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Committees Sessions 1, 2 & 3

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Chapter Three: The Petitions

Chapter Aims

This chapter addresses the following features of the petitions system:

  • The scope and range of petitions submitted to the Scottish Parliament
  • Who has submitted petitions to the parliament
  • The issues that petitions have raised

3.1 Introduction

1. The first petition was submitted to the Scottish Parliament on 14 June 1999. The petition called for the Scottish Parliament to take whatever steps would be necessary to adopt prayers as a part of its proceedings. The second petition, submitted to the Parliament 14 days later, called on the Parliament to take action to upgrade the A77 roadway between Fenwick and Newton Mearns. Since the Parliament began receiving petitions, their nature, range and scope have varied widely. As these two petitions demonstrate, the relatively wide remit of the Public Petitions Committee (PPC), as well as the fact that relatively few restrictions are placed on who may petition the Parliament and what they may petition about, petitions have dealt with a large number of topics.

2. This chapter begins by summarising the overall numbers of petitions submitted to the Scottish Parliament as well as particular characteristics of the petitions. Petitions are then addressed by types of petitioner and by subject.

3.2 Summarising the Petitions

3. As of June 2006, when the data were collected for this analysis, a total of 964 petitions had been submitted to the Scottish Parliament’s Public Petitions Committee. The Parliament’s first session (from 6 May 1999 to 31 March 2003) was more active for petitioners than was its second session (data available for 1 May 2003 through June 2006). During the first session of the Parliament, 629 petitions were submitted while slightly more than half as many (335) were submitted during the second session. Though these data were collected almost nine months before the end of the second session, given the trend line, it is very unlikely the second session’s submission rate will catch up to the first. This, however, makes sense as the exuberance felt at the beginning of the first session of the Parliament has diminished a bit and the rate of petition submission seems to be settling in to slightly more than 100 petitions a year. Figure 3.1 displays the trend line for petition submission since the first session of the Parliament. While there was a distinct spike during the first full year (2000) that the Parliament was in session, the number of submissions has since levelled off. Note, again, that the data for 2006 are incomplete.

Figure 3.1

3.3 Signatures as Support?

4. There is no requirement that petitioners collect signatures in support of the petitions they submit. Indeed, there are no formal requirements that petitioners display any sort of broad public support for their petitions at all. This was a deliberate decision taken when establishing the petition procedures in order to maintain equal access for all individuals in petitioning the Parliament as signature requirements may discourage, and generally serve as an impediment to individuals living in rural environs from submitting petitions. Further, requiring signatures would imply that one of the functions of the PPC would be to verify signatures – a practice which could become quite burdensome and costly.44 Instead, the PPC was given the guidance that it should take a ‘wide assessment of the strength and depth of support’ a petition enjoys.45

5. Despite there being no formal signature requirement for petition submission (beyond the petitioner’s own), petitioners are encouraged to display public support for petitions where possible. For example, in providing guidance to petitioners in the preparation of petitions, the PPC’s website states that petitions should contain the name, address and signature of any person supporting the petition. It is not unreasonable to assume that, all things being equal, petitioners see some value in collecting signatures prior to submitting petitions, hoping to signal to the PPC that the proposal has broad support.46 Certainly media reports tend to emphasise the number of signatures attached to petitions. Further, as one MSP47 indicated in an interview, the term ‘petitions’ may be an ‘unfortunate name’ as many constituents have asked him about the number of signatures that would be required to submit a petition.

6. Figure 3.2, for example, displays the most signatures collected for a single petition by year. Two clear statistical outliers48 stand out in the years 2000 and 2004. In 2000, the Keep the Clause campaign petitioned the Parliament (PE183), supported by 120,000 signatures to stop the repeal of Section 2A (Clause 28) of the 1988 Local Government Act. The Cod-Crusaders campaign submitted a petition (PE804) in 2004 with 160,000 signatures calling on the Scottish Parliament to resist European Union fisheries policies.

Figure 3.2

7. Excluding these two statistical anomalies and looking across all petitions, the average number of signatures attached to a petition is 1,053, with a range of 1 to 45,000. Looking at the two sessions independently, the first session has a mean of 1,180 signatures per petition (range 1 to 45,000), while the second session has a mean of 801 signatures per petition (range 1 to 24,000). Figure 3.3 displays the average number of signatures per petition by year.

