The Queen’s speech is, as Her Majesty pointed out, written by the government.
In the case of the speech she delivered on 11 May 2021, opinions seem divided.
Some have claimed that there was not much to it. Tim Montgomerie, a former adviser to Number 10 described it as “a thin Queen’s Speech. This is a government without any big ideas.” And it is true that anticipated legislation on protection of workers’ rights, funding of social care and protection of veterans were all missing.
But is that fair comment? Is there really nothing significant in the speech?
If we take the words of the speech at face value and assume that ministers both intend to deliver what they promise and are competent to do so, then there are many elements to cheer. For example, “Measures will be brought forward to ensure that children have the best start in life, prioritising their early years. My Ministers will address lost learning during the pandemic and ensure every child has a high-quality education and is able to fulfil their potential.”
If it is true that in future every child will have a high-quality education and be able to fulfil their potential, then the UK has a rosy future to look forward to.
In some cases, we can form a reasonable hypothesis about what the government intends to do in practice based on what they have been doing and on legislation they have already presented.
And when we look at the speech in this way, we conclude that far from being thin, it contains a number of ground-breaking proposals – but unfortunately, many of these would be profoundly damaging to the UK:
- there are several proposals which could seriously erode our democracy, to the point that the UK might remain a democracy name, but not in reality;
- there are serious threats to the efficiency and effectiveness of the NHS;
- there is a threat of a return to the hugely damaging austerity of the last decade.
In all cases, the wording in the speech obscures rather than highlights the threats.
The Queen’s speech contains the following ominous paragraph:
My Government will strengthen and renew democracy and the constitution. Legislation will be introduced to ensure the integrity of elections, protect freedom of speech and restore the balance of power between the executive, legislature and the courts [Electoral Integrity Bill, Higher Education (Freedom of Speech) Bill, Judicial Review Bill, Dissolution and Calling of Parliament Bill].”
Let us focus on the Electoral Integrity Bill and the Judicial Review Bill.
The Electoral Integrity Bill will introduce mandatory photo identification for voting. The government’s justification for this is that the incidence of voter fraud (six cases at the last election) is six cases too many.
The reality is that this is a voter suppression tactic which has been applied in parts of the US. The idea is simple: most well-off people already have a passport and driving licence – they are already qualified to vote; a surprising number of poorer people have neither – and the cost and inconvenience of obtaining photographic voter ID will be enough to put some of them off voting.
The Electoral Commission says,
“Research by the Electoral Commission in 2015 showed that around 3.5 million citizens (7.5% of the electorate) do not have access to photo ID. If voter identification requirements were restricted to passports or driving licences, around 11 million citizens (24% of the electorate) could potentially be disenfranchised. And getting ID costs time and money, while any ‘free’ ID scheme is likely to be difficult to secure.
Marginalised groups are less likely to have ID: Women, those living in urban areas, the under 20s and over 65s were less likely to hold a driving licence. Indeed, since the 1990s, possession of a driving licence has dropped by 40 percent among under 20s – making it a poor basis for a voter ID policy. A recent survey by the Department for Transport found that only 52 percent of Black people hold a driving licence, compared with 76% of the white population. FCA research in 2019 estimated that 1.3 million people in the UK do not have a bank account.”
So the government risks disenfranchising many thousands of its most vulnerable voters to solve the ‘problem’ of electoral fraud.
In summary, as the former Tory Cabinet minister David Davis put it,
It’s an illiberal solution in pursuit of a non-existent problem. If you’ve got an ID card, you’re putting a barrier in the way of people to exercise their own democratic rights, which is not necessary and shouldn’t be there.”
The Judicial Review Bill will, according to the government, “restore the balance of power between the executive, legislature and the courts.” What does this mean in practice?
In practice, it means removing the ability of courts to challenge illegal behaviour by ministers. This government has been taken to court – and lost – on several important issues:
- the illegal prorogation of Parliament with the objective of forcing through the hard Brexit without parliamentary scrutiny;
- the illegal withholding of information on suspect deals for procurement of personal protective equipment during the pandemic – over £1 billion of taxpayers money was ‘spent’ on apparently unqualified companies, who happen to have close ties to the Tory party;
- the illegal deportation of refugees, around 700 of whom have to seek judicial review of Home Office decisions in order to secure their rights to stay.
