It is with pleasure that I open this debate on behalf of the committee, which will allow us to highlight some of the important petitions that we have discussed, as well as other aspects of our work this session.
Four key principles—those of sharing power, accountability, access and participation, and equal opportunities—were adopted by the Parliament as the basis for conducting business. It has been important to develop a culture of genuine participation. When the Parliament was re-established in 1999 there was a recognition that we had to put in place an institution that would operate in a new way and which would reflect the hopes, aspirations and expectations of all the people of Scotland. We needed to be innovative and imaginative to ensure that we did not replicate, for example, Westminster conventions and procedures.
We had a blank sheet of paper to create a new Parliament, and I think that we took the correct step in identifying that, for a petitions process to be legitimate and to have a purpose, it must have a focal point; otherwise we would be wasting the time, and raising the expectations, of petitioners. That resulted in the establishment of the Public Petitions Committee. Since 1999, nearly 1,400 people have brought petitions to their Parliament for consideration.
The committee takes responsibility for the petition’s initial consideration, sometimes through hearing evidence from the petitioner, and it seek comments from various appropriate bodies. I believe that we have been successful in enhancing participation and in upholding the founding principles of the Parliament. Petitioning provides all citizens with an open and accessible route into the policy scrutiny and development arena. We emphasise the “public” in public petitions, as the process is about sharing power between the executive, the legislature and the people.
The Public Petitions Committee is a consensual committee. We consider petitions in the best interests of the petitioner, and I believe that the committee has fulfilled that role very well. We involve petitioners at every stage, and the process is designed to work around them.
A key feature is the ability to gather information, and at this point I thank those who have worked so constructively with us. That of course includes petitioners themselves, but I also ask the Minister for Parliamentary Business to pass on our thanks to his ministerial colleagues, a good number of whom have appeared before us—indeed, some of them are due to appear at our final meetings. I also thank the ministerial officials who submitted responses to the very many requests that the committee made. In the run-up to dissolution we have squeezed response deadlines, and we appreciate the efforts that have been made in getting information to us before the dissolution date.
There has been a noticeable increase in the number of current petitions that have been considered at our fortnightly meetings. At one meeting we considered 65 petitions. That has primarily been down to our desire to bring petitions back with minimum delay. That meant that we considered some petitions three or four times over the course of a year, which I think brought certain benefits, in that it kept the matter fresh in our minds and, importantly, ensured that the petition moved through the process speedily and with shorter gaps between discussions.
Over session 3 we have had 357 new petitions and around 930 current petitions filling the agendas of our 73 meetings. That has resulted in more written material being gathered.
A unique feature of the Public Petitions Committee is that we do not set our agenda. We do not come up with a list of topics that we wish to investigate as part of a work programme. Our work is absolutely set by the petitioners, who bring forward the topics that are important to them and which might not ordinarily be considered in this place.
Petitioning allows people to identify when something is missing or not working in the way that it was meant to work. The petitioners are ideally placed to say, “I think this issue needs to be looked at.”
We have had petitions on an amazing array of topics. I doubt that any other committee or member since 1999 has raised the issue of witchcraft legislation—we had two petitions on the subject. We have had petitions on a range of subjects, including cancer drugs and school bus safety, on which we have been working constructively with ministers.
Through small steps we have actively encouraged more young people to get involved in the process, which is important. We have done that through meetings in secondary schools throughout Scotland and here in the chamber in October, as part of the Scottish Youth Parliament conference, when we considered three petitions, two from MSYPs and one from the Parliament’s community partnership project. Three excellent oral presentations were made and we hope that positive action will emerge. For example, as a result of the petition on political education in schools, a meeting will take place tomorrow between the young petitioner, Scotland’s Commissioner for Children and Young People and Scottish Government officials. A petition on banning Mosquito devices has attracted support from the police and local authorities.
We held seven external meetings: in Dumbarton, Easterhouse, Duns, Fraserburgh, Alness, Anstruther and Arran. Five of the meetings took place in the local secondary school. We met in locations in which no other parliamentary committee had met. At our meeting in Berwickshire high school—the first time that any committee of the Parliament had been to Berwickshire—we adopted a new style for gathering evidence, as part of our inquiry into the petitions process. Did people know about the process? If not, what did we need to do to increase awareness? How could we improve the process? Who better to ask than those who came along to the meeting? That is exactly what we did.
We realised that we get out of meetings only what we put in and that inviting people to sit and watch is not the most appealing way to encourage them to turn up. Therefore, at external meetings since the inquiry finished, we have adapted the approach in which we asked the audience to one in which the audience asks us—a sort of question time. We tried to do something different and the people who attended appeared to enjoy themselves. At the Easterhouse meeting, people were sitting on the floor because there were no seats left.
I do not want to create the impression that we have cracked the engagement and participation nut. We have not done so. However, we are trying different approaches, by having external meetings, producing publicity material about the petitions process in a range of formats and languages, and making using of social media, such as our blog and podcasting. There is more to do and I am sure that the session 4 committee will build on our work and introduce other creative and innovative ideas.
Our procedures provide an open and accessible process. We recognise the efforts of petitioners in mobilising support and publicity for their petitions, but petitions are given equal weight and consideration whether they have one signature or 1,000 signatures. Unlike other petitioning processes, we are concerned with issues, not numbers. It is all well and good to attract thousands of petitions each year, but if there is no real scrutiny or participation, what is the point? People must feel that the process and the committee have relevance and can make a genuine difference.
In closing, I reflect on the simple thank yous that we get from petitioners for the time, effort and consideration that we gave their petitions and for involving them in the process. That alone makes the work worth while for all members of the committee.
That the Parliament notes the continued evolution of its public petitions process; applauds the work of petitioners who have engaged with their parliament through this process by highlighting issues of concern and importance that led to examination by the Public Petitions Committee and key policy makers; believes the process to be a positive demonstration of the Parliament’s founding principles, and supports the work of the committee and petitioners in bringing further improvements to the policies that affect the day-to-day lives of the people of Scotland.
I thank the convener for her opening remarks and for the opportunity to contribute to this afternoon’s debate on the work of the Public Petitions Committee.
First, on behalf of the Government, I acknowledge the hard work and dedication of the convener and members of the committee, past and present, during the past four years. In particular, I want to thank Rhona Brankin and John Farquhar Munro for their service to the committee and the Parliament since they were elected in 1999. I have enjoyed being their colleague and I am glad to have had this opportunity to thank them, because it might be my last chance to do so. I also acknowledge the worthwhile contributions of all the people who have participated in the committee’s meetings in the Parliament and in various locations throughout Scotland.
As we all know, the Scottish Parliament’s public petitions process has been a success story, as Rhona Brankin said, and has gained an international reputation. The Scottish petitions model has attracted interest from other legislatures, such as the Parliament of the Czech Republic, the Queensland Parliament, the Parliament of South Australia and many others.
