Queen’s speech unveils Johnson’s plans on free speech, policing and voter ID

The Queen delivers a speech from the throne in House of Lords to outline the governments legislative programme
The Queen delivers a speech from the throne in House of Lords to outline the government’s legislative programme.

In pared-back ceremony with only 74 people in Lords, monarch speaks of ‘levelling up’

Boris Johnson’s government has unveiled plans for the coming parliament in a Queen’s speech that combined interventionist economics with openly populist moves in areas such as free speech, policing and voter ID.

Announcing the list of planned new bills in a relatively minimalist ceremony with only 74 people in the Lords chamber and much of the usual pomp pared back, the Queen began by saying the overall aim was to “level up opportunities” across the UK.

“My government’s priority is to deliver a national recovery from the pandemic that makes the United Kingdom stronger, healthier and more prosperous than before,” she said. “To achieve this, my government will level up opportunities across all parts of the United Kingdom, supporting jobs, businesses and economic growth and addressing the impact of the pandemic on public services.”

The 26 proposed laws unveiled in the monarch’s brief address, which the government writes for her, contained no particular surprises. The bulk of the measures were either already in progress or widely briefed in advance.

As expected, there is still no formal plan to reform social care, despite Johnson’s pledge to do so in his first speech as prime minister. The speech simply said proposals on social care “will be brought forward”, with no detail or timetable given.

There will be a health and care bill, but this is to enact a planned shake-up of the NHS by Matt Hancock, the health and social care secretary, which will give ministers more power over the health service in England. There is also a pledge to tackle obesity, a personal aim of the prime minister after he blamed his weight for his serious bout of Covid.

A series of bills cement Johnson’s centralised and infrastructure-heavy post-Brexit economic approach, one aimed at holding the support of voters in former Labour heartlands in the north of England and Midlands.

A subsidy control bill will set out new state aid rules, while other planned laws would mark out the next stage of the HS2 rail link, from Manchester to Crewe. Another would extend high-speed broadband and 5G mobile coverage. There would be moves to create eight new freeports, a flagship elements of Johnson’s post-Brexit economic offering.

There would be changes to planning laws, with the intention of making homebuilding more straightforward, a move openly briefed by No 10 as aimed at creating millions more property-owning Conservative voters.

Another appeal to voters in former Labour areas would be a new bill on further education, setting in place existing proposals to improve the sector, and give people the chance to study at any point in their life.

Elsewhere, a series of planned laws are aimed squarely at cultural and other populist issues. These include a controversial plan for a bill guaranteeing free speech in universities, which could allow speakers who are disinvited to sue for compensation.

Another contentious plan is for a bill reducing the scope of judicial review, which the Law Society has said would make the government less accountable.

One proposal expected to provoke considerable opposition is a bill to make photo ID mandatory for all voters at elections, which rights groups have warned amounts to voter suppression, as more vulnerable groups are less likely to have the necessary documents.

Another measure will repeal the Fixed-Term Parliaments Act, allowing the prime minister to call an election when he chooses.

Yet another bill condemned as illiberal by critics is the police, crime, sentencing and courts bill, which will place restrictions on the right to protest, and has itself provoked a series of demonstrations.

A Home Office bill aimed at making asylum claims more difficult will promise to automatically remove people who arrived in the UK after travelling through what is deemed a safe country, an idea the UN refugee agency has said does not conform with protocols on refugees.

The government is promising to deliver on an election manifesto pledge to give election voting rights to 3 million Britons who have lived overseas for longer than 15 years. But the promise to radically reform housing freehold laws appears to have been watered down. The government promises a new leasehold reform (ground rents) bill that will “ensure leaseholders of new, long residential leases cannot be charged a financial ground rent for no tangible service” but does not specify further reforms promised by the housing secretary, Robert Jenrick, in January.

New legislation should enable leaseholders of property to extend their leases for up to 990 years with no ground rent but there is no mention of the second part of his promised reform, the abolition of often prohibitive costs of buying out the freeholder. Under current laws, owners of leasehold flats can buy the freehold but must pay “marriage value” to compensate the freeholder for development value along with cash to reflect any rise in the value of the freehold.

Also promised in the Queen’s speech are an environment bill intended to set new, legally binding targets, as well as a plan to ban so-called conversion therapy.

And in a sign ministers remain sensitive to criticism about the impact on millions of the world’s poorest people of a cut in UK aid spending, the speech said the government “will continue to provide aid where it has the greatest impact on reducing poverty and alleviating human suffering”.

source: Peter Walker