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Citizens Convention on Democracy

Volume 606: debated on Friday 4 March 2016

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—(Stephen Barclay.)

Our democracy is in a bad way, but, as I shall explain, we can all help to put it right.

People are the bedrock of our democracy, and if they lose faith and confidence in democracy as a system, we are all in peril, as was pointed out by the Political and Constitutional Reform Committee in a report entitled “Do we need a citizens’ convention for the UK?” and published in 2013. You were a distinguished member of the Committee, Madam Deputy Speaker, and I believe that you signed that unanimously agreed report.

We need to consider this issue seriously, because it really does deserve our attention. The public have undoubtedly lost faith in our democracy, and if we are to restore that faith, they will need to be involved in its regeneration, and thereby feel ownership of it. There are many examples of the atrophy of our democracy: low turnouts at elections, poor levels of registration, instability in the Union, poor levels of devolution in England, dependent, begging-bowl local government, a less trusted electoral system, and the tainted funding of our politics and political parties. All that has increased public alienation from our hard-won democratic process.

Parliament and Government alone could not resolve this problem even if—and it is a large “if”—they wanted to do so. There is a growing view beyond this place, which I hope to present today, that the solution is to establish an independent convention that would view all the issues from outside the political bubble. I intend to deal with some of the nuts and bolts of that, and, for once, to leave aside the broader democratic arguments that I have, on other occasions, advanced repeatedly in the Chamber.

We are aware that such things have been tried before. Nice reports have been produced, but they have gone nowhere. It is essential that we do not repeat that exercise, but, instead, ensure that any convention reports are locked back into the political process in the House of Commons, and have a real political outcome. There is now a very obvious precedent for that. At the time of the referendum on separation in Scotland, the Union parties undertook to deliver a Scottish devolution Bill regardless of who won the general election. That was done as part of Parliament’s first business after the general election, and the Bill is about to become law.

A similar model would work for a citizens convention on UK democracy. It would require party leaders and senior parliamentarians who were representative of the majority of the electorate to undertake now, and publicly, to put the draft Bills produced by the convention into the parliamentary process after the 2020 general election, if they were elected. Some leaders may feel unable to commit themselves to that immediately, but it is important for the door to remain open to them and their parties so that they can join the conversation as it becomes irresistible, as it undoubtedly will. It is essential that the biggest ever conversation about our democracy takes place, to drive and motivate the process, and to discipline and inspire politicians to keep the pledge of parliamentary decisions on the outcome of the convention in 2020.

Let us get the ducks in a line. First, there must be a commitment on the political endgame from senior politicians. Secondly, there must be the establishment of a convention serviced by an impartial and respected team, whose non-party credentials would enable it to proceed to the third phase: the drawing in of the initial charitable funding to get the show on the road.

Once the convention was set up, it would of course have to decide its own agenda, but my expectation would be that the subjects it would report on would include: reviewing the powers and membership of the second Chamber; examining the voting system at parliamentary, devolved and local levels to encourage greater participation in public life; reviewing the position of local government in relation to the centre; considering the question of devolution for England; examining the legal recognition of constitutional provisions including individual rights; looking at the way in which the parties and our democratic institutions are funded; and any other relevant democratic issues that might be recommended by the convention as its work progresses. These are deliberately broad and vague areas, in order to enable the convention to develop its own priorities, having listened to the biggest public consultation exercise in British political history. Nothing, from electronic voting to a federal structure for the United Kingdom, should be precluded at this point.

The composition of the convention will be an important matter. I suggest that there should be about 100 persons, a majority of whom should be members of the public, and that they should be selected scientifically, perhaps by a respected polling agency. In addition, a minority of citizens convention delegates would represent political parties, voluntary organisations and other appropriate groups. It is important that there should be no command and control by politics; rather, there should be a bridge back into politics so that any recommendations can be taken seriously and tested at that level.

