Tuesday 20 February 2018

Queen's speech: Theresa May tears up Tory manifesto as she unveils plans for hard Brexit

  • British PM drops rafts of policies including grammar schools and 'dementia tax'
  • 27 draft bills unveiled covering EU, immigration and terrorism
  • Mental health to be prioritised, new civil disaster taskforce in wake of Grenfell
Queen Elizabeth II and the Prince of Wales during the State Opening of Parliament by Queen Elizabeth II, in the House of Lords at the Palace of Westminster in London: Stefan Rousseau/PA Wire
Queen Elizabeth II and the Prince of Wales during the State Opening of Parliament by Queen Elizabeth II, in the House of Lords at the Palace of Westminster in London: Stefan Rousseau/PA Wire

Andrew Woodcock, Press Association Political Editor

BRITISH Prime Minister Theresa May has torn up much of the Conservative manifesto to deliver a legislative timetable for the next two years dominated by preparations for Brexit.

Of 27 Bills and draft bills unveiled in her first Queen's Speech, eight are devoted to the complex process of withdrawal from the EU, including a Repeal Bill to overturn the 1972 Act which took Britain into the European Economic Community and separate Bills on customs, trade, immigration, fisheries, agriculture, nuclear safeguards and the international sanctions regime.

In the wake of the Grenfell Tower fire and a string of terror attacks, the Prime Minister also announced plans for a civil disaster taskforce and a new commission for countering extremism, as well as a review of counter-terror strategy and the creation of an independent public advocate to act on behalf of bereaved families.

But flagship manifesto policies which find no place in the Government agenda included the scrapping of universal free school lunches, means-testing of the winter fuel payment and the reform of social care funding which opponents branded a "dementia tax". Meanwhile, there was no mention of the promised free vote on fox hunting.

Speculation that Donald Trump's state visit to the UK may be ditched was fuelled by its absence from the Queen's nine-minute address. But Downing Street confirmed that the invitation to Mr Trump stands and said it did not feature because a date is yet to be fixed.

Also unveiled were Bills to extend the HS2 high-speed rail link to Crewe, permit the development of driverless cars, spaceports and commercial satellites, cut whiplash insurance claims, protect victims of domestic abuse and ban letting fees for private rented homes.

Although the tally of bills is typical for a Queen's Speech, critics said that aside from Brexit it presented only a lightweight agenda to cover two years, rather than the usual one.

Liberal Democrat leader Tim Farron said: "This slimmed down Queen's Speech shows a Government on the edge.

"Having dropped everything from the dementia tax to fox hunting, I assume the only reason they have proposed a Space Bill is so they can shoot their manifesto into space and pretend it never existed."

Following her failure to reach agreement with the Democratic Unionist Party on a deal to shore up her minority administration, Mrs May is the first PM in decades to be faced by doubts over whether she can get her legislative programme through Parliament.

Conservative sources said talks with the DUP were "ongoing" after the Northern Irish party warned its support cannot be "taken for granted". But First Secretary of State Damian Green acknowledged that it may not be possible to reach a deal in time for the Commons vote on the Queen's Speech package on June 29.

Following the negative response to plans in the Tory manifesto to make pensioners pay for social care by selling their homes after they died, the speech promised only a consultation on proposals which will be brought forward to improve social care.

Plans to extend grammar schools are reined in, with a promise only to work with Parliament to bring forward proposals for school improvement "that can command a majority".

There is no bill to impose the energy price cap promised in the manifesto, but ministers will "consider the best way" to protect gas and electricity consumers on the worst-value tariffs, whether by legislation or action by regulators.

The State Opening of Parliament, delayed by two days because of confusion caused by the inconclusive result of the June 8 election, took place without some of the traditional ceremony, with the Queen arriving by car rather than carriage and wearing a blue dress and hat rather than her robes and state crown.

Centrepiece of Mrs May's programme was the Repeal Bill which will transfer relevant EU laws on to the UK statute book at the moment of Brexit in March 2019, with the aim of delivering "a smooth and orderly transition" and avoiding uncertainty for businesses and individuals.

The Bill creates powers for Parliament to use secondary legislation to make what are expected to be a huge number of technical amendments to EU rules and regulations to ensure they continue to operate appropriately within UK law. It will pave the way for Parliament eventually to repeal or amend unwanted EU laws after Brexit.

In an apparent sign of recognition that she must seek a broad consensus for any Brexit deal, Mrs May said getting EU withdrawal right will mean securing "a deal which delivers the result of last year's referendum and does so in a way that commands maximum public support".

The speech confirmed plans for a public inquiry into the Grenfell Tower tragedy.

A new strategy for resilience in major disasters could include a Civil Disaster Reaction Taskforce to help at times of emergency, and an independent advocate will support those affected and help them at inquests.

Warning of an "unprecedented" threat from terrorism in the wake of attacks at Westminster, Manchester and London Bridge, Mrs May announced a review of counter-terrorism strategy to make sure police and security services have "all the powers they need to protect our country".

The new Commission for Countering Extremism will be given the task of supporting the Government in "stamping out extremist ideology in all its forms".

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