FIPR Special Release

FIPR: Foundation for Information Policy Research

Letter to Secretary of Trade and Industry: Consultation Notice Period Contravenes Cabinet Office Guidelines

5th March 1999


Rt.Hon. Stephen Byers MP,

Secretary of State for Trade and Industry

[By Fax: +44 (0171) 215 5468]

Dear Mr.Byers,

I draw your attention to the Cabinet Office guidelines "How to conduct written consultation exercises - an introduction for central government".

Chapter 4, para.12, Response Times states that: "Eight weeks for replies should generally be the minimum for all consultation exercises, but whenever possible more should be allowed. Where less than eight weeks is allowed, the document should specify why a longer response time could not have been given (for example, pre-determined statutory periods for consultation, threats to health, the pace of EU negotiations or long-standing existing arrangements). For consultations with clearly defined or specialist groups, shorter consultation periods may suffice, depending on the nature of the subject and the scale of the exercise: this is for departments, agencies and other bodies to judge according to the circumstances."

I wish to lodge a formal complaint that the response time allowed for "Building Confidence in Electronic Commerce", (4 weeks - 5/3/99 to 1/4/99) is insufficient, and contravenes the 8-week minimum specified in the Guidelines. The response time is not constrained by "pre-determined statutory periods for consultation, threats to health, the pace of EU negotiations or long-standing existing arrangements". Moreover, merely stating that the Government is "committed" to introduce a Bill this session, is not a reasoned justification of "why a longer response time could not have been given".

The proposed legislation on regulation of E-Commerce affects everyone in society, and would amend many complex areas of law; the Company Act 1985 (para.26), IOCA (para.58), PACE (para.62). There are fifteen requests for comments within the document itself; and these vary from comments on UNCITRAL, to law enforcement access to data. All these matters need time for full consideration by the various interested groups, not all of whom may yet be aware of the Consultation Exercise, or that is has now begun after many postponements over the past 12 months. It is not the case that only "a clearly defined or specialist group" is affected, and this is acknowledged in your comments in the Press Release that consumers, businesses, companies, shareholders (amongst others) will all be affected. I would ask that you grant the minimum 8-week period required by the Cabinet Office guidelines, and thus extend the response time until 30th April.

Given the very short and unexpected deadline which is the subject of this complaint, I do require a response in a commensurately short time - Tuesday 9th March 1999. If a response is not received, by fax, letter or e-mail by 5pm, I will proceed to refer the matter in the normal way to the Parliamentary Commissioner for Administration. I have verified that this matter falls within the competence of the Ombudsman to investigate as a prima facie case of maladministration.

Yours sincerely

Caspar Bowden

Director, Foundation for Information Policy Research

Tel: +44(0)171 354 2333 Fax: +44(0)171 827 6534

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Last Revised: March 5 1999