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Queen’s Speech contains new restrictions on public sector workers

Extending right to buy to social housing tenants, devolving powers to cities and restricting the rights of public sector workers were among the highlights of the Queen’s Speech this morning.

The government set out its legislative agenda in the monarch’s address that marked the official opening of Parliament. 

The speech included 26 pieces of legislation in total, including a bill to hold an EU referendum by the end of 2017 at the latest. The legislation is being fast-tracked, which could see a referendum take place as early as next summer.

One of the Tories’ most controversial pre-election pledges, to extend the right-to-buy scheme to housing association tenants in England, was included in the Housing Bill.

Tenants in housing association homes will be offered discounts worth up to £102,700 in London and £77,000 in the rest of England. There are around 1.3 million social housing tenants who have lived in the property for three or more years and will be given the opportunity to buy.

The policy is set to reignite tensions with housing associations, which had previously threatened to sue the government should right-to-buy be extended to include their properties.

Tony Stacey, chair of Placeshapers, which is a group of 100 housing associations, told Inside Housing that he would “definitely” launch a challenge.

“I would definitely challenge it legally. This is so fundamentally critical to us. It would shoot up to the top of our risk map if it was confirmed. We are duty bound morally to fight it in any way we possibly can.”

PSE has already reported that the Chartered Institute of Housing believes the policy is likely to make the country’s housing crisis worse rather than better.

Responding to the Queen’s Speech, Cllr Peter Box, chair of the Local Government Association's Housing board, called for homes sold under the scheme to be replaced “one-for-one”.

"The current Right-to-Buy system only allows councils to replace half or fewer of homes they have sold,” he said. “The government has rightly promised every home sold under these proposals will be replaced on a one-for-one basis and we need to make sure new proposals enable that to happen.”

The Conservative crackdown on unions continued with the Trade Union Bill, which aims to create more hurdles for public sector workers to jump before they can call a strike. Firstly it will require more than 50% of eligible members to vote in order for a strike ballot to be valid, and secondly more than 40% of all eligible members must vote in favour of the strike.

There is also to be a new time limit on the ballot for industrial action and a promise to tackle intimidation of non-striking workers.

The general secretary of Unite, Len McCluskey, said: “Given the profound challenges facing this nation, it is staggering that a priority for this government is not to create decent jobs and offer a helping hand to insecure workers but to attack trade unions.

“Unite has said repeatedly that the way to increase turnouts in strike ballots is not to make it harder for people to exercise fundamental rights, but to modernise voting. This can be easily achieved through consensus and discussion, and without the division and fear that the government’s approach prefers.

“We urge this government to think again. People will not be fooled by claims to be the party of working people, if freedoms and democracy are swept away in a tide of repressive laws and showy PR.”

Unison general secretary, Dave Prentis, added: "The UK already has tough laws on strikes – there is no need to make them stricter still. 

"Democracy won't be enhanced by raising thresholds but by bringing balloting into the 21st century.”

The bill would also force trade union members to opt in if they want to pay a political levy, in a move that could affect the funding of the Labour party.

The government said the point of the bill was to “ensure that disruption to essential public services has a democratic mandate”.

The Cities and Devolution Bill received a prominent mention in the speech. This will allow the ground-breaking devolution of powers to cities and regions, starting with Greater Manchester, who are set to receive powers over planning, transport, skills and control over the entire £6bn NHS budget for the area.

City deals for Leeds and Sheffield have also been included, as part of the chancellor’s Northern Powerhouse plans. However they received fewer powers due to refusing a metro-mayor, to which Greater Manchester agreed.

Osborne is likely to face resistance to many of his plans if he continues to insist powers can only be devolved to authorities in a combined region that accept an elected mayor.

David Sparks, chair of the LGA, said: "The Cities Devolution Bill is great news for our larger cities but we want to make sure the benefits of devolution reach all corners of England.

"Making decisions at a more local level will bring about huge economic and social benefits and with non-metropolitan England responsible for 56% of economic output the case for wider devolution is clear.

"Like the communities secretary we believe the push to decentralise power should be extended to these non-urban areas and are ready to work with the government to meet this aspiration."

The bill will also give permission for councils within an area to streamline their governance.

(Picture by: Arthur Edwards / PA)

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