While some of the age old traditions were maintained – including my personal favourite of one MP (this year Marcus Jones) being held hostage at Buckingham Palace – this year’s State Opening of Parliament lacked some of the pomp and ceremony we’re accustomed to.
The last Queen’s Speech, back in 2019, was supposed to herald a positive, forward-looking agenda that would make the most of the opportunities of Brexit, tackle issues of fire and building safety and the environment, and be tough on perpetrators of crimes. Just three months later we were in lockdown. With the vast changes to society caused by the pandemic – and the impacts that it has had on livelihoods, the health service, job, and human life – this Queen’s Speech is designed to get things back into gear. To achieve the grand vision of an ambitious Conservative Government led by a Prime Minister who likes to splash the cash and will want to do so to secure those political gains he has made in 2019 and in the elections this year.
There were 28 Bills in total, covering everything from levelling up and planning to voter ID and job creation. We can’t cover them all, but here are our top 5 takeaways for what this Queen’s Speech tells us about the next couple of years.
Recovery from the pandemic will dominate the rest of 2021:
There is no doubt that the pandemic has had a significant impact on the economy, and on jobs. The most recent figures show that there are still around 4 million people on furlough, and for some sectors there are sadly still redundancies to come. Helping people to reskill is therefore at the heart of the Queen’s Speech, with the Government bringing forward a ‘skills revolution’ which will include a “lifetime skills guarantee” that includes a flexible loan to provide the equivalent of up to four years’ study and can be used for full-time or part-time courses at any point in someone’s lifetime.
How businesses adapt to the changes on skills will be key to this success – and they are set to play a role here by working with local FE colleges and training providers to create a Skills Accelerator programme. Businesses regularly look for a degree-level qualification in applications, and very often transferrable skills are great on paper but employers would rather take the safer option of hiring someone with existing experience in that field. With the rise of hybrid working, and the likelihood of a labour market that now includes people looking to retrain and switch careers, there will be significant opportunities for businesses to hire innovatively and from across the country.
Planning reforms are key to levelling up:
The age old question of whether the planning system is actually to blame for the housing supply crisis will never truly die, but it’s fair to say most remain uncertain about whether the Government’s Planning for the Future White Paper last year is the solution. Expect there to be some ‘watering down’ of the proposals when the Planning Reform Bill enters the House of Commons later this year for what we understand is expected to be a 12-18 month journey through Parliament. It is likely that the pressures from the growing number of Tory councillors – many of whom will have taken more development-sceptic stances in their campaigns – and backbench MPs in areas with significant amounts of green belt will see further changes to proposals. Likewise, how the planning reforms respond to the exodus from London and cities caused by the pandemic, and the changing demands from people about what they want from their homes, will also need to be taken into account. Expect the debate on planning reform to rumble on for years to come.
A mixed bag for housing:
While the Queen’s Speech announced that there would be a new Building Safety Regulator to “the tragedies of the past are never repeated”, the question on who will pay for immediate safety works remains up in the air. Meanwhile, it’s a mixed bag on progress of previously announced measures to protect renters and leaseholders, with the Renters Reform Bill announced in 2019 being demoted to a White Paper this time around. There will, however, will be a Bill to outlaw ground rent for leasehold flat owners.
No one has a clue about what to do with adult social care:
In an alternative version of history where the pandemic never happened it’s entirely possible that Boris Johnson’s promise in his first speech as Prime Minister to tackle the social care funding crisis would have been met, or at least be underway. However, today’s Queen’s Speech included just nine words on the Government’s intention to reform social care, barely any more information about what the Government’s plan is on social care than the 2019 Queen’s Speech did.
With the pandemic (hopefully) drawing to a conclusion, and the bandwidth at the Department of Health and Social Care soon to expand, there will soon be no more excuses for why a fully-workable plan has not been introduced beyond the Treasury’s protestations. The solution for many, proposals set out for a cap on care costs by Sir Andrew Dilnot back in 2011, is already there and has previously already been put into law (Care Act 2014) but shelved by David Cameron. It’s a challenging matter, of course, but it’s one that will have serious ramifications on local government, poverty levels and health inequality if it is not tackled soon.
Little on the environment and climate change:
Alongside levelling up we know that the biggest priority of this Government’s agenda is environment and sustainability – especially with COP26 in November. Yet the Queen’s Speech was remarkably light on green measures beyond the Environment Bill, which is already part way through its parliamentary journey, and a few new animal welfare Bills. In fact there is more in there on elections than there is on tackling climate change. As our own polling this month shows, 58% of the public think that getting to net zero should be the Government’s priority, so the fact that there is little here to work to that is surprising. Her Majesty promised that “My government will invest in new green industries to create jobs while protecting the environment”, so expect further interventions this year through the forthcoming Net Zero Review and Strategy, as well as the Heating and Buildings Strategy.
If you would like to discuss this topic further then please do not hesitate to get in contact with David Button.
You wait ages for an update on the economy and then two come along in a week.
Today, the Chancellor of the Exchequer provided some meat on the bones of the Prime Minister’s speech last week with a raft of new commitments designed to stimulate the economy, create new jobs, and kick-start the levelling up agenda. Central to this is supporting young people into employment, and tackling the retrofit challenge to decarbonise existing homes across the country. There were also significant announcements of support for the tourism and hospitality sectors – including giving people up to £10 per meal they eat out in August.
Here are our top 5 takeaways from today’s speech.
- This week it’s ‘jobs, jobs, jobs’
The Government has, to its great credit, worked hard to protect jobs in the UK due to Covid-19 by introducing the ‘furlough’ scheme. Today was all about creating new jobs and opportunities, not retaining existing ones. The announcement of the Construction Talent Retention Scheme, an online portal that supports redeployment of staff at risk of redundancy across the sector will be something that the built environment sector will want to tap into.
