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Citizens’ Assemblies and Local Democracy

Volume 748: debated on Tuesday 16 April 2024

I will call Debbie Abrahams to move the motion and I will then call the Minister to respond. As is the convention for a 30-minute debate, there will not be an opportunity for the Member in charge to wind up.

I beg to move,

That this House has considered citizens’ assemblies and local democracy.

It is lovely to see you in the Chair, Ms Vaz. I am absolutely delighted to lead this Westminster Hall debate on how citizens’ assemblies can be used to enhance public engagement in political decision making, bringing benefits to our democracy and society as a whole.

As hon. Members may know, last month I introduced the Standards in Public Life (Codes of Conduct) Bill to Parliament. Many people across our great country and nation states feel that the UK Parliament—including MPs and Ministers who sit in this place—is disconnected from them and their lives. It is not just the poor behaviour of a few bad apples affecting how people feel; there is a much deeper malaise.

People have a growing lack of trust and confidence in politics and politicians. Last year, a King’s College London study of 24 countries found that the UK fares poorly in people’s confidence in the Government, political parties and even Parliament. Added to that, there is a marked difference by generation. Young people have experienced some of the biggest shifts in attitude: confidence in the Government among millennials in Britain has halved since 2005, falling to its lowest level on record, and generation Z has very low confidence in a wide range of other institutions, too.

In the Hansard Society’s audit of political engagement series, which was carried out between 2004 and 2019, people reported an increasing sense of powerlessness and disengagement over time. Similarly, polling by the think-tank Compassion in Politics showed that four out of five people have no respect for politicians, and that 40% of parents would be concerned if their child expressed a desire to become a politician, which is worrying if we want our democracy not just to survive but to thrive.

I congratulate the hon. Lady on bringing forward this debate. I always do research on these matters. Northern Ireland is fortunate to have its own citizens’ assembly with 75 members, which passed three high-level resolutions that made recommendations on the core themes of social care, change and strong leadership. Is the hon. Lady aware of Northern Ireland’s citizens’ assembly? Does she believe that it can foster better communication between people and their elected representatives? If so, would she add her support to it?

I was not specifically aware of the citizens’ assembly in Northern Ireland, although I am aware of many across our nation states and in other countries. They are seen as a mechanism by which elected representatives can maintain contact with their constituents on various policy issues throughout a political cycle.

Polling from the Institute for Government recently showed that two thirds of constituents do not think that the current Government behave to high ethical standards. Likewise, polling from the UK Anti-Corruption Coalition found that two thirds of voters believe that UK politics is becoming more corrupt. We know that when socio- economic inequalities are narrow, trust between different communities and groups increases, and the reverse is true when the inequalities widen. Of course, that is the situation we find ourselves in at the moment.

There are other good reasons for greater public engagement and deliberative policymaking, including through citizens’ assemblies. Before I was elected to this place, I served as a public health consultant and academic. My work was focused on tackling health inequalities and their main determinants—inequalities in income, wealth and power. It may surprise hon. Members to hear that there is an independent and universal effect on our health and wellbeing that relates to our status in a hierarchy. The process of engaging people in decision making and sharing that power has a positive impact on their health and wellbeing, in addition to leading to the development of better politics based on lived experience and consensus.

How does a few people sitting in a citizens’ assembly enhance the involvement of the public? Is it not in fact completely undemocratic and contrary to the involvement of the public, who have the right to elect and unelect us?

I thank my right hon. Friend for his intervention. I will explain more about how it adds to and does not detract from the role of elected representatives, and the benefits of that.

The European values study and the world values survey have tracked changes in individuals’ perceptions of freedom and control over time. Worryingly, they found that low perceptions of freedom and control were associated with rising populist support. When people do not feel engaged in society and their local community, decisions are made about them without them. When politicians do not have their interests at heart, not only do they lose faith in democracy and seek political extremes, but it has an impact on their health. That is why citizens’ assemblies and active participative policy- making in general are important. By engaging with and empowering people on the issues that matter to them all year round, we help to give them more control over their lives and a far greater stake in our society.

Essentially, having a few people in a citizens’ assembly does not involve the public. The public will get involved this year in a general election; that is how the public get involved and engaged. They may feel that the results of that election are not reflective, because the great and the good and financial sources may influence things more than they should, but none of that affects the general public. The latest referendum in Ireland might demonstrate that.

