The Week in Parliament
It’s been a busy week- we’ve had a ministerial resignation, more local lockdowns, and a largely pointless semi-u-turn (did you read Rhion’s article from last week?). Just another day in the Westminster village. So what’s there been in each of the Parliaments and the Assembly for consultors?
The Commons this week has been occupied with the Internal Market Bill, the Governments legislation designed to prevent barriers to intra-UK trade. It’s one of those stories on something which initially sounds dull that has rather overstepped its own boundaries and become a big exciting news story, claiming one ministerial scalp and several other trade envoys and lesser officials. In brief, the dispute lies around s.45, which specifically allows ministers to make regulations that could break national or international law with impunity. Naturally, pesky lawyers highlighted the problem with a Government giving itself powers to break the law, and a revolt was soon brewing. All living former PMs came out against the plans, and Lord Keen, the Advocate-General for Scotland resigned, citing his inability to find a legally compliant argument for the clause. The revolt has now been headed off, with the Government bringing forth an amendment to ensure that Parliament gets a vote on breaking the law- which doesn’t really solve the problem, but that’ll be dealt with later. At the Institute, we have taken an interest in this because of the somewhat threadbare response to the consultation on the proposals. We’re currently waiting to hear back from the Department for Business Energy and Industrial Strategy, having submitted a freedom of information request to see the full analysis and list of participants to work out what exactly was said, and whether it has any resemblance to the Government response.
We’ve also seen in the debate, the return of the perennial questions (which have been slightly less perennial over the duration of the pandemic) about the whereabouts of the Shared Prosperity Fund, a much touted replacement for certain EU funding procedures that has been promised more or less since the referendum. A consultation was first promised on it in 2017. In 2018, it was promised to be coming that year, and not just a consultation, but a ‘wide’ consultation. Curiously, in one of the debates on the Internal Market Bill Chloe Smith, the Minister for the Cabinet Office, suggested that the fund would be brought about using the provisions of this bill. Has a separate consultation on the fund been abandoned? And if so what was the justification for ditching a consultation on what looked like it was going to be a fairly controversial new financing mechanism? I suspect her answer will not assuage MPs eagerly awaiting news on what new resources they will be getting.
The Internal Market Bill was also under consideration in the Welsh Parliament/Senedd Cymru, where the Counsel-General mounted similar criticisms of the consultation process behind the Bill to our own. For the devolved administrations, there are particular problems with the Bill, with many seeing it as unfairly infringing upon the prerogatives of the governments in Holyrood, Cardiff and Belfast. At time of writing, the other devolved parliaments have not yet debated the legislation, but it seems likely that the same issues will arise again and again- was the consultation process inadequate and were the devolved administrations adequately involved with the writing of the bill? Naturally, we’ll keep an eye on it and report back if our investigations bear fruit.
In Scotland we’ve seen an interesting debate about the establishment of aa ‘Museum of Human Rights’. Noting that Scotland (and the rest of the UK) have deep connections to the slave trade and the inequities of the past, the Scottish Parliament debated the need to ensure that citizens are educated about the historical context of racism and other forms of inequalities. The Scottish Government has announced that it is working with Museum Galleries Scotland to establish an Independent Expert Review Group to consider public education. The final proposals of this group will be considered ‘alongside’ a public consultation which will consider broadly the same subject matter.
There are two points of interest here, firstly the establishment of a sort of ‘cultural consultation’ looking at our relationships with the past, and how they echo down through to today, and secondly the parallel consideration of an expert panel and a general public consultation. Cultural consultations of this sort are an interesting approach to dealing with issues of great controversy, and with BLM and other movements encouraging reviews of structural and systemic inequity, it will be interesting to see if they gain traction. Using parallel processes of experts and lay-people has both benefits and challenges, not least in balancing the two sets of views- what if they come up with diametrically opposed results?
Although the exams crisis has fallen from the spotlight in England (though we note the Education Select Committee is inquiring into it), it has returned as an issue in Northern Ireland where the Assembly has been asking questions about the need to consult on adequate assessment processes, and the impact that changes to exams might have on the mental health of students. The Northern Ireland administration does not seem to have suffered quite as much anger over their approach, and they will shortly be launching their consultation on proposals for next years exams which- if the statements of the Director of Education at the Council for the Curriculum, Examinations and Assessment are anything to go by (and she should know) are likely to recommend a reduced exam schedule for GCSE students. In light of the problems in England, the actions of the devolved administrations should provide an interesting comparative approach.
As usual, any thoughts or queries you have, or anyone who has any ideas on how we might get hold of the full results of the Government’s Internal Market consultation, please direct them to email@example.com