Many views have been expressed in the media, both written and spoken, on the subject of our democracy; what is wrong with it and how to correct the presumed deficiencies. We have been told that we need to 'strengthen Parliament'; curb executive power; devolve power down to the lowest level; democratise our police; that we need a Bill of Rights; decrease the level of bureaucracy; fix our education, health and welfare systems; the list is virtually endless and, it appears, is governed by 'personal interest'. We are also informed that, basically there is not much wrong with it and that the problems lies in our inability to accept 'diversity' and also our inherent xenophobia, although the foregoing list would suggest otherwise.
Therefore, a few thoughts. As Parliament is supposed to be the 'governing body' from which our laws emanate, logic suggests that this should be the area in which any attempt to deal with our perceived democratic shortcomings should commence. So let us examine what is wrong with our parliamentary system per se.
In order to counteract the power of any Prime Minister (more later) it is necessary that we have a stronger and thereby less corrupt Parliament. MPs at present are dependent on the patronage of a Prime Minister for personal advancement to ministerial or any other rank and as a result they will never confront party diktats, resulting in their representing party wishes instead of those of their constituents and the country.
Should MPs of ministerial rank be paid more than ordinary MPs? If not. would that not mean ministers would be more willing to confront the executive as their fortunes would not be dependent on their salary? On this subject of salary, examples of 'bending the rules on allowances' have been numerous in recent days, so why not scrap allowances and expenses and pay MPs a salary comenserate with their position. This would negate accusations of 'bending rules', buying second homes and employing members of their own family.
In most cases Parliamentary Committee membership is 'weighted' in favour of the government of the day. Committee membership should be 'neutral' with equal number of government and opposition members so that the Committee Chairman's opinion would only be required where instances of a casting vote were needed. Also it should be mandatory that any such hearings are held in public, with public access permitted.
Parliament today is full of MPs with no practical experience of the commercial world. Too many MPs only have bureaucratic experience, their life having been spent working for local authorities, think tanks and the like. So why not limit MPs tenure of office thus ensuring fresh blood being introduced into the political system. An argument against this is that experience may be lost, however the counter argument is that if being an MP was not a lifetime career it would attract people with commercial experience who also felt they had something to contribute to public life.
Another suggestion to improve Parliament would be to make MPs actually represent their constituents, which is after all the reason they are elected, rather than supporting the 'party line' as happens at present. To ensure this perhaps a 're-call' system should be instituted, whereby if a percentage of constituents sign a petition the MP is called back to answer complaints and, if necessary, removed. That suggestion just might concentrate one or two minds!
At present too much power lies in the hands of a Prime Minister and those political appointees working in Downing Street, all needless to say at public expense. The Prime Minister currently authorises the use of nuclear weapons, signs foreign treaties, effectively appoints bishops, ambassadors, judges, members of quangos, hands out peerages and honours. He also has in his power the ability to control grace and favour homes and appoints ministers, government whips and all the other political jobs. Remember power corrupts those exercising said power.
Party appointees should not have power over civil servants and all appointments, other than ministerial posts which whould remain the privilege of the Prime Minister, should be carried out in open hearings conducted by panels, or committees, of MPs.
The basic requirement of any change is that Party must be divorced from State!
Today, local government has been emasculated to the extent that it is just a local administrative centre for central government policy and diktats. With the introduction of the Local Government Act 2000 and the 'Cabinet' system it has left virtually 90 percent of councillors disenfranchised. In fact, in 2002, a report on the progress of the Local Govcrnment Act 2000 stated that an emphasis on the change to 'cabinet-style'structures had not helped to restore self-confidence of local government and had isolated non-executive councillors from the decision making process.
Ways in which to strengthen local government would be a return to the 'Committee' system; allowing local authorities to retain all of the business rates levied; by scrapping VAT and allowing local authorities to impose a local sales tax - not a local income tax as this is a tax on work, which is not the optimum method of raising taxes - although this is, of course, dependent on our removing this country from the 'embrace' of the EU. A local sales tax would also provide something never before seen in this country - tax competition - which would, of necessity, drive down taxes as a local authority that set a sales tax too high would inevitably achieve the result of 'driving away' revenue.
All 'ring-fencing, auditing and similar rules need to be torn up and local authorities' performance judged at the ballot box. It is generally acknowledged that local authorites are not performing satisfactorily and that is because they have no power themselves. Were local authorities to raise and spend their own money it might just concentrate councillor's minds and therefore result in local people receiving the services they want. It would also mean that people have an incentive and reason to vote at local elections; the disinterest in local elections being something that all parties 'complain' about, yet a problem about which none of the three main parties wish to address in any meaningful manner.
