Skip to main content

Citizens Convention on Democracy

Volume 613: debated on Wednesday 20 July 2016

[Mrs Anne Main in the Chair]

I beg to move,

That this House has considered Government policy on a Citizen’s Convention on democracy.

It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mrs Main, and it is equally a great pleasure to welcome the new Minister to the Dispatch Box, such as it is, on his first outing as a Minister. I wish him well with this brief. I do not want to put any pressure on him, but there cannot be a more important brief. That was true even before the events of the last few weeks and certainly is subsequently. All his experience and his large knowledge of history may well be required as he fulfils his duties. I am sure that I speak for colleagues on both sides of the Chamber when I wish him well.

We have had an incredible few weeks. I do not want to concentrate on that, but it would be wrong of us not to recognise it and talk about it briefly. It seems to me that we have had about 14 years’ worth of politics in about 14 days, and it has been a very rich diet indeed, but it underlines the fact that we are now in a quite desperate situation in terms of needing to reconnect with the electorate and members of the public. One of the best ways we can do that—in fact, the most essential way we can do it—is by ensuring that people feel that they own their own democracy. At the moment, even after the last few weeks, people feel distant and alienated from their democracy. We need to take some steps towards ensuring that that does not continue.

Even before Brexit, elections and Chilcot—you name it; just about everything has been thrown at the political process in the last couple of weeks—there were some very severe underlying problems, including the low turnout at traditional elections, the obvious poor levels of registration on our electoral registers, instability in the Union, which is welcomed to some degree by some and to a lesser degree by others, the begging bowl system that we have for local government, certainly in England and Wales, and a less trusted political class, not least because of the tainted nature of party political funding.

All that has led us to a situation in which our very democracy is under threat. That sense of instability and inconsistency is something that all of us across the House, in all parties, need to address. I hope that if there is a thread running through my political career, it is that I have attempted to go across the parties, because I do not believe that anything is sustainable unless we can win everybody to a particular cause. A view that is about winning a cause in the short term and having it changed at the next election has never been a long-term view and certainly not a view that I have ever held. I am therefore delighted to see colleagues from across the House here today and I encourage them to participate during this hour and a half. I know that some colleagues are here to do winding-up speeches, but I also say to them that I would be happy to take interventions if they feel inclined to intervene on me as I progress.

I am perhaps painting quite a bleak picture, and I will come back to the exit from the European Union, but there is a tremendous flash of hope that we can all latch on to. Possibly—in my wildest dreams—within a matter of weeks or months, we could be in the position of setting up a citizens convention on the UK’s democracy. It could be sitting or meeting certainly before Christmas if we all felt inclined to make that happen. On top of that, there is a growing view among the leaderships of political parties represented in this place that they ought collectively to act, do something, and start to develop a way forward. There is pessimism on the one hand, but optimism on the other that with a citizens convention enabling the people to participate, we could find ways forward on the problems that trouble us most in relation to our democracy.

I must add a word about the European Union. The recent European referendum has raised more questions than it has answered—it is arguable that it did not even answer the question that was on the ballot paper, but I will not go there. For example, what should be the role of our Parliament? That has been raised again as a result of having a referendum rather than relying on our tried-and-tested representative democracy. What about the role of the supposedly sovereign institutions within our system in guiding the UK forwards? What is the future for Scotland and Northern Ireland, both of which voted to remain? How can we use our democracy to repair the sharp divisions between people who voted one way and those who voted the other—there was almost a straight split—and the differences between different territories, age groups and social groups that were revealed by the referendum?

When I last raised this issue, I said it would be quite important that Government stayed out of anything to do with a citizens convention, but I have thought again about that and I have an open mind on it. I am talking about whether the situation now is so important, so critical, that Government might want to reconsider the case for funding in some way, shape or form—not 100%, but just making a contribution and giving this some status, official or otherwise. I am still mulling over that conundrum and will not come down on one side or the other on it, but certainly my mind has been altered a little by the severity of the crisis that now faces our democracy.

Parliament and Government alone will not be able to resolve the problems that are in front of us. That will require the British people as a whole to listen, learn, participate and come up with their answers, rather than expecting them to pop out of the bubble in Westminster and Whitehall. That is why it is very important that we do not just have another learned report, academic report, or report by the great and the good that is dislocated from the political process. It is absolutely central to the argument for a citizens convention that it locks in the political class to the point of view that there should be in 2020 a series of decisions and Bills made and taken by Parliament. Otherwise, it is just another great report that will sit on the shelf and will not get us any further than we have got before.

That sort of linkage was evident in the Scottish referendum, when the Unionist parties all undertook to put in front of Parliament, if the out vote was defeated, a Scottish Bill as the first business of the House of Commons, and that was actually done. There may be different views—I am looking at my very good friend from the Scottish National party, the hon. Member for Edinburgh East (Tommy Sheppard)—about whether that did the job, but one cannot say that the promise to put a Bill before the House of Commons was not kept. I actually think it was a very good Bill, and I suspect that many colleagues do too. My friend from Scotland will make his own speech, as he always does so eloquently, but that principle of linking something that happens before an election or before decision making to Bills and Acts is one that I think we can use effectively as a precedent for a citizens convention. That would require party leaders and senior parliamentarians who are represented in the House and perhaps represent a majority of the electorate of the United Kingdom to undertake publicly to put Bills that arose from such a process in front of the 2020 Parliament.

I am therefore very pleased to read into the record a letter signed by party leaders and senior parliamentarians. It says:

“We are writing in support of the application to fund a nationwide “Citizens Convention” to strengthen British democracy up to and beyond the 2020 General election. Its agenda should be set by the convention itself but we hope that it would cover the whole of the UK’s governance and politics, including the core issues, themes and discussions that should drive the evolution of our democratic settlement.

We believe we should collectively initiate and give continued moral support to such a Citizens Convention. In order to bring a practical political conclusion to this work, we commit now to seek to persuade our colleagues to incorporate in our 2020 Manifestos a promise to put Bills which emerge from the Citizens Convention in front of the new Parliament as its first business for debate, amendment and decision. However we wish the Citizens Convention itself to be established at arm’s length from political parties to guarantee its independence, so that—rather like the Scottish convention prior to devolution and the recent Irish convention on the constitution—it would be inclusive of opinion across society and produce a report which was subject to unprecedented levels of public participation.

Regardless of party allegiance, we feel the time is right for an urgent and comprehensive look at our democracy and believe the threats of political disenchantment, cynicism and disaffiliation must be tackled swiftly.”

