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Meeting of the Parliament

Meeting date: Thursday, October 26, 2023


Embedding Public Participation in the Work of the Parliament

The Deputy Presiding Officer (Annabelle Ewing)

The next item of business is a debate on motion S6M-10765, in the name of Jackson Carlaw, on behalf of the Citizen Participation and Public Petitions Committee, on embedding public participation in the work of the Parliament. I advise members that we have some time in hand this afternoon, so there will be plenty of time for lots of interventions.

I invite Jackson Carlaw to open the debate on behalf of the Citizen Participation and Public Petitions Committee.


Jackson Carlaw (Eastwood) (Con)

It is some considerable time since I was last invited to lead a debate in what, during my salad days in this Parliament, our then chief whip David McLetchie used to refer to as “the graveyard shift” and for which I routinely had a season ticket in those early days. I am thrilled and delighted to see so many people here this afternoon to embrace the concept of the committee’s report. In those days, I used to be unrelentingly jolly as a matter of principle, if only to keep myself awake until 5 o’clock, so I will be suitably jolly throughout this afternoon’s proceedings.

I begin by welcoming to the gallery some of those who participated in the citizens panel that we held and who were witnesses to the committee or advised us during the drafting of the report. I thank the clerks, Lynn Tullis and Andrew Mylne, who is also at the back of the chamber. I also thank Alanis McQuillen, Miriam Dornan and Wojciech Krakowiak—who has recently left us—who were fantastically helpful on what Martin Whitfield and Richard Leonard called, rather ungenerously, the committee’s “world tour”, as we sought to establish what the practice of deliberative democracy was in Paris, Belgium and Dublin.

I am here on a mission to sell to you the principle of public participation in our democracy, because I believe that the implications of the report could lead to a profound change in the way that democracy operates in Scotland and to the way in which the public, in the widest sense, are able to engage in parliamentary life.

The work did not begin during this session of Parliament, although we have been working on it for 18 months, since citizen participation was added to remit of the public petitions committee, but in the previous session, because the suggestion of participative democracy arose from the then Presiding Officer Ken Mackintosh’s commission for parliamentary reform, which was adopted by Parliament at that time. It is during this session of Parliament—because of Covid and for other reasons—that the investigation into that work has been taken forward.

I will first say what the inquiry involved. Two initial surveys gathered views from the public, organisations and academics. We established a citizens panel here in the Parliament—I will say more about that. We took feedback from that panel and recommendations from the public, from focus groups, from members and their staff and from committee conveners. I remember that the conveners were able to go round the wall of a room, deciding which of the recommendations on display they liked the most and which they did not like at all. We rejected the one that they did not like at all, which was that a citizens panel should be set up to consider an MSP code of conduct. I wonder why they were so unenthusiastic about that.

In doing that, we worked out how deliberative democracy has operated elsewhere in the places where it has been quite successful. We would not be the first Parliament to adopt that. We would be one of the early adopters, but other Parliaments in Ireland, Paris and Brussels have adopted it quite successfully.

It is fair to say that the committee went on a journey. Any members who heard my contribution to a recent debate on whether the establishment of commissioners creates, almost by default, a fresh level of government in Scotland will appreciate that some of us on the committee were concerned that we might be embedding into our process something that might undermine democracy, rather than enhance it. The reasons for that may not be immediately apparent. It is just as legitimate for people not to participate as it is for them to participate, but would greater weight to be given to those who do than to those who do not, and might that skew the outcomes for communities? We went on a journey, but it is fair to say that all members of the committee became persuaded, during the course of our work, that that was a good thing for us to do.

Various themes emerged from our citizens panel. Many of its members had never participated in anything before. They were drawn randomly, by an external agency, to reflect different demographics and not to be the “usual suspects” as we sometimes, rather unkindly, describe those who participate in the work of our committees. Interestingly, for those who had never participated before, the process was also a journey for them. Many did not realise that there was a difference between Parliament and Government. I think that we often overestimate the public’s understanding of the Parliament’s role in our natural democracy.

We also wanted to see the experience of others in action, which is why we went to Ireland, where, interestingly, the subjects for citizens panels are debated in election manifestos so that they have a legitimacy if the mandate for the Government is there. Because Ireland has so much of its social legislation embedded in its constitution, the process can sometimes end in a referendum.

In Paris, the city authority has set up a citizens panel. I think that it will correct its practice, because it brought 100 people into a room and asked them what they wanted to talk about, only to find that 100 complete strangers were not very sure, so they went back to the city authority. The danger of that was that they were then debating an issue for which there was perhaps not an electoral mandate.

We also spoke to the Parliament of Brussels, which has embedded deliberative democracy in its committee processes. It brought together a committee of about 60, with 45 laypeople and 15 politicians, and they all looked at one other with great suspicion. The 15 thought, “We’re very important people. We’ve been elected. Why should we listen to you?” The 45, in turn, said, “Well, we know what we’re talking about. You don’t.” Since they got over that hurdle, it has actually led to very informed and constructive underpinning of the legislation that is going through the Parliament. I think that we saw the advantage of that.

John Mason (Glasgow Shettleston) (SNP)

I have not been on the committee so I have not been in the discussions, but I am interested in the relationship between people who are elected and people who represent a cross-section of society but are not elected. How do the member and the committee see the balance between the two?

Jackson Carlaw

I think that the committee very much feels that citizens panels that are led by Governments and people’s panels, which is what we are recommending in the Parliament, should be there to serve the debate and consideration of the elected representatives, not to act as a separate imperative for action to take place.

Interestingly, what came out of our meetings with the people who had participated in Paris and Dublin—and, indeed, here—is that the key thing is feedback. People want to have feedback. They are perfectly prepared to be told that we are not going to do something if it is explained to them why we are not going to do it. That was very instructive. Whether we like it or not, the lesson for many people who have participated in national public consultations or initiatives such as this has been that, if they have ever come up with anything awkward, the lead authority has then buried the whole thing rather than having to discuss it. The cumulative effect of that is a sort of suspicion and a cynicism about whether there was really any genuine endeavour to consider what the people who participated in the panel actually thought. Feedback is the key, but there is an understanding that it should be the national Parliament that ultimately makes key decisions.

Liam McArthur (Orkney Islands) (LD)

I am fascinated by the member’s discourse. We have had an opportunity to discuss the subject in the Conveners Group. From the experience of the world tour, are there particular types of issues that lend themselves to citizens panels? How do those relate to budgetary issues? The debates that we have here often involve people saying, “That’s a great idea, but how are you going to pay for it?”

Jackson Carlaw

In Ireland, the key initial citizens panel was focused on the issue of the legalisation of abortion. It was fascinating to meet many of the 100 people who had participated in that. They had been on quite a journey, because there was a fact-based secretariat that underpinned everybody’s opinion, and there were no bad opinions. That led to a significant change and subsequent recommendations. It was not necessarily a budgetary consideration in that instance. In Paris, it was about issues relating to the rental sector and green spaces in the city. In Brussels, it was different again, because it was underpinning the various committees that were reporting.

We have made recommendations to the Government and we have had constructive discussions with the Minister for Parliamentary Business. Of course there are budgetary concerns. It can cost £1 million to £2 million to host a full citizens panel of maybe 100 people that is sustained over time. However, the report goes on to recommend what Parliament can do. We think that Parliament has a role to take forward in extending deliberative democracy and we recommend in our report that, within budgets that already exist, pilots take place in the balance of the current session—one on an issue of post-legislative scrutiny and one on an issue of interest that a people’s panel of about 20 to 30 people could constructively report on before going back to the lead committee with their evidence, in order for that to be taken forward.

We would not want to involve politicians in that panel—again, we would want its members to be randomly drawn from the public—but we believe that the pilots would give the Parliament a real sense of how the process could work. I believe, and I am convinced, that we would seek to embed that into parliamentary life in the Parliaments of the future. There are lots of other issues—

Michelle Thomson (Falkirk East) (SNP) rose—

I think that I am out of time.

I can give you more time, Mr Carlaw.

Michelle Thomson

I would like to make a comment on post-legislative scrutiny. The Parliament is still struggling with that, for good reason, because of the complexity and the multiple variables whereby decisions are made about policies where there are reserved and devolved powers and so on. How much more deeply did the committee look at the type of post-legislative scrutiny that might be appropriate for a citizens assembly?

Jackson Carlaw

I do not think that we went through all the different issues. What I can say is that, in anticipation of members embracing the principle in the debate, the Parliament’s participation and communications team—PACT—which has been established and is now really experienced and effective, came forward with two suggestions that went to the Conveners Group. That group has embraced one of the suggestions as being the subject that a pilot on the issue might take forward. I do not have the actual provision in front of me, but it relates to previous climate change legislation, on which the group thinks a piece of post-legislative scrutiny would be effective.

I will try to draw my remarks to a conclusion. There are lots of other recommendations in the report that I know will be brought out in the summary later on, particularly some relating to the Presiding Officer’s role and responsibilities. Fools rush in where angels fear to tread, though. [Laughter.] We were slightly more reluctant to be too prescriptive on all that.

Even as someone whom members might imagine to be sceptical about such initiatives and endeavours, I say that we genuinely saw things that would allow Scotland to evolve its own model. All the different ones that we saw were quite distinct. It is not that we are suggesting that we embrace one of them. Nor are we suggesting a legislative route, because I think that what we in Scotland might want could evolve through our own experience. Let us, as a Parliament, embrace the principle of all that, have pilots and then work to see what the most effective way of involving people in Scotland in the life of our democracy would be. So many more people than ever before wish to have that opportunity. I hope that this afternoon we can begin the process of allowing that to happen.

I move,

That the Parliament notes the conclusions of the Citizen Participation and Public Petitions Committee’s 2nd Report, 2023 (Session 6), Embedding Public Participation in the Work of the Parliament (SP Paper 427), including its responses to the recommendations of the Citizens’ Panel on participation; agrees with the Committee’s recommendation that the Parliament establish two further citizens’ panels (or people’s panels) in the current parliamentary session with a view to making the use of such panels a regular feature of committee scrutiny from Session 7 onwards; endorses the Committee’s recommended principles for the future use of deliberative democracy and its recommendations for panel size, composition and participant selection, and acknowledges the work already being done by Parliament staff to develop and improve engagement methods.


