Comment: We can’t let our constitution be rewritten behind closed doors

How can devolution deals be expected to function if the public don't back them?


Devolution deals signed across the country with barely any public involvement, and a review of the House of Lords led by a Conservative hereditary Peer – it seems that our constitution is being re-shaped behind closed doors.

Let’s start with devolution. Plans to hand councils more powers are being signed across the country as we speak, with two new deals rubber-stamped this week alone. Generally, they’re drafted behind closed doors and with little public consultation, with only Durham so far offering residents a vote on the proposals.

Yet if local people don’t back the deals, how can they be expected function well?

But in exchange for the extra control over transport, housing and other areas, the government is imposing elected mayors on cities that voted against them just a few years ago, and further cutting the resources that local authorities need. If the public don’t like it? Tough.

Next is the government’s current ‘rapid review’ of the Lords, led by Thomas Galloway Dunlop du Roy de Blicquy Galbraith, 2nd Baron Strathclyde, CH PC – otherwise known as Lord Strathclyde.

The report will focus on what is essentially a technicality: restricting the ability of Lords to vote on financial matters via ‘statutory instruments’ – a form of secondary legislation that bypasses most parliamentary procedure.

The government is keen to make the Lords more like rubber-stampers in robes than legislative challengers following their defeat on tax credits a couple of weeks ago.

But given that the Lords has just swelled to well over 800 members, that it is so often beset by scandal, and that we need an effective revising chamber – isn’t it time for a real review of the upper chamber involving the public, rather than just Lords and Baronesses?

Most of the public think it’s time for genuine change – a poll from the Electoral Reform Society showed just 10 per cent back the chamber in its current form – ie. the only fully-unelected chamber in Europe.

Most people think we need an elected upper house, not just tinkering around the edges with the bloated and illegitimate mess we have now. Where’s their chance for a say?

The list goes on – English Votes for English Laws, Welsh devolution, the European Referendum Bill. What draws these together is they are all major changes to the fabric of our democracy – our constitutional future. Yet people are left out in the cold.

There is a better way of updating our democracy. Last weekend in Southampton, academics from universities across the country and the Electoral Reform Society held the final ‘Citizens’ Assembly’ on local democracy – an experiment in democracy, drawing in a representative sample of people from across the region to debate and vote on the authority’s devolution plans.

Dubbed ‘Democracy Matters’, it’s been closely watched by local councils because the level of engagement from participants has surprised everyone. Democracy, it turns out, can be exciting.

Another Assembly in Sheffield offered voters a voice on the ‘devolution revolution’ there. These are exciting demonstrations of how to put citizens in charge of building our constitution. Westminster must watch and learn.

Up and down the country it appears that when people get a chance to become informed and speak up, they jump at it. We can’t have our constitution written on the whims of the great and good – with politicians writing their own rule book. It’s time for citizens to lead the debate on our democratic future.

Caroline Lucas is the MP for Brighton Pavilion. Follow her on Twitter

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7 Responses to “Comment: We can’t let our constitution be rewritten behind closed doors”

  1. madasafish

    . It’s time for citizens to lead the debate on our democratic future.

    We have. Caroline Lucas seems to have forgotten we voted in a Referendum on the Constitution quite recently. Strange she has not mentioned that.. perhaps it’s because we voted for no change..

  2. Mark Frankel

    The devolution measures are part of a long-running but low-profile series of changes which effectively restore the Metropolitan County Councils abolished in the 1980s out of spite by M. Thatcher. The measures are done by secondary legislation so Parliament can take a view on them, and the new local bodies are accountable to elected local councillors. The measures increase local autonomy without a lot of extra bureaucracy or redundant talking shops like Citizens’ Assemblies. The measures were started by New Labour, as part of its excellent devolution policies, continued by the Coalition and should be welcomed. So, sorry, Caroline, much as I admire the Greens I’m not with you on this one.

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