Prince Charles and his son Prince William opened British parliament on Queen Elizabeth’s behalf today in a historic, unprecedented move in which Charles read the queen’s speech.
he main legislative reforms outlined included a new Irish language law, an amnesty for British soldiers who committed crimes during the Troubles in Northern Ireland and a new law that cracks down on sexual conversion therapy.
The queen (96) reluctantly pulled out of the major ceremonial occasion for the first time in 59 years following advice from royal doctors as she continues to experience “episodic mobility problems”.
It is William’s first state opening, as the royal function of opening a new parliament was delegated to both Charles and William by the queen.
Camilla, the Duchess of Cornwall and a future queen consort, also accompanied the two princes. However, the queen’s main throne remained empty in the House of Lords.
The queen last missed the state openings of parliament in 1959 and 1963, when she was pregnant with Prince Andrew and Prince Edward respectively. Her speech was read by the then lord chancellors, David Maxwell Fyfe and Reginald Manningham-Buller.
Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s government used the speech to reveal its plan to introduce legislation aimed at ending the prosecutions of British army veterans over Troubles-related killings and other legacy cases.
The controversial Northern Ireland Troubles (Legacy and Reconciliation) Bill announced in the queen’s speech is aimed at making sure ex-soldiers can get immunity from criminal prosecution.
It will also see an independent commission set up to help families find out what happened to loved ones in legacy cases involving former members of the security forces and ex-paramilitaries.
The British government said veterans involved in hundreds of cases will be expected to provide information to the new commission – leaving open a route to prosecution if individuals do not cooperate.
Northern Ireland Secretary of State Brandon Lewis first revealed the intention to end prosecutions last year – arguing it would help unionist and nationalist communities move “further along the road to reconciliation”.
But bereaved relatives who lost loved ones during the three decades of violence have made clear their outrage about the idea of an “amnesty” when it comes to legacy cases.
The Relatives for Justice group has called for the legal rights of “all victims to the conflict, irrespective of their background” to be upheld.
Labour leader Keir Starmer has previously said it was “plain wrong” for the government to offer a “blanket” amnesty for crimes committed during the Troubles era.
But the government said it wanted to introduce a system where immunity is provided to individuals as long as they cooperate with the new commission.
A statute of limitations on prosecutions for cases during the Troubles era, up until the signing of the Good Friday Agreement in 1998, is expected to be introduced.
The UK government, however, resisted calls to legislate to “tear up” the Northern Ireland Protocol – but insists the controversial deal “needs to change”.
Instead, the UK government used the queen’s speech to announce a Brexit Freedoms Bill that it claims would cut £1bn of red tape and ensure EU law no longer has supremacy over acts of parliament.
DUP leader Jeffrey Donaldson and sections of the Conservative Party have pushed for “decisive action” on the protocol and UK foreign secretary Liz Truss reportedly prepared draft legislation to scrap large parts of the agreement after giving up on Brexit talks with the EU.
But the announcement of the government’s programme for the next year contained no such legislation.
Documents released alongside the queen’s speech hinted that unilateral action remains a possibility.
The British government stated: “As we have seen following the elections in Northern Ireland, the problems caused by the protocol continue to stand in the way of an Executive being formed.
“In the interests of all communities of Northern Ireland, the protocol needs to change. We urge our partners in the EU to work with us, with new imagination and flexibility, to deliver that.
“We will continue to talk with the EU but we will not let that stand in the way of protecting peace and stability in Northern Ireland. As any responsible government would, we will take the steps necessary to protect all dimensions of the Belfast (Good Friday) Agreement and meet our obligations under the New Decade, New Approach Deal to protect Northern Ireland’s place in the UK internal market.”
The Brexit Freedoms Bill is intended to allow the British government to amend EU law carried over after Brexit to be amended or repealed more easily without taking “decades of parliamentary time”.
The bill would assert the supremacy of acts of parliament over retained EU law “to reflect the fact that much of it became law without going through full democratic scrutiny in the UK parliament”, while allowing more of it to be amended without primary legislation.
The British government said it would cut £1bn of “burdensome EU red tape for businesses” and enable the UK to become “the best regulated economy in the world”.
But some campaign groups fear this could lead to a “levelling down” of regulation, with Greenpeace warning it could lead to environmental protections being watered down.
Greenpeace UK’s head of politics, Rebecca Newsom, said: “All too often, bonfires of so-called ‘red tape’ end up incinerating vital green rules to protect wildlife and its habitats from concrete and bulldozers.
“This move would benefit the regressive bit of the construction lobby and a handful of firms profiting from grubby trade deals, but it’s not what the vast majority of people want or voted for.”
Other benefits of Brexit referred to in the new legislative programme include a new data protection regime, new regulation for financial services, changes to public procurement rules and a new approach to environmental assessment in planning laws.
Plans to legislate for the Irish language have also been announced.
There had been an expectation that the Westminster government would introduce the legislation before the Stormont election last week.
It fell to the Northern Ireland Office after the Stormont parties were unable to agree to introduce cultural and language legislation in the Northern Ireland Assembly which was part of the New Decade, New Approach (NDNA) deal.
The plans include an Office of Identity and Cultural Expression to promote respect for diversity as well as an Irish Language Commissioner and a commissioner to develop language, arts and literature associated with the Ulster Scots/Ulster British tradition.
In the queen’s absence, Prince Charles announced plans to deliver a package of identity and language measures, as promised in the NDNA deal that restored power-sharing in early 2020.
