Meeting date: Thursday, February 18, 2021
Meeting of the Parliament (Virtual) 18 February 2021
Agenda: Portfolio Question Time, Citizens Assembly of Scotland (Report), Decision Time, Men’s Sheds Movement, Highlands and Islands Medical Service
- Portfolio Question Time
- Citizens Assembly of Scotland (Report)
- Decision Time
- Men’s Sheds Movement
- Highlands and Islands Medical Service
Citizens Assembly of Scotland (Report)
Good afternoon. The next item of business is a debate on motion S5M-24165, in the name of Michael Russell, on “Doing Politics Differently: The Report of the Citizens’ Assembly of Scotland”. I invite members who wish to speak in the debate to press their request-to-speak buttons, and I call Michael Russell to speak to and move the motion. You have around 12 minutes, please.15:04
I am pleased to open the debate, and will do so with the words of one of the members of the Citizens Assembly of Scotland, which was a place where more than 100 Scots were listening, learning and deliberating about the type of country that Scotland should be. In the introduction to the assembly report that we are welcoming today, that assembly member said:
“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.”
Good outcomes with a positive mindset—that is what we should all wish to achieve.
Therefore, I start by offering my thanks to the member who made those remarks and all members of the assembly for their outstanding work. I also thank Kate Wimpress, the assembly convener, who took on the sole convening role early on, and who has been sensitive, strong and very successful in it.
I also thank the secretariat under Ian Davidson; Ian has been key to the project from the first moment when we started to discuss it in Government, and was with me in Ireland when we learned so much on our original scoping visit back in May 2019. I am grateful to him.
What the assembly has achieved in the difficult circumstances of the past year far exceeds the original expectations that many of us had, despite there having been some reservations in parts of the chamber. When I spoke at the opening event of the citizens assembly at Edinburgh castle in October 2019, I was inspired by the enthusiasm and commitment that were already being shown, as assembly members embarked on their collective journey. We could not know, of course, how tested they would be by what lay ahead, nor could we know how timely and relevant their final recommendations would become.
Last month, I and some of my Cabinet colleagues met members of the assembly to receive the report in written and visual formats, to hear about their experiences and to listen to their priorities for action. I know that others who are taking part in the debate were able to do the same at an event earlier this week.
I gave a commitment at the opening event that the Scottish Government would consider very seriously the recommendations of the assembly when they were made, and Parliament was clear that it wanted to discuss them, too. We are honouring that commitment today, but it has to be said that we are doing so only in part, given the inevitable delay that has been caused by Covid and the inescapable fact that there is simply not enough time before the election to give the report and its ambitious recommendations the full and detailed consideration that they deserve.
So, I propose that Parliament, while strongly welcoming the report that is in front of us, commends the report to the Scottish Government and Parliament, and does so not neutrally, but with a strong recommendation that our successors take forward this important work.
For my part, I expect that my party will make a manifesto commitment to consider the recommendations that have been made by the assembly and, if re-elected to Government, to publish a comprehensive response to the report. I hope that colleagues in other parties will make similar pledges.
However, we must recognise that not all the recommendations are within the competence of the Scottish Parliament. I intend after the debate to share the report of the assembly with the United Kingdom Government, because it is important that it, too, hears the voice of that representative group of the Scottish population.
It is also clear that the report and its recommendations are only the start of a long-term project that envisages a transformative change to Scottish politics, in which engagement with Government and the practice of decision making is a given. That will result in better deliberation, consideration, accessibility, inclusivity and, ultimately, governance.
I hope that we can all welcome the opportunity to embrace such changes, even if we do not agree with every detail of the report, or if we come from a different political or philosophical perspective when considering the underlying messages. The fact is that the report challenges us all—no matter our political or philosophical perspective—and some of it is particularly challenging to those of us who have been active full-time politicians for many years. Here, again, is the voice of a member of the assembly, which should strike home:
“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 ... how to plan ahead and achieve good outcomes with a positive mind set.”
That voice is made even more real in some of the recommendations. No one could disagree with the desire that the Scottish Government and Parliament should be
“leading with integrity, honesty, humility and transparency in a self-sufficient and innovative way”,
nor that society should
“ensure that 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.”
However, it follows—and this becomes harder for many—that we must also accept that
“in order to overcome the challenges in relation to the lack of public trust in politicians the Scottish Government and Parliament should: ... appoint a non-political independent review body to do a forensic investigation to deliver:
• a more accountable parliament with acceptable standards of behaviour
• responsibility for delivery on commitments
• faster public access to information on what is happening
• acknowledgement of all those who supported society during Covid-19”
The logic of the report, like that logic, is compelling, and we need not just to acknowledge it but to accept and build on it.
Scotland will shortly enter a general election. Multiparty democratic elections, hard-fought arguments, honest disagreements over significant issues, passionately held beliefs being placed before the public for consideration, and peaceful transfer—or, in my case, I hope, maintenance—of Government are still necessary to a healthy parliamentary democracy and functioning political nation.
However, elections can also bring out the worst in us, and what is on display can drive our fellow citizens away from the democratic process. It discourages engagement with the arguments and issues and makes politics just for the politicians or, as that wonderful American description puts it, merely
“show business for ugly people”.
Therefore, 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.
The citizens assembly learned from international best practice and had a lot of help from academics and others. It operated with the principles of independence, transparency, inclusion, access, balance, cumulative learning and open-mindedness at its core. In committing their time and energy to the process, assembly members were willing to put aside preconceptions and to learn about big subjects. One member commented:
“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”.
We all need to learn from that, too.
The citizens assembly consisted of ordinary people from across Scotland, who were broadly representative of the adult population of the country in terms of age, gender, socioeconomic class, educational qualifications, ethnic group, geography and political attitudes. All of them were prepared to give up time to listen and learn.
In the end, through that process of deliberative democracy, they found common ground and agreement. They sought consensus above all; it is impressive that the 10 vision statements that were agreed by the assembly each met the threshold of being supported by 90 per cent of members. Of the 60 recommendations, 58 were strongly supported, which means that more than 75 per cent of members agreed, and the remaining two recommendations gained a simple majority.
What a helpful and hopeful example that is. It proves that, with the right approach, it is possible for a diverse group to find and articulate a shared vision for the future. That shared vision need not be bland. It can be—and, in this report, it is—radical, wide-ranging, ambitious and, again, challenging for politicians in society. For example, the citizens assembly wants Scotland to
“ethically invest in our society by ensuring everyone has a central bank account provided at birth for every citizen”
and that the account should be
“contributed to on a regular basis throughout a citizen’s lifetime by means of a Universal Basic Income”.
The assembly wants Scotland to
“develop a plan for investment in business in Scotland to secure jobs in the wake of COVID-19”
that concentrates on
“small and medium size businesses needing support rather than multinationals.”
The assembly wants to ensure that all national health service staff
“receive higher wages and enhanced employment packages”;
“undertake a root and branch review of public services in order to prioritise good mental health care and holistic wellbeing”;
“undertake a full review of the criminal justice system to improve outcomes for communities, offenders and victims.”
Those are just a few examples of the wide-ranging scope of the recommendations, which all tackle important and serious issues. They will not be universally agreed across the chamber today, or perhaps on any day, but they demand our attention and serious consideration.
The very existence of the work of the citizens assembly demands a further response. To put it simply, what is next? Where is our democratic engagement going? How can we deepen, broaden and enrich our society by doing more of that work? In other words, what place does the assembly have in the overall system of policy making, alongside Parliament and its committees, stakeholders and wider civic Scotland? How can we embed a different way of doing things in our modern Scottish democracy? That would and should be the ultimate tribute to the work of those who have done so much in the past year.
I hope the report and the process of considering it will live up to what the members of the assembly expect, and that it will do justice to what they have learned. As another member put it:
“I think before there might have been some kind of bubble over politics, that nobody is able to get in and ask questions, and shake them up! And I think we’re able to do that here. And I feel quite privileged and excited—and energised!—to say: I want to do that.”
That was echoed by other members of the assembly, who said that
“Too often discussions are about what other people should do for me, but they should be about what I can do and what I can contribute. This is not just about the government, we should all be working together as one nation. The onus is on us—everyone.”
