By Calum Green
Director of Advocacy and Communications
Parliament's Privileges Committee is due to make a decision in the coming weeks about whether former Prime Minister Boris Johnson lied to Parliament. For many years, political scandals, from all political parties, have damaged public trust in politics. Rebuilding this trust will take a generational effort. A central part of this must be to find ways to place people from all walks of life into the heart of Westminster. As citizens, we are clear - our politicians being honest and having integrity matters more to us than any other change to our democracy. So, we are calling for citizens’ juries, who are reflective of the public, to help set and evaluate new rules for MPs.
For many years, political scandals have severely dented public trust in politics, and even democracy. These moments reinforce a wider decline in confidence in politicians; the British public’s confidence in parliament has halved since the 1990’s.
There have been defining moments in this decline - for example, the last Labour government was seen to have not been ‘straight with the nation’ on the Iraq War, and the expenses scandal in 2009. Public concern has worsened over the past 24 months with the Owen Paterson affair, the ‘Partygate’ scandal, and a Prime Minister’s premiership that ended in under 50 days. And, these moments have taken place against a backdrop of rising authoritarianism, growing polarisation, and declining voter participation - all symptoms of democracy under pressure and increasing public dissatisfaction with the status quo.
Rebuilding trust in politics requires a generational effort. No one personality, political party or policy intervention is enough - we must make clear our ambitious intentions, and take tangible, bold steps to achieve our goal. Placing citizens at the heart of Westminster should be an integral part of this effort. At Involve, we regularly see how involving citizens can have a big impact on policy, on those involved, and even on public perception of decisions.
First, having citizens work hand in glove with elected representatives gives people in communities across the UK a chance to see Westminster up close, and understand more about how it works and the impact it has on our lives. Second, working with, not just on behalf of, citizens often leads to better decisions in the end. The public can often surprise decision makers; see support for on-shore wind in Devon for example, something many assume is uniformly politically unpopular. And, the qualitative nature of citizens delivering together - particularly the ‘why’ behind proposals - can help inform decisions as the ideas remain with politicians for months to come. Finally, if the public understands that people like us have been involved, it can lead to greater support of that decision or policy.
So, how should we start to better include citizens in how Westminster works? Well, recent research from The Constitution Unit found that the most popular democratic reform would be if ‘politicians spoke more honestly’, with overwhelming public appetite for stronger mechanisms to uphold integrity among politicians. The rules that guide how MPs behave would speak to this priority, and in a way that’s broadly easy to understand - most of us understand the concept of rules at work! The timing is also right - the rules are under particular public scrutiny at the moment, given the Privileges Committee’s investigation into former Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s conduct. So, people are paying more attention to if, and how, the rules for MPs actually work.
The current Parliamentary scrutiny systems do work to some degree; it is good that Parliament can scrutinise and has some power to punish MPs. But, they need an update. Former Prime Minister John Major introduced an improved system over 25 years ago, which is largely what we have in place today, with some amends. Two committees are most involved (these were originally one, but were split in two in 2013, in part to allow lay members - non politicians - to play a role in the The Committee on Standards). The Committee on Standards focuses on the MPs’ code of conduct – deciding on cases of misconduct referred to it by the independent Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards. The Committee of Privileges focuses on issues of ‘privilege’ (the special protections given to MPs to help them do their job) and looks into allegations these privileges have been impeded – offences known as contempt of parliament.
Democracies are living, breathing systems that need tending to; we need to build on what exists to make it work for the 21st century. The current system does not do enough to rebuild public trust. In the current environment, these moments need to be seen as windows of opportunity to rebuild public trust in our politics. One first step would be to have citizens’ juries help set new rules for MPs, check they work, and even help to judge individual cases of wrongdoing.
Recent years have seen growing interest in the use of democratic innovations that place members of the public at the heart of processes, such as citizens’ assemblies, juries, panels and inquiries. Citizens' juries in particular are made up of around 12 - 24 people, chosen to reflect the wider population in terms of demographics & relevant attitudes. The jury members learn more about the subject, hearing balanced evidence on the issue, hold carefully structured deliberations on specific questions, supported by trained facilitators, and work together to find common ground on an issue.
If done right, these processes can have a big impact - from starting the process to legalise assisted dying for the terminally ill in Jersey, to major changes in policy on abortion, equal marriage and beyond in Ireland, hundreds of processes that place everyday people at the heart of decisions are happening worldwide. When done right, citizen-led processes like these can lead to better solutions to the big challenges we face by unlocking the energy & ideas of everyday people, break political deadlocks by providing politicians with a clear, public-supported way forward, and ensuring we solve problems in a way that delivers for everyone.
But what role would citizens’ juries play in setting new rules for MPs? The parameters of their role will be important to ensuring the process is effective. Here are three roles for citizens’ juries, that we think could work well:
a. The jury would receive extensive and balanced evidence; much like select committees, and criminal juries, the citizens’ jury would receive evidence, alongside a clear explanation of their role, and the rules that MPs should be abiding by. Ultimately, politicians need to believe in citizens if the reverse is to be true. If we trust MPs, with all their political affiliations and ambitions, to come to a balanced position when given the right information, we should trust citizens too.
b. The jury’s recommendation would be advisory; as with the above recommendations, the ultimate call would still sit with whichever committee was most appropriate (standards or privileges, in the current system). Rather than the recommendation being binding, its purpose would be to allow committees to understand what the public, with the benefit of the same evidence as they have seen, think about a particular case.
The above are just initial suggestions for how citizens’ juries could be integrated into a process of setting, managing and evaluating rules for MPs. The details require more work. But, the concept is clear; let’s get citizens into the heart of Westminster to help rebuild trust in politics, starting with setting new rules for MPs.
Ultimately, if we are to rebuild the public’s trust in politics, politics has to trust the public first. Commissioning citizens’ juries to help set new rules for MPs, check they work, and even play a role in judging wrongdoing would be one way to do that. It would provide a role for people from all walks of life to help decide how MPs should behave, and what should happen if they break the rules. Alone, it will not be enough to rebuild trust in politics. But, as part of a wider effort to bring people from all walks of life into the heart of Westminster, it could be.
If you believe we need to rebuild trust in politics, and people from all walks of life should have a role to play in this, sign up here and get involved in these discussions. Or, if you think this is a bad idea, and want to let us know why - we’re keen to hear from you too. We don’t have all the answers - we need your ideas and energy too!
Sign up and get involved here