Consulting... and ignoring

Mark Easton
Home editor
@BBCMarkEastonon Twitter

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What is the point of government consultations? I pose the question at the end of a week in which ministers responded to three official consultations on three controversial proposals - and appeared to ignore the results from them all.

On Monday, the Department of Work and Pensions (DWP) published its response to a consultation on planned changes to the assessment of people with disabilities in determining their entitlement to benefits.

The government had conducted the consultation, it said, "in a fully open-minded manner". Ministers had carefully considered all the views expressed.

The consultation focused on plans limiting entitlement to extra help for mobility needs to those who cannot walk 20m. The overwhelming response was that this was a bad idea.

"Respondents felt there was no evidence to support the use of 20m," the consultation reported, pointing out "that other government policies use 50m as a measure of mobility".

In a section entitled "What you told us", the DWP notes concern that the plan "could increase isolation and reduce independence, have significant financial impact, and cause deterioration in their physical and mental health".

Respondents warned that the 20m criteria would mean some disabled people needing support from other public services, increasing the cost for the government.

"The most common suggestion made by respondents", the DWP reports, "was to extend the qualifying distance for the enhanced rate from 20m to a longer distance".

Nowhere in the government's response to the consultation is there evidence that anyone thought the 20m criteria was the right policy.

"Having considered all these factors", the DWP response concludes, "the government believes that the use of 20m is the best way of identifying those whose physical mobility is most limited".

It is, of course, the democratic right of ministers to consult and to listen and then ignore. The arguments put forward by the DWP may be compelling. But it does lead some to ask whether the consultation really had much value.

A similar question might be posed following the government's response on Tuesday to consultations on two proposals concerning immigrants.

The Home Office published the results of the public consultation on plans for a levy on temporary non-EEA migrants as a contribution towards the costs of possible NHS care while in the UK.

It is a move that ministers claim enjoys considerable public support, but the consultation came back with a rather different view.

On the principle of a levy, "34% felt that temporary migrants should make a direct contribution to the costs of their healthcare. Sixty-two per cent disagreed," it found.

The Home Office notes differences depending upon the "type of respondent". Among the general public, 65% were against the plan. Among organisations that responded, 77% were opposed.

Health-sector respondents, however, were in favour - 66% felt temporary migrants should contribute to the cost of their healthcare.

It is the view of 235 health sector respondents, representing around 12% of the total, that appears to have swayed ministers most. "We have considered all responses to these questions carefully but remain convinced that only permanent migrants should be automatically eligible for free NHS care."

Consultations are not referendums. In a way, it seems odd the Home Office should go to such trouble to quantify the proportions for and against the policy since the exercise is not designed as an X-factor style public vote.

But having conducted a public consultation and expressing gratitude to all those "who have taken the time to respond and to those who have contributed their experience and insight to what is a complex issue", one is left wondering what the point was.

The government response to a separate consultation, also published on Tuesday, invites the same question. This time the proposal under scrutiny was the introduction of a legal obligation on landlords to check the immigration status of tenants.

"While between one-third and two-fifths of respondents supported the proposal," the Home Office response states, "slightly more than half of all respondents disagreed."

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The Royal Institute of Chartered Surveyors considered it "inappropriate to use private landlords and lettings agents to help deliver the government's immigration policy". The majority of landlord representative organisations were opposed.

"The most widely expressed concern by third sector organisations," the Home Office reveals, "was the potential to impact on vulnerable people, such as those who were homeless, those with learning difficulties and those fleeing domestic abuse".

The response? "The government has carefully considered the responses to the consultation and remains convinced of an urgent need for action to deter illegal migration and to safeguard the legitimate housing market."

The consultation may lead to ministers including an amendment designed to counter discrimination against foreign national tenants. But on the broad proposal, it seems the exercise has not shifted government thinking one jot.

According to the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), "public consultation is one of the key regulatory tools employed to improve transparency, efficiency and effectiveness of regulation". But there has long been scepticism as to whether such exercises are anything more than cosmetic.

The public consultation is an opportunity for ministers to test their ideas with experts, those directly affected and voters more generally. Community participation on proposed legislation is seen as a key component of "citizen power".

But formal public consultation exercises very rarely result in a government re-think - even if they reveal profound concern. That is not the point of them, and we should not pretend otherwise.