The Week in Parliament
So, the Scottish and UK Parliaments are back in action with the Welsh Senedd and Northern Ireland Assembly re-joining them next week. So, let’s head to Holyrood and Westminster to peep through the windows into the corridors of power, before being chased off by the police for trespass. As it’s the first week back, let’s have a quick look at what’s upcoming for this session.
The big controversy this week has been over the Government’s social care plan, which we have covered elsewhere, but that’s not the only item of interest on the Government’s menu. In fact, we have a relative smorgasbord (or ‘small gas board’ as we in our family customarily refer to it by) of controversial, unusual or (just occasionally) normal pieces of business.
One of the items that will be speeding through the Commons is the Health and Care Bill, a plan which we have described as generally good, albeit with some peculiar additions not requested by the NHS which might raise some public engagement related concerns. This week, we published Briefing Paper 40: Emerging issues from the Health and Care Bill which goes over our concerns in exhaustive detail, and I would encourage you (particularly in the healthcare sector) to read it, and not only because it will boost my readership numbers. In light of the fact that the plans are supposed to come into force by April 2022, the Government will be working hard to ram this through the Parliamentary process as (some would say inappropriately) quickly as possible. Their challenge will not be in the Commons however, but the Lords, and this could be an interesting one to watch.
The Government’s Elections Bill, which purports to ensure election security is currently at Committee stage in the Commons, where it is likely to come under further scrutiny particularly for the provisions on the introduction of photographic ID as a requirement to vote. These proposals, based on unevidenced claims of a threat to the integrity of the ballot are of particular interest to us, as they weren’t consulted upon. It might be fair to wonder why, given that millions of (particularly vulnerable and minority) electors don’t have such ID, and it is a significant change to electoral policy. Although the Government have promised the introduction of free photo ID for those that need it, this still represents additional barriers to participation, which as many will know, we tend to look down upon.
Speaking of the restriction of democratic rights without consultation, those who have been paying attention will know that the Government is also looking in the Policing, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill to give the Home Secretary enhanced powers to restrict peaceful protest using a definition so broad that it could apply to almost anything. Whilst the rest of the PCSC Bill has been extensively consulted upon, this particular section has been conspicuously absent from the public consultations, and claimed consultations with the police do not seem to match up with the realities of what has actually been done. Those who have really being paying attention will know that I’ve been involved in a bit of an FOI battle of the forms with the Home Office on this, and we’re still eagerly awaiting the final score.
The much-feared reform of judicial review turned out to be something of a damp squib in the end, although there are still some questions to be asked about the Government’s attempt to subtly introduce a drafting formulation which they believe (though legal scholars tend to disagree) would allow them to ‘oust’ or prevent JR on issues it is applied to. In light of the evidence against this contention, it’s unlikely we’ll see consultation related judicial reviews being ousted at any time in the near future.
Finally, and most mysteriously, we keenly await the following legislation after the Government’s Planning for the Future consultation. The original proposals came under heavy fire from all directions, including the Government’s own backbenchers, criticism that was reinforced when the Conservatives lost the Amersham and Chesham by-election which had been fought largely on planning grounds. This demonstration of the strength of feeling is likely to lead to a resurgence of worried Tory backbenchers (and quite possibly some ministers, all the way up to Cabinet level) concerned that proceeding with the plans might lead to their seats coming under threat. We already anticipate that the Government will be substantially changing the plans, however it seems probable that the (for us) most controversial part of the reforms, the zoning provisions that would mean local citizens only get to comment on general zoning plans, rather than specific developments, will remain.
So, we’re set up in Westminster for a busy few months…
The Scottish Parliament returns to a brand-new BT-FSMGTGMF deal (Buy Twenty-Five SNP Ministers, Get Two Scottish Green Ministers Free) after the SNP sought Scottish Green support to secure a pro-independence majority in Holyrood. The co-leaders of the Scottish Greens assume roles as Minister for Zero Carbon Buildings, Active Travel and Tenants’ Rights (Patrick Harvie MSP) and Minister for Green Skills, Circular Economy and Biodiversity (Lorna Slater MSP), with certain exceptions having been given to collective responsibility on specific issues.
Nicola Sturgeon gave her speech on the programme for Government on Tuesday, and once she got through the necessary verities on the continued desire for independence (rumour suggests she’s planning another independence referendum in 2023), she highlighted that the Scottish Government will be prioritising covid recovery, and beginning to tackle climate change an area which usually entails significant public engagement, possibly even more so with Scottish Green members of the Government as Green parties tend to be more inclined towards the devolution of democracy through engagement.
Consultation-wise, we will shortly see the launch of the consultation on removing the ‘not proven’ verdict in criminal cases which we wrote about back in June. There will be a reckoning over the ongoing drugs death crisis, which the SNP promise will be done with “urgency and a deep sense of responsibility and will be guided by lived experience”, which sounds like a call for consultation and engagement to me. Similarly, the pledge to create a national care service was acknowledged as one that will “spark much debate”, so we wouldn’t be surprised to see a fair amount of engagement in pursuit of getting it right.
The only other direct promise of consultation was for an agriculture bill to replace the arrangements formerly under the European common agricultural policy. The UK Government’s Agriculture Act passed with little fuss but given the differences in land ownership and agriculture in Scotland over that in England (which was largely the subject of the UK Act), might make it an interesting one to watch.