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Cameron: It's time to share power with the people

Speech at the Power Inquiry Conference

"I'm delighted to be here.

The first step towards putting something right is to recognise that it's wrong.

That's why the Power Inquiry is one of the most important initiatives we've seen in British politics for many years.

I want to say thank you to the Joseph Rowntree Trusts, to Helena Kennedy, Ferdinand Mount and the other commissioners for all their efforts.

And I want to pay a particular tribute to Pam Giddy who's done such a fantastic job of pulling everything together.

The Power to the People report is crucial…

…because it starts from the recognition that our democratic system isn't working…

…and the fact that so many of you are prepared to give up a Saturday to debate these issues shows that plenty of other people think so too.

Amidst the fuss about who's won and who's lost in elections…

…and who's up and who's down in reshuffles…

…and it's pretty hard to keep up.

It's vital to keep our focus on what really matters.

Politics isn't working for people.

The problems we face are deep rooted and complex

And it follows that no single person or organisation has all the answers.

People from all parties have something to contribute.

If we're going to build a democracy that's fit for the 21st century…

…we've all got to work together.

I've enjoyed reading the report.

I've been heartened by how much of it I agree with.

And, even where I don't, there's a definite sense of wanting to achieve the same objectives by slightly different routes.

What I'd like to do today is to set out what I think the problems are with the current system.

I want to shoot down some of the myths that could lead us down blind alleys.

And, then, I'll start to set out some of the things that would improve the way we do politics in this country.

Everyone in this hall knows that public faith in our political institutions is draining away and being replaced by a progressive and debilitating alienation.

I wish I could say that this is also a universally accepted truth among politicians.

But, incredibly, there are still some people in Parliament who don't really get it.

Of course, they accept that things aren't great but there's also a sense that it's just a passing phase or a product of public annoyance with a particular government.

That's part of the Westminster disease.

You'd be amazed at the complacency that pervades the corridors of power.

Put simply, despite paying lip service to the need to re-engage the public, the political class is in denial.

I believe it's time to wake up.

According to MORI, the proportion of people trusting politicians to put the needs of the country before the needs of party halved between 1974 and 1999.

Trust in Parliament fell from 54% in 1983 to 14% in 2000.

Trust in the Civil Service has fallen from 46% to 17%.

Voting is the driving force of our parliamentary democracy.

Yet fewer and fewer people bother to vote…

…and even when they do, they think it hardly makes any difference.

To the public, Politicians all seem the same.

They break their promises.

And in any case, important decisions are often made somewhere else…

…by someone else.

Fundamentally, at both a national and local level, people feel that they have little or no control over the decisions that affect their lives.

That is an indictment of a country that likes to consider itself a beacon of democracy.

No wonder electoral turnout is down and support for fringe parties is up.

There are several bogus arguments put forward to explain why people are disengaged from politics.

One is that what we're facing is, in fact, a tide of apathy.

That somehow people are either too busy at work or too consumed by celebrity trivia to engage with civil society.

Helena Kennedy has skewered this lie masterfully. She says:

"People in Britain still volunteer; they run in marathons for charity; they hold car boot sales to raise funds for good causes; they take part in Red Nose days and wear ribbons for breast cancer or AIDS. They sit as school governors, do prison visiting, read with children who have learning difficulties. They take part in school races and run the school disco. They march against the Iraq war and in favour of the countryside. They sign petitions for extra street lights and more frequent bin collection. They send their savings to the victims of tsunamis and want to end world poverty."

Does that sound like apathy? No.

Another idea I don't buy is that politicians are too similar to each other.

That public doesn't have a real choice.

I don't accept that a large gulf between parties is a reliable indicator of political health.

I'm glad that the era of cold war confrontation and stark ideological differences is behind us.

Consensus can be a good thing.

It doesn't have to be a problem as long as - and these are important caveats - genuine differences are not concealed and people have other mechanisms for making choices.

Along with bogus analyses come bogus solutions

One of the worst of these, recently outlined in an IPPR pamphlet, is the idea of compulsory voting.

This presupposes that it's fecklessness or lack of public spirit that keeps people away from the polling station.

It isn't.

It's the sense of powerlessness.

Voting is a right.

And not voting should never be a crime.

The state is our servant, not our master.

Compulsory voting - like compulsory ID cards - starts to reverse that relationship.

Trying to introduce compulsory voting in 21st century Britain would be like blackmailing people into attending your birthday party and then believing you were popular because so many people turned up!

One superficial idea for winning people back to politics is to change the trappings of Parliament.

