UK dispatch: King’s Speech outlines Sunak government’s legislative agenda for new session of Parliament Dispatches
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UK dispatch: King’s Speech outlines Sunak government’s legislative agenda for new session of Parliament

On Tuesday His Majesty King Charles III took part in The State Opening of Parliament,  a ceremonial event that marks the formal beginning of a new parliamentary session. It is a significant constitutional event in the United Kingdom, involving the monarch, Members of Parliament, and other dignitaries. During the State Opening, the reigning monarch delivers a speech known as the King’s Speech (or until recently The Queen’s Speech) that outlines the government’s proposed policies, legislative agenda, and priorities for the upcoming session.

The speech itself is written by the Government and reflects its goals and intentions. The State Opening of Parliament symbolises the separation of powers between the monarch, the House of Commons, and the House of Lords, reaffirming the role of Parliament in the governance of the country.

This speech was particularly important as it was the first King’s Speech in over 50 years, since the death of King George VI, the present king’s grandfather, and covered topics such as criminal justice and the rule of law, social changes, the environment, energy and policing, as well as transport, trade and war commemoration.

In total of 19 bills in the upcoming session are expected to receive Royal Assent and become Acts of Parliament, meaning they will become new laws. The current Government will hold a general election, expected early next year, and so this is Rishi Sunak’s bid to put his agenda on the table for what could be another 5 years in power.

1. Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Act 2022

The Sentencing Bill aims to introduce stricter measures for the most heinous criminals. Murderers involved in sexual or sadistic crimes will face lifelong imprisonment, as a Whole Life Order will become mandatory in the worst cases, allowing judges to deviate from it only under exceptional circumstances. Additionally, the bill will enforce mandatory prison sentences for individuals who are repeat offenders in crimes like shoplifting, burglary, and theft. Rapists, too, will no longer be eligible for parole halfway through their sentence, ensuring they serve the entirety of their prison term. Prime Minister Rishi Sunak emphasized the government’s commitment to creating a safer Britain, where communities can feel pride and peace of mind. To address prison overcrowding, the bill intends to eliminate jail sentences of fewer than 12 months for most offenders. Instead, these individuals will be “punished” within the community through unpaid work, such as cleaning up neighborhoods and removing graffiti. Offenders will be closely monitored using electronic, GPS, alcohol, or drug tags, and subjected to curfews on weekends for up to 20 hours a day. Any breach of these suspended sentences by repeat offenders would result in a return to court and the possibility of serving the full term in jail. The presumption outlined in the bill applies to the majority of the 37,000 offenders who receive sentences of 12 months or less annually and covers crimes like burglary, theft, shoplifting, drug dealing, and drink driving but specifically excludes sexual, violent, or terrorism-related offenses.

2. Criminal Justice Bill

In response to cases like Lucy Letby‘s and others, a new law will compel the most serious criminals to attend their sentencing hearings. Judges will be granted enhanced powers to ensure the presence of offenders in court during the delivery of their sentences, enabling them to directly hear from victims and confront the gravity of their actions. To enforce this, the legislation will clarify that reasonable force can be utilized to compel criminals to appear in the dock. Those who persistently refuse to comply will face an additional two years of imprisonment. Furthermore, the bill will empower the police to search a property without a court warrant if they have reasonable evidence that a stolen item is concealed within, including instances where a mobile phone can be tracked through features like “Find My iPhone“. In an effort to address the scarcity of prison spaces, the Ministry of Justice will be given the authority to rent cells in foreign penitentiaries, mitigating the strain on domestic facilities. Additionally, the bill will introduce a new offense of capturing an intimate image of an individual without their consent, carrying a maximum penalty of two years of imprisonment. By addressing legal loopholes and ensuring that those who violate privacy rights are held accountable, this provision aims to reform existing laws and safeguard individuals from offenses such as downblousing or upskirting.

3. Victims and Prisoners Bill

The Victims and Prisoners Bill of 2023 is designed to provide ministers with the authority to halt parole for the most severe offenders. This measure aims to ensure that those who pose a high risk to society remain incarcerated for the duration of their sentences. Additionally, the bill includes provisions to prohibit serious criminals from getting married while in prison. By implementing these restrictions, the legislation aims to prioritize public safety and prevent potential risks associated with these individuals’ release or married life behind bars.

