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More regulation, more public spending, more surveillance, more government... less trust

BATES MICHAEL In a speech in the House of Lords yesterday Lord (Michael) Bates argued that politicians cannot expect the people's trust if they don't trust the people:

"One of the weaknesses of the current Government is that whenever they are faced with a problem, they instinctively believe that the answer lies in one of three things: regulation; expenditure of public finance; or, indeed in surveillance-greater collection of data.

I want to present the case that, as the noble Baroness, Lady Kennedy, said, the people of this country can be trusted. There is another option available to us, which is not to legislate, not to give public money and not to surveille, but to trust people to do the right thing.

Over the past 10 years, the proportion of public income which is spent by the Government has risen from 38.2 per cent to 50 per cent this year. The average number of laws passed each year during the time of my noble friend Lady Thatcher as Prime Minister was 1,724. In 2007, that had risen to 3,071 laws each year. Each one of those laws, each one of those regulations, requires a bureaucrat to collect data to ensure that the law is being complied with. That requires a regulatory approach.

In addition, we have seen a greater centralisation of power. I take the point about devolution, but in England we have seen a significant centralisation of power, with more and more powers taken away from local people to have the freedom to decide how they spend their money and set targets to meet their local community needs. That decision is increasingly taken in Whitehall, rather than in their locality. As a result, the Local Government Association has estimated that its members are responsible for providing data on some 1,200 targets to the Government. Those data must be collected and sent up the line. Why does that matter? It matters not only because it is wasteful and information overload, but a lot of people come to teaching, nursing and the police force because they want to protect, to care and to teach. They do not come do these jobs because they want to fill out forms-it would be pretty disappointing if they did. That is why we need to free people up and trust them more to do the right thing.

One thing we have not touched on-we need to put in a line about this-is that our prodigious style of legislating and legislating, issuing more and more regulations from this place, means that we are effectively saying that the people on the ground doing the job cannot be trusted. They then find a rich sense of irony in the events of last year, when it was found that some-I stress, some-Members of this place, who were legislating, could not be trusted to fill in their expenses correctly and behave in an honourable way. Therefore, people say, "Why should we trust you to legislate for us when you do not trust us to do our jobs?". The erosion of trust is a great challenge in our society and something to which we must attend. The centralisation of power and the erosion of trust, leads, as the noble Lord, Lord Roberts, said, to a lack of participation in local democracy. People think, "Why should I get involved in local democracy?", so we find that more people vote on the final of "The X Factor" than in local elections. Why is that? Because there has been atrophy of power in local government. People think that it does not matter.

We see that represented in a number of minute ways. A telling example is the debate taking place surrounding the clearing of snow from pathways. I know that this is something of an urban myth, but it is an urban myth about which the Health and Safety Executive has done nothing to disabuse people. The view is, "Leave the snow, leave the pathways as they are, do not get involved in clearing them, because if you try to clear them for a neighbour or to make school a little more accessible, you could face a lawsuit". Everyone says, "Oh, that is an urban myth". It may be, but it would be great if the Minister could slay that urban myth when he responds. It is quite wrong that people should be paranoid about wanting to help other people by doing the right thing, doing good things in their community and helping their neighbours for fear that they will be the subject of litigation. As a result of the army of new legislation, the fear that we have become a more litigious, contractual society, rather than a relational society, causes concern.

A number of noble Lords spoke about tolerance. I particularly acknowledge the remarks of my noble friend Lord Patten, who spoke powerfully about the sense, particularly in the Christian church, that there is growing intolerance towards people of faith and that they are being victimised. That cannot be right. I am sure that the pendulum has swung, but we need to remember that legislation and the pendulum were meant to correct something that was wrong. The corrective was never meant to be normative. We have reached a position where we think that the default position we should have as a society is for ever to take powers away from people and take the view that we do not trust them to do the right thing in their local communities and to look after their neighbours.

The title of this debate asks how we can make the United Kingdom a more tolerant, democratic and open society. I believe that that is the language of legislation, regulation and surveillance and the language of the past. The language of the future needs to ask how we allow and encourage people to become more tolerant, democratic and free. The answer to that is in the words "personal responsibility", and the mechanism for that is trust."


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