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3rd Report, 2009 (Session 3)

Inquiry into the public petitions process

Remit and membership

Remit:

To consider public petitions addressed to the Parliament in accordance with these Rules and, in particular, to—

(a) decide in a case of dispute whether a petition is admissible;

(b) decide what action should be taken upon an admissible public petition; and

(c) keep under review the operation of the petitions system.

(Standing Orders of the Scottish Parliament, Rule 6.10)

Membership:

Bill Butler
Nigel Don
Marlyn Glen
Robin Harper
Mr Frank McAveety (Convener)
Anne McLaughlin
Nanette Milne
John Farquhar Munro (Deputy Convener)
John Wilson

Committee Clerking Team:

Clerk to the Committee
Fergus Cochrane

Assistant Clerks
Linda Smith
Franck David

Committee Assistant
Eileen Martin

Inquiry into the public petitions process

The Committee reports to the Parliament as follows—

1. This is the report of a year long inquiry by the Public Petitions Committee into the public petitions process. This inquiry looked at how to improve—

  • awareness of the existence of the public petitions process, particularly amongst hard to reach groups;
  • participation in the process itself; and
  • the scrutiny role fulfilled by the Committee.

Format of report

2. The report is being published in both hard copy and e-format. However, the written submissions received during the inquiry are available in e-format only through the inquiry webpage.1 The webpage also has links to the Official Report (the oral transcript) for each ‘inquiry’ meeting.

Background

Was there a need for this inquiry?

3. Put simply, yes there was. There is recognition that, as such a public facing committee, we must continuously investigate and consider initiatives and ideas to improve engagement with, and the participation of, the public in the public petitions process and the scrutiny of public petitions. Furthermore, there is regard and support at home and abroad, for both the public petitions system and the role of the Committee and its commitment to provide an efficient and effective public petitions process.

4. There were essentially three ‘events’ which pointed to the need for our inquiry—

5. Petition PE1065 was very much the catalyst for the inquiry and we thank Young Scot, in particular Rajiv Joshi, for bringing it forward. They provided us with the opportunity to take forward an investigation and discussion into the fundamental issues which underpin our public petitions system (and wider questions about the role of our new Parliament). We expand on these themes throughout the report.

6. Young Scot made an oral presentation before the Committee at our meeting on 23 October 2007.6 During our discussion, the option of taking the issues identified in the petition forward through an inquiry was raised. We agreed to further consider this in principle. We considered the petition again at our meeting on 19 February 2008.7 At our meeting on 24 June 2008,8 we agreed to conduct an inquiry into the public petitions process with the following remit—

"With regard to petition PE1065 and the public petitions process—

  • investigate, identify and implement measures to improve awareness of, access to, and participation in the public petitions process;
  • dentify and implement initiatives to assist in the effective and efficient processing of public petitions, including what role ICT can play; and
  • nvestigate existing methods of scrutiny of public petitions and implement new methods or practices to further improve scrutiny;

in order to bring about benefits to key players in the public petitions process such as potential and actual petitioners, the Public Petitions Committee, the wider Parliament including its other committees, the Scottish Government and other public bodies."

7. By adopting this remit, we wanted to identify and implement improvements to the public petitions process that are of benefit to all key players: potential and actual petitioners, the Committee, the wider Parliament including other committees, and public bodies in Scotland including the Scottish Government. This report discusses the improvements we have identified and sets out how they will be implemented.

8. We were also mindful of the founding principles which underpin the existence of the public petitions process. For example, that one person, without the need for any support from a MSP (unlike the petitioning systems in many other legislatures), can bring a petition to their Parliament for investigation demonstrates our commitment to the founding principle of openness and accessibility and the sharing of power. Over the course of the last year, there have been several high profile public petitions brought before us. For example, access to cancer treatment drugs (PE1108); mandatory custodial sentencing for knife carrying (PE1171); school bus safety (PE1098 and PE1223); the rights of healthy gay/bisexual men to donate blood (PE1135). Without individuals bringing petitions on these matters forward, based on their experiences, would the issues have been considered by policymakers? Perhaps at some point yes, but petitioning provides a direct route into the Parliament for the citizens who want these issues considered.

9. Finally, we wanted to follow up the 2006 research by Dr Christopher Carman (then of the University of Glasgow) and commissioned by the previous Committee (Assessment of the Scottish Parliament's Public Petitions System 1999 – 2006).9 This gave a largely positive view of the public petitions system and concluded there was much for the Parliament to be pleased about. There were however some issues that needed to be looked at. In particular, the research showed that the average petitioner is older, more middle-class, better educated and lives in a more affluent area than the average Scot. The proportion of petitioners who are white, heterosexual and able-bodied also exceeds Scottish averages.

10. However, overall, the research showed that the Committee has provided a real and effective route into the Parliament for a wide range of people and organisations to raise a broad range of issues. It listed significant “successes” that petitioners have had using the system, but also mentioned that for many the success is being able to be heard at the heart of the Parliament in the first place, regardless of outcome.

11. Through our inquiry, we wanted to address any areas where we could do better and also build on the many positive aspects of a public petitioning system which has developed a world class reputation and is used as a template for other legislatures.

12. The public petitions process has evolved hugely since the Parliament’s re-establishment in 1999. This Committee, and earlier Public Petitions Committees, have been committed to continuous monitoring and improvement of our procedures and many changes have been made in the light of experience in managing and processing petitions. Some came about following detailed examination, such as the Standing Order Rule changes made following the Procedures Committee’s inquiry and report (2005) on Admissibility and Closure of Public Petitions. Other changes and improvements have been introduced at an administrative level.

How did the inquiry go forward?

13. We agreed our approach to the inquiry at our meeting on 24 June 2008.10 In considering the scope of the inquiry, we agreed that it should focus only on engagement with the public petitions process and not wider issues of engaging with the Parliament or individual MSPs. However, the questions that arose in relation to how we more actively engage people in the public petitions process will, in many cases, be the same questions asked about people engaging in the democratic process generally, such as increasing voter participation at elections.

14. We also widened out ‘engagement’ so as not to focus solely on forms of information and communication technologies (ICT). Why, for example, individuals or groups from ethnic minority communities are not participating in the public petitions process generally may relate to more fundamental and philosophical issues surrounding the relevance of the petitions process (and the Scottish Parliament) in addressing the matters of concern to them.

15. Having agreed an overarching remit, we identified a number of initial questions within each part of the remit. This helped define the limits within which the inquiry operated. These questions were—

Investigate, identify and implement measures to improve awareness of, access to, and participation in the public petitions process

  • Are you aware of the existence of the Parliament’s public petitions process?
  • How did you find out about it?
  • Would you say you found this easy or difficult?
  • How do you think we might improve awareness of the public petitions system?
  • In terms of the material produced about the public petitions system, do you think this is helpful, understandable and easily accessible?
  • What improvements do you think we could make to the information we make available about the public petitions process?
  • What other information do you think we should provide and why?
  • In terms of information, has anything hindered your access to, or participation in, the public petitions process?

Identify and implement initiatives to assist in the effective and efficient processing of petitions, including what role ICT can play

  • How can the processing of petitions be improved?
  • What further methods could the Public Petitions Committee implement to process petitions more effectively?
  • What role can ICT play in making the processing of petitions more effective and efficient?
  • In relation to e-petitions, how can the Scottish Parliament’s e-petitions procedure be enhanced?
  • What additional features would you like to see on the e-petitions website?

Investigate existing methods of scrutiny of petitions and implement new methods or practices to further improve scrutiny

  • What are your views on the current methods of scrutiny that are used by the Public Petitions Committee?
  • What further initiatives and methods could the Public Petitions Committee use to improve the scrutiny of petitions?
  • From your experience as a petitioner, what would you like to have seen done differently?
  • What do you think worked well and how do we improve that further?

16. We launched a general call for evidence on 26 June 200811 and issued letters to around 600 individuals and organisations, including all petitioners since May 2007. Our inquiry homepage12 set out details of the inquiry and allowed people to track progress of our work. We allowed 12 weeks for people to respond, this being the time recommended in consultation best practice.

17. Our first inquiry meeting took place at Holyrood on 4 November 2008.13 The Scottish Council for Voluntary Organisations, Scottish Independent Advocacy Alliance, Young Scot, the Hansard Society and the Scottish Disability Equality Forum took part in a round table discussion on broad petition issues. We saw this discussion as a scene-setting one, which assisted us in identifying some key points which we could then pursue when we took the inquiry out to other parts of Scotland (as we agreed on 24 June 2008) to discuss further with members of the public. We agreed that these external meetings would be in the south, west and north of the country. The venues and dates were—

  • Berwickshire High School, Duns: 2 December 200814 (the first time any committee of the Parliament had been to Berwickshire);
  • John Wheatley College, Easterhouse Campus: 27 January 2009;15
  • Fraserburgh Academy. Fraserburgh: 30 March 200916 (the first time any committee of the Parliament had been to Fraserburgh).

18. We also held a round table discussion on 21 April 200917 when we invited a number of people, including some former members of the Consultative Steering Group to take part. The discussion at the meeting focused on the common issues emerging from the evidence given to us. For example—

  • is our role clearly defined?
  • has the public petitions system improved through its evolution over the last 10 years?
  • how does it stand up against founding principles?
  • does the public petitions process provide a true route of participation?
  • what is its future direction in terms of utilising information and communication technologies?
  • what new methods of civic engagement might the committee wish to consider?

19. As we wanted to measure the public petitions process against founding principles the meeting generated a particularly interesting and useful discussion. The contributions made stimulated further interest in how we can evolve the public petitions process and the Committee to meet the expectations of the citizens we serve. While many of the issues raised and ideas set out had been on our radar, it was encouraging to know that we appear to be thinking along the same lines as some of the influential commentators on how the Parliament operates. There were however some fresh ideas and suggestions that emerged which have captured our imagination and which we are taking forward.

20. Given the public nature of our work and what the inquiry was seeking to do, we agreed to run our external meetings as ‘public meetings’ or as one of the participants at our Fraserburgh meeting called it, the “Question Time” format. Traditionally, only witnesses invited to appear before any parliamentary committee would have the opportunity to answer questions put by members of that committee. We wanted to create more of a two-way discussion with everyone who attended. This was a new format, but it was important that we gave every person who came along to the meetings the opportunity, the forum, to have their say and tell us what they thought about the petitioning system and where improvements can be made.

21. At this point we want to thank each and every person who came along to these meetings and who participated in them. We were deeply encouraged by the level of enthusiasm that people have for the public petitions system and for the constructive and informed ideas they gave us. Many of our key recommendations stem directly from what people said at these meetings.

22. Returning to the meeting format, questions and discussion were geared towards generating and encouraging views to be expressed by, essentially, everyone in the public gallery. We asked questions about the public petitions process, forms of engagement and other issues and any member of the audience who wanted to respond could do so. We believe this created a more relaxed setting and encouraged more involvement in our work and we were very pleased with the participation we got. As George McGuinness, the chair of the Baillieston community reference group said at the Easterhouse meeting—

“Politicians keep saying that it is the people's Parliament. One easy solution is to bring the Parliament to the people, instead of us having to go to the Parliament all the time. I applaud what the committee is doing today. I never thought that I would sit in a room with MSPs, ministers and people like that. It is the people's Parliament, so we must start bringing the Parliament to the people by having much more of what has happened today. Thank you.” 18

Or as Ben Black, a pupil at Berwickshire High School said—

“The best way of getting people like us involved in the committee is to do things like this. Everyone here now knows about the committee.” 19

23. It is encouraging that this meeting format has since been adopted by some other committees of the Parliament.

24. It is worth drawing attention to a particular approach adopted by us in relation to the venues for these external meetings. We specifically chose schools for two of the meetings. This was to involve one of the particular groups of people who traditionally have not engaged with the petitioning system: young people. By having the meetings in Berwickshire High School and Fraserburgh Academy, we were able to meet, speak to and listen to the pupils who came along. We were particularly pleased that the pupils themselves generated their own petitions for these meetings.

