Progress on establishing the Citizens’ Assembly of Scotland: ministerial statement

Statement by the Cabinet Secretary for Government Business and Constitutional Relations Michael Russell.

On 24 April, the First Minister announced a range of actions to take forward consideration of Scotland’s Constitutional future. I updated the chamber on progress on 29 May and I am pleased to honour that commitment I made at that time to do so again before recess.

Events over the last two months indicate that the questions over our constitutional future are becoming ever more urgent. 

In April, Donald Tusk urged the UK Government “not to waste” the additional time agreed by the EU 27.

But that is, of course, precisely what the UK Government has done.  

It is 11 weeks since the Commons last voted on Brexit; two months since it looked at a Brexit SSI and four weeks since it heard a Brexit statement.

And the reality of all this Brexit chaos is still being denied – a denial which led, inter alia, to European elections in which many thousands of our fellow EU citizens were denied their democratic right to participate.  

Set against this backdrop of chaos and the threat to Scotland’s interests let me assure the chamber that we will continue to consider whether the Referendums Bill should be accelerated and if required we will return to that issue after the summer recess.

This Government was itself elected on a clear mandate that was triggered three years ago when the people of Scotland voted overwhelmingly to remain in the European Union – a mandate endorsed by a vote of this Parliament.

This  Government – like the majority of parties in this Parliament of course - will continue to do whatever we can to halt the rush towards the catastrophe of a no deal Brexit.

Working with other parties, we will continue to campaign for a peoples’ vote on EU membership with the option of remain on the ballot, a step that the people of Scotland overwhelmingly supported in the EU elections.

In her statement on 24 April, the First Minister invited all the parties to work with the Government to explore what common ground there may be between us on changes needed to equip Scotland with the powers it must have for the future.

Essentially this gives all the parties in the Parliament the chance to say what solutions to the current constitutional crisis   they would bring forward short of independence.

We continue to engage seriously with the UK about such matters too, for example through the very unsatisfactory medium of the Joint Ministerial Committee which will meet again this Friday in the margins of the British Irish Council in Manchester.

I am grateful to the three parties which have indicated their willingness to undertake exploratory discussions to put forward their views.  I regret that the Liberal Democrats have declined the opportunity so far.

The opportunity remains open and will always do so. 

But, let me now focus on the third initiative announced by the First Minister – the establishment of the Citizens’ Assembly of Scotland. 

Citizens’ Assemblies are becoming an established way for mature democracies to engage with complex and contested issues on an inclusive, informed and respectful basis.

That is what we want for Scotland. 

I was delighted we were able to hold a series of events in the Parliament last week to talk about this issue.

I extend again my thanks to Art O’Leary and Sharon Finegan, the secretaries to the Constitutional Convention and Citizens’ Assembly in Ireland, and to Anthony Zacharzewski, from the Democratic Society, for making the time to share their knowledge and expertise with us.   I was sorry I was not able to be present owing to illness. 

Presiding Officer, this Parliament is rightly proud of the first 20 years of our reconvened existence.  

But democracy does not stand still.  We have to keep innovating in order to keep moving and when we see, in the Brexit issue, a complete breakdown in trust between politicians and people, surely it should inspire all of us, no matter our political allegiance, to find new ways to bring politicians and people together to resolve deep seated division. 

This Government is determined that the people of Scotland are supported to make choices about their future with full access to the facts they need. 

We want to encourage people to listen and to learn from each other, including those with whom we might otherwise profoundly disagree.  

And that is what Citizens’ Assemblies can do.

But we are also learning about the whole process.  So it is  right we should move forward a step at a time.  

