Public Law

Very rarely is there an opportunity to compare the pyrotechnic-filled world of TV talent shows and the slightly more sober area of parliamentary procedures but with the UK Government piloting a new ‘public reading stage’ for Bills in the UK Parliament there is now a chance for the public to ‘have their say’ as they do in a popular televised Saturday night singing competition. Although there is no scope here for any ‘voting off’ of provisions you may dislike…

As part of their Programme for Government, the coalition government promised to introduce a stage in the parliamentary process which would give members of the public the opportunity to comment on proposed legislation. A pilot scheme of this ‘public reading’ stage has been put into effect, rather aptly, in relation to the controversial Protection of Freedoms Bill which deals with matters including the regulation of biometric data retention and certain counter terrorism powers (such as powers of stop and search). Members of the public are invited, via the Bill’s website, to submit their comments on the proposed clauses of the Bill to the relevant unit within the Home Office.

In announcing this pilot scheme, the Prime Minister explained its aims as being to: “improve the level of debate and scrutiny of bills by giving everyone the opportunity to go online and offer their views on any new legislation. That means better laws – and more trust in our politics”. The idea of opening up legislation to scrutiny by members of the public is a remarkable step in terms of open and accessible government in the UK and is, for this country, a novel concept.

The deadline for comments on the Protection of Freedoms Bill is 7 March with a debate of the Bill expected to follow shortly after. The level of interest shown by the British public in getting involved in matters of legislative procedure will be interesting to observe (for the purposes of comparison, over 15 million votes were cast during last year’s series of ‘the X Factor’) as will the extent to which the relevant sponsoring department and MPs have regard to the responses provided.