OPINION: MPs back with a vengeance

Lisa Harker, chair of the Daycare Trust

Dust the sand from between your toes and hold on to your hats. The next few days are going to be action-packed.

Parliament returns this week and there are just 10 days before the party conferences start. As ministers return from their holidays rejuvenated and with a new sense of purpose, there won't be a dull moment.

It's always a busy time of year, but this time the government will be keener than ever to resume business, conscious of the temporary distraction that the Hutton Inquiry has offered. With the first phase of the inquiry completed, there is a brief opportunity to refocus attention on priorities other than getting to the bottom of the David Kelly affair. Before MPs pack their bags for Brighton, Bournemouth and Blackpool, there's plenty to be done.

Don't be fooled by the apparent banality of the official parliamentary business listed for the coming period. Perhaps there is more to MP Gisela Stuart's 10-minute rule bill on skin piercing than meets the eye. But the most significant activities of the next few weeks are more likely to take place outside Westminster: the restructuring of the Prime Minister's office, a plethora of new policy announcements and a rash of ministerial (and shadow ministerial) speeches.

In this short period from now until mid-October politicians will be jostling to seize the initiative before the conference season begins. For public policy campaigners this is the most important time in the political calendar, and gives plenty of opportunity to network among the politically active and to test the temperature on a wide range of issues.

This autumn will be particularly important for those hoping to influence policy. The next election may seem a long way off but the parties are already looking to sharpen up the ideas that will eventually be put to the electorate. The substance of the manifestos will have their genesis now.

What's more, the government's 2004 spending review is already under way.

Over the next six to nine months key spending decisions will be made that will determine the direction of government policy right up until the next election, and possibly beyond. It's going to be an interesting ride!

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