What is the government’s proposed Democracy Commission?

Guest Author, the views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of the Electoral Reform Society.

Posted on the 7th December 2020

By Akash Thiara, a Placement Student with the Electoral Reform Society from the University of Nottingham.

During last year’s general election, the government pledged that, in its first year, it would set up a ‘Constitution, Democracy and Rights Commission’. That date is rapidly approaching.

According to the 2019 Conservative Party manifesto, the Commission would look at ‘the broader aspects of our constitution’ and would ‘come up with proposals to restore trust in our institutions and in how our democracy operates’. 

With the government making no announcements about the precise remit or timing of the commission since its manifesto and Queen’s Speech, it seems that this deadline is unlikely to be met – indeed there were reports during the summer that the proposal had been quietly shelved. But the situation isn’t entirely clear.  

The only area of change has been the launch of an independent review of administrative law, to consider options for reforming the process of judicial review (one of the issues contained in the manifesto).  

But debate continues over what should be included in the proposed Democracy Commission, and the House of Commons Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs committee (PACAC) recently launched an inquiry into the plans.

The inquiry sets out the proposed areas on which the Commission would focus, including ‘the relationship between the Government, Parliament and the courts’, ‘the ability of our security services to defend us against terrorism and organised crime’, and ‘updating the Human Rights Act’. PACAC also ran a public survey to invite views on what the Commission should focus on.  

Misplaced priorities? 

While the Commission suggests there is a desire to address the problems with and improve our democratic processes, the priorities the government set out ignore major areas where democracy is lacking in the UK.  

For instance, the Commission’s remit does not include consideration of the electoral system and whether First Past the Post is the best system to use to elect MPs to the House of Commons.   

This question goes to the heart of our democracy and people’s right to have their vote count. If the government is serious about wanting to establish a Democracy Commission that truly improves our democracy, then considering whether the electoral system is fit for purpose must be a priority.   

Nor does it include the desperate need to overhaul how the unelected House of Lords is run – instead focusing on its ‘role’. The government has packed the Lords with 30 more appointees this year, despite it already being the largest second chamber in the world. At around 800 members, and with no accountability, too many peers can lobby for outside interests with little oversight.  

The need for a Citizens’ Assembly 

The Commission also seems to have a problem with composition, involving only parliamentarians and academic experts. The government risks excluding the voices of ordinary voters, who are at the heart of a functioning democracy. 

During a period where the faith in our democratic processes has been deteriorating for many years – causing many people to view politics with suspicion – the Commission must incorporate the views and concerns of the public when looking at important constitutional questions.  

In order for it to ultimately improve the democratic institutions that exist to serve UK citizens, the Commission should include a citizens’ assembly, a group of ordinary people representative of the wider population, which would offer their viewpoint on democratic reform. This would allow for ordinary voters to be directly involved in discussions around our constitutional and democratic future in a substantive way, whilst contributing to the legitimacy of the Democracy Commission itself.  

Making sure it is done right 

On paper, and if done properly, the establishment of a ‘Democracy Commission’ could be a welcome step. The ERS has long highlighted the need to strengthen our democracy and look at the constitution in a holistic manner 

But a Commission that ignores the elephants in the room when it comes to Britain’s broken constitutional – and which fails to involve citizens directly in its process – risks wasting a major opportunity. Without being open and transparent, the Democracy Commission could cause more public distrust in politics – at a time when it is needed most. 

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