I am pleased to open this debate on the review of the petitions process. This is the fourth debate that we have had on the Parliament’s petitions process since 1999 and the second such debate in which I have spoken as convener of the Public Petitions Committee. The petitions process has, of course, developed since 1999. A number of changes have been made over that time, but what remains constant is the importance of the process in enabling people to get issues that concern them on to the Parliament’s agenda.
Before I talk about the most recent findings on the process, I will say a few words of thanks. The research that we are discussing was commissioned before I became convener. John Pentland was the convener at the time, and it is right to recognise his contribution. Indeed, it is right to recognise the contribution of all members who have served on the committee during the parliamentary session, including that of its other former convener, David Stewart.
The research was carried out for the committee by Gareth James. I am pleased that he is attending the debate, as that enables me to thank him on the committee’s behalf. His work has provided the committee with evidence and analysis that increase our knowledge and deepen our understanding of how the process is seen.
Finally and most important, I offer the committee’s thanks to the petitioners who contributed to the research, either through responding to a survey or in more detailed interviews. Their willingness to share their experiences is invaluable in allowing the committee to understand the perceptions and expectations that people have of the Parliament’s petitions process.
I turn to what the research tells us about the process. The research had four purposes. It was intended to monitor progress against the most recent review in 2009; to benchmark our process against processes in other legislatures; to capture socioeconomic data about petitioners; and to ask petitioners about their expectations and experiences.
The research found that the recommendations of the 2009 review have all, to some extent, been taken forward. It is interesting to see how the development of digital technologies has possibly overtaken some of those recommendations. For example, the system for supporting petitions via SMS messaging was implemented but has not been used. That will be worth bearing in mind for future developments of the system.
Benchmarking of our process shows that there are a number of similarities with processes that are in place in other legislatures. The Scottish process seems to have the fewest restrictions in relation to signatures and support, given that a petition requires only one signature and does not need the support of an elected member. In other ways, it might be said that our process places more of an expectation on petitioners. For example, they are required to tell us what they have done to try to resolve the issue that is of concern to them. The Scottish process also differs from that in legislatures where petitions processes include an element of an ombudsman function.
The socioeconomic data that is captured in the research appears to tell us two things. First, the demographic profile of petitioners does not appear to have changed from the profile that was found in work that was carried out 10 years ago. Secondly, the profile of petitioners does not reflect the diversity of the general population of Scotland. Put simply, the sociodemographic profile skews towards older white men who are relatively affluent and who have been educated to degree level.
Having been told those things by the research, the committee sets out in its report its initial responses. It does so under two broad headings: engagement and transparency. The committee’s final responses and recommendations will be set out in our legacy paper. Those recommendations will be informed by this debate and by a workshop that we will hold next month.
The committee considers that undertaking engagement events more frequently should be a target for the next session. Such events should be a combination of formal committee meetings and more informal workshops or visits. However, the amount of engagement is only one consideration. Of at least equal importance is the quality of engagement. Attendees at the committee’s external meeting in Inveraray last September commented that they would have welcomed the opportunity to contribute to and participate in that meeting.
The committee recognises that active participation is a key part of engagement. Opportunities for it must therefore be considered in the design of future engagement events.
The committee recognises that improvements can be made to the transparency of the petitions process. As members will be aware, there have been criticisms of the number of petition proposals that were received but did not go on to be lodged as petitions. I am pleased that a more detailed analysis of those numbers has been included in the research. That analysis gives the reasons for proposed petitions not going on to be lodged and shows that, when broken down, the figures for Scotland are broadly comparable with those for other jurisdictions.
Such information, which clearly helps in understanding the process, has not routinely been available. The committee has therefore agreed that a system should be established to record and publish information about proposed petitions that are not eventually lodged.
I have commented on the findings about the demographic profile of petitioners. That information is valuable to assist us to know who petitioners are and which groups or communities are underrepresented. However, demographic data is not routinely captured. We have set out our intention to suggest in our legacy paper ways in which that information could be captured, and we would welcome any thoughts that members might have on that.
The final area that I will mention is the consideration that the committee gives to petitions and how clearly our decisions are understood. That is the part of the petitions process that respondents to the survey were least satisfied with. We place a great deal of importance on hearing petitioners’ views throughout our consideration of petitions. Whenever we receive submissions on a petition, the petitioner is given the opportunity to submit their views and to request further actions that the committee could take. That process happens before the committee looks at the submissions.
The committee also considers requests from petitioners to give additional oral evidence. However, the opportunity to give additional evidence always needs to be balanced against the opportunity for the committee to hear from petitioners on the first occasion when a petition is considered. The research tells us that we need to reflect on how we can communicate our decisions more effectively. For trust to be maintained, it is vital that petitioners and others with an interest in the petitions system can understand how decisions are reached.
I look forward to hearing members’ contributions to the debate. The research concludes that petitioners are able to feel more engaged in politics as a result of the petitions process. However, there are areas where we can and should improve to deliver a world-leading system. Any ideas that are put forward in the debate will be considered for inclusion in the committee’s legacy paper. We hope that it will form the basis of further development of the process in the next session and beyond.
