Earlier today, David Cameron outlined new Conservative plans “for real change in politics”. In a speech entitled “Big ideas to give Britain Real Change”, he described 9 ideas for real change in Politics. Ideas include:
- No more unelected Prime Ministers
- Opening up democracy: More postal primaries
- Expanding the Freedom of Information Act
- Neighbourhood budgets: giving neighbourhoods direct funding
- Public drafting: “Crowdsourcing” the drafting of government legislation
- Opening up parliament: a Public Reading Day
- Protecting whistleblowers: Strengthening protection on government waste and misuses of public money
- A new right to data: Right to Data Act
- Strengthening Select Committees
Of particular interest to those in favour of a more Open Government are the plans for:
The Conservatives plan to expand the scope of the Freedom of Information Act to include taxpayer-funded bodies such as Northern Rock and Network Rail, along with bodies such as the Local Government Association. The idea is to provide the public with access to a wide range of government information previously not freely available.
Public drafting: “Crowdsourcing” the drafting of government legislation
Late last year, the Conservatives announced a competition to create an online platform to through which citizens can post ideas in relation to government policy. The intention was to create a platform through which ‘the collective wisdom of the British people’ could be harnessed to improve draft legislation.
The Conservatives claim “Government legislation is often hastily drafted, leading to unintended consequences in the law.” As such, they plan to
pilot a new ‘crowd-sourcing’ approach to drafting legislation, enabling expert members of the public to play a role. This will help produce better Bills.
This new system of ‘Public Drafting’, will allow members of the public the opportunity to engage with and improve the drafting of legislation. It will have four stages:
- The Department sponsoring the legislation will publish detailed instructions on the policy intentions of the legislation online, as well an explanation of the constraints within which all clauses will have to be drafted.
- People will register for an online forum that allows them to submit draft clauses they believe will achieve the specified policy aims. We expect this to include lawyers, academics and other experts. If needed, contributors will also be able to ask the sponsoring Department questions to clarify the drafting instructions, and these questions and answers will be posted online.
- All public contributions will be open to review, comment and amendment from other registered participants, and participants will be encouraged to rate all submissions.
- At the end of the process, the highest rated drafts will go forward to be considered by the Office of the Parliamentary Counsel, the official government drafters of all legislation. The decision on whether to accept, in whole or in part, any of the top rated drafting suggestions will rest entirely with the Parliamentary Counsel.
Opening up parliament: a Public Reading Day
As part of their aim to “throw open the doors of Parliament” the Conservatives have announced a “Public Reading Stage for legislation” which would take place before a bill goes to Committee stage for deliberation. The idea is to give the public a chance to feed in their comments on proposed legislation which would then be considered by elected officials:
The Public Bill Committee process will include a formal Public Reading Day, when MPs and Lords formally consider and discuss the points submitted by the public. This process will help open up the legislative process and improve the scrutiny of proposed legislation, while still retaining the fundamental character of our representative democracy.
A new right to data: Right to Data Act
The Conservatives propose a “Right to Data Act” to give members of the public a legally enforceable ‘Right to Data’. This will allow for members to the public to appeal if public bodies refuse requests for data collected by government. They claim this:
radical policy will help transform the culture of the public sector from one that presumes secrecy to one that presumes datasets should be open and shared with the public on an ongoing basis.
The Conservatives look set to expand the reach of data.gov.uk through making more datasets available particularly in relation to government spending. As part of this, they reference the President Obama and how he has promoted transparency in government spending through the establishment of Recovery.gov and the bill enacting USAspending.gov.
People power through electoral reform
Overall it looks like an interesting set of ideas that expand on David Cameron’s ideas on People Power and the Conservative manifesto’s ‘Invitation to join the government’. However, while this agenda establishes a progressive stance towards open government, it does not mention topics such as electoral reform which would enshrine a more fundamental change into British politics. It’s not to say the Conservatives don’t have ideas on this – their manifesto contains pledges on petitions to secure debates in Parliament and reform of the House of Lords – it’s just that fundamental people power i.e. through the power of the vote, is not adequately addressed.
According to yesterday’s BBC poll of polls: Liberal Democrats with 30% of the vote will get 102 seats, Conservatives with 33% get 258 seats, while Labour coming in third with 27% will emerge as the victor with 261 seats. Will Hutton, of the Work Foundation, summed up the situation:
We want our votes and opinions to count. Yet the majority of us vote in constituencies which are essentially rotten boroughs that will return the same party come what may. Your choice, if not from a winning party, is not to vote or vote tactically. Only in the 100 or so marginals, where Lord Ashcroft has directed his millions, is there a genuine political contest. It is the fast road to voter disengagement.
Analogous to this Polly Toynbee of the Guardian explained ‘we need to change the system to make every single vote count’.
The Liberal Democrats support a change to the voting system through the introduction of proportional representation. They believe this is a much fairer and more equitable system. This is supported by advocacy groups such as Vote for a Change. However, as it’s unlikely the Liberal Democrats will be the largest party at the next election, they are calling for a Hung Parliament as a means of achieving this electoral reform.
The new economics foundation’s Vote Power Index, demonstrates the unequal distribution of electoral power under the current UK voting system. The index calculates the value of a vote in a constituency based on the number of votes and the chances of the seat changing hands.
Stephen Whitehead explained the two startling findings of the index:
Firstly, it shows the staggering inefficiency of our system in translating votes into outcomes. Thanks to the vast number of votes that are effectively wasted, almost three quarters of voting power is squandered.
Secondly, and perhaps more fundamentally, the index highlights the chronic injustice of our system. In the UK the luckiest fifth of voters have more than 33 times more power than the unluckiest fifth. This is a far more uneven distribution than household income in the UK.
This index highlights the need to change Britain’s electoral system to establish a voting regime that recognises the importance and significant of each vote, and ensures the majority opinion of people throughout the country is reflected in the Houses of Parliament.
Now that really would be a big idea.