NCVO proposes 'People's Panel'

KIRSTEN DOWNER

Charity policy officers and community leaders could be recruited to a new "People's Panel", which would bridge the gap between the House of Commons and an apathetic public.

The National Council for Voluntary Organisations (NCVO) made the suggestion as part of its response to the Government's plans to modernise Parliament.

Stephen Twigg MP, deputy leader of the House of Commons, said: "This is a very positive contribution to the debate. The People's Panel is one suggestion about how to the strengthen the connection between Parliament and the public."

Teachers, business leaders, people serving on juries, and black community leaders, as well as charity lobbyists, could form the panel if it goes ahead, according to NCVO parliamentary officer Richard Hebditch.

In some ways, the panel would have more clout than the "People's Peers

in the House of Lords, said Hebditch. It would be able to comment how Parliament works and how it relates to the outside world.

According to NCVO, voluntary organisations will have more opportunity to influence legislation if the modernisation proposals go ahead, because bills will be given 12 months to pass through Parliament rather than rushed through in one session.

This would mean more opportunities for charities to influence new legislation.

Hebditch said: "It is is very difficult for voluntary organisations to comment on legislation at the moment. We'd welcome any policy-making process that's more responsive to outside interests."

But other voluntary sector organisations involved in parliamentary lobbying are less enthusiastic.

Tim Hancock, parliamentary officer at Amnesty International UK, feared it might end up as a talking-shop. "It all depends on what MPs actually do with these voluntary sector opinions and comments,

he said.

Friends of the Earth's parliamentary officer Martyn Williams said modernisation plans might actually make it harder for charities to influence legislation.

"Every Commons modernisation recently has led to a decline in the power of backbench MPs and an increase in the power of the executive,

he said.

Referring to the NCVO plan to allow the general public to vote on Early Day Motions over the internet, Williams said: "I can see the advantage in this, but if nothing happens what's the point? There should be a threshold so if a certain number of votes from the public are collected, MPs should have to vote on the issue."

Other NCVO suggestions include an annual debate on the voluntary sector's relationship with government to coincide with the Compact Annual Report.

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