Figure 3.3

8. It should be noted, however, that using the mean, or average, to assess the general distribution of signatures across petitions may not be the best measure even when the two largest statistical outliers are excluded. While the average number of signatures per petition is still quite high, the median number of signatures is only 2 per petition.49 The data in Table 3.1 demonstrate that less than half of petitions (426) were submitted with more than three signatures. While large signature gathering efforts have yielded impressive displays of support for petitions and have attracted media attention, they are not terribly common. Most petitions are submitted with one or two signatures attached.

Table 3.1: Petitions Grouped by Number of Signatures, 1999 – 2006 (June)
Number of Signatures Number of Petitions
1 449
2 57
3-10 51
11-100 82
>101 293

3.4 Types of Petitioners

9. Who, then, is petitioning the Parliament? The PPC uses nine categories to classify petitioners: individuals, community groups, pressure groups, businesses, local authorities, unions, elected politicians, political parties and ‘other’.50 ‘Individuals’ are petitioners who do not identify that they are petitioning on behalf of a particular group or organisation. ‘Community groups’ are comprised of individuals with a shared, collective interest based on where they reside, such as local community councils or residents’ or tenants’ associations. ‘Pressure groups’ are organisations or groups that identify themselves as campaigning for a particular cause or issue such as the ‘UK Men’s Movement’, ‘Scottish Wildlife Trust’ or ‘Action Against Autism’. The ‘other’ category captures those organisations or groups that do not clearly fit into the previous two categories, for example primary schools or the Highlands and Islands Fire Brigade.

10. Finally, while the categories ‘businesses’, ‘local authorities’, ‘unions’ and ‘political parties’ are relatively easy to interpret, the ‘elected politicians’ category requires further explanation. ‘Elected Politicians’ generally includes members of the Scottish Parliament (MSPs) who submitted petitions to the PPC. This category does not include petitioners who subsequently became MSPs (e.g., Chris Ballance who was the primary petitioner for the Carbeth Hutters’ Association petition (PE014) or Colin Fox who was the primary petitioner on behalf of the Scottish Socialist Party (PE052)). Instead, the category indicates petitioners who petitioned the Parliament as members of the Parliament. In total, nine MSPs submitted petitions to the PPC. Christine Grahame MSP has the distinction of submitting the most petitions (five). This practice, while originally allowed under the Parliament’s Standing Orders (in that there was no provision that disallowed MSPs from petitioning), was ended in 2004. There was general concern in the PPC that MSPs were using the petitions system as a way of circumventing other avenues for raising issues.

11. Table 3.2 displays the number of petitions submitted by each category of petitioner for both sessions of the Parliament. In both the first and second sessions, individuals are by far the largest group of petitioners, submitting slightly more than 50% of all petitions. Of note is the fact that petitions submitted by ‘community groups’ fell by 6% in the second Parliament, while ‘pressure groups’ seemed to increase their petitions submitted by approximately 7%. Figure 3.4 provides a graphical display of the number of petitions submitted for each category by parliamentary session.

12. Figure 3.5 displays the relative number of petitions submitted by petitioner category for both sessions of the Parliament combined. Overall, individuals submitted 54% of petitions to the PPC, community groups submitted 18% and pressure groups submitted 15%.

Table 3.2: Number of Petitions Submitted by Category of Petitioner in the First and Second Sessions of Parliament
  Session 1 Session 2 Total
Individual 340 172 512
  54%1 52% 53%
Community Groups 126 47 177
  20% 14% 18%
Pressure Groups 79 65 144
  13% 20% 15%
Businesses 27 4 31
  4% 1% 3%
Local Authorities 25 5 30
  4% 2% 3%
Other 6 15 21
  1% 5% 2%
Unions 15 5 20
  2% 2% 2%
Elected Politicians 2 7 8 15
  1% 2% 2%
Political Parties 2 8 10
  .3% 2% 1%
Total 627 333 960
100% 100% 100%

1 Percentages are calculated for the columns, giving the percentage of the total petitions submitted for each category by session.

2 As of 2004, MSPs were no longer permitted to submit petitions

Figure 3.4

Figure 3.5

3.5 ‘Serial Petitioners’

13. Aside from the PPC’s categories, there are other categories of petitioners to consider. The most obvious is repeat, or in some cases ‘serial’ petitioners. Formally, the PPC does not limit the number of petitions that any individual, group or organisation may submit. However in 2004, the PPC, sought to reduce the number of petitions it deems ‘frivolous’ and formalised previously ‘ad hoc procedures’, stipulating that the PPC should act ‘as a filter’.51 On a formal basis, in the second session, the PPC restricted the ability of petitioners to resubmit petitions on the same or similar issue once the PPC has closed the petition. Depending on how this rule is interpreted by the clerks, it could limit the ability of an individual to petition the Parliament if the PPC has considered a similar petition within the last year. As there is effectively no appeal of PPC decisions, this revision to the Standing Orders has caused some concern among previous petitioners (as will be discussed in chapter six).