Today, the onus is on members here to take the work forward so that everyone can benefit.
I thank each and every member of the assembly for what they have started. I look forward to the outcomes of their work being built upon and, as a result, transforming the nation in the continual shared process of improvement and democracy.
When the Scottish Parliament was established in 1999, it was intended that it should do politics differently. As we have all found, that is not an easy thing to do. I hope that we have, by and large, been true to that ambition. Inevitably, it is a job that is never finished. Now we are challenged to do more, to go further and to keep listening and learning. We must do so.
As the next formal step, I will not only move the motion, but will accept all three amendments from the Conservative, Labour and Green parties.
That the Parliament notes Doing Politics Differently - the Report of the Citizens’ Assembly of Scotland; extends its thanks to the members of the Assembly for their hard work, efforts, commitment and collaborative approach, especially given the inevitable difficulties caused for the Assembly by the COVID-19 pandemic, and commends the report for further consideration by Members in the next session of the Parliament, informed by a full response from the incoming Scottish administration.15:16
The report of the Citizens Assembly of Scotland is a welcome and important contribution to political dialogue in Scotland. I, too, thank the 105 members across Scotland, the secretariat and everyone else involved in the assembly for all their hard work and commitment, for their collaborative approach in preparing the report, and especially for working in the Covid pandemic and for giving up their weekends and evenings in the process. I also want to thank the cabinet secretary for his constructive engagement ahead of the debate.
It is not just here in Scotland that citizens assemblies are being used increasingly to hear what the public think about how politics should be done differently. The citizens assembly model is gaining in popularity and use, with the UK Government holding an assembly on climate change last year and another on social care in 2018. We have seen several examples in other countries, such as Ireland, Canada and Belgium.
It will come as no surprise that different parties in the Parliament have different views on the 60 detailed recommendations that are set out in the report. That point is made by the Conservative amendment: 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.
For the purpose of today’s debate, I want to comment on the important themes emerging from the report and the work of the assembly as well as some general observations about how the Scottish Parliament and the Scottish Government should conduct their business and affairs.
First, one of the most striking observations throughout the report is concern about the lack of public trust in politics and the need for better public access to information, including increasing transparency on how decisions are made, better accountability from the Scottish Government and, in general, a higher level of interaction between politicians and the Scottish public. There are several issues that I want to touch on in relation to those common themes, because they are reflected in recommendations 9, 10, 11 and 12 of the report.
Recommendation 9 refers to that lack of public trust in politicians and calls on the Scottish Government and Parliament to deliver
“a more accountable parliament with acceptable standards of behaviour”
“faster public access to information on what is happening”
Recommendation 10 calls for more accountability and for the Scottish Government and Parliament to be held accountable when goals are not met. Recommendation 11 touches on the theme of good-quality, honest information being shared with the public, including
“an annual presentation of major commitments and policies”,
and calls for all information to be
“presented simply and without jargon.”
Finally, recommendation 12 recognises the challenges in relation to the public having information that is “accurate”, “reliable” and “verifiable”.
Those are not party-political points; they are about good government and doing politics differently, and they go to the heart of how the Parliament and the Scottish Government should conduct their affairs. As the largest Opposition party in the Parliament, we have worked hard to promote those issues. We have constantly campaigned for more transparency. We have raised concerns about how freedom of information in Scotland works, how parliamentary questions are answered and how information can be made more accessible to the public.
We do not need to look far to find examples of how we can easily achieve better transparency and accountability. For example, the Scottish budget, the process for which is on-going at the moment, runs to almost 300 pages, and even expert organisations such as the Fraser of Allander institute have long called for the budget process and the documentation to be simplified. That is just one example, although it is important, of how we could deal with the concerns that the citizens assembly has raised about the need to have less jargon and better public access to information.
On the theme of Government accountability, there have been a number of recent examples of the Parliament calling for increased transparency from the Scottish Government, including calls for the release of legal advice on the Scottish Government’s handling of complaints, the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development report on Scottish education and further details on malicious prosecutions. Again, those are not party-political points; they are about good government and increasing transparency. When the next Scottish Parliament considers the details of the report, I very much hope that many of those fundamental concerns about transparency and accountability will be taken on board by the incoming Scottish Government.
The second common theme that I want to touch on is that the vast majority of the recommendations in the report, including many of the most important ones, fall in areas in which the Parliament and the Scottish Government already have powers. For example, recommendation 29 recognises the need to invest in industries to make Scotland “a global leader” in innovation and to build on Scotland’s “extensive natural resources”. Recommendation 33 calls for more funding and more resource for mental health services, including child and adolescent mental health services. Another recommendation calls for an increase in the availability of social housing. Recommendation 35, which is important, calls for “more apprenticeships” and better employment opportunities at the end of training. Recommendation 41, which the cabinet secretary touched on, is about supporting small local businesses to recover from Covid-19 while helping them to prepare for a green recovery and encouraging them to adopt “green values” as part of that.
The key point is that, whether or not we agree with the detail of the recommendations, they relate to powers that reside with the Scottish Parliament and which can make a difference. That emphasises the point that we have been making over the past number of years. The Parliament is one of the most powerful devolved Parliaments in the world, and more attention should be focused on how we use the existing powers to make the changes that are highlighted in the report and in the feedback that we get from constituents in the areas that we represent.
I once again thank all the participants in the assembly. The report raises a number of important points and questions about how politics is done in Scotland, how we can do things differently and how we can build up more trust and accountability. I emphasise that those are not party-political points. They are fundamental to achieving a better democracy in Scotland, so it will be important for the next Parliament to take a closer look at the recommendations to see how they can be implemented. As the assembly’s convener, Kate Wimpress, has said,
“This is not a box ticked, or a full stop, but a beginning, opening up a new chapter in our democracy with citizens at its heart.”
I move amendment S5M-24165.1, to insert at end:
“, while recognising that different political parties will take a different view on the recommendations of the report.”15:24
“Doing Politics Differently” is the headline of the report, and I think that we must all ask ourselves whether we are serious about doing politics differently. If we are, how we conduct ourselves not just in this afternoon’s debate, which I hope will be a very positive and pleasant debate, but in other debates and our wider public discourse must be fundamental to doing politics differently, as the report suggests.
As the cabinet secretary and Mr Lockhart have done, I thank all those people who have been involved in pulling together the citizens assembly, including the members of the assembly, its chair, the civil service team behind it and everyone else who, logistically, helped it to get to where it needed to get to. I thank them for all their amazing service. What the report shows us is that, when we give people the chance, they put forward ambitious, radical proposals to create a fairer and more equal Scotland. They also look at what we can unite behind, rather than what we can divide on. I think that many of the policies that have come from the work of the assembly mirror what I know are ambitions of my political party, and I know that many of them are ambitions of other political parties, too.
Producing the report was a huge commitment on the part of the people involved, and I offer a genuine thank you to them for what they have achieved. The test now will be whether our politics, our Parliament and our Government can rise to the challenge that the citizens assembly has set us with regard to our civic engagement and our political involvement.
The report makes bold proposals, and it is safe to say that some of those proposals are not matched by the outcomes that our Parliament and our Government have achieved. I want us all to commit, as the cabinet secretary has done, to pursuing the assembly’s recommendations. However, we should pursue not just their wording but the delivery of the principles and ideas that they embody. That is why, as our amendment suggests, a key part of the process should be a mechanism for regular reporting to Parliament on how the Government is actioning the recommendations and what progress is being made on them so that the report does not get put on a shelf and forgotten about but continues to be a relevant piece of work.
There have been lots of talking shops and working groups. In Scotland—especially in our Parliament—we love talking shops and working groups, but the citizens assembly cannot be one of them. If we are to be true to all those who made the commitment to get involved in it, the process must be about outcomes. We are talking about how we can build a better country, overcome the challenges that Scotland will face in the 21st century, particularly after Brexit, and make informed choices about the kind of future that we want to have, so let us rise to that challenge. The assembly operated on the principles of independence, transparency, inclusion, access, balance, cumulative learning and open-mindedness, which are all principles that we as parliamentarians can take to heart.
