The Week in Parliament
Well with the transatlantic excitement of last week now done and dusted, it’s time for the UK to stand up, frantically wave, and perhaps put on some sort of comical costume to draw attention back to itself. It has done so by exposing all the internal battles of No. 10 to the world. Messy, but effective. But what has been going on outside Downing Street?
The Commons was relatively quiet this week, but there was a somewhat interesting debate on Thursday around the abolition of Public Health England and the Government’s efforts to make England smokefree by 2030. The public health battle against smoking has been a long-fought one, and with fewer smokers now puffing away than at any other point in history, one that seems to be being won. The major point of contention in this week’s debate was the response (or rather the lack of response) to the Government consultation that closed last year on smoking prevention. Now smoking consultations have a long and fascinating history and have often proved the nexus to some of the most significant challenges to public health policy in the area. Perhaps the most prominent example of this was the British American Tobacco case, which formed part of an almost imaginably huge international legal effort by tobacco manufacturers to nullify the various plain packaging efforts that were being globally made. This case was very interesting because of the Government’s use of a ten-point ‘statement of methodological best practice’ which defined how they would analyse and weight evidence. In the end, the Judge found for the Government, determining that it was legitimate for the Government, in line with their ‘statement of methodological best practice’ to give little weight to evidence submitted by the tobacco industry. If the Government isn’t just blowing smoke on their efforts for a smokefree England by 2030, then we would not be surprised to see further challenges to consultations by the tobacco companies.
Thursday in the Lords was taken up largely by the Fisheries Bill. Even before Brexit, the fishing industry was one of the most regularly consulted upon sectors of our society (in our 2019 consultation retrospective we specifically identified that one of the reasons DEFRA consults more than any other is down to this). Having left the EU, that record seems likely to continue, and indeed to increase as ministers try to balance the sustainability of fish stocks against the needs of the industry. With several consultations on broad fishing policy concluded, and several others imminent the time has never been brighter for fishing communities to get involved with shaping the future of their industry.
This is not without its challenges, however. The Marine Management Organisation undertakes many fishing consultations, and their workload looks likely to go through the roof (or should that be to the depths of the ocean?) as they attempt to tidy up loose ends left from the Brexit transition process. The consultation processes of the MMO have themselves come under criticism in the past, and with a likely huge increase in numbers of consultations and Government reliance upon their advice, it’s an area they really can’t afford to get wrong.
The Covid-19 pandemic has had many different effects, in many different areas. In Scotland, one of the major projects that has been delayed has been the designation of new Marine Protection Areas. In a debate this week, the Minister for Rural Affairs and the Natural Environment acknowledged that the programme, first advised in 2018 after a lengthy consultation process was still in the works, with one of the major causes for the delay being the cancellation of stakeholder engagement work because of Covid-19. It’s not the first time that we’ve heard this story, and it certainly won’t be the last. As Covid-19 will still be with us for a while, we wonder if there may be reasonable ground to resume the consultations using more online methods in order to make progress. The Institute and colleagues have done a lot of work over the course of the pandemic on how consultations can be continued. We’re always a little cautious when a delay is being ascribed to an inability to consult when there are plenty of Covid-safe methodologies that can easily be used.
An interesting debate in the Senedd this week during consideration of the Local Government and Elections (Wales) Bill. Reform of elections tends to be a quite consultative area, with constituency reviews etc. having rigorous consultation procedures in place. A challenge was mounted to the Bill this week however accusing the Welsh Government of ignoring their own positive words in favour of community empowerment and engagement and stripping out amendments to encourage actual community involvement. The statement, made by Mark Isherwood, Conservative MS for North Wales, highlighted techniques beyond mere consultation such as co-production, encouraging their use within the context of the Bill. Although we were pleased to see these matters being debated, it must be recalled, particularly in the case of co-production, that these methods are not always advisable. Co-production, for example, does not just mean a more concentrated form of involvement, but almost always requires some delegation of actual decision-making authority in a way that consultation does not. It will be interesting to see when the final Bill emerges if any of the strong words have an impact, and what shape the future of public involvement under the legislation will take.
Concerns in Northern Ireland were raised in the Assembly over the lack of consultation and engagement on new health regulations. Curiously however these took a slightly different approach than we usually see, not complaining that the regulations were not consulted upon and therefore inadequate, but instead commenting that the lack of consultation makes the scrutineering job of the committee significantly more difficult. The utility of consultation evidence in testing policy in committee is not something we see raised very often, but is an undeniably valuable thing, allowing contentious government decisions to be challenged and addressed. As stated by the Chair of the Committee for Health in the Assembly debate, the absence of this evidence also makes the job of the committee even more critical, to ensure propriety in decision-making. To take an antonymic paraphrasing of Gilbert and Sullivan: A paradox, a paradox, a most unfortunate paradox!