A new session of Parliament has opened and been marked formally by the Queen’s Speech in Westminster earlier today (10 Dec). 

An Australian points-based immigration system, a new Employment Bill and a national skills fund were among the legislative priorities announced.

Responding to the Queen’s Speech, in which the Government committed to investing £3 billion into a new National Skills Fund over the course of Parliament:

Cllr Judith Blake, Chair of the Children and Young People Board said:

“All children deserve access to the best possible education.

“The Government’s announcement of an increase in schools budgets by £7.1 billion will help give certainty up to 2023, and an additional £780 million for council high needs budgets to support children and young people with Special Educational Needs and Disabilities (SEND) for next year is good news.

“Councils and government now need to work together and take advantage of councils' position in the community enabling them to work closely with all local schools. Councils are uniquely placed with up to date local knowledge to ensure funding is distributed fairly and takes account of local needs and priorities.

“By empowering local government to have a leading role in decisions for all types of schools, including free schools and academies, and retaining some flexibility to agree with schools a local funding formula, this will produce the best possible outcomes for schools and pupils.”

Kevin Courtney, Joint General Secretary of the National Education Union, said:

“Boris Johnson's new Government has the opportunity in this Queen’s Speech to right the wrongs of successive Conservative-led Governments.

“Promises made during the election campaigning on school funding must be acted upon. Thanks to the pressure applied by the NEU, the School Cuts coalition, parents and others, the Conservatives promised a partial reversal of real terms cuts made since 2015. Delivering on this promise would be a start but not enough to ‘level up’ and secure the better education system outlined by the Prime Minister.    

“Under current Government funding plans it is a simple truth that 83% of schools will be worse off in April 2020 than in 2015 in real terms. Schools will have £2bn less spending power in 2020/21 than they did in 2015/16.

“The Prime Minister must face up to the fact that not enough teachers want to stay in the job. As a result, we have 420,000 more pupils compared to 2015 but there are 3,500 fewer teachers to teach them.

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“We urge the Government to work with the NEU on strengthening its strategy for teacher pay and workload and create a fair accountability system so that we can retain teachers in the job and give every child a great start.

“As we enter a new decade, we challenge the Government to make a New Year’s resolution for schools – one that breaks from the past, and aligns with the profession and parents in valuing education.”

Mark Dawe, Chief Executive of the Association of Employment and Learning Providers (AELP), said:

“The fact that the government has only given itself a year to introduce the new system underlines the urgency of investing in skills training here, especially giving SMEs the funding to recruit more apprentices. 40 per cent of apprenticeship training providers are having to turn away firms who want to train more apprentices, often in key sectors like social care and hotels and restaurants that are heavily dependent on migrants.”

Deputy Chief Executive, of the Association of Colleges, Julian Gravatt said:

“I am pleased that the Queen's speech confirmed the Government's commitment to the start of proper investment in technical and professional education.

"It is clear that Brexit will dominate this new Parliament, but the focus on further education is what the country will need when and however we leave the European Union. Now, is the time to create a post-16 education system fit for the future, one that is coherent, joined up and providing the opportunities and choices for those that have been neglected for far too long.”

Tom Hadley, Director of Policy and Campaigns at the Recruitment & Employment Confederation, said:

“The election may have given the Government a clear mandate for immigration reform, but it is important that this works for the economy and the public. Record high employment has left firms struggling to find the workers they need, at all skill levels. Our data has consistently shown a shortage of UK workers in sectors ranging from healthcare and engineering to hospitality and agriculture. For homes to be built, for the elderly to be cared for, and for shops to stock the goods we want, we need an immigration system that works for the whole economy.

“We hope the Government’s Employment Bill will incentivise business compliance and increase fairness and flexibility in work. Good work and flexibility go hand in hand and REC data shows more people are choosing to do flexible work to better suit their lifestyle. Two way flexibility, that supports businesses and workers’ choices, is vital to a fair and productive labour market. The challenge ahead is to ensure that this works for all parties.

