The Government started its new term this week, with the State Opening of Parliament and the Queen’s Speech on Wednesday. So what gems do we have in store for us before the next election? And what do the plans and policies laid out for this term tell us about the Government’s values and priorities?
This is my review of the Queen’s Speech, attempting to read between the lines to see the underlying values. Inevitably, I’m biased, but my main aim is to look at what motivates plans and policies, not to say whether I think these policies are good or bad.
Reasons to celebrate
However, I am going to start with some celebrations! To everyone who joined in the IF campaign, take a moment to rejoice. A plan to establish a public register of company beneficial ownership is in the speech! Who says campaigning doesn’t work? I don’t believe this would have been in this year’s plans without the IF campaign. And sticking with the bias for a little longer, there are a few other things in the speech which I have been campaigning for, tweeting about and generally annoying my friends on Facebook with: legislation to improve the fairness of contracts for low paid workers (zero hours contracts, to spell it out), free school meals for infants, a bill to prevent modern day slavery and human trafficking, legislation on the recall of MPs, a commitment to lead efforts to prevent sexual violence in conflict worldwide and a commitment to champion efforts to secure a global agreement on climate change. The devil is in the detail, of course, and we’ll have to wait and see how far these commitments take us in actually improving things. There’s a couple of other things I like which I didn’t quite get round to campaigning for – higher penalties for employers who fail to pay the minimum wage, and action to reduce the use of carrier bags.
Looking at the speech as a whole, I wanted to see which of the values I’ve discussed in previous blogs seemed most apparent. What seemed to be motivating the policy plans and decisions? The most obvious values in the speech come under “security”. Economic decisions are described as being made to provide stability and security, tax decisions to increase financial security, energy policy is to enhance security. Security is also obviously a motivation for foreign policy plans, mentioned specifically in relation to EU borders and relations between Russia and Ukraine. Valuing health is part of the security segment, and this is given as the motivation for introducing free school meals for infants. The values of family security and social order are seen in plans to tackle child neglect, serious organised crime, and slavery and trafficking. It is probably no surprise that security is the strongest underlying value. After all, if a government has any purpose at all it is surely to establish the security of its citizens.
There are other values which are apparent from the way language is used and assumptions are made. There is a bias towards private solutions rather than public ones. Media and politicians tell us there is a housing crisis. The solutions given for this revolve around promoting private ownership through Help to Buy and Right to Buy, and selling government land to developers, rather than through public ownership, social housing and renting. One aspect of education policy is to promote more academies, often funded with private money, or run by private companies with public money. Economic values and outcomes are given precedence over the wellbeing of society or the environment (though it is possible to argue one leads to the other). So the planning law will be reformed in order to improve economic competitiveness, not to improve quality of life or to protect the environment. Shale gas is needed to provide energy independence and security, without mentioning that continuing to burn fossil fuel will lead to a reduction in our security in the long term as the effects of climate change take hold. Schools are discussed as places to prepare pupils for employment, rather than places of nurture, learning and social development. There will be help with child care costs for working families, leaving the emphasis on being economically active and not valuing the role of being a parent at home.
Given that climate change is the biggest threat facing the planet at the moment, there is very little in this year’s legislation to do anything about it. The most specific action is to reduce carrier bag use (by charging 5p for each bag I think). This is good, but feels like a drop in the ocean. The Government’s lack of commitment to tackling climate change is revealed in its presentation of other measures. There will be a scheme to enable new homes to be built to a zero carbon standard, but not make this mandatory. The Government will champion efforts to secure a global agreement on climate change, but even this is not as strong as the plan to lead the way when it comes to preventing sexual violence. I’m proud of the stand taken against rape as a weapon of war, let’s be as determined to lead the way in cutting carbon emissions.
Bias against the poor
The most cynical use of language in the speech concerns spending on benefits. The speech starts by saying the legislative programme will continue to reduce the country’s deficit, although borrowing in April this year was more than in April last year, and national debt continues to rise. So the plans that follow presumably aim to increase income and reduce spending (though some will be decisions about moving spending from one area to another). Promoting growth is given as the reason behind some policies. But cutting spending is only mentioned once. The only area where the Government says it needs to spend less is when it comes to looking after the needs of the poorest members of our society. So the benefit bill will be capped to control public spending. There are no other incidences in the speech where public spending needs to be controlled. There are lots of plans which will cost money which will help the wealthy or better-off. The Government commits to cutting taxes, and increasing the personal tax allowance, which helps everyone who pays tax, including the wealthiest, but does not help the poorest who don’t pay income tax. The freeze on fuel duty won’t help control public spending and benefits those wealthy enough to own a car. Extending ISAs and Premium Bonds only helps those with enough money each month to save. Changes to planning laws and Help to Buy schemes do nothing for those who can never afford to be a home owner. Free school meals for infants will be universal, and help rich and poor. Free child care for workers will be a benefit to all including the low paid.
The one plan to help the poorest which looks like it will cost the Government money is free child-care for disadvantaged two-year olds. The cost of plans to tackle zero-hours contracts and those who don’t pay the minimum wage will presumably fall on the businesses themselves.
Power to the people
The Government fares a bit better when it comes to supporting those vulnerable in other ways than through poverty. The young are supported through plans to develop apprenticeships. There will be legislation to improve the complaints system in the Armed Forces. And, as mentioned before, there are plans to tackle child neglect, slavery and trafficking, and sexual violence in conflicts. It seems appropriate that one of the roles of government is to stand up for those who don’t have power to stand up for themselves.
Another way to help those without power is to give them power, and there are examples of where this has potential to happen. Legislation on the recall of MPs could give this power to the electorate, or it could leave it in the hands of other MPs. Direct elections to National Park authorities also has the potential to give power to the people, and further plans for devolution in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland are decentralising power. I’m not sure what the estimates for the public services are, which the Government says will be laid before us, but it looks like a step forward for transparency, which is good for democracy.
I haven’t covered everything here, but I hope I have uncovered the flavour of the speech. Campaigning works, and we can see some legislation coming about because the people have spoken, and there are some signs that the Government recognises the need for and value of increasing accountability and democracy. As I guess I could have predicted, security underlies many of the plans, as I guess that’s what governments are for. Standing up for the weakest is another function of government which we can see here at times too. But the language used in the speech shows the Government is still intent on blaming those on benefits for the deficit, while continuing to spend money on policies which work in the best interests for those who are already much better off. Decisions are made on the basis of economic values. Private is valued above public, and serving financial and economic interests is more important than social values like learning, community wellbeing and protecting the environment. The Government’s commitment to tackling climate change is weak at best or even phony with a green gloss.
I’ll leave you with what I consider to be the most dishonest piece of spin in the whole speech. “A key priority for my ministers will be to continue to build an economy that rewards those who work hard”. Ignoring all the assumptions bound up in the word “continue” (here and elsewhere) this is the biggest piece of nonsense I have ever seen. People like nurses and other health professionals have seen their wages frozen for most of the time this coalition has been in power. Those who work long hours in physically demanding jobs, like cleaners, carers and those in the hospitality industry are lucky if they are getting the minimum wage. Meanwhile, bankers and CEOs are seeing bonuses and salaries rise more than ever before. If I was the Queen, I wouldn’t have read it out.