Friday, September 08, 2006

Chelmsford Power Enquiry

The meeting notes below are posted as background to the Taking Power website conference launched this week. I attended the meeting and contributed some of the comments below.

Following a decision made at the June 2005 meeting of Chelmsford TUC, invitations were sent to a number of political parties in the town to debate the issues raised by The Power Inquiry. The following organisations were represented at a meeting which was held on 20 June at the T&G office in Springfield Road, Chelmsford: Co-operative Party, Green Party, Labour Party, Liberal Democrats and Respect. We also had one member present from the Young Essex Assembly. The Chairman came from the Trades Council which is not aligned to any political party.

QUESTION 1 Political parties have been absolutely central to British politics for many decades. But in recent years the number of people joining parties or saying they identify with one or other of the main parties has declined sharply. So how can political party membership and allegiance be made more attractive? And are there more effective ways of involving people in politics than through parties?

We all took the view that people have an interest in politics even if they do not express it through the ballot box or join a political party. This is reflected in the strong support for the “Make Poverty History Campaign”, the campaign against the war in Iraq, the growth of support for political parties such as Respect, UKIP and, sadly, racist parties. However, we accept that there is a tremendous cynicism with regard to Parliament, political parties and politicians.

We believe that campaigning in a variety of forms is an essential feature of attracting people to political parties. We also believe that people will, and do, join a political party if they identify with its aims and objectives, see the possibility of change, feel that they can be involved in its democratic process, are kept informed and if decisions are implemented. High standards, honesty, and political integrity at all levels of political life are key aspects of attracting people to party politics. We believe that political parties need to be more inclusive and more representative of society.

QUESTION 2. Some people argue that the government at Westminster is too powerful. They have called for more responsibility to be given to local councils and devolved institutions. Other people claim that the influence of unelected bodies such as major companies, international organisations and appointed authorities is too great and needs to be balanced by greater powers for our elected representatives. But would these changes really encourage more people to get involved in politics? Would they help people feel more confident about the possibility of influencing political decisions?

We all agreed that Westminster is too powerful. We also noted that local government has no constitutional guarantee of independence and that the government can reorganise local government and take away its powers at will. We all felt that devolving greater political power and bringing decisions closer to the electorate is essential. We also took the view that this increased responsibility should start at a low level e.g. parish or ward. There was no support at the meeting for Regional Government even though this may be the Party policy of some of those present. We also felt that local government needs to cover areas with which people identify and that many of the councils created in 1974 (or 1964 in London) are artificial mergers of unconnected places.

However, this does not resolve all our problems because many people are confused about “who does what” at the various levels of local government. Where there are parish councils, people often think they should be responsible for things like street sweeping and are puzzled when they discover they are not.

In some respects, parish councils are the most democratic of all levels of
local government. They have to have an annual meeting when every member of the parish is able to raise questions. The annual meeting can request a "parish poll" (i.e. referendum) on any subject.

We felt that ward/parish-level local government should have power and responsibility for issues such as the following:

a) Nursery and primary education: to build, maintain, open, close, engage and dismiss employees. It should have full responsibility for revenue and have access to capital.

b) Street and open space maintenance: the same responsibilities as above.

c) Waste removal: the statutory right to be consulted and to monitor and call to account service provision.

d) Planning Control (Domestic): total responsibility for dwelling alteration control, monitoring and enforcement. Primary consultation on all new - build and development with the final say on style and energy standards.

e) Planning Control (Non-Domestic): primary consultation and statutory power to call in borough or county level decisions.

f) Preservation issues (trees, ancient buildings etc): total responsibility.

There must be a highly visible local authority office in the ward/parish with as many operations as possible devolved to it; even the facility (for example), to pay and query council tax, to provide bus/train passes, to get replacement waste containers, to register for nursery and primary education. There will be a ward/parish council which will be chaired by the Ward/Borough/District Councillor for that Ward. He/she would assume the role of 'very local elected mayor' and would allocate responsibilities to the ward/parish level elected persons and represent the ward at Borough level.

