It is probably fair to say that when the Health and Social Care Bill was introduced to Parliament, very few in the sector expected the wave of opposition that has gained pace over the past 18 months.
And the same can be said about the Welfare Reform Bill. Who would have thought that a Bill (the fundamental part of which is a benefits cap that attracts the support of some three quarters of the British public), would result in several Government defeats in the House of Lords?
One explanation is that Government frontloaded it’s most radical legislation – on the health service, education and welfare reform – thus paving the way for less controversial legislation in the latter half of the Parliament. Now that the tough stuff is (almost) out of the way, the Government can look forward to an easy ride for the remainder of its term – really?
One such Bill which should prove to be uncontroversial is the upcoming Communications Bill (we’re expecting a green paper in mid-April). But already the sector is beginning to question the Government’s motives behind the Bill, and there are plenty who are saying quite openly that they think that the Bill is already in trouble.
Firstly, (like most legislation in this Parliament), it is already running behind schedule. We have been expecting a green paper for some months now – only to be disappointed by a series of delays – and a quick calculation shows that when we do eventually see legislation introduced, it is going to be skewed towards the back end of this Parliament. For those who endured the passage of the Digital Economy Bill in the dying days of the last Labour Government, there is little appetite for another rushed piece of communications legislation.
Secondly, many think that what the Government is trailing as likely content in the Bill could be achieved through secondary legislation. In other areas (notably with regards to the BBC), there is speculation that the Government is keen to ensure political neutrality, and will keep such issues well clear of the new Bill. Then there is the issue of Leveson. The fact that the green paper is being published long before the inquiry concludes seems like a clear indication of the Government’s intentions.
But more than anything else, there seems to be a growing feeling that the Bill lacks a fundamental purpose or ideology – it lacks a core function or theme.
In some ways, this is natural – ‘communications’ is a broad term and encompasses a diverse spectrum of sectors and issues. But whilst it is natural to tag on smaller issues and seemingly random clauses to big pieces of legislation, there is usually, at least, a central purpose and principle to a Bill.
The Health Bill aimed to restructure the way that NHS services are commissioned, remove layers of bureaucracy and improve accountability.
The Welfare Reform Bill aimed to ensure that you could never be better off on benefits than you would be working – a Bill to make work pay.
The question that many in the sector are asking is: what is the Communications Bill for? Is this just a case of legislation for the sake of legislation?
The Department for Culture, Media and Sport will be well prepared for the usual wrangling and disagreements that so often dominate this sector – the BBC and ITV won’t see eye to eye, the mobile operators will continue to compete and BT’s market position will continue to attract the criticisms of Virgin, Sky and others. But whilst these long established disagreements can likely be sorted through negotiation and compromise, the Government faces a much more fundamental challenge:
A Communications Act is expected to be on the statute book by the end of this Parliament. At the moment, nobody seems to be entirely clear what it’s for. So if the Government wants to avoid another legislative mess, let’s hope that the upcoming green paper at least gives us a clue.