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June 6, 2014

Queen\’s Speech sets out Coalition government\’s final year agenda

Queen’s Speech sets out Coalition government’s final year agenda

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Friday, June 6, 2014

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Queen Elizabeth II, opening Parliament in a similar event last year.
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Queen Elizabeth II formally reopened Parliament on Wednesday and announced the legislative agenda of the UK government for the final year of the Coalition’s five year term. New measures introduced covered crime, the economy, energy and house building.

Business and economy

The next year of legislative changes would, the speech claimed, “deliver on [the government’s] long-term plan to build a stronger economy and a fairer society”. On economics, it promised the government would continue to lower taxes, produce an updated Charter for Budget Responsibility to “ensure that future governments spend taxpayers’ money responsibly”, and continue reduction of the deficit.

On employment law, the Queen’s Speech announced reduction in employment tribunal delays and plans to try and “improve the fairness of contracts for low paid workers” — a response to “zero-hours” contracts. The Institute of Directors support reforms to zero-hours contracts, specifically by removing “exclusivity” clauses. The speech also announced the introduction of a “collective pension” system similar to schemes in use in the Netherlands.

The government is also to increase penalties on companies that do not pay employees minimum wage, and reform National Insurance contributions by self-employed people. The government also plans to extend the ISA and Premium Bond savings schemes and abolish the 10% tax rate on savings. The speech also promised more house building, and also to introduce legislation to reduce the use of plastic bags.

Crime and law

The speech announced the government would seek to pass a new Serious Crime Bill “to tackle child neglect, disrupt serious organised crime and strengthen powers to seize the proceeds of crime”. Another bill will be introduced to deal with modern slavery and human trafficking and to support victims of these offences. The speech also said the government “will lead efforts to prevent sexual violence in conflict worldwide”.

The Serious Crime Bill would also include an increase in the sentence for those who bring about “cyberattacks which result in loss of life, serious illness or injury or serious damage to national security, or a significant risk thereof”. Under the Computer Misuse Act 1990, these are currently subject to a ten year prison sentence, but the punishment would now risk imprisonment for life. Punishment for cyberattacks that cause “a significant risk of severe economic or environmental damage or social disruption” would increase from the current ten year maximum tariff to fourteen years.

Jim Killock from the Open Rights Group said existing laws already allow effective prosecution of those engaging in cyberattacks.

The speech also announced legislation would be introduced “to provide that where a person acts heroically, responsibly or for the benefit of others, this will be taken into account by the courts”.

Constituents would be able to “recall” an MP who had been found guilty of misconduct under a proposed law that will be debated. The Conservative MP Zac Goldsmith described the current plans as “meaningless” and said voters had been “duped”. The Bill would force a by-election if 10% of voters signed a petition within eight weeks, but only if a Commons committee had decided the MP could be recalled. This latter requirement will make it “impossible to recall anyone” according to Goldsmith.

Business minister Michael Fallon defended the recall proposals: “we have to protect MPs from being recalled by people who just disagree with them[…] What you have to ensure is an MP can’t be hounded out just because people disagree with them back in their constituency.”

Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg said he agreed with Goldsmith the bill was not perfect, and he wanted “a radical California-style recall” system, but he had settled for a “modest” bill to satisfy “Conservative Party resistance”. Goldsmith claimed Clegg had been “the architect of the current Recall Bill”.

Tim Aker, head of policy for the UK Independence Party, said: “The decision to only offer recall voting on a signed-off-by-Parliament-basis reflects a political class that does not know, does not trust and certainly does not represent its people.”

Fracking

Green MP Caroline Lucas spoke in opposition to the government’s fracking proposals.
Image: The Health Hotel.

The speech included measures to make it easier for businesses to engage in hydraulic fracturing (“fracking”) of shale gas. The Institute of Directors said laws “must be updated if the UK is to enjoy the benefits of our shale potential”, specifically by scrapping laws on trespass to allow the gas extraction to occur. The British Chamber of Commerce also support such a reform: “While fracking may be unpalatable to some, it is absolutely essential, and business will support legislative measures to exploit Britain’s shale gas deposits”. Activists from Greenpeace fenced off Prime Minister David Cameron’s home in Oxfordshire with a sign reading “We apologise for any inconvenience while we frack under your home”, and delivered a £50 cheque — identified as the maximum compensation suggested for property owners.

