Amid the ceremonials, the Queen has delivered the government’s plans for the coming parliament.
It is a chance for the Government to do some serious stuff, by focusing on the legislative agenda for the year ahead and show-case its priorities to the voters. And of course it is an extremely political event as well. For David Cameron, it is a chance to repeat his commitment to a ‘life chances’ agenda. But his need to try and placate Conservative backbenchers is more pronounced than ever, as the EU referendum looms not far over the horizon.
So what did this morning hold for the charity sector? Proposals to simplify the rules around Gift Aid will be welcome to smaller charities especially, and new commitments on using government data could open the door to more Data Labs work. Meanwhile, ‘new indicators for measuring life chances’ could have come straight from an NPC seminar! Here are some of the other things we noticed.
There was a double serving of interesting ideas for voluntary organisations working in this area.
Firstly, there was an emphasis on helping ‘prisoners achieve a better education’ as well as ‘better mental health provision’. This has been hailed by Justice Minister Michael Gove in the past, and plenty of ears will have pricked up around the charity sector. As NPC has found in the past through our work on the Justice Data Lab, charities very often outperform private companies in rehabilitating prisoners awaiting release. Crucially, it is education charities like the Prisoners’ Education Trust which can do most to demonstrate their impact in this area.
Secondly, we got confirmation that more powers and decision-making will be devolved to individual prisons and their governors, in a shift similar to the one started in the schools system under the same minister. Given the commitment to better education and mental health, it will be interesting to see whether governors get more powers to commission charities to deliver results for them. We will be holding a roundtable for justice charities and other experts in the near future.
Support for children
There will be legislation to make it easier to adopt children in care. This is hard to argue with in principle, of course, but some charity experts will want to pore over the details to make sure that the speed of the process is never allowed to overtake the best interests of the child. (Under the now-postponed new rules on lobbying, those same experts may have found it harder to share their conclusions with government).
But there are other, structural worries. The voluntary sector will recall that one of the largest adoption charities, the British Association of Adopting and Fostering (BAAF), folded last year, at least in part because it struggled with flat-lining income but increased costs to place children in new homes. It is difficult to see how other charities can scale-up effectively to play a part in these aims without these sorts of problems being addressed.
The speech promised more powers to track and identify suspected extremists in the UK, and argued that the same legislation will help strengthen community cohesion. This is always a tough juggling act, because using new powers over-zealously can place strain on local areas—smaller charities trying to build social capital will have an eye on this. But it also creates a red-line which may prove useful for the government, as it waits to see the response of civil liberty charities. There will likely be more advocacy and lobbying around this issue from concerned organisations.
The National Citizens Service (NCS) has long been a favourite of the government, and now it will be placed on a statutory footing. NPC has argued in the past that this push for more volunteering among young people is very welcome, but also that proof of its long-term benefits is still a bit shaky. In the meantime, charities working with young people in the volunteering space, from small sports clubs to the Outward Bound Trust, may look wistfully at the level of funding going into the NCS, and wonder what they might achieve with even a fraction of this £1.2bn cash injection. An organisation like the Scouts already reaches hundreds of thousands of young people, and building on existing successes can be as important as starting new initiatives.