Expert View: Communications - Lobbying - The policy agenda's up for grabs

In a break with tradition, this year the Government has released a draft legislative agenda ahead of the Queen's Speech, providing an early look at the coming political year in advance of the official opening of Parliament. It promises to be an extraordinary session, setting the scene for a likely election in 2010.

With the Government whip looking less and less effective, there is a growing opportunity to influence Labour backbenchers looking to hang on to seats rather than follow the lead of Number 10. As MP rebellions over the 10p tax rate and vehicle excise duty showed, there is scope for compromise.

The Office of the Third Sector has been active, announcing new regulations designed to reduce red tape for charities. In the new package of bills, there is nothing to address the role of the voluntary sector directly. But there are some bills with important implications for the sector: those on NHS reform, welfare reform, equalities, citizenship, immigration and borders all stand out.

Of these, the NHS, welfare and equalities reform proposals look particularly vulnerable to backbench pressure. A recent poll of 150 MPs by pollsters ComRes found that a majority expected trouble in the Commons during the passage of these pieces of legislation.

The Welfare Bill, with its fresh, tough round of welfare legislation, will look at reducing the number of people on incapacity benefit by introducing a new employment and support allowance to replace that benefit. It will no longer be automatically assumed that, because people have a significant health condition or disability, they are incapable of work. The unemployed might also be required to take part in compulsory training in exchange for their jobseeker's allowance.

Backbenchers wary of further private sector involvement in the NHS could cause difficulty for the Government's flagship NHS Reform Bill. However, other aspects of the bill have been broadly welcomed, including proposals to make the NHS adhere to its first written constitution, setting out the rights and responsibilities of patients and staff.

When the draft Queen's Speech package was unveiled, Conservative Party leader David Cameron responded by saying: "We need a government that can work with the voluntary sector. You can't do that, and we can." The next parliamentary year undoubtedly gives third sector organisations ample opportunity to reach out to the entire political community, to work constructively with policy makers and influence legislation as it develops.

 - Andrew Hobson is an account director at Insight Public Affairs

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