That letter was signed by the leader of the Liberal Democrat parliamentary party, the leader of the parliamentary Green party, the parliamentary leader of the UK Independence party and the right hon. and learned Member for Beaconsfield (Mr Grieve), a senior Back Bencher, whom we all know and respect, and a similar letter was sent by the leader of the parliamentary Labour party. That underlines to me that there is a broad view among senior colleagues within the House, including leaders of parties, that something serious should now happen in the creation of a citizens convention and that such a convention should link into activity on the Floor of the House in 2020.

I quickly add that that is not closed book; it is not a closed list. It has not been possible to get everybody on board with these decisions, or even physically to get round to everybody. I hope colleagues present today will realise that that door is still open and that their participation would be extremely welcome in what should be a broad-based and all-party effort in getting this show on the road.

How we do this is going to be really important. It is essential that we find the means, which modern technology now allows us, to allow absolutely any member of the public—any elector—to participate in this process and have their say. With three and a half years still to go before the next general election, there is more than enough time to hone the process, so that everybody can participate. There is the more conventional part: the meetings, the national and regional rallies and venues, and the educational side of all that. Then there is the perhaps more exciting and novel side for many of us: how we use the internet to get to people, so that we can get something coherent and sensible that can be collated by literally millions of people, so that there is a clear input. This is not just one-way traffic. We need to devise a convention that listens and then responds, asks new questions and poses new options, so that people can engage in a process that they can trust and that they feel is listening to them and really genuinely wants to hear their views.

Whatever a citizens convention comes up with, one thing I can guarantee is that every Member will find something to object to in its conclusions—me, above all. That is going to come with the territory. We are all going to have to put up with a few things that we think, “My goodness, where did that come from?” or, “That is certainly something I could never support or would never have promoted.” Taking our ball away at that point is not an option. This is about a wholesale review of a democracy, which is currently not fit for purpose and needs to be made fit for purpose if we are indeed to continue to call ourselves a democracy.

I will give way to my hon. Friend, not least because of the tremendous track record that he established as the spokesperson for the Labour party in opposition on many of these issues.

I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this debate on a very important issue and support what he said about how vital it is that this is cross-party. This is a huge area. Does he envisage that a convention might start with one aspect of democracy? I suggest that it could be looking at questions of devolution, which is proceeding apace in some parts of the United Kingdom but not in others and is where a citizen input is, surely, absolutely vital.

The problem that I, all who have been involved in this process and, indeed, my hon. Friend have wrestled with is how much we need a political push to get this thing moving and how much we have to step back and just let the thing take its own course. Although I suspect that he might be reading the minds of people on a convention whom we have not yet selected and that devolution—in particular, currently, English devolution—might well be a key issue, we often come to the view that we cannot deal with one nation’s devolution without looking at integration with other nations and at how that fits together in a union structure, federal structure or whatever. I am content that we can have a proper process whereby the convention itself makes those decisions.

I mean that with the greatest respect to my hon. Friend. I anticipate that he, like every other Member, would feel a burden of duty to put extensive evidence and personal experience into a convention once it is under way. I am not dodging the question, but merely saying that I suspect a convention must be the body to make those decisions, even though I may well agree with my hon. Friend’s motive and direction.

It is important that we do that because people have to hold us all to our promises when we get to 2020. It is important, if they have participated and feel that, warts and all, the product of the convention by and large represents them or is fair—if not representing their actual views in its entirety—that they have faith in that process. They will then feel that they can discipline the Members of Parliament who take this forward after 2020. They will have a stake. They will be able to say, “That’s not what we agreed,” even if the Government in power in 2020 have not signed up to participate in the convention. I hope that would not be the case for any party when we get to that point, but it is important to get even that Government to respect the decision-making process that has been gone through and to take it seriously. That may well be the case going back to the Scottish referendum and the Bill that came before the House. To his credit, the right hon. Member for Witney (Mr Cameron) did put a Bill before the House. There was obviously a great pressure that he should do that. I hope that we would all have done that anyway, but there was clearly a great public pressure to ensure that was done, so that is very important.

This should be not just an atomised group of the electorate at large collating their views, but lots of independent organisations and political parties. That is where political parties can come into the process, not as directors and governors, but as contributors. Every party represented in the House and many beyond could make their own contributions, collectively or by encouraging their members to interact with websites and so on.

In addition, there are dozens of organisations, thankfully, in the web of civic society who support our individual and political rights. They could design their own innovative means of participation to feed into the greater convention. For example, citizens assemblies, which we have seen springing up not least because of the efforts of Professor Matthew Flinders and his team at the University of Sheffield, have already produced a lot of information, interaction and development. Professor Flinders sent me a quote from Tracey Cheetham, who is a member of the citizens assembly north in Sheffield. After one assembly, she said:

“One thing was absolutely clear—and forgive me for stating the obvious—greater democratic engagement is vital to make devolution work effectively… We had a room full of people who were anything but disengaged or apathetic. Frustrated, curious and some angry about politics in general, but all determined to have a say.”

What a mobilisation of people’s political firepower to feed into our political system, and that is just one example of what we could do.

There are also the Political Studies Association, the Hansard Society and the Local Government Association. I was fortunate enough to be involved in the report of the inquiry into better devolution by the LGA. The report was very influential and I am delighted to have participated in it. There are lots of others who should be involved, including every councillor, every branch of every political party, Bite the Ballot, which has done such fantastic work, and the Constitution Reform Group. There is a lot of potential to revive and revitalise political discourse, if we take three and a half years to do it—and to do it seriously and have an outcome in 2020.

As well as that process, or concept, there is also the issue of how we move this forward. The first question is about funding. Those who have been engaged in the process to date are in the very early stages of discussing with external charities the possibilities for funding. I am sure that, collectively, we could make a sufficient appeal to ensure that we have this initiative properly funded, because that is vital. It would be appalling if it were to fall because of a lack of basic finance. I throw in my earlier point that I am now open in a way that I was certainly not before to see whether the Government—whether or not they will engage in the process, and I hope that they will be—feel they would assist to make the process work. That might mean a matching contribution to individual donations. As we go down this path, I am sure that we can work out something sensible for us all.

We need to get the show on the road, and it is very important that we establish an impartial and respected team that is ready to move on request. My hon. Friend the Member for Foyle (Mark Durkan) will know that team well from his distinguished service on the Political and Constitutional Reform Committee; the team helped us, over five years, to create a written constitution—in fact, three options for a written constitution—and a Bill that would give it life. That was not a two-page Bill, but one that had gone completely through the mill of legal advice and parliamentary process.