We take the view that multi-councillor wards should be abolished to ensure that one councillor has ward level responsibility, recognizing that there may need to be alterations in the size of the ward so that electors can identify with it.

Each ward local authority office will have its staff headed by a Ward Manager. There should be examined certification for this post and it would be ideal as a training ground for graduate entry into higher levels of local government or promoting from below Principal Officer level. In time no local government officer at borough or county level would be able to progress to a position of higher management responsibility without having had some experience as a Ward Manager.

We can also visualise this new level of government being responsible for monitoring health services at ward/parish level; much as the county Overview Committee is supposed to do at present but just for doctors, dentists, chemists, opticians and ancillary primary care services and private businesses such as, alternative practitioners.

The important thing is to keep at ward level things that directly affect the day-to-day lives of the citizens and avoid anything going up to borough level that is a local question. Staff levels within the Borough would be reduced to the level required.

We agree that people are concerned at the power of the WTO, World Bank etc., as well as multinationals and these have, of course, been expressed by organisations and inviduals at such meetings for some years.

We are concerned at the way in which the representatives of major companies are becoming increasingly embedded within the civil service and the power that they can exert in various civil service committees.

We felt that Quangos should have been included in this section. We have noted that 117 new Quangos have been created since 1997 and that their number now exceeds 500. We are concerned at the way in which members to these unelected bodies are appointed and consider that the process should be more open to public scrutiny. We noted that elections to the Boards of Foundation Hospitals have now started to take place and even if they have not been enthusiastically embraced by their electorate, it has been a major step forward in accountability and one that can be built on. We do not, however, wish to emulate the practice carried out in the USA for elections to virtual all aspects of public office.

We also considered that the way in which Parliament and Government operates could have been incorporated in this section. We believe that Parliament should be made up up of fixed terms (say for five years) and it was suggested that consideration be given to MPs being allowed to sit for a limited number of terms and the Prime Minister should also have a fixed term of office.

We support the right of MPs to elect their own Chairperson for Committees and value the excellent work that they do. We feel that televising Parliament has been beneficial, and the Parliamentary website has also been of value.

We have no faith in the way in which “Independent Enquries” are constituted and believe that the appointment of Chairpersons should be based on the decisions of a panel elected by the House of Commons. Although we accept that “Whips” should have a role in Parliament, MPs should have a greater measure of independence in areas that are not bound by Party Manifestos. Concern was expressed at the way in which the Government controls a large majority of the votes through the “payroll” vote.
Furthermore, as part of the change in the political process, we felt that we should have an elected non-executive head of state. However, this was not considered a top priority and should not divert us from the more important issues above and below.

QUESTION 3. Some people claim the media breeds cynicism about politics and politicians which discourages political interest and involvement. Is this true? If so, how can the media play a positive role in encouraging political involvement?

Although there was general agreement that the media does breed cynicism, this aspect of our discussion did not, at first, provoke much interest as it was felt that we could do little about it. However, we did not consider that the media actually discouraged political interest. Nevertheless, we are concerned at the way in which misinformation is used to make political points, at the standards of some political journalism in the tabloid press, and how the Press Complaints Commission is structured and operates. We also took note of the structure of the BBC’s Board of Governors, its power and influence, and believe that this, too, should be more open to public control. This followed from our discussion of the role and future of quangos above.

In our view and despite its Charter, the BBC does have considerable political bias. We also noted that the BBC’s “What the Papers Say” and Newsnight never includes the co-operatively-owned Morning Star in its broadcasts, although it has been featured in the past. We also noted the way in which the BBC is used to fulfil the Government’s political agenda during moments of controversy, not least the 1984 Miners’ Strike, the Falklands War and the invasion of Iraq. It is also disappointing that most sections of the media tend to be more interested in personalities rather than policies.

QUESTION 4. The number of people voting in General Elections has declined considerably in the last ten years. Turnout is also very low in elections for local councils, devolved institutions and the European Parliament. What changes would encourage a larger number of people to feel it is worth voting?

At present people feel that their vote hardly matters if they live in a “safe” seat (ie the vast majority of constituencies). However, more people vote nationally because they perceive a general election as more important than council elections; in fact their vote in a local election could be more likely to affect change than at national level.

