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July 3, 2019

Trust in citizens

It can be no coincidence that as the crisis of confidence in elected politicians deepens around the world, the more enlightened democracies are searching for ways to rebuild trust with citizens, and indeed to engage them more directly in thinking about some of the most controversial and contested issues facing society. Although disappointing that Scottish Government’s proposal for a citizens’ assembly for Scotland has been met with scepticism in some quarters, this is nonetheless a hugely ambitious project. Recently a delegation from Ireland visited to share their experiences. Plans are progressing apace.

Scottish Government

Here’s what we know about the assembly after the Scottish government gave more details at Holyrood last month.

Why is it being set up?

Nicola Sturgeon says she wants ordinary people from all sides in the constitutional debate to have a say on the country’s future.

The Citizens’ Assembly was first announced by Ms Sturgeon in April – but the plan was largely overshadowed at the time by the first minister also saying she wants another independence referendum within the next two years. 

The basic idea is for members of the public to be selected, much like a jury, to listen to evidence from all sides in Scotland’s constitutional debate, including topics such as independence and Brexit. 

They will be able to question experts and other witnesses and discuss things among themselves before making non-binding recommendations on the country’s future.

The hope is that this “direct democracy” will help to restore people’s trust in the political process by involving ordinary people rather than politicians, parties and other vested interests.

Ms Sturgeon said she was inspired by an assembly set up in Ireland to discuss and attempt to reach consensus on a series of divisive issues, most notably abortion.


Her announcement was widely seen as an attempt to reach out beyond the pro-independence movement, with Ms Sturgeon insisting that she wants everyone in Scotland – regardless of their views on independence – to have a say 

But critics are suspicious about Ms Sturgeon’s motives, with the Scottish Conservatives branding it an “SNP vanity project” that will be “nothing but a talking shop for independence”.

The Conservatives have already pledged that they will have “nothing to do with it”, and have warned that “anyone in Scotland who believes in the union should give it a wide berth.”

How will it work?

The Scottish citizens’ assembly will be closely modelled on one that has been used in Ireland in recent years.

The plan is for 120 members of the public to be independently appointed to serve on the assembly, with the aim of having members who are “broadly representative of Scotland’s adult population in terms of age, gender, socio-economic class, ethnic group, geography and political attitudes”.

They will be tasked with examining three questions:

What kind of country are we seeking to build?

How can we best overcome the challenges we face, including those arising from Brexit?

What further work should be carried out to give people the detail they need to make informed choices about the future of the country?

The members will be appointed by early September, with the assembly meeting on six weekends by the spring of next year.

Former Labour MEP David Martin has been lined up as one of the two co-conveners who will lead the assembly – with a female appointment to be made shortly to ensure gender balance.

Assembly members will receive a “gift of thanks” of £200 per weekend to recognise their time and contribution, with travel, accommodation and childcare expenses also being met.

What has the Scottish government said about it?

The government’s constitution secretary, Mike Russell, told MSPs on Wednesday that citizens’ assemblies are becoming an “established way for mature democracies to engage with complex and contested issues in an inclusive, informed and respectful basis”.

He added: “When we see on the Brexit issue a complete breakdown in trust between politicians and people, surely it should inspire all of us – no matter our political allegiance – to find new ways to bring politicians and people together to resolved deep seated division”.

Mr Russell stressed that the work of the assembly would be transparent and completely independent from government, and that a panel of politicians from all of the Holyrood parties would be created for the assembly to call on. 

And he said he hoped that serving on the assembly would be seen as a privilege. 

He added: “As far as practicable, we will respect the outcome too. When this first citizens’ assembly for Scotland concludes, the government will ensure that its recommendations contribute to, and are seen to contribute to, positive steps towards a better collective future.”

Who else has tried this?

The Irish citizens’ assembly recommended overturning the country’s abortion ban ahead of last year’s referendum

The Scottish plans have largely been inspired by the citizens’ assembly that was set up in Ireland three years ago to examine and make recommendations on controversial topics including abortion, climate change and the ageing population. 

Its 99 members were chosen by a polling company to be as representative of Irish society as possible, with the assembly meeting on six weekends between October 2016 and April 2018 at a total cost to the government of about £2m. 

Potential member could choose whether they wanted to be involved, although 17 of those who initially agreed to take part did not attend any meetings and a further 11 dropped out later in the process. They were all replaced from a pool of substitutes.

The assembly’s best known contribution was its recommendation that Ireland should overturn its ban on abortion – with the country subsequently voting overwhelmingly to do so in last year’s referendum.

Elsewhere, Citizens’ Assemblies have been used – with mixed success – to discuss electoral reform in Canada and the Netherlands.

Gdansk in Poland has been using citizens’ assemblies to make binding decisions on issues facing the city for the past three years. 

And last week, MPs at Westminster announced plans to establish a citizens’ assembly in the autumn to discuss how the UK should tackle climate change,