Those colleagues, from King’s College London, are led by Professor Robert Blackburn, and they include Professor Vernon Bogdanor, who is known to many hon. Members, and Dr Andrew Blick, who has a track record of achievement in this field. King’s is ready to go when we are ready to go. I very much hope that we do not keep it on stand-by for too long because we want to make sure that the necessary Sherpa work, to use a crude phrase—that academic heavy lifting, the production of papers and the organisation of conferences, venues, and so on—can get under way.

That would be the organisational side, but the hard politics comes into the agenda that is set, as was raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, West Derby. I imagine that would include reviewing the powers and membership of the second Chamber; examining the voting systems at parliamentary, devolved and local levels to encourage greater participation in public life, and Executive power—the way in which Government are often very difficult to hold to account and their powers hard to discover without judicial archaeology—reviewing the position of local government in relation to the centre; questions of devolution in England; examining the legal recognition of constitutional provisions such as individual rights; looking at the way in which parties and our other democratic institutions are funded; and, above all, the catch-all of any other relevant democratic issues that might be recommended by the convention as its work progresses. Those terms of reference are deliberately vague because the citizens convention should decide what the issues are. Whether we approve of them is not the issue; this is about whether the convention is entitled to look at whatever it wants and report, ultimately, to the House of Commons in 2020, after the next general election.

People have asked, “So what does the convention look like?” Actually, I think what the convention looks like is less important than what it does, how it reaches out and how people can get involved in it. As a working rule of thumb, it could be 100 people, selected properly, on a fair basis. There are lots of ways to do that. For example, Ipsos MORI, which is well connected to King’s College, has a way of selecting that number of people so that everyone is represented—from their nation, region, gender, socio-economic group and so on. I add that there should be, either as members or ex officio members, a sprinkling of the great and the good and of representatives from political parties, just to give it the necessary spice to ensure that when there are obviously impractical things, someone can stand up and say, “Actually, the best way to do that, given where we are at the moment, is to do it in the following way.” They would not rule or run the convention, but their expertise could be deployed, so that obvious mistakes were avoided.

There would be a role for other people. Again, that is not for us here to decide; it is for the convention to make those decisions. Will it make mistakes? Of course it will. But are we going to support it and ensure that it is impartial and independent? I think that is a greater principle than trying to eliminate all possible errors that may take place.

To turn to another structural thing, a chairs’ panel should be involved. A lot of work will need to be done and it is very important that people are represented on that panel from the nations of the United Kingdom and that there is a proper gender balance and proper representation from all parts of what we term British society—whether that is faith and non-faith, business, or whatever—to ensure that everybody has the possibility of seeing someone who is like them on a panel of chairs that pulls together this incredibly long and important exercise in our democracy.

The process issues to which my hon. Friend has now turned are incredibly important. Earlier, he referred to the Scottish Constitutional Convention before 1997 and the more recent Irish experience. Does he agree that it is important to look at those and other examples of citizens assemblies being used in such processes, so that we can see what works and learn lessons from things that, perhaps, did not work in other countries?

My hon. Friend is, as always, one step ahead of me. I was just about to say that we are not doing something wholly originally and it should not frighten us. People might say, “It has never been done before.” My goodness, if we need them, there are precedents—my hon. Friend outlined a couple—and there is a fantastic wealth of experience from Scotland’s Constitutional Convention and the process of the Scottish referendum.

My hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, West Derby also mentioned the experience of Ireland—I am sure that my hon. Friend the Member for Foyle has got the T-shirt. There are examples from Ontario, Iceland and, recently, British Columbia, among others. We are not short of confidence in trusting people and finding good outcomes as a result of involving people in such processes. That is why the team led by King’s involves people from Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland and the English regions. They are working together, pulling together all the background information, enabling people to see what was tried in the past and what was dismissed for whatever reason, and tracking through a long, important process to get the success we need. They have that ability and brainpower—at the request of a citizens convention—to be able to draft Bills to meet each of the key subjects that are decided upon and that should be put before the House of Commons in 2020.

That leaves aside a lot of questions, such as “Goodness me, can we do this in every school? Can we do this in every university and college?” Can we get every young person, in particular, excited by the fact that they can tell their grandchildren that they were participants in building the democracy of the United Kingdom—not just 40 white guys in Philadelphia, as they say about the American constitution, but literally millions of founding fathers and mothers building a new British democracy that will stand the test of time as the old one starts to look ever more shaky?

Where I would take this next is 2020, when we have a set of proposals, decisions and Bills, and the process comes back to the House of Commons. Have we agreed to every dot and comma that comes out of the convention? No, we have not. Every political party of whatever size that comes to the House of Commons in 2020 would have to make a decision not just to support or reject the proposals in their entirety, but to do a really serious job on behalf of the public: amending, line by line, and ensuring that the proposals were fit for purpose. That will be an onerous task for us all in the House at that point, but it will be well worth doing—a task that should not be cast aside readily on the basis of pure party politics or selfishness for the benefit of a political party. It should be done not by dragooning people through the Lobby, for or against, as just a ritual on a three-line Whip, but by really taking it seriously, as those who have founded new democracies have done—in the east of Europe, for example.

The process should be taken seriously right down to the minutiae of what shape the Chamber should be, let alone the question of the separation of Executive powers and legislative powers. From the massive and conceptual, to the minute, it should engage people. Here, we will need to take the process as seriously as we will expect people outside to have taken their role in it. It is an essential part of what we need to do to preserve our democracy in times when it is looking fragile, when the political atmosphere and interaction with the media mean that politics is more and more in danger of just becoming a branch of the entertainment industry, and when our serious role in devising a democracy that can last a long time becomes the most onerous duty that can fall to Members of Parliament.

I appeal to anybody who is interested in our democracy to play their part. That may be purely by writing in about their views on a particular thing. How does the Union hang together, or should it divide? How does a federal system work, or is that not appropriate? What will our future relationship be with our friends in Europe and across the globe? We can all participate in those issues.

From the smallest child understanding the basics of a civil society with their actions and work at school, up to Prime Ministers who can decide where our country goes, across to people who may have some funds that they think can be well spent on ensuring that the process is well staffed, well financed and well supported, and to those who, in 2020, will be in the Chamber of the House of Commons making the decisions, there is a role for everybody in the creation of a citizens convention for the United Kingdom because they will be taking on a role to create a lasting and stable democracy.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mrs Main. I thank you for permitting us to be jacketless in this heat.

