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Chamber and committees

Meeting of the Parliament (Hybrid)

Meeting date: Tuesday, November 23, 2021


Report of the Citizens Assembly of Scotland (Government Response)

The Deputy Presiding Officer (Liam McArthur)

The next item of business is a statement by George Adam on the Scottish Government’s response to the report of the Citizens Assembly of Scotland. The minister will take questions at the end of his statement, so there should be no interventions or interruptions.


The Minister for Parliamentary Business (George Adam)

Today, I am pleased to publish the Scottish Government’s response to “Doing Politics Differently: The Report of the Citizens’ Assembly of Scotland”. That is a crucial step for the Citizens Assembly of Scotland and for any plans for future public participation in our democracy. The report will be of no value if the Government and this Parliament do not demonstrate that we have heard and acted on the views that the people of Scotland have expressed through that process.

Before I speak about our response, I want to acknowledge once again the commitment, enthusiasm and energy that members of the citizens assembly brought to their task. Their dedication can be clearly seen in the breadth and ambition of their vision and recommendations. I thank all the assembly members and the many people who supported their work.

The assembly worked through a unique period. It began its work in October 2019, with a series of face-to-face events, and it finally completed its work online in December 2020. The willingness of members to stick with the assembly through the challenges of the pandemic, to adapt to virtual working and to bring to the table their experiences of lockdown makes the vision and recommendations all the more important as we continue to live with restrictions and plan to build back better.

The assembly produced 10 vision statements and 60 wide-ranging recommendations directed to the Scottish Government and Parliament. Some of the recommendations call for detailed policy responses; others address more fundamental questions about how decisions are taken and how politicians and Government can be scrutinised and held to account.

The vision of the citizens assembly is long term—realising the scope of its ambition will require change beyond this session of Parliament. Although our response lays out our immediate commitments, we also acknowledge the scale of the challenge that the assembly has set us all.

When the report of the citizens assembly was debated in Parliament, in February, the then Cabinet Secretary for the Constitution, Europe and External Affairs explained that there was not enough time before the election to give the report and its ambitious recommendations the full and detailed consideration that they deserve. Since then, the recommendations have informed party manifestos, the agreement between the Government and the Scottish Green Party, the programme for government, the Covid recovery strategy and other important areas of policy.

In August, we published a consultation document on Scotland’s first framework for tax, which set out the vision for tax that was put forward by the citizens assembly. The consultation responds to specific recommendations from the assembly, including the provision of more information, in accessible language, about taxes.

Building on manifesto commitments, and with the agreement of the Scottish Green Party, the programme for government sets out the Government’s commitment to participative democracy, including the citizens assembly model. That is a long-term commitment to build on the real successes of the Citizens Assembly of Scotland and Scotland’s Climate Assembly, whose report was laid in Parliament in June, in order to transform the way in which people are involved in decision making in Scotland. Our ambition, echoing the ambition of the Citizens Assembly of Scotland’s recommendations, is that public participation processes will be a permanent addition to the democratic process in Scotland.

We have gathered together a group of experts in participative—that is not easy to say, Presiding Officer—democracy from Scotland, from the United Kingdom and from around the world. The group is considering the real and practical actions that we need to take to deliver our commitments, such as how to set the questions to be answered by a citizens assembly. The group’s work is being informed by research into the experience of the Citizens Assembly of Scotland, so that we can capture and benefit from all the important development work and learning from the assembly.

The expert working group is due to report in the next few weeks, with recommendations on how to fulfil our commitments on future participation. That will feature not just citizens assemblies, but other forms of participation, including at a local level. Our plans for deliberative engagement on sources of local government funding already include plans for participative work at both a local and a national level. Deliberative engagement can start locally and can culumate—


George Adam

Yes, okay. It can culminate in the national citizens assembly.

Our other specific commitment is to a brand new citizens assembly for under-16s, which will ensure that the generation who will grow up with the consequences of the decisions that we take now can be involved in making them. It also echoes the assembly’s concern with the issues that young people face today.

As well as the recommendations on entrenching participation in our system, the assembly raised fundamental questions about the scope and structure of democratic engagement in Scotland’s formal governmental and parliamentary institutions. Not all of those questions make for comfortable reading for us, in the Parliament or in Government. Specific recommendations include those on the conduct and integrity of politicians, the responsibilities of MSPs to their constituents and the availability of accessible and comprehensive information.

Given recent events in the Westminster Parliament, the importance of integrity in our political representatives can hardly be overstated. Those challenges should be of concern to everyone in the Parliament and in Government. We will be working with the Parliament to address them, and we will seek cross-party involvement in that.

