The last ten years have been a period of austerity in Government...
It wasn’t really her speech; it was David Cameron’s, but the tradition maintains the constitutional principle that it is Her Majesty’s Government and this is its legislative programme for the new parliamentary year that began on Wednesday. It was an interesting list of 25 Bills plus 5 carried over from last year. It included measures to reform prisons, promote community integration and tackle extremism, and to give us a Bill of Rights.
This is the most controversial measure. It means scrapping the Human Rights Bill and replacing it with a Bill of Rights. This was a manifesto pledge in 2010 but was blocked by the Liberal Democrats in the Coalition Government. The Conservatives are critical of the power of the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) to over-rule the judgements of the UK courts, as it did when it blocked Home Office moves to deport extremist Islamic preachers. Whilst the new Bill will incorporate the rights in the European Convention on Human Rights, it will give the UK Supreme Court the last word, not the ECHR. The Bill will also take account of UK common law tradition which the ECHR doesn’t
The Prisons and Courts Reform Bill is another significant measure. Too many of our prisons are overcrowded Victorian relics. The prison population has grown alarmingly and violence and drug abuse are rife in some of them. Justice Secretary Michael Gove has brought his reforming zeal to turn prisons from warehouses of criminals, to places where change happens. More education to develop inmates’ skills so that they can find jobs and not re-offend would help to cut prison numbers and bless their families. Six ‘reform’ prisons where the Governors will have more autonomy as to how they spend their budgets have been identified and the most run-down prisons will gradually be replaced by new modern buildings. Courts and tribunals will be reformed to deliver faster and fairer justice. The use of tags with satellite tracking for low risk criminals will offer the option of non-custodial sentences, helping to cut prison numbers.
Another potentially controversial measure is the Counter-Extremism Bill. This aims to give the Home Secretary powers to ban extremist groups, restrict the behaviour of individual extremists, close down premises used for extremist purposes, give Ofcom powers to censor extremist content on the internet and enable employers to check on employees for evidence of involvement in extremist activity. Whilst preventing terrorist acts is welcome, a clear definition of what constitutes extremism will be essential. Some Christian street preachers and campaigners on issues such as abortion are concerned that these powers could be used against them.
Other Bills will create a right for every household to access high speed broadband, give powers to directly elected Mayors to govern local bus services, place the National Citizen Service on a permanent statutory basis, and strengthen the accountability of the police service in England and Wales. All these Bills will be subject to detailed scrutiny in both Houses of Parliament. The Government does not have a majority in the Lords and has rebels on its backbenches so there is no guarantee that all its Bills will become law. Legislation ought to reflect the nation’s values so there is always a need for discerning prayer by Christians, drawing up to date information from Premier and other media sources.