect UK media companies, according to Professor George Brock of the Department of Journalism, but it will depend on who is covered by the law and how.

Author of The Right to be Forgotten: Privacy and the Media in the Digital Age, Professor Brock says media will probably be exempted, but argues the EU's difficulties with the issue suggest the small print matters.

There's not much wrong with a 'right to be forgotten', except that phrase is misleading and the present one adopted by the EU is badly designed. So if the government is serious about doing this, then they have an opportunity to go one better than the EU's data protection laws.  There's nothing wrong with people being able to correct information that they can show is wrong; the devil is in the detail of how that right is exercised.

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