The whole convention, at UK, national and regional level, should be chaired by respected and diverse individuals. A chairs’ panel similar to the one that operates in this House could include representatives of faith and non-faith, former judges, interested businesspeople and celebrities, with a good gender and diversity mix. This would also help to stimulate public interest in the debate on the future of our democracy. Obviously, the composition of such a convention is of the utmost importance, and the applicant for funding must devise a structure to enable all the nations and regions of the United Kingdom to participate fully. An agreed number of participants with institutional support of their own—relevant universities, for example—could perhaps lead the debate in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, as well as in a number of regions in England, such as the south, the midlands and the north.

The working of a citizens convention would start with meetings held in the nations and regions of the United Kingdom, interspersed with national plenary meetings of the convention itself. This is not new territory; we need not be frightened of this. Even in recent history, we can draw on the experience of Ireland, Ontario, Iceland, British Columbia and of course Scotland in the very recent past.

The convention would have to be supported by a secretariat led by an experienced and esteemed academic institution drawing on non-partisan expertise from other academic institutions throughout the land, in order to commission reports and proposals and, ultimately, back those up with draft Bills on each of the recommendations agreed by the convention. Again, Madam Deputy Speaker, you will be familiar with that concept because the Political and Constitutional Reform Committee did exactly that in creating the first draft written constitution with the hallmark of Parliament on it and the accompanying Bills. That would enable us to see exactly how these matters were going to progress through the parliamentary process.

The secretariat would be charged with supplying background for the debates, pulling together preliminary ideas and moving forward with the national convention towards recommendations and decisions. Given that we now have five-year Parliaments, we could take two years or so to make this process open, transparent and participative, building up a momentum and excitement across the nation, including in every school, college and university and every branch of every political party in the Union. Every single issue group could put forward their point of view in this open process. Every interested organisation, indeed every individual, could mirror the citizens convention structure to feed in their own ideas and run their own high-quality consultations outside the convention’s own organisation.

It is essential that political parties, other than offering their very strong support for the creation of this convention, for the end game in making it real, and for proper funding, do not contaminate the impartiality of the start-up or the secretariat, as they must be seen to be absolutely non-party political and non-partisan. However, once the convention is up and running, political parties and every other organisation will be free, and indeed encouraged, to let rip to involve an ever-widening circle of people.

It is often said that the US constitution was created by 40 white guys in Philadelphia. The citizens convention, which would aim to remake our democracy, should have at its heart creating an agenda written by millions of founding fathers and mothers throughout the United Kingdom. For that to happen, the convention will have to go way beyond the normal stale processes that currently pass for public consultation. An immense technological leap is needed to reach individuals and organisations by, above all, maximising communication and engagement online. We did that in the Political and Constitutional Reform Committee, certainly in terms of the parliamentary process, engaging many, many more people than had ever been involved before, but that needs to be a pinprick compared with how we can involve people in deciding the sense of direction for their democracy over the next few years. This should be carefully worked up using initial funding. We have time to get this right if our target is to put proposals before a new Parliament in 2020.

Much hard organisational work would be needed to make this convention a success, but it would be driven by the mission of putting to a new Parliament in 2020 a set of Bills for consideration. Although support and participation from a majority of political parties is essential to keep the process running, that support would mean not unthinking acceptance of the Bills put to Parliament, but the normal process of amendment, scrutiny and decision making by a new Parliament—a Parliament that has gone through the experience of the public moulding these proposals—with a mandate for change. The public, having been involved in moulding the proposals, would take a very close interest in the outcome, driving it to fruition and ensuring that there are no delays.

It is time for a citizens convention to be created in the United Kingdom to ensure that there is a resurgence of faith in a democracy that is built and endorsed by the British people. Let us get on with it.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Nottingham North (Mr Allen) on securing time for this debate and on giving us such an interesting and informative exposition of his views, although I do not share his feeling of impending constitutional peril. I hope that it will be helpful to him if I set out the Government’s position on the idea of holding some form of constitutional convention.

