State Opening: Queen to outline PM's Brexit and NHS agenda

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The Queen is to set out the Conservative government’s agenda for the year ahead following their decisive election win last week.

Legislation to take the UK out of the EU on 31 January will be among more than 20 bills announced during Thursday’s State Opening of Parliament.

Other measures include guarantees on extra health service funding and longer sentences for violent criminals.

PM Boris Johnson says he wants to unite the UK and “level up” opportunity.

Downing Street said an ambitious programme of “far-reaching” domestic reforms would be put before MPs, with education and infrastructure among other priorities.

Thursday’s State Opening will see less pageantry than usual, as was the case the last time a snap election was held in 2017.

The Queen will travel by car from Buckingham Palace to Parliament, rather than by horse-drawn carriage.

She and the Prince of Wales, who has accompanied her since the Duke of Edinburgh retired from royal duties in 2017, will not wear ceremonial dress and there will be a reduced procession.

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The Commons reassembled on Tuesday, with the PM saying he would “get Brexit done”

During his election campaign, Mr Johnson promised a welter of new legislation within the first 100 days if the Tories won. Much of this will be carried over from the last Queen’s Speech, which took place on 14 October.

Little or no progress was made on any of its contents before MPs agreed to an early election.

The prime minister now has a Commons majority of 80 – the largest enjoyed by a Conservative leader since Margaret Thatcher in 1987.

When the pageantry is over, Parliament will be asked to immediately begin ratifying the agreement the PM negotiated in October.

The first debate and vote on an updated EU Withdrawal Agreement Bill is expected on Friday before MPs leave for the Christmas recess.

The PM’s increased parliamentary authority and command of his party means it is likely to pass without major changes in the New Year in time to meet the 31 January deadline.

No 10 signalled earlier this week that it would rule out any extension to the 11-month post-Brexit transition period, in which the UK will continue to follow EU rules but without any representation in EU institutions.

Ministers have said they are confident of concluding a new trade deal by 31 December 2020 although many EU officials are sceptical this can be done in such a short amount of time.

In another move welcomed by Tory MPs, the bill will also enable more British judges to depart from previous rulings of the EU’s top court.

For some, the prime minister really heads up the ‘Vote Leave’ party – the pro-Brexit campaign, you’ll remember, promised more money for the health service in the event of Brexit – and Mr Johnson is painfully aware that he has to keep faith with his new-found supporters.

So not only will there be more cash, but also the increases in spending in England will be enshrined in law for the first time.

Apart from Brexit, the NHS was a major election issue so the victors are moving quickly to secure their newly won political territory against the vanquished. And expect further forays behind enemy lines – on employment law and infrastructure investment.

Critics will say it’s more symbolism over substance. But as the political landscape changes, don’t underestimate the power of symbols. Mr Johnson, however, is now raising expectations and if he wants to put down roots in Downing Street, he really will have to deliver on what he’s promised.

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Although read by the sovereign, the Speech is written by the government. The programme, due to be announced at 11.40 GMT, is expected to contain the following measures:

  • Plans for an Australian-style points-based immigration system from 1 January 2021
  • New post-Brexit regulatory regimes for trade, farming, fishing, financial services and the environment
  • Increased custodial sentences of up to five years for animal cruelty
  • Action to tackle the unlawful use of drones in commercial airspace
  • Reforms to ensure fairer sharing of tips among restaurant workers
  • Plans for full fibre and gigabit broadband coverage across the UK by 2025
  • Amendments to the Human Rights Act to protect British troops from vexatious legal claims
  • Legislation to ensure a minimum level of service during train strikes
  • A 50% business rate discount for small firms, including independent cinemas and music venues

Mr Johnson has said his number one domestic priority is the NHS in England, which he has claimed is in line for the “largest cash injection in its history”.

The NHS Long Term Plan Bill will enshrine in law the government’s commitment to spend an extra £33.9bn in cash per year by 2023-4.

It will also include a plan to fast-track visas for qualified health professionals, make it easier for hospitals to manufacture and trial innovative medicines, and scrap hospital car parking charges “for those in greatest need”.

The PM’s commitment amounts to a 3.4% year-on-year increase in expenditure, a significant increase on what the NHS received during the five year Tory-Lib Dem coalition government as well as under his predecessors David Cameron and Theresa May.

But it is significantly lower than the 6% average annual increases seen under Labour leaders Tony Blair and Gordon Brown. And when adjusted for inflation, and factoring in the increased cost of equipment, medicines and staff pay, it could actually be worth £20.5bn by 2023-4.

Labour said the government would be judged on how far it made up for “years of underfunding” of the health service and, so far, its proposals fell short of what was needed to deal with rising waiting times and staff vacancies.

“If the Conservatives’ plans to put funding increases into law is to be anything other than an empty gimmick, we would urge them to pledge the extra £6bn a year which experts say is needed to start to make up the cuts they’ve imposed for a decade,” said the party’s health spokesman Jonathan Ashworth.

There will be a host of bills to tackle violent crime and “strengthen” public confidence in the criminal justice system in England and Wales, with more rights for victims and greater protection for the police.

Proposals in the Sentencing Bill would see the most serious and violent offenders, including convicted terrorists and sexual offenders, serve a longer proportion of their sentences in jail.