I turn to the assembly’s vision and its ideas. It wants to stop green jobs moving abroad. It also has ideas about affordable housing and how we should invest in our housing market; how we can address the chronic long-term underfunding in the NHS; how we can confront the pandemic and life after the pandemic; and how we can create fair work and build a fairer economy in our country. Those are all ideas that I think we should engage with.
There are also some fundamental principles in the assembly’s report to do with how we conduct our politics that I think we need to confront. We need to ask how we can have a politics of integrity, honesty, humility and transparency, and how we can be innovative in how we make our decisions. We must be true to that. We cannot just say that we agree with it; we must live and breathe it. We must ensure that public authorities have a duty to share valid, accurate, reliable and verifiable information that is accessible to all. It sometimes feels as though we are going backwards in that respect. We must go forwards on that.
As a Parliament and a Government, we should communicate with people in a respectful, honest and open way that is based on fact. On accountability, again, it sometimes feels as though we are going backwards. We must move forwards.
The assembly believes that we must be leaders in innovation, and that there should be an obligation to invest in people to create jobs, confidence, development and growth. That must be a fundamental principle that we think about when we come through Covid. We also need to think about how we properly resource our health and social care services and put communities’ health and wellbeing at the heart of the process. That is another fundamental value that has emerged from the work of the assembly, which we must get behind.
The report talks about how we improve living standards and opportunities for all by investing in training, support and our employment market. That is crucial. It talks about putting the need to challenge poverty at the heart of our politics. We need to identify the barriers that prevent people from accessing decent employment, education and housing. That is also a key issue.
The report talks about how we use our tax base properly and about how we make our tax base and our spend on it more transparent. The report includes big ideas about how we minimise tax avoidance and incentivise companies to adopt green values, and about how we tax the big economic winners from Covid appropriately in order to help our economy.
The report talks about education and growth opportunities, and it says that we should look at physical health as well as mental health, which is a crucial part of our NHS restart programme. Again, the report includes great ideas about that.
I was particularly struck by the comments in the vision statement and the recommendations about our apprenticeship schemes and vocational skills. There is a huge gap between our ambitions for our apprenticeship schemes and how we encourage people from more diverse backgrounds to take up those schemes and then pay them properly, so that we incentivise people to make a better future for themselves.
There is a lot of discussion in the report about what our devolution settlement should look like. There is a grown-up, mature and unifying conversation to be had about how we put the report at the heart of our politics. We should put the ethics and principles behind the report at the heart of our politics and change how we behave with one another. We should put ideas at the heart of our politics and think about how we build a recovery from Covid that works for everyone.
I say a sincere thank you to all those who were involved in the citizens assembly for the amazing work that they have done. I thank them for sharing their ideas, and I hope that they hold our feet to the fire—those of the Government and those of all politicians from all political parties, including my own—so that we can deliver on those principles and create a better politics and a fundamentally better country.
I move amendment S5M-24165.3, to insert at end:
“; welcomes the bold and ambitious recommendations put forward to tackle inequality in Scotland, including capping private sector rents, making energy efficiency measures more affordable and investing in green infrastructure, and calls on the Scottish Government to give an annual statement to the Parliament on what action has been taken in response to the work of the Assembly.”15:32
Politics is not supposed to be a spectator sport; it is supposed to be about broadening participation and bringing more perspectives to bear in our political life. That is hugely important.
One or two of the opening speakers have spoken about the level of trust in politics at the moment, about the need for us all to recognise that trust is not at the level at which it should be and about finding new ways of restoring public trust and a feeling of accountability in politics. For me, that comes down to the idea that too many people feel that politics is something that is being done to them rather than something that we, as a society, are doing together.
Voting, campaigning, electioneering, volunteering, joining political parties and questioning and challenging elected representatives are all fantastic ways of getting involved in politics, but they are not for everyone. There will always be some people—perhaps many people—who are, quite reasonably, too busy living their own lives to get involved in the political process in those active ways, so it is important to introduce new measures and ideas about deliberative democracy and to invite people to participate through random selection in order to broaden participation in politics and ensure that a wider range of voices is heard in our democratic system. Such steps are not an alternative to, or instead of, political parties, elected Parliaments and the formal politics that we are used to; they are a different strand to our political process.
There are different strengths and weaknesses of such an approach. Some people criticise and challenge the idea of citizens assemblies on the basis that, once an individual is randomly selected, they might not feel accountable to the wider public. A person might not have been chosen on the basis of any expertise and, because their participation in the assembly might be short lived, they might not build up that expertise through the experience.
I am not sure whether those are strong criticisms, but it is fair to air them. However, there are weaknesses in our formal parliamentary process, too, and, if we are honest, all of us in political parties recognise that sometimes we cherry-pick the arguments, listen to the people we have already decided to trust and listen less to those we have decided not to trust. As we group together in political parties, we do not always listen with an open mind to ideas that come from outwith our own parties. A citizens assembly is a way of ensuring that ideas are thought about in a deliberative way, in which people without a party political axe to grind consider the evidence, hear from the experts and express a thoughtful view. That is what has happened in this case.
Not long after I was elected to my first session of the Scottish Parliament—session 2—we had a presentation about work that was happening in Canada, where a citizens assembly was looking at voting systems. Voting systems are an ideal example of a question that is not easily resolved by party politicians, because party politicians all have a vested interest. There are different ideas about what is important in a voting system. Is it about strong Government? Is it about a local elected member link? Is it about fair proportionality? Whatever system is arrived at will have to strike a balance between those priorities. A citizens assembly is a really useful way of cutting through the party political vested interests that are too often heard.
A few years later, we heard about the work that was happening on the constitutional revisions in Ireland and about very long-standing, difficult issues such as the legislation on abortion, which were difficult to resolve in the parliamentary process because of the continued strong influence of organised religion. That influence was perhaps stronger on the parliamentary process than on the population as a whole, so a randomly selected citizens assembly was again able to cut through some of that in a way that the parliamentary process could not.
I very much welcome the work that is being done by the Citizens Assembly of Scotland. Like others, I thank everyone who participated in its work, whether as a selected member or as one of the people who helped to facilitate its work. Obviously, I welcome some of its recommendations with particular enthusiasm, such as the call for strong leadership on climate and sustainability.
I will finish by reflecting on one question that perhaps I still have doubts over. Perhaps the remit of our citizens assembly—simply to look at what could make Scotland a better country—was too broad. Perhaps, if we have more deliberative democracy in Scotland, we will learn in time that having a citizens assembly ask specific questions might be more likely to result in more tangible proposals coming to the public realm for debate. I mean that not as a criticism of the people who took part, but as a suggestion that the broad remit could bear some questions.
I move amendment S5M-24165.2, to insert after “pandemic”:
“; welcomes the desire shown by the Assembly for Scotland to be a leader in environmental policy and in particular its recognition that climate change is increasing the risk of further pandemics”.15:38
Like other members, I add my thanks to the participants in the citizens assembly—the people whose names came of out the hat to serve on it, the people who organised the meetings, the experts who provided evidence and the secretariat and stewarding team who made it all happen.
People gave up a huge amount of time to work together, listen and learn. The report is a testimony to the efforts that were made and the clear impact of the work on those who took part. We should remember that they were strangers—people who had never met before—yet, within a short while, they were working together.
On the recommendations, I found it reassuring that, when 100 people sit in a room together and consider the evidence, they come up with a package of proposals that reads in many places very much like an extract from a Liberal Democrat policy document. Like the cabinet secretary, I hope and expect that the proposals will influence what emerges in my party’s manifesto ahead of May on mental health, homelessness, the climate emergency, the living wage for all, a basic income, health care hubs, mental health officers in every school and investment in renewables.
I thank the assembly members for drawing up that list, and I congratulate them on doing in a year what it has taken my party colleagues a decade or more to do. We all know how difficult it is to start with a blank sheet of paper, so it was an impressive and thorough process that the assembly members undertook to start with that, to consider and reconsider, to prioritise and to finalise.
My colleagues and I were disappointed that the assembly was brought into being by ministers announcing it as part of a package of measures to smooth the journey to independence. That was not the aim or intention of the people who were involved in the assembly.
