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Tuesday, 12 November, 2002, 20:35 GMT
Queen's speech 'to fuel controversy'
The Queen
The Queen will outline plans for hospital reform

Here's a safe, untimely prediction: this week's Queen's Speech does not contain the essence of politics in the parliamentary year ahead.

Yes, it will fuel a thousand articles and as many broadcast items.

It contains important and controversial proposals on hospitals, crime, the courts and England's regions.

Some of this legislation will affect real life for a long time to come.

But Her Majesty, or rather her Downing Street ghost writers, are not in the habit of referring to what may set politics alight - an Iraqi war, whether it goes quickly or badly; the likely internal and external rows about a euro referendum; the continuing instability at the top of the Tory party; a wave of strikes in the public sector.

All those, and the almost-inevitable, unpredicted event no-one has dreamt of yet, will matter more.

Government anxieties

Even so, Tony Blair's sixth annual package of measures does tell us a lot about New Labour's progress in power.


All of this will produce serious protests from lawyers, civil liberty groups and Labour left-wingers

Its silences signal relative success.

No legislation is proposed for most schools, or on the economic front.

Just now, the government's anxieties are directed elsewhere.

The prime minister, most unusually, signalled the core of the Queen's Speech in an article in last Sunday's Observer, where he focussed on crime and disorder.

That, no doubt, reflects the private feedback he is getting from focus groups and backbenchers.

To tackle that he has plans for on-the-spot fines, changes in sentencing, so that prison and community punishment can be mixed, and radical reforms to the English court system - notably an end to the double jeopardy rule which stops people being tried more than once for the same offence.

Past failure

All of this will produce serious protests from lawyers, civil liberty groups and Labour left-wingers; and none of that will surprise or worry the Cabinet.

Note, though, that this is evidence of past failure.

Five years of legislation promising a tougher approach to crime have done little to convince the public things are actually changing on the streets.

So with hospitals. At first sight, the arrival of Foundation Hospitals, freer from central control than most of the NHS, seems a rather paltry thing.

There will be few of them, and their powers are still constrained by targets, departmental spending limits, inspections and local controls.

Different model

But again, there is a larger agenda composed of frustration and past failure: the old centralised NHS may have been relatively under-funded compared to other European health systems, but it has also failed to modernise quickly enough for ministers.

And if that continues, then here is the model for an entirely different kind of health service - indeed, different public services in general.

So there is the meat of controversy in the programme: scores of campaigning groups, charities, professional organisations and unions will line up with Opposition MPs and Labour rebels against Tony Blair's latest proposals for public service reform.

In the end, given his Commons majority, he is almost certain to get his way.

But then, out of the blue, as the apparently ordered, planned programme chugs on, something will hit him on the back of the head.

It always has. It always will.


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