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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

I am pleased to speak today as one of the Public Petitions Committee’s ex-conveners. I spent a very happy four years there, and I see familiar faces in the chamber who were members when I was convener.

Members may know that we have a long tradition of petitions in Scotland. In fact, to give members a little history lesson, if they look back through the mists of time, they will see that David II in the 14th century arguably invented the first petitions system in the world when he gave every subject a right to petition the king. The advent of the Scottish Parliament 700 years later provided an ideal opportunity to resurrect the petitions tradition.

We should not forget that the previous Scottish Parliament, which ended in 1707, also had a petitions system. I asked the Scottish Parliament information centre to give me information about that system. It found an interesting test case in 1605 when a Church of Scotland minister in St Andrews, who wished to move his charge from St Andrews to Edinburgh, petitioned the Scottish Parliament and was awarded a change of charge at £5 a year. I am therefore able to pre-date the Minister for Parliamentary Business’s examples of best practice.

As we all know, the Parliament was founded on four guiding principles, which underpin all areas of its work and not just that of the Public Petitions Committee. Those principles are important to address. We sometimes forget the principle of power sharing between the Parliament, the Scottish Government and the people of Scotland. The other principles are accessibility, openness and participation, accountability and equal opportunities.

I, too, will give examples of successful petitions. They all happen to come from my time as convener, but I stress that I am not trying to take any credit for them. When I considered the difference that can be made, four petitions jumped out at me. Irrespective of who is in power, ministers are required to be chased and departmental chiefs’ heads need to be banged together to get common sense. A petitions committee can do that.

I was most struck by the petition on pain relief; Jackson Carlaw was on the committee when it was considered. We had a pile of constituents and petitioners who had problems with chronic pain. At the time, the only pain relief centre in the United Kingdom was in Bath. I think that Alex Neil was the then health secretary. Following representations on the petition, he agreed that there would be pain relief centres in health boards throughout Scotland. That was a great success.

Another petition that struck me was the one on mesh devices. A series of women turned up to Parliament in wheelchairs. In my nine years in the Parliament and during my previous period in another Parliament, that has probably been the most emotionally charged day that I have ever had, when women explained at first hand their absolutely dreadful experiences with mesh devices. At the committee, the deputy chief medical officer said that women could take legal action if the faults in the mesh devices had caused health problems. However, at that time, a person needed to know the reference number of the mesh device to do that. How bureaucratic can something be? I am glad that, following the great work also done by The Mail on Sunday, which ran a tremendous campaign, a huge success was achieved.

A petition that Chic Brodie—he is not in the chamber—and I were particularly interested in was on a register of interests of the judiciary. Members will recall that we had a fight about whether we could cite the then Lord President to appear before the committee. Chic Brodie, who was the deputy convener, and I managed, with the committee’s support, to meet the Lord President and achieve what I consider to be a breakthrough. That might not fully be the case in the minds of the petitioners, but it is now possible to get a register of sheriffs and judges who have recused—excused—themselves in a court procedure, which did not happen before.

I know that I do not have much time, so my final example is about the petition on democratic and employment rights for young footballers. As a football fan—I declare my interest in Inverness Caley Thistle, who will need all the support that they can get this week, particularly when they play in the Scottish cup tonight—I was appalled to find out about the terrible employment conditions that young footballers had to sign up to. We had the whole football hierarchy in front of us, which I believe achieved some change as well.

Such examples make a difference. The review was excellent, and I agree with every word that my colleague Michael McMahon said.

When I spoke as the committee’s convener in various exotic climes, such as Johannesburg, Belgrade, the National Assembly for Wales and Westminster, I often said that I was an evangelist for the committee. I would like to think that I am still an evangelist for it. However, although we are excellent at representing accountants in Bearsden, we are perhaps not quite as good at representing artisans in Easterhouse. We need to get out and about more and go round disadvantaged estates. That said, the committee is tremendous, and it takes pride in all the work that it has done for the Parliament.