That the Parliament notes the findings and recommendations contained in the Public Petitions Committee’s 2nd Report, 2015 (Session 4): Review of the Petitions Process (SP Paper 859).
It is right and proper that the Parliament regularly reviews its procedures. That allows the Parliament to examine what has worked well and what it can do better, with the aim of making this Parliament the best that it can be for the people of Scotland.
One of the measures of the Parliament’s success is how open and accessible it is to the people whom it represents. A key element of that is ensuring that the petitions system is effective. The system permits people from all strands of civic society to put on the parliamentary agenda issues that are important to them and to ask responsible bodies, including the Government of the day, to act on them.
Before we look at how the system might improve, we should note some of the successful petitions that have secured change. In 2000, a petition that called for the reinstatement of railway services to the Scottish Borders attracted more than 17,000 signatures and was a significant step towards the introduction of the Waverley Railway (Scotland) Bill to rebuild a section of the line in the Borders. That culminated in the building of the longest section of new railway in the United Kingdom for about 100 years, which has proved highly popular since its opening last September.
In 2014, a petition was lodged to have the Tinkers’ Heart of Argyll recognised, restored and listed as a monument of national historic significance. That is the only monument that the Scottish Gypsy Travelling community has. The site did not initially meet the criteria set out by Historic Scotland, but the petition impressed that organisation to such an extent that it led to a fresh evaluation of the circumstances and a public consultation. The site was reassessed and it is now recognised as a site of high cultural significance to Travellers and the whole of Scotland.
The Parliament should seek to build on those successes. I look forward to hearing members’ thoughts and suggestions during the debate.
I am pleased to speak today as one of the Public Petitions Committee’s ex-conveners. I spent a very happy four years there, and I see familiar faces in the chamber who were members when I was convener.
Members may know that we have a long tradition of petitions in Scotland. In fact, to give members a little history lesson, if they look back through the mists of time, they will see that David II in the 14th century arguably invented the first petitions system in the world when he gave every subject a right to petition the king. The advent of the Scottish Parliament 700 years later provided an ideal opportunity to resurrect the petitions tradition.
We should not forget that the previous Scottish Parliament, which ended in 1707, also had a petitions system. I asked the Scottish Parliament information centre to give me information about that system. It found an interesting test case in 1605 when a Church of Scotland minister in St Andrews, who wished to move his charge from St Andrews to Edinburgh, petitioned the Scottish Parliament and was awarded a change of charge at £5 a year. I am therefore able to pre-date the Minister for Parliamentary Business’s examples of best practice.
As we all know, the Parliament was founded on four guiding principles, which underpin all areas of its work and not just that of the Public Petitions Committee. Those principles are important to address. We sometimes forget the principle of power sharing between the Parliament, the Scottish Government and the people of Scotland. The other principles are accessibility, openness and participation, accountability and equal opportunities.
I, too, will give examples of successful petitions. They all happen to come from my time as convener, but I stress that I am not trying to take any credit for them. When I considered the difference that can be made, four petitions jumped out at me. Irrespective of who is in power, ministers are required to be chased and departmental chiefs’ heads need to be banged together to get common sense. A petitions committee can do that.
I was most struck by the petition on pain relief; Jackson Carlaw was on the committee when it was considered. We had a pile of constituents and petitioners who had problems with chronic pain. At the time, the only pain relief centre in the United Kingdom was in Bath. I think that Alex Neil was the then health secretary. Following representations on the petition, he agreed that there would be pain relief centres in health boards throughout Scotland. That was a great success.
Another petition that struck me was the one on mesh devices. A series of women turned up to Parliament in wheelchairs. In my nine years in the Parliament and during my previous period in another Parliament, that has probably been the most emotionally charged day that I have ever had, when women explained at first hand their absolutely dreadful experiences with mesh devices. At the committee, the deputy chief medical officer said that women could take legal action if the faults in the mesh devices had caused health problems. However, at that time, a person needed to know the reference number of the mesh device to do that. How bureaucratic can something be? I am glad that, following the great work also done by The Mail on Sunday, which ran a tremendous campaign, a huge success was achieved.
A petition that Chic Brodie—he is not in the chamber—and I were particularly interested in was on a register of interests of the judiciary. Members will recall that we had a fight about whether we could cite the then Lord President to appear before the committee. Chic Brodie, who was the deputy convener, and I managed, with the committee’s support, to meet the Lord President and achieve what I consider to be a breakthrough. That might not fully be the case in the minds of the petitioners, but it is now possible to get a register of sheriffs and judges who have recused—excused—themselves in a court procedure, which did not happen before.
I know that I do not have much time, so my final example is about the petition on democratic and employment rights for young footballers. As a football fan—I declare my interest in Inverness Caley Thistle, who will need all the support that they can get this week, particularly when they play in the Scottish cup tonight—I was appalled to find out about the terrible employment conditions that young footballers had to sign up to. We had the whole football hierarchy in front of us, which I believe achieved some change as well.