Again, I thank my right hon. Friend for his intervention. I am afraid that the evidence does not bear that out. It does not replace the role of elected representatives, as he seems to suggest, but enhances it. I urge him to listen to what I am saying; I am happy to supply evidence of the evaluations of the benefits.

There may be questions about—even some resistance to—the notion of citizens’ assemblies because of the Burkean belief that policymaking is a job for elected representatives. Let me be clear that citizens’ assemblies do not replace the ultimate decision-making role of elected representatives: they enhance it by providing considered evidence and recommendations to inform that decision making.

Very briefly, citizens’ assemblies are representative groups of people, selected at random through the lottery principle. They are tasked with examining an issue in depth and making recommendations. Such assemblies have been used by many policymakers in the UK and elsewhere to assist in policy decision making. An evaluation is taking place in a swathe of the democracies that constitute the OECD, because of the value that has been seen. Citizens’ assemblies have been used by Governments in their policymaking, and have even formed part of some countries’ constitutions—for example, Ireland has that important role as part of its constitution. Famously, Ireland used citizens’ assemblies to examine delicate and sensitive matters such as abortion and same-sex marriage.

The last one they used it in was about 10 years ago, and we had an in-depth analysis from the people who ran that about two years ago.

In 2018, two Select Committees undertook a citizens’ assembly on social care, and in 2019-20, six Select Committees commissioned one to look at climate change. I was an official observer of that process. I was so impressed with how it was organised, from the selection of citizens and facilitation of the evidence sessions to the consensus on the development of recommendations. The interviews I did with participants were incredibly powerful, and everyone seemed to get so much out of it.

I have long been convinced of the importance of participative, deliberative decision making in policy development and reviews, and I believe that citizens’ assemblies could be an incredibly powerful tool for that. However, as a politician who believes passionately in evidence-based policy, the evidence from the recent evaluation of citizens’ assemblies, including an independent evaluation of the climate assembly pilot, is also encouraging. The “Evaluation of Climate Assembly UK” report states:

“Our overriding conclusion is that CAUK was a highly valuable process that enabled a diverse group of UK citizens to engage in parliamentary scrutiny of government on climate policy in an informed and meaningful manner. The case demonstrates a significant step forward in the UK Parliament’s public engagement strategy and based on our evidence, they should seek to establish more citizens’ assemblies in the future to feed into the scrutiny work of their select committee process.”

I hope that as we move towards the general election, we discuss not only what our policies will be but how we will develop and review them with people locally and nationally.

My hon. Friend is making an interesting speech. The criticism I hear from the public is that politicians talk too much and do too little. People want things done. Across our institutions—national, devolved and even local—politicians seem to be desiring to abrogate responsibility. Politicians need to make decisions. Politicians need to get things done. That is what people want.

I would not disagree with my hon. Friend. As I said earlier, citizens’ assemblies do not remove the responsibility of politicians to make those decisions, but ensure that those decisions are better informed and based on evidence, and that we have support from our constituents.

From artificial intelligence to air quality and assisted dying, citizens’ assemblies could be an invaluable tool. Crucially, we cannot treat general elections simply as a referendum held once every five years and just expect the British people to suck it up when policies change or new policies emerge between elections. Rather, general and other elections must be part of a process of deliberative democracy that engages with the people that we represent and serve, all year round, locally and nationally.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Vaz, and to reply to the debate ably introduced by the hon. Member for Oldham East and Saddleworth (Debbie Abrahams).

Let me begin, as I always like to, by trying to find a point of agreement with whoever has raised the debate. The hon. Lady is right to talk about the importance of trust in politics and engagement in our political processes. Like all advanced, mature western democracies, we are living in difficult times. With social media, conspiracy theories, different people with competing views, the rise of populism and an uncertain world with many big geopolitical and environmental questions, no wonder a lot of people feel disconnected and discombobulated.

Public engagement is key. One of the strengths of our country, as the inbox of any right hon. or hon. Member will attest, is that we have very vibrant lobbying, including from the third sector, on a whole range of issues. I have been doing this job for eight and a half years and am still surprised by some of the groups out there that wish, perfectly properly, to make their views on certain issues known to their Members of Parliament .

We have vibrant, open and democratic political parties. Our advice surgeries are a wonderful opportunity to provide mini citizens’ assemblies, effectively, at which individuals or groups of constituents can come and talk to us about issues that are important to them.

