Back to the Scottish Parliament Public Petitions Committee Report
Archive Home

Business Bulletin 1999-2011

Minutes of Proceedings 1999-2011

Journal of Parliamentary Proceedings Sessions 1 & 2

Committees Sessions 1, 2 & 3

Annual reports

   
  Contents Previous Next

EXECUTIVE SUMMARY

Background

1. The public petitions system in the Scottish Parliament is becoming an integral component of the Scottish political system. It provides a point of access for individuals to submit petitions to the Parliament. Key components of the system include:

  • The Scottish Parliament is formally committed, through its own Standing Orders, to consider all admissible petitions that are submitted.
  • The Standing Orders establish a permanent committee, the Public Petitions Committee (PPC), with the sole remit to consider petitions submitted to the Parliament.
  • The PPC has a wide degree of latitude in considering petitions and has several institutional mechanisms to gather information on petitions as well as to promote Parliamentary action on petitions.

2. With the impending submission of the 1,000th petition and the dissolution of the second session of the Scottish Parliament, the Scottish Parliament Information Centre (SPICe) contracted with a research team at the University of Glasgow to conduct a three-phased, multi-method analysis of the petitions system. Research for this report was conducted between May and August of 2006. This project analysed:

  • The petitions submitted to the Scottish Parliament and the PPC’s procedures for petition consideration
  • Responses to a survey of all individuals submitting petitions between May 1999 through June 2006
  • Responses to a series of interviews with petitioners.

Analysis of Petitions

3. At the time data were gathered for this report, 964 petitions had been submitted to the Scottish Parliament. The largest number of petitions submitted in a single year was 275 in 2000. During the second session, the number of petitions submitted per year has levelled off to slightly more than 100.

4. The number of signatures attached to petitions has varied widely. Approximately 47% of petitions had just one signature, whilst 30% had over 100.  The median number of signatures on petitions is two.

5. Individuals have submitted the majority of petitions in both sessions of Parliament (53%), followed by community groups (18%) and pressure groups (15%).

6. To date, 94 repeat petitioners have submitted 342 petitions. Repeat petitioners account for 35% of all petitions submitted to June 2006. Five individuals have submitted nine or more petitions (or 11% of all petitions). The majority of repeat petitioners (69%) has submitted two petitions.

7. Eighteen individuals living outwith Scotland have submitted 23 petitions on a wide array of subjects.

8. Within Scotland, petitioners tend to come from more populated constituencies with a higher average age. The percentage of housing stock rented by local councils provides one indicator of the social composition of a constituency. Analysis reveals an inverse relationship between the percentage of housing rented by local councils within a constituency and the number of petitioners residing in that constituency.

9. Overall, 35% of petitions dealt with the subjects of health and community care, and local government.

Public Petitions Committee’s Consideration of Petitions

10. Evidence from meeting minutes, Official Reports and MSP interviews indicates that the PPC did not have a clear understanding of its remit at the beginning of the first session of the Scottish Parliament. Further, there was some disagreement among PPC members as to the scope of the PPC’s remit in considering and handling petitions.

11. There has been a clear and distinct shift in the PPC’s interpretation of its remit from the first to the second sessions of the Scottish Parliament. During the first session, the PPC concentrated on admissibility and referring petitions for further action. In the second session, the PPC has spent less time considering admissibility of petitions and substantially more time considering their merits. Additionally, the PPC referred far fewer petitions to other committees during the Parliament’s second session.

12. During both sessions of the Parliament, the PPC’s broad interpretation of its remit and admissibility rules has afforded the PPC a great deal of latitude in dealing with petitions. For example, to promote accessibility the PPC has only loosely applied rules on the form and format of petitions.

13. The PPC relies very heavily upon its clerks and other parliamentary officials to administer the petitions consideration process. According to MSP interviews, PPC clerks now have a significant role in advising on petition admissibility. Clerks interact with petitioners, guide petition language, assist in the development of petitions, commission research briefings on all petitions from SPICe, confer with legal experts on issues raised in petitions, draft recommendations on PPC action on petitions and draft briefing papers for PPC members on each petition.

14. The PPC posts a large amount of information on the petitions it considers on the Parliament’s website, providing the public with unprecedented levels of information on the petitions process. However, only very limited information on inadmissible petitions is posted on the internet and is generally not accessible by the public.

Survey of Petitioners

15. Comparing petitioner survey respondents to large, national, random-sample surveys, petitioners are disproportionately older (average age 57.3 years), male (66.6%) and self-identified as middle class (56.2%). Further, 58% of petitioner respondents stated they have a university degree.

16. While a very large percentage of petitioners responding to the survey claimed not to hold a party affiliation (35%), almost 75% of petitioners reported that they regularly participate in voluntary organisations.

17. While there are no significant differences between petitioners and the general public in levels of trust expressed toward Scottish political institutions, petitioners are far less likely to trust British political institutions (especially the Parliament at Westminster) than are the general public.

18. In assessing the petitions process, 82% of respondents thought the petitions system was easy to understand, 64% agreed that they had been kept informed throughout the petitioning process and 55% believed that the petitions system brings the Parliament closer to the people of Scotland.

19. When petitioners were asked if they thought their petition was handled fairly and if they considered it to be a ‘success’, 63% of respondents thought that their petition was handled fairly by the PPC, while 22% did not think their petition was handled fairly. About 30% of respondents thought that their petition had been a ‘success’, while 54% of petitioners would not rate their petition a ‘success’. Overall, 55% of petitioners were not satisfied with the outcome of the petitions process.

20. Statistical analyses demonstrate that the primary predictor of petitioner satisfaction with the outcome of the petitions process is their evaluations of process fairness. One interpretation of this is that the fairer petitioners thought they had been treated by the PPC, the happier they were with the outcome of the petitioning process.

Interviews with Petitioners

21. Petitioners are generally impressed with the petitions system and find it to be a valuable point of access to the Parliament.

22. Mirroring the survey findings, petitioners interviewed have often found value in having the opportunity to raise topics and concerns in the Parliament, even if they believe that their petition was not a success.

