Portland’s Corporate Communications and Public Affairs team explore the detail behind four of the major announcements in this afternoon’s Queen’s Speech – examining the politics of these decisions, the key winners and losers, and likely next steps:
HS2: STILL ON TRACK
The continuing battle to re-build the economy was a consistent thread throughout the Queen’s Speech today, and the Government is pinning its hopes on HS2 as a big part of the solution.
HS2 will loom large over the coming Parliamentary sessions. The Hybrid Bill announced today, which Transport Secretary Patrick McLoughlin wants to bring before Parliament by the end of the year, will put in place the legislation needed to build the line. The hybrid bill will be accompanied by a ‘preparation’ bill, which will allow the Government to undertake design and preparatory work on the scheme before the hybrid bill is passed.
HS2 is slowly building momentum. This year the Government largely warded off a Judicial Review challenge to phase one of the route (London to Birmingham) and published the route for phase two (Birmingham to Manchester / Leeds).
However, anyone who expects the legislation to pass quickly through Parliament should think again. Hybrid bills are complex, combining elements of both the public and private legislation. The hybrid bill for London’s Crossrail project was carried over between Parliamentary sessions on three separate occasions.
The noise surrounding HS2 is growing, and the passage of the hybrid bill will see a further escalation in campaigning and criticism. Although HS2 enjoys cross party support, the hybrid bill will widen the fault lines within the parties. Conservative MPs in the Shires have broken ranks to oppose the plans, and questions remain about the economic case for the project.
Vocal protest groups like the StopHS2 coalition will see the hybrid bill as the last realistic chance to put a stop to the plans, and will continue to chip away at the business and environmental case. Cross party support, and continued determination to boost the economy mean attempts to derail the scheme are unlikely to succeed. However, it’s not a simple yes or no argument. As the hybrid bill progresses, a myriad of interests, many of them locally focused, will compete to influence the final plans, on issues like compensation or environmental mitigation.
On the other side of the fence, the immediate winners as HS2 progresses will be contractors, who are already eyeing design and surveying contracts. Expect to see ‘consultants cashing in’ headlines over the coming months. This won’t worry the Government though, as long as those contracts are creating jobs and getting money flowing, HS2 is already beginning to do its job.
By David Wilson, Account Manager, Corporate Communications and Public Affairs
THE CARE BILL – TELLING A POSITIVE STORY
Today marked a new stage in the journey of reform of the care system with the announcement of a Care Bill, designed to completely overhaul how we provide and pay for care.
The Bill is designed to transform social care from a crisis response service to one focused on promoting well-being.
In a direct appeal to key voter demographics – the elderly and carers, many of whom are women – the Bill introduces a cap of £75,000 on long-term care costs so that people are not forced to sell their homes to pay for care. It also enshrines the rights of carers to receive support from their local authority if needed.
However, the social care sector still faces significant problems. Our aging population is placing increasing pressure on the NHS as more people live for longer. While the Government recognises that there is a need to support the elderly outside of the NHS, the provision of additional care is set to fall to local councils, who already face budget cuts of £800m this financial year and could struggle with additional demands from the carer community.
Given the challenges ahead, local authorities need to be taking steps now to ensure that they are proactively communicating with their carer community, highlighting the support they can offer and the positive work that they are already doing in the social care sector. It is also vital that councils keep all channels of communication open with local charities and business that operate within the social care sector.
Care homes and hospitals are also facing increased pressure, with separate legislation set to be introduced to prevent a repeat of the scandals at the Winterbourne View care home and Stafford Hospital. Care home managers will now face prosecution if they fail to pass on complaints of abuse by staff, while hospital inspectors will have more power.
The private care sector is experiencing a rocky period in its relationship with Government. This Bill is an opportunity to engage positively with central and local Government to help deliver the reforms that the care system needs.
Today’s announcements give care providers a real opportunity to raise their profiles and demonstrate their social value. With local councils and the NHS facing increasingly long patient lists, budget cuts and demands, now is the time for independent health and care organisations to be demonstrating the extent to which they’re contributing to national wellbeing and supporting the National Health Service.
By Pippa Miller, Account Manager, Corporate Communications and Public Affairs
THE COMMUNICATIONS DATA BILL – DOWN BUT NOT OUT
Two weeks ago the Liberal Democrats claimed a victory for civil liberties when Nick Clegg intervened to “kill off” the Communications Data Bill, or the “snoopers’ charter”.
