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Last week’s Queen’s speech was widely criticised for failing to measure up to the scale of the problems facing Britain, especially around the cost of living. This week’s edition of Fair Comment explores how the proposed legislative programme fell short in relation to fairness.
Last week we welcomed Bex Gilbert to the Fairness Foundation as our new Head of Communications. It’s great to have you with us, Bex.
Chief Executive Fairness Foundation
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A failure to rise to the challenges facing the UK
“British politics is out of ideas. Further action has been promised on the cost of living, but there certainly wasn’t any in the Queen’s speech. It rightly highlighted the need for growth – the essential precondition for ending our living standards stagnation – but did little to actually bring it about.” Torsten Bell at the Resolution Foundation was quick to point out that the government’s new legislative programme had omitted to address some fairly critical issues.
Theresa May’s former chief of staff Gavin Barwell also criticised the lack of action on the cost of living, saying that “both morally and politically the government needs to do more.”
There were some positive announcements, including the ban on no-fault evictions in the Renters Reform Bill and some limited climate measures in the Energy Security Bill. Other plans were more controversial, such as the plan to replace the Human Rights Act with a British bill of rights.
The programme unveiled in the Queen’s speech was perhaps more notable for what it did not include than for what it did. Where were the missed opportunities to build a fairer society by promoting the five Fair Necessities? Here is a quick roundup of some key commentary from the policy community.
“Our research has found that some of the least economically developed parts of our country are those most at risk from the cost of living crisis, and the minister responsible for levelling up has admitted that rising prices are likely to deepen regional inequalities. The lack of action to tackle this urgent challenge will make the task harder still, leaving many people in desperate situations.”
Ben Franklin at the Centre for Progressive Policy suggested that the Levelling Up Bill was lacking in the necessary ambition to deliver on the promises made in this year’s Levelling Up White Paper to tackle regional inequalities.
“We remain seriously concerned that the Employment Bill, first announced in 2019, has once again not been prioritised by this Government. Ministers must explain why they have not committed to improving security and flexibility for low-paid workers when it would have boosted incomes and provided stability at a time when costs are soaring, and incomes are eroding.”
Rebecca McDonald at the Joseph Rowntree Foundation argued that the government should have delivered on its promise to make working conditions fairer for millions of Britons. The Employment Bill had long been trailed and was set to introduce more flexible working rights, more predictable contracts for those in insecure work, protections against discrimination and rights for staff to keep all tips.
“Across public services, the government’s plans pale in comparison to the scale of the challenges faced. The Queen’s Speech largely reheats existing announcements to provide additional funding to the NHS and reform social care, so although the funding provided is substantial, waiting lists in the NHS will remain at record levels for the foreseeable future and the social care plans won’t fix the problems in the current system.”
Nick Davies at the Institute for Government noted that the government failed to bring in sufficiently radical and ambitious ideas to reform and support public services. (And there was very little in terms of plans to make the tax system fairer or more effective, other than some changes to local authorities’ powers to increase council taxes for unused and second homes).
“Those with the least to begin with will be the hardest hit. Government must now take the earliest opportunity to harness the flexibility within Universal Credit to get support directly to those worst hit by the spike in energy prices, while also helping claimants into work.”
Joe Shalam at the Centre for Social Justice made the case for using the benefits system to provide more support to those in greatest need.
“Ministers must respond now to the scale of the current living costs crisis by committing to an increase in benefits in line with inflation from October. Promises on levelling up and education will go unmet while families don’t have enough money to live on – and abandoning 4 million children to a life in poverty won’t be much of a legacy either.”
Alison Garnham at Child Poverty Action Group also argued for increases in benefits, with reference to the cost of living scandal and its impact on families and children.
“My Government will legislate to ensure that no party can achieve absolute power on the basis of a minority of the vote. My Ministers will establish citizens’ assemblies to ensure the people are actively involved in determining key government policies...”
A coalition of democracy organisations published an alternative Queen’s speech, setting out a range of ways in which the government could act to clean up politics and strengthen the UK’s democracy.
Reads of the week
“As living costs skyrocket, the Government continues to deduct up to 25% from universal credit payments, leaving more than two million people unable to afford basic necessities and driving them further into debt.” A new report from the Lloyds Bank Foundation says that a system that allows deductions from benefits is leaving many people without enough money to live on.
“In the last two decades dividend payments have experienced extraordinary growth. At the same, the UK has experienced a period in which real wages have barely shifted. This vast divide runs through the heart of our economic model - a symbol of the shift in the balance of power between labour and capital.” New analysis by Common Wealth shines a light on the increasing gulf between income from wealth and income from work (and finds that the top 1% own 39% of directly owned shares, more than the poorest 90% combined).
“Our analysis shows that the salary gap is widening in nine out of 10 constituencies, that home affordability is getting worse nearly everywhere, and that public spending per head has fallen behind the capital in every region of England.” A report by Bloomberg finds that left-behind regions are falling even further behind, despite the promises of the levelling up agenda.
“It is truly shocking that the government is proposing we reintroduce the mistaken regulatory rules that helped cause the global financial crash, and economic turmoil and misery for millions.” Marloes Nicholls at the Finance Innovation Lab comments on an open letter to the Chancellor from 58 leading economists, outlining their concerns over proposals to make ‘competitiveness’ a greater focus in financial regulation.
“Young adults who received custodial sentences had lower levels of educational attainment... A large share of young adults who received custodial sentences were identified as vulnerable during childhood”. Shocking figures were published by the Office for National Statistics last week on the education and social care background of young people who interact with the criminal justice system.
“When we look at Britain’s history, the imprints of empire are unmistakable. In the past, British men and women could make money around the world behind protectionist walls. Today, the UK courts foreign opportunities through liberal regulatory and tax policies.” Hunter Harris at the University of Oxford writes about three imperial policies that still influence life in Britain today (non-dom tax status, freeports, and customs treaties).
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