Coming on the back of a successful set of election results for the Prime Minister, this Queen’s Speech represented his Government’s first real opportunity to define its domestic agenda. As expected, levelling up sat at the heart of it, typified by a headline announcement on lifelong learning and a lot of focus on infrastructure investment and boosting economic growth outside London.
This administration has effectively lost a year to the pandemic, and there is a sense that they are trying to make up for lost time. The Speech included 30 Bills as well as some substantial White Papers and proposals for reform including on Social Care, Online Harms and Rail Reform – all tricky topics with the potential to be controversial and costly.
The legislative to-do list is now significant: digitisation of the NHS; planning reform; establishing a new immigration policy; overhauling public procurement regulation; new environmental targets and a new Office for Environmental Protection; and tough new criminal sentencing laws to name just a few. These all sit alongside a host of strategies and recovery plans intended to help the country get back on its feet post-Covid.
In truth, this is a natural consequence of the legislative hiatus that was first caused by Brexit, then the pandemic. But there is also a clearer sense emerging about how the Government wants to realise its core levelling up agenda. We are seeing a Conservative administration more at ease with an activist approach to driving growth in the regions. For example, the emphasis on boosting bus services outside London is a notable policy that has traditionally been championed by Labour but fits perfectly with the attempt to defend Conservative seats in the red wall.
Furthermore, it is clear that skills and education policy are becoming more central to levelling up. The Skills and Post-16 Education Bill, with its lifelong learning loan entitlement, gives the Government something concrete to point at as evidence they are starting to deliver in this area.
We are also set to see a new Levelling Up White Paper, with the Treasury leading on its development, that will help further define this agenda. This looks like one of the most interesting opportunities for companies to engage with if they have proposals that fit the theme.
This programme was also the first opportunity to find legislation that realises the ‘benefits’ of Brexit. While not necessarily eye catching, the establishment of the UK’s own approach to state aid as well as an overhaul of public procurement rules could both have significant implications for UK businesses.
Both policies were previously governed by EU legislative frameworks and have been identified (rightly or wrongly) as areas that can deliver greater freedom or innovation post Brexit. Guiding the vast spend of the public sector to better match strategic policy priorities such as decarbonisation could achieve big benefits if delivered effectively. Meanwhile, greater scope for direct government support to individual sectors / companies opens the door to new ways to incentivise investment and support strategic sectors.
One other eye-catching element of this Queen’s Speech was the continued and significant focus on prioritising science and technology. The establishment of a new Advanced Research and Invention Agency – the brainchild of Dominic Cummings – alongside Digitisation of the NHS shows that this area remains a key focus for this administration despite Cummings’ departure.
A new Innovation Strategy, due from BEIS this summer, will be one to watch and may provide new opportunities for companies operating in this space. In particular it is an area that could benefit from cross departmental coordination and play a key role in driving other priorities such as decarbonisation and economic recovery.
While this Queen’s Speech undoubtedly represents an extensive legislative agenda, there are some areas where more progress had been hoped for. Proposals for Social Care will be brought forward in 2021 but there is, as yet, little detail about what the proposals will involve and what the timescale for implementation will be. This is an area that has been waiting for reform for years with successive governments delaying and avoiding the issue. The sector will be hoping this is about to finally change.
Similarly, a White Paper on rail reform looks like it will supersede the long-awaited Williams Review, while also addressing issues around fares and accessibility. This sector is currently still operating on Emergency Measures Agreements with significant uncertainty about what will replace them. Anything that is detailed in the White Paper that requires primary legislation looks like it will need to wait for the next legislative session in 2022/23 to be enacted, so further interim measures may be needed while the reform agenda is defined and delivered.
Overall , this Queen’s Speech will provide the Government not only with plenty to do but (more important politically) plenty to talk about to voters. As the country opens up post-Covid the Government has a host of domestic policy priorities to get its teeth into, that it can use to be on the front foot in the media and to underline a sense of an administration getting things done.
There will inevitably be bumps in the road, and some of these ambitions will run into difficulty, delay or controversy, but as things stand today the Prime Minister is in a strong position.