May 29, 2019
When the question of how the Scottish Parliament would function was being considered, the prospect of a second chamber – a House of Lords without the Lords – was spoken about at length. Eventually it was felt that a system of robust, cross-party Parliamentary committees with powers to hold the Scottish Government to account was the best way forward. Some still argue that a more participatory form of deliberative democracy, running in parallel with the Parliament, is worth pursuing. The First Minister’s recent announcement of a Citizen’s Assembly feels significant in terms of how Scotland’s democracy could evolve in the future.
Mike Russell has said he is “determined” to ensure a Scottish citizens’ assembly is representative of society.
The Constitutional Relations Secretary told MSPs he visited Ireland last week to consider the model of assemblies set up there.
His trip came after First Minister Nicola Sturgeon said a citizens’ assembly would be set up to consider issues such as what kind of country Scotland should be.
It followed her announcement that plans for a second Scottish independence referendum would be pursued within the next two years if the UK quits the European Union.
“The EU exit experience has shown the weakness in the current devolution settlement and the UK’s constitutional arrangements more widely,” Mr Russell said.
“We must consider the best way forward for Scotland in light of that experience.
“In doing so, we want to avoid the division created over EU exit.
“That’s why the First Minister announced we would establish a Citizen’s Assembly to consider the best way forward for Scotland.”
Mr Russell added he hoped parties from across the chamber would take part in discussions over the design of an assembly.
He said he would write to party leaders inviting them to do so.
Scottish Green MSP Alison Johnstone urged Mr Russell to give his backing to ensuring the assembly’s diversity.
Ms Johnstone said: “A citizens’ assembly of course should represent the demographics of the whole population in a way that, as yet, this Parliament has failed to do.
“So will the Cabinet Secretary be considering ensuring a diversity of assembly that can properly consider all perspectives and help deliver a real, meaningful outcome?”
Mr Russell responded: “The establishment of a citizens’ assembly should endeavour to establish a body for a particular purpose, and that purpose mustn’t be too wide, but it must be representative of society.
“And there are a number of ways in which that can be done.
“It was an issue in both the Constitutional Convention in Ireland and in the Citizens Assembly in Ireland.
“How do you do so? It’s a very hard thing to do because you are trying to balance demography, you’re trying to balance geography, you’re trying to balance sexual interests and a variety of minorities and majorities.
“It will require a lot of work by us and I hope it will be a task that all the parties will find themselves involved in to do that.”
He added: “But I am determined that the citizens’ assembly, which we will establish and I hope will be meeting by the autumn of this year, I am determined that it should represent in that way, and there are a number of ways to do so, and I’d be happy to discuss with other parties about how we are trying to do that and to seek the input of other parties in their views about how we should do that.”
Scottish Tory MSP Adam Tomkins asked Mr Russell what the costs would be of establishing a citizens’ assembly.
Mr Russell said: “That will depend on the design of the assembly, which I wish to discuss with party representatives and to get their views.
“We certainly have learned from the Irish experience it should be an open and transparent process.
“All details, including costs, will be published in full as the process goes forward.”
Later, Mr Tomkins tweeted that the country already had a citizens’ assembly in the form of the Scottish Parliament.