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Public Petitions Process Review

Part of the debate – in the Scottish Parliament on 19th January 2016.

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Photo of Angus MacDonald Angus MacDonald Scottish National Party

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.