There is a lot of talk of ‘sovereignty’ in the E.U. debate. Of leaving the E.U. in order to regain our sovereignty – defined by the Oxford dictionary as ‘supreme power or authority’. It might be worth thinking for a moment as to how this supreme power may be used should we break free of the unelected Eurocrats who are said to be running our country like a puppet state.
Let’s start with democracy. We have essentially a two party, first past the post electoral system. In the 2015 General Election UKIP received 3.9M votes (12.7% of the share) but only one seat in the house. We have a majority conservative government on 36.8% of the vote. Under proportional representation (used for EU elections) UKIP would have secured 83 seats making them the third biggest party ahead of the Lib Dems and SNP. election-2015-proportional representation Would a strengthening of sovereignty deliver electoral reform? You only have to ask yourself whether the winning party would ever change the odds. Throw into the mix that in at least 24 constituencies there are investigations into electoral fraud regarding breaches in spending limits by the conservative party Guardian 13.5.16 that the increased use of postal votes is wide open to corruption beware the banana republic postal ballot and the suggestion that Rupert Murdoch may be in charge of digital voting in the UK for 2020 and you start to wonder whether a government elected under these circumstances should be given ‘supreme power’ over all the poor saps who didn’t vote for them.
Administrative justice is the cornerstone of democracy, using tribunals, ombudsmen and courts to give the citizen redress for the misuse of government power. It affects every aspect of the citizen’s contact with the state including health care, pensions, workers rights, child support, education and complaint handling across all government departments, yet administrative justice is continually treated with disdain by one government after another. Created and modified in a piecemeal manner the system struggles to gain any cohesion or consistency. In at attempt to make the process fair, accessible and efficient the Administrative Justice and Tribunal Council (AJTC) was formed in 2007 as the only body with oversight of the whole process. Able to work with all stakeholders they soon produced ‘general principles’ and started to share ‘good practice’ in a series of reports. These put pressure on Government for wholesale reform and the acknowledgement that poor decision making and poor complaint handling was wasting money and damaging lives. By 2011 an inquiry was underway to close the AJTC down as part of the cost-cutting austerity measures. Because we live in a democracy there was a public consultation and a number of experts duly submitted their written and verbal evidence to parliament all in favour of keeping AJTC open and active. public-administration/written-evidence-OAJ
The suggestion was that the Ministry of Justice (MoJ) could easily fulfil the role of AJTC and effectively monitor its own performance. An advisory council of sixteen experienced justice experts would be replaced by one or two newly appointed MoJ officials. Dr Jeff King from University College London drew the committee’s attention to a letter sent to Government on 4th October 2010 and signed by the most senior professors of public law in the country all in favour of keeping AJTC open and active. Although the submission from the MoJ states that,
“The Department does, and will continue to take account of the views of service users. It will consult widely with experts, including those who represent users, as part of the policy formulation process.”
All the ‘experts’ were ignored and the AJTC duly closed down in 2013. ajtc.justice.gov.uk
The submission from the Public and Commercial Services Union (PCS) made the comment that, “It is also notable that the AJTC is shortly to publish a report that will challenge the government to recognise the scale of unnecessary cost generated by its own actions. The report will be critical of complex and badly drafted laws in some areas of administrative justice without strategic action to improve it.” Telling truth to power is inevitably a short-lived career, just ask Natasha Devon the axed Mental Health Champion. theguardian/mental-health-champion
Although we have a public consultation process the Government of the day are not required to take any notice of a single suggestion, no matter how ‘expert’ that opinion may be.
Public consultation is the fine veneer which separates our democracy from dictatorship.
A great many people will have signed a petition in their local pharmacy to prevent the Government from reducing funding for this vital service. Hoorah for democracy! Once you have over 100,000 signatures (pretty sure in this case) then you are given a parliamentary debate and quite possibly a vote in the house. Before you get too excited you need to know that our democracy does not stretch to making the vote binding and at the end of the day, despite all the hard work of unpaid campaigners the Government can do exactly what the Government wants to do.
Our present Government wants to shrink the size of the state and under the guise of austerity they have cut benefits for the disabled and vulnerable, cut legal aid, introduced charges for tribunals, increased the use of food banks, increased child poverty, attempted to turn all schools into academies, under-funded the NHS to near breaking point, tried to impose a contract on Junior doctors, refused to give Junior doctors protection for whistleblowing and want to introduce a British Bill of Human Rights removing us from the Universal Bill of Human Rights.
If this Government and all future Governments are handed ‘supreme power’ following our exit from the EU is there any evidence that ‘sovereignty’ would improve our everyday experience of democracy or simply make it even easier for them to run a dictatorship of decision making with nothing more than lip-service to public opinion?
Be careful what you wish for.