Friday, September 09, 2005

Who governs Britain

Following the dismal attempts of Tory leadership candidates to offer anything resembling a sensible idea of what they would do if elected, much less - heavens forbid - form a government, we thought we would have a go. The following, therefore, is something like what we would wish to see from a Tory leadership candidate:

People are fed up with politics and politicians because they know that their vote has little impact on how they are actually governed. A vote in a local government election will have little bearing on the level of council tax or the manner in which refuse is collected because most of local government finance and the tasks imposed on local government are decided by central government.

Victims of crime cannot change their local policing policy or their Chief Constable because these are decided by central government which dictates national policies. No vote in any election will elect politicians capable of changing the Working Time Directive, the most expensive piece of legislation ever imposed upon the British people. The European Commissioners are effectively a one party state; no Commissioner can ever be removed by a popular vote.

The other great problem of contemporary government is that there is simply too much of it. Central government has taken on so many responsibilities that it is not possible for the politicians to discharge their responsibilities adequately, with a result that vital decisions are delegated either to civil servants or the growing number of agencies and quangos. Again, those that run these quangos spending huge sums of public money run no risk of losing their jobs in an election.

Conservative policy should be driven by a simple ideal. No organisation which supplies a citizen with services should be exempt from the citizen’s ability to change that supplier either by voting or by spending his money differently. Privatisation has given citizens unprecedented choice and the power to change suppliers of telecommunications and energy supply.

The State has a lousy track record as a supplier of health and education services and these can be returned to the market. Under a voucher system, patients and parents would have the power to choose between state, private and charitable provision as in every other successful Western country. The whole costly paraphernalia of centrally directed targets and bureaucracy, requiring providers to satisfy political objectives laid down by national politicians rather than the demands of individual patients and pupils, would disappear at a stroke. Huge sums would be released from unproductive bureaucracy to satisfy customers.

At local level, it is essential that we return local accountability to police forces by introducing elected chief constables to take charge of each force and dictate local policy in accordance with the wishes of the people they serve.

In order for local authorities to act independently and be responsive to their local voters, they should be given clear areas of policy which they would have to fund themselves. This would give responsibility to Council candidates to present a programme of activity that they would have to finance and justify to their electorate. The current revenues from VAT are approximately the same as the central government funding to local authorities. VAT and uniform business rate should be abolished and replaced by a local sales tax, paid to local authorities. This would create a virtuous circle of tax competition between local authorities driving local taxes down.

This would free local authorities from central government interference to provide services in accordance with the wishes and the purses of their electors, instead of being subject to targets or any other performance indicators set by central government. Councillors would be accountable to their electors. Services would conform to the wishes of local people expressed at a local election rather than being imposed by European directives or central government diktats over which local government electors have no control whatsoever.

There is a strong case for returning local services to delivery by county authorities. Counties have a long track record of showing that they are small enough to be trusted by local people, that they can be represented by genuine locals but that they are large enough to have the momentum to deliver. Returning real power to these units would be true devolution and would render the current, totally imbalanced, devolution settlement void. The devolution referendums excluded 85 percent of the population i.e. the English but the disgracefully wasteful talking shops in Edinburgh and Cardiff are supported by a preponderance of English taxpayers' money. This is wrong and there should be an all UK referendum on the issue of abolishing the existing devolution settlement and replacing it with real genuine devolution to county units.

Other functions should be devolved to elected local authorities or other bodies. These would include sea fishing, with the establishment of regional marine management authorities and agriculture, which could be managed at county level.

For those functions retained by central government, Parliamentary scrutiny should be improved and the system of Parliamentary Select Committees strengthened. Members should be elected by MPs and chairmen should be drawn from opposition parties or independent members. There is much to be learnt from American Congressional Committees. Inquiries should be properly funded and staffed, with trained researchers. The Committees should have power to summon witnesses and to demand evidence under oath, with criminal sanctions for perjury.

There is a common feeling of helplessness that officials, more than elected politicians, run the country. This must change and Parliamentary Select Committees should have a role here. Employment terms of public servants must be revisited. The perception is that, in far too many cases, when large amounts of public money are wasted or there have been serious failures of duty, no one is found responsible, or those responsible are not punished and in some cases are actually promoted. Governments, whether central or local, must also have the power to terminate the employment of those who fall short of the standards set and should be prepared to exercise that power.

We must get back to the Conservative concept that the State exists to serve the people and that the people are genuinely sovereign. It should therefore be a central tenet of a Conservative government that it cannot delegate its law-making powers to any other organisation or institution. This applies to external bodies such as the European Union and internally, where currently so much effective law is made by officials without political input or control. Law-making must remain in the hands of politicians directly elected by the British people to serve their exclusive interests, affording the people an opportunity to remove legislators if they do not approve of their actions.

It is ludicrous that over 60 percent of the laws imposed upon the fourth largest economy in the world are created by people who have not been elected and cannot be removed in elections. A Conservative government should regain the power currently vested in the European Union by a fundamental renegotiation of all the existing treaties. Central to this would be the removal of the supremacy of the European Court of Justice and other international courts, including the Court of Human Rights. This would entail the withdrawal from the Convention on Humans Rights and the repeal of the Human Rights Act which give excessive powers over British citizens to those who have not been elected. All existing EU legislation should be reviewed and unless an overpowering case can be made for its retention - in which case it should be re-enacted as British law - it should be repealed.

Parliament should not only be supreme but in respect of the actions of British citizens or legal entities in the UK, no institution other than a British court should have jurisdiction over them. In the application of law, British courts should be supreme, headed by the House of Lords which should be the sole, final arbiter of law. Furthermore, no British institution should have the power to levy fines or other penalties on citizens, without their having recourse to a court of law. As to our relations with other countries, we should look to normal government-to-government treaties.

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