Wednesday 17 September 2014

Democracy for sale.

A feature of the British system of government is that no parliament can bind a future parliament. In practice that means that we have no body of "special" constitutional law that is enshrined for ever or, more realisticly, cannot be overturned without a special procedure, such as a two-thirds majority in both chambers of parliament.  True there are special conditions attached to the act which introduced the fixed term parliament (probably the most important achievement of the Liberal Democrats in government, and one which we do not say nearly enough about) but these can be overturned by a simple majority in anther act.

Tory Minister of Justice Chris Grayling has found a way round this.  His policy, which most professionals involved oppose, is to farm out the bulk of the probation service to private providers.  It could reasonably be expected that a future government would want to reverse this process and bring the service back into the public domain where they feel it belongs. Grayling has pre-empted such a move by writing into the contracts with the private providers a clause that guarantees the profits they expect to make for ten years (twice the length of a parliament) should the contracts be terminated.

This means that a future government cannot reverse the policy without "compensating"  the private companies the profits that they haven't yet earned: a likely figure of around £400m from public funds.

Most of us believe that dealings with the most damaged and vulnerable people in our society  should be conducted by professionals  whose primary motive is helping the individuals rather than private companies whose primary motive is maximising profits.  That Grayling should get away with violating this principle at all is shameful:  that he should be able to lock in his ideology for ten years is disgraceful.

A similar, and far more wide-reaching, attempt to place the profit motive above democracy is being conducted on the international scale by the development of a Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP)  which not only , in the words of Owen Jones "further opens up public services  to private companies  motivated primarily by profit rather than people's needs"  but also, through a provision called Investor-State  Dispute Settlement (ISDS) allows for private companies to sue sovereign states if the companies feel that their capacity to make profits has been reduced by a democratically taken decision.* 

Apparently our Liberal Democrat Business Secretary Vince Cable had the opportunity to go to Brussels last Friday and put a stop to this, but I haven't heard that he did.

Both these issues have far more serious consequences than the referendum on Scottish independence, but have not received a tenth, no, not even a hundredth, of the publicity.  Our democratic rights are being taken away whilst the political parties and media distract us with relative trivialities.

* The Australian government has already been sued by a tobacco company, which argues that a law requiring cigarettes to be sold in plain packets reduces  the company's profits.  Strange that, since the tobacco companies have always argued that their advertising did not actually tempt non-smokers to smoke, but simply persuaded existing smokers to change brands.

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