Despite those misgivings, I very much welcome the way in which the cabinet secretary chose to describe the work and achievements of the citizens assembly in his opening remarks. There was nothing in what he said with which I would or could disagree, and I think that the motion and all three amendments are worthy of support and perhaps reflect the sort of approach that members of the citizens assembly would expect us to take.
As others have observed, the recommendations challenge us. The demands for greater openness from the Scottish Government—whatever its political complexion—are unequivocal. There is a growing recognition of the need for that in Government but also in the Parliament.
On freedom of information, it is clear that greater openness is required. I do not want to make this a party political point, but we seem to have reached a juncture at which a renewed, refreshed and revitalised commitment to freedom of information is badly required. Yesterday, we debated education and again heard concerns about delays and ministerial involvement in the publication of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development’s independent report on Scottish education.
Looking further ahead, beyond whatever commitment each party makes to taking forward some or all of the recommendations in the report, I wonder whether there is a continued role for a citizens assembly in realising those ambitions. When a citizens assembly was established in Ireland, it was, as Patrick Harvie said, given the task of sorting out legislation on abortion. That worked well for examining evidence, building consensus and making a recommendation. As Patrick Harvie observed, it lifted the issue out of the entrenched position of party politics and vested interests.
However, with the time-bound work of our Citizens Assembly of Scotland, there was an inevitable limit on what could be done in a year—particularly the year just gone. For example, there is no recommendation on social care, even though that affects hundreds of thousands of people in Scotland and has dominated our deliberations in the Parliament during the pandemic.
I hope that the learning from the citizens assembly can be used to enable similar exercises to help to solve problems that we face. A climate emergency assembly is currently at work, and members of that assembly are getting to grips with some of the big questions about how we can fundamentally change our way of life. I hope that it will come forward with ideas and solutions to those big, complex and profoundly important issues. Having witnessed some of its deliberations to date, I am confident that it will.
Assemblies do not need to cover 100 things, but it is good for public life and good for the future of our country that we can draw on the committed and thorough work of a group of citizens working in an assembly to add to the work of our democratically chosen Parliament for the benefit of us all.
I again thank all those who were involved in preparing a very thorough report—particularly the assembly members, who have shown what can be achieved when people come together with the aim of sharing ideas and identifying ways forward.
We now move to the open debate, and we have some time in hand. Although speeches should be six minutes, a bit of leeway is available, including for anyone who is listening in and wishes to press their button in order to say something on the subject.15:44
I am sorry, Presiding Officer; I was caught slightly unawares there. My apologies for that.
That is all right.
I should have paid more attention to where I was in the speaking order.
I thank the members of the assembly and all those involved throughout the process for the time, effort and dedication that they have given in producing such a thought-provoking, comprehensive and wide-ranging report.
Simply from an academic point of view, it is fair to say that a citizens assembly changes on a fundamental level how our democracy works, by adding another level of representation. Although I take the point that, in other countries, citizens assemblies might have more power and so in effect act as a second chamber, here the journey has only just begun. Today we can decide where to take it next.
The title of the report alone—“Doing Politics Differently”—gives us an idea of the overall vision of the assembly and, by extension, the people of Scotland. It is a vision of politicians and Government coming together with common purpose, shaping policy and practice to reflect a shared vision of the kind of future Scotland that we want to see.
On a personal note, I am also struck by many of the similarities in that vision with the emerging themes of the work of the Social Justice and Fairness Commission, which I chair and which has also been continuing its work during the Covid restrictions. We will publish our report in due course, and I hope that it will add to the debate about the kind of future Scotland we want to see.
I welcome and support the recommendations in today’s motion. If it is agreed to—and I certainly welcome the level of consensus so far in the debate—that will ensure that members in the next parliamentary session and the next Government are committed to a detailed consideration of and response to the substance and recommendations in the report. I absolutely accept what the cabinet secretary, Michael Russell, said about timing, which unfortunately does not allow for a response to the report in the remainder of this session. However, it will get us off to a very good start in the next session of Parliament in terms of how we go about our business.
I also agree with some of the comments on the breadth of the remit that the assembly was given on this, the first, occasion. In future, if we hone in on issues, we could focus the work of the assembly on thorny issues in a way that could perhaps allow it to rise above our party-political debates on some of those contentious matters. The role of the assembly could be very pertinent and helpful in that respect.
We saw a collaborative approach among the assembly members, although their views undoubtedly differed at times. The assembly brought together more than 100 Scottish citizens, who were approached to join on a random basis in order to create an assembly that was broadly representative of the wider Scottish population, in terms of socioeconomic characteristics, political attitudes and geography.
In the spirit of that collaborative approach, I urge all members to support today’s motion—first, in recognition of the assembly members’ commitment and, secondly, on the understanding that supporting today’s motion is the next step along the road, and not its destination.
I understand that the devil will be in the detail with regards to where we go next and that opinions may differ on how to plan and navigate the journey. I understand some members’ initial reluctance with regard to the assembly and the argument that it would become a vehicle to drive forward one party’s aims over another. However, having heard the contributions today and read the report, I think that those initial fears have been allayed. From the sound of it, that certainly seems to be the case.
I turn to what shape the scrutiny of and response to the report could look like. I would like to put forward a proposal that leans heavily on a model that was used in response to the climate change plan.
I think that we all recognise that our response to the climate emergency that we face depends on dealing with it holistically, across all sectors of society, instead of in isolation. That need for a holistic approach in Parliament’s inquiry into the climate change plan has helped to establish a model that I believe could act as a useful template for scrutinising and responding to the assembly’s report. That approach would allay any concerns over who is in the driving seat, do justice to the effort of the assembly and live up to the report’s title, “Doing Politics Differently”.
For the climate change plan, Parliament has tasked four committees with scrutinising effectiveness, ambition and actions across all sectors of the plan. Each committee has been asked to look into the parts of the plan that relate to their remit, with the four committees due to report to Parliament next month.
Similarly, doing politics differently does not fit neatly under one subject heading. It spans, criss-crosses and seeks to inform various areas of our lives, what is important to us, what our aspirations and hopes are, and the kind of Scotland that we want to build in the future. Therefore, if the approach that we have taken to how we respond to the climate emergency is seen as successful, I would encourage the Parliament and the Government to consider a similar approach to our response to the assembly’s work.
We owe it to the assembly, the people of Scotland and future generations to continue a journey that we have only just set off on, and to grasp the opportunity to empower our citizens assembly by listening and doing politics differently. I look forward to hearing the rest of the speeches this afternoon.15:51
I join other members in welcoming the work of those who participated in the work of the citizens assembly and in thanking them for their efforts during what has been an especially difficult period. Promoting engagement beyond the walls of Parliament is an important and necessary part of our democracy, and one in which we should all continue to be innovative.
An essential driving force behind the assembly has been the experts, advisers and support staff who have worked with it during these past months. We should also acknowledge their contribution.
With an election on the horizon, it is worth considering how voters can work with and represent their views to their Scottish Parliament more often than once every five years. Despite an uptick in 2016, the turnout for Holyrood elections has hovered at around the 50 per cent mark for some time. We should all acknowledge that that is disappointing. There is a vital need for the deliberations that take place and the decisions that are made on behalf of the people to have legitimacy, and for the people to feel that their voices have been heard and that they are engaged with and consulted. To do so might challenge and complicate the work of Parliament at times, but it also improves it.
Citizens assemblies can be part of that approach, but they will be far from the whole. The use of such assemblies clearly has strengths, but they can go only so far. We should continue to look for other avenues to connect with and build on—not just rest on—the work of the assembly.
That brings me to this year’s parliamentary elections, which, like the assembly, are taking place against an unprecedented backdrop. Campaigning will be heavily restricted and we must acknowledge that there is real uncertainty about how turnout will look in a May poll. Campaigns from political parties to encourage postal voting have been more prominent than those from the electoral authorities, and that is concerning. We must ensure that engagement and participation are front and centre of what we do, that elections to the Parliament can be run successfully and that messages can get out to voters.
