Ticking the consultation box?


By Leon A Smith
January 26, 2012
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The government is very preoccupied at the moment in both Houses of Parliament with the proposed new legislation relating both to Welfare Benefits and to the Health Service. It will be publishing its White Paper on Social Care in the spring (whenever that might be). Of course White Papers are always preceded by extensive consultation as are many government/coalition measures. Indeed consultation is becoming something of an industry. Mr Livingstone when Mayor consulted on the western extension of the Congestion Charge Zone with resounding feedback that nobody wanted this – and then went ahead and did it. This is not an exceptional circumstance. One wonders when government departments decide to enter into a consultation whether this really is a true consultation or whether they are simply ticking the “consultation” box? - so as to be seen to be acting correctly and appropriately.

Many people spend a lot of time and some people spend a lot of money on lobbying for their own agenda both in and around parliament. But what is the true value of this lobbying? I have had the pleasure in recent times of speaking to a number of Members of Parliament and of the “other place”. I always find MPs and Members of the House of Lords to whom I speak courteous, interested and sympathetic. Yet one wonders, does such lobbying achieve anything?

I am deeply concerned, as are many colleagues in the care sector at the present time, about the government’s likely reaction to the Dilnot Commission on Funding of the Long Term Care of Older People. It seems highly probable that the government whilst accepting in principle many of the key recommendations, will take the view that there is simply not sufficient money available. It will of course be the height of cynicism to assume the government has already made up its mind what they are going to do prior to any consultation process. Indeed, this is probably an unfair statement yet one must recognise how limited our true influence really is. My reference above to the extension of the Congestion Charge Zone is a classic case in point. The government has many things on its mind at the moment – not least of which is keeping the coalition together. To what extent is it a government with a “listening ear”. My view is that they listen – but how much do they actually hear? So how strong is the public voice? One wonders how realistic it is really is to believe that one can actually engage with a Minster and actually influence policy. Often when written consultation regarding proposed changes in law or new legislation is required, the response period for consultation is deliberately very short. This has the effect of discouraging all those but the most committed from the time consuming process of a detailed response.

All public bodies have an obligation to consult. Indeed, they have to inform, consult and involve. Certainly there is no shortage of consultation and if indeed the new sport of Public Consultation is added at the 2016 Brazil Olympic Games then Team GB would be a leading contender for a Gold Medal in Consultation.

My interest as readers will be aware is older people – their care and their dignity. Yet to what extent are older people themselves ever consulted regarding any legislation relating to them? Many older people are not equipped to be able to write lengthy responses to consultation or indeed to complete online responses. What provision is made for them in order that they truly have a voice? The sad reality is that they don’t have a voice – notwithstanding our world class consultation process.

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