In the Media

Crime tops the bill in Queen?s Speech

PUBLISHED November 25, 2006

Climate change may be hitting the headlines in the reporting of the Queen?s speech, but it is the Home Office?s Bills that will dominate the next 12 months, including the far-reaching Counter-Terrorism Bill, argues John Ludlow

The Queen?s Speech of 15 November will be remembered chiefly as Tony Blair?s last. Having promised to be gone before next September, this set of 31 Bills and draft Bills can be seen somewhat as the Prime Minister?s legislative epitaph.

Certainly the speech contains many of the themes of his premiership, chief among them being the need to be tough on crime. While climate change unsurprisingly garnered the most column inches in the press, and issues such as pensions and welfare reform will keep parliamentarians busy, it is the Home Office?s clutch of Bills that will dominate proceedings in the coming 12 months.

The centrepiece of Home Secretary John Reid?s programme is the Counter-Terrorism Bill. Even though it was not made explicit in the speech ? the press release talked only of the possibility of legislation ? there will be a Bill and it is highly likely to include a power to detain suspects for up to 90 days, as well as proposals to beef up control orders and to allow the use of intercept evidence. It will not have an easy passage.

Side by side with that is a measure to get tough on gangsters. Following rather swiftly on the heels of the Serious Organised Crime & Police Act 2005, the new Organised Crime Bill will introduce serious crime prevention orders, as well as strengthened powers of investigation and seizure to aid the recoverability of criminal assets. Most controversial will be a new offence of assisting a criminal act, believing that an offence may be committed, which casts the net of secondary liability rather too widely for some observers.

Equally unacceptable to many will be a fresh attempt to remove juries from fraud trials, following the fiasco last summer when the Attorney-General had to withdraw regulations in the face of certain defeat in the House of Lords. The government will be hoping for a smoother passage this time, but this is far from certain.

Once again, we have a Criminal Justice Bill and it sometimes feels as if a Queen?s Speech would not be a Queen?s Speech without one. By tradition these are wide-ranging ?mop-up? measures, often dealing with new offences as well as sentencing and court procedure. Of most contention here will be proposals to make it more difficult to overturn convictions, and plans to ?toughen up? the process when offenders fail to appear for trial.

While the Home Office dominates, as it has in most recent Queen?s speeches, the Department for Constitutional Affairs (DCA) is no slouch. Most departments get only one Bill per session, but this year the DCA has three, no doubt reflecting its enhanced and expanded status.

Not that there are many surprises here. The Legal Services Bill is included, despite not being mentioned in the speech itself. We eagerly await the Bill itself, which is expected before the end of the month, when we shall see the extent to which the government has taken on the recommendations of the joint select committee, which scrutinised the draft. There is sure to be much more that needs to be done to improve this measure, especially concerning the exercise of powers of the new legal services board to intervene in the work of frontline regulators.

Also expected was the Tribunals, Courts and Enforcement Bill, which creates a welcome new unified tribunal structure as well as the potential for some tribunals to be provided for the first time with an appellate tier tribunal (see [2006] Gazette, 16 November, 22). It was published in draft last session, which is the usual sign that a Bill proper is on its way.

However, the same is not true of the Coroners Reform Bill, which was also published in draft last session but is now conspicuous by its absence from the speech. This may have something to do with the mauling it received from the constitutional affairs select committee, which undertook pre-legislative scrutiny. If so, it shows the increasing influence of select committees.

There was much in the draft Bill to welcome, including the plans to create a system based on legally qualified coroners as well as enhanced powers for coroners to investigate and demand papers, and to impose reporting restrictions to protect the identity of the deceased and others. However, the committee was right to describe the measure as a ?wasted opportunity? to remedy the ?critical defects in the death certification system?.

There are many other important measures in the speech, including a revised Mental Health Bill, a Bill to replace the discredited Child Support Agency and a Bill to improve, among other things, consumer redress in respect of estate agents. In many cases any proper assessment will have to wait until publication, which may well be months away.

This is a wide-ranging Queen?s Speech. That is to be expected. But if there is an overall theme it is crime and security and the need to remain vigilant. This is not a new theme ? it was the same in 2005 and 2004 ? and is not one that is likely to have a short shelf life.

John Ludlow is head of the Law Society?s parliamentary unit