25. This proved to be particularly beneficial. We were able to go directly into schools, demonstrate to the pupils and local people who came along what we do, and discuss some petitions which had emerged from the schools and that local community. People had the opportunity to watch their Parliament at work, to speak directly to the Committee, and hopefully leave with a more positive impression and a better understanding of what we do.

26. We are indebted to all the pupils, teachers and school staff for helping to make these meetings such a success. In particular, we want to thank Rob Kelly, Tim Clancey and Ken Walker and pupils Robin Gillie, Grant McWilliam, Janie Orr, Ben Black, Abbey Nevins and Garry Pearson at Berwickshire High School and John Noble and Alan Morrison and pupils Mark Buchan, Jenna McDonald and Fiona Henderson at Fraserburgh Academy for the fantastic presentations they made on their petitions. Over and above this, the pupils at both schools put forward to us some very helpful suggestions on ways to engage more usefully with younger people. Some of these were inevitably IT based but some were not. We are pleased to say that most of their suggestions are to be implemented by us and we address these later in the report.

27. We also welcomed the large public turnout at our Easterhouse meeting (where we ran out of seats!) and again the useful suggestions made by those who came along. What was encouraging about each of these three meetings was that the discussions about the public petitions process generated so many positive and passionate contributions and that people seemed to find what we do of interest and could see the possibilities which petitioning can provide as a worthwhile engagement route into the Parliament. It showed that people do want to talk about their Parliament and have good ideas on how to make what we do more relevant to them. That is what we need to tap into.

28. We had previously indicated our desire to meet in each of the eight Parliament regions during the life of this Committee. Given the extremely positive responses from the people who came along, and the truly enjoyable experience it was for the Committee in discussing where we can do better, we can see that there are clear benefits to be gained from these meetings. Indeed, the research we commissioned states that—

‘overall, feedback on the outreach events was positive. Interviewees felt that the meetings were interesting and well organised. Moreover, they were pleased to have been given the opportunity to speak to the MSPs on the Committee and the Parliament clerks.’ 20

29. We need to build on that. It is appropriate to here set out our first inquiry conclusion.

30. The Committee commits to undertake a further series of external meetings in various parts of Scotland including one further external meeting in 2009 and three external meetings during 2010. It is also our intention to meet, where possible, in locations where no other committee of the Parliament has visited.

31. We also commit to encouraging two-way dialogue with the people who come along to these meetings and to investigate other ways in which we can involve them in the meetings themselves. We will discuss this with our Education and Community Partnerships team here in the Parliament.

32. We will carefully think about the venues, the format of the meetings (to try and make them less “scary” as Hannah Gray, a pupil at Fraserburgh Academy said21) and also the outreach work we could do around the meeting itself.

33. As set out above, we have specifically targeted schools as suitable venues for these external meetings for the reasons given. While we were really pleased with the presence of pupils from the schools at these meetings and their involvement, we appreciate there is more to be done in terms of really generating interest about how to engage with the Parliament. Therefore, in response to the suggestion by Louise Perry at Fraserburgh Academy,22 we will take forward her suggestion to see whether we could run a ‘young peoples petitions’ meeting where we invite only young people to bring forward petitions which we then discuss at a Committee meeting solely for that purpose. We will also consider the scope for similar meetings that might focus on petitions from disability groups, equalities organisations etc.

34. In addition, we will investigate with our Education and Community Partnerships team here in the Parliament, how we can run presentations alongside our external meetings to explain more about the work of the Committee which local schoolchildren, disability, community and equalities groups and others would be encouraged to attend and participate in.

35. Alongside our invitation to individuals and organisations to submit written material, and the series of public meetings at which we took soundings from the public, we also agreed on 24 June 2008 to commission external research to follow-up one of the main findings of the 2006 research (Assessment of the Scottish Parliament's Public Petitions System 1999 – 2006), that the average petitioner is likely to be an older, white, middle-class, better educated male.

36. We were interested, for example, in why it is that certain groups in society, e.g. ethnic minorities, do not use the public petitions system as frequently as others. Through the Scottish Parliament Information Centre, Ipsos MORI, along with Dr Christopher Carman (who carried out the 2006 research), were commissioned to take forward this specific piece of research.

37. The aim of this work was to provide the Committee with actionable research-based information on how we can increase both the awareness and use of the public petitions system among the range of underserved and hard to reach social groups which currently make little or no use of the system. In achieving this aim the research had the following objectives. To—

  • identify those underserved and hard to reach social groupings which traditionally do not engage with the political process;
  • explore the reasons why different socio-economic groups, including these underserved groups, use, or do not use, engagement mechanisms such as the public petitions system including identifying the barriers and disincentives to engagement in the public petitions process;
  • suggest practical ways in which the Public Petitions Committee can make the public petitions process more relevant to such social groups including communication methods and materials; and
  • identify the skills and tools necessary to engage with such groups and suggest how these might be acquired or improved.

38. A copy of the research study, Engaging the public in the Scottish Parliament’s petitions process, is attached at Appendix A to this report (e-version only). We appreciate the work which the research team undertook and welcome the findings which broadly mirror many of the suggestions which members of the public put forward at our external meetings. We believe this research provides a strong case for the conclusions we reach and actions going forward that are set out in this report. We discussed the findings with the research team at our meeting on 19 May 2009.23

39. We refer back to the research findings as we address individual points later in this report but, broadly, while those who knew about the public petitions process spoke highly of it, the research did highlight that there was a general lack of awareness of the existence of the public petitions process (indeed, even of what the Scottish Parliament does). That of course is a key component of this inquiry: the need to increase awareness of the public petitions process (which may have spin offs in terms of improving peoples general awareness of what the Parliament does and how it matters to them). The point was emphasised by Mark Diffley from Ipsos MORI when he spoke to us at our meeting on 19 May 2009

“The key finding is that the public are generally uninformed about the Scottish Parliament's public petitions process, as well as about the role of the Parliament more generally.” 24

And—

“The issue is not just around people not being aware of the petitions system; rather it is that people are generally unaware of the powers of the Scottish Parliament and what it can and cannot address.”25

So what was the Committee looking to do?

40. Essentially, we had two goals for this inquiry. First, to increase and improve people’s awareness of the existence of the public petitions process (that it is there, why it is there, what it does etc) and second, improve petitioners’ participation in it and what we do with petitions when we get them. Basically, awareness and scrutiny.

41. However, central to this is the need for balance. A recognised and crucial element of our public petitions process is having a dedicated Committee charged with scrutinising each admissible petition lodged and providing the forum for these to then be discussed and investigated, sometimes with direct petitioner involvement. This is done in a visible and public way so that people can see what the Committee is doing and petitioners are able to indicate to us precisely what they would like us to do. Achieving notable successes through this scrutiny process demonstrates the importance of having a focal point for where petitions end up. To not have this leads to the question, why have a petitioning system? It would be disrespectful to petitioners to have a process which encourages public petitions to be lodged but then does not properly, openly and honestly consider them in an accountable and legitimate manner. People must be able to see where their petition goes and what happens at each stage.

42. Therefore, in increasing awareness, ‘encouraging’ more petitions to be lodged, we must hold true to the core responsibility to each petitioner which is to properly investigate the petition. An increase in the number of petitions lodged must not be at the expense of proper and effective scrutiny of these by us.

43. We turn now to addressing the core issues in achieving these two goals.

The evidence

44. We have split this section of the report into two parts covering the two goals referred to above. We have then broken these down to individual issues that arose.

Awareness, engagement, participation

45. Statistics below show the volume of petitions submitted in each of the last 10 years—

Session 1 (below includes 9 e-petitions)
12 May 1999 - 10 May 2000: 194
11 May 2000 - 10 May 2001: 169
12 May 2001 - 11 May 2002: 138
12 May 2002 - 26 Mar 2003: 124

Session 2 (below includes 138 e-petitions)
7 May 2003 - 6 May 2004: 115
7 May 2004 - 6 May 2005: 116
9 May 2005 - 5 May 2006: 108
8 May 2006 - 30 March 2007: 84

Session 3 (below includes 77 e-petitions)
9 May 2007 - 8 May 2008: 103 (includes petitions lodged during dissolution)
9 May 2008 - 8 May 2009: 112

46. The figures have dropped from the highs of the first two parliamentary years in Session 1. In the years since, the fluctuation is not drastic. However, while it is unlikely that we will ever see a time when petitions cease coming forward, we are mindful of the need to ensure that people from all sections of our society have access to the public petitions process. The big challenge is to develop ways of improving awareness of the existence of it.

47. The simple question we asked at each of our three external meetings was “how well do you think we publicise the existence of our public petitions process?” So many people told us that, until that day, they did not know that there was a petitioning process here in the Parliament. This response was across age ranges. It was also reinforced by the Ipsos MORI/Carman research. Of interest, however, is that while there was little recognition or awareness of our own public petitions process, petitioning was seen as the most likely method of policy engagement with 89% of the research survey respondents saying they would sign a petition.26 It is encouraging that 78%27 of people see petitioning as a positive way of getting something done and making their voices heard.

48. The research findings were mirrored by comments by the public at our external meetings with people recognising the role that petitioning can play in terms of a route of direct engagement and getting something done. That is a good foundation to build on.

49. So how do we increase awareness? In many ways, the methods are simple and straightforward. Many stem directly from what people said to us and what the research itself identified. The current methods we use to publicise the existence of the public petitions process are—

50. However, a lot of the above methods rely on a person actually reaching our website in the first place. We currently use traditional marketing techniques such as branding, leaflets, a presence (it has to be said reduced) on the front page on the Parliament’s website and outreach work as a way of raising awareness about the public petitions process.

51. We are not so successful at navigating people towards sources of information or registering with people that the public petitions process may be a suitable route for them to take a matter forward. We therefore need to consider other methods, some fairly direct, that disseminate information about the public petitions process into the public arena. We need to think about the form this information takes. It is about pointing people in our direction where they can then access information about the public petitions process, information that is produced in simple, straightforward, easy to access formats. Several people during our open oral evidence meetings spoke about how they just ‘stumbled across the petitions system while on the website one day’.

52. Again, many helpful suggestions in relation to awareness raising emerged from our external public meetings and through the research findings. We set out below our conclusions in terms of some new forms of publicity material we propose making available. These fall into the categories of ‘traditional’ and more e-based forms of marketing.

‘Traditional’

53. Guidance leaflet, How to submit a public petition: Our research reached an important conclusion about the need for our guidance leaflet29 to explain more about the process of petitioning and less about issues of founding principles. Other comments have caused us to reflect on whether it does what it is meant to do. In just four pages it contains a lot of information. Perhaps too much. It may in fact be off putting to some.

54. We believe that the leaflet should flag up that the public petitions system exists, present an overview of it, answer some core questions, make some key points and signpost people in the direction of where to get more information. We also need to ensure it adopts a more user friendly layout, using simple jargon-free language, and is produced in a variety of formats.

55. We will therefore take forward the production of a new leaflet, to be made available in various languages and formats: Gaelic, Arabic, Traditional Chinese, Bengali, Urdu, Punjabi, Polish, easy read, large print and Braille. We will obviously conform fully to the Scottish Parliament’s language policy as it develops.30 We will publish this leaflet later this year.

56. To make it as user friendly and jargon-free as possible, we will circulate the leaflet to some of the individuals and organisations who came along to our external meetings asking them to peer review it. We want to know what users think. We will be particularly interested in what suggestions in terms of language and layout the pupils from Berwickshire High School and Fraserburgh Academy have.

57. We will also widen the hard copy circulation of the leaflet, ensuring that it is made available not just through our webpage but also in libraries, MSP constituency offices, community councils and other outlets we think beneficial.

