Coalition under attack for its use of reviews to hide points of disagreement

Andrew Grice
Sunday 23 October 2011 03:26

The coalition Government is under fire for setting up nine new reviews in its first week in power as it tries to head off potential disputes between the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats.

A total of 12 separate reviews are now under way in Whitehall as the new administration kicks some tricky issues into the long grass. Two are on public spending and would have been carried out by Labour if it had won the election. The final one, on higher education funding, was set up by Labour and has not yet reported.

Today the two parties will publish their second "coalition agreement" as they continue to narrow the differences between them. It includes a review of the national curriculum tests for 11-year-olds, the Key Stage Two Sats boycotted by head teachers last week.

Although the review may calm teaching unions in the short term, they will be anxious about government plans to dismantle national pay scales. The new document says: "We will reform the existing rigid national pay and conditions rules to give schools greater freedoms to pay good teachers more and deal with poor performance."

The new blueprint endorses the flagship Tory policy to allow parents, teachers, charities and local communities to open new state-funded schools and does not mention Liberal Democrat plans for local authorities to have a "central strategic role" including admissions and performance.

In their foreword to today's agreement, "Freedom, Fairness and Responsibility", David Cameron and Nick Clegg say: "As our parties have worked together it has become increasingly clear to us that, though there are differences, there is also common ground. We share a conviction that the days of big government are over; that centralisation and top-down control have proved a failure.

"The time has come to disperse power more widely in Britain; to recognise that we will only make progress if we help people to come together to make life better. Our ambition is to distribute power and opportunity to people rather than hoarding authority within government."

The Prime Minister and his deputy add: "This is a historic document in British politics: the first time in over half a century two parties have come together to put forward a programme for partnership government.

"Difficult decisions will have to be taken; but we will ensure fairness is at the heart of those decisions so that all those most in need are protected. Working together, we are confident that we can take the country through difficult times to better days ahead."

But Labour claimed the growing number of commissions and reviews set up since the election showed that the coalition partners would struggle to reach agreement in crucial areas such as the 1998 Human Rights Act, which enshrined the European Convention on Human Rights into UK law. At the election, the Tories pledged to replace it, but the Liberal Democrats strongly support it.

Phil Woolas, a Labour home affairs spokesman, said: "You can govern by review for about six months but in the autumn the Government will realise that it can't square the circle. Another review will not paper over the cracks between the Tories and Liberal Democrats on human rights. They promised a bonfire of the quangos but soon we will need a commission to review all the reviews."

Mr Clegg angered some Tory MPs yesterday by confirming that the Human Rights Act would be reviewed.

Bill Cash, a former shadow attorney general, warned there was "very acute" concern among Tory MPs that the party's position was being diluted. "Our manifesto commitment was crystal clear. It said we would replace the Human Rights Act with a Bill of Rights. We want things to work, we want stability, but there are also these democratic questions about being elected on manifesto commitments."

Asked about Mr Clegg's warning not to "tamper" with the Act, Mr Cash retorted: "That is the view of Nick Clegg; it was not in my manifesto or my election address."

Mr Clegg said: "There will be a commission which will look into the case for a British Bill of Rights. It will, however, incorporate and build on the European Convention on Human Rights and the way that those rights are enshrined in British legislation." It would also include efforts to inform the public better of the rights they enjoyed, he said.

The Deputy Prime Minister was answering questions after making a speech in which he declared that the Government's programme of political reform represented a "fundamental resettlement of the relationship between state and citizen" and the most significant change to British democracy since the Great Reform Act of 1832. "This Government is going to transform our politics so the state has far less control over you, and you have far more control over the state."

Norman Lamb, Mr Clegg's chief parliamentary and political adviser, said: "We are prepared to look at the case that the Conservatives put forward in the general election but we mustn't reduce the safeguards to the citizen. The convention is there to protect the citizen against the overbearing power of the state."

Under review

House of Lords Committee to bring forward proposals for wholly or mainly elected second chamber by December.

Human Rights Act Commission to look at rival Tory and Lib Dem policies.

Banking reform Commission to report within a year on whether their retail and investment functions should be separated.

Local government finance Full review will look at whether councils should be given more freedom.

Public sector pensions Independent commission to review their affordability amid concern about "ticking timebomb".

Libel laws Review follows criticism that Britain has become world's "libel capital".

Schools Review of how Key Stage 2 tests for 11-year-olds should operate.

West Lothian Question Commission to consider Tory pledge to ensure that laws referring specifically to England and Wales need majority support among English and Welsh MPs.

Office of Budget Responsibility Independent body set up by Chancellor to conduct audit of public spending.

Reviews that would have taken place anyway under Labour:

Comprehensive spending review To set budgets for all Whitehall departments for three years from 2011-12 financial year.

Defence Long-delayed strategic defence review, the first since 1998. Tories are committed to like-for-like replacement of Britain's Trident nuclear weapons system.

And this review is already underway:

Higher education: Review headed by Lord Browne of Madingley considering whether to raise university tuition fees.

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