The Minister for Parliamentary Business (George Adam)

I thank Jackson Carlaw for his excellent speech. I appreciated his tone, and he summed up perfectly what we are all trying to achieve. He does not need to sell the idea to me. He has given us many examples of why public participation is a good thing for us to adopt. It will be a way of helping us to deal with the many challenges, difficulties and decisions that we face and, at the same time, to find out exactly what the public—the people whom we serve—want from us, with Parliament then making the decisions.

I commend the committee and the Parliament’s participation and communities team for the thorough work that they have undertaken to produce the report and its recommendations. As Jackson Carlaw said, its publication marks an important milestone for the Scottish Parliament as it considers how it will meaningfully and practically involve the public in its work. I commend, too, the approach that the committee has taken to the public participation inquiry and, in particular, the world tour that Mr Carlaw took us through. I was obviously on the wrong committees when I was a back bencher, and I have the wrong job now. Apparently, they have tour T-shirts and jackets to sell, as well as the idea of public participation.

All the stuff that came from the committee was considered and balanced, and it has produced a timeline of viable next steps. I am pleased that the report and its recommendations have also been framed with the longer-term view in mind. The core principles outlined by the committee place transparency, accountability and inclusivity at the centre of its vision for the Parliament’s move towards a more participatory system. That is easy for me to say, Presiding Officer.

The report is an important step in improving our democratic infrastructure. I welcome the committee’s proposal to work towards establishing the use of more citizens panels as well as a good practice model and an accountability framework for use across the Parliament’s scrutiny work.

The Scottish Government is also committed to putting in place standards, values and practices to guarantee high-quality participation. The Scottish Government’s vision for public participation is that people can be involved in the decisions that affect them, making Scotland a more inclusive, sustainable and successful place. In our response to the institutionalising participatory and deliberative democracy expert working group report, we outlined our intention to deliver that.

We have delivered a number of deliberative engagements. Probably the most well known are our two citizens assemblies, and we routinely run small-scale participatory engagements. For example, we ran a citizens jury on the proposed use of QCovid, a risk protection model for Covid-19 that draws on health data. A citizens jury works in a similar way to a people’s panel, and that one helped us to understand how people in Scotland view the ethics of using such models. The in-depth process of learning and deliberation that took place around that citizens jury gave us a clear understanding of what the public do and do not find acceptable.

Martin Whitfield (South Scotland) (Lab)

We heard from Jackson Carlaw about the challenge that exists in relation to the understanding of the separation between Parliament and Government. Does the minister see a potential flashpoint with regard to the public’s understanding about what they are answering and how they are trying to help if the Government is participating with citizens assemblies or juries and the Parliament is doing the same thing?

George Adam

I take that on board. Obviously, the Government has to engage with the public to help them to understand what is going on, but I understand that there could be some confusion. As we move forward with the model, I am willing to find a way in which we can all work together to ensure that we get the job done, rather than all doing the same thing at the same time. In these challenging times, with budgetary constraints, it is important to think more wisely about how we use what we have got.

Our experience of the citizens jury that I mentioned shows how valuable the public considers evidence-based responses to be when tackling complex issues or taking difficult decisions.

As members know, the need to deal with complex issues and take difficult decisions has always been a part of the work of Government and it is an increasing feature today. Jackson Carlaw brought up a perfect example of how Ireland managed to deal with the discussion around the abortion issue. There are various issues that are of note in this Parliament at this time, and we might need to think about how we can use such mechanisms to deal with them, too.

What will be important to the success of Parliament’s work in that regard will be our ability to ensure that those who are furthest from Government and whose voices are seldom heard are being listened to, and that that work is trauma informed. One thing that I always bring up with officials is the fact that I do not want to see the usual faces turning up. Those of us who have been councillors will have been involved in many of the smaller attempts at engagement with the public, and will be aware that, in a lot of cases, those events are attended by the same people all the time. I think that it is important to bring in people from all walks of life. Where is the young man or woman from Ferguslie Park or the east end of Glasgow? Where are the people from all walks of life, so that we can ensure that we are engaging properly with the public?

Ruth Maguire (Cunninghame South) (SNP)

The minister described some individuals as being seldom heard. Does he agree that it is not necessarily that they are seldom heard but that, often, they are found to be easy to ignore, and that Government and Parliament have a responsibility to make it easy for them to come to us?

George Adam

I totally agree. We need to find a way to make it easier for them to contact us. It can be intimidating for people to approach Parliament, MSPs or other elected officials, so we need to make the Parliament, the Government and ourselves more approachable. I note that the report outlines barriers to participation that the committee suggests that Parliament considers. I strongly encourage that as an area that we proactively pursue.

Listening to seldom-heard voices is fundamentally important if we want to ensure that the decisions that we make are fairer and better meet the needs of the people whom we serve. In the Scottish Government’s experience, it is not just about the big policy issues or about one method of participation versus another; it is about how we, in all our roles, consider who is most affected by the policies and services that we design and find the best way to ensure that the voices of those people are included from the very beginning.

Bob Doris (Glasgow Maryhill and Springburn) (SNP)

I am new to all this, and I am following the debate for the first time in the chamber. I am sticking around for it, and it is very interesting.

Mr Carlaw talked about people’s panels, and the Government talked about citizens juries. However, people with lived experience are not necessarily a representative cross-section of society. By definition, they are a specific cohort of people who are very easy to ignore. It is vital that we engage with people with lived experience on social security and addiction issues. Where does lived experience fit in with people’s panels and citizens juries? Is that a third layer?

George Adam

I thank Mr Doris for sticking around for the debate.

Mr Doris has accurately hit the nail on the head when it comes to why we should ensure that everything is accessible to everyone. My officials will tell members that I constantly challenge them to say who is coming, who we are engaging with, who we are talking with, what the benefit is and how they can help. The whole idea is to ensure that the individuals whom we are talking about get the empowerment of being involved in the democratic process. That helps with many other discussions that Mr Doris and I have had about people engaging with us in elections, for example, because they see a reason for getting involved in the process.

Jackson Carlaw

It occurs to me to suggest to the minister and maybe helpfully to Mr Doris that, although the criteria for drawing people to participate would be random, the basis of those criteria can be determined if a particular panel was going to be held on a specific issue and it was felt that that would be fundamentally important to the consideration. That would be true about some issues, but not necessarily about others. The point is that we do not want the politicians to select the individuals who would participate. There should be a genuinely random representation, but that can be an informed representation if the issues so determine.

George Adam

I agree with that, too. Some issues will be very specific and will affect a certain cohort. We need to ensure that we get the best possible value from all the citizens assemblies or, in the Government’s case, citizens juries. For clarity, citizens panels and citizens juries are, in effect, the same thing.

It is also important to ensure that participants’ expenses and time are paid for so that no one faces financial barriers to getting involved. To that end, officials in the Scottish Government are finalising guidance on participant payment. I welcome the committee’s view that the methods that are used for this work should be proportionate to the topic. The Scottish Government advocates that approach.

I also welcome the principles and aims outlined by the committee, which will enable people to be involved in the work of Parliament. We all share that vision with the committee.

It is important that we all take on the task of supporting a fairer and more successful and innovative democracy. The Scottish Government will seek to support the committee where that is helpful as it moves forward with its plans. The evidence is there for us to know that that is the path that we should actively follow. I look forward to hearing the views of others today as the committee starts to lay the foundations to create this new and exciting model for democracy in our Parliament.


Maurice Golden (North East Scotland) (Con)

As a relatively new member of the Citizen Participation and Public Petitions Committee, I missed out on the world tour. However, I thank all those who participated in the committee’s public participation inquiry. I particularly thank the 19 individuals who worked closely together over two weekends and in three remote online sessions in October and November 2022 for their thoughtful and helpful contributions, and the recommendations that they made to Parliament. A number of those recommendations are about the future use of deliberative democracy, for which I commend the panel. Any steps that the Parliament can take to promote greater public participation, and to amplify diverse views from communities across all parts of Scotland, should be encouraged.

The reality is that the Parliament and the MSPs in it hear from a limited cross-section of the population—usually those who are in the wider Holyrood bubble. They are people, interest groups and campaign groups that understand how the system works and how to bring influence to bear on the political process through responding to consultations and media campaigns, and engaging directly with MSPs. That does not mean that those people should not have a voice, but the views of the few are often seen as representative views of the public and, in many cases, the views of the few may not be the views of the wider public.

Furthermore, political parties often seek out those whose views align with their own, in order to push their own political agendas as being representative of the general public’s views. One does not have to look too far back in the current session of Parliament to find examples of recent bills, or parts thereof, that have been passed into legislation that are completely out of step with the views of the general public or the interests of a particular community.

John Mason

Maurice Golden mentioned community. Does he agree with the panel’s recommendation that

“community engagement by MSPs doesn’t exclude people that are outwith community groups”?

Sometimes those who appear to be community leaders do not actually represent the whole of their community.

Maurice Golden

Yes, I agree absolutely. It is about “community” in the widest possible sense. We have often engaged with community councils, for example, and although they do a fantastic job, in many cases, the same community leaders are often involved in many different interactions with elected officials and others.

The point of this process is to widen participation beyond leadership at every single level. That has to be the focus, so that Parliament hears from the people from whom we do not normally hear. If we cannot hear from them, we need to hear from the people who represent their views.

The process and outcomes from establishing the citizens panel have warranted Parliament’s taking a closer look at widening use of such panels. The committee’s recommendation that the Parliament run two more panels—one on an existing piece of legislation, and one on a current topic of interest—should be adopted. If they are deemed to be of value, a model for further use should be rolled out for the next session of Parliament.

Linked to the previous point about ensuring that the Parliament hears from and considers as wide a range of representative views as possible, it is crucial that we widen community engagement and raise awareness of the Scottish Parliament. On a previous committee visit, I found that there was confusion over the roles of committees, Parliament and Government, and that there is, in some cases, mistrust. As the Parliament enters its 25th year, that has to change.

In response to the panel’s recommendations in that area, I share the views of the committee that more can and should be done by Parliament to strengthen and widen its engagement with the public, while I also acknowledge the work that the Parliament is currently doing in the area and the clear steps forward that it has taken over the past few years.

With regard to highlighting specific recommendations from the panel, I will focus first on embedding the process of parliamentary democracy in schools. If the curriculum can be strengthened to do that, that would be a positive step. However, that has to be done with a focus on citizens’ participation and the role of Parliament, and must not be an attempt to push certain political views.