What makes the Public Petitions Committee successful and provides a model for other Parliaments to emulate? Ministerial portfolios and subject committees change but, as a mandatory committee, the Public Petitions Committee remains a constant. In the early days, although the committee was unique, its role was restricted to a postbox function of considering petitions and, in the main, passing them on to other committees to examine the detail and take forward. In this session, the committee has taken a step forward and has taken responsibility for more detailed consideration of petitions on a wide variety of important subjects. It has worked without regard to politics on a genuinely cross-party basis and, importantly, has taken a mature and responsible attitude to working with the Government. We are grateful for that. The committee has sought to achieve agreement where it can be reached and change where it can be delivered.
A key to the committee’s success is that public petitions provide direct access into the Parliament for members of the Scottish public who want to have their voice heard. The committee’s work is set not by the Government, legislation or budget scrutiny but by issues that members of the public bring to it.
A prime example from this session followed from the petition by Tina McGeever, whose husband lost his life to cancer. It called on the Parliament to consider the national health service provision of cancer treatment drugs to ensure equality across Scotland. The committee launched an inquiry and made recommendations. The collaborative working that followed culminated in a parliamentary statement from the Cabinet Secretary for Health and Wellbeing, which set out the package of measures that were being implemented to improve access to all newly licensed medicines in the NHS in Scotland. In addition, new guidance was produced for health boards on introducing newly licensed medicines. That guidance made it explicit what boards were expected to do and that they had to be open and transparent about their processes and decisions.
The work of the committee on that issue benefited patients and families throughout Scotland and delivered meaningful change. It is a good example of people, the Government and the committee working well together. However, it has been recognised that the petitions process cannot stand still, and it has moved on.
I was particularly pleased that the committee took up the suggestion that Louise Perry made at the meeting in Fraserburgh of running a young people’s petitions meeting. That was a great suggestion and all credit is due to the committee for running with it. The resultant meeting on 29 October last year was excellent. I was extremely impressed by the contribution that was made and the enthusiasm that was shown by all the young people who took part.
The committee’s external meetings appear to have been successful and well received, with positive and enthusiastic contributions from all participants.
The petitions system needs to continue to reflect the Parliament’s founding principles and to build on the success that has been achieved to date. No one can take away from the committee what it has accomplished but, as members of the committee will recognise, it must avoid becoming complacent. The committee’s initiatives, particularly those that use new technology, attempt to reach out to the public and help to increase awareness of the petitions process, particularly among young people, more than ever. However, as we all know, technology moves fast and constantly needs reviewing and updating to ensure that it continues to excite and engage the public.
I am delighted with the level of co-operation and mutual respect that has been established over the past few years between the committee clerks and Scottish Government officials. They work well together. In the lead-up to the election, officials will continue to work closely with the clerks to ensure that, as far as possible, the tighter deadlines for responding to petitions—which are understandable—are met.
I highly commend the work of the Public Petitions Committee and the progress that it has made in evolving and developing its processes. We all recognise that it is vital to continue to build on that success to listen to the people of Scotland and to represent their interests.
I continue to look forward to working with the convener and committee members. The Government stands by to assist in whatever way it can.
I commend, as others have, the work of the Public Petitions Committee not only this session but since 1999. A number of members have already illustrated the committee’s successes during that period.
I also pay tribute to the committee members for their hard work. It is recognised that being a member of the Public Petitions Committee does not offer the same headline-grabbing opportunities that other committees do, but the role is crucial in ensuring that members of the public have an opportunity to raise local and national issues of importance, and in monitoring petitions to ensure that the public get the engagement that they deserve from the process.
I have never been a member of the committee, but I have made representations on a number of occasions on behalf of constituents who have submitted petitions. I recall a petition that was raised some time ago by my constituent Margaret Ann Cummings, whose son Mark Cummings was tragically murdered by the registered sex offender Stuart Leggate.
In submitting her petition, Margaret Ann Cummings made some powerful and constructive points in respect of managing sex offenders. It was a very successful petition as, for the first time ever, the Parliament set up a sub-committee—of the Justice 2 Committee, in that case—which made more than 33 recommendations. That made a genuine difference to how the previous and current Governments formed their points of view about how to manage registered sex offenders.
Margaret Ann Cummings and other petitioners, including Margaret Watson, who is another constituent of mine, have commented on the respect that they felt they received at the committee and the genuine way in which the committee worked on a cross-party basis to consider their petitions. We should welcome that example of good practice.
I also welcome the committee’s public outreach programme, which involves visiting various parts of Scotland. As the convener pointed out, there are parts of Scotland that we would not have been able to reach if it was not for the process in which the committee engaged.
Of course, we should never be complacent, as Parliament sometimes can be. The committee has shown us, through its own level of best practice, the best ways to ensure that we engage with people throughout Scotland.
I am mindful of the fact that the committee is sometimes viewed as a last port of call for members of the public, who may have dealt with a number of authorities and now see the committee as a way of solving their concerns. We need to consider that, but we also need to think about why members of the public arrive at the petitions process in the first place. There may be some constructive work for the committee in the future in considering why members of the public are not being treated fairly by the authorities to which they have been referred. In my experience of petitions, that is particularly the case with the quango health boards throughout Scotland, which on many occasions have not listened to the concerns of local members of the public, who end up submitting a petition. We need to examine that process.
I look forward to the rest of the debate. Some powerful points have been made already, and I look forward to making some concluding remarks in my closing speech.
Having been a member of the Public Petitions Committee throughout the third session of Parliament, I can honestly say that it has been the most rewarding and interesting committee on which I have served. The petitions that we have dealt with cover a very wide range of topics, and each committee agenda has contained a wide variety of subject matter. Indeed, if variety is the spice of life, the Public Petitions Committee has it in full.
It is not possible to do justice to all the work of the committee in the short time that has been allocated for this debate, but I will touch on three petitions that originated from my neck of the woods to highlight the importance to our citizens of a successful petitioning process.
During a meeting with a modern studies class at Dyce academy in Aberdeen, I explained the work of our committee, and said that we were keen to encourage more young people to become involved with it because the typical petitioner to date had been middle aged, middle class and male. I was therefore delighted when, a few weeks later, a petition was submitted by Laura Stebbings, on behalf of the Dyce academy fair trade group, that called on the Scottish Parliament
“to urge the Scottish Government to amend the Schools (Health Promotion and Nutrition) Act 2007 to allow pupils to act responsibly in respect to their own health and to learn about ‘fair trade’ through running stalls in their schools which sell FairTrade products.”
Because of that legislation, the pupils were no longer allowed to sell fair trade chocolate and, as that had been the most popular product on sale, the stall was no longer viable.
