Richard North, 22/06/2017  

Observing the more than usually lugubrious Prince Charles alongside his mother, yesterday, one could only marvel at the Queen's modernity in celebrating "bring your child to work" day.

Beyond that, two days short of the first anniversary of the EU referendum, there was precious little else to mark the day in a speech supposedly dominated by Brexit. This is what the Queen had to say:
My government's priority is to secure the best possible deal as the country leaves the European Union. My ministers are committed to working with Parliament, the devolved administrations, business and others to build the widest possible consensus on the country's future outside the European Union.

A bill will be introduced to repeal the European Communities Act and provide certainty for individuals and businesses. This will be complemented by legislation to ensure that the United Kingdom makes a success of Brexit, establishing new national policies on immigration, international sanctions, nuclear safeguards, agriculture, and fisheries.

My government will seek to maintain a deep and special partnership with European allies and to forge new trading relationships across the globe. New bills on trade and customs will help to implement an independent trade policy, and support will be given to help British businesses export to markets around the world.
One wonders if she actually listened to the words she had to say – whether there is some technology available which enables you to blank out the sound of one's own voice when speaking out loud. Only this – or perhaps long practice – would enable her to keep a straight face.

For all the vacuity, though, the words were oddly revealing, demonstrating a Government all at sea, locked in a bizarre "little Englander" paradigm that clearly shows that their priorities are dangerously skewed.

The issue, of course, is that if does not really matter that much whether the Queen's ministers "are committed to working with Parliament, the devolved administrations, business and others to build the widest possible consensus on the country's future outside the European Union".

What we actually need to know is whether ministers are committed to working with the European Union to that effect, because it is only by so doing that we are going to achieve anything at all which will stave off economic disaster. Bereft of any ideas of its own, the Government will find itself having to look to Brussels for its salvation.

As regards the legislative package, we are told that there will be 27 Brexit-related Bills in what the Prime Minister promises to be a busy legislative session.

The key measures will include the Repeal Bill – already flagged up innumerable times, which repeal the European Communities Act 1972 and convert EU law into UK law as we leave the EU. It will also create temporary powers for Parliament to make secondary legislation, enabling corrections to be made to the laws that do not operate appropriately once we have left the EU.

Additionally, there will be power to make changes to domestic law to reflect the content of any withdrawal agreement under Article 50 and to replicate the common UK frameworks created by EU law into UK law. This, apparently, will be a transitional arrangement to provide certainty after exit and to allow intensive discussion and consultation with the devolved administrations on where lasting common frameworks are needed.

Newly offered (to my recollection) is a Customs Bill. It is noted that the EU customs code currently applies directly in the UK and it now seems to have dawned on the few grown-ups left in Government that we will need our own code.

Thus, we are told, this Bill will ensure that the UK has a standalone UK customs regime on exit. It will give us the flexibility to accommodate future trade agreements with the EU and others, and it permits changes to be made to the UK's VAT and excise regimes to ensure that the UK has standalone regimes on EU-exit (assuming that we are keeping VAT).

One does worry more than a little here, though, because the customs regime will depend intrinsically on the agreements we are able to make with our trading partners, and in particular, the European Union.

Rather than ensuring that the UK has its own regime, therefore, one suspects that this will result in an enabling Act which permits ministers to promulgate the myriad of technical regulations that will allow the system to function. When we will see those regulations is another matter.

Following on from this is a Trade Bill which will (in the Government's words) "cement the United Kingdom's status as a leading trading nation, driving positive global change through trade, whilst ensuring UK businesses are protected from unfair trading practices".

That, for an Act of Parliament, is a pretty tall order. Some might even avow that this is not the function of an Act, and neither is the objective solely (or at all) within the Government.

Nevertheless, we are promised that the Bill will put in place the essential and necessary legislative framework to allow the UK to operate its own independent trade policy upon exit from the European Union. That seems more realistic, except that trade policy again will depend on the nature and scope of the agreement with the EU.

Next in line we have an Immigration Bill. With the repeal of the European Communities Act, we are told, it will be necessary to establish new powers concerning the immigration status of EEA nationals.

The Bill will allow the Government to control the number of people coming here from Europe "while still allowing us to attract the brightest and the best". It will allow for the repeal of EU law on immigration, primarily free movement, that will otherwise be saved and converted into UK law by the Repeal Bill, and make the migration of EU nationals and their family members subject to relevant UK law once the UK has left the EU.

Suspicious-minded people might note that the Act (when it comes into force) is not intended to end free movement, per se, but simply to "allow for the repeal of EU law". Whether we do, or not, is another matter.

Similar suspicions might be directed at the Fisheries Bill, which will enable the UK "to exercise responsibility for access to fisheries and management of its waters". One should note the ambiguous wording. There is no claim that the Government is to control access, or even manage the fisheries. Simply, we are to "exercise responsibility" – which is an altogether different thing. If not actually a sell-out, it paves the way for one.

Less ambiguous is the Agriculture Bill, which will ensure that after we leave the EU we have an effective system in place to support UK farmers and protect our natural environment. The key thing, as far as the farmers will be concerned, will be the amount of money in the kitty, and the terms of its distribution. And that we will not know until secondary legislation appears.

Nevertheless. The motherhood and apple pie words are there, with the Bill aiming to provide stability to farmers as we leave the EU and to "protect our precious natural environment for future generations".

Then a Nuclear Safeguards Bill will establish a UK nuclear safeguards regime as we leave the European Union and Euratom. This will take over from locally administered provisions of Euratom, giving the Office for Nuclear Regulation powers to take on the role and responsibilities "required to meet our international safeguards, and nuclear non-proliferation, obligations".

An International Sanctions Bill will support our role as a permanent member of the UN Security Council and a "leading player on the world stage", by establishing a new sovereign UK framework to implement international sanctions on a multilateral or unilateral basis.

This Bill, we are told, will return decision-making powers on non-UN sanctions to the UK and enable the UK's continued compliance with international law after the UK's exit from the EU.

Here, the devil is in the detail, but the very presence of this Bill in the line-up indicates that there might be some grown-ups left in the deepest recesses of Whitehall. Where this takes us will need careful watching.

Of the other Bills, these have relevance in dealing with the consequences of Brexit, such as the Space Industry Bill. Bearing in mind that we could drop out of the EU's space programme (although this would be ill-advised), the Bill will create new powers to license a wide range of new commercial spaceflight, including vertically-launched rockets, spaceplanes, satellite operation, spaceports and other technologies. It also creates a regulatory framework to manage risk, ensuring that commercial spaceflight in the UK remains safe.

Intentional or not, this actually gives a strong signal that the UK is not looking for cooperative ventures with the EU, although we will have to wait to see where we go with Galileo and other projects.

Here, and elsewhere, though, there are strong elements of wishful thinking – and much missing on the Brexit front. We should be getting clear indications of how the UK intends to frame the negotiations, especially if there is to be a transition agreement. It is hard to see whether that could be achieved without new legislation.

However, asking for such detail is probably too much to ask, as the Government itself most likely does not know its own intentions. It has thus been said that this Queen's speech will be best known for what it left out. The omissions may well prove to be more important than what so far has been revealed.

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