The Friday Guest Blog with Julian Robinson
Covid-19: Don't blame our leaders - they're as ignorant as the rest of us
By Julian Robinson, Managing Director of ParliamentToday
In my youth, we would refer to hastily-made policy as having been written on the back of a fag packet. In these uncertain times, there are not enough fag packets available to accommodate all the bad policies coming out of Westminster. Finally, the public knows what we political nerds have always been aware of: policy made on the hoof is nearly always bad policy.
Of course, the government has been faced with a unique situation. Even wartime governments could call on past experiences to plan for what may lay ahead. The pandemic is a totally new situation in the modern world, so the government has been forced to come up with policies which have been changed and sometimes reversed overnight. Calling them u-turns is political hyperbole and unhelpful. However, no politician worth his salt can say "Let's see if you could do better." It would be an admission of failure which just wouldn't happen.
There have over the years been badly-judged laws born from knee-jerk reactions to political pressure. The regulations on single-use plastic packaging are one example. Not enough consideration was given to specific situations, such as the single-use of gloves in hospital and healthcare settings. Remember the Dangerous Dogs Act? When it was introduced it banned several breeds of dogs even though there was no scientific evidence that all dogs in the breed were dangerous. It had to be quickly amended. These mistakes would not have happened had there been greater consideration in advance of all the consequences.
Since Gordon Brown's government there has appeared to be an obsession with consulting the public on practically everything. Even last month's uncontentious announcement that more healthcare workers would be trained to administer flu and Covid-19 vaccines followed a lengthy consultation. David Cameron went further and introduced an additional layer of legislative scrutiny by backbench committees. He quite rightly recognised the importance of getting laws right the first time. Apart from the political embarrassment of making u-turns, they are expensive both in human and monetary terms.
Even these measures, as democratically beneficial as they have been, have not changed the fact that it is extremely difficult for small businesses to influence or play a part in formulating policy. The truth is that the chairmen of major industrials like Rolls-Royce or BP can call ministers for a chat at almost any time with the intention of bending their ears on policies which could save or earn them millions of pounds. Small businesses in the same industries and with the same interests have little or no chance of having their voices heard. Access to decision-makers and influencers should not be the exclusive realm of wealthy organisations.
What is needed is a platform where lobbying can be done in reverse. Instead of ministers and MPs being bombarded with emails and pleas for support, it would be more efficient and effective if the decision-makers went looking for opinions from industry generally on a specific subject.
At a parliamentary level, backbench MPs mostly operate in complete ignorance on the majority of subjects. Why should it be any other way? How should a former doctor, lawyer or university student who finds him or herself sitting on the green benches have any knowledge of issues outside their own expertise? MPs must therefore rely on information provided to them by their party whips, parliamentary sources and, on an ad hoc basis, research done by their staff. What they are missing is information from the grassroots level of what measures really mean to their own constituents.
In the end, the real talent that successful politicians have is deflecting questions from journalists when they - unsurprisingly - don't know the answers. I have sympathy for them. After all, they are you and me. It baffles me why the public has a higher expectation of politicians than we have of ourselves.
Last year, Bob Hudson, professor at the Centre for Health Services Studies at Kent University, claimed policy failure was largely caused by four factors: overly optimistic expectations; policies formulated at national level which depended on local delivery; inadequate collaboration with interested parties; and the vagaries of the political cycle.
He wrote: "Rather than just let policies drift into full or partial failure, it is incumbent upon policymakers to take an interest in ways in which the policy process can be strengthened and supported. This could take place at three points: preparation; tracking; and support."
From the viewpoint of ABHI companies, it is typical that they react to policies thrust upon them by an unknown process at Westminster. But there is no reason why that process should be shrouded in mystery. The purpose of monitoring agencies like ParliamentToday is to ensure that companies, charities and others are not taken by surprise by decisions of great importance to them.
For the majority of small organisations who don't require hands-on monitoring, there is PolicyMogul, a new start-up which offers a basic free service. Now there is no reason why companies and organisations of all sizes should not be fully informed of the latest developments at Westminster.
And with that involvement, perhaps policy will finally be better considered and administered.