Monday, 29 June 2015

Time for a Coherent Constitution



Much has been said by many about different bits of the UK's somewhat messy (to say the least!) constitution, the layers of government, the electoral system, and the various devolution settlements. It must be time for us to sit down and think about it properly in an adult way via some kind of 'convention' so that we can arrive at a lasting settlement and system that works for EVERYONE.

That, for me, is the big problem with current and most often discussed settlements - they aren't for EVERYONE in the UK. There's this system for Scotland, that system for Wales, another for London, and maybe some more for other big cities. I don't think that's really the best way to go about devolving government - I don't buy the whole 'let's have a local referendum on devolving responsibility to this particular city' thing. What about rural areas, for example? We have a system in which some places will deal with their own healthcare and education, and others will have it dealt with by Westminster. We have a massive democratic deficit developing across England in particular, and that isn't healthy for any of us - as well as causing general confusion about what applies where, it breeds resentment among those who don't have devolution in their area. Frankly, it's all a bit of a shambles.

What I think we need is a single coherent constitutional system that applies equally across the UK - a proper federal system that sees everyone having the same kind of governmental structure. Devolution for everyone - good Liberal localism in action, and for every citizen to participate. So how could such a system work? Be warned - this is where I will get into a lengthy personal muse! It's not meant as a final answer to the situation, but just a set of my thoughts about general directions that could be considered. It may take some time, but it is a complicated issue to address!

To start with, let's define that everything applies equally across the UK as it should, and that one system will be implemented for everyone (a brief note about Northern Ireland here - there are specific circumstances surrounding the way in which it is governed, and I certainly wouldn't want to upset any apple-carts there. Any change there would obviously have to be carefully managed with due care and attention to the specific issues, though that doesn't mean nothing can change at all, especially in the context of UK-wide change). So how many levels of 'government' should there be? Obviously I think we need to be both localist and internationalist in our outlook, and work out the appropriate issues to be dealt with at the appropriate level, as close to 'the people' as practically possible.

I'm going to suggest 4 levels of elected government is sufficient, and any more becomes wasteful - European, UK, National/Regional and Unitary Local. I will deal with each of these in turn, but there's actually not too much to say about the European level other than that the current system desperately needs democratic reform!

You'll have noticed straight away, I guess, that I've swept away the idea of separate 'County' and 'Town' type councils in favour of a single unified local government structure (broadly along the lines of what we have in Wales). I think the confusion of who does what between those two levels is an unnecessary distraction, allows potential for conflict and even 'passing the buck' on a regular basis, and creates an unnecessary cost. Indeed, I'm going further, and suggesting we get rid of all of those 'Parish', 'District' and similar councils - while I don't deny that some of them do good things, they create a democratic and practical deficit for those places that do not have them. For example, one Unitary Authority in Wales decided not to pay for Christmas Lights in their two main towns in 2014 - one had a Town Council that sorted out lights, one did not so had none. That is not as frivolous an issue as it sounds, since such things attract shoppers that are important to the local economy, but it's just one small example of what can happen.

So how do we deal with the things those smaller councils used to do? It's actually quite simple, in my opinion - we create an electoral system using multi-member council wards with 5 members in each ward (in every area across the UK, so some may be large enough to cover multiple villages in rural areas and so on), and give those elected members collective direct control over a 'Ward Budget'. We really don't need a whole extra layer of elected members, with associated costs, to fulfil those functions - I think 5 elected members (with the support of a central administrative section) should really be enough to provide a democratic decision-making process in consultation with local people, and it makes those members more directly and obviously accountable to their local electorate for what goes on locally. It also means that they are a direct part of the democratic process in determining the budget allocation for wards, so there is no longer such a danger of one council trying to pass responsibilities to lower councils without guaranteed attached budgets, and so on (as we sometimes see in a climate of difficult financial times with regard to things like public toilets, for example). And yes, I do think that Councillors should be paid for their services - not a huge wage, but enough that they can be realistically able to do such an important job on a full time basis.