Simon Clydedale from Greenpeace UK said of the fracking proposals: “The prime minister is about to auction off over half of Britain to the frackers, including national parks and areas of outstanding natural beauty like the Cotswolds. Fracking won’t deliver energy on a meaningful scale for years, if ever, by which time we’ll need to have moved away from dirty fossil fuels and towards high-tech clean power if we’re to head off dangerous climate change.”

Caroline Lucas, Green Party MP, spoke in opposition to the fracking proposals after the Queen’s Speech: “Not only does this bill defy public opinion, it denies people a voice. To allow fracking companies to drill under people’s homes and land without their permission is to ignore public interest in pursuit of the vested interests of a few.” A poll conducted by YouGov found 74% of respondents opposed the plans.

Reaction

Following the Queen’s Speech, politicians from all parties debated the direction of the government in the year ahead.

Prime Minister David Cameron said that the Queen’s Speech showcased “a packed programme of a busy and radical government”, whose “long-term economic plan is working but there is much, much more to do”, and it would “take the rest of this Parliament and the next to finish the task of turning our country around”.

Labour leader Ed Miliband said: “We would have a Queen’s Speech with legislation which would make work pay, reform our banks, freeze energy bills and build homes again in Britain. A Queen’s Speech which signals a new direction for Britain, not one which offers more of the same.”

Cameron described Miliband as having a “rag bag, pick-and-mix selection of statist Seventies ideas [… a] revival of Michael Foot‘s policies paid for by Len McCluskey‘s money” — a reference to controversies surrounding the substantial funding Labour gets from trade union Unite.

Liberal Democrat president Tim Farron said of the Queen’s Speech: “I suspect the pensions proposals will be around for a generation or more and will be remembered. It’s about making sure they are fairer, cheaper, more secure, more reliable and potentially better for people.”

Plaid Cymru MP Elfyn Llwyd said: “This was an uninspired Queen’s Speech delivered by a government that has well and truly run out of steam.”

Angus Robertson, the leader of the Scottish National Party in Westminster, said the Queen’s Speech barely mentioned Scotland: “The absence of any mention at all of the Westminster parties’ plans for Scotland in the Queen’s Speech is extraordinary. […] In this – the year of the biggest opportunity in Scotland’s history – Scotland hardly even gets a nod at Westminster, and not a single mention of future plans for improving government in Scotland.”

The speech made brief mention of Scotland: “My government will continue to implement new financial powers for the Scottish Parliament and make the case for Scotland to remain a part of the United Kingdom.”



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December 5, 2010

UK Parliament to vote on tuition fee rise on Thursday

UK Parliament to vote on tuition fee rise on Thursday

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Sunday, December 5, 2010

Students protesting outside the UK parliament in November.
Image: BillyH.

The controversial plan to raise university tuition fees in England and Wales will be voted on in the House of Commons on Thursday, December 9. The policy has been the cause of protests across the United Kingdom by students, some of which have turned violent. It has also been a source of considerable criticism and political difficulties for the Liberal Democrats and has raised questions as to the long-term viability of the Coalition government.

The new policy on tuition fees will allow universities to double the current tuition fees from £3,290 per year to around £6,000 per year, as well as allowing some universities to get special approval from the Office For Fair Access (OFFA) to raise their fees to £9,000 per year. If passed, the new fee structure will apply starting in the academic year of 2012/2013. The vote on Thursday will only be on the fee rise, with other matters being voted on in the new year following publication of a new higher education white paper.

Vince Cable and Nick Clegg will likely vote for the changes, but how many Lib Dems will join them?
Image: Nick Clegg.

In addition to increasing fees, the policy will increase the payment threshold at which payment is made. It is currently set at £15,000 and will rise to £21,000, but the interest rate will also rise. It is currently 1.5% but will now vary from between 0% and 3% plus inflation (using the Retail Price Index).

