I am sure that every member of the Scottish Parliament will always listen attentively to what Scotland has to say. All of us as MSPs listen to and act on what we hear in our constituencies and regions, in our surgeries, and at local events. We meet and learn from individuals who bring us their worries, concerns, ideas and even their enthusiasms. All of us as legislators and members, and some of us as ministers, also hear and pay heed to national and international voices from the third sector, unions, business, those who lobby in one way or another for or against change and reform, representative groups, wider civil society, faith groups, our universities and many more organisations. We also hear the voice of Scotland every time a member contributes in a committee or a plenary session in the chamber, carrying his or her concerns, which are informed by listening and thinking. This is Scotland’s Parliament, where the representatives of the people of Scotland, elected by a fair system of proportional representation, speak on behalf of their parties and—more important—their electors.
The past few years of Brexit division show that listening is important, but they also show that we must do better. If we are to row back from the current impasse and find a way forward as a nation, we must listen to new voices and in new ways. We must turn down the volume on what divides us and turn up the volume on ways of moving forward together. To do so, we must not just listen; we must pay attention, focus and understand, and then act.
That is what the citizens assembly of Scotland is about. It is a radical act of listening. It is an intervention in a political culture that can seem more concerned with making its own point, no matter the cost, than with listening to others’ points of view.
Nobody could deny that I am a robust politician. I was schooled in a robust age of debate, and sometimes it shows. I am as guilty as anyone in the chamber of misusing language. However, the times that we are in call for other voices to be heard and for people to speak out in other ways. Formal politics is not the only way to find solutions; sometimes it may not even be the best way.
The assembly is about doing things in a different way, with a different tone, and developing a different democratic language. International experience shows that such approaches can bring new perspectives and new solutions. However, by definition, such initiatives are not about politicians. This debate marks the moment at which Scotland’s citizens assembly becomes an independent entity reaching out to make a new contribution to our country.
The citizens assembly of Scotland now has its remit, and Parliament is being invited to endorse it. It is our first national citizens assembly sponsored by Government but wholly separate from it, and its remit goes to the heart of the question that faces our country. The remit asks the assembly to consider three things:
“what kind of country we are seeking to build, how best we can overcome the challenges Scotland and the world face in the 21st century, including those arising from Brexit, and what further work should be carried out to give us the information we need to make informed choices” about our future.
Those are broad questions, but deliberately so. The assembly will listen, deliberate and come to conclusions. It is entirely free to define what it thinks are the challenges that are faced by Scotland and the world. Within the framework that is set out in the remit and terms of reference, it will set its own agenda, put in place its own work plan and draw its own conclusions. Could that agenda take it to places that are uncomfortable for the Government? Of course. If I am prepared to accept and acknowledge that, I have to constructively ask those who still stand against the initiative: what are you worried about?
If I am open to the views of the assembly—
It is the lack of trust that I am seeking to address today. I will say more about the independence of the citizens assembly now. [
.] I am sure that all members, including Graham Simpson, who find this entertaining might trust me a little to find out how it is going to move forward.
We should all want to be challenged by the assembly, as it will say and do things that make each and every one of us think anew and reflect anew.
On the subjects of trust and thinking anew, does the cabinet secretary agree with the remarks that are attributed to David Martin, one of the co-conveners of the assembly, that it was “ a mistake” to introduce into Scotland the idea of a citizens assembly as part of a package of measures seeking independence for the country?
I am trying to make a point that can be believed or not believed. There was no intention to say that the citizens assembly would be driving forward any agenda other than the one that I have put forward. I understand and respect David Martin’s point of view, and if we had our time again, perhaps we would have done it in a different way. That is a fair reflection of where I stand on the matter.
The first important step in achieving a fully independent citizens assembly was the appointment of two entirely independent conveners, whose role is to steward, lead and represent the assembly. David Martin and his distinguished track record as a Labour MEP, speaking for Scotland in Europe, will be familiar to everyone here, and his integrity and expertise when it comes to many of the most pressing issues of the day is unimpeachable. Kate Wimpress has established and led arts organisations in Scotland and Northern Ireland for nearly 30 years. She brings to her new role considerable experience of engaging and inspiring communities and insight into how best to listen to and amplify the voices of the less heard. It is over to them now.
This week, we have published a memorandum of understanding between the Scottish Government and the conveners. The memorandum will, I hope, make real the promises that we have made about the assembly’s independence. It provides for a secretariat that is accountable to, and takes its direction from, the conveners. It also provides for a budget and for the assembly’s ability to receive, directly and independently, the advice, support and services that it requires.
It is essential that the assembly is run to the highest standards of public administration, that it demonstrates the potential for deliberative democracy, and that it fulfils the ambition of everyone who is involved to develop something inclusive, accessible, and open minded.
I understand the need for reassurance, and I am happy to meet with any representative of any party who wants to discuss the issue further. I encourage them to meet the conveners and discuss such matters.
Recruitment of the members of the assembly has already begun. People are out there, knocking on doors, working to find a broadly representative cross-section of Scottish society to take part in something very special. For six weekends, between this October and April next year, they will debate, share views and decide on recommendations that could shape the future of their country. The first meeting will be held over the weekend of 26 and 27 October. That is only days before the current date of prospective European Union exit. Things will undoubtedly change before then, and change again before the assembly finally reports in May next year. Almost certainly, there will be a general election in the United Kingdom.
The Government will continue to press for a referendum that would allow the United Kingdom to stay in the EU. We will request the section 30 order that will put this Parliament’s ability to hold a referendum on the constitutional future of our country—which it has voted for—beyond challenge.
That uncertain background does not imperil the citizens assembly; rather, it makes it even more essential. With public attention focused on the latest indignity to emerge from Westminster, the assembly will have a calmer, longer-term perspective.
I really must make progress—I am sorry. I think that I will not be given much extra time by the Presiding Officer.
During a period when the claims of competing camps are likely to increase in their vehemence, the evidence-based and balanced approach of the assembly will help to provide us with facts, considered opinions and a framework for thinking. Wherever we end up in spring next year and whatever we are debating, none of us will, I hope, wish to turn away an informed, representative and balanced contribution to our national debate.
I began by saying that I wanted to know and listen to what Scotland thinks. I will go further: we need to know what Scotland thinks, what kind of country the people of Scotland want to build, what people think are our greatest challenges and what information the people of Scotland want to have if they and we are to face up to the responsibility of overcoming those challenges.
The Brexit debate has demonstrated the discord that can arise when big constitutional questions are posed in a way that does not include a whole country, that distorts rather than informs and that allows nobody—whatever side of the debate they are on—to have confidence in the terms or implications of the outcome. It has shown what happens when there is only heat in a debate, with no light to shine into our different thoughts, fears and hopes. All parties in this chamber have spoken of the need to improve dialogue, to step back and to consider all points of view more carefully. This assembly provides us with the opportunity to relearn how to do that.
The assembly will report as it sees fit to this Parliament, the Scottish Government and the people of Scotland. Its remit and terms of reference require its report to be laid before Parliament. It expects this Parliament to consider and scrutinise the report, and it requires the Scottish Government to set out, within three months, what it intends to do in respect of the assembly’s recommendations. The assembly’s report will not replace this Parliament’s democratic function of deliberating and deciding. It is one part of Scotland’s story, but I hope that it will be a big and significant part.
This Parliament was the beginning of a new sang, to follow on from Seafield’s famous remark about 1707 being the
“end of an auld sang.”
However, a song can have many voices, and the more that those voices sing in harmony, the better they sound.
This will be Scotland’s first national citizens assembly, but not its last. The Green Party is proposing a future assembly on climate change, and this Government will be happy to endorse that and help to make it happen in this session of Parliament. Adding citizens assemblies to our civic and democratic structures is a natural step for this open and inclusive Parliament, and I am sure that the lessons of this first one will help that happen.
When Henry McLeish presented the report of the cross-party steering group in 1998, he set out the key principles to guide the design of this place. They included an ambition that the Parliament should
“embody and reflect the sharing of power between the people of Scotland”.
We have done a lot to live up to that ideal, but we can do more.
Twenty years ago, this Parliament met for the first time. Twenty years on, let us resolve to continue to innovate in the service of those who put us here and to ensure that they are more and more at the heart of what we do.
That the Parliament supports the use of deliberative democracy in Scotland; welcomes the establishment of the Citizens’ Assembly of Scotland and the appointment of its independent conveners, Kate Wimpress and David Martin; notes the principles, remit and terms of reference for the Assembly; further notes that the Assembly’s report will be laid before the Parliament; commits to the Scottish Government considering the recommendations in that report and to holding a debate to allow the Parliament to respond to those recommendations, and agrees that, within three months of receiving the report, the Scottish Government should publish a plan setting out how those recommendations that have been agreed by the Parliament will be implemented, and should lay that plan before the Parliament.
