The Week in Parliament
Well, the House of Lords is back, even if the Commons are still skiving until Monday, but that hasn’t stopped me from poring over their debates for some little nuggets of gold. So let’s have a quick two paragraph look at key points from the Lords (with a third that I’ve expanded out to a full article here), before heading back to Northern Ireland to see what they’ve been getting up to…
Unusually, all three points from the Lords relate to very key consultation issues, and matters of both best practice and law. The first was raised in the debate on the Social Security (Up-rating of Benefits) Bill, which would allow the temporary suspension (due to covid) of the usual rule that the SoS should review benefits in line with earning trends. As part of the debate, the issue was raised that despite the recent end of the consultation on the Green Paper ‘Shaping Future Support’, no reference was made in that paper or consultation to relevant research (commissioned by the Government) on the usage of health and disability benefits. Not only that, but the research doesn’t even seem to have been published. Naturally, not having seen the work it is impossible to say how relevant it was to the Green Paper, but it is worth remembering that there are both legal rules and general best-practice principles that determine what information is required to be published as part of the consultation. We’ll have a look at the paper if we can get hold of it and see if it should have been published for comment.
Those of you who have been with us for a while (and let’s face it , after the last year and a half, even ten minutes would feel like a while) will be aware that there has been something of a running dispute in the Lords about the Government’s approach to consultation and parliamentary scrutiny, most particularly the interactions between the two (which, incidentally, gives me an idea for a deeper thought-piece…). One of the more interesting complaints we’ve had has been that the Government has (allegedly) been publishing consultations as a way of forestalling Parliamentary scrutiny a la “We can’t discuss this because it’s currently out for consultation, but pretty please vote for our bill anyway”. This week, we’re back to the more regular allegation that Parliament is being asked to vote on matters before consultation has even started- this time the White Paper on Social Care reform that Boris Johnson promised when he made his first speech as PM. How, their Lordships asked, could they be expected to vote on important social care funding and structure matters, without knowing what the actual plan for social care is? Without giving a view on it, it may be that this goes to the question about the strategic versus the specific. Drawing the line between the two is not always easy though…
When is a consultation not a consultation? That was the question being asked in the Northern Ireland Assembly. One member thought they had an answer: “when there is merely one option to be consulted upon”. This was with regard to proposed route changes to the ‘Glider’ bus service in Belfast into the South of the City. Diligent readers will know that the member is in fact wrong, and single option consultations can be perfectly lawful, but there may be additional requirements (after the Moseley Supreme Court Case) to highlight and explain alternative discarded options amongst other things. In light of this, we had a quick glance at the consultation. Under the ‘South Route’ section, it highlights the route assessed as being most suitable (the ‘one option’ mentioned by the Member) but also details the other options that have been discarded, with brief explanations of why they were deemed unsuitable. Unfortunately, the consultation is now closed, so we can’t see whether there was a space for respondents to comment on the discarded options, or check how ‘closed’ the responses were. We would certainly hope to see an opportunity for people to propose alternatives. Although single-option consultations can be perfectly fine, they often require even more careful handling to ensure that suspicions of a ‘stitch-up’ don’t hold any legitimacy. The consultors in this case seem to have taken at least some of the basic steps to protect themselves from legal and political risk in this area.