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Mr. Secretary Clarke, supported by the Prime Minister, Mr. Secretary Prescott, Mr Chancellor of the Exchequer, Mr. Secretary Straw, Mr. Secretary Darling, Mr Secretary Hain and Hazel Blears, presented a Bill to make provision for and about offences relating to conduct carried out, or capable of being carried out, for purposes connected with terrorism; to amend enactments relating to terrorism; to amend the Intelligence Services Act 1994 and the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act 2000; and for connected purposes: And the same was read the First time; and ordered to be read a Second time tomorrow, and to be printed. Explanatory notes to be printed [Bill 55].
Those hon. Members who are currently scuttling towards the exit are, perhaps, on their way to talk to constituents, to take advice from their Whips or to listen to their secretaries. They are off to indulge in what everybody describes as "consultation". I wish that they would stay, because consultation is precisely what my little Bill is all about.
To consult is a laudable democratic principle. Every weekend, I consult my constituents: I consult my office, my family, the butcher, the baker and even the candlestick-makerwhen he is not up to his wick in wax! I do not have to take a blind bit of notice of any of them, but we like to consult, do we not? We like to go through the motions of seeking opinion; we may not be convinced by all that we hear, but at least we have bothered to ask. As a matter of fact, I am a committed advocate of consultation, but I want it to mean something. I want the people who give us their views to know that we have taken notice and, perhaps, have even adopted some of their ideas. I want consultation that works, which is what this Bill is about.
Consultation has become a ludicrous buzzword. The Government swear by it205 different consultations on new Government plans are currently under way, to which those of us with strong opinions and ample time are free to contribute our thoughts. There is, however, one small drawback: consultation does not involve any debate at all. The public are invited to pour in their opinion, which may be plagiarised, twisted or ignored.
The scale of the consultation industry reminds me of the old maxim, "divide and rule". There are now so many official consultations that it is well nigh impossible to keep abreast of them, let alone to contribute. In addition to the Government's 205 open consultations, all of which are listed on a website that is expensively devoted to that purpose, there is an even bigger list of the Government's closed consultations. For example, the Health and Safety Executive is consulting on regulations concerning vibration at work. My office in this building is underneath Big Ben, so I consider myself an expert on vibration at work. Under the rules that govern closed consultations, however, I am not expert enough, so, although my entire body shakes uncontrollably whenever the clock strikes the hour, as far as the Health and Safety Executive is concerned, I can get knotted.
Such are the small complications of consultation, but the big complications are much more serious. Consultations are voluntary, are not binding, and sad to say, are sometimes unworthy of the very paper that they end up being printed on. Making sure that consultation takes place at all is left to a toothless instrument of political persuasionthe vague, woolly and completely unenforceable code of conduct. Where would poor old Moses be today if God had handed him a code of conduct rather than 10 proper commandments? "Thou
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shalt not covet thy neighbour's ass" has more of a ring to it than, "Perhaps it would be better to leave the livestock alone."
If anyone wants to examine the William Shakespeare of codes of conduct, I invite them to scrutinise that devised by those matchless boffins of blether and bureaucracy, the Cabinet Office. This is how it sounds:
What the Cabinet Office does today, our local authorities are encouraged, cajoled or pretty well forced to do tomorrow. That is the problem. Codes of conduct are growing like Topsy. Consultations are bursting out everywhere about everything. They generate mountains of paper, they are not legally binding, and there are no set standards whatever.
Before the general electionthe only bit of recent genuine national consultation in this countryI argued in my constituency that we could do with some proper consultation whenever controversial schemes are proposed by local authorities. I had in mind the plans of West Somerset district council to shift offices and redevelop land. Months lateryears laterdiscussions about those plans are still going on. I am certain that there would have been far fewer grounds for argument or anger if the council had properly consulted people fully from the start.
I am sure that every planner and politician in the land would endorse such sentiments and vow that consultation is a splendid part of the processit is like motherhood and apple pie; one could not possibly disagree with the general ideabut with such a woolly meaning, consultation can be as good or as bad as planners and politicians prefer. The trouble is that too many planners and politicians are prepared to settle for the barest minimum when it comes to standards of consulting people.
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I am sorry to say that the blame lies here in Westminster. This House has always fought shy of spelling out what consultation should behow local people are canvassed, how local views are assessed, what account is taken of opinion, and how many meetings will be held. The remit to consult is written into all local government legislation, but the dotted i's and crossed t's have always been left to the locals and their codes of conduct. Basically, this House has copped out.
My private Member's Bill is designed effectively to put such procedures in front of Parliament. It will no longer be good enough for the transport authority to insert a tiny notice on page 103 of the classified ads in the local paper telling everybody what road is about to be closed, widened, re-rerouted or subjected to a half-baked new traffic management scheme. Under this Bill, the nature of the proposals would have to be crystal clear and they would have to be advertised so that people can see them. Local authorities would have to go out of their way to let people know what they are doing, and the Bill would specify how far out of their way they had to go. On the coastline in my constituency is a place called Hinkley Point, which is probably more famous for its nuclear power station than its landscape. Rumours abound that there might be a new power plant thereone day, perhaps soon. The need for a new and comprehensive consultation system is therefore urgent.
Critics may say that consultation costs money. In the short term, yes, there will be costs. However, paying for sensible minimum standardsspecified high- profile newspaper advertisements, intelligible letters to householders, public meetings and the likewill surely save money in the long term. If planners and politicians listen to local opinion first and take action based on what people really want rather than on what the town hall thinks that they want, it can only lead to better decision making.
The inspiration for the idea was not merely born out of the confusion in West Somerset. I can cite hundreds of examples from up and down the country, where local authorities have paid lip service to the concept of consultation and reaped the consequences of unpopularity thereafter. Let me give one current example. Devon county councilmy next-door councildecided, without the merest hint of asking anybody, to sell one of its most valuable assets, Exeter airport. One can picture the scene at Devon county hall: "I say old fruit, wouldn't it be spiffing if we flogged off the airport?" Did the council consult? No. Instead, it called in some expensive City types to offload the airport. No consultation whatever took place.
Guess whatthe Government have rightly called in the decision to have it reviewed by the Competition Commission. The council could have avoided that. The tragedy is that local authorities are not doing anything wrong. They are obeying the law as it stands. However, the law as it stands is legless legislation. The law leaves interpretation of the word "consultation" purely to the town halls.
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