The Queen has set out more than 25 bills forming the legislative backbone of Boris Johnson’s post-Brexit, post-pandemic agenda, but there was controversy over key measures excluded from the package.
The monarch, in a scaled back Covid-secure ceremony at Westminster, repeated Johnson’s buzzphrase that the government wanted the package of bills to help “level up opportunities” across the UK.
Johnson claimed the new legislation in the Queen’s Speech would help Britain “build back better”, although his allies conceded that asking the monarch to repeat that political phrase might have been a step too far.
At the heart of the legislative package, to be pored over by parliament during the next year, are economic bills intended to spread prosperity across the country, including one to boost life-long skills and training.
But Johnson was criticised by Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer for failing to present detailed plans to reform adult social care; the prime minister insisted that he would bring forward long-awaited plans “later this year”.
Another absence was any reference to a promised employment bill to strengthen workers’ rights and clamp down on labour market abuses; government officials said it would happen later in the parliament.
There was also no detail about a controversial proposed amnesty in Northern Ireland for military veterans and terrorists accused of crimes committed before the 1998 Good Friday Agreement. The Irish government has warned Johnson against taking “unilateral action”.
Representatives of the victims of the Grenfell Tower disaster also criticised the package for failing to include a bill to improve regulation of social housing despite a government white paper last year.
Among the bills included in the Queen’s Speech was one to create at least eight freeports, essentially enterprise zones, and a new advanced research agency, a pet project of former Downing Street adviser Dominic Cummings.
A new post-Brexit subsidy regime, which the Queen said would “ensure that support for business reflects the United Kingdom’s strategic interests and drives economic growth”, will be set up.
There are also controversial measures, notably a big shake-up of the planning system to enable 300,000 new homes to be built a year, which will be strongly contested by some Conservative MPs who fear it will lead to a free-for-all on greenfield sites.
The package set out by the Queen also includes a series of bills “to strengthen and renew democracy and the constitution”, which have already attracted criticism and will be strongly challenged in the House of Lords.
A bill requiring voters to present identification has been criticised by Labour and some Tory MPs as an “illiberal” attempt to tackle a minor problem.
Starmer said it would depress turnout and disproportionately affect people from ethnic minorities, but Johnson has dismissed criticism as “utter nonsense” and vowed to protect the integrity of elections.
Lord Paul Tyler, a Liberal Democrat peer, said there were troubling parallels with reforms in the US: “It is all too reminiscent of Republican voter suppression.”
Other measures to defend freedom of speech on university campuses and to curtail the use of judicial reviews form another part of Johnson’s attempt to put his stamp on public life.
The prime minister will also throw out the Cameron-era Fixed-term Parliaments Act, reviving the traditional power of the prime minister to choose the date of a general election; Labour believes he could go to the polls as early as 2023.
The concepts of “levelling up” and “build back better” form the centrepiece of Johnson’s political agenda as the pandemic recedes; Labour will attempt to prove that he has failed to live up to his promises.
Johnson said in a foreword to the package that he wanted to “mobilise the extraordinary spirit” shown by the British people during the pandemic, adding: “This is a Queen’s Speech to fulfil our pledge to unite and level up and build back a better Britain.”
Among the measures is an animal welfare bill that would include moves to “limit”, but not ban completely, the trade and sale of foie gras.