Threat to our democracy: Disempowerment

mm at mm at
Sun Jan 23 17:22:09 GMT 2011

Gus O'Donnell (who has three roles; Cabinet Secretary, head of the Civil 
Service and Permanent Secretary of the Cabinet Office) is concerned 
about "parliament's fundamental right to hold the government to account 
for its actions" which in theory is important for democracy.  In 
practice MPs in our elected parliament tend to follow the party whip 
rather than making up their own mind or following the wishes of the 
citizens who voted them in. (See "Big society plans raise concerns for 
parliamentary democracy ", The Guardian, link below.)

Another aspect of Coalition politics is equally if not more important 
for our democracy, namely the ability of the electorate to participate 
in running public affairs and to veto unwanted policy of local council 
and central government. Up to now in this field the Con/Libdem Coalition 
has put forward mainly weak reforms, for instance

A. "We will ensure that any petition that secures l00,000 signatures 
will be eligible for formal debate in Parliament. The petition with the 
most signatures will enable members of the public to table a bill 
eligible to be voted on in Parliament. "(Source: Coalition agreement).

Suggested improvements: In 2009 David Cameron proposed to introduce 
citizen-instigated referendum at both local and national levels. He 
should stick to this. A petition is not democracy, it is merely a way of 
begging for a favour. A citizens' proposal endorsed by, say half a 
million voters should be debated in the elected parliament. If 
parliament rejects the proposal then a binding referendum must follow. A 
proposal by the Power Inquiry (2006) adds detail showing how this could 
work in practice (reference on request).

B. We will give residents the power to instigate local referendums on 
any local issue. (Source: Localism Bill)

Suggested improvements: The Coalition suggests that 5 percent of an 
electorate will be able to instigate a referendum on "any local issue". 
  With some adjustment for size of the political unit (e.g. parish, 
town, large city) this proposal could be satisfactory. However the 
Coalition's referendum idea is flawed because as it stands the result, 
the people's decision, will not be legally binding: the council is 
obliged to consider the referendum result but under the Localism Act 
will be given the freedom to ignore it completely. Under international 
agreements which we (UK) have ratified the people have the right in 
governing to decide on public issues as well as electing politicians. 
The result of a referendum about a public issue must therefore carry the 
same weight as a decision of the elected parliament and so must be 
accepted as legally binding.

Further information may be found via

Big society plans raise concerns for parliamentary democracy 

The Guardian writes,  "The head of the civil service has ordered an 
inquiry into the government's localism reforms amid growing concerns 
that its "big society" plans risk eroding the basic democratic 
principles of transparency and ministerial accountability, the Guardian 
has learned.
There are fears by those at the top of Whitehall that parliament's 
fundamental right to hold the government to account for its actions is 
being tested by the scale of the coalition's ambitions to devolve power 
from the centre to local communities and outsource services to charities 
and the private sector."

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