Saturday, 27 June 2009

Devolving Power

Janet Daley, writing in the Telegraph, has an interesting article regarding 'power to the people', which can be viewed here.

Commenting on the inefficiency and impracticality of allowing politicians and bureaucrats to spend other peoples money - highlighting MP's expenses and the BBC in particular - Daley ponders whether this may be the catalyst to harnessing the public's anger, as Thatcher did against trades unions and 'Loony Left' local authorities.

She makes a telling point, encapsulating a hidden 'dig' against the Conservative Party, when she states:

"For public outrage must present an opportunity – if not an obligation – to an Opposition. If popular anger can't be channelled through mainstream politics, then democracy is useless."

If politicians are truly wishing to devolve power to the people, instead of mouthing platitudes, then it can only be enacted by a belief in what Hannan & Carswell call 'true localism'.

Under the present system local government is but a sham and it is for this reason that turnout at local elections is so low as people now seem to be aware that their vote counts for nought.

The allocation of monies to local authorities by the Treasury is made purely on assessing spending needs against the level of local services. Therefore a good local authority, able to produce a high standard of local services does not qualify for as large a Treasury 'handout' as one that is inefficient. Consequently voters are unable to reward, or punish, the behaviour of their local council as it is far from clear who is actually responsible, on top of which a local council has only limited control over its budget. Couple this with the situation that where councils employ the 'Cabinet System' of local authority government to implement central government dictats, a council of say 50 councillors incorporating a Cabinet of say 7, means that the remaining 43 councillors are, in effect, disenfranchised.

Without, in turn, sounding patronising one does wonder how many of the electorate fully appreciate the source of funding for local authorities and whether it is believed that Council Tax is the sole provider of that funding.

For 'true localism' - and local government - to work for the benefit of local people, the following needs to happen:

* Abolish regional development agencies, regional government offices, MAAs (Multi-Area Agreements) and transfer all their powers to local authorities.

* Abolish the Department of Communities & Local Government and pass their powers to local authorities also.

* Grant to all local authorities responsibility for all areas of policy which have been devolved to the Scottish Parliament, under the 1998 Scotland Act.

* Replace VAT with a Local Sales Tax or, to keep young Wadsworth happy, a land value tax.

* Make all local authorities self-financing.

Without central government grants and making local authorities self-financing, local councillors would have to stand on their record, thus allowing voters to judge them accordingly. As one of the aids to making local authorities self-financing, let us consider a local sales tax, which would be a charged just once at the point of retail. Local councils would be free to vary the rate levied, dependent on their spending needs. To take a local example, were Wiltshire to set a lower rate than West Oxfordshire, then West Oxfordshire may well find shoppers crossing county lines to spend their money, to the gain of Wiltshire and the loss to West Oxfordshire. It would, as a result, introduce something to this country that we have never previously experienced, namely tax competition which, in turn, must lead to a downward pressure on taxes. Tax competition would also force local authorities to accept what is known as the 'Laffer Curve'; that is, that setting lower tax rates might well net them greater revenue with the added advantage that business and trade may well be attracted to low-tax areas, thus broadening the tax base.

By the abolition of the Department of Communities & Local Government one immediately returns to local people control over what may be described as quality-of-life issues such as siting of mobile phone masts, siting of incinerators and local planning.

But why stop there?

All three main political parties, when discussing the NHS, treat this subject as if it were a 'sacred cow' - it is not. The NHS is a service provider and as such should be subjected to a review of, and the implementation of, an acceptable level of service and efficiency. Why not, for example:

* Allow patients to opt out of the NHS and instead pay their contributions into individual private health accounts, a proportion to be allocated to everyday healthcare and the remainder set aside for insurance against serious illness.

* Allow those who choose to remain in the system, or cannot afford to contribute to a private healthcare system, to remain within the NHS.

* Incentivisation for prevention of illness, rather than cure.

The last point may well introduce an effort by people to avoid developing habits and conditions that require expensive remedies.

How about social security?

For far too long governments have seen their social security budgets balloon with little effect on relative or absolute poverty. Millions of people have become trapped in a world of relative squalor and low expectation. In their publication, The Plan, Hannan and Carswell state: " long as you pay people to be poor, you will never run out of poor people."

Why not:

* Return responsibility for the relief of poverty to local authorities.

* Allow local authorities to determine eligibility for benefits

* Provide local authorities a bloc grant for social security and give local authorities discretion over the allocation of those funds

Consider: Person A may be a widow or pensioner who has fallen on hard times whilst person B may be a local 'layabout'. Would not a 'local' caseworker be more able to discern the difference than a government controlled 'service'?

Local authorities would be free to innovate and devise ideas and pilot schemes - those that work will soon be copied by other local authorities, thus benefiting the country as a whole. Many benefit cheats see their activities as 'cheating the system' rather than 'cheating their neighbours' - introduce localism and local accountability and benefit cheats really will soon seen to be 'cheating their neighbours'.

What about education? It is generally accepted that schools and the education system is failing and the reason is simple - too much government!


Government decides how many schools there are in any area.
Government decides the rules which dictate where your children go to school.
Government decides what they learn and how they are taught.
Government decides who can teach and how teachers are trained.
Government decides the hours your children spend in school, how many hours are spent on different subjects, what they eat and how they behave.

So the Government has created a monopoly, as in the health service, thus giving parents little choice. A state monopoly means uniformity and that, in turn, creates mediocrity, hence the lowering of standards - and the government is surprised when parents opt for home education. Even then parents are not 'left alone', but subjected to 'innuendo', in the argument against parents providing home education; this being done by hints of the opportunity for 'child abuse'.

So why not introduce 'true localism' by providing parents with a form of 'credit account' - ie the amount of money that the education of their child, or children, would cost and allow the parents to spend that sum at whatever school they chose, being one that provided the type and level of education that the parents wanted?

Why not consider the question of law & order?

Contained within our Council Tax demands is a 'precept', which is passed to the local police authority. This is another example of public money being spent by unaccountable and unelected individuals who then decide, under Home Office 'guidance', their policing priorities. As this is 'your' money, should you not have a voice in how it is spent? Should not those spending it be accountable to those providing said funding.

Now were Chief Constables forced to stand for election by their local community - and this is another argument for each local authority having their own police force - then, each candidate could present their 'manifesto' for law enforcement. For example, should the voters in a local authority vote for a candidate that promises zero tolerance to crime, then that is what they will be given and if the elected Chief Constable fails to deliver what the voters require - they elected him and so can 'un-elect him' - would result in true local democracy in action!

It is worth reminding readers that all 'local' services are provided with your money, whether this is by payment of Council Tax or taxation in general and consequently you have a 'right' to decide how it is spent.

On the question of 'rights', whether this is in regard to 'local' democracy or democracy 'per se', bearing in mind the three main political parties wish to devolve power - power which they have 'assumed' in most cases - it is worth recalling the words of Aldous Huxley;

"Liberties are not given, they are taken."
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