I seem to have upset Mike Russell. He is so upset that he frequently takes to social media to plead with me to talk to him. I know that it is difficult to believe that I could upset such a self-effacing, modest, self-deprecating gentleman and member of this chamber, but I say to Mike Russell that the Liberal Democrats will be happy to talk to him anytime on most issues.
Indeed, we have talked a lot about many issues over many months. We worked together on the EU withdrawal bill and the continuity bill—we did not just work together; we agreed with each other on those. We agreed that the Conservative Government was taking powers that should rightly have been placed here from the very beginning. We talked about the people’s vote and, eventually, we persuaded Mike Russell to back the people’s vote. We will work together when we agree.
We also support the citizens assembly as a method and means to reach agreement on the way ahead on challenging issues. For example, to reach net zero greenhouse gas emissions, people will need to be prepared to make radical changes in their day-to-day lives. However, such changes must have a democratic foundation. A citizens assembly on the climate would help to provide that. We must understand people’s different perspectives and the different ways in which that process will affect their lives so that the transition to a carbon-neutral economy can be accomplished as quickly, fairly and legitimately as possible, and that can be done through a citizens assembly. That is the kind of measure that the assembly would be ideally suited for.
That is why we deeply regret that the first opportunity to utilise the tool was when the First Minister announced it earlier this year as part of a statement on the next steps to achieve independence. That is what Mike Russell is upset about; he complains that we will not take part. We do not support independence, so how could we take part in that kind of initiative?
When we listen to David Martin, can Mike Russell blame us? As Adam Tomkins pointed out, David Martin said that it was “a mistake” to wrap the two things together. He was right; it was deeply flawed and, as a result, the process is flawed.
I am an avid reader of
—that journal that is a record of all things Scottish. Moving on from its campaign earlier this summer of harassment of Scottish strawberry producers who dared to put the union flag on their strawberry punnets, it turned its attention to the citizens assembly. I thought that it was good to give space to the issue. It gave space to Joanna Cherry, who is famous—she was filmed outside the court today—and who speaks for the party on home affairs in the House of Commons. She wrote:
“I have been inundated with queries about how a Citizens Assembly might work and how it could help to achieve independence”.
She went on:
Joanna Cherry went further at the Scottish National Party conference. With some degree of excitement, she told delegates that
“A citizens assembly ... is a concrete way to achieve our goal which is to create a consensus across Scotland and a bigger majority for Yes”.
On a point of order, Presiding Officer. It is important that the words that I used, which will be recorded in the
, are quoted. On no occasion did I refuse to distance myself. I made my position clear. As the minister responsible for the matter, I think that what I said should have been quoted properly and not improperly.
Joanna Cherry seems to have created a degree of excitement, not just in the courts today, but in this chamber. I am grateful to her for giving us such clarity and honesty that her exposé of the real purpose of the assembly makes it impossible for us to take part in it.
We now know that it is a ruse, a scheme and a mechanism to help the SNP members’ campaign for independence. [
Graeme Dey says that this is about our obsession with independence, but it was the SNP’s idea to have the citizens assembly, it was the SNP’s idea to wrap it up with independence and it was an SNP member of Parliament who put independence at the heart of it. Do not say that we are obsessed with independence; it is the SNP that is obsessed with independence.
I favour abolishing the House of Lords, changing the unfair first-past-the-post voting system and having a written constitution. If we had had that written constitution, that would have helped us today. I favour having powerful regional and national Assemblies and Parliaments—a federal structure. However, with this half-Machiavellian, half-clever approach, it is impossible to discuss all that in the citizens assembly. It is an SNP approach—a Joanna Cherry-inspired citizens assembly—and that is why we can have nothing to do with it, and no one who wants to keep the United Kingdom together should have anything to do with it. Once we have stopped Brexit, we need to change the UK, but at this moment of national crisis we do not need yet another discussion about independence. For goodness’ sake, let us move on. Let us stop Brexit, let us get this country on track and let us reform this country, but the citizens assembly has nothing to do with that.
In all the excitement, I forgot to do that.
I move amendment
S5M-18778.1, to leave out from “welcomes” to end and insert:
“regrets that the first opportunity taken by the Scottish Government is a citizens’ assembly announced as a part of a package of measures to achieve Scottish independence, which was welcomed by SNP MPs as part of the route to independence, and notes that Scottish ministers have not agreed to abide by the recommendations of the assembly if it rejects Scottish independence.”
I turn my attention first to the Liberal Democrat amendment, which has just been so movingly moved by Mr Rennie. We on the Conservative benches strongly agree with every word of it—not quite with every word of Mr Rennie’s speech, but certainly with the sentiment behind it. It is a matter of deep regret that the idea of a citizens assembly for Scotland was introduced to the Parliament and to Scottish politics as part of a package of measures that were designed by the First Minister to achieve independence for Scotland. I think that everybody, even Mike Russell, can understand why that has made us all so deeply suspicious of it, just as we have our suspicions about the Referendums (Scotland) Bill, which is another part of the same package. For all those reasons, we will be voting for the Liberal Democrat amendment tonight.
I now turn my attention to the Government motion. The first thing that it says is
“That the Parliament supports the use of deliberative democracy in Scotland”.
I support deliberative democracy in Scotland and I will explain why briefly. I support it because I do not think that party politics gets everything right. I do not think that the Parliament has shown that it is able to get to the bottom of every social or economic problem that faces Scotland today. For all its merits and virtues, the Parliament does not have all the answers, even when we all come together to agree that an issue is of pressing national importance. Climate change might be a good example. If we had started with a citizens assembly on climate change and then moved to other matters, that would have been infinitely preferable to starting with the constitution and the SNP’s obsession with independence.
Another example, which I have given before, is that we all agree that Scotland faces a crisis when it comes to drugs deaths. There is cross-party agreement that the issue blights our nation and it shames us all that we have not been able to come together as a Parliament to agree a way forward. It is not just unfortunate but appalling that the issue has become constitutionalised and has become about where reserved powers lie with regard to safe consumption facilities. That is exactly the kind of issue that party politics is failing to address in Scotland and which a citizens assembly could and should be established to address.
If we had started with climate change or drugs deaths, perhaps there would have been much less suspicion about the idea of citizens assemblies and we could have had genuine all-party support for it.
I accept much of what Adam Tomkins has said about drug deaths. I was first involved in difficulties in that area in the early 1960s. Would it be helpful if all those from across the UK who might be able to influence policy and practice on drug deaths were able to sit in one room together, or does it need a citizens assembly to summon such people and bypass the political system? I am not quite clear about what Adam Tomkins is saying.
The answer to the first part of that question is, yes, it would be helpful. It should happen, in my view, and I know what the consequences of that are.
The next part of the Government motion notes various matters that we are happy to note: the appointment of the conveners, the principles and remit of the citizens assembly and its terms of reference. We note, likewise, that
“the Assembly’s report will be laid before ... Parliament”.
We have no objection to any of those elements of the motion.
The final part of the motion says that the Government will consider the recommendations that emerge from the citizens assembly and that the Parliament will decide on them. Again, that is fine—it broadly gets right the balance between the role of the citizens assembly, the role of the Government in considering its recommendations and the role of the Parliament in deciding on them.
Scottish Conservatives will listen to what the SNP—not just its front-bench members but its back benchers—has to say about the motion before we decide how to vote on its motion this evening. If—as we suspect that it is and will be—the citizens assembly becomes a proxy for independence, full fiscal autonomy, devo max or any other constitutional scheme that is designed to undermine the integrity of the United Kingdom, we will vote against the motion.
There is one very significant omission from the Government’s motion, which is the question of cost. What will it cost to establish, administer and run the citizens assembly? What will we pay members, conveners and the civil servants who will help to service it? In the press, it has been reported that the cost will be half a million pounds.
Transparency will be a key issue for the citizens assembly. It will be committed to publishing its costs in full. It will do so at the appropriate moment, which will be up to the assembly. I do not think that there will be any doubt about that; the information will be there for everyone to see.
I am grateful to the cabinet secretary for that response, although he did not shed any light on the question of cost and simply said that it will be made transparent at some point in the future.
We have already heard what David Martin has said about the coupling of the citizens assembly in Scotland with the idea of independence, and it has been quoted by other members. However, it is not just David Martin who is of that view. Neil Mackay, the former editor of the
Sunday Herald and a journalist who supports independence, has said:
“The idea was a simple, elegant addition to our democracy—but the SNP has now stomped all over it, politicised it, and, made it look falsely like a propaganda unit. The party’s behaviour is completely counter-productive”.
I quote that not in anger but in sadness. The citizens assembly had the potential to be a really good idea and a useful addition to our parliamentary democracy here in Scotland. However, the SNP has ruined it because it has coupled it with independence, which has made us all very suspicious of what its true motivations are.
