An excellent event at Jospice to launch Sefton's new standard for consultation. Jayne Vincent (photo right) and all the team have worked really hard and brought together a wide range of people and interests to sign up to these new standard. Further information should be on the Council's website soon.
The great and the good were out in force; the police, the fire authority, voluntary sector, young people, PCT etc.The day began with Sefton CEO, Margaret Carney, and the PCT CEO, Lee Griffin, endorsing the new standards.
I have no hesitation in telling you that this is real progress in improving consultation and public engagement. We should do it better and I believe that these standard will promote good practice.
I had the job of wrapping up the event-before lunch. Public engagement and consultation come under by cabinet responsibilities. I am not keen to puncture the obvious enthusiasm that was generated by the event. Nevertheless it was true that as I wondered round I heard a lot of disillusionment with the whole process. Health colleagues were saying that very often the option on which they were consulting excluded the option that the public wanted. We have just endured a compulsory consultation on having an elected Mayor-which despite a flier being sent to every household -only 20 odd people responded. Now if we had asked whether they wanted to split up Sefton- a question they are interested in-we would have had thousands of replies. The last time the boundary commission asked the question they got in excess of 20,000 replies (I'm quoting that figure from memory). Sadly the people gave the wrong answer so the 'consultation' was ignored.
I have a real issue with the way this government uses 'consultation' to by pass democracy. There are too many quango who have no democratic accountability and who legitimize their action not via the ballot box but by 'consultation'. They seem to think that the techniques used by the supermarkets are superior to democracy. 'You said that you wanted round carrots'. 'We now stock round carrots' . 'You said not to rip-off third world farmers' We said piss off it impacts on the bottom line' etc.etc.
So when I spoke I recalled that a hunderd years ago three women hid over night in the roof space above the Winter Gardens in Southport in order to heckle Winston Churhill when he spoke the next day. They were suffragettes campaigning for the vote. They were roughly treated but they didn't give up and came back in 1910 to campaign for the right to vote. They were beaten up again.
A 125 years ago the Reform Act passed by Gladstone's Government pretty well completed the work of the long campaign for universal male suffrage as it brought the vote to the rural working men. Thus the key elements for the Chartist movement were achieved-universal male suffrage equal electoral districts and secret ballots. Payments of MPs came in 1911 and we have yet to get annual parliament but I am hopeful that abolition of the House of Lords will come soon-although frankly I don't trust the Tories on this matter.
Anyway I speculated how those two sets of campaigners would would feel if they visited Britain today. They did not get beaten up and harassed to achieve the right to be consulted.They wanted an active and accountable democracy. Take the NHS. 1.4 million staff, eclipsed for size only by the Chinese Liberation Army and the Indian Railway. Only accountable to one politician-the Secretary of State. He attempts by the issuing of banal and ineffective targets to micro manage the entire operation even down to targets on how to clean the carpets. His writ is enforce by a vast army of bean counters and by place men and women who sit on his local administration boards. The employ 'link' people to talk to the community so they know what local people want. Well more precisely what some people think of a bright idea the government is keen on. 'You want to spend your money differently to prioritise a children's A&E service? Sorry we are not programmed to respond to that comment, please answer the question you were asked. Do you want round carrots or straight ones.
When Mrs Merkel take power in Germany she will be responsible for less than 30% of the tax raised. In Britain Central Government raises 94.4% of the tax. He who plays the piper plays the tune. So we all dance round doing daft things because only central government has the money and they tightly control how it is spent.Sefton officers have been scurrying around for weeks afeared that the audit commission(overpaid central government quango) was going to give us a 'red flag' on some obscure target they've just inflicted on us. A man in Whitehall was thinking of deciding that we didn't know our local community. Just consider the absurdity of that idea. I would much rather they were working hard to satisfy the aspirations of local people. And no they are not the same thing.
The democratic deficit in a whole range of service is undermining the dreams of generation of people who fought for and believed in democracy. We need to assert the superiority of the ballot box over quangos appointed in London and their targets. They are the weird working out of some fool who believes -against all the evidence -that even though they are miles away and have never been elected by the people who are going to have to put up with their daft ideas central government knows best.
Locally elected people, responsive and accountable to local people who can remove them at the ballot box is the key to public sector reform. That will not come about until we dismantled the system that allows central government to control almost all the tax revenues. Locally raised taxation is the guarantee of locally designed services. Experiment and innovation will result and that will drive improvement.
Consultation is not the same as democracy. It is like the moon is to the sun. It reflect power, it is not the source of power. All of which does not mean that we shouldn't consult and engage folk to the best of our abilities, but rather until we fix the big problem the shape of the carrots is simply not an issue.