The Queen’s Speech: a Budget repair kit?

10 May

The Queen’s speech matched our austere times by being rather leaner than usual, containing noticeably fewer bills, and thus ensuring not too many legislative distractions from the Coalition’s primary aim of sorting out the economy.

For those of us who have been following the unfolding post-Budget ‘omnishambles’, today’s speech has some definite points of interest in relation to ‘family-friendliness’ and charities, topics of discussion in previous blogs.

The Government has chosen to frame legislation relevant to families with children (the Children and Families Bill puts together reforms in family justice, parental leave, special educational needs and adoption) in a return to putting families at the ‘front and centre’ of policy.  Recent controversy over Child Benefit reform, cuts to tax credits  – and the ongoing strain of families managing on stagnating incomes alongside rising living costs –  have impacted on the the Government’s family-friendly credentials, and the Bill shows that the Government still wants to be seen to be doing things for families.

So what is it doing?  In family justice the aims are to speed up decision-making around children’s circumstances – so that both formal adoption and going into care become quicker processes.  After parental separation the government wants to strengthen the principle that there should be involvement of both parents where that is in children’s best interests, but there is to be further consultation on how legislation should be framed.  On parental leave the Government is proposing that mothers have the option of transferring later maternity leave to fathers – but a wider reform allowing parents to request flexible working patterns has not materialised.

The Queen’s speech also throws a bone to charities.  Small donations of up to £20 will now be subject to a scheme allowing charities to claim back 25p in every pound donated up to a maximum of £5000 per year – perhaps a crumb of comfort after the ‘tax-dodging philanthropists’ kerfuffle following the Budget measure to cap tax relief on major donations.

Every good student knows that legislation is not just about achieving change through law-making, but about the signals laws send.  And in terms of families the Government is sending out signals about sharing care and earning more evenly between mothers and fathers, and maintaining parent-child relationships post-divorce.  These signals of a greater emphasis on gender equality may be welcome, but without resources to provide well-paid leave for parents and better-paid paternity leave for fathers, the signals may remain just that: an aspiration to greater equality that will not be met by transformative take-up in practice.  Similarly, to encourage post-separation arrangements to be made out- of-court where possible, and to maintain contact between children and non-resident parents, may be viewed as a ‘good thing’ in many quarters, but without further funding it may be hard to supply enough mediation or other forms of family support in the difficult period post-break-up.  The perceived family-unfriendliness of the Budget may be being addressed, but it is the Budget and wider economic policy which have decided what family-friendliness there really will be on the ground.

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