Queen’s Speech 2014: the experts respond

61 speeches and counting. Andy Rain/EPA

The government’s legislative plan for its final year has been set out in the Queen’s speech. It most notably contains a recall bill that will allow voters to sack MPs who are jailed or who have committed “serious wrongdoing” according to the House of Commons. The recall bill was part of the coalition agreement of 2010.

Also flagged are reforms to the pensions system (set out in the budget earlier this year), a tax allowance for married couples, the introduction of a plastic bag charge and a new infrastructure bill to open up more opportunities for fracking in the UK.

We asked a panel of experts for their view on these and other measures (and some that were left out) as the government heads into its final session before the 2015 general election.


Recall bill

Alan Renwick, Associate Professor of Politics and International Relations, University of Reading

The government is proposing to allow voters to recall their MP by petition – but only when the MP has been found guilty of serious wrongdoing. That is a sensible policy. Failing to respond to popular desire for greater political accountability would only fuel voters’ anger with politics.

But “total recall”, where a petition campaign could be launched any time, would sit uneasily with our parliamentary democracy, where government ministers need to be able to pursue the national interest even when local constituents oppose it.

What is bad about the government’s announcement is the idea that it should be for the House of Commons to decide whether “wrongdoing” has occurred. Allowing politicians to act as judge and jury on their own peers just won’t fly in a 21st century world of sceptical voters.

Pensions

Iain Clacher, Associate Professor in Accounting and Finance, University of Leeds

Much of what was here has already been announced, in particular the government’s plan to stop the compulsory purchase of an annuity for defined contribution pension holders on retirement. The announcement to allow for collective defined contribution (CDC) pensions is something new, however (despite being leaked earlier in the week). This is a much more significant change.

In making this move, the government is going to allow for pension schemes that are much closer to the Dutch system of pensions where benefits can be reduced and enhanced depending on the performance of the fund. This may sound negative, but some estimates show that an individual could end up with a pension pot that is 30% greater compared to a traditional defined contribution pension.

What is telling about both pieces of legislation is the conflict in policy between individualism and collectivism. The abolition of compulsory annuitisation places all the responsibility on the individual, while the commencement of CDC says that pensions and retirement savings should be collective as there are clear benefits to this. More worrying still is the fact that the US is trying to move away from individualism to a system of compulsory annuitisation, while the Dutch are trying to move away from CDC to something more akin to the UK system.

Modern Slavery

Alex Balch, Lecturer in Politics, University of Liverpool

The expected announcement of the Modern Slavery Bill in the Queen’s speech fires the starting gun for the fascinating battle that will come next.

Already heavily criticised for being too focused on criminal justice, with not enough for victims, there will clearly be problems if it remains similar to the previous draft version – and there is hardly the time for significant amendments.

Considering her personal championing of the bill, its successful passage could rest on Home Secretary Theresa May’s resolve to push it through. It will be an interesting test of her power within the Conservative Party.

Housing

Ken Gibb, Professor of Economics, University of Glasgow

The day after the European Commission warned about the housing market (saying many of the things UK commentators have been saying for years) and with strong rising real house prices, particularly in the south, we might have expected some action in this policy sphere.

What we got primarily was the repetition of previous announcements and in one or two cases legislative proposals. The tenor, however, is: “we have prioritised this problem and our responses are the correct ones”. The government makes the assumption that its cumulative actions are demonstrably succeeding, for example that more house building is the result of planning reform and their market interventions rather than other factors. We may be building more houses but completion levels remain woefully inadequate.

The proposals to help with development finance for small builders and repayable loans for plots are welcome and if the garden cities models can succeed, be replicated and actually support local communities and increased supply – all the better. But it is at this stage a prospectus and plan rather than guaranteed replicable reality. There are other proposals to expedite the acquisition of strategic sites by the Homes and Communities Agency, proposals to sell high value land for development, and also to allow builders to offset zero carbon pledges for all new homes.

The government won’t adjust Help to Buy, and Right to Buy is set to continue in England, unlike Scotland where it is being abolished. There is scepticism that the receipts from these sales will translate into the promised equivalent numbers of affordable rented properties but we will need to wait in order to have a clearer sense of this over the next year or so. So in this year before the general election it looks as though any action to cool the housing market will come, if at all, from the Bank of England.

