On 24 April, the First Minister announced a range of actions to take forward consideration of Scotland’s constitutional future. I updated the chamber on progress on 29 May and I am pleased to honour the commitment that I made at that time to do so again before recess.
Events over the past two months indicate that the questions over our constitutional future are becoming ever more urgent. In April, Donald Tusk urged the United Kingdom Government not to waste the additional time that had been agreed by the EU 27. However, that is, of course, precisely what the UK Government has done. It is 11 weeks since the House of Commons last voted on Brexit; two months since it last looked at a Brexit statutory instrument; and four weeks since it heard a Brexit statement.
The reality of this Brexit chaos is still being denied. That is a denial that led, inter alia, to European elections in which many thousands of our fellow European Union citizens were denied their democratic right to participate. Only after her party’s historic drubbing in those elections did the Prime Minister face up to the clear, unavoidable truth—the truth of her being completely incapable of delivering Brexit.
However, Tory truth is not infectious, and those who are now vying to replace her are indulging in the very same fictions and fantasies. Boris Johnson is determined to keep a no-deal exit from the EU, regardless of the consequences, on the table, and Jeremy Hunt insists that he can secure changes to the Irish backstop. However, none of the solutions that is being offered by this tiresome twosome is in any way real. All of them have been ruled out again and again by the EU itself. There is no doubt—no doubt at all—that the withdrawal agreement will not be reopened. Against that backdrop of chaos and the threat to Scotland’s interests, I assure the chamber that we will continue to consider whether the Referendums (Scotland) Bill should be accelerated and, if required, we will return to that issue after the recess.
It is clear that a growing number of people in Scotland are seriously considering the issue of independence in the light of the Brexit disaster and the Tory leadership debacle. This Government was itself elected on a clear mandate that was triggered three years ago when the people of Scotland voted overwhelmingly to remain in the European Union—a mandate that was endorsed by a vote in this Parliament. This Government—like the majority of parties in this Parliament, of course—will continue to do whatever we can to halt the rush towards the catastrophe of a no-deal Brexit. Working with other parties, we will continue to campaign for a people’s vote on EU membership, with the option of remain on the ballot, which is a step that the people of Scotland overwhelmingly supported in the EU elections.
In her statement on 24 April, the First Minister invited all the parties to work with the Government to explore what common ground there may be between us on changes that are needed to equip Scotland with the powers that it must have for the future.
Essentially, that gives all the parties in the Parliament the chance to say what solutions to the current constitutional crisis they would bring forward short of independence. We continue to engage seriously with the UK about such matters, too. For example, we do so through the very unsatisfactory medium of the joint ministerial committee, which will meet again this Friday in the margins of the British-Irish Council in Manchester. I am grateful to the three parties that have indicated their willingness to undertake exploratory discussions to put forward their views. I regret that the Liberal Democrats have declined the opportunity so far, but it remains open and will always do so.
Let me focus on the third initiative that the First Minister announced: the establishment of the citizens assembly of Scotland. Citizens assemblies are becoming an established way for mature democracies to engage with complex and contested issues on an inclusive, informed and respectful basis. That is what we want for Scotland. I was delighted that, last week, we were able to hold a series of events in the Parliament to talk about the issue. I again extend my thanks to Art O’Leary and Sharon Finegan, the secretaries to the constitutional convention and the citizens assembly in Ireland, and to Anthony Zacharzewski from the Democratic Society, for making the time to share their knowledge and expertise with us. I was sorry that I was not able to be present, owing to illness.
The Parliament is rightly proud of the first 20 years of our reconvened existence, but democracy does not stand still and we have to keep innovating in order to keep moving. When we see, in the Brexit issue, a complete breakdown in trust between politicians and people, surely it should inspire all of us, no matter our political allegiance, to find new ways to bring politicians and people together to resolve deep-seated division.
The Government is determined to ensure that the people of Scotland are supported to make choices about their future with full access to the facts that they need. We want to encourage people to listen to and learn from one another, including those with whom we might otherwise profoundly disagree, and that is what citizens assemblies can do. However, we are also learning about the whole process, so it is right that we should move forward a step at a time.
