Consultations: You don’t know what you’ve got ‘til it’s goneby
Wendy Bradley believes the government isn’t listening to taxpaying citizens and it doesn’t want to hear their views on any proposed changes to tax policy.
The government isn't interested in your views on the changes to basis period - or on anything else for that matter.
This shouldn't come as a surprise: Oliver Letwin gave the game away in 2012 in evidence to the House of Lords Select Committee on Secondary legislation (see page 3 of the transcript) where he explained that, if you want your views known, you should write to your MP. What the government wants from a consultation is confirmation that everything works as intended. It's fact checking.
Why does government consult at all?
If all it wants from consultation is fact checking, you may ask, why do they consult at all?
The answer lies in the legal concept of "legitimate expectation". Previous governments have said they will consult, have set out rules for how they will conduct their consultations, and a reasonable person would expect that to continue. But no government can bind its successors, so all the government would have to do is send out the relevant minister to answer a question or make a statement saying consultation is no longer necessary and, hey presto, legitimate expectation of consultation would be gone.
Imagine what the press would make of them if they did that.
Changing the rules
To avoid effective consultation the government is updating its own rules: modernising, reforming and making consultation digital. All the euphemisms are there, and the results are exactly what you would expect. You don't know what you've got till it's gone.
Basis periods consultation
The consultation on reforming basis periods says that it is being conducted in accordance with the five stages of tax policy development and that this is a second and third stage consultation. These stages come after the policy objective and the options to achieve it have been determined.
The basis period consultation is thus only about choosing the best alternative and, simultaneously, looking at the draft legislation which embodies the "best" alternative the government is recommending.
The executive summary tells us: “The government has engaged with a cross-section of stakeholders representing a wide range and size of businesses, in a variety of sectors, in order to establish initial impacts and is now seeking detailed views on the proposal.”
Who was asked about the policy?
Which bodies were included in this "cross-section of stakeholders"?
Have a look at the government's consultation on Reforming the framework for better regulation. Here we get to the heart of the removal of the legitimate expectation of a public consultation on new regulation.
The idea seems to be that in future, consultations will be conducted after policy objectives have been set and favoured options decided. There may be a ring around of the “major stakeholders” but we won't know who they are or what they said. The government's plans will arrive fully formed as the best of all possible options for us to copy edit and check.
The citizen, the ordinary taxpayer, does not appear in this consultation process at all.
I realise that the ordinary taxpaying citizen is rarely going to check the gov.uk consultations page and engage with public consultations in the first place, but the requirement to publish and to consult formally was a useful way of allowing ALL voices, not just the friendly magistracy known to the government, to look at what was proposed.
The government's consultation principles used to be a book, or at least a substantial pamphlet. They were updated in 2018 to one sheet of paper , which states at point B:“Consult about policies or implementation plans when the development of the policies or plans is at a formative stage. Do not ask questions about issues on which you already have a final view."
This may have been honoured more in the breach than the observance, but I fear we are now moving to a world where the awkward questions are not to be asked at all.