The Freedom Bill: this time the consultation is for real, but is it better?

The Freedom Bill (previously known as the Great Repeal Bill) has been a Liberal Democrat policy for some time and now that we’re in coalition government it’s become the Your Freedom initiative – an online consultation to identify laws to repeal.

In two respects this is good news – online consultation is becoming more of a habit for government and it’s also becoming a welcome pattern to see long-standing Liberal Democrat demands move towards actual implementation by government.

But in one respect I think the Your Freedom site does not address a key issue as well as the party did when we ran our previous Freedom Bill online consultation. I worked for the party at the time, and I was very keen to ensure (and colleagues agreed) that the online consultation was a meaningful one. In other words, if there are certain options which are never going to make it, be clear up front that is the case.

In the case of the Freedom Bill consultation that meant being up front that there were certain laws the party had decided it would repeal and also some that it would not repeal. No volume of online responses saying “keep ID cards!” would have changed the party’s decision – already taken – to repeal ID cards. So better to tell people that.

The result of this was that the Freedom Bill consultation was done in the form of a draft Bill, saying ‘here are the key repeals we’re intending to make; please tell us if you think we’ve got the detail wrong and if there’s anything similar missing’. That made for a far narrower consultation than one that says, ‘here’s a blank sheet of paper’ but I think also a much better one than when you are presented with a supposedly blank sheet of paper but it’s not really blank.

Hence my doubts about the Your Freedom site with its much more open questions but rather limited guidance as to what is really up for consultation. This question about the pros and cons of consulting on a broad rather than a narrow front is, by a lucky coincidence of timing, one that I’ve addressed in an academic article just published in the journal Politics, co-authored with Darren Lilleker and Nigel Jackson.

It isn’t available for free online, but if you have access to an academic library look out for Political Parties and Web 2.0: the Liberal Democrat Perspective in Politics: 2010, Volume 30(2), p.105.112.

(For three other interesting perspectives on the site see Simon DicksonPaul Evans and Chris Applegate. I think Chris would set the barrier too high with the suggestion that people should be forced to be very specific about the piece of legislation they are talking about, but his point in a way is similar to mine as it’s about raising the quality of the feedback by restricting its range – in his case by requiring people to know or find out details. A different approach to some of these issues has been taken by the Better Regulation Executive whose own systems for submitting ideas included important differences from Your Freedom, such as prior moderation and direct feedback.)

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