I was not wholly optimistic about the assembly from the outset. Although we have seen citizens engagement work well in other countries, the citizens assembly was sadly, but perhaps predictably, cast by the Scottish National Party as yet another initiative to advance the cause of breaking up the United Kingdom. That framing was not accidental, and it could scarcely have been more damaging to the assembly’s legitimacy. From the First Minister’s announcement to Joanna Cherry’s remark that it was the “perfect way” towards separation, its role was jeopardised at its very inception. That is not, however, the fault of the participants in the assembly; they have given an honest and positive response that was based on the remit they were given.
I was pleased to be involved in the assembly’s political panel, and to attend one of the meetings in Clydebank back in January last year. Unfortunately, the pandemic had an impact on opportunities for direct and open engagement, and the report is open about that.
The assembly has undoubtedly made a real effort to put forward considered views with a wide consensus. Its report also contains a number of stories from participants that reflect some of the problems that they have faced as well as their positive experiences of the process.
We have arrived at a set of recommendations that will find some agreement, but they will also challenge members of all parties. That is how we should consider even those recommendations that jar with our own views or positions—as challenges. We should consider the underlying problems that they highlight, measure our proposed solutions against those of the assembly and make a case for our decisions.
We should also recognise that the report highlighted issues that we cannot claim to be unfamiliar with: concerns with the delivery of education and training, the cost and availability of good-quality housing, and the need for a more sustainable future. Many of those are the bread-and-butter issues of a strong devolved Parliament. They may take up some amount of time in the chamber, but they are areas where progress has often seemed painfully slow and even wide consensus around solving issues seems to count for little. If the citizens assembly achieves one thing, it should be a focusing of our priorities to grasp the thistle of difficult problems and tackle them head on. The public do not accept long-standing failures because they are difficult to fix, and neither should we.
One conclusion that I have drawn is that those issues are, in the main, ones that have a deep impact on everyday lives. They underline the values held by many people—of community, of providing a hand up, of making public services work well and of investing in our future. Sadly, those are not the central priorities of the current Scottish Government. Those on the Scottish National Party benches, who once cast the assembly as a means to further their obsession with breaking up the United Kingdom, should reflect on that.
It is not difficult to find something in each of the assembly’s recommendations. We should all recognise the areas where we need to see change. The report is passionate about progress, fulfilling potential, being innovative and creating a Scotland where the barriers to success are reduced and the ability to thrive is front and centre of our priorities, and where people are valued and opportunities are available to all. That that was the result, despite the efforts of some to turn the assembly into something different, is a credit to the participants.
The assembly suggests some ways to ensure that such engagement carries on and becomes a more accepted part of democratic decision making. That should be an important consideration, not just for this Parliament but for other Parliaments and our local authorities. Continuing the conversation in new and different ways will, I hope, be one of the legacies of the assembly.15:56
It would have been good to have had this debate in the chamber with interventions. I would be happy to take an intervention, although I realise that the system is not favourable towards that.
I, too, thank the citizens assembly for a very interesting report and for the opportunity to interact with its members on Monday. In particular, I commend the members for reaching consensus on so much of the report. I asked whether they thought it was realistic for a Parliament to be so consensual in its debates and activities. Claire Baker pointed out that a lot of what happens in Parliament is consensual, which is true, but I think that the panel accepted that that would be more difficult on big contentious issues such as independence and taxation.
I suspect that most of us would agree with the 10 points in the vision. The topics covered included integrity, honesty, job creation, health and social care services, a realistic living wage, tackling poverty, education, skills, and opportunities for young people. Not many will argue with those. I was intrigued that the assembly members wanted taxes to be simplified and understandable. A lot of us would like that, but it is pretty optimistic to think that we can achieve it—we have some way to go to do so.
I was also interested that they saw humility as a desirable quality for leaders. I am not sure that everyone at Holyrood would agree with that. It seemed to me that there is a suspicion of paid politicians and an assumption that we MSPs are out of touch with people. I accept that that may sometimes be the case, but I hope that it is not always so.
The start of the members’ introduction says:
“We, the people of Scotland, present this report”
to Government and Parliament. That is a big statement, suggesting that the assembly is either more representative of, or more in touch with, the general population than elected MSPs are. We should take that kind of statement seriously. The assembly is a cross-section of society, but it is not elected, so are we questioning democracy if we follow that logic?
Some of the recommendations go down the same route. Recommendation 2 suggests that
“Government and Parliament should: ... make decisions jointly with citizens”.
That raises a number of questions for me. Who are those citizens? Are they elected? If it meant more use of referenda, I would be open to that, but I am not sure that that is what it means.
Recommendation 3 suggests that there should be
“a ‘house of citizens’ to scrutinise government proposals and give assent to parliamentary bills.”
It goes to say:
“There should be an oversight body to ensure this.”
I accept that our system of democracy is not perfect and that—as other members have said—there is plenty of room for improvement. However, I think that, in general, this Parliament has engaged much more with ordinary citizens than Westminster has. For example, I was on the Rural Economy and Connectivity Committee during the passage of the bill that became the Islands (Scotland) Act 2018. We spent a lot of time out and about and met a very wide range of people. We should absolutely listen more and engage more. However, we should be a little wary of introducing new bodies, which could actually undermine the democracy that most of us prize.
Recommendation 8 suggests that MSPs should do more
“to act on the views of … constituents”
and should act less along party lines. We touched on that point at Monday’s meeting. However, I have some issues with that. Generally speaking, voters vote along party lines and the individual candidate probably makes a marginal difference in most people’s minds—they are expecting a package of policies that the party stands for.
There are also practical issues, such as how I can find out what my 70,000 constituents actually want, rather than simply hearing from the usual round of vociferous chairs of community councils. Even if I can find out what my constituents want on an issue, what happens if they want lower taxes when I ask today but they want more to be spent on the national health service and local services when I ask tomorrow? People’s wants can be inconsistent with one another, and one of our jobs as MSPs is to get the balance right between competing priorities.
The party system has its disadvantages and I believe that we all need to stand up to our leaders and whips at times and just say no. However, I struggle to see a better way of working. When I lived in Nepal in the 1980s, political parties were banned, so theoretically everyone who was elected was independent. However, that did not work.
I could have spent my whole speech talking about democracy in general, but I would like to go on to the “Tax and Economy” section of the report. I agree with a lot of the general points and aspirations and I think that some of the things that the report suggests are already happening—or we are at least trying to make them happen. For example, recommendation 29 proposes investing in specific industries and I think that the enterprise agencies and the Scottish National Investment Bank are aiming to do just that. Similarly, recommendation 31 talks about centres of excellence in science, technology, engineering and mathematics subjects and recommendation 32 refers to the importance of small and medium-sized enterprises. I whole-heartedly agree with those points.
There is a clear theme in that section, which is that taxation is not well understood; that is mentioned in recommendations 23, 25, 26, 27, and 28. We need to take that point seriously; perhaps a future finance committee could take the issue up. We need to be more up front with citizens in saying that, generally speaking, better services mean higher taxes. If we want a national care service with better paid staff, which I do, let us be honest and up front with folk and tell them that it will cost 1p or 2p—or whatever it might be—on income tax.
To finish on a point of complete agreement with the assembly, we absolutely should clamp down on tax “evaders and avoiders”. I fear that that is easier said than done, but it ties in with the desire for a simpler, more understandable tax system. It would mean fewer loopholes for rich individuals or rich football clubs to try to sneak their way through.
I very much appreciate the time and effort that the members of the citizens assembly have contributed in producing the report that we are debating. The topic has been very big and wide ranging and I agree with Patrick Harvie that it would be interesting to see how the assembly would tackle a more specific topic, as I think has happened in Ireland.16:03
I am pleased to contribute to the debate. Scotland’s first citizens assembly—in its first report—is rich in ideas and full of ambition and energy, and this short debate should be the start of our engagement. I thank the members of the assembly and the secretariat, as well as the experts and advisers who informed their deliberations. It has been a challenging year for them to undertake that work, but they have persevered and produced an excellent report.
I was delighted to meet some of the members of the citizens assembly on Monday, at an event—to which John Mason referred—that was hosted by the Presiding Officer. They talked about how much they had enjoyed the experience and how, for some of them, it was the first time that they had engaged in policy discussions and decision making or had spoken in public forums. The report, in addition to setting the policy proposals, effectively reflects the richness of the experience for each member.
