Citizens’ Assembly on Brexit: full report launched today

Over two weekends in September 2017, the Citizens’ Assembly on Brexit brought together 50 randomly selected citizens to consider and make recommendations on the form of Brexit that they wanted the UK to pursue. Today, just two days before the European Council is expected to give the green light to starting negotiations on the future relationship between the UK and the EU, the Assembly’s full report is publishedRebecca McKee and Alan Renwick here highlight some of the key findings.

The European Council is expected to agree on Friday that sufficient progress has been made in the Brexit talks to move on to stage two, focusing on the future relationship between the UK and the EU. Reports suggest that the cabinet is having its first detailed discussions of that future relationship – and whether the UK should seek ‘high alignment’ or ‘low alignment’ with the EU – this week and next.

What do the public think on these issues? Though the referendum vote in 2016 decided that the UK is leaving the European Union, it did not allow voters to indicate the type of Brexit they wanted. If the Brexit process is to remain democratic, that is crucial information. As the government embarks upon the next phase of negotiations, we need to understand voters’ priorities and preferences.

That is what is provided by the Citizens’ Assembly on Brexit, whose full report is launched today. The Assembly was held in Manchester in September and brought together 50 randomly selected UK citizens to learn about, reflect on, discuss and make recommendations on the type of Brexit they wanted the UK government and others to pursue. The Assembly members deliberated on two key aspects of the future UK–EU relationship: trade and migration.

Who was in the Citizens’ Assembly?

The Assembly consisted of 50 people from across the UK who were selected at random to be broadly representative of the electorate. They reflected the population in terms of age, social class, ethnicity, gender, where they lived, and how they voted in the EU referendum. The figure below illustrates the number of people in each category. You can read in detail about the process of recruiting the Assembly members here.

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Reforming the Welsh Assembly: how do you choose an electoral system?

A nine-month inquiry by a specially convened expert panel has culminated today in the publication of a report that sets out the case for a substantial increase in the size of the Welsh Assembly. In this post, Constitution Unit Deputy Director and panel member Alan Renwick offers a personal reflection on the inquiry and its findings. He focuses particularly on the aspect of the Panel’s remit that is closest to his own research: the appropriate electoral system for an enlarged chamber.

The Expert Panel on Assembly Electoral Reform has today published its report. Set up last February by the Presiding Officer of the Welsh Assembly, the Panel was charged with investigating and making recommendations on three issues: the number of members that the Assembly needs to perform its role effectively; the electoral system through which it is elected; and the minimum voting age for Assembly elections. The Panel’s work fits into a wider agenda of Assembly reform – including a proposal to rename it the Welsh Parliament – to ensure it can exercise effectively its increasing powers and responsibilities.

Core recommendations

The Panel’s main recommendation is that the number of Assembly members should rise from the present 60 at least to 80, and preferably closer to 90. We examined compelling evidence that this change is essential – however difficult it may be politically – if the Assembly is to remain able to perform its functions properly.

Increasing the size of the Assembly in this way inevitably requires some change in the electoral system. We concluded that the simplest possible change – retaining the existing Mixed-Member Proportional (MMP) electoral system (also somewhat misleadingly known as the Additional Member System, or AMS) and increasing the number of list seats – would be defensible, but not optimal. Most crucially, it would make any increase in the size of the Assembly beyond 80 members – the very bottom of the range that we think necessary – unfeasible in 2021. Rather, the Panel recommends that, if the Assembly adopts gender quotas, the optimal system would be the Single Transferable Vote (STV). If the Assembly does not accept gender quotas (or concludes that it lacks the power to enact them – there is some legal uncertainty in this area), the best option would be a Flexible List system of proportional representation.

Regarding the voting age, meanwhile, the Panel comes down firmly in favour of a reduction to 16, accompanied by measures to ensure that young people are properly taught in schools and other places of learning about politics, including about the choices available at elections and beyond.

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Australia’s postal survey on same-sex marriage: a flawed process that should not be repeated

Legislation legalising same-sex marriage completed its passage through the Australian parliament last week. This followed a strong vote in favour of the change in a postal survey, held from September to November. Paul Kildea argues that, while the survey proved effective in bringing about marriage equality, the process was deeply flawed and should not be repeated.

Australia’s political year ended on a high with the legalisation of same-sex marriage. There were jubilant scenes in the House of Representatives as it approved a change to the legal definition of marriage from ‘the union of a man and a woman’ to ‘the union of 2 people’. The first weddings will take place on 9 January.

The road to marriage equality was convoluted and messy. For many years politicians resisted growing community calls for change, and in the end opted to hold a national poll as a precursor to legislative action. This was constitutionally unnecessary and expensive, but the resounding result – 61.6% of respondents supported same-sex marriage – provided a clear endorsement that parliament could not ignore.

