Scotland’s first citizens’ assembly on Wednesday called for rent caps, more powers for Edinburgh and a crackdown on tax evasion in a number of proposals that offer a test case for alternative forms of democracy in the UK.
The report from the assembly of 100 people, who were randomly selected to be broadly representative of the people of Scotland in demography, geography and political views, comes amid growing international interest in the potential for such bodies to tackle thorny political problems.
An Irish citizens’ assembly has been credited with charting the way to 2018 reform of Ireland’s abortion laws, while on Wednesday Germany’s first official citizens’ assembly began discussions intended to advise the federal parliament on the country’s international role.
“Scotland really is at the forefront of democratic innovation,” said Kate Wimpress, convener of the Scottish assembly, which was set up by the government in Edinburgh but operated independently.
The assembly, which met four times in person and four times online since October 2019, made 60 recommendations across a host of topics from tax to mental health provision and immigration powers. But it did not look at whether Scotland should seek independence from the UK, an issue that is the country’s biggest political faultline.
Many of the proposals adopted by the assembly were considerably more radical than policies espoused by the governing Scottish National party, including a call for the implementation of broad caps on private rents and the creation of an entitlement for “all young people” to “affordable social housing”.
The SNP government welcomed the report but stopped short of promising to pursue its recommendations.
“[This report] provides an insightful and wide-ranging contribution to the debate about what kind of Scotland we want to build,” said Michael Russell, Scotland’s constitution secretary.
Some of the recommendations, including a call for a higher minimum wage and the devolution of greater tax and immigration powers to Scotland, would require approval of the UK government.
Members of the assembly approved all but two of their recommendations, with support of more than 75 per cent of the group.
Nearly 90 per cent backed greater powers for Scotland to manage its own international and trade relations. Even more supported the creation of an independent body to track down tax evaders and avoiders.
Leanne Thomson, a part-time barmaid from Aberdeen and assembly member, said none of the recommendations were “ridiculous or far-fetched” and they should not be treated as a “tick-box exercise”.
“I feel that we speak for the majority of Scotland when we request that the government implement them,” said Ms Thomson.
Paul Dowd, an IT manager, agreed. “It would be a tragedy if the document was just kept on a shelf and nothing was to happen,” he said.
The assembly members, all Scottish voters, were selected by an independent contractor and Ms Wimpress said she was “confident” they were politically representative.
Many of the recommendations implied greater government spending. While the assembly called for taxation to be “more proportionate”, and for research into how more could be gathered from sectors such as whisky, fishing and tourism, it did not directly address how individual taxpayers should contribute.
Members emphatically endorsed a continued role for citizens’ assemblies in Scotland, saying they should be used to review legislation and help set parliamentary and government agendas.
The Scottish government last year set up another citizens’ assembly to consider climate change policies. A UK-wide climate assembly commissioned by the Westminster parliament reported last year.