It is important to establish at the outset a clear set of principles that will underpin the work of the assembly, and I can confirm those principles today. The first is independence from Government, which will be achieved through the appointment of impartial and respected conveners, an arm’s-length secretariat and expert advisory groups. The secretariat will be located outside Scottish Government offices. In addition, we intend to establish a politicians panel for the assembly to call on as it wishes, so that all the parties in the Parliament and not just the Government are a resource for the work of the assembly.
A second principle is transparency. That will apply at all levels of the operation of the assembly, from the framing of the questions, to the selection of members and expert witnesses, through to proactive publication and live-streaming of deliberative sessions and clarity about what the outputs will be used for.
A third is inclusion, which will extend not just to who is invited to take part as members but to the operations of the assembly itself.
A fourth is access. The wider public must be able to see and comment on the work of the assembly, and stakeholders must feel that they and their interests have a route into the assembly.
A fifth is balance. The information that is used to build members’ and the wider public’s learning must be balanced, credible and easily understood.
A sixth is cumulative learning, which will be embedded into the design of the assembly to ensure that members develop a rich understanding of the issues considered and have time to do so.
Finally, there is open-mindedness. The assembly will be a forum for open-minded deliberation between participants, ensuring that the public see it as a genuine process of inquiry and to help ensure that it receives an open-minded response from the Parliament and the Government.
I have touched on the role of conveners. The Government is determined that the assembly will be led by people who are trusted and respected across the political spectrum. I say “people” because I am committed to having more than one person undertake the role in order to ensure gender balance and to bring a richness of skills and experience to the role. The conveners will be responsible for stewarding, convening and representing the assembly.
Having spoken to a wide range of people about the role, including seeking views of MSPs and suggestions from across the parties in the Parliament, I am delighted to be able to confirm today that David Martin has agreed in principle to take on one of the roles. David is one of the most widely respected members of the European Parliament, not just in Scotland but across the European Union. His long service in the European Parliament has been widely recognised and praised. Discussions are continuing with other individuals who are interested in serving as the co-convener, and I will make a further announcement, including updating MSPs, in due course.
At the heart of the assembly are its members. On 14 June, we launched the invitation to tender for member recruitment. One hundred and twenty members of the public will be randomly selected to serve. The tender will ensure that the membership will be broadly representative of Scotland’s adult population according to age, ethnic group, socioeconomic background, geography and political attitude.
Members will be drawn from those who are eligible to vote under the new franchise and able to attend all the formal assembly sessions. I hope that serving as a member of the assembly will be seen as a privilege, but it is also a responsibility and a commitment. The assembly will meet over six weekends from late autumn to spring, which is in line with practice elsewhere.
We are also doing all that we can to ensure that the assembly is as accessible as possible. That includes our meeting all reasonable expenses that are incurred, including caring expenses. However, we can do more. Learning from the experience of other assemblies and in line with the advice that we have received, in recognition of the time and effort that it will take to be involved, we will also offer a small honorarium for participation.
I turn to the remit. The First Minister set out in her statement three broad questions that the assembly should consider. What kind of country are we seeking to build? How can we best overcome the challenges that we face, including those that arise from Brexit? What further work should be carried out to give the people the detail that they need to make informed choices about the future? In our engagement with experts and practitioners, we have heard a range of views on the remit that is required to take those questions forward. We have also heard about the importance of leaving the assembly sufficient space to determine its own path while also being clear to the assembly about where decisions are for this Parliament and for the wider public to take. I think that it is fair to recognise that the conveners, working with the assembly members, should and will reflect on those views as part of the process. It is important that the assembly is clearly seen to be independent when reflecting on the debate that Scotland needs. That work will be completed with the co-conveners and a remit will be published over the summer. I will ensure that members are kept informed at all stages and, as always, my door is open.