Although I have enjoyed considering all the constitutional conundrums that these sorts of debates throw up, I have to be clear with the hon. Gentleman that the Government have no plans to establish a convention on democracy. There are two broad reasons for that position. First, the pragmatic and evolving nature of the UK’s constitution means that it is completely unsuited to a convention. Secondly, the Government’s focus must be on getting on with, and delivering, a fair and balanced constitutional settlement for the people across the UK.

I agree wholeheartedly with the Minister that it should not be for the Government to set up a citizens convention on our democracy; in fact it would be almost the exact opposite of what we need. Rather than the Government, just one political party or even Parliament, doing that, it should come from outside this place and involve the population at large.

I am grateful for that clarification, but I need to put on the record the wider Government’s position on this matter. To elaborate on the first reason that I gave the hon. Gentleman, I would remind him that the UK constitution is characterised by pragmatism and the ability to adapt to whatever circumstances in which it finds itself. The genius of that arrangement is its ability to deliver stable democracy by progressively adapting to changing realities. A static form of convention, deciding constitutional matters once and for all, does not fit that British tradition, which is one of evolving and adapting in line with people’s expectations and needs. Our unique constitutional arrangements make possible agility and responsiveness to the wishes of our citizens. We in government believe that those wishes are very clear—a desire to be part of a strong, successful Union that recognises and values the unique nature of each of our individual nations that form that Union.

On the second reason for not holding a convention, I would remind the hon. Gentleman that the Government are busy delivering on their commitments to provide further devolution and decentralisation to the nations and regions of the United Kingdom. It is absolutely right that we prioritise getting on with the job that we were elected to do—to work for a coherent constitutional settlement that provides fairness, opportunity and a voice for all. To that end—

I am using the fact that we have just a little bit of time to engage the Minister, and he is taking it in good spirit, as always. May I first make it very clear that I congratulate the Government on what they have done on devolution in England; I have done so several times on the Floor of the House. Great progress has been made and I believe that even more progress will be made before 2020.

To return to the question of whether we can carry on as we are, in the Scottish referendum we did come within, I think, a couple of hundred thousand votes of the Union breaking up. There is currently, obviously, a serious debate about our future inside or outside Europe. A million people went off the electoral register very recently. There are many examples of why this is quite a difficult moment, and why perhaps an outside look at the way we conduct ourselves in the House and the Government might actually be quite beneficial to all Governments, all Parliaments and all parties.

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his recognition and kind words about the reforms that we have taken forward since 2010 and are continuing to take forward in this Parliament. As I said at the start of my comments, I really do not feel that sense of impending constitutional peril that the hon. Gentleman describes. What this Government are trying to do with our constitutional reforms will strengthen the Union by creating a fair and balanced settlement. Whether or not the hon. Gentleman agrees that we are doing it in the right way or quickly enough, that is what we are trying to achieve.

The hon. Gentleman mentioned Scotland. We are delivering further devolution to Scotland and Wales, and the fresh start agreement for Northern Ireland. We are creating some of the most powerful devolved legislatures in the world and it is fair that that devolution is now balanced by measures that we have introduced. The hon. Gentleman rightly credits the Government with addressing the English question—the West Lothian question, as it is often known. We are also devolving greater powers away from Whitehall to cities and regions, driving local growth in areas that have the strong governance now and the capacity to deliver. I know that the hon. Gentleman is very keen for his own area, Nottingham, to receive some of those powers and some more of those city deals. At the same time, we are holding a referendum on our renegotiated membership of the EU, for the first time in 40 years giving the people of the UK the chance to get involved and have a say on the matter.

We do not believe that all these important changes, which are designed to hand power back to people, should be delayed by the establishment of some form of convention. As the hon. Gentleman said, the process would begin only in 2020, if we were lucky. We do not want to wait until then to get on with the job that we have been elected to do now. As my colleague the noble Lord Bridges pointed out in the other place, there is little agreement on the scope or composition of a constitutional convention, so perhaps we would need a convention on a convention before we could get started.

Judging by the experiences of other countries—the hon. Gentleman mentioned a few—conventions often deliver little of substance. For example, the recommendations of the conventions in British Columbia and Ontario were rejected when they were put to the public in referendums. In Ireland, of the 18 recommendations made by the Irish constitutional convention, only two were put to a referendum and only one passed. We could spend a lot of time on achieving very little.

