A controversial law to increase police powers to control protests was included in the Queen’s Speech this morning.
The speech also included other already-announced plans for new environmental targets, an overhaul of the planning system and changes to the way public decisions could be challenged in court.
The Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill, introduced in parliament in March, led to protests across the UK.
Civil liberties and environmental campaigners condemned it as an “assault” on human rights.
The legislation, applying mainly to England and Wales, would give a senior police officer power to impose conditions on a public assembly to “prevent disorder, damage, disruption, impact or intimidation”. It also outlawed unauthorised camps.
Almost a quarter of a million people signed a petition against the bill, ensuring a short parliamentary debate last month.
The bill has had its second reading and is waiting to be considered by a committee of MPs.
The Judicial Review Bill would change the way legal challenges could be brought against decisions by public authorities in England and Wales.
Opponents of the onshore oil and gas industry have sought judicial reviews against decisions by mineral planning authorities and government departments. The most recent, challenging the assessment of climate impact from the Horse Hill site in Surrey, is due to go to the Court of Appeal this year.
The proposed legislation would introduce Suspended Quashing Orders, allowing courts to suspend, for a specified time, an order to quash a decision or action. The government said this would give a public authority time to rectify identified errors and avoid delays to developments.
“A Judicial review bill will protect the judiciary from being drawn into political questions and preserve the integrity of Judicial Review for its intended purposes.”
Last month, the Law Society said the proposals would make government “untouchable”. Its president I. Stephanie Boyce said:
“The Ministry of Justice has gone beyond what was recommended by the expert panel set up to advise it, with no evidence to back up this over-reach.
“Collectively, the most controversial proposals would allow unlawful acts by government or public bodies to be untouched or untouchable. This would harm individuals that challenged them and others who might fall foul of the same unlawful act or decision in the future.
“The effect of the proposals would be a fundamental distortion of the protection judicial review is supposed to provide against state action, undermining the rule of law and restricting access to justice.”
On the Planning Bill, the government said the legislation would:
“create a simpler, faster and more modern planning system, ensuring homes and infrastructure can be delivered more quickly across England”.
If approved, the legislation would divide up areas into those designated for growth, protection or renewal. In growth areas, current planning restrictions would be largely removed. Automatic outline planning permission would be granted for homes and infrastructure projects, as long as they met local planning rules. Development in protection and renewal areas would be more restricted.
When the proposals were first announced, Friends of the Earth, said:
“These proposals would cause irrevocable damage to local democracy, deprive communities of their right to be heard, thereby eroding public trust and confidence even further in the system, and fail to acknowledge the extremely urgent need to tackle the climate and ecological crises.”
Today, the Lib Dem leader, Sir Ed Davey, said:
“[The government’s] planning reforms will rip powers away from local people and communities in favour of wealthy property developers, threatening our environment and treasured green spaces.”
Environmental targets and duties
The much-delayed Environment Bill, launched in July 2018, aimed to set new legal frameworks for air pollution, water quality and nature conservation after the UK left the EU.
Its passage through parliament has been repeatedly postponed, most recently in January 2021.
The government said today the bill would “set legally-binding targets, restore nature and biodiversity, tackle air pollution, establish an independent Office for Environmental Protection, cut plastic use and revolutionise how we recycle”.
There would also be a duty on ministers to “ensure environmental considerations are central to policy development”, it added.
The Green Party MP, Caroline Lucas, said today the government’s plans for the climate crisis did not match the scale of the challenge:
“The prime minister’s talk about building a strong recovery from Covid will take us down the road to disaster unless it is a green recovery, focused on decarbonisation, creating sustainable businesses and jobs and accelerating the path to net zero.
“The government also has to abandon the fixation with growth and recognise that prioritising GDP growth above all other measures is what is fuelling the climate and ecological crises. The warnings are coming thick and fast that we have to change our approach, moving to an economic model which prioritises wellbeing and the health of people and planet.”
The Downstream Oil Resilience Bill aims to address threats to the security of fuel supply in the refining, importing, distribution and marketing of oil products, the government said.
The legislation would identify risks of disruption and implement contingency plans.
If approved, its measures would cover the whole of the UK:
- allow the government to direct companies to take necessary action to ensure security of supply
- ensure new owners of critical fuel infrastructure were financially and operationally capable
- enable the government to provide financial assistance to build resilience and ensure security of supply
- make companies and its officers liable for failing to comply with a direction, making false statements or failing to provide required information
The 10-minute speech also included measures to end five-year fixed-term parliaments (Dissolution and Calling of Parliament Bill) and require identification to vote at a polling station (Electoral Integrity Bill). It did not commit the government to specific legislation to change the way social care is funded.