The committee was pleased to get confirmation from the Scottish Government that regulations allow products such as fair trade chocolate to be sold on limited occasions. The Minister for Children and Early Years clarified that in a letter to all directors of education, so the petition was concluded successfully, to the satisfaction of the petitioners, who recorded their satisfaction to the committee.
The petition by Tina McGeever and her husband, the late Michael Gray, on access to cancer treatment drugs, which has already been mentioned, should result in an easier journey for many future patients with terminal cancer. The Cabinet Secretary for Health and Wellbeing has worked in collaboration with the petitioner and the committee, and that has resulted in important changes to the process for accessing cancer treatment drugs at NHS board level. As Bruce Crawford pointed out, as well as improving the process for exceptional prescribing—or individual patient treatment requests, to give the process its new, more patient-friendly name—new guidelines will result in better information being made available to patients, and should ensure more consistency in patient management and reduce the likelihood of postcode prescribing.
The petition has not yet been closed, because there is still work to do in monitoring the response of health boards to the new guidelines. It is an important and far-reaching petition, which has received praise from many cancer specialists. Its success is a fitting tribute to Michael Gray, who spoke to it very movingly at a time when he was gravely ill because he wanted a better deal for future patients in his situation.
The other petition that I want to mention, which sought improvements to school bus safety, also arose out of personal tragedy, as it was lodged by Ron Beaty after his granddaughter was seriously injured on alighting from a school bus. As a result of his efforts to raise awareness, Aberdeenshire Council has led the way in safety improvements and has put in place measures that, unfortunately, have still not been adopted by all councils in Scotland. Responsibility for the safety of school transport is split between the United Kingdom and Scottish Governments, but real progress finally became possible only after a meeting last October that the Public Petitions Committee arranged, when the UK transport minister indicated that powers on school transport could be devolved if the Scottish Government wished to take competence on that.
Unfortunately, progress has been very slow since then. The committee is frustrated by that, because we wished to see a positive outcome during the current parliamentary session. Hopefully, a discussion with the minister at our final meeting of the session on 8 March will move things forward.
I hope that, in the short time at my disposal, I have managed to convey to Parliament just how far reaching some of our work has been, and I hope that future petitions committees will have similar successes and will be instrumental in helping petitioners to benefit themselves and their fellow citizens.
As others have said, the Scottish Parliament’s public petitions system is a real success story. Nanette Milne identified some of those successes.
There has been huge engagement on the part of members of the general public as people throughout Scotland have realised that a system is available through which they can seek to address concerns that have been ignored or which have simply disappeared off the radar screens of the powers that be.
I will take the example of the committee’s work on a petition on an issue that affects my constituents and show that, although a positive outcome has still not been obtained, the committee has done a powerful job in examining it. It will not come as a surprise to the members of the committee that I am referring to the 8,000-signature petition that was lodged by Jill Campbell, which sought the construction of a safe crossing of the A90 at Laurencekirk.
The issue is a long-standing one. It goes back to 2005, when the previous Administration’s transport minister met the campaigners and short-term safety measures were put in place at the junction—speed cameras were installed and a 50mph speed restriction was imposed. The campaigners knew that their worries were being addressed and were told that their junction would be the next one to be fully grade separated. Unfortunately for the campaigners, in 2007 a different regime was installed here and the focus of the Government changed. Despite all the new transport minister’s positive words about there being nothing more important than saving lives on our roads, the commitment to build a grade-separated junction at Laurencekirk was forgotten, as plans were made in the strategic transport projects review to build such junctions around Stirling and Perth.
When he was challenged on why he would not build a safe junction at Laurencekirk, the transport minister gave one explanation after another. After careful examination by the committee, each explanation was shown to be less than convincing. The minister said that the accident statistics that the petitioners were using were wrong, until the committee pointed out that they were his Government’s statistics. The minister said that the statistics showed that there had been fewer accidents around Laurencekirk since the safety measures were introduced in 2005, but the committee heard that the statistics showed that the number of serious accidents was increasing. The minister said that the cost of building a grade-separated junction at Laurencekirk would be £24 million, but the committee found that that was simply the quote for building the most expensive grade-separated junction ever built in Scotland. Indeed, the committee found that BEAR Scotland had produced a report that said that the cost could be as little as £4 million.
The committee called Stewart Stevenson, the previous transport minister, and Keith Brown, the current minister, to give evidence. I believe that it did that because it was so clear that the Scottish Government had not been entirely open and transparent about its priorities for building roads.
The petitioner still does not have a commitment from the transport minister to build the safe junction that is needed, but the petitions process continues to do its work. I know that thousands of my constituents are grateful for the hard work of all the members of the committee in helping to get to the bottom of the reasons why the Scottish Government refuses to prioritise the building of a safe junction at Laurencekirk. It is not that the petitioner expects the committee to be able to produce a grade-separated junction at Laurencekirk. What the petitioner is hoping for—and so far her hopes have been well founded—is that the process can get to the bottom of the reasons why a particular decision has been taken.
That is the key point of the Public Petitions Committee process. It is not about waving a magic wand and doing something that petitioners cannot get done elsewhere. It boils down to the fact that, too often, the powers that be say to people that they cannot have something or that something cannot be done, but their explanations do not ring true. The committee is doing tremendous work in that regard.
I commend all the members of the committee for the non-partisan way in which they have conducted their business on the committee for the real benefit of the people of Scotland and, in my case, for the benefit of my constituents.
Those of us who are on the Public Petitions Committee are rather fortunate to be there. As Nanette Milne said, it is a varied committee, so it is never boring. One minute we can be talking about tropical fish, and the next about silicone breast implants. It is definitely the most public-facing committee, and our clerking team does a brilliant job of advising and supporting us and the many members of the public with whom they deal.
The committee is also innovative. What other committee has its own blog and uses Audioboo and podcasts?
I will look at an example of where a petition can lead. The petition on the availability of low-dose naltrexone on the NHS is on-going. It started out by being about the availability of that particular drug on the NHS. Many patients —and general practitioners— report that the drug makes a significant difference to their autoimmune disorder.
As the petition progressed, a wider issue emerged about the difficulty of getting research done on medical treatments if they are not particularly profitable for the pharmaceutical companies. If a drug is not profitable, however, surely it should mean a low cost to the NHS. Next Tuesday, the committee will question the chief medical officer about why that is and how we can change it. I do not know what the outcome of the petition will be, but it could lead to LDN being researched fully and widely prescribed, and to the NHS saving huge sums of money, as well as opening the door to research into other low-profit and therefore low-cost medicine.
