The latest bit of toilet paper to come from Hazel's department is a White Paper, going by the sexy name of 'Communities in control; real people, real power'. Naturally, one can make the usual point that these proposals aren't about giving local people power at all, but rather making them believe that they have power. But I've had a skim through the document and I'd like to share with you some of the more insane policy ideas. If you're feeling up for a bit of self-flagellation, you can download the document here.
"Local authorities should do more to promote voting in elections, including working with young people through citizenship lessons. We will give councils the power to provide modest incentives for voting – perhaps an entry into a prize draw – as a way of engaging people." (p.5)
Eric Pickles has already commented on this suggestion, but it really is complete rubbish. First of all, the only people who are going to be motivated to vote by a 'modest' incentive are Labour supporters. Isn't this called buying votes? Secondly, people are already pissed off that council taxes across the country are too high. Aren't they going to get even more furious when they learn that even more of their money is being handed out as a bribe to the politically unengaged? And thirdly, Hazel doesn't seem to understand that the people who are really fed up with their lack of power are those who actually do vote, but who then see no end product from their choice.
"We want to see more mayors directly elected and will consult on making it easier for local people to demand a referendum and on reducing restrictions on the frequency of referendums." (p.7)
Hazel loves referendums, providing they have nothing to do with promises made in general election manifestos.
"... empowering young people with a more positive experience of voting through young mayors, the UK Youth Parliament [and] mock elections." (p.25)
Again, all these things preach to the converted. The type of young person who wants to get involved with the UK Youth Parliament is going to be the type who has always been interested in politics. You can't teach that sort of interest and enthusiasm, and you can't force it through seminars, pamphlets and spending money.
"DWP are also working closely with the Create Consortium to look at allowing community organisations to pay people to do work that strengthens their communities without it affecting their benefits." (p.37)
Brilliant! I'm going to quit my job, go on all the benefits I possibly can, and then get a full-time job working for my community. What a great way to effectively get two salaries.
"We will work with the Local Government Association (LGA) and the Improvement and Development Agency (IDeA) to support local authorities in making information they hold more readily available. We will also work with local authorities to pilot innovative approaches to sharing information, with citizens, community groups and with third parties like MySociety and others, to consolidate, reuse and republish local information." (p.58)
I realise that the information this refers to is mostly procedural and governmental, rather than personal. However, writing as someone who received the confidential personnel files of two separate individuals by mistake after making an FoI request to my county council, I'd be wary of making it even easier to distribute information held by local authorities. I'm also not over the moon about third parties which, as stated in other areas of the publication, can include 'faith' and 'community' leaders, having such casual access to this information, or indeed the power to act as intermediaries.
"Government will pilot a ‘Digital Mentor’ scheme in deprived areas. These mentors will support groups to develop websites and podcasts, to use digital photography and online publishing tools, to develop short films and to improve general media literacy." (p.61)
Teaching people from poor, deprived and difficult backgrounds to read, write and count is far more important than teaching them how to use Photoshop and Movie Maker.
"We will introduce a new duty on local councils to respond to all petitions, including electronic petitions, relating to local authority functions or other public services where the council shares delivery responsibilities." (p.65)
And just how many of the much vaunted e-petitions on the Downing Street website has Gordon Brown responded to? I seem to recall the only time the PM has answered one directly was when Tony Blair wrote a response to one regarding road pricing. Also, does Hazel have any idea how much such replies would cost?
"In 2005, we established ‘young advisors’ to create a pool of young people aged 16-21 to help public bodies in their policy-making and delivery of services. There are now 38 schemes, with 250 trained young advisors. Forty per cent of the young advisors are from black and minority ethnic backgrounds." (p.85)
I personally do not think that having advisors who so overwhelmingly misrepresent the racial make-up of the population is anything to be proud of. According to the 2001 census, the population of the UK is 92.1% white. No doubt creating more advisors will make this situation worse, and on the same page the document promises these advisors will have "direct access to the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government." Yikes!
"We also propose to consult on a new right to petition to hold local officers to account. If enough people served by a local service or agency sign a local petition then, senior officers working for a local public body should be required to attend a public hearing such as overview and scrutiny." (p.91)
This will waste a supreme amount of time, which is a particularly dumb idea in this case. If these people are constantly being brought before public hearings, how can they be expected to get on with their job? Also, can we have this for central government please? No... didn't think so.
"We will amend the ‘Widdicombe rules’ (section 2 of the Local Government and Housing Act 1989) which forbid council workers, above a certain salary band,from being active in party politics, so that only the most senior council officer such as chief executives and chief planning officers continue to be barred from political activity along with other ‘politically sensitive’ posts." (p.106)
In other words, you're going to screw up local government like you did the Civil Service, by filling it with Labourite yes-men and sniveling party politicians.
"Therefore a taskforce has been established by the Government to help more black, asian and minority ethnic women to become councillors, and so make councils more representative of the community." (p.107)
So things only need to be representative of the community when the percentage of minorities is too low rather than too high?
"We want to support authorities in modernising the way they do business by legislating to enable councillors with caring responsibilities and others, for example those with long journey times, to use information and communication technology to participate in meetings and vote remotely." (p.110)
Absolutely astonishing. Councillors won't have to attend debates, listen to arguments, or take part in the actual process of local government whatsoever. Instead, they can stay at home, log onto the Internet, and cast a legally binding vote on a proposal or law they haven't had any part in creating. The next step from this is just giving 50-70 people in each borough the right to vote on such things, and do away with elections; not the most democratic idea. And is it me, or are Labour councillors far more likely to have stay-at-home jobs or time-consuming responsibilities than Conservative ones? This isn't a way to encourage people to become councillors; it's a way to encourage people with already heavy workloads and not a lot of free time to become Labour councillors.
There are about 50 more pages in this thing, but they are mostly comprised of annexes, lists and data. All these points have been garnered from a fairly quick read through. Imagine how much rubbish would be discovered if I did it properly!
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