23. Several petitioners interviewed expressed concern that there is not a mechanism to review or appeal the PPC’s decisions. If the system is to be viewed as ‘fair’ and ‘open’, many petitioners believe that the decisions taken by the PPC should be open to scrutiny. 

24. Many interviewees reported having positive interactions with the clerks and found them quite helpful. However, interviewees were also concerned about the relative influence of the clerks on the system, the use of informal mechanisms in petition consideration and their perceptions that the PPC can act as a ‘gatekeeper’.

Recommendations

25. Overall, the petitions system seems to work well, with most petitioners seeing a great deal of value in being able to raise issues and voice concerns. However, this report points to several possible recommendations for the PPC to consider in the future.

26. ‘Appeals’ mechanism: One of the most mentioned concerns that petitioners had with the process of petitions consideration in the Scottish Parliament was the lack of a mechanism to review or ‘appeal’ decisions taken by the PPC. Any mechanism for appeals (or review) would need to be somewhat circumscribed, as it would not be unreasonable to expect that many petitioners who did not receive their desired outcome would ‘appeal’ the PPC’s decision. Yet, to maintain an open and transparent system, the PPC’s decisions should be open to scrutiny. One possibility would be to establish a panel of citizens and MSPs (perhaps former PPC members), independent of the PPC, to meet at regular intervals and review PPC decisions upon petitioner request. The panel could suggest closed petitions that may merit PPC review. 

27. Revisions of admissibility rules: To ensure the transparency of the petitions process, the PPC may revise its rules on determining petition admissibility, ensuring that all decisions are taken by PPC members in a manner that produces a clear, transparent and easily accessible public record. Petitions ruled inadmissible should be noted on the PPC’s web site along with the reason for the PPC’s decision.

28. General transparency: To ensure the transparency of the petitions consideration process, all documentation relating to petitions, including briefings papers, should be made publicly available through the PPC’s web site.

29. Petitioner debriefing: Upon the closing of their petition, petitioners should be asked to complete a debriefing form to assist in monitoring the petitions system. Petitioners should be asked to rate their experiences with the PPC including, but not limited to, their ratings of the degree of fairness in petition consideration and the success of their petition. This data collection effort should be used to support the monitoring of the PPC’s performance and outreach efforts. The data presented in this report may serve as a baseline for future monitoring efforts.

30. Outreach: One of the primary findings of this report is that only a small, distinctly defined segment of the public generally uses the petitions system. The PPC must engage in extensive outreach to enhance social inclusion. To this end, the Scottish Parliament could appoint an outreach specialist, independent of the PPC, to assist individuals in preparing petitions and, perhaps, hold surgeries to assist targeted communities in connecting with the Parliament through the petitions system.

31. Data management: To monitor itself and the petitions system accurately, the PPC should seek to regularise and formalise its data management procedures.

Chapter One: Introduction

Chapter Aims

This chapter provides a brief introduction to the assessment of the Scottish Parliament’s public petitions system detailed in this report. This chapter:

  • describes the overall goals of this assessment
  • provides a brief introduction to the methods documented in the report
  • briefly describes the report’s structure

1.1 Overview

1. The Scottish Parliament is an evolving political system both in terms of its relationship with the Scottish people and its own inner workings. In many ways it is a system that is adapting and learning as it charts political paths that are otherwise unprecedented within Scotland’s political system. The public petitions system, in particular, has evolved substantially since it was established with the opening of the Scottish Parliament in 1999.

2. As the second session of the Parliament draws to a close, the Scottish Parliament commissioned an independent review of the petition’s system with the aim of better understanding how the petition system functions, the types of petitions submitted since the beginning of the parliament and how petitioners evaluate the petitions system.

3. The research presented in this report was commissioned by SPICe in May 2006.1 The period covered by this project, June 1999 to May 2006, includes the first petition submitted to the Parliament (PE1, lodged on 14 June 1999) through the 964th petition (PE964, lodged on 12 May 2006).

4. This report focuses on several aspects of the petitions system as it has evolved within the Scottish Parliament:

  1. The scope and range of petitions submitted to the Public Petitions Committee (PPC)
  2. The PPC’s procedural mechanisms for handling petitions
  3. Changes in the PPC’s procedures from the first to the second session of the Parliament
  4. Petitioners’ characteristics
  5. Petitioners’ perceptions and evaluations of the petitions system

1.2 The Scottish Petitions System in Broader Context

5. Recognising the need to confront a marked decline in public confidence in governing systems, many advanced industrial democracies have adopted transformative reforms designed to expand the opportunities for citizens to connect with their governments.2 This was certainly the case with the Consultative Steering Group (CSG) as it considered suggestions for the institutional arrangements that would form the Scottish Parliament. In keeping with its goal of establishing a ‘new politics’ in Scotland, the CSG took a deliberate decision to adopt innovative reforms that would forge and support a strong link between the Scottish public and the Scottish Parliament. The Scottish petitions system reflects a class of reforms designed to foster what scholars have referred to as ‘advocacy democracy’.3

6. Advocacy democracy, in contrast to direct democracy, is marked by citizen participation in the formulation of policies, though citizens are not the final decision makers. Direct democracy reforms transfer the decision taking process directly to the public. Advocacy reforms, according to Dalton, Scarrow and Cain, ‘seek to influence the process rather than make outright decisions, as is done with referendums and initiatives’.4 In Scotland, petitions are initiated by citizens and submitted to the PPC. For petitions to be considered, they must be limited to policy relevant concerns within the competence of the Parliament. This feature distinguishes the Scottish petitions system from others that may have either explicit ‘ombudsman’ functions (e.g. the petitions system in the German Bundestag) or require petitions to be submitted by chamber members (as is the case in the Westminster Parliament). Once a petition is submitted, the Parliament is obligated, through the PPC, to consider petitions, take evidence and finally take a decision on each petition.

7. Hence, the petitions system in Scotland is not designed to be a system that allows for public initiatives where the public ratifies the final decision on proposals. Instead, the Scottish petitions system is designed to provide a method for individuals and groups to bring policy concerns directly to the Parliament. It is important to establish at the outset of this report that it is the Scottish Parliament, and more specifically the Public Petitions Committee, that determines the rules on petition admissibility, establishes the process that is used to consider petitions and takes the final decision on petitions. 