58. In terms of the e-version of the leaflets, we will invite organisations, for example schools, disability groups, equalities organisations, community councils, local councils for voluntary services and others, to provide a link from their own website to the leaflet on our web page so that people can navigate from those sites to ours. We will highlight, particularly amongst ethnic minority organisations, the fact that, in line with the Scottish Parliament’s language policy a public petition may be submitted in any language and when it is the Scottish Parliamentary Corporate Body will arrange for it to be translated into English, so that it may be considered by the Committee and others. Similarly, we will highlight that public petitions can be submitted in any format e.g. we would make whatever arrangements were necessary to accommodate the lodging of a petition in BSL.

59. Public petitions poster and bookmarks: A useful way to increase awareness of the public petitions process is through the production of basic publicity material. Several suggestions came forward on this. Therefore, we will produce a poster and a bookmark which publicise the public petitions process and point people in the direction of where to get more information. As we will be seeking to make these available in libraries, schools and other outlets, we will consider whether the posters should be produced in different styles, formats and languages appropriate to different audiences. We will publish these later this year.

60. Articles for school and community newsletters: Prior to our external meetings, we offered to local newspapers a short article which alerted local people that the Committee was planning to meet in their area and we would like them to come along to the meeting. The article also summarised what the Committee does and highlighted some of the petitions that we would consider at the meeting.

61. We will continue the practice of contacting local media in advance of future external meetings to generate interest amongst the local population.

62. We will also consider the scope for articles/interviews with local community radio to generate further interest in local communities.

63. But there is more that can be done to try and engage with more individuals and organisations at a grass roots level. There is a further valuable resource we can use to spread awareness of the public petitions process and that is through other local news outlets such as school bulletins, local council for voluntary sector newsletters, community council newsletters. We think that a short article which highlights the public petitions process, what it does and where to go for more information could reach into many communities. We could draw particular attention to petitions that may have come forward from that local area which would allow people to better understand what a petition can achieve.

64. We will therefore put arrangements in place to further publicise, through local outlets such as these, the existence of the public petitions process. We will give further consideration alongside our Education and Community Partnerships team and Media Relations Office as to how and when we can best move this idea forward.

65. Face to face presentations: We state above that we will investigate with our Education and Community Partnerships team here in the Parliament, how we can run presentations alongside our future external meetings to explain more about the work of the Committee which local people, school pupils, disability, community and equalities groups and others would be encouraged to attend and participate in. However, we need to widen this work further.

66. The theme of a lot of what we have outlined above is how we can better navigate people towards the public petitions process, flag up that the Parliament has one and what it does. What we have set out might be regarded as fairly passive forms of awareness-raising. Is a more direct approach also needed, perhaps someone actually going out and speaking to people about public petitions? This was an issue that came up during our evidence meeting. Christopher Hair, a pupil at Fraserburgh Academy suggested at our meeting on 30 March 2009

“It might be good if, for example, the committee could do a presentation day in schools, perhaps accompanied by a local MSP. You could use the event to describe to pupils what you do and how we could bring a petition to Parliament about an issue that we are concerned about. That does not seem to happen at the moment.” 31

67. We support this but think that such an initiative should not be exclusively directed towards schools. We need to try and engage with more groups which are representative of ethnic minorities and small community groups far removed from the ‘usual’ groups that may be more skilled and aware of how to engage with policymakers. As Richard McShane of the Blairtumnock and Rogerfield tenants association said at our meeting on 27 January 2009

“We need you guys to communicate with us and to come to our meetings to tell us what is happening and what can happen in the future. Our association will pass that on to our community. About 1,500 people stay in my community, so the message will get passed out, but we need it to come from you.” 32

68. This was added to by Ruby Hamilton at the same meeting—

“I want to return to what Richard McShane was saying about getting communities together. We have the same problem in our area. We managed to get our community together. It was a bit like Huckleberry Finn: we were painting a wall and the weans and other people wanted to do it, and we were saying, "No. I'm enjoying it too much." Before we knew it, everybody was joining in. That needs to be encouraged at a local level and at a parliamentary level, but it does not happen.” 33

69. There were other similar comments made. This was also a feature of the research we commissioned and which highlighted the role which ‘public information co-ordinators’ could play.34 This role was amplified when Mark Diffley and Dr Christopher Caman spoke at our 19 May 2009 meeting.35

70. We are particularly interested in this idea. We accept that some of the measures that we have outlined above may result only in bringing benefit to those who are already engaged, or know how to engage, simply because we improve their ability to do so. But, we could also capture some of the individuals and groups out there that are off our radar, that through our existing engagement tools do not know about the public petitions process or worse, what their Parliament is for and how it might be able to help them. But how do we capture more of these people, widen the net?

71. We accept that we will never capture everyone. But we must try, and be seen to be trying, to visibly put a strategy in place that has the core function to reach beyond the usual suspects, the people that we know will engage and do, to those that do not because they do not know how to or worse, that they can.

72. There was a useful comment made by Anne Soutar at our Easterhouse meeting on 27 January 2009

“How does the Parliament engage with the community? Enough money is coming into greater Easterhouse for projects. Perhaps we could consider how we encourage communities in greater Easterhouse and other areas to understand and know what the Public Petitions Committee is all about. I am not unfamiliar with some of the processes; I have been to hear debates about motions at the Scottish Parliament.

This meeting is the first step. Frank McAveety is dead right. Could activists—volunteers—who are here today assist MSPs by empowering communities to be aware of what the committee is doing? Thanks.” 36

This was followed up by Tina McGeever—

“Anne Souter perhaps has a point. Scotland is a big place. We have someone here from the Highlands and Islands, and I have come down from Moray. Can the committee use people who have been involved in the public petitions process, such as me and others who are here, who are willing to talk to local groups—perhaps with their MSP—about their experiences of the committee? That would make people aware of what is going on and make the process more accessible. We would just be ordinary folk talking about our experiences. Nicola Ryan talked about people who have no internet access. Going out and talking to groups in the community would deal with that.” 37

73. There is a strong body of opinion which supports the need for us to be more direct in raising awareness of the public petitions process, and more widely, about the role of this Parliament. We perhaps need to get back to some of the—

“exciting outreach work”

which Professor Ann Macintosh referred38 to which we did in the early days of the Parliament.

74. It might be useful here to set out the Parliament’s general outreach strategy. Education and Community Partnerships is a new team within the Parliament that has been set up to develop and deliver a range of educational services following the Scottish Parliamentary Corporate Body’s review of education and outreach in 2007. These support MSPs and enable the people of Scotland to engage with the Parliament. Services are delivered at Holyrood and in local venues across the country. The new approach to formal education focuses on citizenship to support the Curriculum for Excellence and includes—

  • an inward education programme of visits and workshops;
  • outreach education programme;
  • resources to support learning and teaching about the Parliament;
  • seminars for teachers;
  • events for young people.

75. Support to parliamentary committees wishing to engage with young people can be offered as part of this. The team is developing an approach to offer—

  • support for committee outreach work (and we are pleased that this will be piloted in 2009-10 with this Committee);
  • educational conferences about the Parliament aimed at community level groups and individuals (the first conference will be held in November 2009 and we have been involved in the development of this conference and what role petitions and petitioners might play in it);
  • partnerships with key community organisations (the Community Partnerships project commenced in January 2009 with information sessions that included the petitions process. We are pleased to have been involved in this project to date. Three groups are involved who represent black and ethnic minorities, people with disabilities and difficult to reach young people. The groups are now moving to decide on their active engagement phase, and it is likely that some groups may generate petitions. The pilot approach to community partnerships will be developed in 2009-10 and a full review will be undertaken to the SPCB before it is decided how best to roll the programme out further).

76. Turning back to some of the issues highlighted in our research, we need to build on these findings in conjunction with our Education and Community Partnership team. We stated earlier in the report that we would investigate how to develop the external meetings which we will hold in the future. The research drew attention to the role which ‘public information co-ordinators’ might fulfil. We suspect that a lot of this work is already undertaken by our ECP team and clerks but we must be mindful of the need to pro-actively meet with individuals and groups across all of Scotland using different methods. Some of this will be around actually getting people to come along to our external meetings. This might involve more targeted and direct approaches, ‘cold calling’ almost of community groups, tenants associations, equalities organisations, etc, large and small, well known and obscure.

77. We wonder however if we are not missing an opportunity to tap into the goodwill that many people who have engaged with the public petitions process have towards it.

78. We draw attention to the comment above which Tina McGeever made at our Easterhouse meeting. Tina McGeever brought forward one of the most important petitions this Committee has ever considered (PE1108) on the availability of cancer treatment drugs on the NHS. She therefore speaks as a person who has experience of the petitions process and who has brought about change on a national stage.

79. We are rightly proud of our public petitions process. But perhaps the best people to go out and talk about it are petitioners themselves. They can talk about how they got involved, why, how did they feel beforehand and once they got their petition to Parliament, what was their experience of the process, was it easy, useful, what was the outcome? In short, did they think it worthwhile and would they be prepared to say to other people “you should do that”. They could act as ambassadors for the public petitions process.

80. An interesting question often asked is what are the successful petitions? Well, that may best be answered by petitioners themselves. They can talk about what they achieved through this process. If they consider their petition was a success then is that not something which we should promote and hold up as an example of how public engagement can work?

81. What we have in mind is to ask petitioners whether they would be agreeable to acting as a ‘public petitions ambassador’. They could meet with school pupils, community groups etc and just talk to them about their experience and how the public petitions process worked for them. This could make the public petitions process more accessible and relevant to more people. This would be something which could run alongside the engagement work we will do around our external meetings, our clerks do, and also what we as individual MSPs do as part of our own engagement work with constituents.

82. We will take forward the idea, in discussion with our Education and Community Partnership team here in the Parliament, of creating ‘petition ambassadors’ to work alongside, and be part of, the engagement work which we will undertake.

83. We would welcome the views of the Scottish Parliamentary Corporate Body on how the Parliament’s outreach strategy will specifically target groups like the Blairtumnock and Rogersfield tenants association and how this strategy will pro-actively contact groups and individuals from across all of Scotland to discuss how information about what the Parliament does, and for our own interest what the public petitions process is for, can be shared. We refer the SPCB to the research findings and the views expressed at our external meetings in this regard.

‘E-based’

84. It is widely recognised that new Information and Communication Technologies (ICTs) are powerful tools for enhancing democratic participation. For example, the OECD has stated that ‘ICTs can provide powerful tools for strengthening government-citizen relations.’ This view mirrors that of the Consultative Steering Group’s expert panel on ICTs for the Scottish Parliament which recognised that ‘encouraging and fostering democratic participation is a very important part of the Parliament’s objectives of promoting openness and accessibility, and of working in partnership with the people of Scotland.’

85. Integral to an e-democracy strategy is that it should contribute to furthering the Parliament’s key principles and in particular, that it should be accessible, open, responsive, and develop procedures which make possible a participative approach to the development, consideration and scrutiny of policy and legislation.

86. However, it must be recognised that technology is only an enabler of participation and therefore it is not axiomatic that increased engagement will occur as a consequence of new technology. ICTs should be used as a means of enhancing traditional methods of engagement.

87. The Parliament has sought from the outset to employ ICTs to provide accessible information and be innovative in encouraging participation through—

  • the webcasting of all parliamentary business including all committee meetings;
  • being the first in the world to allow e-petitioning;
  • the publication of committee papers on the website;
  • individual MSP webpages with contact details.

88. However, in recent years, that innovative approach has perhaps been lacking. The Parliament was the first to provide webcasting of all parliamentary meetings and first in the world to provide e-petitioning. However, what initiatives have there been since? We have a very limited presence on many of the social media outlets that many citizens now use to gather and spread information. Has it become static? It is not necessarily about taking a bold step of inventing something new or being the first to do something in applying ICT as a means of encouraging greater public awareness and participation, but looking at what is out there now, and which many others are using, and consider whether that would work with petitions. Not using these forms of technology, some of which are not now so new, is not an option.

