To quote Justin Webb from Radio Four’s Today Programme this morning: “Elections have consequences and today, in the Queen’s Speech, we find out what those consequences will be for the UK.”
Unless you have been asleep or marooned on a desert island for the last few months, you cannot have failed to hear about some of the Conservative’s primary pledges for the new Parliament. Many, although not all, of the high profile manifesto promises made it into the Speech today (the most obvious change being the proposal to repeal the Human Rights Act which is now watered down to an intention to consult on the subject). The renegotiation of the UK’s relationship with the European Union and the referendum on our continued involvement in the EU is likely to be the focal point of both the commentary on this Speech and this Parliament as a whole. Nevertheless, the relatively short Speech managed to cram in a huge number of policy objectives which will stoke the political debates for some time and may have some serious ramifications for the rest of the country.
David Cameron’s intentions were loud and clear in today’s Queen’s Speech – he stated in his introduction that Britain is on the brink of something special with a golden opportunity to renew the idea that working people are backed in this country. So what do the Conservatives actually intend to do for employers and business?
The starting point of the speech from a business perspective is the aim of reaching full employment through “a programme for working people”. The intention is to create two million more jobs during this Parliament as well as three million more apprenticeships over the next five years. As ever though, how this will be achieved is not clearly set out and the focus is on reducing benefits rather than providing assistance to employers. The 103 page briefing note to accompany the Speech provides details of the benefit cuts which will help fund the apprenticeship positions; however, other than setting out a statutory requirement to report on progress towards full employment, there is little detail of what help employers will get to create these new roles.
A slightly more positive outlook for employer can be found in the proposed Enterprise Bill which will reduce regulation and save over £10 billion for businesses. This may induce a sense of déjà vu for those who remember the “one-in one-out” proposal in the first Queen’s Speech of the last parliament; this aimed to ensure that a regulation was cut every time a new one was introduced. However, there are unlikely to be any complaints from employers at this new proposal. No one would dispute that there is still plenty of red tape to be cut, to help businesses to thrive and grow.
Of more limited application but still interesting is the intention to cap public sector redundancy payments to “end six figure payoffs for the best paid public sector workers”. This follows a number of highly criticised pay offs of between £250,000 and £500,000where the redundant employee returned to work in the public sector, often as a consultant, within a relatively short time after receiving the payment.
One of the most controversial measures announced today is the proposal to introduce a Trade Unions Bill, changing the thresholds of support required to carry out strike action. Not only would a turnout of 50% be required for all strikes, but workers in areas of essential public services would only be entitled to strike if they also achieved support from 40% of all those entitled to vote in a ballot. There would also be a time limit on a mandate for strike action.
Unsurprisingly, there have already been cries about double standards from the Unions. They point out that the Government won support from just 24% of the electorate in the last election but have claimed a mandate to govern for the next five years. Nonetheless, the measure will undoubtedly be welcomed by many larger employers who believe strike action is outdated in the modern world and who agree with the Government’s stated intention that strikes should only take place as a result of clear, positive and recent decisions by workers.
Of course, the Queen’s Speech does not mean that these proposals will become law. Let’s not forget that the Government majority is tiny in real terms (and non-existent in the House of Lords) so there are no guarantees that any of these proposals will make it through to the statute books. The mostly negative reactions from the other main political parties highlight the difficulties the Government is likely to face in pushing through some of the more controversial elements of its manifesto into law. However, as the Queen stated at the end of the Speech – “other measures will be laid before you”. This is a timely reminder that these are just some of the changes the Government intends to make in Parliament. This is not the end of the story by any means; in fact, this is simply the introduction.