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House of Lords Debate on the POWER Report Helena Kennedy’s Statement House of Lords Hansard 15 June 2006 Baroness Kennedy of The Shaws: My Lords, I pay tribute to the noble Lord, Lord Goodhart, for providing the opportunity to discuss the Power inquiry report. I also thank everyone, particularly those who have been appreciative of the report and the work of my wonderful team, for taking part in the debate. I also congratulate the noble Lords, Lord Taylor and Lord Lee, on their maiden speeches, which have added greatly to the debate. I look forward to further opportunities to discuss the inquiry's report with them. As the chairman of the commission that produced the report, I had the great privilege of receiving evidence from thousands of citizens across Britain. Some of that evidence came to us live, some came through e-mails, some came in written submissions, some—let me tell the noble Lord, Lord Goodhart—came from Members of Parliament, some from members of the press, and some from experts in the academy. We had a great deal of information. We did not reinvent the wheel, but drew on a lot of work that had been done by other bodies considering democracy. It was an experience that proved to be hugely stimulating and inspiring. I felt privileged to be involved in it, but it was also profoundly troubling. It was inspiring because it vindicated my faith in the capacity of the British people to discuss issues of great importance with seriousness, compassion and a spirit of tolerance. I was also proud to hear and read evidence that clearly displayed the fact that millions of Britons are highly active citizens involved in all manner of activities, charitable work and volunteering. They go into schools and do all sorts of things to raise money, and they visit prisoners, which we do not hear a lot about. They do incredible things. They are also involved in campaigning on all manner of issues. Our young, who we are constantly told are feckless and useless, are political and interested and want to make the world a better place. Do not believe those who say that the people of this country are apathetic, lazy or too comfortable living their lives to care or to be interested in things that politics seeks to consider. Wherever we went, we found people with a deep interest in both the big issues that this country faces and in the small issues that their communities and neighbourhoods face. We went to community centres, to village and town halls and to schools and colleges. I should tell my noble friend Lord Gould that we even had a meeting in a football stadium. Much to our surprise, people turned up, because we thought that if people did not turn up to vote they would not turn up to take part in discussions with us. The people there were not only the ones who were interested and who could be bothered to turn up—that self-selecting group; we actually sought people out, particularly among communities where voting is very low. There are growing divides between the rich and poor in this country, and the poorest people are those who are not voting and who feel particularly voiceless. We made a great effort to reach into those communities and to take part in conversations with people about why there was that abstinence. What came through to us very clearly was that the attitude of many British people towards formal democracy is very worrying. When I first spoke about the inquiry in this House in February last year, I indicated how we were uncovering a deep well of distrust towards formal politics. I also talked about the way in which very many people now regard politics as it is practised in Parliament as irrelevant to them. I am sad to say that nothing happened in the intervening months, as we continued to gather evidence and reflect on it, that has changed my view or that of the commission on that point. I have listened to the brickbats of the noble Lord, Lord Norton. I know that academics in the political field hate others to trespass on their terrain, and I know that those who are part of the political elite, in which I include former Members of Parliament, parliamentarians and even Members of this House, often want to find the easiest answers to this kind of malaise and to decide that people will be switched on once we have a new leader of a political party or have something else in place. I have to tell noble Lords, however, that the problems run far deeper than that. I will listen with care to what the noble Lord, Lord Norton, has to say. I am sure that he will be absolutely right about some elements. No one is suggesting that the Power report has all the answers or has done its job to perfection. All I would say is that we had the opportunity to listen to the people, which academics do not. The people were saying loudly and clearly that they did not feel happy with what was happening on political terrain. If anything, the great swathe of evidence heard and analysed by the inquiry strengthened the view of the Power commission that we have entered a period where there is real alienation from the political system. People are saying that they do not feel that their voices are heard, and they feel they have no influence, so why should they bother to vote? I do not need to tell noble Lords how dangerous that is. The threat to the key principles of representation, mandate and dialogue that underpin our democracy is great indeed if ever greater numbers see no point in voting, if they feel hostile to all the main political parties and if they believe that all politicians place their tribal political interests, or even their self- interests, above those of their constituents and the country. Although we may say that we know many good, decent people in the political world and that that is not true, we must accept and understand the feelings of many people. We should also be keenly aware of the fact that, although Britain has been blessed for the past decade by a healthy economic performance, it is unlikely to last for ever. Even last week, Mervyn King, the Governor of the Bank of England, pointed out the vulnerability of economic systems in our global economy and the way in which global factors can have an influence and could involve a downturn. Economic hardship and deep political alienation are a combustible mix, and extremist parties and organisations would happily use the combination to their great advantage. It is therefore important that we seek to address this now. We now face a major crisis in our democracy. I do not say that lightly. Political parties on the ground are haemorrhaging and are non-existent in many areas. The pool of people from which parties can recruit candidates both for Westminster and for local councils is getting smaller. If you are young, from a minority community or from the poorer sections of our country, you are the least likely to even want to engage with formal politics, never mind get actively involved. We are in danger of turning citizens into the spectators to whom the noble Lord, Lord Gould, referred. That is not acceptable. The Power inquiry argued that a healthy relationship between politicians and citizens could be rekindled if there were three major shifts in political practice. The noble Lord, Lord Goodhart, has explained some of those shifts. He