I think we occasionally underplay our power to convene. We can convene all sorts of public or private meetings in our constituencies and invite people, either on a select list or via open invitation. I have done something very similar on environmental and climate change issues: I issued an open invitation and a whole raft of people in my constituency came, across the age groups. They certainly improved my knowledge and understanding of the issues. I hope also to hear, from the political perspective, some of the checks and balances and some of the challenges that the democratic process throws up.

There are ways currently being deployed to maximise public engagement and therefore, hopefully, to grow and inculcate trust. However, I do not subscribe, and nor do the Government, to the hon. Lady’s argument. She has put forward a perfectly respectable argument, and she has evidenced it as she has seen fit, but it is a question of judgment. As we all know, to govern is to choose, and often there are competing options. I do not think that we would address some of the fundamental problems that she set out at the opening of her speech by defaulting to the creation of citizens’ assemblies.

The right hon. Member for Warley (John Spellar) almost gave my speech for me.

The Minister rightly says that the essence of exercises such as citizens’ assemblies is that they will deal with a narrow issue. The Government then have to choose between priorities: that is where essential political decisions get taken. There is then the opportunity for the British public to decide whether they like the direction of travel. Does he agree that we need to listen to campaigning groups, which play an important part in our democracy, but that ultimately it is the broader public who have to decide?

The right hon. Gentleman is absolutely right. One of the great strengths of single-issue pressure groups is that they bring a whole wealth and range of in-depth knowledge on a particular system or issue. The downside is that a single-issue pressure group or campaigner does not look at the larger picture or take the balance. It does not have to govern by choosing. I have seen a lot of evidence to suggest that membership of single-issue pressure groups has gone up, but the mixed potpourri—the Woolworths pick ’n’ mix—of joining a political party, where people have to give and take and trim and tack, has proven less popular, particularly among younger people.

I think that there is a misunderstanding. Citizens’ assemblies are not about replacing decision making, but about trying to provide an evidence-based rather than lobby-based approach for a particular vested interest. Evidence is provided to the participants of the citizens’ assembly that is balanced and comprehensive and allows people to come to a consensus on a recommendation to policymakers, who then decide. This discussion has completely misrepresented what citizens’ assemblies are about. They are about the engagement of people with a particular policy issue.

I am not entirely sure that the hon. Lady has helped her cause with that further amplification of what she means by citizens’ assemblies. The point that the right hon. Member for Warley made was the right one: what will the outcome be? If one stands as an independent candidate, free from a party Whip and from supporting a party programme in government, one can of course seek the views of constituents all the time: “How would you like me to vote on this?” However, it fundamentally changes the Burkean principle of having a representative rather than delegatory democracy. I think our representative democracy, as set out in Burke’s famous address to the electors of Bristol, still holds us in pretty good stead.

I do not make this point facetiously: this Chamber is a citizens’ assembly in a representative democracy. We have elections to it at some point this year. In a couple of weeks, we will have elections to citizens’ assemblies, be they for the mayoralty, for police and crime commissioners or for our local councillors. We talk about the word “democracy”, but let us remind ourselves of the history of that word. It comes from the Greek words “demos”, meaning people, and “kratos”, meaning power—power of the people. We are the citizens’ assembly and we can represent the concerns of constituents in a whole variety of ways, through appeals to Ministers, all-party parliamentary groups, debates and the like.

I am all for involving as many people as possible. The hon. Member for Oldham East and Saddleworth was absolutely right to highlight the particular need to harness the intellect, enthusiasm and interest of our younger generations, who occasionally—slightly lazily, slightly arrogantly—turn off and turn away: “Oh, they’re all corrupt. They’re all this, they’re all that. Nobody listens.” When we ask, “Well, when was the last time you made a representation, asked to see someone, joined a lobby or whatever?”, they say, “Oh, I don’t bother with any of that.”

I say the following as somebody who voted remain in the referendum. After the event, there was a large pro-EU demonstration outside. I fell into conversation with about 20 young people, all of whom were of voting age. Only 10 had voted. The others told me that they had posted stuff on Facebook or put things on Twitter. I then had to point out to them that the returning officer did not count posts on Facebook or posts on Twitter; they counted ballot papers. That is how to effect change.

