Artemis Photiadou and Alice Park draw on various strands of research to argue that unless a Conservative manifesto is more radical and relevant than this Queen’s Speech, then a future Johnson government will fail to address fundamental issues, many of which have been caused by other Conservative policies.
Though the likelihood remains the Queen’s Speech will be voted down in the House of Commons – a course which may be avoided if the DUP and the 23 former Conservatives vote with the government – most of its content has already been written off as empty because of the government’s non-majority, while the opposition has dismissed the whole event as an attempt to misdirect attention. Nevertheless, the Conservatives continue to appeal to a large proportion of the electorate, they continue to top the polls, and may win an election in the near future. For this reason, the Queen’s Speech has been largely seen as the basis of a future Conservative manifesto.
The legislative agenda of this parliament will, as with the last one, be dominated by one subject: Brexit. Indeed, most other promises are contingent on how Brexit is delivered.
A number of significant bills that did not complete their passage through parliament before the end of the 2017–19 session will need to be re-introduced. As part of the legislative preparations for departure, a new Immigration and Social Security Co-ordination (EU Withdrawal) Bill has been on the parliamentary agenda since 2017, and Johnson and Home Secretary Priti Patel have consistently emphasised their determination to end freedom of movement and reform the immigration system.
The proposals include an end to freedom of movement, and introduction of a long-touted ‘points-based’ immigration scheme for EU and non-EU citizens alike after the transition period in 2021. As Heather Rolfe explains, this government has indicated a move away from Cameron and May’s ‘numbers game’ approach, and focuses instead on an immigration agenda based on encouraging only high-skilled migration. While the details remain vague, such a system often polls favourably with the public, who, according to focus groups, interpret it as a system that would ensure controls were enforced. However, the focus on high skills is generally of less concern. Both the public, and in particular employers, consider that it is not so much skills, but a system that responds to labour shortages that is key. Especially in sectors such as hospitality, construction, agriculture, and social care, reliance on migrant workers is not because Britons lack the training but because there are not enough of them. The absence of any detail in the Queen’s Speech, combined with the fact that a points-based system contradicts Johnson’s vision for an outward-looking post-Brexit UK, mean the policy remains symbolic, useful for confirming the government’s opposition to free movement.
Furthermore, ending freedom of movement will have other consequences for overall migration flows, as Jonathan Thomas outlined, drawing from past policy interventions. Paradoxically, the end of freedom of movement for EU citizens, and the effect of the settled status scheme, could lead to a rise in irregular migration patterns, with knock-on effects for enforcement and public attitudes – far from the control that is sought and promised.
Healthcare remains a top public concern. Yet the main feature of the NHS section of the Speech is that it promises more money, with little else beyond that. This is a problem for the simple reason that it is unclear how and where NHS money is currently going. According to CHPI research, whereas officially NHS England spends about 7% of its total expenditure purchasing healthcare from the independent sector, new calculations put the figure closer to 26%. In short, with a flawed understanding of spending, any attempt to increase resources without controlling expenditure will be in vain.
Second, there appears to be no intention to hasten the growing trend towards privatisation, for example through strengthening the rules governing financial incentives in the sector. As the system currently stands, NHS consultants can – and often do – own shares and equipment in private hospitals. The result is the creation of an incentive towards private referrals and possibly over-treatment – given they receive fees whenever equipment they own is used – a prospect which is particularly problematic when seen together with the lack of transparency on NHS spending.
Similar problems exist with adult social care pledges. While the government plans to provide more funds to councils, they do not complement this with efforts to stabilise the care home market through regulation: even with more money made available, a number of care homes will continue being run by hedge funds and private equity investors. The extraction of rent and profit will therefore continue being the market’s top aim, and scandals like Four Seasons are almost destined to be repeated.
Mental health is similarly covered in broad terms, promising that ‘patient choice and autonomy will be improved’. One way of reading this tallies with pre-existing self-care approaches, part of a Conservative tendency towards behaviour change and short-term self-action, rather than medical intervention, despite evidence that the former is ineffective. A more effective way of beginning to tackle problems in mental health would be the reversal of what appears to be the strategic downgrading of jobs and working conditions, with many employees on short-term NHS contracts.
In light of fundamental issues remaining unaddressed, it is questionable how successful the smaller proposals – on laws to establish a health service safety investigations body and to make it simpler for NHS to manufacture and trial new medicines – could hope to be.
While the NHS is afforded two bills, crime, which is a lesser public concern, has seven. The government’s focus on this increasingly seems to be, as Thomas Guiney explained, an attempt to disassociate ‘the Conservative brand from its cornerstone’ austerity policies, ‘while maintaining a reputation for fiscal prudence’. Yet here again the austerity of the past decade is what goes to the root of the problem, not insufficient sentencing regimes. With poorer men between 17–34 being most likely to be both victims and perpetrators of serious violent crime, research suggests that the economic changes that ‘gradually rendered considerable numbers of the British working class economically obsolete’ have contributed to this state of affairs, together of course with cuts to policing. Without addressing the causal factors, the government’s new policies, such as the Foreign National Offenders Bill, combining this attempt to appear tough with an overt aversion to immigrants, are unlikely to tackle crime.