Next we need to look at the 'Regional' part of the structure. We have models in Wales, Scotland and London to look at (and it is logical for those 'Regions' to remain as they are), but if we are applying devolution across the UK we need to look more closely at the sharing of responsibilities between those bodies and Westminster (if Westminster is where the UK government remains - I think there is a strong case for it not doing so, but that's a slightly separate issue). If each region is responsible for its own Education system, for example, what does the UK parliament have to do with Education any more? I think the answer to that is that it should set the basic rules and standards that the Regional governments have to adhere to - children should be educated to age XX, for example, and should reach certain defined standards in certain core subjects, and so on. Since it sets those standards, it should also be responsible for carrying out assessment exercises to ensure they are met (so we no longer have the nonsense of a government inspecting itself to ensure it has reached its own standards, even via a quasi-autonomous body, which has so much 'conflict of interest' potential). We can extend the same principles to all areas of policy (apart from issues like defence, which clearly needs to be done at a UK level) - the UK parliament merely sets rules, standards and guidelines within which the Regional parliaments need to operate.

As another example, we can consider Income Tax. Regional parliaments will be spending most of the money, so should have responsibility for raising it - responsibility breeds accountability, and accountability is vitally important. Of course a set amount will need to go to the UK parliament, but there's no reason for it to set the overall rates. Again it can set the overall rules, though - instead of 'Tax Varying', we're now talking about a UK parliament that sets possible bands (eg. Band A Income Tax can be charged at a starting threshold between £X and £Y, and be of a rate between a% and b%, and so on) rather than actual rates. So to sum up, overall, now we have reached a point where the UK parliament is responsible only for setting the basic guidelines and standards (in 'home' policy areas), and Regional parliaments are responsible for setting policies within those guidelines in order to meet those basic standards (along with any other standards they want to set for their own areas in non-UK-defined policy areas). Now we are beginning to get a basic definition of what these different institutions exist for, and a general picture of how their responsibilities are divided.

So how big should the 'Regions' be, and how many elected members should each have? I'm not about to define precise numbers, but we already have 'Regions' with populations from about 3 million up to about 10 million or so, and these seem like reasonable 'minimum and maximum' levels to set. As far as possible, they should be divided according to 'natural boundaries', of course, and each Region should have a number of representatives in some way proportional to their population. Every region will have exactly the same responsibilities, though - it doesn't make sense to do things any other way (and as far as 'some regions want it some don't' goes, one UK-wide referendum could be used to make a decision whether to implement such a change for everybody, since half-measures and a mixed system simply won't work effectively - it would leave Westminster with a frankly silly set of mixed responsibilities for different places!).

So on to Westminster. Now it would only have responsibility for 'home' policies in the sense of setting the basic groundrules, and they shouldn't need to be changed significantly too often. It still has responsibility for 'foreign' issues, of course, aside from those quite rightly being dealt with at a European level, so it does still need to exist and have enough members to function. It will have considerably less to do, though, so it should need considerably less members (again I'm not going to try to define a specific number, though). The members of its primary chamber should be elected by some system of Proportional Representation - that is the ONLY way of ensuring that it is properly democratically accountable, in my opinion. There are various systems that can be used, but personally I always favour ones that maintain some link between members and constituents at a reasonably 'local' level.

That brings me on the the second chamber. I must confess I'm a huge fan of second chambers. The current House of Lords is not a great set up - it does some very good work as a 'Revising and Advising' chamber (which is what it should be doing), but the current system of appointments is a mess. I am, perhaps surprisingly, not going to advocate a directly elected chamber, though, in the context of the kind of overall structure I'm suggesting here - that could potentially present a 'democratic threat' to the primary chamber, and that's not healthy. It would also mean an extra set of elections, and elections cost money. Rather, I'm suggesting that it should be a 'Chamber of the Regions', with members appointed by (and accountable to) their parties in the Regional parliaments, proportionally allocated according to the number of members a party has in the regional institutions (and proportional to the populations of each region). Regional elections already have different outcomes to UK elections, especially if they are 'mid-term', and that could be reflected in a UK second chamber - members would be appointed for 'terms' that are different to the primary chamber, and could be removed or reappointed by their Regional parties. There have to be clear and strict limits to its ability to 'defeat' the primary chamber, though, as with the current 'Parliament Act' (but possibly more so) - it can Advise, it can Revise, it can Suggest, but it can't be allowed either to try to overrule or to try to delay and filibuster in order to frustrate the expressed will of the primary chamber (filibustering is another issue that badly needs to be addressed in our system in some way!). It's members shouldn't be able to hold governmental office any longer (because they are not directly accountable to the electorate in the same way as primary chamber members), but should be able to serve on parliamentary committees to help keep the chambers working together in harmony.

