Consultations by Government Departments

Lord Norton

PICT0137We have just concluded the short debate I initiated on public consultations by Government Departments.  It was a useful debate.  The text can be read in Hansard tomorrow.

My contribution to the debate was informed by earlier responses to my posts on consultation.  In his contribution to the debate, Lord Maclennan called attention to this blog and, indeed, named some of the readers (MJ Ray and others) who had contributed.

The minister responding was Lord Davies of Abersoch, from the Department for Business Enterprise & Regulatory Reform.   He defended what the Government had done so far in respect of consultations, but he did deliver one notable piece of good news.   By the end of this year, it will be possible to find on one site a list of all government consultations being undertaken and that material will be available in machine-readable form.  This represents a major step forward.  I also like to think it demonstrates the value of pursuing issues through questions and debate.

UPDATE: The debate can be read here.

14 comments for “Consultations by Government Departments

  1. Adrian Kidney
    14/05/2009 at 6:54 pm

    Aw, I want to get mentioned!

    I suppose my contributions should be more constructive…but I tend to be more of a watcher-and-learner unless it’s constitutional issues, myself.

    I will try to grab Hansard tomorrow and read!

  2. lordnorton
    14/05/2009 at 10:36 pm

    Adrian Kidney: I am sure there will be other issues I raise that draw on contributions from readers. So keep writing….

  3. Croft
    15/05/2009 at 4:15 pm

    The Better Regulation Executive in the Department for Business, Enterprise & Regulatory Reform is working with the Directgov team of the Central Office of Information to deliver such a service

    I wonder how many people need to read further to work out part of the problem!

    Lord Eccles made a point I frequently think has been the case especially in the 97-2005 period:

    “In the consultation, no questions were asked about modernisation; it was a given. That is to say, statutory control equalled modernisation, in effect.”

    I doubt I’m the only person who finds the implicit assumption that government modernising something must make it better exasperating. Moreover I do wonder if sections of the government machine believe the solution to a problem is regulation, and if there is no problem regulation anyway just in case.

    The remark that “The level of public interest in the policy has been minimal” shouldn’t surprise us. I’ve watched and no doubt various Lords-a-blogging here have participated in many hearings/consultations where it seems that everybody with a corporate financial interest is listened to at great length and at end of normal proceedings, if we are lucky, a few disinterested parties make up the numbers. In the former group I take a dim view when various charity quangos (can I coin Changos?) present themselves and are treated as independent voices even though they provides services (for gain) or receive the largest single portion of funding from government.

    Even assuming the public know about consultations, which I don’t think they do because it’s often circulated within the governmental/professional bodies, unless they feel their voice is listened to in proper proportion not just tolerated in proceedings then they still won’t get involved.

  4. ladytizzy
    15/05/2009 at 11:44 pm

    Lord Davies of Abersoch: “There are important principles of the code are that all public consultations should adhere to. It must be timely, clear, accessible and well publicised. Consultations must be introduced early in the policy development process and last at least twelve weeks.”

    That does not always happen, does it? The first consultation to which I was encouraged to contribute (thanks to this blog) was well short of that and Defra stated that enough consultation had been previously conducted in Wales! I refer to my earlier comments on the secondary legislation on dogs and cats, Animal Welfare Act, 2006, for the sake of reference.

    Changos and charities in general, I dearly hope, are next on the hit list.

    Personally, I am totally fed up with playing by the rules, yet being hounded by idiots out for a fast buck, paying for services that evaporate when you need them, and, and…just about everything at the moment.

    I hate being like this. I hate having to spend my time on pursuing nearly every big business and gvt dept because they are inept and scared to death that I’m going to sue. I hate being categorised as a nuisance because of having to forcefully point out errors in big systems that the owners can’t, or won’t, see.

    I hate that I am whining like a puppy needing a pee on this blog.

  5. lordnorton
    16/05/2009 at 6:15 pm

    ladytizzy: Not all consultations do last the recommended twelve weeks. Some last not only for a shorter period, but a remarkably shorter period. Of course, the length of the consultation doesn’t really matter if no one knows it is taking place. As I argued in my speech, there are clearly problems with enabling people to know when a consultation is taking place and then ensuring that they have time to respond. Even if a consultation does take extent to twelve weeks, not all Departments have stuck to the guidance to avoid holding it over, for example, the summer holidays. At least we made some headway in this debate. From the end of this year, it should be much easier to know when a consultation is taking place. The next step is to try to ensure that every consultation complies with the guidance.

    On your later points, Departments won’t change unless they are pressured. If you give up, they will just carry on in their old ways.

  6. lordnorton
    16/05/2009 at 6:23 pm

    Croft: I take the points you make. In the debate, some of my colleagues objected to the term ‘stakeholder’. I have an equally strong distaste for the term ‘modernisation’. It covers everything and means nothing. Change, whatever it is and whether it be by regulation or some other mechanism, is often justified in terms of modernisation. The use of the term is essentially a sign of laziness and/or an intellectual incapacity to justify what is being proposed.