A further immediate impact of the assembly on engagement and participation by Government related to the experience of, and plans to recover from, the pandemic. The assembly report reflects its members’ experiences of the spring of 2020. In our response, we set out the importance of public engagement to developing the Covid recovery strategy. The strategy highlights the work of the assembly in reflecting the concerns of its members, who are representatives of the wider public, as they considered the issues arising from Covid even as those were unfolding.

In my statement, I have highlighted the recommendations of the assembly on participation and the Government’s plans to progress those. In many ways, those are at the heart of the assembly’s report, and its work is the evidence of the potential and importance of greater systematic engagement with a representative selection of the people of Scotland.

However, the response that we are publishing today goes much further and wider than those recommendations. It sets out how the Government is acting in the range of specific policy areas that the assembly identified, building on the commitments that we made in our election manifesto earlier this year, as they are now set out in the programme for government and the Covid recovery strategy, and elsewhere.

Not all of our plans are identical to the recommendations, but the themes that the assembly identified and many of the detailed recommendations are reflected in the Government’s priorities for this session of Parliament. Some of the recommendations are beyond the current powers of the Scottish Government and Parliament, and the assembly has made specific proposals for additional responsibilities to allow us to fulfil its vision.

However, as I said, the response can be only the start of achieving the long-term vision that the assembly set out for transformative change to Scottish politics, which will go beyond the programme for government and even this session of Parliament. Embedding deliberative democracy in our decision-making processes, ensuring trust and transparency in our institutions, hearing the voices of the people of Scotland and demonstrating that we are acting on their views—those are all very important in this process.

Those are the legacy of the citizens assembly and its challenges to us all here today. I am optimistic that all of us in the Parliament can share something of the vision for a stronger and more inclusive democracy that shines through in the report of the citizens assembly. I hope that we can work together to act on the assembly’s recommendations, that we aspire to fulfil the ambition and vision and that we look, in the words of the assembly, to do politics differently.

The Deputy Presiding Officer

The minister will take questions on the issues raised in his statement. I intend to allow around 20 minutes for that. I invite members who wish to participate to press their request-to-speak button now or as soon as possible.

Miles Briggs (Lothian) (Con)

I thank the minister for advance sight of his statement. I also thank the assembly members for the power of work that they put in to the assembly and the report.

A key theme running through the report and the recommendations is that people want decisions to be taken as close to local communities and people as possible. There seems to be a disconnect in the Scottish Government on that and in relation to how we do politics differently. For example, the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities has called the Scottish Government’s plans for a national care service “an attack on localism” and potentially

“the end for anything other than central control”

of services in Scotland. How does the minister match that with the statement that he has just given?

George Adam

We have taken on board absolutely everything that was put forward by the Citizens Assembly of Scotland. I mentioned in my statement that there would be a need for decision making at a local level. One of the most important things as we go through the process is to deliver the services that the people of Scotland and the assembly representatives want.

To put the member’s mind at ease, I believe that, if we continue down that route and we find a way to work with people locally and at a national level, we can solve many of the issues that the member has raised.

Neil Bibby (West Scotland) (Lab)

I thank the minister for advance sight of his statement and I commend the work of the citizens assembly and the many progressive ideas that it put forward for creating a

“fairer and more equal Scotland”.

Its important proposals deserve to be acted upon. What would the minister regard as the biggest change in Government policy in response to the report? Can the minister confirm that in future there will be an annual report and statement on the work, to ensure that we can measure progress on it and that it does not go to waste?

The report calls for the capping of private sector rents, for example. When will the Government deliver on that? How will the Government use its existing procurement powers to extend the living wage?

One of the report’s other recommendations was to increase the accountability of those who are elected. Would the minister agree that, if we are serious about doing politics differently and better, MSPs should be banned from having paid directorships and, going further, that with only fair and reasonable exemptions MSPs should be prohibited from having any second job?

George Adam

There were numerous questions there; I will try to answer as many of them as I possibly can. On doing things differently, and referring to the member’s main question at the beginning, I would say that the main difference is the agreement between ourselves in the Scottish Government and the Scottish Green Party. What came across, and what comes across all the time when we are dealing with members of the public, is that they want the political parties to work together in order to create the greater good for everyone else in our society. I would say that that is probably the best example, on the whole.

As regards the many other issues, we obviously need to ensure that all the members of the citizens assembly are listened to, and that their ideas are included. As I think I made perfectly clear in my statement, we are willing to do that, noting the differences that the assembly has made throughout Government. It is not just a case of how the assembly has changed a specific policy, for instance, or of whether it has created a different bill; it has found a different way for Government to ensure that we can deliver what the public have asked us to do. That may be through various other processes and other bills.

