Westminster update: Queen's speech

Your weekly update from the Law Society’s public affairs team on all the latest developments and debates in Parliament and across Whitehall.

Palace of Westminster

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1. Queen's speech outlines government's agenda

Tuesday 11 May saw the state opening of Parliament and the delivery of the Queen’s speech, outlining the government’s legislative agenda for the next year.

To ensure that the event was COVID-19 secure, this year’s Queen’s speech forewent much of the traditional pomp and ceremony. Normally the Commons and Lords would have been rammed, but this year only 74 people were allowed into the main Lords chamber, with an additional 34 MPs and peers permitted to watch from the Royal Gallery. The Queen travelled by a state limousine rather than the traditional horse and carriage and there were no military members lining the streets as she drove to the Lords.

The Queen's speech announced a series of bills that the government plans to introduce in the coming year. The bills will seek to enact key parts of the Conservative party’s 2019 election manifesto and help the country “build back better” from the pandemic.

The justice system and individual safety was a central theme. The Government’s briefing states its intention to “build back safer” after the pandemic by “toughening sentences for serious and violent offenders and doing more to prevent violence against women and girls”. The Queen announced that the Government will bring forward new immigration legislation and a Judicial Review Bill, as well as carrying over the controversial Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill.

Another area of note for solicitors was the focus on issues in the property market. The Queen introduced bills on planning reform, leasehold reform and building safety that will aim to promote higher housing safety standards and “help more people to own their own home whilst enhancing the rights of those who rent”.

The speech also covered the Government’s commitment to helping the UK bounce back from the pandemic “stronger, healthier and more prosperous than before” by supporting jobs and skills, and working to ensure that all UK regions can access the skills they require. To this end, the Government will bring forward the Skills and Post-16 Education Bill, which will create a new “lifetime skills guarantee” for every adult.

They also plan to introduce the Professional Qualifications Bill which will create a new framework to recognise professional qualifications from around the world.

Watch the Queen's speech

2. Government presents 14 new bills to Parliament

This week the Government presented 14 bills to Parliament. Four bills are of particular note to the legal profession.

  • Professional Qualifications Bill – this bill will create a new framework to recognise professional qualifications from around the world, replacing the interim system that currently gives preference to professional qualifications from the EU, Switzerland, Norway, Iceland and Liechtenstein.
  • Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill – this is a wide-ranging bill that includes measures that will increase sentences for violent offenders and introduce changes to pre-charge bail, remote juries and remote hearings.
  • Environment Bill – this bill will introduce a framework for legally binding environment targets and establish a new independent Office for Environmental Protection.
  • Leasehold Reform (Ground Rent) Bill – this bill will seek to ban the collection of ground rents for new leasehold properties.

The other eight are: 

  • Advanced Research and Invention Agency Bill
  • Armed Forces Bill
  • Finance Bill
  • Telecommunications (Security) Bill
  • Dissolution and Calling of Parliament Bill
  • Compensation (London Capital and Finance plc and Fraud Compensation Fund) Bill
  • National Insurance Contributions Bill
  • Rating (Coronavirus) and Directors Disqualification (Dissolved Companies) Bill
  • Higher Education (Freedom of Speech) Bill
  • Northern Ireland (Ministers, Elections and Petitions of Concern) Bill

The Professional Qualifications Bill will have its second reading on 25 May.

3. Local, regional and national election results

The results of the “Super Thursday” local and regional elections across England were announced over the course of the weekend, with headlines focusing on the Hartlepool by-election result which saw the Conservative party gain the seat from Labour. Jill Mortimer won the election by a sizable majority, and is the first Conservative MP elected in Hartlepool for 62 years.

The result in Hartlepool, alongside losses elsewhere in the country, has put pressure on Sir Keir Starmer as Labour party leader.

Mayoral elections held across England demonstrated that Labour remain strongest in cities, with Sadiq Khan holding on to the London Mayoralty, and Labour remaining in charge of Greater Manchester (Andy Burnham) and Liverpool City Region (Steve Rotherham), while gaining the West of England (Dan Norris) and Cambridgeshire and Peterborough (Nik Johnson) from the Conservatives. Labour also won the newly created post of Mayor of West Yorkshire, with the new Mayor Tracy Brabin now set to resign her seat in the House of Commons, setting up a close parliamentary by-election in the constituency of Batley and Spen.

