UK commits to EU referendum by 2017 in Queen's Speech

UK commits to EU referendum by 2017 in Queen's Speech

The UK Government's plan for the coming years has been laid out by the British Queen - including the commitment to an EU membership referendum in the next two years.

The agenda announced to MPs and peers by the Queen includes the historic legislation to pave the way for an in/out referendum on Britain’s membership of the European Union by the end of 2017.

UK commits to EU referendum by 2017 in Queen's Speech

It also includes a legal requirement for anyone working 30 hours a week or less on the minimum wage to be taken out of income tax altogether. Further devolution is promised for Scotland and Wales, and measures will be introduced to give English MPs the final say on legislation affecting only England at Westminster.

The Government also outlined its plans for legislation to give effect to the Stormont House Agreement, despite a political crisis in the North that has pushed the deal close to implosion.

Stormont crisis addressed

UK commits to EU referendum by 2017 in Queen's Speech

The speech contains a pledge to “take forward” the “historic agreement” reached at Stormont House.

But whether a series of new bodies envisaged in the accord struck in December between the five parties in the Stormont Executive and the British and Irish governments ever get up and running remains in doubt, due to a destabilising wrangle in Belfast over welfare reform.

The implementation of the last government’s welfare reforms in Northern Ireland was a commitment made at Stormont House by the Executive parties, and Downing Street has made clear delivery of the rest of the Agreement depends on it happening.

UK commits to EU referendum by 2017 in Queen's Speech

But that is now in real doubt after a crucial Assembly Bill to introduce the measures was vetoed by Sinn Fein and the SDLP yesterday – a move that has triggered a serious budget crisis at Stormont, putting the very future of the powersharing administration at risk.

Despite the crisis, the Queen’s Speech contains a firm pledge by the British government to enact the legislation required to deliver its commitments made at Stormont House.

However, Mr Cameron would be unlikely to push ahead with his ’Northern Ireland Bill’ until a degree of stability returns to Stormont.

The Bill will provide for the setting up of an independent Historical Investigations Unit to take on work on unsolved Troubles murders previously undertaken by the police’s controversial Historical Enquiries Team (HET) and the NI Police Ombudsman.

It will also enable the UK Government to co-operate with Dublin to create the Independent Commission for Information Retrieval.

This body will give bereaved relatives the opportunity to find out more about what happened to their loved ones, with perpetrators able to provide information free from threat of prosecution.

The Bill will also establish a new Oral History Archive to document people’s experiences of the conflict.

The last government pledged to devolve corporation tax powers to Northern Ireland in the wake of the Stormont House deal. That legislation was passed in the last parliament but the powers will not be handed over until the chancellor triggers a clause to do so.

The Government has made clear this will only happen when Stormont is on a firm financial footing.

Plans for Britain

Mr Cameron has ducked potential confrontation with senior backbenchers by omitting legislation to scrap the Human Rights Act (HRA). Instead, the Government will bring forward proposals for a British Bill of Rights to replace the HRA, with legislation expected following consultation later in the parliament.

The packed agenda of 26 bills – plus one in draft form – aims to enact many of the promises made by Conservatives during the general election campaign, and Mr Cameron made no secret of the fact that the absolute majority secured on May 7 allows him to press ahead with Tory measures previously blocked by the Liberal Democrats.

An Investigatory Powers Bill will revive plans to give intelligence agencies new tools to target communications data – branded a “snooper’s charter” by critics – while a Trade Unions Bill will impose a 50% turnout threshold on strike ballots, with a further requirement in essential public services for strikes to be supported by 40% of those entitled to vote.

As expected, the annual cap on a household’s benefit payments will be cut from £26,000 to £23,000.

Mr Cameron said that after the British economy was hauled back from the brink of disaster in 2010, the UK now stands “on the brink of something special”.

“We have a golden opportunity to renew the idea that working people are backed in this country; to renew the promise to those least fortunate that they will have the opportunity for a brighter future; and to renew the ties that bind every part of our United Kingdom,” said the Prime Minister.