Martin Whitfield

Does Maurice Golden feel that young people across Scotland perhaps gained better knowledge and experience as a result of their interaction with the Parliament in the first two or three sessions than they do in the interactions that happen now? I do not mean simply because of Covid—our young people face more challenges, in the form of travel costs and overnight stays, even to visit Parliament. Those issues are raised with me by a lot of schools.

Maurice Golden

We are seeing that that is far more challenging—and particularly so for certain schools. It is not just about having teachers available; it is also about getting volunteers who might be required, and it is about the costs that are associated with visits.

I was almost, but not quite, still at school in 1999, so I do not have lived experience of that. We could, as a Parliament, look at how we might engage more with pupils and allow for more understanding and better access.

Ruth Maguire

That is the one area of the report that made me raise an eyebrow a little, because I wondered whether it was children themselves who had said that they needed more education on the Parliament. My experience from going out to schools has been that children often know how things work a lot better than many intelligent adults in my community do, because they are looking at democracy in the round and how the Parliament works.

Maurice Golden

That is a fair challenge; however, we can also do more to allow our young people access. Separately, for example, we are looking at how we can work more closely with the Scottish Youth Parliament. However, to go back to the leadership point that John Mason raised, we need to be cautious about whether its view is representative of the views of all young people.

Bob Doris

I am certainly being dragged into the debate. I declare an interest as a former modern studies teacher. In some secondary schools—not those in my constituency, I hasten to add—citizenship is passed to the modern studies department. If curriculum for excellence means anything, it means that citizenship is a whole-school endeavour. That is certainly so in primary schools, but it must also be the case in secondary schools, otherwise we focus citizenship education on young people who self-select by taking modern studies. It should be a whole-school, whole-community endeavour.

Maurice Golden

Certainly. That is almost the same as the point that the people who want to become politicians are the first whom we should not allow to do so. Such self-selection is part of the general thrust of the debate. We need to widen such arrangements beyond students who are interested in modern studies.

I turn to the panel’s recommendations on changes to how the Parliament works—specifically, recommendation 13, on answering questions. I have a lot of sympathy and strongly agree with the view that frustrations are caused when ministers fail or refuse to give straight answers to straight questions.

Is the problem not that, sometimes, the question is not a straight question but a trap?

Hear, hear.

Maurice Golden

There are two sides to every coin. However, I can attest that a simple yes or no answer—if there is one—often suffices. If members look at the Official Report, they will see that I have on numerous occasions tried unsuccessfully to get such a response.

The panel suggested giving the Parliament’s Presiding Officer more power to make sure that Scottish Government ministers give adequate answers to questions, although the committee noted that

“this could make the Presiding Officer’s job more difficult and more political.”

I believe that there should be a way of improving on the current situation, and I agree with the committee that the Standards, Procedures and Public Appointments Committee should consider ways in which the Presiding Officer might be given the power to decide that a question has not been adequately answered.

Jackson Carlaw

It is interesting that, in the Irish Parliament, the Ceann Comhairle—the Speaker—has such discretion. The form of words is for the Speaker to say to the relevant minister that they have perhaps been a little let down by their civil servants in the comprehensiveness of the response that they have just given, and that they might like to add to it a little further. In fact, the existence of that power has meant that it has never had to be used, which is interesting. It is not necessarily the case that a Presiding Officer would require to intervene, but the knowledge that they could intervene has elsewhere led to sharper and more focused answers from ministers.

Maurice Golden

I thank Jackson Carlaw for that helpful contribution.

When it comes to respect, it should be customary practice for members—in particular, ministers—to accept at least one intervention. If it is not, we should change the term from “debate” to “the reading of speeches”—and, in due course, we would probably end up being replaced by artificial intelligence.

George Adam

On debating, I understand where Maurice Golden is coming from. I, for one, tend always to take interventions—I took about half a dozen during my speech—but, on the whole, there is also the drama of Parliament to consider. As Maurice Golden’s colleague Stephen Kerr used to say, it is not a quiet place. At times, when I am giving a speech and one of his colleagues is trying to get in, I might let them in not at that point but later. The Parliamentary debate that we are involved in is a living and flowing thing. It is not just a case of having to take one intervention, or two; there is the flow of the debate itself to consider.

To speak of the flow of debate, I note that I appreciate that Mr Golden has been extremely generous in taking many interventions, but I urge him to focus now on bringing his interesting remarks to a close.

Maurice Golden

The power of the Presiding Officer is noted.

I completely agree with George Adam’s point and I appreciate that some debates are short, which is why I suggested taking one intervention. It is incredibly frustrating when ministers in particular, and members more generally—I do not mean all of them—do not take at least one intervention, because debate is the chamber’s purpose.

The committee’s response to the citizens panel’s recommendations on embedding public participation in the work of Parliament is an excellent starting point and needs to be explored further. There will be constraints and challenges in what Parliament can do, particularly in relation to costs, but as the subject develops over the months and years to come, we should all engage with it and approach it with an open mind.


Martin Whitfield (South Scotland) (Lab)

It speaks to the power of Maurice Golden’s speech that so many members intervened. Debate is about analysing points and opinions, so that we can show the people of Scotland that we are testing the Government and testing ideas. That is the fundamental principle behind why the Parliament is here—it is a people’s Parliament that holds the Scottish Government to account on behalf of the people of Scotland.

I compliment the Citizen Participation and Public Petitions Committee on the report. More important, I compliment the citizens who took part in producing it. We have heard today about the interesting dichotomy between the desire to participate and the power that the Parliament wants to give citizens to participate.

Parliament has cross-party groups and, as the minister pointed out, the Government continually seeks the public’s opinion and views. However, what is embedded in the report is a vehicle that will allow citizens to genuinely participate before questions come to be decided by committees.

We have heard the view that we get the usual culprits. The report offers much more than that, because it considers a process for bringing together a random group of our citizens to solve issues that we cannot solve, which would remove the politics from some of those questions. The representative nature of such arrangements would ensure that we did not have people giving the same evidence to a different committee on the same question. The proposal is about genuinely asking people to help us, please, with a problem, because we cannot solve it, and perhaps we should not do that. We would take the conclusions and do what we do very well here through committees and through the chamber, which is analysing and considering how we would implement proposals and how they would work.

With the Deputy Presiding Officer’s consent, I take off my party-political hat for one moment to deal with page 3 of the report, which levels a number of suggestions at the committee that I have the privilege to convene. I assure members in the chamber and—more important—the citizens who raised the issues that the Standards, Procedures and Public Appointments Committee will consider the suggestions. As Jackson Carlaw said, we will respond to those people and explain our decision on a number of points.

My next point is about the Presiding Officer’s role. It is fascinating to follow what Maurice Golden said about that and the intervention on him from Jackson Carlaw about what happens elsewhere. The Presiding Officers sit where they do because we as members of the Parliament have chosen them not to referee our debates but to facilitate debates. Burdening the Presiding Officers with an evidential decision on whether something has or has not been answered, with the sparklingly light evidence that they will hear in a well-versed question or a potentially poorly versed answer, needs to be considered with a great deal of scepticism. That is not to say that the disappointment is not shared across two thirds of the chamber when questions are not answered, but I think that to alter the role of the person who sits in the Presiding Officer’s chair would be dangerous.

Edward Mountain (Highlands and Islands) (Con)

It is an interesting point and I picked up on that, but how many times have we seen a minister stand up in the Parliament and answer the question that they want to answer, not the one that has been asked? That is the crux—although not necessarily the depth—of the answer. Does Mr Whitfield agree that it would be useful for the Presiding Officer to instruct the minister to answer the question that they have been asked which, in most cases, has been through the chamber desk anyway?

Will the member take an intervention?

With the consent of the Deputy Presiding Officer, I am happy to take the second intervention and then try to answer the first.

Ruth Maguire

I appreciated what Martin Whitfield was saying about the Presiding Officer intervening, and the evidence—or lack thereof—that she would have to go on for that. I wonder whether there is also a bit about personal responsibility. Each individual member is responsible for their contribution. Asking someone else to come in and referee—to use his term—does not sit right.

Martin Whitfield

We heard earlier the concept of two sides of the same coin but, in each of those interventions, we have perhaps seen both ends of a rainbow. It is the personal responsibility of every member as an MSP—and, indeed, if they have additional responsibilities as minister, cabinet secretary or First Minister—to address the questions that they are given. In answer to Edward Mountain’s intervention, I say that, yes, that is a frustration, but it is genuinely a frustration for anyone who seeks answers. Sometimes even primary school pupils get frustrated because their teacher will not answer the question that they think they are asking—the teacher is answering a different question.

It is worth highlighting the comment in the report that refers members again to the general conduct that is expected of MSPs and the fact that members must treat individuals—including other MSPs, of course—with courtesy and respect. That raises the interesting element of the responsibility of being a member of the Scottish Parliament—with the additional responsibility of being a minister or cabinet secretary—and who answers for that responsibility when people feel that they have strayed. I will go no further on that, other than to again reassure those citizens who raised that issue that the committee will look at it.

With the time being where it is, I will put my party-political hat back on. I will talk about the definition of deliberative democracy. I hope that, during the debate, we can identify what we mean by deliberative democracy, rather than simple contributions to the Parliament and debates.

Following on from a number of interventions, particularly from Bob Doris and Ruth Maguire, I refer to page 6, which deals with the themes that emerged—in particular,

“that people from disadvantaged backgrounds often don’t feel that engaging with the Scottish Parliament is worthwhile”.

That is a frightening conclusion to come to—that there are people who are seeking to engage but who see no worth in doing so. Of the many very powerful comments that are contained in the report, it moved me that people might say, “I can’t be bothered because nothing will happen.” That is a poor reflection, and we must strive to tackle that.

Brian Whittle (South Scotland) (Con)

Would Mr Whitfield also say that, as part of the report, it is important that there is an avenue and a route to be able to give evidence to, or to affect, this Parliament, which perhaps many of our citizens currently cannot see?

Martin Whitfield

That speaks to what I was saying earlier about the concept of the citizens assembly or the jury being asked about a specific problem or to set a legislative review.

There is also a requirement for the Parliament—in the committees and chamber—to reach out to seek lived experience when it is needed and to seek out the expert and not a usual suspect. The current petitions committee has to be thanked for the fact that it appears to reach out to a far wider group—through petitions and other methods—than has perhaps happened in the past, and we must emulate that approach.