14. Table 3.3 displays the number of individuals submitting more than one petition during the life of the Parliament. In total, there have been 94 repeat petitioners submitting a total of 342 petitions. Repeat petitioners submitted approximately 35% of all petitions through June 2006. On average, repeat petitioners submitted 3.6 petitions with the median number of petitions submitted by repeaters being 2.

15. It is clear that there have been several ‘high demand,’ or ‘serial’ petitioners. One petitioner stands out among the rest, having submitted a total of 53 petitions (or 5% of all petitions). Five individuals submitted nine or more petitions (combined, these five individuals submitted almost 11% of all petitions). The vast majority of repeat petitioners (69%), however, only submitted two petitions.

16. The clear indication is that while there are relatively few restrictions on the number of petitions an individual or group may submit, the Scottish public has actually been somewhat reserved in repeatedly using the petitions system. Given that the resubmission rule has only recently gone into effect, it is unclear how this will influence the rate of repeat petitioners in the future. Further, as the PPC does not maintain (in its database) a current list of petitions deemed ‘inadmissible’, assessing how the resubmission rule influences repeat petitioners in the future may be somewhat problematic.

Table 3.3: Number of Individual Repeat Petitioners, 1999 – 2006 (June)
Number of Petitions Submitted Numbers of Individuals
53 1
20 1
12 1
10 1
9 1
8 3
6 4
5 3
4 3
3 11
2 65

3.6 Non-Scottish Residents

17. Another category of petitioner that could be considered is petitioners living outwith Scotland. Thus far, the Scottish Parliament’s petitions system has purposefully maintained an open access policy for virtually anyone regardless of whether or not they are Scottish residents. Indeed, in an interview, George Reid,52 the Presiding Officer of the Parliament, indicated that in his view one of the strengths of the petitions system was its openness – including its lack of Scottish residency requirements. The only restriction on petition submission is that petitions must relate to powers that were devolved to the Scottish Parliament.

18. Eighteen petitioners not resident in Scotland have submitted 23 petitions. Petitions have been received from Australia (PE656), Canada (PE378 and PE442), Germany (PE709), the Netherlands (PE674), New Zealand (PE205) and the United States (PE011). Additionally, 16 petitions have been submitted from England. These petitions raise a wide range of issues, including a request for the Scottish Parliament to review the minimum sentences for individuals convicted of murder, address health aspects of Gulf War Syndrome and a request that the Parliament investigate a system for resolving disputes over council taxes.

19. In addition to the ability to submit petitions, individuals not resident in Scotland may also participate in the e-petitions system. This is an innovative system that allows for the electronic proposal, debate (in a public, on-line ‘forum’’) and submission of petitions. Individuals may submit petitions and sign in support of petitions from anywhere with an internet connection. A brief review of several e-petitions found signatures in support of petitions from: Austria, Australia, Belgium, Bermuda, Canada, England, France, Germany, India, Ireland, Japan, Malta, Namibia, Netherlands, New Zealand, Northern Ireland, Poland, Spain, United States and Wales.

3.7 Geographic Distribution of Scottish Petitioners

20. Within Scotland where do petitioners reside? As one might expect, we tend to find more petitioners residing in the more heavily-populated areas and fewer petitioners from the more rural, less heavily-populated areas of Scotland.

21. Figure 3.6 provides a display of the number of petitioners residing within Scotland’s eight electoral regions. Figure 3.7 displays the same data, but breaks down the distribution of petitioners by percent. The three highest ‘demand’ regions are Lothians (with 20% of all petitioners), South of Scotland (17% of petitioners) and Glasgow (13% of petitioners). Excluding non-Scottish residents, the West of Scotland (at 7%) furnishes the fewest petitioners.

22. Disaggregating the data even further to look at the constituency level, we find that all 73 electoral constituencies in Scotland are the home of at least one petitioner. There is, though, significant variation across the constituencies. Table 3.4 lists the top 10 constituencies housing the most petitioners and the lower 12 constituencies housing the fewest petitioners.53 Here, again, we should not be terribly surprised by the distribution of constituencies. Edinburgh Central is home to the greatest number of petitioners (at 43) and Glasgow Kelvin is home to 38 petitioners. Orkney, on the other hand, is home to a single petitioner.

