Following on from yesterday’s Queen’s Speech, where the Government’s legislative plans for the coming year have been set out, my Twitter feed went into overdrive as the comments and analysis flowed in.
Having had a good look at what the main areas of interest and contention were, it seems like a good idea to go over some of the proposals and bills and try to provide some reflection on them. I’m not going to cover them all though as that would probably bore both you and me to tears.
The area that caused the biggest stir amongst the aid organisations was that despite the Government recommitting itself to reaching the long-held target of spending 0.7% of GDP on overseas aid, it has not framed legislation to enshrine this commitment to law.
This press release from Christian Aid gives a flavour of what the general consensus was:
The organisation’s chief political adviser Sol Oyuela said: ‘We welcome the Government’s commitment to raising the aid budget to 0.7 per cent from 2013, but we are very disappointed that it has yet to live up to its pledge to legislate on this.
‘This was not just a Coalition promise. It was a promise made to the world’s poorest people and one which we just cannot renege on.
‘Protecting the 0.7 per cent in law would safeguard the aid budget from future political jockeying, guaranteeing effective and predictable spending to fight global poverty whichever party is in power.
‘And it would also enable the UK to exert more pressure on other EU countries to move towards the UN goal of a 0.7 per cent aid commitment from rich countries.
‘Only recently the European Commissioner for Development praised the UK for its leadership on aid provision: enshrining the figure in law would have only enhanced our standing internationally’.
All three main parties pledged in their manifestos at the last election to make the 0.7 per cent aid commitment a legal obligation. It was also a promise in the Coalition Agreement between the Conservatives and Liberal-Democrats.
Since then, the Government, while maintaining that spending will reach the target by 2013, has failed to deliver on its legislation promise, blaming lack of time and other more pressing priorities.
‘Legislation would ensure that in future the government of the day is entirely accountable to Parliament for aid delivery,’’ said Ms Oyuela.
‘In addition, it would ensure aid is maintained at an affordable level; just as absolute aid levels may fall when Britain’s income goes down, so too should they rise when the national income rises.’
It is a disappointment that the Government is not moving forward with this. We mustn’t forget though that the UK is a world leader on international aid. To set our commitments in stone would send out another signal to other governments that the importance of working with countries in need of aid is something that should be given the attention and serious backing that it deserves. I hope and pray that sooner rather than later the political parties will meet their manifesto pledges on this. They have no excuse not to.
Groceries Adjudicator Bill
Few people are going to get excited about the name of this bill, but it provides an important move forward for ensuring UK farmers and other food suppliers are able to charge a fair price for their products and are not abused by the large retail giants. We’re quite happy to support fair trade for international farmers, but we should also be applying the same principles for our national ones. The Church of England has been campaigning on this issue for some time now. This is the response they gave yesterday:
‘The Church of England’s ethical investment advisory group and rural affairs team have welcomed the Groceries Code Adjudicator Bill included in the Queen’s Speech, saying ‘supermarkets operating ethically and appropriately with their farmer and other suppliers will have nothing to fear from this welcome piece of legislation’.
‘The Church along with many other organizations has been pressing successive Governments since 2007 to put protection for farmers and other suppliers on a legislative footing.
The landmark report Fairtrade Begins at Home by the Church of England’s Ethical Investment Advisory Group highlighted the sometimes pernicious practices of supermarkets accepted by farmers and suppliers as a fait accompli as part of the price of doing business. The evidence contained in this report was submitted to the Competition Commission enquiry of 2008. Since then the revised Groceries Supply Code of Practice (GSCOP) has been implemented and the Groceries Code Adjudicator will be essential in protecting the interests of farmers, suppliers and ultimately consumers.’
Small Donations Bill
This bill makes provision for UK charities to claim back 25p for every £1 on all cash donations of less than £20 up to a limit of £5,000.
This will allow charities to receive a small amount of additional income that they currently would have to spend a lot of time and effort through Gift Aid reclaiming. Often with these sort of donations it impossible to do this. It won’t make much difference to larger charities, but for smaller local ones it will give them a welcome boost in income.
Children and Families Bill
Contained within this bill are some measures that are long overdue.
The bill’s plans to speed up adoptions especially by removing delays relating to racial matching is desperately needed. The most up-to-date figures tell us that in 2010, 3660 children under the age of one were in care, but in 2011 only 60 children of that age were adopted. This is a shocking state of affairs that leaves young children who suffer in their development outside of a family environment so badly let down. Also whilst in an ideal world you would want children to be placed with a family of their own ethnic origin, any caring family is better than none.
The same principle applies with the proposed six month limit of making a decision as to whether children need to be removed from their parents and placed in care. As long as the system can cope with this time limit and decisions are not rushed then it can only be of benefit to those children who currently can spend much longer in a state of limbo and instability as the professionals make up their minds.
I have a strong belief that when parents have split up, as long as it is in the child’s best interests, where possible they are more likely to benefit from being in regular contact with both of their parents than not. This is why I am pleased to see that there will be a consultation on legal options to strengthen the law in England and Wales to ensure that children have access “where it is safe and in the child’s best interests”.
Stonewall and others have expressed their disappointment that this was not included in the list of bills despite the Home Office having said previously that it would not be included.
Given the nature of this issue, whatever happens, the worst thing would be for the Government to rush in to a final decision. With the government consultation on same-sex marriage finishing in June it has felt over the last few months like there has been a race on to build up support and lobby the government as quickly as possible from both sides, which has led to some angry unhelpful exchanges and worse. Knowing there will be another year at least before this goes before parliament will hopefully take some pressure off the situation and give everyone more time and space to think carefully.
Regulation of lobbyists
Despite all the traumas we have had with the relationship between MPs and News International at the Leveson inquiry, nothing has been brought forward to tighten up rules as to how lobbyists can work. Ed Miliband accused the Government of failing to act on parliamentary lobbying by not including any measures to tackle it. Even today on Radio 4 the MOD was accused of changing the type of planes it will buy for its new aircraft carriers because of pressure from BAE Systems who stand to make a good deal of money from the switch.
Total transparency in government dealings may never completely be achieved, but there is a whole world of murky dealings and lobbying going on that the public is not happy with and does not trust. MPs still need to be making more effort to win the public’s trust back and this would be a big step forward.
The Queen summed up her speech by praying, “My lords and members of the House of Commons I pray that the blessing of Almighty God may rest upon your counsels.”
The Government hasn’t got everything right this time round, but they have made progress in some areas for which we should be thankful. We all need to be praying the same prayer that the Queen did for the sake of our parliament, our nation and ourselves.