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The Week in Parliament

With legislatures all over the UK going into recess, some to anticipate their elections in May, and some just for a well-deserved Easter break, this will be the last WIP for at least a couple of weeks. Just because it’s the end of term, it does not mean they get away with watching films and doing fun activities. Though I have heard rumours that if they bring in a pound they get a non-uniform day. So what have they been up to in the run-up to the Easter break?

Westminster

Perhaps the biggest Westminster story this week was the introduction of Priti Patel’s new immigration reform proposals. Intensely controversial, we are relieved to see that the plans are now being consulted upon. Naturally, that led us to look at the consultation.

Our first thoughts- it’s very short for something that the Home Secretary described in Parliament as “the most significant overhaul of our asylum system in decades”, just a six week consultation period. That doesn’t give people very long to respond to what is a complicated and emotive issue. So why so short? It’s difficult to tell, there is no obvious reason why it should be, and consultation durations should usually be proportionate to the issue they’re covering. The proposals themselves run to 52 pages, there are 75 questions in total- mostly check boxes, with a few longer freeform comment fields.

The website the consultation is on, a citizenlab powered site, is very flashy. But there are some possible additional points of potential concern here too. Firstly, to even see the questions in the consultation you must set up an account- which the website describes as being so you can return to the consultation later. Though there is nothing wrong per se with being required to set up an account, one of the basic principles of good consultation is reducing barriers to participation, and it’s eminently plausible that some might be put off by having to provide these details- particularly as it is an immigration related Home Office consultation. Would an illegal immigrant who wanted to talk about their experience be willing to provide these details? The website does make it clear in its privacy statement that the personal details will not be accessible to the Home Office, but this is perhaps not made as immediately obvious as we might like.

The consultation also appears at first glance to be online-only. I have reached out to the organisers to find out if there are any offline methods of responding, but neither the Government website, nor the consultation website makes any mention of the ability to respond in any other way than through the website. Consultations have been successfully challenged in the past on the basis that they over-relied on one type of engagement- and particularly here where some respondents may have limited capacity to access the internet, if there really is no offline method of response, then that is deeply unsatisfactory. If there is, but it’s unadvertised and there is no way of finding out about it without contacting the organisers, that is equally deficient.

The questions themselves are mostly “do you agree”-style questions with tickable boxes, frequently with a space for comments at the end of their respective sections. They’re divided up sensibly into chapters, each corresponding with a chapter of the government proposals paper. There is an equalities analysis section which seems to cover all pertinent points, and should allow a proper response from the Government.

In all, it’s a bit of an odd one. Whilst much of the substance is reasonable, there are reasons to have concern about the process. As of this moment, I have not yet heard back from the organisers regarding offline accessibility- I will of course report back when I have. As for the rest of it, much may lie in how the government responds to it. I will also be reaching out to the Home Office to ask how they arrived at the six week duration. It’ll be the second consultation process related request I’ve made of them this week- I hope they don’t get bored of me!

Scotland

Pubs! Remember pubs? Where you got to stand at a bar eternally waving a fiver in the air to try and catch the eye of the bartender? Great weren’t they? There’s been quite a lot of talk in all of the legislatures recently about pubs, who have been one of the hardest hit industries during the covid pandemic. In Scotland this week, we saw debate on the Tied Pubs (Scotland) Bill, which amongst other things involves the Scottish pubs code, currently being consulted on by the Scottish Government. The drafting process involves a consultation described as both ‘wide’ and ‘full, but interestingly there was also a promise that the content would also be informed by the behaviour of relevant parties between the present moment and the time the code comes into force. We wonder if this could provoke some interesting interactions in the decision-making process, or whether there might be behavioural or consultation response changes because of it? Are we going to see responses of the lines of “Well Company X did this, so whereas once I would have said Y, I’m now going to say Z”? It could be an interesting one to watch. There’s a very interesting project somewhere in there on the psychology of responding to consultations…

Northern Ireland

England and Wales is not the only Court jurisdiction currently undergoing consultation on judicial matters. In Northern Ireland various court changes are also under consideration. The first involves a future consultation on an intermediary support scheme for vulnerable people in the civil and family courts- both places where vulnerable people frequently appear for various reasons. The second (and one that will no doubt be looked at jealously by court users in England and Wales) is on the modernisation of courts and the implementation of a digital strategy. One of the consequences of Covid has been a move towards a more digital courts system, and whilst it is appropriate that in-person court hearings should resume as a priority, the emergency has highlighted the somewhat shoddy state of digital infrastructure in many courts. In Northern Ireland we can now anticipate consultation from the NI Courts Service to bolster the availability of video links and more court technology. We’ll certainly have a look at the consultation when it emerges and see if it might prove a model for courts in the rest of the UK.

About the Author

Stephen serves as the Institute’s Legal and Parliamentary Officer. Before joining the Institute Stephen studied Law at Bangor University and pursued a Masters’ degree in Aviation and Space Law at McGill University in Montreal. After this, he returned to London and was called to the bar in 2016 at the Honorable Society of Gray’s Inn, before deciding not to go into practice and move towards public policy work instead. Within the Institute, Stephen provides legal, political and policy analysis of UK and global current affairs of interest to consultors and consultees.

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