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Labour local government leader attacks spending transparency

Much comment about how the Labour Conference this week felt pretty flat. It wasn't just the lacklustre speech of their new leader but a wider malaise. I think one of their problems is they have got out of the habit of speaking English,

There was John Prescott, of course. Mary Ann Sieghart recounts being summoned to see him and telling him that her criticisms were not motivated by snobbery:

If a man couldn't speak clearly, I said, it was a sign that he couldn't think clearly either.

But far worse was the way Labour Ministers adopted their own language, incomprehensible even to their supporters. Here is Chris Mullin's diary entry for Tuesday March 18 2008:

This evening to an upper committee room to hear Ed Balls talk about his Children's's Plan. We were handed a "toolkit" containing several glossy brochures,  DVD and a jargon-crammed PowerPoint presentation. Much lofty talk of "making Britain re best country in the word for children to grow up in.' and endless references to consultations, parents panels, expert groups, delivery agreements, outcomes framework, etc. Quite what it all means is unclear and nothing said during the meeting made me any the wiser.

In the local government debate yesterday we had a rousing call from the Shadow Communities Secretary John Denham to: "Defend the Regional Spatial Strategy!"

Sir Jeremy Beecham announced he was standing down as leader of Labour's Group on the LGA and as the local government rep on the NEC. The torch was being handed to Cllr David Sparks from Dudley. Sir Jeremy did his best to make this sound exciting: "At NEC meetings Sparks will fly!"

Then Cllr Sparks addressed the conference. He said that requiring spending transparency contradicts localism. (It doesn't. It is about making Town Halls accountable to their residents rather than central control.)

He said of Eric Pickles:

He forces councils with multi million pound budgets to issue details of all expenditure over £500.

Oh, the indignity of it. Having to tell those tiresome Council Taxpayers how their money was being spent.

In failing to support spending transparency Labour are failing an important test in their attitude to the relationship between the citizen and the state.

This is what Cllr Sparks should have said:

Progressive politics includes the right to know. It means ordinary citizens having the knowledge to hold their rulers to account. I am proud of what the Labour Government did on Freedom of Information and requiring political donations to be made public. But we should have done more to open the books on where public money is spent. We need to defend public services and make the case for investing in them. But to do that we need to be sure that the money spent in Town Halls is reaching the front line and is seen to be reaching the front line. So the coalition Government are right to bring in a requirement to publish all items of spending over £500 and I am pleased that Labour councils like Oxford, Slough, Corby and Islington and are leading the way.


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