Can you remember what was in this week’s Queen’s Speech? Boris Johnson couldn’t on the day it was unveiled, making a total mess of trying to sell it on Radio 4’s PM programme. But as the week draws to an end, the main question about the Speech is whether it will pass unamended, not whether the legislation it includes will make much of a difference.
But is a ‘threadbare speech’ really such a bad thing? Governments of all hues suffer from a compulsive disorder that leads them to legislate merely for the sake of it. No minister wants to leave his or her department without a piece of legislation to their name, and even Prime Ministers who believe in small states and placid governments fall into the trap of thinking that most Bad Things can be made better with legislation. No matter that the legislation produced by both these instincts can often be the worst sort: well-meaning but poorly-thought-through. The combination of ministers anxious to make their mark and a Prime Minister keen to Do Things can lead to a large quantity of legislation going through Parliament. This means MPs, who are supposed to scrutinise legislation and spot bad ideas and flaws, are spread so thinly that they don’t do a very good job of highlighting all the problems with the Something Must Be Done Bill, or suggesting that the Ambitious Minister Legacy (Amendment) Bill might not actually need to exist at all.
Producing better legislation isn’t what Theresa May and her colleagues had in mind when they drew up this thin Queen’s Speech: they were merely concerned with being able to produce anything at all. But a little more space for MPs – who have so many demands on their time aside from being legislators – to understand and examine the bills that have made it onto the vellum isn’t the worst thing.
Similarly, a desire for better-scrutinised legislation wasn’t what lay behind shunting the domestic abuse bill, a patient safety bill and a law on fees for private tenants into draft form. Draft bills receive more scrutiny from parliamentarians who have real expertise in the subject (rather than the bill committees of loyal backbenchers once a bill is formally moving through Parliament). And those MPs and peers who do examine a draft bill and observe its flaws and contradictions can point these problems out at a stage when the government’s ego is not so big that ministers will refuse to make changes. Again, once a bill is moving through Parliament properly, ministers regard accepting non-government amendments as an admission of failure to the extent that even spelling corrections have been turned down in bill committees by particularly insecure ministers. Given the three bills in draft form – particularly the domestic violence and patient safety laws – cover vastly complicated and controversial areas, it would be wise to give Parliament a real opportunity to examine how these laws might actually work in the life-or-death situations to which they apply.
Of course, that’s not why these are draft bills: they’ve been pushed back so that the government can say it is doing something without having to devote too much manpower to it while it is trying to sort out the rather more pressing issue of the Repeal Bill. This means that ministers don’t have to spend their time convincing various groups within the Tory Party that new laws on domestic abuse, for instance, are needed. But it might be that the chaos of the government leads to a few slightly better bits of law emerging, eventually.