Pre-legislative Scrutiny

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 10:20 am on 6th January 2004.

Alert me about debates like this

Photo of Mr Richard Allan Mr Richard Allan Shadow Spokesperson (Business, Innovation and Skills), Shadow Spokesperson (Trade and Industry) 10:20 am, 6th January 2004

That is helpful, and brings me back to whether using the internet in such consultations merely becomes a game of mass spamming. The hon. Gentleman is entirely correct about the need for a framework.

The hon. Gentleman made a point about whether we should have a set model for consultation. I should like more experimentation, but he is right that there should be a call-off contract that is easily available and can be pulled off the shelf. People would have no excuses about not proceeding because they do not know what to do as the process is too difficult. That should not, however, prevent people from continuing to experiment. I am a fan of the excellent Joint Committee model. A Joint Committee's call-off contract asking for online consultation is entirely straightforward. The Clerk says, "Let's have it," and the consultation proceeds.

Many different consultations have been held. We have had consultations on the Data Protection (Amendment) Bill, domestic violence, family tax credits, stem cell research, floods, the parliamentary information strategy, long-term care of the elderly, and the draft Communications Bill. The Public Administration Committee held a new democracy consultation. Many different parliamentary bodies have held consultations, and it would be helpful to pull that experience together and produce models that anyone can apply. Mediation is the key, allowing information to be available to Members who do not want to engage in the process. It is important that Committees mediate information for people engaged in the consultation so that they can receive feedback. Two-way communication should take place through an intermediary if members of the Committee do not choose to engage in the process. It would be better if they could engage, and I hope that more of them will want to do so among the next generation of MPs.

Deliberation is also important, and is an important difference between online consultation and online polling, which is insufficient for our needs. Online polling helps us to know what people are talking about, but once we have identified that, we need to start exploring the consequence of any change in the law. The Tony Martin case is a good example. We know that people are interested in it, but what is helpful is deliberation on its implications. We must ask ourselves under what circumstances it is all right to shoot someone who has entered one's house. Is it all right to shoot someone if we simply see them in our back garden? We then start to explore the issues in greater detail, which we do not do in online polling. Deliberation is therefore a key part of a good online consultation. Whenever someone posts a message saying that we should shoot anyone who walks anywhere near our property, someone will respond by asking if it would be all right to shoot someone who accidentally walked through another person's front door because they thought it was their house. People will deliberate in an effective consultation.

Finally, as the hon. Gentleman said, this development is in the same tradition as widening the franchise. The franchise was progressively widened over time, but we have not significantly widened access to policy making. Policy making is still largely confined to interest groups that are sufficiently powerful and geographically close to London to be represented in Parliament. Those who have access to Select Committees and can influence policy making comprise a very small number of people in our democracy in 2003. That position has not changed dramatically over the years. We can now use the key features of the internet, which is non-geographical and has a low cost of entry, to allow access to policy making to millions of people who live in areas geographically remote from London and who traditionally have been excluded from expensive methods of accessing policy making. That will change the nature of our role and impose additional burdens on us, but it is worth adopting those burdens to demonstrate that our democracy has developed.

Politics is essentially a communications business. It is important that we recognise that and respond to public demand. I will close with a quotation from the psychologist, J. C. R. Licklider, who was influential in the formation of the internet, which was established not just by techies but by people with a wider vision. In the 1960s he wrote about the future, and said:

"The political process would essentially be a giant teleconference, and a campaign would be a months-long series of communications among candidates, propagandists, commentators, political action groups and voters. The key is the self-motivating exhilaration that accompanies truly effective interaction with information through a good console and a good network to a good computer."

I would include a good representative in those requirements. If the Government can grasp that, build on their good intentions and put the same weight behind the process that they have put behind the introduction of pre-legislative scrutiny, we could have a much healthier democracy in this country.