We had a compelling evidence session with the petitioners and, when we question the chief medical officer next Tuesday, no doubt the petitioners will be there, watching and listening. However, that is all that they can do. I suggest that a future petitions committee might want to consider whether we could improve the effectiveness of the evidence sessions and speed up the petitions process by affording the petitioners the same rights at evidence sessions as visiting MSPs get. Petitioners have a responsibility to submit a written response, but I often find myself frustrated and wishing to ask the petitioner for their views on what we are hearing as we are hearing it. We have a number of options. For example, we could allow petitioners to make a statement at the end and then ask them further questions, or we could allow petitioners to question the witnesses in the same way as committee members do.
I have only 240 seconds and will have to cut out mentioning the many other petitions that I wanted to speak about. I am sure that my colleagues will speak about other petitions. However, I will talk about one more petition, on lobbying the British Prime Minister to drop the debt for Africa. That petition was lodged by Mark Buchan, who gave evidence in Fraserburgh during one of our visits around Scotland. It was brilliantly presented. I think that we have all found that all the young people who have presented in school or Scottish Youth Parliament sessions have done so incredibly well. The day in Fraserburgh was an example of how the committee truly opens up the Parliament to all of Scotland. Doing that is one of our greatest strengths. What other committee has sat in Arran, Fraserburgh and Easterhouse? The meeting in Fraserburgh was packed, lively and fun. I looked at the Official Report of it yesterday and realised that, for some reason, we even managed to compliment some of the school pupils on their hairstyles. We had lunch with members of the audience later, and the feedback was incredibly positive.
I am proud of what many petitioners have achieved and what I think they will achieve as their petitions progress. I am also extremely proud of the approach, openness and innovation of the committee and everybody who has worked with it, particularly the clerking team. I look forward to hearing about the progress on current petitions and more innovative developments in a future Public Petitions Committee. I am sure that there will be many such developments.
I have been privileged to have been a member of the Public Petitions Committee for almost two and a half years. I record my thanks to its exemplary clerking team, led by the incomparable Fergus Cochrane. During my time as a member of the committee, I have, along with colleagues, witnessed first hand the way in which the public petitions process allows members of the public to become directly involved in the Parliament’s work and the development of policies that seek to better the lives of citizens throughout Scotland.
The committee’s decision to undertake a series of external meetings in 2009-10 has been one of the many ways by which the committee has sought to involve as many people as possible in communities throughout our nation. The committee’s external meetings in places from Alness to Arran have been successful in that they have allowed people to see the committee’s work in their own locality and encouraged many people to become directly involved in that work as petitioners. I hope that the successor committee in the next diet of the Parliament continues that practice, as I believe that it chimes with the Parliament’s founding principles.
In the brief time that has been allotted to me, I want to mention two petitions out of many that exemplify the ability of citizens to make a difference in policy areas that affect the day-to-day lives of people in Scotland. Petition PE1108, by Tina McGeever, on behalf of Mike Gray, called on
“The Scottish Parliament to urge the...Government to consider the provision, on the NHS, of cancer treatment drugs, in particular cetuximals, to ensure equity” in
“the availability of such treatments.”
The work on that petition is an excellent example of collaborative working with the Scottish Government, and the process has shown the way in which co-operative working involving a petitioner, the committee and the Government can change a situation for the better. Tina McGeever has proved a most effective campaigner. She fought alongside and on behalf of her late husband to ensure that important changes were made in the process for accessing cancer treatment drugs at the local NHS board level in order to reduce the likelihood of postcode prescribing. Sadly, Mike Gray had to grapple with an unacceptable funding situation even as he fought the cancer that would eventually prove fatal to him.
Both Tina and Mike believed that no one who had fallen victim to cancer should also be the victim of an inflexible and inequitable prescription system. Both the committee and the Government believed that their cause was just, and they have continued to work with Tina to reform the system. The changes that have been made to the process for accessing cancer treatment drugs have led to greater consistency and greater clarity, and there is an improved process for exceptional prescribing. That is to the credit of the petitioners and the Parliament’s petitions system.
If I had more time, I would go into detail about a second petition that is a nationwide success story: PE1259, by Ryan McLaughlin, a young constituent of mine from Drumchapel who, because of his mum’s experience as a multiple sclerosis sufferer, urged
“the Scottish Government to produce new guidelines on vitamin D supplementation for children and pregnant women” and thus lessen the impact of MS on future generations. That collaborative working with the Government has proved positive, and progress has been made. It is another striking example of how the public petitions process continues to make a difference to the lives of people in our country.
The petitions process can help to change lives and make Scotland a better place in which to live. We should be proud of it and we should treasure it. We should see it not as peripheral but as central to the work of this place. I commend the motion to the chamber.
I start by thanking the current convener, the previous one, Frank McAveety, and all members of the committee for providing a positive and constructive forum for my constituents who have petitioned them in recent years. I also thank them for their willingness to let my constituents and me raise important issues with them in person, face to face and sometimes at some length, and for the patience that they show as a committee with an extremely big workload before them each Tuesday afternoon.
I have been involved in various petitions with my constituents, from parents objecting to the school closures consultation in Glasgow and the restrictions placed on volunteer coaches by national governing body coaching certificates, to others pushing for a change in fatal accident legislation to lift the legal barrier that prevents fatal accident inquiries from being held into the deaths of Scots overseas. It is a varied casework indeed.
I will devote the bulk of my speech to the fatal accident inquiry petition. I never knew my constituent Colin Love, who died on 29 January 2009. I wish that I had known him, because by all accounts he was a fine person. However, I now know his mother well, as Julie Love petitioned the committee following his death. He drowned in the waters by a beach on Margarita Island in Venezuela—Playa El Agua, a notorious drowning spot. He was not the first to drown there and, by all accounts, he certainly was not the last. There were no warning signs or lifeguards. People have continued to drown there following Colin’s death.
Had Colin died in the waters at a Scottish beach, in all likelihood there would have been a fatal accident inquiry. Had he died in the waters off the English coast, there would have been a coroner’s inquiry. If a person normally resident in England had died off the coast of Margarita Island, there would have been a coroner’s inquiry. The difference in the case of Colin Love’s tragic death is that, because he was from Scotland, a fatal accident inquiry was not legally allowed. Not only is that crazy; it is wrong.
Julie Love, co-petitioner Dr Kenneth Faulds and I have all given evidence to the committee on the issue. The committee gave Julie Love the voice and platform that she rightly deserved and provided me as her MSP with a focus for my efforts to push for reform to the law. I thank the committee for that.
I worked with Julie Love to make a submission to the Cullen inquiry on fatal accident inquiries, calling for the lifting of a legal barrier that prevents FAIs into overseas deaths. Cullen agreed, and a response from the Scottish Government to the report is now pending. The committee has continued Julie Law’s petition until the Scottish Government responds—I understand that that happened just yesterday.