For BECG this was especially pleasing. The work we’ve been doing with our client Communities that Work to ensure an ‘Opportunity Guarantee’ directly influenced the Plan for Jobs, including investment in green jobs, investment in support services like employment advice services, and the offer of an education place, apprenticeship, or job for every young person. The financial incentives to support this, across many sectors including the built environment, will support those who were at risk of being a ‘lost generation’.
- Get Britain buying
Responding to the fact that house purchases have fallen significantly in May, the Government has given a Stamp Duty holiday for all homes up to £500,000 until 31 March 2021. This is expected to save people on average £4,500, though it does little to help most first time buyers who already pay less. However, the second hand housing market may receive a boost.
An undiscussed benefit of this will be that the older people’s housing sector will finally (albeit temporarily) get their wish to see downsizers exempted from Stamp Duty. Whether or not this actually increases the level of downsizing, freeing up homes for young people to move up the housing ladder, remains to be seen but the onus will be on everyone in the sector to make the case for this holiday to be extended further.
- Green recovery
The retrofitting challenge is a significant one, and calls for action have certainly been getting louder over recent months. Funding for retrofitting of public sector buildings and vouchers for private housebuilders is welcomed, with a voucher system designed to help improve insulation and heating systems to improve energy efficiency.
There was also the announcement of a £50 million pilot to help the social housing sector find a solution to the issue of retrofitting – arguably the biggest challenge on retrofitting. BECG is working with one of our clients and a leading think tank on a report that will set out the pathway to retrofitting the social housing sector and look forward to seeing that recommendation launched next week.
- There will be another Budget and Spending Review in the Autumn
Always expected, but confirmed today that the Budget and Spending Review will take place in the Autumn. This will be focussed on the ‘rebuild’ phase of the Government’s Covid-19 response – and we’re likely to see more detail of infrastructure funding and ‘shovel-ready’ schemes that the Prime Minister hinted at last week. We will also see later this month the Planning Policy paper that will apparently revolutionise the planning system. But once again, much of the significant long-term detail has been put off until later in the year.
- This cannot last forever
The Government’s significant investment in jobs and job retention has been remarkable but it seems that time is running out. Insisting that the furlough scheme cannot be extended forever, and payments for bringing people back to work, demonstrates that eventually the Government has to take the economy’s stabilisers off and let it recover on its own.
So after this, what next? The Autumn Budget will no doubt set the scene for how the economy will be ‘reset’ or ‘restarted’, but the focus will be on how the private sector can stand on its own feet, create jobs and drive growth.
With our virtual Parliament now up and running, the ‘new normal’ is in full swing and viewers of BBC Parliament are getting little glimpses into the lives of their elected representatives.
Breaking 700 years of parliamentary tradition, it is truly historic. For the first time in parliamentary history, PMQs has been conducted by video-link and Conservative MP, Sara Britcliffe became the first ever Member of Parliament to give their maiden speech remotely from the comfort of her home via Zoom (a tool most of us had never heard six weeks ago).
It hasn’t been completely smooth sailing. Technological glitches have occurred. At the first virtual PMQs, Conservative MP, David Mundell was unable to connect, missing out on asking his question. During a Select Committee session with the Education Secretary, Caroline Johnson MP’s question was indecipherable leading to the Chair stepping in.
There are plans to introduce remote voting and tests are being carried out, but this has yet to be fully secured meaning that key votes are unable to take place.
The proceedings are hybrid, meaning up to 50 MPs can be in the House of Commons, spaced six feet apart, and another 150 can join via Zoom. This, of course, means that most MPs are left out and must resort to watching Parliament on television.
Virtual Parliament is currently confined to oral and urgent questions and ministerial statements, meaning that other aspects of Parliament have been shelved, including adjournment, opposition day and Westminster Hall debates.
This all raises wider questions about how effectively MPs can raise the views of their constituents, with fewer participation opportunities and not being able to collar ministers in the division lobby.
But it is only natural that in the early days, there will be a few technical hiccups and the overall consensus is that during these unprecedented times, a virtual Parliament is vital to ensure the continuation of our democratic processes and for our concerns to be represented.
To put it simply, during these unprecedented times, a virtual Parliament is better than no Parliament.
We will also likely see a change in how the virtual Parliament operates in the coming weeks, with the scope of activity widened, including more debates and voting on legislation. This can only enhance its effectiveness and overall functioning.
Other countries are yet to follow the UK’s lead. The German Bundestag and the Irish Dail are both continuing to meet in person and the U.S. House of Representatives hasn’t approved proxy voting, amid opposition from Republican lawmakers. In just two weeks of virtual Parliament, the UK has shown that it can be a model for being the closest you can get to business as usual.
But for public affairs professionals seeking to influence policy, this new normal certainly brings its challenges.
Whilst public affairs professionals should continue covering key parliamentary activity and encouraging MPs to submit questions, they also need to be planning for when more routine parliamentary business kicks in (whether virtually or not) and devising creative and proactive programmes.
They should be succinct in thinking about what campaigns to engage on and be very clear on the ‘asks’, they wish to make. With Covid-19 transforming the political landscape for the foreseeable future, it is vital that messages and asks are aligned within its context, because this will be the Government’s biggest priority.
Most of us have made great use of digital tools in engaging with parliamentarians during the past few weeks and this will undoubtedly continue for the foreseeable future. MPs are tweeting more too, raising the importance of using social media to get your point across.
It remains to be seen how long this virtual Parliament will last, but it is possible that normal service will not resume until after the summer recess. Whilst we, public affairs professionals are used to face-to-face meetings and in-person events, the days of traditional lobbying are over for now and we should look to embrace this new normal and make the most out of the opportunities it offers.