I pressed the members of the assembly on whether there had been disagreement on any issues. Although only very small numbers of members disagreed on the majority of proposals, we can identify areas where there was a bit more dissent, and I was curious as to why that was. Were there concerns over costs or policy, or was there a recognition that there can be tensions between different policies and proposals?
Assembly members emphasised that they worked collaboratively and sought and achieved consensus. Many of them said that they changed their minds and were persuaded by others’ ideas and proposals. It was that openness and willingness to listen to others that allowed for such a degree of consensus to be reached in the report.
The assembly has produced a strong agenda for the future of Scotland, covering key areas of social policy, agreeing that change is needed and offering a package of ideas. The challenge given to its members was to think about Scotland in the 21st century and about how public discourse and knowledge could be improved to support more informed decision making.
The report talks about putting aside the issues that divide us and seeking common ground. There was a conscious decision to seek agreement and work together, trying to find areas where members could come up with proposals that would improve Scotland.
Assembly members spoke about the lack of trust in politicians and politics. The report says:
“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”.
That is an important message for the Parliament. There is a need to improve scrutiny, accountability and transparency. The report represents a call for us to stop tinkering around the edges and to start tackling the big change that people are asking for. The assembly proposes radical change for the economy, with support for a four-day week, a legal living wage and a ban on zero-hours contracts. Regardless of whether members across the chamber agree with those policies, it is clear that the assembly has identified areas of our society where change is needed.
One quote used in the report is that
“we need systemic changes, in healthcare, social policy, employment, and protection of the vulnerable.”
Participative democracy is increasingly used as a way for citizens to be involved in decision making. It can support better outcomes, help Governments and Parliaments to take hard decisions and build trust between citizens and Government. As other members have said, the Irish citizens assembly, which addressed the country’s eighth amendment, provides a good example. On a significantly divisive issue in Ireland, its citizens assembly made an important contribution to the debate on abortion, providing space for an open and honest debate to happen, which resulted in a huge societal change for Ireland.
Scotland’s citizens assembly was given a broad, fairly open task. On that, the report says:
“An important and unusual feature of this Assembly has been the very broad nature of the remit ... and it has not been possible to cover issues in the depth that would have come with a more narrowly drawn agenda.”
As for how to progress the assembly’s work, it would be beneficial for the Parliament were a future assembly to commission further work on some of the report’s recommendations. At the meeting on Monday, there was a suggestion from assembly members to have working groups or sub-groups. A different approach would have been to focus on a limited number of issues and to look at them in greater depth. It is worth considering how the recommendations can be afforded that level of scrutiny.
I am looking forward to the publication of the research findings and the social research report that is expected in September. That could help to inform us on how a model could be progressed.
The citizens assembly is reminiscent of the founding principles of this Parliament, with its proportionate voting system, a less confrontational chamber and an expectation that politicians would have to reach a consensus on policies and that our membership would be diverse.
We have come some way from those ideals and increasingly divisive issues dominate our national debate. The citizens assembly members themselves describe the assembly as
“a roadmap for doing politics differently in the future.”
Scotland’s Climate Assembly is on-going. It was established under the Climate Change (Scotland) Act 2009 and the Scottish Government is required to “publish a statement” responding to the climate assembly’s report within six months. A different status was given to that assembly when it was established.
It is important that an expectation is placed on the Government’s response and the Parliament’s response. We need to demonstrate how citizens’ engagement can drive effective change.
The report that we are discussing today must not be left to gather dust. Although the motion says that it will be for the Parliament or the next Government to take forward the work in the next session, we should agree a formal response.
I support the Labour amendment. I am pleased that we are reaching consensus this afternoon and that all the amendments are expected to be passed. For those who are listening to the messages that are coming from the citizens assembly, it is important that we all work together to deliver the best possible future for Scotland.
Bob Doris is the last speaker in the open debate.16:10
As others have done, I thank the 100 Scottish citizens in our Citizens Assembly of Scotland, who came together to consider how to find a consensus on the future of Scotland. I also thank all those who have supported the assembly’s discussions and deliberations over eight sessions between October 2019 and December 2020—no easy task, given that much of the assembly took place during the height of the first lockdown caused by Covid-19.
I suppose that it is stating the obvious, but if 100 citizens can come together and have a sensible and serious discussion on how to take Scotland forward, there is clearly a challenge to us all—the 129 MSPs who sit in the Parliament—to be able to do likewise. There is a lesson to us all about a political culture that emphasises the winning of a debate and the scoring of a political point rather than a discussion about how to work together as a Parliament, even when we do not necessarily agree, and to do our best for Scotland irrespective of our differences.
The report makes powerful recommendations on income and poverty, such as making
“the payment of the living wage a legal requirement for all employers”
and making “zero-hour contracts illegal”. I particularly like the recommendation around defining poverty, which is to
“ask citizens three questions: do you have a roof over your head? Can you heat your house? Will you be able to put hot food on the table? If the answer is no, you are in poverty.”
I am sure that we appreciate the need for technical definitions of poverty. The commonly accepted definition of “relative poverty” is:
“individuals living in households whose equivalised income is below 60 percent of median income in the same year.”
The definition goes on to say that
“this is a measure of whether those in the lowest income households are keeping pace with the growth of incomes in the economy as a whole.”
Sometimes housing costs are included, sometimes not, and there is a different definition of “absolute poverty”. As I said, there are good reasons for those definitions—I get that—but what the citizens assembly sought to do at a stroke was to cut through technical definitions to get to the heart of our citizens’ lived experience of the reality of poverty. It is a salient reminder to our Parliament that we have to find ways to do exactly the same thing.
I welcome the recommendation to increase
“the minimum wage for young people aged 16 to 24 to the living wage.”
I appreciate that that power is reserved, but young people, by and large, have a raw deal. I want to say a bit about students. I get that there are mature students out there, but many students are young. Particularly during Covid-19, summer jobs, jobs at Easter, non-term-time and part-time jobs have disappeared like snow off a dyke, yet students have no access to universal credit. We have to systematically consider the impact of changing social conditions on our young people, and I am sure that the citizens assembly could do that well.
There is a variety of recommendations about how we can potentially get more powers to the Scottish Parliament—on immigration and international relations—or greater powers over tax. I am minded that, during his contribution—which was very good—Anas Sarwar said that he would like the question of what our devolution settlement should look like to be studied. At the start of the debate, the Conservatives spoke about differences of opinion. Anas Sarwar and I have different opinions about whether Scotland should be an independent nation but, irrespective of that, we have to find ways of reconciling those differences to come together as a Parliament.
If Scotland does not vote for an independence referendum at the elections in May, we should of course consider what our devolution settlement should look like. However, I hope that we agree that Scotland should have a second independence referendum and assert its national sovereignty. Irrespective of our different views, we should be able to sensibly, maturely and professionally come together to work in Scotland’s best interest.
That was a constitutional point, but I will finish by talking about something that is absolutely not about the constitution—the assembly’s recommendations on apprenticeships and opportunities for young school leavers and graduates in trades and skills, as well as academic pursuits, which matters were of particular interest to the citizens assembly. The recommendations provide an early opportunity for the Scottish Government to measure itself in relation to, for example, the young persons guarantee, its policies with Skills Development Scotland, and further and higher education. Irrespective of our political beliefs and who forms the next Scottish Government, the Government and the Parliament should be required to give themselves a report card on how we are tackling some of the significant and serious issues that have been raised by the citizens assembly.
I look forward to the Scottish Government and our Parliament coming together to measure up to the aspirations of the citizens assembly, because it is up to both the Government and the Parliament to deliver in order to meet those aspirations. Let us be straightforward—Governments of any political hue, whether in Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland or the rest of the UK, will not always meet targets or achieve the outcomes that they set for themselves. Quite rightly, Opposition parties should scrutinise and hold Governments to account, but they should also propose constructive solutions. The Parliament should work in partnership to get to where we want to be as a country, and the Citizens Assembly of Scotland has shown us a route map to do that.
This afternoon’s debate has been very helpful, and I look forward to learning more about the future work of the citizens assembly.