Some concern was expressed that people feel intimidated and may be ignorant of the political process, and that when two elections take place on the same day, the quantity of leaflets could be confusing. There is also the perceived convergence of the major political parties so that people see no difference. In addition, when it comes to a general election many people seem to vote for a prime minister not a member of parliament.

We felt that there is a need for greater education and information about the political process. Perhaps local councils should send everyone a "welcome to
citizenship" pack shortly after 18th birthdays and/or just before the election after they are 18. We feel that a public information campaign on TV and the media generally aimed at the electorate on the procedures of the electoral system would be beneficial.

With one partial exception everyone took the view that proportional representation is superior to the “first past the post” system and that this should be used for all elections in the UK; although we were inclined to accept that this should be based on a single transferable vote, we did not debate this thoroughly. In this discussion a point was made whether PR is favoured for reasons of party fairness or to enfranchise the voters. This sometimes influences the type of PR system chosen.

There were mixed views on compulsory voting, but we all agreed that we should be able to vote for “none of the above”.

Concern was expressed at the way in which postal ballots had been misued during the last elections. We, therefore, believe that we should ensure that safeguards are in place to avoid any abuses in the electoral processes.

We considered that part of the problem of alienation from European politics is the electoral system. We believe that the list system is fundamentally wrong as it takes power away from the voter and places it in the hands of a party machine. Concern was expressed that the Council of Ministers can overide some decisions of the EU Parliament. Taking note of our EU responsibilities we take the view that Parliament should, as far as possible, be sovereign if we are to have any confidence in its institutions.

Some people argue that voting in elections is not enough. They believe today’s citizens need an opportunity to discuss and have a direct say over individual policies through other means such as referenda, internet forums and public meetings designed to have significant power to influence political decisions. Would more opportunities to have a direct say attract participants and would they encourage greater trust in the policies pursued by politicians?

We were all agreed that democracy is not just about elections. It also embraces lobbying MPs, demonstrations, petitions etc. We are broadly in favour of any extensions of participatory politics including a greater use of referenda on important issues.

QUESTION 6. Some groups in society are very unlikely to be involved in politics. Young people are far less likely to vote or join parties than older people. The poorest sections of our society and black and minority ethnic communities are less likely to vote, join parties or take part in any sort of political activity. What action would encourage greater political involvement by the groups that are least involved with politics?

To a certain degree we have touched on this issue above. We felt that young people do have an interest in politics although we accept that, from time to time, there may be alienation from some mainstream parties. This is largely brought about by a failure of politicians to “deliver”.

Young people are concerned about Fairtrade and many other social issues. We believe that there is a lot of good work being done in schools and as far as our community is concerned, there has been a growth in the number of young people joining political parties.

We felt that many minority groups are alienated from public life and society has to do much more to involve them in community activity. We believe that the Government has to invest more money in every aspect of community life particularly for our youth, black and minority ethnic citizens to ensure that they feel they have a stake in society.

QUESTION 7 Is there anything further about participation and engagement in democracy you would like to add?

In our opinion politics embraces wider issues than the questions posed by the Power Enquiry. We discussed some of the factors that have alienated many people from political life and came to the view that, although this has developed over many years, it has accelerated recently. The “looking after themselves” approach to politics is, sadly, borne out of considerable experience, and careerism and opportunism brings no credit to political activity. In our view the television programme “Yes Minister” reflects a disturbing but accurate record of government. We are concerned at the power of the Prime Minister to control so may aspects of public and parliamentary activity.

We are also disappointed at the way in which financial donations from companies or individuals are rewarded by offering seats in the Government, on Quangos, or in the House of Lords, and by introducing or amending legislation. We have also taken note that the Government has axed an 83-year old committee that was designed to prevent political parties rewarding their donors with peerages, knighthoods and other honours.

With this in mind we felt that donations to political parties by businesses, trade unions and individuals, should be reviewed. We also felt that the tax payer has to take on a greater measure of financial support for political parties. We had a short discussion on how much the state should be involved in the funding and regulation of political parties without reaching any firm conclusion


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