“The Government’s recognition of the importance of all people being able to retrain is welcome. Recruitment professionals are in a unique position to facilitate career transitions and progression, and to provide the latest insight into how skills needs are evolving. We look forward to ensuring that the National Skills Fund works for employers and workers alike.”

Cllr Kevin Bentley, Chairman of the Local Government Association’s People and Places Board, said:

“Councils are uniquely placed to ensure communities benefit from the skills our country needs and maximise the opportunities of improving our skills and employment system.

“Our exit from the EU, digitalisation and the gig economy will transform our economy, especially across sectors such as construction and social care.

“A reformed and devolved skills and employment system that matches skills supply with employer demand, and provides opportunities and clear pathways to help people retrain and upskill for jobs would drive up productivity.

“Alongside The National Retraining Scheme, the Apprenticeship Levy and the introduction of T Levels, our priority is to ensure that the National Skills Fund is joined up on the ground. Councils are the natural partners of government, and know how to make sure we can get the best out of our skills system.

“The LGA’s case for skills and employment devolution, Work Local, offers a ready solution to deliver this. By bringing together reformed careers advice and guidance, employment, skills, apprenticeships and business support for young people, adults and employers, a medium-sized Combined Authority could see 8,500 people off of benefits, an additional 6,000 people improving their skills and a £280 million boost each year to the local economy.”

Ryan Shorthouse, Director of Bright Blue, said:

“The Conservatives won record levels of support from people on modest incomes in the latest election. To keep them on side in the long-term, the Government needs to deliver more than just Brexit. There needs to be a laser-like focus on reducing their cost of living, improving their public services, and enhancing their local infrastructure and amenities.”

“This focus on so-called ‘left behind’ areas is nothing new. All Governments have tried to improve the lives of those with modest means. Doing so, after all, is a primary objective of government itself.” 

“Transforming lives and communities requires a lot of time and evaluation. The legislation outlined today provides a roadmap for further reform, but there will need to be much more investment and innovation if so-called ‘left behind’ communities are truly to experience noticeable change.”

"The political aim of the Conservative Government is clear, but there will be no ideological consistency to the methods employed to achieve it. The Prime Minister is more interested in political power than strict adherence to a particular set of principles. He will use whatever philosophy or policies he needs to support and maintain the new voters he has just won. He will not govern as a strongly libertarian, liberal, communitarian or traditional conservative, but do enough for all of these factions within the centre-right movement to keep them happy and united."

Below, Bright Blue has responded to the announcement of legislation that is particularly relevant to our current work. It therefore is not an exhaustive response to the December 2019 Queen’s Speech.

Cost of living

  • Raise the primary threshold of employee’s National Insurance to £9,000 from April 2020.
  • The National Living Wage will increase to two-thirds of median hourly earnings within the next five years. The age threshold will also be lowered from 25 to 21.
  • Establishing a new £1 billion fund to help create more high quality childcare, including before and after school and during the holidays.

Commenting, Ryan Shorthouse, Director of Bright Blue, said:

“The Tories’ pledge to raise the primary threshold of employee’s National Insurance is the best tax cut they could make, since it benefits those on the lowest incomes. But cutting taxes is insufficient alone to really boost the incomes of those with modest means, to make them feel that austerity is truly over. To do this, the Government will have to make the amount of financial support that those in and out of work receive through Universal Credit more generous.”

“New childcare funding should seek to improve the affordability, availability and quality of childcare at pre-school level rather than school-level. Pre-school childcare should be the priority for additional government funding.”

“The introduction and increase in the minimum wage over recent decades has been a success. But that is in part thanks to the careful evidence and guidance of the Low Pay Commission. To maintain the support for and effectiveness of a rising wage floor, the Low Pay Commission should advise first with the Government then setting the rates after.” 

Employment

  • Creating a new, single enforcement body, offering greater protections for workers.
  • Ensuring that tips left for workers go to them in full.
  • Introducing a new right for all workers to request a more predictable contract.
  • Making flexible working the default unless employers have good reason not to.
  • Extending redundancy protections to prevent pregnancy and maternity discrimination.
  • Allowing parents to take extended leave for neonatal care; and introducing an entitlement to one weeks leave for unpaid carers.

