Queen’s Speech 2015: Five bills charities need to know about

Today’s Queen’s Speech was a textbook example of where manifesto pledges meet reality, as was most apparent in the unexpected absence of a ‘Human Rights Act Repeal Bill’, proving right those who highlighted the considerable challenges that this would entail.

Nevertheless it was a packed speech, indicating that the legislative agenda is going to be an extremely busy one. And proposals for a ‘British Bill of Rights’ will be put forward, so although the government is going to have to take things more slowly, its commitment remains.

Here are the bills that are most relevant to NCVO and our members.

European Union Referendum Bill

This legislation will commit the Government to hold a referendum on whether or not the UK should stay in or leave the EU before the end of 2017, as part of the Conservative government’s plans to renegotiate its relationship with the EU.

Why it’s important to charities

There are a number of ways in which charities and voluntary organisations benefit as a result of Britain’s membership of the EU, ranging from the value of programmes such as European structural and investment funds, to the impact of regulation.

In order to better inform the debate NCVO will be producing its own costs and benefits review for the sector.

Cities and Local Government Devolution Bill

A key part of George Osborne’s “Northern Powerhouse” strategy, this Bill will see cities across the country offered the opportunity to take control of health and social care, housing, planning, transport and skills powers if they have or introduce a directly elected mayor. This follows the announcement in February that a similar agreement had been reached between the government and 10 Manchester local authorities.

Why it’s important to charities

Although the LGA would like devolution for all areas, not just cities with mayors, this deal is likely to prove popular with many in local government (West Yorkshire Combined Authority has already announced that it will consult with local people about introducing a directly elected mayor). Such devolution offers the promise of far more integrated and flexible public services, with potential benefits for service users (and the charities that support them), whose needs don’t always fit neatly within government funding silos. On the other hand, for charities that deliver services nationally or regionally, such an ad hoc programme of devolution could further complicate the navigation of an already varied local commissioning environment.

Charities (Protection and Social Investment) Bill

This is what was formerly known as the draft Protection of Charities Bill, a piece of legislation that has already been subject to consultation and pre-legislative scrutiny, so the expectation is that it will go through Parliament fairly easily. The aim of the bill is to provide the Charity Commission with additional powers to tackle abuse and deliberate wrongdoing in charities. A statutory power of trustees to make social investment has also been added, following the Law Commission’s recommendation that this should be explicitly stated in order to dispel any current doubts about trustee’s ability to engage in social investment.

Why it’s important to charities

Additional powers for the Charity Commission to take regulatory action are understandably going to raise concern within charities, particularly given the current music mood of ‘clamping down on charities’ and increasing media coverage about extremism within charities. However, it is widely acknowledged that deliberate wrongdoing in charities is extremely rare, so these powers are unlikely to be used by the Commission more than a handful of times a year (PDF, 1.1MB).

Full Employment and Welfare Benefits Bill

It’s fair to say that this was the centrepiece of today’s speech. The bill includes a commitment to creating three million apprenticeships, but also significant reforms to welfare provision. In particular:

  • Plans to ban 18 to 21 year-olds from claiming Jobseekers Allowance (JSA) or Housing Benefit. JSA will be replaced with a Youth Allowance, time-limited to six months. Young adults will also no longer be automatically entitled to receive Housing Benefit, and will instead be expected to remain within the family home.
  • A lowering of the Benefit Cap from £26,000 a year to £23,000.

The Bill also takes forward the manifesto pledge to raise the tax-free Personal Allowance to £12,500.

Also in this Bill is the proposal for a ‘five-year tax lock’, meaning there will be no income tax, VAT or National Insurance rises before 2020.

Why it’s important to charities

The first round of welfare reforms has already resulted in increased demand for voluntary organisations’ services, as more people either need their advice to understand the new system and claim the benefits they are entitled to, or more direct support such as food parcels, counselling, debt advice, etc. Further changes to the benefits system are therefore likely to create additional pressures

Housing Bill

This Bill enacts the key Conservative Party election promise to extend the ‘Right to Buy’ scheme to housing associations, so that tenants in housing associations have the same right enjoyed by tenants in local authority homes.

Why it’s important to charities:

This proposal has attracted strong criticism from charities that provide housing services. There are two main reasons, one of principle and one of practice:

  • The extension would generate a worrying precedent of government interference in the running of independent charities by enabling the compulsory sale of charity assets at a discount. Current charity rules don’t allow charities to dispose of assets for less than their full value or other than in pursuit of charitable objectives to ensure that they are used for charitable, rather than political or private benefit.
  • There are serious implications for the financial model of housing associations, which is based on having houses as assets to borrow against. If tenants have the right to dispose of these assets, housing associations may become a very risky prospect for mainstream lenders and social investors and not be able to provide social housing for the future. The proposal would also likely affect the value and long-term security of pension fund investments made in housing associations via social housing fund vehicles, bonds and equity investments.

What next

Over the next few weeks we will be writing in more detail about each of these bills and what they mean for charities. We will also be looking at other important bills mentioned in the Queen’s Speech such as:

  • the Enterprise Bill
  • the Investigatory Powers Bill
  • the Extremism Bill


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Avatar photo Elizabeth was head of policy and public services at NCVO until 2020.

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