Fairness and protection for individuals and families
There is also an attempt to tackle domestic abuse, with the Domestic Abuse Bill being reintroduced, as had been agreed prior to the unlawful prorogation. This is generally perceived as a positive step towards tackling domestic abuse, not least because it defines it. But, as experts have warned, the government’s own policies in other areas actually facilitate some of the kinds of abuse that the bill seeks to prevent. Concerns pertain particularly to economic abuse, including cases where victims cannot afford to leave their abusive partner. Marilyn Hayward has pointed out how these situations become almost inevitable due to the way Universal Credit works, since couples can only nominate one bank account for the household benefit to be paid into. As it stands, therefore, the government gives with one hand and takes away with the other.
Such cases clearly illustrate how intertwined issues of abuse, gender, class, and austerity are, with the above bill and the rest of the Queen’s Speech showing little intention to address the last three. On a similar point, despite the promise to bring much-needed oversight over pensions savings and ‘tackle irresponsible management of private pension schemes’, there will be no redress for the women who suffered from the change in the state pension age – of which they were unaware. Here again the persisting gender and class inequalities are evident: around 80% of women with low levels of education knew about the change compared to 92% of women with high levels of education; ‘those out of the labour market, ethnic minorities, and unmarried women were also less likely to be aware’.
Other legislative measures
One eye-catching, and largely unexpected new bill (until leaks appeared over the weekend), is a new electoral integrity bill. Its main proposal is to introduce a photographic ID requirement for all voters at polling stations for UK parliamentary elections in Great Britain (it is already required for Northern Ireland voters, where you can obtain a free ID card) and for English local elections. This follows on from voter ID trials that have taken place in several areas during the 2018 and 2019 English council elections, part of a package of reforms Sir Eric Pickles proposed in a 2016 report on electoral integrity.
However, the number of reported cases of electoral fraud from personation at the polling station are exceedingly low in the UK – just one case was prosecuted in 2017 – and the available evidence suggests it is rare: the trials in 2018 and 2019 suggests the percentage of voters turned away, who did not subsequently return, was very low. Yet the effect for general elections is not necessarily the same as for lower-turnout local elections. The Electoral Commission has noted that as many as 3.5 million voters may not have photo ID, with ownership differing between socioeconomic groups, with citizens from ethnic minorities in particular potentially disadvantaged. So, there are considerable concerns that the negative impact of voter ID laws on restricting access to voting by those without ID outweigh any potential impact on countering electoral fraud, or improving trust in the system.
Another question is whether, given the low numbers of cases of voter personation, this is the right legislative priority for improving elections – and whether further piecemeal reform like this is the right approach at all. Earlier this year, the Commons’ Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee asked for evidence on reforming Electoral Law, noting that many rules dated back to the nineteenth century, and had been updated piecemeal, creating a fragmented and confusing set of laws. Proposals from the Law Commission in 2016 for systematic review and simplification had not been acted on. Much of the academic evidence the committee received reiterated this view that consolidation and simplification of fragmented law, particularly in the context of devolution, was a priority over voter ID, which would introduce further complexity. Comprehensive reform aimed at simplifying electoral law, tackling changes to electoral campaigns in the digital era, and improving the system of voter registration, were seen as more important.
Suggested measures that would improve voting in the UK, and be a better use of resources according to Toby James and Alistair Clark, include a single national electoral website. Unnecessary complication with electoral registration, and a lack of resources, were contributing factors to many EU citizens being unable to vote in 2019’s European Parliament elections. The legislation proposed in this Queen’s Speech includes other changes, including tightening the rules on postal vote collection, and requiring re-registration for postal votes every three years, improved access at polling stations for voters with disabilities, and introducing digital imprints for online campaign material. However, the disproportionate focus on voter ID overall could add another layer of administrative complication for little benefit, and distract from more important, systematic reform, as highlighted by the Law Commission and others since.
What may be seen as both a popular and positive inclusion is the three pages devoted to an Environment Bill, setting binding targets for reducing pollution, with the topic recently having reached its highest level of public concern on record. But the caveat that runs through the Queen’s Speech remains: even if it passes, and even if the bill itself passes, it is unlikely that this government will be in place long enough to be tested on it.
Put together, and examined against policy research in the relevant areas, the government’s intentions seem set to deal with peripheral issues. What is more, non-issues such as voter ID could be turned into real ones. A future Johnson government will need a more attractive and radical manifesto than this Queen’s Speech, if it is to meaningfully start solving the UK’s problems.
Alice Park is the Commissioning Editor the LSE British Politics and Policy blog and the Managing Editor of Democratic Audit.
All articles posted on this blog give the views of the author(s), and not the position of LSE British Politics and Policy, nor of the London School of Economics and Political Science. Featured image credit: UK Parliament, Copyright House of Lords 2019 / Photography by Roger Harris (BY-NC 2.0).