The Cabinet Office is replacing the 2008 Code of Practice on Consultation with a set of new Consultation Principles, which will come into effect in early Autumn 2012, following the summer recess.
On the face of it, the most striking change is the move away from enforcing a statutory 12 week consultation period, particularly where extensive engagement has occurred before. Departments will now be able to select a suitable timescale in which to consult, which is proportionate to the issue being reviewed.
Several commentators have suggested that this has arisen because of concerns within Cabinet that they struggle to implement their ambitious legislative programme within the current Parliament, and are seeking ways of buying more time. It has been suggested, although not confirmed by Government, that Departments can reduce the consultation period to as little as two weeks. There is a question whether representative bodies, like the Woodland Trust, can effectively collect and discuss evidence and draft an agreed position within such a short timescale. Shortened timescales also reduce the ability for umbrella organisations to be able to draw together an agree position, so may reduce the number of partnership responses, which itself would mean more individual responses for officials to work through.
More radical is the proposal that the new guidelines should aim to “avoid creating unrealistic expectations” by making clear where policy has been finalised and will not be subject to change as a result of the consultation. This should ensure much greater focus in terms of developing consultation responses and by cutting down the volume of response, speed up the process of implementation and if used sensitively, should be applauded.
Departments are also required under the new rules to give more thought to how they consult with those who are affected and thus make a more targeted approach to consultations. It is also expected that all that future consultations should be ‘digital by default’, although other forms should be used where these are needed to reach the groups affected by a policy. We are already beginning to see this in action, where Government are beginning to use online surveys, as was the case with DEFRA’s recent consultation on the Sustainable Development Indicators. Whilst this approach should be acknowledged for improving access, there is a concern that it could reduce the ability to provide detailed evidence based responses, which could ultimately greatly reduce the quality of the end product. We will watch these changes with great interest.
Steve Mulligan – Government Affairs Officer