National Framework for Greater Citizen Engagement

Justice written statement – made on 9th July 2008.

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Photo of Michael Wills Michael Wills Minister of State, Ministry of Justice, The Minister of State, Ministry of Justice

The "Governance of Britain" Green Paper, which was published in July 2007, set out the Government's proposals for the next stages of constitutional renewal. A major theme running through the Green Paper is the importance of reinvigorating democracy. Active participation by as many people as possible is essential for a healthy democracy as it encourages a shared understanding, builds cohesion and instils confidence in the institutions and the people who are elected to represent us.

The Government recognise that the demands on our democracy are evolving. People are less engaged with the formal democratic process. Some, particularly disadvantaged groups and younger people, are increasingly unlikely to vote at elections. Others are channelling their political activity beyond voting and party politics to protest groups and single-issue campaigns. The Government want to address these challenges by increasing opportunities for people to participate in the decision-making process between elections and in ways that also encourage participation by those whose voices are not often heard.

Today I am publishing a discussion paper which sets out a proposed framework for the use of innovative engagement mechanisms by national government. The paper includes a range of proposals for the application of deliberative engagement methods—citizens' summits and juries—to inform the process of national policy making. Finally, there are proposals for a strengthened petitioning process for the House of Commons.

Involving the public in debates and decision-making on national issues can serve to reinforce and strengthen our democracy. But the Government are not suggesting that people should be asked to take the decisions they elect their MPs to make—Parliament should always have the final say on major national issues. We believe that, over time, these proposals will encourage greater involvement, provide people with opportunities to participate in collective debate on issues and lead to a greater understanding of the value of parliamentary democracy.

Both the "Empowerment" White Paper, which is also published today, and this proposed National Framework for Greater Citizen Engagement will increase opportunities for people to take part in decision-making—in their local communities and by influencing national Government. The Government are keen to gather views from Parliament and the public on the content of this discussion paper. Copies of the discussion paper have been placed in the Libraries of both Houses. Copies are also available in the Vote Office and the Printed Paper Office. The paper is also available on the Ministry of Justice website at: www.justice.gov.uk/publications/citizen-engagement.htm

Annotations

Michael James Macpherson
Posted on 23 Jul 2008 11:41 am (Report this annotation)

According to the Green Paper "Effective public engagement should complement representative democracy. Direct democracy, at the national level, in which the public makes the decision rather than their elected representative has some advantages ..." So far, so good ... We at I&R ~ GB propose that elements of direct democracy, such as the citizens' law-proposal and the right of the electorate to obtain a referendum on any issue which they choose, should play a more important role in the UK and countries.

Much too conservative is the Labour government's attitude to direct democracy. No serious reformer has suggested that referenda etc. should replace the established system of political parties and parliament. They should be helped to get on with their work "for us". But, according to reliable studies, a large majority of us would like to be able to take part more in running our own affairs in the periods between general elections. We strongly approve propositions like "A large number of citizens should be able to trigger a referendum on a matter of public concern".

The Green Paper continues "The Government believes that the holding of national referendums should continue to be an exceptional feature of our constitutional arrangements, used in circumstances where these sorts of fundamental issues are at stake." Elsewhere in the tract an assertion is made that referenda are rare in other countries, "there are very few countries where the use of the referendum is commonplace". It is odd that the Min. of Justice seems unaware of the extent and dynamic growth of direct democracy across the world. Here are some figures, from a talk given at a social science conference in Glasgow, 2007:
Referenda held at country level in Europe (excluding Switzerland) were counted as follows (10 year periods ending ...)
1960 four
1970 fourteen
1980 twenty-nine
1990 fifty-three
2000 one hundred and thirty
2001 to 2003 thirty-six

Further, by limiting consideration of direct democracy to "referendum" the Minister does not do justice to the rich culture of public participation, social responsibility and deliberation of complex issues which result from and feed a mixed system of "direct" and "indirect (representative)" democracy. This may be found, with interesting and instructive variations of form and practice, for instance in the USA, Italy, Switzerland, Lands of the federal state of Germany and even just now in "overcentralised" France!

More about citizens' direct democracy, the initiative, referendum, recall and more, may be browsed and downloaded at http://www.iniref.org/
On a historical note, I point out that we at I&R ~ GB appealed in the late 1990s to the government for a Green Paper on governance and democracy in the UK, see: "People's Proposal to Renew Democracy 1999: An historic document" on the page http://www.iniref.org/case.html

David Smith
Posted on 24 Jul 2008 2:19 pm (Report this annotation)

If the government is really wedded to reinvigorating democracy, it should give more priority to the arrangements for implementing the Sustainable Communities Act 2007. The Secretary of State has by 23rd October to issue the first invitations. This is not much good until the regulations are in place. As the House of Commons rises for the summer recess they have not been laid.

This is regretable. Perhaps when parliament reconvenes in October she should beg the indulgence of the House to allow her to delay the invitations until it has had the opportunity of examining, and if necessary challenging the regulations.

Unless this is done it is unreasonable to expect Local Authorities to respond positively.

Michael James Macpherson
Posted on 21 Aug 2008 11:15 am (Report this annotation)

August 21st 2008
There is an active (well, quite active) discussion about the government green paper National Framework for Greater Citizen Engagement going on at http://governance.justice.gov.uk/2008/07/08/the-process-cont...

The most recent message:
"Deliberative polling" as proposed by Fishkin can involve only a tiny fraction of the electorate -- one of his studies involved 340 people chosen from almost 300 million citizens of the USA. It could be used as a way in which governments can consult a small number of people about issues which the government has selected. It is rather expensive to organise.

Contrast this with the deliberative effects of real participation in democracy. Around the time of the Danish referendum on a european treaty, Maastricht, many citizens were better informed about what was in the treaty than were the members of parliament. Before the more recent french "Non" to the draft european constitution there was rich public debate in which millions informed themselves about the issues. Where referenda occur more often, a routine can develop in which information about the issue is posted to voters (internet can help here), people discuss the proposal at home, at work and even in public transport.

See for instance
Proposal for the introduction of new democratic procedures in Great Britain and Northern Ireland http://www.iniref.org/steps.html

Swiss governance http://www.iniref.org/swiss-home.html

An introduction to direct democracy http://www.iniref.org/swissdemocracy.html

Wahlen und Abstimmungen http://www.admin.ch/aktuell/abstimmung/index.html?lang=de