The Conservatives won two mayoral elections, with Andy Street retaining the West Midlands mayoralty and Ben Houchen retaining the Tees Valley mayoralty with a significantly increased majority.

In local council elections held across England:

  • the Conservatives won 2,345 councillors (+235) and 63 councils (+13)
  • Labour won 1,345 councillors (-326) and 44 councils (-8)
  • the Lib Dems won 586 councillors (+7) and seven councils (+1)
  • the Greens won 151 councillors (+88) and no councils (-)

In Wales, Labour held on to power with 30 of the 60 seats in the Senedd Cymru. The Conservatives hold 16 seats, Plaid Cymru have 13 seats and the Liberal Democrats have one seat.

In Scotland, the SNP remains the largest party with 64 seats, while the Conservatives hold 31 seats, Labour 22 seats, the Green party eight seats and the Liberal Democrats four seats. Scotland’s first minister Nicola Sturgeon has indicated that following these results she will seek to hold a referendum on Scottish independence.

4. Labour reshuffle

In response to the election performance, Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer held a small reshuffle of his shadow team over the weekend.

The reshuffle got off to a bumpy start after it was announced that deputy leader Angela Rayner MP was to be moved from one of her roles in charge of campaigns, only for her to refuse. Ultimately she was given the position of shadow chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, shadowing Michael Gove, as well as the newly created position of shadow secretary of state for the future of work.

The key change in the reshuffle saw Anneliese Dodds MP removed as shadow chancellor of the exchequer, to be replaced by Rachel Reeves MP. Dodds will now take on the role of Labour party chair.

David Lammy MP remains as shadow lord chancellor, Nick Thomas-Symonds MP remains as shadow home secretary and Lord Falconer remains as shadow attorney general.

5. Queen's speech debates

Throughout the week there have been debates in both the Lords and the Commons on the content of the Queen’s speech.

The first debate took place in the Commons a few hours after the conclusion of the Queen’s speech. Labour leader Keir Starmer used his speech to criticise the government for, in his view, its inaction over a cladding scandal that has left “thousands of people… still trapped in unsafe buildings, and hundreds of thousands of leaseholders... caught up in homes they cannot sell or afford”.

Starmer also stated his party’s opposition to the Judicial Review Bill. He said that “this government simply fail to understand that our independent judiciary are a strength for our country, not a weakness”.

The prime minister responded by noting the £5bn the government has given to support homeowners who live in accommodation over 18 meters that has dangerous cladding. He also spoke in favour of the government’s New Plan for Immigration legislation which he said would ensure that “for the first time, the fact of whether people have entered the UK legally or illegally will have an impact on their asylum claim”.

On Thursday, the Lords debated aspects of the Queen’s speech relating to the constitution and the union. During the debate, the government’s decision to bring forward a Judicial Review Bill came under sustained attack from a number of peers.

Baroness Hayter (Labour) criticised the “Government’s ill-conceived attack on judicial review”. She argued that “a government shy of legal scrutiny fail to understand that our independent judiciary is a strength, not a weakness”.

Meanwhile, Lord Taverne (Liberal Democrat) criticised the government’s “threat… to reduce the role of judicial review, one of the most important legal developments to control ultra vires actions by government”.

Speaking in defence of the government, Lord True (cabinet office minister) said the Judicial Review Bill honoured a Conservative manifesto commitment and was “intended to protect the judiciary from being drawn into political questions and to preserve the integrity of judicial review for its intended purpose”.

Read the Commons debates:

Read the Lords debates:

Coming up next week

Monday in the Commons will see a fourth day of debate on the Queen’s speech, covering the theme of ‘safe streets for all’. Day five of the debates will then take place on Wednesday and cover ‘affordable and safe housing for all’. There will also be oral questions for the Ministry of Justice and the attorney general on Tuesday and Thursday respectively. Meanwhile the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill will begin committee stage in the Commons on Tuesday, with the Public Bill Committee due to sit on the Thursday as well.

In the Lords, there will be debates on the Queen’s speech which cover home affairs, justice and culture; and foreign affairs and defence on Tuesday and Wednesday respectively.

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