I support the case of my hon. Friend the Member for Nottingham North (Mr Allen) for a citizens convention. Considering the range of issues and developments that have taken place over the past number of years, it is important to recognise that what is deemed to be the constitutional dispensation of the UK has been stretched, bent, twisted, pummelled and has had holes knocked through it, yet people say it is still the same fabric of the unwritten UK constitution. In a modern democratic environment, we cannot go on like this.

In a number of elections, voter turnout has gone down and those who did vote displayed disaffection by voting in a more spread out and, possibly, alienated way. That should send a warning to those of us who care for ensuring that we have a modern, inclusive, democratic platform. We cannot just continue politics as business as usual, drifting along.

The point that I see a citizens convention fulfilling is producing a new democratic charter, written from a citizen’s point of view. Citizens would have, for the first time, something like an owner’s manual so that they could say, “Right, all these elections are held in which we are asked to vote and told we have the chance to vote. What does it mean?” A charter could clearly set out the roles, responsibilities and rights of the different chambers and bodies that people have the opportunity to elect, whether in local government elections, at a devolved level, in the UK Parliament—of course, we had the European Parliament as well—or in other elections such as those for police and crime commissioners.

A charter could also set out a clearer understanding of the relationships between those different bodies because there is often a lot of confusion and tension. We saw that with the Scotland Act 2016 and we have seen it when we have processed legislation affecting Northern Ireland. Parties that were part of the negotiations have reflected different views on the Floor of the House of Commons from what the Government say is intended or meant by the legislation, or what an agreement entailed. We have seen that with the Scotland Act. It is important that we get these things right in a clear and cogent way, because coming up with agreements that we then disagree about does not do anything for people’s confidence in the political process.

The charter should set out clearly the rights of the different Chambers to take revenue, and the principles and ceilings of the funding they are guaranteed as a share of overall UK public expenditure. Because the policy environment changes, the charter should provide for an opportunity for Members to review the relative responsibilities and relationships of those different institutions. As technology changes, the nature and scope of how government might address something will change and evolve as well—we see that in energy and in the movements in broadcasting and digital technology.

The footprint of responsibility between devolved and non-devolved and between local government and others could well change, so we need to build in room for responsiveness to circumstance and change, and responsiveness to review. It should not be beyond us or beyond the political process to do that, but if it is, it is not beyond citizens, because they want to know, in a 21st-century democracy, who they are electing to do what job and who they can hold to account for delivery or failure. At the minute, they do not get that from the political process. It is almost a Tower of Babel—I say that as one of the people who negotiated and wrote parts of the Good Friday agreement.

As for the current situation, we have only to look at the previous election in Northern Ireland. Many of the parties in the course of the election debate sought devolved power and used their relative powerlessness as an excuse. They were saying, “We can’t deliver on some of these things. Westminster did not give us the money for this. There is an austerity agenda and other legislation has gone through.” The people are then at sixes and sevens, because people in the political process are confused and confusing about who has what power.

The welfare reform issue is a classic example. On paper, the Northern Ireland Assembly has legislative power over welfare, but we have ended up with a motion in the Assembly, courtesy of Sinn Féin, the DUP and the Government, to hand that power back to Westminster for a year, to give Westminster direct rule powers to impose something that the Assembly itself would not do. Of course, when the Assembly gets those powers back, there is essentially going to be a power of karaoke legislation. Basically, all the Assembly gets to do is to pass the legislation according to the words and music that have been set in the legislation here at Westminster. That is not edifying for the integrity of a devolved institution and it is not credible or persuasive to the public. It would seem to be a cynical exercise in taking power and being unable to exercise it, handing it to somebody else, and then blaming and criticising them for the decisions they take. In those circumstances, it is important that people know exactly what responsibility Chambers have and how parties and others operating within those institutions are expected to operate.

I have heard such talk in a lot of the exchanges on the Scotland Act. There is confusion even yet as to the exact import of the future welfare powers that Scotland will have. The Act makes sweeping presumptions about the agreement that there will be between Scottish Ministers and a Secretary of State, but makes no provision for what happens when there is no agreement between them and when there are difficulties. We need to fix that—otherwise we will have political crisis.

We were told that Northern Ireland had a political crisis partly to do with welfare reform. The UK Government decided that, if the Assembly was not going to automatically pass the karaoke legislation for welfare reform, they would take the budget hostage—they were going to impose a penalty on the devolved budget. That penalty power was not in the Northern Ireland Act 1998—it was dreamed up by the former Chancellor and others and imposed. Someone might try to do that in Scotland. If Scotland fails to reach agreement—

I am sorry, Mrs Main. I do not regard this as a cul-de-sac. I am setting out an example of the issues that a constitutional convention could address. We have already been served notice of difficulties, contradictions, confusions and gaps in the constitutional understanding that the current political class is serving up to people. If we have been given those warnings, we should recognise that there might be more difficulties in future, not least in an environment where we have been told that the Brexit result means an agenda of taking control. Let us show what control we are actually giving to citizens. Citizens need to be able to know what control they have as electors and as voters. The first way is to show them the relevance and direct power of their vote in electing the different bodies and the different classes of people that they are allowed to elect. The first thing the citizens convention should do is produce that new democratic charter that essentially gives the citizen an owner’s manual to know where they have power in relation to different Chambers.

Given the experience in Ireland, it is right that parties should be involved in the constitutional convention. In Ireland, as well as citizens being involved, parties were involved north and south. Unfortunately, permission for the northern parties to appoint parliamentarians did not extend to Members of this House—it extended only to members of the Assembly, so I was not able to serve as a member of the convention, but a very good friend of mine, Tom Arnold, successfully chaired that convention. It showed that whenever you have the parties there, the citizens doing the work know that it is not a case of producing something worthy that politicians can then ignore and parties can then drop because it is too hot or too avant-garde. The fact that the parties are involved in those reflective discussions is helpful in giving people confidence that there is some purpose to it. It certainly encourages people to give evidence and submit ideas to the convention—it is not a case of a lot of good ideas going nowhere. There are positive examples.

The convention can also be used to educate all of us about the nuances of the different constitutional understandings that there are in different parts of the UK. For instance, it would be helpful to let people know—a lot of people do not seem to appreciate this—that, in Ireland, the common membership of Ireland and the UK of the European Union was taken as a given when we negotiated the Good Friday agreement. It is written into the fabric of the agreement at various points, as is the European convention on human rights, but some people think we can dispose of both of those without doing any damage, as though it is a stud wall that can be knocked through when it is actually a supporting wall of our political dispensation and peace process.