Such examples make a difference. The review was excellent, and I agree with every word that my colleague Michael McMahon said.
When I spoke as the committee’s convener in various exotic climes, such as Johannesburg, Belgrade, the National Assembly for Wales and Westminster, I often said that I was an evangelist for the committee. I would like to think that I am still an evangelist for it. However, although we are excellent at representing accountants in Bearsden, we are perhaps not quite as good at representing artisans in Easterhouse. We need to get out and about more and go round disadvantaged estates. That said, the committee is tremendous, and it takes pride in all the work that it has done for the Parliament.
I am very happy to contribute to the debate, and I do so as an unreserved fan of the Scottish Parliament’s petitions process.
Towards the end of my first session in 2011, I produced my own report on why I thought that in many other respects the Parliament’s procedures unnecessarily straitjacketed the spontaneity that there might otherwise be. There is the hideous process by which we have to submit parliamentary questions well in advance to notify ministers of our intent, which very often means that the questions no longer have any topicality by the time that we ask them, and the dismal and pedestrian nature of many of our debates, in which contributions are weighted by parliamentary representation rather than by any interest or knowledge of the subject about which we are having a conversation.
I exempt the parliamentary petitions process from that. I went on the Public Petitions Committee more or less by accident. My colleague Nanette Milne sat on it, and I was on the Health and Sport Committee. It was felt that Nanette Milne would lead on a bill, and I offered to swap with her. When I got to the Public Petitions Committee, I found that I had no wish to leave it, because members of the committee come free of any party whip and they usually have a completely objective and open mind on the subjects that will be discussed. Members have pursued with great credit—this is the critical issue—not just how petitions came to the committee, but what the committee should do with them.
I have been impressed that members of the committee, who have changed in the time that I have been a member of it, have been prepared to pursue issues without fear or favour. Ministers who come to the committee to give evidence know that they cannot just smile at friends and hope that all will be well; they have to come and answer questions on the detail of the petition in hand.
I cannot help reflecting that all that I have heard so far suggests that that has been the case in this session. I confirm that exactly the same prevailed in the previous session, when I sat on the committee. I think that that makes Mr Carlaw’s point.
I am happy to agree on the golden age of Nigel Don on petitions, equally as much as I am on the golden age of petitions with David Stewart. I accept that that is my point. The committee has always been prepared to do that. It is therefore an extremely interesting and rewarding committee on which to sit.
Before my time on the committee, a petition was submitted by Mike Gray and Tina McGeever on access to new medicines. I think that that led to a completely transformational way in which end-of-life medicines were made available to the wider Scottish public.
In this session, the petition on vaginal mesh implants, which Mr Stewart mentioned, has been one of the most extraordinary petitions that we have heard evidence on. There have, of course, been ramifications across the whole world as a result of the interrogation of that issue in Scotland. Scotland was the first to act at a Government level with dramatic intent and to bring about a potential change in the wellbeing of those affected.
I am not indifferent to our need to broaden access, but what matters to me more is the substance of the petitions that come before us. I would like to see that enhanced. On access, my particular contribution in respect of the recommendations in the early report, before we consider the evidence of the debate elsewhere, is that it is now the custom and practice of all members to issue annual parliamentary reports. If we are going to harness the Parliament’s capability to promote the petitions process to the widest possible body of people, it would be useful to have an advertisement from the Parliament about the parliamentary petitions process within those annual reports and an offer by the member issuing the leaflet to help facilitate the petitions that some of their constituents might be interested in raising.
That approach would allow the petitions process to be advertised to the widest possible community and it would enable those who might feel slightly intimidated about the potential process to feel that they had a link beyond the very helpful clerks to help with implementing the petition.
The Public Petitions Committee is an extraordinary committee; it stands head and shoulders above many parliamentary petitions committees the world over. One signature on one petition can ensure that an important issue is heard in this Parliament and that action can follow. We should be very proud of that.
I heartily endorse the comments that were made initially by the current committee convener, which have been endorsed by every member across the chamber who has spoken so far. To some extent, the chamber seems to be echoing the committee, where we tend to operate by consensus, which is a good thing.
I was not aware of the precise history of petitions and I am grateful to David Stewart for his input on that. However, I remember that when I first came into this Parliament in 1999, the consultative steering group was taking pride in bringing in new aspects and the openness that was going to be created here. Part of that approach involved the Public Petitions Committee, how it would operate and how we would interact, not just through the committee but in our daily lives, with the people we are privileged to represent.
The Parliament has always rightly taken pride in the petitions process. Jackson Carlaw was right to make points about that. Others have learnt from us—even here in the city of Edinburgh, the council has mirrored the process. Its process is slightly different but it builds upon what we have here. There are aspects that the committee has learnt about from elsewhere and conveners have travelled far and wide to make sure that we not only impart what we believe we can contribute but learn from others. That is a good thing.
