The Queen’s Speech - marking the State Opening of Parliament and setting out the UK Government’s legislative agenda for the Parliamentary session ahead - was delivered on 11 May 2021. The last Queen’s Speech was primarily centred around delivering Brexit, and since then, much Parliamentary time and focus has been dedicated to the coronavirus pandemic. This year’s Queen’s Speech outlined the Government’s plan to 'level up' opportunities across all parts of the UK, supporting jobs, businesses and economic growth, and addressing the impact of the pandemic on public services.
Overall, the Government has announced 30 Bills it plans to bring forward in this session. We provide an overview of the key Bills pertinent to our clients and offer our initial thoughts.
Building Safety Bill
The Building Safety Bill constitutes the Government’s response to the Grenfell disaster and will come into force in Autumn of this year. It will have major financial and practical consequences for developers, property owners, construction professionals and insurers.
The Bill will introduce a new regulatory regime, overseen by the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) to enhance the fire and structural safety of both new and existing buildings. The Bill also changes the regulations and standards for the construction of high-risk buildings to ensure accountability and responsibility.
It is yet to be seen how heavy handed the regulator will be in its role - we are interested to see whether they take an advisory role alongside businesses to help them improve their fire safety product standards, or whether they will take on more of a ‘policing’ role and as such, move quickly to enforcement where businesses fall foul of the requirements.
Draft Online Safety Bill
The UK Government first published a White Paper on this topic in April 2019. The Draft Online Safety Bill will introduce new legal requirements for online companies to keep people safe when they use the internet. The purpose of the Bill is to help protect young people and clamp down on racist abuse online, while safeguarding freedom of expression.
Companies will have a duty to protect people against online scams and in particular, fraudulent user-generated content such as romance scams. However, there is no mention of tackling the problem of online advertising or cloned websites. Fraudsters are invested in finding new ways to exploit the public, especially through social media channels and search engine manipulation. A relatively new cause for concern relates to 'Google spoofing' which involves fraudsters creating business advertisements on Google to sell their services to a targeted audience. Ofcom will be given the power to fine companies failing in a new duty of care up to £18 million or 10% of annual global turnover, whichever is higher, and have the power to block access to sites. Further, a new criminal offence for senior managers has been included as a deferred power.
The spirit of this Bill is a step in the right direction. However, we expect a narrative that demands more to protect the public.
Health and Care Bill
The Health and Care Bill is aimed at integrating health and social care through the use of statutory integrated care systems across the country. This follows the publication on 11 February 2021 of its White Paper 'Integration and Innovation: working together to improve health and social care for all'.
The Bill forms one part of the wider 'levelling up' agenda to improve health outcomes across the country with the intention of making NHS England, in combined form, accountable to Government and Parliament in its delivery.
We are pleased to note the continued intention to pursue reform of the Mental Health Act reform and the long-awaited statutory powers for the Healthcare Safety Investigation Branch. The most pressing problem facing the NHS is of course the elective waiting list, for which the Government promises £325m new investment for diagnostic equipment.
Leasehold (Reform) Ground Rent Bill
The Leasehold (Reform) Ground Rent Bill has provided leaseholders with the right to extend their lease by a maximum of 990 years at a zero ground rent.
The Bill was received with disappointment by some as it did not include the “sweeping reforms to the residential sector” as announced by the Government earlier this year. Furthermore, the Bill (when it comes into force) will not have retrospective effect. This is all subject to change as the Bill progresses through Parliament and it will be interesting to see if the other proposed reforms (earlier this year) such as the abolishment of marriage value will be included.
The abolishment of ground rent is good news for leaseholders but there is a level of uncertainty. It may be some years before these changes are brought into law.
National Insurance Contributions Bill
The primary purpose of the Bill is to reduce the cost of hiring employees in a Freeport tax site. It introduces a contributions relief for eligible employers and seeks to strengthen powers to tackle attempts to avoid tax and National Insurance contributions.
The main elements of the Bill are to provide employers with a relief from National Insurance contributions for eligible new employees in Freeports for three years, up to earnings of £25,000 per annum. Freeport employers will be able to claim this relief on all new hires from 6 April 2022 for 36 months per employee.
This relief is designed to reduce the cost of hiring employees in a Freeport tax site and is expected to have a positive impact on employees who work in, or live near, a Freeport tax site, as it makes them more attractive to employers.
The government intends to make this relief available for up to 9 years from 6 April 2022. The use and effectiveness of the relief will be monitored and reviewed to allow a decision on whether to continue the relief beyond its earliest end date of 5 April 2026.
The main benefits of the Bill include promoting regeneration and job creation through Freeports across the UK. Accordingly, the Bill reinforces the Government’s commitment to the 'levelling up' agenda.
The Planning Bill seeks to modernise the planning system to ensure that more homes and infrastructure can be built at a faster pace. It aims to transform the planning system from its current document-based function to a digital and map-based service with the aim of increasing public engagement in local areas.
The Bill incorporates some aspects of the White Paper on “planning for the future” which proposed reforms to tackle the housing shortage. The White Paper detailed the introduction of new zoning measures which groups land into three categories: growth, renewal and protection. Further, it proposed to replace the current Community Infrastructure Levy and Section 106 obligations with a new Infrastructure Levy fixed by the value of the development.
In addition to implementing a more transparent levy, the Bill simplifies the environmental assessments for developments, reforming the framework for locally led development corporations and reducing the time length for developments to go through the planning system. It is welcomed by the real estate sector.
For the construction sector, the Planning Bill brings controversy. While the aspects aiming to simplify the system, digitise processes and even top-down housing targets are generally well received, the idea of zoning has come into criticism. Where some stakeholders welcome the move to ‘permission in principle’, others are strongly against.
Only time will tell if implementation of the measures means a step in the right direction or leads to unforeseen issues elsewhere in the system. The replacement of section 106 with an Infrastructure Levy is still to be mapped out in detail, with potential impacts on the viability of developments which will not be fully understood until it comes into place.
Professional Qualifications Bill
The Professional Qualifications Bill addresses a gap in the Brexit Withdrawal Agreement, where mutual recognition would come to an end without replacement.
This will likely bring benefits for both import and export of key services. There is also special provision for architecture, making it easier for foreign qualified architects to be entered on the Architects Register.
Industry bodies will no doubt have been relieved to see that ongoing international recognition will be sought, with individual regulators free to enter into agreements with their international counterparts.
Skills & Post-16 Education Bill
The aim of the Bill is to improve regional economic development and open alternative routes for training and apprenticeships, thus helping to address ongoing issues with productivity and the need for employees to retrain to ensure they have the skills needed for the businesses of the future.
Overall, the Bill is an uncontroversial tweaking of post-secondary education provisions, including training and re-training for key labour markets.
As is always the case, different sectors will have different reactions to the Government’s agenda. For some, it will be welcomed and for others it could go further. For the Bio industry, for example, the Government has used the Queens Speech to highlight its ambition to lead the world in life sciences as part of its plans for economic recovery from COVID-19 on the back of the successful vaccination programme.
Overall, however, the key themes are clear: levelling up, creating jobs and improving health.
The legislation will be published over the coming months, providing business the opportunity to monitor and engage with Government and policymakers to shape the development of legislation as it makes its way through Parliament. Although the size of the Government’s majority should allow for the agenda and commitments to be achievable, we are mindful that, like other businesses, Parliament returns in full form after a year of virtual engagements due to the coronavirus pandemic. Many MPs will be navigating life in Westminster for the first time.
We keep you up to date on the latest developments and the ongoing business impacts arising from the new relationship.