One of the issues that came up was how politicians act, how they engage with the world and what they do, and that was one of the uncomfortable things in the debate that the Citizens Assembly of Scotland had. We should all take that issue very seriously as we have debates in the future.

Michelle Thomson (Falkirk East) (SNP)

I add my voice of thanks to those who participated in the citizens assembly. I would be interested to hear how the Scottish Government plans to feed back on-going progress to them, after all their hard work.

I note with interest that 62 per cent of participants strongly agreed that the Scottish Parliament should legislate for an

“independent, specialist body that is responsible for finding evaders and avoiders of tax, with power to recover tax due.”

That clearly demonstrates that people in Scotland share the pecuniary values for which Scotland is well known internationally. Can the minister advise us, however, whether the contributors were aware that it is Westminster that set and has perpetuated the regulatory environment where, regrettably, tax can be avoided in that way, and that such an initiative can apply only to the small percentage of tax that the Scottish Parliament controls?

George Adam

The Scottish Government believes that everyone should pay a fair share of tax and supports strong measures to tackle tax avoidance and evasion wherever we have the power to do so. That principle sits at the heart of our tax policy making. That is why the Scottish Government’s principle of good tax policy making includes enforcement.

On the member’s question about feeding back, we have been in touch with the convener and a network of members of the assembly to let them know about the response. I hope to meet members myself in the near future.

Donald Cameron (Highlands and Islands) (Con)

The final report details the cost to date of the citizens assembly. What is the budget for upcoming assemblies? How much does the Scottish Government plan to spend on assemblies throughout this parliamentary session?

George Adam

As I said in my statement, the question is how much it would cost us not to engage with the people of Scotland. That is the most important point.

I have established a participatory democracy working group that brings together experts from Scotland, the UK and international organisations to make recommendations about how we can make participation routine and effective. We already have an assembly in place. The original costs came about because we were setting up a new process. As time moves on, that will be easier for us to work with.

The working group will make recommendations about the governance of future citizens assemblies and how to deal with the questions that come from them. Decisions about the next citizens assembly will be made after the group has reported. The most important part of the process is to encourage the assembly to continue, so that we engage with the people of Scotland and continue down that route,

Evelyn Tweed (Stirling) (SNP)

The citizens assembly recommends that in order to overcome the challenges of poverty the Scottish Government and the Parliament should raise the minimum wage for young people aged between 16 and 24 to the level of the national living wage. What work is being undertaken with the UK Government to ensure that the Scottish Government has the powers to raise the minimum wage for young people?

George Adam

At present, the national minimum wage, including the national minimum wage for apprentices, is a matter reserved to the UK Government. The wage rates are set out by the UK Government and the Scottish Government has no remit over those rates. We are fully committed to promoting fair work practices throughout Scotland and will continue to press the UK Government for full powers over employment law to allow us to fully deliver our fair work ambitions.

The Scottish Government has encouraged the abolition of the apprentice rate and a move towards the real living wage of £9.50 per hour for all workers.

Sarah Boyack (Lothian) (Lab)

The citizens assembly makes excellent suggestions about young people, participation, apprenticeship pay and housing. How does the minister envisage the newly announced youth citizens assembly working with the Scottish Youth Parliament? The minister highlighted that apprenticeships are vital for young people. How will Scottish Government procurement and contracting powers be used to ensure that apprentices are paid a fair wage? Will the minister also answer Neil Bibby’s question about the Scottish Government’s planned date for introducing private rent controls?

George Adam

I assume that we will ensure that there will be engagement between the youth citizens assembly and other youth organisations. Regarding how the youth assembly will work, we must ensure that we listen to the young people of Scotland. They are the ones who will live with many of the decisions that we make here.

I could get back to Mr Bibby and Ms Boyack at a later date regarding rent control.

Will the minister expand on how the recommendations in the report relate to the work that the Scottish Government is already undertaking to reduce poverty?

George Adam

Members will appreciate that there is a complex range of issues that lead to poverty and that inform the policies that this Government puts in place to address that. The debate that took place within the citizens assembly shows how complex that issue is.

The programme for government and our Covid recovery strategy set out the range of measures that we are taking to address the issues identified by the assembly. Those measures include having a strong social security system that treats people with dignity and respect, a national mission to eradicate child poverty and a new ending homelessness together fund of £50 million in the course of this parliamentary session.

The Government welcomes the recommendations and strong support of the assembly to give help to those in society who need it most.