Commenting, Ryan Shorthouse, Director of Bright Blue, said:

“Improving support and rights for mothers in work is a welcome focus and will help to reduce the gender pay gap. It will be important, following the forthcoming consultation, that the right to request flexible working is made the default from day one of an employment contract.” 

Business

  • Increasing the tax credit rate to 13% and review what R&D-related costs qualify for tax credits.
  • Conducting a fundamental review of business rates. 
  • Increasing the retail discount from one-third to 50%, extending that discount to cinemas and music venues, extending the duration of the local newspapers discount, and introducing an additional discount for pubs.
  • Bringing forward the next business rates revaluation by one year from 2022 to 2021 and moving business rates revaluations from a five-yearly cycle to a three-yearly cycle. 

Commenting, Sam Robinson, Researcher at Bright Blue, said:

“The Government’s commitment to increasing the R&D tax credit rate will incentivise both employment and innovation, and is a welcome step towards improving the UK’s productivity.”

“A review into business rates is long overdue. Increasing the frequency of valuations will make the system fairer and more responsive. But with three quarters of small business owners saying that the current tax regime is too complicated, this review must act as a springboard for a strategic, comprehensive rethink on how we tax businesses.”

Public finances

  • Having the current budget in balance no later than the third year of the forecast period.
  • Limiting public sector net investment to an average of 3% of GDP.
  • Reassessing plans in the event of a pronounced rise in interest rates taking interest costs above 6% of government revenue.

Commenting, Sam Robinson, Researcher at Bright Blue, said:

“Given an ageing population and an uncertain global economic outlook, the need for increased investment must be balanced by fiscal prudence.”

“These rules are a marked departure from the previous stance of eliminating the deficit. Current spending must still be balanced, but this new strategy allows public sector net investment to greatly exceed that of previous years.”

“There is no doubt that the fiscal straitjacket has been loosened. But there is a danger that the Government uses this looser framework to run from the difficult fiscal decisions lying in the years ahead.”

Immigration

  • End the free movement of EU citizens under UK law.
  • Increase the health surcharge, for those staying in the UK for more than six months
  • The power to make changes to the current rules for access to benefits and social security coordination for EU nationals.
  • Introducing a new fast-track immigration scheme for scientists and researchers.  

Commenting, Ryan Shorthouse, Director of Bright Blue, said:

“Immigration policy is changing under this Government, quickly and for the better. The indiscriminate and failed net migration target is gone. And the Government is liberalising the visa regime for highly-skilled people, especially scientists and researchers, rightly aiming to ensure that Britain remains a magnet for talent post-Brexit.”

“We do need a controlled immigration system. And there are progressive reasons for this. Free movement across the EU is not sustainable. It is welcome that the Conservatives have dropped the net migration target, but we should have targets on gross levels of some categories of migrants.”

“It is right to increase the value and applicability of the NHS surcharge. Migrants should pay catch-up contributions for essential public services, which people who have lived here much longer have paid for over many years for themselves and their families. The Government should use its new powers and apply this popular contributory principle further, by asking new migrants to pay a new class of National Insurance for a short period of time.”

Education

  • Level up minimum per-pupil funding in primary and secondary schools.
  • Raise the starting salary for newly qualified teachers by 2022.
  • Expand the free schools programme.
  • Increase faster than school provision funding for 16-19 year-old education, including T-Levels and the FE estate.
  • Establish a National Skills Fund.

Commenting, Ryan Shorthouse, Director of Bright Blue, said:

“The Government is right to commit to increases in per-pupil funding and to raise the starting salary for newly qualified teachers. There is a real recruitment and retention problem within the teaching profession, so raising starting salaries should help. But the government now needs to also offer more extensive and generous ‘social mobility’ salary supplements, to incentivise more teachers to work in less desirable areas of the country.”

