05 December 2012
Giving oral evidence on his plans for public engagement in policymaking* to the House of Commons Select Committee meeting last week (28 November 2012), Minister for the Cabinet Office Francis Maude played down the impact of his drastic curtailing of public consultations and avoided questions on his views on trade unions..
Maude defended recent cuts in consultation periods, which have given interested parties just two weeks to respond in some cases, down from the previous default of 12 weeks. The Chair of the meeting, Bernard Jenkin, noted that “a lot of people … cannot quite see how this is consistent with more public engagement in policy-making”. But Maude simply responded that conducting consultations online by default – another cornerstone of his plans – , means people no longer need the same amount of time to submit their thoughts. As the IER has already pointed out in our response to the Secondary Legislation Scrutiny Committee’s call for evidence on the government’s new approach to consultation, making the process digital by default could effectively lock some interested parties out of the discussion.
Jenkin also suggested that “very often” poorly performed public consultations can lead to judicial reviews, in which the public take legal action when they feel state departments or individuals are acting unfairly. Maude stated that judicial reviews tend to take place because the government has not followed its own guidelines, commenting: “If we have guidelines that are very clear about how consultations are to be conducted, and which give a proper opportunity to those with legitimate interests to take part and to put their views forward, then I think it should be fine”.
As we have already highlighted, the new approach does not “give a proper opportunity” for the public to have its voice heard in Whitehall, but in any case Prime Minister David Cameron has recently proposed changes in the law to limit the number of judicial reviews conducted, narrowing yet another avenue down which British citizens can achieve justice in the face of bad behaviour from the state.
Another public safeguard Cameron earmarked for abolition was equality impact assessments. Questioned about his views on this and how it could affect open policymaking, Maude described the assessments as “very burdensome and time-consuming”, arguing that equality can be informally protected by ministers and does not need “a formal process where you tick the box”. What Maude paints as bureaucracy, however, is a way of forcing ministers to provide evidence that they have taken the impact of their policies on different groups of individuals into account.
The Minister also avoided questions regarding his view of trade unions. As part of the #AskMaude session at the end of the meeting, which allowed users of social network Twitter to question Maude, he was asked about prior comments of his about trade union ballots.
Member of the Select Committee Paul Flynn reminded the Minister about his recent statement that: “If they [union leaders] actually call a strike based on a ballot where only just more than a quarter of those balloted actually bothered to vote at all then the pressure to change the law to set some kind of turnout threshold will really become very, very hard to resist.” Three Twitter users – @MrMoonX, @LordSplodge and @Vinthedawg – had applied this comment to the recent Police Commissioner Elections and asked whether Maude thinks they had a mandate with such a low turnout. Mr Flynn also requested to know what threshold Maude had in mind when it came to union ballots.
Following several attempts to evade the question, Maude responded: “The point I make is that there is no point at which you suddenly have complete democratic legitimacy or below which you have no democratic legitimacy. You can make the case that there is a greater degree of legitimacy the higher the turnout. The point I would make is that union leaders who call strikes on the basis of very low turnouts, as they have done, damage their own legitimacy.”
Previous attacks by Maude on trade union freedoms include his recent proposals to cut civil service facility time and his vicious anti-union rhetoric earlier this year when fuel tanker drivers with Unite considered going on strike. The Minister’s overblown speeches on the proposed strike contributed to traffic queues at petrol stations across the country and a resulting fuel shortage.
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*All quotations and notes taken from the uncorrected transcript of evidence, which both members and witnesses have not yet had the opportunity to amend.