Saturday, 22 December 2007

With permission

The author of this piece, a consultant psychiatrist, has given me permission to reproduce it:

Over the last few years I have spent a lot of time in and around Parliament, the DoH and the political parties. I attended the 3 major party conferences for 5 years (2002 – 2006), I gave evidence to two Select Committees, I sat through all debates in both Houses during the passage of the Mental Health Bill and, whilst the Bill was in the Lords, I acted as Special Advisor to the Opposition (sitting in a box on the floor of the House, opposite the DoH officials, writing notes to advise Peers).

When I have the time and energy I may write of my experiences. In the meantime I make the following brief observations which may or may not help in your fight:
The Palace of Westminster oozes a feeling of power (even if the occupants achieve little and damage a great deal).
Journalists, in addition to MPs and Peers, feel powerful by being there. That’s why they don’t repeatedly publicise aspects of our ‘democracy’ that are a disgrace.

MPs and Peers vote when they have not listened to the debate and may have no idea what the vote is about (they only need to know which lobby to walk through – occasionally they even get this wrong). The Bells, called ‘division bells’ are not only sited throughout the parliament building and MPs and Peers offices, but also in all the nearby pubs and restaurants. Enjoy your, beer or meal, nip in to vote, then return to boozing. The number of Lords debating the Mental Health Bill rarely exceeded 10 speaking and perhaps 20 in the chamber. The numbers voting at 6 divisions were 344; 301; 255; 327; 313; 266. Voting demonstrates ones presence in the Chamber and so enables collection of the daily fee and expenses (I think it’s about £300 but can’t remember or bother to look it up – it certainly pays for the booze). I should say that some Peers work extremely hard and are astonishingly well informed (not something I would say about many MPs).

Governments, by definition, have a majority. With our current voting system the size of the majority is out of all proportion to the votes cast. Whilst the government may occasionally be defeated on the floor of the Commons it will never be defeated in Commons Committee. Let me give an example of numbers, a typical committee would have the following representation: 12 Labour, 6 Conservative, 2 Lib-Dems, 1 Other. Given that all are hand-picked, there are never any rebels. Only government MPs are permitted to be fed information during the proceedings (unlike in the Lords). MPs and ministers need the constant stream of notes, from officials, during debates because they are so ill-informed as to facts, as opposed to opinions, (they don’t even know the details of the legislative changes they are proposing). There were 17 DoH officials working full-time on the mental health bill (they were all invited for drinkies in parliament afterwards), the Opposition had 2 of us (I was trying to hold down my full-time job in Leeds at the same time).

Party conferences cost rate and tax payers a great deal of money for all the security. Organisations which wish to influence government send representatives. Of course many businesses are there. Why do organisations such as NICE and the GMC not only send representatives but host fringe meetings – at all the conferences? As with all fringe meetings, they are awash with food and alcohol, paid for by - us.

Having had dealings with the Department for Constitutional Affairs and the Department for Work and Pensions, I can report that many civil servants really value consultation. Only those working for the DoH don’t.

How does government work? I once met the then Permanent Secretary at the Home Office. During his time there the Home Office was under ‘special measures’ because its accounts were rejected by the auditors 3 years running. When he left it was to become deputy governor of the Bank of England.

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