We need to establish the citizens assembly of Scotland carefully, thoughtfully and progressively. Over the summer, we intend to engage widely, to promote the assembly and to encourage those who are invited to participate. A dedicated website for the citizens assembly will go live this afternoon and it will grow to contain all the information regarding the assembly and its work. It can be found at citizensassembly.scot.
However, more important than anything else is that, within the remit that will be set out and with expert support, members of the assembly, once they are in place, will be free to explore the matters that are entrusted to them as they see fit. It is right that the assembly will set many of its rules and procedures and decide how to operate.
I know that politicians in this Parliament and beyond will respect not just a fair process but those who are engaged in the process. We must also ensure that, as far as is practicable, we respect the outcome, so I confirm that, when the first citizens assembly for Scotland concludes, the Government will ensure that its recommendations contribute to—and are seen to contribute to—positive steps towards a better collective future. That commitment extends to reviewing and learning from the process and considering whether citizens assemblies should become part of the next 20 years of Scotland’s story.
I thank the minister for early sight of his statement and I welcome him back to his seat. I know that he has been unwell and I wish him a full recovery. I also thank him for the arrangements that he made last week for engagement with Art O’Leary, Sharon Finegan and others with direct experience of citizens assemblies in Ireland. That was a useful process.
My view is that there is a role for citizens assemblies in Scotland. Wherever possible, we are governed by representative parliamentary democracy, but there are some issues of public policy that parliamentary democracy has failed or is struggling to address and resolve in Scotland. Effective preventative spend is one and long-term social care for the elderly is another. Critically, there is cross-party agreement or, probably, all-party agreement that those are massive and pressing issues of public policy that we as a Parliament struggle with. Were such matters to be handed to a citizens assembly, that might well be an innovation that was worthy of support. Sadly, however, that is not what the SNP proposes. What it proposes is yet another national conversation on Scotland’s constitutional future. We have heard it all before, and here we go again.
Last week, we learned that one of the lessons from Ireland is that, to be effective, citizens assemblies need cross-party buy-in at the beginning of the process. This one does not have that. This is not a genuine attempt at a citizens assembly in Scotland. It is a nationalist stunt to kick-start the conversation about independence. As such, I am afraid that we will have nothing to do with it, and I urge all unionists in Scotland to see it for what it is and give it a wide berth.
I regret that remark from Adam Tomkins—it is entirely contrary to what I have said and the information that has been provided. I hope that, in time, the Scottish Conservative Party will realise the importance of looking at this issue.
It is a little rich for Adam Tomkins to condemn the Scottish National Party for some sort of constitutional obsession, given that it was the Conservatives who encouraged the European referendum to take place three years ago, which has led to the most extraordinary constitutional crisis in my lifetime. It is not enough for Mr Tomkins to pretend that that crisis does not exist or to try to brush it under the carpet. In my statement, I gave some statistics on how the House of Commons has been paralysed by Brexit. There is also the extraordinary spectacle of two people who, to be frank, I would not send for the messages vying to be Prime Minister. Given all those circumstances, I think that Adam Tomkins has taken the wrong view. I hope that he will change his mind, because the citizens assembly is designed to help Scotland not hinder it, which I hope the Scottish Tories would see as their aim too.
I welcome the principles for the assembly of autonomy from Government and open-mindedness. However, to have announced a citizens assembly at the same time as a referendum bill has certainly created the impression that the Government has already provided the answer. How will the Government ensure a genuine process of inquiry when it has already framed the process within its desired referendum?
I welcomed meetings about the Irish experience last week. However, there has been no meaningful parliamentary scrutiny of the announcement here, unlike the way in which legitimacy was achieved in Ireland through a parliamentary vote and the ability to amend. Would it not be in the interests of the citizens assembly to work to a more realistic timetable and allow for parliamentary scrutiny after recess?
Given that context, we will offer a degree of support, provided that the Government can prove that the citizens assembly is free from its ambition for another referendum and that Parliament has an opportunity to scrutinise the terms of reference and the assembly’s remit.
