The politics: a weakened Prime Minister, a minority government
From a broad political perspective, this was a Queen’s Speech from a government reaching for authority rather than making a statement of authority. Having returned from the general election with a reduced number of seats and now without the majority required to govern unaided, the Conservatives remain locked in talks with the Northern Ireland’s DUP (Democratic Unionist Party). Those talks remain ongoing and the Queen’s Speech took place after a consequential delay.
The state of the government was best reflected in what was missing from the Queen’s Speech, rather than what it included. Absent was reform to the state pension and triple lock; caps to executive pay and worker representation on boards; provisions to boost fracking; a specific energy price cap; the ending of universal school meals; specifics on social care reform and also any provisions to implement new parliamentary boundaries. The election campaign and result meant those proposals were seen as too unpopular to carry forward. The majority of measures that remained are less likely to provoke great parliamentary tensions. They are largely measures with cross-party support.
Support across the House is now vital given the parliamentary arithmetic and the government’s minority status. However, with so much of the legislative programme focussed on Brexit, political and ideological disagreements are likely to become regularly enflamed. Brexit is the biggest issue of the day and the one on which there is certainly not cross-party consensus. Parliament will be far more assertive than the government would have wished. It seems likely that a parliamentary majority will instead develop behind a Brexit stance, which will be ‘softer’ than the government’s own preferred position.
The policy: not just Brexit
The Queen’s Speech, amidst the ceremony of the state opening of parliament, is the government’s chance to outline its legislative programme for the parliamentary session. With the Queen’s Speech already scrapped for 2018, the outline of bills made this week will form the next two years of the legislative agenda – their content will be critical.
The speech had Brexit at its heart, with eight of the 27 bills and draft bills focussing on managing and adapting to the UK’s exit from the EU. The Repeal Bill (formerly known as the Great Repeal Bill), will provide a functioning statute book on the day of the UK’s exit with a three-pronged approach by repealing the European Communities Act 1972 - creating temporary powers for parliament to make secondary legislation and replicating in UK law the common UK frameworks created by EU law.
New customs and trade bills will ensure the UK has a standalone customs regime and the ability to operate its own independent trade policy. The Immigration Bill, while bland at this stage, will be the vehicle through which the UK implements control of its own borders. Business will need to closely monitor the extent to which it allows them the access to talent they require.
There was still a significant amount of domestic legislation announced. In the field of law, justice and safety there are three bills that stand out. The Civil Liability Bill’s purpose is to ensure there is a fair, transparent and proportionate system of compensation in place for damages paid to genuinely injured personal injury claimants. Conceivably this could include the discount rate. Applying to England and Wales, the Bill will tackle the “continuing high number and cost of whiplash claims” – seeking to ban offers to settle claims without the support of medical evidence and introduce a new fixed tariff of compensation for whiplash injuries with a duration of up to two years. The Queen’s Speech was silent on the earlier proposals to introduce two small claim thresholds - £5,000 for whiplash injuries and £2,000 for all other personal injuries.
While focussed largely on criminal law, the Courts Bill will reform the courts system in England and Wales to ensure it is more efficient and accessible, and in doing so utilise more modern technology. The Draft Patient Safety Bill will set out a framework to help improve patient safety in the NHS by bringing forward proposals to establish the Health Service Safety Investigation Body in statute, providing it with clear powers to conduct independent and impartial investigations into patient safety risks in the NHS in England. It will create a prohibition on the disclosure of information held in connection with an investigation conducted by the Health Service Safety Investigation Body, enabling participants to be as candid as possible.
Commitments in the Automated and Electric Vehicles Bill will be of major interest to corporate insurers and those concerned with the changing motor liability framework. The purpose of the Bill is to ensure the UK continues to be at the forefront of developing new technology in electric and automated road vehicles. The Bill will extend compulsory motor vehicle insurance to cover the use of automated vehicles, to ensure that compensation claims continue to be paid quickly, fairly, and easily, in line with longstanding insurance practice.
The use, misuse and abuse of data has become of increasing concern to this government, and Theresa May’s long tenure in charge of the Home Office means she has a firm grasp of the issues. The Data Protection Bill will fulfil a manifesto commitment to, “ensure the UK has a data protection regime that is fit for the 21st century”. Of paramount importance, the Bill will implement the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) and the new Directive that applies to law enforcement data processing.
The Bill will strengthen rights and empower individuals to have more control over their personal data including a right to be forgotten, while establishing a new data protection regime for non-law enforcement data processing, replacing the Data Protection Act 1998. A compliment to that, government will develop a Digital Charter that will create a new framework that balances users’ and businesses’ freedom and security online.
Whilst the headline subject of corporate governance was omitted from the speech, other core business issues did feature. There was a pledge to make “further progress” to tackle the gender pay gap and discrimination against people on the basis of their race, faith, gender, disability or sexual orientation. Further commitments to mental health reform will begin to be considered, considering what legislation is necessary.
We await the details of the bills with interest. While the effort to provide reassurance about a domestic agenda is to be welcomed, the reality is that implementation will be subject to the now familiar ‘Brexit caveat’. Given the period of adjustment we have entered with Brexit, maintaining a political energy for anything else may not be easy.