If I am privileged enough to be re-elected in May, I pledge to bring forward a member’s bill to reform fatal accident inquiries and to lift the restrictions that prevent investigations in Scotland into overseas deaths. I pledge to do that unless whoever forms the Scottish Government in May 2011 acts otherwise and lifts that bar. That is the position that we are in—, Julie and I, and the workers in my office, who have done much work on the issue.
Julie Love has a powerful motive for pushing for fatal accident inquiries. FAIs give recommendations, such as that travel companies should not send travellers to an island where people die, that there should be lifeguards or that the British Foreign Office should do things better in handling overseas deaths. They are powerful recommendations and drivers for change. Julie Love is fighting not just for Colin Love but for all the people who are resident in Scotland but who die abroad in future. I thank the Public Petitions Committee for working with me to help to achieve our aim.
Like other members, I welcome the opportunity to speak in this debate on the importance and uniqueness of our Parliament’s petitions system.
I am proud that our Parliament is built not only on the principles of accountability and transparency but on an openness that is not widely experienced in Parliaments and Assemblies around the world. This is the people’s Parliament, and it was established to stand up for Scotland.
Since 1999, our Parliament has welcomed petitions from far and wide, and the Public Petitions Committee has scrutinised the views of thousands of people who have advocated a change in the law or policy either by creating a petition or by adding their name to one. I always feel a sense of pride when I listen to petitioners’ views and note their concerns about Government action—or inaction. Listening to members of the public speaking passionately often drives home the links between our Parliament and the people. As one petitioner famously—and rightly—said, the petitions system is “democracy in action”.
Of course, not all petitions make it through the parliamentary process and on to the statute books—indeed, that does not need to happen in every case. However, perhaps the greatest piece of legislation that was passed by the Parliament—the smoking ban—was helped on its way by a petition. In 2002, the pupils of Firrhill high school in Edinburgh came before the Public Petitions Committee. Although their petition had only 105 signatures, it was supported by parents, grandparents, siblings and friends, and it helped to bring about legislation that will improve the lives of people throughout Scotland. That shows that great outcomes can be achieved, and we will certainly reap the benefits of that action in years to come.
As we have heard, petitions have, over the Parliament’s three sessions, helped to raise awareness, to bring out issues that the Government has not brought to the fore on its own agenda and to encourage the Government and other public organisations to take such issues on board. In 2006, I supported Woodlands primary school in my constituency, which submitted a petition that sought to change the law to protect the public, birds and animals from broken glass, to promote the use of plastic bottles as an alternative and to introduce a refundable deposit scheme aimed at reducing the amount of broken glass in public places. It was a thoroughly worthwhile endeavour for those school pupils, and was prompted not by members of the teaching staff or the MSPs who visited the school but by individual young people who had noticed the amount of broken glass—usually from bottles containing alcohol—that they had to face on their way to school and the dangers that it posed for them.
The petition, which was taken up by the Public Petitions Committee, ran for three years and was closed in 2009. It was a great example of young people taking the initiative and informing us of a problem that needed to be addressed by Government. Although it has not led to any changes, it has certainly raised awareness of the problem. People in the drinks industry are examining the issue and I hope that Governments will keep on their back about it.
The system does not always get the results that the petitioner desires, but the fact that people have the chance to submit a petition, even with only one signature, says a great deal about this Parliament, about the interest that members take in issues and about our relationship with the people whom we seek to represent. Long may that continue.
Members in the chamber—committee members and the many members who have come through the doors on a Tuesday afternoon to support petitions from constituents and others—will make their own observations on the operation of the Public Petitions Committee. The committee’s role has evolved down the years. In 2009, at the end of a year-long inquiry, the committee produced a report on the public’s perception of the petitions mechanism.
The Public Petitions Committee is an important committee of the Parliament, particularly given that it is regarded as one of the main public access points for the Parliament. That is why it is critical to demonstrate positive engagement with the public. As other members have stated, the committee has examined petitions that have increased awareness of important issues, such as the petition that examined domestic violence against men and the one that highlighted housing conditions in the Govanhill area of Glasgow. The committee visited Govanhill as part of its inquiry.
The committee has never been shy about considering how it can work better. The committee commissioned research from Ipsos MORI, which followed on from a well-established principle that the committee adopted in 2006. Ipsos MORI used the methodology of qualitative research among the general public, with an emphasis on how the process works. The research identified an understandable link between awareness and knowledge of the petitions system. It also found that the Parliament’s approach needs to be more innovative, but that its use of e-petitions was commended. However, we must ensure that progress is maintained.
As members have mentioned, the Public Petitions Committee has a good track record of going to other parts of Scotland—no other committee has done so much work throughout Scotland—which has ensured that the Parliament does not become Edinburgh-centric. Those external committee meetings had open microphone sessions to gather the views of the public who attended.
The Public Petitions Committee strives to be open and transparent. It must ensure that it meets that important aim, especially because, in interviews conducted by Dr Carman, who looked at the work of the committee between 1999 and 2006, interviewees were concerned about a perceived lack of transparency and the lack of an appeals process.
The committee has played a role in political reform, which is why other Parliaments have shown such an interest in its workings and the workings of the petitions process. I notice that, a couple of days before the Irish general election, Fine Gael has adopted the policy of establishing a public petitions system in the Irish Parliament.
There has been a welcome development, in that some local authorities have considered establishing public petitions committees in their areas. For example, Renfrewshire Council has moved that forward. Many of the issues that are brought to the Public Petitions Committee could and should be dealt with locally. Many petitions that have come before the committee while I have been a member of it have been about matters that could have been addressed at a more local level.
The many petitions that come to Parliament allow the public to make representations to Parliament on a range of issues, whether they are Scottish or international in origin. It is important that petitions are not restricted, especially when it comes to the issue of devolved versus reserved matters.
I welcome this interesting opportunity to debate the role and work of the Public Petitions Committee. We need to ensure that we have a strong, modern public petitions mechanism that is meaningful to the people of Scotland. I look forward to the Public Petitions Committee continuing to take forward issues of importance to the people of Scotland, no matter how obscure, national or international they are. I, too, put on record my thanks to the other members of the committee, the committee clerks and all those who gave evidence and provided the committee with written evidence during the past three and a half years.
In the first session of Parliament, I was on the Transport and the Environment Committee, in which we were concerned with making legislation. I was on the Audit Committee after that, in which we asked the questions. In the past four years, I have been on the Public Petitions Committee, which is the listening ear of the Parliament. As many other members have said, the committee has done a superb job of being the listening part of the Parliament, although all the other committees of the Parliament listen too. The way in which we have worked in the past 12 years demonstrates that there is probably greater access to this democratic organisation than there is to any other.
