Monday, 17 January 2011

The Coalition maintains it speaks 'Plain English' - Really?

Grant Shapps tweets that "As the Localism Bill is debated in Parliament today, we've just published this Plain English Guide"  For Grant Shapps - and Greg Clarke, from the Foreward - to believe that the Coalition (or any politician, come to that) can put anything into plain English is stretching credulity a tad far. From the Foreward:
"For too long, central government has hoarded and concentrated power. Trying to improve people’s lives by imposing decisions, setting targets, and demanding inspections from Whitehall simply doesn’t work. It creates bureaucracy. It leaves no room for adaptation to reflect local circumstances or innovation to deliver services more effectively and at lower cost. And it leaves people feeling “done to” and imposed upon – the very opposite of the sense of participation and involvement on which a healthy democracy thrives. I have long believed there is a better way of doing things. Eight years ago I wrote a book called Total Politics which set out the case for a huge shift in power – from central Whitehall, to local public servants, and from bureaucrats to communities and individuals. Today, I am proud to be part of a Government putting this vision into practice. We think that the best means of strengthening society is not for central government to try and seize all the power and responsibility for itself. It is to help people and their locally elected representatives to achieve their own ambitions."
"Plus ca change, plus cest la meme chose" - as you will see. 

The first example comes just after the above extract when Clark continues:
"This document summarises each of the main ideas proposed in the Bill, and explains the overall difference that they could make. I am looking forward to a great debate about them in parliament over the coming months."
And the debate with the people, Mr. Clark? If it is proposed to devolve power to the people, then surely the debate should be with the people and not to foist on them what amounts to a diktat from central government. The wish to see a debate with councils, community groups, volunteers, social activists and many more people is no more than a debate with what is known as 'stakeholders', or 'interested' groups - they are not 'the people'!

This 'Plain English Document' begins:
"Local government plays a crucial role in the life of the nation. It is directly responsible for important public services, from street lighting, to social care, to libraries and leisure centres. It makes sure that other services work together effectively for the good of the community. And with councillors elected by and accountable to local people, local government provides democratic leadership.....The Government is committed to passing new powers and freedoms to town halls. We think that power should be exercised at the lowest practical level – close to the people who are affected by decisions, rather than distant from them."
Why no mention of waste disposal? Sorry - forgot that is subject to our real Parliament in Brussels! To have the situation whereby local councillors being accountable to local people, it is necessary that the 'Cabinet' system of government be abolished and a return made to the committee system - something that was promised by Eric Pickles, when he said:
"You and your voters, should decide how you organise yourselves. Whether you want a mayor, a cabinet or a return to the committee system, I don't mind. That's up to you."
Yet I did not see any mention of this important, possible change in the plain English version although it is covered in the Bill, Clause (2) (a) (i) and (ii).

Presently local councillors have no more power than any other non-elected person. If the Coalition believe that power should be exercised at the lowest practical level then that must be by the people and not "close to the people".

To demonstrate the argument about central government control, consider this statement:
"The Localism Bill includes a “general power of competence.” It will give local authorities the legal capacity to do anything that an individual can do that is not specifically banned by other laws: they will not, for example, be able to impose new taxes, as other laws make clear they cannot."
Those 'other laws' are set by central government and which restrict, for example, local authorities imposing local taxes - be that a local sales tax or a land value tax. Would not the ability to set local taxes make local councillors even more answerable to their electorates?

Yet another 'interesting' extract is:
"The new general power will give councils more freedom to work with others in new ways to drive down costs."
"Others" is, of course, not defined but will mean 'stakeholders' - the people will be the last of those 'worked with'. This is an open door for council amalgamation, thus fulfilling the EU's desire for regional government. In this regard I would refer you to a post, two years ago, here which details Labour's idea of Multi Area Agreements (MAAs) - a policy on which, noticeably, there does not seem to have been any statement of 'disbanding' by the Coalition. In fact the reverse is true, as from page 12 we find that:
"Not all planning decisions can, or should, be made at a neighbourhood or local level. In many cases there are very strong reasons for neighbouring local authorities, or groups of authorities, to work together on planning issues in the interests of all their local residents. This might include working together on environmental issues (like flooding), public transport networks (such as trams), or major new retail parks."
which shows that the door has been 'left open' for future amalgamations of local authorities, as if there is a need to work together on planning issues, why not any other issue such as waste collection,  education, policing, health etc etc.

