Following last week’s general election the Queen has now opened the new session of Parliament and set out the Government’s policy and legislative agenda in a speech to both Houses of Parliament.
Observers may be forgiven for feeling a sense of deja-vu, given that the last Queen’s Speech was only a few weeks ago. Her speech on that occasion acted as a precursor to the election campaign and the contents of the conservative party manifesto, which has of course been rehearsed fully across the nation over the last six weeks. There is nothing in today’s speech therefore that comes as a great surprise.
That being said, the Government is clearly emboldened by the size of its parliamentary majority and its new found freedom to legislate at will without fear of being ambushed by diverse factions. The Prime Minister, with a majority of 80 seats in the Commons, is the most powerful national leader since Tony Blair and is at liberty to set an agenda without consulting the DUP, ERG, Liberal Democrats or other stakeholders.
The headline announcement inevitably relates to the UK’s departure from the European Union:
“My Government’s priority is to deliver the United Kingdom’s departure from the European Union on 31 January. My Ministers will bring forward legislation to ensure the United Kingdom’s exit on that date and to make the most of the opportunities that this brings for all the people of the United Kingdom.”
For the first time in three years we can now be sure that this statement is accurate. The Withdrawal Agreement Bill (WAB) will be presented again to Parliament before Christmas and, given the vastly different make up of the House, is likely to pass in time for the European Parliament to ratify the agreement and for the UK to leave the EU on 31 January. A transition phase will then kick in and last until 31 December 2020.
In terms of specific immigration policies, the speech points to a new route of entry for health professionals:
“Steps will be taken to grow and support the National Health Services workforce and a new visa will ensure qualified doctors, nurses and health professionals have fast-track entry to the United Kingdom.”
This is in line with previous announcements and follows a number of promises to guarantee additional funding for the NHS (such funding guarantees to be enshrined in law for the first time) as well as increases in key personnel on the front line. It is also an implicit acceptance that the loss of freedom of movement of workers will impact the supply of necessary labour that has hitherto been supplied by EU27 citizens.
The rest of immigration policy is encapsulated in one sentence:
“A modern, fair, points-based system will welcome skilled workers from across the world to contribute to the United Kingdom’s economy, communities and public services.”
Much has been made by the Government of the merits of a new “Australian-style” points-based system (PBS). In 2020 it will be incumbent upon the Home Secretary to explain what is meant by this and how the scheme will operate, and differ from the PBS schemes that have been in place since 2008.
It is rumoured, but not included in the speech, that immigration policy will be taken out of the Home Office and into its own Government department under a Secretary of State for Immigration and Borders. It will be February, when a substantial cabinet reshuffle and Whitehall reorganisation is expected, that we will find out if this is true. With immigration policy a central component of the Brexit debate such a move seems entirely plausible. It also appears likely that the administration of immigration control will be undertaken by a separate agency, albeit under the direction of the relevant Secretary of State.
Other elements of the speech that will be of interest to employers include reference to flexible working arrangements:
“Measures will be brought forward to encourage flexible working, to introduce the entitlement to leave for unpaid carers and to help people save for later life.”
The speech also refers to further investment in infrastructure as well as science and research. Future immigration policy will therefore have to consider the sectoral, regional and skill levels that must be taken into account in order to meet these objectives.
For lawyers and observers with an interest in constitutional and democratic affairs there is a suggestion of significant reform:
“A Constitution, Democracy and Rights Commission will be established. Work will be taken forward to repeal the Fixed-term Parliaments Act.”
This suggests an appetite for significant domestic reform once the UK’s departure from the EU has been finalised.