Similarly, EU law and the European convention on human rights, as far as I know, are a part of the basis of the current constitutional dispensation for Scotland, but, again, potential damage is being done to it. One thing a citizens convention could do is allow people from different parts of the UK to understand the sensitivities and nuances in those key issues, and that they are not simply disposable commodities that can be thrown away without doing damage to the democratic fabric.

There are all sorts of odd questions about second Chambers, which I will not go into. I will simply say that, under the recent constitutional development of English votes for English laws in the UK, it is interesting that the stricture on people from Northern Ireland, Scotland and sometimes Wales voting applies only to elected Members—it does not apply to non-elected members in the Second Chamber, which is absolutely preposterous. Those are the sorts of things that people in a citizens convention might want to usefully look at as well. We have a bizarre situation: English votes for English laws means some of us being told, “You may still be charged, but your vote will not count.” Some measures on which we are excluded from voting will have policy implications for us and our devolved institutions. Again, a citizens convention could be a useful way of ensuring we all have a better understanding of the issues, which is not properly reflected either in this House or in politics at large at the moment.

On behalf of the Scottish National party, I congratulate the hon. Member for Nottingham North (Mr Allen) on securing today’s debate. In the broadest possible terms, we support the thrust of what he says and the direction in which he is trying to travel. I agree there is a lot that needs to be fixed in our political system. I believe, in fact, that on 23 June the vote in many parts of the country—particularly in many parts of England outwith the metropolitan areas—was a cry of alienation from people who felt that the political system did not represent them and had left them behind. Had our politics been in better shape, we might well have got a different result on 23 June.

I want to put the Scottish perspective when it comes to constitutional reform and how the country should be governed. It is of course no surprise that my party favours a situation in which the people of Scotland become a self-governing nation in control of their own affairs. I know that fills the hearts of many of my colleagues with horror, but I hope to persuade them that it is not such an unreasonable proposition. I also hope to persuade them that, as well as being good for the people of Scotland, in that it would put them in direct control of their country and resources, it would make for better governance for these islands as a whole. I believe that the United Kingdom, a structure designed in the 19th century, is not really fit for purpose, in terms of the modern government we require in these islands.

Many people have talked about Scottish independence as a campaign for separation. We were accused of being separatists many times in the 2014 referendum campaign. Nothing could be further from the truth. Quite the contrary: we see independence for Scotland as a way of allowing it to play a greater role in Britain, Europe and the world. I feel that what in many ways keeps my country’s potential separate is the current constitutional arrangements, which insist that our communication as a country with the rest of the world must happen through the prism of the United Kingdom. However, we do not have Scottish independence. We voted in 2014 to stay as part of the United Kingdom, and while we are here we want to work with others to improve the situation in the UK as a whole. That is why we welcome and want to engage in a discussion of constitutional reform throughout the United Kingdom.

There are some glaring problems with our current constitutional arrangements, which are already the subject of separate campaigns. I will give just three examples, the first of which is the anachronism of the House of Lords—now, I believe, one of the largest legislative Chambers anywhere in the world. It is bigger, indeed, than the European Parliament. Yet not a single Member of that Chamber is elected by the people. That seems to me not to be a very 21st-century concept.

Order. Can I ask the hon. Gentleman to bring his remarks back to the Government’s policy on a citizens convention on democracy, rather than some of the topics that might be considered by such a convention if it were brought forward? He has not mentioned the concept of the convention for quite some time.

I am coming to it. I have 10 minutes —is that right? It is not a crowded debate. I promise you I shall come to that matter very shortly, Mrs Main, but I did want to give what I regard as examples of what a convention might look at.

On the question of the second Chamber and its relationship to the convention, I should have thought one of the obvious points would be that if there is to be a second Chamber, a chunk of its membership, if not all of it, should be decided by the various nations that make up the Union, and that there should be at least some proportionality about it.

The principle for us is that it should be elected. We would be prepared to look at many different options and that could be one of them.

The second constitutional crisis that we face, which has already been touched on, is the electoral system itself. We are meant to be a democracy, yet the people in a position to make laws over the governed are not representative of the feelings of the people who took part in the election. It is not right that there should be a majority Government with a 37% mandate. If that were changed, and if people felt that their vote was a better determinant of the balance of power in the House of Commons Chamber or any future Chamber, I believe they would be more inspired and would have more belief in the democratic system. I speak as a representative of a party that, more than any other, has benefited from first past the post, winning 56 out of 59 seats on just 50% of the vote. I would happily give up my seat if we could change the electoral system.

The third issue is the concept of regional government. As an Edinburgh MP looking south of the border, I am sympathetic about the problems that exist, particularly in government in England. I feel that, whereas we have made moves towards devolution in the nations and regions, adequate regional structures have not been developed in the great areas of England to give people a sense of belonging.

To come to the matter of the convention, I suppose I have some concern—perhaps the hon. Member for Nottingham North will address this in his summing up—that the initiative for a convention must try to bring together the campaigns on particular aspects of the constitution that are already motoring and have some momentum, rather than acting as a brake on them. I would not want a situation in which everything had to be completely right, with a wonderful new written constitution, before any change could happen. We would be waiting here for centuries with no reform at all.

We have a slight paradox. There has been a lot of devolution to Scotland, and I believe we are on the road to further devolution and eventual independence. In the Edinburgh agreement of 2012, this Parliament agreed on the right of the Scottish people to determine whatever form of government they wanted. That right—the concept of the Edinburgh agreement—would need to be built into the deliberations and framework of any new convention looking at the constitution. In other words, it would need to be a ring fence around Scotland, saying, “That is to be determined by the people who live there.” There could be any number of ways to integrate that with the wider UK debate.

I liked very much what the hon. Member for Nottingham North said about the need for the convention not to be seen as just a committee of the great and good, sitting in an ivory tower discussing things. We can see from the attendance today that it is difficult to get much excitement about such debates, but we need to try. Whatever initiative is taken at national level, it must be driven downwards to the most local level possible, to involve people in the debate. We need a national conversation about what type of 21st-century constitution we need. I hope that is the direction in which we shall travel.

I have two things to say about Scottish examples that have already been cited in the debate. First, the 1989 Scottish Constitutional Convention, on which I served in the mid-1990s, in a past life and a different guise, was a very particular body. It tried to create an alliance within civic society. It brought together representatives—it could be argued how representative they were: it involved organisations that attempted to be representative bodies of others. The churches, trade unions, voluntary organisations and political parties came together in an organisational alliance, which did not have room for any individuals, although people could say they wanted to come to a debate or seminar and get involved. The body itself was an alliance of organisations. I presume that is different from what is being thought about today.