Tina Fawcett, Senior Researcher at the University of Oxford’s Environmental Change Institute.

The proposal that new homes must be built to a “zero carbon standard” from 2016 will entail reducing energy use through better insulation and good design, and generating more energy from renewable sources. But in the proposals laid out in the Queen’s Speech, “zero” emissions really means “low”. Eliminating the last 10-20% of energy use in a building can be expensive and technically demanding, requiring skills not yet widely available in the construction sector. So this not-quite-zero standard can be seen as a good pragmatic decision, to be revised later as skills and building techniques and technologies improve. However, details on the balance between higher building standards, on-site and off-site renewables are still to be negotiated, and it’s important to ensure the main focus remains on improving buildings.

If the intended improvements are to be delivered in full, we need better enforcement of existing regulations to bridge the design-performance gap. Buildings’ energy efficiency performance on paper usually far exceeds real-life results, with the result that householders face much higher energy bills and fewer environmental benefits.

Because there is so little demolition in the UK, all new homes add to the UK’s energy use and carbon emissions; the question is by how much. So this standard must be a step towards truly zero-carbon homes.

Free school meals

Jane Ogden, professor of health psychology, University of Surrey

It’s good to see this back on track after the recent in-house fighting about how it would be paid for. Children’s diets are often not only poor in terms of their nutritional content but can also show the early onset of bad habits and unhealthy attitudes to food.

Free school meals will be a fantastic opportunity to encourage good eating habits and attitudes from an early age. Children will not only be guaranteed one healthy meal a day but school staff will be able to use lunchtime as a chance to role model good eating behaviour and can talk about food in a healthy way. These habits will hopefully continue through into adulthood and set them up for life.

Energy

David Elmes, Professor of Practice at Warwick Business School, University of Warwick

The Infrastructure Bill in the Queen’s Speech would “support the development of gas and oil from shale and geothermal energy by clarifying and streamlining the underground access regime”. Headline writers will translate this as “It’s OK to frack under your house” and the speech refers to the ongoing consultation process on this matter.

Whitehall has keenly appreciated the economic and energy security gains from the boom in shale oil and gas in the US. Policies that encourage investment to safely find out what’s possible are a good thing. In the US, landowners generally own the rights to the oil and gas under their property and companies wanting it must strike a deal with them. In the UK, rights belong to the Crown, and any Chancellor of the Exchequer with an eye on future government spending will look covetously at the potential licence revenue from more oil and gas production. So we have the ongoing game of carrots and sticks. The government seeks to keep its stake in the resources while encouraging the investment by companies to extract them, and marshaling public support through such means as requiring drilling companies to pay communities for their inconvenience.

This is an example of an area where, if we want to encourage a new economic sector, we need to resolve a host of questions regarding policy and regulation. In contrast, the Queen’s Speech also discusses the North Sea oil & gas industry where changes are needed to support a maturing industry. Referring to Sir Ian Wood’s review, the speech calls for “a larger, better resourced regulator” to ensure the coordination and collaboration necessary to maximise the oil & gas from the North Sea. Put help for new sources of oil & gas together with more coordination of North Sea activities, add Electricity Market Reform and the prospect of referring power companies to the Competition and Markets Authority, the government’s more central role in the UK energy industry becomes clearer – something probably long overdue.

Small businesses

Richard Blundel, Senior Lecturer in Enterprise Development at The Open University

Much will depend on the fine detail, and on how the Small Business, Enterprise and Employment Bill fares in parliament, but there are positive signs. The department for Business, Innovation and Skills has clearly consulted small business practitioners and researchers – the Federation of Small Businesses have heralded it as a “landmark” – and it’s targeting many of the top problems reported by owners and managers down the years, including hardy perennials like improving access to finance and reducing “red tape”.

However, the small firms are incredibly diverse and each of these problems is complex and pervasive. The bill will need to get to grips with the underlying issues rather than just courting popularity with a few headline-grabbing statements. For example, SME Finance Monitor data suggests that most small firms are not actively seeking finance, so access problems need to be deconstructed carefully to see what’s really going on.

There’s also evidence to suggest that negative experiences of regulation are often a result of frequent, unexpected, arbitrary, and poorly implemented changes, so the whole concept of regulation also needs to be unpacked carefully.

