Wednesday, 24 September 2008

Spending more time with the family

Ruth Kelly's decision to resign as Transport Secretary to spend more time with her family has attracted derision in some quarters, with much of the media believing there has to be more to it than that.

Now, I don't know Kelly's motivation for deciding to quit, and it's certainly plausible that disillusionment with Gordon Brown's leadership played its part in her decision. But I think that wanting to spend more time with her family is genuinely a large part of why she's resigned, and credit to her for that.

She's not the first politician this year to cite family reasons for wanting to leave political office, as Nicol Stephen did exactly the same thing when he stepped down from the leadership of the Scottish Lib Dems.

Kelly's and Stephen's decisions serve to highlight the very real burden placed on politicians in terms of family life. The amount of time that politicians spend on the job, combined with spending much of the week away from home for many of them, make it very difficult for people with young families. The demands of family life are certainly one reason why the Lib Dems have a problem in terms of attracting women to stand as candidates, and hence why our parliamentary parties are so male-dominated.

But I would question just why it is that politicians do have such a burden on them. I would say that at least part of the reason is that at national level, both UK and Scotland, we expect politicians to do far too much.

The UK is one of the most centralised democratic countries in the world. It's absurd that politicians in London are taking decisions on health or education for Cornwall or Northumberland. They can't possibly know what the local circumstances are in those places. Having something like 90% of all government spending being channelled through central government is just daft.

And lest anyone think this is just a problem for England, I think it equally absurd that politicians in Edinburgh should be deciding health or education policy for Shetland, the Western Isles or Galloway.

We need a radical programme of decentralisation, to enable decisions about local priorities to be taken locally. I look forward to the day when Westminster is a truly federal parliament, dealing with defence, foreign affairs, broad macroeconomic management and not a lot else. Decisions about health, education, transport and most other areas of government should be taken a lot closer to the people they affect.

Not only would this be good in itself, with more scope for local experimentation and innovation, but it would also reduce some of the burdens we place on our politicians. Having locally accountable politicians in Kent or Yorkshire or in the Highlands taking decisions means people would be far more able to combine political life with family life.

Spending more time with the family is an admirable aim for politicians. But having to choose between a political career and being a parent is not a choice people should have to make. But it's one that our centralised system too often forces upon politicians.

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