The fee increase follows the publication of an independent review by Lord Browne, former chief executive of BP, a process started by Peter Mandelson, the former Business Secretary. Before the election, two main options were mooted for funding reform in higher education: either an increase in tuition fees or a graduate tax. The Browne Review endorsed the former and the findings of the Review form the basis of the government’s policy. The graduate tax was supported by the Liberal Democrats before the election, and in the Labour leadership elections it was supported by Ed Balls and the winner of the leadership election, Ed Milliband.

Conservative members of the Coalition intend to vote for the reform, and the Labour opposition have been vociferous critics of the rise in fees, despite the previous government’s introduction of top-up fees. The Liberal Democratic members of the Coalition have been left in a politically difficult position regarding the fee hike and have been target of much criticism from protesters. Liberal Democrats have opposed the rise in tuition fees: their party manifesto included a commitment to ending tuition fees within six years, and many signed a pledge organised by the National Union of Students to not vote for any increase in tuition fees.

The Coalition agreement allows Liberal Democrats to opt to abstain on votes for a number of policies including tuition fees. Many Liberal Democrats are expected to abstain, and a few MPs have stated that they will vote against it including former party leader Sir Menzies Campbell, and the recently elected party president Tim Farron, as well as a number of Liberal Democrat back-benchers. Liberal Democrat party leaders have said that they will act collectively, but the BBC have said senior Liberal Democrats have admitted in private that government whips will not be able to force all Liberal Democrats to vote for the policy.

On Tuesday, the Liberal Democrats parliamentary party will meet in the Commons to decide on their collective position. If all ministers decide to vote for the policy, it will probably pass, but if only cabinet ministers (and maybe parliamentary private secretaries) vote for the policy, there is considerable risk of it not passing. If the Coalition does not manage to get the policy through Parliament, it will fuel doubts about the continued effectiveness and viability of the government.

How deputy prime minister Nick Clegg and business secretary Vince Cable vote has been of considerable controversy. Although under the Coalition agreement, they are allowed to abstain, suggestions of doing so have prompted criticism. It was suggested last week that Cable may abstain even though as business secretary he is directly responsible for higher education policy, and has been heavily involved in designing the proposals. Cable has said that Liberal Democrat support of the tuition fee changes has allowed them to push it in a more “progressive” direction.

Cable has now decided that he will vote for the policy, and argues that the policy has “a lot of protection for students from low income backgrounds and graduates who have a low income or take time out for family”. He also believes “there’s common consensus that the system we’ve devised is a progressive one”.

“Dr Cable has performed so many U-turns over the issue of university funding that he is spinning on his heels,” said National Union of Students president Aaron Porter. “That may stand him in good stead with the Strictly Come Dancing judges but the electorate will see it differently.”

Former deputy PM John Prescott has joked about Vince Cable’s u-turns on Twitter.
Image: Steve Punter.

Former deputy prime minister John Prescott joked on Twitter that “On tuition fees we’ve noticed Vince Cable’s remarkable transformation in the last few weeks from stalling to Mr In Between”—a reference to a previous attack Prescott made on Gordon Brown as having transformed from “Stalin to Mr Bean“.

On Question Time this week, Liberal Democrat treasury secretary Danny Alexander also confirmed he is prepared to vote for the policy but delegated the question to the meeting of Liberal Democrats on Tuesday.

The politics of the tuition fee debate may also affect the by-election taking place in Oldham East and Saddleworth following the removal of Phil Woolas, where Liberal Democrat and Conservative candidates will both be standing for the first by-election following the formation of the Coalition government.

Opposition to the policy has become the focus for a large number of protests across the country by both current university students, many school pupils and political allies of the student movement.

On the Nov. 10 demonstration, protestors occupied Millbank tower.
Image: Charlie Owen.

