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Last Updated: Thursday, 6 September 2007, 06:54 GMT 07:54 UK
Q&A: Citizens' Juries
Gordon Brown has said he wants "citizens' juries" to allow people to get more involved in the political process. But what are they and will they work?

What exactly is a citizens' jury?

A citizens' jury is a group of between 12 and 20 people, chosen to represent the communities from which they come. According to ministers, they will be chosen independently and will not be experts on the topic under discussion, nor members of interest groups. They will be asked to look at real issues, in the same way as a jury does in a courtroom. The idea is to give ordinary people a bigger role in democratic decision making.

How would they work?

The juries will spend a day, or several days, considering the chosen subject. They will be given facts and figures that have been independently verified and will hear "evidence" from a range of experts. Jurors will then discuss the issues among themselves before reaching a conclusion. Their decisions will be used to help advise ministers on policy.

Can people apply to take part on a jury?

According to the prime minister's official spokesman, the selection process will be decided by individual government departments and the organisers of the specific event. However, the idea is that those involved are genuinely representative of their communities.

Will there be a general pool of jurors?

Not necessarily. Again it would be up to the department involved in the event.

Aren't these just focus groups by another name?

Not according to the government. Ministers claim that unlike focus groups, citizens' juries will look at specific issues and give conclusions that will then feed directly into the policy making process.

But we have had citizens' juries before, haven't we?

Yes, that's true. The Department for Trade and Industry had a citizens' jury in 2004 looking at policies to support people in balancing family and work commitments. However, the prime minister's spokesman argues that this time the process will be more intensive and is clearly designed to help inform and develop policy.

So when will the first citizens' juries be held?

The first jury will start work on Thursday with a debate on children. It will look at how children can be safe, secure and successful at school and how to ensure they receive high quality education. It will also look at giving tips on where parents can get support and advice as they bring up their children.

What other subjects will be under discussion?

Crime and communities will be the topic for another jury next week, followed by nine simultaneous juries - one for each region - on the NHS. There will also be a nationwide set of juries held on one day to debate issues including: crime and immigration, education, health and transport.

What do the Conservatives think?

The Conservatives say this is a version of an idea that has been floated at least 15 times by Labour since it came to power in 1997. A spokesman said: "We believe that real reform requires more than holding focus groups. We believe it means the genuine return of power to citizens, such as directly elected police commissioners, scrapping unelected regional quangos and freeing local councils from the grip of Whitehall. We asked Jack Straw whether participation in these juries would be compulsory and he couldn't give an answer."

What do the Liberal Democrats say?

The Lib Dems say they are "fully supportive of the notion of citizens' juries because we want to see much more active citizenship". They would also like to use citizens' juries to shadow particular government departments and agencies. In their model, the juries would consist of around 20 people, who would serve for up to two years. They would be encouraged to develop their own agendas, rather than just respond to questions set by the government. The Lib Dems argue that Mr Brown's proposed juries should "go much further". "His juries haven't been given any real powers to make decisions and the time they have been given to consider the issues before them is, in our opinion, too short," a spokesman said.

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