There has also been discussion of the 2014 Scottish referendum, and we must cite that as an example of how our democracy can work brilliantly. We had a participation rate of 85% in that referendum, and the reason why passions and excitement ran so high was that, rather than being presented as a dry constitutional question, the issue was made real. It was translated into people’s lives. Once the question was asked—“Should Scotland be an independent country?”—that raised all sorts of other questions, such as “Well, yes, but what sort of country?”, “Who would run it?”, “How would this work?”, and, “How would that work?” Every single organisation in Scotland was discussing the question’s implications for what they do and for the people they involve and represent, which is why it mushroomed and became such an exciting festival of democracy during the 2012 to 2014 period.

I will now finish, but perhaps the hon. Member for Nottingham North can advise us on how all this might happen. We need to consider ways of inspiring people, of being imaginative and of firing up passion in this debate. We can do that by drawing a line between constitutional change and improving people’s lives.

Order. I am afraid that I will not be calling the hon. Member for Brighton, Pavilion (Caroline Lucas) to speak. She has missed an hour of a 90-minute debate, but if hon. Members let her, she can intervene.

As always, it is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mrs Main. It is also a pleasure to respond to this important debate on behalf of the Opposition. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Nottingham North (Mr Allen) on securing it. As he said, it is difficult to enthuse and inspire people by trying to develop a better place for democracy. I pay tribute to him for pursuing this topic with tenacity and for recognising how important it is that we build a new consensus on the relationship between the people and the state and within the nations themselves.

The breadth of cross-party support for the initiative—from Labour’s leader, my right hon. Friend the Member for Islington North (Jeremy Corbyn), to the Lib Dems, the Greens and some Conservatives—reveals the depth of concern about the crisis that we currently face in our democracy. Fundamental questions remain on the health of that democracy. Between the people and the state, between the four nations and between people within the nations themselves, the vote to leave the European Union served to emphasise the depth of the divide within our country. The anger at the status quo, which first tore into mainstream political debate in the run-up to the Scottish referendum, was glaringly obvious to many of us long before. The signs were there in the ever-declining turnout at general elections, in the trust in previously respected institutions being destroyed by the recession and, perhaps most damningly of all, in the sense among many people that Governments do not care much about what ordinary people think. That is the crisis.

I am from a mining community on the great northern coalfield in the north-east. When I walk around and talk to people I have known for many years—people I have known all my life—they tell me that they feel that politicians do not have a clue about how they live their lives and about what is happening to their communities. Of course, as in the brutal decade of the 1980s, something more is happening. There is a sense that ordinary people in communities like mine in the north-east, like many across the UK, are simply being abandoned, with their views being a huge irrelevance to politicians.

I apologise for being late to this debate. The hon. Gentleman is making a powerful point about why something that might sound dry—a citizens convention—actually goes to the heart of people’s identity and why it is an opportunity for them to get their voice heard in a debate that really matters to them. Does he agree that the convention has the potential to be a vibrant debate if we pitch it right?

I wholeheartedly agree that it is up to politicians, who have the job and the opportunity, to try to inspire people and give them the opportunity to have a say. People feel completely and utterly disfranchised. We have to rise to that huge challenge.

We are living in an age of insecurity and inequality. The further people seem to be from Westminster, the more likely they are to feel ignored. People in my constituency are trapped between Scotland and Tyneside —it certainly feels that way—which is why the radical redistribution of power that the citizens convention and other radical devolution agendas envisage is so vital to the health of our democracy. The evidence suggests that local communities want to feel more engaged in the decisions that affect their lives, and giving them that power will bring them into the democratic process. Again, it is up to us, as politicians, to ensure that that happens.

Under the new Prime Minister, following the exit of the previous Chancellor, the right hon. Member for Tatton (Mr Osborne), the already unambitious northern powerhouse looks likely to fall even further down the list of priorities in the north. Regions that have been chronically underfunded for decades were given a pitiful settlement by the Treasury and are expected to be grateful. The funding settlement does not even begin to offset the drastic spending cuts at local authority level. The Government are giving with one hand and taking away with the other. The North East Combined Authority, for instance, has £30 million a year to spend for each of the next 30 years. Considering that in the past five years alone there have been more than £1 billion of cuts to local authorities covering the area, with more to come in the next four years, I can see why the Government’s devolution agenda is being met with complete scepticism up north.

It might be asked what that has to do with the convention. The reality is that people cannot connect with the reasons for their lives being changed—with the cuts to services, for example—and they want to change things. The only way they can change things is by becoming part of the democratic process, so the convention is joined up with funding, austerity and the many things that are currently happening in the UK. With so much of the national agenda being driven not from town halls but from Whitehall and this place, it is little surprise that people seem disfranchised. Previously, more than 90% of civil servants in the Departments responsible for the northern powerhouse worked in London. That was raised many, many times on the doorstep. We talk about the northern powerhouse, but it is now normally called the northern poorhouse, which is probably more accurate.

My hon. Friend the Member for Nottingham North has written many articles on the idea of the citizens convention, and everyone thinks that, to change things for the better, it is up to us to engage with communities on what they want. It is up to us to present alternatives such as a progressive devolution settlement to engage people in the democratic process. That is why, rather than relying on Westminster to put something in our begging bowl, it is vital that we see radical devolution of real power down to communities, which know best how to use it.

The real question is the question of power. To paraphrase my late friend Tony Benn, who has power and how are they using it? A power imbalance in the country has led to rising inequality over three decades or more. It has led to communities first being attacked, then being ignored and then being completely neglected by Westminster, which means that, despite the economy adding £4.3 trillion of wealth in recent years, GDP per capita has all but flatlined, household savings are at their lowest level since 1963 and household debt is at its highest since just before the crash. In other words, the proceeds of growth are not being shared, which is fundamentally because power is not being shared. Power can be reintroduced through citizens’ assemblies and constitutional conventions, which is why I say that power is the most important issue we are discussing today. Half the people of this country feel that the Government do not care much or at all about what people like them think—that is an unequal access to power and we see the consequences of it in the real economy. What communities who have lost faith in Westminster to deliver for them need above all else is real power to transform their lives. That real power, or at least part of it, comes from the citizens assemblies and the citizens constitutions.

