The Conversation

Does the British public care about the integrity and honesty of its politicians? The answer to this question may profoundly shape domestic politics in the weeks ahead. The Metropolitan police are in the process of issuing fines to government officials who broke lockdown restrictions in 2020 and 2021, and the prime minister may be one of the recipients of these fines. Civil servant Sue Gray, meanwhile, is preparing to release the full version of her report on the rule breaking. If she concludes that failures of leadership fed a culture of impunity at No 10, there are bound to be voices calling for Boris Johnson’s resignation.

Short of that is the matter of what consequences there should be for politicians who break rules or mislead parliament.

We at the UCL Constitution Unit are conducting a major research project examining public attitudes to democracy in the UK – including on the ethical standards of those in public life. Our latest release is a report from the Citizens’ Assembly on Democracy in the UK – a body of 67 people, recruited to represent the UK voting-age population, who came together over six weekends late in 2021 to discuss, learn, reflect, deliberate, and agree on recommendations for how their democracy should work.

The message from the members of the assembly could barely be clearer. A huge 98% backed the recommendation: “Lying or intentionally misleading parliament should be able to be identified as ‘contempt of parliament’. As well as being made to give a public apology, MPs who break this rule should be fined or otherwise punished.”

And 98% of members also agreed that the codes of conduct for MPs, peers and ministers should be strengthened. On bullying and harassment, 93% said that “MPs should be subject to the same sanctions as other employees regarding the treatment of staff”.

These were among 51 recommendations that assembly members agreed, on topics including the balance of power between government and parliament, the roles of referendums and petitions, and the powers of the courts. Many of these recommendations also directly bear on current debates.

More power to parliament and protecting courts

A new law returns to the prime minister the power to dissolve parliament to hold an election without having to ask parliament to agree in a vote. But 78% of assembly members said: “The Prime Minister should only be able to call an early general election if it is supported by a vote in the House of Commons.”

Indeed, members felt that the relationship between government and parliament overall needs to be rebalanced. While 92% agreed that government should not be unduly delayed in implementing its manifesto commitments, 92% also said: “We believe that parliament needs to be able to play a stronger role in scrutinising the actions of government.” They recommended greater powers for MPs to decide parliament’s agenda and when recesses are called.

Ministers have long been frustrated by adverse court rulings and are consulting on possible changes to the Human Rights Act that would clip judges’ wings. The Brexit process famously saw judges branded “enemies of the people”, and the public are often assumed to disdain court power.

It turns out, however, that people’s distrust of politicians trumps any such concerns. The assembly, in fact, advocated stronger judicial powers, with 86% of members agreeing that “courts should be able to overturn laws that are judged as violating legally recognised human rights. Otherwise they should not have the power to override the sovereignty of parliament”. Large majorities also said that judges’ existing powers should not be eroded.

There are widespread concerns that the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill infringes rights to protest. But 96% of members said: “To allow for effective public participation in political debate and scrutiny, freedom of speech and the right to protest need to be protected.”

That was one manifestation of a desire to strengthen the public’s voice. Members wanted better education and information about politics and called on politicians to be more visible in their communities. They said that petitions should carry more weight. They supported referendums, but said they “should be restricted to when there are clearly defined, but contentious, choices where the consequences of the decision can be accurately set out in advance”. They also backed wider use of citizens’ assemblies in a range of contexts.

The citizens’ assembly model

There may be doubts over whether the conclusions of a citizens’ assembly really reflect wider public opinion. A membership of 67 may appear small. We might worry that, over six weekends, members would develop their own groupthink – or be led to particular conclusions by organisers.

But we know that is not the case here, because, ahead of the assembly, we also conducted a major survey of public opinion, with a UK-wide sample of over 6,000 respondents. The results were remarkably similar to the assembly’s conclusions. There, too, we found overwhelming concern about integrity in public life and a desire to avoid undue concentration of power.

In short, the public does care about integrity. And their scepticism about politicians means they want ministers to be kept in constant check by parliament, courts and the public at large.

Alan Renwick receives funding from the Economic and Social Research Council.