89. Over the last decade there has been a growing awareness of the need to develop tools for public engagement that enable a wider audience to contribute to the policy debate and allow their contributions to be broader and deeper. Perhaps, as such a public facing committee, it is appropriate that the Public Petitions Committee is the committee that now takes some of these initiatives forward.

90. Social media incorporates online technology and methods (ie the internet and mobile communications networks) to facilitate communications and allow people to share information and their views as a means of influencing and interacting with others. It can also act as an information source. There is already a huge and expanding range of social media sites such as Facebook, MySpace, Twitter, YouTube as well as individual blogs.

91. An increasing percentage of the population turn to the internet for news, opinions and interactive communication with others. It is therefore important to consider how best to make use of the available technology to engage with this growing section of society. If used properly, social media has the advantage of making politics and political processes at the very least more accessible but also hopefully more relevant to the population. It is not a panacea for increasing levels of democratic engagement but it could allow us to reach individuals who are currently not engaged with the political process.

92. The point is about the Committee trying to extend its reach and utilise these tools. Of course, the use of these technologies is likely to be limited and restricted. This means being clear from the start about what people can expect and to manage these expectations. For example, people cannot expect an immediate response when they send an email or post a comment on a petitions blog. This level of response would be too resource intensive for our clerking team to manage. However, we do give an assurance that what tools we do provide, we will use properly and in the best interests of end users – potential and actual petitioners.

93. In addition, it is not simply about being seen to tick the boxes by saying ’look at how modern we are, we have a Facebook page!’. Unless there is an identifiable purpose then we must be careful not to simply jump into every form of social networking out there. We need to ask—

  • what is the benefit to the public and potential and actual petitioners?
  • how can this help them and us as a Committee?
  • is it what people need?
  • can we run it properly?

94. But what can social media do? Well, it offers—

  • improved communication and information flows;
  • the potential for greater and closer engagement with the public;
  • the ability to reach a wider audience more quickly;
  • a tool for actively seeking views and receiving feedback through open participation;
  • two-way dialogue;
  • real time discussion.

95. So how could we use social media sources? Well, should we do nothing more than use it as an essentially non-interactive communication tool i.e. get out the message that the public petitions process exists? In effect, this would constitute promotion about, and marketing of, the public petitions system via information dissemination. While this is not fully utilising its capabilities it is at least a step in the right direction to enhance the Committee’s web presence which is currently restricted to the Parliament’s website.

96. Any ICT strategy adopted should—

  • recognise the use of ICTs in facilitating awareness and understanding of the role of the Parliament;
  • recognise the potential benefits of ICTs in promoting and facilitating increased democratic participation in the Parliament’s core business;
  • recognise the function of ICTs in supporting and promoting the Parliament’s founding principles;
  • recognise that ICTs should supplement rather than supplant traditional methods of public engagement;
  • aim to build upon and co-ordinate the existing usage of ICTs within the Parliament and develop and promote best practice;
  • aim to both share experience and to learn from other parliaments and legislatures in developing e-democracy;
  • aim to promote the innovative use of ICTs in enhancing democratic participation.

97. One way of trying to increase awareness of the public petitions system is to embrace the latest generation of web development and design (known as Web 2.0). This was referred to by Professor Ann Macintosh at our 21 April 2009 meeting.39

98. We need to consider whether the Committee can make use of interactive technologies and, more specifically, social media, and in doing so enhance our past reputation for innovation and set the standard for others to follow.

99. The next step is to develop a coherent strategy which must consider—

  • who is the target audience?
  • which types of social media should be pursued? For example, social networking, blogs, wikis, video sharing, photo sharing, news aggregation, social bookmarking, presence apps (applications), RSS feeds (really simple sindication), chat and instant messaging, discussion forums, e-newsletters?
  • should the site(s) be passive or interactive, allowing comments and responses? Opportunities are available to improve the way we engage and not just to communicate. Is this desirable or possible?
  • what are the costs (development and ongoing) and what resources are needed (people, time, skills)?
  • how to ensure that other websites for example, community organisations, local authorities, government agencies, the wider public sector, incorporate links to our web presence?

100. We are conscious that there will be resource implications in terms of maintaining any forms of social media we decide to use. It may be that to provide a ‘Rolls Royce’ service would be prohibitive as it would be too resource intensive. There are political and reputational issues to consider. It is also likely that any social media we use that allows for user comment would have to be heavily monitored which will have resource implications. If comments had to be redacted or heavily censored, then it could bring into doubt the usefulness of trying to increase awareness of the public petitions process and communicate with people about it. However, our clerks are well experienced in this area as they currently undertake day to day monitoring of our e-petition site and the discussion forum part of that site.

101. We have however, decided to put in place facilities that are cost effective to implement i.e. there is no capital cost for any of these, are recognisable and are simple to introduce and use. We believe that through time and experience we will gain comfort and knowledge to then be more creative in introducing other forms of ICT beneficial to potential and existing petitioners.

102. We are aware that the Parliament is currently considering a project for the redesign of its website and its content management. This will incorporate web 2.0 technology. Amongst other outputs, the project aims to—

  • improve engagement opportunities by exploiting modern web technologies and maximising the site’s accessibility;
  • make our web presence and content more intuitive and easier to use for people of all ages and abilities;
  • deliver improved processes and tools to support the efficient and effective delivery and maintenance of the website whilst maximising the return on the infrastructure investment made to date;
  • improve design and layout of our web presence to improve users’ experiences, with a modern, eye-catching, clean and uncluttered design;
  • integrate content in different formats (e.g. Holyrood TV is a separate stand alone site);
  • streamline access to content in different formats and incorporate all web cast and videos within the one Parliament site;
  • improve search capabilities.

103. As part of this project, the Parliament will seek to explore further opportunities to exploit new technologies and channels to facilitate and enable the democratic process, possibly by integrating appropriate web 2.0 technologies to help deliver in this area.

104. We are enthusiastic about this project and can see the potential benefits for citizens to access information about their Parliament in an easier way. But we consider that there are measures than can and should be put into place now. There are IT tools that are now being used by petitioners but which we are not fully utilising.

105. Therefore, in response to many of the suggestions raised in our own commissioned research and by people at our external meetings, we will take forward and implement the following. We hope these demonstrate the desire of this Committee to regain a reputation for innovation and creativity and our willingness to embrace existing, new and emerging technologies, as called for in petition PE1065.

106. Video on petitions process: Our current video explaining the public petitions process has long been in need of updating. This inquiry has been the ideal vehicle to take that forward. We are therefore launching, alongside this report, our new video which provides an overview of the public petitions process. We have produced this in a question and answer format, with shorter excerpts and included more interviews with petitioners. We should like to record our appreciation for the time and contribution that Clive McGrory (PE1069), Lynn Merrifield (PE1098), Tina McGeever (PE1108), Janie Orr (PE1215), Mark Buchan (PE1242), Jenna McDonald and Fiona Henderson (PE1243) all played in putting this together and for the positive comments they made about their experience of the public petitions process. We believe this new version is more fit for purpose.

107. This has been produced in ‘hard copy’ DVD format and is available free of charge on request.40 A copy will also be posted up on to our new video facility (see below). It can be viewed via the image link below. We will also invite organisations, for example schools, disability groups, equalities organisations, community councils, local councils for voluntary services and others to provide a link from their own websites to the video so that people can navigate from those sites to ours.

108. We will also take forward the production of a new BSL version of the video to be launched later this year. This will be done in consultation with the Scottish Council on Deafness41 and other agencies to ensure that what is produced fully meets the needs of deaf and deafblind people.

Watch a video about the petitions process

109. Launch of public petitions video facility: Getting into the social networking arena for us has to be for the right reasons and not seen as ticking a box which says ‘look, we are doing this because everyone else is!’. So what is the benefit of this? Essentially there are two reasons. One, we go back to the point about how we need to do better at navigating people towards us. Having a page on a website is far from enough. We need to look at the tools that people are increasingly using to gather information and social media is the big area. The other is that we provide a facility for people who want to bring petitions forward but who also want to use other media sources, such as video and photographs, to support that petition. Given the breadth of free accessible social media outlets such as YouTube and Flickr which specialise in this and the increasing number of people who use these, it is right that we meet that demand by assisting petitioners.

110. To expand on this information sharing point above, people currently provide background information to their petition in the form of written text on the petition form. That will continue. However, some people may want to also provide visual images, either film or photograph, to assist in the consideration of their petition not just for the Committee but also for others interested in the petition. They believe that being able to visualise their concern will assist in better understanding it.

111. There is an added benefit here and one which will partially address concerns expressed by some petitioners who wish to come before the Committee and make an oral presentation about their petition. It is not possible at a Committee meeting to hear orally from every new petitioner, to ask questions and then discuss the answers. While we touch on this issue later there may be a partial solution here by giving people the option of posting a video of their presentation on to say YouTube (and, if appropriate, provide us with the link to it) or on to our new site. Therefore, if a petitioner is not invited to make an oral presentation in person, they can at least film their presentation which is then available to us, and others, to watch.

112. Given the benefits that we see this can bring to petitioners, we are launching alongside this report a facility which will allow petitioners, and us, to post videos and photographs about petitions, the petitions process and the work of the Committee. These will be hosted on the new blog page42 (see below).

113. In this new blog page we will host—

  • our own public petitions video (see above);
  • pod casts (see below) about public petitions (with links to the Parliament’s own pod casts43);
  • footage from our meetings (currently hosted on Holyrood TV44);
  • interviews with petitioners (currently hosted on Holyrood TV45);
  • our photo sharing facility (see below);
  • a hyperlink to videos and photos which petitioners produce and post on to sites such as YouTube and Flickr;
  • links to Parliament’s own YouTube page, its website, the Committee’s own webpage and Holyrood TV. We hope this will allow users to easily navigate around to access other information they want.

114. We are pleased that prior discussions with one petitioner has allowed us to demonstrate some of this in action already.

115. Creation of blog: We have created a blog page which will act as a hub for posting up additional material about the public petitions process. This will exist hand in hand with our existing webpage on the Parliament’s website. That is where core information about every petition will remain.

116. However, our blog will provide commentary or news on a particular subject such as new petitions lodged, issues before the Committee etc and would act in a more personal way with members of the Committee and our clerking team able to interact with potential and actual petitioners. This is a slight extension to the discussion forum which currently operates on our e-petition site (although that has no direct dialogue with Committee members or our clerks. Our new blog site will involve us in that process).

117. We are launching, alongside this report, our new public petitions blog.46

118. Creation of Wikipedia page: Again, we see this as a further source of information to publicise the existence of our public petitions process and a further way of navigating people towards us to access more information. We are of course mindful of the ability to amend text given the ‘ongoing principle’ under which Wiki pages are created. Our clerks will monitor the page carefully to ensure it remains a factual and authoritative source of information about our public petitions process.

119. We are launching, alongside this report, a dedicated Public Petitions Committee Wiki page.47 We have inserted links to and from the Parliament’s own Wiki page and our own Committee webpage and our new blog page.

120. Use of podcasting: We currently have a pod cast which was done with Young Scot on the back of its petition which prompted this inquiry and is hosted on its website (there is a link from our webpage to the Young Scot site).48 We have been encouraged by the recent uptake by the Parliament’s Public Information Office and the Information Centre (SPICe) in the use of pod casting. A recent pod cast by our Public Information Office on ways to engage with the Parliament features a section on public petitions.49 However, there is scope to make more use of this.

121. We are therefore launching alongside this report a pod cast interview50 which sets out some general facts and information about public petitions – the what, why and how. We will also produce regular pod casts outlining the work of the Committee, our consideration of specific petitions, and other information that we hope people will want to know.

