A legislative agenda for charities to watch
This article was first published in Charities Management magazine in December 2021.
In May 2021, the Queen’s speech set out the government’s agenda for the current parliamentary session. The full speech and briefing notes ran to a blockbuster 163 pages, setting out more than 30 Bills and draft Bills as well as various ‘plans’ and ‘strategies’. While there is obvious interest for the charity sector in the introduction of the Charities Bill to implement reforms proposed by the Law Commission, this article considers what the rest of the current legislative agenda may hold for charities as we move into 2022.
Charities stand to gain from the Dormant Assets Bill, which will extend the existing Dormant Assets regime into the insurance, pensions, investment and wealth management and securities sectors, potentially unlocking around £880 million for social and environmental initiatives across the UK. Charities should also be aware that changes proposed for the scheme in England should mean we will have a public consultation on the causes to which future funding can be distributed.
In the post-Brexit landscape, the (yet to be published) Procurement Bill is intended to make public procurement more accessible for ‘new entrants such as small businesses and voluntary, charitable and social enterprises’ to compete for and win public contracts. The Subsidy Control Bill will create a regime to replace EU state aid rules and charities will no doubt be concerned to see how they may benefit under the new regime.
Whatever the views of the outcomes of COP26, environmental charities should be happy that the Environment Bill was carried forward from the previous parliamentary session to obtain Royal Assent in November 2021. It promises to ‘put the environment at the centre of policy making’ and introduces new legally binding environmental targets to be enforced by the new Office for Environmental Protection (although it might be noted that the international aid commitment was also enshrined in law before being cut earlier in 2021).
Animal welfare charities have welcomed the promise of legislation to promote the ‘highest standards of animal welfare’. Two Bills – the Animal Welfare (Sentience) Bill and Animal Welfare (Kept Animals) Bill – have been introduced to Parliament and another, the Animals Abroad Bill, is promised, together with implementation of the ivory ban and other plans such as strengthening pet micro-chipping requirements and processes.
The animal sentience bill has attracted some controversy with media concerns over how it might impact on areas such as infrastructure projects, medical testing on animals and game shooting. The bill would create a committee to consider the animal welfare impacts of policy decisions on sentient animals and require the Secretary of State to respond in Parliament.
Research charities may welcome the ‘fastest ever increase in public funding for research and development’ and legislation to establish an advanced research agency when they contemplate the Advanced Research and Invention Agency Bill.
The Armed Forces Bill, expected to obtain Royal Assent in 2021, will, among other things, ‘further incorporate’ the Armed Forces Covenant into law by imposing a new duty on certain public bodies to have due regard to the covenant. However, military charities have raised concerns that the Bill does not go far enough. More welcome may be provisions in the National Insurance Contributions Bill which will provide employers with NIC relief for veterans for the first 12 months (up to earnings of £50,000 pa).
Charities with interests in property and development should be interested in the Planning Bill, which was originally slated to overhaul the current planning system but, after facing opposition, may well be ‘softened’ when the Bill appears, probably in early 2022. The Building Safety Bill aims to learn the lessons from the Grenfell Tower fire and to strengthen the whole regulatory system for building safety.
The Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill has raised concerns among human rights charities, among others, over aspects such as restrictions on the right to protest and new trespass offences which could impact on traveller communities. The Elections Bill (formerly announced as the Electoral Integrity Bill) has also raised concerns that proposed ID requirements for voting could disproportionately affect marginalised communities, although other provisions in the same Bill are designed to improve access for voters with disabilities.
Universities and students’ unions will need to be aware of the Higher Education (Freedom of Speech) Bill which plans to introduce new freedom of speech and academic duties on higher education providers and students’ unions. It would also introduce a new power for the Office for Students to impose fines for breaches and provision for individuals to seek compensation through the courts if they suffer loss as a result of breach of the freedom of speech duties.
Charities which make use of judicial review to challenge public body decisions, or intervene in others’ judicial review claims, will no doubt be scrutinising the Judicial Review and Courts Bill, in particular to consider whether it achieves its stated objective of preserving judicial review for its ‘intended purpose … to hold the government and public authorities to account, apply the intent of Parliament, and protect individuals’ rights’.
Victim support charities may welcome the possibility of legislation with a draft Victims Bill to address violence, including against women and girls, and to support victims, including by enshrining the 12 key rights in the Victims’ Code into law. Similarly, charities concerned with children and online safety may welcome the draft Online Safety Bill, which is currently undergoing pre-legislative scrutiny.
The Health and Care Bill aims to reduce bureaucracy in the healthcare system and make it more accountable and integrated. Health charities have welcomed a number of provisions in the Bill but some have raised concerns over new powers for the Health Secretary to control the day-to-day running of NHS services and criticised the Bill for not doing enough to future-proof the service. Concerns have also been raised over whether the proposed plans for social care reform will achieve an adequate (and fair) solution.
A ‘New Plan for Immigration’ was also announced, in pursuit of which the government has introduced the Nationality and Borders Bill. The Bill has triggered concerns among human rights charities and those dealing with refugees and asylum seekers, among others, as well as criticism that provisions in the Bill would breach the UK’s international law obligations.
A number of other policy initiatives were also announced which we can expect to lead to legislation in due course. Notable among these is the ‘levelling up’ agenda for which a ‘landmark’ White Paper was originally due in Autumn 2021 and is now expected in 2022. The government has promised a ‘transformative agenda’ with ‘bold new policy interventions to improve livelihoods and opportunity in all parts of the UK’, affecting health, education and training, policing and community, among others.
Following COP26, we can also expect ongoing announcements of initiatives for government plans to further its Net Zero Strategy, which it published in October 2021, in support of meeting the ongoing commitment to achieving net zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050. Environmental charities will no doubt continue to monitor and feed into those developments.
Another reform on the agenda will be measures to respond to the 2021 report of the Commission on Race and Ethnic Disparities. It was also announced that measures will be brought forward to ban conversion therapy, with a government consultation in late 2021 on how the legislation can best stop the practice while protecting the medical profession, defending freedom of speech and upholding religious freedom. The government plans to introduced legislation by Spring 2022. It has also said that it will invite organisations to bid to develop a package of support for victims of conversion therapy.
Mental Health Act reform is also expected after the government consulted on a White Paper published in January 2021. The government responded to that consultation in August, committing to legislate ‘so that patients suffering from mental health conditions, who may require care under the Mental Health Act, have greater control over their treatment and receive the dignity and respect they deserve’. At the same time, the government acknowledged that ‘legislative reform is only part of the solution’ and that other changes will be needed, to infrastructure and workforces, as well as cultural changes.
In addition, although international aid charities were hit by the cut to the international aid budget in 2021, they may find some encouragement in the commitment in the Queen’s speech to ‘continue to provide aid where it has the greatest impact on reducing poverty and alleviating human suffering. My government will uphold human rights and democracy across the world. It will take forward a global effort to get 40 million girls across the world into school’.
We can also expect Covid recovery plans to continue to be rolled out and adjusted, which are likely to affect charities across the sector, including those in arts and culture, education and training, community development and health.
All in all, the legislative and policy agenda is an eclectic mix and will present both challenges and opportunities for charities. It is certainly a busy agenda with a number of bills already progressing through parliament and much detail in other policy areas still to emerge, in particular on the flagship ‘levelling up’ agenda. Charities across the spectrum will need to be alert to respond to proposals and changes as they appear.