Citizen-initiated legislation under the Westminster system

Citizens should be able to initiate legislation; technological change has now made this viable, and it would contribute to making political institutions more democratically responsive.

The current rules for introducing legislation in Parliament (in the Westminster System as practised in the UK, Canada, etc) afford the government a near-monopoly on legislative initiative: most bills originate with the government, and a few are introduced by individual members who have won a yearly lottery. This means that parliamentarians never need to account for a collective refusal to discuss legislation favoured by citizens but opposed by the political class.

In the UK, there are several issues on which the political divide is not between parties, but between people and the elite: MPs’ expenses and European integration being two well-known examples. A very small minority of MPs are in tune with public opinion on these issues and prepared to introduce legislation about them, albeit legislation with no chance of becoming law. However, once a bill is introduced, the formal procedures for rejecting it involve public discussion, debate, and voting, in a forum visible to all citizens.

For centuries, it has been possible to present petitions to Parliament, signed by citizens. What I propose is that citizens be able to attach draft legislation to such petitions, and that, subject to a popularity threshold, such bills should be entered for discussion for First Reading, as government and MP’s private bills are at present.

In Latvia, there currently exists a similar system, named ManaBalss, and uses technology to facilitate citizens’ collaboration on draft legislation (or the other types of parliamentary instrument that exist in their system). The system operates through a website, which identifies people (by means wholly inappropriate to the British political system), and lets them promote and amend proposals for submission to Parliament. The website enforces a multistage process, wherein the petitioners first respond to scrutiny by experts in the relevant field, the measure is published, publicised by the petitioners, reviewed by lawyers, and if sufficiently popular is deposited in the Parliamentary in-tray.

Whereas the final piece of this (formal adoption by Parliament as law) is not complete in Latvia, the very existence and popularity of the system has already influenced legislative outcomes. The recent law on transparency of foreign-owned companies was passed as a result of a parallel initiative on the ManaBalss website.

Elements of the Latvian proposal which are likely to translate well to the Westminster system are allowing the petitioners to speak in Parliament, and the overall assumptions of much weaker executive / whipping influence in the legislature. A simple list of which MPs voted against popular proposals would enhance British democracy, even if no proposal survived First Reading.

An amusing side-effect would be that legislation initiated via such a website could be kept in an open, accessible data format, which would be a substantial improvement on existing arrangements.

P.S. Francis Irving also has a writeup.

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