Scottish Parliament Podcasts

Speaker iconHow to get involved

122. Social bookmarking: Social bookmarking is used by internet users to store, organize, search, and manage bookmarks of web pages with the help of metadata, typically in the form of tags that collectively and/or collaboratively become a folksonomy (‘social tagging’). Users save links to web pages that they want to remember and/or share.

123. We will investigate further with our web team the facility to bookmark our webpages through Del.icio.us, Digg, reddit and StumbleUpon. These would allow people to store, tag and share links across the internet about our public petitions process.

124. Videoconferencing­: This is a technology available to us at present but one that is perhaps not fully utilised. We need to consider whether its use could be better promoted amongst petitioners who form the vast majority of the people who come before the Committee to talk about their petition. In soundings amongst petitioners about whether they would like to use videoconference rather than travel, in some cases, long distances, to Edinburgh to talk about petitions many say they want to come to Holyrood. They want to sit in their Parliament building, in a committee room in front of their elected members. They believe, and we fully understand this, that this adds greater authority to their petition and what it is they want to talk about.

125. But we should still market the option of using videoconference. It could be offered to petitioners as, depending on their circumstances, a more suitable and convenient way to engage with us and participate in the discussion on their petition.

126. We will therefore look to further promote the option for petitioners and others to talk to us about their petition via videoconference.

127. SMS support for petition: The Parliament currently operates a text service51 where people can—

  • find out the names of their MSPs by texting in their postcode;
  • ask questions about the Parliament, its membership, business and procedures;
  • request free materials produced by the Parliament’s Public Information Service.

128. However, there is potential to utilise this technology further. For example, we were the first Parliament in the world to accept e-petitions, allowing people to support a petition by simply adding their name to it via our website and to discuss with others, through the discussion forum, the petition itself. The natural extension to this is to allow people to use mobile technology to add their support to a petition via their phone. We are unaware of any other parliament which allows this.

129. We will therefore put in place the facilities to launch this later this year. Again we are trying to increase the options available to people.

What about those who don’t have access to a computer?
130. There is of course an argument that focusing heavily on an IT presence will exclude those who are not comfortable with IT and, importantly, those who do not have access to a networked PC or have poor dial-up or broadband connection. That is still a substantial number of people and, sadly, predominantly in deprived communities which is one of the groups of people we are specifically trying to reach out to.

131. That IT and social media tools may be primarily focused and used by younger people is no bad thing. They have the right to expect their Parliament to adapt and provide the necessary facilities that they need to engage with it. That after all is what petition PE1065 called on us to consider. Also, it is too sweeping a statement to say that getting into social media and enhancing the use of IT is ‘just for young people’. It isn’t.

132. Like many of the other ideas outlined here we are not saying that these tools are the sole answer to effective engagement. They are not and we know that. However, we must put the tools in place that people find useful and want to use. That is what people have been saying to us and that is we must now provide. We must increase choice and possibilities for people.

133. As noted earlier, there is no capital cost for any of these e-engagement tools and their development to the point of launch will be met from within existing resources. However, the work in running these new tools will fall primarily to our clerking team to manage and monitor. There may therefore be a slight resource impact on them although, in discussion, they are comfortable at being able to apply these new tools easily and properly monitor, in particular the video and photo facilities we are introducing. We will however closely monitor this.

Scrutiny
134. Having looked at getting petitions and petitioners to us, we need to consider the most important aspect of the public petitions process, what we do with them. Effective scrutiny of each petition is the bedrock of any proper, honest and effective public petitions system. As stated earlier in the report, if, through better publicity and other measures outlined above, there is an increase in the volume of petitions coming before us then we cannot allow for that to lessen the consideration that we give to each petition.

135. While administration of the petitions process is pivotal, and our clerking team have and will continue to introduce improvements and efficiencies at an administrative level, a system which is seen as simply getting petitions in at one end and putting them out the other but with no real scrutiny in the middle is failing and pointless. It is of no benefit or value to the people who use it.

136. Our petitioning process has developed an international reputation and is held up as a model for other legislatures, both new and old, to base their processes on or at least cherry-pick key elements from. We are not much interested in numbers. Other petitions systems, principally e-petition based, place an emphasis on attracting thousands of petitions. But the key question is what happens to them once lodged? Where is the visible public scrutiny of the petitions? How is the petitioner involved?

137. We must protect the openness and accessibility of our public petitions process but we must also continue to demonstrate that there is a purpose to petitioning and that it can and does lead to real change. Having a dedicated, public facing committee whose purpose is to consider each and every petition submitted is pivotal to the authority and integrity of a petitioning process. It is the level of scrutiny given to a petition which contributes to the high satisfaction rating from petitioners.

138. Over the course of this inquiry, the Committee has enjoyed discussions with a number of other legislatures which are pro-active in seeking to develop their own petitioning systems. We have held further discussion with our colleagues on the Petitions Committee of the National Assembly for Wales, both at a political and administrative level. There are elements of its petitions scrutiny process which we will continue to monitor, in particular, how it timetables business at its meetings with petitions being given timed slots.52 This is an interesting feature and we would like to consider this further.

139. We also held meetings, both face-to-face and via videoconference53 with the Standing Committee on Petitions of the Australian House of Representatives. We were particularly pleased to be able to contribute and share our experiences of petitioning as part of its own ongoing inquiry into e-petitioning. We look forward to holding a further videoconference with members of that committee shortly to discuss the progress of their inquiry and the conclusions of our own.

140. What has been encouraging is the continued interest in our petitioning process and that we can engage with established legislatures such as Australia on where and how we can move forward. Our Clerk has also been involved in sharing information with the clerks to the Environment and Public Affairs Committee of the Parliament of Australia Legislative Council as part of its own inquiry into petitioning and with staff at the Queensland Parliament which is considering the scope for having its own dedicated petitions committee. We look forward to building on these relationships over the remainder of this Parliament and beyond.

So what are the changes, the improvements?
141. Set out below is a broad summary of the public petitions process. While a wholesale departure from this procedure is not necessary, we consider there are elements within some of the stages where improvements can be made. We have set these out under each stage.

STEP: the petitioner makes contact with our clerking team to discuss lodging a petition or a petition is received by our clerking team from petitioner
STEP: the clerking team offers advice and guidance to the petitioner on the petition wording, admissibility, e-petition option and timetabling and other matters as appropriate

142. We have considered how we could better ensure that all relevant and pertinent information is supplied by petitioners to ensure that we then have a better understanding of the petition. It is in the best interests of the petitioner as the closer we can get to the core issue, the better our scrutiny and investigation can be.

143. We have revised the template to be completed by each petitioner to invite more information from them about the background to the petition e.g. what action do they wish taken, by whom, when, what questions do they wish us to ask, what was the result of the action they took prior to lodging the petition. The template has also been amended to reflect the options now available to petitioners to provide supplementary information e.g. link to their own website or video. A copy of the amended template is at Appendix B. We hope that the revised guidance notes on completing the template are simpler and easier to follow for people.

STEP: the petition is created as an e-petition (if appropriate) or is formally lodged (if submitted as an e-petition, it is formally lodged at the end of the e-petition period)
144. While the e-petitions system still largely fulfils what it was designed for, we consider it is in need of overhaul. There are visual improvements that are required as well as improvements to the usability and functionality of the site that will bring benefits to users. Some of these improvements are—

  • better filtering of rogue comments and signatures (our clerks currently do all monitoring of the site but improved software could assist them by filtering out inappropriate words);
  • an option to receive regular update on the progress of the e-petition once lodged e.g. an e-signatory could be notified each time the petition went before the committee;
  • better linkage with other Parliament IT systems leading to a reduction in our clerking team inputting raw data about the petition.

145. The Parliament is rightly proud of its e-petitions process and of being the first in the world to accept e-petitions. The impact of that has been immeasurable not least in terms of the interest shown by the petitions committees of other legislatures: the German Bundestag, National Assembly for Wales, Australian House of Representatives, Chamber of Deputies of the Parliament of the Czech Republic, Parliament of Catalonia to name just a few. There continues to be great interest from others in learning from our experience.

146. However, while in the first few years of the Parliament we led in terms of creativity and innovation, we think that has been lacking in more recent years. Certainly we have been overtaken by others operating more user friendly and appealing e-petitions systems. We were particularly struck by the comments of Professor Ann Macintosh, the designer of the e-petitions project and who worked so closely with the previous committee in the adoption and implementation of the e-petition system. At our meeting on 21 April 2009,54 she said—

“It is boring. It is slow and boring, and it has mistakes in it. I am talking not just about e-petitions but about the whole content management system.”

And—

“The website is not alive any more. Nobody is going to sit and wait while the screen takes that long to refresh itself. When we first considered the e-petitioning system, we did not have web 2.0, social networking sites and blogs—we have moved on. The committee has an opportunity to move on with that, make the system more exciting and perhaps attract more people that way.”

147. We agree with her comments and we refer to this earlier in the report when we touch upon wider work the Parliament is taking forward. The website was also referred to in evidence. For example, the Clydesdale Befriending Group (PE1167) referred55 to the need for a more ‘user friendly’ website and better navigation on it. Similar points were made by the Scottish Council for Voluntary Organisations.56

148. We have slipped back from being a recognised leader in this field. Now therefore is the time for proper consideration and commitment to be given by the Parliament to the e-petition system. There is a resource impact of course. But if we are serious about taking forward the intentions of this whole inquiry - how we can encourage and support engagement with our citizens - then these resources should be found.

149. We do not believe the current e-petition system is fully fit for purpose (demonstrated in 2008 when the server broke due to demand) and that the necessary improvements to it must be made. We therefore invite the Scottish Parliamentary Corporate Body to indicate in what way it will support the redevelopment, as a priority, of the e-petition system.

STEP: the clerking team arranges for the petition to be submitted to the Committee for initial consideration
STEP: some petitioners will come before the Committee to speak about their petition and answer questions on it
150. As set out earlier in the report, we will provide as an alternative, the facility for those petitioners whom we cannot, for lack of time, invite to come along and speak to the Committee about their petition to submit an oral presentation via video. This would allow the petitioner to explain verbally and visually in further detail what their petition is about.

151. We will also investigate greater use of videoconference and offer this to petitioners, particularly in more remote areas, as an option to present their petition orally.

STEP: the Committee considers the petition and agrees what action to take e.g. writing to the Scottish Government and other bodies seeking information on the issues raised
152. We will formally alert the Scottish Government of new petitions when lodged (or, in the case of e-petitions, posted online) so that relevant policy officials are alert to the petition’s existence.

153. We refer earlier to the consideration of timed slots, particularly for oral presentations. We currently hear from only two or three new petitioners at each meeting out of the perhaps seven to nine new petitions we consider. So would timed slots work where we allocate say 20 minutes to each new petitioner (assuming they wish to speak to us)? The upside is that this backs up the principle of accessibility and demonstrates that we do want to hear from petitioners. However, it could lead to longer Committee meetings and could also constrain discussion on some petitions e.g. access to cancer treatment drugs.

154. We will therefore keep this option open and carefully monitor things over the remainder of this year. We will then return to this option and, if we consider appropriate, run it on a trial basis.

STEP: each written response, when received, is forwarded to the petitioner inviting a consolidated response
155. We will ensure that the petitioner is given the same, if not more, time as public bodies in which to respond to the Committee.

156. We will also encourage greater clarity and more specifics from respondents. We, and the petitioner, need to be clear on what actions are being taken and when to address the petition. We must try and ensure that petitioners do not get bogged down with paperwork from public bodies who have more resources than most petitioners.

