The Prime Minister and her minority government were keen to stress that today’s Queen’s Speech would be delivered with humility. The scaled back event with a lack of pomp and ceremony was an illustration of the chaos and uncertainty that has plagued Theresa May since she re-entered Downing Street.
With little excitement and low expectations, the focus was resolutely on Brexit. That, and trying to pretend that the Conservative manifesto, published just 6 weeks ago, had never really happened. This stands in stark contrast to the Queen’s Speech two years ago when the Conservatives had a parliamentary majority for the first time in almost twenty years.
Now is not the time for bold legislative proposals. Key manifesto promises have either been abandoned or diluted. But it remains to be seen whether this is enough to get it through a House of Commons that is increasingly hostile to the government on every side.
In addition to the Great Repeal Bill, there will be additional legislation to deal with immigration, trade, customs, farming and fisheries. All are designed to provide stability and certainty and will focus on the legislative framework in each area once Britain has left the European Union. Not surprisingly, there was little substantial legislation which would surprise business, beyond further indications that the government wants to be on the side of consumers and act where necessary to ensure they are not being ripped off.
Other manifesto promises that have survived include a consultation on social care, mental health reforms, continuing investment in national infrastructure including HS2, electric vehicles and the commercial space industry.
Labour and other opposition parties plan to submit alternatives to the Queen’s Speech to further challenge May’s legitimacy as Prime Minister and question her ability to put forward a programme of government that was so unpopular during the election campaign. The success and longevity of this government will be tested immediately and continuously in the days and weeks ahead. Theresa May’s chances of survival will depend on the government’s willingness to consult with Parliament and business, but also on how capable it is of reading the public mood.
The Government reinstated its commitment to delivering the best possible deal for Britain, and to working with devolved administrations and businesses to build the widest possible consensus on Britain’s future. The Great Repeal Bill first announced in the Queen’s Speech last year, aims to ensure a smooth and orderly transition as the UK leaves the European Union. The Bill revokes the European Communities Act and converts EU law into UK law; it also creates temporary powers for Parliament to make secondary legislation that allows amendments to be made once Britain has left the EU.
The Government states that the Great Repeal Bill does not put any constraints on the withdrawal agreement the UK settles with the EU, further legislation regarding this will follow when required. This leaves questions around the outcome we can expect from the Brexit negotiations and a large question mark over the Government’s plans for Britain’s involvement in the European single market, given the opposition will attempt to amend the Bill. The speech made clear that a central priority at this time is to provide certainty for individuals and businesses, however with a minority government the extent to which this will be a success should be questioned.
The Customs Bill and Trade Bill outline Britain’s commitment to international trade. The Customs Bill is designed to ensure that the UK replaces the current EU customs code with a standalone regime and will provide the flexibility to accommodate future trade agreements, although the details of these are yet to be defined. The Trade Bill intends to reinforce the UK as a leading trading nation and will protect UK businesses from unfair trading practices. The Government will also repeal the European Communities Act, establishing new powers that regain control of the number of people entering the UK from the EU. The Immigration Bill confirms the Government’s plan to restrict the free movement of people from the European Union; however it does not address the future of EU citizens currently residing in the UK and UK citizens living in Europe.
There was an unsurprising focus on the agricultural implications of Brexit. The Fisheries Bill enables the UK to regain management of its waters and responsibility for access to Fisheries. The Agriculture Bill, in line with the Conservative manifesto, aims to provide stability to farmers and protection to the UK’s natural environment on a long-term basis. The Government have made clear that the agricultural industry and trade agreements accommodating this will be prioritised during Brexit negotiations. However, it may be that investment into agriculture is more intently focused on Northern Ireland due to the confidence and supply agreement Theresa May is currently negotiating with the DUP.
The government looked to reinforce its domestic agenda, ensuring continued investment in public services, although no further legislation proposed on education or health. An improvement in the quality of schools as well as the rebalancing of the school’s funding formula was highlighted as a priority, with the Government committing to ongoing investment in this area through the National Funding Formula.
The one area of significant new content came with the announcement of technical education reform. The establishment of T levels showed a renewed focus on skills, through the development of further apprenticeship programmes and the encouragement of vocational training. It was notable that flagship manifesto policies on grammar schools and primary school lunches were omitted.
Planned reforms to mental health have also been signalled, with the government looking to consider what further reform of mental health legislation is necessary, including changes in how the current Mental Health Act is implemented. Priorities include making sure those with mental health issues are treated fairly, and ensuring it is a priority for the NHS.
With so much of the government’s time being devoted to the Brexit negotiations and related legislation, businesses would be forgiven for thinking that they would be left alone. However, the government has made clear it will publish a green paper which will closely examine markets which are not working fairly for consumers.
While the government has retreated from its radical plan to introduce an energy price cap, it is consulting on the best way to protect those on the poorest value tariffs. It has been hinted that this may be done through regulators rather than legislation. The speech also retreated from the compulsory installation of smart meters, downgrading the rollout to discretionary rather than compulsory.
Other measures announced by the government pay special attention to the emerging sectors of the future, with an Automated and Electric Vehicles Bill aimed at keeping regulatory procedures at pace with developments in technology, and a Space Industry Bill that hopes to maintain the UK’s position as one of the largest space industries in the world.
The government also confirmed the National Living Wage will increase to 60% of median earnings by 2020, and that the right balance between flexibility, rights and protections should be met for workers.
In response to the terror attacks in Manchester and London during the election campaign, Theresa May promised more action and a tougher approach to terrorism and counter extremism. The government confirmed the creation of a new statutory Commission for Countering Extremism which will play a key role in supporting communities and the public sector to identify and confront extremism in the UK.
This is supported by a review of the current counter-terrorism strategy to make sure the police and security services have the powers they need to protect the country, as well as consider whether tougher prison sentences for those found guilty of terror offences is necessary.
Following May’s meeting with G20 leaders, the government will also work to reach international agreements that regulate cyberspace to prevent the spread of extremism and terrorist planning, and continue to support military action against Daesh.
Manifesto commitments – in or out?
The Conservative policy on social care was considered a catastrophic campaign tactic, and proved to be a turning point in the party’s campaign. The government have somewhat persisted and intend to push ahead with a consultation on its proposals. This will set out the options to improve the social care system, put it on a more secure financial footing and address issues related to the quality of care and variation in practice.
Other manifesto commitments that look to have been scrapped include a plan to means-test the winter fuel allowance, a replacement of the pension’s triple lock with a double lock, and an end to universal free school meals.
To discuss any of these issues in more detail, please contact Joey Jones: JJones@webershandwick.com