Public Affairs & Government Relations

FTI Consulting Public Affairs Snapshot – The Queen’s Speech 2021: Doubling Down on Levelling Up

Whilst eighteen months has passed since the last State Opening of Parliament, it feels like far longer. The nature of our political debate, the role of the state, and what we expect from our elected representatives has changed beyond all recognition. Understandably, the Covid pandemic has limited the extent to which the Government has been able to deliver on its wide-ranging set of promises from the 2019 General Election.

A report published by the Institute for Government shows that while half of the Government’s commitments are completed or on track, those that remain will be the most difficult to achieve, including those on social care, levelling up, and  net zero. As such, today’s Queen’s Speech was simultaneously an opportunity for the Government to recommit to its pre-pandemic agenda, a waypoint on the long path to post-pandemic recovery, and a chance to cement the votes of the new Conservative electorate and deliver on the post-Brexit promises made to them, in particular on skills, training and infrastructure.

Levelling Up and Building Back Better (and Greener)

“Levelling up” was the buzzword today – as it has been since the General Election. With the evidence being that it has not merely cut through but is delivering electoral results, this is hardly surprising. In the Government’s eyes, levelling up is about a little bit of everything: schools, health, infrastructure, policing, industry, productivity, civic pride, the strength of local leadership and the quality of life. As a result, policy agendas in almost all Whitehall departments point towards it. As a concept in itself, much of the detail will only be set out in a Levelling Up White Paper later in the year. But even before then it already feels like the platform on which Conservative electoral success at the next election will stand or fall.

Until then, there is new detail on training and education, with the Skills and Post-16 Education Bill announcing a right to government-funded training for all adults without the equivalent of A-levels. For the first time employers will have a statutory role in planning publicly funded training programmes with the hope that courses can be matched to the needs of local businesses or new investors. The Bill will also extend the student loan system to those who want to study at local further education colleges at any stage in their life. Adults will be able to access the equivalent of four years of student loans, to be used flexibly for full-time or part-time education, technical qualifications or individual course modules. This reflects the Government’s real interest in helping the significant chunk of the population who lack formal higher or further education qualifications – an increasing number of whom are new Conservative voters.

It’s long been axiomatic to the Johnson administration that building back better means building back greener – this is increasingly a vote winner too. But this session, there was less new activity: as expected, additions to the rolled-over Environment Bill include new legal duties to tackle sewage discharges into rivers and help protect waterways, and a much-trailed Animal Welfare Plan which contains legislative measures recognising animal sentience, increasing protections for farm animals, sporting animals and pets, and taking action against the import of hunting trophies and the ivory and foie gras trades. Moreover, there is activity on public transport: there is a commitment to produce a White Paper on rail and bus reform, while the snappily named High Speed Rail (Crewe – Manchester) Bill proves that HS2 is still very much a Government priority.

A Bonfire of European Regulation

Though the Government insists on any reference to Brexit being in the past tense, this was the first legislative programme with the opportunity to bring about regulatory reform free of the constraints of European law. Foremost will be a Subsidy Control Bill, intended to establish a new framework for the allocation of public funds to business sectors and investment projects. Ministers sense a quick win with first-time Tory voters in the midlands and north of England whose jobs and businesses most stand to benefit. Nevertheless, scope to extend State Aid – even if it is now to be referred to simply as “subsidy” – is not free of all external influence. Under the trade deal signed with the EU, the UK is obliged to maintain a regulatory ‘level playing field’ and many (though not all) in Downing Street will be wary of starting another trade row with Brussels.

A National Insurance Contributions Bill will be the vehicle for the reintroduction of freeports in England – eight trading hubs where goods will no longer subject to tariffs, and tax advantages are granted to businesses operating within their boundaries. As well as providing employers with relief from National Insurance contributions for eligible new employees in Freeports for three years, up to earnings of £25,000 per annum, the same Bill will also provide streamlined processes for businesses to employ professionals from overseas. Elsewhere, a Procurement Bill will simplify regulations governing how businesses can bid for public sector contracts, setting higher barriers of entry for foreign tenders.

