2022 has begun with promising indications that the covid pandemic may be easing. As the focus starts to turn elsewhere, the following are amongst the issues in the Government’s in-tray which need to be tackled.
1. Economy: proposed increases in taxes and National Insurance contributions due to kick in from April 2022 should be cancelled. Businesses need an opportunity to rebuild and it is too early to impose additional burdens on them. The covid bills will be with us for many decades and whilst chipping away at them should begin sooner rather than later, this should not be triggered before the pandemic is over.
2. Covid restrictions: on 26 January, the restrictions will be reviewed. The Westminster Government has reacted less severely to omicron than the devolved administrations but, mindful of the wider economy as well as the health outlook, should look to lift restrictions as early as possible and repeal the legislation upon which they were based.
3. Net zero agenda: the cost of living crisis will come to the fore as energy bills are hiked vertiginously. A quarter of the cost is used to subsidise green energy sources, many of which remain unreliable. Legally binding climate change targets entered into by the Government mean that it must cascade stringent obligations downwards onto companies and consumers. Going too far, too fast will be counterproductive and entail a significant loss of public support for the green agenda.
4. Brexit: after the resignation of Brexit minister Lord Frost in December, it was fair to give Foreign Secretary Liz Truss an opportunity to conclude negotiations with the EU to resolve the severe problems which have arisen as a result of the Northern Ireland Protocol. But these are dragging on for too long with little, if any, visible signs of progress. If no satisfactory outcome can be achieved by the end of February, many would conclude that the Government’s best course would be to trigger article 16 of the protocol and take full control of all aspects of trade within the UK as a matter of domestic law.
5. Free trade deals: the Government has recently struck a trade deal with Australia in one of the first significant steps since the UK regained control of its trade policy. Many more deals should be done around the world, including renegotiating deeper and wider deals with many countries in respect of which the UK has so far merely rolled over the position as it stood when the UK was an EU member.
6. Judicial review: the Government remains irate at what it sees as cases in which the courts have strayed too far into the political arena, such as when the Supreme Court found the prorogation of Parliament to be unlawful and numerous instances of courts blocking the deportation of foreign criminals, often at the last minute. The Government needs to flesh out the nature and extent of any proposals it might bring forward to address these issues and Parliament should consider carefully the need to strike the correct balance.
7. Infrastructure projects: pressure groups and activists are turning to the courts to try to thwart infrastructure projects such as a possible third runway at Heathrow, road schemes and HS2, whether on the basis of judicial review or other grounds, such as environmental or human rights claims. It is right that a forum be provided to resolve genuine grievances, especially on the part of those directly affected, but in general infrastructure projects are too often delayed by protracted litigation and processes need to be tightened to speed up cases and weed out politically motivated challenges dressed up as legal claims.
8. Housing: the housing market is increasingly unaffordable for young people. The attempts to make leaseholders bear the costs of the cladding crisis have been very unpopular and have shaken confidence in the market for flats. The rules around the development of land and the planning system should be reviewed to make the process more streamlined and further encourage growth on brownfield sites.
9. Smart motorways: due to safety concerns following several appalling deaths which have occurred on smart motorways, the Government has paused the rollout of new smart motorways. Cynics might regard this as a convenient temporary pause which eases pressure on the public purse during straitened times. It is already abundantly clear that smart motorways are inherently and irremediably unsafe and the Government should declare not a moratorium but a permanent end to these dangerous roads, and all existing smart motorways should be restored to their original state forthwith.
10. Inquiries: the covid inquiry will be a major undertaking and careful thought should be given to its terms of reference in order to ensure that it will report on a timely basis and be focused on productive outcomes. Too many inquiries, such as those into the Hillsborough, Bloody Sunday and phone-hacking events, become unwieldy and unduly expensive, reporting years or even decades after the matters in question, when memories have often faded, records have been lost, many survivors may have died and those in charge of the responsible agencies may have retired or moved on. Judges will be suitable people to chair many inquiries but by no means all of them; there should be no default assumption that a judge is necessarily the best candidate, because this often means that the process will be legalistic and elaborate to a degree which may not be appropriate.
The combination of Brexit and the pandemic has presented huge challenges for the Government in recent years and the public has broadly been sympathetic to the relative lack of attention which has inevitably been paid to other priorities. But 2022 is the time for an urgent focus on wider concerns across a range of policy areas. It can be a year of great promise if opportunities are taken in a positive and pragmatic spirit.