The committee is an example and encourages young people to have faith in our democratic system. The old-style school council involved a group of children getting together with the headteacher sitting in front of them listening to their complaints but, a year later, nothing had happened. Of course, school councils nowadays are very different, and the Government has issued good guidance to all local authorities. For young people who bring petitions through the parliamentary process, the experience is different, because they are listened to and something is done. In some cases, that might well mean simply that conversations continue.
As Bill Butler did not have time to say much about young Ryan McLaughlin, I will get some comments about him on the record. He organised a parade down the Royal Mile in support of his petition on vitamin D. As a result of that petition, the Scottish Government listened and agreed to have a co-ordinated programme of action with NHS Health Scotland, to produce guidance on vitamin D, to educate women on its importance, to consider different messages for different groups of people, and to ensure that health professionals give correct and consistent advice on vitamin D to pregnant women and new mothers. Further, the Scottish Government committed to keeping the petitioner informed of progress. All that happened as a result of a petition from a young man who was still at school. I am sure that all members who met Ryan McLaughlin believe that he will continue to contribute to life in Scotland.
We had many petitions from young people, but a second one that I would like to mention was on the subject of fair trade chocolate in schools. That immediately resulted in the Scottish Government issuing a clarification to all councils in Scotland stating that they could sell fair trade chocolate, even though it is a sweet and does not necessarily promote the best of health.
I am proud to have served on the Public Petitions Committee and grateful to have had that opportunity. One of the many reasons for that is that it has been a wonderful committee to work on because of the sense of working with other people. Politics is very much left behind at the door in the committee. I have not heard any member being political with a capital P, perhaps apart from myself, when I have had to mention interests when environmental issues have arisen. We all have a sense of real achievement.
Members will perhaps not be surprised that, in the brief time available, I will not consider the substance of what the committee has done—other members have done that—but will instead reflect on how we have done it. Other members, particularly John Wilson and the convener, have commented on some of the external engagement, and I suspect that the deputy convener will do so, too. I would like to consider our internal processes and reflect on what we have achieved, whether we could have done a few things slightly differently and whether we might make some recommendations to our successors.
The first thing that happens when a petition comes in is that the clerks do a considerable amount of work to knock it into shape, if I might describe it that way. As other members have done, I thank the clerks for the huge amount of work that is involved in that. The Scottish Parliament information centre staff give us extremely helpful briefings, and I am conscious that no member has yet thanked them. I do not suppose that any staff from SPICe are here, but I put on the record our thanks to them.
As members are well aware, we then have a first consideration and, in about a quarter of cases, the petitioners come before us to give a presentation. I am not sure that that figure is precisely right, but it is the one that I have been given as being about right. Typically, we then write to a large number of organisations to scope the issues that the petitioner has raised. We generally decide to write to the Government to ask for its response to the petition. That means that the second meeting at which we consider the petition, which comes some time later, is, effectively, the first meeting, because that is when we actually think about what the real issues are and try to tease them out ourselves.
I wonder whether that is the best use of our time. Perhaps we could do things a bit faster in terms of getting to the meat of the issues. The result of that process is not only a little bit of delay, which we could eliminate, but a considerable amount of paper—a huge amount of paper is associated with some petitions, and I suspect that some of the words did not have to be written, although I am sure that they were written in good faith. Another issue is that we do not engage with the majority of petitioners face to face.
I wonder whether we could rectify those issues by changing how we deal with petitions. Let me be absolutely clear that there are petitions in relation to which how we operate at the moment is entirely correct, but I would like to suggest an alternative way of working, where that would be appropriate—I guess that deciding on that would come down to the convener’s discretion, as such things usually do.
As I have previously suggested, each petition could be considered by only two members, on some kind of timetabled rota basis that was suitable for those members, and one of the clerks. That would enable those members to tease out with the petitioners what the issues are and to do the obvious things such as writing to the Government and relevant organisations—members will be well aware of the kind of organisations that we speak to. That would ensure that, when petitions came to the full committee, the basic groundwork had been done. We can all see that, in many cases, that would work and would enable us to make progress rather faster.
I also suggest that we need to be a little bit better at recognising those petitions that could be closed on first sight. In relation to some petitions, we can see fine well that the Government has adopted a position and is not going to adopt a different one, because it has already said that it will not. In such cases, we might as well just say so and close the petition the first time we see it.
We have had an interesting debate this afternoon that has highlighted the importance of the Public Petitions Committee. The Scottish Constitutional Convention’s report said that locating a Parliament in Scotland would mean that it was more accessible than Westminster. Robin Harper talked about the idea of access being important to the committee. Under the standing orders, the committee was designed to be one of the vehicles that would ensure the involvement of people in Scotland in democracy, and giving people the opportunity to submit a petition before a committee of MSPs is an excellent way of enabling that.
Bruce Crawford mentioned that the committee is internationally renowned. That is correct, but there is concern about whether it is being marketed effectively in Scotland. When I read the committee’s report on its processes, I was surprised to learn that, although 194 petitions were lodged in the Parliament’s first year, fewer than 120 a year have been lodged since the start of session 2. After almost 12 years, we might have expected there to be greater awareness of the petitions process. Obviously, there is still work to be done.
John Wilson mentioned Dr Carman’s research study with Ipsos MORI, which revealed that most of those who participate in the process are among the older and better educated groups and are more likely to be middle class and to live in an affluent area than the average Scot. It also revealed that there is a disappointing lack of diversity in terms of minority participation. Perhaps we could all do more to promote the use of petitions when we are contacted by constituents.
Rhona Brankin, Bruce Crawford, Paul Martin and others mentioned that the committee had taken steps to address those issues, through the production of a blog and podcasts and the publication of a streamlined leaflet, as well as through the outreach programme, which many other members mentioned. I agree with the committee’s point that a balance must be struck. There is just one committee to deal with petitions, and it contains only nine MSPs and operates with a handful of support staff—the clerks, SPICe and others, whom Nigel Don thanked for all their hard work. The committee—and by extension the Parliament—will be successful with regard to accessibility only if it is able properly to scrutinise each petition that is brought before it.
There are many examples of petitions that have been submitted by groups or members of the public that have gone on to achieve some degree of success. The Laurencekirk crossing petition, which Mike Rumbles mentioned, is one such petition, although there is still a long way to go until the petitioners are satisfied. Of course, all success is relative.
I highlight a petition that originated in my community in the South of Scotland, which is also nationally significant. Last autumn, Daphne Jackson submitted a petition on behalf of Ettrick and Yarrow community council regarding the standard of mobile phone coverage in rural areas. The petition, which gained 780 signatures, called on the Parliament to urge the Government to make direct representations, which is what happened. The petition gained local media coverage and was considered by the committee in November. The committee agreed to write to a number of organisations, including the Scottish Government, fire brigades, the Scottish Ambulance Service and the Office of Communications, and I trust that it has now received responses. I, too, made representations on that difficult issue.