I will concentrate part of my talk on theme 6. Along with Ruth Maguire, I am slightly disappointed in the level of urgency that education has been given. We have rehearsed to some extent where access to the Parliament sits within our schools and the curriculum, but one of the things that flow from the report is the consideration that one of the panels should perhaps be a young persons panel, made up of a random cross-section of people who reflect the appropriate experiences about which we have questions to ask. If a panel was brought together and its members were asked how important it is for young people to take part in the Parliament, I hazard a guess that an incredibly high number of them would respond, “It is very important, so please listen to us.”


John Mason (Glasgow Shettleston) (SNP)

I thank the committee and the citizens panel for their deliberations and input. I have to say that I find this a really interesting topic, particularly how we balance, on the one hand, being a parliamentary democracy with elections and all the complications that that system brings and, on the other hand, having and benefiting from panels or groups that might be more representative in one sense but which are not elected.

I note the panel’s recommendations and that the committee disagreed with some of them. I will go through the themes and comment on some of them in the same way that the committee did.

The first theme is about institutionalising deliberative democracy. I note that the committee did not agree with legislating for that, and I tend to agree with it on that point. However, other recommendations, such as number 9—building cross-party support for deliberative democracy, which is still to be defined—are absolutely fine, and we can endorse them.

Theme 2 is about growing community engagement. In general, the comments of both the panel and the committee are good—we need to hear from a wide range of people, including experts on a subject and those with lived experience. However, both of those groups are often minorities in society, and the wider public might not have strong views on the issue at all. There will be times when we, as politicians, need to focus on important issues, even though—perhaps because—the public is not engaged.

Recommendation 5 is to ensure that engagement by MSPs does not exclude people outwith community groups. That is an important point. As we touched on earlier, not every community group is representative of its community. For example, I am generally a fan of community councils, which are the most grass-roots organisations that we have and are democratically elected, but some are made up entirely of retired people, with no one of working age, let alone young people, at all.

Theme 3 is about raising awareness of the Parliament. I think that good efforts have been made on that, but I accept that there has been mixed success. It is always the case that some people are very satisfied when we do a little for them, either individually or as a Parliament, while others are very dissatisfied, however much we do for them.

Recommendation 15—the idea of highlighting Parliament’s successes—is interesting, but I have to accept that some people do not want that to happen. They do not want the Parliament’s successes to be highlighted; they want to run Parliament down and emphasise its weaknesses. The media has a part to play in that. One of the panel’s comments was that we should “use media outlets”, but I think that using media outlets is easier said than done. The media and, it seems, many members of the public are more focused on the dramatic side of Holyrood—the same happens at Westminster—with people turning up to watch First Minister’s question time, whereas the committee work is often less well attended by the public or featured less in the media, but is actually more important.

Recommendation 16, on a general information campaign, is certainly well meaning, but I think that that is exactly what a lot of Parliament staff have been working on for a number of years, with, again, limited success.

Theme 5, on bringing the Parliament to the people, and recommendation 11, which is on the idea of moving the whole Parliament around Scotland, might be impractical, and the committee did not support that recommendation. I slightly disagree with the committee on the idea of Parliament days, linked perhaps to committee visits, as happened in the past. I have taken part in a number of those, and I felt that some were very good. For example, one was in Hawick while Tricia Marwick was the Presiding Officer. From memory, on that occasion, we had a big reception on the Sunday evening and met many people from a cross-section of local society. On the Monday, the Finance Committee went on to have its meetings while the Presiding Officer had a separate programme. I think that that kind of thing can be worth while.

Jackson Carlaw

I, too, participated in some of those Parliament days. Apparently, in a lot of the work that was done afterwards to establish what the value of those days had been seen to be, it was felt that we had kind of landed, done our thing and gone away again, and that there was no lasting benefit. It was felt that the types of engagement that we should be seeking to take from the Parliament out into communities should be designed to leave more of a legacy with regard to appreciation of the Parliament.

John Mason

I think that it is possibly both. For example, I am going with the Economy and Fair Work Committee to Aberdeen on a specific issue a week on Monday, but, on other occasions, just the fact that we are there means a lot to the local community. I remember a visit that we had to Islay, looking at isolation, and I picked up that the people there really appreciated the fact that the committee had taken the effort—which they know about more than we do—to go.

I have been on committee visits to Orkney, Arbroath, Nairn, Islay, Largs—twice—Hawick, Pitlochry, Lochaber and other places, but I have to say that I do not think that we should go only to attractive rural locations. Parliament committees have not visited the greater Glasgow area, for example, so often.

As Martin Whitfield said, the cost of travelling to the Parliament is certainly a challenge for some. I am keen that schools from further away and from less well-off areas should be able to come. We need to keep an eye on which schools are visiting and ensure that it is not only those that are closer and better off.

Theme 7 is about strengthening trust in the Parliament and the idea that we have touched on already—recommendation 13—of compelling Government ministers to give answers to all the questions that they are presented with, which is an intriguing concept. I think that all oral questions are generally answered, but maybe not in the way that the Opposition or the public would want. However, if the Presiding Officer were to assess all answers, I think that she should also assess all questions for genuineness and not allow trick or trap questions. Therefore, I agree with the committee that the recommendation is probably not feasible.

Maurice Golden

Does John Mason agree that any changes to the Parliament’s structures, including the structures of debate, need to be made in the round and should be reflective of not the current session but the future of the Parliament and its future political make-up, whatever that might be?

John Mason

Was that a trick question?

I agree that we should take a longer-term view. I think that many of us find that difficult, with the election only two and half years away, but yes, we should look at that. To give respect to people such as Jackson Carlaw and Martin Whitfield, I note that some members are good at taking a longer-term view.

Recommendation 14 is on the idea of the public asking questions in the chamber. To some extent, we have tried that kind of thing on committees. For example, the Covid-19 Recovery Committee tried it, as did the Finance and Public Administration Committee recently in Largs. Questions were brought to the committee, and then the committee followed on by asking those same questions. However, it seemed to me that we were sometimes asking questions for the sake of it, and on issues that we had already looked at in depth.

Will the member give way?

If I have time, yes.

There is time for a brief intervention.

Michelle Thomson

[Inaudible.]—finance committee, but, if he does not mind me saying, perhaps that is missing the point, because perhaps we are too ready to have concluded what the answer is without allowing people to make their voices heard. Would he concede that?

John Mason

I would, although there are always dangers and two sides to these things. On the Covid-19 Recovery Committee, for example, we felt that airing certain questions, such as those challenging the science on vaccines, might not be helpful to anyone. There has to be a bit of freedom, but I accept that what we are doing with the chamber is slightly different from what we are doing with the committees, which have more opportunity to engage.

I get constituents coming in and demanding that I ask a minister or the First Minister a range of questions, ranging from why their bus was late to why their hospital operation has been postponed. My usual response is to suggest that we take such points up with the bus company or the health board as appropriate, and, nine times out of 10, we get a better answer that way. I realise that some MSPs raise the cases of individual patients in the chamber, but I question whether that is appropriate if they have not already asked the health board.

Overall, I commend the panel and the committee for their work on the subject. I absolutely agree that we can improve the things that we do as a Parliament. I am particularly keen that we get out and about around the country and engage with the general public where they live and work. It is clear that it has been appreciated when we travel further from Edinburgh. However, we need to keep an eye on the bigger picture—keeping a balance between listening to those who are democratically elected and involving panels or assemblies that are selected at random. Scotland is a relatively small country and we should be able to keep things simple. We need to be wary of multiplying the number of commissions, panels and other bodies, which makes the landscape even more complicated. Holyrood and MSPs are much more accessible than Westminster and MPs, and we should aim to build on that strength.


Edward Mountain (Highlands and Islands) (Con)

I thank the committee for its excellent report.

Public participation in this Parliament is absolutely vital. As one goes further away from Edinburgh, where Parliament sits, one gets asked more and more questions. As one goes up to the very north of the Highlands, one finds that people know their local MSPs, but they know little about the other MSPs in Parliament, whom they feel outnumber their local MSPs. They also feel that people who do not have life experience in remote areas do not know as much about it as they should do. Therefore, highlanders and islanders need that participation, and they need it to be confirmed that there is not a bias towards what happens in the central belt when decisions are made.

They also need to know how to engage with Parliament. John Mason made the point that a lot of constituents come into our offices and ask us lots of questions, but they do not know how to engage with Parliament or the parliamentary committees. Some of them will know how to write to their MSPs, and we are usually the last port of call in very difficult circumstances, but they do not know how to engage, for example, on the issue of the power lines that go from north to south. They do not know how to get involved or which committee to get involved with, and we need to rectify that.

When it came to the citizens participation part of the report, I have to admit that I was slightly sceptical. I pored over the report and found it actually quite interesting to see the recommendations of the committee and of the people who had taken part in the citizens panels that the committee had set up. I became swayed by it. That is why, very briefly putting on my hat as the convener of the Net Zero, Energy and Transport Committee, I can say that we are delighted to have bid for and—I think—been accepted by the Conveners Group to be the first committee to have a citizens panel to carry out post-legislative scrutiny of the Climate Change (Scotland) Act 2009. That is really important, and it will be an important way for the committee to hear what people think about that crucial subject.

Taking that hat off, as I have made that announcement—which I will probably get in trouble for somewhere along the line—I think it is important that, when that panel is formed and it does its post-legislative scrutiny, it is made clear to it what its remit is and how far it can go with its recommendations. There is no point in asking panel members to do something and giving them the story that they can take part, but then not allowing them to fulfil that role. There is a careful balance to be set.

I heard what Jackson Carlaw said about MSPs taking part in citizens panels, but sometimes an MSP should be there just to be able to say, “There is an issue with what you are recommending”. That would allow the panel to report back knowing how MSPs can use their recommendations.

When we set up the panels, there is a real need, as the report made clear, to put on them the right balance of people with the right experience. As plenty of people have said, a panel should not be made up only of the same vociferous characters that we meet in our constituency when we talk about the subject that the panel is going to look at, because they do not always represent the views of every person in the constituency. I would like to see the other people brought in.

