On 11 May 2021, Her Majesty the Queen gave her speech opening a new parliamentary session and setting out the Government’s legislative agenda for the coming year (Queen’s Speech). The last Queen’s Speech was held some time ago, in December 2019, before the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic began. With all hands on deck in dealing with the public health and economic consequences of COVID-19, the Government had delayed its legislative agenda in order to assess the lasting impacts of the pandemic before setting out its policy response. Naturally, the Government’s main priority in the Queen’s Speech is to ‘deliver a national recovery from the pandemic that makes the United Kingdom stronger, healthier and more prosperous than before”. The Queen’s Speech announced 25 Bills which will form the basis of the Government’s legislative agenda.
An important focus of the Government’s policy agenda remains to level up opportunities across all parts of the UK, supporting jobs, businesses and economic growth and addressing the impact of the pandemic on public services. It is perhaps no surprise that the Government is doubling down on this strategy. The Government’s support in poorer regions of the UK continues to grow following the elections held on 6 May, in which the Conservatives notably won the Hartlepool parliamentary by-election and gained control of Durham County Council, both traditionally considered Labour heartlands.
It is also notable that this is the first Queen’s Speech since the UK formally left the European Union, and will set the tone of the Government’s post-Brexit agenda. Although not a core focus of the Queen’s Speech, there are some references to benefitting from Brexit and making the most of the UK’s “new found Brexit freedoms”, which is linked to the Government’s objectives to build back better and level up economic opportunities across the UK.
There was one notable absence in the Queen’s Speech: an Employment Bill setting out measures to strengthen workers’ rights and target labour market abuses, although government officials have advised that this will be brought forward later on in the Parliament.
In this briefing we summarise the main legislative and policy initiatives impacting our clients.
Transport and infrastructure
Infrastructure investment is an important part of the Government’s plans, particularly in relation to the levelling up agenda. As such, the Government intends to invest in and improve national infrastructure in order to rebuild the economy, level up the country, strengthen the union and achieve net zero emissions by 2050. It is noted that the 2020 Spending Review committed £100 billion of capital investment in 2021-22, a £30 billion cash increase compared to 2019-20. The Government also has ambitious plans to revolutionise the delivery of infrastructure projects through Project Speed, which aims to ensure that infrastructure is built faster, greener and better.
The Government will launch the UK Infrastructure Bank (UKIB) in the spring, which will provide financing support to private sector and local authority infrastructure projects across the UK. It will be able to deploy £12 billion of equity and debt capital and £10 billion of guarantees and is expected to support more than £40 billion of infrastructure investment overall.
The Government intends to publish a White Paper setting out proposals to transform the railways and deliver for passengers, aiming to provide services which are better, greener, more reliable and easier to use. The Government pledged to ensure that decisions are taken in the interest of passengers, using new contracts that will get trains running on time, introduce modern ways to pay, make rail more accessible and inclusive, and work more closely with local communities. It will also end the franchising model, which it deems to be too complicated, and create a simpler, more effective system.
The Government plans to bring forward the High Speed Rail (Crewe – Manchester) Bill, which will provide the necessary powers to build and operate the next stage of the High Speed Two (HS2) network from Crewe to Manchester. The Bill will include powers for the Government to compulsorily acquire the land needed for the railway, to construct and to operate it, provide deemed planning permission to deliver the scheme, set out the way railway regulation will apply to HS2, and also modify or dis-apply existing legislation that would apply to construction of the scheme.
The importance of telecoms networks in maintaining national security is increasingly being recognised by the Government, as exemplified by its decision to restrict the role of a Chinese state-owned company in the UK’s 5G infrastructure amid concerns of the potential security implications. The Queen’s Speech included the Telecommunications (Security) Bill, which will give the Government new powers to boost the security standards of the UK’s telecoms networks, aiming to establish one of the strongest regimes for telecoms security in the world. The Bill will strengthen the security and oversight of technology used in telecoms networks, including the electronic equipment and software used across the network which handle internet traffic and telephone calls. It will also ensure that the Government can respond to national security threats within its networks now and in the future, as technologies evolve and new threats emerge.
In addition, the Queen’s Speech announced that the Government will bring forward the Product Security and Telecommunications Infrastructure Bill, which will extend 5G mobile coverage and gigabit capable broadband. Continuing the theme of data security, the Bill will ensure that smart consumer products, including smartphones and televisions, are more secure against cyber-attacks, protecting individual privacy and security. It will also accelerate and improve the deployment and use of digital communications networks, supporting the installation, maintenance, upgrading and sharing of apparatus that enables better telecommunications coverage and connectivity.