Everyone has highlighted their own pet petitions today. That is one example—although everybody has given their own examples—of how a petition can lead to greater awareness of an issue among the public and elected officials, and to action thereafter.
Like other members, I pay tribute to the committee clerks, led by Fergus Cochrane, who have made an immense contribution to the success of the committee. They have advised petitioners on how to present their petitions and have sought innovative ways of extending the petitioner base by organising external committee meetings in schools and community halls and by using modern technologies such as videoconferencing and electronic petitioning. It is little wonder that politicians from other legislatures have taken a keen interest in our work and have adopted some of our practices. The international reputation of the Public Petitions Committee is due in no small measure to the enthusiasm and efficiency of the clerking team.
The main difficulty in dealing with a debate such as this, on four years’ work by a very busy committee, is deciding what to put into one’s speech and what to leave out. I am thankful that committee members have covered a broad range of the topics that the committee has considered and the various activities in which its members have been involved. Rhona Brankin dealt with the general culture of the committee, which has developed since the beginning of the Parliament in 1999. As she said, in the current session we have dealt with a large number of petitions at our 73 meetings, and many issues have been addressed that might otherwise never have come to the attention of politicians.
We have had some interesting external meetings and have always been made welcome by our hosts. I will not forget being met by a young piper on a Monday morning in Alness or the excellent buffet lunch that was put on for us in Fraserburgh. We have also been most impressed by the confidence and ability of many of the petitioners—especially the young ones—who have spoken to the committee on the substance of their petitions. I am pleased that Anne McLaughlin highlighted that.
Bruce Crawford’s appreciation of our work is welcome. He referred to the cross-party co-operation in the committee as it has dealt with petitions. Indeed, I think that we were divided only once during the entire four years of the committee’s work. However, as Bruce Crawford rightly said, the committee must continue to be innovative if it is to maintain the high standards and growing reputation of its first 12 years. I am sure that we all agree with that.
Paul Martin referred to representations that he made to the committee on behalf of constituents. The direct involvement of MSPs in that way is of considerable assistance to committee members. Although on occasion it prolongs significantly already long committee meetings, it adds very positively to the petitions process.
Mike Rumbles referred to the open petition on the junction of the A90 at Laurencekirk. The committee has been committed to making progress on the issue and, as we have heard, has called ministers to the committee on more than one occasion to answer questions. Unfortunately, an ideal solution has not yet been found, but real progress might be made in the next session of Parliament.
Bill Butler was the third member to refer to the cancer drugs availability petition from Tina McGeever and her husband, which underlines how important the petition has been to the cancer journey of many patients in Scotland. He also rightly highlighted the excellent petition from his constituent, Ryan McLaughlin, who impressed us all—especially, as Robin Harper said, with his organisation of the parade down the Royal Mile.
John Wilson referred to the petition on domestic violence against men—an issue that has rarely been highlighted but which ruins the lives of the significant number of men who fall victim to it. The petition raised awareness and resulted in support being given by the Government via a UK telephone helpline. Although more work needs to be done, significant progress has been made on that very important issue.
Robin Harper called the committee
“the listening ear of the Parliament.”
That description is appropriate, because petitioners—even those whose petitions are unsuccessful—generally appreciate that their concerns have been given a fair hearing. Other members referred to a variety of petitions, all of which were worth while and important to petitioners and all of which the committee moved forward. Nigel Don gave us his usual thoughtful suggestions.
All speakers have praised the committee fully. Long may it continue to be a proactive and useful committee to the Parliament.
Like other members, I note that the committee’s convener, its deputy convener and Robin Harper are stepping down at the next election, so what they said sounded a bit like retirement speeches. I wish those members the very best. I doubt very much whether we have seen the last of John Farquhar Munro—he will probably return as a petitioner on the crofting community’s behalf.
Members across party divides made powerful speeches. On behalf of his constituent Julie Love, Bob Doris made the important point that the committee allows the opportunity for issues to be debated and for members to consider whether to introduce a member’s bill. I was in the same position in connection with hospital car parking charges. The petitions process provides an opportunity for members to ensure that an issue is debated and that evidence is gathered.
I, too, pay tribute to Ryan McLaughlin, who is a credit to his mother and to other people on whose behalf he spoke. We should recognise that other parliamentary systems would not afford him and others the opportunity to make their case, which is sometimes passionate and personal. Petitioners should never apologise for speaking about their personal experiences and for ensuring that we take matters forward.
Members highlighted several petitions. The petition from John Muir was the first to create an opportunity for a debate in the chamber, among people with various views on knife crime, who considered the issues and challenges that face the Parliament in connection with knife crime. From speaking to John Muir and others who participated in that event, I know that they welcomed the opportunity to engage with politicians and felt that they were treated with respect and genuinely influenced the process. The more petitioners can be afforded the opportunity that John Muir was given to have an event, the better the Parliament’s reputation will be. I say well done to the committee’s members for giving John Muir that opportunity.
How we engage with young people was mentioned several times in the debate. All Saints secondary school in my constituency hosted the committee meeting at which the 1,000th petition to be lodged was considered. Young people were engaged in that. We need to consider how we engage with them on their terms, rather than on parliamentary terms, as in the past. Perhaps we should use the best experience to improve that.
I say well done to the committee again. I hope that we can learn from its experiences for the next parliamentary session.
I thank the committee members for their contributions. Listening to the different perspectives of members across the chamber has been interesting. I am sure that some people will even manage to get press releases out of the debate.
I mentioned in my opening speech that I have enjoyed working with John Farquhar Munro and Rhona Brankin over the past four years. It might be my last chance to say to Robin Harper that I have enjoyed working with him since 1999. I wish him all the best when he retires at the end of the session.
Petitions are brought by members of the Scottish public who seek answers and look for change. As we heard in members’ contributions this afternoon, the committee has continued its record of success into this session. By its nature, the petitions process is reactive; it responds to the petitions that are brought before it. The committee has also often taken on issues that are raised as catalysts for debate—issues that have ranged from the availability of cancer drugs to the display of sexually graphic material.
Like other members, I want to bore down a bit more closely into individual petitions that raised two issues in particular. The petitions have been mentioned already in the debate, but the issues they raise bear repetition. They are the significant petitions on vitamin D supplements and fair trade confectionery.
Bill Butler spoke about the petition on vitamin D supplements, which was submitted as part of the shine on Scotland campaign that is run by his constituents Ryan McLaughlin and the McLaughlin family. The petition attracted a lot of positive media coverage not only for the campaign but for the Parliament.
