Freshwater

The Queen’s Speech: Programme for Government or pre-election teaser?

15 October 2019

Boris sets out his vision for Post-Brexit Britain

With a grin that held the attention of the TV cameras, Prime Minister Boris Johnson was radiating with pride at this week’s Queen’s Speech, as a set of ‘manifesto-style’ promises for the UK was read aloud by Her Majesty the Queen and broadcast to prospective voters across the country.

Although there were a number of key bills relating to the UK’s withdrawal from the EU, focusing on areas like fisheries, agriculture and financial services, this speech was written as an attempt to change the mood music. As politicians of all colours line up to warn of the dangers of a ‘no deal’ Brexit, the Prime Minister was keen to follow up recent pledges to invest in hospitals and schools and ‘put 20,000 police officers back on the streets’ and demonstrate to soft-Brexiteers that the government is committed to improving public services.

Dominating the catalogue of bills (seven out of 26) was law and order; from improving the justice system’s treatment of violent offenders, to re-assessing prisons, the government found its focus in the crackdown on crime. Laws which would alter the parole and sentencing systems certainly overshadowed what many felt was a fleeting mention of support for the NHS, which had previously taken the spotlight at the Tory Party Conference, and precious little detail on the government’s plans to address the growing crisis in social care.

A collection of other promises emerged in the House of Lords; the environment was another focus, with the promise of action on single-use plastics, air and water pollution and the protection of natural habitats. There was also a new spotlight on animal rights, with an upweighting of sentencing guidelines for animal cruelty offences – a bit of a U-turn from a PM who once claimed he “loves” fox-hunting.

Investment in infrastructure earnt itself a few bullet points on Johnson’s agenda. In order to reach every corner of the country, a ‘National Infrastructure Strategy’ was proposed and although detail on the strategy was not exactly explicit, the speech promised a long-term vision of improvement for the nation’s “digital, transport and energy infrastructure.”

The Prime Minister introduced his Queen’s Speech as “a defining opportunity for us to set a new course and a new direction for our country” but critics were quick to dismiss it – describing it as a “farcical” and “fantasy”. Some commentators have questioned whether MPs will even pass the legislative programme, which will go to a vote after several days of debate.

Even if the vote is passed, with a minority government and the Brexit conundrum yet to be resolved, the key question is around how much of this Queen’s Speech will remain wishful thinking?

The Devil is in the Detail

Looking behind some of the headlines, here are a few areas of interest from the Queen’s Speech and supporting documents released by the government;

A long-term plan for Health

The NHS was always going to feature, particularly with the approach of two complicating factors: Brexit, and winter. The concerns expressed at the recent Tory Party Conference was not really followed up with a great deal of new legislation, but rather a reference to a new “long-term plan” which is likely to do little to satisfy NHS workers’ anxiety.

There was some detail on the ‘NHS Health Investigations Bill’, which will create a new independent body with legal powers to investigate serious health care incidents in order to ensure patient safety.

Likely, this long-term plan is linked to Hancock’s agenda laid out in Manchester, where the Tories professed their devotion to the NHS through injections of dedicated cash, and “the biggest hospital building project in a generation.”

Mental health was also another unavoidable area of comment, and the government stressed that “ministers will continue work to reform the mental health act, to improve respect for, and care of, those receiving treatment”.

There was even less detail provided on the future plan for social care, with a reference to a future consultation. After Theresa May was criticised as Home Secretary for repeatedly delaying plans for a ‘green paper’ on social care, first planned for summer 2017, many see this as another area that could leave the government open to further criticism for ‘kicking the can down the street’.

Niall Dickson, Chief Executive of the NHS Confederation, gave a cautious welcome to but remains sceptical that this Queen’s Speech offered many solutions to the key issues. In relation to the proposed changes for social care, Dickson writes “we have been here before and we need to see these welcome words put into firm action.”

Sean Duggan, Chief Executive of the Mental Health Network, which is part of the NHS Confederation was positive about the mental health aspect, suggesting that the “commitment by the government is significant and is set to make a big difference.”

Super-charging the UK’s infrastructure

Speaking in the House of Commons after the speech, Boris Johnson claimed that “We are going to turbo-charge our country with one of the greatest eras of infrastructure investment in everything from rail to roads to gigabit broadband.”

In an echo of the previous promise of major hospital building, the government outlined its priorities for Britain’s rejuvenation in the form of major infrastructure plans “to ensure that the benefits of a prospering economy reach every corner of the United Kingdom.”

The delivery of fast, reliable and secure broadband networks was also indicated as a priority, with a Bill designed to roll out “a gigabit-capable broadband across the UK to achieve nationwide coverage as soon as possible”. All new build buildings will need the infrastructure to support gigabit connections, with live connections to be installed in most new-build homes.

After Grenfell, the question of safety was also a prominent issue, and the speech made reference to the government’s dedication to bringing forward “rules to implement new building safety standards.”

CBI Deputy Director-General, Josh Hardie, claimed that business will welcome the focus on investment in infrastructure but was clearly frustrated by the continued impact of Brexit and the government’s willingness to risk a no-deal outcome: “This Queen’s speech was less about the pomp and more about the circumstance […] it is impossible to ignore the Brexit straight-jacket. The reality of no deal is that it would set the country back.”

A new direction for Rail

Predicted to feature in the Queen’s Speech was a bill proposing the scrapping of the current rail franchise system. The speech gave us the simple assurance that proposals on railway reform will be brought forward, in place of the existing model, set up in the 1990s.

As the sector awaits the official report from the much-anticipated Williams Review, it seems the waiting game will last a little longer. Those waiting for an update on the government’s latest thinking on HS2 were also disappointed, although it appears that the ‘northern link’ (West Midlands-Crewe) is still on the parliamentary agenda, despite the ongoing Oakervee Review of the project to determine “whether and how” the scheme will proceed.

General Secretary of the RMT Union, Mick Cash, remained unimpressed, saying; “As we suspected all we are getting is the current failed rail franchising model re-packaged and re-branded. It’s the same old ‘commercial model’ and the Tory principle that profits and privatisation come first remains locked in. Nobody will be fooled by this ‘same meat, different gravy’ pre-election stunt from Boris Johnson and the Tories.”

In a similar vein, RIA’s Chief Executive, Darren Caplan, stated that whilst it is “encouraging to see the government’s commitment to a national infrastructure strategy” the government should avoid “boom and bust” funding. The RIA’s concern is that rail reform doesn’t “lead to a pause in work on our railways or a hiatus in longer-term investment.”

Chief Executive of Rail Delivery Group, Paul Plummer, was more positive in his reflections on the speech’s recognition of railway reform. He welcomed “the government’s firm commitment to take forward the recommendations of the Williams Review, particularly its focus on fares and contact reform”, stating that both are “key to a new partnership between public and private sectors in rail that delivers more for passengers and the country.”

 

Photo credit: istock/oversnap

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