Theresa May's first Queen's Speech as Prime Minister will be of interest to retailers more because of what it left out rather than what it included: no details were given of the type of Brexit (hard, soft or otherwise) that the Government is hoping to negotiate with the EU, which would have given retailers some certainty, and there was no mention of the hoped-for review of the new business rates system.
The recent Conservative Party manifesto stated that they would make longer-term reforms to the business rates system to address concerns about the way it currently works, including more frequent revaluations, the introduction of self-assessments and a full review to make sure it is up to date for a world in which people increasingly shop online. However, the surprise election result means that the Government has had to water down or drop a number of its manifesto commitments in order to get the Queen's Speech through Parliament.
Out of the 27 draft Bills mentioned, it is not surprising that eight of them relate to Brexit. The Repeal Bill will repeal the European Communities Act 1972 and convert EU law into UK law. A Trade Bill will enable the UK to operate its own trade policy and a Customs Bill will replace the EU customs rules and allow the UK to impose its own tariffs after Brexit. The Government will provide more help for British businesses to export globally, which will be good news to those retailers who trade overseas, although no details have been given yet. An Immigration Bill will allow the Government to control the number of people coming here from the EU while still allowing us to attract "the brightest and the best". It will end the EU's rules on free movement of EU nationals in the UK and bring EU nationals within the UK's immigration system. Retailers will be hoping that this Bill will enable them to continue to employ the estimated 8% of their workforce who come from the EU.
The Government is committed to a high-skill, high-wage economy. There will be a major reform of technical education and the Government will continue to create millions of high quality apprenticeships. No doubt retailers will hope that these measures will go some way towards filling the skills gap.
A digital charter will make the UK "the best place in the world for digital business", which should help those with an online presence. A Data Protection Bill will replace the Data Protection Act 1998 and implement the EU General Data Protection Regulation, which will give individuals more control over their personal data but could increase compliance costs for retailers.
Other measures that could affect the bottom line include a rise in the national living wage to 60% of median earnings by 2020 and continuing increases after that so that workers benefit from the same improvements in earnings as the average worker. Further measures are likely to increase red tape, such as new proposals to tackle the gender pay gap and discrimination, as well as mental health reform to ensure that those with mental ill health are treated fairly and protected from discrimination. Lastly, the Government will extend consumer protection by ensuring fairer markets for consumers, which will include looking at unfair terms and subscription traps.
There will be no Queen's Speech next year, in order to give Parliament time to pass all of the Brexit-related legislation that will be required before we leave the EU in March 2019. Retailers will therefore have to wait until 2019 to find out whether any reforms to business rates will be made, unless of course there is another general election before then.