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Wednesday, 13 November, 2002, 13:04 GMT
What the Queen didn't say

As always, what the Queen's Speech does not contain reveals as much about the government as what was actually in it.

The really tell-tale, persistent gaps usually cover those areas of political difficulty best served, as far ministers are concerned, by keeping the issue out in the long grass - unresolved but at least not causing an almighty row.

So it is with foxhunting, reforming the Lords and the euro, each in their own way a serious headache for the government.

All three have dogged New Labour since long before the party swept to power in 1997.

And ever since that first landslide, Tony Blair and his ministers have consistently derided suggestions that they were being deliberately delayed, fudged or otherwise put off until the government felt up to confronting them.

Yet here we are more than six years on, well into Mr Blair's second term, and they haunt him still.

Hunt-ban havering

A ban on hunting with hounds was a Labour commitment going into the 1997 election; as soon as they got the chance, MPs voted overwhelmingly to outlaw the bloodsport.

Fox hunting
Hunting has dogged Labour for years now
But as the pro-hunting lobby, Countryside Alliance and fox-hunting peers got their act together, Labour suddenly pointed to its manifesto smallprint, pointing out that the commitment was not to actually ban anything but to give Parliament a free vote on the issue.

The intervening years have seen the issue backed by the Commons, rejected by the Lords, left to gather dust on the shelf, resurrected as a concession to disgruntled backbenchers, outsourced to an inquiry, and then voted on again before being put out to review - this time by Rural Affairs Minister Alun Michael.

No ban appeared in the Queen's Speech, simply the mention that legislation "will enable Parliament to reach a conclusion, on the contentious issue of hunting with dogs in England and Wales".

The government says a Hunting Bill will only be introduced "based on evidence and principle" once Mr Michael has finished his long round of consultations.

Given its history, however, anyone waiting for a ban would be advised not to hold their breath.

Half-way House

The story is not all that different with Lords reform. The government "looks forward to considering the report from the Joint Committee on House of Lords Reform", the Queen said.

No legislation, then.

Having got rid of most -though not all - hereditary peers in his first term, Mr Blair has been stuck at a half-way, half-reformed upper House ever since. Meanwhile, "half-baked" is the description critics have applied to government proposals for second-stage Lords reform.

House of Lords
Changing who gets into the Lords, and how, is a thorny issue
Progress has been slow, bitterly disappointing many on Labour's benches who want a large elected element in the second chamber.

A royal commission has reported; a government white paper has been published; and now a Joint Committee, chaired by Jack Cunningham, is looking at the issue.

The strong suspicion among reformers is that all this displays the classic signs of kicking a difficult issue into touch.

They suspect that the government, whose white paper on the subject suggested only 20% of the Lords should be elected, would far prefer a wholly appointed chamber, crammed with "Tony's cronies", to an elected, more unruly Lords.

Mr Cunningham's committee hopes to produce a report setting out the options for Lords reform before Christmas. But whenever the Commons and Lords debate those options, few expect both Houses to agree with each other.

But the key point is, of course, that everyone has long known perfectly well what the options are; choosing between them is the real crunch issue. The government has so far resisted giving any timing for when that decision might be made.

Euro-tease

What of the euro, meanwhile? A week ago Leader of the Commons Robin Cook promised "interesting" details on the single currency would make an appearance in the Queen's Speech.

"The euro will be there," he tantalised.

Robin Cook
Robin Cook said the euro details would be "interesting"
Some excitable observers took this as hinting at paving legislation allowing a referendum on the subject.

Cooler heads were proved right when the euro appeared in entirely predictable form: the government will "make a decision on whether to recommend entry into the single currency on the basis of the assessment of the five economic tests to be completed by next June".

This simple restatement of settled policy has, for well over the past year, served to cover the varying degrees of enthusiasm and reluctance, in government and more widely on Labour's benches, towards joining the euro.

A conclusion that the tests have not been "passed" will disappoint the pro-euro lobby, who are keen for a referendum to be held soon; it could also add to the impression among some of our EU partners that the UK is a semi-detached member.

It would, however, put off for another day the battle against current public opinion when it comes to signing up to the single currency - the one fight in which, on current showing, the beleaguered Tories could find themselves in accord with the voters.

For now, the smart money remains on the poll not taking place in this parliament but instead being held simultaneously with the next general election.


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See also:

06 Nov 02 | Politics
31 Oct 02 | Politics
28 Oct 02 | Politics
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