Today the Unit publishes the Report of the Citizens’ Assembly on Democracy in the UK. Set up by the Unit last year, the Assembly offers unparalleled insights into public perceptions of how the UK’s democracy is working and should work. In this post, the project’s Research Assistant, James Cleaver, summarises the Assembly’s recommendations.
The Report of the Citizens’ Assembly on Democracy in the UK contains the conclusions of the first UK-wide citizens’ assembly to discuss the topic of democracy. Many of these conclusions speak directly to major ongoing political debates: around standards in public life, the balance between key democratic institutions, and the role of the public.
The Assembly was convened to answer the overarching question of ‘How should democracy in the UK work?’. It was conducted by the Constitution Unit in partnership with Involve, the UK’s leading public participation charity. Over six online weekends between September and December last year, Assembly members focused on three key areas of democracy: the relationship between government and parliament; the roles of the public; and ways of upholding rules and standards.
Having deliberated about these topics, members produced eight overarching resolutions and 51 specific recommendations, the latter designed to achieve the ambitions of the resolutions. Looking across these conclusions, three key themes emerge.
First, members expect high standards from those in public life, and they want independent regulators to be able to enforce this. Second, they oppose unduly concentrated power, calling for parliament, the courts and other constitutional checks to play more prominent roles. Third, members want better mechanisms for the public’s voice to be heard, both through improvements to the representative system, and through better use of petitions, referendums and deliberative processes.
Upholding ethical standards
Members frequently expressed their lack of trust in politicians – something also reflected among the wider public in our recent large-scale survey. They saw many in public life as dishonest, and were disturbed by an apparent absence of consequences for unethical or illegal behaviour. As their resolution on this matter makes clear, they felt that existing political mechanisms to regulate the behaviour of politicians are insufficient.
Members made a series of specific recommendations to improve standards and restore public confidence in the integrity of politicians. Reflecting the strength of feeling on this issue, across six individual recommendations related to Resolution 6, an average of 77% of Assembly members expressed ‘strong support’ (and most others gave ‘support’) – comfortably the highest levels for any issue. In particular, members called for regulators to play a more active role, expecting them to ‘investigate conduct that appears dishonest or self-interested, or lacks integrity’. Importantly, they wanted independent regulators to be able to initiate inquiries, rather than relying on politicians or the Prime Minister.
Members also agreed that the sanctions proposed by regulators for breaching codes of conduct should be imposed. The Owen Paterson scandal occurred just a few weeks before the Assembly’s discussions about standards, and it likely played some role in shaping members’ attitudes. But scepticism about the conduct of politicians was prevalent before that scandal broke, and members cited other cases too, such as findings that the Home Secretary, Priti Patel, had treated civil servants in a manner that ‘can be described as bullying’.
Reflecting their low trust in politicians, and possibly responding to recent controversies at Prime Minister’s Questions, members also proposed that MPs found to have lied to or intentionally misled parliament should be ‘made to give a public apology’ and receive an appropriate sanction.
Assembly members were near-unanimous that ethical standards of behaviour among those in public life fell well below what should reasonably be expected. One member spoke for many when they said that they felt there was ‘one rule for them and another for everybody else’. Members hoped that the implementation of these recommendations would restore public confidence in the UK’s politicians.
The second major theme of members’ conclusions was a desire to avoid concentrating power too far in the hands of a few politicians or a single institution. This preference is visible in resolutions calling for parliament to play a stronger role vis à vis government and for greater powers for the courts.
Members believed that empowering parliament would lead to greater scrutiny and transparency, and therefore to better policy decisions. They saw dangers in taking that too far: in particular, they saw it as vital that a government could implement the programme on which it had been elected. But they viewed the UK parliament today as having too few powers in relation to government.
Building on the resolution above, members proposed the creation of a cross-party committee to control the allocation of time for debate on bills in parliament (something endorsed by a previous report of the House of Commons Procedure Committee), and called for free votes on issues beyond the scope of party manifestos.
In addition, they wanted parliament to have a say over the calling and end of recess, and for parliament’s approval to be required for an early general election to take place.
The lack of trust that Assembly members had in politicians was one reason why many advocated a stronger role for the courts in protecting human rights and basic democratic freedoms. Most members wanted courts to have powers to overturn certain laws passed by parliament, going beyond their current powers under the Human Rights Act.
Members were aware that this was a significant change from the current situation, and therefore said that courts should use this proposed power ‘sparingly’. They wanted to maintain the democratic principle that citizens should be governed by ‘the people we elect to represent us’.
The Roles of the Public
One of the concerns raised most frequently by members was the lack of influence they and people like them appeared to have in the current system. Members considered four ways of addressing this: through supporting public involvement in the representative system, and through uses of petitions, referendums and deliberative processes.
When exploring ways of supporting public involvement in the representative system, members felt that their fellow citizens should become more engaged, but also cautioned that greater responsiveness from the system was needed to achieve this.
To that end, they supported a number of recommendations to both encourage public involvement and enhance responsiveness. For example, they called for education that promotes understanding of the democratic system, and for MPs to be more visible in their local communities in order to ‘help build connections and trust’.
Members were also broadly positive about the future use of petitions, referendums, and deliberative processes. For example, they wanted citizens’ assemblies or smaller citizens’ juries to ‘sense-check’ significant new legislative proposals beyond the government’s previous manifesto.
Still, members were not wholly uncritical of these mechanisms. A recommendation allowing petitions to trigger referendums was rejected in preliminary voting. The recommendations on referendums mainly focused on imposing conditions – including the requirement for a supermajority vote – on their operation. And members opposed granting deliberative processes the power to make binding decisions over the heads of elected representatives.
The findings in context
The is the second report of the Democracy in the UK after Brexit project. The project’s first report, What Kind of Democracy Do People Want?, presented the results of a UK-wide population survey conducted in July of last year. Given that the Assembly and the survey explored similar issues, it is valuable to compare their respective results.
In fact, there are striking similarities between our first survey and the conclusions of the Assembly. A lack of trust in politicians; the importance of integrity and honesty from those in public life; and a desire to spread power to parliament and the courts – these themes are also prominent in What Kind of Democracy Do People Want?.
These similarities are particularly notable given that surveys and citizens’ assemblies are very different from each other. Taking part in a rapid-fire survey is very different from voting after many hours of learning, reflection, and collective deliberation. The complementary findings give confidence that we have meaningfully and accurately captured what people think about these issues.
In addition, however, deliberative processes like citizens’ assemblies and surveys, precisely because of their different methods, give very different kinds of evidence. To quote James Fishkin, one of the founders of deliberative democracy, such processes aim to allow people to ‘consider key issues under good conditions for thinking about them’. At the Assembly, members heard competing perspectives and had time to consider the topics under discussion. This gives deeper and more detailed insights into people’s attitudes towards democracy in this country than we have had before. The report details members’ justifications for each of their resolutions and recommendations, an invaluable resource for researchers and policymakers alike.
This, we hope, will have major implications for how we all talk about public attitudes towards democracy in the UK today. The conclusions of the Citizens’ Assembly on Democracy in the UK deserve serious attention, and we hope now that they will receive it.
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