Until late 2014, I had not experienced the petitions process other than when I occasionally contributed points on behalf of constituents and supported them with their petitions. I also picked up vibes from all those who operated in the committee, either as parliamentarians or as members of the public. It reminded me of my days as a lawyer and of judicial review, which is an outlet when no other option is available. To some extent, the committee is about that. It is not about overt political power. It is not necessarily about moving a direct motion. It is about allowing people to have their say—to have their voice heard—as members have said, on what can sometimes be deeply serious, quite moving issues that are indeed quite stressful for the committee, too. The strain can be etched upon the faces of those who contribute. Sometimes the issues are perhaps more flippant and light-hearted but individuals are entitled to raise them because they feel quite passionate about them.
There are obviously points that have to be learned. There are points that will be put in the legacy paper but some points remain universal. The point has already been made about the benefit of external visits. I have participated in those visits and they were enjoyable. However, we need to think about how we can maximise the benefit for the communities that we visit. I believe that the visits have worked well, but that does not mean that they cannot work better. Again, we have to get the balance right between going around the country and ensuring that we are here for those who wish to petition us. There is a significant volume of such people.
As a committee, we have recently been challenged not simply by the right of people to lodge their petitions but the need to take on board the rights and feelings of others who might be affected. That can be challenging because we have had to consider and work through petitions as a committee so that we do not seem to prejudge any aspect of the petitions but take on board that there could be interference in and an effect upon people’s lives.
Equally, we have to get the balance right between holding inquiries—as has been mentioned, the committee’s inquiries have been remarkably successful and were definitely necessary—and just ensuring that we allow people to give their evidence and have their say, either by lodging a petition and doing what they wish thereafter or by coming to the committee and having their voice heard.
It has been a pleasure to serve on the committee. I believe that we need to build on what was established in the Parliament in 1999. The consensus rightly continues. There are things that can be learned but, equally, there is an awful lot that we just have to maintain.
It is a pleasure to speak on the review of the public petitions process in the Scottish Parliament. The public petitions system and the Public Petitions Committee are an important element in engaging with the people we serve, to try to shape what the Parliament does for them. In general, the system is viewed as positive.
I want to share some of the feelings that I have had during my period on the committee. I have seen farmers coming to the committee claiming that their human rights had been violated. I actually agreed with them. We knew that there was a case to be answered and that they could not afford to pay to go through the legal system to advance their cause. However, the Government let them down. For the first time ever, I felt that, as a nation, we had let our people down. The committee provided a good democratic way of reaching a consensus. It was important that I at least shared my feelings with the petitioners, because I wanted them to feel that we care.
We have engaged with many other people through the committee. Another issue that touched my heart was that of single parents’ rights. People face huge challenges and difficulties. Sometimes, when a relationship breaks down, parents can be so difficult with each other that they forget how their children are being affected. The children sometimes lose out because the parents are too busy fighting each other. That issue is still going through the process. I hope that we will be able to do justice to both sides because, at the end of the day, we want to ensure that the children no longer suffer. That type of issue normally does not go through the court system or through other parts of our system. The Public Petitions Committee is probably the right vehicle for people to raise that issue. In fact, two petitions have almost come together to try to resolve it.
I sit on the committee and I am proud that we have a system in which ordinary people can bring their cases to us. Sometimes, they are issues that deeply affect people’s everyday lives. Petitioners can come to the committee and speak to people who they perceive to have power and who can engage with others who can try to resolve the issues or, more importantly, consider legislation. A petition can sometimes give the Government another opportunity to look at the legislation that is in place and consider whether it is effective or ineffective. The committee gives people an opportunity to make their point at a very high level, which is important.
I come on to the most important aspect. The review suggests that there will not be a lot of change in the type of cases that come to the committee. It also suggests that most petitions are brought forward by a certain element of the community, with a certain academic background and the ability to research and write down petitions. That is all well and good, but one thing that is missing from the committee is engagement with our minority communities. Very few minority communities have had the opportunity to engage with the committee. We need to do some work on that. That is not in any way meant as a criticism of anybody; it just means that there is an element that we need to engage with.
I am happy and proud to serve on the committee, which does a wonderful job. Everybody who is involved in it is trying very hard. I hope that we all continue to serve the people of Scotland and ensure that their hopes and aspirations are met.
I am pleased to contribute to the debate, especially as there has been some negative coverage of the Public Petitions Committee in the media in recent months. It is heartening to know that the review of the public petitions process found that people who petition the Scottish Parliament find it to be a positive experience. However, as the report suggests, there is always room for improvement.
The committee’s report highlights that more can be done to further strengthen the reputation of the petitions process through greater transparency and engagement. Therefore, the committee already plans to increase engagement with the public at a pilot event next month, where it will try to understand why certain demographics are under-represented by asking people for their views about the system and whether it represents, or is seen to present, a barrier to their participation.
