Over-cautious steps towards democracy by the people
Better than no steps at all?

I&R ~ GB: First evaluation of a Localism Bill presented in the House of Commons, December 2010

Referring to: Part 4, Community empowerment, Chapter 1, Local referendums

Positive features
Citizens will be able to demand and obtain a referendum on any local issue "economic, social or environmental". One in twenty members of an electorate must endorse the referendum proposal.

All levels of local government are to be involved, e.g. the Greater London Area, cities, towns, counties and districts.

Electronic collection of endorsements can be used.

Negative features
Design of the direct democratic procedure appears to be rudimentary and not "state of the art" participatory democracy. The Conservative/Libdems have not heeded errors made during long experience in other countries.

1. Deliberative components are lacking
1a) A referendum demand can go directly from proposal to ballot without formal debate of the proposal by the council. This weakens the "agenda-setting" aspect of the citizens' initiative.
1b) There is no provision for the council to put forward an alternative proposal. An alternative proposal may bring the advantage of leading to negotiation between council and proposers. If no compromise can be reached and the council rejects the original proposal then both proposal and alternative can be put to the electorate in a ballot containing a "preference" question.

2. The requirement of 5 percent for electors' endorsements could be made fairer by having a sliding scale from, say, one in ten for small villages to one or two percent in large cities.

3. A veto or "facultative" referendum should be explicitly introduced with its own rules. This requires "rapid response" by the electorate, so rules need to be different, e.g. the number of endorsements to be gathered in order to trigger a referendum may be fewer and an embargo on the disputed council policy should be included.

4. There is no provision for public organisational or financial support of a referendum campaign (which can be very costly to the proposers) although councils are encouraged to campaign for their own position.

"Power to the people" and democracy are not fully achieved because

5. The citizens' referendum shall not be legally binding but must only be taken into consideration by the council.

Further questions and comments

Shall modification of citizens' proposals be allowed? How and at what stage of the proceedings?

Admissibility of issues may be decreed by a minister of central governmental though no criteria for such power are defined. This power could be abused, e.g. for party political reasons.

Proposer of referendum is not clearly defined, perhaps this should be other than simply one "person", e.g. a group of proposers.

What if any is the time limit for collecting endorsements? Is this "the period of six months ending with the date on which the petition is received by the authority" (Section 40).

How can a proposal be made? Must it be "submitted" to a public official? Where? Which form (if any) must be used for collecting endorsements?

How will "electronic" proposals and  collection of endorsements work in practice?

Will costs of proposers be reimbursed?

Overall, the Localism Bill's new democracy rules regulating citizens' proposition and referendum are to be welcomed with reservations.

These rules may allow politicians and government to become accustomed to democracy with a stronger role for the people.

Citizens for their part will be able to try their hand at steering government, discovering more about how their councils have worked, grappling with some complexities of public policy making, encountering freedom or lack of public information.

Dr. Michael Macpherson
Psycho-Social and Medical Research PSAMRA ~ Integral Studies
Guildford and Berlin

I&R ~ GB Citizens' Initiative and Referendum
Campaign for direct democracy in Britain