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A Review of the 2022 Queen’s Speech

The State Opening of Parliament formally opens the new 12-month parliamentary session and is a chance for the government to set out its parliamentary priorities for the next year.

The new session starts amidst the turbulent backdrop of war in Europe, which has added to continuing pressures on global supply chains and energy prices caused by the Covid pandemic. The political agenda domestically has also been dominated by news that the leaders of the two main political parties have been investigated for Covid lockdown breaches, with the Prime Minister receiving a fine and the Leader of the Opposition promising to resign if fined himself.

Speculation, Speculation, Speculation

With 38 new bills announced in the Speech, the list of new legislation turned out not to be quite as slim as had been predicted and is an ambitious amount compared to previous years. Time devoted in parliament to the introduction and scrutiny of legislation is a scarce and much sought-after thing and, even though five of the bills announced are to be draft bills, the government will do well to get the whole of its legislative programme over the line by the end of the next session.

A few bills that had not completed each stage of parliamentary scrutiny were carried over from the previous session, including the Online Safety Bill, which will be the UK’s first step in internet regulation.

Speculation also stated that the programme would be ‘election focused’, with the Chief Whip this week stating that the next general election will be in 2024, which may explain why the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities – who are responsible for the government’s flagship ‘Levelling Up’ agenda - has been given the largest number of bills to get through Parliament.

Cost of Living

The cost of living has become the major domestic political issue. It was therefore predictable that this would be the focus of the speech, with its first lines committing the government to growing and strengthening the economy to mitigate rising prices.

Much of the criticism of the speech from opposition parties, however, focused on the lack of immediate measures to deal with rising prices. Labour, for example, suggested an emergency budget and a windfall tax on energy companies.   

The Prime Minister, however, hinted in his opening speech later in the House of Commons that the government is considering action on living costs with potential further measures may be announced in due course.

Digital Markets

The biggest piece of news for publishers was the government’s commitment to publish a draft Digital Markets, Competition and Consumers Bill.

Last week, the government responded to a consultation held last year and set out their plans for a pro-competition regime for digital markets. The much-anticipated bill would provide the legislative framework for that regime and provide the Digital Markets Unit with the statutory powers required to take enforcement action and stage pro-competitive interventions.

Once the legislation is in place, the DMU would be able to designate the largest online firms as having ‘Strategic Market Status’.  The designated firms would then become subject to the DMU’s binding conduct requirements that would set out what is expected from each firm in terms of fair trading and transparency. The DMU would also be able to levy fines of up to 10% of a firms global revenue for noncompliance.

The DMU’s conduct requirements would help rebalance the relationship between large online platforms and publishers by incentivising the fairer compensation for use of content, with the possibility of direct intervention by the DMU and final offer arbitration as a last resort if an agreement cannot be reached.

The announcement has been warmly welcomed by the Publishers Association, whose new President, Nigel Newton, had called for the legislation to be included in the Queen’s Speech during his inaugural speech last week.  

Another element of the draft bill is reform of subscription regulations, a step recently welcomed by the Professional Publishers Association.

Whilst the announcement of the draft bill is good news and positive step towards a fairer playing field for publishers, the industry will be keen to impress on Westminster the need to legislate sooner rather later.

Media Changes

The Department of Digital, Culture, Media and Sport is set to have a very busy session. In addition to a commitment to publish a draft Digital Competition Bill, which is being co-sponsored with the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, the Department will introduce 5 other bills.

As mentioned above, the Online Safety Bill will continue its path towards becoming law and will be scrutinised, and possibly amended, by a committee of MPs in the next stage of the legislative process. Whilst the Bill passed its second reading without a vote, suggesting agreement as to the aims of the Bill, there is likely to be lengthy debates ahead about the definition of “legal but harmful” online content and how speech is regulated.

The Media Bill will move Channel 4 towards private ownership and will also include the repeal of Section 40 of the Crime and Courts Act 2013, which forced publishers of ‘news-related material’ to pay the legal costs of both sides of a legal claim, even if the publisher had won the case.

The Data Reform Bill aims to make the UK’s data protection regime more flexible, clearer to understand, and efficient, whilst also providing the Information Commissioner’s Office with improved enforcement powers.

The Department will also bring through another carried over bill from the previous session, the Product Security and Telecommunications Infrastructure Bill, and will also introduce legislation to regulate the ownership of football clubs.

Further details of DCMS’ heavy workload will likely be raised and discussed at the Secretary of State’s appearance before the Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Select Committee on Thursday 19 May.

The Best of the Rest

Other bills to keep a close eye on are the suite of bills concerning higher education and schools, which aim to reform student finance, freedom of speech at universities, and to enable the government’s ambition for all schools to join or become an academy trust by 2030.

The government will also bring in legislation during the next session to enable the implementation of the UK’s first new Free Trade Agreements with Australia and New Zealand.