The Queen’s speech is a parliamentary tradition dating back to the 16th century. It’s the centrepiece of the State Opening of Parliament, listing the laws that the government intends to introduce (and approve) in the upcoming parliamentary year.
This is the second Queen’s speech following the election of a majority Conservative government last May, and it is undoubtedly a rather delicate time to deliver it. With the referendum on Britain’s place in the European Union just over one month away, the Government finds itself in a bit of a sticky situation – desperate to give the appearance that everything is fine, but wary of giving British voters any reason to turn to the leave campaign on June 23rd.
Cameron is anxious to appear as though government is functioning as normal, that he is confident of a win in June and that he plans to govern a country within the EU for the foreseeable future. In light of this need for the appearance of confidence there were a few key pieces of legislation in the speech, the introduction of a new Justice Bill to name just one.
But, the PM and his Cabinet Ministers are well aware that whatever they set out today may not have the chance to live past June if the voters decide to leave the EU. Equally, they do not want to rock the boat with British voters, particularly those who are yet to decide how they will vote in the referendum, so this was a rather tame speech all in all – devoid of anything that could be construed as divisive, like the absence of the long promised British Bill of Rights.
The speech was very light touch, and I think it’s fair to say that there was nothing particularly ground breaking in there. But let’s have a look at what was covered and why it might be relevant to UK charities.
The first thing to say is that charities weren’t mentioned by the Queen at all. That’s not to say they weren’t part of the government’s thinking, just that anything affecting them wasn’t enough to make headline news.
There is one specific piece of legislation about charities in the government’s legislative agenda for the year and that is the Small Charitable Donations Bill (UK-wide). The government is planning on reforming the gift aid small donations scheme following their public consultation on the issue, with the aim of increasing the benefits for smaller and new charities.
Other than that charities were really an after thought. But, that doesn’t mean this speech was irrelevant. In fact, there are plenty of opportunities for charities in many of the government’s announcements today.
First, a proposed Justice Bill with new powers for prison governors in England and Wales will open up opportunities for charities to bid for contracts relating to rehabilitation, education and mental health services in prisons. The governors of six jails will be given control over their budgets, with the ability to decide on how and who should provide services in their prisons and introduce any relevant changes they deem necessary. Charities already provide many services within the justice system and they will want to ensure that these powerful governors do not overlook the vital work that they do when it comes to dishing out contracts. To compete in this market charities must make the case as to why they deserve contracts over others, and will be forced to demonstrate not only their impact but also their ability to deliver cost effective services with real benefits.
The government also announced that it will be rolling out more powers to local areas in the UK as it continues its devolution agenda.
Directly elected mayors in cities like Liverpool, Manchester and Bristol will be given greater powers, and local authorities will also be given new powers to retain business rates to “invest in local communities.” This is not a new announcement but does now look set to be implemented. Charities currently receive relief on business rates, and changes to rates may impact their ability to afford to operate at a local level. But there are questions to be asked over how the collected business rates will be invested in local communities and whether charities have a role to play in distributing or receiving this cash.
Another previously announced policy also found its way into the speech. The soft drinks levy, better known as the sugar tax will be introduced within the next year. The levy will be used specifically to tackle childhood obesity and again there may well be a role for charities to play in helping to raise awareness and deliver education in this area. Whether some of the sugar levy will find its way to charities remains to be seen.
NCS, the government’s flagship programme for 16 & 17 year olds received a huge slap on the back with plans to expand announced today. The programme will be put on a statutory footing securing its long term future. This is an important step by the government and cements the importance of NCS within society. It’s a move which should also be welcomed by civil society. The government have just announced that they will place a nation wide, government funded, volunteering programme in law – recognising the value and importance that social action plays in the lives of these youngsters.
One of the major announcements which will likely impact charities comes from the introduction of a new extremism bill.
The bill is intended to curb extremism and to prevent ‘hate preachers’ from working with children and other vulnerable groups. It has also been suggested that proposals within it will allow the Charity Commission to remove charities that use funds to further extremism and terrorism.
Britain is obviously keen to do all we can to make the UK safer, but the implications for the Charity Commission which is already being asked to do more for less may see them placed under even more financial pressure. There is also a fine line to tread here, keeping people safe should be balanced between avoiding an over zealous interference in civil society. We will wait to see the full proposals to find out more.
All in all this was a relatively safe Queen’s speech, with the Government choosing to introduce plans for things it had already proposed. But, the news is largely good for charities with several opportunities for charities to provide new services and support in areas including justice, probation, health and social care.
Much of these plans are dependent on the outcome of the EU referendum on 23rd June. We will wait to see if government has the opportunity to implement them.