The people on the panels also need to see the outcomes of the reports that they produce. I like the idea that positive action needs to be reported within nine months. I fear that, after that amount of time, people will feel that nothing has happened. The earlier that we can get back to them once they have produced a report on what they have done, the better.

Turning to the point in the committee’s report about the powers of the Presiding Officer, I may, strangely, differ from Martin Whitfield. I am taken by the fact that, as a back bencher, it is very difficult to get an answer in this Parliament. I am also taken by the fact that Jackson Carlaw has suggested that having the power that is recommended in the report but not necessarily using it may be sufficient.

It is frustrating not just for us but for people who watch the events in this chamber. How many of us have been told, “Well, you never got an answer. They talked about something completely different to what you asked them about.”? That is unhelpful, because it gives the wrong message about Parliament. The message that Parliament should be giving is that we are considering every single option and that those that are discounted are being discounted for good reasons.

I believe that the Presiding Officers should have more power. The Presiding Officers have made a decision to reduce the length of answers to some questions. That is right, because if we cannot get an answer in a minute, we are not going to get an answer in five minutes. Long answers mean that back benchers do not get to ask their questions and people get frustrated that the MSPs that they have elected are not getting answers.

Keith Brown (Clackmannanshire and Dunblane) (SNP)

I completely disagree with Edward Mountain on the point about the Presiding Officer being the arbiter of answers and on the idea of treating MSPs as being in different classes with regard to whether they are obliged to take an intervention. That would just be wrong.

I am, however, more supportive of Edward Mountain in relation to some other issues around public participation. Concern has been expressed for a long period—maybe 40 years—and by all parties that MSPs or elected members and Governments are much less accountable than they used to be, because so much has been hived off or outsourced to bodies such as commissions and so on. It is counterintuitive, but does he think that that might possibly contribute to MSPs being less accountable?

On Jackson Carlaw’s point, if public participation is going to cost as much as it is, how does that square with what many of us agree is the proliferation of commissioners in the Parliament? The two things seem to sit at odds with each other.

Edward Mountain

I thank Mr Brown for that question. I am not suggesting that we have lots more commissioners; we probably have enough.

As far as the long-term situation in the Parliament and the diluting of accountability, I do not agree with Mr Brown, because, at the end of the day, the decision whether to incorporate what is decided at citizens panels comes down to MSPs. MSPs have to and should answer to those panels on why they are or are not taking an idea forward.

I am sorry that I cannot sway Mr Brown on the Presiding Officer. There are definitely different views on that around the chamber, and I suspect that a member’s views might also differ whether their party is in Government or not.

Another issue that was mentioned was the code of conduct. I absolutely believe that responsibility for that should reside with the current committee. Having sat on that committee, and seen members being judged by their peers and being answerable to their peers on their behaviour, I know that their peers are much harsher than perhaps anyone else would be. It is right that we answer to our peers.

One of the other issues that I picked up was a public register of interests, on which the public can indicate that they are interested in a subject and be notified by the Parliament that it is coming up. That is really important, and it will help people across Scotland to understand and feed into the process.

I absolutely agree with John Mason’s point about external visits. As members will know, the Rural Economy and Connectivity Committee held a committee meeting in Orkney and a subsequent meeting at Galashiels. Such meetings are important, because they are about the committee engaging with people. The committee can have a meeting at which people are allowed to contribute and participate, and then hold the more formal meeting afterwards. We should do more of that. I have not been to such meetings during the current session, but I was pleased to do so during session 5.

Finally, educating children on how the Parliament works is important. It is easy for schools in Edinburgh and Glasgow to pop across to the Parliament and make use of its excellent facilities, but when it comes to schools in the Highlands, it is more difficult. I have certainly struggled to get schools to come down from Skye, Wick and Caithness, because of the length of time that it takes to travel and the costs of doing so, which means that their children do not understand how the Parliament works. We have an excellent service here, but I do not know whether it travels out to schools, which might be an option, or whether we should make sure that how the Parliament works is part of the curriculum, but everyone needs to know about that.


Ruth Maguire (Cunninghame South) (SNP)

Democracy is not just about putting a cross in a box every five years. The mandate that is given to political parties once the votes are counted is substantial, but the folk whom we represent should feel that they have trust in our institution and a stake in the decisions that we take. Election campaigns and polling days should not be the end of our interactions with citizens on policy. With all due respect, politicians and civil servants certainly do not have the monopoly on wisdom. Despite some effort, we cannot claim to be an especially diverse bunch that is reflective of our nation, particularly in terms of class and race.

The ideas and policies that are put in manifestos—as good or bad as they might be and wherever or whoever they come from—always need a lot of further work in the Parliament. They require input from and dialogue with a wide range of people and organisations to realise their good intentions and improve things for all the citizens whom we serve. No matter how much we might wish it, the legislation and guidance that we pass in here are not always in themselves enough to make the changes that we wish to see. We have to understand better how and where the laws that we have passed have made a difference—or not—whether there have been any unintended consequences or whether there are gaps that need to be addressed. Public participation in post-legislative scrutiny would be incredibly valuable in that regard.

I congratulate the citizens panel, the members of the Citizen Participation and Public Petitions Committee and the Scottish Parliament staff who so ably supported it for the excellent work that they have done in embedding public participation in the work of the Parliament.

I agree with the committee’s recommendation that the Parliament should establish two further citizens or people’s panels in the current parliamentary session. It is right that we work towards making use of such panels in regular committee scrutiny from session 7 onwards.

In commending the work of the Parliament staff, I make special mention of the care and attention that was given to ensuring that the inquiry was accessible and that there were different ways for people to take part. As well as the main online platform, the Parliament’s PAC and education teams provided support and resources to partners and communities to gather a range of views. I have personal experience of the excellent and creative work that the teams do to ensure that voices that we can find easy to ignore or exclude are central to committee work in areas that affect them.

In this instance, the work of the teams meant that the committee received additional contributions from people with learning difficulties and autism via two discussions with the learning disability assembly, the Scottish Assembly; it heard the views of young people in collaboration with Young Scot and the Scottish Youth Parliament; and it listened to the views of school pupils in Lochgelly, Galashiels and Glasgow.

Paul O’Kane (West Scotland) (Lab)

On the really important point about accessibility, does Ruth Maguire agree that the materials that we provide as a Parliament—in particular, education materials to help people to understand what we do here—have to be accessible and include easy-read formats that would be recognised by people who have a learning disability?

Ruth Maguire

I absolutely agree. I do not think that anything should be coming out of our Parliament that is not in those formats. That would not be acceptable.

In addition, people were able to write to or email the committee in the usual way, which provided three additional submissions from Bòrd na Gàidhlig, the Scottish Election Study team and Media Education.

I am sure that committee members will talk more to the process, so I will share my reflections on the themes. Theme 2 was on growing community engagement. The committee’s report acknowledges that the traditional model of parliamentary scrutiny can tend to prioritise people who already have an understanding of how the Parliament works and the resources to engage with its structures. I very much agree with the committee that that needs to be addressed. I have witnessed just how beneficial it is to hear from a wider range of people, particularly those who are directly impacted by an issue. When we do that, we make sure that we understand and look at things in the round.

I really value the contributions that are made to scrutiny by everyone who gives evidence and assists with committee work—I am not criticising anyone here—but there is undoubtedly sometimes a tension when organisations or individuals who give evidence are in campaign mode and are for or against the particular law that is being looked at, or are involved in delivering the changes that the law will bring about and do not wish to seem unhelpful or resistant to the overarching policy aim. I think that widening our scrutiny can only help us to obtain a collective understanding of issues and to find a way through them.

We can all be inclined to be a bit binary and simple in thinking that people are either for us or against us, that there are goodies and baddies and that we must pick our team, but we all know that the world is not like that, and the complex issues that we often seek to address are not best solved through that approach. Properly engaging with the communities that we serve reminds us of their diversity and richness, not just of characteristics but of opinion, and that will help us to find a way through any challenges that we face.

Like Edward Mountain, I like the idea of letting people register interest in particular topics. I think that that is a helpful idea, because most folk do not have time to respond to individual consultations.

The Presiding Officer is telling me to close. I had a lot more to say. It has been a really interesting debate, and the committee’s report is an excellent piece of work. I thank everyone who contributed, particularly the citizens panel.


Foysol Choudhury (Lothian) (Lab)

I am happy to be here to talk about public participation and engagement and the Citizen Participation and Public Petitions Committee’s inquiry and report on public participation.

I am currently a member of the Citizen Participation and Public Petitions Committee. Sadly, like my colleague Maurice Golden, I missed the world tour. I am counting on our convener to organise another world tour, which I hope will be soon. Although I was not on the committee when the inquiry began, I have since worked on the committee through some of the report stages.

As many of my colleagues have said, public participation and engagement opportunities must be easily accessible to the public. One theme of the recommendations that I would like to talk about today is that of growing community engagement with the work of the Scottish Parliament. I have worked in third sector and charity organisations all my life. Through that, I have engaged with many different communities and organisations, and I have been saddened by what I have heard in the past about certain communities’ engagement with the Parliament and with democracy in general. I heard from some people originating from more disadvantaged backgrounds that they believed that politics and participation were not meant for them. I heard from some young people that they believed that their opinion or participation was not wanted. As the inquiry report recommends, such barriers must be removed to encourage everyone to participate in democracy and to engage with the parliamentary process.

Many of the organisations that I have been involved with are run by or have been created by black and ethnic minority communities. Over the years, I have been disheartened to hear that many people from those communities never thought to engage with public participation in the Parliament; moreover, they did not even know that it was an option for them to do so.

Many others felt that the public participation process was not meant for them and, even if it was, did not know how to engage with it. That was partly due to representation, which is a theme that is highlighted in the inquiry report. As MSPs, we must ensure that citizens are able to see themselves reflected in the Parliament. Many people also mentioned that they did not feel as though they understood politics or the parliamentary process enough to fully engage with it.

It is clear that our current methods of engagement with the public do not go far enough, especially when it comes to engaging with harder-to-reach communities. The citizens panel’s findings and recommendations identified barriers associated with low levels of education, employment status, a lack of representation in Parliament and lack of trust in politicians and politics in general. It identified the areas of community engagement where we are still lacking and the barriers that still exist to prevent people in Scotland accessing, and feeling comfortable in accessing, democracy. Those include the expense of travel to Parliament, the need to take time off work if they work from 9 to 5, childcare costs and difficulties with accessibility requirements.