“We now have the mandate to deliver that renewal. And it starts with this Queen’s Speech.”

The speech set the scene for further austerity measures to eliminate the national deficit, confirming plans to run the first budget surplus in 18 years in 2018/19.

Speaking in the House of Lords, the Queen said the Government would “continue the work of bringing the public finances under control and reducing the deficit so Britain lives within its means”.

A Full Employment and Welfare Benefits Bill will freeze most working-age welfare payments, including tax credits and child benefit, impose a £23,000 benefits cap and remove automatic entitlement to housing benefits for 18-21-year-olds.

It also creates a statutory duty for ministers to report to Parliament on progress towards achieving the Government’s goals of full employment and three million new apprenticeships.

The Government’s “tax lock commitment”, to be enacted in a National Insurance Contributions Bill and Finance Bill, will ensure that there are no rises in the rates of income tax, VAT or National Insurance over the course of the next five years.

The legislation will also bar the Government from extending the scope of VAT or raising the National Insurance upper earnings limit. But there is no provision to fix the thresholds at which the various rates become payable, raising the prospect that Chancellor George Osborne could still use the phenomenon of “fiscal drag” to boost his revenues from tax.

The speech confirmed the Government’s intention to raise from £10,600 to £12,500 the threshold at which earnings become liable for income tax, benefiting 30 million workers. And it goes further by promising legislation to ensure that no one working 30 hours a week on the minimum wage – currently £6.50 an hour - will ever have to pay income tax.

Mr Cameron said measures on childcare and home ownership would aim to stop Britain being a “two-speed country” where only some could afford these things.

A Childcare Bill will provide working parents with 30 hours a week of free childcare for three and four-year-olds. And a Housing Bill will give 1.3 million housing association tenants the right to buy their homes, while requiring councils to sell off high-value properties and invest the proceeds into building affordable homes.

An Education and Adoption Bill will pave the way for the establishment of 500 new free schools and require “coasting” schools to become academies.

Following last year’s failed referendum on independence for Scotland, devolution took up a substantial proportion of the Queen’s Speech.

A Scotland Bill promised to devolve “wide-ranging powers” over taxation - including income tax rates and thresholds – and spending to Holyrood, delivering in full the recommendations of the Smith Commission.

A Wales Bill will hand new powers over energy, transport and local government to the Cardiff Assembly, while a Northern Ireland Bill will enact the provisions of last year’s Stormont House Agreement, including the establishment of a historical investigations unit to take forward inquiries into unsolved Troubles-related deaths.

Changes will be made to the standing orders of the House of Commons to ensure that decisions affecting only England or only England and Wales will require the consent of a majority of MPs from those parts of the UK. And a Cities and Local Government Devolution Bill will allow powers and budgets to be handed to English cities and combined authorities which choose to have elected mayors.

Potentially the most significant constitutional measure is the European Union Referendum Bill, which will provide for a public vote on EU membership before the end of 2017, as promised by Mr Cameron, with participation limited to those entitled to vote in general elections in the UK.

A separate Votes for Life Bill will scrap the current 15-year time limit on UK citizens living abroad voting in Westminster and European elections.

An Immigration Bill will target illegal working and employers’ exploitation of illegal immigrants, as well as restricting access to services such as bank accounts and rented homes, with the aim of controlling immigration by making the UK a less attractive destination. The removal of illegal immigrants will be made easier by the introduction of a “deport first, appeal later” rule.

An Extremism Bill will create new banning orders, extremism disruption orders and closure orders to tackle “groups and individuals who reject our values and promote messages of hate”. And a Psychoactive Substances Bill will ban so-called “legal highs”.

An Enterprise Bill will aim to cut business red tape, an Energy Bill will give local communities the final say on wind farm applications, and an HS2 Bill will allow work to continue on the proposed North-South high-speed rail link.

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