But if the substance is wrong then making something more user-friendly is a waste of time.

Changing the ways that we refer to visitors to the House of Commons - not calling visitors strangers won't make a real difference.

So don't let the real reactionaries off the hook by being drawn into an irrelevant discussion about wigs and ceremonies and forms of address.

Having told you how not to re-engage the public in the political process it's now incumbent upon me to suggest how we can do it.

I've set up a Democracy Task force to examine ways of improving the system and that includes looking at the proposals put forward by the Power Inquiry.

For all of us, this is a work in progress.

I believe that there are two main components to the reform agenda.

The first is institutional.

It's about the changes we need to make to our institutions.

And the second, harder to describe but perhaps even more profound, is behavioural.

When in comes to our institutions I think the report puts it very well:

"There needs to be a re-balancing of power between the constituent elements of the political system: a shift of power away from the Executive to Parliament and from central to local government "

I agree with both of these.

Let me take each in turn.

I want to put Parliament at the centre of national life

There's a sense that power has slipped away elsewhere.

To Quangos and bureaucrats.

To Judges.

To Europe.

Anyone, in fact, other than the politicians who people can elect and hold accountable.

In future speeches I will address the issue of Europe.

Today I want to address the shift away from the legislature to the executive.

In the House of Commons we need to rebalance the power between whips and backbenchers.

More issues could be dealt with by free votes.

And standing committees should become both more powerful and more independent.

We send legislation off to be considered line by line by MPs, but give them no freedom to do so.

When it comes to law making, it's a case of too much, too quickly and with too little scrutiny.

The timetabling of bills is -quite simply - a disgrace.

Whole sections of new legislation are never even debated.

If people knew just how bad the situation is they'd be even more disillusioned with our democracy than they are already.

We must remove the power of the executive to ride roughshod over the legislature.

I believe the time has come to look at those powers exercised by Ministers under the Royal Prerogative.

In a number of important areas - going to war, agreeing international treaties…

…there's no formal mechanism for consulting the nation's elected representatives.

In other areas - like making senior appointments and re-organising government departments…

…the Prime Minister is able to do what he wants without consulting Parliament at all.

Yesterday we learnt that someone is apparently able to be given a position without having a job at all.

That has to change.

Another element of Parliament that's long overdue for reform is the House of Lords.

A strong and effective Parliament needs a strong and effective second chamber.

The current House of Lords does some things really well.

It's good at scrutiny and revision - and asking the Government to think again.

But it lacks authority and legitimacy.

In my view the Lords must have a significant elected element if it is to play a full and proper role.

The term sleaze has now become a byword for the failings of the political class.

It's ridiculous that the final, indeed often the only, arbiter of ministerial probity is the Prime Minister.

That system of self-regulation inspires little confidence.

The only way we can start to repair the damage done to the reputation of politics is to insist on genuinely independent scrutiny from top to bottom. And that must include the Ministerial code.

The second part of institutional rebalancing is to shift power from a national to a local level.

I'm talking about a system of local democracy with real muscle.

A healthy, functioning society cannot be run from Westminster and Whitehall alone.

Decisions about local matters should, wherever possible, be taken locally.

And the quality of these decisions should be judged by local voters.

We should trust the people on the ground.

They understand better than any remote bureaucrat what's right for their area.

Local people are far more likely to know what's right for their area than control freaks sitting in Whitehall.

We need a bonfire of the directives, audit systems, best value regimes, ring fencing and all of the stark paraphernalia of the Whitehall-control-freak regime that tells Local Authorities what they can and can't do.

I'm determined to reclaim the proud tradition within the Conservative Party of local rule and civic pride that stretches back to Chamberlain.

Tony Blair has encouraged limited experiments in local democracy such as directly-elected mayors.

I support that and I intend to encourage much more of it.

But the Government's credibility on this has been damaged by its relentless regionalisation.

These regional assemblies must go and the powers passed to regions must be returned to empowered local authorities.

Power should be exercised by local communities, not regional bureaucracies.

And it's not just about local authorities.

I want to see new avenues of democracy.

For example in the area of policing.

The public has very little real say over how policing is conducted.

Police Authorities are relatively powerless, and they're virtually invisible to the public.

I think the time has come for directly elected police commissioners.

Instead of police chiefs answering to central government, they would be formally accountable to local communities.

One of the few proposals in the Power Inquiry report I don't agree with is the idea of moving to a system of PR.

And I say that as the leader of a party that would be a major beneficiary of such a change.

One of the reasons I'm in favour of first-past-the-post is because the link between an MP and his or her constituency is a vital one.