The proposed citizens panel will help to close the gaps in Parliament’s engagement. We must ensure that people believe that they have a role to play in Parliament, that their voices are heard and that they understand the means by which they can engage and participate. The proposed mini citizens assemblies will be instrumental in that.

In our role as MSPs, we can also work to overcome the barriers faced by many members of the public. We should ensure that we are offering public participation opportunities for our constituents outside normal business hours, so that those with 9-to-5 jobs or childcare issues have flexible opportunities for engagement. We could provide participation opportunities in different locations so that all accessibility requirements can be met. That is how we can work, alongside the recommendations of the inquiry, to improve community engagement with the Parliament.


Kaukab Stewart (Glasgow Kelvin) (SNP)

I have been absolutely fascinated by the debate so far. Anything that considers increased participation by citizens from across the country is of great interest to me. I have felt a little fear of missing out on the world tours and day trips, but I have taken up Maurice Golden’s challenge not to have a prepared speech but to share my reflections and thoughts, as well as some experiences from another committee.

I have listened to many people talking about the pros and cons of citizen participation and about how representative certain bodies are, and I have concluded that the more varied the methods that we use and the longer we do that for, the better we can capture everyone’s voices along the way and take them with us.

That requires bravery from Parliament, which has its structures. It has taken me two and a half years to get used to how we do things here and we can get attached to that. Those structures are comfortable, but they may not be working for the public, whom we are here to serve. When I was first here and went to events, one thing that struck me was that people would stand up and say to the public, “Welcome to your Parliament.” That phrase has stayed with me throughout my time here, so I support and welcome the committee’s work.

On the Equalities, Civil Rights and Civil Justice Committee, we have been doing our pre-budget scrutiny in a slightly different way. We have worked carefully with the Parliament’s participation and communities team, who have worked very hard behind the scenes with some of our most vulnerable citizens, from across a geographical spread. People often do not have confidence, because they are in their communities and are battered down by the daily grind, but they have opinions about their housing, about how money is being spent by their local authorities and about whether their bins are being collected. They get frustrated and often do not have the skills or time to be able to feed that back to us so that we can make better decisions.

During our pre-budget scrutiny, we allowed time for the team to work with those citizens to build their confidence and to explain a little about how to make a valuable contribution, because they wanted to do that.

The environment is intimidating as well, so there has been some debate about whether people should come in or whether we should go out. Again, I advocate a mixture of the two, which will enable us to get a good-quality sample.

When the citizens came in, we also did some cross-portfolio work. My colleague Collette Stevenson, who is convener of the Social Justice and Social Security Committee, came and joined that. The public who came along—the citizens—thought that it was great, because they do not think in silos when they are thinking about policy. We have portfolios and everyone has their responsibilities, but the average person out there does not care whose responsibility something is. People are holistic human beings and many portfolio areas have an impact on their life. They should be able to question things from where they are, so we perhaps need to think about more cross-portfolio working and doing scrutiny together across committees to get a true handle on things.

From that, the citizens devised their own questions that they wanted us to ask the minister. The minister then came to the committee and we asked verbatim the questions that the citizens had proposed. They were sitting in the public gallery in the committee room, so they were right there to hear the minister’s responses to their questions.

The feedback from that was amazing. I was surprised by some of it. One person reflected that they did not understand quite a lot of the answers because politicians often speak using acronyms. I was careful earlier to say “participation and communities team” rather than “PACT”. To be fair, using acronyms is like a code, isn’t it? It is exclusive. Maybe we, as politicians, should be more mindful of the need for clarity when we speak. Anyway, that person is now going to use the public petitions process to put a petition to the Parliament and get us to look at the issue, which is fantastic.

In summary, we on the Equalities, Human Rights and Civil Justice Committee are leading the way. There are always early adopters of things, and I have shared a bit of our experience with members this afternoon. The citizens felt really empowered and their feedback was excellent. They thought that the Parliament as a whole had taken care of them and listened to them, and they felt very connected. They had not realised that they could see us, speak to us and hear their questions being put directly to the minister and answered.

We can all take heart that, although there is more work to be done, an amazing amount of good practice is going on. With the Citizen Participation and Public Petitions Committee’s report, there is the good will to carry that even further.


Michelle Thomson (Falkirk East) (SNP)

As members will know, I often refer to academic sources when researching for speeches. Thanks to Carnegie Europe, I now know the following:

“the principles of deliberation and sortition are not new. Rooted in ancient Athenian democracy, they were used throughout various points of history until around two to three centuries ago. Evoked by the Greek statesman Pericles in 431 BCE, the ideas”


“that ‘ordinary citizens, though occupied with the pursuits of industry, are still fair judges of public matters’ and that instead of being a ‘stumbling block in the way of action ... [discussion] is an indispensable preliminary to any wise action at all’”.

So this is not a new idea.

I read the Citizen Participation and Public Petitions Committee’s report with great interest and, like others, I extend my congratulations to the authors, the participants, the participation and communities team, the advisers and the committee itself.

Since becoming an MSP, I have said that we need to make this place sing with a thousand different voices, both literally and metaphorically. As an aside, I note that the starting up of the Scottish Parliament choir, which will begin next Wednesday, 1 November at 1 pm in committee room 2—don’t miss it—will go some way towards that. Seriously, however, the extension to the involvement of the people who really count—our citizens—is extremely important. Let us hear them all sing.

I will comment on a few points that struck me. First, I propose to consider further the barriers to participative and deliberative democracy, rather than just the report’s recommendations and various themes. Three barriers resonated with me in particular: fear, representation and trust.

I believe that all of us here consistently underestimate people’s fear of speaking up in public. Despite our claiming, perhaps in a self-congratulatory way, that we are all Jock Tamson’s bairns, the fact is that, from the outside looking in, we are not. The way that we speak and our strange mannerisms and conventions appear inaccessible to many. Many of us here are well educated, but how often do we stop to consciously consider how our accents sound to ordinary Scots? I remember, just recently, being reminded by Darren McGarvey about his great work in the series “Class Wars” to drive our understanding of the impact of a working-class Glasgow accent.

Only the other day, I spoke to my colleague Emma Harper about what is, frankly, the bullying that she receives via social media for her sterling efforts to promote our Scots language. For women, who have been taught subliminally to take their place, often behind the men and after they have spoken, that must represent a particular challenge. I note that, even in this debate, only 16 per cent of the attendees are women.

The next barrier that struck me was representation. There is considerable complexity in getting together a group—any group—that can genuinely be a representative sample of our multicultural, multifaceted, urban and rural, Highland and lowland Scotland.

However, perhaps the most important barrier is that of trust, which is imperative if our politicians and our Parliament are to make people’s voices heard, yet it is lacking at the present time. There are 21 uses—

Ruth Maguire

Michelle Thomson mentioned trust, which lets me wedge in the bit of my speech that I did not get to. Could not the whole process build trust in our Parliament and in our institutions if we get it right and, as Jackson Carlaw said, if we listen properly and reflect not what people want us to do but the reasons why we are not doing that?

Michelle Thomson

That is an excellent point, with which I whole-heartedly agree.

I was about to mention that there are 21 uses of the term “trust” in the report, and rightly so. We must acknowledge how many people have lost trust in politicians in the political process and, by extension, their legislatures. Sometimes I despair as we go along in the hurly-burly of our politics, in which people challenge each other without thinking what that says to people outside about trust in their legislature. We need to be very careful about that. We need to maintain such trust, for it underpins and is the guardian of democracy.

I would add one group to that list, and that is journalists. The report notes that getting them more engaged would help to spread knowledge. Building the knowledge of journalists is valuable. I still encounter multiple instances where they either do not appear to, or perhaps choose not to, understand, for example, governance, or the separation of the Government and the judiciary—that appears to be an issue with MSPs, too—or concepts such as the fiscal framework.

On another note, I mentioned earlier that I consider the report to be a good one. Costs have been carefully considered, which is vital, as we are living in very constrained times. I notice with favour the consideration of governance and accountability, and that model must be maintained. I completely agree with other members’ comments about the proliferation of roles such as those of commissioners.

Moving on, the report notes that legislation will require Government and cross-party commitment. A common framework to measure impact was suggested. That must evolve over time, based on a thorough and committed feedback loop. On Martin Whitfield’s comment in which he expressed disappointment at the proposed timescales, I take a different view. It is clear to me that the proposal must proceed with cross-party buy-in and the folding in of best practice and learning as we go along.

I am moving to a close, Presiding Officer—I have just a couple more comments. I suspect that Jackson Carlaw’s legendary sense of humour contributed to the writing of the report, which notes that

“there can be a tendency for attitudes within the ‘Holyrood bubble’ to become out of step with the views of ordinary people across the country.”

I think that that will win understatement of the year. There is also consideration of a travelling exhibition—hopefully, it will not be our oddest MSPs on display.

Seriously, though, I will conclude there. Both participative and deliberative democracy are vital to enhancing scrutiny, and they enshrine the vital link between citizens, our legislature and democracy. On that note, I say that I embrace the principle whole-heartedly.


Paul O’Kane (West Scotland) (Lab)

I am pleased to wind up the debate on behalf of Scottish Labour. We started with a characteristically funny and wide-ranging speech from Jackson Carlaw as convener of the Citizen Participation and Public Petitions Committee. He commented that this debate might be seen as taking place in the graveyard shift, but I do not think that that is what we saw this afternoon. He spoke about wanting to inject suitable jollity into proceedings in this place, and I think that, this afternoon, we have had a bit of that—we have had a bit of serious debate, but we have also had some levity, which I think is important when we are considering these matters.

Seriously, though, I pay tribute to Jackson Carlaw and the committee for their work on this inquiry and, indeed, on the report, which is important for us all and which people across the chamber are keen to engage with more fully. Also, of course, we should thank all the committee clerks, the staff and the people who were involved in the public participation elements of the work, who I know are in the gallery today.

We on this side of the chamber welcome the recommendations that seek to improve the scrutiny of Parliament and Government and public engagement and trust in parliamentary processes. We welcome the report’s acknowledgement of the fact that Parliament’s current methods of engagement with the wider public do not always go far enough, especially when it comes to engaging with harder-to-reach people in our communities. More should be done to engage with and listen to citizens from across Scotland and to ensure that we do not put off that work and that we seek to do as much as we can in the remaining years of this session, and then look to what we can do in future sessions to move that work forward fully.