1.3 Overview of Methodology

8. To provide for a broad assessment of the Scottish Parliament’s petitions system, this study uses a multi-method approach, analysing the data on petitions kept by the committee itself, the responses from a survey of all petitioners and, finally, responses to in-depth interviews of parliamentarians, staff and petitioners. This approach focused on the collection of complementary data sets to put the analysis into context as well as on the political attitudes held by petitioners.5

9. Data from the PPC’s database were used as the basis for a data set with the individual petitions serving as the primary unit of analysis. This data set allows for a variety of quantitative analyses of the petitions including PPC consideration of petitions over time, the ‘types’ of petitions submitted, the number of signatures petitions had at the time of submission, actions taken by the PPC and regional aspects of petitioners’ residence.

10. This project also created a data set that includes responses to a postal survey sent to all individuals who have submitted petitions to the parliament. Using the contact information in the PPC’s database, the research team attempted to contact all petitioners four times to maximise the survey’s response rate. The survey questionnaire was designed to develop indicators of petitioners’ reports of their expectations prior to submitting their petition as well as respondents’ assessments of the petition process. The survey also included a section gathering background and demographic information on petitioners.

11. The information on petitions, the PPC consideration of petitions and petitioners’ responses to the survey were then combined into a single data set that allowed for the development of statistical models assessing petitioners’ views of the petitions system. The results from these models help to develop a clearer understanding of petitioners’ perceptions as well as clarify the influence of the petitions system’s process on petitioners’ evaluations and in particular the importance of maintaining open and transparent procedures for considering petitions.

12. Finally, this research also develops a fuller, more contextually rich understanding of petitioners’ experiences with the system through a series of interviews conducted with a sample of petitioners.

1.4 Overview of Report

13. This research report is divided into eight chapters, each organised in a similar manner. Each chapter begins by highlighting the key points discussed in the chapter. This is followed by a brief introduction that sets the context of the chapter, then the core sections that review and summarise the analyses presented in the chapter. Each chapter ends with a concluding section intended to draw out some of the main findings and their implications.

14. The next chapter of this report, chapter two, discusses the overall context of the petitions system then moves to a discussion of the petitioning system’s processes. This chapter serves to highlight differences in process as implemented by the PPC in the first and second sessions of the Parliament. Using a revised version of the PPC’s database, chapter three assesses the petitions as the unit of analysis and discusses the scope and range of petitions submitted to the PPC. In addition, chapter three discusses different categories of petitioners and the geographic distribution of petitioners across Scotland (and elsewhere). Chapter four turns to the PPC itself and considers how the PPC has implemented the petitions system. This chapter highlights how the PPC has handled petitions, the duration of petition consideration, patterns of petition referral to other committees within the Parliament and, finally, petition outcomes. The fifth chapter assesses responses to the survey of petitioners, addresses petitioners’ characteristics and emphases the link between petitioners’ expectations and evaluations of the petitions process. Chapter six relies on the responses to a series of interviews with petitioners to draw out and emphasise many of the issues raised throughout the previous chapters of the report. Chapter seven discusses several issues in determining the degree to which petitions may be classified as ‘successful’. The concluding chapter discusses some of the broad conclusions of this report. Finally, annex A provides an overview of the data used in preparing this report, while annex B summarises the distribution of petitioners across constituencies and regions.

Chapter Two: The Public Petitions System

Chapter Aims

This chapter describes the public petitions process as implemented by the Scottish Parliament’s Public Petitions Committee.

  • Why the Scottish Parliament includes a petitioning system
  • How the petitions system functions
  • How the system is integrated into the Scottish Parliament

2.1 Introduction

1. The public petitions system was included in the institutional design of the Scottish Parliament to ensure that the public has a direct link to the Parliament and is able to bring policy concerns to the Parliament without having to find a friendly intermediary. In its attempts to foster a ‘new politics’ in Scotland, the Consultative Steering Group wanted to ensure that the Scottish Parliament remained ‘the peoples’ Parliament’. This chapter discusses the rationale behind the inclusion of a popular petitioning mechanism and how that system has come to function in practice.

2.2 Why a Petitions System?

2. A common theme in discussions of the institutional arrangements of the Scottish Parliament is to begin with the ‘founding principles’ described and adopted by the Consultative Steering Group (CSG). Indeed, almost all parliamentary officials (MSPs and staff alike) interviewed for this assessment of the Scottish Parliament’s petitions system framed their discussion of the petitions system within the context of the founding principles of transparency, accessibility and/or power sharing.

3. George Reid, the current Presiding Officer and a former member of the CSG, for instance, stated that the petitions system is the result of ‘big principles…We had to work our way to the four principles, which is a very Scots way of doing things: accessibility and accountability were quite clearly high up. Accessibility really equals engagement…Holyrood [was to be] participative, bottom-up and with the people’.6 Michael McMahon, the convener of the Public Petitions Committee (PPC) during the second session, said that the petitions system, ‘is a point of access. The founding principles of the Parliament: accessibility, quite clearly fits into that, and transparency. We obviously hold the Executive to account. We ask them to tell us how they made their decisions, how they arrived at where they are…so we create transparency in the system’.7

4. The contrast is often made with the petitions system at Westminster. In the Westminster system, ‘The right to petition Parliament is an ancient one, summarised in a resolution of the House of Commons of 1699: “That it is the inherent right of every commoner in England to prepare and present petitions to the House of Commons in case of grievance, and the House of Commons to receive the same”’.8 In this system, individuals have the right to petition the Parliament through their Member of Parliament (MP) and the House must ‘receive’ the petition. Beyond receiving it, however, there is little that the House of Commons must actually do with the petition. For a petition to be entered in Parliament a prospective petitioner must approach an MP and ask him or her to submit the petition on behalf of the individual. MPs, however, are not obliged to submit petitions for constituents or other individuals. Once an MP agrees to submit a petition on behalf of an individual that petition is, famously, dropped in the green bag behind the Speaker’s Chair. Under Standing Order 156, a copy of the petition is forwarded to the appropriate governmental department, though Ministers are under no obligation to respond to petitions.9

5. The petitions process in the Scottish parliamentary system was, as was noted in the interviews with George Reid and Michael McMahon, specifically designed to distinguish it from the Westminster system and to serve as a hallmark of an open, accountable and accessible parliament. The Scottish Parliament’s Standing Orders, under the chapter entitled ‘Openness and Accessibility’ (chapter 15), state simply, “The Parliament shall consider, in accordance with the provisions of the Rule and Rules 15.5 to 15.8, any petition addressed to it. A petition may be brought in any language by an individual person (other than a member), a body corporate or an unincorporated association of persons’.10 This simple statement was designed to reflect the fact that the Scottish Parliament has obligated itself to ‘consider’ all (admissible) petitions submitted.