Appealing to the more populist end of the Brexit vote, the Government will also introduce a new Asylum Bill aimed at discouraging cross-Channel migrants, under which asylum applications from anyone who passed through a ‘safe’ country before arrival in the UK will be blocked.

NHS and Social Care

Social care was the dog that did not bark in the night. In fairness, it has been in the “too difficult” box since at least the Blair era; everyone accepts the current situation is untenable but every attempt to fix it has, politically, foundered. Ten years on from the Dilnot proposals, which put forward a lifetime cap on the cost of care for individuals alongside more generous means-testing, the key difficulty remains the burden on the Exchequer. Arguably, Covid has changed the dynamics, with a far greater appetite for state spending in times of crisis – although it remains to be seen how long this appetite will last. Echoing Lord Bethell, who last year said that Covid meant there was no bandwidth for considering social care, this Queen’s Speech merely said that proposals on social care “will be brought forward” – most likely in line with 2021’s Spending Review.

There was however plenty of health-related content, albeit little of it new. The Government confirmed work was underway on a potential Covid booster campaign later this year, as well as on a NHS Catchup and Recovery Plan to help the 4.7 million people in England now waiting for care and over 380,000 waiting more than a year for treatment. A Health and Care Bill will deliver an Integrated Care System in every part of the country, increase Government and Parliament’s scrutiny of NHS England, tackle bureaucracy, ban junk food adverts online or pre-9pm watershed on TV, and place the Healthcare Safety Investigation Branch on a statutory footing. There are additional programmes in place to tackle obesity, smoking, drug use and poor air quality – the days of Boris Johnson lambasting the nanny state are well and truly behind us – as well as a reform of the Mental Health Act in line with January’s White Paper.

Home Ownership

Many in Government are acutely aware of the correlation between home ownership and voting Conservative. A number of commentators have pointed to the high rates of home ownership in ‘Red Wall’ constituencies that, alongside Brexit, contributed to the strong Conservative performance in those seats. This is leading to a growing realisation that, if it is to retain its electoral advantage in the years ahead, the Government needs to expand access to home ownership.

The Planning Bill seeks to modernise the planning system and increase housebuilding. Whilst these proposals have the potential to do just that they also expose a divide within the Conservative Party. Many Tory MPs represent seats that could see significant development – a prospect which is unlikely to be met with support from existing residents. Whilst details are not yet forthcoming, the plans have already faced opposition in principle, and it is possible that we may see revisions before they reach the statue book.

The Government also set out plans to address the continuing fallout from the Grenfell Tower tragedy and the subsequent cladding crisis. The Building Safety Bill has been continued from the last session of Parliament and will reform the regulatory framework and introduce new requirements into the planning system. A new building safety regulator will oversee this change.

Whilst the issue of home ownership currently sits behind the policies contained within the levelling up agenda, it is likely that it will begin to increase in political salience for the Government as the continuing squeeze on housing supply leaves increasing numbers of people unable to afford a home. Delivering reform is likely to be a difficult and controversial process.

Science Superpower

The Government’s love affair with science and technology shows no sign of waning, with investment in research and development once again at the heart of the legislative programme. Long assumed to be evidence of Dominic Cummings’ influence, the policy has outlived the adviser and rhetorical commitments to making the UK a science superpower are reiterated. An Innovation Strategy is promised from the Business Secretary in the summer to “inspire, facilitate and unleash innovation across the UK” and the Advanced Research and Invention Agency Bill will facilitate the establishment of the ‘high-risk, high-reward’ investment vehicle launched earlier this year.

In the life sciences sector, commitments to ‘lead the world’ in developing pioneering treatments and secure jobs and investment are restated in the specific context of the Covid vaccine programme. Referencing the ‘Plan for Growth’ published in March, commitments including the £127 million Cell and Gene Therapy Catapult Manufacturing Innovation Centre, the £140 million Vaccines Manufacturing and Innovation Centre and the £20 million Medicines and Diagnostics Manufacturing Transformation Fund, are all given a name check.