Perhaps all local authorites should have a directly elected mayor, someone who electors could praise when things are right and fire when things go wrong; someone with whom the public can immediately equate.
Law & Order:
There is nothing which has been devolved to the Scottish Parliament which could not be devolved to local authorities and on that basis the implementation of policing and law should be devolved. Having a Sheriff, elected by the voters, would ensure that people get the level of law and order that they want and this Sheriff should have the power to set local policing priorities, control police budgets together with setting local sentencing guidelines.
Bill of Rights:
Proponents of a new Bill of Rights wish, basically, this to replace the Human Rights Act and have suggested that it should contain the right of housing, education, health care, environmental rights and a 'standard of living' right. This idea is approaching that of a Constitution. Any constitution commences as a simple set of management rules which then expands into a complicated 'bible' and negates the principle that in a free society people's rights do not need to be set down in writing.
Any Bill of Rights needs to be very simple - it should focus on subjects such as fair treatment without discrimination; protect us from the threats of violence; that we are not bullied and harrassed by authority; that the state doesn't interfere with our lives; give us the right to 'due process of law', to be presumed innocent and give us the right to silence; the right to trial by jury, the right not to be subject to summary justice (spot bureaucratic fines); the right not to be arrested for trivial offences under the auspices of terrorism laws and should also take into account local laws set by local people through their elected local law enforcement officer. Restrictions imposed by Health & Safety laws should be covered by insurance, not bureaucratic diktat, likewise licensing laws may well vary district to district.
An emotive subject. Tax should be less complicated and the tax-free personal allowance needs to be raised. Instead of having differing rates of tax why not one rate of say 20 per cent? Why not raise the tax-free allowance to £12,000 thus negating the situation whereby people have worked out they are better staying on benefit than having a job? Stealth taxes need to be brought out into the open with VAT and duties on fuel and alcohol displayed so that people can see what they are, in reality, paying as tax and whether said tax is good value. National Insurance is a stealth tax in that whilst first conceived as an 'insurance premium' against illness and pension, an insurance premium does not increase with income as does national insurance.
Our education system is a joke and a sick joke which allows a child, aged 12, to know how to father a baby but who does not know the meaning of the word 'financially'. For years education has been funded and managed by central government and yet no-one in central government has realised that this is the cause of the problem. Who are schools used by - central government? No - they are used by parents so give parents the means to dictate how well schools perform. Provide parents with the funds for their children's education and let them 'shop around'. Schools that provided good education, provided discipline, provided what parents (ie the 'customer') wanted would flourish and those that did not would be forced to close - simple example of 'market forces' (ie choice) at work.
The National Health Service, like education, is a joke too in that there is no choice - the NHS has a 'captive' market. Unlike education, where costs are reasonably standard, health is different in that some people may require expensive treatment whilst others may never see a doctor in their entire life, or at least until very old age. Health must be a public sector that could be, generally, catered for with insurance. Whilst obviously there are some medical treatments which are hard to insure due to uncertain costs, such as dialysis etc, others are fairly standard like broken limbs etc.
As Dr. Eamonn Butler in his book, 'The Rotten State of Britain', mentions there exists a scheme started in Singapore called medical savings accounts. This calls for a contribution from wages which can be used for medical expenses using whatever kind of treatment is considered best and part of these contributions could be used to fund insurance for 'larger' treatments. Any money unused by the age of retirement could be used to fund a larger pension. By devolving health care to local authority areas and thus to local people will result in control passing from state to the non-state sector, ie the patient. By bringing into health care what is a form of competition would drive down costs and increase quality of care.
All of the above ideas are those put forward by Daniel Hannan and Douglas Carswell in 'The Plan' and by Dr. Eamonn Butler in 'The Rotten State of Britain'; books that MPs of all political persuasions should be forced to read. The Conservative Party, which this week, presented their plans for devolving power to the people are still insisting on retaining central control methods. Whilst their ideas are a start, they do not go anywhere far enough if they, as a party, truly believe in devolving power down to the lowest level.
In summary change is needed to our democracy and that change should restrain the power of our leaders; assert the rule of law and the principles of justice and, most important of all, return power to the people thus enabling them to exercise the greatest freedom of all - that of choice.
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