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September in Westminster: What's on the horizon

7 September 2016

Energy

The biggest headline in the energy sector during the quiet summer recess has been the Government’s decision to delay its decision on the future of the Hinkley Point C nuclear power plant despite getting the green light from EDF.

The Government has also delayed the second Contracts for Difference (CfD) auction until next year in a move that has been attributed to bureaucratic reshuffling and the summer lull.

Elsewhere, Business and Energy Secretary Greg Clark has granted development consent to the 1.8GW Hornsea Project Two wind farm off the coast of Yorkshire, in what will be the world's largest offshore wind project.

Coming up in September, the Government has promised to make a decision on the future of the Hinkley Point C by the end of the month. Meanwhile, a major new low carbon industrial strategy for ensuring the UK meets its carbon targets is expected before the end of the year. Other energy announcements may also be forthcoming with the return of Parliament from Summer Recess.

The Better Markets Bill previously announced in the last Queen’s Speech is expected imminently, amidst speculation that new Prime Minister Theresa May has plans to clamp down on the Big Six energy providers.

Party conference season also kicks off this month, with much-anticipated conversations taking place around energy policy. Labour Leader Jeremy Corbyn is also expected to launch his energy and environment policy.

Finally, Chancellor Philip Hammond will be giving evidence to the Economic Affairs Committee on the economics of energy policy later this week.  

Education

Seen by many as an opportunity to bring the sector together in an uncertain period, the Higher Education and Research Bill will continue in the House of Commons this month.

The policy lead on the Bill at Universities UK, Professor Simon Gaskell, kicked off the oral evidence sessions, to be followed by Universities and Science Minister Jo Johnson, whose appearance prefaces a period of line-by-line scrutiny. The Bill Committee must complete consideration of the Bill no later than 5.00pm on Thursday 18 October.

With uncertainty being the watchword in the higher education sector, on Wednesday the Universities UK President will call on the Government to provide urgent reassurance to EU students hoping to study next year that they will be entitled to the current financial support arrangements throughout their course and will pay the same fees.

With fears of a drastic decline in EU student applications, the Government will need to provide answers for prospective EU students that UK universities simply can’t provide right now.

Financial Services

There has been much speculation over the summer regarding the financial services sector's future in the UK post-Brexit. The consensus is that Norwegian-style EEA membership will not be a viable solution - a conclusion which could leave the City without direct passporting rights.

A taskforce named the European Financial Services Chairman’s Advisory Committee was established to examine what access the City would have to the Single Market without a bilateral trade deal to replace EU membership, and how stability and jobs would be protected.

The taskforce, set up and headed by former Business Minister Baroness Shriti Vadera, now Chair of Santander UK, is set to try and persuade the Brexit Cabinet Committee to adopt a European Union deal similar to the Swiss model when the UK leaves the EU.

Read our Financial Services and Brexit briefing.

Pharma and Health

The most recent development in a highly active month for health was the decision by junior doctors to call off the first of three planned week-long strikes. The action was due to start next week, but in the “interests of patient safety” at such short notice, the BMA decided to suspend action. However, strike action is still earmarked for October and November, with BMA chief Ellen McCourt demanding that the Government withdraw its new working contract.

In a tense House of Commons session at the beginning of the new session, Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt gave no indication of the Government backing down on contract imposition, drawing particular criticism from new Shadow Health Secretary Diane Abbott.

Across the sector, the Government also came under fire after the Childhood Obesity Strategy was published – the Sugary Drinks Levy that had already been announced in the 2016 Budget was fleshed out in greater detail, but there was widespread criticism at the lack of statutory obligations for the food and drink industry to reformulate sugar content in products.

High profile health campaigners such as Health Committee Chair Sarah Wollaston and celebrity chef Jamie Oliver condemned the "watered-down" strategy and accused the Government of conceding to large corporations. Jane Ellison, former Public Health Minister and now Exchequer Secretary to the Treasury, rejected these criticisms, saying the strategy offered an array of proposals that would help tackle diabetes and obesity.

In light of the summer’s publication of NHS Trust figures and the subsequent “financial reset” announcement by NHS England, which will see an even greater squeeze on budgets, the Health and Innovation Expo kicking off on 7 September will provide a suitable platform for previewing what issues will take prominent shape within the sector.

The Acccelerated Access Review was rumoured to be published this month, but recent rumblings have suggested an even later publication date in Autumn.

Finally, health and social care will of course take centre stage at the party conferences’ fringe events, with DeHavilland providing premium coverage.  

Tech and Telecoms

Summer Recess proved to be anything but a respite for tech companies, with the sector rocked by the Home Affairs Committee’s finding that social media sites were “consciously failing” to tackle extremism.

The lull in Parliamentary activity also allowed Jeremy Corbyn to develop his policy pledges for the sector, with the incumbent Labour leader publishing his Digital Democracy Manifesto. Setting out pledges to “democratise” the internet, Mr Corbyn committed a future Labour Government to a ‘Universal Service Network’ for broadband and plans to consult on a digital bill of rights.

The rancour between BT and its rivals over the Openreach network also showed little sign of abating, rumbling on via an accusatory back-and-forth played out in a series of open letters over the “FixBritain’sInternet” campaign.

September – and Parliament’s return - promises even more significant ramifications for the sector, with the Government’s landmark Digital Economy Bill expected to begin its Parliamentary journey in earnest at Second Reading this month.

The Investigatory Powers Bill, meanwhile, will rumble through the remainder of its Committee Stage in the Lords, with scrutiny of the controversial bulk powers provisions of particular interest following the publication of a new independent review of the case for their inclusion.

Transport

Following the vote to leave the European Union the main concern for the transport sector will be whether the UK will have continued access to the Single Market. Access to the Single Market is particularly important for the aviation sector where uncertainty and concern for the future have already seen Ryanair and WizzAir warn they will reduce their business in the UK.

Read our Transport and Brexit briefing.

Away from Brexit the UK Government has a number of transport issues to tackle. Chief amongst these will be the long-awaited decision on airport expansion in the South East. With Theresa May chairing the Cabinet Committee on Airport Expansion and new Transport Secretary Chris Grayling meeting representatives form Heathrow and Gatwick it appears as though the Government is moving to make a decision.

There had been some speculation post-referendum that the Government would cancel large infrastructure projects like High Speed Two and reduce spending on the Northern Powerhouse but the new leadership has committed to both these projects.

Elsewhere, the Government has announced measures to tackle problems on the Southern rail network but this intervention is likely to be the first of many in this long running dispute.

In Parliament the Transport Committee will be hearing evidence this month on rail franchising; the Welsh Affairs Committee will hear evidence on the Wales and Borders Rail franchise​; and the Bus Services Bill is expected to return to the House of Lords. 

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