The world outside Westminster had more influence over the contents of the last Budget, and the subsequent Finance Bill, than any legislation in the past.
Not merely influence, but input as well, thanks to a deliberate innovative policy pursued by the government after it swept to power. It is a policy which has brought dividends and will not be abandoned.
Until recently, if you were campaigning for tax relief or other provisions in the Budget, you bombarded the chancellor with letters, and battled to interest the media.
The chancellor of the day, his fellow ministers and Treasury officials, accepted this with good humour, but went into Budget purdah, sat back and took little notice.
Now, the new government has reversed that position. People outside, unaffected by the traditions of parliament, are being brought in and their voices heard. It has been a refreshing experience.
In the case of last March’s Budget, the process of public involvement and interaction between ministers and outsiders began as early as the previous November.
Consultation documents were issued. There were soundings on the climate-change levy, for instance. And ministers from the Treasury and other departments, attended seminars at which they heard concerns first-hand from business people, community organisations and others.
Pre-Budget reports – unheard of until recent years – were published, setting out a range of ideas on which outsiders were free, indeed encouraged, to comment.
Astonishingly, none of this happened before. It was, as economic secretary to the Treasury Patricia Hewitt observed, ‘a quantum leap’ in the way legislation is framed.
The scrutiny of pre-legislative raw material is spreading to other areas of government.
Even now, the Commons Public Administration Committee is sitting twice a week to consider the draft Freedom of Information Bill. Evidence is being taken from political journalists, consumer bodies, academics and pressure groups to make the measure more acceptable.
The jargon word for all this is ‘transparency’. What it means is, for the first time, politicians are allowing outsiders to get in on the act, to help frame legislation which appeals to everybody.
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