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A political stunt that offers nothing to working people – our verdict on the Queen’s Speech

Published date
If Boris Johnson really wanted to rebuild Britain, he wouldn’t be threatening working families with the hardest possible Brexit.

Working people desperately need a new deal.

We’re in the longest pay squeeze for 200 years, with pay rises only going to those at the very top. Working class people still don’t get a fair shot at decently paid jobs. 900,000 people are on zero-hours contracts, and household debt is at record levels.

Today’s Queen’s Speech was an opportunity for the government to put that right.

It could have been a plan to ban zero-hours contracts, to invest to tackle the climate crisis with a just transition for workers, and to give working people the power to negotiate through their unions for a fair share of the country’s wealth.

Instead we got vague promises.

We’ve analysed the government’s announcements today, and what they mean for workers.

But we know what this Queen’s Speech was really about: a political stunt, not a serious set of commitments.

If Boris Johnson really wanted to rebuild Britain, he wouldn’t be threatening working families with the hardest possible Brexit.

That’s why working people shouldn’t trust this prime minister.

Employment Reform

The government had an opportunity to change the rules of the game for workers, especially those in insecure work.

They could have announced a ban on zero hours contracts, ploughed more money into state enforcement of workers’ rights and given trade unions workplace access rights.

Instead we got vague commitments to implement its largely ineffectual Good Work Plan, which ministers have sat on for nearly a year, and a woolly promise to improve workers’ ability to get redress.

A promised law to tackle inappropriate use of non-disclosure agreements is notable by its absence.

Pensions Bill

The Pensions Bill has three main, unrelated, parts:

  • allowing collective defined contribution (CDC) schemes, which will provide workers with a more stable and predictable income in retirement. Specifically, this will allow the Royal Mail to set up the pension scheme agreed with the CWU
  • giving the Pensions Regulator more powers to act against employers that put defined benefit pension schemes they sponsor at risk through reckless behaviour
  • facilitating the creation of pensions dashboards, that will allow people to see information about most of their pension schemes in a single place.

We broadly support these measures, and unions have pushed hard for CDC schemes. But this is a missed opportunity to build on the success of auto-enrolment by raising contribution rates and bringing more young people into the pension system.

That would bring in an additional 910,000 workers into auto-enrolment and lead to an additional £3.8bn of pension saving. But the government has chosen not to act.

National Infrastructure Bill

At the Spending Review the Chancellor announced increased investment spending of only £3.4 billion, well below the TUC call for an immediate increase of £10 billion.

Today’s announcements continue to fall short on commitment.

As part of the infrastructure bill the government should announce its intention to raise government investment at least to the OECD average of 3.5 per cent of GDP, which will involve an increase of around £15bn into 2020.

Employment (Allocation of Tips) Bill

This bill is intended to ensure that all tips, gratuities and services belong to workers and are paid to them in full, without any deductions by employers.

Trade unions have been campaigning for this broad goal. However, much will still depend on the exact nature of the promised statutory Code of Practice, which will aim “to ensure fairness and transparency”.

Tipping practices have long been opaque in the UK, to the extent that customers could not be sure where their tips would end up. In 2009 the law was changed to stop tips being used to make up the minimum wage. Many employers responded by clawing back money from the tips in a variety of ways. Government consulted on this issue in 2016, but proposals for legislation have been delayed until now.

Immigration and Social Security Coordination Bill

Like the previous Immigration Bill introduced in January, this seeks to repeal EU free Movement laws so that the UK can bring in a new more restrictive immigration and social security system for EU citizens after Brexit.

Ending free movement rights and the right to access healthcare or draw on a pension for EU citizens also increases the risk EU countries will remove these rights for UK citizens. This would cause considerable hardship to the many UK citizens working and retired in other EU countries.

As we set out in a report in May, the Bill also increases the risk of exploitation as it paves the way for the government to introduce its plans for low skill visas for EU workers that only allow workers to stay 12 months in the UK.

Workers will be unlikely to resist poor treatment on these 12-month visas as they have such a short legal period to stay in the country. Bad employers are likely to exploit workers’ insecure immigration status to force them to accept poor conditions.

Trade Bill

The Bill allows the UK to roll-over EU trade deals as UK-only deals (with the consent of the trade partners), and would set up an independent trade remedies authority.

We are concerned that this will allow the UK government to agree new trade deals without proper parliamentary scrutiny.

This makes it more likely that the government can agree bad trade deals that threaten workers’ rights and increase the risk of privatisation of our public services.

NHS Long Term Plan and social care

The government has committed to bringing forward legislation that will help commissioners, providers and other NHS and local government organisations to work together more effectively in order to deliver the NHS Long Term Plan.

Largely prompted by proposals from NHS England, backed by a range of health service organisations and representative bodies – including some trade unions – the bill is likely to make significant changes to some of the competition regulations brought in by the infamous 2012 Health and Social Care Act in order to foster greater integration of services and collaboration between different parts of the NHS and social care system.

While this falls short of addressing all the damage inflicted by the years of austerity, competition and outsourcing in the NHS, these proposals are a welcome step back from the worst excesses of the Lansley reforms and why we’ve been cautiously supportive. What replaces the competition regulations is yet to be seen and until further detail and reassurances are provided, there will be understandable scepticism.

As there will also be around the government’s commitment to find a lasting solution to the broken adult social care system, given their track record on dodging the issue. We look forward to seeing some tangible and sustainable proposals and hope that there will be a proper public debate about the huge issues facing this crucial yet woefully neglected public service.

Sentencing Bill

Plans to ensure that the most serious violent and sexual offenders spend more time in prison to match the severity of their crimes were set out with gusto at Tory party conference earlier this month.

This comes at a time when the prison service is severely stretched. Despite rises in recent years, the number of core operational staff in public prisons has declined by 15 per cent since 2009/10. Linked to this has been an alarming escalation in prison violence. In 2017/18 there were more than 9,000 assaults on prison staff, with the frequency of assaults almost tripled since 2009/10. The frequency of serious assaults against staff has risen even faster – from 289 in 2009/10 to 892 in 2017/18. There were 22,374 prisoner-on-prisoner assaults in 2017/18 – nearly double the number that took place in 2009/10.

Railway reform

The ending of the franchise system grabbed headlines and no doubt caught the eye of long-suffering commuters this morning. But what is likely to end up in the government’s white paper may be underwhelming. Moving from a franchise model to a system of management contracts may give public bodies greater control over rail strategy – particularly at a devolved regional level.

But none of this addresses the fundamental problem of our railway which is the dysfunction and fragmentation that arises from multiple train operating companies on different contracts separated from Network Rail with multiple interfaces, adversarial or at least competitive relationships and lack of accountability – all of which increases costs in the industry and acts as a barrier to the integration and collaboration we need to introduce innovation and modernisation for passengers.

English Devolution

Here we see a signalling of intent to upscale devolution in the English regions, giving more powers to Mayoral Combined Authorities while increasing the number of Metro Mayors and doing more devo deals.

Unions in some parts of the country have welcomed devolution, finding new ways to work with regional political leaders to support inclusive growth in their economies and promote employment standards and great jobs.

But without a sustainable and equitable funding settlement for local government and without significant governance reform, finding better ways to give communities, workers and trade unions a greater role in developing strategy, this will be a missed opportunity. Let’s hope not.

Ban zero-hours contracts Too many workers are being denied job security, sick pay and holiday pay - and insecure work is out of control.
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