What struck me most about the Queen’s speech was not the draconian plans to combat terrorism or crime. With an election coming up, that is just advertising. The government has plenty of powers to combat terrorism. But still feels the need to convince tabloid readers of how illiberal it can truly be.
No, the astonishing thing was how petty and technocratic were most of the 37 bills and draft bills proposed. Seven years on, and perhaps just five months until the general election cuts through the legislative programme, and what are we talking about? Cutting the number of National Lottery funds from three to one. Amalgamating existing laws on animal welfare. Making school inspections shorter. Tidying up the rules on public inquiries. Means-testing legal aid in magistrates’ courts. Boosting local government’s powers on fly-tipping and abandoned cars. Shuffling the nature and countryside agencies. Fusing the powers of the Welsh Ombudsman. Setting up a Welsh transport users’ committee.
What a truly depressing list of administrative desk-shuffling. Most of it seems aimed only to make the statue-book look a bit neater (if a lot longer, too). More (like the proposed extensions to disabled access, or increasing the penalties on in-care mobile phone use) amounts to just changing or extending measures passed in the last seven years.
Couldn’t they get it right first time? Is this dreary list really the best our national politicians can do for us?
I must admit: as a bit of a techie too, I was secretly pleased to see the plan for part-privatizing the Probation Service, though it goes nowhere near far enough. But then its chance of surviving a truncated parliamentary session is roughly zero.
And the chance of a number of other bills surviving is about zero too. Crossrail (too late, anyway, after so much prevarication, to help Britain’s 2012 Olympics bid) is clearly a gonner. I don’t hold out much hope for the bill allowing councils to provide better school transport. The Supreme Court idea might well get clogged up in the Lords, who have grave doubts about it. The plan for living wills could be just as controversial. As might the measure to test people for drugs after they have been arrested. And while the EU constitution referendum will certainly be forced through, it will provide bystanders with a great deal of amusement on the way.
So what are we left with? Gambling: a liberalization truncated after intense lobbying from the established vested interests. (So instead of competition, we’re allowing just eight super-casinos. Super-monopolies, more like.) Railways: abolishing the Strategic Rail Authority which this government created, and trying to unscramble the mess unleashed by ex-DTI minister Stephen Byers. Various other solutions to non-problems.
And, of course, the headline-grabbing measures to crack down on serious (and non-serious) crime and make us all carry ID cards. (It’s interesting that even the US, after 9/11, hasn’t chosen to adopt and ID-card scheme. But then American politicians perhaps have a greater grasp of constitutional liberties than ours.) Still, it’s all good electioneering stuff.
But what mention is there of the really deep structural dysfunctions in our public services? Enabling school heads to manage budgets over three years rather than one? How pathetic. It’s time to give heads complete control over their budgets, and their land and buildings too, and scrap the LEAs. Give parents a voucher for the cost of their kids’ education, and make schools compete for their custom. Incentivise good heads to take over failing schools. That will do more to raise the quality of sink schools than simply shifting their most disruptive pupils out to mess up the education in the good ones.
Same in health. Foundation hospitals are a central bureaucrat’s idea of freedom. Just get the Whitehall and local bureaucracy out. Empower patients with cash, competitively-provided social insurance, or savings plans along ISA lines, so that hospitals will be desperate to welcome them in, rather than treating them as a necessary inconvenience.
And tax. It’s not just become too high, it’s far too complicated. Tolley’s Tax Guide, the accountant’s bible, now runs to 7,344 pages across four volumes. So let’s follow the lead of nine other countries, including four EU members: scrap all the complicated rules, loopholes, exemptions, credits, and rebates, and introduce a flat tax. About 19% on incomes over £18,000 should do it. Since it’s not worth cheating at that rate, the rich start paying a lot more – as the other flat-taxers have found. The poor, of course, pay nothing, unlike today. And since low tax rates make work more worthwhile, you get an instant boost to economic growth.
That’s a modest programme that should be do-able between now and May 5. But it would do a lot more to change life in this country than what our tired politicians are actually proposing.
Dr Eamonn Butler is Director of the Adam Smith Institute