On November 10, between 30,000 and 52,000 protesters from across Britain marched through central London in a demonstration organised by the National Union of Students and the University and College Union, which represents teachers and lecturers in further and higher education. At the November 10 protest, a number of people occupied Millbank Tower, an office block which houses the Conservative Party. Fifty people were arrested and fourteen were injured. NUS president Aaron Porter condemned the attack and said it was caused by “those who are here to cause trouble”, and that the actions of a “minority of idiots” shouldn’t “undermine 50,000 who came to make a peaceful protest”.

Following the November 10 march, other protests have taken place across the country including an occupation at the University of Manchester, a sit-in at the John Owens Building in Manchester, and a demonstration at the University of Cambridge. A protest was also run outside the offices of The Guardian where Nick Clegg—who was giving a lecture inside the building—was executed in effigy while students protested “Nick Clegg, shame on you, shame on you for turning blue” (blue is the colour of the Conservative Party).

A graffitied police van in Trafalgar Square at the November 24 demonstration.
Image: yllA.

On November 24, a large number of protests took place across the country including a mass walk-out from universities and schools organised on Facebook, numerous university occupations, and demonstrations in Manchester, Cambridge, Birmingham, Leeds, Brighton and Cardiff, and a well-publicised occupation of University College London.

In London, a protest was planned to march down Whitehall to Parliament, but police held protesters in Trafalgar Square until they eventually broke free and ran around in a game of “cat and mouse” along the side streets around Charing Cross Road, Covent Garden and Picadilly Circus.

Simon Hardy from the National Campaign Against Fees and Cuts described the police response including the controversial ‘kettling’ of protesters as “absolutely outrageous”. Green MP Caroline Lucas raised the police response including the use of kettling in the House of Commons and stated that it was “neither proportionate, nor, indeed, effective”.

On November 30, protests continued in London culminating in 146 arrests of protesters in Trafalgar Square, and protests in Cardiff, Cambridge, Newcastle, Bath, Leeds, Sheffield, Edinburgh, Liverpool, Belfast, Brighton, Manchester and Bristol. Protesters in Sheffield attempted to invade and occupy Nick Clegg’s constituency office. Occupations of university buildings started or continued at University College London, Newcastle University, Cambridge University and Nottingham University, as well as council buildings in Oxford and Birmingham.

A “day of action” is being planned on December 8, the day before the Commons vote, by the National Union of Students.



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February 26, 2006

Investigation wanted into the murders of Iraqi academics

Investigation wanted into the murders of Iraqi academics

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Sunday, February 26, 2006

Majid Majhoul Hawi al-Moussawi said his family “locked the door and left for Syria, the only country that would have us. We are grateful, but there is no work. There is nothing for us here.” He took his family out of Baghdad after his daughter Hanan, 16, was kidnapped.

Professionals in Iraq say they face a deteriorating situation. Young physicians are looking for other countries to train in and even the patients are leaving, no longer confident in the care they can get in Iraq.

Dr. Omar Kubasi supported the claims that a systematic campaign to destroy Iraqi academia is occurring, stating, “I think it’s part of the plan for the country’s destruction. The situation in the last six months has gotten so bad, we couldn’t continue.”

Wikipedia Learn more about list of killed, threatened or kidnapped Iraqi academics on Wikipedia.

Amer Hassan Fayed, assistant dean of political science at Baghdad University said; “It’s creating a brain drain, we could end up with a society without knowledge. How can such a society make progress?”

Hundreds of Iraqi academics have been assassinated since the U.S.-led coalition invasion in March 2003, and there have been no charges brought against any suspects in the murders.

Caroline Lucas, the Green Party MEP for Southeast England, is calling for a United Nations investigation into the killings which, she said, is forcing thousands of Iraqi educators to flee for their lives.

“Iraq is undergoing a major brain drain, and can ill afford to lose academics and teachers to a continuing wave of violence. Iraq’s education system, once one of the best in the region, has been decimated: some 84 percent of the country’s higher education institutions have been burned, looted or destroyed, according to the United Nations University. These assassinations, which appear to be countrywide, non-partisan and non-sectarian, must be investigated by the U.N. Special Rapporteur on summary executions — and those responsible brought to justice. Iraq needs security and stability, but it is clear that the continued U.S. and (British) occupation is contributing to the problem, not the solution,” Lucas said.

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