In the annual Queen’s Speech before Parliament this morning, the Queen set out the legislative agenda for Coalition’s final year. Four of those measures, which concern infrastructure, deregulation for businesses, the possibility of recalling MPs for misconduct and devolution, are interesting from a constitutional and administrative law perspective.
The Infrastructure Bill, regarded by many as one of the centrepiece of today’s programmatic speech, aims to “bolster investment in infrastructure and reform planning law to improve economic competitiveness”. The Bill would turn the Highways Agency from an executive agency into a Government-owned company with a view to securing stable, long-term funding. Further, developers would be given the power to push through applications without the need for council approval, as the Bill would allow certain types of planning conditions to be discharged upon application if a local planning authority has not notified the developer of their decision within a prescribed time period.
The Government also plans to create a new super agency with a duty to support the Government and industry in maximising economic recovery from the North Sea. This regulator would be funded by industry, rather than the taxpayer. In statements released in the immediate aftermath of the Queen’s Speech, industry bodies such as Oil&Gas UK expressed their discontent with this measure, noting that the industry should not be made to bear the whole cost of the new regulator.
Controversially, this Bill would also introduce two measures likely to meet strong opposition from environmental action groups. The Bill aims to “enhance the United Kingdom’s energy independence and security by opening up access to shale and geothermal sites and maximising North Sea resources”. Subject to the outcome of a consultation that is currently being carried out on this point, the proposed legislation would put an end to the current trespass laws requiring land- and home-owners’ consent for gas and oil drilling under their land. The Queen’s Speech also marked a partial departure from the Coalition’s previous pledge to make all new homes “zero-carbon” by 2016, as the Infrastructure Bill would introduce an exemption for housing built in “small” developments and allow developers to purchase further exemptions from the new green standards.
Small Businesses, Enterprise and Employment Bill
According to the Speech, the Small Businesses, Enterprise and Employment Bill is intended to: “help make the United Kingdom the most attractive place to start, finance and grow a business. The Bill will support small businesses by cutting bureaucracy and enabling them to access finance… New legislation will require ministers to set and report on a deregulation target for each Parliament”.
Among other things, the Bill aims to give small business owners better access to finance and a fairer chance to compete for public procurement contracts. It would also require regular and frequent reviews of the red tape affecting small businesses, with a view to ensuring that regulations are either cut or remain effective. A register of beneficial ownership outlining who owns and controls British companies would also be introduced, to strengthen the UK’s reputation as a trusted and transparent place to do business.
Recall of Members of Parliament Bill
The Recall of Members of Parliament Bill attempts to fill a gap in the existing framework for oversight of MPs. Currently, MPs are only expelled from Parliament if they receive a custodial sentence of over one year, while less serious wrongdoing is punished by temporary suspension from the House. Reform in this respect had first been promised in 2010, in the wake of public outrage at MPs involved in the Expenses Scandal retaining their seats, but was repeatedly delayed due to concerns that the recall mechanism could be abused for party political advantage.
The Bill would allow voters to trigger a by-election by means of a petition signed by 10% of his or her constituency over an eight-week period. This mechanism would apply if either:
(a) the relevant MP is convicted of an offence and receives a custodial sentence of 12 months or less (for sentences over 12 months, automatic expulsion from Parliament would be retained); or
(b) the House of Commons resolves that he or she has engaged in “serious wrongdoing” and should face a recall petition.
The requirement that, absent a custodial sentence, an MP can only be recalled following an House of Commons’ decision to this effect has prompted criticism that the Recall of MPs Bill does not go far enough, with the TaxPayers’ Alliance branding it as “embarrassingly weak” and Tory MP Zac Goldsmith advocating for removal of this requirement.
Reflecting the current political landscape, the Queen’s Speech noted that the Government will continue to “make the case for Scotland to remain a part of the United Kingdom”, while also including a vague statement of intention to “continue to implement new financial powers for the Scottish Parliament”, without any specific reference to any proposed legislation to support this.
By contrast, the devolution of further powers to Wales is specifically provided for under the Wales Bill, which would grant new financial powers to the Welsh National Assembly and Government in relation to borrowing, taxation and investment.
Further information on each of the measures discussed in the Queen’s Speech is provided in the Cabinet Office Guidance “Queen’s Speech 2014: what it means for you”.