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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 Stewart Stevenson Stewart Stevenson Scottish National Party

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.