In opening the debate on behalf of Scottish Labour, I state our support for the principles of the citizens assembly for Scotland. I also welcome the appointments of both David Martin and Kate Wimpress and have faith that they will be both independent and hard-working co-conveners.
Too often these days, I find myself having to advocate for democracy and reiterating that, although it is flawed, it is still a good thing. More democracy is certainly no bad thing, and the principles of deliberative democracy and their use in Scotland should be welcomed. The use of citizens assemblies is a proven and respected method when it is done properly. They can help services to work together and allow us, as a country, to develop our culture of citizenship. One of their key benefits is that they can allow complex issues to be explored in depth by the people who are directly affected by them. All that is surely a good thing.
I understand the point and the concerns that Willie Rennie has raised in his amendment. I also recognise that the purpose of the assembly has been muddied by at least one SNP MP, who has asserted that its purpose is to move us towards independence. Therefore, I would be grateful if the cabinet secretary would clarify the point again in his closing remarks. I know that he feels that he has done so already, but I ask him to do so again. As I understand it, the Government is committed to introducing the assembly in good faith. If that is indeed the case, Scottish Labour will participate in good faith in return.
I will certainly come on to that point.
I have some experience in deliberative democracy. While I was leader of Fife Council, we held one of the first citizens juries in the country back in March 1997. Our citizens jury was established to examine what public agencies and local communities could do to create employment opportunities in Levenmouth. It was an incredibly positive experience, and at the end the jury made more than 50 recommendations, most of which, I am pleased to say, were implemented.
When we speak to people who have taken part in such juries or assemblies, one of the key messages that comes across is how positive the experience was. Here are some of the views that were given by participants in the recent Irish citizens assembly:
“It ... helped me ... to listen, understand and develop empathy”,
“It got balanced and truthful information out among the people of Ireland”, and
“It took the debate out of the realm of fearful self-interested calculation”.
We could surely use all of that in our politics in Scotland at present.
I am told that one of the key messages to be learned that came out of the Irish assembly was about how to engage with the press and get it on board at an early stage. It can be too easy for the press to see citizens assemblies in a negative or sceptical light, so I believe that it is key to the success of the Scottish citizens assembly for the press to be fully engaged in the process at all stages. That also brings about much greater transparency.
I am pleased that it has been stated that the citizens assembly for Scotland
“will be independent, transparent and inclusive.”
Those objectives are good and I am sure that they will get widespread support throughout the country.
We are willing to go into this with an open mind, and I hope that the Government is willing to do the same. The questions that are proposed to frame the citizens assembly are:
“What kind of country are we seeking to build? How can we overcome the challenges Scotland faces, including Brexit? How can people be given the detail they need to make informed choices about Scotland’s future?”
Those are surely welcome questions, and Scottish Labour is willing to engage in the discussions.
Our country is undergoing a massive political upheaval, and we need to work together where we can to ensure that a level of stability is returned to the whole of the United Kingdom. The questions that frame the assembly are questions that I would like to be answered, and I believe that, through collaborative working and engaged discussions with the public, we can set out the kind of Scotland that we want to see flourish into the future.
We are not a party that stands for the status quo, so we will engage in the discussions on what kind of country we want to live in and what best meets the needs and aspirations of the Scottish people. I am clear that part of that will involve constitutional, social and economic reform across the United Kingdom. The United Kingdom is far too centralised as a state—indeed, Scotland has become that way as well—and we would like to see reform of how our state operates at an economic, political and constitutional level. We hope that the discussions will take us in that direction.
I finish by saying to the Tories and the Liberals that we cannot stand still and we cannot go backwards. We should support this initiative and let Scotland move forward.
I welcome the motion that has been brought to the chamber for debate today. The Greens have long expressed support for deliberative democracy in a range of forms. We have seen at a local level—with participatory budgeting, for example—that it can be done well or done badly, and we need to learn from that experience as we explore the greater use of deliberative democracy. I do not think that that learning is going to be well served by the kind of debate that we have had so far this afternoon.
Deliberative democracy—Adam Tomkins is right about this—does not in any way need to be seen as being in conflict with parliamentary democracy or as undermining the role of elected Governments or Parliaments. It can and should be complementary and enriching in a way that was so chronically missing in the run-up to 2016.
Adam Tomkins and I are on the Finance and Constitution Committee, which has been hearing evidence on the Referendums (Scotland) Bill. Although I am sure that we will not agree on everything about that bill, one of the common themes that we can all recognise from the evidence that we have heard so far is the distinction between a referendum that is held in the full light of a well worked-up and detailed proposition—either published legislation or something detailed, such as the Scottish Government’s white paper—and what we saw in 2016, which was a referendum that was based on a narrow proposition and something as simplistic as the slogan “take back control”.
We should learn from the Irish experience of using citizens assemblies to inform and enrich the debate about constitutional change in their country. It is a far greater expression of genuinely deep democracy than what we saw in 2016. If the question on EU membership, for example, had been subjected to that kind of detailed deliberation in advance, we would have ended up with a much richer debate and far greater clarity about what should happen as a result.
Further constitutional change is coming. Whether Brexit is implemented—and I hope that it can still be stopped—or is killed off in its tracks and we simply reflect on what has happened to us in the past three years and the level of contempt that has been shown to Scotland’s democracy by the UK Government, further constitutional change is coming. Let us make sure that, when it comes, it is as informed as it can be by that deliberative process.
I understand that some people want to see this as an opportunity to have a proxy debate about independence. Adam Tomkins does not need to be suspicious that the SNP might privately, secretly or covertly support independence. We all know that the SNP supports independence, he knows that I support independence and I know that he does not. I have no fear of a citizens assembly that wants to consider whatever proposals Adam Tomkins makes, even they are to support every dot and comma in the UK Government’s proposals for what should happen after Brexit. I would have no hesitation in seeing a citizens assembly consider those options, and I would not feel threatened by that.
I do not feel threatened, but there is a difference. In Ireland, citizens assemblies had all-party buy-in because they started on issues that all parties agreed needed to be addressed by a citizens assembly. That is not the case in Scotland, and that is what I regret.
Indeed, and I regret that Mr Tomkins’s party is not buying in. He is perfectly capable of buying into the process and seeing that the citizens assembly considers any issues that he thinks it should consider.
I will in just a moment.
Similarly, I say to the Liberal Democrats that I do not think that the citizens assembly should rule, for example, that federalism is to be rejected. I do not think that the Liberal Democrats should be unwilling to see a citizens assembly come forward and to offer it their proposals.
Does Patrick Harvie agree that we can all agree, and have agreed, that we face a climate emergency? I would have thought that, of all people, he would have wanted to see the climate emergency being the first subject to be addressed by the citizens assembly, but we have heard nothing about that from him.
I am sure that Mr Rumbles knows that that was the basis of our amendment—I will come on to that in a moment.
Unlike Mr Rumbles, I think that the current constitutional crisis also constitutes an emergency. From the contempt that has been shown for devolution to what was today deemed to be an illegal proroguing of Parliament, the constitutional crisis should be considered an emergency.
I regret that the only amendment that we will be able to vote on today is the Liberal Democrat one. The Green Party amendment learned from the experience in Ireland, where broad-brush ideas were identified, such as the role of taxation in the transition to a low-carbon economy. It was not about answering the detailed questions but about addressing the broad-brush idea.
The Climate Change (Emissions Reduction Targets) (Scotland) Bill gives us the opportunity to use the same deliberative democracy approach in relation to climate change. I am glad that the cabinet secretary said that he supports that and I hope that he will say on the record that he will back an amendment to the bill to mandate that process. Although I am not able to move that amendment today, I propose it and ask that all parties in the chamber back an amendment to the bill, in order to ensure that we move forward in an open, participative and deliberative process in relation to the climate, just as we should—and must—in relation to the constitution.
Today’s motion asks Parliament to endorse the idea that deliberation should be at the heart of our decision making. Now, more than ever, we need our politics to be the product of fair and rationale debate. I am not for one minute suggesting that we strip passion from our politics—we always need to show that we care. However, in these troubled times, we need very much to bring back into vogue clear and calm heads and good old-fashioned common sense.
Citizens assemblies have a contribution to make in that regard, by helping to change aspects of our political culture and discourse.
I am a big fan of the author Zadie Smith, who counsels us that, for progress to survive, it needs to be looked after and “reimagined”. The events of the past few weeks show that we cannot take our democracy for granted. Although, as a life-long nationalist, I have never wanted to be ruled from Westminster—I have always felt somewhat disengaged from it—as a citizen, I have every right to be absolutely outraged by the so-called mother of Parliaments being prorogued for the longest-ever period in recent history, and at ministers of Her Majesty’s Government speculating on television about how they might find ways around legislation. I am sure that, across the political divide, I am not alone in thinking that.