If the northern revival is to take root, it must take us away from an economy dominated by the City of London and from a politics dominated by Westminster, in which London can simply click its fingers and get a £32 billion Crossrail 2 project delivered. That is fine, but in constituencies like mine at the other end of the spectrum, away from Westminster, we have rail tracks but not trains. We are even looking to fund passenger trains to run through Ashington or Bedlington, which we have not had for 50 years. Giving people the power—giving them democracy—allows different things to happen in the communities we are all proud to serve.

We need control over the areas where we have lagged behind, such as energy, internet services and transport. In constituencies up and down this country—in mine, for example, there are fewer business start-ups than in most other English regions and pay is some £200 per week behind London—we need the power to change our economy for the better. We need the power to respond to problems that are particularly profound in our own areas. That would be an advantage of citizens assemblies. We should have the funds to invest properly in skills and innovation and to link the fantastic work of the colleges and universities, but we should also be able to insist that, if we are all to have a stake in the future of this country and in the devolution agenda, we will do things differently: workers’ rights will be properly respected and everyone must share in the growth of our areas, and no one should be left behind.

I therefore absolutely commend the efforts of my hon. Friend the Member for Nottingham North to address that inequality of power through the constitutional process and through an attempt to engage the millions of citizens who want a more direct stake in their own future and in the future of their communities, and who are never asked what they think except for every five years when a general election is looming.

That is partly about what the structures of the UK will look like, but it is about much more: the revival of our communities, the health of our democracy and the future of our nation. We are strongest when we work together. Discussions with people about their communities, as well as with experts, trade unions and other stakeholders, will bring people together and create a collective vision for the future that genuinely benefits the people, rather than just paying lip service to democracy.

In 2014, under the leadership of my right hon. Friend the Member for Doncaster North (Edward Miliband), the Labour party agreed totally with a citizens charter and committed itself in principle to having one. The Labour party position is reaffirmed here in the House today. I ask the Minister at least to confirm that the Government will give due consideration to a wider, more diverse and inclusive democratic process, initially by agreeing in principle to a citizens convention.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Nottingham North (Mr Allen) on securing time for this debate, which comes at a very significant time for this country. Indeed, I am delighted to make my ministerial maiden speech in Westminster Hall; it is an honour to be here. I pay tribute to my predecessor, my hon. Friend the Member for Weston-super-Mare (John Penrose), who did an excellent job in office and whose dedication to constitutional affairs was evident today in his speech on the ten-minute rule Bill proposed by the hon. Member for Brighton, Pavilion (Caroline Lucas).

The events of the past few weeks have provoked much discussion of the UK’s constitutional arrangements. I welcome that discussion and the wide-ranging contribution that hon. Members have made throughout this debate. The UK’s constitution is constantly evolving. It is right that there is debate and discussion as it evolves, and the hon. Member for Nottingham North has been at the forefront of ensuring that that happens. Only a few months ago, he introduced a private Member’s Bill for a constitutional convention. I thank him for this further opportunity to debate these vital issues and I put on record my gratitude to the hon. Members for Foyle (Mark Durkan), for Liverpool, West Derby (Stephen Twigg), for Edinburgh East (Tommy Sheppard) and for Wansbeck (Ian Lavery) for their contributions. I am only on my third day in the job, but I have listened intently to everything they have had to say.

I am coming to the realisation that constitutional debates tend to be fairly wide-ranging. Nevertheless, when we look at what has been said, almost all major parties think it extremely encouraging that we have that representation. We may not agree on everything, but one thing we can agree on is a greater level of democratic engagement. Indeed, one of my driving priorities as a new Minister will be to encourage that engagement wherever possible. I was heartened by what the hon. Member for Nottingham North said about cross-party working—indeed, these matters are too important not to work on on a cross-party basis—and I have noted the contents of the letter he read out in his opening statement. However, while we can have cross-party agreement on engagement, the Government disagree on the means of delivering it. As the hon. Gentleman knows, the Government have no plans to establish a convention on democracy. We believe that the evolving nature of the UK’s constitution means that it is ultimately unsuited to a convention.

The UK constitution is characterised by pragmatism and an ability to adapt to circumstances. That arrangement has delivered a stable democracy by progressively adapting to changing realities. I fear that a static convention that decided on constitutional matters once and for all would not fit with the tradition of evolving and adapting in line with people’s expectations and needs. The hon. Member for Liverpool, West Derby mentioned other precedents of constitutional conventions in Ireland, Iceland and Ontario. However, those international examples highlight how countries that have gone down that route have found the entire process challenging. The hon. Member for Nottingham North mentioned that it is a lengthy process, but it is important that we learn from what has happened in other countries. 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.

Yes, only two recommendations were put to a referendum and one passed, but more are to follow. The Government said that the country could not have a referendum on all the issues at once, but other referendums are to follow, including on extending the vote in presidential elections to the Irish diaspora.

I thank the hon. Gentleman for that intervention. What he says is important and relates to the fact that the discussion of constitutional matters is a process in which we have to take the confidence of the people with us. I fear that if certain expectations are put down or if findings are not immediately delivered— the hon. Member for Nottingham North mentioned a convention’s findings being adapted wholesale—we will run into difficulties.

Let us look at other countries. In Iceland, where a more wide-ranging constitutional convention was undertaken, all six of the proposals were passed, but they were not taken forward by successive Governments. That is another issue with the binding nature of constitutional conventions that highlights one of our key concerns with such proposals: they often fail to deliver their intended result.

I want to put on record that the Government do not believe that exercises of engagement are a bad thing. They are laudable endeavours to engage the public in a discussion on the constitutional principles that underpin a country. In particular, I recognise the concerted and sustained effort of the hon. Member for Nottingham North to keep constitutional reform at the top of the agenda. He is a dedicated campaigner who is respected on both sides of the House and whose work on early intervention has ultimately resulted in a change in Government policy. I wish him the best with what he is trying to do. As Chair of the Political and Constitutional Reform Committee, he oversaw numerous inquiries into constitutional issues, including constitutional conventions. As I said, any initiative designed to promote engagement is welcome. Having exhausted all avenues in Westminster, there is nothing to stop him personally reaching wider afield, beyond the walls of this austere building—any private endeavour that raises public participation is surely to be welcomed as a good thing. However, I must set out some concerns about the proposals as they stand.

One of the key problems with national constitutional conventions is that ultimately it is very difficult to engage those who are not already engaged. The people who should be participating are exactly those who do not respond to the invitations. As a Government, our focus must be on ensuring that everyone who is eligible to vote in polls is able to do so. We have already made great progress, but there is more to do. We are working with the Electoral Commission, civil society organisations and local authorities to reach communities who are not represented on the electoral register. Online registration has made it easier to register to vote, and we have seen record levels of registration in recent months. Data collected from the 382 local voting areas show that the provisional size of the UK and Gibraltar electorate now stands at a UK record 46.5 million.