STEP: the petition goes through this stage continuously, the Committee considering the petition and each written submission received before considering what further action to take e.g. seeking further information on a specific point made in a written submission

157. We considered the question as to how far we should take a petition when we have no communication from the petitioner. There are occasions, albeit infrequent, when petitioners do not provide us with their thoughts and comments on the written submissions we have received and forwarded to them. We are therefore put in a situation of considering a petition not knowing whether the issues that we subsequently take forward are those that the petitioner would want us to.

158. While we fully appreciate the demands that are placed on petitioners (and we draw attention to the resource issue above with many petitioners, individual members of the public, having to cope and respond to sometimes detailed and lengthy responses from public bodies) we must also recognise that it is they who brought the petition to us therefore understanding what they want us to do is important. Might we rightly assume that if a petitioner does not provide us with comments that they are content with the response of the Scottish Government and others? If so, should we not then close the petition?

159. Our clerks actively encourage responses from petitioners and all submissions are forwarded to them on the day of receipt (around 95% of our communication is done electronically for speed and convenience). They also invite petitioners to indicate if they consider that the written response being forwarded sufficiently addresses their petition to the extent that it could be closed or, if there are outstanding issues, then what are these and what precise action do they want the committee to take in moving the petition forward?

160. We must rightly expect a degree of engagement from petitioners once they are ‘in the system’. We are simply moving the petition forward on their behalf but we need clear indications that we are going in the right direction. If that indication is not evident to us, then we can assume the petitioner wishes to no longer participate in the process.

161. In the future, if we receive no communication from the petitioner on two successive occasions, we will consider the petitioner is content with the responses received and we will move to close the petition on that basis.

STEP: the Committee, when it considers it appropriate to do so, will either refer the petition to another Committee of the Parliament or close it (in doing so, it must give the petitioner a reason for closing)
162. We will continue our practice of referring public petitions to other committees only when we consider there to be a clear benefit in doing so e.g. if a committee is undertaking an inquiry into the issues raised in the petition. We believe, as the dedicated committee charged with the responsibility of considering each public petition lodged, that it is our duty to consider that petition as far as we can.

163. We will also continue to consider ways to fully investigate the issues behind the petition, be that through a detailed inquiry and report as in the case of PE1108 (access to cancer treatment drugs), or hosting a debate of key, interested parties on PE1171 (knife crime). Where appropriate, we will undertake further in-depth inquiries.

164. We do not consider there is a need to make fundamental changes to the regime we apply in considering petitions and how they are processed. But, we believe the changes above will bring benefits to the petitioners and improvements to the overall efficiency in processing public petitions.

165. We will of course continue to monitor this and identify and make further improvements as and when necessary but, on the whole, we believe we have an effective system. It is flexible, open, engages and involves the petitioner and has the capacity to cope with a steady high volume of petitions.

166. These changes above are perhaps more administrative driven. There are however three particular, more fundamental, issues we would like to now address and which came up through the inquiry.

Petitions on reserved issues
167. First, is the matter of public petitions on reserved issues. Rule 15.5 of Standing Orders57 (Admissibility of petitions) states—

‘1. A petition is admissible unless it—

(a) does not comply with Rule 15.4.2 [petition must show name and address] or is otherwise not in proper form;

(b) contains language which is offensive;

(c) requests the Parliament to do anything which the Parliament clearly has no power to do; or

(d) is the same as, or in substantially similar terms to, a petition brought by or on behalf of the same person, body corporate or unincorporated association during the same session of the Parliament and which was closed less than a year earlier.

2. The Committee shall consider and decide in a case of dispute whether a petition is admissible and shall notify the petitioner of its decision and of the reasons for that decision.’

and Rule 6.10 states—

1. The remit of the Public Petitions Committee is to consider public petitions addressed to the Parliament in accordance with these Rules and, in particular, to—

(a) decide in a case of dispute whether a petition is admissible;

(b) decide what action should be taken upon an admissible public petition; and

(c) keep under review the operation of the petitions system.

Finally, our current version of the guidance leaflet, How to submit a public petition58 states—

'Petitions should raise issues in relation to matters which fall within the competence of the Scottish Parliament. This includes issues such as health, education and the environment. A full list of issues which are devolved to the Scottish Parliament and those reserved to Westminster are set out below’'

168. Upon receipt of a petition, our clerks undertake an assessment to ensure compliance with Rule 15.5.1. If necessary, advice is sought from Parliament lawyers e.g. in relation to legislative competence. Clerks would advise the petitioner if it was considered the petition was outwith the legislative competence of the Parliament. However, petitioners may choose to disregard that advice and lodge the petition in which case the Committee would be formally invited under Rule 15.5.2 to decide on its admissibility. This we do rarely.

169. Similarly, where a petition does not call on the Parliament to legislate, but which does ‘fall’ within a reserved policy area, our clerks would refer the petitioner to the wording in the guidance, reaffirm what the role of the Committee is, and perhaps suggest that they may wish to consider raising the matter through their MP or through an e-petition to 10 Downing Street. However, as the guidance is just that, it has no statutory footing therefore petitioners may disregard it.

170. The wording in Rule 15.5.1(c) is open. As the Parliament does debate issues on reserved matters, does it follow that the Committee should consider petitions on reserved policy areas? A petition that calls on the Scottish Parliament to urge the Scottish Government to make representations to the UK Government on reserved matter X would not fall foul of Rule 15.5.1(c). Therefore, we would not be formally invited to make a decision on admissibility under Rule 15.5.2.

171. We needed to consider four issues here—

i. were we being consistent in our consideration of public petitions that fall into reserved areas but which do not fall foul of the admissibility Rule in 15.5;

ii. are our clerks (and ultimately us) suitably ‘protected’ in terms of the advice they give petitioners on such petitions;

iii. are the Rules and in particular the guidance consistent and sufficiently robust to properly address issues of admissibility; and

iv. what is the purpose/benefit of the Committee considering petitions on non-devolved areas.

172. Dealing with issue (i), since the establishment of this Committee in 2007, we have formally considered issues of admissibility on two occasions (4 September 2007 and 4 November 2008). These proposed petitions asked the Scottish Parliament to legislate on matters not within its devolved competence. However, there has been a much larger number, though still very much in the minority compared with the overall number of public petitions lodged, which do not call for legislation but do deal with a reserved issue. For example PE1238 which calls ‘on the Scottish Parliament to urge the Scottish Government to urge the UK Government to expel the Israeli Ambassador from the UK until Israel shows it is prepared to accept that it is not above international law’. We are not going to go into the specifics of this petition but rather hold it up as an example.

173. Turning to issue (ii), currently, our clerks will perform the initial admissibility test and satisfy themselves that the petition complies with Rule 15.5. On a petition such as that above, they would draw the petitioners attention to the fact that public petitions should raise matters that fall within the competence of the Scottish Government, and that the substance of their petition, in the clerk’s opinion, is a matter reserved to the UK Parliament under Schedule 5 to the Scotland Act 1998. Therefore they are unclear as to the responsibility of the Scottish Government or other devolved public body in this matter.

174. However, our clerks cannot prevent a petition being lodged. Only the Committee can rule on admissibility. Further (issue (iii)), clerks have only the guidance to draw on. Some petitioners will respond to that advice and not seek to proceed further through the Scottish Parliament with the petition but others will say “thank you, but I still want my petition to go forward”. It would then come before the Committee for consideration. There has however been discussion in Committee as to whether and why we should consider such petitions.

175. On the one hand we must hold true to the open and accessible nature of the public petitions process. We must protect the simplicity of our process which requires petitioners to comply with very few criteria. However, are we raising a petitioner’s expectations by considering such petitions and is our consideration at the expense of other petitions (on wholly devolved matters)? We must also be aware of the resource impact in processing such petitions in terms of the time of our clerks, the Scottish Parliament Information Centre who prepare a research brief on every petition lodged and of the Committee itself in discussing the petitions at a meeting (which is then reported in the Official Report). Then we arrive at issue (iv), what is the benefit to the petitioner of taking forward such petitions.

176. Having considered these factors very carefully, on balance, we propose continuing with the current position and will continue to allow petitions on reserved matters, but which do not call upon the Parliament to legislate, to be lodged. We believe that our openness and accessibility principles should take precedence and that we allow citizens to bring such public petitions forward. Further, we believe that there would be an inconsistency in not allowing petitioners to bring forward issues for consideration on which MSPs can, through motions, have debated by the Parliament.

177. We must be mindful of the impact this may have on our workload and be satisfied that considering such petitions is not at the expense of our consideration of other petitions. However, on balance, given the small number that do come forward we think this is manageable. We will of course monitor this position carefully and revisit the issue again in the future if necessary.

Provision of local petitioning procedures
178. The second issue is the consideration given to the provision, by local authorities, of locally based petitioning procedures.

179. Our soon to be revised guidance leaflet, How to submit a public petition informs potential petitioners that a primary role of the Committee is to hold the Scottish Government to account. It has no remit to intervene in the operational decisions or actions of other public bodies such as health boards, local authorities. A petition which requests the Parliament to do something it has no power to do is inadmissible. However, we are very aware that many public petitions are driven by the experience of petitioners at a local level e.g. a campaign to stop a local school closure or prevent development on a local playing field. While we cannot become directly involved in such matters we can ask the Scottish Government to review the wider national policies and/or guidance which govern the actions of local authorities and other public bodies.

180. This point was touched upon in the written submission from the Scottish Public Services Ombudsman.59

181. But, is that ultimately what the petitioner wants? There is a balancing act here for the Committee in considering petitions which emerge from such local issues. While we cannot get into the specifics of, for example, the proposed closure of the local swimming baths (that is a matter for the local authority concerned and not for us to second guess) we could investigate how this decision would fit into wider national policies and targets to, for example, ensure a lasting legacy of the 2014 Commonwealth Games. While the petitioner would hopefully welcome this approach and the information which we gather may assist them in ultimately arguing against the closure of the baths in question we do wonder how far removed our discussion and focus is from what ultimately the petitioner wants – preventing the closure of the local swimming baths.

182. While we believe we are successful at ‘walking the line’ between considering national policies and maintaining an awareness of the local interest we wonder whether some of the petitions that do come before us could not be considered at a local level if local authorities put in place their own local petitioning processes. Indeed, why not go further and encourage wider public bodies e.g. local health boards to introduce their own petitioning processes. Such local petitioning processes could consider those petitions that are submitted to us but which do not comply with our admissibility test because they are too local.

183. We understand that out of the 32 local authorities only two, Renfrewshire60 and Stirling61 have their own local public petitions process. We applaud both councils for putting these in place.

184. Currently going through the UK Parliament is the Local Democracy, Economic Development and Construction Bill62 which, if enacted, will place a duty on principal local authorities in England and Wales to make, publicise and comply with a scheme for both paper and e-petitions (chapter 2). We find this a worthwhile development and one that we would support in Scotland.

185. While this of course is a matter for each local authority to consider we would welcome the introduction by local councils of locally based public petitioning processes.

Parliamentary debates on petitions
186. The third issue relates to debates in the Chamber on petitions. There are two aspects to this. George Reid, a member of the Consultative Steering group and former Presiding Officer of the Parliament drew our attention63 to the ‘radical’ suggestion that a petition with more than 50,000 signatures should automatically generate a bid from the Committee for a debate in the Chamber.

187. This is an interesting concept and one which we have carefully considered. It could be argued that this would demonstrate the power of petitioning, of the Parliament responding to the will of a substantial body of opinion that time is made available in the Chamber to debate the substance of the petition. That is not an argument to discount and we fully respect the amount of effort that the organiser of such public petitions would have made to gather that number of signatures and why they might legitimately feel that some immediate action should result in recognition of this.

188. On the other hand, and a key feature of our open and accessible process, is that a petition only requires one signature in order to go before the Committee and be considered. While not discounting the value of attracting signatures to a petition and the attention which a petition can gather on the back of a lot of signatures, in terms of the work of the Committee all public petitions carry equal importance whether it has one or 100,000 signatures. It is the issue behind the petition that should be the impetus for debate, not the number of signatures.

