8 of the 27 bills put forward by the new Government concern Brexit, which will dominate the legislative agenda during an unusually long Parliament. The funding crisis affecting many public services remains unaddressed and austerity of some form is still likely to be with us for a while, despite Labour’s Corbyn upsurge. The risk remains that Brexit will happen to, not with, charities and their beneficiaries – yet it’s critical that civil society is considered in the process. It’s also particularly important that charities are involved in many upcoming non-Brexit policy discussions, for example, social care reform.
After cobbling together a confidence-and-supply deal with Northern Ireland’s 10 Democratic Unionist MPs, Theresa May seems set to stay on as PM in the near term, but her position is anything but secure.
The centrepiece of the government agenda will be the Repeal Bill, setting out the legislative legwork for preparing the UK’s exit from the EU and converting decades of EU law into UK law. The majority of this work will be made through technical changes based on statutory instruments, which could provide the executive with additional leeway – further reducing parliamentary scrutiny of the process (and charities’ ability to influence).
Charities will be affected in many ways. Of immediate concern is the fact that around 5% of the sector’s overall workforce comes from the EU. Changes to the immigration system through the Immigration Bill could prevent for example charities from accessing top talent or increase hiring costs. On a positive note, there seems to be momentum to reach some kind of agreement on EU nationals early on in the Brexit talks.
On the face of it, there were remarkably few references to civil society and charities in the 2017 Queen’s Speech (3 mentions each in background briefing notes:) Nevertheless, charities working in particular areas to will want to take note of a number of other legislative initiatives, such as:
- Domestic Violence and Abuse Bill, establishing a Domestic Violence and Abuse Commissioner to stand up for victims and survivors and monitor the response of the authorities
- Tenant’s Fees Bill, banning landlords from charging ‘letting fees’
- Data Protection Bill to strengthen individuals’ rights and introduce a ‘right to be forgotten’
- Armed Forces Bill allowing people to serve on a part-time and flexible basis.
There were also a number of ‘non-legislative measures’ mentioned in the Speech, which many charities will want to engage with, including:
- Reform of Mental Health Legislation – considering what further reform is necessary, moving towards a new Mental Health Act, and making mental health a priority in the NHS.
- Social Care – bringing forward proposals for consultation to build widespread support, ‘working with partners at all levels, including those who use services and work to provide care’.
- Digital Charter – a new framework to balance users’ and businesses’ freedom and security online, working with work with technology companies, charities, communities and international partners.
The speech was followed by a pretty mixed reaction from leading sector bodies. Some expressed optimism for charities’ voices being heard in specific policy areas, but others warned that more inappropriate red tape and regulation could result from measures related to combating extremism and terrorism for example.
If we look at the potential for local authorities to bolster their capacity and improve service provision on the ground, the 2017 Queen’s Speech offered few answers. In fact, fundamental reform of local government finance looks further away than ever. The Local Government Finance Bill, and with it the long-planned localisation of business rates, disappeared completely. Policy for Councils appears to be in limbo. English devolution was also entirely missing. The ability of local authorities to set priorities and make different financial decisions in the future remains in doubt.
Meanwhile, the charity sector faces increasing needs and demands of beneficiaries. Examples are plentiful – most recently from the Community Foundation Tyne & Wear and Northumberland, which examined trends in the voluntary and community sector in North East England over the past 10 years. They conclude that many groups ‘are having to run faster to stand still, with pressure higher on those in the poorest areas’. The current environment at some point will require closer and better co-working between councils and local charities. There is scope for the charity sector to reach out to colleagues in local government, who will hopefully start to wake up and look to us less as servants and more as equal partners.