Lloyd Evans Lloyd Evans

The price we’ll pay for citizens’ assemblies

A voter casts their ballot (Credit: Getty Images)

Citizens’ assemblies will transform Britain. That’s the promise made by activists from groups like Extinction Rebellion. Labour has also mooted introducing the assemblies if it wins power, even if it did later backtrack on the plans. In Waltham Forest, north-east London, the revolution has already begun: a citizens’ assembly is underway there that will determine ‘the future of neighbourhood policing.’ 

I entered a large gym where about 50 delegates and volunteers, seated around six tables, were listening to presentations from criminologists and youth workers. The procedures of the assembly are multi-layered and distracting, as if designed to keep everyone engaged by giving them small chores at regular intervals. 

This sounds like a handy ruse invented by criminals

First, there’s a plenary session in which a speech is delivered by an expert. Then the assembly separates into six committees of eight persons each, overseen by a commissar in a lime-green tee-shirt. The commissars lead a group discussion which settles on two ‘priority questions’, written out by hand, and pinned to a whiteboard. After this, the plenary session reconvenes and the speakers are presented with 12 questions (two from each committee) and their responses are noted. These responses form the basis of recommendations which are added to other recommendations generated by parallel groups meeting on other dates. Finally, the council is presented with a summary of all the recommendations. OK. Sounds good. And then what? I was told that Waltham Forest will look for ‘quick wins’ – which may mean new bylaws or fresh layers of regulation. The Metropolitan Police will consider implementing the assembly’s findings. This is rather worrying. Obviously the cops are not remotely concerned that any serious reforms will be demanded.  

The atmosphere in the hall is earnest and happy-clappy. The name badges of the green-shirted commissars read like the guest-list for a vegan tea party: Emily, Alicia, Hannah, Daisy and Amber. They all look like sociology students who spent their gap year digging wells. The leader of the session is a confident teenager, Sarah, who introduces the speakers, announces the coffee-breaks and offers to turn down the boiler. ‘Is anyone overheating?’ she says. No one responds and the radiators stay on full blast. 

Lots of paper gets wasted. There are flip-charts, note-pads, sticky name-tags, cardboard cups full of sugar-free decaff. The commissars are supplied with stacks of colourful post-it notes on which they write the all-important ‘priority questions.’ Every wall is blazoned with paper chits bearing catchy slogans, ‘diverse recruitment’, ‘engaged communities,’ ‘more bobbies on the beat.’

Some of the speakers are profoundly depressing. Lorraine, a criminologist from Scotland, tells us that crime is caused by poverty and political incompetence: poor housing, low employment, drug addiction, alcohol misuse, cuts to public services and even ‘the rise in short-term tenancies.’ But if poverty causes crime, does it follow that everybody enduring poverty will commit crime? Surely the opposite is the case. Most people living in cheap homes on modest incomes obey the law. 

Lorraine’s specific brief is ‘anti-social behaviour’, but she finds the term excessively judgemental. ‘Pro-social behaviour’ is her preferred formula, and she adds that imprisonment represents a failure of the system. She appears to support the notion that prison is a ‘college of crime’ in which inmates are likely to become lifelong villains. This sounds like a handy ruse invented by criminals in the hope of securing lighter tariffs for their associates. The bait has been swallowed in Scotland, where sentencing policy is now shaped by those who seem to think that prison harms offenders.

Next we hear from James, a Manchester youth worker, who attacks the ‘divisive’ stop-and-search policy of the cops.

‘A black youngster going to Asda gets stopped and searched and it destroys his life,’ he says. Note the hyperbole. A pat-down on the pavement doesn’t ‘destroy your life’. And ‘Asda’ is a wonderful detail that conjures up the image of a blameless young lad, in scout uniform perhaps, being frisked at Taser-point while attempting to fetch granny’s Ovaltine from a budget supermarket. 

Their cheapest item, ‘a democracy research collaboration toolkit,’ was sold for £5,000

Few concrete ideas emerge. An outreach worker suggests ‘coffee with a copper’ to encourage mistrustful citizens to fraternise with the local police. Another wheeze is to offer free bikes to teenagers on condition that they use them to deliver groceries to pensioners.

As I made my exit, the session was entering its fifth consecutive hour. Yet more meetings are scheduled over the coming weeks and the entire process will take six months. The end result, apart from a lot of chewed-up post-it notes, is hard to determine. ‘How do you measure the effectiveness of the assembly?’ I asked, without hearing a satisfactory reply. Perhaps the process works as a psychological palliative, like a comfort-blanket. It gives concerned graduates a chance to meet in a nice warm room and to write down platitudes while nodding encouragement at each other across paper-strewn desks. It’s a result, in a way. 

The cost is another matter. The assembly is managed by an outfit called Involve, which publishes a list of its 2023 prices online. Their cheapest item, ‘a democracy research collaboration toolkit,’ was sold to Westminster University for £5,000. Quite a large sum for a toolkit, but that was a bargain compared with the £24,705 paid by Sheffield City Council for ‘support and advice on the approach to public participation.’ And the RSPB needed a ‘people’s plan for nature’ which was supplied by Involve for £549,011. 

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This is just the start of it. These placebo parliaments are about to spread everywhere. Take cover. 

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