Time to tackle terror- an extensive consultation on a complicated issue- but is it too long?
Most of the time when a consultation draws our attention because of its length, it’s usually because it looks far too short. We’re talking here about the ones about an issue of great complexity with only 4 questions (such as the recent NHS reform consultation). One this week drew our attention for quite the opposite reason.
It’s on new anti-terrorism legislation being considered that would, amongst other things impose a ‘protect’ duty on public places and venues to improve security. The consultation is something of a monster. It’s eighteen weeks long, and includes 58 questions. There’s no doubt that it’s a complicated area. Tackling terrorism is always a difficult balance between collective and individual rights, public safety and the demands of national security.
Even so, 58 questions and 18 weeks is an exceptionally long consultation by any measure. There are of course several reasons a consultation might be so long, ranging from the appropriate to the more underhanded. On the positive side, it might merely be because the subject matter is sufficiently complicated that to get an appropriate overview of stakeholder opinion requires it to be so long, or that there is such a dearth of policy in a specific area that a new policy needs to be made entirely from scratch.
On the less legitimate side, a long list of questions might be designed to obscure the fundamental or controversial issues in the consultation. A decision might already have been made and the consultor is keen to show that they are listening, even though they are really not. There might also be a hope that a long list of questions might somewhat ‘diffuse’ the anger that an objector to proposals might have. Even the most vigorous of campaigners might struggle to maintain their anger at a high level through a list of more than fifty questions.
Of course, we would not speculate upon the motives of this particular consultation. Taking a look at it, most of the questions are either simple “yes/no/maybe” questions, or free text fields limited to a relatively small number of words. It does look a little bit odd- there’s a lot of cross-referencing of questions and “If this is x, answer this” type questions which make it look rather like it was designed by a programmer, or even a computer.
It’s fair to say that proposals to put a new duty of the nature suggested are likely to be fairly controversial, mostly amongst those who would have this duty put on them. There will certainly need to be a lot of refinement of how such a duty might have to be implemented. In light of that, this may well be the first of many consultations on the subject matter. As an opening salvo then, it may be justifiable to bring in a wide-range of views on different topics with a very long consultation. What’s more important might be what comes next.