Consultations and calls for evidence: what happens now that there is a general election?
By the time you read this, parliament will have been formally dissolved ahead of the general election on 8 June. But what actually happens at national level? How does it affect our responses to ongoing consultations and to calls for evidence by parliamentary select committees?
The dissolution of parliament has a big effect on select committees. These committees produce inquiry reports on topics, which are then submitted to the relevant government department for a formal response to be made. The committees seek to influence policy direction, and it’s up to the government to then respond to the recommendations that the committee makes.
Since the 2015 parliament, around 300 inquiries of various sizes have been undertaken. Inquiries that were still in play have had to be ‘washed up’, to use the highly technical term used in this scenario! Taking the EFRA Select Committee as an example, its work on rural tourism, to which we were active contributors, hasn’t been concluded. A letter has instead been sent by the outgoing chair to the Defra minister currently responsible, setting out interim findings.
Ministers continue to serve, but have to separate their role in restricted government business from their campaign roles. The civil service continues to support the government, but it does so under stricter rules. During the campaign period, no new appointments, contracts or big areas of policy can be announced, and civil servants can’t provide support to ministers working on the campaign.
Civil servants have been operating under guidance for the pre-election period since it commenced on 22 April. The government had planned a Queen’s speech and a raft of new legislation for early May. Civil servants will instead be busy on preparing policy briefings ahead of incoming ministerial teams, as well as studying all the party manifestos for inclusion of policy commitments likely to either strengthen or move away from the existing policy direction of departments. They’ll also be looking at consultations.
According to the Cabinet Office’s ‘General election 2017: guidance for civil servants‘ document, if a consultation is already ongoing, it should continue as normal. However, it also says that government departments should “not take any steps during an election period that will compete with parliamentary candidates for the public’s attention“. An issue as controversial as rail franchising, for example, will certainly be on the minds of many parliamentary candidates. The Department for Transport announced that they’d cancelled five remaining public meetings as part of their consultation on the South Eastern rail franchise, due to end on 23 May. Whilst a consultee should have enough information at their disposal to give intelligent consideration and input into the process, cancelling public meetings may appear to take that opportunity from them. Normally, this could be grounds for legal challenge, but because of the pre-election period special rules apply, and the government has every right to cancel public meetings while the consultation is still live.
The guidance document does allow for consultation to be extended or to be given extra publicity (after the election) if the consultor believes that cancelling it or postponing it might be detrimental to the consultation, but it’s down to the individual departments’ discretion to take these steps. In addition, those consultations not deemed controversial and which don’t carry much publicity can go ahead, and the guidance documents should take into account the “circumstances of each consultation.”
Any received responses to a consultation during the pre-election period should still be welcomed and put forward to the decision makers, but departments should refrain from commenting on them or generating publicity about them. Shropshire Council’s own approach will of necessity be one of pragmatism where we’ve submitted responses to calls for evidence, and may now anticipate a degree of delay at national level. This may usefully be coupled with articulation of our proactive approaches to policy in ways that demonstrate our commitment to delivery on local outcomes, notwithstanding national changes.