British PM seeks to bolster economy, union in new parliament

·4 min read

LONDON (AP) — The U.K. government sought to capitalize on its electoral strength Tuesday, outlining a sweeping legislative agenda to bolster the economy after the COVID-19 pandemic, defuse tensions that threaten the country’s unity and combat social issues ranging from housing to care for older adults.

The package of 29 bills was unveiled by Queen Elizabeth II in the annual Queen’s Speech, in which the monarch reads out the government’s legislative priorities at the ceremonial start of the new parliamentary session.

“My government’s priority is to deliver a national recovery from the pandemic that makes the United Kingdom stronger, healthier and more prosperous than before,” the queen said in the House of Lords. “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.”

Prime Minister Boris Johnson and his Cabinet put together the list of proposals after a year of lockdowns and COVID-19 restrictions triggered the U.K.’s deepest economic slump in three centuries. The government is also facing renewed calls for Scottish independence and unrest in Northern Ireland fueled by Britain’s departure from the European Union.

Johnson will pursue the agenda from a position of strength, with his Conservative Party holding 365 of the 650 seats in the House of Commons. That electoral power was underscored last week, when the Conservatives dominated local elections in England.

Ahead of the speech, Johnson announced plans to give all adults access to four years of university or job training throughout their lifetimes as part of an effort to ensure workers have the skills employers need in a changing economy. The government also plans to revamp planning laws to speed up construction of new homes.

“These new laws are the rocket fuel that we need to level up this country and ensure equal opportunities for all,” Johnson said in a statement released ahead of the speech. “We know that having the right skills and training is the route to better, well-paid jobs.”

The opposition Labour Party said the government must also come up with a plan to create jobs if the training program is to have any meaning. Labour has previously criticized the government for boosting job creation figures with part-time and low paying jobs.

“It’s great to hear that they want people to be able to retrain, but where are the jobs that people need, the good-quality jobs, not just the jobs, but the good-quality jobs that allow people to earn decent money to look after their families?” Lisa Nandy, Labour’s spokeswoman on foreign affairs, told the BBC.

The legislative program also includes plans for a summit meeting between leaders of the U.K. government and the devolved administrations of Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales to discuss issues caused by the pandemic. The government also said it would invest in transport links between the U.K.’s four nations and reiterated a commitment that all parts of the country would benefit from a 4.8 billion pound fund to improve town centers and local transport projects.

In addition, the government plans to require voters to show a photo ID before they cast their ballots, ban so-called gay-conversion therapy, restrict the prosecution of soldiers who served in Northern Ireland and overhaul nursing home care.

One of the most controversial elements of the government’s program is a crime bill that stalled in the last parliament amid concern that it gave police too much power to restrict public protests.

Police were criticized for being too lenient after environmental protesters shut down central London last year and for being too heavy handed in March when they broke up a vigil for a young woman who was murdered after being kidnapped in the capital.

The government also promised to bring forward proposals to reform the social care system, which provides in-home and nursing home services for older people. That fell short of demands from advocates for concrete proposals to resolve the long-running problem.

The issue has vexed government for more than a decade as rising costs squeeze local governments, which are required to provide care for those who can’t afford it, and leave wealthier families in fear of losing their homes as they struggle to pay for the care of aging relatives.

Danica Kirka, The Associated Press

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