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Government scraps duty to inform, consult and involve local people

Cameron's Big Society vision promised people more power over their lives and communities. But he's scrapping a law that does just that.

Local public services (councils, police and fire services, and local health bodies) have for almost two years been under a legal duty to inform, consult and involve local people.

Now the government plans to remove that duty. This will take away a legal safeguard for local people and give succour to those officers and councillors who feel “they know best”. It is hard to see how this in any way squares with David Cameron's stated aim of a Big Society to “give people more power and control to improve their lives and communities”.

Perhaps the most worrying aspect of this proposed ditching of the duty to involve is its manner and timing: sneaked in as one sentence within guidance on a different issue – Best Value – at just the moment when local public services are most under threat and public concern is at its greatest.

Views vary on how effective or important this duty has been. Urban Forum conducted a survey of community and voluntary sector representatives just over a year after the introduction of the duty, which suggested that it had produced little change. But others, especially those working in councils and fire authorities, report it has made it much easier to argue for the importance of engaging citizens.

Some point out too that changing the culture of organisations – so that involvement is seen as a good thing in its own right – is a better approach than using legal threats. But changes to culture and to laws always go hand in hand. Often changes to the law help to develop the culture change (think equalities or drink-driving legislation), and acts to ensure that those slowest to open up are subject to a stick as well as a carrot.

Ipsos MORI last June found that some 11% wanted to be actively involved in decisions about cuts in local services; a further 29% wanted to have some sort of a say; and a further 36% wanted information; only 22% weren’t interested and wanted to leave it to the experts. So in total some 76% want some degree of information, consultation or involvement – a strong argument to keep the duty.

Cynically, you have to wonder whether the Government feared that the duty provided those fighting local cutbacks with a potential legal weapon to prevent them.

Until and unless the Government outlines plans to give citizens a statutory right to participate in decisions on services and budgets, the duty should remain.

Davy Jones is a freelance consultant – read his blog.

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