In a previous post, I noted that the UK Parliament is far ahead of its Canadian counterparts in its use of social media and other online initiatives aimed at increasing public participation in the political process. Over the past year, the Government has been working on another initiative, one that will let the public have more direct input into the legislative process.
The Coalition Agreement negotiated by the UK Conservative and Liberal Democrat parties included a commitment to introducing a “Public Reading Stage” for bills. The Public Reading Stage would run concurrently with the second reading stage of a given bill. If you are not familiar with the legislative process in the UK, it is clearly explained on the UK Parliament website. The Public Reading Stage will take place between the First Reading (when the text of the Bill is published) and the Committee Stage (where MPs consider the Bill in detail on a clause-by-clause basis).
After a bill receives First Reading (is published), a website will open for comments on the bill. This site will remain open while the bill is before the House, up until it has received Second Reading. After second reading, the bill is then referred to a bill committee. At this point, the Public Reading Stage website will be closed to any new comments, and the comments received will be collated and considered by the Department responsible for the bill. A report will be drafted and referred to the bill committee. The intent here is that the comments from the public will be used by ministers, opposition and backbench MPs to influence further debate on the bill during the committee stage.
The first pilot of this entirely new consultative concept launched last summer, putting the Protection of Freedoms Bill online for comment clause-by-clause. Following that experiment, the process used was reviewed based on feedback from users and developers. A second iteration of the consultation tool has been developed and is being tested with two other bills over the summer. Last Wednesday, the Department of Health launched the draft Care and Support Bill in ‘commentable’ form alongside a site aimed at more wide-ranging engagement with the issues it covers. The Small Charitable Donations Bill is also currently open for Public Reading Stage.
Those interested in the technical aspects of this process may want to read more about it on the Government Digital Services website. More general information about the Public Reading Stage of the Small Charitable Donations Bill can be found here.
This process is still in the experimental stages, but if it proves successful, should be rolled out as a permanent part of the legislative process in the UK.