The petitioners called on the Parliament to urge the Government to give every child in Scotland vitamin D supplements and to fortify school milk with vitamin D. On various occasions, the McLaughlin family have met the Cabinet Secretary for Health and Wellbeing, the Minister for Public Health and Sport and the chief medical officer. The petition that the family began has made quite a contribution. The Scottish Government has committed to undertake an awareness-raising campaign on recommended vitamin D levels. In the first part of the campaign information was given to all GPs and health professionals to reinforce the importance of vitamin D supplements. Health Scotland is working on the second part of the campaign—a leaflet for the general public should be published in the spring.
Nanette Milne and Robin Harper referred to the fair trade petitions. These two petitions, which were submitted in 2009, called on the Government to amend regulations to allow schools to sell fair trade confectionery. They were very interesting petitions. The Government’s explanation that it had no plans to amend the legislation or change the regulations could have been seen as a sign of resistance or of not wanting to listen. In fact, as the discussions on the regulations brought out, there was already flexibility in the current regulatory regime—flexibility that would allow fair trade confectionery to be sold in schools. As a result, earlier this month, my colleague the Minister for Children and Early Years wrote to the director of education in each local authority to highlight the flexibility within the existing regulations to allow fair trade sales in schools and to draw their attention to the relevant guidance.
As those examples show, change can be delivered through the petitions process. However, we need to look to the future. The petitions process has been a success. When it first started we could not anticipate what would happen and where it might lead. The Public Petitions Committee’s inquiry two years ago into the petitions process showed that it was not afraid to look at its procedures and consider ways in which to improve them. I was pleased to be able to contribute to that inquiry, which made a number of recommendations on different aspects of the petitions process. How the recommendations were taken forward and implemented was key: done well and the petitions process would improve; done badly and there was every chance that it would stagnate. It is commendable to note that the committee has now implemented those recommendations and many others. The committee has been proactive; it has embraced change.
Where does the Public Petitions Committee go from here? Is there a risk that it is becoming too bogged down by the sheer volume of petitions in the system? Are too many petitions coming forward to allow it sufficient time to scrutinise and investigate petitions where change can be delivered? To my mind, the committee works best when it can focus—when it can bring to bear the skills, knowledge and, indeed, personality of committee members. I would like to see that focus further refined in the next session.
I again thank the members of the Public Petitions Committee who have worked hard this session and the clerks who deal efficiently with petitions. The Public Petitions Committee leaves a strong legacy. It is important that its successor committee should keep on going, maintain momentum and build on what the current committee has achieved.
It is with enormous pleasure that I close this debate on behalf of the Public Petitions Committee. Those who follow our work will know that we are very much a committee of firsts. For example, we are the first committee of the Parliament to meet in the wonderful Alness academy in my constituency.
I want to highlight not so much a first but a possible record. I have been a member of the committee in session 1, session 2 and session 3—a total of 443 weeks so far. [Applause.] Now, if someone wants to go and check that to prove me wrong, be my guest. It is for others to judge whether it is a record that I should be proud of.
The Public Petitions Committee is an extremely important committee if we are to be true to the founding principles adopted in 1999. Our existence and role and the participation of citizens in our work are why the process has developed international recognition. Delegations from Wales, Catalonia, Canada, Sri Lanka, Tasmania, Western Australia, Victoria, Queensland, the Crimea, the Czech Republic, Gauteng in South Africa, Ethiopia, Japan, Vietnam, Bavaria, Saxony, Malawi and the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association, as well as John Smith fellows, have come to discuss and learn more about our system. The Australian House of Representatives has established a dedicated Committee on Petitions with which we held two videoconferences. Next week we meet the Petitions Committee of the German Bundestag. It refers to the petitions process as that Parliament’s “seismograph”, which I think is an appropriate expression.
The convener touched on our collaborative approach to considering petitions and the committee’s consensual nature. I would like to expand on that, because several speakers mentioned the same thing. There are, I believe, three elements to the effective consideration of a petition. The first is the constructive participation of the petitioner in the process. Seeking their views on the written responses received on the petition, giving them the opportunity to suggest a way forward and providing an opportunity to some to come and speak ensures that they make a direct contribution to the debate.
The second is the way in which we gather information. As I suggested, that will involve seeking written responses from a number of key organisations. We try to identify organisations and individuals at home and abroad who can contribute to the investigation of the petition and broaden awareness of the issue. We now ask petitioners to suggest organisations to contact and questions to ask.
That takes me on to the third key element, which is collaboration. There is a maturity and honesty in the process. It is not about proving that someone was wrong. Legislation, guidelines and policies are introduced with the best of intentions and a belief that they will do good, but sometimes the measures do not work out as planned or do not reflect people’s needs. Improvements to policies and procedures can be brought about only if we work together with key organisations that are relevant to the petition’s subject matter. In most cases, the Scottish Government is central to that and I believe that the relationship between us and it has been constructive.
A question that is often asked is, “How many successful petitions have there been since 1999?” We do not know. We cannot easily record that, as our view on the success of a petition might differ from the petitioner’s. Success will take different forms. One approach that we have adopted on a number of occasions, when it was felt beneficial, was to invite the Scottish Government to meet the petitioner to discuss the issue raised. That can be regarded as a success because we put the individual in the same room as officials, perhaps even the minister, to clarify and discuss the issue. On some occasions that might be all that we can do. Most petitioners do not get everything that they set out to achieve and there might be very good reasons for that, but I think that the Scottish Government has met the petitioners on every occasion we requested.
The 2006 research into the petitions process says:
“the ability of common folk to bring their concerns to the Parliament through the petitions system is democracy in action. You aren’t always going to get what you want but at least the Scottish Parliament has to look at your petition.”
All the changes and improvements that have come about are down to collaboration.
How are we doing for time, Presiding Officer?
Most petitions are lodged on the back of personal experience, sometimes tragic, as in the case of John Muir. When we hosted the knife crime summit on his petition, we did so not to point the finger at any one body and to say that the problem was its fault, but to create a unique forum, here in the chamber, where victims, families, health workers and the police, who see the terrible consequences of knife crime, could come together with policy makers, the legal profession and others to discuss the issue in a non-partisan and honest way. We were not going to solve knife crime at that event, but we could at least try something different and generate some new ideas.
I thank those who reacted positively to petitions by introducing the called-for improvements. In a number of areas, things are now a wee bit better as a result. I am sure that that consensual and measured approach will continue with the next session’s committee, which will no doubt examine new ways to conduct its business and investigate petitions. Perhaps it will consider the scope to undertake more in-depth inquiries into individual petitions, as we did, and new ways to bring people and groups together to discuss the issues that are raised.
I am sure the petitions process and the Public Petitions Committee will continue to evolve in a positive way, and I am sure that that will be enhanced by the excellence of the clerking team, led by Fergus Cochrane. I commend the work of the Public Petitions Committee to the Parliament.