6. The rules, then, are quite broad in terms of who may petition the parliament. For example, as is discussed in the next chapter of this report, there are no provisions requiring petitioners to reside in, or have any formal connection to Scotland. Additionally, in the broadest terms, the Standing Orders stipulate that a petition is admissible unless it is not in the ‘proper form’, it contains offensive language or ‘requests the Parliament to do anything which the Parliament clearly has no power to do’.11 Since its initial meetings convened by John McAllion in 1999, the PPC has pursued its goal of maintaining an accessible system by adopting a very broad interpretation of its rules. For example, the PPC has allowed petitioners to use a wide variety of forms and formats when submitting a petition. Further, and more importantly, the PPC uses a very broad understanding of what the Parliament has the ‘power to do’. For example, though the Parliament may not pass legislation pertaining to reserved matters, there are no limitations on what may be discussed within the Parliament. Therefore, while the Parliament may not pass legislation on reserved matters, it may take a view on these matters. This extremely loose interpretation of the PPC’s remit, used during both the first and second sessions of the Parliament, has at times allowed the committee a great deal of latitude in dealing with petitions.  

2.3 The Petitions Process in the Scottish Parliament

7. On the surface, the petitions process, as the Scottish Parliament has implemented it, is relatively straightforward (see Figure 2.1, below). Petitions may raise any subject and suggest any action to the PPC that is within the Parliament’s competence. According to the PPC’s formal guidance document (which is distinct from the Standing Orders discussed in the preceding section), the PPC states that it will not consider issues that are reserved matters, local decisions of councils or health authorities and the subjects of court proceedings.12 Furthermore, in relation to reserved matters, the PPC’s guidance specifically states that ‘Petitions asking the Parliament to legislate on a matter which is reserved to the UK Parliament will be deemed inadmissible’. However, the PPC has taken a broad interpretation of this point and has dealt with petitions that call for the Parliament or the Executive to take a position on issues that do not fall within their competence, while not necessarily calling for legislation on those matters.

8. On local council and health authority decisions, the PPC has assiduously avoided becoming a ‘court of appeal’.13 Petitioners, however, are often motivated to submit petitions based on the particularised, discrete decisions made by these bodies. In these cases, the PPC clerks will often attempt to counsel petitioners, helping them to identify the larger, more general issue that the PPC may take forward. Michael McMahon stated that ‘the clerks will say to the petitioners “Your petition will not be admissible as it stands because we can not sit in judgement of that issue. But if you agree to this form of words we can go forward”, [the form of words] are approved by the legal department after suggestion by the clerks’. For example, ‘we do not sit in judgement of whether a school should stay open or not. That is not our job. What we can do is examine whether the guidance under which the local authority made its decision is appropriate in dealing with the issue’.14 The subjects of court proceeding are treated similarly by the PPC. While the PPC will not consider the particular aspects of a case that has been adjudicated, it will consider larger issues that may be raised by cases that have been the subject of a court decision.

Figure 2.1: Schematic Diagram of Petitions Process15

Figure 2.1 Schematic Diagram of Petitions Process

9. One addition to the admissibility rules made at the behest of the PPC during the second session limits the ability of petitioners to resubmit a petition on the same or ‘substantially similar’ issue. Petitioners must now wait one year after a petition has been closed if they are submitting the petition during the same parliamentary session. This rule applies to ‘a petition brought by or on behalf of the same person, body corporate or unincorporated association’.16

10. The PPC can and does rule petitions inadmissible; however, data on inadmissible petitions is much more difficult to track than information on petitions admitted for consideration. Of note is the fact that the number of petitions ruled inadmissible has dropped since 2003. From 2001 to 2003, 50 petitions were ruled inadmissible, while from 2004 to 2006, nine petitions were ruled inadmissible.17 According to MSPs interviewed for this report, the process for ruling petitions inadmissible has shifted in the second session from being a formal procedure that was initiated by the clerks and endorsed by the members of the PPC to being a less formal action that is strongly influenced by the clerks’ advice and the judgement of the convener. Technically, petitions are still formally ruled inadmissible by the full committee, though there is often little discussion of the actual reasoning behind the ruling and the reasons for inadmissibility are often not recorded in the PPC’s minutes.18 For example, a recorded discussion of an inadmissible petition (on 29 June 2004) in the PPC’s official report reads as follows:

The Convener: Our third item is consideration of proposed petitions. Members have already been briefed on these petitions, which we have been advised are inadmissible.

In PP1, the petitioner has submitted a proposal for a petition calling for an inquiry into compliance with statutory requirements regarding sequestration and heritable property vested in trustees. Are members agreed that the petition is inadmissible?

Members indicated agreement.19

11. On other occasions, reading both the minutes and official reports of the PPC’s deliberations does provide insight on why a petition is ruled inadmissible. Discussing a ‘proposed petition’ on 22 March 2006, the committee determined the petitioner insisted that the petition follow his original wording, thus only applying the petition to his particular case and rendering it inadmissible:

The Convener: The committee is invited to consider the admissibility of a proposed petition from James Duff, which relates to an alleged failure to comply with the Bankruptcy (Scotland) Act 1913. A copy of the proposed petition was circulated to members. The clerks do all that they can do to help petitioners to bring petitions in a way that allows the committee to consider them. However, in the case that we are discussing, the petitioner insists that only his wording would be acceptable, which means that the committee would be asked to consider his specific case and only that case. The Public Petitions Committee does not have the remit to do that. We must decide whether the proposed petition is inadmissible.

