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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 Kenny MacAskill Kenny MacAskill Scottish National Party

I heartily endorse the comments that were made initially by the current committee convener, which have been endorsed by every member across the chamber who has spoken so far. To some extent, the chamber seems to be echoing the committee, where we tend to operate by consensus, which is a good thing.

I was not aware of the precise history of petitions and I am grateful to David Stewart for his input on that. However, I remember that when I first came into this Parliament in 1999, the consultative steering group was taking pride in bringing in new aspects and the openness that was going to be created here. Part of that approach involved the Public Petitions Committee, how it would operate and how we would interact, not just through the committee but in our daily lives, with the people we are privileged to represent.

The Parliament has always rightly taken pride in the petitions process. Jackson Carlaw was right to make points about that. Others have learnt from us—even here in the city of Edinburgh, the council has mirrored the process. Its process is slightly different but it builds upon what we have here. There are aspects that the committee has learnt about from elsewhere and conveners have travelled far and wide to make sure that we not only impart what we believe we can contribute but learn from others. That is a good thing.

Until late 2014, I had not experienced the petitions process other than when I occasionally contributed points on behalf of constituents and supported them with their petitions. I also picked up vibes from all those who operated in the committee, either as parliamentarians or as members of the public. It reminded me of my days as a lawyer and of judicial review, which is an outlet when no other option is available. To some extent, the committee is about that. It is not about overt political power. It is not necessarily about moving a direct motion. It is about allowing people to have their say—to have their voice heard—as members have said, on what can sometimes be deeply serious, quite moving issues that are indeed quite stressful for the committee, too. The strain can be etched upon the faces of those who contribute. Sometimes the issues are perhaps more flippant and light-hearted but individuals are entitled to raise them because they feel quite passionate about them.

There are obviously points that have to be learned. There are points that will be put in the legacy paper but some points remain universal. The point has already been made about the benefit of external visits. I have participated in those visits and they were enjoyable. However, we need to think about how we can maximise the benefit for the communities that we visit. I believe that the visits have worked well, but that does not mean that they cannot work better. Again, we have to get the balance right between going around the country and ensuring that we are here for those who wish to petition us. There is a significant volume of such people.

As a committee, we have recently been challenged not simply by the right of people to lodge their petitions but the need to take on board the rights and feelings of others who might be affected. That can be challenging because we have had to consider and work through petitions as a committee so that we do not seem to prejudge any aspect of the petitions but take on board that there could be interference in and an effect upon people’s lives.

Equally, we have to get the balance right between holding inquiries—as has been mentioned, the committee’s inquiries have been remarkably successful and were definitely necessary—and just ensuring that we allow people to give their evidence and have their say, either by lodging a petition and doing what they wish thereafter or by coming to the committee and having their voice heard.

It has been a pleasure to serve on the committee. I believe that we need to build on what was established in the Parliament in 1999. The consensus rightly continues. There are things that can be learned but, equally, there is an awful lot that we just have to maintain.