Philip Hensher: The absurdity of handing policy to people's panels

What people say they want from criminal policy is a return to hanging and possibly even flogging
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The Independent Online

Democracy, fine thing though it is, has its limits, and sooner or later a government has to start making decisions on its own account. Administration can't be at the mercy of popularity, or the cultural budget would go overwhelmingly to football, which can fund itself, and not at all to orchestras or museums, which often can't. Indeed, one of the important jobs of government is to support things which few people notice, which not many people would give much priority to if asked.

It is also the job of the government, on occasion, to do things which are morally right, whether or not they are popular at all. It was morally right to abolish the death penalty, against enormous opposition, as it was in the 19th century to abolish slavery. It is also right to protect and if necessary support oppressed minorities. A government ought, if it is morally right, to carry out a task as unpopular as protecting and keeping anonymous a released paedophile living in the community; not just protecting the community from him, but protecting him from elements of the community. What isn't needed is an appeal to the general public, to find out what government policy ought to be.

The latest government proposal is to use purportedly democratic means to impose oppressive and invasive degrees of government interference in all our lives. In the New Year, the Prime Minister will set up a "people's panel" of 100 members of the public who will be asked to consider some of the "tough choices" facing the Government. Among these are the proposal that people suffering from diseases that their way of life has brought about should be denied priority treatment.

Other proposals include surveillance, through card technology, of people's use of public services, and the idea that parents should sign contracts with schools to make them aware of what they should bring to their children's education. The idea which sticks out, however, is the idea of denying the sick treatment if they are not innocent sick, but have brought about their own illness themselves.

In the first instance, it is quite clear that ministers are thinking of overweight people and smokers. Perhaps the overweight might be denied hip operations until they lose weight; the perpetual and sustained pain which they suffer might act as an incentive to slim down. Non-smokers who develop lung cancer might be given priority treatment over smokers.

You can see that some of these proposals, if bluntly announced, might prove a trifle controversial. So the Government is hoping to be able to introduce these frankly outrageous ideas by attaching it to the "people's panel" of 100 individuals. Any objection to the Government's policies can be greeted by a shrug, and the assurance that "it's what people want".

Is the Government absolutely sure about this one? Notoriously, what people say they want from government criminal policy is a return to hanging and possibly even flogging; a bobby on their own street, all the time (just try and imagine the cost implications); castration, chemical or otherwise, of all sex offenders, and public knowledge of the whereabouts of all criminals, convicted or just suspected, so that we can all go round and throw bricks through their windows.

It doesn't seem very likely that the Government is going to hand over crime prevention policy to the ideas of 100 members of a people's panel. But the absurdity of what they would come up with in that area does suggest how very unwise it would be to hand any policy-making in any area to the general public. For instance, in the question of self-imposed illness, we might want to start with making treatment of fatties and smokers conditional on observing a change of lifestyle.

But what might the people's panel come up with next? What about drinkers? Then, what about drug users - supplying users with methadone seems a self-evident waste of money, given that they did it to themselves in the first place. Or what about those with HIV? Of course, we would want to go on treating those who contracted the virus through no fault of their own - through blood transfusions, or through an adulterous husband or parent.

But there might not be a case within the "people's panel" for treating gay men who contracted the virus through their unpopular habits as a matter of priority. What about people who are injured in a car crash through not wearing a seatbelt? Would they be required to sign a contract promising to do so in the future before any doctor will patch them up?

The awful truth is that illnesses have popularity, and left to themselves, 100 members of the public will probably come up with healthcare policies which address the conditions that they happen to care about.

Notoriously, it is much easier to raise money for a charity specifically addressing breast cancer than for bowel cancer - nastier to think about - or lung cancer - they can look after themselves. That matters if we are talking about mere fundraising. It matters enormously if we are thinking of applying those criteria of popularity to different categories of disease. Unpopular diseases still have to be treated, and it's astonishing to see the 19th-century categories of deserving and undeserving recipients of state care being revived, and applied to the sick.

This is yet another appalling intrusion by the state into areas of our lives that we are accustomed to consider our own unsupervised concern, but we've grown used to such measures under this ugly government. What really sticks in the craw is the attempt to use the views of an unelected panel to justify the surveillance-state policies of an elected government.