Why is Scotland setting up a Citizens’ Assembly?
Nicola Sturgeon wants to set up a Citizens’ Assembly to discuss the big constitutional questions facing Scotland.
Here’s what we know so far about the assembly ahead of the Scottish government giving more details at Holyrood on Wednesday afternoon.
Why is it being set up?
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 and question how impartial the assembly will really be, and argue that it should be the job of elected parliaments to debate and make decisions on the big issues of the day.
How will it work?
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.
A chairperson will also be appointed to lead the assembly, with newspaper reports suggesting former Labour MEP David Martin has been lined up for the job.
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.
But elected politicians, party political staff and senior civil servants will not be able to take part.
The government’s constitution secretary, Mike Russell, is due to set out more detail on the assembly on Wednesday afternoon.
Who else has tried this?
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.
The assembly’s most significant 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,