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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 David Stewart David Stewart Labour

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.

Kenny MacAskill, the ex-cabinet secretary, is an important and effective member of the Public Petitions Committee. He talked about the important role of consensus.

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.