What the King's Speech should have said

What's the King's Speech, who decides what goes in it, and could the 2023 version have been better? Head of Science and Policy Mike Childs analyses what was missing from the 2023 speech.
  Published:  07 Nov 2023    |      3 minute read

What is the King's Speech?

The "King’s Speech" is an annual speech given by the reigning monarch which outlines what new laws the government aims to bring in. Despite its name, the speech doesn't necessarily reflect what the King believes is needed. In fact, it's written by the government. The King is just the mouthpiece, whether he likes it or not.

A photo of King Charles III, smiling and looking off camera. He is wearing a suit and tie and in the background is people, blurred. He looks like he's at a royal event.
King Charles
Credit: Dan Marsh via Wikimedia Commons

On 7 November 2023, we witnessed a speech motivated by culture wars and an attempt to drive a wedge between the Conservative Party and Labour on issues such the environment. What should have been an opportunity to address the climate and nature emergencies that scientists keep warning us about, was instead a cynical move by the Conservatives to backtrack even further on environmental measures.

For example, an annual granting of licenses for offshore oil and gas licences was announced, despite the government admitted this will not reduce energy bills. The King also had to read out a promise to scrap minimum energy efficiency standards in the private rented sector, a move that has been estimated to cost renters up to £1.4 billion a year.

What new laws do we need?

There are many measures the government can take without passing new laws through parliament, including through regulations (called secondary legislation) and spending. For example, using secondary legislation to set a statutory target to reduce pesticide use by at least 50% by 2030.

But some measures need primary legislation. Below are 9 new laws the government could and should have introduced. These may have put a smile on the King’s face.

  1. Enshrine the UK’s promise to reduce emissions by 68% by 2030 into UK law. In 2021, the UK government promised world leaders it would reduce the country's carbon emissions by 68%, based on 1990's figures. The promise isn't legally binding, and the government doesn't have a fit-for-purpose plan to meet it.
  2. Legislate to stop all new oil and gas licences and developments for onshore or offshore fossil fuel extraction. These do nothing for energy bills or energy security and only weaken the chance of global agreements to prevent runaway climate change. Our future energy needs must be met through clean, green energy.
  3. Nationalise the failing railway industry and give every local authority the powers to regulate bus services through franchising. Poor public transport causes social exclusion and hampers efforts to reduce carbon emissions.
  4. Introduce into UK law a new human right to a clean, healthy and sustainable environment as part of an Environmental Rights Bill. Too many people, particularly disadvantaged and marginalised communities, suffer from poor air quality and a lack of green spaces. A new legal right would help ensure this is properly addressed.
  5. Pass legislation to update air quality limits and bring them in line with World Health Organization levels as soon as possible. Dirty air is widespread and particularly harms young children and those with respiratory illnesses. The UK government needs to acknowledge how harmful pollutants are and do better to protect its citizens.
  6. Introduce a new UK Business, Human Rights and Environment Bill to require UK companies to carry out due diligence to prevent environmental damage and human rights abuses in their supply chains, and to eliminate the UK’s role in global deforestation.
  7. Put into law a new Freedom and Democracy Act. In 2021, the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Act was passed, bringing with it a host of draconian restrictions on protest. These repressive measures have no place in our democracy and must be repealed. A Freedom and Democracy Act should also give 16-year-olds the vote in Westminster general elections. Young people are most impacted by the climate crisis, nature loss and many other issues. Their voices should be heard.
  8. Introduce a Climate and Nature Devolution Bill to give devolved nations and local authorities in England the powers they need to address the climate and nature emergencies. This'll require greater devolution in areas such as homes, energy and transport.
  9. Ensure the planning system in England is fully in line with climate targets and budgets, adaptation plans and nature goals. Legislation is needed to ensure ministers and local authorities have a duty of "special regard" to climate mitigation and adaptation when taking planning decisions and making plans.

Invest in the future

These 9 laws, together with regulation (on issues like upgrading privately rented homes, phasing out boilers and reducing pesticides) and spending (in sectors such as insulation, public transport and international climate finance), would put the UK on the path to nature recovery and ensure it’s doing its fair share to stop the climate crisis globally.

They would also put the UK back in the race for the industries of the future. The USA, EU and China are investing heavily in green industries and green growth, but the UK is lagging behind. The 9 proposals above, plus spending announcements in the Chancellor’s upcoming Autumn Budget, would signal that the UK is serious about the climate and nature emergencies and send a strong message to investors to invest here.

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