The reality is that there is a big national crisis across the UK. At the end of the day, no one knows what will happen next, although we all like to speculate.
It is important that, in Scotland, we meet in our Parliament to discuss how we can strengthen our democracy. Although we should not view citizens assemblies in isolation—they are not a magic bullet; when you get to my age, you realise that nothing ever is—they could be one part of a broader system of civic participation that underpins a well-developed and functioning democracy. At home and abroad, we see other factors that might challenge or change our democracy as we know it: globalisation, the rise of populism, the increase of corporate power, technological changes, social media as a news outlet and campaign tool, the climate emergency, and poverty and inequality. That range of emergencies cannot necessarily be tackled in isolation from one another, but they can all lead to disengagement and distrust.
In order to protect our democracy, we need to constantly seek better ways to reach out and engage. That is important, because Parliaments are rarely truly representative of the people whom they seek to serve. The prominence of Etonians at Westminster means that it looks and sounds to me increasingly like a period drama from the 1950s. However, we in this Parliament are also not truly representative of the diversity of Scotland—folk from many of our various communities are simply missing. Of course, that needs to be addressed—preferably within the 21st century—but it underlines the point that we need other forums, outwith the parliamentary bubble, to inform our work and decision making.
The question that will be posed to the citizens assembly is entirely open. What kind of country are we seeking to build? How do we overcome the challenges that we face? We all need to be committed to really listening, thinking and then responding. In that regard, the Government has outlined its respect for this Parliament in its motion.
It is important not to miss the spirit—or the potential—of a citizens assembly, because we can neither prejudice the outcome nor rewrite our response to it. If we set up an independent assembly, we cannot control it. David Martin has certainly demonstrated his independence.
In a democracy, people are entitled to change their minds, but they are also entitled to stick to their guns. The reality is that the question of Scotland’s constitutional future has not evaporated. We can, of course, debate why that is and what we should or should not do about it. There will be a range of views, but whatever a person’s position on Scotland’s constitutional future is, and whatever happens, surely we can all agree that we need to find a path to travel on together on a range of issues.
I end with one of Zadie Smith’s clarion calls. She said:
“Stop worrying about your identity and concern yourself with the people you care about, ideas that matter to you, beliefs you can stand by, tickets you can run on.”
We should all heed those words.
We all have to be wary of making predictions. However, in the times that lie ahead, I think that we will all have to step outside our boxes and our comfort zones.
Forgive my scepticism, but this citizens assembly is nothing short of a Trojan horse. At first glance, it is a benign chance to let the public have a say, but it is mired in a hidden agenda.
What we again have is another chance—this time in the form of a citizens assembly—for the SNP to push its independence plan. We have heard today that it is already doomed to fail to represent the people of Scotland, so the SNP has fallen at the first hurdle in terms of transparency and fairness.
I see Mike Russell sitting there with his head in his hands because he is obviously in despair about what his SNP colleagues have said about the citizens assembly. [
.] Thank you very kindly.
There are a number of reasons why the citizens assembly is tainted by the SNP’s agenda. Nicola Sturgeon announced the assembly alongside cross-party constitutional discussions and indyref 2 legislation back in April, as part of her agenda to push independence. Former MEP David Martin has lambasted that as a “mistake”, and has criticised the FM’s decision to include the citizens assembly in developing independence referendum legislation.
SNP MSPs and MPs really Iet the cat out the bag before the assembly got off the ground. We have heard Joanna Cherry MP calling the newly announced citizens assembly the “perfect way” to independence. That commentary from the SNP has destroyed what could have been simply a democratic and transparent process.
Mike Russell has said that
I will make a little bit of progress, first.
Moreover, Dr Oliver Escobar—a prominent academic who is involved in the assembly—has expressed his anger at Joanna Cherry. It seems that there is a trend here. In response to Cherry’s claims about the assembly, Dr Escobar, who is involved in organising the assembly, said that he was “kind of fuming” at the statement, believing that it makes the assembly’s work “ten times harder”. Maybe Ms Cherry wishes that she had stayed quiet.
On top of those bloopers, funding the assembly will cost the taxpayer half a million pounds. Many people will rightly be furious about that spending—especially given the direction of travel that has been put on the assembly following SNP politicians’ comments.
Joanna Cherry’s comments have made the public sceptical; she has also caused an issue with transparency and fairness.
We are not against the concept of citizens assemblies, but the questions that are up for debate are not set by the assembly, but by the SNP Government. As we have heard from Mike Russell, the First Minister set out three broad questions. Forgive me for my suspicion, but those questions have nothing to do with fixing the Government’s domestic record and everything to do with the constitution. For example, there is nothing about reducing the deficit in Scotland, about tackling declining national health service performance or about the fact that there are fewer teachers in our schools. I, and many of my colleagues, would like a citizens assembly to discuss how we can better reach a zero-carbon economy and tackle climate change. The list goes on.
I will draw together my points. It might be argued that the real citizens assembly is here in the Scottish Parliament. Across the chamber, there are many people of all political persuasions, from all walks of life, from different backgrounds and professions and with different life experiences. We are elected to represent our constituents and we stand up for them in the chamber every day. However, we should remain open minded about the concept of citizens assemblies.
People are highly suspicious of the SNP’s motives. The SNP wants a citizens assembly because it has been, and always will be, about independence. Simply put, it will be a talking shop for independence and very little else. How can that opinion be turned round? Will the assembly seek people’s views on how the SNP has dismantled local front-line policing, thereby leading to an increase in crime?
No, thank you.
Will the assembly seek people’s views on how to reverse the SNP’s failure on school standards? Will it seek people’s views on how rural areas are becoming increasingly isolated in a technologically advancing world?
It is a matter of deep regret that a potentially good idea has been tainted. Citizens assemblies have been effective in other countries. However, it seems that the SNP’s incurable narrowness and its constitutional agenda have destroyed what could have been a new way forward to reflect public opinion.
We have heard interesting contributions from Conservative members. Adam Tomkins said that we in Parliament do not have all the answers, and I agree with him. However, Rachael Hamilton said that Parliament is the citizens assembly. Those are fundamentally different points of view, so there are obviously differences among views in the Tory party. We in the SNP have robust debates and ways of dealing with different points of view.
I want to start with the character and experience of one of the conveners of the assembly. I know one of them, but not the other. When David Martin was first elected as an MEP in the 1980s, he came to the Bank of Scotland to meet senior executives. I remember sitting round the lunch table—we were hospitable to him—to hear his questions and his responses, and the issues that he was raising with the bank. That was more than 30 years ago. The first thing that David Martin brings to the table is objectivity. The second is experience and the third is honesty in his political opinions—which are not my political opinions, but come from a different tradition.
If we attack the citizens assembly, we attack David Martin and his substantial record of public service, his preparedness to serve the public good and his preparedness to tackle the democratic deficit, or emergency, that undoubtedly exists in these islands. Today’s court judgment is just one part of the continuing failure of the UK’s democratic systems to solve major problems.
I absolutely support the Green Party proposal, which has been supported by Conservative members, to involve citizens more on the issue of climate change. I progressed the Climate Change (Scotland) Bill in 2009, for which we had unanimous support: I hope that we will get such support again. In an era of post-truth politics, in which climate change is an issue and globalisation is a matter of debate, our citizens must be part of deciding the future.
Who is taking a risk by establishing the citizens assembly? In Parliament, we have a majority in favour of independence. Those who support that objective—which is part of a wider agenda and does not stand on its own—are taking the risk that the citizens assembly, which is independent of Government and is chaired by a lifelong opponent of the political philosophy that I espouse, could come up with a conclusion that will make us desperately uncomfortable.
I believe that we will have convincing evidence and arguments that will lead the assembly to a different place. However, those of us who support Scotland’s independence are taking the risk. The fact that the Tories and the Liberal Democrats will not take such risks is very revealing.
We have an opportunity to recalibrate how our democracy works. What is before the assembly lays out the way in which to address issues, but the assembly is the master of its own destiny. The Liberal Democrat amendment does not disagree with the assembly’s remit, so I invite Liberal Democrats to endorse the motion in their concluding remarks. The word “independence” appears nowhere in it.
The UK’s general relationship with the devolved nations is changing; in England, there are huge tensions across geography and people’s different experiences in different parts. Citizens assemblies can be important in allowing countries to consider how they take themselves forward.
In Ireland, the removal of the eighth amendment to the constitution was a suitable subject for a citizens assembly to contribute to the subsequent referendum debate—and it was very successful. The referendum followed closely the recommendations of the assembly but—more to the point—participants said that it made them consider the impact of a proposal in ways that they never would have done before. It is important to rely on the deep reflections of fellow citizens who come without the baggage that every party politician here inevitably has. That brings honesty and openness to the deliberative process, so I congratulate our friends in Ireland for showing us the way to re-ignite thoughtful dialogue.
