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Citizens’ Assembly on Brexit puts voters’ voices into EU negotiations

Published: 8 September 2017
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People from across the UK are taking part in the first ‘Citizens’ Assembly’ on Brexit to help put voters’ voices at the centre of the EU debate.

The Citizens' Assembly, organised by leading academics at University College London’s Constitution Unit (UCL), in partnership with the University of Southampton, University of Westminster, Involve and the Electoral Reform Society, brings together a randomly selected group of members of the public – recruited in collaboration with pollsters ICM and designed to be broadly representative of the country.

The participants, gathered in Manchester, will hear about the options for Brexit from both academics and campaigners from all sides of the debate, and will make recommendations for what Brexit should look like. Over two weekends (8 /29 September), citizens will focus on choices relating to trade and immigration – including how these choices will impact the economy, jobs, public services, and sovereignty. Recommendations will be written up in a final report and presented to key decision-makers at a separate, high-profile Westminster event.

The team behind the project already has expertise in running similar assemblies – including conducting the UK’s first assemblies on local devolution in Sheffield and Southampton in late 2015.  Will Jennings, Professor of Political Science and Public Policy at the University of Southampton, led these previous assemblies and is one of the organisers of this latest event in Manchester. He said: “The University of Southampton is committed to understanding how democratic innovations can create opportunities for citizens to be engaged in the consideration of policy issues of local and national importance.

“We hope that this Citizens’ Assembly on Brexit will provide policy-makers in government and parliament valuable insights into the priorities of the public, informed by in-depth deliberation on the options for Brexit. The assembly is a way of ensuring that the voice of the public is heard in the ongoing Brexit debate.”

The project is part of the ESRC-funded ‘UK in a Changing Europe’ initiative, and is the first example of deep public deliberation on what form Brexit should take. Pollsters ICM say they have been ‘stunned’ by the level of interest from the public.

“We were expecting low-level commitment, but over half of our 5,000 sample were interested in attending, and over 1,000 confirmed they could and would like to attend,” said Martin Boon, Director of ICM Research.

The Manchester Assembly has secured high-profile backing from across the so-called ‘Brexit divide’ – including Stephen Kinnock MP, Bernard Jenkin MP, Chuka Umunna MP, leading Brexit campaigners Harsimrat Kaur and John Mills, Britain Stronger in Europe Director Will Straw, UKIP’s Suzanne Evans, and senior Brexit expert and academic Anand Menon.

Dr Alan Renwick, Principal Investigator from UCL, said: “With backing from across the political spectrum, and participants from all backgrounds and viewpoints, we hope the Citizens’ Assembly on Brexit will make a major contribution to advancing public discussion of this country-changing process.

“The Assembly is the first real opportunity for citizens on all sides to engage in depth with the major questions around Brexit, which were largely missing from this year’s election campaign.

“Public engagement in major constitutional issues such as this shouldn’t end on polling day. This project is an exciting way of building on the public engagement we saw last year – and letting voters influence the ongoing Brexit debate.” 

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