Alex Cole-Hamilton (Edinburgh Western) (LD)

I, too, warmly congratulate the citizens assembly and welcome its work. It is incumbent on all the parties in the chamber to reflect on the challenge to do politics differently. I wish the young people’s assembly that is to come out of this well. I hope that it will be given a proper platform to do good work, unencumbered by constitutional skirmishes in the chamber.

Recommendation 33 of the citizens assembly calls for

“permanent mental health support liaison officers in every school”.

I cannot see a response to that in the report that the cabinet secretary has introduced. Does the Government plan to introduce such officers?

George Adam

I thank the member for the promotion to cabinet secretary. I seem to have gone through the ranks quite quickly today. I have made one statement and I am a cabinet secretary already.

As I said in my statement, many of the recommendations have been taken on board and will be worked through with the Government. The particular recommendation that the member talked about will be looked at along with other recommendations to see how we should take them forward. I am happy to talk to the member at a later date about how we will take it forward.

Gillian Mackay (Central Scotland) (Green)

I put on the record our thanks to all who participated in the citizens assembly.

One of the key weaknesses in participatory democracy is the lack of information about what will happen after the process, and there can be unclear assurances about how recommendations will be implemented. It is particularly important to retain the trust and enthusiasm of young people. Will the minister outline how we can ensure that people who participate in assemblies and other processes are clear about how their recommendations will be taken forward?

George Adam

Ms Mackay hits the nail on the head. How we take things forward is the important part. There would be no point in the Government going through the process and then not ensuring that the recommendations that were made by individuals in the citizens assembly were taken up. I assure her that we are committed to having further assemblies in the future and continuing to use the process so that we can develop policy and move forward in the knowledge that we are dealing with the issues that the public want us to deal with. I assure her that this is here to stay; it is not something that is going to go away.

In addition to citizens assemblies, can the minister outline how the Scottish Government is creating space for genuine public involvement in decision making?

George Adam

The Government is committed to promoting not only citizens assemblies, but other forms of democracy and engagement, such as citizens juries, mini-publics and people’s panels. Later this year, an expert group will report to ministers with recommendations on institutionalising inclusive participation and democracy across Scotland’s democratic processes, including the future governance of and question setting for citizens assemblies.

As we have already spoken about, the working group will bring together experts from Scotland, England, the UK and international organisations to propose recommendations to make that routine and effective. It will identify methods of governance for delivering credible and trustworthy democratic processes.

Sharon Dowey (South Scotland) (Con)

Last week was book week Scotland. The Scottish Government’s additional funding for libraries is welcome, but the money will have to be spent by the end of the financial year. Even after the funding, 16 libraries remain closed indefinitely after Covid, with library campaigners branding the move a short-term fix. What thoughts has the Scottish Government had about a long-term solution to the issue of library funding?

I am a bit confused about how far that is specific to the issue that we are discussing—

It is one of the recommendations.

George Adam

One of the recommendations is on libraries but, at the end of the day, we need to ensure that local government still has the opportunity to make decisions locally. As a former councillor, I am only too aware of the difficulties and challenges that councillors face, particularly at this time of year. Unfortunately, however, on the budgets that go to local authorities, challenges are created as the Scottish Government budget is cut by Westminster. That gives us the problems that we have to deal with.

Some of the recommendations of the citizens assembly show that people want us to have more powers in this Parliament in order to create the better future that they want. Maybe that is part of the process, and maybe that is what we should be looking at with the Citizens Assembly of Scotland.

Collette Stevenson (East Kilbride) (SNP)

Does the minister support the recommendations that the Parliament should have the ability to create a fairer tax system for citizens, raise income from key industries such as tourism, food, drink and energy, and create our own immigration system that works for Scotland? Is it not time for the Tory Government to listen to the assembly’s constructive, democratic report and do the right thing? Otherwise, even more people will realise that the best future for Scotland is as an independent country.

George Adam

My answer is a resounding yes to all of the above. It is unfortunate that the UK Government’s current approach is to constrain and undermine devolution rather than enhance it. We have had that problem in recent times and this institution will, over the coming months, face the Westminster Government’s aggressive attitude towards devolution in general. I regularly have that conversation with my Welsh counterpart, as they feel it, too.

We live in difficult times, and one of the things—[Interruption.] The member who is speaking from a sedentary position should listen to this. One of the things about “Doing Politics Differently” is the fact that the assembly questioned the morality and integrity of many of us in this Parliament and other legislatures. We should all take a long, hard look at ourselves to see how we should take politics forward and do things differently.

That concludes the ministerial statement on the Scottish Government’s response to the report of the Citizens Assembly of Scotland.