Scotland's citizens' assembly to cost taxpayers £1.4 million

Constitutional relations secretary Michael Russell
Constitutional relations secretary Michael Russell
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A citizens' assembly to debate Scotland's future will cost taxpayers almost £1.4 million, the Scottish Government has revealed.

Constitutional relations secretary Mike Russell disclosed the financial cost of holding a citizens' assembly in response to a written question from fellow SNP MSP Angela Constance.

First Minister Nicola Sturgeon with Mike Russell (foreground)

First Minister Nicola Sturgeon with Mike Russell (foreground)

It plans to gather about 120 "broadly representative" people from across Scotland to discuss issues such as Brexit and independence.

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First meeting in Edinburgh this weekend

Mr Russell confirmed the Scottish Government would be giving £1.37m to fund the six meetings, the first of which will take place in Edinburgh this weekend.

The money, Mr Russell explained, will be spent giving £200 "gifts of thanks to members" and providing expenses to support people attending the discussions.

Participants, selected in a similar manner to jury members, will also receive up to £1,200 to attend six residential weekend assemblies that are due to be held from Saturday until April 2020.

In his answer, Mr Russell wrote: "This funding will meet the costs arising from the six meetings of the assembly, including the payment of gifts of thanks to members, and providing expenses to support members' attendance at assembly meetings and help where required with childcare or with their caring responsibilities, to ensure that everyone chosen to participate is able to participate in the assembly regardless of their circumstances."

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Russell defends the cost

Mr Russell added the £1.37m will also fund a public awareness campaign to explain the citizens' assembly and what is being discussed, as well as administrative costs.

Defending the cost, he said: "Apart from setup and running costs, most of this funding relates to providing the financial support necessary to allow members from a cross-section of society to participate, including providing support for childcare and caring responsibilities.

"The total budget is almost identical to the cost of the Irish citizens' assembly, which proved to be a model for many others worldwide.

"Over the coming months, I look forward to the citizens' assembly of Scotland making a lasting impact on our national life."

A 'talking shop for independence'

The cost of the project - first announced by Nicola Sturgeon in April - has been criticised by Scottish Conservatives chief whip Maurice Golden.

He said: "The suspicion among the public is that the citizens' assembly will be nothing but an SNP talking shop for independence.

"The Nationalists have done little to dispel that fear and have hardly been forthcoming about the cost to the taxpayer.

"Given the SNP Government never stops pleading poverty, it's hard to justify this level of spend on such an initiative."

A 'genuine attempt' at conversation

At a public meeting to discuss plans for the citizens' assembly in July, former Labour MEP David Martin, who will co-chair the project, pledged "this is a genuine attempt to have a conversation across the whole of Scottish public opinion and that it will be transparent".

In an attempt to dispel fears the exercise is to increase support for Scottish independence, Mr Martin said he had "unequivocal assurances" from Mr Russell that there will be no political interference in the process as the key issues facing Scotland are explored by participants.

Modelled on the citizens' assemblies held in Ireland ahead of votes on same-sex marriage and abortion, the final report on Scotland's future will be debated at Holyrood, with the Scottish Government obliged to respond and set out any proposed actions within 90 days.