23. Are there statistical patterns in the distribution of petitioners across Scotland’s constituencies? Using the data on the number of petitioners residing in each constituency, statistical analyses54 produce three clear predictors of petitioner concentration in constituencies: the size of the constituency’s population, constituents’ average age and the percent of the housing rented by the local council. As would be expected, the larger the population of a constituency, the more petitioners one is likely to find residing in that constituency. Additionally, the older the average constituent, the more petitioners are likely to reside in the constituency. Most interesting, however, is the inverse relationship between council housing and petitioners in a constituency: the higher the percent of housing in a constituency that is rented by the council, the fewer petitioners one is likely to find in that constituency. The patterns found in these aggregate level results are reflected in the individual level analyses presented in chapter five of this report.

Figure 3.6

Figure 3.7

Table 3.4: Constituencies with Highest and Lowest Number of Petitioners
Top 10 Constituencies Number of Petitioners
Edinburgh Central 43
Glasgow Kelvin 38
Edinburgh North and Leith 18
Galloway and Upper Nithsdale 18
Roxburgh and Berwickshire 18
West Aberdeenshire and Kincardine 18
Ayr 17
East Lothian 17
Inverness East, Nairn and Lochaber 17
Tweeddale, Ettrick and Lauderdale 17
Bottom 12 Constituencies  
Central Fife 3
Falkirk East 3
Falkirk West 3
Glasgow Shettleston 3
Shetland 3
Aberdeen North 2
Coatbridge and Chryston 2
Cunninghame South 2
Glasgow Baillieston 2
Greenock and Inverclyde 2
Paisley North 2
Orkney 1

3.8 Petition Subjects

24. Given the Parliament’s purposeful and explicit decision to maintain an open and accessible petitions system, it is not a surprise that petitions cover a wide array of subjects and issues.

25. According to the PPC’s on-line guidance for petition submission:

In general, a petition can make a request for the Parliament to:

  • take a view on a matter of wide public interest or concern
  • amend existing legislation or introduce new legislation

The Parliament is only able to amend or introduce legislation in relation to those matters that are devolved.55

26. The website goes on to state that the PPC will not consider issues or policies that are the subject of reserved matters, local decisions of councils or health boards (on specific cases) or the subjects of court proceedings. However, as the PPC web site states, ‘The Committee could however consider proposals to change laws, procedures or rules that are prompted by cases of this nature, where there is a clear justification for such a change.’ That is, the PPC may consider substantive issues of policy that may arise as the result of planning decisions or rulings of health boards.

27. Using the classification developed by the PPC, Figure 3.8 displays the total number of petitions submitted by subject area since 1999. Two subject areas stand out as receiving the most petitions: ‘Health and Community Care’ and ‘Law and Home Affairs’. Combined, these two subject areas received 35% of all petitions.

Figure 3.8

28. Figure 3.9 disaggregates the data on petition subject by parliamentary session. Here we find that the two subject areas, health and community care and law and home affairs, consistently received the most petitions in both sessions of Parliament.

Figure 3.9

3.9 Conclusions

29. The Scottish Parliament’s petitions system has attracted petitions on a wide array of subjects. While a very large proportion of the petitions submitted have dealt with two topical areas, petitions have dealt with all areas of authority devolved to the Scottish Parliament, as well as broader issues and the Parliament’s own operating procedures.

30. While there were initial fears that pressure groups could dominate the petitions system, the majority of petitions have been submitted by individuals. Most petitions have been submitted by one-time petitioners, though there have been close to 100 repeat petitioners submitting approximately 350 petitions. Of the repeat petitions, there have been relatively few ‘serial’ petitioners. Further, it is possible that the PPC’s resubmission rule will reduce the number of repeat petitioners in the future.

31. One interesting feature of the Parliament’s petitions system is its openness to non-resident individuals. This implies that people who do not reside in Scotland may propose issues and policies that could have wide ranging influence within Scotland. Further, non-residents may use the e-petitions system to indicate support for proposed petitions by ‘signing’ the petition over the internet. While the implications of non-resident signatures are unclear (as there does not seem to be a statistical relationship between the total number of signatures a petition receives and how the petition is handled by the PPC), the Parliament’s acknowledgement of participation in the Scottish petitions system from people living outwith Scotland is a clear signal of the sort of ‘openness’ the Scottish Parliament is seeking to achieve.