189. During 2008, the Committee started its consideration of petition PE1108 on access to cancer treatment drugs. The petition attracted 632 signatures. However, we secured agreement, following the publication of both the report of our inquiry into this issue and the Scottish Government’s response, for this to be debated in the Chamber. That debate took place on 1 October 2008.64 We agree with the comment of the Cabinet Secretary for Health and Wellbeing in her opening statement to that debate65

“I welcome the opportunity to participate in one of the most important debates that the Parliament has had.”

190. It was not the number of signatures that led to this debate, but the importance of the issue itself.

191. We therefore do not propose to go forward with this suggestion at this time. However, it is one that has been raised and which we will keep in mind for the future.

192. We also considered whether there might be scope for an annual public petitions debate in the Chamber. This might be on the back of the Committee’s annual report and would provide an opportunity for Committee members and other MSPs to draw attention to the work of the Committee over that last year, petitions of note, and where action has been taken to resolve individual petitions. It could also act as a forum for Scottish Government ministers to respond to particular petitions. This could prove a useful forum to generate discussion with ministers on particular petitions and assist in moving some petitions further forward than through the exchange of letters as we do at present.

193. We of course cannot commit to this as it is a matter that would need to be further considered by both the Conveners Group and the Parliamentary Bureau. Currently, committees bid for time to discuss committee business in the Chamber. However, it is an interesting concept and could add further weight to the importance the Parliament gives to the petitioning process generally as well as recognising the issues that petitioners bring forward and the fact that they do bring them forward. A good demonstration of our sharing power founding principle.

194. We propose therefore to discuss this matter further with the Conveners Group and the Parliamentary Bureau. We will indicate the outcome of these discussions at a future meeting of the Committee.

Conclusions

195. We believe this has been a particularly worthwhile experience. The inquiry has taken the Committee to different parts of the country and has sought to involve people in putting forward their views and suggestions on their public petitions process and how to improve it further. Importantly, many of the suggestions made have been adopted by us and are either being put into effect alongside the publication of this report or will be within the coming months.

196. We also believe that the public petitions process is meeting the expectations of the people who use it. What has been clear from what people have said to us is that we are running an effective process. Yes, some improvements are needed, but on the whole there is no fundamental problem with it.

197. We consider that the public petitions process and the role of the Committee has evolved successfully over the last 10 years. Central to this has been meeting the needs of petitioners and providing a robust, visible and clear route for them to enter their elected legislature and to question and challenge issues of national public policy and have these investigated by a dedicated committee whose sole function is to consider public petitions. A route which they are able to fully participate in. We cannot rely on executive or legislature to identify where laws are not working as intended. That is why we must hold true to our founding principle of the sharing of power.

198. We referred earlier in this report to some of the high profile issues that have come before this particular Committee since 2007. It is obviously important, in order to give authority and credence to our petitioning process, that we demonstrate to those thinking of bringing a petition forward that there is a point to it, that a petition and the petitioner can make a difference. It is what people often refer to as the ‘successful’ petitions.

199. We are proud of the successes we have had since 2007 and of those achieved since 1999. For example—

  • PE001 (Rev. David Beatty) (the first petition lodged) called for the Parliament to take the necessary steps to introduce prayers to the proceedings of the Scottish Parliament.
    The Parliament agreed to hold multi-denomination prayers.
  • PE223 (Mr & Mrs A. McQuire) called on the Parliament to ensure that Multiple Sclerosis sufferers in Lothian were not denied the opportunity to be prescribed Beta Interferon.
    The then Scottish Executive announced that beta-interferon would be available to all MS sufferers across Scotland.
  • PE535 (Chris Daly) called on the Parliament to urge the Scottish Executive to (a) make an inquiry into past institutional child abuse, in particular for those children who were in the care of the State under the supervision of religious orders and (b) make unreserved apology for said State bodies and to urge the religious orders to apologise unconditionally while PE888 (Chris Daly) urged the Scottish Executive, in the interests of those who have suffered institutional child abuse, to (a) reform Court of Session rules to allow ‘fast-track’ court hearings in personal injury cases; (b) review the implementation of the Prescription and Limitation (Scotland) Act 1973; and (c) to implement the recommendations of the Law Commission report on the Limitation of Actions.
    Both petitions were eventually closed on the grounds of what the petitioner had achieved: PE535 was debated by the Parliament (1 December 2004) The debate was preceded by a Ministerial Statement in which the then First Minister made an apology on behalf of the people of Scotland that the abuse was allowed to occur in Scotland.Also, an inquiry into the issues raised was carried out leading to the setting up of an independent expert review with a report making recommendations for substantial changes in policy and legislation. In terms of PE888 the Scottish Government accepted in full the recommendations in the Historical Abuse Systemic Review of Residential Schools and Children’s Homes in Scotland between 1950 and 1995. Further, the Scottish Government secured funding to set up a forum to adapt principles of a truth and reconciliation model.
  • PE786 (Alan Masterton, on behalf of the Scottish Burned Children’s Club) called on the Parliament to urge the then Scottish Executive to include within Scottish Building Regulations a mandatory requirement for thermostatic mixing valves to be installed in the hot water systems of all new-build and renovated properties.
    The Scottish Building Standards Agency stated it would take forward the issue of installing thermostatic mixing valves as part of a review process for Section 4 (Safety) of the Technical Handbooks to the Building (Scotland) Regulations 2004. A Building Standards Advisory Committee Working Group was convened in 2005 to review Section 4 and the issues raised by the petitioners were amongst those considered. The regulations were changed in 2006.
  • PE978 (Diana Cairns, on behalf of Portobello Community Council) called on the Parliament to urge the Scottish Executive to consider how best to restrict the use of jet-skis in the vicinity of public beaches, particularly in residential areas.
    The petition was closed on the grounds that measures were being taken in the form of an exclusion zone at the beach and by the UK Department for Transport on the conduct of personal watercraft users. The Committee also arranged for the local council to meet with the petitioner to discuss further actions.
  • PE1000 (All Saints Secondary School) called on the Parliament to urge the Scottish Executive to investigate the public health implications of cheaply available alcohol.
    The petition fed into the discussion and action by both the then Scottish Executive and the current Scottish Government on alcohol pricing. It also contributed to the report by the Scottish Futures Forum (Approaches to Alcohol and Drugs in Scotland: A Question of Architecture).

200. This of course is just a snapshot of some of the ‘successes’. We obviously recognise the work which petitioners put into their petitions and it is credit to them what they achieve. Some petitions may achieve all that the petitioner asks for, some only part of what they want. But the important point is to have the process there which allows the matter to be properly considered. A point which some of the people interviewed for the 2006 research (Assessment of the Scottish Parliament's Public Petitions System 1999 – 2006) was the ability of people to be involved, to have their say. While they may not get what they want, they at least have the opportunity to raise the issue and have it looked at. As one person put it—

‘the ability of ‘common folk’ to bring their concerns to the Parliament through the petitions system is ‘democracy in action’’.66

201. We referred earlier in the report to ensure that we strike a balance in raising awareness of the existence of the petitioning process and the volume of public petitions that we consider and the work involved in that. We therefore need to monitor very closely how the measures outlined in this report will impact on what is ultimately the most important feature of our public petitions process and that is full and analytical consideration of each petition hopefully to the satisfaction of the petitioner. We would not regard say a 10% increase in the volume of public petitions over the next months a success if it was coupled with a decrease in our consideration of these and indeed all public petitions.

202. The Committee has a unique function and does differ from every other committee of the Parliament in that our workload is not set by government legislation or budget scrutiny, but by the issues that the public bring to us in the form of petitions. We do not set our agenda; the public does and it is testament to our open and accessible public petitions process that citizens have engaged with it and brought forward public petitions on the widest variety of subjects. While some have accused the Committee of considering what they might regard as ‘fringe’ issues, we don’t agree. Each and every petition is important to us and we will continue to give them our fullest attention.

203. We look forward to this continued innovation in further developing the public petitions process. We will continue to communicate whenever and however we can with citizens on this. We also look forward to seeing the impact of many of the conclusions and issues which we have highlighted in this report. For example, the impact a petitioning process in each local authority would have in terms of local democratic engagement and scrutiny.

204. Below is a summary of our conclusions from throughout this report—

We—

  • commit to undertake a further series of external meetings in various parts of Scotland including one further external meeting in 2009 and three external meetings during 2010. It is also our intention to meet, where possible, in locations where no other committee of the Parliament has visited;
  • commit to encouraging two-way dialogue with the people who come along to these meetings and to investigate other ways in which we can involve them in the meetings themselves. We will discuss this with our Education and Community Partnerships team here in the Parliament;
  • will take forward the suggestion to see whether we could run a ‘young peoples petitions’ meeting where we invite only young people to bring forward petitions which we then discuss at a Committee meeting solely for that purpose. We will also consider the scope for similar meetings that might focus on petitions from disability groups, equalities organisations etc.;
  • will investigate with our Education and Community Partnerships team here in the Parliament, how we can run presentations alongside our external meetings to explain more about the work of the Committee which local schoolchildren, disability, community and equalities groups and others would be encouraged to attend and participate in;
  • will take forward the production of a new leaflet, to be made available in various languages and formats: Gaelic, Arabic, Traditional Chinese, Bengali, Urdu, Punjabi, Polish, easy read, large print and Braille. We will obviously conform fully to the Scottish Parliament’s language policy as it develops. We will publish this leaflet later this year;
  • will circulate the leaflet to some of the individuals and organisations who came along to our external meetings asking them to peer review it;
  • will widen the hard copy circulation of the leaflet;
  • will invite organisations, for example schools, disability groups, equalities organisations, community councils, local councils for voluntary services and others, to provide a link from their own website to the leaflet on our web page so that people can navigate from those sites to ours. We will highlight, particularly amongst ethnic minority organisations, the fact that, in line with the Scottish Parliament’s language policy a public petition may be submitted in any language and when it is the Scottish Parliamentary Corporate Body will arrange for it to be translated into English, so that it may be considered by the Committee and others. Similarly, we will highlight that public petitions can be submitted in any format e.g. we would make whatever arrangements were necessary to accommodate the lodging of a petition in BSL;
  • will produce a poster and a bookmark which publicise the public petitions process and point people in the direction of where to get more information;
  • will consider whether the posters should be produced in different styles, formats and languages appropriate to different audiences. We will publish these later this year;
  • will continue the practice of contacting local media in advance of future external meetings to generate interest amongst the local population;
  • will consider the scope for articles/interviews with local community radio to generate further interest in local communities;
  • will put arrangements in place to further publicise, through local outlets, the existence of the public petitions process. We will give further consideration alongside our Education and Community Partnerships Team and Media Relations Office as to how and when we can best move this idea forward;
  • will take forward the idea, in discussion with our Education and Community Partnership team here in the Parliament, of creating ‘petition ambassadors’ to work alongside, and be part of, the engagement work which we will undertake;
  • would welcome the views of the Scottish Parliamentary Corporate Body on how the Parliament’s outreach strategy will specifically target groups like the Blairtumnock and Rogersfield tenants association and how this strategy will pro-actively contact groups and individuals from across all of Scotland to discuss how information about what the Parliament does, and for our own interest what the public petitions process is for, can be shared. We refer the SPCB to the research findings and the views expressed at our external meetings in this regard;
  • are launching, alongside this report, our new video which provides an overview of the public petitions process;
  • will invite organisations, for example schools, disability groups, equalities organisations, community councils, local councils for voluntary services and others to provide a link from their own websites to the video so that people can navigate from those sites to ours;
  • will take forward the production of a new BSL version of the video to be launched later this year. This will be done in consultation with the Scottish Council on Deafness67 and other agencies to ensure that what is produced fully meets the needs of deaf and deafblind people;
  • are launching alongside this report a facility which will allow petitioners, and us, to post videos and photographs about petitions, the petitions process and the work of the Committee. These will be hosted on the new blog page. Through this new blog page we will host—
    • our own public petitions video
    • pod casts about public petitions)
    • footage from our meetings
    • interviews with petitioners
    • our photo sharing facility
    • a hyperlink to videos and photos which petitioners produce and post on to sites such as YouTube and Flickr
    • links to Parliament’s own YouTube page, its website, the Committee’s own webpage and Holyrood TV. We hope this will allow users to easily navigate around to access other information they want.
  • are launching, alongside this report, our new public petitions blog;
  • are launching, alongside this report, a dedicated Public Petitions Committee Wiki page;
  • are launching alongside this report a pod cast interview which sets out some general facts and information about public petitions – the what, why and how. We will also produce regular pod casts outlining the work of the Committee, our consideration of specific petitions, and other information that we hope people will want to know;
  • will investigate further with our web team the facility to bookmark our webpages through Del.icio.us, Digg, reddit and StumbleUpon;
  • will look to further promote the option for petitioners and others to talk to us about their petition via videoconference;
  • will put in place the facilities to allow people to text their support to a petition;
  • have revised the template to be completed by each petitioner to invite more information from them about the background to the petition e.g. what action do they wish taken, by whom, when, what questions do they wish us to ask, what was the result of the action they took prior to lodging the petition;
  • invite the Scottish Parliamentary Corporate Body to indicate in what way it will support the redevelopment, as a priority, of the e-petition system;
  • will provide the facility for those petitioners whom we cannot, for lack of time, invite to come along and speak to the Committee about their petition to submit an oral presentation via video;
  • will formally alert the Scottish Government of new petitions when lodged;
  • will ensure that the petitioner is given the same, if not more, time as public bodies in which to respond to the Committee;
  • will also encourage greater clarity and more specifics from respondents;
  • we will, if we receive no communication from the petitioner on two successive occasions, consider the petitioner is content with the responses received and will move to close the petition on that basis;
  • will continue our practice of referring public petitions to other committees only when we consider there to be a clear benefit in doing so;
  • we will undertake further in-depth inquiries;
  • will continue to allow petitions on reserved matters, but which do not call upon the Parliament to legislate, to be lodged;
  • we would welcome the introduction by local councils of locally based public petitioning processes;
  • will discuss with the Conveners Group and the Parliamentary Bureau the scope for an annual public petitions debate in the Chamber.