I think my hon. Friend the Member for Oldham East and Saddleworth (Debbie Abrahams) posed a legitimate challenge around how, in a systemic way, we can create evidence-based policy based on participatory democracy. I am not convinced that the way to do that lies in citizens’ assemblies, but I entirely understand her point.

What I rail against—the Minister touched on this point—is the idea that politicians are not citizens. The Minister spoke about the formalised structure through which we can consult constituents. A good Member of Parliament who is rooted in their community will be doing that every day. I do it while doing everything from taking my kids to football, cricket and rugby to going to mass on a Sunday or the bookies on a Saturday. A good MP will be in touch with his or her community and will consult them all the time. That is a separate point from the one that my hon. Friend made, but it is important that MPs do not allow the perception to take hold that we are all rarefied species detached from people, because it is not true.

The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right. We do ourselves no service, as a group of people called to this particular strand of vocational public service, if we try to set ourselves apart like plaster saints who are in some way separate and uncontactable. I agree that we have to be within our communities. I usually have a citizens’ assembly when I drop my kids off at primary school or when I am in the queue at the supermarket or the petrol station: “Hello, Simon! How are you? While I’ve got you, can I talk to you about this, that and the other?” That is what an engaged Member of Parliament does.

I hear what the hon. Member for Oldham East and Saddleworth says, but it is the ballot box that creates the forum for those citizens’ assemblies, a representative democracy. We cannot have elections every six months, every year or whatever—as often as we may change our socks or our stance on a particular issue—but that is how this country selects its representatives to take decisions.

One thing I have yet to be convinced about, with regard to the efficacy of citizens’ assemblies, is selection through a random postcode lottery, as the hon. Lady set out. They hear evidence from experts; who appoints and defines who these experts are is a moot point, but let us just work on the principle for the moment. They give up a lot of their time, they take evidence, they come to a conclusion, and in coming to that conclusion they will probably find themselves operating in exactly the same way that we do: “I’ll give way on that point; you’ll give way on this point. We will find a compromise.”

It may work once, but I can just imagine somebody saying, “There has been a citizens’ assembly in my constituency and they have decided this, and they want me to vote this way or do this thing.” That may be a luxury of opposition—something I hope I never get a taste of, but who knows?—or it may come from somebody on the Government Benches. The right hon. Member for Warley is a seasoned former Whip for his party. I am not entirely sure what our Whips offices would say collectively to the idea, but they might well say, “Well that is all fantastically interesting, but the party policy is X. You availed yourself of the benefit of standing for party X, Y or Z, and you will have to follow the Whip.”

If we go back to those people who gave their time willingly at a citizens’ assembly and say, “I hear exactly what you said, and thank you for all your effort, but you cannot mandate me to do anything. I am perfectly free to do as I will, but my Whips have told me that that freedom is fettered and I have to do this, that or the other,” I am not entirely sure that the dynamic of citizens’ assemblies would create a self-perpetuating success story. The cold reality of the delivery of governing to choose, or choosing to govern, would hit the slightly abstract, theoretical way in which a citizens’ assembly might be run.

The Minister is identifying another part of the problem. First, Governments have to govern broadly and make trade-offs all the time. Secondly, those who attend citizens’ assemblies, and spend their weekends and everything else, are almost by definition not representative in the sense that we are. What makes us representative is that we are elected, but that does not make us normal in that sense. What it means is that ordinary citizens have other priorities, which is a very good and sensible thing. It does not mean that those who are prepared to participate are necessarily representative of the broader public.

The right hon. Gentleman is absolutely right, and I would add that another thing they are not is accountable. We are accountable: we are accountable in a society with a free press and media, and we are accountable through the ballot box. We can hold surgeries where people come to see us and ask, “Why did you vote for that and against the other?” and so on. It is about not just the representation element, but the accountability.

As somebody who started as a grassroots member of a political party and got involved in politics by joining an action group to save a field at the rear of a cathedral that somebody wanted to convert into a car park, I am hugely in favour of the power of the citizen to get involved and effect change. It is demonstrable and clear, certainly to my mind, because I am a product of it. As MPs, let us facilitate and empower more people. Let us convene more discussions locally to get people involved so that they can see the merits of this place and so that once again, or continuingly, they can see the House of Commons, their council chamber and other forums where elected people serve as their true, real, legitimate and representative citizens’ assembly.

Question put and agreed to.

Sitting suspended.