Politics news: the Queen's Speech - A few roses - but plenty of thorns

The new legislative agenda offers opportunities and tough challenges for the sector, writes Nathalie Thomas.

There were 29 Bills in this year's Queen's Speech - a trifle compared with last year's record total of 50. But it still leaves the voluntary sector with plenty to get on with during the coming parliamentary session.

Although the legislative menu for 2006/07 doesn't include anything like last year's Charities Bill, which had obvious implications for the whole of the sector, legislation such as the Offender Management Bill could set an important benchmark for charities wanting to deliver public services.

Items such as the Climate Change Bill will also see large swathes of the sector working in coalition around certain subjects. The response so far from charities has been positive in a few areas, but in others, especially mental health and immigration, the battle lines between the sector and the Government have already been drawn.

Here are the main themes and sector reactions.

Probation

Charities such as Crime Concern and Rainer, which have long been hoping for a role in the running of probation services, have welcomed the long-awaited Offender Management Bill with open arms.

"It makes sense to contract out work to the best service provider after years of suffering a 60 per cent re-offending rate," said Graham Beech, director of offender and justice services at Crime Concern. "The problem has become far too entrenched for one sector to deal with."

The Bill will pave the way for more voluntary and private sector providers to take on offender management services - something that Acevo, the NCVO and charities interested in delivering statutory contracts will be watching closely as the debate on public service provision moves forward.

However, the Bill could divide the sector. YMCA England has already voiced concern about charities managing services that offenders are compelled to attend. "Take away the voluntary element and you remove an important degree of trust, which could be disastrous for a charity's effectiveness," said Pete Crossley, prisons unit co-ordinator at YMCA England.

Local government

The Local Government Bill will set out how the ideas contained in last month's local government white paper, which included a chapter on the role of the third sector, will be put into action, providing plenty of fodder for voluntary sector umbrella bodies.

David Hunter, policy officer at Acevo, said: "We hope longer-term funding and better sustainable funding for voluntary sector organisations will feature in the Bill." Navca is already working on its own set of proposals about how the white paper should be enacted.

Mental health

The Mental Health Alliance, a coalition of 78 organisations, has wasted no time in reminding the Government that the Mental Health Bill, published last Friday, is the third draft Bill on the subject in eight years - and not one has made it onto the statute book. It is not happy with the latest offering.

"The Bill falls far short of what is needed and does not truly reflect the needs of those who have to live and work with it," said Andy Bell, chair of the alliance.

The coalition has already stated its intention to lobby hard on issues of compulsory treatment and advocacy. "The law is outdated and needs changing to bring it up to date with human rights legislation," Bell added. "But this must be done in a way that puts access to care for vulnerable people at the centre of the legislation."

The environment

Members of Stop Climate Chaos spent much of last Wednesday celebrating the Government's decision to bring in the Climate Change Bill. Charities such as Friends of the Earth have been pushing for it over the past two years. Even so, the battle has not yet been won, according to Ashok Sinha, director of Stop Climate Chaos. The Government is still refusing to commit to annual carbon-reduction targets.

"Five-year targets are not enough," Sinha said. "The Bill must open the way to an annual carbon budget so we get a grip on UK emissions and live within our carbon means."

WWF is bemoaning the absence of a Marine Bill, which was announced in the 2005 Queen's Speech, but has since disappeared. "Our marine environment has been let down by the Government's failure to introduce a Bill in the Queen's Speech," said Paul King, director of campaigns at WWF. "The creation of a strategic planning system at sea would help to speed up consents for offshore wind farms. A network of protected areas would also provide sanctuary to threatened marine wildlife."

Welfare reform

The Welfare Reform Bill has been carried over from the previous parliamentary session, bringing with it contention between charities and the Government over the overhaul of housing benefits. Clause 28 of the Bill proposes reductions in housing benefits for families that are identified as exhibiting anti-social behaviour.

"The Government's proposal ignores the root causes of anti-social behaviour," said Elaine Peace, director of services at NCH. "Withdrawing benefits is more likely to exacerbate the difficulties children in these families already face."

Human rights

Human rights groups will once again have their work cut out with the introduction of new immigration, terrorism and criminal justice legislation.

"Another year, another Queen's Speech dominated by the Home Office," was the view of Shami Chakrabarti, director of Liberty.

The Government has set out four new Bills in this area: the Organised Crime Bill, the Fraud (Trials Without Jury) Bill, the Border and Immigration Bill and the Criminal Justice Bill.

Human rights activists may also have to resurrect the lobbying work they did against the recent Terrorism Act because of the promise that the Government will revisit the amount of time terrorist suspects can be detained if gaps are identified in the current system.

Children

On the Child Support Agency Reform Bill, Kate Green, chief executive of the Child Poverty Action Group, said: "The Bill will give hope to families let down by the Child Support Agency. The test of its success will be if it can start getting money through to children and help lift more out of poverty."

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