4. Tobacco Products Bill

The proposed legislation will implement Rishi Sunak’s commitment, made during the Tory conference, to gradually eliminate the legal sale of cigarettes in England. This will be achieved by incrementally raising the minimum age for purchasing tobacco products. Currently, the legal age for buying cigarettes is 18. However, under the new plan, the age of sale will increase by one year annually beginning in 2027. Consequently, by 2043, only individuals aged 35 and above will be permitted to purchase cigarettes legally. This approach aligns with similar legislation in New Zealand, effectively meaning that anyone currently aged 14 or younger will never have the legal ability to buy cigarettes. However, existing smokers will not be affected by the change.

In addition to phasing out cigarette sales, the bill will introduce regulations governing the flavors and descriptions of vaping products. There may also be a potential ban on disposable vapes. Local authorities will have the authority to issue on-the-spot fines to retailers found in violation of these regulations, contributing to greater adherence and regulation within the industry.

5. Digital Markets, Competition and Consumers Bill

The Digital Markets, Competition, and Consumers Bill aims to address the issue of “drip pricing” employed by companies, wherein they promote a seemingly low price online but add additional fees during the checkout process. This deceptive pricing strategy will be targeted and effectively curtailed by the legislation. Specifically, the bill will put an end to airlines inflating prices by imposing fees for services like luggage space, seat choices, and ticket printing.

According to ministers, “drip pricing” costs UK consumers a staggering £1.6 billion annually. In response to this issue, the proposed law will take proactive measures to combat the prevalence of fake reviews and confusing labels. Such practices create obstacles for consumers, making it harder for them to accurately assess products or services. By addressing these concerns, the bill seeks to protect consumer interests and promote transparency and fairness in the marketplace.

6. Investigatory Powers (Reform) Bill

The proposed legislation will mandate technology firms to provide advance notification to the Home Office regarding any security and privacy features they plan to implement. This requirement aims to keep the Home Office informed and involved in the decisions related to these features. Furthermore, the bill will empower the Home Office with the authority to compel companies to disable specific security features if objections arise. This provision ensures that the Home Office maintains a level of oversight and control in matters concerning security. Additionally, the bill will expand the government’s jurisdiction over foreign firms, granting increased power to ensure their compliance with regulations and requirements. This measure strengthens the government’s ability to hold foreign technology firms accountable within the framework of the legislation.

7. Offensive Weapons Bill

The Offensive Weapons Bill introduces measures to address the possession and use of dangerous weapons. It establishes a specific offense for carrying a prohibited blade with the intention to cause harm. This provision aims to deter individuals from possessing and wielding such weapons unlawfully.

In addition, the bill grants the police enhanced powers to seize and destroy knives that are lawfully owned but are reasonably suspected to be intended for criminal activities. This measure strengthens the authorities’ ability to intervene and prevent potential acts of violence.

Furthermore, the legislation closes existing loopholes surrounding the possession and circulation of machetes and zombie knives. These measures help tighten regulations and restrict access to weapons that can potentially pose significant threats to public safety. By implementing these provisions, the Offensive Weapons Bill seeks to combat the unlawful possession and use of dangerous blades, ensuring a safer environment for communities.

8. Leasehold Reform Bill

The forthcoming Leasehold Reform Bill will encompass a revised version of Michael Gove’s plans for leasehold reform. Gove originally aimed to completely eliminate the “feudal” leasehold system in response to concerns about excessive ground rent charges imposed by freeholders. However, the bill ultimately introduces reforms that bring about significant changes to the existing leasehold framework.

Under the proposed legislation, ground rents for both new and existing properties will be subject to a cap, addressing the issue of exorbitant charges. Additionally, the default length of leases will be extended to 990 years, a substantial increase compared to the current standard of 99 years.

Furthermore, the bill will prohibit the use of leasehold for newly constructed houses, although it will not extend this ban to new flats. Existing leaseholds will remain valid, implying that changes will mainly affect future developments rather than retroactively altering existing leasehold agreements.

The Leasehold Reform Bill seeks to strike a balance between addressing the issues within the leasehold system and maintaining a level of continuity to respect existing arrangements.

9. Autonomous Vehicles Bill

The Autonomous Vehicles Bill presents an opportunity to bring about the advent of driverless cars on British roads by the end of the decade. This legislation will establish the necessary legal framework to enable the operation of autonomous vehicles across the country’s road networks. The aim of the bill is to provide the necessary regulations and guidelines to ensure the safe deployment of autonomous vehicles. By setting clear legal parameters, it will pave the way for the introduction of this innovative technology on public roads. Ministers have expressed their hope that this legislation will incentivize companies involved in driverless car development to offer commercial services to the public by 2030. This demonstrates the government’s commitment to fostering an environment where autonomous vehicles can play a significant role in transforming transportation and revolutionizing mobility.

The Autonomous Vehicles Bill represents a significant step towards realizing the potential of driverless cars, as it provides the legal and regulatory infrastructure to facilitate their safe integration into the existing transportation system.