The move had been flagged in advance of the speech, but delays in bringing forward the measures had been criticised by Irish-language campaigners.
Earlier this year campaigners said that they walked out of a meeting with UK junior minister Conor Burns, citing a lack of clarity on when legislation would be brought forward.
The promised legislation will also place a duty on the Northern Ireland department of education to encourage and facilitate the use of Ulster Scots, with the Northern Ireland secretary of state empowered to step in to ensure the commitments are followed by the Executive.
Sinn Féin leader Mary Lou McDonald said she had raised the issue in a meeting with Northern Ireland Secretary Brandon Lewis on Monday.
Legislation to ban conversion therapy that attempts to change someone’s sexual orientation was also outlined in the queen’s speech, following a series of U-turns by the British government.
The conversion therapy bill will aim to stop “abhorrent practices which do not work and cause extensive harm” and protect people’s freedom to love who they want, the British government said.
But due to the “complexity of issues and need for further careful thought”, the legislation will not protect transgender people.
Reacting to the plans, former LGBT adviser to the UK government, Jayne Ozanne, said it is an “utter disgrace” for trans people to be “purposefully omitted” from the ban.
It follows multiple changes in position and comes more than three years after the Conservative party pledged to eradicate conversion therapy.
In late March, Boris Johnson dramatically dropped plans for legislation, with a government spokesman saying it would look at how the existing law could be applied more effectively and explore other measures.
Within hours, a furious backlash forced a hasty retreat and a senior government source was quoted as saying legislation would be included in the queen’s speech.
Mr Johnson is said to have “changed his mind” after seeing the reaction to the earlier announcement.
But he defended the decision not to include trans people, saying there are “complexities and sensitivities” which need to be worked through.
Critics told the government to stop making “pathetic excuses”, protesters took to the streets, and so many LGBT+ groups pulled out of the government’s landmark LGBT conference that it had to be cancelled.
In a background briefing note accompanying the queen’s speech, the government said the bill will apply to England and Wales and have six main elements.
It will ensure that violent conversion therapy can be recognised as an aggravating factor when people are sentenced for existing violent offences, and make non-physical conversion therapy illegal for all minors, regardless of circumstance, and over-18s who do not consent.
What is the Queen’s Speech?
Written entirely by the British government, the queen, as head of state, reads the outline of policies and laws proposed for the new parliamentary session.
But today’s opening of Britain’s parliament had a striking difference: the 96-year-old Queen was not speaking at all, and was not present for the first time in 59 years.
Instead, the Prince of Wales, Charles, stood in for the major constitutional duty due to the queen experiencing what Buckingham Palace described as “episodic mobility problems”.
What is in it?
Mr Johnson will hope that eye-catching policies will help shore up his leadership which has been rocked by the Partygate scandal and heavy losses in the local elections.
Ministers will try to force through a crackdown on “guerrilla protests”, with jail sentences and unlimited fines for those who disrupt key national infrastructure.
A series of measures will seek to take advantage of Brexit, including tearing up EU regulations and implementing free trade deals with Australia and New Zealand.
A bill of rights to reform human rights laws will be introduced, the sell-off of Channel 4 will be enabled, and plans will be introduced to deal with the legacy of the Troubles in Northern Ireland.
Amid the drawn-out invasion of Ukraine by Russia, the security services will get extra powers to tackle foreign spies and efforts to influence British democracy, with a reference to Chinese interference.
A Levelling Up and Regeneration Bill will seek to drive local growth and regenerate towns and cities across England, including by enshrining the Tory government’s levelling up “missions”.
Ministers will try to deter companies repeating P&O’s mass firing of staff by giving ports powers to refuse access to ferries not paying the UK minimum wage.
An Energy Security Bill seeks to transition to cheaper and greener energy while aiming to minimise fluctuating bills, including by extending the price cap beyond 2023.
And a UK Infrastructure Bank with £22bn of financial capacity is among the plans to grow the UK economy and get it “back on track” after the pandemic, as Mr Johnson put it.
What does it lack?
Labour critics and possibly those on the Conservative backbenches too are bound to seize on the absence of any measures to immediately alleviate the pain of spiralling prices.
This is despite inflation being forecast to hit a 40-year high later in 2022 at 10%.
There is no windfall tax on the soaring profits of energy giants, which has been demanded by opposition parties and others campaigning to ease the cost-of-living crisis.
Instead, ministers highlighted a £22bn package already announced while hinting at further support in the future.
Referring to the Russian invasion and the “aftershocks” of Covid-19, Mr Johnson said: “No country is immune and no government can realistically shield everyone from the impact.”
Also absent was legislation to implement the government’s threat to tear up the post-Brexit deal on Northern Ireland’s trading arrangements.
But it is understood that Foreign Secretary Liz Truss could take further action in the coming weeks if negotiations with the EU continue to stall.
What happens next?
The new parliamentary session begins when Charles leaves and MPs and peers get back to work, starting with around six days of debate on the Speech.
A vote will be held in the Commons to approve the agenda, but is likely to pass, with Mr Johnson’s Conservatives holding a large majority.
https://www.independent.ie/world-news/europe/britain/amnesty-for-troubles-soldiers-but-no-unilateral-change-to-northern-protocol-as-prince-charles-delivers-queens-speech-41634278.html Amnesty for Troubles soldiers but no unilateral change to Northern Protocol as Prince Charles delivers Queen’s speech