London: Britain’s government set out its plans to tackle crime, boost growth and water down climate change measures on Tuesday, Prime Minister Rishi Sunak’s first King’s Speech before an election.
In an agenda written by the government but delivered by King Charles to lawmakers packed into parliament’s ornate House of Lords, Sunak signalled his intent to draw a dividing line with the opposition Labour Party before the vote expected next year.
With Labour running way ahead in the opinion polls, Sunak’s team is hoping that his agenda will close the gap by reducing what he says is the burden of Britain’s climate change targets on households and by toughening sentences for violent offenders.
There was little new in the King’s Speech, more a collection of what Sunak has worked on since becoming prime minister last year on a pledge to bring stability after two leaders of his Conservative party were forced from power in a matter of weeks.
“My government will, in all respects, seek to make long-term decisions in the interests of future generations,” Charles, wearing the Imperial State Crown and Robe of State, told a hushed audience of lawmakers in the upper house of parliament.
“By taking these long-term decisions, my government will change this country and build a better future.” It was the first time Charles had made the speech as king - though he stood in for his mother Queen Elizabeth months before her death last year - in a ceremony marked by pomp and pageantry which also attracted a loud, if small, anti-monarchy protest outside parliament.
Arriving at parliament from Buckingham Palace in a grand carriage procession, he then led a ceremony, with some of its traditions traced back to the 16th century, that delivers the government’s agenda in line with Britain’s unusual constitutional division of executive powers.
The largely domestic focus of the policies Charles read out suggested Britain has already entered campaign season, with Labour, even before the speech was made, saying the Conservatives offered “only gimmicks, division and more of the same”.
“Labour has a plan to give Britain its future back,” Starmer said in a statement.
In the speech, the government signalled it would move ahead with the Sentencing Bill that will bring forward tougher jail sentences for the most serious offenders, and repeated its pledge to boost economic growth and reduce inflation.
But, in a possible sign that calls from some Conservative lawmakers to offer voters tax cuts will go unheeded, the king said: “My ministers will address inflation and the drivers of low growth over demands for greater spending or borrowing.” Reading some of the government’s climate policies - which include delaying a ban on sales of new petrol cars - might have jarred with Charles, who has campaigned on environmental issues for more than 50 years. But government officials have repeatedly said ministers were not giving up on the overall targets, just being more “pragmatic” in how they get there.
Sunak confirmed in an introduction to the speech he would bring in legislation to hold North Sea oil and gas licensing rounds annually - something Labour has ruled out - to help “the country to transition to net zero by 2050 without adding undue burdens on households”.
His government would phase out tobacco sales to young people in England and, in an attempt to win over younger voters, press ahead with reforms to the housing market, outlawing no-fault evictions for renters.
But Sunak faces an uphill struggle to win back voters, with Labour holding an around 20-point lead in the polls. His party is mired in allegations of sex scandals, under scrutiny over its actions during the COVID-19 pandemic and is deeply divided over its strategy before the next election.
He is hopeful his agenda can turn things around.
“We have turned the corner over the last year and put the country on a better path,” Sunak said in his introduction.
“But these immediate priorities are not the limit of our ambition. They are just the foundations of our plan to build a better future for our children and grandchildren, and deliver the change the country needs.”
Some of the main proposed new laws:
LAW AND ORDER
The government plans to introduce five pieces of legislation intended to toughen sentences and deter crime in a sign that the governing Conservatives hope to make this a key election issue.
The Sentencing Bill will mean murderers who carry out sexually motivated or sadistic attacks will automatically face life in jail without the prospect of parole.
The Criminal Justice Bill will also mean that criminals will be made to appear in the court when they are sentenced so they can hear statements from victims.
This comes after a nurse who was found guilty of murdering seven babies and a man who shot a nine-year-old girl this year refused to attend their sentencing hearings.
The legislation will also give the police powers to enter a property without a warrant to seize goods if they have reasonable proof that a stolen item was at an address.
CIGARETTES AND VAPES
The Tobacco and Vapes Bill will deliver on Sunak’s promise made last month to phase out all tobacco sales in England. Under the legislation, anyone who was born on or after Jan.
1, 2009, will never be allowed to legally buy cigarettes.
The Offshore Petroleum Licensing Bill will set up annual licensing rounds for oil and gas exploration in the North Sea, in a move the government said would create certainty for the industry during a transition to greener energy.
The opposition Labour Party, which has a double-digit lead in opinion polls, has said it would stop issuing new oil and gas licences in the North Sea, though it will respect any that are granted before an election.
The government will introduce the Digital Markets, Competition and Consumers Bill, which will give ministers new powers to tackle “drip pricing” where companies advertise a low price online before adding extra fees.
Consumers will also be given powers to make it easier to get out of subscription contracts, which the government said cost people around 1.6 billion pounds ($1.97 billion) a year.
The government will amend the system, described by the housing minister as “feudal”, which forces the owners of some properties to pay rent to a freeholder.
The Leasehold and Freehold Bill means all new houses in England and Wales will be exempt from having to pay these extra costs.
The Renters’ Reform Bill will push ahead with a plan to end no-fault evictions in England, four years after the legislation was first promised.
The government plans to set up an independent football regulator, who will be responsible for scrutinising club owners and their financial resources.
The new legislation will require owners to ensure fans are consulted on changes to club’s badges, names and shirt colours.
The regulator will have the power to stop clubs joining breakaway leagues, after six English clubs attempted in 2021 to join a new European Super League.
Britain will bring forward a bill to allow it to meet its obligations as it accedes to the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP).
Britain in March struck a deal to join the 11-country trans-Pacific trade pact, which includes Australia and Japan, and formally signed the treaty in July.
The bill gives CPTPP parties greater access to the government’s procurement market, enhances regulatory co-operation and expands copyright protections, as has been agreed under the terms of Britain’s accession to the agreement.