Caring diddlysquat about democracy

[Originally posted at Dale&Co, 27/09/11]

One of the less pleasant characteristics of the Coalition government is its cavalier attitude towards transparency, accountability and Parliamentary process. This is part of a more general impoverishment of democratic practice.

We hear reports of serious, but relatively small scale, issues such as Ministerial advisors using private email accounts for Government business in order to evade oversight and avoid Freedom of Information requests. We have last week’s news reports of the proposed scheme of Ministerial buddying with big business. This is a scheme which, in many other contexts, would be condemned as tantamount to formalising the corruption of the political process.

The Government is not above ignoring the letter and the spirit of good Parliamentary practice. Examples proliferate.

The consultation period for the Localism bill was shorter than that recommended. It ended on the same day as the Bill’s Second Reading in the House. So clearly the consultation responses could not shape the legislation very significantly. The Government published the Impact Assessments associated with the Welfare Reform Bill so close to its Reading that it was difficult for anyone to digest them. In the case of the NHS bill, Impact Assessments were published after the Bill had been considered by the Commons. The Government has frequently allocated too little time for Parliamentary scrutiny. Just before the summer recess the Lords were allowed little more than an hour to scrutinise hundreds of amendments to the Localism bill: amendments that would effect very significant changes to citizens’ rights. The same thing happened when the NHS bill was reintroduced to the Commons earlier this month. And, of course, the NHS reform process is seeing far-reaching changes to the structures of the NHS occurring well in advance of any legislation mandating them.

These are long and complex Bills. They will result in profound changes to some of the key institutions of British society. The way the Government has sought to rush them on to the statute book almost guarantees they will be full of holes. Enact in haste, repent at leisure.

Equally problematic is the Government’s approach to law, evidence and policy. It would appear they are not averse to persisting with clearly erroneous statements and policy positions in the face of clear evidence of their error. They are – not to put too fine a point on it – just making some of it up. Political hypocrisy may be inevitable, but it is being perpetrated on a grand scale.

Today we have been presented with a paradigmatic example. The Housing Minister, Grant Shapps, is currently consulting on a change in the law relating to squatting. His view is that the law is not tough enough. In particular, the aspiration seems to be to criminalise all squatting. This will have a significant impact upon some very vulnerable people.

Today’s newspapers feature reports based upon a letter drawn up by 160 housing lawyers and academics. Pretty well all the country’s experts on the topic are signatories. The letter points out that Government spokespeople, including Mr Shapps, have persistently misrepresented the law on squatting. Squatting someone’s home or intended home is already a criminal offence. Squatting empty buildings is not a criminal offence but owners can recover possession through the civil courts. Failure to comply with a possession order is then a criminal offence.

This is not too complicated. At least not in legal terms.

How did Mr Shapps respond? He is quoted by the Guardian as saying that “commonsense suggests there should be quick and tough sanctions available when someone’s home is squatted, without the homeowner necessarily needing to bring a civil case … That’s why we’re consulting on making squatting a criminal offence”.

You don’t need to be a qualified barrister to recognise that right there he’s repeated precisely the legal error – or misrepresentation – that the housing lawyers were picking up on in the first place. As the Nearly Legal blog notes this morning, there are three possible explanations. First, the Minister is unaware of or doesn’t understand the law in his policy area. Which is a worry. Second, the Minister is being badly advised by his civil servants, who don’t understand the law they are proposing to change. Which is a worry. Third, the Minister knows full well what the law is but continues to misrepresent it in order to push on with his agenda of criminalisation. Which is a worry.

Whichever way you look at it, this is an unsavoury episode in policy making. There may be sound reasons why the law on squatting should be reformed. Squatting is surely a practice that is problematic. But to found policy change on such an egregious misapprehension, or misrepresentation, because it plays well with particular sections of the tabloid press is to degrade the policy making process.

I am reminded of the famous quote by the US Senator Daniel Moynihan: “Everyone is entitled to his own opinion, but not to his own facts”. Credible Government should be willing to set out the case for their policy agenda clearly, on the basis of impartial evidence, and defend it against criticism. It shouldn’t need to resort to manipulating the process in order to evade scrutiny or distorting the situation to provide a rationale for action.

That applies to any Government, of whatever political persuasion. It is not a party political point. Blair’s dodgy dossier was a truly horrendous example of the genre. While previous governments were undoubtedly guilty of sharp practice, the current Government seems to be normalising it into everyday practice. And in doing so it further erodes the credibility of the political process – at a time when that is the last thing we need.

It would be naïve to expect that such practices can be eradicated entirely. But that is no reason to accept that they are both inevitable and endemic. We should expect higher standards from our representatives.

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1 reply »

  1. Better governance and higher standards are very unlikely to come about without strong pressure from influential lobbies and most importantly the voting public. Politicians, well paid and highly privileged, deserve more scrutiny and supervision by the people for whom they work. These could be effected by combining procedures of direct democracy, for citizens’ proposition and optional veto, with our indirect (representative) governance. The ruling coalition has put forward proposals for democracy reform but in the main these are weak. An overview of these Con/Libdem proposals may be found here (1) and a case for reform here (2).

    To achieve this partial direct democracy we will need a Democracy Act, which can only be obtained by a strong countrywide campaign.

    1. Conservative/LibDem coalition programme: Shift of “power to the people”? http://www.iniref.org/latest.html
    2. http://iniref.wordpress.com/

    for iniref.org