|Previous Section||Back to Table of Contents||Lords Hansard Home Page|
The noble Lord said: My Lords, in this debate we have a broad canvas on which to paint. In opening, I shall be necessarily impressionistic. Perhaps at this early stage in the parliamentary cycle it is appropriate for us today to be more diagnostic than prescriptive. It was partly faulty analysis of the main needs of the European Union which led to the recent debacle of the French and Dutch referenda. Earlier we had the thumping "No" in the referendum on regional government in north-east England. Evidence of political disaffection and mistrust is abundant. We politicians are not listening too well.
Forgive my shorthand if I describe the kernel of our predicament in terms of probably the most centralised democracy on earth in the midst of a rapid decline of community life; a decline which is not adequately compensated for by new networks and relationships; and a decline which, with the inexorable dilution of that identity, loyalty and all-embracing mutuality, which are the essence of community, bedevils so much else we grapple with in this place. Just think, for example, of the
30 Jun 2005 : Column 322
hatful of recent legislation combating anti-social behaviour, which provides indisputable evidence of community decay in the midst of material plenty.
Although they have claimed to uphold the virtues of organic localism, all governments of the past 35 and more years share responsibility for the relentless and clumsy centralisation of powers, and the often clumsier use of them. Perhaps the most perverse chapter of that was the Thatcher years. It suggests three awkward realities. First, many potent centralising influences are outside government. Among them are mobility; developments in communications; a metropolitanised media; disengaged transnational business and concomitant managerialism; the rapid shift in cultural patterns; changing personal agendas and morality; and, perhaps above all, rampant materialism and individualism, which shape much of the overall context.
Secondly, it is apparent that the continuing disintegration of the settled, geographically based Britain in which most of us grew up is a self-reinforcing process that it is impossible for Governments alone to counter, yet the allied temptation to try to buy voluntary-sector support for their programmes is two-edged.
Thirdly, it is now surely clear that legal regulation and intervention are no substitute for organic self-regulation, but can easily oust what is left of it. Over-legislation provides both the means of concentration of control and an equal and opposite disempowerment of local government and its citizenry. In 2003, for example, this Parliament pushed through 13,407 pages of new law, much of it barely scrutinised. Taking account of repeals, that meant a net increase of about 10,000 pages. That exceeds comparable countries by a factor two to four times. The cumulative effect is at the root of civic powerlessness and insignificance that extends well into the middle classes.
That torrent of statute law, which concentrates power in the hands of experts, is the fruit of the voting system. This delivers disproportionate majorities, which in turn encourage production-line legislation aided by a draconian whipping system reinforced by massive ministerial patronage. Labour, do not forget, has not lost a single whipped vote among thousands of votes since it came to power in 1997. God bless this unelected House, many say.
As to the general political malaise, what does one expect from an election where, on a miserable turnout of 61 per cent, Labour, with 35 per cent of the vote, got 55 per cent of all MPs, an overall majority of 66. Can one really legislate for the whole electorate with the support of only 22 per cent of it? What is the real legitimacy of manifesto pledges in those circumstances? Incidentally, having voted in 11 general elections and fought four of them, my votes have never counted, and probably never will.
Looked at from the grass roots, as Liberal Democrats are traditionally happy to do, I suggest that alienation from centralisation is related, first, to the geographical distance from the centre; secondly, to the powers of those at the periphery compared with those at the centre; thirdly, to the real degree of genuine
30 Jun 2005 : Column 323
engagement by the centre with local opinion; fourthly, to the inexperience of those devising the legislation of that which they are legislating about; and, finally, to how often Governments change policy and law.
It is not, of course, that things are necessarily done well locally, but we have all surely learnt the hard way that unless people own their institutions they will not care for them or be responsible for them, let alone give them their allegiance. Democratic ownership is a funny business, made up of as much heart as head, defying the rationalities of the mandarins and governorselected or otherwisewho are increasingly deracinated, seeming to rely ever more on their technical superiority and cleverness. Pragmatic wisdom and real life experience are indeed in short supply.
At the moment, I suggest, we are in unthinking denial. Many of our fellow citizensironically, especially the richbelieve that there can be a good society without putting much back into it. Look at the professionsmine very much includedand see how far they have shifted from major public engagement to mere private acquisitiveness.
We also need trust at all levels. We need less selfish assertiveness, less puerile reliance on competition as the modern substitute for the co-operation of yesteryear. Individualism without communal engagement, or bowling alone, as Robert Putnam put it in his book of that name, has led to a collapse, too, of community life in the United States, which in so many ways is better off than we are. He stressed the decline in social networks and investment, just as here Professor Richard Sennett of the London School of Economics has followed comparable lines emphasising the importance of actual embodied sociability rather than virtual substitutes.
Thank goodness, therefore, that many are now focusing on work-life balance. The pressures of getting and spending lay waste our powers and deprive civic life, not to mention family lives and relationships, of their fair share of our time and energy. Bizarrely, we have never been remotely as rich materially or as poor in relational terms. Public esteem, which feeds into personal esteem, is now enjoyed by few.
one might ask: where is the evidence? And although one of his early policy action teams rightly emerged with the key finding that the secret of community revival was self-help, how has that been evidenced in government policy? No doubt the noble Baroness will tell us. In saying that, I acknowledge the great feathers in the Government's cap of the Scottish Parliament and the National Assembly for Wales, as I do their work on poverty and employment.
I shall not steal the thunder of my colleagues and other distinguished speakers today by enlarging on the subject of this debate as it affects education, health, local government, local financing, and law and order. I particularly look forward to the three maiden speeches to come and warmly welcome those speakers to their first debate.
30 Jun 2005 : Column 324
I will end with an admission and a tonic. One ineluctable feature of the decentralised state is its natural diversity. What for the centralist is disparaged as the postcode lottery is for the devolver the wondrous milky way of local autonomy. The latter means facing squarely the varietythe inconsistency, indeedthat the slaying of state giantism via the replenishment of local government powers must entail. It always amazes me that worshipers of choice in the marketplace are often monopolists in the political forum. Yet it is clear that a plethora of national criteria, targets, tables, standards and the like have, with their bureaucratic overburden, demoralised and drained professional fulfilment from those subjected to them. A succession of new initiatives and regimes in education, health, policing and local government has too often stifled rather than enhanced. As others will demonstrate, we must relinquish much of that control-freakery and teach the public to stop looking to the nanny state but rather to shift for themselves. Therein lies political renaissance.
Having said all that, I should like to end on an upbeat note. Our communitarian genes are deep and resilient. The voluntary sector is an everlasting source of encouragement. In my home town of Sudbury, we held a community fair last February. From a population of fewer than 20,000 we unearthed no fewer than 280 voluntary organisations, of which 153 manned stalls in the church and town hall on a cold Saturday. It was really inspiring.
Well over half the adult population is still regularly involved with some voluntary or community activity, and more than 300,000 charities still do their work, the majority of them locally and the vast majority without any paid assistance. I beg to move for Papers.
|Next Section||Back to Table of Contents||Lords Hansard Home Page|