The State Opening of Parliament and the Queen’s Speech was a spectacle as ever. There’s the tradition, and then there is those who try and sabotage tradition; like the engineers who had been sent into the chamber to turn Dennis Skinner’s microphone around to muffle his heckle on the television broadcast. The House of Commons microphones dangle from the ceiling and pick up the sound from above your head – so not immediately noticeable. However, Dennis had noticed and projected his heckle, “Hands off the BBC”, towards a neighbouring microphone and was picked up on the television broadcast no problem at all. A victory for a more modern Queen’s Speech tradition!
Only a handful of MPs can get into the space allowed in the House of Lords to hear the Queen’s Speech in person, and then there’s a couple of hours where the House of Commons is suspended before the debate on the Queen’s Speech begins. In that time, being as diligent as I am, I went back to my office to catch up on some work. Then disaster strikes! With a pin badge, which had fallen off a member of staff’s coat and rolled under my desk (pin side up), I learned the hard way why it’s never a good idea to kick your shoes off in the office. Sent over the river to St Thomas’s Hospital A&E, I missed the debate on the Queen’s Speech.
From my sick bed I followed the debate and studied the contents of the Speech carefully and it’s abundantly clear that there really wasn’t that much in it. The government are running out of steam, or perhaps are too distracted by the EU referendum and papering over the cracks of their internal battles dividing their party. However, my ‘three to watch’ from the selection of bills we were told about in the Queen’s Speech would be the Higher Education and Research Bill, the Prison Reform Bill and the Digital Economy Bill.
Looking at the government’s plans for a Higher Education and Research Bill it’s certainly alarming to see the plans to remove the £9,000 a year cap on tuition fees for undergraduate degrees in institutions which prove they have excellent teaching. This move towards an unrestrained free market in higher education should rightly cause alarm for future students as already we see young people leaving our universities burdened with tens of thousands of pounds of debt. Sending our children and grandchildren into a world in which more and more jobs are only open to those with degrees, saddled with debt, high house prices and a chipping away of the welfare state will no doubt make for some anxiety for the future. With the ‘top 10’ Lancaster University in my constituency I’ll certainly be following with Bill very closely.
The Prison Reform Bill which was the centrepiece of the Queen’s Speech is already unravelling, with major questions about how effective these proposals will be. Labour wants a justice system which puts public safety first, bears down on crime and protects victims. So proposals to give prison governors more autonomy and an increased focus on rehabilitation and prisoner education are welcome. But as they stand the Government’s plan is just a distraction that will not solve key problems of overcrowding and underfunding. In order to cut re-offending and truly reform the prison estate, the Government must deal with the chronic problems of understaffing and overcrowding that has developed on their watch. Nothing in these proposals addresses those priorities. To date the Tories have failed to deliver the prison system we need. Prisons are out of control with overcrowding, assaults on officers and drug abuse all increasing on a year by year basis, while use of the prison riot squad has surged to more than once a day. This package of proposals is just tinkering at the edges. More needs to be done to deliver the prison system we need.
I’m also going to be looking at the Digital Economy Bill closely when it’s published, not least because many of my rural constituents are ‘digital activists’ digging their own cables and running community-led broadband companies, connecting farms and villages to some of the fastest internet in the country. By giving every household a legal right to a fast broadband connection the Tories are trying to build bridges with rural voters – who so far feel forgotten about. Six years after abandoning Labour's fully-funded commitment to Universal Broadband, the Government's 'superfast' broadband rollout is still being hit with delays. A decent broadband connection is as vital today as running water and electricity so I do welcome their commitment which is long overdue but so far the Tories are letting down millions of households and businesses over its roll out of high speed broadband.