Labour would introduce citizens' assemblies, Sue Gray says

Civil servants “will not like this because they have no control”, former top official warns
Photo: PA/Alamy

By Tevye Markson

19 Feb 2024

Labour is working on plans to introduce citizens’ assemblies if it gets into power, former senior civil servant Sue Gray has said. But she warned the policy would not go down well in Whitehall.

Gray, who is Keir Starmer’s chief of staff, discussed the plans in a biography of the Labour leader which will be released later this month. 

She said the assemblies will get the public directly involved in deciding contentious issues such as constitutional reform, devolution and housing, in excerpts of Keir Starmer: The Biography seen by The Times.

A general election is due to take place by January 2025 and Labour are currently favourites to win, according to various polls. 

Gray, who is in charge of getting the party ready for government, pointed to The Citizens' Assembly in the Republic of Ireland as an example Labour woud follow. She said the system, established in 2016, has been "transformational", building consensus for constitutional changes including ending the ban on abortion and allowing gay marriage. Citizens' assemblies in Ireland are made up of 99 randomly selected members of the public and a chair, and make recommendations on political questions.

The assemblies could be used to get agreement on House of Lords reform, give more powers to directly elected mayors and draw up regional-development plans to support housebuilding, Gray said.

“This is one way we can help resolve these questions by involving communities at an early stage,” she said.

However, Gray said civil servants “will not like this because they have no control”.

The book also reveals that Gray is working up the details of plans to introduce an independent ethics commission, a policy Labour first announced in November 2021.  

Watchdogs such as the Advisory Committee on Business Appointments and the independent adviser on ministers’ interests would be absorbed by the commission, under the plans. 

Gray also commented on the Partygate scandal, which saw her become a household name when she investigated rule-breaking in No.10 and elsewhere in government at the height of the Covid-19 pandemic.

“It was heartbreaking, really, to see the behaviour during Partygate. That wouldn’t have happened a few years ago. The whole culture just became very informal,” she said.

Gray added: “It’s really important for me to say loud and clear that I love the civil service. The majority of them are absolutely people with the right values, they live by their values and they’re in public service for those values. “

Gray, who controversially quit as second permant secretary of the Department of Levelling Up, Housing and Communities last March to join Labour, also gave an insight into how the party would approach being in power and working with the civil service. 

“I know Whitehall and it will try to mould the new government and ministers into its way of working,” Gray said. “What I’m trying to do now in opposition is establish our way of working so we can walk in and start delivering. Even so, there’ll still be some departments who’ll struggle with that.”

The ex-senior civil servant also told the biography that she is not a spy and never has been.

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