Appendix A

Read the Ipsos MORI/Dr Christopher Carman research report "Engaging the public in the Scottish Parliament’s petitions process".

Appendix B

pass

(For official use only)
PUBLIC PETITION NO.

PE

Please see the Guidance Notes at the back of this form.

1. Name of petitioner

2. Petition title

3. Petition text

Calling on the Scottish Parliament to urge the Scottish Government to

 

4. What action have you taken before submitting this petition and what was the result of this?

5. Petition background information

What action do you wish taken and by whom?

When?

What questions do you want the Committee to ask and of whom?

 

6. Do you want your petition to be hosted on the parliament’s website as an e-petition?

YES / NO (Delete as appropriate). If you answer “NO” please proceed to question 9.

7. What is the closing date for the e-petition

8. Comments to stimulate on-line discussion

 

 

 


9. Administrative information (not for publication)

Name

 

Address

 

 

Telephone nos.

Home:

Mobile:

E-mail address

 

No. of petition signatures

 

Statement to the committee
Should the Committee consider it necessary to broaden its understanding of the petition, it may ask a petitioner to appear before it to speak and answer questions. If asked, would you wish to appear?

YES

NO

Signature of principal petitioner

When satisfied that your petition meets all the criteria outlined in How to submit a public petition the principal petitioner should sign and date below.

Signature ……………………………………………..

Date ………………………..

Completed forms should be returned to—
The Clerk to the Public Petitions Committee
The Scottish Parliament
Edinburgh, EH99 1SP
petitions@scottish.parliament.uk

Tel: 0131 348 5982
Fax: 0131 348 5088
www.scottish.parliament.uk/s3/committees/petitions/index.htm

GUIDANCE NOTES

We hope you find the notes below helpful in completing your petition form.

1. Name of petitioner:
If you are presenting the petition as an individual please simply enter your name. If the petition is being presented on behalf of a group such as a community council, please enter the name of the person who is to represent the group as well as the name of the group e.g. Mary Brown, on behalf of the somewhere Community Council.

2. Petition title
This, in as few words as possible, should identify what your petition is about e.g. Improving school bus safety.

3. Text of petition
This is really a summary of your petition. You should clearly state what action you want the Parliament to take e.g.

“Calling on the Scottish Parliament to urge the Scottish Government to consider the need for new legislation to tackle anti-social behaviour.”

Ideally, this should be limited to no more than five lines of text.

4. Action taken to resolve issues of concern before submitting petition
Before submitting your petition, you should have made an attempt to resolve the issues of concern. For example—

  • What approaches have you made to your local council or other public body on this matter and what was the response?
  • Have you asked an elected representative e.g. councillor, MSP, to look into this matter and, again, what happened?
  • Has any recent announcement been made by say the Scottish Government that might have a bearing on your petition?

This information is helpful to the Public Petitions Committee as it can see what issues have been raised and the responses and will help broaden understanding of what your petition is about.

5. Background information
Here you should insert relevant, factual background information and set out the reasons why you consider the action requested in the petition to be necessary. This information will be made available to each Committee member prior to consideration of your petition and should be limited to no more than three sides of A4.

There are a number of options available to you in promoting your petition and in sharing further the information about it. You don’t have to use these but the choices/options are there if you want to. These are—

  • E-petition: See below for more details.
  • Website: Do you have your own website? Then why not insert a link to it from your petition? This will allow people to go from your petition to your website.
  • Video: You may have produced a video about your petition which you have perhaps posted on to the internet e.g. You Tube. The Public Petitions Committee has its own website and blog where it can provide a link to your video. If you have posted a video on to the internet, then why not forward the link to it to the Committee’s clerking team.
  • Photographs: Similarly, if you have some photos that have maybe been posted up on to say Flickr or your Facebook page, then again, let the clerking team know.
  • Social networking sites: Do you have a Bebo page? Or MySpace? Again, why not say this in your petition. People can then easily navigate round all the information about your petition.
  • Reports, other literature: Are there reports or other literature you think will be on interest? Then why not provide a weblink (if you can) to these so that people can go from your petition to the online version of the report etc.

What the Committee is trying to do is give you options, choices (if you want to use them) to make information available in different formats. While the core information goes into the petition template - and that is what the Committee members will have before them at the meeting when your petition is discussed - it hopes that you find these additional options helpful. If you have any questions about this, please get in touch with the Committee’s clerking team to discuss.

6. Do you wish your petition to be hosted on the parliament’s website as an e-petition?
Before your petition goes before the Committee, you may wish to use the Parliament’s e-petition system to promote it. This allows your petition to be hosted on our website (http://epetitions.scottish.parliament.uk/) for an agreed period, providing an opportunity to attract a wider audience and gather more names in support. Each e-petition has its own discussion forum, where visitors and supporters can discuss and debate the petition and related issues. When the period for hosting the e-petition ends, the clerks arrange for it to then go before the Committee for consideration in the usual way.

Should you wish to use this system please provide the further information requested. The clerks post your petition up on to the website so there is no work for you.

7 & 8. E-petition
If you want to use the e-petition facility, please enter a closing date for gathering signatures on your petition (we usually recommend a period of around six weeks). Please also provide a comment to set the scene for the on-line discussion on the petition, not exceeding ten lines of text.

9. Administrative information
Please provide as much of the requested information as possible. In particular, please provide a contact telephone number and e-mail address if you have one which will enable the Committee clerks to contact you quickly and efficiently. These details will not be published and are not shared with any other party.

An electronic version of the petition is appreciated as this allows for swift and easy processing. We also appreciate communicating by e-mail as this is quicker and more convenient. However, don’t worry, it is not a requirement and if you don’t have access to a computer then that is not a problem.

Initially, all communications should go to petitions@scottish.parliament.uk.

MORE INFORMATION
We hope you find these notes helpful in completing your petition template. There are also various sources of further information—

The main webpage for the Public Petitions Committee—
www.scottish.parliament.uk/s3/committees/petitions/index.htm

Information on how and where to access more information (leaflets, video, podcast)—
www.scottish.parliament.uk/s3/committees/petitions/furtherInfo.htm

The Public Petitions Committee blog page where you can view videos and photos relating to the work of the Committee and individual petitions—
http://scottishparliamentpetitions.blogspot.com/

The Public Petitions Committee
The Scottish Parliament
TG.01
Edinburgh, EH99 1SP

Tel: 0131 348 5982
Text Relay service: 18001 0131 348 5982
Fax: 0131 348 5088

petitions@scottish.parliament.uk


Footnotes:

6 Scottish Parliament Public Petitions Committee, Official Report, 23 October 2007, cols.193-202

7 Scottish Parliament Public Petitions Committee, Official Report, 19 February 2008, cols.522-3

8 Scottish Parliament Public Petitions Committee, Official Report, 24 June 2008, cols.986-7

10 Scottish Parliament Public Petitions Committee, Official Report, 24 June 2008, cols.986-8

13 Scottish Parliament Public Petitions Committee, Official Report, 4 November 2008, cols.1162-1181

17 Scottish Parliament Public Petitions Committee, Official Report, 21 April 2009, cols. 1675-1704

18 Scottish Parliament Public Petitions Committee, Official Report, 27 January 2009, col.1413

19 Scottish Parliament Public Petitions Committee, Official Report, 2 December 2008, col.1255

21 Scottish Parliament Public Petitions Committee, Official Report, 30 March 2009, col.1628

22 Scottish Parliament Public Petitions Committee, Official Report, 30 March 2009, col.1625

23 Scottish Parliament Public Petitions Committee, Official Report, 19 May 2009, cols.1779-1794

24 Scottish Parliament Public Petitions Committee, Official Report, 19 May 2009, col.1780

25 Scottish Parliament Public Petitions Committee, Official Report, 19 May 2009, col.1786

31 Scottish Parliament Public Petitions Committee, Official Report, 30 March 2009, col.1623

32 Scottish Parliament Public Petitions Committee, Official Report, 27 January 2009, col.1415

33 Scottish Parliament Public Petitions Committee, Official Report, 27 January 2009, col.1415

35 Scottish Parliament Public Petitions Committee, Official Report, 19 May 2009, cols.1779-1794

36 Scottish Parliament Public Petitions Committee, Official Report, 27 January 2009, col.1413

37 Scottish Parliament Public Petitions Committee, Official Report, 27 January 2009, cols.1413-4

38 Scottish Parliament Public Petitions Committee, Official Report, 21 April 2009, col.1678

39 Scottish Parliament Public Petitions Committee, Official Report, 21 April 2009, col.1691

40 petitions@scottish.parliament.uk or Clerk to the Public Petitions Committee, The Scottish Parliament, Edinburgh, EH99 1SP or 0131 348 5982 (RNID Typetalk service: 18001 0131 348 5982)

54 Scottish Parliament Public Petitions Committee, Official Report, 21 April 2009, col.1691

63 Scottish Parliament Public Petitions Committee, Official Report, 21 April 2009, col.1680

64 Scottish Parliament Public Petitions Committee, Official Report, 1 October 2008, cols.11326-11380

65 Scottish Parliament Public Petitions Committee, Official Report, 1 October 2008, col.11330

66 Assessment of the Scottish Parliament's Public Petitions System 1999 – 2006, section 6.3 (www.scottish.parliament.uk/business/committees/petitions/reports-06/pur06-PPS-assessment-04.htm#6p3)