I welcome that more positive response. I am happy to continue to provide evidence that the assembly is a free-standing independent initiative. I was glad, for example, that my old university friend Gordon Brown recently welcomed it. I am grateful for that, and I know that he has views about how the citizens assembly should go forward. I make the offer here today that, if he wishes to discuss it with me—along with Claire Baker or on his own—I am very happy to have that conversation.
The important thing is to get on and do things. I stress—I know that Claire Baker recognises this—that we are in the midst of an extraordinary constitutional crisis. The Scottish Government is trying to provide a variety of ways in which we can engage parties in the chamber in that regard. One of those ways is, of course, the passage of the Referendums (Scotland) Bill—and so it should be, given the urgency of the issue. The second way involves cross-party discussions. I have had a detailed letter from Richard Leonard about the Labour Party participation in those discussions; a response has been made and the process is moving forward, as I hope that it will continue to do. The third way is the entirely independent business of the citizens assembly of Scotland, and I am happy to continue to prove that to the member in any way that I can.
The Greens welcome the fact that most of us, at any rate, see positive value in this kind of open participative process. In Ireland, for example, Green proposals ensured that the citizens assembly there could address climate change, which is a demand of the growing wave of environmental activism in Scotland. Will the cabinet secretary tell us how, in the absence of a legislative basis for the citizens assembly here, he sees positive opportunities for the relationship between the assembly and Parliament to operate? If, for example, the assembly chooses to address questions such as where energy policy sits as part of a response to the climate emergency, will it be completely free to do so?
It will be absolutely free to do so. I see the relationship between the conveners of the assembly, the assembly members and this Parliament as a constructive one. I hope that the conveners, in helping to formulate the remit, will be happy to discuss that with anybody who wishes to discuss it with them, in the Parliament or outside it.
It is wrong to see the assembly as some sort of threat to the Parliament. I think that one of the Tory party leadership candidates who did not make it to the final two described citizens assemblies as being the creatures of Venezuelan tinpot dictators, even though another person in that race wanted to see citizens assemblies. Let us be open about the contribution that our fellow citizens can make to addressing very serious difficulties and problems; let us be open to them making that contribution; and let members support them to make that contribution.
I am grateful for the Green Party’s support, which is well received. The citizens assembly will be all the stronger as a result of that.
We are not participating in this latest SNP exercise, which has been set up simply to patch up its case for independence. Taxpayers’ money should not be used for that party-political process.
If the assembly begs the SNP Government to abandon independence, will it do so?
I commit myself to listening to the assembly, being public about what it says, and ensuring that whatever it says is reported. If it were to say that, Mr Rennie would know it—as would Mr Burnett, if he stopped talking long enough to listen. There would be a conversation.
The trouble with Mr Rennie’s position is that he will not allow the citizens of Scotland to have that opinion; they are to have no opinion, because he would not allow them to meet. That is not liberal or democratic.
It speaks volumes to me that the two parties in Parliament that have set their faces against involving the ordinary people of Scotland in addressing the worst problems we have had since the Parliament was created are the Tories and the Liberal Democrats. I am not surprised about the Tories—although I am disappointed by them, because I think that Mr Tomkins is more open than that—but I am surprised and disappointed by Mr Rennie, because it seems to me that, for him, the matter is far more about competing for a tiny hard-line audience than it is about trying to take Scotland forward.
The past three years of Brexit chaos have demonstrated the damage and harm that can be caused by an ill-informed headline-chasing approach to fundamental constitutional change. Will the cabinet secretary confirm how a citizens assembly would be able to do things differently?
If the current Prime Minister had said to herself at any time over the past three years that she really needed to listen to other people and to think about the other options that exist, she could have convened a citizens assembly. The University of London and others convened a citizens assembly on Brexit. That would have been a useful thing for her to do.
It is very important that we have an open mind on how opinion is formed in Scotland and how debate takes place. That was one of the important things about the foundation of the Parliament 20 years ago. Perhaps it is not surprising that the Tories opposed that, too.
