Victory for democracy, but the system needs an overhaul

BBC NEWS | Politics | MPs info exemption plan scuppered
Liberal Democrats Simon Hughes and Norman Baker — with cross-party support — successfully ‘talked-out’ a bill by a former Tory chief whip which would have exempted MPs from the Freedom of Information laws which parliament itself introduced to make bodies such as the NHS, the civil service, the courts and the police more transparent.

The irony was that ‘talking-out’ was a special tactic of Tory David Maclean, which he had used to powerful effect on many occasions to delay legitimate business in the House of Commons.

Were Hughes and Baker right to use this tactic? Procedurally, absolutely. This is one of the arcane ways of the House of Commons. Morally? Also absolutely. For a body such as parliament to make rules that apply to everyone, and then to exempt itself because the rules are inconvenient is appalling. For politicians — who already enjoy less trust than almost any other profession — to make things easier for them to conceal their activities is bordering on the delusional.

Hughes and Baker — with Winnick and Shepherd — have done us a great service.

But it highlights something important. First, the time for filibustering really should be at its end. The reason they needed to filibuster was that this bill had slipped through on the nod on its first reading, had spent just an hour in the committee stage, and was facing a House of Commons packed with — wait for it — just about ten MPs, since the others were already back on the way to their constituencies.

Legislation that would have damaged democracy almost slipped through because there are no proper procedures for managing this kind of business.

Parliament needs reforming. It’s popular to talk about the need for reform in the House of Lords (and quite right too), but the ways of the House of Commons also need shaking up. Hughes and Baker saved us from a minor catastrophe by playing the game tightly according to its rules. But the rules ought to have been such that there was no need for this kind of thing.

The next generation of politicians must act early in their parliamentary careers to bring British democracy into the 21st century.

We fail in this at our peril.

Alcohol is a huge concern, but more laws are not the answer

Institute of Public Policy Research | Raise the legal drinking age to tackle Britain’s binge-drinking youth?

Britain is pulling in different directions. This week the Institute for Public Policy Research will outline proposals to raise the drinking age to 21. At the same time, the government is pushing through a programme of casinos and super-casinos, dismissing claims that this will increase problem gambling.

So which do we need? More laws restricting unhealthy or unhelpful behaviour, or more government sponsorship of ‘vices’.

Public Safety is not the government’s highest responsibility

BBC NEWS | Politics | Opposition urge Clarke to resign

Charles Clarke damned himself this afternoon when he declared that public safety is the government’s highest priority. And in doing so he damned the whole Blair programme. Menzies Campbell and David Davies were right in framing the charge that Mr Clarke had failed to protect the public. To have failed to take account of the position of 1,023 prisoners who should have been deported was gross negligence on the part of the Home Office.

In itself, that was an indictment of one department and one man. Clarke’s response, that public safety was the government’s highest responsibility was exactly suited to his contention that he should stay in office and sort the mess out. But in defending his own position, Clarke revealed the crucial failing which makes New Labour no longer fit to govern.

Public safety is indeed a very great responsibility, and should be very high in the government’s agenda. But it should not be at the top. Very simply, accountability to the public should and must be the highest priority of a democratically elected government. Anything else at the top will ultimately lead to tyranny.

If we make public safety our highest priority, then we will indeed invest in more prisons, in ID cards, in withdrawing the right to trial by jury, in retrying people who have been declared innocent by the courts for a second time on the same allegation. We will arbitrary withdraw the rights of those who seem to pose a threat to the state, and we ultimately engage in a programme of detaining people because they are likely to one day commit crimes. Public Safety has been the watchword of totalitarians from Julius Caesar to Adolf Hitler and from Josef Stalin to Robert Mugabe.

Unless government makes accountability to the public its highest calling, it is simply unfit to govern. And Charles Clarke’s position – supported, at least for the moment, by Tony Blair – makes it absolutely clear that something other than accountability is at the top of his agenda. If Blair, Clarke — and, indeed, Prescott and Hewitt in this Teflon-testing week — really believed in accountability, then Clarke would now be on the back benches, Prescott would have at the very least have switched job, and Hewitt would be considering her position. Not because they are bad people, nor indeed because they are unfit to be secretaries of state, but because the only way in which a minister can demonstrate true accountability is by resigning before their position becomes untenable.

We can applaud the many good things that Tony Blair’s government has done for the country. History will remember them well in many ways. But, unless they can rediscover the simple truth that they are accountable to us, rather than merely to each other, they will demonstrate more clearly with every passing day that they are no longer fit to rule in Great Britain.

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