To consult, or not to consult: that is the question. On which there will be no consultation.
Once upon a time, a long, long time ago, when Nick Clegg was still popular and hardly anyone had heard of Bradley Wiggins, a shiny-new Coalition Government announced that it would be ‘turning old thinking on its head and developing new approaches to government’. It would ‘distribute power and opportunity to people rather than hoarding authority within government’ by, for example, introducing ‘a new “public reading stage” for Bills to give the public an opportunity to comment on proposed legislation online, and a dedicated “public reading day” within a Bill’s committee stage.’ Wherever possible, the Coalition Agreement cooed, ‘we want people to call the shots over the decisions that affect their lives.’
Well, perhaps I haven’t been paying attention, but I haven’t noticed much calling of the shots by the great unwashed since May 2010, and I certainly haven’t spotted any of those ‘public reading days’. And now I’m not sure I will be seeing any. For it turns out that at least one of the Coalition partners isn’t actually that interested in hearing what those outside government might think about a proposed new policy.
Speaking at a CBI conference last month, David Cameron made clear that he thinks conducting consultations on proposed public policy changes – that is, giving those outside government ‘an opportunity to comment’ – is somewhat Old Skool. After reaping a few cheap laughs by noting that, had he had an advisory committee, Christopher Columbus would ‘probably still be stuck in the dock’, the Prime Minister announced that the Coalition will be ‘reducing government consultations’ and ‘calling time’ on Equality Impact Assessments.
Under a Code of Practice formulated by the last Labour government, which believed that ‘effective consultation brings to light valuable information which the Government can use to design effective solutions’, governmental consultations normally run for three months. Pah! That’s for wimps. So David Cameron revealed to the CBI that he has now told ministers: ‘You decide how long a consultation period this actually needs. If you can get it done properly in a fortnight – great! And, if there is no need for a consultation, then don’t have one.’
Turning to the issue of Equality Impact Assessments, the Prime Minister was at pains to make himself clear:
‘I care about making sure that government policy never marginalises or discriminates. I care about making sure we treat people equally. But let’s have the courage to say it: caring about these things does not have to mean churning out reams of bureaucratic nonsense. We have smart people in Whitehall who consider equalities while they’re making the policy. We don’t need all this extra tick-box stuff. So I can tell you today that we are calling time on Equality Impact Assessments. That way, policy-makers are free to use their judgement and do the right thing to meet the equalities duty rather than wasting their own time and taxpayers’ money.’
So, a lot less opportunity to comment, no more bureaucratic nonsense written by smart people, and a lot more hoarding authority in Government. Which will no doubt mean many more successful government policies like the prime contractor and differential payments model of the Work Programme and … er …. oh, hang on.
Richard Dunstan is a policy wonk who has worked for Citizens Advice, the National Audit Office, the Law Society, and Amnesty International UK.