Election '97: Candidates issued a talk challenge to clear the air

Charter 88, the constitutional reform pressure group, yesterday launched its "Democracy Day" campaign, in which voters get a chance to question parliamentary candidates at the largest public forum of its kind in a general election campaign

The meetings will be held at 200 constituencies in England, Scotland and Wales on 22 April. Most sitting MPs and PPCs have indicated they will attend.

The emphasis of the debate is due to be the allegations of sleaze hanging over the poll on 1 May, and questions of electoral reform and devolution.

At Tatton, in Cheshire, television journalist Martin Bell, standing on an independent anti-sleaze ticket, has agreed to take part. Charter 88 officials say they are awaiting a response either from Neil Hamilton, the MP at the centre of the "cash for questions" scandal, or from his wife Christine.

Charter 88, which started nine years ago, has attracted 70,000 signatories in its attempts to get a freedom of information act, as well as proportional representation.

Andrew Puddephatt, the director, said yesterday: "'Trust us' has become this election's slogan. But how can we trust politicians when they don't trust us?

"We don't have a right to know, or legal protection for our rights, and our centralised system of government means we don't have a say in what happens to our local communities.

"Trust is a two-way process; only through reforming our system of government to make it open and accountable can politicians earn our trust."

Canon Kenyon Wright, the executive chair of the Scottish Constitutional Convention, said: "This is about changing the system for good. It is about how we are governed, not just about who holds power, but about the very shape of our democracy.

"In Scotland the fact is transparent and paramount. I welcome the fact that Charter 88 plans 'Democracy Day' meetings in at least 28 key constituencies in Scotland."

Canon Wright said he would press a Labour government, if it gets into power, to let the Scottish Constitutional Convention have a full say in organising any referendum.

Charter 88 supporters from the world of showbusiness attended yesterday's launch, including actor David Swift, from the television series Drop the Dead Donkey, actors Timothy West and Eric Richard, Sergeant Bob Cryer in the police series The Bill, as well as musicians Billy Bragg, and Dodgy.

Swift said: "I was taught that this was the finest parliamentary system in the world. But that simply is not true. Members of parliament should be much more accountable".

"I haven't renewed my subscription to the Labour Party," Billy Bragg said. "To me, socialism means simple things, like providing adequate education and health care. We also need to empower local people".