Government by Announcement: Suddenly, an extra item of legislation!

Posted on 17th November, 2023


This is Blog No 49



It’s only days since the King’s speech supposedly laid out the Government’s plans for legislation. But we already have an additional item – a law that will fix the never-ending Rwanda saga. It is real; it is serious. IT HAS BEEN ANNOUNCED

It made me reflect on the long-standing complaint that so much of Government has become a matter of ‘announcing’ things, rather than undertaking or implementing things. The critique is well known and basically asserts that modern day politicians are obsessed with media coverage and approach most issues nowadays through the lens of the Press Release.


Much of the criticism directed at Boris Johnson centred around his desire for a helpful headline rather than an effective decision. Students of politics may go back further and blame Alistair Campbell and the idea of a communications grid!


The inference is that Ministers – like Council Leaders and other Chief executives – enjoy focusing on the good news, whilst happy to overlook any problems and downsides that could be conveniently omitted from the initial announcement. The whole concept of news management is geared to making those in authority look good – delivering policies and actions that are popular. If there are disadvantages – why give them exposure and provide ammunition for opponents and critics? Hence Government by announcement becomes code for dumbing down the message so that only the positive side of the story gets noticed.


This is why serious commentators, academics, and politicians themselves worry that the quality of pre-legislation scrutiny is at an all-time low. An excellent, lengthy article in the Economist this week – titled ‘Bad Laws’ reflected on the issue, found many explanations, but it failed to spot one important factor – the role played by consultation.


So, against the grain of such commentators, I’m persuaded that where top-level announcements are followed by comprehensive consultations, this is surely good!

Let us take a current example. The Plan for Drivers was announced on 2nd October. Many people derided it, and just saw it as a tactical response to the Uxbridge by-election. Yet it raises several valid issues on topics that interest a large part of the population; it floats some plausibly sensible ideas. It has encouraged debate – and Consultation GuRU contributes to this today by picking the brains of transport specialist, Paul Murray (Click here to see the Conversation)  


What it also does, however, is announce no fewer than eight separate consultations. Yes, eight!


Now this may be an outlier and reflects that this particular initiative has that ‘last-minute’ feel to it. But in other cases, a consultation embracing all key aspects of an announced proposal is fine. On occasions, informed stakeholders have persuaded various administrations that legislation may be unnecessary, and that Ministers’ objectives can be met in another way.


Paul Murray is a Civil engineer who chose to specialise sustainable transport and spent several years in the charity Sustrans before recently joining Ridge & Partners to build an Active Travel Team.

For all that – we need more and better dialogues to supplement the Parliamentary process.

Ideally it should happen before a Bill is published, but there is also scope to integrate a meaningful consultation into the Committee stage, or when it reaches the second chamber. There is even a case for these to be Parliamentary consultations – rather than Governmental ones, with standing machinery that would enable the outputs of the exercise to be analysed and fed into the debates as soon as practicable, (and not languish on civil servants’ desks until it becomes politically useful to reveal them.)


Current practice is a long way from being so consultative, but, in my view, we cannot continue with the current free-for-all where some Whitehall departments publish reasonably effective and honest consultations and others don’t bother; where some observe the Government’s consultation Principles, but others ignore them. It would be better all round if the conduct of public consultations was put in the hands of an independent body to stop Ministers making up the rules that suit them as they go along. See my ideas on better regulation of consultation on the website.


That’s an aspiration. In the meantime, I suggest we curb a little of the criticism of Government by Announcement – but only PROVIDED each one is followed by an adequate consultation.

Not sure the RWANDA Bill will be consulted on ...but let’s start monitoring anyway!


Rhion H Jones LL.B


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