Following the Conservatives’ massive victory in the December General Election, 2020 begins with a bit more certainty about the political landscape. However, it’s only relative to the huge *uncertainty* we’ve all been living with for years now!
It’s still unclear what role if any charities, voluntary organisations and social enterprises will play in the new government’s policy plans. The Conservative manifesto was arguably the least detailed on offer and made no specific mentions of charity at all – or even any references to its own Civil Society Strategy.
Compare this to 2010 for example, when the ‘Big Society’ was plastered across the front of the Conservative manifesto, and the party had spent months on an in-depth policy paper, Voluntary Action in the 21st Century, which produced major initiatives such as Big Society Capital and the National Citizens’ Service.
Here are some ‘known knowns’ to look out for as 2020 gets underway:
1. The EU Withdrawal Bill is now at the concluding stages in Parliament
With the size of the government majority it’s likely to be passed with few or no amendments and we really will be leaving the EU by 31 January, with the deal that Boris Johnson renegotiated with Brussels intact. The Department for Exiting the EU (DExEU) will be wound up, its staff presumably redistributed elsewhere. By 1 February we will be in an ‘implementation period’ until the end of 2020; still temporarily aligned with Brussels.
This is really only the end of the beginning though, as we have just 11 months to negotiate a trade agreement to avoid further economic disruption – a very tight timeframe. It’s likely that some (easier) aspects will be sorted within the year, with more thorny matters bumped into future years. The new government has made clear it wants a looser economic and regulatory alignment with the EU than Theresa May proposed – so there are likely to be further Brexit-related ructions on specific issues that affect charities, particularly those working in certain areas (like refugees and migration, environment, employment and skills).
2. There is likely to be a cabinet reshuffle in early February after the Withdrawal Bill passes
It will be interesting to see how the Prime Minister shifts his cabinet around and whether that signals a more ‘one nation’ or ‘unifying’ approach to governing than he has shown so far. Johnson’s first cabinet was composed mostly of ‘Leavers’, and he kicked many of the most vocal Remainer Conservative MPs out of the party for opposing him (most of whom subsequently lost their seats). As we move on from Brexit, will he want a different type of Cabinet, or will he stick with and reward those who pledged fealty?
3. The Budget is scheduled for 11 March
Sajid Javid MP is certain to remain the Chancellor through any reshuffle. The current Whitehall mood music, as well as the interim ‘Spending Round’ Javid presented in September 2019, signals more spending (particularly on capital and infrastructure projects). The new government will likely want to reflect the Conservatives’ victory in many traditionally Labour areas by demonstrating that it intends to deliver change for those newly won seats. There may be yet more claims that ‘austerity is over’ too, but unless this translates into serious reform of local authority finance and some reversal of the drastic benefits cuts since 2010 (neither of which has happened yet), those claims are at best ‘not the whole truth’.
The Budget could bring news about a consultation on the long-awaited UK Shared Prosperity Fund (UKSPF) to replace EU funding programmes such as the European Regional Development Fund (ERDF) and European Social Fund (ESF). The government made a statement on broad principles for the fund last summer and has committed to maintaining spending agreed during the current funding round up to 2023. Any future UKSPF would likely need to manage the wind down of EU programmes whilst setting up a new scheme for similar purposes towards the end of 2020.
4. The reshuffle and Budget may have implications for the machinery of government (i.e. what departments there are and what they do)
Dominic Cummings, the Prime Minister’s Chief Special Advisor, has grand ambitions about reforming the civil service (but we’ve been here before – Q: anybody remember David Cameron’s policy guru Steve Hilton? A: He’s now a pro-Trump pundit on Fox News). Be on the lookout for changes to the size of Cabinet and the number of government departments.
The location of policy responsibility for civil society is also uncertain. Before Christmas there were rumours about the Department for Digital, Culture and Skills (DDCMS) possibly being abolished or consolidated into another department. We could wind up with yet another Minister for Civil Society to replace Baroness Diana Barran and/or policy responsibility will be moved elsewhere; many in the sector have been pushing for the Office for Civil Society to be moved back into the Cabinet Office (where it was during the Coalition Government). On the other hand, killing off the culture department seems to something of a Westminster sport – often mooted, yet somehow it still lives on.
5. The Spending Review will also formally begin, to plan departmental spending for at least the next three years, probably to be announced in the Budget and to conclude in the Autumn
This will have implications for all government departments, local government, and agencies like the Charity Commission. It’s likely that these bodies already have well developed plans to submit to the Treasury, and work to adapt and finalise them is underway.
As a general rule, whenever central government starts strategic planning or chopping and changing structures, the charity sector is at high risk of collateral damage. For example, the Charity Commission may continue to push the agenda to charge charities for regulation. Also, during the last Spending Review, the DDCMS tried to siphon off more lottery funds from community groups to backfill cuts it wanted to make in core funding for the Arts Council – DSC and others successfully fought off this ‘Big Lottery Ripoff’. So, be on the lookout for intended and unintended negative consequences.
Post-script: The Labour Party, still the official opposition, is working out who its next leader will be and we won’t know the result until at least 4 April.
It’s worth noting that one of the leading contenders, Lisa Nandy MP, is a former Shadow Minister for Civil Society and spent ten years working in charities before becoming an MP.
As the Party turns its focus inward, it’s a reasonable assumption that shadow ministers will be less effective at scrutinising government during this quite important period, where the new government will be making major policy announcements and changes.
All the more reason for charities to stay tuned and primed for action!