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Last Updated: Saturday, 3 March 2007, 02:09 GMT
Citizens speak up at Number 10
by Mark Easton
BBC News, Home Editor

Politicians often talk of the importance of putting the citizen at the heart of government.

The public, meanwhile, increasingly believe they have little or no influence over politics.

Prime Minister Tony Blair
Tony Blair says the forum will help shape policy

On Saturday, 60 citizens will sit in the state rooms at Number 10 Downing Street to debate and vote on some of the key issues facing Britain over the next decade.

The claim is that their decisions will help shape public policy for years to come. The counter is that they are political window-dressing as Tony Blair seeks to shape his legacy.

Inviting members of the public into the sanctum of British political power to discuss and influence government thinking is considered unprecedented.

But the prime minister believes that politicians have "a duty" to find out what it is people want.

The so-called "Citizen Forum" is part of the government's ongoing "Policy Review", a major cross-departmental initiative which aims to take a broad look at the challenges for the UK in the next 10 years and beyond.

The review, involving 130 government ministers, includes working groups on "Britain in the World", "economic dynamism", environment and energy" and "security, crime and justice".

But the focus of the citizen involvement is in discussions on public services and the role of the state.

The government asked the polling company Ipsos MORI to organise the citizen forums.

A randomly selected group of 100 people took part in five regional forums last month, at which they were invited to think through the pros and cons of a range of issues.

It certainly will help form government policy
Tony Blair

The Cabinet Office describes it as people from all walks of life coming together "to discuss complex issues normally only faced by government ministers".

For instance, they were asked to consider this statement:

"The police should spend more time on the beat and the streets, even if it means less time spent investigating more serious crime."

And this: "People who make healthy choices (such as not smoking, eating a healthy diet, limiting alcohol consumption) should get higher priority when they get sick (e.g. organ transplants, expensive drugs)."

Tories critical

"It certainly will help form government policy", the prime minister argues. But he also believes it might help reduce cynicism about politics.

"Getting them to sit in the decision-maker's chair, people then understand that politics isn't about a whole lot of very bad people just trying to make a hash of things for the sake of it," Mr Blair says.

"I think that we do politics a power of good if you are able to have a far more profound dialogue and conversation with people."

However, the process has its critics. Conservative shadow Cabinet Office minister Oliver Heald has condemned the use of taxpayers' money to do "the Labour Party's dirty work".

The Tories argue that public funds should not be spent on "helping them cook up new policies".

PM's pledge

Others question the value of a review process shaped and driven by a prime minister who will have left office in a few months time. Gordon Brown is said to be "relaxed" about the review.

Some commentators have suggested that it has more to do with shaping Tony Blair's legacy than shaping Britain's future.

The 60 members of the Downing Street "Citizen Forum" will be asked to vote on a series of questions throughout the day.

In particular, they will be asked to consider how public services might improve customer care, whether people should be encouraged to improve their own lives and their communities and whether it is time to spell out the rights and responsibilities of citizens and the state.

The prime minster has promised that the conclusions from the forum will feed into discussions at the Cabinet Meeting next Thursday.

Cabinet office minister on the benefits of the forum

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