It is worth considering Brexit. If, three years ago, we had taken forward the post-2016 referendum deliberations via a citizens assembly, we would not have got ourselves tied up in the cul-de-sac that was created by the Prime Minister in January 2017, which has contributed to the failure of the political system to come to a meaningful conclusion.
This is not really a debate about the proposals from the Government for an assembly; it is about the credibility of David Martin—a man with whom I have often disagreed but whom I continue to respect.
This afternoon’s debate gives members an opportunity to consider the citizens assembly in more detail. Although the remit was published in August and the memorandum of understanding was published earlier this week, opportunity for parliamentary scrutiny of the proposal has been limited. This afternoon, we can explore the issues that are involved in establishing a citizens assembly.
When the First Minister announced plans for a citizens assembly, Scottish Labour gave a cautious welcome to the news. It is regrettable that the Scottish Government did not bring the proposal to Parliament at an earlier stage. In Ireland, cross-party consensus was achieved through parliamentary scrutiny and the ability to consider and amend the remit.
I have previously highlighted concerns regarding the nature of the announcement as part of wider plans to pursue a second independence referendum, which puts at risk faith in the process. Although the memorandum that was published this week emphasised the independence of the assembly, it remains to be seen whether the Government’s ambition for another referendum is the intended purpose of the assembly. I have heard the Government’s assurances on that point this afternoon, but the inclusion in the remit of a specific role regarding the “options for constitutional reform” does little to dispel those concerns, and there is a job of work for the assembly in considering how it will approach that discussion and what direction it will lead it in. We are at the stage of handing over the process to the assembly, and it must be for the assembly to set its agenda.
Deliberative democracy can be a valuable approach to questions that a society faces about its future. It can be used to engage citizens in what are seemingly intractable problems or questions that have the potential to cause division in communities.
Involving the public more directly in the democratic process is something that we, as parliamentarians, should all support.
We have seen examples of citizens assemblies in Poland, Canada, Ireland and Australia providing opportunities for participatory democracy and addressing a range of issues from the reduction of fossil fuel use to the reform of abortion law. As well as providing a forum, a structure and time for members of the public to hear evidence, to challenge what is put to them and to question experts, such assemblies can contribute to wider knowledge and understanding if engagement with the broader population is secured. I attended the sessions that involved representatives from Ireland, at which we heard about their experiences, and I thank the cabinet secretary for arranging them. We can learn a lot from those countries that have already been through the process.
In setting up our assembly, we must provide an opportunity for assembly members, as representatives of the wider population, to determine which areas they want to focus on. Although the remit that was published last month is broad, it is for members of the assembly to decide what they wish to focus on.
I will move on to consider the progress of the work. The recent publication of the remit is a welcome step towards the first meeting in late October, but I note that information on the citizens assembly website indicates that decisions are yet to be made in some areas. Among those are critical decisions on the best ways to involve the wider public in the process and on how the assembly will operate. For example, it will have to be decided whether there will be any live streaming of content beyond deliberative sessions. Decisions also need to be taken on whether access will be provided for observers and the media. Key to all those considerations is the need to balance the public interest and transparency with the legitimate need to protect the privacy of assembly members.
Recruitment of 100-plus members is under way, but it is far from a straightforward task. I understand that, in Ireland, the percentage of people who agreed to take part was quite small and that it was quite an onerous task. There were also issues with retention as the model in Ireland rolled out. Aside from the need to balance the membership in line with the broader population, the people who take part need to be convinced that providing their time and participating over a number of weeks is a worthwhile task for them and one that will enable them to make a contribution to society.
I have a number of other questions that the cabinet secretary might wish to address. What assurances are being provided to members of the public that their privacy will be safeguarded if they take part in the assembly? Has a decision been made about what information about participants will be made public? In Ireland, the names and broad geographical locations of members were published following the creation of the assembly. Will streamed footage include footage of the assembly members? Some assembly members will have social media accounts. Are steps being taken to ensure that they are not contacted or otherwise targeted via those accounts or other routes in an effort to influence their contributions? We also need to think about the potential for harassment or abuse if participants are identified and about the need to support them more generally throughout the period of meetings and beyond. What pastoral care measures will be put in place to support members through the process?
As other members have recognised, we live in a time in which heightened emotions are too often linked to political and social debate. We need to ensure that the assembly is respectful and that we, as a society, respect the role that its members are carrying out. We also need to consider how to ensure that participants are able to speak openly and freely in the assembly, which could include the expression of views that they might not feel comfortable airing in an open forum. For example, will there be an option for them to submit their views anonymously or through a proxy speaker?
The fact that participants will be recompensed for giving up their weekends is welcome and should, I hope, provide some incentive for those who might not otherwise consider getting involved. There is a desire to include people who are not in employment. Can the cabinet secretary confirm that the arrangement whereby people will receive a gift payment for their participation means that those who are currently receiving benefits will not be affected?
As is evidenced by the outcomes of the citizens assemblies that have taken place around the world, there is much that we can gain from the process. I look forward to the work of the citizens assembly of Scotland. We must recognise that it is working to challenging timescales and that a lot is being asked of the people who agree to take part. The principles of transparency and access must be balanced with appropriate support and the protection of the privacy of members of the public who become involved in the assembly. The assembly has the potential to act as a stimulus for wider public engagement and discussion, and I hope that it can help to raise the level of debate in order to address the challenges that we, as a country, will face in the coming years.
I will concentrate my remarks on the impartial nature of the citizens assembly and, in particular, on how the structures that underpin it are designed to deliver that impartiality.
First and most important, the assembly is independent of Government and will set its own agenda within its remit. Leadership will set the tone, and I hope that we can all agree that the conveners are impartial and respected people. That is critical for impartiality, because the conveners will also sign off the final membership profile. I am fortunate in having had some contact with both of the conveners in the course of my parliamentary work. Kate Wimpress has addressed the cross-party group on culture, which I convene, in her role as the director of North Edinburgh Arts, which is a successful community-focused project that uses creative people’s skill sets to improve and deepen the engagement of local people in shaping the places in which they live. She brings that expertise to her role as the chair of SURF—Scotland’s Regeneration Forum—which also promotes innovation and engagement. That strikes me as an excellent background for a convener of a citizens assembly that is designed to do the same thing for political engagement.
I have also been fortunate enough to engage with co-convener David Martin, who has given evidence to the Culture, Tourism, Europe and External Affairs Committee, which I convene. My earliest memory of David Martin, who is Scotland’s longest-serving MEP, comes from back in the 1990s, when
The Herald gave a lot of space to his promotion of a Europe of the regions, which was then an idea that was very much in its infancy. I have to say that those of us who supported the idea of independence in Europe for Scotland at that time were not too enamoured of David Martin’s ideas, as we believed that only a seat at the top table was good enough for Scotland. I say that not to drag up the past but to emphasise that David Martin is and has always been his own man and is not someone who could ever be accused of being told what to do by the SNP. As has been said, David Martin was a Scottish Labour member of the European Parliament for 35 years, and he was formerly the European Parliament’s longest-serving vice-president. Of course, he is also the professor of public policy at the University of Glasgow.
We are lucky to have David Martin and Kate Wimpress in these roles, and I hope that no one in this Parliament would ever question their impartiality. In addition to those conveners, an impartial and arm’s-length secretariat will be appointed to the assembly. Importantly, it will be located outside Government offices and will be made up of civil servants who will adhere to the civil service code and take their direction from and be accountable to the impartial conveners.
The most important element of the assembly is its members. Again, the focus is on ensuring that they are completely independent. An independent contractor will identify participants and will provide the secretariat with a list of members. I note that the memorandum of understanding says that Scottish ministers will have no involvement with that element of the delivery of the contract. The memorandum of understanding also sets out clearly that the members are in the driving seat of the process. The remit of the assembly says that it will
“decide for itself which challenges it wants to consider, examine the current constitutional arrangements for dealing with those challenges and the options for constitutional reform, and set out what further work is required to provide the information that would allow the people of Scotland to make an informed choice about the future of the country.”
All of those impartial people—the members, the conveners and the secretariat—will be assisted in their work by expert groups. Mary Laffoy, the chairperson of the Irish citizens assembly, referenced the role of those expert groups in her Michael Littleton memorial lecture last year. Speaking of the expert groups, she said:
“I truly believe that their involvement in the process and in helping myself and the Secretariat navigate through some of the most complex and challenging issues facing Irish society is one of the most noteworthy features of this process, and that this collaboration with academia, professionals and administrators is something which is of benefit” to the whole work of the assembly.
