The Week in Parliament
Party Conferences are over, Westminster is girding itself for renewed battle when it comes back and there’s a whole heap of things in ministerial in-trays waiting to be placed on the table. They have 10 days to finish writing reports, preparing doo-dahs and ironing their suits. So whilst we leave Westminster Parliamentarians getting on with that, what’s been going on in the devolved administrations?
In Northern Ireland we saw an interesting little exchange on the time frames for planning applications (an issue not exclusive to that part of the Country as the UK Government’s wrangling on the planning bill in England amply demonstrates). As with everywhere else, Northern Ireland is experiencing something of a housing crisis, with significant shortages of affordable housing meaning that many young people are struggling to find places to take grinning pictures of themselves clutching keys in front of. It’s an issue the Minister reassured the Assembly that she is amply aware of, and one of the problems it seems might be with statutory consultees. The statutory target for decisions on local planning applications are 15 weeks for regular applications and 30 weeks for major applications, but it seems that some internal Government bodies (DFI Rivers and Roads was particularly highlighted) might be contributing to delays. We don’t often look at the differences between statutory consultees and regular ones, instead usually lumping them together as a great amorphous ‘consultee’ mass. It might be something we look into more, as this story has made us wonder whether there are marked differences in either time to respond, or quality of response from statutory consultees. It’s not hard to imagine that someone with a personal stake might give a longer more effusive response. Any thoughts appreciated to the usual (rented) address.
There has been a rare outbreak of amity between opposing political parties in Scotland this week as new proposals to tackle Scotland’s continuing drug problem are under development. Drug abuse has been a consistent problem in Scotland for many years, and this marks the seventh year of new records being set by drug-related deaths, by far the highest of any country in Europe. Whilst Government action has been consistently promised, little of consequence has been done, but new proposals from the Scottish Conservative Party have recently gone out to consultation under the Member’s Bill procedures. The consultation on a proposed Right to Addiction Recovery (Scotland) Bill aims to ensure robust legislation to provide a right to access treatment, and place obligations on Ministers, Health Boards and other organisations to both treat and report back on the results of the changes. Although in essence a party political consultation (with all that that implies), it does provide a good overview of the issues, a fair and balanced set of questions, and an opportunity to shape potential legislation whilst it is at a formative stage (the legislation has not yet even been written, the consultation is on the principle of it). Although the Scottish Government have yet to commit- rightly commenting that they will wait until the outcome of the consultation, they have indicated that they will give it fair consideration.
I’ve written a couple of times before about the more robust and well-supported mechanisms used to create private member’s bills in the devolved administrations before, a feature that Westminster has never quite got round to introducing. A key aspect of this difference is the stronger and more prominent use of public consultation, and I can’t help but wonder if such a system might be worth introducing to the UK Parliament. Private member’s bills in the UK Parliament tend to be a very mixed bag in terms of quality, and it’s not difficult to think that a little bit of earlier engagement and consultation might help to shore them up and give them, to paraphrase Douglas Adams, more than a whelk’s chance in a supernova.
In Senedd, Welsh politicians have been discussing the further implementation of the Well-being of Future Generations (Wales) Act, the landmark piece of legislation mandating Welsh public bodies to act in a sustainable and well-being promoting manner. I feel sure that the last part of that sentence will not be promoting well-being in any linguistic pedants. The Act, which has already spurred copycat legislative proposals in both Scotland and England, is designed to ensure fairness and green approaches across Wales, something that anyone who has lived or travelled in Wales will deeply appreciate- it has some very beautiful countryside. The latest debate, following the Future Generations Commissioner’s report of March 2020, was around the consultation on setting national milestones to help achieve the goals set out in the Act itself. Given the interest in other jurisdictions in this legislation, and the increasing focus on sustainability and the future, the progress of this model is always an interesting one to watch, and Wales is trailblazing in a manner that should hopefully allow others to avoid any pitfalls. For our part, we’re still delighted to see a heavily consultative approach being taken to all aspects of the bill.