    There is clearly a need to establish confidence in the consultation process. People not only need to know when consultations are taking place, but also need to believe that contributing will actually be worthwhile. If people feel that they will be ignored, squeezed out by the usual suspects, or be feeding in observations when the decision has already been made then clearly the legitimacy of the process is undermined. There may be a case for a wider review of the consultation process. When the government last reviewed the process, it led to the latest code of guidance. Clearly, much more needs to be done.

  7. Croft
    17/05/2009 at 9:52 am

    I have to say I do find the phrase stakeholder grates with me somewhat.

    Is there from an insiders perspective an obvious way to get the co-ordination and enforcement of the rules. I might expect that the options are either having one department or an outside regulator responsible for organising/publicising, monitoring and then accessing compliance across all departments. Left to their own devices departments are bound to have an unequal response. However I’m less than convinced that governments are good at monitoring themselves and that quangos can be ineffective and expensive talking shops lacking teeth or the will to use them.

  8. lordnorton
    17/05/2009 at 11:32 am

    Croft: I think it would have to be a body within Government that ensures compliance, but there is no reason why compliance could not be monitored by a parliamentary body or some outside body. The body within Government that would be the obvious candidate would be the Cabinet Office. The important thing is to give it the teeth. That requires political will at the top. At the moment, there is no requirement to comply with the code and responsibilities are divided between BERR and the Cabinet Office.

  9. Senex
    17/05/2009 at 12:56 pm

    Lord Norton: “At the moment, there is no requirement to comply with the code and responsibilities are divided between BERR and the Cabinet Office.”

    And for the political cynics out there BERR or its full acronym DBERR stands for ‘Darling Browns Economy Runs Risks’.

    Lord Mandelson however, and I had to google this, believes that it stands for ‘Department for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform’.

  10. 17/05/2009 at 8:42 pm

    Firstly, thank you Lord Norton for pursuing this, wasn’t it you who first requested the electronic records, following a meeting with some of the people from theyworkforyou.com ?

    This issue is more important, to me, than MPs on the fiddle; it’s a chance to address one of the underlying problems in the public’s perception of Parliament, whereas the issue of expenses is just a symptom. Better consultation is one of those things that could improve interaction between the public and Parliament, but it’s not something the public would know to ask for.

    Unfortunately, with the exception of the good news about electronic records, the debate was quite a depressing read. Some good points were made, and a strong case was put forward for having an outside body enforce compliance with the guidelines. The answer ignored all the points though, Lord Davies of Abersoch appeared to be saying the current process is good enough, which leads me to believe this part of his speech is insincere:

    the Government are committed to effective public consultation that is targeted at and easily accessible to those with a clear interest in the policy in question. This is fundamental to a working democracy.

    If the Government were truly ‘committed to effective consultation’, they would welcome suggestions on making it better. His example is a bad one too, having worked on a farm I am well aware of some of the onerous paperwork and inspection requirements even small businesses have to comply with. All these requirements having been decided by Government and big businesses. Also, the NFU is a large organisation, not a good example of individual members of the public being stakeholders in the decision making process.

  11. lordnorton
    18/05/2009 at 9:41 am

    Liam: Yes, if it wasn’t for comments on the blog, and meetings arranged as a consequence, I would not be pursuing the issue. I have drawn heavily on the expertise and experience of readers. I have no doubt that I will continue to do so. I agree with what you say. I suspect the good news was the result of action by the minister and the rest of the speech was the usual text produced by officials. I very much suspect that if officials had their way, there would not have been any good news at all.

    I am keen to pursue the issue. Reverting to my response to Croft, I think there needs to be a central point within Government with responsibility for consultations. It is clearly important that Departments allow adequate time for consultation and are seen to be taking the exercise seriously, rather than conveying the impression that they are just going through the motions. Consultations should be seen as an intrinsic part of the policy-making process and not as some unfortunate encumbrance. I would be keen to hear of the experience of any readers who have been involved in consultations as well as of any proposals to improve the process.

    • Croft
      18/05/2009 at 1:03 pm

      I’d very much support a/the senior civil servant responsible being compelled to report to a committee/joint committee annually on compliance with a proper consultation rules regime. I suspect that the prospect of an annual assault/lambasting would have a remarkable impact on the civil service machine’s willingness to sort this out.

  12. lordnorton
    18/05/2009 at 1:34 pm

    Croft: I agree. I will see if it something worth raising as part of the Constitution Committee’s investigation into the Cabinet Office. We are now producing annual reports on pre-legislative scrutiny and it may be we could do something similar on consultations.

  13. iatrogenic
    21/05/2009 at 10:17 pm

    Why has the freemasons i.e (Law Lords666) turned on the Mps…Is this the FM getting there house in order? By allowing the judgemnent over the F.o.Information into expenses is V charitable to the public. Did the MPs upset the legal department i.e TEMPLE BAR666…..who lashed back in such away?

    Or is this part of Gordons new world order plan or has bilderberg
    a hand in this….

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