Demos Responds to the Queen’s Speech

The 2016 Queen’s Speech saw the Prime Minister take bold strides towards shoring up his legacy, against a volatile leadership landscape and the looming European Referendum. It reflected an active effort to move beyond the politics of austerity, to resurrect his decentralised ‘big society’ ambitions towards a more structured ‘life chances’ strategy where the state plays a stronger role in shaping outcomes.

The Education for All Bill sees the Government stick to its original direction of travel on academisation, albeit at a slower and more targeted place. In many respects, it echoes the Secretary of State’s whitepaper in its increasing emphasis on the role of school leaders in improving the education system. Demos welcomes the plans for placing the responsibility for excluded pupils on head teachers – our research has shown how doing so increases incentives to reengage students and address the problems behind their disruptive behaviour.

We again heard of the Government’s plans for a “fairer funding formula” for schools – which we have previously noted is going to prove a challenging ambition to implement without penalising those who are currently performing most strongly. It’s a welcome move to restore fairness, but we cannot ignore the role that the additional funding that places like London have received has played in their success story.

The Higher Education Bill, which will see the Government’s focus on increasing competition in the school system applied to the tertiary sector, may prove a new ideological battleground. Pleasingly, there seem to be genuine efforts to improve universities’ disclosure of students’ backgrounds to advocate for greater diversity and promote social mobility – although, as our research into the disparities of minorities’ representation in top universities and jobs has shown, the point of access to both these sectors is potentially too late to intervene.

Countering Extremism

The details on the Government’s Counter-Extremism and Safeguarding Bill are currently vague, though the general thrust of the Government’s approach is clear and there is significant overlap with the Extremism Bill announced in last year’s Speech. While Demos supports the Government taking forthright steps to protecting public safety, concerns remain as to whether the correct balance will be struck in also safeguarding the rights to civil liberties and freedom of speech that must stand at the heart of any true understanding of British values. It is important to note, for example, the distinction between tackling ‘extremism’ per se, and ‘violent extremism’, which can leave a substantial interpretive distinction around ‘radical’ thoughts and perspectives – a dangerous line for the Government to tread. So too are there elements of the Bill that risk further alienating British Muslim communities – a risky approach given it is this fragmented social contract that can play such a strong role in the process of radicalisation.

Overall, Demos research continues to highlight the importance of developing young people’s critical thinking capacities, to help them to distinguish between extremist propaganda and tactics of manipulation, to build their individual resilience to harmful messages. In the digital age, this will ultimately prove more effective and feasible than seeking to limit their exposure to messages altogether.

Youth Social Action

Demos welcomes the announcement that the National Citizen Service (NCS) will be on “a permanent statutory footing”, following the Chancellor’s pledge to allocate significant funding to this programme. Our Generational Citizen research has shown that the younger generation is incredibly civically minded, with a strong desire to contribute to society – and our Service 2020 report showed that volunteering also provides important opportunities for them to socialise, build new moral and social skills, and to feel connected to their communities.

To maximise the investment in this important area, it is going to be crucial to ensure that other opportunities, such as service years, are also made available to young people from all backgrounds. The measure announced to bridge the gap between schools and providers is eminently sensible, and builds on the ambitions set out in the Secretary of State’s whitepaper to improve participation through better tracking mechanisms.

Children in Care

Perhaps the centrepiece of the Prime Minister’s ‘life chances’ strategy is the focus on improving outcomes for children in care – and it is right to do so: our previous research has shown that placement stability is a key determinant in children’s future pathways. But we are sceptical of the preoccupation with an explicitly pro-adoption approach; there are no hard and fast rules in children’s services, and – as our ongoing work with the Children’s Services Development Group has found – the care system needs to be flexible to provide the right type of intervention and environment for individual circumstances.

That said, we welcome the announcement of a Care Leaver’s Covenant, and its recognition of the wide range of support that young people leaving care need to overcome disadvantage. We would like to see the Covenant ensuring that the support it makes available is provided in a holistic way, such as through multi-agency teams and one-stop-shops, as the difficulties care leavers face are often complex and intertwined. Moreover, the Covenant must facilitate a gradual transition, which begins prior to leaving care, to avoid creating any further gaps through which vulnerable young people can fall.

Digital Economy

Demos is delighted to see a Digital Economy Bill, enshrining fast broadband as an essential and universal service. Through our Centre for the Analysis of Social Media, we are undertaking pioneering research on the potential for digital technologies to transform private sector performance, the delivery and efficiency of public services, and to transform and enrich our democracy. Ensuring widespread and inclusive access, knowledge and education around new technologies will be absolutely critical to harnessing the opportunities that new technologies offer to improve our society, politics and the economy.

Planning and Infrastructure

It is encouraging that the Neighbourhood Planning and Infrastructure Bill includes provisions to further strengthen neighbourhood planning and give more power to local people. Undoubtedly, the results of neighbourhood planning to date have been mixed, but while certain aspects – such as the community right to build – have barely got off the ground, it is also true that to date more than eight million people live in designated neighbourhood planning areas, with over 100 communities having approved a neighbourhood plan by referendum.

As always, the devil will be in the detail: as our research has shown, new powers must be carefully constructed so as to give local people a real say over developments in their area, while ensuring communities cannot just block proposals for new housing when there is a clear need.

The National Infrastructure Commission is, in many ways, a move in the opposite direction. It takes responsibility out of the hands of elected political representatives and into the hands of bureaucrats. The idea, presumably, is to depoliticise controversial big infrastructure projects such as HS2 and airport expansion. However, the new body will need to ensure there are meaningful routes for citizens’ engagement if it is to maintain legitimacy in the eyes of disgruntled residents.

Prison Reform and Rehabilitation

It is pleasing to see the Government’s focus on the redemptive and critical power of education extend towards rehabilitation in the prison system – undoubtedly reflecting the reformist agenda of the Secretary of State. Education is clearly important to equip prison leavers with the qualifications they will need to secure employment and a stable life, but it is also worth acknowledging the role that education can play in developing character capabilities – such as self-regulation, empathy and cooperation – which may also prove essential determinants in ex-offenders’ chances of rehabilitation and integration.

The data-driven approach taken by the Ministry of Justice, encapsulated in the Justice Data Lab, is already improving results in rehabilitation, and should stand as a shining example for other areas of policy to seek to emulate. Equally, improving the efficiency of the courts system is a vital reform. As recently revealed by the National Audit Office, delays and aborted hearings create extra work, waste scarce resources, and can undermine confidence in the system.

All in all, this Queen’s Speech sets out an overwhelmingly positive agenda for social change through a reformist and interventionist programme, which stands in stark contrast to the narrative of economic growth as the singular lever to prosperity that we have seen dominating the Government’s rhetoric over recent years.

In many ways, the most disconnected announcement was around the NHS (Overseas Visitors Charging) Bill, which is likely to prove controversial and could further fracture the already delicate relations between the Government and the medical profession. As our Do No Harm report has pointed out, there are often unintended economic and social consequences in discouraging the use of healthcare systems by those in need – not least of all the blind spots it creates in terms of data collection around demographic trends.

This was the Government’s small nod to the Brexit voters, and a peak behind the veil of an otherwise fiercely inclusive and social mobility-focused pitch for legacy.