I was taken by many of the international examples that were cited in the committee’s work. I declare an interest, in that I am a dual citizen, as I also hold Irish citizenship, although I do not live on the island of Ireland, so I do not expect to be asked to join a citizens panel there any time soon. In any case, as I think Maurice Golden said, politicians are the people who should absolutely be furthest away from that sort of work—there is truth in that.

The work that has been done in Ireland is particularly interesting, particularly on issues that have been difficult in the public discourse. Since about 2010, the way in which to proceed with regard to issues that have led to wide social or constitutional change in Ireland has been widely debated and decided on by citizens assemblies. Issues such as abortion, equal marriage, changes to the voting age or reform of Dáil Éireann, the Irish Parliament, have been debated and discussed through those mechanisms, resulting in proposals being brought to the Oireachtas.

Jackson Carlaw

One senior Irish politician paid a backhanded compliment to the principle of citizens panels. He said to me, “Jackson, what this is, is a method for gutless politicians to be excused the difficult decisions and to palm them off to somebody else.” However, on some of the big social change issues, that is, as I say, a backhanded compliment, because it means that the change is underpinned by citizen involvement, which then gives politicians the confidence to move forward.

Paul O’Kane

The mechanism could certainly be viewed as an easy way out for all of us sitting in the chamber grappling with some such issues. However, it is right that we should underpin decisions about such issues not just with social attitude surveys and polling but with a structure that shows that the Parliament has taken time to engage and to listen and to find out what people think.

Ruth Maguire’s comments chimed with my thoughts about some of the contentious issues that we have debated in this place, in relation to which the representation of competing interests by third sector organisations, lobbyists and various groups in society has resulted in people saying, for example, “We are right; you are wrong—there is no middle ground or room for concession”, when, if we had had a more participatory structure, we could have considered the issues in more detail.

George Adam

I agree with much of what Paul O’Kane has been saying. However, from my experience as the minister looking at the first two citizens assemblies in the Scottish Parliament, the question that we ask is equally important if there is not to be any confusion among the public about how they deliberate and come back on that. Does Paul O’Kane agree that the questions that we ask give the value that the public will see in our being able to deliver something?

Paul O’Kane

I certainly do not think that we should rely on other people. It is about us saying as a Parliament, “This is the direction. This is the vision.” It is also for the Government to propose its direction and vision, which should be scrutinised and underpinned, as I said in response to Jackson Carlaw’s question, so that we are not solely led or instructed by groups, but go hand in hand so that there is scrutiny of what is already taking place in the chamber.

A lot of recommendations that have much merit have been discussed. There have been interesting exchanges about how we can bring people closer to the Parliament, particularly people from rural communities, as Edward Mountain mentioned, young people, and people from ethnic minority backgrounds, as Foysol Choudhury, Kaukab Stewart and others mentioned. We have looked at how we can ensure that things do not become tokenistic. John Mason made some contributions in that regard. Questions should be meaningful. Participation is not just about saying that we are going to ask questions on people’s behalf. People should help us to shape our understanding of questions and the sorts of responses that we can have.

There have been interesting contributions on the role of the Presiding Officer and the absence of the Presiding Officer in the judgment of the quality of questions and answers. As someone who often falls foul of verbose and long questions, I might avoid any comment on the quality of my contributions being judged. However, there is merit in having a fuller discussion and debate about that issue. I was glad to hear Martin Whitfield speak in his contribution about how his committee might look at that.

Having just made a comment about time, I will wind up.

In his poem for the opening of the Parliament building, entitled “Open the Doors!”, Edwin Morgan said:

“We give you our consent to govern, don’t pocket it and ride away.”

That gets to the essence of what we are seeking to do through the report and the work. It may take time to get there, but today’s debate and the report and the recommendations are an important first step, and we should all work together to move those recommendations forward.


Alexander Stewart (Mid Scotland and Fife) (Con)

I am delighted to wind up for my party in this excellent debate. There has been really good interaction across the chamber, which is very welcome.

The public participation inquiry was one of the key pieces of work that I was able to contribute to in my time as a member of the Citizen Participation and Public Petitions Committee, and I got the opportunity to go on the world tour.

The Parliament has long strived to be a place that is welcoming and open to public participation. As such, it is to be welcomed that “Citizen Participation” was added to the committee’s remit at the beginning of the current parliamentary session.

The public participation inquiry has followed a number of different avenues since its launch early last year. We have heard about some of the engagement work in this debate. However, the most important aspect of the inquiry has been the citizens panel on participation. I was pleased that, through the panel, the committee was able to deliver not only some hugely positive, productive and helpful recommendations but an experience that deeply engaged those who were involved in the process. All those who took part in the panel’s work had positive things to say about the experience. The panel member Ronnie Paterson said:

“None of us was well versed in politics or academia, but we came up with the recommendations 100 per cent as a group ... The fact that we came up with those recommendations together shows the power of deliberative democracy.”—[Official Report, Citizen Participation and Public Petitions Committee, 14 December 2022; c 4.]

That is excellent feedback from a group of individuals who were brought together to represent us and to have their views and opinions expressed. They got the opportunity to do that. That showed the success that we had.

The panel was a success, and the committee carried out further engagement to see what we could add to the report. Earlier this year, as many members have indicated, a number of us had the opportunity to go to Dublin and Paris and to see, experience and hear about first hand how people had gone about things. It was two years ago this month that Paris city council voted to establish its own citizens assembly, which was formed by drawing on experiences of international practices. That assembly continues to find its feet and is delivering its first recommendations.

I am grateful to the participants and elected officials who provided my colleagues and me with very helpful insights as we went to those locations in other parts of Europe. I thank the committee clerks, the Scottish Parliament information centre and everyone who supported us to ensure that that happened, because they had to do a huge amount of work to ensure that, in the timescale that we had, we got information that was beneficial to us all.

This afternoon, we have heard some excellent contributions, which have shown the calibre of debates that we can have in the chamber on a topic such as this one, when members have the opportunity to express their views, interact and become involved in the debate.

My fellow member and convener of the committee, Jackson Carlaw, spoke about the reputation of this Parliament; the perceptions that we had about where it should go; the feedback on the recommendations; and the success of the whole process. There is no doubt that the process has been successful.

The question whether we will enhance or undermine that reputation was discussed, and has come out in the recommendations. The public understand that, but they still have a problem when they are talking about what is the Parliament and what is the Government. They get confused.


Excuse me, sorry—can we have Kaukab Stewart’s microphone on, please?

Kaukab Stewart

Thank you. I understand what my colleague is saying, but I ask him to rephrase it slightly. It is not the public that has the problem—it may be more incumbent on us to provide that education and to be more resourceful and creative in the way that we reach out.

Alexander Stewart

Yes—there is a lesson for us all as to how we in Parliament are perceived, and how we represent ourselves, and also how the public perceive us as representatives of them. There is currently an imbalance there, which needs to be talked about.

There is a lot of feedback as to where we are. The pilots that will be taken forward will give us an opportunity once again to evolve the model and work together to ensure that we can help one another.

The minister talked about the real challenges that were mentioned in the report, which we have to deal with as we move forward, and I think that that is the case. The vision for this Parliament is that we want it to be engaging and get the right balance, because that balance is important.

Maurice Golden spoke about the themes of the report, and talked about questions and answers, and how that element is managed and perceived in the chamber and in the community.

I do not have time to go through everybody, but I highlight the excellent contributions from Martin Whitfield, Ruth Maguire, Edward Mountain, Michelle Thomson and Kaukab Stewart. They all spoke with passion about what they see in the Parliament and how they want it to be represented.

A healthy level of public participation should be a key ingredient in the way that we deal with democracy in our systems. Through the public participation inquiry, we have clearly identified a number of ways that we wish to improve the process of participation in Scotland. It has contributed positively to where we are going.

In conclusion, much work has been done in the inquiry so far, and I look forward to seeing the progress that will be made in the coming years. The report talks about the timescales for 2023-24, with a report to be published in 2025. That report will set out the way in which democracy might become institutionalised in our whole Parliament and how we can work across the chamber to address the challenges.

I look forward to seeing some of the ideas being debated today being put in place at the start of the next parliamentary session. I also look forward to seeing this Parliament take another step towards becoming the inclusive, dynamic and engaging institution that it wants to be and should be.


George Adam

I have enjoyed this open and thoughtful debate—if only we could do it more often. [Laughter.] That is just a joke, but is it? Is it? We have all sat here and talked about the challenges and difficulties, and the ways in which we can go forward, and we have done so in a mature manner. We should perhaps all take that lesson from this debate when we move on to debate other things in the future.

I thank all who have engaged with the debate. One of its common threads has been not just engagement but who we engage with. Who is involved, and the type of participation that will work for them, really matter. We must be thoughtful about that.

One form of engagement by the Scottish Government, which I forgot to mention at the beginning of the debate is the travelling Cabinet, which has started up again. Unlike Mr Carlaw and his committee, who went to Paris and Dublin, we went to Inveraray. It was lovely. We spoke and engaged with the people of Inveraray and the rest of Argyll about the specific issues that they had. That is an important thing for the Government to do, and it was good for me, as Minister for Parliamentary Business, to be able to chair that, because, first, I enjoy that kind of engagement with the public, and, secondly, it is good that we sometimes feel uncomfortable. It is good that Governments get the opportunity for the public to have their say, and that specific community got its opportunity.

Will the minister confirm the rumour that the next visit will be to Ferguslie Park?

George Adam

No matter how many times the minister has brought that up, I have been told that we have been in Renfrewshire once before, so that is a difficulty. I will take from the debate that Ms Thomson encourages that as a way forward. There have been 51 travelling Cabinets since 2008, and they are a mechanism for the public to hear directly from the Government.

A participatory approach is a golden thread throughout all our work. That is demonstrated through our Verity house agreement with local government, our social justice work to empower communities and the review of local governance through our “Democracy Matters” conversations. It is also clear in our wider work to tackle some of our deepest challenges, such as poverty, inequality, the climate emergency and reforms to health and social care.

On 4 October, I updated the Citizen Participation and Public Petitions Committee, at its pre-budget scrutiny session, that the Scottish Government is looking to resource a team that will have the capacity and the authority to develop, maintain and co-ordinate a consistent approach to public participation across the Scottish Government. Work on that continues, and we recognise that it is not something that one organisation can deliver alone. That has come up in the debate today, because the Parliament also has a role. I am pleased to say that that was acknowledged in the committee’s report.