I am sure we are all keen to ensure that the Parliament remains open and accessible to the people whom it represents. The public petitions process was intended to be one of the main mechanisms for achieving that, and we must continue to ensure that the system remains effective.
Other legislatures have contacted the Parliament to find out how we conduct the petitions process, but there is of course an opportunity for us to look at how it is done elsewhere. For example, the National Assembly for Wales and the UK Parliament publish information about proposals that are received but do not go on to be lodged as petitions. Of course, there have been calls for such information to be made public in Scotland in recent months.
Our process for progressing petitions remains relatively simple when compared to processes in other Parliaments in the UK, Europe and elsewhere. According to the review, the stipulation in other Parliaments that petitions must include the names and e-mail addresses of a certain number of supporters or obtain a set number of signatures before they become admissible, such as in Canada, or eligible for a Government response or debate, such as in the UK, creates a barrier to participation that, I am thankful to say, does not exist in Scotland. We should be proud of that fact. However, the report also shows a much higher percentage of inadmissible petitions in Scotland than in Wales and Ireland, so there is a strong argument that suggests measures should be introduced to increase transparency in the decision-making process.
That said, there have been successes among the petitions that were admissible. Some have already been mentioned. The one that sticks in my mind as the most helpful was the petition on, and our subsequent inquiry into, tackling child sexual exploitation in Scotland, which resulted in the Scottish Government announcing a strategic national action plan. We also had a petition that called for stronger national health service support for chronic pain sufferers, which led to the Scottish Government’s announcement of a new centre for chronic pain last year. The former convener, David Stewart, mentioned that.
The minister referred to the successful petition to recognise, restore and list the Tinkers’ Heart in Argyll as a monument of national historic significance, despite significant resistance at the beginning from the landowner and Historic Scotland.
There was also a petition by school pupils to have wi-fi on all CalMac ferries. That one has been only partially successful: no CalMac ferry on which I travelled in the past few months had wi-fi. However, I believe that the ferry that the petitioners use between Oban and Barra has wi-fi; those school students must have a feeling of empowerment, having secured wi-fi at least for the ferry users from their local community.
Other petitions have resulted in successes such as bringing about better access to cancer drugs, lifting the cap on discretionary housing payments for people affected by the bedroom tax and even designating the Scots pine as Scotland’s national tree.
Although the committee has had a number of successes, the report makes it clear that more can be done to further strengthen the reputation of the petitions process through greater transparency and engagement, which I and other members of the committee will ensure is set out in the committee’s legacy paper.
We have a petitions process of which we can be proud. Let us ensure that it stays that way.
I, too, take great pleasure in speaking in the debate. I think that I am currently the longest-serving member of the Public Petitions Committee, with almost eight and a half years’ membership. Some people would say that that was a punishment, but it has been a pleasure to serve on the committee. I have done so under five conveners, starting with Frank McAveety in 2007. Rhona Brankin took over, then, in this session of the Parliament, David Stewart, John Pentland and, latterly, Michael McMahon.
It has been interesting to see the petitions that come forward and the issues that we are faced with on an almost fortnightly basis.
This report follows on from previous reports that have been presented to the committee. There was one in 2006, by Christopher Carman, and another in 2009, which made a number of recommendations to the committee about how we should take forward our work. The report that has been produced by Gareth James, which we are discussing today, also helps our consideration of how the committee is moving forward.
Other members have referred to the petitions that we have dealt with, some successful, others less so. The drugs policy petitions come to mind. Members have mentioned the mesh implant petition, which has been successful in highlighting that issue to many women in Scotland, and the petition on the register of interests for members of the Scottish judiciary, which still rumbles on and which we hope to conclude fairly soon. Other interesting petitions include the one about funding for St Margaret’s hospice. Those petitions have been supported by local members and other MSPs who have come to the committee to speak on behalf of the petitioners. One of the valuable things about the committee is that members feel confident about coming along to contribute. Their contributions to the debates in the committee are welcomed, because they help us understand the local issues and some issues that the petitioners might not be able to express. With regard to the petition on the Tinkers’ Heart of Argyll, I am sure that Michael Russell would like to take some credit in relation to not only his support for Jess Smith’s petition, but the work that he did behind the scenes.
Most of the petitioners whose petitions we have dealt with have said that they have been satisfied with the process. However, there is a difficulty around those petitions that have not been heard in this session of Parliament. Last summer, an investigative journalist—who is also a former member of the Scottish Parliament and the Public Petitions Committee—identified, via a freedom of information request, that nearly two thirds of the petitions that were submitted to Parliament were not heard by the committee.
I want to clarify what Mr Wilson just said. It did not require an FOI request to get that information. There was a simple request by someone who had an interest in the subject. It is wrong to try to create the impression that someone had to dig in to what the Public Petitions Committee does via an FOI when, in fact, the clerks made the information readily available following a simple request.
Mr McMahon was not a member of the committee at the time when the issue was raised. The committee discussed the matter at the time and surprise was expressed by the majority of members about the number of submissions that did not formally go forward to be heard by the committee.
