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Great Britain

Queen's speech: PM points to harder Brexit and 10-year rule

Boris Johnson has set out his vision for the Tories to govern for the next decade as he published a Queen’s speech that points the way towards a harder Brexit and sweeping constitutional reforms.

The prime minister claimed that he wanted his programme for government to last for more than one parliament, describing it as a “blueprint for the future of Britain”.

More than 30 new laws were set out during the Queen’s speech, including the EU withdrawal agreement bill, tougher laws on sentencing, new espionage offences and a commitment to constitutional reform.

The Brexit bill in particular was met with dismay by Labour and other opposition parties, as its text has been been significantly altered since Johnson last week won an 80-seat majority.

The new legislation has stripped out protections for workers’ rights, watered down a commitment to take unaccompanied refugee children from Europe, and removed parliament’s say on the future relationship. It also inserted a ban on the government extending the Brexit transition period beyond the end of 2020.

The move destroys any illusions that the prime minister might have been planning to face down his hardline Eurosceptics and pivot towards a softer Brexit, despite the his claims in the Commons to be leading a “one nation” government.

The government insisted that workers’ rights protection would be enshrined in another bill, but Keir Starmer, the shadow Brexit secretary, warned that the legislation “paves the way towards a hard and extreme Brexit”.

“The Tories have torn up the protections for workers’ rights and child refugees – and watered down parliament’s role in the next phase of Brexit negotiations,” Starmer said. “It was a bad bill before the election and it is even worse now.”

He confirmed that Labour would not be supporting the legislation, but earlier there was a split in shadow cabinet, with some members representing pro-leave seats suggesting that the party should not vote against the bill at second reading at least.

Johnson is planning to hold the second reading on Friday at 3pm and the legislation is certain to pass, given the prime minister’s new majority of 80 MPs.

“This is not a programme for one year, or one parliament – it is a blueprint for the future of Britain,” he said. “Just imagine where this country could be in 10 years’ time.”

Brexit barely featured in his speech to MPs, except to repeat his election phrase “get Brexit done” just once. The government will shut down the Department for Exiting the European Union in January and is expected to drop the word Brexit altogether from official documents soon.

However, he later said: “Today we will deliver on the promise we made to the people and get the Brexit vote wrapped up for Christmas.

“Now MPs will start the process of passing the bill. Then, at the beginning of the new decade, at the beginning of a new dawn for our country, our parliamentarians will return to Westminster to immediately finish the job, take us out of the EU on 31 January and move this country forward.”

A senior source said: “On 31 January we will have got Brexit done, and then the focus will be on the future relationship with the European Union.”

Johnson’s primary focus for his speech was his “radical” domestic agenda, which, he insists, will change Britain. This will include a new Constitution, Democracy and Rights Commission, which will examine “how our democracy operates” in a move that has caused concern among opposition parties that he will try to change the UK’s constitutional arrangements in the Tories’ favour.

There has been speculation that he could give politicians the power to appoint judges, as in the US, following Johnson’s loss in the supreme court this autumn, but a No 10 source insisted that would not be one of the changes being examined.

The Queen’s speech did, however, announce plans to ditch the Fixed-term Parliaments Act early next year, which gives the government licence to call an election at a time of its choosing, possibly as late as December 2024.

The ceremony, which officially marks the beginning of a new session of parliament, was the second Queen’s speech in two months. There were similarities to his first, but also several additions following the election and the Conservative party’s manifesto.

The main new piece of legislation is an NHS bill that would enshrine in law a £33.9bn cash increase in funding by 2023-4, in what appears to be a largely symbolic move.

A new counter-terrorism bill has also been added after the London Bridge terrorist attack. It would legislate for tougher sentences for serious terrorist offenders and a 14-year minimum term for the worst.

It would also remove the option of early release for terrorists who receive an extended determinate sentence and move the earliest point for discretionary release from halfway to two-thirds of the way through sentence for terrorists who are deemed less dangerous.

A third new element was the promise of “espionage legislation”, which would include introducing a new Official Secrets Act. The current legislation is more than a century old and needs updating to deal with “hostile states”, according to the government. They could also look at introducing a register of foreign agents operating in the UK and updating the treason laws.

Human rights groups expressed reservations about plans to review the possibility of reviving the offence of treason, which dates back to 1351 and was last used to prosecute the Nazi propagandist William Joyce, or Lord Haw-Haw, after the second world war. Clare Collier, advocacy director at Liberty, said: “Creating new criminal offences is rarely justified and existing laws already define hostile state activity extremely broadly.”

Britain’s spy agencies have been pressing for the government to reform espionage legislation, last tackled two decades ago in the Official Secrets Act 1989, before the emergence of the world wide web. Existing secrecy laws are full of archaic terms such as “code words”, although Collier warned that reform could easily result in “a further attempt to increase state power while reducing accountability” unless safeguards were introduced.

The prime minister’s official spokesperson said: “Some of our allies have particular systems in place and we will be looking at systems such as the US has and if that practice could work in the UK.”

