Did the Scottish Government listen to the Citizen’s Assembly of Scotland?

by | 25 Nov 2021

The Scottish Government's response to the report of the Citizens' Assembly of Scotland is basically a rejection of the whole report in favour of a restatement of what is already being done

In made April 2019, under pressure from her party to make a ‘big move’ on independence, the First Minister made a high-profile speech in Parliament proposing three steps – cross-party talks, legislation for a referendum and a Citizens’ Assembly. The first two didn’t happen so the last ought to have had particular significance.

Did it? There are reasons to be a bit sceptical. But the mood music around the Scottish Government’s official response to the report of the Assembly is positive. So is its content?

It simply isn’t possible to do a comprehensive ‘track across’ between what was recommended and what is being proposed because of the sheer number of recommendations. But looking at a few of the key ones and how they’ve been greeted will be instructive.

To do that you first need to plough through (or more sensibly simply skip) the first 19 pages which are simply filler containing no new information. Then we get to the recommendations. The phrasing of the response document is nothing if not vague. It is actually quite hard to pin down the level of commitment. Generally, this is not a good sign…

So let’s begin with the first group of recommendations, the ones which would be most transformative to our democracy. The first is ‘use more Citizens’ Assemblies. The response is ‘OK’ – though that comes with little real detail. And after all, if Citizens’ Assemblies give you a big media hit when you announce them and then can be safely ignored afterwards, the incentive is easy to see.

But there are two harder recommendations here – a ‘House of Citizens’ (Common Weal’s proposal for a second chamber of the Scottish Parliament) and a ‘Citizens’ Committee’ of the Scottish Parliament. Both of these have real potential to radically change our politics, taking power out of the hands of the political classes.

The response? “There would be a challenge in incorporating a representative selection of the public directly into existing government and Parliamentary institutions”. That must surely represent a ‘no thanks’, and the commitment to “plan to engage with the Scottish Parliament” on this issue is about as weak as it is possible to get in government language.

This Citizens’ Assembly was set up to take a radical look at Scotland’s democracy. It produced radical proposals. The chances of radical changes resulting seem slim-to-none.

This Citizens’ Assembly was set up to take a radical look at Scotland’s democracy. It produced radical proposals. The chances of radical changes resulting seem slim-to-none.

Much of the rest of the response to this section of the report is the standard Scottish Government practice of reciting things already done that are vaguely in the same area. The Open Government Programme is given as an example, which has been trundling on for five years without any serious outputs or change to government practice.

What it certainly doesn’t do is “encourage MSPs to act on the views of their constituents, rather than sticking with party lines”. This is unaddressed in the response. So is “appoint a non-political independent review body to do a forensic investigation to deliver […] a more accountable parliament”. The list of things the Assembly wants to see changed about politics which have been ignored here stretches on for quite a while.

As for “be held accountable and consequences in place when goals are not met” (and some strong recommendations about what that should mean), nothing.

The section of the Assembly’s report on Income and Poverty is equally radical, including clear recommendations to “make the payment of a living wage a legal requirement for all employers” and “work with Westminster to make zero hours contracts illegal”. The Scottish Government gently rejects chunks of this section, claims lack of powers in others and reports on a number of minor initiatives already in place in relation to the rest.

The pattern continues with tax – strong recommendations (“provide legislation and power to a proactive, independent, specialist body that is responsible for finding evaders and avoiders of tax, with power to recover tax due” or “publish a register of organisations which shows compliance with tax and employment measures using the green/amber/red system”).

Yet again everything the Scottish Government commits to doing on this has already been done and the rest is dodged, either because it claims lack of powers or through fudging. This is precisely the approach taken to the entire economy section – if it hasn’t already been done it’s not going to be. (That section is one of the Assembly’s weaker ones.)

No, the Scottish Government very clearly did not listen to the Citizens’ Assembly of Scotland

The section on young people makes clear recommendations – “fund compulsory, permanent mental health support liaison officers in every school” or “implement rent caps across the country”. The response makes statements like “the Programme for Government sets out a range of measures on mental health services”. It doesn’t tell you what they are, but they are not a permanent mental health support liaison officer in every school. The words ‘rent cap’ do not appear in the Government’s response.

This pattern repeats precisely with the sections on Sustainability, Health and Wellbeing and Further Powers. It isn’t really possible to identify where a recommendation is actually being accepted other than where things were already being done.

So, put as simply as possible, the Citizens’ Assembly of Scotland set out dozens of concrete proposals, many of them radical, some of them very much so. By the time you finish the Scottish Government you will struggle to identify anything at all which is to be done differently as a result.

Again and again the report points you to other strategies and other reports, presumably in the expectation that no-one will follow the trail. But this site does follow the trail and pretty well without fail the trails goes cold.

There is nothing in this response but recycling of previous press releases and links to other reports. But then there is nothing in those other reports but recycled press releases and links to other reports, and so on.

The Citizens’ Assembly of Scotland cost a lot of money, was treated very seriously by its participants and put forward a significantly different vision of the Scotland they envisaged. The Scottish Government is absolutely not treating their work seriously and its vision for Scotland shares little with that of the Assembly, barring rhetoric.

No, the Scottish Government very clearly did not listen to the Citizens’ Assembly of Scotland.

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