It will be important to consider the socioeconomic demographics of those who make submissions to the committee, not only those whose petitions are heard by the committee. That will enable us to determine what level of support and assistance is required by people who want to make that important submission to the Parliament. Support seems to have been provided to petitioners in the past but does not seem to be currently available.
I wish the Public Petitions Committee every success and hope that future members of the Scottish Parliament recognise the role and the value of the Public Petitions Committee and continue to support it in every way that they can.
I congratulate the minister on his brevity, which allows much more time for the backbenchers to express their views on a committee that is, in essence, a creature of the backbenchers. It is not attached to a particular minister; it represents the people whom we represent in a way and to an extent that no other committee does.
I have been a member of the Scottish Parliament since 2001 and, from the very outset, I have found myself engaged with the Public Petitions Committee, sitting alongside many of my constituents. I cannot think that a single one of them who has come here has been other than delighted with the opportunity to put their case to Parliament, if not always equally delighted with the outcome. When the Public Petitions Committee gets a case, the odds are that it is a hard case. Everything else has been tried and the petitioner has come to Parliament as a last resort. That is not universally true, but it is certainly true of many of the cases that come before the committee.
Jackson Carlaw talked about debates in Parliament being pedestrian. A quick look at the dictionary shows that one could apply 41 alternative descriptions. We beat ourselves up an awful lot. In the Public Petitions Committee, there is lively debate and discussion, often initiated by the people who bring their concerns to that committee. We should look at that as a model of what we can do.
It is one way, but not the only way in which our constituents can engage with us. We are not typical of the people of Scotland. We are captured and held hostage in Edinburgh for three days a week, 36 weeks a year—about a third of the year—so we are, to some extent, disconnected from the day-to-day concerns that constituents and others bring to the Public Petitions Committee and to us in our surgeries, our correspondence, on our websites, in our Twitter feeds and so on.
Today’s debate has focused on the people who submit petitions. That is good, because there is always a danger, when we are looking at our processes, that we will focus on our internal view of how successful they are in a parliamentary context, whereas the reality is that we should look at such processes from an external point of view and ask, “How does this serve the people of Scotland?” In relation to the population of our country, the number of petitions is infinitesimal. It is 3 per cent of 1 per cent of the population—a tiny wee fraction.
When, having exhausted all options, I say to my constituents, “Why don’t we think about a petition to Parliament?”—I did that only on Friday, at a surgery—they have never heard of the petitions system. I think that that will be true of the overwhelming majority of people in Scotland. We will have to be more cute about how we open the doors of Parliament and make people realise that the doors are open. The role of weekly newspapers and the national daily press is much diminished, compared to what it used to be. Perhaps there should be a weekly slot on one of the television programmes, even if it is one of the local TV stations that are popping up all over Scotland. We should bid to get some space on there to tell people what goes on.
There is much that we could say about the committee. However, I end by saying one particular thing, about which there has been some reference, which is the role of clerks. We cannot overestimate the value of the clerks in helping people who approach the committee with an idea for a petition. The clerks help to turn those ideas into something that enables a petitioner to come before the committee and speak to their petition with confidence, knowing that it is properly constructed and proposes something that the Parliament can do. It is entirely appropriate that we thank the clerks, on behalf of the people of Scotland, for the superb work that they do. This is the most valuable committee in Parliament. Abolish Parliament if you wish, but keep this committee.
I would like to develop the point that I made in my earlier contribution about the way in which we might more effectively advertise the parliamentary petitions process to the wider community through members’ newsletters. I find it interesting that the members of Parliament who are most enthusiastic about the Public Petitions Committee and the petitions process are invariably those members who have sat on the Public Petitions Committee at some point and had first-hand experience of the work that it can do.
Members queue up to have members’ business debates in this Parliament on the three occasions each week that those debates take place. However, they perhaps do not fully appreciate the opportunity that is open to them, through the parliamentary petitions process, to represent an equally important issue, in conjunction with a constituent. They may not realise that they can do so in a way that would allow that petition or issue to be developed in more detail, through the evidence session that would take place and the opportunities that are open to the committee thereafter to pursue the issue with ministers and other external bodies on the petitioner’s behalf. Members have not yet realised that there is huge benefit in associating themselves more directly with the opportunity presented by the parliamentary petitions process to represent constituents.
In the time that I have been on the committee, we have had some external meetings, with mixed success. We had a successful session in Inveraray on a lovely sunny afternoon—lots of people came. I remember a wet day in Dumfries that was perhaps slightly less rewarding in terms of public engagement. I tootled up to Oban on the train—it took most of the day—to attend a workshop that 15 people were scheduled to attend but which six actually did. I know that that speaks volumes about my draw for the public on the ballot. It is easy to say that the committee and the Parliament should do more to promote the process. It is, however, interesting to me that when we have done so, we have not seen the engagement that we might have desired.
