The absence of the Queen for the first time in almost sixty years from the State Opening of Parliament will be the first thing many people notice about today’s ceremony in which the UK Government set out its legislative agenda for the term ahead. But we’ve dug through the detail and found the five key announcements for public services.
The 38 bills contained in the speech included commitments to legislate on long-held Conservative Party priorities, such as the introduction of a British Bill of Rights; others are in reaction to recent geopolitical events, such as an Economic Crime Bill to crack down on illicit finance from President Putin’s allies. However, most of the bills mentioned represented a continuation of many of the policy priorities which have characterised this Government’s agenda since 2019.
Here are the five key pieces of legislation for public services in the UK:
Trailed by the Government over the weekend, this bill follows on from the Levelling Up white paper published in January. In addition to introducing a fixed levy on new housing developments to fund local infrastructure, this bill will empower local leaders to “revitalise decaying town centres in their communities.” More local services will be devolved to councils, who will receive 25% of revenue raised by the abovementioned infrastructure levy, be able to set local levies to fund medical and school services, and take greater control of high street buildings including forcing landlords to rent out empty shops. This represents a significant step towards the greater devolution promised in January’s white paper and decrease local communities’ dependence on funding from Whitehall.
This piece of legislation will establish a new state-owned body, Great British Railways (GBR), which will oversee the UK’s railways. As set out in the Government’s Williams-Shapps Plan for Rail last year , GBR will aim to ‘simplify’ the rail network and will have powers to award contracts to private companies to run passenger trains, although the Government will retain its powers to set goals and budgets. In addition to rail services, the Transport Bill will include provisions to regulate e-scooters, support the rollout of electric vehicle chargepoints, and provide for driverless vehicles and vessels.
This is one of several Brexit-related bills aimed at removing some of the remaining EU regulations which have until now been retained following Britain’s departure. Led by the Cabinet Office, it aims to simplify procurement processes by allowing public sector bodies to prioritise smaller and UK-based businesses in awarding government contracts.
One of the more controversial pieces of planned legislation, this policing-focused bill seeks to limit some of the tactics previously used by groups such as Insulate Britain and Extinction Rebellion. It will make attaching oneself to buildings in an act of protest - known as ‘locking on’ - an offence; prohibit interfering with ‘key national infrastructure’, such as airports and railways; and ban the obstruction of major transport works, such as the High Speed 2 rail link. The bill, which also equips police officers with new stop and search powers to seize items in connection to these offences, comes several months after the House of Lords rejected similar plans.
This overhaul of human rights law, a 2022 iteration of the Cameron-era proposal to repeal the 1998 Human Rights Act, contains several measures to advance the Johnson Government’s objectives in the realm of justice and immigration. In addition to “enshrining freedom of speech in law”, the new Bill of Rights will also allow the Government to more easily deport serious criminals, even those who claim the right to a family life to stay in the UK. This would go some way towards realising the Government’s longstanding commitment to stepping up enforced removals of foreign national offenders, as outlined in the Home Office’s 2021 New Plan for Immigration.
Among the opening lines of the Queen’s Speech came a commitment by the UK Government to fund ‘sustainable investment in public services’, and indeed the following Speech revealed much: the Government’s agenda will entail creating new opportunities for private sector delivery partners; expanding oversight over existing and new services, such as rail and e-scooters; encouraging innovation in services; and, in the case of the Levelling Up and Regeneration Bill, returning local services to local communities.
This ambition is welcome, but it is crucial that the Government maintain its focus. With the cost of living continuing to rise, inflation projected to peak at 10.25% and the Bank of England warning of recession, it has never been more vital to ensure citizens are able to access reliable, high-quality public services. The extraordinary resilience and innovations of the past two years have set a high standard. With many more Britons likely to find themselves reliant on public services, if the Government is to truly encourage economic growth and raise living standards, it must ensure it can match ambition with delivery as the British people face the difficult economic period.