What is particularly noteworthy about this national poll is the form that it took: it was not a referendum or a plebiscite, but rather a public opinion survey run by the Australian Bureau of Statistics. It was non-binding, voluntary (voting in elections is compulsory in Australia), and conducted entirely by post over an eight-week period from September to November this year. The postal survey was, in design and execution, unlike any previous direct democracy exercise in Australia. Now that it is behind us, a full appraisal is necessary. This post will argue that, while the survey proved effective in clearing the political path to marriage equality, it was deeply flawed as a process and should not be repeated.

The long, winding road to same-sex marriage

It has been known for some time that the path to marriage equality in Australia runs through the legislature. In the past there had been doubts about the national parliament’s ability to legislate for same-sex marriage, but these were dismissed by the High Court in a 2013 ruling. Since then, reform has been in the hands of politicians. Advocates called on them to amend the Marriage Act 1961 (Cth) which expressly defined ‘marriage’ as ‘the union of a man and a woman’.

Yet, in August 2015, the conservative Prime Minister, Tony Abbott, resisted calls to legislate and instead announced that his government would hold a non-binding plebiscite on the matter. This was highly unusual. While Australian governments hold referendums on constitutional amendments from time to time (44 such votes have been held since 1901), they only rarely conduct plebiscites on other matters. In fact, history yields just three precedents: two votes on compulsory military service in 1916 and 1917, and one on the national song in 1977. This is consistent with Australia’s tradition of parliamentary democracy in which elected representatives are entrusted to make decisions on most issues. In line with this, Australia’s parliament has a long history of legislating on matters of marriage and divorce.

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Is the Citizens’ Assembly on Brexit a citizens’ assembly at all?

The Citizens’ Assembly on Brexit, held over two weekends in the autumn, brought together a representative sample of the population to discuss the form Brexit should take with respect to immigration and trade. But, as an unofficial body in contrast to past and present assemblies in Canada, the Netherlands and Ireland, should it really be classed as a proper citizens’ assembly? Graham Smith argues that it meets the most pertinent criteria and therefore should enter the small, but select, pantheon of genuine citizens’ assemblies.

What counts as a ‘citizens’ assembly’? The bar seems to have been set pretty high by the original assemblies in British Columbia (2003), Ontario (2006/7) and the Netherlands (2006), in which 104 to 160 randomly selected citizens met for between 10 and 12 weekends to learn, deliberate and make recommendations on whether new electoral systems ought to be introduced. The current Irish Citizens’ Assembly is running over 16 months, with 99 citizens coming together for 11 weekends working on a range of issues, including abortion, climate change and fixed-term parliaments. In all cases, the assemblies have been sponsored by political authorities.

The Citizens’ Assembly on Brexit (CAB) brought 50 randomly selected citizens together over two weekends in September 2017 to learn, deliberate and make recommendations about trade and immigration policy post-Brexit. But is it too small, too short and too far removed from official decision making processes to be thought of as a ‘proper’ citizens’ assembly?

Are there hard and fast rules here on numbers, length of service and political sponsorship? Are these the characteristics that define a citizens’ assembly as a particular form of deliberative mini-public? It is critical to have standards for different forms of engagement to ensure quality, although it is positive for democratic experimentation and innovation that no one has attempted yet to copyright ‘citizens’ assemblies’ as James Fishkin has done for deliberative polls.

Let us take the relationship with official decision making first. One of the features of previous citizens’ assemblies – and many other deliberative mini-publics – is that their charge is set by those with political authority. This no doubt limits what citizens’ assemblies are asked to work on, but couples them closely to the formal political process. While the Irish Citizens’ Assembly has shown that they can work on the most controversial topics – in this case abortion – this was an issue where the government was glad to pass the buck to a group of citizens. In the UK, this is not the case. The government has not developed a structured approach to engaging citizens on the question of what Brexit should look like. Does that mean a citizens’ assembly should not be organised where there is no explicit sponsorship by political authorities? Surely not. Surely a citizens’ assembly can be used as an intervention by those outside circles of political power in an attempt to change the terms of debate and bring citizens’ voices to bear.

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Where would an English Parliament be located?

Ongoing Constitution Unit research is exploring options for an English Parliament. The choice of location would have major practical implications, as well as being of high symbolic importance. Jack Sheldon sets out the factors that would need to be considered. He suggests that while a ‘dual mandate’ English Parliament would almost certainly meet at Westminster, a separately-elected body would most likely be located outside London.

Since last autumn Professor Meg Russell and I have been working on a research project exploring the options for an English Parliament. Although there have been various calls over the last 20 years to establish such a body, how might it actually be designed in practice? Unlike other issues relating to powers, functions, structure and composition, the decision on where to locate an English Parliament would not fundamentally affect constitutional arrangements. However, it would have major practical implications and be of high symbolic importance. This blog post focuses on the issues that would need to be considered in selecting a location and suggests how a decision might be reached.

The size of an English Parliament

Decisions on location would need to be made in light of the number of members an English Parliament would have. Our research has identified two competing models supported by proponents of an English Parliament, which point to different conclusions on this.

Under the ‘dual mandate’ model the English Parliament would be composed of members of the UK House of Commons that sit for English constituencies. The number of members would therefore be equal to the number of English Westminster MPs – currently 533, reducing to 501 if the proposed boundary changes are implemented.