We move to closing speeches.16:16
I am pleased to have had the chance to take part in the debate and that, broadly, it has been consensual. Several members have referred to the fact that, in the inception of the citizens assembly, there was a bit of a danger that it would get caught up in big, binary constitutional debates in which we all already have our entrenched positions. Other than one or two slightly grumpy comments today, it seems as though most people have moved on from that and recognised that the citizens assembly has the potential to enrich our national debate in new ways.
I will reflect on one or two of my recollections of the binary constitutional debate that we had in 2014. In many of the public meetings at which I spoke, I had the strong impression—and I still believe this—that a great many people in Scotland were capable of disagreeing in good spirit and seeing both sides of an argument. Whichever way they ended up voting, they were able to engage with both sides of the argument. Most people do not engage in politics in a rigid, binary way. That is still true, and will be true again if Scotland’s national debate returns to the question of independence. That is one of the reasons why deliberative processes, such as citizens assemblies, can enrich our national debate. They bring in people who are not already seeing things through a rigid, binary frame and thinking, “I’m in this camp, you’re in that camp, and that’s why we disagree”. Citizens assemblies can get beyond such thinking and, in this case, it has done so.
Claire Baker reflected on her experience of speaking to some members of the assembly who were actively engaging in political debate for the first time. That engagement is to be welcomed.
As several members have said, in this debate we will all find things with which to agree and disagree. Some people will be enthusiastic about rent controls and others less so. Some people will support what the assembly has said about climate change, but others may be a little more sceptical. In the report, I can find several references to economic thought that is clearly rooted in growth ideology that I do not share. None of that is the point, because the purpose of the assembly is not to decide on and implement specific policies but to enrich our debate in ways that we as elected politicians cannot do on our own—to throw open the doors.
I am reminded of my experience of the first session—before I was elected as a member of the Scottish Parliament. I was a campaigner for the repeal of section 28, which was, from my point of view, a nasty, pernicious and homophobic hangover piece of legislation. Getting rid of it became a very difficult process. A deeply divisive campaign was run against my community’s human rights. However, it felt as though this Parliament’s doors were open. I was able to engage with the political and committee processes and to give evidence to MSPs as a witness.
That sense of its being a Parliament whose doors are open and in which the citizens of Scotland are able to participate has always been an important part of my reason for having supported the creation of the Scottish Parliament in the first place. We do not always get it right, but we must never stop innovating and finding new ways to throw our doors open. The greater use of citizens assemblies is undoubtedly a part of that.
It is no great secret that John Mason and I disagree pretty fundamentally on a great many issues, but in his speech he agreed with something that I said, so I will agree with something that he said—that people can want incoherent or inconsistent things. He is absolutely right about that and it is one of the reasons why I am not drawn to the idea of Government by referendum on specific measures—the idea that every tax policy, every spending policy and every piece of legislation should be subject to a referendum. Referendums are for putting to the people the questions that we cannot resolve through the Parliamentary process—the big, overarching choices, such as which path our country should take. All that is enhanced by a rich national debate.
Another point that Mr Mason talked about was whether citizens assemblies should evolve into a role that is akin to that of a second, revising chamber. I think that there is great merit in that. Yes, there are questions about the legitimacy of somebody who has been randomly selected, instead of chosen by an electorate, but, for goodness’ sake, we should compare that to what the UK has by way of a second chamber, in which people are given jobs for life and can never again be held accountable. The idea of a citizens assembly as a revising chamber—even if set up a bit like a committee, to examine and revise one piece of legislation—has, I think, great merit.
On issues from the climate assembly to the potential drafting of a future constitution for Scotland, and on divisive political questions such as drugs policy—which elected Parliaments often fail to address in a coherent way—a great many questions would be greatly enhanced by the wider use of deliberative and participative processes such as citizens assemblies.
Finally, I once again thank all those who have contributed to the work of the assembly, and I look forward to Scotland’s national debate being further enriched in new ways by the continued use of participative processes to challenge as well as inform us.
Alex Rowley will close for Labour.16:23
I am pleased to be closing for Labour in the debate on “Doing Politics Differently: The Report of the Citizens’ Assembly of Scotland”. I offer our thanks to everyone who participated in the assembly, and I hope that more work can be done to bring people into active participation in politics and looking at the issues that impact on us in our country.
Back in September 2019, I opened a debate for the Labour Party indicating our support for the principles of the Citizens Assembly of Scotland In that debate, I said:
“Too often I find myself having to advocate for democracy”.—[Official Report, 11 September 2019; c 50.]
In the period since then, we have seen massive changes in our world. The pandemic has changed our way of life. It has created problems with how we participate in democracy and it has already drastically changed how we do politics. On top of that, there have been assaults on democracy around the world: a military coup in Myanmar, mass protests in Hong Kong and the storming of the US Capitol by far-right activists—all that and more in a very short space of time. Such drastic events in our world should highlight why the principles of deliberative democracy and their use in Scotland should be welcomed. More democracy is no bad thing, and in its absence we sometimes see terrible impacts.
I noted back in 2019 that the use of citizens assemblies is a proven and respected method when it is done correctly. 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. I remember hearing from those involved in the Irish citizens assembly who had advice and lessons for us. Although the assembly has done well, there is definitely room for improvement and there are opportunities to learn from the assembly, particularly for the Scottish Government.
One of the key pieces of advice from the Irish assembly was to ensure public participation and media buy-in. I think that that has been somewhat missed, as the public were not particularly aware of the citizens assembly and the media seemed to be uninterested. That is not to criticise the work of the assembly—I acknowledge that we have come through a difficult time when the focus has been on Covid—but it is important that, where improvements can be made, they must be made, if we are to continue using this method of participative democracy effectively.
Those issues were known beforehand, and the Scottish Government could have done more to ensure greater engagement and wider promotion, because it is crucial, if this is the way forward, that the public are aware and engaged and that the press want to report these things. Further to that, the success of the assembly will only be truly known if the Government takes on board at least some of the recommendations and is able to explain what it is taking on board and why. It is all well and good having participative democracy for the sake of it, but proof of its success will be the action that is taken based on the assembly’s recommendations.
Labour’s amendment welcomes the bold and ambitious recommendations that have been put forward to tackle inequality in Scotland, including capping private sector rents, making energy efficiency measures more affordable and investing in green infrastructure, and it calls on the Scottish Government to give an annual statement to the Parliament on what action has been taken in response to the work of the assembly. If we do that, we can build confidence in the assembly and confidence that, when people give up their time and energy, it will be worth while.
As they say, the proof of the pudding is in the eating, and the proof of the success of the assembly will be whether it makes a difference. Did the Government listen? Did other political parties listen and what action did they take? The answers to those questions will take time but, 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. I thank everyone who gave up their time to bring forward the report.
There are some big issues in our country on which there is not only division but outright conflict. If, as a nation, we want to address such issues, the approach of bringing people together to examine the issues, find ways through and build consensus has to be the way forward.
In conclusion, I thank everyone who was involved. It is now over to the politicians and political parties to demonstrate that we have listened and are committed to acting on the report and, even more, to a new way of doing politics. Time will tell.16:30
I do not have a long time left in this Parliament and I want to use my remarks this afternoon to reflect on the state of our politics. I hope that I will not completely break this afternoon’s consensus, but I will be candid and say things that might make some members uncomfortable.
The report of the citizens assembly urges that we should do our politics differently and, in particular, that our politics should be more firmly rooted in the values of
“integrity, honesty, humility and transparency”.
Why do we not do our politics differently? Why do our citizens, when they examined Scottish politics—as they have, in the form of the assembly—conclude that we lack integrity, honesty, humility and transparency?
What are the forces that have driven us to a politics that lacks integrity, is dishonest, proud and self-satisfied rather than humble, and is opaque and secretive rather than open and transparent? Well, it is the goddamn constitution, isn’t it? Our politics has become corrosive and toxic because of its obsession with the constitution. It is corrosive because it erodes trust and toxic because it puts people into artificial, binary camps where, instead of working with one another, we just shout at one another.
