Keeping it under wraps

28 Apr 06
PHILIP JOHNSTON | The winds of change will soon be blowing through the town halls of England and Wales.

The winds of change will soon be blowing through the town halls of England and Wales.

Major reforms are being prepared, both in the financing of local government and its structure.

What better time than an election campaign to debate these subjects? Yet, these two topics are explicitly off the agenda as the parties bicker with one another ahead of the polls next Thursday. Ministers decline to discuss the future of local government not merely because they have yet to reach any conclusions on the matter, but because they are in ‘purdah’.

This is the quaint old British tradition whereby awkward political questions can be avoided in the run-up either to elections or a Budget while ministers shelter behind their metaphorical veils.

In theory, purdah should involve the suspension of any governmental activities that may be construed as potentially benefitting or promoting a specific political party or prospective candidate. There is no legislative proscription governing purdah: it is a convention that has developed over the years and one that is more honoured in the breach than in the observance.

Last week, for instance, there was a spate of criminal justice announcements by the Home Office that could easily have been delayed until after May 4 but which seemed designed to give the impression that the government was being tough on serious criminals.

The sudden onslaught by the prime minister and the home secretary on ‘liberal’ commentators who feel the government is too authoritarian also had the smack of political campaigning about it, hotly denied of course.

The Opposition made barely a squeak about this, which suggests that either they do not think purdah should apply to local elections or do not care whether it does.

The Electoral Commission states: ‘As a general principle, we would wish to see as level a playing field as our political system will allow, and for that reason we would not wish to see any government use its position during an election campaign in a way that might be perceived as seeking electoral advantage.’

However, how do you judge when a statement on something as critical as public protection from criminals is simply a cynical political device or an essential announcement that cannot be delayed? Also, why should Tony Blair’s and Charles Clarke’s appeals over the heads of the civil liberties lobby to ‘ordinary’ voters who think the bad guys get too much benefit of the doubt be kept under wraps until after the elections, provided they do not use the government machine to deliver the message?

While questions can be asked about using the civil service to back up political campaigning during election time, few things should be off limits. Politicians should always have something trenchant or controversial to say. That is why they are in the business. Which is why keeping the future of local government out of the campaign, other than by way of a ritual exchange of abuse over the levels of council tax, is so disappointing.

To give the government its due, it has sought to open up the subject of local governance with a series of road show meetings and a discussion forum on the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister website. But this has been temporarily suspended under the somewhat selectively administered purdah rules.

Why? Surely, the local election campaign could be the one occasion when people other than councillors, officials or anoraks might actually be interested enough to join in the debate, or at least turn their attention to what people are saying about it.

We know that David Miliband, the minister for local government and the communities, is interested in unitary councils and city-regions. So let’s all hear about it. A search of the Labour local election manifesto for the words ‘unitary’ or ‘finance’ reveals absolutely nothing.

Of course, ministers will say that these matters are under discussion and they do not wish to be pinned down to anything specific. But the problem with that approach is that decisions are then taken after a narrow debate among the favoured few: to leave the voters out of it as the government drafts its white paper is as big an insult to our intelligence as silly cartoon chameleons.

There is a real prospect that if — and it is a big if — decisions are made about abolishing the two-tier system in the shires, then the 2007 local elections, far from being a forum for debating whether this is the right way to proceed, will actually be cancelled.

Miliband is proud to have generated a debate about the future of local governance. He said recently: ‘We are having a mature discussion with local government — and we will make our position clear in the middle of this year.’

It is a shame he has not involved the rest of us in his deliberations.

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