If the independence of the conveners, members, secretariat, contractor and expert groups still does not satisfy, there is an additional layer of scrutiny to ensure impartiality, which is the politicians panel. That means that the assembly members, if they choose, can summon all the parties of this Parliament—even those that oppose today’s motion.
The Guardian earlier this year. He said that they offer
“a fresh opportunity to invite more people into the decision-making process—and in a more structured and constructive way.”
My message to those who oppose the motion is to heed the words of Gordon Brown, abandon their cynicism and place their faith in the impeccable impartiality of the assembly and its conveners.
Following on from Joan McAlpine’s measured contribution, I have to confess that I am a cynic, in general. I am certainly cynical of all Governments, because they all play the same games. When there is an idea like setting up a citizens assembly, we have to think about what they are up to. In this case, we do not have to look very far. We know what they are up to because it is in the remit, which is all about Scotland’s constitutional future.
I genuinely came into the debate with an open mind—[
.] No, I did, and in listening to it I have heard things that I did not realise. I now tend to the view that citizens assemblies can be a good thing. I was a councillor for 10 years, and I always felt strongly about involving people. I saw from the way that councils operated that that was not always their view—just as Governments often think that they know best, councils thought that they knew best.
It is a good thing to ask people what they think. What is a shame is the way that this has been done. As has been said, it would have been much better if different subjects had been chosen to start it off. There are serious issues that a citizens assembly should be considering, one of which is climate change. There is also, as Adam Tomkins mentioned, the drugs crisis. Those are serious issues for a citizens assembly to consider.
One misconception is that the citizens assembly is a permanent body—it is not. It will sit for only six meetings, and it is to consider only the constitution. I presume that it will report and then be scrapped, and a new body will be set up if we want another citizens assembly to discuss another issue.
That will not necessarily be the case, although it is certainly true that different membership could be found. I indicated in my opening speech that the Government has already accepted a proposal in relation to climate change, and other proposals may come forward. For example, there are difficult social issues that may require that type of approach. What Graham Simpson says might not necessarily be the case, but, as I see that his enthusiasm for citizens assemblies is beginning to get going, I would welcome his ideas for one.
Mr Russell knows that I am a measured man and that he can come and speak to me any time that he likes.
I am concerned that there appears to be no budget for this particular citizens assembly. We have heard that it could cost up to £500,000. Mr Russell could not confirm that or tell us what the figure is, which is a matter of concern. At some point, that should come through the Parliament and be budgeted for.
The members of the assembly are being chosen at the moment, and we have heard about the co-conveners. I am afraid that I do not know either of them, so I have no views on either of them. However, I am sure that they will do their very best. In a breezy blog that was signed off “Kate and David”, they said:
“we have been busy getting to know each other” and
“getting up to speed with the range of work required to deliver the Assembly ... There can be few roles more worthwhile than helping our citizens seek common ground.”
I could not disagree with that.
However, the remit of this particular assembly is set by the Government. Mr Russell touched on the three questions that the assembly will consider: Brexit is mentioned, but education, health and drugs are not mentioned. The remit says that the assembly will
“examine the current constitutional arrangements for dealing with ... challenges and the options for constitutional reform” and that, within that remit, the assembly will decide its own agenda. However, the remit is set by the Government and the assembly can doing nothing outside that. At the moment, the assembly appears to be a bit of a stunt for independence. Although I am not against the idea of a citizens assembly, I regret the way that the citizens assembly of Scotland has been set up.
Willie Rennie asked previously what would happen if the assembly came out against independence. What would Mike Russell and the Government do? What would their response be to that? We have not had an answer to that question.
I would be delighted to answer that question. That was covered in my opening speech. All the assembly’s recommendations will come to the Parliament, and the Parliament will vote on them. If the Parliament accepts those recommendations, the Government will bring forward its own recommendations—it is bound to do so. It would do that no matter what the recommendations were. That is entirely clear.
No, I have not, because I am not quite sure that I buy that. If the citizens assembly came out against independence, its opinion would be roundly rejected and we might not have another one.
My time is up, so I will leave it at that.
This week, a Tory Government has shut down the UK Parliament at a critical time, and today its actions have been declared illegal. Even before it shut down Parliament, we were at the height of the greatest constitutional crisis faced by the United Kingdom since Irish independence 100 years ago. The move was both reckless and sinister. The shutdown of democracy was sought by a Prime Minister who is the leader of a party that does not command a majority in the House of Commons and who was installed as Prime Minister without any democratic mandate.
Meanwhile, in Scotland, we are busy finding ways of improving our democracy, and we welcome the first meeting of the new citizens assembly of Scotland, which will be held next month. The key features of the assembly are independence from Government, transparency, inclusion, access, balance, cumulative learning and open-mindedness. All those principles are admirable, but I would like to dwell first on open-mindedness.
“will be a forum for open-minded deliberation between participants, ensuring the public see it as a genuine process of enquiry, and to help ensure that it receives an open-minded response from the parliament and government.”
That statement is taken from the assembly’s own mission statement. It emphasises the assembly’s separate identity and its independence from Parliament and Government.
The concept of a citizens assembly is not a new one. Citizens assemblies have been set up in many other countries—in Ireland, which is close to home, and in Canada’s British Columbia, which is on the other side of the world, to name but two. That means that we are looking for best practice in other parts of the world and importing and adapting it to use in our own political system. We are outward looking.
Transparency is another key feature of the assembly. What will that mean in practice? Will it apply to all levels of the assembly? It has been applied to the selection of the assembly’s members. A hundred members from across Scotland have been randomly selected to be representative of the adult population in terms of age, gender, educational qualifications, ethnic group, geography and political attitudes. Transparency will apply to the assembly’s proceedings, and they will be live streamed so that we can all observe them for ourselves if we wish.
No, thank you.
Transparency will be an important element in demonstrating the assembly’s independence from the Parliament and the Scottish Government. It is vital to the assembly’s credibility that its independence is clear for all to see.
I strongly believe that the critics and cynics will be excited at the prospect of finding reasons to dismiss the assembly’s workings and outcomes.
No, thank you.
I was delighted that David Martin, who is a former member of the European Parliament, was appointed as one of the assembly’s conveners. I hope that his knowledge of political institutions in the UK, at the EU level and in other EU member states will turn out to be a huge asset to the workings of the assembly. The appointment of someone from outside politics—Kate Wimpress—as the other convener will, I hope, create a balance of approach, expertise and experience between the assembly’s two conveners.
The assembly’s independence is enshrined in its memorandum of understanding with the Scottish Government, so its conveners and members will be confident of their freedom to follow their own path within the assembly’s remit.
Needless to say, our exercise in widening democracy has not been welcomed by everybody in the chamber. That brings me back to recent events in the UK Parliament. One reason why the UK is currently in such a mess is the choice of one particular party to pursue its own party interest over Brexit, when that interest is directly opposed to the national interest. Had that party chosen an inclusive approach to all Brexit issues and put the national interest first, our current political landscape would be totally different.
Inclusion is one of the key features of our new assembly. All the political parties that are represented in the Parliament will have supporters among the members of the assembly. With that in mind, I urge everyone in the chamber to be forward thinking and embrace the opportunities that are offered by our citizens assembly.
“The idea was a simple, elegant addition to our democracy—but the SNP has now stomped all over it, politicised it, and, made it look falsely like a propaganda unit.”
Those are not my words; they are the words of Neil Mackay, who is an independence supporter, and they are the exact words that Adam Tomkins quite rightly quoted. Neil Mackay is an avid supporter of citizens assemblies; he sees the greater good that can come from them and he is embarrassed—in fact, ashamed—that the party that he has supported, which has advanced independence, could treat this precious instrument in such a manner. That is the fundamental problem that we have with the SNP Government’s approach.
It is unfortunate that the debate has been personalised. Both Mike Russell and Bruce Crawford have sought to undermine Joanna Cherry and her role in the debate. I feel the need to stand up for her. If they will not stand up for her, I think that it is up to us to do so, because she has brought honesty and integrity to the debate by revealing the true purpose of the citizens assembly, which is to advance independence. [
] They are shouting again, but I will stand up for Joanna Cherry. She has done the country a great service and I think that we owe her a debt of gratitude.
It is ridiculous to suggest that those who criticise the way in which the SNP has gone about the citizens assembly are somehow undermining David Martin. That is an atrocious way to approach the debate. In fact, it shows how weak the case that the SNP has developed is that its members have sought to claim that somehow I am personally attacking David Martin. That is not the case—
No, not just now.
Stewart Stevenson was particularly unpleasant in his approach to the debate when he claimed that I was attacking David Martin. In no way whatsoever were any of us seeking to do so. That is the unfortunate part of the debate: SNP members’ argument is so weak that they have sought to personalise the debate. We should have nothing to do with that approach.
