Citizens’ juries

Exchange of correspondence on the issue, and cost, of Citizens’s Juries

If there is one thing that is guaranteed to get people agitated is the issue of tax and its related topic, community charge. A key promise by politicians of all shapes and sizes – almost always broken – is that they will keep such taxes low or at least not raise them. They also promise to do this and that policy to improve our lives which usually requires, in some form, er … tax. We will tackle waiting lists (but not raise your taxes), we will sort out the pot holes (but not raise your community charge), we will improve … well you get the idea (but not …).

I claim no scientific basis for the following but it seems to me that people respond to this issue in one of three broad ways. Firstly, there are those that say ‘they don’t mind paying more tax as long as it’s spent on X’ where X is something they favour e.g. the health service. This is the hypothecation view and it has many problems one of which is different people favour different things they want taxes to be spent on. How do you decide?

The second group is ‘I wouldn’t mind paying more tax but they only waste it’. ‘Waste’ here can mean many things but it often means, on enquiry, money spent on things they don’t approve of: in the current climate that will be hotel accommodation for the boat people.

Finally, there are those that believe that lower tax means everyone is better off. It overlooks the simple fact that yes, you can buy some new clothes or go out for a meal or two with the money saved but you can’t buy yourself better roads, a health service, defence and all the other things that make life bearable. Some things just have to be done collectively or they won’t get done at all. Tax is our contribution to a good society.

So this is part of the backdrop to an exchange of letters in the Salisbury Journal. The Parish Poll conducted by Salisbury City Council recently has produced a huge amount of correspondence and in turn led Cllr Charles McGrath (Con) to write on 27 April, complaining about the conduct of the poll which voted for a cap of 5% on the precept. He then says “This is the administration that pledged to make ‘Your voice Heard’ in their Strategic Plan for Salisbury City Council, and once supported the concept of of self-selecting Citizens’ Juries which have cost some councils £40k – over twice the amount of a parish poll” (our italics).

This week (4 May) Dickie Bellringer, a member of SDA, replied […] “I would like to correct a piece of misinformation disseminated by Cllr Charles McGrath in last week’s postbag the citizens’ juries are self-selecting. This is untrue. Citizens’ Juries are examples of deliberative democracy for which residents are selected randomly in order to deliberate on important local issues.

“They can draw on, and interrogate expert witnesses who will provide information.

“[…] Cllr McGrath writes that Citizens’ Juries have cost some councils £40,000 but Salisbury Democracy Alliance has been campaigning for Citizens’ Juries for many years and, by working with local partners, should be able to produce a Citizens’ Jury for less than £18,000”.

He finishes by referring to the Talkshop event mentioned in our last post, which takes place on 27 May.

The idea of letting people’s voices to be heard is a familiar one but few are in possession of the time or expertise to make significant contributions. There is a need for advice, and time for people to digest and understand the complex issues around a local economy. The Strategic plan – referred to by Cllr McGrath – is my view flawed in many respects. See the link above. I wonder how many will have read all the reports and supporting material? Whether it’s £18,000 or Cllr McGrath’s exaggerated £40,000, isn’t it better to find a way to sound and achievable solutions than following the path of a somewhat flawed plan?

But the backdrop is always the issue of tax and how much we should pay. Politicians are never able to say that lower taxes do not automatically make you better off. The years following austerity has seen spend on a wide range of public services and local authorities decline precipitately with the results we are now witnessing.

Peter Curbishley