LONDON — The British government plans to expand student loan programs to give all adults access to four years of university or job training throughout their lifetimes as part of a legislative program designed to help the U.K. recover from the COVID-19 pandemic.
The proposal will be part of the annual Queen’s Speech, in which the monarch reads out the government’s legislative priorities at the ceremonial opening of the new session of Parliament. Tuesday’s speech will be Queen Elizabeth II’s first big public event since the death of her husband last month.
“These new laws are the rocket fuel that we need to level up this country and ensure equal opportunities for all,” Prime Minister Boris Johnson said in a statement released ahead of the speech. “We know that having the right skills and training is the route to better, well-paid jobs.”
The speech is also expected to include proposals to revamp planning laws to speed up construction of new homes, overhaul the asylum system and require voters to show a photo ID before casting their ballots. Plans to ban so-called gay-conversion therapy, restrict the prosecution of soldiers who served in Northern Ireland and limit the cost of nursing home care may also be discussed.
Improving access to adult education and vocational training is part of an effort to ensure workers have the skills they will need in a changing economy following decades of focus on boosting the number of young people going to university.
Before the pandemic, employers were unable to fill a quarter of job vacancies because they couldn’t find workers with the right skills, according to the government statement.
“Our universities and colleges must be far more accessible to adults and part-timers, allowing people to change careers, upskill regularly, and stay up to date with changing knowledge and technologies,” the government said.
The opposition Labour Party said the government must also come up with a plan to create jobs if the training program is to have any meaning. Labour has previously criticized the government for boosting job creation figures with part-time and low paying jobs.
“It’s great to hear that they want people to be able to retrain, but where are the jobs that people need, the good-quality jobs, not just the jobs, but the good-quality jobs that allow people to earn decent money to look after their families?” Lisa Nandy, Labour’s spokeswoman on foreign affairs, told the BBC.
The government is also under pressure to introduce concrete plans to overhaul adult social care, which provides in-home and nursing home services for older people. The issue has vexed government for more than a decade as rising costs squeeze local governments, which are required to provide care for those who can’t afford it, and leave wealthier families in fear of losing their homes as they struggle to pay care bills.
“For all the government’s boasts about its dynamic legislative program, there’s a risk that there will be only the briefest mention of social care in the Queen’s Speech, based on a promise to bring forward a plan later in the year, though without any specifics,” Andrew Dilnot, an economist who led a review of social care funding in 2011, wrote in the Daily Mail.
The controversial Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill is also expected to return, after being stalled amid concerns it would curtail the right to protest.
Also controversial are the government’s plans for the asylum system amid an increase in the number of refugees trying to enter the country from France.
The government said in March that it wants to crack down on those who try to reach the U.K. illegally from safe countries.
The United Nations’ refugee agency has warned that the proposals risk breaching international legal commitments.
“We recognize the need to improve some asylum procedures, but these plans threaten to create a discriminatory two-tier asylum system, undermining the 1951 Refugee Convention and longstanding global cooperation on refugee issues,” said Rossella Pagliuchi-Lor, a representative of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees. “It’s not too late for a rethink.”