32. Finally, however, the results of the statistical analysis predicting the number of petitioners in a constituency deserve reconsideration. The statistical results point to the fact that petitioners are generally coming from constituencies with older populations that have a smaller percent of constituents residing in council housing. Though we need to be cautious about making predictions about individuals from aggregate level data, these analyses do seem to indicate that constituencies with older, more affluent populations are more likely to have higher rates of participation in the petitions system. This finding raises concerns about the degree to which the petitions system has connected with all segments of Scotland’s population.56 While the PPC has recognised this point and has begun to hold a series of committee meetings in different constituencies across Scotland, care should be taken to ensure that as wide a range of constituencies are targeted for these meetings as is possible. Further, in light of these findings, the selection criteria for targeted constituencies may deserve re-examination.

Chapter Four: Petition Consideration

Chapter Aims

This chapter addresses the Public Petitions Committee’s consideration of petitions. Specifically, the following features are addressed:

  • Differences between the first and second sessions in the handling of petitions
  • Referrals of petitions to other committees
  • The duration of petition consideration
  • Petition outcomes

4.1 Introduction

1. The Consultative Steering Group (CSG) provided few clear suggestions on how the Public Petitions Committee (PPC) was to deal with petitions. The CSG report states:

All petitions should be passed in the first instance to a Committee for Petitions whose first task should be to decide whether the remedy sought by the petitioner fell within the competence of the Parliament. The Committee should also be required to acknowledge receipt of all petitions within a prescribed time limit, informing the petitioners of the action and/or decisions the Committee has taken. The Committee should be given a range of options in dealing with petitions, for example:

  • no action if the remedy sought fell outwith the competence of the Parliament;
  • forward the petition, along with a brief report outlining the Committee's views, to the Scottish Executive for information or consideration;
  • forward the petition to relevant national/regional authorities for information or consideration;
  • refer the petition to the relevant subject Committee within the Parliament for information, consideration or action; and
  • prepare a report on the petition to be submitted to the Plenary for consideration and/or debate.57

These options are sufficiently broad so that they could be read to give the PPC little real authority to deal with petitions, or they could be read to give the PPC quite a bit of latitude. In examining the data on how the PPC has dealt with petitions, it is clear that with the change in the PPC’s leadership from the first to second sessions, the PPC has shifted from a narrow interpretation to a much broader interpretation of its remit.58

4.2 Referrals to Committees

2. The Scottish Parliament’s committee system is one of the core components in maintaining the Parliament’s oversight of the Executive and scrutiny of policy. If the PPC determines that petitions fall within the Parliament’s competence and under the remit of one of the Parliament’s committees, the PPC may opt to refer the petition to that committee for further substantive consideration. The PPC, however, is not under an obligation to forward all relevant petitions to committees. This, then, leaves the PPC with a fair degree of discretion in determining which petitions should be referred to committees. Further, as Michael McMahon, the convener of the PPC during the second session of the Parliament, reminded his colleagues during a discussion within the PPC on petition referral to subject committees, once the PPC refers a petition to another committee, ‘the matter is out of our control.’59  

3. Indeed, in the second session, the PPC has asserted a much greater degree of control over petitions submitted to it. As PPC staff60 indicated, in the first session, the PPC was seen as the parliamentary postbag; it received petitions and forwarded them on. According to some reports, this ‘postbag’ function caused tension between the PPC and other committee conveners as they saw their committee workloads increase dramatically with petition consideration.61 In view of this, the function of the PPC has fundamentally changed from the first to the second session of the Parliament. Staff indicated that the PPC now undertakes a far greater degree of review and scrutiny of petitions in order to determine if they merit being put forward to the committees. Further, informal discussions between the conveners of various committees, as well as committee clerks, may be used to guide petition referral to committees. These arrangements were clarified in the PPC’s October 2004 paper to the Conveners’ Group. 

4. The data on committee referral, presented in Table 4.1, support this indication. During the first session of the Parliament, the PPC committee, then convened by John McAllion with Steve Farrell serving as clerk, referred 63.5% of petitions to the Parliament’s committees, with almost 18% of the petitions the PPC received being referred to more than one committee. In contrast, thus far during the PPC’s second session, almost 70% of petitions have not been referred to committees. That is, the PPC has referred somewhat less than 30% of the petitions it has considered in the second session to the Parliament’s other committees. Further, in the second session it has become a rather rare event for the PPC to refer a petition to more than one committee. It is very clear that the PPC has dramatically altered its role in the initial consideration of petitions, asserting a much greater degree of control.

