The Queen’s Speech: a second chance to make a first impression?
The first Queen’s Speech of the post-COVID and post-Brexit era represented a second chance for the government to prove it can deliver the domestic priorities that took it to victory in the last general election, but were blown off course by the pandemic.
Its agenda for the next session of Parliament is broad, with Bills on everything from electoral and constitutional reform to skills and planning. Attention has focused on what was missing or lacking detail, with little more information on long-promised plans social care beyond a commitment to bring forward proposals this year. Having promised on his first day as Prime Minister back in July 2019 to “fix the crisis in social care once and for all with a clear plan we have prepared”, the government should be prepared for criticism that the can has once again been kicked down the road.
A wide ranging Health and Care Bill did however set out more on patient safety, a pre-watershed ban on junk food adverts and structural changes to give the government more control over NHS England, with ministers having been frustrated during the pandemic at their inability to pull levers themselves.
Much of the trailed content of the Speech focussed on lifelong learning and changes to make levelling up tangible and not simply a vague political slogan, as opponents have claimed it has become. For example, a Skills and Post-16 Education Bill will enshrine the right to access retraining throughout people’s careers and offer more access to funding for further education.
A new Planning Bill, committing to modernising and speeding up construction, will be seen as crucial to accelerating homeownership, but as ever, the detail of changes to planning rules could herald political challenges in some Conservative constituencies. In the rental sector, the government promised a White Paper on reform later in the year, as well as the Leasehold Reform (Ground Rent) Bill to abolish ground rents for new leasehold properties.
Having delivered Brexit, the goverment is also keen to demonstrate new flexibilities now the UK is outside of the EU, with a Subsidy Control Bill to introduce a UK state aid regime and a Procurement Bill designed to reduce complexity and open up more involvement for SMEs, voluntary bodies and social enterprises. The government re-emphasised the eight freeports it plans to deliver.
In additon, the Queen’s Speech confirmed the re-introduction of a number of key Bills which had already started their passage in the last session of Parliament, including the Environment Bill, the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill and the Advanced Research and Invention Agency Bill designed to expand the UK’s research and innovation capabilities.
Opposition parties will find much to disagree with, particularly on some of the deliberate fights the government is gearing up to have over limiting the use of judicial review, introducing voter ID at elections and legislating for a new freedom of speech duty for universities. The inclusion of these Bills, in particular, which the government knows will be controversial but is nevertheless determined to take on, demonstrates that there is space among the post-COVID recovery legislation to pick a couple of deliberate political fights that ministers feel they are on the right side of public opinion on.
Given it also intends to repeal the Fixed-term Parliaments Act and return the Prime Minister’s ability to call snap elections, getting as much of its flagship legislation through is likely to be of even greater importance to the government in the coming months.