Alex Rowley agreed that Joanna Cherry has “muddied” the water, as he put it. However, he seems to have ignored the evidence that she provided, which is that the SNP is seeking to use the citizens assembly just to advance the independence debate. I hope that he comes to see that that is the case.
We have heard on numerous occasions—it is a trick that the SNP tries every time—the SNP ask what is wrong with having a debate, another discussion or a national conversation across the country. We have the taxpayer paying for SNP ministers to book halls in every part of the country so that we can have another debate about independence. The SNP’s first attempt at engineering the debate happened right back when it gained power in 2007, and we have had endless debates ever since. We had the three-year-long independence debate, which the SNP lost; we had the white paper and the debate about the legislation for the referendum; and subsequently, we had Andrew Wilson’s report into the economic impact, the future of Scotland and independence. We were encouraged to participate in all those debates.
It is endless. The SNP could forgive us for being a wee bit bored and for wanting to move on and talk about something else. Perhaps we could talk about the Brexit crisis, for instance—maybe we could deal with that problem.
It is regrettable that the principle—deeply held by many—that a citizens assembly can do great things has been undermined today, because a citizens assembly for Scotland could do great things. Let us look at some of the proposals that have come forward today alone.
There has been talk of having a citizens assembly on drug deaths. That would be a particularly valid debate to have. We could bring together people from all parts of society to have that discussion.
I proposed an assembly on climate change, so that we could try to get people to understand the need for personal behavioural change to meet our challenges with the climate.
Perhaps there could be an assembly on closing the attainment gap. That might be a useful discussion to have. We could involve parents, pupils and people right across society so that we could close the attainment gap. The SNP Government has failed to do that so far—perhaps it is time for somebody else to come up with some ideas. There are also massive challenges with social care—let us get people involved in that discussion.
Those things should all come way before yet another boring discussion about independence, which is all that the SNP seems to be interested in.
No. I am in my final few seconds.
The citizens assembly was announced by the First Minister as part of a package of measures to achieve independence—that is without doubt. The package is the assembly, the cross-party talks and the unstoppable legislation on another referendum. Mike Russell managed to keep a straight face when he said that the assembly would be free from vested interests, even though it exists only as part of the independence package.
The cabinet secretary set up the assembly, recruited the conveners, allowed them to make speeches on the assembly, designed the remit and then said that it was up to the assembly to decide for itself what it wants to do. No, it is not up to the assembly. The First Minister has never said, “Full steam ahead for independence, subject to the conclusions of the citizens assembly.” Those words have never passed her lips, because the truth is that the SNP is using the assembly as another wheeze to try to get independence. However, we will not be fooled.
The debate has been interesting, but in many ways disappointing. It perhaps reflects where we are in Scotland on the issue, because anybody who has lived in Scotland during the past five years cannot deny that the constitution question has overarched all policy areas in Scotland. We need to find a way forward and to ask questions about the best way to do that.
Labour is taking the Government at face value and is engaging with the process. We will engage in discussions on the way forward. This citizens assembly is the first national assembly to be created in the United Kingdom, and the first to be properly resourced and organised in such a way that it can be effective. The eyes of people internationally will be on the assembly, so if it turns out that—as Graham Simpson put it—it is a bit of a stunt for independence, that will be exposed.
However, the principle that has been set out is right. As other members have said, if we get this right, we can use such a mechanism in the future to look at difficult issues in Scotland—not just drug deaths but drug policy, which is outdated and failing. There are other issues to consider, so we need to look at the way in which we move forward and be positive.
On the concerns of Willie Rennie and Adam Tomkins about independence, the greatest threat to the future of the United Kingdom does not lie in the Scottish citizens assembly but in the Conservative and Brexit party and Boris Johnson. That is a fact. Even Boris’s brother, Jo Johnson, resigned from his Government saying that he had to choose between family loyalty and what was best and right for the country. There is no way that a citizens assembly is a greater threat than that. If members are really interested in the future of the United Kingdom, they need to start to stand up to Boris Johnson and tell him that what he is doing is not on and is damaging the United Kingdom.
Stewart Stevenson made a good point. He talked about having taken the risk and the confidence that he had in his argument. If members want to argue about the future of Scotland, I am confident in the argument that the economic case for independence does not stack up in any shape or form. I am confident that we can take forward the arguments and win them, just as Stewart Stevenson is confident in his arguments.
However, do not confuse that with arguing for the status quo, because every nation and region in the United Kingdom is being let down by Westminster—by the Tory and Brexit party, which has become obsessed with Brexit.
I am confident in my arguments. If Mike Rumbles is confident in his, perhaps he will come to the assembly and work with the other parties to find the best way forward for Scotland. The way forward has to be to remain and reform in Europe and to remain and reform in the United Kingdom.
Does the member remember that, in 2011, the Liberal Democrats caused us to have a referendum on proportional voting in elections? Out of 440 voting areas, only 10 voted in favour but, in July this year, Vince Cable said that we should have a citizens assembly to discuss it. The issue was not closed by that referendum; why should any other issue be closed?
I also remember that, in 2010, Willie Rennie’s Liberal Democrats did a deal with the Tories. As a result of that, we got welfare reform that has created widespread poverty across Scotland and the United Kingdom. If we want to know why people voted for Brexit, we must look at the levels of poverty that were created by a Liberal-Tory Government in Westminster. The bedroom tax is a tax that had never been seen before.
Willie Rennie might be trying to appeal to a certain group of people in Scotland, but the Liberal Democrats and the Tories created that situation and the unacceptable levels of poverty.
A number of members have mentioned the co-conveners. I do not know Kate Wimpress, but she has an impressive CV. I know David Martin well. He has offered to meet all parties to have a discussion around those issues. In the spirit of at least trying to find the best way forward for Scotland, I urge members to meet the co-conveners, share their concerns with them and hear what they have to say.
I welcome the opportunity to contribute to this debate.
When the cabinet secretary announced the creation of the citizens assembly in June, my colleague Adam Tomkins said that there is a role for citizens assemblies, particularly when it comes to aspects of
“public policy that parliamentary democracy has failed or is struggling to address and resolve”.—[
, 26 June 2019; c 31.]
The cabinet secretary said that
“democracy does not stand still and we have to keep innovating in order to keep moving.”—[
, 26 June 2019; c 27.]
I could not agree more with those valid and substantial points.
I concur with many of the sentiments expressed by others from across the chamber. Members have spoken about examples of citizens assemblies elsewhere, most notably in Ireland, which have been drivers of significant social change.
The Scottish Conservatives are by no means against the premise and principle behind the creation of such institutions and the role that they might have in using a unique model of public discourse to drive reform.
We fully support local democracy and devolving power from this Parliament to more local democratic bodies.
I do not personally know the co-conveners, David Martin and Kate Wimpress, but they seem to enjoy respect across the political spectrum, and I am sure that they will work diligently alongside a committed group of representatives from across Scottish society.
It is not the principle that we object to but the process. It has been abundantly clear from the outset that the manner in which the Government has proceeded in establishing the Scottish citizens assembly has been short-sighted, to say the least. Despite warm words from the cabinet secretary, there is a justified suspicion that the assembly has fundamentally been designed to do one thing—further the independence agenda. Given that Joanna Cherry called it the “perfect way” to advance independence, it was always going to be a tough sell to the Scottish public as a fair and balanced forum to lead a conversation about Scotland’s future.
Earlier in the year, when he announced the creation of the assembly, the cabinet secretary preached about consensus among political parties when it came to citizens assemblies, but he also mentioned Brexit nine times and independence twice in that statement, as well as being critical of the UK Government. There was a hint of that again today.
The assembly was announced alongside the referendum legislation and the cross-party talks, and therein lies the problem. Even at its birth, it has proved to be a partisan endeavour. David Martin was right when he called it a mistake to throw the three things together; it created “suspicion”, to use his word. No one minds the rough and tumble of party politics in this place—of course they do not—but, in our view, it was really unwise to launch the citizens assembly project in such a context. One cannot preach consensus on the one hand, while pushing a deeply divisive policy on the other.
I will move on to discuss the remit of the assembly, which the Government has published. My disappointment centres not on what is included but on what is omitted. There is no mention of how we should improve Scotland’s schools, reform our NHS for the long term or invest in infrastructure. Other MSPs raised a number of issues that could have been addressed by the citizens assembly of Scotland. Willie Rennie raised the climate emergency, but what about economic regeneration? We know, for example, that the UK economy is expected to grow faster than the Scottish economy over the next four years. It would have been intriguing to hear views about that. What about the fact that the total number of teachers in our classrooms is falling?
Serious day-to-day issues are crying out for innovative solutions, which the citizens assembly could have addressed. How much more invigorating would it have been if the Scottish Government had tasked the assembly with focusing on bread-and-butter, everyday issues and not the constitution? Deliberative democracy is suited to those kinds of matters, rather than to polarising constitutional issues. Also, as Graham Simpson pointed out, the fact that the assembly will meet over no more than six weekends begs the question of what it can realistically offer Parliament in terms of a vision for the future.