It’s good to see strong ethical interventions in areas such as abuses of zero hours contracts and unfair terms in the licensed trade, though paradoxically both mean new laws and statutory codes. I hope there’s a similar emphasis in the bill on reducing the considerable environmental footprint of small businesses, which extends well beyond plastic bags.

Plastic bag charge

Isabelle Szmigin, Professor of Marketing at Birmingham Business School, University of Birmingham

It’s debatable whether or not the proposed 5p levy on plastic bags could be described as a bold new bill, when the Environmental Audit Committee called the proposals “a complete mess”. But it should be taken seriously, and it has positive advantages for both consumers and businesses.

Consumers may be a little disgruntled to begin with but the experience in both Wales and Ireland suggests they will soon get over it, and bringing bags out shopping will be as normal as picking up a chocolate bar at the checkout. There’s no harm in anything that makes us more thoughtful shoppers, even if we have to be forced to do it.

And what is the benefit for businesses? “Bags for life” will become the norm – even if traditional shopping baskets don’t – and this provides an opportunity both for showing off their sustainability credentials, and more interesting opportunities for colour and design in the advertising messages they carry. If as is planned the money from the levy is put towards good causes, so much the better. As with smokers being sent outside, sometimes a bit of regulating behaviour can be a measure for good.

Forest and National Park reform

Frank Uekötter, Reader in Environmental Humanities at the University of Birmingham

The proposals for direct elections to National Park authorities may be dismissed with reference to the plan for directly elected police commissioners, which was a mixed success at best.

But then elections are as much about faces as about accountability, and national parks need the latter dearly. All over the world, we see conflicts over protected areas. Many park authorities have embraced “fortress conservation” and seek to fend off intrusions to their domain as best they can – not so much because it really works, but because they can. But things may change when an outsider with a elected mandate joins the board. The staff at national parks may need to explain more, to be more open. The rhetoric of ecology and biodiversity has long since morphed into an insiders’ code that many find hard to decipher.

Of course, that is a very idealistic version of how things may turn out. But fortress games are much more fun with a mole behind the walls.

Childcare reform

Kitty Stewart, Associate professor, department of social policy, at the London School of Economics

It is great to see childcare on the government’s agenda and in the Queen’s speech, with plans to introduce a Childcare Payments Bill. But the way government proposes to invest additional resources seems poorly thought out.

The childcare scheme is misguided. The aim is to improve affordability for parents, and while the simplicity of the new system will be welcomed, there is no guarantee the extra funding will not just lead to higher prices (and, with our strong for-profit sector, higher profits rather than investment in quality).

There are too few strings (indeed no strings at all) attached to the funding in terms of investment in qualifications and pay of staff and in terms of limiting price increases. On top of this, the scheme is regressive, channelling most resources to families that can afford to pay more.

Developing a funding system which is equitable and promotes quality is not straightforward, but there are things we can learn from other countries about how to do it. The tax-free scheme has the feel of something worked out too quickly on the back of an envelope in advance of an election, without regard to what works and doesn’t work elsewhere.

Left out: surveillance

Alan Woodward, Visiting Professor, University of Surrey

One notable omission from the speech was the Data Communications Bill. Originally proposed by the previous Labour administration, the latest draft was notified in 2012 by Home Secretary Theresa May, who wanted to ensure that law enforcement agencies could “maintain access” to data communications traffic, ostensibly for criminal investigations.

However, the bill was quickly dubbed the Snoopers’ Charter by organisations and individuals who objected to the government being able to routinely gather personal data on innocent citizens and retain it for up to two years.

The nickname probably explains why the bill has been dropped from this last Queen’s Speech before the next general election. The climate of public opinion following Edward Snowden’s revelations about the extent to which the US and UK government already monitor personal data would make it very difficult to pass legislation to make it even easier. With so much else to get into law before the next election, I suspect the government is keeping its powder dry on this bill until public anger subsides a little.

The unfortunate consequence is that it does hamper attempts by the government to make more use of data to home in on criminal, extremist activities. The bill was a key part of the Communications Capability Development Programme (previously known as the Interception Modernisation Programme). The UK will not be left blind without it but it will mean that such activities take a great deal more effort.

However, the UK has already enacted the European Data Retention Directive so it’s possible that the government may simply abandon the bill and rework it as an update to existing data retention law.