The definition of success with a petition is not necessarily that everything the petitioner wants is achieved. In many cases, the issue is picked up by ministers or other agencies and the petitioner continues to be engaged with it as it is taken forward, long after the petition has been closed. Joe FitzPatrick mentioned the Tinkers’ Heart petition; David Stewart mentioned the chronic pain petition; Hanzala Malik mentioned Mr and Mrs Mundell and the farming petition; and Angus MacDonald spoke about the child sexual exploitation petition.
Several members also referred to Lord Gill. I do not know whether David Stewart is aware that Lord Gill generously deigned to grace us with his noble presence—eventually. He came before the committee and, by way of explanation or justification, offered his view of the matter that we had tried so long and hard to encourage him to give.
It is not just that the ultimate aim of the petition is achieved but that the underlying issues go on to be pursued in a way that would not otherwise happen. That is a great credit to Parliament. I say to members who are elected for the next parliamentary session that they should understand the potential of the Public Petitions Committee and how it offers them more of an opportunity to represent their constituents’ best interests than the floor of the chamber or the other, more traditional committees.
This has been an excellent debate with lots of consensus. I am grateful for Jackson Carlaw’s update on Lord Gill. I had missed the fact that he came before the committee. Obviously it was something I said that meant he did not wish to come when I was convener. In fairness, I met him with another member—I just want to put that on the record.
To summarise Jackson Carlaw’s argument, he is very much a champion of the Public Petitions Committee; indeed, everyone who has spoken today has also been a champion of the committee, irrespective of whether they are still a member of the committee. In theory, all committees exist to keep the Executive in check, but the Public Petitions Committee has done that particularly well.
I put on the record my particular thanks to Nigel Don, who intervened earlier in the debate. When I was convener, Mr Don was like an honorary member of the committee because he appeared before it so often to talk about a memorable junction in Aberdeenshire. I wish him every success with getting that through Transport Scotland.
A point that no one else has mentioned is that local authorities have picked up on the great work that the petitions system has carried out. It is also interesting to note that national Governments and Parliaments from across the world have visited our Parliament to see how the system operates. For example, the Welsh Assembly, which has taken an innovative approach, learned quite a lot from the way in which we operate.
Kenny MacAskill made the important point that many petitioners see the Public Petitions Committee as an operator of last resort, and we should always remember that. He also made a point about balancing meetings in the Parliament, on the committee’s fortnightly cycle, with getting out to disadvantaged communities. As John Wilson said, reports have picked up on the fact that the committee needs to do more outreach work.
I make an honourable mention of the Presiding Officer’s innovative Parliament day approach. My experience of the committee’s visit to the Western Isles was that it was a great success. We spent three or four days in advance of Parliament day ensuring that we had a petition on wi-fi on CalMac, which Angus MacDonald mentioned. That ensured that there was demand, which meant that Parliament day worked. Afterwards, we had a reception that more than 200 people—a cross-section of the community—turned up to. That is an extremely good example of best practice.
Hanzala Malik made an important point about the case of milk quotas in Argyll and Bute, which I whole-heartedly support, as I was heavily involved in it. He also made an important point about the need for more engagement with minority communities. In effect, Angus MacDonald made the same point, because he said that we must look carefully at underrepresented groups and ensure that the Parliament’s principles of openness and accessibility apply to the committee as well.
I forgot—and I am glad that Angus MacDonald reminded us—about the excellent work of Barnardo’s, which asked us to do a major inquiry into child sexual exploitation, the recommendations of which the Government by and large picked up. That was a lot of work for all the committees. Predecessor Public Petitions Committees have done fantastic work since 1999, but all committees should all carefully consider doing major inquiries.
John Wilson gets the Parliament’s long-service award, for being the longest-serving committee member to date. He made some interesting points about admissibility and socioeconomic appraisal of prospective petitioners.
I think that I am running out of time, Presiding Officer, but I always like to mention Stewart Stevenson. He talked about the committee being a creature of back benchers and about how we need a TV slot to advertise what we are doing. I echo his comments about the great work that the committee clerks carry out.
This has been an interesting debate. I endorse the conclusions of the independent review of the petitions process. The committee is excellent and should keep up the good work. I fully endorse the comments that have been made today.
Given that I sat on the first Public Petitions Committee, it is important for me to remember the spirit of John McAllion, who was its convener. His pioneering spirit certainly took the committee forward.
Anyway, enough of my self-indulgence. I call David Torrance to wind up the debate on behalf of the committee.
I am pleased to close the debate on behalf of the committee. The importance of the petitions process is accepted across the chamber. It is a core part of meeting our founding principles, and interest in our process extends across the world. A willingness to learn from our experience of the operation of the process will keep that process at the forefront of good practice. The insights that we gain through reviewing the system will ensure that we do not lose sight of the wider picture and the value of the process to the public in Scotland.
The Public Petitions Committee is unique in the Parliament in terms of the variety of subjects that it considers and because those subjects are determined by members of the public. The reasons for petitions being brought forward are similarly varied. What each petition and petitioner have in common is an interest in the design or delivery of public services in Scotland.
