A Citizens’ Assembly for the Scottish Parliament

For years now, we have been arguing that the best way to sell an independent Scotland, is for the Scottish Government to be as radical and progressive as it can be within the confines of devolution.

That’s why we have championed interesting ideas such as land reform, a wealth tax and a Scottish bank investing in small businesses.

This week, Common Weal, the Sortition Foundation and New Democracy, have released a report detailing another interesting idea. That of a Scottish Citizens’ Assembly.

Here we provide a condensed version of the main points in the report.

What is a Citizens’ Assembly?

At the moment, the Scottish system has no second chamber in order to scrutinise the legislation of the Scottish Parliament. The proposal here is to establish such a chamber in the form of a Citizens’ Assembly which would be populated with a representative, randomly-selected group of Scottish citizens.

What would that achieve?

The authors of the report suggest that a Citizens’ Assembly would bring the following benefits:

  • A substantial increase in the public trust in legislative
    decisions;
  • Increased confidence of members of parliament that
    they have broad public backing for their decisions;
  • A convincing counter to critics (or opinion polls) that
    claim there is little or no public support for proposed
    legislation;
  • An immeasurable boost to a legislative proposal if the
    Citizens’ Assembly gave near unanimous support for it;
  • A very public counterweight to the perceived capture
    of the political process by elites and other vested
    interests.

What powers should it have?

The Citizens’ Assembly should have the right to hold inquiries.

  • An inquiry into the causes of significant matters of
    public concern (e.g financial crisis, failures of oversight,
    corruption); and
  • Reviews on the quality and practices of specific
    instances of parliamentary democracy (e.g. inadequate
    consultation and debate, lack of due consideration
    given to petitions, etc.).

As well as that, three levels of power that the Citizens’ Assembly might have over legislation.

  • An advisory chamber, that would scrutinise legislation but have no power to alter it.
  • A house of review, similar to the House of Lords, in that it could amend or delay legislation as well as scrutinise.
  • A legislative chamber, similar to an Australian Senate, which can pass legislation, with restrictions, as long it was also passed by the Scottish Parliament.

The report states that there should be an initial two-year trial period where the Citizens’ Assembly is an advisory chamber.

How many members would there be?

There should be one member of the Citizens’ Assembly for each Scottish parliamentary constituency. So they propose 73 members. Large enough to be representative but small enough not to be too expensive.

How would members be selected?

The proposed selection process would work like this.

  • Official invitations are sent to 5,000 randomly selected citizens inviting them to register their interest in becoming an assembly member, and giving them detailed information about the position, and further inviting them to a day of information and discussion about the CA (to be held over several weekends in differing locations across Scotland). Every encouragement (including travel, accommodation and other expenses) should be provided to the invitees.
  • After the information day, those that accept the invitation are requested to provide some sociodemographic
    details.
  • The Electoral Commission, in collaboration with the Office of National Statistics, would then be responsible
    for randomly selecting 73 people from this group to rotate into the CA over the coming two years, such that the group continues to be a direct reflection of Scottish society (or at least its citizens).
  • In practice, this means the process is semi-random, as in all likelihood fewer people who are young or with lower educational attainment will accept the initial invitation. The ‘match’ between the sample and society will be set within some tolerance limits, for example:

How long would they serve?

The authors argue that a two-year term would be ideal. Too long a term means people may get institutionalised and too short a term means they would not learn the ropes properly. A six-month staggered system would be in operation so that 18 members would be replaced every 6 months. This will ensure that there are always people in the Citizens’ Assembly with experience.

What else do I need to know?

  • Legislation would be needed to ensure those serving in the Citizens’ Assembly were not penalised for doing so by their current employers or place of education etc.
  • The report argues that it might be wise if voting records in the Citizens’ Assembly were kept private so that members could act independently and not be under any undue influence.
  • According to the report, members of the Citizens’ Assembly should be paid twice the median wage which is £55,000 a year, plus expenses.
  • The report goes into details as to how the Assembly could be set up to encourage deliberation and critical thinking and how it should not be set up in a way that would result in adversarial debate.

For more information, check out the report which is pretty short and easy to read.

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6 Comments on "A Citizens’ Assembly for the Scottish Parliament"

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Christopher Bruce
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Christopher Bruce
I proposed something of this nature some time ago, portions of which were published by The National. Selection is a thorny issue. Do not pick the man who cries “Pick me! ” Seven suggested variations to your paper. The size of the Assembly. Make the number of this assemble an even number, exactly 50/50 male and female. Say eighty in all. Selection of the assembly. Take them from the jurors list. Allow all arguments against serving, to be in line with those jurors contend with. This is a service to their country and a duty. Rewards for the assembly. Pay… Read more »
autonomyscotland
Admin

Thanks for the comment. Some good suggestions.

Alan
Guest
Alan
The proposed number of 73 is too low to be truly representative. It also means that over a lifetime of 100 years, only a maximum of 3,650 people(assuming no one dies or is otherwise disqualified during their term) will ever serve as an Assembled Citizen. And look at the size of those margins! A tolerance of 10-15% in two variables! Representative execution will probably require a substantially larger body. 1,000 members, perhaps. Get rid of the six month staggered selections and make it a single event every few years. Selecting 18 people every six months, come on. That is just… Read more »
autonomyscotland
Admin

I’m with you on paying a bit less.

While I understand what you are saying about needing 1000 people to be truly representative, that does seem like a very large number. What is gained in representation might be lost in practicality?

Maybe there is a more manageable middle number which could be reasonably representative but workable.

Lisa Rob
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Lisa Rob

Are you singlehandedly praising yourself for the successes by Scottish Government?

autonomyscotland
Admin

Nope.

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