I do not accept that the remit is broad; I think that it has a narrow focus.
There are many people both inside and, more importantly, outside the chamber who need convincing that it will be more than just a talking shop for constitutional change.
In summing up, I turn to a few of the remarks made by colleagues across the chamber during the debate. Adam Tomkins and Graham Simpson were right to say that we should perhaps have started with different topics. Angela Constance was right, in my view, to say that this Parliament is lacking in diversity and that there are voices in Scotland that we do not hear, which need to be heard. I hope that if the citizens assembly achieves one thing it will be to reach those people and I fully accept what Angela Constance said.
To conclude, it is our view that the citizens assembly can be a worthwhile exercise, but we remain concerned that it has been tainted from the beginning. I hope that I am proved wrong and that the assembly eventually tackles some of the day-to-day issues that I have mentioned. We can all agree that it is time to remove some of the poison and vitriol that infects our politics. A citizens assembly would have been the ideal way to do that, but when a senior SNP figure calls such a body the “perfect way” to advance the independence agenda, how can we approach it consensually and, more importantly, how can it have a transformational impact on public policy?
Before I come to the substance of the debate, I want to correct a misapprehension that appears to have arisen. A number of members have referenced the citizens assembly in Ireland. However, that assembly, which dealt with abortion among other issues, was the second deliberative democracy innovation in that country. The first was the constitutional convention, which took a number of years to set up. In the end, it was passed by the Dáil without dissent, but it took a long time to get to that position. Therefore the argument that there was some outpouring of agreement at the very beginning of that process is simply not true.
Nor is it true that the first of those bodies looked solely at social issues. In fact, if members care to look up the remit of the first constitutional convention—that is, the citizens assembly—they will discover that number one was about reducing the presidential term of office, number two was about reducing the voting age, number three was about review of the Dáil’s electoral system and number four was about giving residents outside the state the right to vote. In Ireland, the first steps in such matters were constitutional issues that were not able to be resolved by the Dáil itself. Therefore far from departing from what we are told is the Irish model, we in Scotland are actually being remarkably consistent with it.
That should be borne in mind particularly when we consider future assemblies. I take at face value the views of members who have said that they want to have such assemblies. However, only one party has come up with a proposal for those, to which I will come in a moment. If there are to be future assemblies, we might also learn from the Irish model that we need to move on. The abortion issue was also a constitutional one, because it addressed the constitutional ban on the practice.
I will come to Claire Baker’s point in a moment, but first I say that members who talk about social policy and using the citizens assembly in a certain way need to focus on that model. We brought over from Ireland people with experience of the approach there, so that we could have such a conversation. Some of the members here who have been most critical of the idea did not take part in those discussions. However, they should look at the actual history of the matter and not make it up.
Members might take one of two positions on this afternoon’s debate. One is, frankly, a pessimistic view from which we might come away deeply depressed about how closed some people’s minds are and how deep are the divisions that are impervious to argument or reason. The other view is more optimistic and says that the debate has proved that, more than ever, we need not just a citizens assembly but this one. We need to find a way to debate major issues without the type of rhetoric and division that we have heard this afternoon.
Let me go back to the issues that are within the assembly’s remit, as they are the ones that we are trying to look at. What kind of country are we seeking? How can we best overcome the challenges that Scotland and the world face in the 21st century, including those arising from Brexit? What further work should be done to give us the information that we need to make the informed choices?
It seems to me that if members were perhaps to step back and read the
Official Report of this debate tomorrow or the next day, they might come to the conclusion that the citizens assembly is precisely the means by which the divided membership of this chamber can be brought together. I am on the side of optimism—
The problem with all that is that the citizens assembly’s remit and terms of reference document is headed:
“The citizens’ assembly of Scotland—Scotland’s constitutional future”, so it is not being set up to deal with wider issues such as education, health or anything else; it is about the constitution.
I have been fair to Mr Simpson and I am happy to do that again. Because I know that he is a man of open mind—he was clearly edging towards support for the assembly—I suggest that he goes and talks to its co-conveners. If he talks to the people who are involved in the assembly, he will see that they will interpret the remit in what I understand to be a very wide way indeed, which they will have the opportunity to do. Indeed, the remit, which has been developed and discussed with the co-conveners—I stress that that is the case—gives exactly that flexibility.
Here we have an opportunity to move forward with something new and innovative. The debate has told us that some members’ minds are not entirely closed—such as Mr Simpson’s, which is at least partially open to persuasion. We need to be able to persuade them that such an opportunity is here, and I want to do so.
Alex Rowley asked me to address some key issues in making my closing remarks, which I will now do.
The citizens assembly will be independent. I have gone through in great detail why that is so, but I confirm it yet again. It has a published and clear remit that it is perfectly possible—indeed, it is desirable—for those who are running the assembly to interpret. It will be fully transparent—I will come on to some of the issues that Claire Baker raised in a moment—and it will set its own work plan and agenda. There is a commitment for it to report to the people of Scotland, this Parliament and the Government and for the recommendations to be taken forward, and it is established as an act of good faith.
I am grateful for the position that Mr Rowley has taken, because I want him, at the conclusion of this, to be able to say that the good faith that we showed was indeed good faith. Mr Rowley and I have worked opposite each other for many years and I do not think that we have ever deliberately told each other a falsehood. I want to make sure that that is provable and proved by the actions of the assembly, but it is up to the assembly to do so.
If I can prove that to Mr Rowley and his party, I hope that, in time, I might prove it to members on the Conservative benches—some more than others, I have to say, but I heard a willingness from the Conservative benches to be persuaded that a citizens assembly is a good thing, and perhaps that this citizens assembly might surprise them. I think that Mr Cameron made that point towards the end of his speech. He would like to be persuaded. Well, I would like him to be persuaded, and I therefore want to make sure that the fully independent citizens assembly is able to persuade him.
I encourage members to go and speak to the conveners. They are open to that and they want members to do so. In that regard, the range of sensible and important points that Claire Baker raised are important. The issues included whether payments will be taxed or treated as difficult in relation to benefits; social media; and press. It is really important that those issues are discussed by the co-conveners with the member and others, as they are the people who will answer. There are good examples to follow from Ireland. For example, those who were part of the citizens assembly there could not use social media while a topic was under discussion. They were free to do so afterwards, but not while the topic was under discussion. All the deliberative sessions were filmed, but not the private sessions of discussion. However, those who did not wish to be filmed were not put in the position of being filmed.
There is lots of good practice, but it is important that that discussion takes place with the conveners, and every party has that opportunity. It was mentioned that there will be an invitation, as I understand it, for parties to nominate somebody for a political panel. That panel will be available to the assembly—but at its wish, not at the politicians’ wish—for its members to say what their positions are on a range of issues, and it is important that those views are heard. It is important that the views of the Conservatives, the Liberal Democrats and others are heard in the politicians panel and are available to the citizens assembly.
The minister said that he would return to the proposal from the Greens. In the last couple of minutes of his speech, will he put on the record whether the Scottish Government agrees that that should be mandated by an amendment to the Climate Change (Scotland) Act 2009, if for no other reason than to establish that it was the decision of the whole Parliament and not just of the Government?
I was just coming to that point, but I am happy to do so. I fully agree with that. I understand that discussions on that matter have commenced this afternoon and will come to a conclusion. That is a commitment that we have entered into, and we are pleased to do so. There can be discussions about a future citizens assembly, and we are open to those discussions.
Finally, with one minute to go, I want to thank Mr Rennie for his commendation of Joanna Cherry. It was touching, to say the least. I think that, on this day of all days, the entire Parliament should commend her. Looking at the result in the inner house today, we should be glad that she is a person of such integrity and forthrightness. She says what she thinks, but the proposals that come to this chamber are my proposals.
I have been very restrained with the Liberal Democrats, and as I have only a minute and 12 seconds left, I want to keep that restraint in hand no matter the encouragement not to do so.
As far as this Parliament is concerned, there is an entirely clear set of proposals and an entirely clear remit. Two independent conveners have been appointed and the process of establishing the membership is under way. I have reiterated all the points about the independence of the citizens assembly in the debate this afternoon.
It is really important that we now allow our votes to follow our voices. If those members who have spoken this afternoon believe that the citizens assembly is important and useful, if they take the Irish examples, which were established in both cases to look at issues within the Irish constitution, and if they believe that we require a different way of doing politics and a different type of debate, they should certainly support the motion. If, however, they do not believe that, I cannot imagine why they are pretending to support it but failing to support it when we put our money where our mouth is.
I ask members to please support the citizens assembly and let it work independently of us so that it speaks the truth to us, which it will do.