The Week in Parliament
Westminster is back in action, and this week it is the Welsh who have declined to give me anything interesting to talk about. So we’ll avoid crossing the Severn for now and look at what else has been happening.
A couple of weeks ago, we wrote about the Government’s much criticised plans to remove dangerous cladding from high-rise residential buildings. This however is only one limb of the post-Grenfell efforts to bolster building safety. The other two are currently going through the legislative process. This week, we saw one of them return to Parliament- the Fire Safety Bill.
The Bill will enable ministers to strengthen the fire safety order, a process which they have already started consulting on, with the consultation having closed in October last year. The update will seek to implement the Grenfell Tower Inquiry’s Phase 1 recommendations and the Government is due to respond to the consultation shortly.
So far, so (seemingly) solid a process. The opposition however are unhappy. The particular target of their ire is the pace of change with MPs criticising that though the consultation closed in October, the Government have still yet to respond. Instead of merely implementing the recommendations of the inquiry panel, they have referred potential changes to various steering groups and consultations.
The merits or otherwise of the approaches being taken in this particular instance are not for us to comment on. But we can speak to the importance of process. There are perhaps a couple of separate issues here. When an inquiry makes recommendations post-facto, there is still a need to go through the process of consultation and engagement with stakeholders on those recommendations. No matter how expert the inquiry panel or how involved they are with the subject matter, the recommendations have only come from one source. They usually don’t come pre-packaged as legislation, but as a series of suggestions as to what should be done.
Converting them from merely being a series of suggestions into workable legislation (whether primary or secondary) requires thought and analysis, and ideally, stakeholder involvement. Consultation and engagement is important then to ensure that we get things right, that the changes made are practical and effective.
Particularly on matters where great and tragic harm has been done to a community, and the goal of the review is to ensure that it can never happen again, the importance of getting it right cannot be underestimated. Acting quickly, but without consultation and engagement might be politically expedient, and allow you to say that you have acted, but if you have taken actions that do not achieve their stated goals, or that involved parties cannot realistically comply with, then the whole endeavour is largely pointless.
That’s not to say of course that timeliness is not important. Unnecessary delays should certainly be avoided. Doing so both increases public and community confidence (thus reducing the political risk), and ensures that you minimise the potential time that there could be a repeat incident. But corners should not be cut. We have seen this year the courts reiterating the need for the basic principles of the law to be respected, even in the most unusual and strenuous of circumstances. Highly emotive issues often trigger an instinctual response, but this must be tempered with rational respect for the process, and the advantages it brings.
With the third element of the Government’s post-Grenfell response (building safety legislation) still out for consultation, we’ll be watching carefully to see that the process is being done properly.
Budgets are curious beasts, and we’re coming up on the time of year where they start rising to the top of the agenda. There is something of a differences between the approaches of Westminster and the devolved administrations when it comes to them, in that whilst the Chancellor of the Exchequer will rarely consult in advance of a budget on what should be in it- preferring to conduct post-facto consultations on individual items within it, the devolved administrations often consult beforehand.
This approach was under discussion in the Scottish parliament this week, drawing general cross-party support and calls from members to expand and develop it further in order to give the public more of a voice in determining that sort of high level policy. It is not of course an entirely problem free endeavour. There is potential for different geographical populations to give enormously conflicting information, which might be difficult to filter through and convert into practical policy.
That got me wondering (and keen to look further into it…) as to whether this approach works better in regions with small populations than larger ones. My instincts tell me it almost certainly does, but it’ll be interesting to look into further. I’d certainly appreciate any thoughts from readers on your experiences of these sort of ‘high level policy’ consultations- even if you’re not from the devolved administrations, there must have been experimentation with them with other organisations. Send in your thoughts and we’ll see if we can produce something on them.
One of the problems likely to have been exacerbated by coronavirus has been the increasing problems with national mental health. Although there has been an increase in focus on mental health, many public bodies are coming to the conclusion that their approaches are outdated and no longer fit for purpose. The UK Government is currently consulting on reforms to the Mental Health Act 1983, and a similar consultation is ongoing in Northern Ireland.
The Northern Ireland consultation is extensively using virtual events, both group and individual to take evidence, as well as more traditional methods. With many mental health problems likely to have been worsened by the isolation of the lockdown, now seems a good time to be reviewing provision and ensuring that proper support is in place.