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Citizens’ Assemblies and Constitutional Conventions

Published Monday, July 18, 2016

This House of Commons Library briefing paper provides a concise history of constitutional conventions in the UK, beginning with the Scottish Constitutional Convention of 1989, the proposals for a citizens’ assembly made by the Gordon Brown Government, and the 2016 pilot citizens assemblies held by a consortium of academics on the issue of devolution in England. It also sets out details of the wide-ranging Irish Constitutional Convention established in 2012, and the 2011 Icelandic National Forum and Constitutional Assembly which produced a new draft constitution.

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What is a constitutional convention?

A constitutional convention is a representative body convened to draw up or propose changes to a country’s constitution.There is no fixed model for a constitutional convention. In recent years they have been held in several countries each using a slightly different form. Types of constitutional convention have included citizens’ assemblies, which consisted of randomly selected citizens; directly elected constituent assemblies, involving an elected constituent or citizen assembly working alongside the regular legislature; ‘mixed’ model conventions of elected citizens and selected politicians; and civil society conventions, where citizens are represented by groups from civil society.

Recent proposals

The Political and Constitutional Reform Committee considered the issue in its 2013 report Do we need a constitutional convention for the UK? This suggested that the Government should consider holding a constitutional convention on how the different parts of the UK interacted with each other, along with other options. The Government turned down the recommendation, stating it was not a priority at a time where there had been recent and ongoing constitutional reform, and the economy was the first priority of Government.

The issue was revisited following the referendum on Scottish independence in September 2014. The Labour Party called for a constitutional convention to be held early in the 2015 Parliament and the subject was also considered by both the Conservative Party and the Liberal Democrats in the Government paper The Implications of Devolution for England, published in December 2014.

Graham Allen, the former chair of the Political and Constitutional Reform Committee, has a debate scheduled in Westminster Hall on 20 July 2016 on “Government policy on a Citizens' Convention on democracy”.

Further information

The House of Lords Library Note, Constitutional Conventions: Possible Options in the New Parliament (March 2016) sets out some of the key issues that have been put forward as being important when a process of constitutional review of reform is being devised and briefly highlights examples of the different structures used.

The Commons Library Standard Note, Citizens Assemblies (November 2009) sets out the proposals for citizen engagement in constitutional reform made by the Brown Government in the Governance of Britain Green Paper and provides details of citizens’ assemblies in British Columbia, Ontario and the Netherlands.

Commons Briefing papers SN07143

Author: Lucinda Maer

Topic: Constitution

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