referred to our report's encouragement of a rebalancing of power between the Executive and the legislature and between central and local government. We propose very strongly that that be done by concordat. We can cry in the wind about wanting written constitutions, but the reality is that that will remain in the long grass for some time to come. The starting point lies very much with the weft and weave of the British tradition of how to do things. We must recognise that some things should be put down in stone now, because the conventions and gentlemen's agreements of the past no longer work. The concordats that we recommend actually align with something that is already in place. A concordat was created between the judiciary and the Executive to protect the judiciary from the encroachments of the Executive, and to protect judicial independence. That concordat gives us a template for creating what I describe as a spinal column. This is not some rigid constitution; it simply puts in place some vertebrae that put down firmly the arrangements that there should be between the Executive and Parliament, between the central and the local, and between the judiciary and the Executive. Those vertebrae allow for the flexibility that is so much part of the British way of doing things and do not allow the kind of rigidity that we see in some constitutional arrangements. The noble Lord, Lord Goodhart, also talked about the introduction of electoral reform—another hot potato that two of the main political parties will want to push into the long grass. Again, however, it is something that people should have the opportunity to debate with a proper understanding. The third shift is to provide citizens with a more direct and focused say over individual political decisions and policies. We came away from this process with the strong sense that we really had to move to much greater participative democracy. This change is vital and cannot be consigned to a Cinderella role alongside the other two. In this debate, we have had noble Lords who do not trust the people. They say that we will end up with all sorts of ugly things coming through or that we will get the sort of thing that the "Today" programme produced, such as legislation for shooting burglars, or hanging reintroduced. The reality is not that we will have a kind of "press button" citizens' engagement. It is part of something deliberative in the context of citizens' juries, forums or engagement in processes where they hear evidence and have good information on which to engage with decision-making. That requires a much more responsible media, which of course must be engaged in a debate on how such participative processes can be enriched by a responsible media or undermined by an irresponsible one. We proposed this more participatory approach to democracy for a number of reasons. Crucially, we heard most strongly in our evidence that people want the ability to have a more direct influence over decisions made in their name. They want a way to force issues that they want to discuss on to the political agenda. They do not want issues forced into law, but on to the agenda. They want to insist that there are proper debates and processes around issues that concern them, rather than the kind of deals that are done by the political elite behind closed doors. Not many people get it, but I was pleased to hear that my noble friend Lord Gould gets it: people want to be heard. We have to reinvent some aspects of our democracy that are not working. This is not an end to representative democracy; it is a way of enriching it. The days when people were content to delegate decision-making to their supposedly intellectual and moral superiors in Parliament are long gone. British people hold themselves and their own opinions in far higher esteem than they once did. They crave self-determination even if they do not always achieve it. They increasingly expect choice and influence in many parts of their everyday lives, from the most trivial to the most monumental. A political system which does not meet those expectations will only breed further alienation and disconnection. The most notable example of this change in public expectations came in the evidence that we received on elections. People feel that voting once every four or five years just does not do it for them. They do not feel that that is enough. As the noble Lord, Lord Norton, has said, they do not want to sit on committees every day of the week. They do not want to sit in rooms above pubs all the time in the kind of formalised sense that the noble Lord described. But they would be happy, rather like on jury service, to be drawn in for important issues where they feel that they could make a difference. Many of the decisions and much of the research that we received showed that citizens increasingly find it ridiculous that such a limited process as the general election is regularly taken by Governments as a blanket mandate for action on everything from international security to the governance of a local school. Therefore, part of this report is about giving power back to the local. I cannot emphasise enough that that means money has to follow. It cannot just be a cosmetic nod towards the local. It does not mean consultation as currently spoken of by government. The people have a sense of smell and know when consultation is window-dressing on decisions that have already been made behind firmly closed doors. My time is coming to a close. I am sorry that I have not been able to deal with all the issues raised, particularly where colleagues have suggested that there were things that they did not go along with. I suggest that noble Lords do not go along with many of them because they have not heard why young people's engagement, for example, is so important. If the hum and the habits of democracy are not inculcated early on, I am afraid that people are lost for ever. We have increasingly older generations voting, but not the young. They do not get into the habit once they have children or pay taxes. They remain alienated and feel a sense of exclusion. In answer to the question what next, we on the commission feel very strongly that one of the problems in Britain is that we always do things in a top-down way, particularly on matters constitutional. This has to come from the bottom up. The reason why the Human Rights Act is now not being loved by people is the way in which it came into being. It was never championed and people were never made to feel that they had a purchase on it. If we want democratic renewal, we have to let people engage in debates and bring stuff up from the bottom. We intend to launch a campaign around democratic renewal; otherwise, we will see a hollowing-out of our democracy, where political parties concentrate only on the marginal seats to win elections and it becomes democracy by numbers. That is not good enough. The Power report says that there has to be a new way of doing politics. Everyone must be given an opportunity to engage. There must be honesty in politics, an end to spin and consultants, and an end to the improprieties associated with money and funding. We have to see our system and our people re-empowered. This is an opportunity to be seized. We all have to take it.
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