Examination of Witnesses (Questions 131-139)|
28 JANUARY 2008
Q131 Chairman: We are now into our second
session of the afternoon and we are joined by Professor Graham
Smith of the Centre for Citizenship and Democracy. Welcome to
you. Is there anything you would like to say before we start?
Professor Smith: One thing to
stress is I assume the reason I have been asked to come and talk
to you is not because I am a human rights specialist, because
I would never claim that. If you start asking me details of Human
Rights Acts and those kinds of things I am going to have a bit
of a problem. My background is mostly studies of public participation
so I hope that the reason I have been invited to come here is
to talk about methods of public participation, pros and cons and
different structures that have been put in place elsewhere.
Q132 Chairman: That is exactly why.
Professor Smith: Then we are on
the right wave length.
Q133 Chairman: What do you think are
the key lessons for the UK that can be learned from looking at
democratic innovations around the world?
Professor Smith: What is very
interesting at the moment is I think we are going through a period
of a lot of experimentation with public participation in a way
that we maybe had not done a decade ago. There are some really
interesting examples of where governments have taken quite bold
steps to engage the public in innovative ways which take us beyond
simple, traditional modes of consultation. The one that pops into
my mind here is what happened in British Columbia and Ontario.
They were not looking for whole scale constitutional change but
they were looking to change their electoral system. Politicians
being politicians could not decide what the best electoral system
would be, as we would witness in our own Parliament. They decided
that what they would do was set up an assembly of 160 randomly
selected citizens from all over British Columbia and they would
let them learn about the issues, deliberate, consult themselves
with the public over an 11 month period so they would become "experts"
in electoral form. They put a recommendation forward. They recommended
a change and the government had agreed that if there was a recommendation
for change that would go to a referendum, something completely
different from what we would be used to. There are what I take
to be quite amazing experiments going on in advanced liberal democracies.
Q134 Chairman: Are they getting it
Professor Smith: No. That is the
interesting question. The referendum was lost in British Columbia
but only by two per cent. They are going to rerun it because they
had two thresholds, one which was based on winning in a number
of localities and that was fine, but they hit 57.7 per cent rather
than 60 per cent overall so it was very close. The answer may
be that people do not want electoral reform or that people do
not want a new Bill of Rights. That is one answer, is it not?
Q135 Chairman: What was the turn
out like on that referendum? If you have had this huge public
engagement process, what sort of turn out do you achieve generally?
Professor Smith: I am afraid I
would have to give you the details of the turn out. There was
a lot of criticism of the government that they supported the assembly
but they did not support the public debate that followed it. One
of the criticisms is that a lot of people were not aware of the
assembly. They did a very good job in institutional design but
not in publicity.
Q136 Chairman: That begs the question
is the process as important, more important or less important
than the outcome?
Professor Smith: It depends where
you stand, does it not? I think it is critical, if you are going
to look at something at this level of potential impact on a political
system, that the process is carefully constructed. I am not necessarily
arguing the case for the British Columbia method; I am just saying
that that is an example of the sort of thing that was done. If
you are going to look at creating a Bill of Rights that shapes
the relationship between the governed and the governors, the process
by which that is brought about is incredibly important.
Q137 Chairman: Let me give you a
couple of examples. One is human rights, although you would not
see it in those terms. If public consultation produces a significantly
weighted outcome in favour of something, to what extent is it
necessary for politicians to respond, even if it is the wrong
thing to do? Suppose we had a referendum on the death penalty,
for example, and it came out with an enormous majority in favour
of restoring the death penalty, clearly in breach of our European
Convention rights and probably contrary to what informed opinion
would hold in this place. How do you square the circle?
Professor Smith: Would a state
hold a referendum on that because it would be limited by the Convention
of Human Rights? We would not have held a referendum on that issue
but I understand your point. I am not arguing the case for a referendum
necessarily. You asked me whether there had been any interesting
practice and I was saying that this was an example.
Q138 Chairman: This came out of the
previous discussion. We heard for example that support for social
and economic rights was generating 80 per cent approval in opinion
polling; yet some politicians were extremely nervous about it.
If you did the same thing on the mainland, I suppose a lot of
politicians here across the political persuasions are nervous
about it because of the implications of changes or whatever. How
would you try to square that sort of circle?
Professor Smith: Surely part of
the consultation process is a desire to know what citizens believe?
Q139 Chairman: If citizens come up
with something that you do not like and you do not think is workable,
do you run the risk therefore of undermining the wider political
process by creating this groundswell of opinion that you cannot
Professor Smith: It is interesting
that you use the term "groundswell of opinion" because
sometimes I know that consultation exercises are so badly organised
that this groundswell of opinion is often not informed opinion.
It is constructed by particular political groups. That is why
the sorts of things that I was talking about in British Columbia
were quite important because they gave citizens a chance to develop
reflective opinions. We do opinion polls all the time. We ask
people about things they have not thought about. What does that
mean? I do not understand how useful that information is. It is
just people's raw preferences. That is why I think the process
is crucial. Another example you might want to talk about is the
example in Victoria where they had a commission that went around
over a period of six months engaging in consultations with local
community groups etc. They were criticised because the agenda
that they had been set by the government in Victoria ruled out
social and economic rights, so they got a bit of a backlash on
that particular issue. It is a difficult one. If you are planning
to engage in a consultation process and you do not want to hear
what people have to say, I would say don't engage in a consultation
process. I would think very carefully about how you construct
that consultation process.
Earl of Onslow: Additional to that, are
we back with the great Burke address to his Bristol electors,
"You elect me for my judgment". The people of Hendon
very wisely say that our chairman is a splendid chairman and he
shall represent them in Parliament. They ask him to take decisions.
How do you square that one with modern, participatory democracy,
which is terribly important?