| 23 May 2024, Thursday |

PM Johnson: New laws to unleash post Covid potential

The government has set out a plan for “unleashing the nation’s full potential”, as the UK recovers from the coronavirus pandemic.

The Queen unveiled the government’s program for the coming year, in her first major public engagement since the death of the Duke of Edinburgh.

Priorities include a boost for adult education, home ownership and planning reform in England.

But measures to address social care funding were not among the 30 bills.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson said he had a “clear plan” to fix social care when he entered Downing Street two years ago, and the speech confirmed proposals will be brought forward later this year.

But Labour called for action now on the long-promised reforms.

Also missing from the government’s program was a specific bill on dealing with the legacy of the Troubles in Northern Ireland, although the speech said legislation will be introduced.

And trade unions accused the government of “rowing back” on a promise to protect workers’ rights.

Downing Street said an Employment Bill would be introduced “when the time is right”, citing the pandemic as the reason for the delay.

Among the planned new laws are:

  • A Skills and Post-16 Education Bill for England, with loans for adults wanting to retrain and more powers to deal with failing colleges
  • A bill aimed at dissuading asylum seekers from crossing the English Channel
  • A bill to ease planning controls and increase housebuilding in England
  • Plans to improve bus and train service connectivity in England
  • New laws to scrap the Fixed-term Parliaments Act, meaning it will be easier for Mr Johnson to call an early general election before 2024

Many of the measures in the Queen’s Speech are aimed at the Conservatives’ new electoral strongholds in the Midlands and north of England, with promises to create jobs and opportunity in post-industrial areas.

In his introduction to the legislative program, the PM said: “We must harness the ingenuity and resolve that has been revealed in the struggle against Covid-19 and use it to create a stronger, healthier and more prosperous nation.

“We have been given an historic opportunity to change things for the better, level up opportunities across the whole of the United Kingdom, and address the problems that have constrained us far too often before.”

The Queen’s Speech is part of the State Opening of Parliament, normally the grandest of Westminster occasions.

But it was pared back this year because of Covid, with fewer MPs and peers than normal gathering in the House of Lords to hear it – and the Queen arriving by car rather than the usual carriage.

Boris Johnson has promised a “skills revolution” in England, to increase lifelong learning and help people retrain for jobs.

Part of this will be allowing all adults to get a “flexible loan” for higher-level education and training at university or college, “useable at any point in their lives”.

This will be used to provide the equivalent of up to four years’ study and can be used for full-time or part-time courses.

The government also unveiled plans for post-Brexit rules on how the government can subsidise private industry, now the UK has left the EU’s “state aid” regime.

One of the pleasures of the Queen’s Speech for journalists is hearing her Majesty reading out the political slogans of the government of the day.

So 15 seconds in there was mention of the prime minister’s favourite: plans to “level up” the country.

The meaning of the phrase is gradually being refined but the agenda is still vast and encompasses jobs, schools, health, policing, industry, productivity, civic pride, the strength of local leadership and the quality of life.

But the real detail in this area will come later this year when the government publishes a White Paper where it will spell out much more detail about what levelling up means and the “bold” action that ministers will take to achieve it.

So for now the government is trumpeting what it’s already doing: a £4.8bn fund for infrastructure projects, £830m for redeveloping High Streets, along with eight freeports and 40 new hospitals in England.

And where there are such big promises, Labour stands ready to highlight pledges that go unmet.