As I said, I'm a fan of second chambers. There has been much talk of increasing the number of Assembly members in Wales, for example, but I actually tend to think, under this kind of proposed system, that a second chamber would be more useful. Again, like Westminster, it could be an 'Advise and Revise' body comprised of representatives from the parties in Unitary Authorities, appointed proportionally according to their local election results and accountable to their local parties (not the Regional parliamentary 'whips'). What this kind of system gives, for both Regions and the UK, is two chambers of different make up, changing at different times, accountable in different ways, and a very good practical level of communication and interaction between different levels of government (though with one chamber having clear practical 'supremacy').

So, in most areas of policy, we have a UK-level parliament broadly dealing with 'Groundrules' and a Regional-level parliament dealing broadly with 'Policy' - so what does the Local level of government do? Well, its remit should, I think, be effectively one of 'Implementation'. Gong back to the example of education, where the UK set the basics and the region set the policies of meeting those basics and deciding on other standards for regions, it is locally that the schools should actually be run, and they should be run by that relevant democratically accountable institution. The same extends to other areas of 'Groundrules' and 'Policy' - the UK decides what needs to be done in general terms, the Region decides the specifics and general policies for doing it and the local authority (in some policy areas in conjunction with their 'Ward Committees') decides how it can best be implemented in their area. Clear definitions of general roles for the different democratic institutions dealing with all policy areas, rather than saying that this policy area is 'devolved' and this one is not, while this other one is 'partially devolved'. And all of it is universal across the whole of the UK - a coherent system so that everyone knows who is responsible for what in their own, and every other, part of the UK, and everyone knows what accountability lies with which bunch of politicians.

That last point is an important one - at the moment we have UK General Elections partly fought on, for example, Health issues that are little to do with the provision of Health in Wales or Scotland (aside from the 'Barnet consequential' issues, which is not exactly the most transparent of things!). It's just confusing, and fudges the issue of why people should vote for different parties, and who they might want to vote for on which issues and when. Funding of the regions is an issue to be addressed, of course, and a new formula would be needed to address the budget for each Regional government - that is partly dealt with by having local taxation responsibility, of course, but let's not pretend that a new, needs-based kind of funding formula isn't long overdue anyway!

That then leaves us with elections to the various bodies, which can be defined on a rotating basis (and we can get away from the nonsense of 'partial local elections' where bits of councils are elected at different times, too!). for example, Year 1 (the one the UK doesn't directly control!) is the European Elections, Year 2 is the Regional, Year 3 is a year off, Year 4 is UK Parliament and year 5 is councils - all institutions having fixed 5 year terms, and 4 out of 5 years having an election (in mid May, I would suggest, so there's always a year between elections). It should be noted that the second chambers would be appointed at a different time from the primary chambers (UK in year 2, Regional in year 5).

Oh, one more thought on the democratisation of the European Union - by now you know I like second chambers, appointed proportionally via the make up of the 'next institution down', so to speak. Yes, I would favour that as a useful thing for Europe - a second chamber comprised of 5 year term appointments made by parties according to the make up of national parliaments, taking and 'advise and revise' role for the primary chamber of the parliament on behalf of their countries (and directly accountable to the parties in their national parliaments).  One benefit of this system (at all levels) as I see it is that parties that do well in one institution's elections get an element of representation in the 'next institution up', even if they don't do so well in elections to that institution's primary chamber (as sometimes happens - Plaid Cymru, for example, do  considerably better in Welsh Assembly elections than they do in UK parliament elections, though the different electoral systems are partly to blame for that) - I think that could be very useful in ensuring that all views are properly heard. Such a system for Europe could help us to pull away from the current governmental model of a pretty much unaccountable Commission and a constant roadblock of national governments acting in their own short-term home electoral interests.

So there we have it - my thoughts on the kind of direction we should be looking to go in - 4 layers of elected government for everyone, each layer with its own defined role and responsibilities across all relevant policy areas. Yes, I realise that this is more of an essay than a 'blog', strictly speaking, but that's the way things are likely to go with me trying to write stuff down! I've never claimed 'brevity' as one of my overwhelming virtues! There are many more issues surrounding the system to consider and explore, of course, and I'm not claiming to know everything (or even anything, necessarily!), it's just a personal musing on how I think things could be done for others to consider or ignore as they see fit. Some elements might be a little controversial, I guess, but that's personal views for you!

Edited to add: I've added some more detail on Second Chambers in the context of this discussion here.

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