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2020 – the consultation retrospective

Loathe though we are to unnecessarily return to 2020, it is the time of year where we have a brief look back of the number of public consultations we saw in the previous year, and who was the most prominent consultor. This data is compiled from our database which monitors all Government consultations- at this point, we warn that as this data is manually researched and entered, we cannot guarantee it is one hundred percent accurate, but we reassure that we do our best to ensure that it is a good representative picture of the state of play.

In total across all the devolved administrations and the UK Government itself, we saw 633 consultations, a decrease of nearly one hundred on 2019 (725). The easy assumption is to ascribe this to the pandemic, and this may well be the case, but for the moment we’ll be giving this a ‘not proven’ verdict. As with consultation responses themselves, numbers are rarely a good indicator on their own, and never tell the whole story. That being said, we will be going through the numbers- but only to have a look at the patterns that emerge that might tell us something about Government priorities and where their attention has been focussed.

The UK Government actually increased the number of consultations from the previous year, from 379 in 2019 to 395 in 2020. As with last year (though the usual caveats apply that this Department supervises two agencies that consult like clockwork- the Marine Management Organization and Natural England) the most frequent consultor was the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs who undertook 82 individual consultations. The remainder of the top five most frequent consultors are as follows:

  1. Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs- 82
  2. Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy- 43
  3. Department for Transport- 37
  4. Department of Health and Social Care- 29
  5. HM Treasury- 28

Other than the departments we might expect (Leaders of the House of Commons/Lords, Wales Office, Scotland Office), the only major government department to conduct no consultations was the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office. Few surprises in the other minimally consulting departments, which included the Cabinet Office (6), the MOD (4) and the Attorney General’s Office (1).

In the devolved administrations, the most frequent consultor was the Northern Ireland Executive, who opened 110 consultations, nearly half of them (54) being mostly traffic-related programmes run by the Department for Infrastructure. Trailing this were the Department of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs (18) and the Department of Justice (16). With 2020 being the year that the Northern Ireland Executive returned, it is perhaps not surprising that they continued their high numbers of consultations. Many of them relate to governmental aspirations and cover significant topics, rather than being more prosaic day-to-day consultations. The focus this year does seem to be on major environmental issues, including a rather interesting ‘Public Discussion’ document on the mooted new clean air strategy.

The Holyrood Government conducted 58 consultations, almost half as many as they did in the previous year (117). Last year we saw a preponderance of justice and law-related consultations in Scotland- this year the patterns were much less clear. The top three subjects of consultation were the economy (14), Health and Social Care (13) and the Environment (10). Perhaps the most prominent theme of the Scottish consultations are moves to consider the future of the Scottish economy, both in terms of recovery from Covid and sustainability. Tech is also coming under scrutiny with major consultations on the Digital Strategy for Scotland, and the potential role of AI in the Scottish economy.

The Welsh Government ran 70 consultations, with the top three subjects being related to Education and Children (14), the Economy (13) and Health and Social Care (12). The environment, which in 2019 took the top spot fell to joint fifth spot with only a third of the number of consultations compared to last year (6 in 2020). The increase in consultations in education and related matters in Wales coincides with the 2020 release of the first quinquennial report of the Welsh Future Generations Commissioner- although likely unrelated, the report might well trigger a continuing high rate of consultation on youth matters as Wales grapples with how best to develop a sustainable and positive future.

Given the major story of the year, we have seen remarkably few consultations on coronavirus related matters. In England the UK government conducted 9, in Wales there were 3, in Northern Ireland we saw 2 and in Scotland, 7. Once again, these numbers certainly don’t reflect the full story- our records are only of regularly published consultations on the respective Government websites, and we do know that other consultative processes have been going on behind the scenes. The need to act swiftly has not always allowed full consultations. There have however been problems with this. Perhaps the most glaring one is the lack of transparency. We have little idea who said what and how their views were acted on or not, and this hasn’t just been an abstract issue. Multiple times the Courts have been called to assess these processes which culminated in the Court of Appeal delivering in Article 39 v Secretary of State for Education a reminder to the Government that even if they justifiably use a truncated consultation process, the law still applies. As our members will know, the Institute has since the start of the pandemic advocated a form of shortened consultation that could help reduce the problems of the more opaque process mostly being used at present.

Coronavirus was not the only major issue where we have seen less consultation than we might have expected. The Brexit transition period is now over, and we are fully detached from the European Union (within the constraints of the trade deal). The major post-Brexit consultations that we might have expected to see last year did not seem to materialise, and some of those that did had at best questionable processes (watch out next week for an update on our FOI on the Internal Market Bill consultation). Although the pandemic is no doubt partially to blame for this now that we’re out there are a lot of questions to be answered about the future of the UK which will invite calls for consultations.

The other area that we would expect to see a significant uptick in consultations is environmental and climate change related issues. This year, the UK hosts the COP26 summit in Glasgow, so the government will no doubt be keen to flaunt its environmental credentials. One of the easiest ways to do this would be to launch a flurry of consultations beforehand. There are already several going through the system, but as we (hopefully) reach the point at which the pandemic becomes less pressing, we might hope that the climate emergency can resume its place as the primary global concern.

In the devolved administrations, many of the same considerations apply. One particular place of interest to look might be Scotland, where a renewed push for a second independence referendum might generate an increase in constitutional related consultations being used to both shape policy and demonstrate the strength of feeling. With the Northern Ireland assembly back and its unique status post-Brexit, we might also see major consultations there on economic and constitutional matters.

As a reminder, we compile this information manually from public sources, so we cannot guarantee absolute and total accuracy of numbers, but we are confident enough to put our name to it.  If you would like any further information or have any more specific questions, then do drop us a line at either stephenh@consultationinstitute.org or sarahj@consultationinstitute.org.

About the Author

Stephen serves as the Institute’s Legal and Parliamentary Officer. Before joining the Institute Stephen studied Law at Bangor University and pursued a Masters’ degree in Aviation and Space Law at McGill University in Montreal. After this, he returned to London and was called to the bar in 2016 at the Honorable Society of Gray’s Inn, before deciding not to go into practice and move towards public policy work instead. Within the Institute, Stephen provides legal, political and policy analysis of UK and global current affairs of interest to consultors and consultees.

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