John Scott: I know that the clerks are helpful in trying to ensure that people's petitions are relevant to the national picture. However, if the petitioner is determined that his petition should consider only his legal case, then obviously it is not a matter for the committee. That might be regrettable but, if there is no national or regional issue at stake, we cannot address the petition.

The Convener: Yes. If the petitioner asked us to consider the relevant legislation, we could do so. However, he is asking us to examine the judge's decision.

Rosie Kane: I know that the petitioner will have had that fully explained to him and that he will know that we have to say what we are saying today. Therefore, I assume that it was important to him that his words should be a matter of record. I can only assume that that is his angle.

The Convener: That is possibly the case. However, it does not help us that the petitioner will not allow the petition to be amended to enable us to address it.

Helen Eadie: I agree with John Scott that it is vital to get the fact over to the public that our committee clerks are extremely helpful and that, if the advice of the clerks is not listened to, our hands are tied. Perhaps the clerks could say to the petitioner that, having heard the views of the committee, he now has the right to submit a petition on a more general issue.

The Convener: Do members agree to rule the petition inadmissible?

Members indicated agreement.20

12. That said, as Jim Johnston, clerk to the PPC, notes during the PPC meeting on 24 November 2004, determining the admissibility or inadmissibility of a petition is ‘not an exact science’. In discussing PE784, Mike Watson noted the similarities between it and another ‘proposed petition’ that the clerks had suggested was inadmissible:

Mike Watson: I want to raise a general issue before we get into the meat of the petition. I am having difficulty reconciling our discussion of the petition with the recommendation under agenda item 3 that a proposed petition from Mr James Duff is inadmissible on the ground that it appears to be based on a personal dispute. I understand that argument in relation Mr Duff's proposed petition, but, if anything, PE784 appears to be even more based on a personal dispute than Mr Duff's proposed petition. Both also make general recommendations, but members know that the committee cannot deal with personal matters and I see no difference between PE784 and Mr Duff's proposed petition, because both clearly arise from individual circumstances.

The Convener: PE784 and Mr Duff's proposed petition arise from personal experiences but there are differences between them, which I ask the clerk to clarify.

Jim Johnston (Clerk): All proposals for petitions are considered on their individual merits. When a petition is proposed we consider the action that the petitioner has taken to progress the issue and whether there is a general public interest issue. Clearly, a number of petitions arise from individual cases that raise issues with which petitioners become involved. We must assess whether the aim of the petition is to rectify a specific issue or to address a general issue that the specific case uncovered in relation to legislation or guidance, for example. The petitioner who lodged PE784 raised the issue that his petition addresses with a member of the Scottish Parliament, a member of Parliament, the director of Age Concern Scotland and the Scottish Human Rights Centre. The essential difference between PE784 and Mr Duff's proposed petition is that although the issue in PE784 arose from the petitioner's individual case, the petitioner appears to have pursued the general issue at a number of levels. I do not know whether the committee wants to consider Mr Duff's proposed petition now, but Mr Duff has lodged numerous petitions—around nine or 10—all of which appear to relate to the same dispute. I think that the first seven petitions that Mr Duff lodged were considered by the committee, and the committee is now being asked to consider his eighth, ninth or 10th proposal. In our consideration, they all appear to relate to the same legal dispute.

Mike Watson: I should clarify that I am not suggesting that we should accept Mr Duff's proposed petition—I do not think that we should. However, I think that, on the same basis, we should not consider PE784. I am particularly concerned about the demand for backdating in the petition, which seems to be very much a personal issue.

Jim Johnston: The admissibility of the petition is obviously a matter for the committee. The clerks' role is to advise. PE784 is on the agenda because we advised the convener that it was admissible. You will appreciate that such matters are not an exact science.21

13. Following the change in November 2003, according to some MSP members of the committee, the PPC largely defers to the advice given by the clerks on the admissibility of petitions. A few MSPs went so far as to claim that that decisions on admissibility are effectively taken by the clerks.22 Additionally, it should be noted that unless members of the PPC state for the official record the exact reasoning for petitions being ruled inadmissible, the justification for the decision may not be readily apparent to the public. On occasion, the PPC's minutes omit the justification for the ruling, while only the result of the ruling itself is recorded. The database maintained by the PPC no longer records inadmissible petitions though the minutes of individual meetings do.23

14. Despite the relative lack of transparency relating to inadmissible petitions, the PPC has attempted to keep access to the petitions system open, in keeping with the CSG’s principles. For example, neither the Standing Orders nor the PPC’s guidance require more than the signature of the primary petitioner. While the PPC will try to gauge the depth of public support of a petition, petitioners are not required to document that their petition is supported broadly within the public. That said, as is discussed in the next chapter, petitioners often attempt to gather signatures to signal such support.24 The PPC’s guidance does, however stipulate that:

Before submitting a petition to the Parliament, petitioners are expected to have made an attempt to resolve their issues of concern by, for example, making representations to the Scottish Executive or seeking the assistance of locally elected representatives, such as councillors, MSPs and MPs. Details of those approached, together with copies or summaries of the response received should be submitted as supporting information at the same time as the petition. If this information is not included, the petition may be returned to the petitioner.25

The questioning of petitioners to determine the extent to which petitioners have sought support from MSPs or other elected officials is the responsibility of the clerks. In practice, however, while the clerks may attempt to encourage petitioners to first approach the Executive or MSPs with their concerns (as is demonstrated in the excerpted minutes from the 24 November 2004 meeting above), petitions may be accepted if the petitioner chooses to turn to the PPC without first pursuing other avenues. In these situations, the clerks’ advice to the convener on admissibility seems to carry significant weight.