“The Government seems to be and should continue to prioritise investment in further and technical education. The financing of higher education should not be a significant focus of politicians and policymakers in the years ahead. The current student loans system is broadly successful and progresssive, and does not require significant reform.”

Housing

  • Abolish ‘Section 21’, which enables ‘no fault’ evictions.
  • Introduce a new lifetime deposit for tenants.
  • Provide a range of affordable housing options, including discounted homes for local first-time buyers, a reformed Shared Ownership model and a renewal of the Affordable Homes Programme.
  • Introduce a Social Housing White Paper.

Commenting, Anvar Sarygulov, Senior Researcher at Bright Blue, said:

“The Government is setting out a comprehensive housing agenda to help people in every kind of housing tenure. It is particularly good to see continuation of action to help private renters after the recent ban on excessive tenant fees. The abolition of ‘no fault’ evictions will make private renting more secure, while adopting a single ‘lifetime’ deposit will make it much easier for tenants on low income to move.” 

“The Government is correct in continuing to support a wide variety of affordable home ownership options to meet the varying needs of different people. It is vital that the Government operates these schemes by encouraging new affordable homes to be built in significant numbers, rather than simply helping buyers by making homes cheaper or making it easier to access credit.”   

“While it is good to see a commitment to a Social Housing White Paper, it is disappointing to see the lack of a specific commitment on increasing the number of social homes. Housebuilding in Britain has tended to reach significant numbers only when governments committed to building a significant number of social homes, and the Government will have to deliver them if they are serious about building a million homes over the course of this Parliament.”

Social care

  • Providing councils with an additional £1 billion for adults and children’s social care in every year of this Parliament. In addition, the government will consult on a 2 per cent precept that will enable councils to access a further £500 million for adult social care for 2020-21.
  • Urgently seek a cross-party consensus.

Commenting, Sam Robinson, Researcher at Bright Blue, said:

“This Queen’s Speech promises a welcome boost for the social care system, although this new funding will only stabilise the system in the short term. The Government rightly recognises the need for a durable cross-party consensus on social care, but the lack of detail on how this is to be achieved is disappointing.”

Pensions

  • Creating a new pension scheme to give greater choice for employers and enable people to adequately save for retirement and better predict their income in later life.
  • Enhancing the Pensions Regulator’s powers so it can respond earlier when employers fail to take their pension responsibilities seriously, including putting lengthy jail terms on the table for reckless bosses who plunder people’s pension pots, thereby building greater trust for saving in pensions.  
  • Providing savers with a much simpler oversight of their pensions savings by paving the way for the introduction of online pensions dashboards, giving people plain information about all of their pensions in one place for the first time. 

Commenting, Sam Robinson, Researcher at Bright Blue, said:

“It is great to see the Government adopting much-needed reforms, such as pensions dashboards, to tackle undersaving. However pensions policy needs a long-term, consensual strategy going forward. To ensure such a consensus emerges, the Government should consider setting up an independent Pensions Commission to assess the pensions landscape, mediate between stakeholders and advise on policy.”

Domestic abuse 

  • Creating a statutory definition of domestic abuse which emphasises that domestic abuse is not just physical violence, but can also consist of emotional abuse, economic abuse and coercive or controlling behaviour.
  • Legally establishing a  Domestic Abuse Commissioner.
  • Providing for a new Domestic Abuse Protection Notice and Domestic Abuse Protection Order.
  • Prohibiting perpetrators of abuse from cross-examining their victims in person in the family courts.

Commenting, Phoebe Arslanagic-Wakefield, Research Assistant at Bright Blue, said:

“Domestic abuse is a significant problem in the UK that affects millions, mostly women. However, currently, breaching a Domestic Violence Protection Order is not treated as a criminal offence. Through its proposed new legislation, the Government should make the breach of its new iteration of the Domestic Abuse Protection Order a criminal offence, as Bright Blue recommended in 2017.”

Disability

  • Publish a National Strategy for Disabled People in 2020.

