The Week in Parliament
We’re nearly there ladies and gentlemen. Where? Well that’s up to you. Perhaps you’re someone eagerly waiting for the sigh of warmth and comfort that is Christmas at the end of a very difficult year. Perhaps you’re a desperate politico, who is keen to stop reading the menus of last-minute Brexit-resolving meetings. Perhaps you’re a consultor, looking forward to reporting on how people feel about Father Christmas visiting their house in defiance of all restrictions and reason. Whatever frame of mind you’re in, we’re nearly there. So what’s been going on in the penultimate week of Parliamentary business before the Christmas recess?
The UK Internal Market Bill has entered its ping-pong phase this week (or as the PM might be inclined to have it, its ‘whiff-whaff’ phase…), where it rattles between the Commons and the Lords with amendments being inserted and removed. The consultation issues around it seem largely to be forgotten at this stage, with one exception. If you’ve been following along with the Week in Parliament, you might be able to guess what it is. Yes! The shared prosperity fund is back. Again. You can almost set your watch by it. Once again the criticism is that there has been no real consultation on it, despite almost three years of promises. I have speculated several times this year that we are likely not to see a separate consultation on it, and I maintain that view, based on the Government’s elusiveness, and tacit references to it that imply it has been rolled into the Internal Market Bill. Given the importance of consultation on major projects, and the difficulties in achieving the correct balances between the UK Government and Devolved Administrations, even after the Internal Market Bill passes the questions are still not likely to go away. It will be interesting to see how the Government intends to bring the fund about. If they launch it without any separate consultation, the protestations are likely to get even more vigorous. This could end up being for the long haul…
The second point of interest from Parliament this week was a protestation from the Conservative MP for Buckingham, Greg Smith, who objected to the length of a consultation on a new prison in his constituency. This is actually one I’d picked up myself on one of my regular sweeps of the Government consultation pages. The consultation, a fifteen-page consultation launched on 2nd December lasts only three weeks, rather short you might think for a new prison, particularly giving it’s taking place in the run-up to Christmas. The proposed new prison would be sited next to two existing detention facilities. Having had a look at the documentation, I’m a little unclear as to what the Government actually wants from the consultation. The summary very much positions it as an initial ‘pre-decision’ scoping consultation, making it clear that the Government does not yet have plans on whether they will formally progress the plans. It seems likely that they are just testing the breeze, particularly given that the plans go out of their way to emphasise the benefits to the local community. As to whether the consultation is too short, if it is just a testing an idea consultation, it might be alright. The question may well be what their response is, and what comes next. We’ll keep an eye on it.
In the Scottish Parliament this week, we saw an interesting debate on “Parliament’s Evolving Scrutiny Function”, a wide-ranging debate which ended up focussing on the constitutional implications of the end of the Brexit transition period. Much of the concern expressed here was common to previous statements we have seen in all the devolved administrations, that the return of powers from Brussels might, either inadvertently or intentionally, entail something of a reversal of devolution in favour of more centralisation in Westminster. The Convener of the Economy, Energy and Fair Work Committee of the Scottish parliament, Gordon Lindhurst MSP leant heavily on the importance of consultation and engagement in countering any worrying trends, and outlined the expectation of his committee that both the UK and Scottish Governments should be held to a high standard in consulting on common frameworks, and should be publishing consultation responses. With the devolved parliaments and assembly having limited direct influence in Westminster, I wouldn’t be surprised to see further pressure of this sort being brought to bear as things move on.
The concerns expressed in Holyrood have found even more poignancy in Wales this week in the debate over the legislative consent motion on the UK Internal Market Bill, due to finish its passage through Westminster imminently. The UK Internal Market Bill has been the first real nexus of contention, and has drawn criticism from across the political spectrum for the lack of consultation with the devolved administrations. In Cardiff this week, the Counsel General and Minister for European Transition highlighted probably the first practical effect that the Bill’s passage would have- the recently closed Welsh Government consultation on banning nine types of single-use plastics would not be able to be followed up on if the Bill in its current form passes. With substantive changed to the Bill unlikely, it was possibly inevitable that, like their Scottish counterparts, Members of the Senedd rejected the legislative consent motion.
We can step away from legislative aspects of Brexit in the Northern Irish Assembly much, no doubt, to everyone’s relief. The Assembly was relatively quiet on consultation matters, though there was some discussion of the anticipated legislation on sign language, the framework of which has been consulted upon. One of the things that emerged from the brief debate was the effects of lockdown on deaf people, and the need to rapidly advance the Bill in order to counter equalities issues hand in hand with the sector. It seems certain that there will be more consultations on the detail of the bill in the new year.
Next week will be the last Week in Parliament this year, so if you have any requests for things to be covered, then do let me know. I won’t sing anything written past about 1990 though, and Christmas songs are preferred.