Petitions can stem from the most tragic of circumstances. People are willing to come forward with sometimes deeply personal stories and a commitment to ensure that others do not face the same difficulties that they have faced. We must have an equal commitment to hearing those stories and carrying out the scrutiny that can help to find solutions.
Petitioners who were interviewed for the review’s research were asked for their view of the purpose of the petitions process. One petitioner, Beth Morrison, said that she thought it was
“To give the ordinary person a voice … to me this has given me, my child, and the other families that I represent, a voice, a legitimate voice, because it’s out there in the Parliament, it’s out there, it’s public information. It’s given me an outlet, and, hopefully, it will bring about real change.”
The research notes that
“as long as people are treated fairly, or perceive that they have been treated fairly, the more trust they will have for political institutions, such as the Scottish Parliament, and the more willing they will be to accept political decisions, including those of the Committee.”
It is important to recognise that point, because the petitions process cannot guarantee the outcomes that petitioners may desire, and it would be misleading to suggest otherwise. What we can guarantee is that every petition that is lodged will be given consideration by the Parliament, petitioners’ views will be taken into account at every stage of consideration and petitioners will be informed of progress throughout the process.
The report recognises the areas where we can do more. Actions that can be taken include better promotion of the process so that people know that it is there for them to use and that the Parliament will listen when they do.
Looking to the future, the collection and use of high-quality data will help us to maintain a robust process, demonstrate fairness and know that all voices are being heard. There is a range of options for doing that and our successor committee will have to adopt and test new practices. If the experience and knowledge that we have gained in this session can be shared and used, I am confident that we will have an even stronger process in the years to come.
Speaking for the current committee, I am grateful to members for their contributions to the debate and glad that they have taken the opportunity to debate and discuss the matter in a meaningful way, to enable us to take forward their recommendations into the next session of Parliament.
I want to run something past Mr Torrance, because he has more experience than I have. What about the petitioners who have been unsuccessful? Is there room for their petitions to go through either members’ business or perhaps even through parliamentary motions? That might help the process.
I agree with Hanzala Malik on that point. Petitioners who have brought petitions forward to the committee that have not been successful should have another route through the Parliament.
I thank my fellow committee members, both past and present. Thanks must also be given to the committee’s support staff for their hard work and advice, which have been invaluable to members in the many varied tasks that they undertake.
David Stewart, Jackson Carlaw and John Wilson all mentioned the success of the mesh petition. The evidence session was one of the most emotional that I have sat through, not only for the petitioners but for those of us who were there on the day.
Hanzala Malik spoke about engagement with ethnic minorities—or rather, the lack of such engagement by the Parliament and the Public Petitions Committee. We need to look at that to see whether we can increase engagement with groups out there that we cannot reach.
I congratulate John Wilson on being the longest-serving member of the committee.
Stewart Stevenson came up with the really novel idea that we could go out and engage with the general public by advertising on TV to see whether we could reach more of them. That is perhaps an idea that the Public Petitions Committee could take on.
Angus MacDonald and Joe FitzPatrick mentioned the Tinkers’ Heart, which I will come to in a moment. Michael McMahon talked about the quality of the engagement during the committee’s visit to Inveraray. Anyone who was there will know that it was one of those meetings at which the public engaged with the committee. It is that to which I will turn now.
The meeting of the Public Petitions Committee that took place in Inveraray in September 2015 was an excellent example of how engagement between local communities and the Scottish Parliament can be beneficial. Such engagement allows people to feel not only that they are an integral part of the petitions process, but that their contributions will be taken into account in determining a final outcome.
It was heartening to see that the 14th Public Petitions Committee meeting in 2015, which was held on a glorious day in Inveraray, was well attended by members of the public. The reaction of Jess Smith, following her submission on and successful conclusion to the Tinkers’ Heart petition, was indicative of just how important it is to members of the public to feel that they are a part of the whole process.
During the question-and-answer session, Alan Reid, the former MP for Argyll and Bute, not only thanked the committee for coming to Inveraray, but commented on the Westminster parliamentary committee system and how it could learn from the Scottish Parliament.
The reaction of the public involved to that meeting serves to illustrate how advantageous such a process is in providing a positive experience for many communities and making them feel that their voice is being heard and that their opinions are valued. It also showed the openness and willingness of the Scottish Parliament to engage with the public in their own backyard on issues that are important to them and will impact on their lives in some way.
The debate has highlighted the importance of the petitions process in raising issues of concern and acting as a gateway to wider engagement with the Parliament. It seems appropriate to close the debate not with my words but with the words of a petitioner, who wrote:
“I have always been very engaged with Parliament, but I definitely felt more enthused by Parliament. I feel it’s a very good organisation. I didn’t doubt it in the first place, but I just feel it’s a really good organisation we’ve got … I haven’t written to my MSPs on any issues for a while, but I definitely feel more confident about writing to parliamentarians.”