It is important that any citizens panel or citizens assembly is directly connected to a decision making body such as a local council, MP or government body. Otherwise it risks becoming a talking shop, well meaning and informative though that may be.
For this reason citizens assemblies are normally commissioned by local or national government with the understanding that while government will undertake to listen and respond to its recommendations in full, it is not obliged to enact them.
This is how the Irish Citizens Assembly worked and it profoundly shaped the referendum outcome. Prior to the referendum, people followed the proceedings of the Citizen Assembly on abortion via the internet. Discussions and presentations were live-streamed over the internet and its deliberations were published in the national media. It triggered a better informed, more balanced public debate about a polarising issue that elected representatives dared not touch, given Ireland’s traditional conservative, catholic culture.
In our case the process has been bottom up. No-one asked us to do this and the disadvantage to a grassroots approach is that no elected councillor or MP is obliged to take part or listen to what the citizens panel has to say. That said, we have worked very hard to engage individual elected councillors, including Penzance Town Council, Cornwall councillors and our MP Derek Thomas.
Cllr Andrew Mitchell, Cabinet member and portfolio for housing and planning, has agreed to speak to the panel. So has Penzance councillor Cornelius Olivier who sits on a number of Cornwall Council committees including housing, children and families, and planning. Both councillors are well qualified to respond to any detailed and technical questions that panel members may ask.
Cllr Andrew Mitchell also sits on the Hayle and St Ives Community Network Panel and Cllr Cornelius Olivier sits on the West Penwith Community Network Panel. Why is this important? Because Community Network Panels are a central cog in Cornwall’s localism framework. As it says on their website, Cornwall’s 19 community networks are the main way we connect with local communities and help them address important local issues.
So far so good.
The big disappointment is that Derek Thomas, our sitting MP, has declined to speak to the panel on Thursday 14th November, citing a previous engagement.
We had hoped the date was far enough in advance to ensure an empty diary. I had also been in touch with his office a few times, and a member of his office had attended the initial presentation on how the Penzance Citizens Assembly would work. So it is a great shame he is unable to speak.
My reason for going into this level of detail is not to moan or complain but simply to stress that at every turn we are making every effort to be inclusive and balanced, whether it is recruiting panel members, expert speakers, or elected representatives.
Whatever the case, we will be submitting a final report and record of the citizens panel to Derek Thomas in person. We will ask for a full response to its findings and we will share his response on this website. We are confident that he will be happy to do this.