The hon. Member for Nottingham North mentioned a “flash of hope”. With the record levels of engagement we are seeing post the referendum, that flash of hope is to continue that engagement. Amid all the constitutional discussions about the franchise, my overriding priority as a new Minister will be to reach out to the disfranchised who are already eligible to vote but who remain invisible from public participation. It is that challenge—one we have to take as seriously as an unacceptable inequality as we do educational underachievement or social deprivation —that I intend to make my focus.

Does the Minister agree that for the efforts he just described to be successful, we need to restore citizenship education in schools?

I remember very well, when I had first become a Member of Parliament, debating with the hon. Gentleman, when he was shadow Education Secretary, about his excellent record as an Education Minister in the previous Government. It is understandable that he is passionate about education, and I do believe it is key. Citizenship as a subject in schools is important. Education will be vital, but aside from what happens in schools, we have to reach out into those communities—those black spots. We can break down the data to understand where people are not registering to vote, and that is where I want to focus. We have reached an ultimate high, with registration at around 83%—in the mid-80s—but we can go further. We may not reach 100%, but the challenge now is to up our game and get to the last 10%. To do so, we must reach into the most deprived communities in the country.

Members asked about the devolved nations. Now more than ever, the Government must focus on getting on with delivering a fair and balanced constitutional settlement for people across the UK, as promised. Our unique constitutional arrangements enable agility and responsiveness to the wishes of our citizens. We in Government believe that those wishes are clear: a desire to be part of a strong and successful Union that recognises and values the unique nature of each of our nations. Although the Government do not believe that now is the right time for a constitutional convention, it is none the less clear that we must continue to deliver on our commitments to a coherent constitutional settlement that provides fairness, opportunity and a voice for all.

Many Members raised the issue of devolved representation. The Government are absolutely committed to ensuring that the devolved Governments should be fully engaged as we take vital decisions about the future of the United Kingdom. The Prime Minister’s visits to Scotland last week and to Wales on Monday are clear examples of our immediate commitment to do so. We must continue to protect and advance the needs of all people in the United Kingdom. As we do so, the Government will continue to deliver on their commitment to provide further devolution and decentralisation to the nations and regions of the United Kingdom. We are creating some of the most powerful devolved legislatures in the world, and we are also devolving greater powers away from Whitehall to the cities and regions, driving local growth in areas that have strong governance and the capacity to deliver.

Before the Minister moves on from the point about the devolved territories, do the Government recognise that the settlement in Northern Ireland rests not on the concession of devolution from Westminster but on the express consent of people in Ireland, north and south, when they voted for the institutions of the Good Friday agreement, as reflected in the Irish constitution as well? At times, it seems like devolution is seen as just a gift from Westminster and people do not understand the integrity of the democratic institutions in Ireland.

The establishment of the Good Friday agreement in the late 20th and early 21st centuries was one of the most important constitutional changes we have seen. We have to give credit to the previous Labour Administration, and the Conservative Administration before that, for coming up with that settlement—

Of course. That settlement proves the importance of laying aside differences and of people, whether from different parties or different countries, being able to work together. We will not get such agreements unless we not only spend a lengthy period being able to decide them, but put aside often bitter differences. When it comes to the discussion of any constitutional reform, nothing will happen without cross-party agreement, as the hon. Member for Nottingham North said. The Good Friday agreement clearly highlights the need for such discussions to be cross-nation and cross-party.

We do not believe that all the important changes that have so far taken place in the devolved nations, which were designed to hand power back to people, should be delayed by the establishment of a convention. What matters about the constitution is that it works and is flexible enough to adapt to political challenges, not that it has been neatly drawn up and is theoretically pure. Hence the Government are very much focused on making sure that the UK’s constitutional arrangements work for all our citizens, in a Union based on fairness, friendship and mutual respect.

In closing, I again welcome the intentions of the hon. Member for Nottingham North in making his proposal, which will help to inform and add to a rich debate on this issue. I wish him well, but I cannot undertake any commitment to Government involvement, financial or otherwise. As I have made clear, our immediate priority is on delivering the constitutional settlement we are committed to, but there will always be opportunity for debate and discussion in the House about the UK’s constitutional arrangements. I look forward to many more opportunities, I hope as Minister, to discuss and debate the constitutional matters that underpin this nation. Again, I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing this debate and thank him for allowing us to discuss these important matters.

I hope to respond rather speedily, Mrs Main. The Minister is now surrounded by former members of the Political and Constitutional Reform Committee, who have entered the Chamber for the next debate, so he has to be careful. More seriously, I congratulate him on a very polished and confident performance in his maiden speech as Minister and wish him well in his job. We will be knocking on his door at various points throughout his tenure, not least on this issue, but also on the issues that were raised during the debate and to which he referred, such as electoral registration, about which many of the same people feel passionately. We will use his good offices to try to make progress on some of those issues.

No one is anticipating wholesale change in a big-bang effort. As the hon. Member for Foyle pointed out, it will be a process. It may be that one Bill is dealt with quickly and another Bill—let us draw breath—deals with another issue. Throughout the 2020 Parliament, if the public had participated in their millions in a constitutional exercise, they would expect nothing less of any Government, or any coalition or alliance in government, than progress on what they had been involved in over such a period.

On the more general point, the Minister and everyone else who spoke reflected the passionate desire to make this stuff happen. As the hon. Member for Edinburgh East pointed out most eloquently, that means getting some drive and excitement. The biggest drive and excitement that anyone can ever find in politics or in their daily life is when they control their own destiny and can do something about it, not least in connection with their community, locality, nation or whatever.

That takes us back to the idea of giving people the ability and the framework that my colleague on the Front Bench, my hon. Friend the Member for Wansbeck (Ian Lavery), discussed so clearly. We need to provide the structure in which people can take control. We can call it subsidiarity or any other ugly word for a beautiful concept, but is about giving people at the lowest possible level the ability to run their own lives. Despite all the rhetoric, that is something shared by all parties in the House of Commons.

We can create the necessary passion and excitement, but to get to that great nirvana of self-realisation, we have a responsibility to do the nuts and bolts. The biggest set of nuts and bolts that we can do something about is to create a citizens convention so that people can take control of their own lives and build the sort of democracy of which everyone present would be proud.

Question put and agreed to.


That this House has considered Government policy on a Citizen’s Convention on democracy.