Presiding Officer, it is important at the outsight to establish a clear set of principles which will underpin the work of the Assembly:

I can confirm these principles today as:

  • independence from government: including through the appointment of impartial and respected conveners, an arms-length secretariat, and expert advisory groups. The secretariat will be located outside Scottish Government offices. In addition we intend to establish a politicians’ panel for the assembly to call on as it wishes so that all of the parties in the parliament, not just the government, are a resource for the work of the Assembly
  • transparency: at all levels of the operation of the Assembly, from the framing of the questions, to the selection of members and expert witnesses, through to proactive publication and live-streaming of deliberative sessions and clarity about what the outputs will be used for
  • inclusion: extending not just to who is invited to take part as members, but also to the operations of the Assembly itself
  • access: the wider public must be able to see and comment upon the work of the Assembly, and stakeholders must feel that they and their interests have a route into the Assembly
  • balance: the information used to build members’ (and the wider public’s) learning must be balanced, credible and easily understood
  • cumulative learning: embedded into the design of the Assembly, to ensure members develop a rich understanding of the issues considered and have time to do so
  • open-mindedness: the Assembly 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 this parliament and government

Presiding Officer, I have already touched on the role of Conveners.

The Government is determined that the Assembly will be led by people trusted and respected across the political spectrum.

I say ‘people’ because I am committed to having more than one person undertake the role in order to ensure gender balance and to bring a richness of skills and experience to the role

These Conveners will be responsible for stewarding, convening, and representing the Assembly.

Having spoken to a wide range of people about the role, including seeking views of members and suggestions from across parties in the parliament, I am delighted to be able to confirm today that David Martin has agreed in principle to take on one of these roles.  David is one the most widely respected of MEPs – not just in Scotland but across the European Union.  His long service in the European Parliament has been widely recognised and praised.

Discussions are continuing with other individuals interested in serving as the co-Convener and I will make a further announcement, including updating MSPs, in due course. 

Presiding Officer at the heart of the Assembly are its members.

On 14 June we launched the invitation to tender for member recruitment.  120 members of the public will be randomly selected to serve. 

The tender will ensure that the membership will be broadly representative of Scotland’s adult population according to age, ethnic groups, socio-economic background, geography and political attitude.

Members will be drawn from those eligible to vote under the new franchise and able to attend all of the formal Assembly sessions.

I hope serving as a member of the Assembly will be seen as a privilege, but it is also a responsibility and a commitment.  The Assembly will meet over the course of 6 weekends from late Autumn to Spring which is in line with practice elsewhere.

We are also doing all we can to ensure that the Assembly is as accessible as possible, this includes meeting all reasonable expenses incurred, including caring expenses.

But we can do more.  Learning from the experience of other assemblies and in line with the advice we have received, in recognition of the time and effort that it will take to be involved we will also offer a small honorarium for participation.

Let me now turn to the remit.

The First Minister, in her statement set out three broad questions that the Assembly should consider:

  • what kind of country are we seeking to build
  • how can we best overcome the challenges we face, including those arising from Brexit
  • and what further work should be carried out to give the people the detail then need to make informed choices about the future

In our engagement with experts and practitioners we have heard a range of views on the remit required to take these questions forward.  We have also heard the importance of  leaving the Assembly sufficient space to determine its own path, whilst also being clear to the Assembly about where decisions are for this chamber and for the wider public to take.

I think it’s fair to recognize that the Conveners working with the Assembly members should, and will, reflect on those views as part of their process.  It is important that the Assembly is clearly seen to be independent when reflecting on the debate that Scotland needs.

This work will be completed with the Co-Conveners and a remit published over the summer.  I will ensure members are kept informed at all stages and as always my door is open.

Presiding Officer, in establishing the Citizens’ Assembly of Scotland, we need to do so carefully, thoughtfully and progressively.  

Over the course of the summer we intend to engage widely, to promote the Assembly and to encourage those who are invited to participate.  A dedicated website for the Citizens’ Assembly goes live this afternoon and this will grow to contain all information regarding the Assembly and its work.

However, more important than anything else is that - within the remit that will be set out and with expert support - members of the Assembly once in place are free to explore the matters entrusted to them as they see fit. 

It is right that the Assembly will itself set many of its rules and procedures and decide how to operate.

I know that politicians in this parliament and beyond will respect not just a fair process but also those engaged in that process.

And we must also ensure that, as far as practicable, we respect the outcome .  

So, finally,  I will also confirm  today, that when this first Citizens’ Assembly for Scotland concludes, the Government will ensure that  its recommendations  contribute to, and are seen to contribute to, positive steps towards a better collective future.

That commitment extends to reviewing and learning from the process and considering whether Citizens Assemblies should become part of the next 20 years of Scotland’s story.  


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