Citizens’ Assembly on Brexit: Public to debate UK’s exit terms

By agency reporter
July 12, 2017

Leading academics and democracy campaigners are to hold a ‘Citizens’ Assembly’ on Brexit this September, in a bid to raise the quality of public debate around the options for leaving the EU.

The project, which officially launched yesterday (11 July 2017) in Parliament, is part of the  Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) funded ‘UK in a Changing Europe’ initiative, and will bring together a diverse sample of citizens to contribute to the Brexit process in person – providing the first example of meaningful public deliberation on what form Brexit should take.

The process is being organised by leading academics at UCL’s prestigious Constitution Unit, in partnership with the University of Westminster's Centre for the Study of Democracy, the University of Southampton, Involve, and the Electoral Reform Society.

Over two weekends in September in Manchester ( 8 September and 29 September) – just as the Brexit negotiations start to move beyond preliminaries – citizens will focus on choices relating to trade and immigration, and the implications of these on issues such as the economy, jobs, public services and the degree to which the UK can control its own affairs.

A diverse group of voters will learn about the options for Brexit, hearing from a wide range of experts and campaigners from all sides of the debate, and deliberate on what they have heard.

Crucially, the Assembly will then agree recommendations that will be written up in a final report and presented to key decision makers at a high-profile Westminster event.

The project has secured high-profile backing from across the spectrum, including Stephen Kinnock MP, Bernard Jenkin MP, Chuka Umunna MP, leading Brexit campaigners Harsimrat Kaur and John Mills, Britain Stronger in Europe Director Will Straw, UKIP’s Suzanne Evans, and senior European academic Anand Menon.

Dr Alan Renwick, Principal Investigator, said: “The Citizens’ Assembly on Brexit is a chance to explore how deliberative democratic approaches can improve the quality of public discussion around contentious policy issues.

“The referendum last June decided that the UK will leave the European Union. But debates during the campaign and since have given voters little opportunity to formulate – far less, express – clear views on the form they want Brexit to take. This Citizens’ Assembly is designed to fill that gap. It should give policy-makers in government and parliament valuable evidence as to where public priorities really lie.”

Darren Hughes, Acting Chief Executive of the Electoral Reform Society, said: “The idea there’s an unsolvable rift between ‘52 per cent’ and ‘48 per cent’ is a myth. We know given the chance to talk to each other and meaningfully engage in the issues, people have much more in common than many realise. This is a real opportunity to bring people together from all sides.

“There is widespread agreement that the Brexit plans should respect and respond to public opinion – as demanded by both democratic principle and the need for broad public legitimacy. This Assembly is a unique and innovative way to gauge the opinions of citizens on the most pressing constitutional issue we face as a country.

“Public engagement in major constitutional issues like this shouldn’t end on polling day. This project is an exciting way of continuing the public engagement we saw last year – and letting voters influence the debate.”

Chuka Umunna, MP for Streatham, said:  "As the representative of the most ‘Remain’ constituency in Britain and chair of Vote Leave Watch, I am a firm believer in the benefits of a close relationship with our European partners. And I also think that rather than pursuing a recklessly hard Brexit, this government needs to listen to what the people want and a citizens’ assembly is a great way of doing this. I am happy to support projects like this that attempt to bridge the great divides in British society."

Bernard Jenkin, MP for Harwich and North Essex, said: “I was a long-term critic of European political and monetary union, and opposed Maastricht and the subsequent treaties on the basis that the EU lacked democratic legitimacy, transparency and accountability. This is why I am delighted to support this Citizens’ Assembly on Brexit – where people will be given a chance to discuss the best way for the UK to leave the European Union.”

Stephen Kinnock, MP for Aberavon, said: "The referendum on the UK's membership of the European Union failed to enable the diversity of British opinion to be heard. Now that Article 50 has been triggered, it is vital that we do not make the same mistake again. This Citizens' Assembly project will make an essential contribution to enabling a constructive and productive national conversation about how we can best move forward, together." 

Suzanne Evans, former Deputy Chairwoman of UKIP, said: "Now that the British people have voted to leave the European Union – a cause I have championed for many years – it is time to ensure that people’s voices are continued to be heard. The Citizens’ Assembly on Brexit, by providing all the information people need without the spin, is an ideal way of doing this. I fully support this project and look forward to hearing the recommendations of this cross-section of British society."

The project team already has expertise in running similar assemblies – including conducting the UK’s first assemblies on local devolution in Sheffield and Southampton in late 2015.

* More about the Citizens' Assembly on Brexit here

* Citizens' Assembly http://citizensassembly.co.uk/

* Electoral Reform Society https://www.electoral-reform.org.uk/

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