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The Week in Parliament

Regular and loyal readers will have noticed that there was no Week in Parliament last week. Some of the less regular and more treacherous readers may also have noticed this. I could pretend this was for some great reason of state, but no, I just ended up being incredibly busy. Because of this, we have two weeks to catch up on- so we might end up doing a little time travel…

Westminster

The first bit of time travel we’re going to do is right back to last Wednesday- hardly Doctor Who perhaps, but to an interesting little comment during a debate on the final stages of the Environment Bill. The commenter was the North Dorset Conservative MP Simon Hoare, who expressed some degree of frustration at the Government’s response to the issue of air quality. The data was, he said, all heading in the same direction, so did the Government not have the power, if they see something so pressing, not to have to engage with consultation? Naturally, the Minister’s response was to highlight that if they did so they would have “as many critics for not consulting as we did for consulting”.

The question is in actuality an interesting one. Are there any circumstances in which the evidence is so overwhelming as to obviate the need for consultation? And would the situation being an emergency give further justification for a decision not to consult? This latter question is one that has been aired fairly extensively over the last couple of years, and we have seen court cases that have dealt with the issue, notably Article 39 which established that there was still a need to consult, even if it wasn’t as thorough as usually would be expected.

The former question is perhaps a little more interesting. We don’t often see consultation on universal goods partially because in the universe we live in, they don’t. But were we to assume that a universal good with no evidence to the contrary existed in policy form, would we still expect consultation on it? A matter of deep philosophy no doubt, deeply linked with ones own ontological perspectives, but indulge me for a minute.

It would all come down to why we consult of course- something we talk about a lot because it necessarily goes to the heart of what we do. In the abstract, a policy of universal good would not need to be consulted on to improve it- by definition it is already a universal good. We would not need to take account of whether it might unduly or unfairly impact some protected groups or others- it is a universal good. Equally, we would not need to assess how it should be implemented, if it’s a universal good in the terms we defined, everyone would merely agree that it should be implemented. Which leaves us really with only one argument- that we should still consult on it because it is democratically right to do so. Seems pretty flimsy doesn’t it?

The thread-like flaw running through this little thought experiment is obvious of course- whilst an abstract ‘universal good’ is easy to consider, in the real world nothing operates in isolation and there is no such thing as a policy that is entirely uncontested, and no amount of evidence in policy can establish universal truth (not without some sort of universal truth-setter at any rate). Perhaps some of the more dreadful crimes, but even then I’m pretty sure some of the perpetrators of those acts would be willing to stand up in opposition to their outlawing.

So, in answer to Mr Hoare’s question, no, the Government shouldn’t do that, even if they (technically) have the powers to do so. Hmm. That was a quite lengthy way to get round to answering that wasn’t it?!

Scotland

Not too much from Scotland this week (and certainly not any more philosophy!), though the Scottish Government have responded to a consultation on using their powers to make an order to close large retail stores on new year’s day. Unfortunately for those working in such shops the answer was a resounding no, informed by the requirement of the relevant Act to take account of the prevailing economic conditions which are not, on the whole, good. Annoyingly, there isn’t a formal response published that sums up the entirety of the responses, and I don’t have time to go through the 1619 published responses to work out where the balance of favour lay in the consultation. I’ll keep an eye out for the formal outcome report, mostly in the interests of hoping we don’t have a repeat of the UK Government’s tips consultation from a few weeks ago…

Wales

Big things are afoot in the Senedd with members discussing the new Independent Commission on the Constitutional Future of Wales, which had its co-chairs appointed recently. The Welsh Government is keen to ensure that a wide range of views are aired before the Commission, but the Plaid Cymru leader, Adam Price, has asked if the Commission will go beyond the traditional forms of engagement and “try something new”. One of the Co-Chairs of the Commission, the former Archbishop of Canterbury Dr Rowan Williams has intimated that he wants to make sure the Commission is accessible to and engaging of the whole gamut of Welsh citizens. These commissions are always interesting, and their mechanisms of working even more so- we may well have further comment on this one as it sets about its work…

Northern Ireland

The Northern Ireland Assembly last week was tied up on rural planning, with criticism of the Department for Infrastructure’s planning advice note “Implementation of Strategic Planning Policy on Development in the Countryside”. The new version of the note was issued over the summer, with no apparent consultation, something that has drawn ire from around the Assembly. The debate was a bit post-facto, as the Friday before the Minister had accepted that more consultation and engagement was needed and made statements to the effect that it would take place. DfI will no doubt have to tread very carefully ow, and ensure a perfect consultation to avoid any allegations of pre-determination…

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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