LONDON (REUTERS) – British Prime Minister Boris Johnson promised to tackle inequality and “level up” the country on Tuesday (May 11) with a post-pandemic raft of laws presented by Queen Elizabeth to parliament.
In a ceremony stripped back because of the Covid-19 pandemic, the queen, who wore a day dress instead of the usual robes and crown, read out the bills the government hopes to pass during the next year on everything from job creation and healthcare to stripping back post-Brexit bureaucracy.
In the 18 months since Mr Johnson’s Conservatives were re-elected with a big parliamentary majority, his agenda has been eclipsed by the pandemic, which caught his government off guard and has absorbed many of its resources for making policy.
With Britain’s vaccination programme now far ahead of many other countries and the spread of the virus at low levels, Mr Johnson is hoping to revive his ‘levelling up’ agenda and re-set a premiership that has been clouded by accusations of cronyism.
“My government’s priority is to deliver a national recovery from the pandemic that makes the United Kingdom “stronger, healthier and more prosperous that before,” the 95-year-old queen told parliament in the speech written by the government.
“To achieve this, my government will level up opportunities across all parts of the United Kingdom, supporting jobs, businesses and economic growth and addressing the impact of the pandemic on public services.”
In an introduction to the pages of government pledges, Mr Johnson said: “The crisis has in no way diminished the government’s ambition or appetite for change… We have been given an historic opportunity to change things for the better.”
Rhetoric into reality
After completing Britain’s exit from the European Union at the end of 2020, Mr Johnson has wanted to showcase what he sees as the benefits of Brexit. But he has so far been unable to match a pledge made in the 2016 Brexit referendum campaign of handing the health service 350 million pounds (S$655 million) a week.
His government will instead try to reduce what it saw as excessive EU bureaucracy by streamlining state aid and procurement rules so it can target funds to ailing businesses more quickly and directly.
That was part of the government’s strategy to “build back better”, which also included education reforms to help adults access life-long learning – seen by ministers as key to reshaping the British workforce.
On climate change, the government repeated its commitment to achieve net zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050, a pledge it hopes will spur other nations to cut their emission targets before a United Nations climate summit in November in Scotland.
Much of Tuesday’s ‘Queen’s Speech’ comprised policies and proposals already flagged, prompting the opposition Labour Party to challenge the government to turn its “rhetoric into reality”.
“The Conservatives have so far tried to hide their lack of a long-term plan by making people and places scrap over funding pots,” Labour leader Keir Starmer said in a statement.
“This piecemeal approach won’t deliver the fundamental change our country needs. Instead, we must today see meat on the bones of a proper, ambitious plan to deliver the change people across the country deserve.”
As part of its post-pandemic government agenda, Britain will move to ban conversion therapy and provide more support to those in the LGBT community who have undergone the treatment.
Mr Johnson’s government said measures would be brought forward to prevent these “abhorrent practices which can cause mental and physical harm”, starting with a consultation on how best to protect people and how to eliminate coercive practices.
Mr Johnson’s party has come under increasing pressure on the issue after former leader Theresa May vowed in 2018 to eradicate a procedure that aims to change or suppress someone’s sexual orientation or gender identity.
However some faith leaders had argued that a wide ban could implicate those who offer pastoral support including prayer.
Setting out the new parliamentary agenda in a briefing document alongside the Queen’s Speech, the government said: “We will ensure medical professionals, religious leaders, teachers and parents can continue to be able to have open and honest conversations with people.”
A 2017 National LGBT survey found that 5 per cent of those who responded reported being ordered, and 2 per cent reported having undergone, conversion therapy. In more than half of the cases the therapy was offered or conducted by faith organisations.