Memo to Liam Fox: Before offering more engagement to stakeholders, sort out the consultation confusion in your own department

So, Tuesday morning, Liam Fox goes onto the Radio Four TODAY programme and teases its listeners with the prospect of unprecedented consultation on trade matters. It’s worth recording his message:

‘We are entering an era where I think people will take a much bigger interest in trade agreements than they might have done in the past, on environmental standards, quality and safety, they will clearly have very strong views.”
“Consumers will want to be consulted – we don’t want to get into a situation where we’ve been with the TTIP agreement with the US and the EU where a huge amount of work is done only to find the public won’t accept it. We need to understand those parameters early on,”

Anyone who believes in consultation on principle will welcome some of these sentiments, and campaigners against TTIP will have am ‘I told you so …’ moment.

Which would be fine – had it not been for the fact that on Monday, he published his Trade Bill only hours after the closing date of the consultation on the Policy Paper launched on 9th October. This was called Preparing for our future UK Trade policy, and some will regard the 4 weeks allowed for responses on such an important strategic issue as ludicrous. It breaks so many of the established rules, that one can only surmise that officials at the Department of International Trade saw themselves as somehow exempt from the normal requirements. However, read the fine words at the end of the Paper:

Next steps

“As we continue our work to develop and deliver a UK trade policy that benefits business, workers and consumers across the whole of the UK, we will engage regularly with stakeholders through both formal and informal consultation mechanisms. Through this paper, we are seeking views on all aspects of our developing approach. In particular, we invite feedback on the following elements, as part of our engagement on the legislation (including a trade bill and a customs bill) which the government intends to introduce in this parliamentary session…”

Government lawyers will know about the 2006 Judicial Review[1] when the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, Peter Hain rushed to present to Parliament proposed legislation on Water charges, only days after the consultation closing date. The Consumer Council of Northern Ireland won its case because Ministers could not possibly, within that timetable, satisfied the fourth of the Gunning Principles – which requires decision-makers to give conscientious consideration to what consultees have said.

Maybe Departmental lawyers think they have found a loophole, but consider this. Here is a consultation which, according to media sources, attracted 60,000 responses. We suspect most of these were petitions, and we know War on Want organised 2,000 separate responses. We know of no feedback, report. No ‘You Said; we did’ Not even the usual entry in the database. If anyone is minded to go to the High Court, the Department will probably lose.

For all our sakes, let us hope the Department of International Trade is better at negotiations than it is at running public consultations.


[1] Application of the General Consumer Council of Northern Ireland [2006] NIQB 86


About the Author

Rhion Jones is considered a leading authority on Public Engagement and Consultation. A founding Director of the Consultation Institute, he is co-author of “The Art of Consultation” (2009) and “The Politics of Consultation” (2018). He has delivered over 400 training courses and Masterclasses and is a prolific writer on the subject, having written over 300 different Topic papers and over 40 full Briefing Papers for the Institute. Since 2003 over 15,000 person-days of training based on courses he invented have been delivered. Rhion is in demand as an entertaining Keynote Speaker and Special Adviser, particularly on the Law of Consultation, and its implications for Government and other Public Bodies. In 2017, he was awarded the ‘Lifetime Achievement Award’.

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