What follows must be considered a classic example of shooting oneself in the foot, because the document states:
"The Government thinks it is important to have safeguards to prevent the abuse of power and misuse of public money."
Err, did not MPs and the last government misuse public money? Is not the Coalition guilty of abuse of power by refusing the people a referendum on this nation's membership of the European Union? Apologies for another 'digress', but it was one that could not be resisted!

The document continues by stating that the Localism Bill will give these groups the right to express an interest in taking over the running of a local service - what it does not say is that such groups will be overseen by an 'Advisory Group' based in central government. One can rest assured that these 'advisory groups' will be more managerial and dictatorial than 'advisory'.

Now it is time to turn to what is probably the greatest means whereby public expression can make itself known - the ability to hold a local referendum. Here is what the "Plain English" document states:
"In many other countries around the world, communities have the right to put any local issue to a local vote. The ability to trigger a referendum can enliven local democratic debate and give people a way of making their voice heard on the issues that are close to their heart. Currently, in this country, communities can only trigger a local referendum in limited circumstances, and on a very limited range of questions. The Localism Bill will give local people the right to suggest votes on any local issue that they think is important. Local authorities and other public bodies will be required to take the outcome into account as they make their decisions."
If this document is supposed to be in "Plain English" then why does it state: "Local authorities and other public bodies will be required to take the outcome into account as they make their decisions", when Clause 52 (3) (4) show that a local authority is not bound by the result of the referendum. So why, if the Coalition is proclaiming it is using plain English in this document does it not just state that local authorities are not bound by the result of a referendum?

On page 10 the document states:
"The planning system helps decide who can build what, where and how. It makes sure that buildings and structures that the country needs (including homes, offices, schools, hospitals, roads, train lines, power stations, water pipes, reservoirs and more) get built in the right place and to the right standards. A good planning system is essential for the economy, environment and society."
Once again, it is necessary to say 'err', as road and rail fall within the EU's Trans European Network - Transport (TEN-T) directorate, a subject on which I posted here, in November 2010. Odd, is it not, that no mention of this is notated? 

In conclusion this document, like most 'offerings - be they verbal or written - that comes from the present government, is full of obfuscation, lies and falls foul of the Coalition promise of transparency.

And still our politicians plead to be believed, accepted and respected? More importantly, does 'Joe Public' have any understanding of the Localism Bill, or even how local government works - or in reality, does not work?

Is it our politicians or us that is living on another planet?


Voyager said...

The trick is to pass pseudo-control to localism but offload costs onto Council Tax.

Ever since Redcliffe-Maude in 1972 created metropolitan authorities localism was subsumed into managerial imperialism and the bills flowed to the householder.

We are simply seeing yet more of the offloading of Government funding to householder bills. Thatcher nationalised Business Rates and Whitehall simply instructs local govt to do things but wants Council Tax to pay.

Well, when you are in a white township paying for urban bantustans ion the inner city you realise where this policy will lead - White Flight on a major scale.

WitteringsfromWitney said...

Voyager: Interesting comment. Problem with trying to load everything onto Council Tax is that CT only raises approximately 25% of local authority revenue - the remainder is from central govt grant.

Whilst this situation remains, true local government is a farce, with local govt being no more than an admin centre of central govt, as central govt is for the EU.

The Cowboy Online said...

Interesting post. I'm an all too infequent visitor to your blog, and this time I've followed a link from EUReferendum, but I shall definitely have to add you to my 'daily read' list.

I did want to comment on this though;

"It makes sure that other services work together effectively for the good of the community."

As you mentioned, the usual suspects, sorry, stakeholders (aka special interest groups) aren't the community and, ultimately, what's really good for the community is freedom for the individual. Something politicians of all stripes seem unwilling to accept.

WitteringsfromWitney said...

TCO: Welcome and thank you for adding me to your daily read list - much appreciated.

The point about it all being sorted out by and within the same clique is one aspect that really annoys me - the one group that they should be talking to, ie the people, are the ones that they studiously ignore!

Voyager said...

My point was that they will offload the 75% onto Council Tax payers with elected mayors and then THOSE who PAY Council Tax will be reamed.

James Higham said...

from central Whitehall, to local public servants

From Whitehall to Common Purpose.