The government’s attitude to these losses is summed up in their comment on legal challenges to deportations, “We are working to remove migrants with no right to remain in the UK. But currently return regulations are rigid and open to abuse… allowing activist lawyers to delay and disrupt returns.”
The government sees application of the law to ministers’ decisions as an abuse; most people see ministers making illegal decisions as the abuse. If this Bill goes through, our ability to prevent such abuse will be further reduced.
And, as we have argued at greater length, this Bill is just part of a more comprehensive assault on all forms of checks and balances in the UK.
Perhaps, if the Queen had written her own speech, it would have read,
“My Government will weaken and subvert democracy and the constitution. Legislation will be introduced to remove the universal right of citizens to vote in elections … and to place ministers firmly above the law.”
Endangering the NHS
The Queen’s speech contained the following sentences:
“Laws will simplify procurement in the public sector [Procurement Bill]. …
My Ministers will bring forward legislation to empower the NHS to innovate and embrace technology. Patients will receive more tailored and preventative care, closer to home [Health and Care Bill]. Measures will be brought forward to support the health and wellbeing of the nation, including to tackle obesity and improve mental health. Proposals on social care reform will be brought forward.”
In the first one, the word ‘simplify’ is doing some heavy lifting. The total value of unorthodox procurement – i.e. not following the normal procurement procedures – exceeds £1 billion of taxpayers’ money on personal protective equipment alone. And in many cases, nothing usable was delivered. An almost unimaginable £37 billion of taxpayers’ money has been allocated to the government’s failing test and trace system, which it consistently and erroneously brands as ‘NHS test and trace.’
The risk of course is that by ‘simplifying’ procurement in the public sector, transactions such as these would be deemed acceptable, and there would be no basis for scrutinising whether or not there has been an abuse of public funds.
Given the scale of the issues which are already visible, it is clear that there is a risk not only for misusing taxpayer’s money but also reducing the efficiency and effectiveness of the NHS.
Perhaps even more fundamental though is the government’s proposed Health and Care Bill. Although the White Paper contains some ideas which are potentially helpful, it also opens up some very serious risks – not least the danger of accelerated privatisation of the NHS and a drift towards a US-style healthcare system, which is an enormous risk to the effectiveness and efficiency of the NHS.
While reform of the NHS is overall a very complex issue, it is absolutely clear that moving in the direction of the US system is not the way to go.
Sir David King, former government Chief Scientist, has recently commented that,
“The operation to roll out vaccination has been extremely successful. It was driven through entirely by our truly National Health Service and GP service – just amazing. Yet we have persisted with this money for test and trace, given without competition, without due process … I am really worried about democratic processes being ignored.
[The government] is slipping this [White Paper] through in the name of a pandemic – effectively, to privatise the NHS by stealth. I’m quite sure this has not been an accident, I’m quite sure this has been the plan, there has been clarity in this process. The audacity has been amazing.”
The 99% Organisation has set up a project to help protect the NHS by analysing the threats to the NHS and providing campaigning organisations with the facts and arguments they need to prevent the NHS from falling victim to this kind of stealth privatisation. If you might be interested in joining the project, here are the details.
Governments planning austerity never say so. They use language like “balancing the books” or “living within our means.”
Of course, the idea of balancing the government books is economic nonsense, and our debt is not dangerously high – but these phrases are rhetorically powerful and have been proven to resonate with the public and act as an effective cover for damaging economic decisions.
In this case, the phrasing was:
“My Government will ensure that the public finances are returned to a sustainable path once the economic recovery is secure.”
And the simple reality is that the government is planning to reduce spending. Here is the analysis of planned spending changes from the Office for Budget Responsibility of Rishi Sunak’s budget.
For this year and next, spending is planned to remain higher; thereafter, we are right back to austerity.
We have a relatively short window in which to act to prevent the government from subverting democracy and implementing its market fundamentalist agenda. On the other hand, on issues from feeding the poorest schoolchildren during the holidays through to lock-down, and the temproary shelving of the repressive Police Bill we have seen that the government is not immune to pressure and does make U-turns.