What we’ve learnt about the government’s ‘Democracy Commission’

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Posted on the 18th December 2020

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

It has been a year since the last general election and, the Conservative party pledged it would set up a ‘Constitution, Democracy and Rights Commission’.

The deadline put in place of introducing the commission has now passed however – something that’s forgivable given the year we’ve had.

What might the Commission look into? Information on the planned Commission – what it might look at, and who would sit on it, has been scarce – much to the frustration of MPs and campaigners. The Conservative party manifesto in 2019 said it would asses:

  • the relationship between the government, parliament, and the courts
  • the functioning of the royal prerogative (scrapping the Fixed Term Parliaments Act)
  • the role of the House of Lords
  • access to justice for ordinary people

The party also suggested it would assess human rights legislation and restrict judicial review – the ability for organisations and individuals to challenge government decisions and policy in court.

Last week two ministers gave shed some light on the still-opaque proposals.

Both the Lord Chancellor, Robert Buckland, and the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, Michael Gove, gave a brief update on the plans for the Democracy Commission to the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee (PACAC).

One big change the Lord Chancellor had indicated, was that there would be ‘a series of focused reviews’, instead of one big Commission as previously planned.

The justification for this approach was that difficulties caused by the pandemic may cause a delay in the process, and they felt that it would instead be better to focus on specific aspects of the constitution separately.

The Government has indeed already begun some of this. Legislation is now going through to scrap the Fixed Term Parliaments Act – which transferred the power to call elections from the PM to Parliament. And ministers have begun a ‘review of judicial review’, which sounds technical but have a big impact on people’s ability to challenge government decisions.

The concern for campaigners like the ERS is that voters have been excluded from these crucial decisions about our democracy. That’s why the ERS has called for a Citizens Assembly to go alongside these constitutional decisions – so that any Democracy Commissions are actually democratic.

Instead, the Lord Chancellor in his update had designated that the independent reviews would be (exclusively) carried out by legal professionals and academics, who would then report to him to be put before parliament.

When the Lord Chancellor was pressed on the issue of a citizen’s assembly, he made some vaguely positive sounds – but went onto say without evidence that public involvement is more suited to local issues, rather than ‘abstract’ issues of this nature.

The dismissive tone of the Lord Chancellor carried on further during his update, when he mentioned that he is not persuaded about whether to look again at the need for electoral reform. This is despite a recent survey conducted by the PACAC which found that of the 18,521 responses it received, 77.9% said that a top priority for the Commission should be reforming Westminster’s warped electoral system.

During Michael Gove’s short subsequent update, he reiterated most of the Lord Chancellor’s aforementioned points, while adding that there will be a “set of specialist and expert groups looking at each part” of the constitution. Without any mentioning of a citizens’ assembly, the likelihood of public opinion being disregarded is sadly likely.

Mr Gove stated that either himself or the Prime Minister will be “saying a bit more, early in the new year, about some other ways in which we can modernise our constitution”. By modernising, we would hope he means including the public in these conversations – and rethinking the government’s rejection of a fair, proportional voting system for the 21st century.

Read the ERS’ submission to PACAC on the proposed Democracy Commission.

Image: RachelH_ Flickr CC BY 2.0

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