Sunday, 31 May 2015

An absurdity of a Queen's Speech


While we were away, the new government's Queen's Speech emerged - bloated with measures that turned it into a bit of a fiasco, causing public policy experts everywhere to hang their heads with shame. Or with foreboding.

Well, where to start? With the Government's evident retreat from the idea of a full-on repeal of the Human Rights Act. This was just never a runner. Get over objections in Scotland, and the legal requirement to keep it in Northern Ireland, and you'd be left with the great big hole where your constitutional settlement used to be. With no-one to write it anew but Michael Gove and Dominic Raab - clever, but not truly academically able or wise, Ministers who could start a fight in an empty room. And then? Oh, in an attempt to limit judicial activism and judges' 'intervention' in economic and social matters, or over-interpretation of the law, Ministers will try to block courts' ability to take European human rights law into  account - causing them, in all probability, to look more closely at American practice, which is far more interventionist. Brilliant.

Then there is the vexed question of legal highs. All sorts of chemicals have been used for years among young people who want a thrill. And many of them are dangerous. The Home Office has been forced to pass Order after Order banning slightly new products for years, and it's got tired of the effort. Fair enough. But the Queen's Speech presages just banning everything that the Home Secretary happens to say is a legal high - a concept so alien and contrary to the way that normal laws work that it will have to contain special clauses to make clear that alcohol, coffee and tobacco are 'legal' highs (as well as including a 'guilty until proven innocent' clause). How did we get to the place where we have to legislate to keep coffee legal? How did we get so stampeded and so fearful of our own youngfolk that we splattered them with endless meaningless laws that will probably just bring forth a load of new ways to dodge them? No, we don't know either.

And legislating to stop the Government doing something (in this case passing a Bill to prevent certain types of tax rise) - an Act which they themselves could then repeal, and which doesn't stop them changing reliefs and the like anyway? Do us a favour. We have not all come down with the latest rain shower. Nothing could demonstrate Ministers' true view of Parliament - about which they raise a hue and cry every time a power passes to the European Union - than this utter waste of that august institution's precious time.

And what about the snooper's charter? We've got long form with this one, because it's yet another dud, but it's worth recording just why: not because the Government might want internet or mobile phone companies to keep your data for longer (expensive, but in principle just about okay), but because it involves a direct attack on the concept and practice of encryption - necessary to make every economic and banking system going through London actually work. Right about now, gloomy civil servants are scratching their heads trying to get around that one. They can't, and they won't.

Lastly, there's housing. We've dealt with the disastrous implications of the Government's smash-and-grab raid on housing associations before: a gift to those who are already in them, further accentuating and emphasising the merry-go-round or pass-the-parcel character of British capitalism rather than oh, we don't know, maybe working or saving. But here's a couple of extra nasty little barbs for you: firstly, that 18- to 21-year olds are going to have their 'automatic right' to Housing Benefit removed (the existence of such a right is a bit of a myth anyway, but there you are). Except that many thousands of young people will then be released onto the streets from local authority care with absolutely no support - a 'loophole' the Government has said it will address with absolutely no detail - or, apparently, care - for how it'll do that. Will some people just get dumped, leading to a human outcry and more and more complex regulations on who can claim, as well as on how to claim? You bet. We'll leave out of account the Government's other bright idea - to make tenancies automatically fall if they are entered into with illegal immigrants, because it's so ridiculous, and so contrary to both common and statute law, that it will just die quietly anyway.

There are some good measures in here. More devolution for Scotland, putting that country in control of just under 40% of its own tax revenue. Better support for child care - though where the Government is going to get the money, while slashing away merrily elsewhere, your guess is as good as ours.

But in general the impression cannot be shirked: this is a deeply un-conservative, un-Conservative and especially un-Tory set of measures, designed to push forward the interfering hands of the state into every facet of national life. Human rights? Well, you've got as many as Ministers tell you that you have. Housing co-operatives? We'll seize those and make them unworkable. Contractual relations between landlords and tenants? That's for the state to decide on, pal. Privacy? We'll shred that, thank you very much.

The worst thing about it all is that the UK government is inching forward into quagmires and quicksands that it cannot possibly understand, let alone manage. Any 'English' Human Rights Act adopted in that country only (so as to get round problems in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland) will lead to years of wrangling and work for lawyers, as well as hastening the break-up of the Union itself. Well, would you want to decide on a worker's rights when he or she lives in England, but works for an Edinburgh-domiciled company in the Scottish borders, while travelling across Northern Ireland and Wales for that very job? No? Thought not. The housing association right-to-buy will eviscerate the little battalions of the third sector upon which all true conservatives should place their hopes. Messing with encryption will make British companies less competitive and less alluring to foreign investors. Take your pick.

It's not necessarily that we oppose all this ideologically. That might not matter all that much in the grand sweep of history, for laws can be reversed. Opinions can change. Perhaps measures taken today will turn out to have better-than-expected consequences, or perhaps we'll come to accept them and view them as desirable or inevitable. So a modicum of assistance should always attend any government's legislative programme, especially one with a recent mandate from the voters.

This jumble of odds and ends is worse than that, and so bad that even a fair wind will be denied it. It's not that the policies are wrong - though many are. Nor that they are particularly nasty - though some are. No. The real problem with this Queen's Speech is that much of it is simply absurd, a laughable simulacrum of a legislative programme that bears no resemblance to reality at all. It is as far from good public policy - and wise, deliberative governance - as a microwaved ready meal is from a Michelin star. It's all been written by our new-old governors, who of course have a long history of this sort of thing, but are now so far from the light of truly evidential thinking and good empirical sense that they no longer even know how to turn back.

Which is a shame, when you really come to think about it.

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