This year’s Queen’s Speech was Boris Johnson’s vision for the UK’s post-pandemic, post-Brexit future. Announcing 25 new pieces of legislation, Johnson said the agenda spoke to his ambition to “level up” the UK and address inequalities.
Although there were some notable omissions, such as legislation to tackle the country’s social care crisis, the agenda for the next parliamentary session included more proposals than previous legislative programmes, touching almost all areas of the public and private life.
The government has promised to rip up Brussels’ red tape and use the UK’s freedom outside the EU to overhaul rules around state aid, procurement and trade.
Measures will be introduced to support businesses to deal with post-Brexit rules, allowing a more flexible use of state subsidies, designed to boost Britain’s strategic interests and drive economic growth.
State procurement will also be made quicker, simpler and more transparent, although any loosening of the rules will face immediate scrutiny given recent accusations of cronyism when handing out contracts during the pandemic.
The government also used the speech to confirm plans for eight new freeports that it wants to use as hubs for trade to help regenerate local communities.
Legislation to tackle electoral fraud will be introduced to “strengthen and renew democracy” and “ensure the integrity of elections”. The contentious plans include identification at polling stations, improving the process for postal and proxy voting and removing the 15-year limit on British expats voting.
Lord Eric Pickles conducted a review into electoral corruption in the London borough of Tower Hamlets, which the government said “exposed vulnerability” in the British electoral system. But critics point to the fact that 3.5m Britons do not have access to photo ID and 11m do not have driving licenses or passports, raising concerns they will disenfranchise voters.
Keir Starmer, Labour leader, said: “It will disproportionately impact ethnic minorities and it will weaken our democracy.”
The government also intends to repeal the Fixed Term Parliament Act, which was introduced by the 2010 coalition government to ensure general elections were called every five years, reverting the power to the prime minister to call general elections.
With waiting lists for treatment ballooning during the Covid-19 crisis and 4.7m now queueing for care, the government promised to “prioritise recovery in NHS services to bring down waiting times”.
But Chris Hopson, chief executive of NHS Providers which represents health leaders across the country, doubted whether the current commitments outlined by ministers would be enough, saying “at least three years’ extra dedicated funding” would be needed.
While the speech promised to “bring forward proposals for social care reform in 2021 to ensure that every person receives care that provides the dignity and security they deserve”, no further details were given of the plan pledged by the prime minister after his election as party leader almost two years ago. Martin Green, chief executive of Care England, said it was “questionable as to how much longer the sector can be expected to limp on” without reform.
A “Lifetime Skills Guarantee” to expand vocational training and shift the balance from university to further education will put into law measures outlined in its Skills for Jobs white paper.
A life-long loan entitlement from 2025 will give all adults access to the equivalent of four years of student loans to spend on higher level study including short courses or training. Employers will also have more say over government-funded vocational courses.
Tom Bewick, the head of the Federation of Awarding Bodies, said putting skills promises into statute was “a game changer”. “The fact it’s written into legislation helps forge a new cross-party consensus,” he said.
However, sector leaders remain cautious. They argue people will probably need further financial support to take time off for training, and note massive additional funding is needed after a decade of steep cuts.
“If further education was funded properly in the first place, colleges wouldn’t be in the financial difficulty that many of them currently are,” Geoff Barton, the general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, said.
The government’s agenda includes major interventions in England’s housing market, chief among them controversial planning reforms to boost housebuilding by cutting back local, case-by-case decision-making.
Fiona Howie, chief executive of the Town and Country Planning Association, said it was “disappointing that the government’s narrative has focused, once again, solely on housing numbers” and that any planning shake-up should also reduce carbon emissions and improve building standards.
It is also not clear that a localised planning process is the cause of low housing delivery. According to figures published this week by the Local Government Association, more than 1m homes in England have been approved but not built.
The speech confirmed that a new building safety regulator will be established as part of reforms triggered by the 2017 Grenfell tower fire in which 72 people died, although almost four years on from the tragedy the question of who should finance the repair of unsafe buildings remains unresolved.
The government will introduce a judicial review bill to “protect the judiciary from being drawn into political questions”.
The government also pledged to “strengthen” freedom of speech and academic freedom in universities, targeting what ministers said is a “chilling effect” of silencing free expression on campus.
The pledge follows a commitment to place new legal requirements that universities and student unions uphold freedom of speech, and the appointment of a free speech champion.
Academics and students are critical of the reforms, pointing out there is little evidence for widespread infringements of free speech on campus and objecting to the increased government oversight.
“There are serious threats to freedom of speech and academic freedom on campus, but they come from the government and university managers, not staff and students,” UCU general secretary Jo Grady said.
Creating new green jobs will be a priority for the government, as it looks to position itself as a leader ahead of hosting the international climate summit, known as COP26, in Glasgow in November.
The government said it would “invest in new green industries”, and was “committed to achieving net zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050”.
New legally binding environmental targets would be set this year as part of the long-awaited environment bill, and legislation would be introduced to ensure the UK “has and promotes the highest standards of animal welfare”.
One big gap was the absence of any reference to a long-awaited employment bill to strengthen workers’ rights and clamp down on labour market abuses.
The government committed in 2019 to legislation that would introduce a new right to request predictable working hours, make flexible working the default, and create a new, single enforcement agency to police labour market rules.
But ministers have not yet brought forward proposals to act on these commitments, although the pandemic has left many workers at greater risk of exploitation, while jobs remain scarce, and raised new questions over how to regulate home and hybrid work.
Helen Barnard, director of the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, said it was a big concern that providing security for low-paid workers was not a priority in the government’s agenda, adding that many people would be “in disbelief that there was no bill to protect them announced today”.
FT reporters: Sebastian Payne, Daniel Thomas, Sarah Neville, Bethan Staton, Camilla Hodgson and Delphine Strauss