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August 14, 2019

Media sceptics

At a recent roundtable discussion about Scotland’s forthcoming Citizens’ Assembly, the point was made that the mainstream media would have an important role to play in building up an awareness and understanding of the process amongst the general public. Although many other countries around the world use Citizens’ Assembly to great effect, this is relatively new ground for Scotland and we have never before experimented with this form of deliberative democracy on this scale. Disappointing then, if not particularly surprising, that some parts of the media seem determined to undermine it before it’s even begun.

Tom Gordon, The Herald

THE bill for consultants on the new Citizens Assembly of Scotland has hit a quarter of a million pounds.

Taxpayers will have to pay between £200,000 and £225,000 for outside experts to “design and facilitate” the forum, which has been dubbed a Nationalist front by its critics.

A new official tender document issued also says the 120 members of the Assembly will be thrown a party on the first of their six weekends considering Scotland’s future.

It says the inaugural meeting in Edinburgh on the last weekend of October will include “an evening reception for members”.

The remaining five weekends, which run monthly until April next year, will “take place at a hotel and conferencing facility in Glasgow”.

Last week pollster Mark Diffley landed a £22,475 contract to find the Assembly’s members.

Both contracts exclude VAT, which could come to an additional £49,500.

The details emerged as the Scottish Government named Kate Wimpress as the Assembly’s second independent convener alongside former Labour MEP David Martin.

Mr Martin served in Brussels for 35 years until losing his seat in May, while Ms Wimpress is the director of North Edinburgh Arts and chair of Scotland’s Regeneration Forum.

Announced by Nicola Sturgeon in April as a way of thrashing out the long-term challenges facing Scotland, the Assembly has faced sharp criticism from opposition parties.

It is based on Irish models which led to referendums legalising same-sex marriage and abortion, where cross party buy-in and independence were vital to the exercise’s success.

However the Scottish Tories have urged other Unionists to boycott it.

SNP MP Joanna Cherry QC also called it the “perfect way” to advance independence.

According to the new tender document, the facilitator will work with conveners, a secretariat and a “stewarding group” to co-design the Assembly’s meetings with its members and enable “an effective process of learning, dialogue, deliberation and decision making”.

As well as outside consultants, the cost for Assembly will also include travel and accommodation for its members and staff

The tender document says: “The meetings of the Assembly are planned as residential events. Travel and accommodation costs for members of the Assembly will be covered and each member will receive a thank-you gift of £200 per weekend to acknowledge their commitment to the process.”

Constitutional relations Secretary Michael Russell said: “The Citizens’ Assembly will enable people to engage with complex and contested issues about our constitution on an inclusive, informed and respectful basis.

“It is part of a process of expanding and enriching our democracy. Politicians do not have all the answers and people’s voices need to be heard.”

Ms Wimpress said: I applaud the Assembly’s ambition, enabling mature debate by making enough time, space and support available to interrogate complex issues.

“Twenty five years working with communities has shown me, many times over, that transparent, inclusive and respectful engagement leads to the best outcomes.”

Mr Martin added: “This is an unprecedented chance to place Scottish citizens at the heart of our political debate at a time of momentous change in our relationship with Europe.

“I am greatly looking forward to hearing directly from the members of the Assembly on how they want to shape our country.”

A Government spokesperson said: “This contract is central to the organisation of the Citizens Assembly of Scotland, requiring a range of specialist skills and full engagement with the project for approximately 10 months

“The successful tenderer will ensure the smooth running of the Assembly, co-designing its meetings and supplying skilled facilitators for each session. It will also advise on and support the production of reports of Assembly proceedings.

“It will be up to the Assembly conveners to agree further details of the contractor’s role, working in conjunction with the independent secretariat and stewarding group.”