As everybody else will, the committees of Parliament will be able to see the work of the citizens assembly and what takes place. Once that work is concluded, the outcomes of the assembly will come to Parliament for action. There will be absolute openness: transparency is the key to that.
I have no difficulty in saying that whatever the citizens assembly does and whatever it spends should be totally open and transparent, and that those things should, of course, be subject to scrutiny.
The citizens assembly is just one strand of the Scottish Government’s approach to charting a distinctive path for Scotland’s future. I note that the cabinet secretary has previously encouraged views and contributions from across the political spectrum. We have heard negativity and criticism today. Have any productive steps or positive suggestions been brought to the table by Opposition members?
I am aye hopin, as they say. I would have thought that, if members of any party in the chamber looked around, at this particular juncture, and saw the enormous mess that has been created by the UK Government and the Tory party, there is no doubt—[
Graham Simpson is laughing, but it is not funny. The governor of the Bank of England, too, think that it is not funny. He has drawn attention today to the severe economic damage that the Conservative Government is doing, which is no laughing matter. Severe damage is being done to businesses in the region that Mr Simpson represents.
In the circumstances, the correct reaction is to try something different that does not divide people but brings them together. The measure of parties in Parliament is whether they are flexible enough to support that. We know that the Conservatives are not, because they want to continue the narrow division of Brexit. As we have seen, that will be disastrous for them—they are at 11 per cent and falling in the polls.
In many ways, the party-political systems in the United Kingdom and across Europe are breaking down, so we should not fear involving citizens in big questions. We should be willing to see how the citizens assembly goes.
However, I do not want the process to be rushed, and there seems to be a bit of a rush, which brings risks.
Will the cabinet secretary assure those of us who believe that setting up the citizens assembly is the right thing to do that he will take whatever time is necessary to get it right?
I will. The timescale for establishing the first attempt at such a body in Ireland was roughly the same as the timescale that we expect, so there is no rush, in comparison with best practice. I am happy to assure Mr Rowley that the assembly will take the time that it needs, and that it will be run in the best way we can run it.
I hope that Mr Rowley, whom I have known for a long time, will accept my word that that is what we intend to do, and to do well. If he and others want to talk about how we should do that, we are open to that. As I said, we will set up a politicians panel, to which we will ask political parties to nominate members, so that the parties can give their views.
What work has been undertaken to learn lessons from the successful use of citizens assemblies in Canada, Australia, Poland and Ireland, that could be applied in Scotland?
Rona Mackay makes the important point that there are examples of such assemblies being used in different ways and in different circumstances. I understand that citizens assemblies are used in Oregon to define referendum questions and the arguments on both sides, so they have an interlocutor role. British Columbia had a citizens assembly on electoral reform, which did not produce a result that was eventually translated into law. Two referenda were held on reform—one narrowly succeeded and one narrowly failed.
Experiences have been different and mixed. People who attended the event that the Irish assembly organisers held last week will know that Ireland had a valuable experience in relation to the eighth amendment to the Irish constitution. Like most people in Ireland thought, many of us thought that it would be almost impossible to resolve that question, given the depth of feeling and difficulty on both sides, but it was dealt with in the assembly through people listening to arguments that they had never heard before.
As I have said, those who are against a citizens assembly are against debate and discussion and against ideas being put forward and considered on their merits.
If the Presiding Officer will forgive me, I will finish on this point. In the eighth amendment process in Ireland, one of the citizens assembly’s five sessions was given over to 17 advocacy organisations that brought information and views to bear. They all had to submit papers that were peer reviewed and fact based. One assembly member said that they heard things that they had never heard before.
I hope that members of the citizens assembly in Scotland will hear things about how Scotland should go forward that they have never heard before, because that means that Scotland will hear them, too. That will be a valuable contribution.