Quick guide

How is Boris Johnson's Brexit deal different from Theresa May's?

The new Brexit deal is essentially the old Brexit deal with a new chapter on the protocol on Ireland and Northern Ireland and a few key tweaks to the political declaration. Here is a link to the full text.

The backstop is replaced

The backstop has essentially been replaced by a full stop whereby Northern Ireland remains aligned to the EU from the end of the transition period for at least four years. A change can only happen if it is voted on by the Stormont assembly.

Consent

Stormont will have a key role in future Brexit arrangements. And if there is cross-community support to remain aligned to the EU rather than the UK the consent will hold for eight years.

The arrangements in this deal will automatically kick in for a mandated four years if there is a breakdown in trade talks, so it remains a “backstop” but with a permanent tinge.

That four-year period will start at the end of December 2020.

Two months before the end of the four-year period, that is October 2024, Stormont will be asked to vote on whether to remain aligned to the EU in ways outlined by this deal or not.

Checks on border, ports and airports

Under the deal, the UK and the EU are “underlining their firm commitment to no customs and regulatory checks or controls and related physical infrastructure at the border between Ireland and Northern Ireland”.

Future trade deals

The EU and the UK will aim for a zero-tariff deal with unlimited quotas. The entire UK, including Northern Ireland, will be free to sign trade deals. The line in the political declaration that “the United Kingdom will consider aligning with union rules in relevant areas” in any future trade talks has been ditched.

Customs

Northern Ireland will remain legally in the UK customs territory but practically in the EU customs unions. There will therefore be no customs checks on the border but tariffs will be payable on certain commercial goods.

No customs duties will be payable on “personal property” being transited from Great Britain to Northern Ireland. That protects online shopping and all items bought for personal rather than commercial use.

Customs duties will be payable on goods imported from the UK for commercial use unless it can be demonstrated that the goods remain in Northern Ireland or are for personal use, as above.

A system of rebates will allow importers to be reimbursed.

West/east trade

The commitment to frictionless trade between Northern Ireland and Great Britain is restated.

VAT

EU law on VAT will apply in Northern Ireland.

Single electricity market

The island of Ireland is considering a single market for electricity so homes in Northern Ireland can get their energy from a supplier in Northern Ireland or the republic. There were fears this could be disrupted by Brexit. Under the Johnson deal, the provisions of union law remain so nothing will change.

Level playing field

This guarantees that the UK will remain in line with EU conventions on climate, environment and workers rights in a future trade agreement.

Lisa O'Carroll Brexit correspondent

Two other new bills include one that insists on a minimum level of service for the railways, which would prevent strikes bringing trains to a halt, and another on renting that would abolish no-fault evictions and introduce lifetime deposits. Another bill would make it illegal for public institutions to take part in “boycott, divestment or sanctions campaigns against foreign countries and those who trade with them” – a move aimed at universities introducing such policies against Israel.

Other key elements of a speech widely trailed in advance include further plans for tougher jail sentences and controversial proposals to oblige people to show photographic ID before they are allowed to vote.

A new immigration bill would make EU citizens “subject to the same UK immigration controls as non-EU citizens”, thus ending free movement, and introduce an Australian-style points-based entry system, while another bill would update or replace EU regulations on financial markets.

Q&A

How does an Australian 'points style' immigration system work?

Aside from temporary work visas, such as the one-year version used by many young Britons and others to work in lower-skilled jobs such as agriculture and hospitality, Australia has a strictly capped limit for permanent migration of 160,000. Of these spaces, about a third are intended for those moving for family or humanitarian reasons, with the rest based on skilled migration.

There are two types of permanent visa – people who are sponsored by a specific employer, and those who apply independently. Both routes require the applicant to accrue 65 points to move.

Points comes from a range of factors, among them:

Some critics of the Australian system argue it is a blunt tool, and that the strict points-based criteria can mask other skills and qualities. The cap can also cover a significant backlog in processing people. However the idea of introducing a similar system in the UK post-Brexit has been repeatedly floated by prominent Leave supporters like Boris Johnson and Nigel Farage.

Peter Walker, political correspondent

Eight bills outlined were devoted to law and order, reflecting the Tories’ election focus on crime and punishment – a direction that has prompted alarm from prison reform charities.

Under one measure, violent and sexual offenders would serve a minimum of two-thirds of their sentence before becoming eligible to be released on licence, compared with half under current guidelines. Another would significantly increase the six-month maximum jail term for foreign offenders who returned to the UK in breach of deportation orders.

As Johnson walked from the Commons to the Lords to hear the Queen outline his programme, the outgoing Labour leader, Jeremy Corbyn, walked alongside him in silence. The Queen did not dress in formal robes and the ceremonial aspects were pared down, as the event had been quickly put together to make sure it happened before Christmas.

Responding to the speech, Corbyn said it contained “nothing of substance” on a range of issues from the NHS to tackling climate change, social care, early years and universities.

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