It felt like the King’s Speech should have been a bigger event. I was sat watching the King and Queen arrive in Westminster from my office window. I refused an offer to go see him close-up that morning and instead opted out for a packet of Walkers and a warm office.
Once the King arrived, my colleagues and I watched the Monarch’s speech wondering if there might be any surprises on taxes. But in the event, the Speech was predictable, and it proved a dull day in Westminster. The controversy surrounding Conversation Therapy, which was at first to be included, and then wasn’t, and the slight fall out from that, mainly from Alicia Kearns and Labour MPs on twitter, had passed, and little controversy has followed – other than an overwhelming feeling that it was a bland speech fit for a bland Government.
We got the predictable legislation on crime, justice and sentencing. After a year of horrifying news stories about murdered women, children and babies, that was to be expected. Defendants will now be forced to attend their hearing after some high-profile cases including Lucy Letby and the murderers of Olivia Pratt-Korbel and Zara Aleena, where defendants refused to appear before the judge for their sentencing. It will also become a crime to share naked photos without consent by the creation of a specific offence punishable by law. This is a big win for Georgia Harrison, the reality tv show star who fought against the man who shared an intimate video of her without her consent, got him persecuted and then went on to campaign to make such crimes are easier to prosecute. Interestingly, sharing intimate photographs was not illegal unless done with the intent to cause distress, which is very hard to prove. In the age of social media, smartphones and the growing public addiction to document and digitalise everything, this is important legislation, though it is at least five years too late.
The most startling new legislation is the new impending power given to ministers to veto the release of the most dangerous offenders, including murders, rapists and terrorists, even if the parole board approves their release. This came around after MPs and Carrie Johnson campaigned to keep Robert Brown behind bars.
Robert Brown was convicted of manslaughter after he murdered his estranged wife, Joanna Simpson. Despite the harrowing details of the case, Brown was not convicted of murder by his jury. The judge gave the accused the maximum possible sentence, but Brown still qualified for early release. After intense campaigning by Joanna Simpson’s family, his early release was eventually blocked by the Government. This begs the question, what on earth is going on with our justice system that the Government must intervene in such cases?
In a constitutional sense, this governmental involvement on behalf of the family members of a victim highlights a crisis in how our justice system currently operates. Can we expect more involvement from subsequent governments when a jury or judge makes the “wrong” decision? Justice Secretary Alex Chalk used powers introduced in April 2022 under the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Act to block Robert Brown from automatic release and refer the case back to the parole board. This power will now be expanded to other Secretaries of State, so we must presume the answer is yes. Whether this will mark a necessary corrective to clearly aberrant judicial outcomes or closes the distance between our judiciary and our executive remains to be seen.
Moving on to the NHS, the King’s Speech also included an announcement for much-anticipated “minimum service levels” to prevent strikes. This is perhaps a necessary first step taken by the Government of this country to specifically protect the interest of patients over acquiescing to healthcare professionals. At last, the disruption caused by strikes is being recognised and addressed. While a right to industrial action exists within our constitution, that right cannot be exercised to bring this country to its knees or to supersede patients’ right to good quality care. Least of all when we pay national insurance contributions for the service. Though fear not: Keir Starmer has already said that he will reverse this legislation should he come to power.
As ever, the most interesting parts in the King’s Speech were the elements which were left out. The much-anticipated Mental Health Act was not included in the Speech. This broken manifesto promise is a potentially rogue choice given the new Lampard Inquiry which will look at the provision of mental health. The first of its kind, this inquiry has the power to shape mental health provision in the UK when it is concluded.
It also seems that work on devolution has paused. When Boris Johnson was first setting out his levelling up vision, devolution played a huge part in it. The move away from centralisation was important to Johnson, as a former mayor, who recognised the power local leaders can have. In the 2021 Levelling Up white paper, the Government outlined a new devolution framework from which areas would be able to choose the right type of devolution for them from three tiers. Although I am aware that Michael Gove is still holding discussions with MPs about devolution, it’s clear that this is no longer Government policy per se. Prime Minister Rishi Sunak has also recently announced that neither Scotland nor Wales will receive more devolved powers.
The Levelling Up and Regeneration Act was introduced this year because councils and the Local Government Association asked for further devolution powers in England. It is a move which could see the transformation of the UK constitution and is one of the few issues Keir Starmer supports the Government on. The Prime Minister, it would appear, disagrees, perhaps because devolution has not played an important part in Rishi Sunak’s political career. Asked about the subject recently, he expressed his desire that devolution ‘drive forward cross-government efforts towards delivering tangible improvements.’ What exactly is meant by that, remains unclear.
It is no wonder no commitments were made in the King’s Speech on devolution; on either scrapping current progress or moving on to what the Government first intended to deliver when it was elected in 2019. Frequent changes in Government have impacted policy delivery, and while Rishi Sunak is supposedly governing on a manifesto put together by Boris Johnson, it is wholly unsurprising that certain elements have been left in limbo. That an unelected Prime Minister can deviate from manifesto commitments, though, should give us pause.
While some impactful changes were prioritised by the Prime Minister in the King’s Speech, some of which have been outlined here, as has also been shown, there were some notable absences too. Despite strong words, no realistic policy on strengthening the union was announced and many key aspects of the 2019 Conservative Party Manifesto have been dropped. Perhaps one of the reasons why the King’s Speech seemed so dull is because while some policy was visible, commanding competence and vision were not.
Laura Gherman is a parliamentary aide to a senior backbench Conservative MP and the Vice-Chair for LGBT+ Conservatives.
The Constitution Society is committed to the promotion of informed debate and is politically impartial. Any views expressed in this article are the personal views of the author and not those of The Constitution Society.