The cabinet secretary alluded to the briefing that Irish officials gave last week, for which I thank him. Art O’Leary made the point that one of the things that defined the initial constitutional convention was that members of Parliament were involved through membership of that convention. That created a sense of ownership of the conclusions, which perhaps has not existed in other places, such as British Columbia and Iceland, where there has been seen to be a disconnect between the conclusions of assemblies and what parliamentarians put into practice. Does the cabinet secretary take a view on whether it is worth exploring such an approach with the citizens assembly, at least in its initial stage?
I thank Mark McDonald for making that very important point. The difference between the convention and the citizens assembly was that there were 33 politicians and 66 other members in the convention, whereas there were no politicians in the citizens assembly. The experience was that the second model worked better, but there was an issue about how outcomes were implemented. In the citizens assembly, there was a commitment that that would be done by parliamentary committee. In other words, when the citizens assembly came to a conclusion, as it did on the eighth amendment, that would become a subject for a parliamentary committee.
I will ask the assembly and the committee conveners to consider what they think the best way of plugging into Parliament would be—I am open to ideas about that—so that their outcomes can contribute in a clear and positive way.
It would be utterly wrong to ask 120 people to spend their time being involved in a citizens assembly without saying to them that what they do will have positive consequences. We need to find the right way of allowing that to happen.
To address any concerns about the select number of people who might serve on the citizens assembly, will the cabinet secretary set out how the wider public and organisations will be able to contribute their views to the assembly, to ensure that others can be involved in the important conversation about Scotland’s future?
I do not want to tie the hands of the citizens assembly, but examples from elsewhere suggest that it will call for evidence and want people to submit evidence. In the past few weeks, a large number of people have contacted me to say that they want to be involved in the process. I am grateful to all of them for having done so.
It is now up to the citizens assembly, as it formulates its remit, to ask for contributions from the length and breadth of Scotland, including from individuals and civic Scotland.
Sometimes, the numbers are large. There were 13,000 submissions to the Irish citizens assembly on the eight amendment, and they were all put on the website for people to see. Assemblies on other subjects, such as fixed-term parliaments, have received only a handful of submissions.
People will have the opportunity to provide information. The website is now open, so people can begin to register their interest. I hope that it will become a dynamic process.
The cabinet secretary wants the 120 members who will be appointed to the citizens assembly to work out what kind of country we want to build. Why does he think that the 129-member, democratically accountable, elected Parliament that Scotland already has cannot fulfil that task?
There is a different type of debate to be had. That criticism has often been made in a variety of countries in the early stages of establishment of a citizens assembly. Politicians say, “We’re here—we can do this.”
The nature of the debate is different. I can demonstrate that by referring to the debate that we are having here. We have had exclusivity from Willie Rennie, who wants to stay out of everything, and we have had condemnation from the Tories, who do not want anything to do with the citizens assembly.
The reality is that the facts are presented to a citizens assembly in a way that is meant to be impartial. A range of information is available, and people have the opportunity to deliberate and to come to conclusions. That strikes me as what a Parliament might aspire to do, but hardly ever achieves, whereas it is at the heart of the work of a citizens assembly. I hope that that will become clear very quickly.
I know that the cabinet secretary is not a fearful man, but it seems to me from his statement that he is a little fearful of parliamentary scrutiny of the citizens assembly’s remit. As Patrick Harvie said, the climate change issue was considered by a citizens assembly in Ireland as a result of an amendment in Parliament. The parliamentary scrutiny that was evident in the Irish example gave the citizens assembly legitimacy. Will the cabinet secretary give the Scottish Parliament the final say on the assembly’s remit?
The final say on the assembly’s remit must come from the assembly. It would be completely ridiculous if we said, “We’ll tell you what to think.”
I will give Jenny Marra the guarantee, however, that full-hearted participation of, engagement with and scrutiny of the citizens assembly will be very important. Jenny Marra should stop waving that piece of paper, because I am trying to answer her question. We want the parties in Parliament to engage closely with the citizens assembly. This is an experiment in democracy for Scotland. Let us be open to that experiment: let us not find ourselves trying to close down parts of that experiment before we have even started.