At first glance he would seem true to his word – the second draft of the Bill was conspicuous by its absence from the Queen’s Speech. However, though we are unlikely to see a Bill in this Parliamentary session, the Lib Dem claim that the Bill is dead could prove premature.
One of the main aims of the Bill was to extend law enforcement and intelligence agencies’ access to information about communications to new internet-based forms such as social media, instant messaging and VOIP.
The Home Office is adamant that reform of the existing system is “vital to help catch paedophiles, terrorists and other serious criminals”, and now appears prepared to offer a compromise solution.
Buried under the twenty new bills announced today is a short document entitled “proposals on the investigation of crime in cyberspace” which states that the Government is looking at how it can work with communications service providers to ensure the relevant authorities can access Internet Protocol (or IP) addresses. This is particularly aimed at mobile networks, which have previously been structured in a way which makes identification less straightforward.
This is being presented as a sensible and necessary step to support the fight against crime. The Government is not ruling out legislation but will seek first to find voluntary means.
There has though been no official renunciation of the original Bill, and the Government is still stressing that both Select Committees who scrutinised the draft Bill recognised the need for legislation. What was missing was any consensus on how far that legislation should go.
Communications companies – the mobile network operators, internet service providers and the big internet companies – warned against any measures which are over-burdensome and technically difficult to implement. Civil liberties campaigners spoke of an ever-more intrusive state and a threat to privacy.
The politics around the issue have not changed throughout this debate. The Conservatives want to paint themselves as tough on law and order and protecting national security. The Liberal Democrats on the other hand cannot afford to alienate the civil liberties vote by backing a “snoopers’ charter by the back door”.
Should Ministers hold any hopes of resurrecting the Communications Data Bill, they will have to find a solution which is demonstrably different to previous proposals and can appease industry, the security services and the civil liberties lobby, as well as both sides of the Coalition. Given the recent backlash and the sensitive nature of the issue, that will be a significant challenge.
By Aimen Chouchane, Senior Account Executive, Corporate Communications and Public Affairs
CONSUMER BILL OF RIGHTS – DODGING THE DEVIL IN THE DETAIL
The Queen’s Speech today, cemented the UK’s shift away from the principle of “buyer beware” with a new Consumer Rights Bill.
The new bill is will consolidate the vast swathes of consumer protection laws that are currently spread over seven or eight bills. The hope is that simplicity will better enable consumers to take advantage of them, and better enable businesses to comply with them.
Much of what has been trailed isn’t earth-shattering and makes sense. Home owners will get a stronger right of redress for poor home repairs; consumers will be able to get refunds on their broken down washing machine.
What’s more interesting is the extension of consumer rights protections to include digital products such as apps, music downloads and streamed movies. Consumers will now entitled to a refund if an online game freezes or if an app repeatedly crashes.
This £1bn online industry was previously left out of consumer protections, and its inclusion is a sign of the growing importance of the digital economy in the UK – even if these products aren’t yet included in the ONS basket of goods.
The potential impact on the sector is significant. How will consumers prove that difficulties with their film download are not the fault of their internet connection for instance? Who will be responsible for any refund if the connection is the problem?
Getting these details right will be key to ensuring that the proposals are workable for both industry and consumers.
The draft Bill follows a long line of consultations, but will still be subject to intense scrutiny. Everyone from tech giants, to trade associations and small start-ups will be keen to influence this process. To get the details right, the sector needs to be proactive and organised in its approach, bringing the Government workable solutions to these complex problems.
The Government are at pains to point out that they do not want to impose extra burdens on business, but there is tension at the heart of the Coalition. The Lib Dems believe in consumer rights, but the Tories want to slash more red tape. The twin Bills announced today try to straddle this divide – simplify and strengthen consumer rights, while at the same time deregulate wherever possible.
The sector will need to bring their technical expertise to the table to make sure they get what they want. They will also need to tell a better story to consumers so that disputes between tech giants and regulators on the business pages do not become consumer disputes on the front pages.
That won’t always be easy, but time spent now on getting it right will help the industry flourish in the future.
By Kenny Ferguson, Account Executive, Corporate Communications and Public Affairs