Democracy rests on the fundamental point of trust that the people’s representatives care about the same issues that the people they represent care about. The people of Scotland care about jobs, skills, housing and schools. They care about the impact of the pandemic on our mental health and wellbeing and they care deeply about what kind of economy we will emerge into when we finally get out of lockdown. Are those the priorities of SNP ministers? No, I do not think so. Is this a Parliament that has been consumed, as it should have been, by debates about jobs, skills, housing and schools? No. Even when we debate schools, as we did yesterday, we do not argue about how to improve them or how to raise educational standards; we talk about how to drag and force SNP ministers, against their will, to publish the results of an international review of what has gone wrong in schools on their watch.
Is it any wonder that our citizens conclude that our politics lacks transparency? We should not have to debate SNP secrecy and cover-ups; we should be debating the real issues of substance that matter to people’s children, as our school standards slide down the international league tables.
Therefore, I agree with the citizens assembly that our politics needs integrity and honesty, but anyone who looks at the way in which the governing party has treated this Parliament’s inquiries into the Government’s handling of complaints of sexual misconduct would search in vain for a glimmer of integrity or honesty.
I agree with the citizens assembly that our politics lacks transparency. The SNP is the only Government in Europe that sought to use the pandemic as an excuse to insulate itself from freedom of information rules. Just last week, we were treated to a “Through the Looking-Glass” moment, when the Lord Advocate tried to explain away the disgrace that innocent men were maliciously prosecuted, by pretending that, somehow, it was a malicious prosecution in which no individual acted with malice.
The citizens assembly that produced “Doing Politics Differently” ended much better than it began. It was announced as part of a package of measures that was designed by the SNP to accelerate a second independence referendum. That was a pity, as I think that the minister would now concede, at least privately. The idea of citizens assemblies has merit. As an experiment in shining light in dark corners and on stubborn problems of public policy, it should be repeated, but not, I would urge, on the goddamn constitution. Why not a citizens assembly on the national shame of Scotland’s drugs deaths? Why not a citizens assembly on the mental health crisis that we now face or on the future of social care? All are problems that we talk about in the Scottish Parliament from time to time but which we have manifestly failed to resolve.
In the end, “Doing Politics Differently” turned out to be not very interested in the idea of independence. As Dean Lockhart pointed out in his opening remarks, the vast majority of the citizens assembly’s recommendations fall within existing devolved competence. The message seems clear: let us have a politics that focuses on the things that make a meaningful difference to people’s lives.
I have voiced my criticisms in my remarks, but let me end on a much more positive note. As we know, this is a Parliament of minorities. None of us can get anything done on our own. Unless we build bridges with colleagues in other parties, we can pass no law, make no change and win no vote. Of the four values that are set out at the beginning of the citizens assembly report, the one that we need to bring to those attempts to reach out and build bridges is humility.
The Parliament’s best legislation bears the hallmarks of genuine cross-party collaboration. I think of the Child Poverty (Scotland) Bill, and members from across the Opposition parties working together in the Social Security Committee to improve a bill that in its first iteration lacked the ambition that we thought it needed. That was near the beginning of the current session. Now, at its end, I would cite the Hate Crime and Public Order (Scotland) Bill as an example of members of the Government and Opposition coming together, not to trade blows but to fix problems in the legislation.
The way in which we dealt with the bills on child poverty and hate crime meets the four tests championed by the citizens assembly: integrity, honesty, humility and transparency. When we act with those values in mind, it brings out the best in us all. We can do it—we can do politics differently. When we choose not to do it, it is exactly that—a choice.
I call the cabinet secretary to conclude the debate.16:37
I want to make one point about what we have just heard because I do not want to allow the debate to descend into the place where, regrettably, Adam Tomkins has gone. I want to make a comparison between 1999 and 2021. I have been in the Parliament—with the exception of four years—throughout that time. If we could go back to 1999 in some form of time machine, we would see a very different form of politics and a different type of democracy. I think that we would say to ourselves, “Thank goodness for the Scottish Parliament. It has changed things and moved things on”. One of the reasons why it has moved things on is because we have regularly recognised the legitimacy of different views. What we have just heard was essentially an attempt to demonise the legitimacy of another point of view. That is regrettable. It was unnecessary and wrong.
I want to dwell on the positivity of the debate. I issue a challenge to all my fellow members who have listened to the debate today, including you, Presiding Officer. Change in democracy should challenge us as politicians. We discovered in 1999 how difficult it was to do politics differently. I came into the Scottish Parliament having been the chief executive of the SNP and opposite me on the Labour benches was someone who had been chief executive of the Scottish Labour Party—indeed, he became First Minister for a time. We discovered that it was really hard to work against the grain of politics as it was done elsewhere and as we had been doing it. Politics is often—then and now—confrontational, point scoring and a case of the winner takes all. The winner expects to take all.
We also use language that puts people off, even if they are not put off by that nature of politics. I want to be nice about Anas Sarwar’s contribution. However, he said that he hoped that the citizens assembly would
“hold our feet to the fire”,
and that is the kind of phrase that people do not like. Who would volunteer to work in a system in which we expect to have our feet held to the fire? We have a way of talking and of operating—not all the time, but we have it—that is not conducive to engaging people and bringing them with us. A culture of confrontation will not produce positive change, but a culture of co-operation might do so. However, it is hard to establish, and the longer that one has been in politics and the more one knows about it—and perhaps the higher one has risen up the greasy pole—the harder it is to recognise that culture of confrontation and work against it.
I agree with Adam Tomkins that, when we find ways of working together, we can make it work. We did that at the start of the pandemic, on the two bills that I was honoured to take through the Parliament. The approach was that we were all in it together and had things that we needed to do together. Regrettably, that approach has broken down. It really broke down over the vaccination programme, when there was an attempt to exploit the situation for political gain. It is always a difficult time in the Parliament when we are coming up close to an election. Tensions run high and people say things that they regret. However, we tried that approach of working together, and it worked for us.
Interestingly, on the point that Adam Tomkins made about the FOI measure that we proposed because of the demands of the pandemic, when it appeared that the measure did not have majority support, we moved away from that. Therefore, it is far from some huge stain on our character. It was proposed as a recognition of exception and, when the proposal did not have majority support, it was removed, and rightly so.
Our culture of confrontation is still in evidence, and we need to do something about it. We also need to understand that the language that we use and what we choose to do are part of the problem. We need to understand a third truism, which is that democracy is never static or perfect and that it continues to change. The abbé Sieyès, the intellectual father of the French revolution, started a great deal off with a pamphlet that was called “What Is the Third Estate?” At the start of that pamphlet, he posed three famous questions. He asked:
“What is the third estate?”,
to which the reply was, “Everything”. He asked:
“What has it been hitherto in the political order?”,
to which the reply was “Nothing”. Then he asked:
“What does it desire to be?”,
to which the answer was, “Something”.
Again and again, the challenge is to consider who in our debates is, in essence, nothing. Who deserves to and should take over the debate and become something, as the driving force of our democracy? The answer now is the type of direct democracy that we see in the citizens assembly.
However, that brings a challenge to each one of us in politics, and John Mason expressed the nervousness about it well. It is not even a question of sharing and still less one of holding feet to the fire; it is about a new order replacing what we have, and that will happen in time. Therefore, although I, too, will not be in the next Parliament, the challenge to it is to accept much of the what—although not all of it, as there are bits about it that we would want to debate—and to accept the coming challenge of how democracy takes place and to keep moving.
To do that, we will have to rise above the sort of regrettable things that we have heard today. I am glad that it was only from a few people, but they have been there. Regrettably, Adam Tomkins and Jamie Halcro Johnston were the divisive voices of the past. Today, we have the chance to be the voice of the future.
We are moving towards the type of democracy in the citizens assembly. It will be difficult and it will not be an even process but, in 20 or 25 years, democracy will be different just as, in Scotland at least, it is different now from what it was in 1999. We need to progress, not regress. The UK is regressing democratically, but I hope that Scotland will continue to progress democratically, and that the progress will be with a citizens assembly.
That concludes our debate on the report of the citizens assembly. We are actually ahead of time, so I am minded to accept a motion without notice under rule 11.2.4 of standing orders to bring forward decision time to now. I call on the Minister for Parliamentary Business and Veterans to move such a motion.
That, under Rule 11.2.4, Decision Time be brought forward to 4.44 pm.—[Graeme Dey]
Motion agreed to.