It's human, transparent and unambiguous.

It's one of the few aspects of the current set up that really does work in practice as well as in theory.

If politicians generally were as respected as many MPs are personally in their own constituencies we wouldn't have such a big problem.

Anything that undermines, compromises or dilutes it doesn't serve our broader objectives.

But I do recognise that there are problems with first-past-the-post.

In safe seats many people fear they do not have enough real choice about who represents them.

There's one way that parties that have big majorities in certain constituencies can remedy that deficiency.

By opening up their Parliamentary selections to participation from a much broader cross-section of the community.

That's something that we in the Conservative Party are experimenting with.

We're going to use primaries to choose more of our publicly elected officials.

We want to encourage many more voters to get involved at a much earlier stage.

Not only will that make the process more open and transparent.

I'm also convinced it will help ensure that people of a high calibre come forward.

For example, the Tory candidate for mayor of London will be chosen this way.

We have to move away from political parties acting like closed cliques.

We also need to change the way we do politics in another respect.

Let's be honest.

Politicians' behaviour is a major factor in increasing the public's sense of alienation and cynicism.

Vigorous debate is important…

…And Parliament can still do that amazingly well.

Some of the speeches in the run up to the Iraq war were brilliant and heartfelt.

And the discussion on faith schools was a first class examination of the arguments for and against.

But, often, the public sees MPs at their worst.

Point scoring.


Demanding resignations at a drop of a hat.

It means that when there's a real scandal, such as the one we've seen in recent days, it becomes harder to tell it apart from the more manufactured rows.

So when it comes to both organisation and behaviour politicians, as individuals, have to work hard to make politics more accessible to the public.

That's why, over the next few weeks and months, I'm going to try something different.

Instead of trotting out easy answers to familiar political problems, grouped together in their neat departmental boxes…



Social Security…

I'll be making a series of speeches about the things that truly and profoundly affect people's well-being:

Working life

Family life

Community life

That is how people experience life, not in neat Whitehall based boxes.

And I want to be straight with people.

I'll try to explain how important it is that we politicians, while not being limited in our aspirations for government…

…should recognise the limitations of government in addressing these deeper questions.

Politicians shouldn't pretend to be able to fix every problem by taking more and more power from citizens.

I believe that trusting people and sharing responsibility is the right way forward.

It's the best way to respond to the challenges facing us at work, in our families and in our communities, in the decades ahead.

Our vision of an empowering state, rather than the current reality of an overpowering state, offers the path to the good life that everybody seeks.

My politics is about empowering people.

Not in a vague sense of making them feel better.

I'm talking about something much more specific.

The right to make decisions about the things that affect their lives.

Society is infinitely more complex than it was a century ago.

The answer is not to attempt to control almost everything from the centre or through regional proxies.

That's an analogue solution to the problems of a digital age.

And it's doomed to failure.

I want to quote from Power to the People.

In the section entitled New Citizens.

"British society which is now better educated, more afluent, expects greater control and choice over many aspects of life, feels no deference towards those in positions of authority, and is not as bound by the traditional bonds of place, class and institution that developed during the industrial era."

Absolutely right - but there's a problem.

Voters are more sophisticated than ever before…

But the political system still takes them for fools.

Politicians offer us too many grand promises about matters that are not fully under their control.

Making people healthier…

Improving behaviour in schools….

At the same time they often dodge the big decisions on things they do control.

Reforming the pensions system…

Planning our future energy provision….

I am determined to address these twin failures.

When it comes to these things that politicians pretend they can fix on their own - school standard, safe streets, a healthy nation - we must explain our shared responsibility.

On school standards for example - yes we can put money in, reform the exam system and empower teachers - but Parents must take their responsibility to get their children to behave, including get their children to school on time, properly fed.

Saying this doesn't mean I want a nanny state.

It's about shared responsibility and it's about telling the truth.

And when it comes to the big decisions we should make - pensions, energy, the nuclear deterrent - we must do the hard long-term work and then make absolutely clear where we stand.

That's what my policy reviews are about.

They are to help prepare us for the big decisions that we must make and then be frank about those decisions.

In the 21st century, citizens, equipped with degrees and broadband connections, are the equals of those who aspire to rule them.

It's time for government to stop trying to shut the public out of decision-making?

I want to open the gates and let the people into the citadels of power.

I want to deregulate our system of government, as previous governments deregulated the economy.

My message to the political class is clear.

Stop trying to pretend we can do it all ourselves.

It's time to share power with the people."

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