Is the Scottish Government listening to Citizens’ Assemblies?

by | 25 Oct 2021

Scotland has had two Citizens Assemblies, each launched in a media blitz. But identifying any meaningful way in which the Scottish Government is following through on them is proving very difficult.

The Scottish Government spent something approaching £3 million on two Citizens’ Assemblies, one on democracy, one on climate. What has been the impact of the work? Today there was an exchange which helps us to gauge the degree to which this is influencing decision-making.

The report from each of the Assemblies is undoubtedly worth reading, containing as it does a wide range of creative and radical thinking assembled and agreed by 100 members of the Scottish public selected at random to represent broadly the demographics of Scotland (it was a different 100 people for each Assembly).

The final report of the first was published in January this year, the final report of the second in June. When the first of these was published an official Scottish Government response was promised within 90 days. That did not happen. The promise of a government response to the second of these is only that it “will take the necessary time to reflect on the recommendations and issue a comprehensive and cross-Government response”.

There appears to be a half-hearted attempt to suggest that the Programme for Government actually is the official response and that the recommendations are being taken up there, but it is tucked away on page 105 which is just as well because it is unlikely that anyone reading the report of the first Citizens Assembly would recognise its recommendations in that Programme for Government.

To take three examples, there was a strong call for rent caps, a clear call for local government reform and, crucially, strong support for Common Weal’s proposal to create a second, permanent ‘Citizens’ Chamber’ of the Scottish Parliament. None of these exist anywhere in the Programme for Government nor in the wider work programme of the Scottish Government.

The Climate Assembly was, if anything, even more radical in its final conclusions. Can we expect a more accepting response to that one? This is where today’s exchange is of interest.

The First Minister gave a press conference where she told world leaders they must come up with ‘credible action’ on climate change. This reflects almost verbatim the very substantial criticisms of the weak action of the Scottish Government which has come from numerous sources in recent weeks, but this did not deter the First Minister.

Were these treated like vanity projects which will prove to have achieved little more than waste the valuable time of the participants and £3 million of public funding as they resulted in no action? There must be very significant lingering doubts.

But it is at 35 minutes into the above press conference that we are given an opportunity to judge whether ‘credible action’ is only for others by looking at the First Minister’s response to a question from a member of the Climate Assembly.

One of the recommendations was for a Scottish equivalent of an ‘Oyster Card’, the single card which enables Londoners to pre-pay and then access a comprehensive travel network in London including buses, trains and the underground. The proposal is that Scotland would have a single solution for pre-paying travel costs which would then allow seamless access to all public transport.

The First Minister’s response lasted for just over two minutes. The first one minute and 13 seconds contain no relevant information whatsoever beyond generalisations and platitudes about how it would be good if things were better.

The next 30 seconds involves the First Minister heading off on an outright distractions on whether we should be using cards or going ‘contactless’ (apparently unaware that cards are contactless these days).

It is only at this point that she references the question which was actually asked. This takes the remaining 30-odd seconds of her response and is worth quoting in full:

“The final point I would make in relation to your question given that you were a member of the Climate Assembly is to say how valuable that work was, lots of recommendations some of them quite challenging to deliver but a real commitment on the part of government to take it forward because the value of that exercise was that the outcome of it reflected what people across the country think is necessary if as a society we’re going to live up to the challenge we face right now.”

Let’s step back. The point made by the questioner was that as of next week there will be a card that the (mostly) comparatively elite delegates to COP26 will be given which will allow them unlimited free transport on all public transport in and around Glasgow. This does not seem to have been ‘challenging’ to deliver.

The questioner asked why, if this could be done, a paid-for equivalent couldn’t be created which would make travel by public transport easier and more efficient for everyone. No real answer was even approximated to respond to that question.

Is there available evidence that there is “a real commitment on the part of government to take [the recommendations of the Climate Assembly] forward”? If there is it is very difficult to find indeed. Were these treated like vanity projects which will prove to have achieved little more than waste the valuable time of the participants and £3 million of public funding as they resulted in no action? There must be very significant lingering doubts.

And is the Scottish Government coming close to living up to the First Minister’s exhortations to everyone else to get on with ‘credible action?’. Few seem to think so, and express their reservations in precisely the language the First Minister appropriated today.

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