The Citizens’ Assembly on Brexit

The Citizens’ Assembly on Brexit

The Citizens’ Assembly on Brexit was held
over two weekends in September 2017. It brought together 50 randomly selected citizens who
reflected the diversity of the UK electorate. The Citizens’ Assembly on Brexit aimed to
provide much needed robust public input into the Brexit process. And show the value of
deliberative public engagement on controversial areas of public policy. We’re
trying to do three things with the Citizens’ Assembly. The First is that we want to understand
public opinion on Brexit better. We have opinion polls, but we don’t have much sense of what people think when they really have had the chance to learn about the issues and
think about them. The second aim is that we want informed public opinion to influence
the Brexit process itself. And we’ll be working really hard to make sure that politicians
and the media know what the people in the Assembly have said and concluded. The Third
aim, is that we want to understand better how this kind of democratic process works.
Is this a good way of doing democracy? And hopefully we will learn about how to do this kind of deliberative exercise better in the future. So we know that British voters voted
to leave the European Union, but we don’t know what British voters think leaving the
European Union should look like. What form it should take, and the role of the Assembly is to allow citizens to explore that very question. My thoughts are is that it is surprising
how close people’s opinions are when we are actually forced to sit down and talk about
it and actually discuss it. So what we do is we have professional facilitators who are skilled at making sure that everybody has an opportunity to speak. Some people are more
confident, some people are less confident, some people are more experienced, some people
are less experienced. So we make sure that we facilitate the conversations to ensure
that everyone is heard and all voices are heard. One of the key features of the design
of the Assembly is that we are impartial in how we have set it up. So the speakers come
form a wide variety of different views, the materials that the members receive are balanced
between all sorts of different perspectives. In order to achieve that, we have tried very
hard within our own team, but we also have a fantastic advisory group that consists of
some people who’s job it is to give impartial information on Brexit. And some other people
who are campaigners or academics who have strong views on the the kind of Brexit that
we should be pursuing. And they have been fantastic in working with us to ensure that
the programme is balanced and fair. Well I was invited to come and talk to the Citizens’
Assembly, my area obviously is trade, trade is a huge component of what we are trying
to do in the UK in terms of leaving the European Union in a way that minimises the trade disruptions
that people will experience and maximises the trade opportunities. So, what i’d like
to talk about is how you do that, how you maximise the opportunities and minimise the
disruptions. Well this morning I had the unenviable task of explaining the EU and Brexit process
in what I think was six and a half minutes. And the only point that I wanted to make is
this I suppose, the EU is complicated and it’s impact on us is complicated because it
makes binding laws and there are laws that effect every single part of our economy. And
given that it has been going on for forty years, the Brexit process will be difficult,
will be tricky, doesn’t mean it can’t be done, but it means that it is going to be complicated. Well you won’t be surprised that as an economist, most of the questions I got were about economics,
quite rightly, but what really surprised me looking at the notice board, looking at people’s
concerns, talking, sort of outside of the proceedings, was how many people had concerns
about human rights, about the environment, about welfare issues, distributional consequences.
There are negotiations going on in Brussels involving ministers, parliament is debating
what Brexit should look like, and we haven’t had a chance to hear from citizens on these
more detailed issues. So that is what we are asking citizens to consider, particularly
the trade offs between trade on the one hand and immigration on the other. I think what
is really striking is how engaged they are, not just with this exercise but with the
Brexit process generally. They have clearly thought a lot about it, I think they are frustrated
by their lack of knowledge prior to the referendum, and also how much there is to know and to
understand and to process. But what is really striking is just how determined they are to
get to the bottom of what they need to know. I would like to see the report presented to
parliament, I mean I can get it to our MP, but it needs to go further than that and what
I don’t want to see is it ending up in some cellar somewhere!


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