DEMOCRACY IN BRITAIN TODAY

Don Foster, MP, on 29 October 2003

The MP for Bath began by stating that voters should examine the underlying philosophies as well as the current policies of parties aiming at government. He believes that his party has a fundamental commitment to the pursuit of individual freedom. Today he thinks that is threatened by 'over-mighty states, private concentrations of power, actions of some individuals', but also by 'poverty, ill-health, lack of education' etc. He wants a democratic system and government that protects individual liberty, even if that constrains the attainment of other goals. That 'agenda for freedom' is not just about civil rights, however. It concerns other things, like the provision of 'decent public services' through positive action on poverty, health, education, etc.
On this occasion he wanted to concentrate upon civil rights in relation to democracy. Our system is treated as a model, which has been adapted around the world, but we need to examine how it in fact operates. Our local election turnouts are disappointingly low, possibly partly because of voting difficulties, but often because people regard parties as indistinguishable and both local and central government as ineffective. Rather than resort to compulsory voting (as in Australia) we should strengthen our institutions, so that electors can feel that their votes make a difference. Thus, we should change the voting system, strengthen the power of local government, reform the House of Lords, etc., whilst acknowledging that our system has been constantly changing to the benefit of democracy. He then listed some of those changes, ranging from the establishment of Parliament itself, to the widening of the franchise, the introduction of 'select committees'- a little-known second debating chamber within the House of Commons - and better access to Ministers, the independence of the Bank of England, some fairer voting systems for various assemblies, a Freedom of Information Act and 'human rights' legislation now incorporated into British law. He added that recently, whatever view one takes of the issue, a vote on participation in the war on Iraq was allowed to Parliament.
The speaker then put forward on paper eight areas of his concern, where he considers more changes are needed. He favours reducing the voting age to 16, mainly because many other (listed) areas of activity and responsibility are open to those young people. Secondly, some fairer voting systems already accepted should be

supplemented through local and national government elections and better forms of such systems adopted. Thirdly, the way people are consulted should be improved between national elections - opinion polls often relate to global rather than more local issues and better methods should be used.
Fourthly, the devolution process should be continued. Local government obtains most of its income from central government with 'strings' and he favours a local income tax balanced by reduction in national income tax to form a greater proportion of local income, so that local voters may then feel that they can make a difference on policies. The Scottish, Welsh and Northern Irish assemblies also have too few powers over taxation and there is a case for devolution in England. He believes that directly elected regional governments are 'crucial', since they would remove many unelected 'quangos' now being used. Logically, these changes imply a reduction in the power of central government. Some Ministries (e.g. the Department of Trade and Industry) might be removed and amalgamations made, but also there could be a reduction in the number of MPs - 659 is in his view too large a figure if accountable power is devolved. He welcomes proposals for separating the powers of the legislature and the judiciary and thinks that a Supreme Court is long overdue.
Nevertheless, having reduced central government power, parliamentary power would need to be enhanced. The success of the pre- legislative scrutiny of the recent Broadcasting Bill shows the great benefit of Select Committee study of proposed legislation, since outside expertise and opinion may then be tapped, which produced beneficial changes in that instance. Truly independent advice is needed by MPs and the Civil Service needs more reform, which was promised but has not yet been introduced. Parties need political funding (safeguarded against abuse) in order to do their parliamentary work better and for policy dissemination, he believes. EU legislation needs to be better scrutinised and the Royal Prerogative should be removed if contentious policies, such as treaties and in particular declarations of war, are to be subject to parliamentary consideration. He also favours a wholly-elected House of Lords rather than the currently proposed wholly-appointed Second Chamber. Lastly, the Church of England should be disestablished - the government and Parliament have no right to interfere with that body.
The sixth area of his concern relates to 'human rights'. The EU legislation is now incorporated into UK law, but there is no 'Human Rights Commission' or Commissioner. Seventhly, the heralded 'Freedom of Information' Act has been delayed in implementation and watered down - Ministers will decide security matters and there is no appeal process - 'we need to do more'. Finally, the speaker focussed on a need for a declaration of our democratic rights to be embodied in a written Constitution, which could be debated and changed if necessary. He incidentally favours a referendum on the proposed EU Constitution, while pointing out that its principles, rather than its details, are not really in contention. The meeting was then opened to free discussion.
Questions were raised on local government, the media, 'spin' and political apathy. The speaker argued that local income tax would be fairer and cheaper than council tax, which is inefficient and relatively costly to collect, whereas local income tax already has its basic information and is based upon the ability to pay. On a suggested increase of independent councillors, he pointed out that although he admires the independents who campaign on specific issues, parties collectively affect what the council can deliver. He deplored 'spin', but thought one counterbalance would be to make the choices before the electorate clearer by using public money, under careful controls, as he had argued earlier. Although our media may be criticised, they do rather better overall than in other so-called 'democracies' (e.g. Zimbabwe) and he thought the changes in the Communications Bill did begin to deal with power wielded by non-UK interests.
In order to combat voter apathy he stressed that the public must feel that parties are distinct and that many matters now dealt with nationally could be referred to regional and local levels. On a recent visit he had been impressed with the enthusiasm for participation shown in South Africa as compared with our own electorate, but he rejected a charge of particular apathy of our young people. He pointed out that the ' youth wing of single issue groups is larger now than it has ever been before' and mentioned Greenpeace, Charter 88, Friends of the Earth and in particular the RSPB, which is very large and politically very effective. He claimed that young people are very interested in political issues, but are not interested in political parties. In conclusion the speaker asked Claire Tyson, the Bath representative in the national Youth Parliament to comment. She then argued that the quality of information provided by our media is too poor to clarify political issues, but that young people do have 'things to say' on individual issues, despite lack of 'access' to party politics.

Geoffrey Catchpole