Commenting, Sam Robinson, Researcher at Bright Blue, said:

“Disabled people continue to face needless barriers in the workforce, benefits system and the housing market.”

“The employment gap remains stubbornly high and reducing it must be a priority. But the Government needs to focus on the quality, as well as the quantity, of work for disabled people. This will involve improving retention but also ensuring disables people have better opportunities for in-work progression.”

Agriculture

  • Leave the EU’s Common Agricultural Policy.
  • Replace the current subsidy system, which simply pays farmers based on the total amount of land farmed, and instead reward them for the work they do, to enhance the environment and produce high quality food in a more sustainable way.
  • A seven-year agricultural transition period in England during which Direct Payments will be phased out.

Commenting, Patrick Hall, Researcher at Bright Blue, said:

“Changing how we distribute agricultural subsidies stands to be one of the most significant benefits of the UK leaving the European Union. Last year, Bright Blue called for a gradual shift away from the EU’s inefficient system of distributing rural payments based on acreage in the Common Agricultural policy, to a post-Brexit system which rewards farmers, land managers, and land owners for delivering ecosystem services – in line with the public money for public goods principal.”

“Today’s announcement that the Agriculture Bill will continue to be pushed through parliament is welcome, but the final Bill needs to lay the foundations for the introduction of a market-based, commissioning scheme so private and philanthropic funding as well as public funding can be leveraged to subsidise the rural economy and vital ecosystem services.”

Environment

  • Setting a legally-binding target to reduce fine particulate matter (PM2.5) and increase local powers to tackle sources of air pollution.
  • Mandating ‘biodiversity net gain’ into the planning system
  • Extend producer responsibility and introduce deposit return schemes.
  • Introduce charges for specified single use plastic items.
  • Ban the export of waste to developing countries
  • Introduce powers to direct water companies to work together to meet current and future demand.

Commenting, Patrick Hall, Researcher at Bright Blue, said:

“The costs of air pollution to our health, environment and economy are considerable. The Government needs much more ambitious legal limits, legal responsibilities and policies to tackle this problem. The Government should introduce the World Health Organisation’s guideline limits for all major air pollutants.”

“Local government needs greater legal responsibilities and funding to tackle dirty air. As a first step, the Government should enable local or combined authorities to make reasonable profits from the administration of clean air zones, which could generate funding for local scrappage schemes or increased electric vehicle charging infrastructure.”

“The Conservative Government’s plan to ban the export of waste to non-OECD countries is very welcome, as non-OECD countries are largely responsible for plastic waste ending up in the ocean. However, the Conservative Party could have been more ambitious in tackling the scourge of plastic waste, by supporting a ban on non-recyclable plastics.”

Climate change

  • In trade negotiations, never compromise on high environmental protection. 
  • Investing £9.2 billion in the energy efficiency of homes, schools and hospitals.
  • Increase offshore wind to 40GW by 2030.

Commenting, Patrick Hall, researcher at Bright Blue, said:

“The Conservative’s plan to increase offshore wind energy generation to account for 40 gigawatts by 2030 is positive. However, the Conservatives should have pledged to remove current restrictions around the development of new onshore wind.”

“Beyond those on the lowest incomes, there are no incentives for those in the able-to-pay sector to improve the thermal efficiency of their houses, especially in rural areas where houses are typically older. There is a real opportunity missed in not putting forward policies that will encourage private investment in retrofitting, such as new ‘Help to Improve’ loans, which could save the Government billions while reducing consumer energy bills and emissions.”

Constitution and democracy  

  • Setting up a Constitution, Democracy & Rights Commission.
  • Repeal the Fixed-term Parliaments Act. 

Commenting, Ryan Shorthouse, Director of Bright Blue, said:

“Since the Union is now very fragile, the Government should use the review of the constitution as an opportunity to work towards a quasi-federal settlement for the UK.”

“This could include a new charter of union, a new UK council of ministers, and - more radically - a new Senate to replace the House of Lords with all parts of the UK fairly represented.”

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