In evidence to the Lords Constitution Committee, my colleague the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, who is responsible for constitutional oversight, made the all-important point that what matters about the constitution is that it works, not that it has been neatly drawn up and is theoretically pure. Hence the Government are very much focused on ensuring that the UK’s constitutional arrangements work for all our citizens, in a Union based on fairness, friendship and mutual respect.

I do not want to suggest that we are against reform of our democratic institutions or constitutional debate—categorically, we are not. Our programme of constitutional reform, from new devolution settlements to metro mayors and English votes for English laws, shows that we are delivering our electoral pledges to reform the way our democracy works in these areas, as the hon. Gentleman has rightly acknowledged. There will always be opportunity for debate and discussion about the UK’s constitutional arrangements in this House. At the heart of our representative democracy is the sovereignty of Parliament, and people look to Parliament to debate, scrutinise and legislate. Constitutional matters should be no exception.

I think that the Minister is approaching the end of his remarks, so I will take this opportunity to jump in yet again. I commend the fact that the Government are consulting the people on the European question. However, given that that is taking place, surely there is no contradiction in the Government not initiating a constitutional convention, but allowing an external citizens convention to engage the public, just as the Government are rightly doing on the European Union, and seek their views on a whole number of other issues. It would not be a Government convention, so it need not wait until 2020; it could be created in a matter of months by leadership and stimulus from outside. That process could be going alongside the reforms that he has outlined, some of which I strongly welcome, as he knows, allowing the public to have a say as well.

I thank the hon. Gentleman for the clarification. Since 2010, the Government have consulted the people of this country on a number of occasions. In 2011, for example, there was the referendum on the alternative vote and the EU referendum is coming up shortly. Those are important ways of consulting the public about these highly controversial issues.

We are doing other things that I have not yet mentioned—for example, the boundary review and individual electoral registration, which are important parts of making sure that everybody’s vote in this country is equal. All constituencies will be roughly equal as far as the number of constituents is concerned so that everyone’s vote has an equal weight in a general election. That is an important reform. I do not know whether this is true of the hon. Gentleman, but some Members from his party do not feel that equal votes are an important part of those reforms.

It was the all-party view of the Political and Constitutional Reform Committee that equality of votes can be achieved on a more sensible basis. If constituencies have to be 5% either side of the average constituency size by number of constituents, several hundred constituencies will be seriously disrupted, and that will affect Members of all parties. If the variance from the average can be up to 10%, just a handful of seats—perhaps 30 or 35—will be seriously disrupted. That is one of the reasons why colleagues in the last Parliament felt that the proposed boundary changes were not sensible. The Select Committee unanimously came forward with what we thought could be a consensus view: to get closer to an average, but not so inflexibly that massive disruption took place between communities and natural boundaries. The Minister has enticed me, but I am sure I will be called to order if I say much more.

I thank the hon. Gentleman. Reading into what he said, I do not think we are going to agree on boundary changes or equal votes.

On English laws, I should say that there have been concerns about how the system is working in Parliament and some of the procedures that we introduced back in October. Those procedures are still very much in their infancy. As the hon. Gentleman knows, the Government will review them later this year, drawing on the work of the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee and the Procedure Committee.

May I say how generous and typically good spirited the Minister has been in giving way so many times? If we have a citizens convention inspired from outside this place, will he not rule out the possibility that the Government would be one of the participants and put a view to that convention?

I do not think I can answer that today. I have made the Government view clear. I hope that my setting out of the Government’s position and explanation of why we do not see the need for a convention on democracy have been helpful. I am confident that at least some of the concerns that the hon. Gentleman wants to be discussed are either being addressed or will be by the end of this Parliament; as I have said, there are lots of initiatives at the moment.

I end by congratulating the hon. Gentleman again on securing this debate and thanking him for allowing us to discuss these important issues.

Question put and agreed to.

House adjourned.