The Home Front

The Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill returns to the legislative agenda, promising tougher sentencing for serious offences and to equip the police with the tools needed to tackle crime. This includes new powers to deal with disruptive protests and a timely Violence Against Women and Girls Strategy, brought to public attention by recent high profile crimes. Measures will also be bought forward to ban conversion therapy that causes mental and physical harm to individuals. Meanwhile, capacity in courts will also be addressed in the Criminal Justice Catch-up and Recovery Plan, designed to clear the post-Covid backlog.

A Higher Education (Freedom of Speech) Bill will create a new Director for Freedom of Speech and Academic Freedom at the Office for Students, with powers to impose fines on universities and students’ unions, will  go down well with the Tory base but is bound to face resistance among the febrile world of student politics.

The Telecommunications (Security) Bill will aim to ensure the long-term security and resilience of the UK’s telecoms networks and infrastructure, while giving people confidence in the security of mobile and broadband networks. A draft Online Safety Bill will compel companies to provide a duty of care to improve the safety of users online and remove illegal content.

Fixed-term Parliaments Act and the Constitution

Many will regard the Fixed-term Parliaments Act (FTPA) 2011 as an item of legislation that has very little bearing on everyday life. However, it was an important contributing factor to the political turmoil of 2019. The proposed Dissolution and Calling of Parliament Bill brings us back to the status quo ante whereby the Prime Minister retains the right to request a dissolution at a time of his choosing. This could be more important than is immediately apparent as it may have implications later in this Parliament; the Government will have to take a number of hard decisions over the coming years, especially when faced with the task of bringing public spending under control, and it could make political sense to secure another mandate before doing so. Some are pointing to Spring 2023 as a possible date for the next election if the polls continue to show a solid Conservative lead. The repeal of the FTPA will make it considerably easier to bring this about.

The Government also made a commitment to “ensure the integrity of elections”. This refers to the introduction of a requirement to present identification when voting. Many have questioned the need for this legislation and others have drawn comparisons with voter suppression efforts in other countries. This Electoral Integrity Bill will – following a long-running campaign – also allow British nationals living abroad for more than 15 years the right to vote in elections.

Seeking to address yet another of the constitutional issues exposed by the Brexit process, the Government has committed to “restore the balance of power between executive, legislature and the courts”. To that end, the Judicial Review Bill seeks to clarify the role of the Courts and – in the words of the Government – “protect the judiciary from being drawn into political questions and preserve the integrity of Judicial Review for its intended purpose”. The aim here is to put a halt to the use of Judicial Review seen in the cases brought by Gina Miller and strengthen the sovereignty of Parliament.

Conclusion

The bills put forward in Parliament today speak to all of Boris Johnson’s fundamental manifesto promises. After a year lost to Covid, it is an agenda somewhat behind schedule. Indeed, much of what was announced today was a reprise of the Government’s stalled 2019 plan. However, the results from last week’s elections – in the English regions at least – show that the same voters who trusted the Prime Minister to deliver on Brexit, are still backing him to make good on his promises to rebalance the post-EU economy away from London and the South East.

Oft-quoted but frequently intangible, here then is the plan for delivering ‘levelling-up’. The Government insists that the means of delivery have been recalibrated to account for Covid, but for the most part the plan remains the same: State aid as a tool to support UK industry and employment, expanding access to lifelong education and reskilling, increasing rural access to high speed broadband, and the reintroduction of freeports to support trade in economically disadvantaged areas. All of these ideas are aimed squarely at the new Tory electorate, as are the more populist promises of tighter rules on immigration and preference for buying British in public procurement.

Johnson knows that he is unlikely to be given a third chance to deliver on this agenda and therein lies the rub. The scaled back pomp and ceremony of today’s State Opening was a reminder that the Covid crisis is not yet behind us. Moreover, even when the medical emergency has definitely subsided, the ramifications to the economy are destined to reverberate for years to come. How much that will limit the scope of the Government to be ambitious in implementing its legislative programme remains to be seen. However, history tells us that voters are likely to be forgiving if grand plans fail to effect tangible change – because the real crime is not failure but aiming low.

