Queen’s speech signals constitutional change as Boris Johnson sets out legislative plans

By on 19/12/2019
Queen Elizabeth II has outlined the government’s priorities at the State opening of Parliament (Image courtesy: Maurice/flickr).

Fresh from winning last Thursday’s general election, the UK government has said it is taking steps to overhaul the country’s constitution as the Queen opened parliament with a speech outlining the government’s priorities for the coming Parliamentary session. 

In her speech – delivered in front of parliamentarians at the House of Lords on Thursday – Queen Elizabeth II said the government will look at broad aspects of the constitution, including “the relationship between the government, parliament and the courts; the functioning of the royal prerogative; the role of the House of Lords; and access to justice for ordinary people”.

In its first year, she continued, the government will set up a “constitution, democracy and rights commission that will examine these issues in depth, and come up with proposals to restore trust in our institutions and in how our democracy operates”.

Ministers have not given any detail as to how this will work in practice, but the Tory manifesto hinted that prime minister Boris Johnson has grand ambitious. For example, the manifesto pledged to ensure that judicial review “is available to protect the rights of the individuals against an overbearing state, while ensuring that it is not abused to conduct politics by another means or to create needless delays”.

The commitment follows the government’s defeat in a judicial review brought by campaigners challenging Boris Johnson’s attempt to shut down Parliament earlier this year. Frustrated by MPs’ attempts to introduce legislation preventing him from pursuing a ‘no deal’ exit from the EU, Johnson ‘prorogued’ Parliament for an unprecedented five-week period, bringing all parliamentary business to a close. But the Supreme Court ruled on 24 September that he had acted unlawfully, forcing him to recall Parliament.

Constitutional concerns

Johnson’s plans to amend judicial review rules have sparked concerns among constitutional experts. On 18 December Raphael Hogarth, an associate at think tank the Institute for Government, wrote in a tweet that the government “shouldn’t be reforming judicial review just because it wants to get away with breaking the law more often”.

In an IfG blog, Hogarth noted that the 2010-15 Coalition government has already tightened up the rules around judicial reviews, and warned of the complexity and controversy attached to any attempt at major reform. Johnson “told the House of Commons that the court was ‘wrong to pronounce on a political question at a time of great national controversy’,” he recalled. The judicial review process does not allow the courts to block government policies of which they disapprove; it is there to intervene “when the executive acts outside its powers, or makes decisions through an unfair procedure (like a biased one), or acts so unreasonably that no reasonable person could possibly have acted the same way.”

“If the government has genuine concerns that the courts are applying those tests in a way that hinders effective government, it will need to provide a much more robust evidence base,” he said. “All governments get frustrated with the courts, because all governments sometimes lose in court. But that frustration is not itself a sound basis for reform.”

The Labour peer and barrister Charlie Falconer has also raised concerns. Speaking on the BBC’s Newsnight prior to the election, he said the government’s intention signalled a shifting away from a legal framework to a political framework. “I read that bit of the manifesto as meaning there’s not going to be any more prorogation cases, so if Mr Johnson becomes prime minister again, he won’t be restrained by the courts from acting unlawfully,” he said.  

In the immediate aftermath of the Supreme Court ruling, Tory MP and attorney general Geoffrey Cox hinted at the introduction of “parliamentary scrutiny” of judicial appointments – suggesting changes could be made to enable the political appointments of judges. However, he was later forced to say the government had no “current plans” to do so, and insisted US-style hearings “would be a regrettable step for us in our constitutional arrangements”. 

There was no explicit reference to plans to reform the civil service, as briefed to the Sunday Times last week by figures in Number 10.

Commitment to deliver Brexit on 31 January

Referring to the EU Withdrawal Agreement Bill – which is to receive its second reading on Friday – the Queen opened the government-prepared speech by saying that legislation will be brought forward to ensure the UK’s exit from the EU at the end of January. Thereafter, she said, ministers “will seek a future relationship with the European Union based on a free trade agreement”, adding that trade negotiations will also begin with other leading global economies.

Putting the exit day into legislation makes no practical difference – the UK is already set by automatic operation of law to leave on 31 January – but sends a strong signal to Johnson’s Brexit support base. It follows a long pattern of behaviour in which Tory PMs – first Theresa May, then Boris Johnson – have limited their own room for manoeuvre in Brexit negotiations.

Next, attention turned to the National Health Service. The Queen said the NHS’s multi-year funding settlement – the government committed earlier this year to spend an extra £33bn-plus (US$43bn) on the NHS by 2023-24 – will be enshrined in law, creating another political signal with no practical impact. Steps will also be taken to “grow and support the National Health Service’s workforce” including a new visa that “will ensure qualified doctors, nurses and health professionals have fast- track entry to the United Kingdom”.  

On climate change, the government said it will take steps to meet the target of net zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050; that it will draw up legislation on environmental principles and legally-binding targets; and that it will “ban the export of polluting plastic waste to countries outside the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, and establish a new, world-leading independent regulator in statute”.

In a list of legislative plans much longer than usually delivered in a Queen’s speech – and longer than those included in the Conservative Party’s thin election manifesto – plans were also outlined to introduce longer prison sentences for perpetrators of serious crime, including terrorism; to increase the national living wage and encourage flexible working; and to give communities “more control over how investment is spent so that they can decide what is best for them”.

The latter two measures represent a bid to appeal to the traditionally Labour-supporting constituencies in the Midlands and North that elected Conservatives last week, giving Johnson his 80-seat majority.

Investment in science research and skills

The government said it will also prioritise investment in “world-leading science research and skills, in order to unleash productivity”; support businesses by increasing tax credits for research and development; and establish a national skills fund.

The final part of the speech focused on defence. The Queen said the government will honour NATO’s commitment to spend at least 2% of national income on defence; that it will “bring forward proposals to tackle vexatious claims that undermine our armed forces”, a reference to prosecutions of UK service personnel serving in Northern Ireland and Iraq; and that it will “continue to seek better ways of dealing with legacy issues that provide better outcomes for victims and survivors”. In the government’s briefing notes accompanying the Queen’s speech, it said it will review spying and treason legislation.

The speech also signalled that the government will embark on an “integrated security, defence and foreign policy review… to reassess the nation’s place in the world, covering all aspects of international policy from defence to diplomacy and development”.

About Mia Hunt

Mia is a journalist and editor with a background in covering commercial property, having been market reports and supplements editor at trade title Property Week and deputy editor of Shopping Centre magazine, now known as Retail Destination. She has also undertaken freelance work for several publications including the preview magazine of international trade show, MAPIC, and TES Global (formerly the Times Educational Supplement) and has produced a white paper on energy efficiency in business for E.ON. Between 2014 and 2016, she was a member of the Revo Customer Experience Committee and an ACE Awards judge. Mia graduated from Kingston University with a first-class degree in journalism and was part of the team that produced The River newspaper, which won Publication of the Year at the Guardian Student Media Awards in 2010.

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