Why we need a Campaign for Democratic Governance

(Guest post by Peter Lloyd).

If we take ‘governance’ to mean the processes of decision-making, including appointments, scrutiny, responsibility and accountability in our democracy, then much of it has been undermined, bypassed, hidden and ultimately corrupted in recent years.

This has been laid bare over the last two years of the Covid-19 pandemic, but it also applies with a series of Net Zero measures and other major policies. These are policies and legislation which have enormous costs that are ultimately borne by the public, and which affect their everyday lives to a significant extent yet they are not subject to proper scrutiny.

In this post, I summarise the grave problems with democratic governance, which particularly appeared in relation to the covid pandemic, and suggest actions to resolve these problems.

Problem 1: Ministers and civil servants have outsourced government to arms-length government bodies, with disastrous results for society.

Action required: All arms-length bodies in the central government network should report to the public through Parliament as well as to ministers.

Problem 2: The government has undermined the democratic process by curtailing the influence of the public’s views and those of their elected representatives, by restricting debate and curtailing voting on laws and guidance affecting the everyday lives of the public.

Action required: There should be legislation to limit the imposition of new laws and regulations by Statutory Instrument, Skeleton Bills and Clauses and ministerial decree without debate and scrutiny, when these measures materially affect the public.

Problem 3: Throughout the pandemic there has been minimal government focus on the wider public interest from the Covid measures imposed, which would have been apparent if more time and detailed analysis of the likely impact had taken place.

Action required: Impact assessments and cost-benefit analyses should be mandatory for all new measures where there is a risk of collateral harm and confounding results.

Problem 4: Temporary measures became permanent and the use of Acts of Parliament with limited room for democratic control or input, particularly the Public Health Act 1984, were preferred routes for the introduction of Covid measures. Like many in government, MPs have thus become beholden to expert opinion which normally comes from a single perspective.

Action required: MPs need to reassert their roles in the democratic system, taking into account the wider public interest, as is their duty.

Problem 5: Law and guidance have become blurred and resulted in heavy-handed and officious treatment of the public by the police and other agencies.

Action required: Law and guidance should be clearly separated so that the police apply the former and the public are aware of the latter and the difference between the two. Mandatory guidance should be in the relevant legislation.

Problem 6: There has been an almost complete erosion of the distinction between personal private space and the public space, such that officialdom has little or no compunction in managing and regulating private activity. Techniques of actively scaring and intimidating the public have become acceptable mechanisms for generating compliance with controversial and intrusive government measures.

Action required: A re-normalisation of privacy, individual responsibility and boundaries of the state need to be debated and enshrined in law and custom to re-invigorate a free society.

Problem 7: The media are a crucial part of our working constitution. In recent years, particularly in the Covid crisis, they tended not to critically assess government measures, instead acting as cheerleaders. The media generally failed to report opposition to these measures in the form of large demonstrations, and failed to report views that opposed the government line on vaccines, drug treatment, lockdowns and school closures. It may be that the media was partly influenced by the large amounts of government money spent on advertising.

Action required: An independent investigation into the role of the media in the Covid epidemic, and the re-establishment of independence, healthy scepticism and genuine inquiry.

An independent inquiry should be established to analyse and understand what happened during the pandemic, and recommend a route to the restoration of democratic rule, including the shoring up of its weakest points which have made it vulnerable to vested interests far removed from the everyday needs and concerns of the public.

Nothing less than a thorough re-appraisal of the decision-making systems in government is required, such that they not only closely reflect the interests of the public but also adhere to the basic principles of good governance from which they have fallen short in recent years – principles including transparency, scrutiny, accountability and integrity.