With the UK set to host the COP26 Summit in Glasgow later this year, addressing climate change and achieving Net Zero is an important thematic focus of the Government’s agenda. The Government has pledged to invest in new green industries to create jobs, while protecting the environment. It aims to lead the way globally in acting on climate change, noting that the UK has already reduced its emissions by 44% between 1990 and 2019, while growing the economy by 78%. The Government has also proposed legislation to set Carbon Budget 6 at the level recommended by the Climate Change Committee, which would reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 78% by 2035 compared to future estimates of 1990 emissions levels – the most ambitious in the world. The Queen’s Speech also reaffirmed the commitments in the Prime Minister’s Ten Point Plan for a green industrial revolution over the next decade, which will mobilise £12 billion of Government investment and could unlock three times as much private sector investment by 2030.
The Government will reintroduce the Environment Bill in this Parliament, which will establish a framework for legally-binding environmental targets. The Bill is intended to put the environment at the centre of policy making, making sure that this Government – and those in the future – are held accountable for making progress on environmental issues. It will also introduce measures to revolutionise the UK’s recycling system, enhance local powers to tackle sources of air pollution, secure long-term, resilient water supplies and wastewater services, and protect nature and improve biodiversity. A new Office for Environmental Protection is also set to be established, which will provide independent oversight of the Government’s environmental progress. Despite its ambitious goals, the Bill has been criticised on the basis that it would give the Government the power to water down existing EU commitments.
Competition and state aid
The Subsidy Control Bill will be brought forward to establish the UK’s state aid regime, alongside an independent body to determine when government intervention breaches the EU-UK Trade and Cooperation Agreement. The domestic subsidy control regime will reflect the UK’s strategic interests and particular national circumstances, providing a legal framework within which public authorities make subsidy decisions.
The Bill will create a consistent set of UK-wide principles that public authorities must follow when granting subsidies, exempt categories of subsidies from the regime, and prohibit and place conditions on certain types of subsidies which are at a particularly high risk of distorting markets. Public authorities will also be obligated to upload information on subsidies to a new UK-wide, publicly accessible transparency database.
The Bill follows a consultation launched in February this year in which the Government sought stakeholder feedback on the design of the domestic subsidy control regime.
Trade and investment
As announced at the Budget, the Government will establish eight Freeports in England, aiming to drive regeneration by bringing investment, trade and jobs. Freeports will be located at East Midlands Airport, Felixstowe and Harwich, Humber, Liverpool City Region, Plymouth and South Devon, Solent, Teesside, and Thames. Businesses within Freeport areas will benefit from more generous tax reliefs, simplified customs procedures and wider Government support. The National Insurance Contributions Bill will provide a relief, among others, for employers in Freeports to help facilitate the scheme. Freeports had been the brainchild of Dominic Cummings, the Prime Minister’s former chief adviser who resigned last year, but the Government is continuing with the plan despite his departure.
Science and technology
The Government is aiming to turn the UK into a science superpower, building on the work of the life sciences sector during the pandemic, which has played a world-leading role in everything from vaccine development to genomic sequencing. There will also be investments of record sums in Research and Development (R&D), recognising that R&D will continue to be critical to the economic and social recovery from the impact of COVID-19.
The Queen’s Speech announced that the Government has put forward legislation to create an Advanced Research and Invention Agency (ARIA) to unleash the potential of the UK’s world-class research and science base, helping to ensure that the breakthroughs of the future happen in the UK. Although the ARIA has the potential to play a very significant role in UK R&D, concerns have been expressed that the new body will not receive adequate scrutiny as it will not be subject to the same transparency rules as other public-sector funding bodies.
Planning and development
The Queen’s Speech announced that the Government will bring forward the Planning Bill to modernise the planning system, aiming to ensure that homes and infrastructure can be delivered more quickly across England. The planning system reforms aim to deliver 300,000 new homes a year and address the housing shortage. The Bill aims to create a simpler, faster and more modern planning system to replace the current one that dates back to 1947, transforming the system from a slow document-based one to a more efficient and easier to use digital and map-based service. The new system will also allow for more active public engagement in the development of their local area. Some Conservative MPs have expressed concerns about the local impacts of expedited building projects, in particular that the plans will lead to greenfield sites being bought up for development.