15. Generally, petitioners’ first interactions with the PPC tend to involve discussions with the PPC clerks on the prospective petition’s wording, content, format and suggested action. In interviews with petitioners,26 several of the interviewees noted that they had a substantial degree of interaction with the clerks and that many found the clerks to be very helpful in identifying the larger policy issues and developing the wording of their petition. Many of the exchanges between clerks and prospective petitioners that serve to shape petitions last several months. It is at this stage that the clerks are engaged in helping petitioners focus the content and substance of their petitions into a form that is admissible. This role is recognised by the PPC convener as well. Michael McMahon states, ‘Everything starts with the clerks. They do the primary research, they look at the issues, they identify the potential routes through which we can pursue the petition. They will also check the legality of the petition. Only once they have done all that will they speak to me and say, “Here’s what petitions are going up Michael. Here are the issues around them”’.27 Similarly, in a somewhat tongue-in-cheek fashion, John McAllion, the PPC convener during the first session, congratulated the clerks on their work stating, ‘[The clerks] do a marvellous job. They are the real public petitions committee-they do all the work. We just come here and grandstand when the committee meets’.28

16. Once the clerks have lodged a petition and assigned it a ‘PE’ number, the petition is placed on the calendar for initial consideration by the PPC members. At this stage the clerks draft a briefing document on each petition summarising the petition, its implications and recommended actions for the PPC to pursue. In drafting this document the clerks request briefings from impartial specialist researchers in the Scottish Parliament Information Centre (SPICe). A SPICe briefing is now produced on every (admissible) petition considered by the PPC. It is up to individual members of the committee to pursue any further research on a petition.

17. At the PPC’s initial consideration of a petition (or during subsequent consideration) the primary petitioner may be invited to provide evidence to the committee. However, as the PPC has developed expertise and (as is discussed in the next section) somewhat altered its interpretation of its remit, invitations to speak to the committee are issued if the clerks advise the convener and the convener believes that the petitioner can provide the PPC with ‘additional information’ it requires to consider the petition. This, as Convener McMahon notes, is another contentious aspect of committee petition consideration. In the second session, the PPC considers petitioner presentations an information gathering exercise and only pursues this course if additional information is required. In issue areas where the PPC tends to attract a large number of petitions (e.g., local planning issues), fewer invitations to speak to the committee are issued to petitioners as the clerks and convener believe the committee has a solid understanding of the basic policy issues and implications. McMahon states, ‘Everyone has a right to petition, but not everyone is required to give additional information.’29

18. In concluding initial petition consideration, members of the PPC will propose and discuss a course of action to move the petition forward.30 At this stage the PPC has a wide range of actions it may pursue. The PPC may consult the Executive and/or other public bodies to request additional information, clarification or request that a Minister or other official appear before the committee to give evidence.31 The PPC may recommend that an issue raised by a petition be debated at a meeting of the Parliament.32 Additionally, the PPC may either write to another parliamentary committee requesting information, or it may refer the petition to another committee (or committees).33 The Standing Orders also give the PPC the potentially quite broad authority to ‘take any other action which the Committee considers appropriate’.

19. Another option available to the PPC is to ‘close’ the petition after initial consideration. In the second session this has become a much more common way for the PPC to deal with petitions.34 That is, if after initial consideration the PPC collectively perceives that a petition does not merit further consideration, the PPC is under no obligation to gather additional information or refer the petition to any other body.

20. Following initial action, the PPC will periodically reconsider ‘open’ petitions it has not referred to other bodies in light of information and responses received. At this point, any of the previously discussed actions remain available. Indeed, there are very few restrictions on how the PPC may decide to deal with a petition. It may continue to seek information from other bodies or organisations. This flexible structure is intended to allow the PPC to adapt to differing situations and to ensure that the PPC has the requisite latitude in pursuing petitioners’ interests. 

2.4 The Petitions Process and the Public Petitions Committee

21. While the CSG provided a relatively clear rationale for the inclusion of a public petitioning system in the Scottish Parliament, there was little actual instruction on how this system would, in fact, function. In the abstract, the petitions system was to help ensure that the Parliament would be open and accessible. It is clear, however, that once the committee formed and began considering petitions, translating the abstract rationale into administrative and procedural reality would be an extended process.

22. The PPC began with no clear structures, procedures or administrative guidelines. As the Official Reports of the first and second meetings of the PPC (in 1999) make clear, the PPC had to create its own institutional systems as it began the process of considering petitions. Sandra White, one of the original PPC members, has said that the committee underwent a ‘learning process’. During the initial meeting of the PPC it is clear that the committee had yet to determine how it would handle petitions. An informal, un-minuted meeting was agreed to among committee members and staff to sort out some of the procedural aspects of committee petitions consideration. Over the course of the committee’s lifespan, the procedures for handling petitions have evolved and changed. The rules governing petition resubmission and those disallowing MSPs to submit petitions (on their own behalf), the process for dealing with inadmissible petitions and the decision rule for inviting petitioners to speak have all been altered over the committee’s life.

23. More importantly, the PPC began without a clear sense of its remit or its role in the parliamentary process. Further, the minutes of the first several meetings of the PPC reflect a fair degree of disagreement among committee members over the PPC’s remit. During the committee’s initial meeting, for example, Pauline McNeill stated:

I am not clear about how far we can go in discussing the content of a petition. I know that we have to decide where the petition will ultimately go—if it was about road pricing, for example, it would almost certainly go to the Transport and the Environment Committee. However, we need to discuss to what extent we, in this committee, can discuss petitions. We might need a procedure that clarifies how to decide how many issues are dealt with in a petition, because it might cross over into more than one committee. The tendency for all of us will be to get really stuck into an issue if we like it, but we need to clarify to what extent that is within the remit of the Public Petitions Committee.35

In response, Christine Grahame offered the opinion that, ‘That does not seem to me to be within the remit of this committee; we are constrained to considering simply whether a petition is admissible, and that is all. The merits of the petition will be for another committee to decide, before the petition can be passed to the Parliament. The rules appear to say that’.36 It is clear from this exchange that there was a nontrivial amount of uncertainty among the committee members over the committee’s remit. Could the committee consider the content and merit of a petition or was the committee limited, as Christine Grahame understood, to simply considering whether a petition was admissible?

