The Conservative Government announces its Legislative programme

Steve Clarke, Managing director looks at the Queens announcements made yesterday.

On the 27th May the Conservative government announced their full legislative programme for 2015-2020. Among a packed programme that includes 26 bills in what David Cameron referred to as a “programme for working people” that would create full employment and “bring our country together”. He described the programme as an agenda for “working people,” with three million more apprenticeships promised over the next five years and a new law to ensure the minimum wage remains tax free.

Introducing the programme he stated “There should be a job for everyone who wants one – in other words, full employment”. He said that after the British economy was hauled back from the brink of disaster in 2010, the UK now stands “on the brink of something special”.

He described the programme as “the bold first step of a One Nation government,” which would create a Britain whose people could “get a decent job, have a good education, buy a home of your own, have dignity when you retire and feel safe and secure throughout your life”.

Constitutional issues are at the forefront of the Conservative Government with

  • EU referendum
  • A Scotland bill
  • A Wales Bill
  • And a Northern Ireland bill
  • Cities and Local Government Devolution Bill

The latter paves the way for powers over housing, transport, planning and policing to be devolved to England’s cities as part of government plans for “a balanced economic recovery”. Key among these is the referendum of the continued membership of the 28 strong member bloc of the EU by 2017 with rumours of a referendum as early as 2016.

Critical for Wales will also be a Wales bill that will mean further devolved powers. Under the government’s plans, there is an announced a “new reserved powers model” that will clarify the division of powers between the Welsh Assembly and Parliament. This basically suggests a re-writing of the Government of Wales Act, or at least substantial parts.

The National Assembly will be receive more powers over energy, transport and local government elections in Wales, possibly paving the way for 16 year olds to vote, something that Wales has been suggested for some time. It does not however devolve areas such as policing yet, some cities will have devolved policing powers!

Another are of interest to Wales will be the Full Employment and Welfare Benefits Bill.

This bill, says it all, and is designed to achieve full employment “and provide more people with the security of a job”.

The aim is for two million more jobs and three million new apprenticeships to be created. Ministers will be required to report annually to Parliament on their progress of these measures. The welfare part of the bill will introduce;

  • a planned reduction in the welfare cap – from £26,000 to £23,000
  • freeze working-age benefits, tax credit and child benefit for two years and
  • young people will be required to “earn or learn”, with automatic entitlement to housing benefit for 18-21-year-olds scrapped.

This will have consequences for Wales already disadvantaged by the welfare reforms more so than any nation within the United Kingdom. Also the measures announced in no way covers the 12 billion of additional cuts announced during the general election. If we can be certain of one thing – it is that more cuts will follow bringing further misery to people who rely upon welfare to help them live close to normal lives.

There are some positives for working households with a new National Insurance Contributions and Finance Bill – where there is a commitment of a zero rise in income tax rates, VAT or national insurance before 2020 as announced during the election. Also the Prime Minister states that “no one working 30 hours on the minimum wage pays any income tax at all”.

On the face of it this would be welcome news for low income earners in Wales as the bill will also enact a commitment to raise the threshold before which people pay income tax to £12,500 – a move ministers say will benefit 30 million people.

The government says the purpose of the bill is to “reward those who work hard and do the right thing”. This continued rhetoric over valuing only paid work is however very unhelpful. It suggests that only paid work is of any value to society and government and sullies the reputations of hard working volunteers who provide care for elderly and disabled people.

There are however welcomed moves to modify childcare in a new Childcare Bill – that will include measures to help working people “by greatly increasing the provision of free childcare”. Under the proposals, parents in England would be entitled to 30 hours a week of free childcare for their three- and four-year-olds, for 38 weeks of the year. Currently, they are entitled to 570 hours of free early education or childcare a year, which works out as 15 hours each week over the 38-week period. There may also be consequential for Wales.

As Wales has introduced two new housing related bills, the Housing (Wales) Act 2014 and the Renting Homes (Wales) bill 2015, it now appears that it is England’s turn. A new Housing Bill – Plans to support home ownership and extend the right-to-buy scheme to 1.3 million social housing tenants in England. Under the plans, housing association tenants will be able to buy the homes they rent at a discount. There will also be help for first-time buyers, with 200,000 starter homes made available to under-40s at a 20% discount. Both are commitments which were included in the Conservatives’ general election manifesto. The government says the bill will increase the housing supply and ensure local people have more control over planning. Again there could be a consequential for Wales.

