Three tests for the public reading stage
The Coalition agreement announced the introduction of a 'public reading' stage into the legislative process. This was first trialled under the Protection of Freedoms Bill at the very beginning of 2011 but has been very quiet ever since. A few weeks back whilst watching Murray's heroics I spotted a short article tucked away on page 9 of the Sunday Times explaining that this is due to be rolled out on all Government Bills by 2015 and that the Small Donations Bill (currently causing much consternation in the NCVO offices) would serve as a trial to improve the process before it is rolled out further.
The idea is that somewhere before Committee Stage, the Government will encourage the public to submit their comments on particular bills (via a website http://publicreadingstage.cabinetoffice.gov.uk/). You can click through the Bill line by line and view the comments that others have made - and then submit your own. These will then be collated into a report by civil servants and presented to all MPs that are taking part in the committee stage of the Bill (one presumes this includes the Ministers involved as well).
It struck me that for charity campaigners, this development has the potential to open up the legislative process further, particularly for those that don't necessarily have the access they are looking for to influence legislation, but that there are a number of potential pitfalls.
1) Does it make sense of the complex detail? Having spent much of my career pouring over particular amendments to Bills, I know first-hand how difficult and technical bill work can be. For the Public Reading Stage to be successful, it will mean very careful explanation of each clause so that people who are not professional lobbyists can engage with the detail.
2) Getting the timing right? In the initial pilot on the Freedoms Bill, many MPs did not receive the report until they were sat in committee. Ensuring that MPs have time to review and digest the comments submitted is absolutely crucial. I'd also be interested to know whether the summaries will be publically available.
3) Is this simply a numbers game? I'll be interested to see how many people (outside of lobbyists, professional associations and charities) engage with this process and whether it’s the sheer weight of comments that will convince MPs to sit up and take notice. It's unlikely that smaller charities will have the time or the resources to engage. For larger charities, I would guess that this represents both an opportunity and a massive headache - getting large numbers of people to comment on a Bill may be a great way to influence, however, getting them to do so without just cutting and pasting from briefings will incredibly time-consuming (and like so many other channels of engagement, the more personal a comment is - the more it is likely to be well received).
So, will the MPs listen? I hope so as I genuinely believe that our laws will be better if they are shaped by the people that are affected by them. I'll update following the committee stage.
In the meantime, those of you that are interested in the Small Donations Bill, I'd urge you to get involved in the Public Reading Stage and would really like to hear your experiences on how you found the process (You can read our briefing on the proposals if you want to know our position on the Bill).
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Chloe Stables, Parliamentary and media manager, reflects on the latest political developments affecting the voluntary and community sector.