24. The Convener, John McAllion, asserted, ‘It is not for us to take decisions on the merits of petitions, but it is for us to take decisions on how the petition is dealt with and to ensure that it is dealt with in accordance with our agreed position,’ but then he follows with the statement, ‘Obviously, there must be some discussion on the subject matter and on what the appropriate action should be, but normally we would refer the petition to another committee’.37 However, toward the end of the first PPC meeting, McAllion states, ‘Members should not get the idea that we are restricted. It is open to petitions committees to widen their remit if they think that it is in the interests of the people…We can widen our remit…It is up to us to decide how far we push the role of the committee - as long as it is within the terms of the Scotland Act 1998 and the spirit of the CSG proposals’.38

25. What is clear at the end of the first meeting of the PPC is that there is little clarity on the committee’s remit. With the second committee meeting, the Convener begins petition consideration again asserting, ‘As members know, we are not here to debate the substance of the petition, but to decide how the Parliament should respond to or deal with it’.39 It is this general philosophy, that the PPC should not consider petition substance (or merit), instead serving as an initial entry point for petitioners into the Parliament, which dominates PPC petition consideration during the first session. The extension of this understanding of the committee’s remit into practice lead the committee to adopt the default pattern of petition referral to other committees documented in chapter four of this report.

26. However, in the second PPC meeting, Margaret Smith raised the point that:

Surely we must be seen almost as the gatehouse to the system. I do not think that any of us wants to act in a way that is not open and accessible—quite the opposite—but there is no point in our accepting everything and passing petitions through to subject committees if we know that all that will happen is that the committees will get bogged down. The serious work that subject committees have to do will be jeopardised if we do not put some kind of restraint on our decisions.40

While not the dominant view during the first session, this interpretation of the PPC’s role in the Parliament came to the fore in the second session. During his first meeting as convener in the second session, Michael McMahon signals a change in the PPC’s understanding of its remit by stating, ‘We can decide whether to progress petitions based on merits and an element of flexibility has been included in the process’.41 Further, in responding to a query from Mike Watson, McMahon states that he wants to leave the option open of the PPC ‘taking on’ a petition without consulting the relevant subject committee. As is demonstrated in chapter four, with the alteration in its understanding of its remit, the PPC dramatically reduced the number of petitions it referred to other committees and substantially increased the percentage of petitions it closed after initial consideration.

27. In reducing the number of petitions referred to other committees, the PPC also increased its oversight and control of petitions. In both sessions of the Parliament, the PPC discussed its problems with acting on petitions, or directing action on petitions, once the petition is referred to another committee.42 According to the Parliament’s operating procedures, committees do not have any formal involvement with matters referred to other committees. While there may be informal agreements brokered between conveners, it often becomes the responsibility of an interested committee member to follow a petition once it is referred to another committee.

28. One consistent aspect of the PPC’s management of the petitions system has been the heavy reliance on the clerks. As stated above, the committee’s conveners have seen the clerks as the backbone of the system. From the first meeting of the PPC, a clear pattern of reliance on the clerks’ guidance developed. Though there have been very outspoken, independently minded MSPs on the PPC, it is clear that the clerks have an extremely prominent role in the system. Indeed, two former members of the committee interviewed for this report indicated that they believe the clerks currently have de facto control of the petitions system.43

2.5 Conclusions

29. The Scottish Parliament’s petitions system is generally seen as a key element in the institutional mechanisms designed to ensure that the Parliament remains accessible and accountable. The petitions committee has specifically avoided adopting an ombudsman role, while ensuring that the petitions system be a conduit whereby individuals and groups may directly bring their policy concerns and proposals to the Parliament. To secure the position of the petitions system within the parliamentary system, the Parliament obligated itself to consider (though not act on) all petitions submitted to it.

30. In pursuing the CSG’s goals, the PPC has purposefully taken a broad interpretation of its remit. This has allowed petitions to be submitted across a wide range of subjects. Additionally, the PPC has been given a large number of formal tools that it may use to pursue the interests of petitioners. These range from writing to Executive departments or other organisations to collect information, requesting Ministers to appear before the committee, initiating Parliamentary debates or referring petitions to other committees for possible consideration or action. There has been, however, an alteration in the PPC’s interpretation of its remit during the second session of the Parliament. The PPC has shifted from an initial focus on petition admissibility to a greater emphasis on considering petition ‘merit’ before pursuing further action.

31.  Finally, while the PPC has adopted a loose interpretation of petition admissibility to facilitate public involvement in the petitions system, there are several less than transparent aspects of the petitions system. The recording of inadmissible petitions and the procedures (following the autumn of 2003) for ruling petitions inadmissible are not readily apparent to the public. While the PPC has done an admirable job of posting information on admitted petitions on its website, the information on inadmissible petitions is much more difficult to find. Further, the quality and detail of the information relating to individual petitions has varied substantially over time. Finally, the role of the clerks in the system, and the degree of discretion that the clerks have, could be seen as inhibiting the overall transparency of the system.

Footnotes:

1 This report draws heavily on research funded by ESRC grant RES-000-22-1820. Murray Leith provided invaluable assistance in preparing the data used in generating this report.

2 See, for example, J. Curtice, ‘Restoring Confidence and Legitimacy? Devolution and Public Opinion’ in Trench, Alan, ed. Has Devolution Made a Difference? (London: The Constitution Unit, 2004); and R. Dalton, Democratic Challenges, Democratic Choices (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004).

3 R. Dalton, S. Scarrow and B. Cain, ‘New Forms of Democracy? Reform and Transformation of Democratic Institutions’ in B. Cain, R. Dalton and S. Scarrow, eds., Democracy Transformed? (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003).

4 Ibid., page 11.

5 These data are described in more detail in annex A of this report.

6 Interview with George Reid, 26 April 2006, at the Scottish Parliament, Holyrood.

7 Interview with Michael McMahon, 26 April 2006, at the Scottish Parliament, Holyrood.

8 Quoted in Robert Rogers and Rhodri Walters, How Parliament Works, 5th ed. (London: Pearson Longman, 2004), page 306. While this resolution was agreed to prior to the Act of Union in 1707, it sets the context for all petitions consideration in Westminster.