Under the ‘separately-elected’ model a new directly-elected institution would be created. Considerations of cost-saving and consistency with the UK’s existing devolved legislatures mean that it would be likely to be a unicameral body of approximately 300 members. This would be sufficient to provide enough members to serve on committees and perform other parliamentary roles. If combined with a reduction in the size of the UK parliament, perhaps to around 350 members, an increase in the overall number of elected politicians could be avoided.

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Referendums in UK democracy: how should they work in practice?

The Independent Commission on Referendums, established by the Constitution Unit to review the role of referendums in UK democracy, has now met twice. One of the issues they are considering is rules for how referendums should work in practice. The Commission’s Research Assistant, Jess Sargeant, summarises the issues for consideration.

In a previous blog post I explored some principles that could be used for deciding when a referendum might be appropriate. The Independent Commission on Referendums is also considering how referendums should work in practice. The following post explores some key practical questions.

Should there be rules for when a referendum is required, permitted or prohibited?

The UK is unusual among comparable democracies in that referendums are held ad hoc: there are very few standing rules on when referendums are to be held. This means, at least in theory, that there are no restrictions on matters that a referendum may be held on: it could be held on any issue within parliament’s legislative competence.

Many other democracies have provisions in their constitutions setting out when a referendum must be, can be, or cannot be held. Constitutional issues are the most common category of issues on which a referendum is required. For example, Ireland, Australia and Japan require referendums on any bills amending the constitution. In Austria, Spain, Lithuania and Iceland amendments to certain key parts of the constitution must be approved in a popular vote. There are also examples of referendums being required on other issues: Denmark has mandatory referendums on transfers of sovereignty and changes to the voting age.

Where referendums are not required on constitutional amendments, there is often a mechanism allowing a parliamentary minority to trigger one, as is the case in Italy, Austria and Spain. In some democracies, legislation can be put to a referendum if requested by a body so empowered by the constitution. This could be the parliament, as in Denmark and Austria, the president, as in Ireland and Iceland, or groups of citizens, as in Italy and the Netherlands. Where referendums are permitted on legislation, certain types of legislation are often exempt: most commonly, finance, budgetary and tax laws or legislation implementing treaties.

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Legislation at Westminster launch seminar: senior parliamentary figures discuss the impact of parliament on government bills

Meg Russell and Daniel Gover’s new book Legislation at Westminster challenges received wisdom about the UK parliament’s influence on legislation. In contrast to common portrayals of Westminster as having only weak policy influence, Russell and Gover present evidence demonstrating strong influence, exercised in a variety of subtle ways. The findings were discussed at a seminar held in parliament on 15 November. Hannah Dowling and Kelly Shuttleworth report.

The UK parliament is frequently portrayed as little more than an ‘elaborate rubber stamp’ by journalists and even parliamentarians. Academics have tended to offer a slightly more nuanced view but nevertheless often present Westminster as a weak legislature and downplay its policy influence. A ground-breaking new book by Constitution Unit Director Professor Meg Russell and Daniel Gover questions the extent to which these assumptions hold true. The book represents the largest study of its kind for over 40 years.

On 15 November, a seminar was held in parliament to discuss Russell and Gover’s findings. The event was chaired by Lucinda Maer, Head of the Parliament and Constitution Centre at the House of Commons Library. Russell and Gover summarised their findings before responses from Labour peer Baroness (Patricia) Hollis of Heigham and David Natzler, the Clerk of the House of Commons.

Daniel Gover

Daniel Gover introduced the central research question Legislation at Westminster seeks to address: How influential is parliament on government legislation? In order to answer this, Russell and Gover analysed 12 case study government bills in the period 2005–2012 and logged the over 4000 amendments proposed. The bills were selected to represent the range of legislation laid before parliament and accordingly varied by sponsoring department, chamber of introduction, length and profile. A total of 120 interviews with ministers, members of the opposition, backbenchers, civil servants and outside groups were also conducted. Of the 4361 amendments proposed, 886 were government amendments; 95% of these were passed, compared to 4% of non-government amendments. On the face of it, these figures seem to support the popular notion of parliament as weak and dominated by the executive.

However, by dividing the amendments into ‘strands’, i.e. collections of similar amendments made at different stages of the legislative process, Russell and Gover were able to trace their origins, which revealed a more nuanced picture of parliamentary power. There were 2050 strands identified, of which 300 were successful. Of these 300 strands only 55% were government-initiated. When  strands comprising only small technical changes were omitted, this dropped to 45% – with 55% initiated by non-government actors,. Amongst these groups, the opposition initiated the most strands (1604), of which 112 were successful. Although government backbenchers initiated fewer strands, 36 of 304 were successful – a higher success rate than the opposition. There were also 155 strands introduced by non-party affiliated actors, primarily in the Lords, of which 12 were successful. Gover stressed the importance of cross-party work, emphasising that strands demonstrating cross-party support had a higher success rate than those without.

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