The government has announced a proposed legislative programme dominated by post-Brexit bills and a renewed focus on law and order in an unusual Queen’s speech, one mainly used by Boris Johnson as a preview of the Conservatives’ election manifesto.
The summary of planned new laws read out by the Queen to mark the new session of parliament contained 26 new or returning bills, more than a third of which relate to new arrangements following departure from the EU.
Other key elements of a speech widely trailed in advance included plans for tougher jail sentences and controversial proposals to oblige people to show photographic ID before they are allowed to vote.
The pre-election feel was increased earlier on Monday when, ahead of the Queen’s speech, the chancellor, Sajid Javid, announced plans for a budget on 6 November, days after what the government insists will be the 31 October Brexit date.
Johnson, in a written introduction to documents explaining the legislative plans, said they were aimed at using Brexit as “a defining opportunity for us to set a new course and a new direction for our country”.
But with the departure date likely to be delayed beyond 31 October, and an election imminent, the prime minister has faced criticism for calling a new session of parliament largely so the monarch can read out a preview of the Tories’ likely manifesto.
"Tunnel" negotiations describe a Brussels process whereby a small group of negotiators hold discussions in secret, with no press briefings or documents published, meaning the offers and counter-offers are not disclosed – unless they are leaked.
In theory it allows a "safe space" where controversial ideas can be discussed without worrying about the political fall-out on either side from even considering them, emboldening negotiators to consider politically riskier proposals.
When Brexit negotiations have previously gone into the tunnel, even EU27 ambassadors have not been kept informed of the progress. It also allows the results to be presented as a joint proposal, avoiding the appearance that there have been winners and losers in a negotiation.
The Irish Times has reported that when a journalist asked a European commission official where the tunnel was, they replied: “The tunnel is not a place, but a state of mind.”
Even if an election did not take place, the government has no majority in the House of Commons, meaning passing any bills would be a struggle.
The bills and plans for later proposed laws read out by the Queen included no surprises, and a number of measures in the works for many months, such as post-Brexit bills on fisheries, agriculture and trade.
A new immigration bill would make EU citizens “subject to the same UK immigration controls as non-EU citizens”, thus ending free movement, and introduce a points-based entry system, while another bill would update or replace EU regulations on financial markets.
Because of Brexit, EU (excluding British and Irish citizens), EEA or Swiss citizens need to apply to the EU settlement scheme if they wish to continue living in the UK after 30 June 2021.
Applicants are given given either settled status or pre-settled status. The status granted depends on how long they have been living in the UK. The government states that people's rights will be different depending on which status they get.
Guidelines state applicants will usually get settled status if they’ve lived in the UK for a continuous five-year period. Pre-settled status will be granted to those who have not lived in the UK for five years, or cannot demonstrate that they meet this requirement.
The government states that both settled and pre-settled status confer the right to:
- Work in the UK.
- Use the NHS.
- Enrol in education or continue studying.
- Access benefits and pensions.
- Travel in and out of the UK.
There are some significant differences though. Those with settled status will be allowed to stay in the UK as long as they like, and can spend up to five years in a row outside the UK without losing their status.
Those with pre-settled status are allowed to stay in the UK for a further five years, which would allow them to apply to convert it into settled status.
The status granted also affects any children people might have. With settled status, any children born in the UK will automatically be British citizens. With pre-settled status, the child would be born with pre-settled status, unless it qualified for British citizenship directly through one of the parents.
The deadline for applying is 30 June 2021, or 31 December 2020 if the UK leaves the EU without a deal. Irish citizens, or those who already have indefinite leave to remain, do not need to apply.
A full seven bills outlined were devoted to law and order, heralding what seemed to be a key Conservative election message based around tougher jail sentences, a direction that has prompted alarm from prison reform charities.
Under one measure, violent and sexual offenders would serve a minimum of two-thirds of their sentence before becoming eligible to be released on licence, compared with half under current guidelines.
Another would significantly increase the six-month maximum jail term for foreign offenders who returned to the UK in breach of deportation orders.
Critics of the proposals have warned they would impose extra pressure on overcrowded jails and that the public was being misled into believing sentencing policy was softer than in reality.
On another primary election battleground, the NHS, the main measure outlined was not legislative but a proposal for a new long-term plan for the NHS. On social care there was a proposal for a consultation.
A series of other bills outlined by the Queen had either already been before parliament or had been discussed in depth, for example on domestic abuse, no-fault divorce, a measure to oblige restaurants and other businesses to pass on all tips to staff, and tougher regulations on fire safety in high-rise buildings in response to the Grenfell disaster.
Other pledges of future bills in the speech covered areas also likely to feature strongly in the Conservative manifesto, such as increased schools funding and more free schools, as well as legislation intended to help the rollout of faster broadband.
Another element likely to feature in Johnson’s campaigning was an environment bill outlining post-Brexit policies in areas including plastic, biodiversity and air quality.
In his introduction to the speech, Johnson called this “a momentous new environment bill – a lodestar by which we will guide our country towards a cleaner and greener future”.
The speech also outlined what was described as “steps to protect the integrity of democracy and the electoral system”, the key aspect of which was a plan to oblige people to show photographic ID before being allowed to vote.
News of this proposal, briefed at the weekend, prompted accusations that ministers were trying to suppress voters’ rights, and that the idea could lead to tens of thousands of vulnerable people disenfranchised.