I made the point that we will not allow the LibDems to block the historic opportunity which the Euro zone crisis gives us to take powers back from Europe. Beyond that though, I had a very friendly discussion with Norman Lamb, Nick Clegg’s chief of staff.
We agreed that the coalition needed to learn from the health bill, where the Department of Health just ploughed on, using backbenchers hand-picked by the whips, to push through Committee provisions about which many Conservatives as well as LibDems had serious concerns.
Very often ‘the LibDems won’t wear it’ is just Sir Humphrey’s latest excuse for inaction.
This has been most obvious to me on policing, where Whitehall is trying to retain central control of police budgets, despite our agreement with the LibDems that we would set up Police and Crime Panels specifically to oversee Police and Crime Commissioners and their budgets.
Civil servants claim in the legislation that the Panels will be able ‘to veto’ Commissioners’ precepts, but the reality is that Commissioners must only ‘have regard’ to what the Panels say. The substantive power in the event of a dispute, to hold a local referendum on the level of the police precept, is given to the Secretary of State.
The Conservatives and LibDems both want to make the police democratically accountable locally. We have two of our most impressive ministers involved in Nick Herbert and Greg Clark, with whom I co-authored a 2005 book ‘Direct Democracy’.
Yet, despite this, the current position in the legislation, although I hope that we may yet agree an amendment to the Localism Bill to correct this, is that Whitehall civil servants will still sit on top, hoarding power. Their judgment on whether a local police precept may be excessive would trump that of both the democratically elected Commissioners and the oversight Panels which are meant to be restoring local democracy to policing. Sir Humphrey would be proud.