The Public Administration Select Committee
has agreed to the following Report:
PUBLIC PARTICIPATION: ISSUES AND INNOVATIONS:
THE GOVERNMENT'S RESPONSE TO THE COMMITTEE'S SIXTH REPORT OF SESSION
1. Governments should be held to account by
the citizen for the decisions they take and the services they
provide. Citizens must be given an opportunity to influence policy
and to participate in debate. Voting in elections is important,
but it is not enough in itself.
2. The Public Administration Select Committee
has long had an interest in building better accountability, and
at the end of the last Parliament it published a wide-ranging
Report on the subject: Public Participation: Issues and Innovations.
Part of the context for the Report was a serious shortfall in
public participation, including a turnout figure of 71 per cent
in the 1997 General Electionthe lowest for nearly 50 years.
The Report's recommendations included proposals which would strengthen
public consultation, promote innovative ideas for public participation
in the political process and encourage more people to vote in
3. The Government has now responded; its Response
is attached as an Appendix to this Report. It is generally positive,
explaining how the Government is trying to meet our points by
introducing innovation in voting, new and more consistent ways
of consultation and other useful initiatives. We welcome this
support for the Committee's approach.
4. However, the situation has changed dramatically
in the last few months as the crisis in public participation has
deepened. The problem can be summed up in one stark statistic:
59 per centthe figure for the turnout in the June 2001
General Election. Not since the extension of the suffrage in 1918
has there been such a low level of participation in the electoral
process. The reasons for it may be debated, but not its seriousness
for our democracy. We find it extraordinary that this collapse
in electoral participation, put alongside other evidence on civic
disengagement, has not been treated as a civic crisis demanding
an appropriate response. Political life has simply continued as
if nothing has happened. We believe that a Democracy Commission
should be established as a matter of urgency to consider how this
crisis can be responded to constructively and with imagination,
and we believe that our Report makes a contribution to this process.
5. Other forms of participation continue to
meet with only limited success. For instance, the People's Panel,
which was set up to seek the views of a large sample of the public
on policy issues, has not been used to test opinion on specific
policy proposals. The Report described the Panel as a 'missed
6. In these circumstances, the Government's
Response falls short of what is needed. We are concerned that,
unlike other Government documents, it contains few targets and
timetables for delivery. There is for instance a programme, being
developed by the Office of the e-Envoy, to enhance the use of
the Internet to increase participation in the democratic process.
However, there are no target dates for this important work. By
contrast, the Government has set out strict targets for the achievement
of the objectives of e-government, which puts people in touch
with government services by electronic means. The Committee believes
that the same urgency now needs to be applied to e-democracy.
7. The Committee recommended a close partnership
with other bodiesincluding local authoritiesto spread
good practice in participation. We find the government's response
extremely complacent, referring to a three-year-old policy document.
We urge it to take a much more proactive stance in promoting good
practice in this vital area.
8. We are also anxious to see progress on another
area of great public debatescience and its interpretation.
As another recommendation stressed, there is an urgent need for
better means of exploring the views of citizens on issues of scientific
uncertainty. Among the possibilities are 'deliberative' techniques
which allow consideration in greater depth than is the case with
simple opinion poll questions. The citizen must be given every
appropriate opportunity to participate in discussion about the
scientific judgements that drive policy. The Government's response
on this recommendation stresses the cost of consultation, saying
that expensive deliberative techniques are "not the right
way to tackle all issues of scientific uncertainty." However,
the Committee believes that this fails to take proper account
of the costsometimes a very high costwhich can be
attached to rushed government decisions based on contested scientific
judgements. This is an issue which needs further debate.
9. These subjects are vitally important to the
proper functioning of democracy, and we will be returning to them
shortly. We will be seeking oral evidence from a Minister on the
Government Response, so that we can be reassured that the Government
is tackling the issue of public participation with the seriousness
and urgency that are required.
2 Sixth Report (Session 2000-01) HC 373-I Back
Report (Session 2000-01) HC 373-I, paragraph 68 Back