Friday, June 08, 2007

Good Cause, Bad Idea

One of the most important rules of policy-making, in my opinion, is that ideas which seem to be promoting a good cause deserve as much scrutiny as any other ideas.

From the recommendations of the Power Inquiry (PDF):

5. 70% of the members of the House of Lords should be elected by a 'responsive electoral system' [sic] - and not on a closed party list system - for three electoral terms. To ensure that this part of the legislature is not comprised of career politicians with no experience outside politics, candidates should be at least 40 years old.

That's the problem with politics at the moment, y'know. Too many young people.

Credit to the trade unionist on the Commission who flagged up the challenge to this idea posed by age discrimination legislation, but the overall view of the Commission was that the advantages of an age limit would justify an exemption, because it would tempt people who had been running a business or working in the public sector to try a new career. Quite why they would be excluded from doing this if younger people could also stand for election is not made clear.

Or take the Sustainable Communities Bill.

"The Sustainable Communities Bill will create a more ‘bottom-up’ society in which communities together with their councils are empowered to solve the above problems themselves. Central government will be required by law to provide for the implementation of local sustainability strategies that communities will be invited to draw up themselves together with their councils. Importantly, this new process will be participatory not consultative.

These sustainability strategies will state ways in which community decline is to be reversed and real local sustainability is to be created. This could include measures to promote local shops and services, local jobs and local businesses; measures to reduce social exclusion and increase active citizenship; and environmental measures too. Local people will be able to set targets for these measures, or even introduce new measures and indicators, and these may differ from area to area. There may even be local referenda on issues such as: should the new superstore be built? Politics will be turned upside down as communities are given the power to reverse Ghost Town Britain and decide how the places they govern are developed or conserved, rather than being dictated to by government."

All the buzzwords are present and correct, and over 400 MPs are signed up to support this. It is perhaps not a good sign that there is no concise explanation of what the Bill would do, but that is the least of the problems.

Despite the grandiose claims for what the bill will make possible, the government can reject any aspect of these 'local sustainability strategies' which would cost any money, conflict with national strategies or with other local objectives set by other councils, with no right of appeal or challenge. The bill would establish a structure in which people's expectations would be raised and then dashed. The people behind the campaign seem to intend for it to be used primarily as a campaigning device to prevent Tesco's from opening more supermarkets, but it could equally well be used by local campaigns against new homeless shelters, or legal sites for travellers, or social housing developments. Each of these lobby groups tends to be well resourced and quick to seize on all legal avenues to advance their cause. It also lets local councils off the hook - rather than being accountable for what happens in their area, this process offers them a way of shifting the blame for unpopular decisions about allocating resources to central government.

The bill would also be a charter for mavericks. An amendment to it sought to ensure that 'representatives' of people on low incomes, young people, black and minority ethnic people and so on would be involved before a sustainability strategy could be drawn up. This is intended to prevent the strategies from being dominated by people with time on their hands and people who are already engaged in the political process.

But the point about representatives is that there is a structure for electing them and for holding them accountable. The proposed method of finding 'representatives' set out in the bill's amendment was to advertise on the council's website and in the local newspaper. Essentially, the local sustainability structures would be forums of people who write regularly to the local newspaper, claiming to speak on behalf of other people. The Secretary of State would then have to look at these plans, try to sift the good ideas from the off the wall and malign ones and decide which ones to fund.

If the government had put forward such a badly written and not thought through bill, at least there would have been some proper scrutiny of it. Because it is a private members' bill (something, naturally, that the Power Inquiry wants to see a lot more of), it seems to have mostly escaped even the most basic of scrutiny and has now made it to a Third Reading.

Doing nothing to re-engage people in democratic decision-making is bad enough. But putting forward stupid ideas which claim to do so, while actually increasing cynicism about and undermining the power of representative democracy to do good is much worse.


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