Challenge and choice

DianneHayter.jpgDianne Hayter on the government’s failure to boost citizen and consumer rights

Today’s debate on the Queen’s Speech turns to some of the more fundamental issues in the government’s announcement of a new legislative programme, relating to human rights, law, the constitution and citizens’ rights.

One such issue is about the transparency of government and what it does in our name. Yet we are a long way from knowing about who influences ministerial decisions as much of this remains secret. The Coalition government set up a so-called Register of Lobbyists, but it excludes all the main lobbyists, i.e. those in-house at big corporations, and those from well-funded trade associations.

Furthermore, the Register only requires disclosure of the direct lobbying of ministers and permanent secretaries, whereas most of this activity involves senior civil servants, MPs and Peers, select committee Chairs, and Special Advisers. Despite the Prime Minister this month hosting an anti-corruption conference, there was nothing in the Queen’s Speech to tackle secrecy in the UK. That’s why my Labour colleague in the Lords, Clive Brooke has tabled his own Lobbying (Transparency) Bill – something that gets its First Reading today. 

As with transparency, challenge is also good for a healthy democracy. The Cameron government however, is so frightened of being questioned that it has introduced – or intends to – various measures that curtail or prevent such activity, nationally and otherwise.

These include restrictions on charities’ advocacy work, the use of government grants to speak on behalf of a charity’s beneficiaries, civil society’s ability to questioning schools’ adherence to the Admission Code. Along with giving extra powers to ministers to make appointments to supposedly independent arms-length bodies and plans to appoint a large chunk of the BBC Board, including the Chair and Vice Chair.

In addition, and without cross-party support, the government is removing 50 elected MPs from the Commons while again looking set to appoint another round of Peers – answerable to no-one but the Prime Minister. And should, they and their fellow members of the Lords get uppity and start to question the power of the Executive, there are now also plans to veto our ability to scrutinise secondary legislation.

The government is not just using its position to keep a tight grip on what it does. It is also seeking to help the Conservative Party, by extending voting rights to Britain’s living abroad permanently, which would make these people (who pay no tax in the UK) ‘permitted Donors’ to political parties. This would allow off-shore money to flow into party coffers.

There are some good aspects to the Queen’s Speech, particularly the proposed National Citizens Service Bill, with a duty on schools and local authorities to promote this scheme to young people and their parents. We will welcome the Bill, as long as it comes with adequate resources.

But there are also too many gaps in the programme. No bill to amend civil registration of marriages to include the couple’s mothers’ as well as fathers’ names. No Bill to establish the Public Services Ombudsman, despite many promises. And no action to improve the very weak system for establishing Dispute Resolution across the consumer landscape, so that any purchaser can seek free, independent adjudication about faulty goods and services.

The lack of action on the latter and on getting bank and energy customers a fair deal, perhaps reflects the absence of a dedicated Consumer Minister. Someone able to champion the needs of consumers across all sectors: patient, passenger or purchaser. All are at risk of getting poor service or being ripped-off, and without proper redress, they have little bargaining strength in complicated markets. The Queens Speech could have been the start of a boost in citizen and consumer rights. Sadly, it does no such thing.

Baroness Dianne Hayter of Kentish Town is Shadow Consumer Affairs Minister in the House of Lords. She tweets @HayteratLords

Published 24th May 2016

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