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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).