On the home front

22 Jul 05
PETER RIDDELL | The government’s domestic agenda has largely been on hold since the general election.

The government’s domestic agenda has largely been on hold since the general election.

Of course, ministers and officials have been busy. There were lots of Bills in the Queen’s Speech, but most introduced since May were, like the Identity Cards Bill, already in the pipeline. Despite all the detail in the departmental five-year plans and the Labour manifesto, many key decisions have yet to be taken on public services.

Since the election, Prime Minister Tony Blair has had to deal with: the aftermath of the French and Dutch ‘no’ votes on the European Union constitution; a lengthy and bruising Brussels summit; his address to the European Parliament; and the start of the British presidency of the European Union. Then there was his globetrotting to Washington, Moscow, Berlin and Paris in preparation for the Group of Eight summit in Gleneagles. There was also a detour to Singapore to lobby, successfully, for the London bid for the Olympics.

So there has been little time for domestic business. Senior ministers on the home side have accepted this — many with relief, since they were exhausted from the election and knew how hard it would be to take sensible decisions in July.

Then came the terrorist attacks of July 7, which have inevitably pushed everything else to one side. There has been a lot for senior ministers to do: overseeing the investigation; getting the Tube back into full operation; discussing possible new precautions; and consulting over anti-terrorist legislation.

Of course, memories of the attacks in London will overshadow the party conferences. But, providing there is not another wave of bombings, attention will return to the domestic agenda.

Ministers are preparing for a number of big decisions this September and October. A priority will be to decide how radical to make the Schools Bill: in particular, how far to allow new voluntary and private schools to operate within the state system, and on what terms. The Labour manifesto referred to such schools being ‘subject to parental demand, fair funding and fair admissions’. How far local education authorities can prevent the setting up of new schools, as well as academies, is a highly contentious issue. There have already been rumblings of concern from the Gordon Brown camp about the extension of diversity of provision in this way.

Other big decisions coming up concern the future of Incapacity Benefit and pensions, over which Work and Pensions Secretary David Blunkett has been deliberately taking his time. The final report of pensions commissioner Adair Turner is due in November. The key issues are compulsion and, over the long term, Pension Credit.

Watch out also for decisions on nuclear energy (don’t expect anything rapid), modifying council tax (probably a fudge, again), a further push for mayors in big cities, road pricing (pilots only, at first), the new BBC charter (keeping licence-fee funding, but with tighter restrictions on the corporation) and the British nuclear deterrent.

The biggest decision will, however, come later in the Parliament, over the government’s spending plans up to 2011. Brown announced last Tuesday that the customary biennial review had been put off a year to allow time for what is described as a Comprehensive Spending Review. This will look at the effectiveness of departments’ plans in delivering the outputs they are committed to, taking account of long-term challenges such as the ageing population, the terrorist threat and climate change.

Consequently, spending plans in year three of the current review period will not be changed. Given the existing tight constraints on public borrowing, taxes might have to be increased if spending on health and education is to be maintained. This will be the trickiest decision for Brown and Blair. The change in the review date has also fuelled speculation about the timing of Brown’s likely succession.

A further twist has come from the upheaval in Whitehall. Sir Gus O’Donnell will formally take over from Sir Andrew Turnbull as Cabinet secretary after the holidays. This will be the start of a series of changes. The permanent secretaries at the Ministry of Defence, the Northern Ireland Office and the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister are all retiring in the autumn. Sir Brian Bender is moving from the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs to the Department of Trade and Industry.

So five posts have to be filled. There might be more if there is some shuffling of permanent secretaries. These changes will take time. And there will be a vacuum at the top as O’Donnell starts his new job.

So, instead of the re-elected government getting off to a flying start on domestic issues, its first few months have been faltering. Blair has a lot in his in-tray, but he will quickly have to show a lead domestically.

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