The Government's new approach to consultation: Government Response - Secondary Legislation Scrutiny Committee Contents


The Government's New Approach to Consultation: Government Response

1.  The Government announced a new approach to consultations[1] on 17 July 2012 proposing, amongst other changes, that they be shorter and "digital by default". Following a call for evidence and an oral evidence session on 11 December with Mr Oliver Letwin, MP, Minister for Government Policy, the Committee published a report on 10 January 2013.[2] The Government response to it, in the form of a letter from Mr Letwin, is published at Appendix 1.

2.  The Committee was disappointed with the Minister's response and felt that he had not taken seriously the concerns the Report expressed. Proposals on which he seemed quite positive when he gave oral evidence to us in December 2012 are now swept into the review for consideration on whether they should happen. Proposals that are entirely within his control and capable of rapid resolution - like a single website for publicising government consultations - are similarly deferred to the end of the year by inclusion in the review. If, as he suggests in his response, the Minister does not propose to consult further but only to use the written evidence the Committee has already obtained, then there is no apparent reason why the review could not commence more quickly.

3.  The Committee welcomes the proposed external advisory panel, which appears necessary to help officials to understand the practical operation of the Consultation Principles for respondents and to represent perspectives other than the Government's own. However a panel of three members plus the National Audit Office member seems rather too small to achieve this. The Minister's proposal that the Committee should nominate a member is appreciated. However, we believe that such an appointment would be contrary to the normal constitutional separation between Parliament and the Executive: the advisory panel should be truly independent. We would simply suggest that, as a minimum, there should be members drawn from each of the charity sector, industry and academia to represent the wide range of interests.

4.  We recommended an early review because of the strong evidence we had received that a very wide range of interested parties saw the new Consultation Principles as having a detrimental effect on the development of good legislation. Although they have the superficial attraction of speeding up consultations (as shown in the Minister's own figures) there was a clear message from respondents that quality would suffer if they were not allowed sufficient time to gather appropriate evidence.

5.  The Minister's response missed the point of our recommendation: his initiative was not starting the process from scratch as the 2008 Code of Practice on Consultation was regarded with reasonable confidence by interested parties and seen as being fair and effective. The Consultation Principles moved suddenly from a system that appeared to be functioning reasonably on all sides to a situation in which there are significant objections. The written evidence we received clearly showed that the fact that the Government had launched the new Consultation Principles without any prior consultation was regarded with suspicion and further delay in responding to their reasonable concerns can only underline our witnesses' doubts that consultation will become a mere public relations exercise rather than a genuine means of influencing policy. We recommended an early review as a way of limiting the damage being done.

6.  The evidence also impressed the Committee because it included a number of constructive suggestions on how the consultation system could be improved, particularly by the better targeted use of electronic communication. Those potential benefits are similarly being delayed.

7.  In his evidence Mr Letwin justified the change to the Consultation Principles by saying: "We are trying to achieve a shift to a sense of urgently getting on with that which can be got on with urgently, taking into account what we need to take into account, focusing on being intelligent on how we find things out, so that we do not just treat time as if it were the only way in which to do things". The Committee believes that the Government should apply this sentiment to the review of the Principles.


1   The Consultation Principles See: http://www.cabinetoffice.gov.uk/resource-library/consultation-principles-guidance  Back

2   22nd Report - The Government's new approach to consultation - "Work in Progress" (HL Paper 100) Back


 
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