A careful return to normality

The next month marks a significant period for the United Kingdom as we emerge from lockdown.  One lesson from the pandemic is it is unlikely to be a smooth journey as with more contact there is more risk of transmission, and we have a new variant to handle, but the vaccine programme enables us to make further cautious progress on our journey to normality.

Part of that journey is re-establishing our normal democratic processes.  We saw that earlier this month with the postponed elections from 2020 being held alongside the normal cycle of elections.  In Harrogate and Knaresborough we saw two elections – one for the Police, Fire and Crime Commissioner and a county council by-election for the Bilton and Nidd Gorge division.  Congratulations respectively to Knaresborough man Philip Allott and County Councillor Matt Scott.

The return to democratic normality for me was most marked as Parliament gathered after a short break for the Queen’s Speech.  This is when the monarch outlines the government’s programme.  It was a poignant occasion as most recognised that our monarch is also a 95-year-old grieving the recent loss of her husband of over 70 years.

Government legislation is brought forward as bills.  The bills are outlined in the Queens Speech and voted on by MPs and Lords.  The bills are amended throughout the process to a final vote where, if the government wins, the bill becomes an Act of Parliament and law.

This Queen’s Speech contained bills addressing a wide range of issues from healthcare to freedom of speech to post-16 skills and education.  There are bills about building safety to address unsafe cladding, about delivering more affordable housing and about recognising animal sentience in law.  It is an ambitious programme looking to a post-Brexit post-COVID country.

The Skills and Post-16 Education Bill is, to me, the stand-out piece of legislation.  For decades we have known that, as a whole, our young people fail to get the same amount of qualifications as their European counterparts.  We know that as technology moves forward people have to acquire new skills.  In the UK we need the skills of our workforce to match technology and anticipate future advances.

Of all the issues raised with me by businesses, the lack of skills – particularly digital skills – has been raised the most.

The bill recognises that education simply cannot end at 16 or 18 with some exams.  It will enable people to access a flexible pot of cash to acquire new skills and education throughout their lives.  A guarantee will accompany this new legislation to ensure that wherever you live you can access these lifetime skills.  We need to level up so skills, education and life chances don’t depend on postcode.

Skills training will be employer-led matching the gaps in the workplace with the training, and considering what employers expect to see in the future.

So among the many important bills announced in the Queen’s Speech it is this forward-looking agenda, preparing people for work, enabling them to get higher paid jobs and to remain in work through lifelong training as new jobs in new and emerging industries that really excites me.

And it is a sign that our country is turning its sights to a post-COVID future, a more digital and greener future.  That is good news for us all.