A new Energy bill will be introduced to “increase energy security” and ensure there will be “affordable and reliable energy for businesses and families”. The government proposes to establish the Oil and Gas Authority as an independent regulator, charged with regulation of domestic oil and gas recovery. It would transfer responsibility for giving consent for any large onshore wind farms in England and Wales from Whitehall to local planning authorities and presumably will form part of the increased devolved powers to Wales.

The Home office is expected to have a busy time with a new Psychoactive Substance Bill

That will introduce a blanket ban on so-called legal highs. The government says the move is to “protect UK citizens from the risks posed by untested, unknown and potentially harmful drugs”. It would be an offence to produce, supply, offer to supply, possess, import or export psychoactive substances. The proposal was included in the Conservatives’ general election manifesto.

The much maligned immigration debates over the last couple of months have resulted in a new Immigration bill with the government yet again promising to “control immigration” and put “hard-working British families first”. The bill is designed to support working people, clamp down on illegal immigration and protect public services. It will include a new offence of illegal working – with police given the power to seize the wages paid to illegal workers as the “proceeds of crime”.

There are also proposals to deal with unscrupulous landlords and to evict illegal migrants more quickly, while all foreign criminals awaiting deportation will be fitted with satellite tracking tags. It will also become an offence for businesses and recruitment agencies to hire abroad without first advertising in the UK – a policy which featured prominently in Labour’s election manifesto – and a new enforcement agency will be set up to tackle what the prime minister called “the worst cases of exploitation”

An Extremism bill will include measures to tackle broadcasting of extremist material. The government wants to strengthen watchdog Ofcom so that it can take action against channels that transmit extremist content. The legislation will also propose the introduction of banning orders for extremist organisations who use hate speech in public places, but whose activities fall short of proscription. A new power to allow police and local authorities to close down premises used to support extremism will also feature. And employers will be able to check whether an individual is an extremist and barring them from working with children.

New legislation to modernise the law on communication will also be tabled. The Investigatory Powers Bill will introduce Investigatory powers reviving plans to give intelligence agencies new tools to target communications data. The bill was considered in the coalition and branded a “snooper’s charter”. The government says it will equip the police intelligence agencies with the tools to keep people safe!

The government is promising to “improve the law” in this area to make communities “safer” and to “build confidence and improve efficiency” in the criminal justice system A new Policing and Criminal Justice Bill includes plans to reform pre-charge bail in England and Wales – with an initial 28-day limit, and to ban the use of police cells for the emergency detention of mentally ill people under the Mental Health Act. There are also proposals to reform the Police Federation in England and Wales, and plans to extend police-led prosecutions and overhaul the complaints system. Measures to beef up child protection are also feature.

Interestingly there is a new Charities (Protection and Social Investment) Bill with measures to protect charities from abuse and to strengthen the powers of the Charity Commission for England and Wales feature in this bill. It is also designed to enable charities to more easily undertake social investments. It’s not certain how this marries with the proposals to force housing associations (essentially registered charities) to sell off their assets at discounted rates under the Housing bill proposals! Confused – so are we…

Among the remaining bills are

  • Buses Bill – Enabling combined LA areas with directly elected mayors to be responsible for running bus services
  • European Union (Finance) Bill – Will preserve the UK’s rebate, and prevent new EU-wide taxes to finance EU spending and
  • An Enterprise bill
  • A HS2 Bill
  • A Trade Unions Bill
  • Education and Adoption Bill
  • Armed Forces Bill
  • Bank of England Bill
  • Votes for Life Bill

A new Draft Public Service Ombudsman Bill will also be enacted. Wales has already consulted on amendments to the role of the Ombudsman Service here in Wales. The conservatives are however proposing to reform and modernise the Public Service Ombudsman sector to provide “a more effective and accessible final tier of complaints redress within the public sector”. It would absorb the functions of the Parliamentary Ombudsman, the Health Ombudsman, and the Local Government Ombudsman and potentially the Housing Ombudsman into a single service.

In all, there is a raft of new legislation that will have to be carefully managed with constitutional affairs both in Europe and at home keeping the government very busy over the next few years, with several areas of legislation having consequential for Wales despite the Wales bill. The issue of concern among people who rent is the impact of a further 12 billion of welfare cuts.

Did I not here? I don’t think the housing crisis got even a whisper in the Queens speech. Presumably too embarrassing to mention, while the worlds eyes were transfixed on the archaic, lavish, pomp and ceremony displayed for all the world to see.

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