The debate on devolution within England is the wrong debate at what BBC East Midlands journalist John Hess hinted is a convenient pre General Election debate time. Truth is, any national gov’t needs to know its mandate is able to shape the country. It’s also true that the balance of powers is wrong. But so is the balance of the country – the real reason why the Scottish referendum was so close.
England does need better government. It’s hard to see what value any kind of English assembly could add. The natural levels of gov’t here are – UK, principal local authorities, boroughs & districts, towns & parishes, and finally regions. Notably, health and education structures are fitting less easily into that model. Core cities don’t fit the model well enough either – but they’re meeting a need and who wants to hold them up with boundary re-organisation?
New Labour developed a psyche – “Look, there’s a problem! Quick! Re-organise!” At its worse with the re-organisation of social services into adults and children (as if families don’t contain both) because of Baby P. Top down, expensive, knee-jerk and merely creating different boundaries to manage.
Yet New Labour also developed models for service delivery – based on project management, service planning and inspection that tests key criteria for success – ambition; planning and performance management; capability, capacity and culture; legitimacy; inspiration. (I’ve added some, but I’d also expect a Labour gov’t to be looking to equality and participation.)
English gov’t would be better if people could more easily understand it – to which Tony Benn’s five questions are interesting. My version would say –
– elected representatives are accountable for all public money raised and spent;
– more than FoI, freedom of quality information; the planning that allows the spending of public money published, along with its results; available (on-line) to the public, journalists and inspectors; giving substance to political debate.
Democracy – all equal on election day – gives so much, but it gives more when people take the responsibilities along with the rights.
The greatest disappointment of the new technology in politics (and in journalism) is that it has led to trolling and conspiracy theories, impugning motives and attacking personality (even for opinions on baking on TV) and putting people off from joining in, rather than enlightenment and participation. Legislation can only take us so far; instead we should all work to what George Orwell said – publish nothing rather than publish anything barbarous.
Better government requires better information. Pathetic that we can no longer properly count the people who are out of work. Civil servants should be given a duty to publish more fully the options that have been suggested by those not in majority power. And check everything for the impact of poverty; check performance in the context of adding value – don’t fail teachers for deigning to teach the deprived.
My immediate steps for change (which I think could appeal across the political spectrum) would be –
– new accountability for the NHS, including commissioning by principal local authorities; the restoration of full local education authorities;
– along with new rights for principal local authorities, new responsibilities for them and Whitehall – embracing value-added analysis, FoQI and inspections (based on key criteria and self-assessment, including peer inspectors, and Ofsted mark 2 rather than Ofsted marks 1 and 3);
– allowing core cities to find their own ways of evolving, and locally elected representatives to provide regional co-ordination;
– the North, the Midlands and the South-West to take on more of the economic activity conducted in London and the South-East;
– a massive drive on tackling tax avoidance.
For Labour –
– an electoral register drawing from all sources of public authority information, from which people have to opt out of; enfranchising millions of people left off the lists;
– new expectations that public services are provided by staff in recognised workplaces, working to the living wage as a minimum;
– commissioning that allows choosing local suppliers.
Longer term –
– can we find ways of town councils being the viable second tier of local government, rather than boroughs?
– could the regional assemblies be the new channels for creating a new House of Lords?
Should have said something about the need for national (and possibly regional) government to ensure that neighbouring authorities don’t undermine each other – not bringing forward plans to build housing, allowing out of town dev’t that takes retail away from existing shopping centres supported by public transport, schools taking away the most able children, not taking opportunities for green energy. You need a framework. And it’s just one reason why “independence for Nottingham” is so ridiculous.