Queen's Speech: keep it focused or run into trouble, Institute for Government warns departments

Ahead of the State Opening of Parliament, think tank says slim Commons majority and tough Spending Review settlements mean government would be wise to focus on key priorities 

By matt.foster

16 May 2016

The government has been urged to keep this week's Queen's Speech tightly focused to avoid key policies coming unstuck.

Wednesday's State Opening of Parliament will see the government lay out its legislative programme for the year ahead, with speculation that new counter-extremism measures, a reform of the planning system and a new digital economy bill could feature.

But a new report by the Institute for Government (IfG) think tank – available in full below – says tight public spending settlements and a slim parliamentary majority mean ministers would be wise to keep it simple.

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The report – by IfG programme director and former Number 10 and Cabinet Office official Daniel Thornton – says the government must take a "realistic approach" to meeting its existing promises and says departments will need to "prioritise future legislation carefully" if they want to have an impact.

Thornton points out that the government's majority of just 12 MPs in the House of Commons makes it vulnerable to backbench pressure, with departments "forced to withdraw or heavily amend" several key measures since the election, including major cuts to tax credits and disability benefits.

"With the divisions caused by the forthcoming EU referendum, a slender majority has turned out to be no majority at all," the report notes.

The IfG urges departments to be careful about the issues they choose to bring to parliament, with government told to be "smarter about how it manages its business" in the House, including by strengthening the role of party whips at the expense of secretaries of state to avoid unnecessary defeats.

Thornton also calls on ministers to spend more time with their backbenchers – pointing to the Department for Education's recent volte face on the scale of its academy schools programme to highlight the dangers of failing to gauge party reaction.

"If secretaries of state have not tested their ideas with backbenchers and built alliances inside and outside parliament, their proposals will not get through," the report warns.

The IfG cautions against filling the Queen's Speech with "controversial measures", with Thornton instead calling for "less but better legislation" introduced in draft form first, where possible.

"The government is making big spending cuts and attempting far-reaching public service reforms, and the strain is showing" – IfG programme director Daniel Thornton

"Too often, legislation is declaratory and wills the ends but not the means – such as the Public Services (Social Value) Act 2012, which requires local authorities to give greater consideration to economic, social or environmental wellbeing, without providing the mechanisms or resources to do so," he notes.

"Unprecedented decade of austerity"

The think tank programme director also sounds a note of caution about the impact of public spending cuts on the government's ability to keep key services ticking over.

While the IfG points out that 73% of respondents to a recent public poll by IPSOS MORI said they had been "little affected by spending cuts", it says the Treasury's squeeze is beginning to be felt acutely in the NHS.

"Record numbers of people expected health services to get worse, and levels of concern about hospitals, GP surgeries and care for the elderly had all grown," Thornton says. 

And while many departments have emphasised the adoption of digital processes to help them cut spending while improving services, the think tank says the experience of the courts service since 2010 shows that this may not be a panacea.

Thornton says that while ministers have put faith in an extension of digital access to courts to replace face-to-face hearings, the justice system has a "mixed record" of bringing in new tech and may not be able to compensate for the closure of significant chunks of built estate.

"HM Courts & Tribunals Service has also seen spending reductions of more than a quarter since 2010," the IfG notes. "The National Audit Office has found that 'backlogs in the Crown Court increased by 34% between March 2013 and September 2015, and waiting time for a Crown Court hearing has increased by 35% (from 99 days to 134) since September 2013.' The risk is that court closures proceed but that the digital programme does not improve or even maintain access to justice."

Public services will, Thornton says, have faced "an unprecedented decade of austerity" by 2020, with reductions to departmental resource budgets and their accompanying staff cuts creating fresh risks for the government's aims.

"Making cuts of this order while introducing significant reforms increases the risk that the reforms will not proceed as planned," he adds.

The think tank has previously been highly critical of the government's much-vaunted Single Departmental Plans, which were billed as matching the budgets outlined at the Spending Review with departmental priorities, but which were dismissed by the IfG as "little more than a laundry list of nice-to-haves" when they were published earlier this year.

Its latest report says the task of reducing department spending "would have been easier if the Government’s Spending Review had been followed by an effective planning process", and says managing departmental reform will require staff who "will have to be paid competitively", a nod to the Treasury's ongoing policy of capping civil service payrises at 1% per year.

Launching the IfG's new study, Thornton said: “To be effective, the government must recognise the enormous challenges it now faces. It is making big spending cuts and attempting far-reaching public service reforms, and the strain is showing. 

"As a result of divisions over Europe, its small majority has become no majority at all. It must consult and build alliances before rushing ahead with more ambitious reforms in the Queen’s Speech."

IFGJ4480_Under_Pressure_12_05_16 (1) by CivilServiceWorld

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