Yesterday we debated the government’s proposals to reorganise local government and local health services. As so often with this government they spun a good yarn. They told us there needed to be more local decision taking, greater freedom for Councils, and more patient involvement in the work of the NHS.
If only. That is exactly what many of us have been seeking for a good few years. As we probed the detail, we discovered that once again the government’s idea of devolution was to let us do locally whatever they think we should do.
Let’s take the issue of whether a locality should have to answer to an unelected regional government. I am pressing for the abolition of the Government of the South-east. It’s a waste of money and often makes us do things we do not want. When the government held a referendum in the North East on whether they wanted regional government or not, the people said? No? . The government ignored that: we still have to pay for an unelected version the North-east doesn’t want. In the south-east we don’t even get a referendum. I asked Ruth Kelly what part of "No" she did not understand. The answer was we need regional government – so the people got it wrong! It’s like all those EU referenda where people have to vote again if they dare vote down another power grab by Brussels.
If a Council wants to have a committee structure so that all Councillors can be fully involved in the work of the Council, that will be against the law. Why? An area has to decide on an elected Mayor, or an indirectly elected Leader, but cannot have the committee based system which most Councils used successfully for many years.
The Secretary of State told us she wants to legislate to give elected Council Leaders security of tenure, so they can have three years in the job to achieve something. Yet she conceded that a Leader would have to quit if he or she lost a motion of No Confidence, so I don’t think an unpopular Leader will be sleeping any easier at night.
Worse still, at exactly the same time as we are told local government will have more say and more control, the government is determined to settle more planning issues nationally. My constituents write to me more about planning than any other issue. They clearly want more planning decisions taken by local Councillors in touch with their views, than by remote quangos and Inspectors who so often side with the developers. They will discover that this latest brand of devolution? takes more planning power away from local Councils.
The Health proposals are no better. We used to have Community Health Councils which allowed interested local people to represent patients’ views to the NHS and through local MPs to the government. This government abolished them, perhaps because they were too candid about the problems. Ministers then spent a lot of our money on setting up patients forums, only for these now to be given the last rites by Ruth Kelly’s latest Bill. We are instead to create new local involvement networks?. That will mean more money spent, more disruption, and another couple of years when the people who ought to be offering constructive criticism of the NHS will be worrying about their own positions.
Giving more power to local people and to local Councils would be a good idea, but the Local Government and Public Involvement in Health Bill will not be bringing that anytime soon. Instead we have a government riding rough shod over local communities, determiend to implement a regional government led scheme to bring us into line with the EU model.