There’s an old adage that the American Congress is overly pale, male and stale, a criticism that applies equally to the Houses of Parliament. While this is likely to change slightly after the 12 December election, 8% of MPs are non-white compared to 14% of the whole of the UK, 32% are women compared to 51% of the wider population, and the average MP is a decade older than the average Briton.
However, recent action taken by Parliament may help breathe new (slightly more diverse) life into the policy making process, with the creation of a new citizens’ assembly announced in June. This month, invitations to join the assembly – dubbed the Climate Assembly UK – were sent out across the UK, including to 560 Newcastle postcodes. This represents less than 2% of the 30 000 total invitations being sent out, an amount that will be whittled down until the assembly has just 110 final participants.
Citizens’ assemblies have cropped up after sclerotic responses to important issues by policy-makers
A citizens’ assembly is a pool of randomly selected members of a state who discuss and make policy recommendations on a certain issue or issues: selection is then altered slightly to ensure all demographics are represented, making them different in more ways than one to a parliament. While often used to muse over electoral reform – as seen in Ontario and British Columbia in Canada, as well as the Netherlands – they have also cropped up after sclerotic responses from policymakers on issues such as flooding (in Poland) and financial crises (in Ireland, after 2008).
In Ireland, a citizens’ assembly helped break centuries-long deadlocks on gay marriage and abortion
It would seem, then, that at least in the eyes of the politicians that create them, citizen’s assemblies lack the rigidity sometimes seen in elected legislatures, and are afforded a certain dynamism by not being beholden to the will of the voting public. In Ireland, it was a citizen’s assembly that helped break centuries-long deadlocks on gay marriage (legalised by referendum in 2015, following an assembly recommendation) and abortion (unrestricted access to which the assembly urged the Irish government to legalise, before the issue was also put to referendum).
Climate Assembly UK will meet over four weekends early next year, and will ask its participants to consider how best to meet the UK’s target for net zero carbon emissions by 2050 – enshrined in law in June – and how best to respond to the climate crisis. The results of the talks are then to be presented to the six House of Commons select committees that commissioned the assembly, and debated in the Commons. The Liberal Democrat climate change spokesperson, Wera Hobhouse, was critical of how the assembly came to be, arguing “It is deeply disappointing that the Tory government have failed to take the lead. If they were serious about tackling the climate emergency, they wouldn’t leave it to backbench MPs”.
Last modified: 11th November 2019