The MPs were there en-masse, and the Queen was in her finery. So what did the Queen’s Speech give us, and what does it mean for the charity sector?
As expected, the government has promised legislation which will bar any increase in Income Tax, VAT or National Insurance contributions over the next five years. If this really means what it says, then all the heavy-lifting on deficit reduction will have to be done via reduced public spending.
This will have obvious consequences for a lot of the work done by charities and civil society. According to the latest available figures from NCVO, grant income has already dropped in half over a decade (to £2.6bn in 2012), and it’s hard to see how this trend will change. Public money isn’t the only source of charity income, of course, and NPC has written in the past about the ‘new reality’ which confronts charities in a time of austerity. But we know that as local authority and other funding becomes scarcer, many in the sector will feel the effects. The new legislation on tax heralds a tough time for charities which haven’t started to adapt to this.
The new right-to-buy legislation was there, too, having been discussed in some detail before the election. Some housing charities have professed deep concerns about its impact as well as its legality; but housing is also a tricky question for the sector to address effectively, not least because of all the issues wrapped up in housing.
With right-to-buy further squeezing the supply of public housing, charities may need to decide where to focus their resources. Is it building more homes—the Just Fair coalition of 80 charities has published its call on the government to (among many recommendations) ‘build and/or facilitate the building of at least 250,000 new homes per year’—or strengthening frontline legal advice to make sure tenants are treated fairly (Citizens Advice already leads on this sort of work)? Is the problem affordable homes to buy or to rent?
So far, a bit of a downbeat picture. But there was a striking omission, which might bring cheer to some charities as well as to those who fear that effective charity campaigning is endangered.
The Conservatives first floated the idea of scrapping the Human Rights Act (or at least replacing it with a home grown Bill of Rights) before the election of 2010. It was there again in the party manifesto for 2015. And yet, as new legislation is unveiled for the Tories’ first full term as a majority government, this commitment is missing.
The most obvious explanation is the sheer legal complexity of withdrawing from European legislation. The political situation also plays a part: with such a fragile majority, and some of his MPs opposed to any changes, the Prime Minister may feel that an early split with his own party is too much to risk.
But this gives too little credit to the campaigning charities who, in an extremely difficult landscape for human rights, have maintained pressure. Liberty has harnessed big-name supporters behind its #SaveOurHRA digital campaign The British Institute of Human Rights has been at the forefront as well, naturally, and has wisely steered the debate towards how the Act defends rights on housing, healthcare and family.
There will undoubtedly be things that charities like and don’t like about this Queen’s Speech. There is an important message in that small Human Rights Act victory—it is worth campaigning for what you believe in, and getting stuck in even when the environment is at its toughest.