10. Oil and Gas Licensing Bill

The Oil and Gas Licensing Bill aims to maintain regular licensing rounds for oil and gas exploration in the North Sea, ensuring ongoing opportunities for companies in the industry. This legislation will establish a framework that enables yearly bidding for new licenses, facilitating the drilling of fossil fuels in the North Sea region. This is despite the pledge to phaser out oil and gas by 2050.  Notably, the bill serves as a point of distinction between Mr. Sunak’s stance and that of the Labour party in the lead-up to the election. While Sir Keir Starmer, the Labour leader, has expressed a reluctance to grant new licenses, existing licenses will be honored under this legislation. By allowing annual bidding for new licenses, the bill opens the door for companies to pursue oil and gas extraction activities in the North Sea. This signifies a commitment to maintaining and expanding the oil and gas industry’s presence in the region, providing economic opportunities and addressing energy needs.

11. Football Governance Bill

The Football Governance Bill intends to create a robust framework for the regulation of football, introducing a football regulator and a new licensing system that will govern the operations of football clubs. The establishment of a football regulator aims to enhance oversight and accountability within the sport. Under this legislation, the regulator will have the authority to thoroughly scrutinize club owners and their financial resources. This measure aims to ensure that clubs are managed in a financially sustainable manner, promoting stability within the football industry.

Moreover, the bill seeks to enhance fan involvement by mandating that clubs engage in more widespread consultation with their supporters. By incorporating the perspectives and input of fans, the legislation aims to foster a more inclusive and participatory football community. Additionally, the regulator will possess the power to prevent clubs from participating in breakaway leagues. This provision aims to safeguard the integrity of football and the existing league structure. Through the Football Governance Bill, the government aims to establish a fair and accountable system for football governance, promoting financial stability, increased fan engagement, and safeguarding the structure and traditions of the sport.

12. Media Bill

The Media Bill proposes the elimination of a law that previously obligated newspapers to bear the legal costs for both parties in libel and privacy cases, irrespective of the outcome. This reform aims to bring about a fairer balance and discourage frivolous litigation within the realms of media law. In addition, the bill introduces more stringent regulations for video-on-demand platforms, ensuring greater accountability and responsibility in their content offerings. Furthermore, amendments to the regulatory scheme for commercial radio are planned, indicating a commitment to modernize and adapt regulations to suit the evolving media landscape.

By addressing the issue of legal costs in libel and privacy cases, as well as enhancing regulations for video-on-demand platforms and commercial radio, the Media Bill seeks to foster a more equitable and transparent media environment. The proposed reforms are aimed at striking a balance between the freedom of expression and responsible journalism while upholding the rights and protections of individuals involved in such cases.

13. Pensions Reform Bill

The Pensions Reform Bill aims to simplify the process of investing funds from the UK’s £2.5 trillion pension sector into long-term infrastructure projects and start-ups. The Chancellor, Jeremy Hunt, anticipates that these reforms could potentially boost pension returns by 12% for average earners who begin saving from the age of 18. Additionally, the bill aims to reduce reliance on foreign investment in UK companies, promoting domestic investment and fostering a stronger, more self-sufficient economy.

14. Pedicab Licensing Bill

The Pedicab Licensing Bill introduces legislation that grants local authorities the power to prohibit dishonest or unscrupulous pedicab drivers operating in cities. To ensure the safety and reliability of these three-wheeled vehicles, the bill includes regulations regarding fares and enforces stricter checks on both the cabs and their drivers. This measure aims to enhance passenger safety and reduce noise disturbances associated with pedicabs, fostering a more secure and peaceful urban environment.

15. Arbitration Bill

It introduces new rules for resolving disputes without going to court, providing a mechanism for individuals and businesses to settle their disagreements outside of the legal system.

16: Trade Bill

It enables the UK to join the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP) trade pact. This agreement will establish economic ties with 11 countries in Asia and the Pacific region.

17.Holocaust Memorial Bill:

This bill allows for the construction of a Holocaust memorial in Victoria Tower Gardens, which is located near the Houses of Parliament. The memorial will serve as a tribute to the victims and a reminder of this tragic part of history.

18:Economic Activities of Public Bodies (Overseas Matters) Bill

Under this bill, public bodies will be prohibited from boycotting Israel. The aim is to prevent public entities from engaging in economic activities that harm trade relations with Israel.

19. Rail Reform Bill:

Although still in draft form, this bill proposes the creation of a new body responsible for overseeing the railway system in Great Britain. It seeks to reform and improve the management of the national railway system.