The centre cannot hold

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I know, I know, everyone tells me to write shorter blogs…maybe next time

Looking forward to Jack Straw’s speech here tomorrow. The Lord Chancellor and Secretary of State for Justice (as is his title) will be officially launching our Prison Learning Network. I understand that Jack plans to say some very interesting things about how to embed the criminal justice system more concretely in local communities.

I’m sure there will be a couple of new announcements in Jack’s speech. These will add to the seemingly unstoppable tide of policy ideas, proposals and commitments emerging every day from Government. Although I find myself agreeing with a lot of what I hear, I can’t help wondering about the sheer scale of the Government’s objectives.

The scope of central Government is subject to continuous and sometimes substantial change. In the 1980s the privatisation of utilities meant Government went from running industries to providing a framework of regulation. More recently, Labour’s alleged ‘control freak’ tendencies have been somewhat belied by two massive transfers of power away from Whitehall: the independence of the Bank of England and devolution to Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland.

But the extra items coming onto the Cabinet agenda dwarf even these shifts away from the centre. As well as all the responsibilities Labour inherited in 1997 has been added the whole slew of law and order, security and identity management issues, responding to climate change, and a growing set of complex ‘behaviour change’ challenges like obesity, poor parenting and binge drinking. Gordon Brown is also seen to be prioritising international development and national values and identity. Yesterday it was briefed that the Government plans major reforms on Party funding, the House of Lords, a Bill of Rights and the voting system.

I am all for constitutional modernisation and – recalling how difficult it was to get senior Cabinet ministers to sign up to this kind of thing when I worked for Tony Blair – I envy the political authority Number Ten has to drive radical change. The question is whether any corporate centre, even one as full of clever people as Downing Street and the Cabinet Office, can manage this scale of external challenge and internally generated initiatives.

There are libraries of research and recommendation about modernising public services and the civil service but in a brief internet search ahead of writing this piece I couldn’t find anything that spoke directly to the sheer scale of central Government’s task. Among some of the more thoughtful newspaper columnists there is a growing critique of Labour’s competence in governing, but while some ministers may be overactive, terrorism, climate change and binge drinking weren’t problems made up by Whitehall.

The obvious strategy to deal with central overload is devolution, and as I have said before, the Government really does seem to be trying to hand more power to local authorities. But is this enough, especially when central Government will still be held accountable for overall public service performance and if things go badly wrong? I have spoken about the need to move from a ‘government centric’ to a ’citizen centric’ way of thinking about social change but can Government itself facilitate this?

This is a very broad brush attempt to open a debate. Another way of kick starting it is a proposal of my own. How about Government transferring responsibility for major areas of constitutional and democratic reform (like voting system, Lords and party funding) to Parliament? Parties would still have their own policies to which they would be accountable at election time, but the task of policy development, consensus building, as well as the detailed drafting of legislation would move from Downing Street, the Cabinet and Whitehall to MPs backed by a beefed up Parliamentary secretariat. This would arguably be in line with Gordon Brown’s commitment to enhance the status and powers of Parliament. It would certainly take some tricky items off the Cabinet table.

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  • I agree with the proposal for parliament to have a greater role in initiating legislation. As part of this, I would also dramatically reduce the remit of the Whips. If MPs had to evaluate legislation themselves before deciding how to vote, perhaps the government would have to win the argument more publicly and MPs would receive more media attention. Maybe the role might even become attractive?!

  • What are these powers that whips hold, I'm not naive but really? Just take a look at and you'll see that a number of MPs seem quite blithely ignoring the advice of their whips on what seems like a fairly frequent basis.

  • I would like to personally congratulate the RSA for hosting such an important event and wish the Fellowship great success with The Prison Learning Network which was launched today. Mr Straw is also to be congratulated for giving generously of his time and reflecting thoughtfully on questions from ‘the floor’.

    I was most struck by statistics for 2014 when the government plans to facilitate 96,000 prison places. The UK incarceration rate is also 5 times below that of the United States, Mr Straw noting that the US is now more actively looking at the benefits of community based penalties. I was impressed by the presence and thoughtful questions of two Muslim prison chaplains who questioned Mr Straw on governmental policy and funding for chaplains. It was perhaps disappointing not to hear similar voices from the Anglican Church.

  • Real power for Parliament could transform politics in this country but I fear the dead hands of the Parties would never let it happen in any meaningful way. As entities their individual memberships are so small that without "donations" they would be financially bankrupt hence their desire for taxpayer funding. And instead of transparent Government policies on those items supposedly devolved to Parliament the Government would be exerting pressures behind the scenes to see its will prevail - as it does today with a host of supposedly independent Boards and Quangos. But if real authority could be achieved for Parliament, MPs would have to properly reflect the views of those who put them their or face the consquences at the ballot box. The fate of many Post Offices would have been very different under such a system. One can but dream.

  • Thanks for these comments. I wouldn't hand over to Parliament issues like Post Office closures as these have spending implications and thus impact not just on Post Offices but on whatever else can't be paid for if we subsidise POs more (not that I'm saying we shouldn't). I think the Executive has to make these decisions and be held to account for their overall impact. But constituional issues have few major spending consequences and can thus be more easilly addressed as issues in themselves. As for the Party and the whip I would rely here on the Salisbury Convention. If a Party has a manifesto mandate for a constituional reform it is legitimate for its MPs to be whipped, otherwise we should encoruage a more consensual cross party approach.

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