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Why Oliver Letwin is Wrong, Wrong, Wrong about Consultation

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The cameras weren't working, so you won't see it on TV. And unfortunately the sound recording seems to have been made by someone kicking their heels against the table, so you're unlikely to hear it on the radio either. But Oliver Letwin's appearance before the House of Lords Secondary Legislation Scrutiny Committee on 11 December was... really something.

If you to to the www.parliament.uk website here you can listen in, and there is a full transcript here which I would urge you to read, if you think your blood pressure can stand it.

Oliver Letwin, in case you didn't already know, is the Minister for Getting Things Done - or, rather, the Minister of State in the Cabinet Office with the rather extraordinary title of "Minister for Government Policy Advice" And what he was talking about was consultation, specifically the government's decision to abolish the twelve week time limit for consultations and replace it with a "range of timescales" - so a consultation might only last two weeks - and making consultations "digital by default".

Think about it. And then look at page 3 of the transcript, around the tenth line, where he says

In a democracy, it is very important that [people] should have the liberty to [express their views] and Parliament is here to reflect that in debates and so on. But I do not think that the main purpose of the formal consultative process should be to collect views--

No, I didn't make it up. He doesn't think there's any place in government policy making for the views of, well, citizens. That's all done via the "proper" means of government - talking to your MP and persuading them to ask a question in parliament. Because we all know how often that changes things, right?

No, he thinks consultation is

discussions of a sensible kind with people that know about the subject in question

(page 2 line 14)

So why is steam coming out of my ears?

Consultation isn't just about government departments talking to the people who "matter".

It isn't just for people who have something sensible to say about the impacts.

It's about democracy.

Democracy? Remember that one?

It's about the citizen's right to know what its government is up to, what it plans to do, and to have that opinion taken into account.

Get that? It's not a technocratic process for producing legislation on the cheap, for outsourcing the work of professional civil servants to lobby groups. It's not about letting voluntary organisations and professional associations do policy work free of charge instead of paying civil servants to do it for you.

It's about letting citizens form a view on what their government is doing, and then listening to their voice.

And if the government had consulted about the change to the government's consultation process, well, they might have known that.