9 See, ‘Guide to presenting a public petition to the House of Commons’ (January 2005), available on-line at http://www.parliament.uk/parliamentary_publications_and_archives/publicpetitions.cfm. Interestingly, the petitions guide is not readily apparent on the Parliament’s main home page, nor on the House of Commons home page.

10 Standing Orders of the Scottish Parliament, 2nd ed. (9th Revision, May 2006), section 15.4.1, available on-line at: http://www.scottish.parliament.uk/business/so/sto-5.htm#15.

11 Standing Orders of the Scottish Parliament, 2nd ed. (9th Revision, May 2006), section 15.5.1, available on-line at: http://www.scottish.parliament.uk/business/so/sto-5.htm#15. As discussed below, other restrictions stipulate that petitioners are not allowed to resubmit petitions with ‘substantially similar terms’ during the same session of Parliament if a similar petition was closed within a year.

12 See, ‘Guidance on the Submission of Public Petitions’, available on-line at: http://www.scottish.parliament.uk/vli/publicInfo/htsapp/index.htm (accessed 19 August 2006).

13 While the PPC has maintained that is should not be viewed as having an ‘ombudsman’ function, the German Bundestag’s petitions committee, in contrast, has an explicit ombudsman function.

14 Interview with Michael McMahon, 26 April 2006, at the Scottish Parliament, Holyrood.

15 Diagram provided by the Public Petitions Committee.

16 Standing Orders of the Scottish Parliament, 2nd ed. (9th Revision, May 2006), section 15.5.1, available on-line at: http://www.scottish.parliament.uk/business/so/sto-5.htm#15. Of note is that this change to the rules does not yet appear in the PPC’s published guidance to petitioners and is only stipulated in the Parliament’s Standing Orders.

17 Information supplied by the PPC staff. Note that in the PPC minutes, a change in terminology takes place following the 29 October 2003 meeting. Following that meeting, the minutes refer to ‘proposed petitions’ instead of the previously used term ‘inadmissible petitions’. This change was made in order to be less prejudicial to any decisions by the Committee on admissibility.

18 See Minutes for PPC Meeting 12 2004, 29 June 2004 and PPC Meeting 6 2005, 20 April 2005, col. 1643 for examples.

19 PPC Meeting 12 2004, 29 June 2004, col. 971. Similar discussions are found at PPC Meeting 11 2006, 14 June 2006, col. 2692; PPC Meeting 6 2005, 20 April 2005, col. 1643; PPC Meeting 13 2004, 15 September 2004, col. 1009 (ruling two petitions inadmissible); PPC Meeting 12 2004, 29 June 2004, col. 972.

20 PPC Meeting 6 2006, 22 March 2006 col. 2465.

21 PPC Meeting 18 2004, 24 November 2004, cols. 1236-1237.

22 Interview with MSPs, July and August 2006. To ensure a frank discussion, MSPs were assured their comments and observations would not be directly attributed to them.

23 The database received by the research team only contains records of the 50 inadmissible petitions lodged between January 2001 and November 2003.

24 MSPs have, on occasion, noted that the number of signatures on a petition may influence their consideration of that petition. For example, in discussing approximately 42,000 fraudulent signatures attached to PE319, Pauline McNeill stated, ‘In a democracy in which people's petitions matter, it is important to establish that people genuinely support the issues, which is why we ask for people's names and addresses. We must act on the petitions, and the number of signatures sometimes—although not always—influences our decision’ (see PPC Meeting 19 2000, 19 December 2000, col. 861). That said, as the next chapter demonstrates, there is no statistical evidence of a link between the number of signatures attached to a petition and how the PPC deals with the petition.

25 ‘Guidance on the Submission of Public Petitions’, available on-line at: http://www.scottish.parliament.uk/vli/publicInfo/htsapp/index.htm (accessed 19 August 2006).

26 Interviews with petitioners are discussed in more detail in chapter six of this report.

27 Interview with Michael McMahon, 26 April 2006, at the Scottish Parliament, Holyrood. However, the integral role of the clerks and the degree of discretion they have in the petitions system was noted as being problem with some petitioners (see chapter seven).

28 PPC Meeting 1 2001, 23 January 2001, col. 909.

29 Interview with Michael McMahon, 26 April 2006, at the Scottish Parliament, Holyrood.

30 As the briefing documents prepared by the clerks are not publicly available, it is not possible at this stage to determine how closely PPC actions reflect the recommendations made by the clerks.

31 For example, in considering PE535 the PPC requested that the Minister for Education and Young People, Peter Peacock, appear before the committee on 29 September 2004 to explain the delay in responding to the PPC’s requests for information.

32 For example, the following petitions have been linked to debates held in Parliament: PE060, debate on genetic modification on 23 March 2000; PE113, debate on Borders Rail Link on 1 June 2000; PE185, debate on Health and Community Care report on 10 January 2002; PE374, debate on chronic pain 27 February 2002; PE535, debate on institutional child abuse in care homes on 1 December 2004, this was preceded by a  Ministerial Statement in which the First Minister apologised for previous abuse having occurred in Scotland.

33 Examples include: PE014, the Carbeth Hutters’ Association petitions was referred to the Justice 1 Committee; PE 555 was ‘urgently’ referred to the Rural Development Committee to enable the petitioner to give evidence on the petition during a special meeting of the committee; on the basis of PE609 the Health Committee conducted an enquiry on eating disorders; PE756, the Health Committee agreed to consider the issues raised in an enquiry on workforce planning in the NHS.

34 This is discussed in more detail in chapter four.

35 PPC Meeting 1 1999, 29 June 1999, col. 4.

36 PPC Meeting 1 1999, 29 June 1999, col. 5.

37 PPC Meeting 1 1999, 29 June 1999, col. 5.

38 PPC Meeting 1 1999, 29 June 1999, col. 8.

39 PPC Meeting 2 1999, 31 August 1999, col. 12.

40 PPC Meeting 2 1999, 31 August 1999, col. 20.

41 PPC Meeting 1 2003, 11 June 2003, col. 6.

42 See, for example, discussion during PPC Meeting 18 2004, 24 November 2004.

43 Interviews with MSPs, July and August 2006

  Contents Previous Next