What can charities expect from the new parliament?

In these politically uncertain times, what should charities expect from a new parliament? We use our parliamentary research to answer some burning questions.
Jonny Harper
 

Political parties are sprucing up their battle buses. Volunteers are descending on our streets armed with lurid rosettes and strained smiles. Party leaders are fine-tuning their slogans, ready to repeat them endlessly at every opportunity.

All of this can only mean one thing: election time is upon us once again.

You may well be feeling a touch of election-fatigue after Scotland’s independence referendum in 2014, a general election in 2015, an EU referendum in 2016, and a whole host of local and devolved elections in-between.

But spare a thought for charity parliamentary teams, who are having to rip up their plans and start again after Theresa May announced a snap general election.

What can they expect the new parliament to mean for them once it starts sitting in June?

A bigger Conservative majority will make it harder to influence Parliament

The first thing to consider is the likely political composition of the new parliament – as it stands, this doesn’t seem very difficult to predict. Polling averages suggest that the Conservatives are poised to win a much more comfortable majority, with Labour’s share of seats set to shrink accordingly.

Unfortunately, one consequence of this could be that charities will have a much harder time influencing Parliament.

At the moment, the small majority held by the Government means that it has to listen to its backbenchers in order to head off costly defeats in the Commons. As a result, charities that have good relationships with these Conservative backbenchers are able to wield a degree of influence. With a larger majority, the Government would no longer have to fear rebellion, closing the door on this route.

On top of this, nfpSynergy’s Charity Parliamentary Monitor research has repeatedly shown that Conservative MPs are much less open to working with charities than their Labour counterparts. Over three-fifths (61%) think that the charity sector is too political, and a quarter (24%) think that charities should not campaign in Parliament at all.

All in all, a larger majority for the Conservatives would mean an uphill battle for charities looking to make their voices heard.

More regulation could be on its way

More Conservatives in Parliament could mean a greater appetite for new, or stronger, regulation of charities.

The Conservatives already have a history in this area, having introduced the controversial Lobbying Act in 2014 as part of the coalition government. We also know that their MPs have a considerable appetite for regulation – only 41% of Conservative MPs think that the charity sector is well regulated, compared to 71% of Labour MPs.

At this point, it’s not entirely clear whether the Government shares these views, but if another period of critical coverage of charities in the media (such as in the summer of 2015) occurs it would be no great surprise if it reacted with new legislation.

The House of Lords will be more important than ever

The House of Commons may end up being lopsided, but the general election doesn’t mean that the composition of the House of Lords will change.

At the moment, no party commands a majority in the House of Lords, meaning that the Government has to pay real attention to any amendments it introduces. The upper chamber has taken on particular importance recently, as many Labour and Lib Dem Peers have used it to frustrate legislation related to Brexit and child refugees.

With a weakened opposition and limited scope for Tory rebels in the Commons, some charities may find that their best chance of getting an amendment is to appeal to Peers in the House of Lords.

Brexit will be a key battleground

We’ve been told that Brexit means many things (including breakfast), and not all of these are good for charities. But for many charities, it will certainly provide an unprecedented opportunity to have their say on some of the issues they most care about.

Vast numbers of EU regulations will have to be absorbed into UK law or rewritten entirely, and charities must make sure that they make their voice heard in this process. For example, the likes of WWF and RSPB will be looking to help shape new rules on the environment, the wildlife trade, and fisheries to name but a few of the key issues that will be re-opened for discussion. Similarly, some prominent health charities have already started campaigning to make sure that UK medical research doesn’t lose key funding in the wake of Brexit.

Charities simply can’t afford to sit back and let these issues be discussed without their input.

Another thing to bear in mind is that given the dominance of Brexit, it’s likely that it will be much harder for Parliament to find time for legislation not related to the EU. This could be a mixed blessing for charities; there may not be space for a repeal of the fox hunting ban, for example, but at the same time there won’t be many opportunities for new laws on animal cruelty to be passed.

Reshuffles and new leaders could mean productive new relationships

There’s a good chance that a larger majority would embolden Theresa May to conduct a reshuffle of her cabinet, freeing herself from any appointments she made to keep the right wing of her party.

This, of course, would mean opportunities for charities to get in early and build strong, productive relationships with new ministers.

Equally, if Labour end up being thrashed, this could mean big changes at the top of the party, and new shadow ministers mean new opportunities to influence. The importance of this in the short-term will likely be limited by the size of the Conservative majority, but it’s still worth building good relationships in case Labour surge back into contention for 2022.

On the whole, it looks like barring any major surprises, the next Parliament will be a difficult one for charities. The difficult dynamics of trying to influence a government with a strong majority – let alone an emboldened Conservative one – mean that parliamentary teams will have to be at the top of their game to secure change over the next five years.

If you would like to find out more about our Charity Parliamentary Monitor, please download a briefing pack using the purple download form located beneath the 'Share this Resource' social buttons.

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