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Government consultation principles inadequate, Lords committee reports

7 November 2013

The UK Government's published Consultation Principles “still suggest a Government inclined to prioritise their administrative convenience over the interests of potential respondents”, according to a parliamentary committee.

In a report published today, the House of Lords Secondary Legislation Scrutiny Committee reasserts its concern that the principles proposed by the Government may weaken the consultation process by reducing the opportunity for the public to respond to consultations.

The committee was responding to a review carried out by the Government of its Consultation Principles. First published in July 2012, they have attracted criticisms from organisations concerned that they would not be able to produce well argued, evidence based responses in the time proposed for consultation.

The committee stresses that the process of consultation is not an academic issue, but one which has a real impact on the quality of Government policymaking and legislation. Its report sets out a number of continuing concerns: 

  • The Government says that appropriate time frames for consultation are between two and 12 weeks. The committee insists that six weeks should be the minimum consultation period.
  • The principles recommend early engagement, but include the caveat that this should avoid “disproportionate cost”. The committee feels that this may be too easily applied subjectively.
  • The committee says that consultations over holiday periods (at Easter, in August, and over Christmas) should be avoided, but notes a suggestion from the Government’s advisory panel that, if this timing is unavoidable, an extra two weeks for responses should be allowed. The Government has not taken up this suggestion, and the committee is not convinced that the principles’ statement that policy makers "should consider mitigating action where a consultation spans a holiday" is adequate.
  • Where secondary legislation is laid before Parliament, consultation responses relevant to it should always be published at the same time to allow informed parliamentary scrutiny.
  • The committee believes that there should be a mechanism for redress for stakeholders when a consultation does not comply with the Government’s principles.

Lord Goodlad, chairman of the Lords committee, commented: “Effective consultation is a vital component of good legislation. It is in the Government’s own interest, as well as that of the public at large, that all those likely to be affected by primary or secondary legislation are adequately consulted before legislation is laid before Parliament. Consultations often produce constructive and practical suggestions about how a law can be more appropriately drafted.

“The Government should allow sufficient time to ensure that interested parties are able to respond to consultations. The period allowed should be proportionate. For major, or controversial, changes it should be 12 weeks; for lesser, technical changes a shorter time may be appropriate; but we are clear that consultation periods should not be shorter than six weeks. In our view, setting a two week period for a consultation, which the Government see as an option, would place an unacceptable burden on consultation respondents."

He added: “This committee’s role is scrutiny of secondary legislation. Comments made by interested parties are an important source of information on whether the legislation proposed will work in practice. We are therefore reminding the Government of the importance of publishing consultation responses at the time that they place statutory instruments before Parliament.”

Click here to view the report.

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