Quite a selection of individuals were involved in today’s debate. Maurice Golden mentioned parliamentary questions—I was going to say “PQs”, but we have already been told that we use acronyms far too often in this place, which is another thing that makes it quite difficult for others to engage. I like to think that I give short, snappy and concise answers to questions and that I engage with anyone who has asked a question. It is important that we take that on board. I have asked colleagues to explain their questions, so that we do not have the misunderstandings that can often happen.

Does that not reflect what Ruth Maguire said, which was that there is a personal responsibility, almost irrespective of what hat a member is wearing, to respect the Parliament and act appropriately?

Yes. However, part of my reasoning is that I do not want to be gibbering on for 10 minutes about something that has nothing to do with what the member asked.

Maurice Golden

I will reflect on how members might gain a better answer. For example, earlier this week, I spoke to Angela Constance to give her advance warning of what I was going to discuss, and the answer that I received was far fuller and was not designed to make a political point. Clearly, there is a place for that, but there are also ways in which members can improve their questioning.

George Adam

That is a very valid point. We have to engage with each other so that not only do we get the value out of the question session but the public understand what is going on and get value from it. That is a perfect example of us all taking responsibility in how we do business in the Parliament.

Martin Whitfield spoke about the examples in the report and how they should be embedded in the Parliament. That is important; they should be an important part of the Parliament's processes.

Sometimes, some of us—not all—get involved in a rammy in this place over an issue, but the public just want people in this place to do our jobs. The public sometimes do not want to see us getting involved in an absolute rammy on various issues. When we are dealing with highly political and difficult debates, we possibly need to look at ourselves in the mirror and ask what anybody who is not in this bubble sees when we behave in that way. I try not to get dragged into that, but sometimes we cannot help ourselves. That is an important thing to look at.

John Mason mentioned how we balance parliamentary democracy with direct involvement for the public. That is an interesting point, because that is what this is all about. If the public are to engage in parliamentary democracy and vote, they need to see the value and to believe that what they talk about is being discussed in the chamber. That is exactly what we are looking to address through the report.

John Mason mentioned the Presiding Officer working out the genuineness of parliamentary questions. I do not know how the Presiding Officer would define that, but it might prove difficult.

Edward Mountain spoke about the importance of us delivering on the engagement, and he was 100 per cent correct. When I intervened on Mr O’Kane, I was saying that the questions that we ask the groups to work on are equally important. If we ask for an all-encompassing long debate, we will get a detailed and good report, but it will be difficult for any of us to deliver on what is said. In the Irish scenario, the citizens assembly was asked direct questions about certain social issues, which got the answers from the public there.

I will close, as I see the Presiding Officer motioning to me that I have run out of time. In my opening speech, I said that I was looking forward to listening to colleagues and to seeing the exciting new models for engagement and for the people we serve. That can change our Parliament for the better, because the way of working can create a bond with the public and place importance on this place. I look forward to working with everyone in the chamber to deliver that brave new future for our democracy.

I call David Torrance to wind up on behalf of the Citizen Participation and Public Petitions Committee.


David Torrance (Kirkcaldy) (SNP)

I, too, welcome members of the citizens panel to the gallery. I thank the committee’s staff for doing the hard job of keeping us on time and in the right place on our world tour.

The debate has been interesting, and it has been encouraging to hear colleagues across the chamber emphasise the importance of making the Parliament’s proceedings accessible to people from all walks of life and encouraging people to engage in our work. When he opened the debate on the committee’s behalf, the convener said that he had initially approached the topic with a degree of scepticism but had ended up as a cautious enthusiast. I think that all of us on the committee went on a similar journey.

For me, two things stand out. One was watching the progress that members of our citizens panel made from first arriving at the Parliament, looking a little overawed and uncertain about what they had let themselves in for, to having confidence and energy by the end of the process.

The citizens panel participants worked together for more than 32 hours over two weekends and three remote online sessions in October and November last year. I had the pleasure of participating in one of the online sessions, which was a day that I remember well. At the outset, we could tell that a number of people were initially nervous but, as the session progressed, I saw people growing in confidence, enjoying engaging with the process and collaborating well as a group.

We then invited a number of panel members to a committee meeting in December last year to outline their recommendations to us, and it was obvious how positive the experience had been for them. It was extremely encouraging to hear their feedback and positive responses to being involved and to hear more about what each of them took away from the experience. Comments included:

“I have always been a follower of politics, but I did not even know the difference between Parliament and Government when I started the process—I did not understand the separation in the structure.”

Another person said that some of the information that was presented to the panel

“confirmed things that I thought I knew, and other information completely dispelled illusions that I had.”—[Official Report, Citizen Participation and Public Petitions Committee, 14 December 2022; c 5.]

The second thing that shifted my view was visiting Paris and Dublin to see how deliberative democracy has worked and is working in those places. Neither of their systems—or the one in Brussels, which we also learned about—is perfect, but it was clear from speaking to the participants, politicians and officials who are involved that deliberative democracy is a valued part of how they do politics. I am confident that we can find a way to get such benefits here in the Scottish Parliament.

Jackson Carlaw, Paul O’Kane and Alexander Stewart have all spoken of the Irish citizens assembly. I believe that, in that Ireland model, we have a strong example of the benefits of a well-structured citizens assembly. The Irish citizens assembly was established in 2016, following the model of its predecessor, the Convention on the Constitution, which ran from 2012 to 2014 and whose recommendations had led to the 2015 marriage equality referendum.

For many years, and despite increasing pressure for change, politicians of all colours had been reluctant to engage directly in the issue of the eighth amendment and place it firmly on the political and legislative agenda. However, it took the input of only 99 ordinary citizens—randomly selected, so as to be broadly electorally representative of Irish society in terms of age, gender and social class—to help to break years of political deadlock and to reach a consensus on that highly polarising issue. The decision to call a referendum was based on that panel’s recommendations. That is a clear example of how bottom-up citizen input can complement and enhance representation in democracy and act as an impetus for constitutional reform.

We all know the result of that historic referendum, which was held in 2018, but many people probably do not know that the outcome of the referendum virtually mirrored the assembly’s vote, with results of 66 per cent and 64 per cent.

Willie Coffey

There has been quite a bit of discussion about the online element and the part that digital technology can play. Like me, the member will recall that it is only a few years since the Parliament embraced—at long last—the use of digital technology to aid participation, including for members to vote in our proceedings. It was always possible to do that, but it was embraced only because Covid made it a necessity.

Does the deputy convener see further opportunities for us to exploit digital technology to aid that process? Does the committee have a view on whether we should retain the current advantages that we have from using digital technology?

David Torrance

I agree with Willie Coffey. The committee does have views on that and, if he waits, there will be recommendations about that later in my speech.

We are fortunate in the in-house experience, knowledge and support that officials across the Parliament have provided, and I thank all those who have helped us during the inquiry.

To turn to some of the comments that were made during the debate about the confusing terminology, citizens panels, citizens juries and deliberative democracy are key terms that are defined in page 4 of our report. Parliament should know that, based on our citizens panel’s recommendation, we recommend the use of the term “people’s panel”.

As well as recommending greater use of people’s panels, our report considers many other aspects of participation. Early on in the inquiry, we heard some striking evidence about the many barriers to engagement, and that was amplified by the views of our citizens panel.

In response to Ruth Maguire’s earlier question and Willie Coffey’s intervention, I note that the panel made a number of thoughtful recommendations about how Parliament could do more to seek out a range of voices and make it easier for people to engage—for example, by better promoting translation services and the use of easy-read formats, and by creating a new web page where people can register their details, so that Parliament can alert them each time there is a new opportunity to express their views.

I echo comments that my colleague, John Mason, made about the fact that getting out and about around the country and engaging with the general public, where they live and work, is of great benefit and should absolutely be encouraged, because accessibility and opportunity are key to participation.

Our report responds in detail to all the recommendations that the panel made, and it was encouraging to find that, in many respects, the panel was pushing at an open door.

As the minister mentioned earlier, the Parliament already has a public engagement strategy, and a lot of innovative work is already under way. We hope that the report and the contribution that the citizens panel has made will serve to push that work forward and give it a higher profile.

The final section of the report sits under the theme “Strengthening trust in the Parliament”, and that was more challenging for the committee. As Maurice Golden mentioned, and as other members raised in the debate today, we heard early on in the inquiry that there is a widespread lack of trust in politicians and the political process, which many of us encounter daily in our constituencies and in the media. Therefore, it was not a surprise that three recommendations under that heading also came out clearly from the citizens panel.

One of those recommendations was to give members of the public an opportunity to put their questions directly to Government ministers. As a committee, we were unable to support the idea of delivering that through a new type of chamber proceedings, for a number of reasons that are set out in our report. However, we agree that the underlying idea might be worth exploring further if there is cross-party support for doing so. That might be something that the Parliamentary Bureau could look at.

The two other panel recommendations on the theme of strengthening trust were to give the Presiding Officer more powers to ensure that oral questions in the chamber are properly answered, and to set up a people’s panel to discuss the MSPs’ code of conduct. In each case, we had mixed feelings—we understand why public trust is damaged by the way in which we sometimes conduct ourselves in the chamber, and we therefore respect what has motivated those recommendations; however, we also see real difficulties in implementation. For that reason, we have proposed that the Standards, Procedures and Public Appointments Committee explore those issues further.

If you could conclude, please.

David Torrance

That is not meant to sound as though we are just passing the buck; it is more a recognition that matters relating to members’ conduct and to chamber procedure fall squarely within that committee’s remit rather than ours. We look forward to hearing the outcome of the SPPA Committee’s consideration of those issues in due course.

I will close this afternoon’s debate by thanking members for their thoughtful contributions. I hope that the debate has gone some way to convincing other members to support the direction of travel that is set out in our report.

The experience of other countries has shown us that, if a Government is receptive, a citizens panel can deliver dramatic policy recommendations on difficult and emotive issues through people-led discussion, with complete transparency and fairness. It is now up to us to reflect on the role that they can play in our own democracy, and I encourage all members to support the convener’s motion.

Thank you. That concludes the debate on embedding public participation in the work of the Parliament.