 

Appendix:

Queen’s Speech 2021 – Key Bills and Proposals

  • A Health and Care Bill will empower the NHS to innovate and embrace technology, enable patients to receive more tailored and preventative care closer to home, tackle obesity and improve mental health through the Reform of the Mental Health Act. Proposals on social care reform will be brought forward.
  • The Government will seek to build on the success of the vaccine rollout to develop life sciences in the UK, securing jobs and investment.
  • There will be the fastest ever increase in public funding for research and development, with the Advanced Research and Invention Agency Bill brought forward to establish an advanced research agency.
  • Proposals will be brought forward to support jobs and improve regulation, strengthening the economic ties of the Union by improving national infrastructure. Connectivity by rail and bus will be enhanced with the High Speed Rail (Crew-Manchester) Bill, and 5G and gigabit capable broadband coverage will be extended with the Product Security and Telecommunications Infrastructure Bill.
  • A Skills and Post-16 Education Bill will support a Lifetime Skills Guarantee, enabling flexible access to high quality education and training throughout people’s lives.
  • A Subsidy Control Bill will be introduced to ensure support for businesses reflects the UK’s strategic interests and drives economic growth.
  • A Procurement Bill will simplify procurement in the public sector.
  • Eight new freeports will create hubs for trade and regenerate communities.
  • Measures will be brought forward so children have the best start in life, prioritising early years. Ministers will address lost learning during the pandemic, and ensure that every child has access to high quality education and can reach their potential.
  • The Government will help more people own their own home, while enhancing the rights of renters. A Planning Bill will be introduced so more homes can be built and a Leasehold Reform (Ground Rent) Bill will end the practice of ground rents for new leasehold properties.
  • The Building Safety Bill will establish in law a new building safety regulator.
  • Measures will be brought forward to address racial and ethnic disparities, and ban conversion therapy.
  • The Dormant Assets Bill and Charities Bill will support the voluntary sector by reducing unnecessary bureaucracy and releasing additional funds for good causes.
  • The Government will invest in new green industries, to create jobs and protect the environment. The Government is committed to reaching Net Zero by 2050 and will continue to lead the way internationally by hosting COP26.
  • The Environment Bill will set binding environmental targets, while the Animal Welfare (Sentience) Bill, Kept Animals Bill and Animals Abroad Bill include measures to promote the highest standards of animal welfare.
  • The Government will strengthen and renew democracy and the constitution. An Electoral Integrity Bill will ensure the integrity of elections, a Higher Education (Freedom of Speech) Bill will protect freedom of speech, and the Judicial Review Bill will restore the balance of power between the executive, the legislature and the courts.
  • The Dissolution and Calling of Parliament Bill will repeal the Fixed-terms Parliament Act.
  • Ministers will promote the strength and integrity of the Union, with measures brought forward to strengthen devolved government in Northern Ireland and address the legacy of the past.
  • The Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill will introduce measures to increase the safety and security of citizens, increasing sentences for the most serious offenders and ensure the timely administration of justice. Violence, especially against women and girls, will be addressed and victims supported though a Draft Victims Bill.
  • Measures will be brought forward to establish a fairer immigration system, that secures the UK’s borders and deters criminals that facilitate dangerous and illegal journeys.
  • The Online Harms Bill will lead the way in ensuring internet safety for all, especially for children, while ensuring the benefits of a free and open internet can be yielded.
  • The Armed Forces Bill will provide the armed services with the biggest spending increase in 30 years, modernising the UK’s defence capabilities and reinforcing the UK’s commitment to NATO.
  • The Armed Forces Covenant will be honoured and strengthened, by being passed into law
  • A National Insurance Contributions Bill will see National Insurance relief given to employers of veterans.
  • Legislation will be introduced to counter hostile activity by foreign states through a Counter-State Threats Bill and the Telecommunications (Security) Bill, and the Integrated Review of Security, Defence, Development and Foreign Policy will be implemented.
  • The Government will continue to provide aid where it has the greatest impact in alleviating poverty and human suffering.
  • The Government will uphold human rights and democracy across the world and undertake a global effort to get 40 million girls into education.

 

The views expressed in this article are those of the author(s) and not necessarily the views of FTI Consulting, its management, its subsidiaries, its affiliates, or its other professionals.

©2021 FTI Consulting, Inc. All rights reserved. www.fticonsulting.com

 

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