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  1. Spotlight on Policy
5 September 2023

Parliament is back: what’s on the agenda?

As MPs return from summer, here’s what to expect in legislation on the economy, sustainability and healthcare.

By Sarah Dawood, Jonny Ball and Harry Clarke-Ezzidio

As parents and school pupils around the country anxiously await what the government will do following its lack of action on crumbling school estates, and as Labour adds to the headlines with its long-touted reshuffle, parliament is back from recess.

But conference season begins at the end of this month, which means MPs will be off again after only eight days in the House of Commons. Nonetheless, the legislative agenda is long, from levelling-up to energy to the digital economy. Here is what to expect from parliamentarians on economic growth, sustainability, and healthcare between now and the King’s Speech in November.

Economic growth

The government’s Levelling Up and Regeneration Bill, which seeks to reduce regional disparities across multiple socio-economic metrics, is one of the most amended bills to have graced the Lords and Commons. Tied to the bill, which is currently at the report stage in the House of Lords, are the “trailblazer” devolution deals for both the West Midlands and Greater Manchester, each worth billions of pounds, which hands the respective metro mayors additional freedom over local spending (including business rates), transport, regeneration, skills and culture. Though much delayed, the bill is expected to pass in the coming months.

For many regional development wonks, the bill is long overdue. “The UK has one of the most unequal economies among the OECD, because we’re very politically centralised,” Jeevun Sandher, the head of economics at the New Economics Foundation think tank, told Spotlight. (Note: Sandher has been selected as the Labour parliamentary candidate for the constituency of Loughborough for the next general election.) With “the best will in the world”, Sandher added, “ministers and civil servants don’t have the ability” to decide how to spend funding in places they are not familiar with.

The Levelling Up Bill also includes discussions on conservation and national parks, local nature recovery strategies and the planning system, as well as the controversial amendments on nutrient neutrality that have caused much consternation. The government says the relaxation of the rules on river pollution will free up house-builders to get on with development. Critics say there are better ways to deal with the housing crisis than to worsen the already parlous state of the UK’s waterways.

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The Digital Markets, Competition and Consumers Bill, currently at the Commons report stage, will soon make a return. The bill intends to bolster consumer rights against businesses that participate in “unfair trading” practices, particularly those that participate in the digital economy. Additional powers and responsibility will be handed to the Competition and Markets Authority (CMA), which will be tasked with targeting “a small number of firms which exert significant control over digital markets” over both competing businesses, as well as consumers.

Seema Malhotra, the shadow minister for business and consumers, said at a parliamentary session on the bill in May that while Labour backed the proposed legislation there are concerns it could be “watered down” as it went through the legislative approval process. Malhotra added that there needs to be extra “scrutiny, transparency and accountability” of how the CMA would use its new powers. Dominic Raab, the former justice secretary, has questioned whether the CMA would have the appropriate “tools” to deal with the effect artificial intelligence would have on markets and competition.

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[See also: How might Keir Starmer run the country? Look to Labour councils]

The net zero agenda

One of the first items scheduled for debate this week is the sprawling Energy Bill. “The Energy Bill is quite an unusual thing in its own right,” Ruth Chambers, senior fellow at the Green Alliance think tank, told Spotlight – energy legislation is a rarity, “so a lot of other things have kind of been brought into it.” That means provisions that encompass laws regulating smart appliances, carbon dioxide transport and storage, the civil nuclear sector, carbon capture and storage, and much else besides.

There are some elements of the bill, such as the assigning of a net zero remit to the energy regulator, Ofwat, that have pleased climate campaigners and experts. The hydrogen levy will also be removed, saving households around £120 a year. That tax was intended to pay for the expensive process of hydrogen production, which will likely play a key role in decarbonising energy-intensive heavy industries and long-haul freight transportation, which is difficult to power with simple electric-vehicle batteries. The levy will instead be applied to the gas shipping industry from 2025.

Originally, there was also still a basic block on big, bold measures such as onshore wind. But an amendment supported by a smattering of back-bench MPs, which the government may budge on to avoid a rebellion, looks to rectify the UK’s blanket ban on new onshore developments. There’s also an amendment from the Labour MP Clive Lewis and Green MP Caroline Lucas on a proposed “national energy guarantee” to combat the cost-of-living crisis. This amendment is unlikely to pass. But the bill is also “silent on energy reduction measures” which will be “essential to reducing demand”, said Chambers. That means things like home insulation and retrofitting aren’t included, despite their potential for reducing emissions across the economy.

[See also: What to expect from Claire Coutinho]

Healthcare

Also on parliament’s agenda is the reform of the Mental Health Act 1983, which aims to increase patient autonomy over sectioning and detentions, and tackle systemic discrimination towards people of colour and those with learning disabilities. The government drafted a new Mental Health Bill in June 2022, and a joint parliamentary committee then put forward further recommendations in January 2023. Progress has stalled since then, however, and it’s not currently clear when the reformed act will become enshrined in law. This reform has long been awaited by advocates and those working in mental health provision.

This year saw a plethora of government plans unveiled to cope with the NHS crisis more generally. The NHS workforce plan, the GP recovery plan and the urgent and emergency care recovery plan are all aimed to tackle the systemic issues facing the health service. These include chronic staff shortages, access to primary care and life-threatening waiting times in A&E. However, access to secondary and tertiary care – surgery and more specialist treatment – has not been looked at in as much detail.

The upcoming major conditions strategy, due to be published in 2024, will look at this through the lens of the six biggest groups of diseases in England: cancer, chronic respiratory disease, cardiovascular disease, dementia, mental ill health and musculoskeletal disorders. An initial report was published last month, which lays out how the government is going to reduce disease rates through prevention strategies, earlier diagnosis, quicker care and better long-term treatment.

Health policy experts believe that the government needs to get on with enacting the strategies it’s put in place. “It’s really about delivery, delivery, delivery,” said Richard Murray, chief executive at the King’s Fund. “I don’t think the NHS needs another strategy.”

This is with the exception of the major conditions strategy, which is an opportunity for the government to make “bold new interventions to improve the nation’s health”, said Tim Gardner, assistant director of policy at the Health Foundation. Wider health determinants – such as diet and exercise – need to be included to “stop people getting so ill in the first place”, added Murray. “Is [the strategy] really about treatment?” he asked, “or is it about treatment and prevention?”

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