Today marked Prime Minister Theresa May’s first, and quite possibly last, Queen’s Speech, setting out her government’s legislative agenda for the next two years (if they make it that far). Despite headlines about a pared-down version, there is quite a lot for charities to get their teeth into.
Brexit at the forefront
Unsurprisingly Brexit will dominate much of the programme for government. 8 of the 27 bills mentioned relate to Britain’s departure from the EU. In particular the ‘Great Repeal Bill’, which seeks to transpose EU regulations into British law will be a major, and likely controversial, piece of legislation. Whether as much will be done through secondary legislation as originally envisaged, given the hung parliament, is open to question. But undoubtedly this will be one for charities to watch like eagle-eyed hawks for any seemingly innocuous changes getting slipped in through the back door.
Other bills related to leaving the EU will be important too. Trade and Customs Bills will legislate for any of the new economic realities that the country will need to cope with. An agriculture bill will focus in part on measures protecting the environment. And a new immigration system—arguably the touchpoint that led to the Brexit vote—will need new legislation. A note that may be important for charities with European staff, or working on these issues: the documentation suggests that the aim is to bring EU nationals into the existing UK system. You have only to look at the effect of tightening the existing system for non-EU nationals has had on families to realise that it could have a real impact on both charity staff, and the causes and beneficiaries charities exist to serve.
Surprisingly, in our survey work for our State of the Sector report Charities taking charge, we found that the majority of charity leaders asked think Brexit will have no effect, or a neutral effect on demand for their services, the policy environment, or cohesion within the communities they work in. This seems as unlikely after the Queen’s Speech as it did in the build-up to triggering Article 50. Overall charities will need to get their skates on and work out how Brexit will affect their beneficiaries and organisations.
What else is new?
There were some specific measures that charities from different sectors will want to get to grips with:
- A Domestic Violence Bill introducing new powers and a Domestic Violence and Abuse Commissioner.
- A ban on letting agents fees, something housing charities have long campaigned for.
- The pledge on 0.7% of GDP being spent on international aid will be retained.
- Yet another social care consultation, which will desperately need the expertise of social care charities if the election debate was anything to go by.
- Confirmation that previously announced education policies such as reform of technical education and funding formula for schools will be going ahead.
- Reform of mental health legislation, in particular looking at issues around equalities, rates of detention, alongside a now familiar pledge to give greater priority to mental health. The latter will encompass a new green paper on Children and Young People’s mental health.
- A new digital charter, which the government says it will include charities in developing.
What’s not there
But alongside this raft of measures there were several notable omissions. Criminal justice charities may note that the flagship Courts Bill is not called the Prison and Courts Bill. What this means for the prison reform elements delayed by the General Election, such as devolving greater powers to prison governors, is unclear.
And despite much fanfare about the end of austerity, the government remains committed to deficit reduction, saying ‘the government will reduce the structural deficit to less than 2% of GDP and get debt falling as a percentage of GDP by 2020/2021’. Let’s not forget that many of the policies charities have been worried about around benefits are already on the books.
As for the political dimension, there is not yet a formal agreement announced with the DUP. But the election result has led to several significant absences: no mention of pensioner benefits being means tested or changes to the triple lock; grammar schools are absent; and the Trump visit appears to be on the backburner. It’s an important reminder that old certainties are in tatters. We are in a hung parliament and charities need to engage across party lines to get their concerns on the political agenda.
Of course over all of this hangs the spectre of uncertainty. Will any of it actually make it to the statute book? Nevertheless, charities should waste no time in engaging to shape this very fluid agenda. The next couple of years are going to be a bumpy ride, and the sector’s passion, insight and experience will be crucial.