“We want people to know that politics doesn’t have to be about the politicians, it is about us as citizens of Scotland. Recent years have seen us lose confidence and trust in politics and we wanted to hear the facts, the honest reality, the truth of how Scotland is governed and the difficult choices that we face, to help us think about the future, how to plan ahead and achieve good outcomes with a positive mind set.”
Those were the words of Michael Russell, Scottish Government Minister for the Constitution quoting a member of Scotland’s first ever Citizen’s Assembly.
The Assembly had asked its citizen members to consider ‘what kind of future nation we would like to be.’ The Scottish Parliament welcomed the published report.
We, the people of Scotland, present this report to the Scottish Government and to the Scottish Parliament for consideration, action and delivery.
You can read the report here: Citizens Assembly of Scotland
Following on from the success of Citizens Assemblies in Ireland and from local initiatives in participative democracy, the assembly continued online when Covid19 resulted in restrictions of movement.
Michael Russell said to Scottish parliamentarians:
“the conclusions of the citizens assembly are very timely in reminding us of our responsibility to the democratic process. Yes—we should conduct ourselves with commitment and belief, but we should also do so with respect for one another and for the voters who are watching us, and we should do it in an inclusive, not exclusive, way.
“I was taken with how everyone seemed to suspend their judgements, and took the chance to understand, even accept the others more, despite the to-be-expected disagreements on certain topics. This requires compassion, patience, and a good heart”.
The Assembly has put forward recommendations and actions for the Scottish Government to take forward, after the May Scottish Parliament elections of 2021.
MSPs welcomed the Assembly’s shared vision and 60 recommendations for the country’s future, ahead of an action plan on the Assembly’s findings to be published by the next Scottish Government and a further debate to be held by the new Parliament following the election in May.
Dean Lockart MSP for the Conservatives said:
“When the next Parliament looks at the report in detail, different parties might have different views on the recommendations. It is for the next Parliament to consider the policy implications of the recommendations and how the policy objectives as set out in the report might be realised.”
Several of the MSPs in their contribution to the Parliamentary debate spoke of the lack of trust people now have in politicians. When the idea of a citizen’s assembly was originally being discussed many MSPs were even against the idea, casting huge doubts on its remit and the people taking part.
Alex Rowley MSP, Labour said:
” If we truly want to change the way we do politics and the way our democracy works, we will have to demonstrate that we have listened and that people giving up their time to participate in citizens assemblies are not wasting their time but are contributing to tackling the big issues or at least building consensus in the country on how to tackle the big issues of our time.”
Click on this link to make up your own mind to see if MSPs actually took on board the idea of ‘doing politics differently’.
Not surprisingly the report advocates the wider use of Citizens Assemblies in Scotland but also goes further to say that there should be a ‘House of Citizens’. This would act as a second chamber to the Scottish Parliament:
‘to scrutinise government proposals and give assent to parliamentary bills.’
The House of Citizens
When Bills go before the Scottish Parliament they are sent to relevant cross party committees who take evidence and produce reports. These may lead to amendments in the original Bill. They are debated in the Chamber, votes taken, and if passed they are then sent onward for Royal Assent (the ruling monarch has to agree). Only then will a Bill from the Scottish Parliament become enacted. This is usually a formality but did not happen with the Continuity Bill which was challenged by the UK Government and which did not become enacted. The Continuity Bill was designed to allow food standards etc to remain in line with those of the EU facilitating trade post Brexit. If the UK Government considers that the Scottish Parliament has gone beyond the powers it has devolved to it then it can do this.’Power devolved is power retained’.
The UK has a second chamber, the House of Lords, which can make amendments to UK Bills, but the final decision always rests with the House of Commons which can reject those amendments.
Unlike the House of Lords which is filled with non elected people appointed through peerages, the Scottish House of Citizens being recommended would have time-limited membership and be “representative of the population of Scotland” and that there should be a body which oversees that this is done transparently and fairly.
The Citizens Assembly also turned its attention to the behaviour of the politicians we elect to represent us. To:
ensure the honesty, transparency and integrity of politicians, the existing standards of behaviour should be promoted and strengthened if required, to increase accountability of those elected for their actions within government
It recommends that MSPs represent the views of their constituents rather than voting on party lines.
The Scottish Parliament uses a ‘Whip’ system, as does Westminster, where MSPs vote the way the ‘Whip’ says they must do. The Whip is not used on every piece of legislation and some of those are quite bizarre. For instance MSPs were whipped in the legislation on the tail docking of ‘working’ dogs. Tail docking was banned in Scotland in 2007 but in 2017 SNP and Tory MSPs voted to change this to tail docking being permitted for ‘working dogs’. The political parties whipped MSPs on this vote. Very few MSPs resist when the Whip is used, some might abstain and the braver ones will vote with their conscience or according to their constituents wishes.
To members of the public who elect MSPs (or MPs) to represent us, all of us, many put Party first. Personal ambitious come first, for defying the Whip, is not good for politicians who wish to advance their career.
Commenting on the report by Scotland’s Citizens Assembly, Willie Sullivan, Senior Director of the Electoral Reform Society Scotland said:
“The Citizen Assembly for Scotland has set out a shared vision for Scotland, one created not from the remote and dusty halls of power but by ordinary people, coming together with a shared purpose to improve their own community.
“The process puts Scotland at the forefront of democratic innovation and sets out a blueprint for elsewhere – a model for true citizen participation demonstrating what can be achieved when ordinary people are given the time and space to debate, discuss and deliberate the issues that affect their day to day lives. It delivers not only great solutions but trust and understanding between citizens and a knowledge of the trade-off required in government.
“Democracy isn’t an end product – if it is to survive and flourish it needs to keep evolving. We need to innovate to rebuild trust. Citizens Assemblies like this one are key to making that happen.”
Other recommendations include the establishment of a legal requirement for employers to pay a living wage, make zero hours contracts illegal and to set up a poverty task force.
There should also be tax incentives to employers for good practice, including ones which have a positive environmental impact, but also to have more powers to find and punish the tax evaders.
The report also recommends investment in Scotland’s future industries through development in science and technology. Free lifelong learning, investing in young people and instead of closing local libraries we should be expanding the provision.
Scotland’s first Citizen’s Assembly, sought to look forward, to look to the future at a time when we are trapped in the systems of the past and in a public health emergency. Change must come about if Scotland is to face the challenges of a climate emergency and to be able to adapt to a post Covid world. These excellent recommendations must not be buried and lost in the very system it wishes to change.
The Scotland we want to see should lead with integrity, honesty, humility and transparency, in a self-sufficient and innovative way, and actively include the people of Scotland in decision making.
Reporter: Fiona Grahame