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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 Jackson Carlaw Jackson Carlaw Conservative

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.