Table 4.1: Number of Petitions Referred to Committees by Year and Session
  Not Referred to Committee Referred to Single Committee Referred to Multiple Committees Total 2
Session 1        
   1999 21 (39.6%) 24 (45.3%) 8 (15%) 53 (100%)
   2000 96 (35.6%) 121 (44.8%) 52(19.3%) 269 (100%)
   2001 37 (34.3%) 52 (48.2%) 18 (16.7%) 107 (100%)
   2002 52 (38.5%) 60 (44.4%) 23 (17.0%) 135 (100%)
Session 1 Total 206 (36.5%) 257 (45.6%) 101 (17.9%) 564 (100%)
Session 2        
   2003 68 (67.3%) 28 (27.7%) 5 (5.0%) 101 (100%)
   2004 55 (67.07%) 25 (30.5%) 2 (2.4%) 82 (100%)
   2005 1 33 (80.51%) 8 (19.5%) - 41 (100%)
   2006 1 6 (75%) 2 (25%) - 8 (100%)
Session 2 Total 162 (69.8%) 63 (27.2%) 7 (.03%) 232 (100%)

1 Data based on incomplete records at time of data collection.

2 Data incomplete for some years.

5. How are the referred petitions distributed across the committees? Table 4.2 displays the committee referral data disaggregated by committee for both the first and second sessions of the Parliament. Despite the relative differences in the number of petitions being referred to the committees, in both sessions the PPC forwarded the most petitions to the committees overseeing health-related issues and policies. This finding is consistent with the data presented in chapter three that indicated that health issue receives the greatest proportion of petitions.

6. It is much more difficult to determine what committees do with petitions that are referred to them by the PPC. As previously discussed, there has been substantial variation in the quality and detail of information the PPC reports on actions taken by other committees on petitions once the petition has been referred. Indeed, MSPs who are, or who have been, members of the PPC report that it is generally up to interested members to follow the progress of petitions once they leave the PPC. Hence, a quantitative assessment of other committee actions on all petitions referred is not possible with the time and resources available for this analysis. There have, however, been several significant actions taken by committees once petitions have been referred to them.62

Table 4.2: Petition Committee 1 Referral by Session
  Session 1 2 Session 2 2
  First Referral Second Referral Third Referral Total First Referral Second Referral Third Referral Total
Education, Culture and Sport 37 4   41        
Enterprise and Lifelong Learning 12 9 1 22        
Equal Opportunities 6 3 2 11 3     3
European 10 2   12 2     2
Finance   2   2 2     2
Health and Community Care 67 7 2 76        
Justice and Home Affairs 18 1   19        
Justice 1 22 6   28 7     7
Justice 2 9 11 1 21 3 1   4
Local Government 19 3 2 24        
Rural Affairs 29 15   44        
Rural Development 13 2   15        
Social Justice 8 2   10        
Transport and the Environment 76 13 1 90        
Other 25 6 3 34 6     6
Communities         4 1 2 7
Education         1 1   2
Enterprise and Culture         6 3   9
Environment and Rural Development         7 6 1 14
Health         29 12   41
Local Government and Transport         7 1   8
TOTAL 351 86 12 449 77 25 3 105

1 NOTE: The committee system was significantly restructured in January 2001 as well as at the beginning of Session 2.

2 NOTE: Some petitions considered by the PPC in both the first and second sessions were referred to committees in both sessions (e.g., Petition 614 was referred to Health and Community Care in the first session and Health in the second session).

4.3 Length of Petition Consideration

7. Using the date that a petition is lodged with the PPC and the date the petition is officially closed by the PPC, it is possible to determine the number of days that a petition is ‘open’ or active. The shortest length of time a petition was active was a single day (PE434). On the other end of the scale, five petitions (PE029, PE055, PE111, PE233 and PE247) were considered by the Parliament for four or more years. Overall, the average number of days a petition is open and considered by the Parliament is 268 days. Looking at the first and second sessions separately, we find that the average number of days petitions are open has dropped from 283 in the first session to 225 in the second session. Of course, difference between the first and second sessions should be interpreted very carefully, as a large percentage of the petitions submitted in 2005 and 2006 remained open at the time these data were collected.

8. With this highly significant caveat in mind, Figure 4.1 displays the average number of days petitions remained open by the year the petitions were lodged. The preliminary indication is that the PPC has reduced the amount of time petitions remain open. Certainly given the findings reported above, that the PPC has reduced the number of petitions it is forwarding to other committees, this would seem to make intuitive sense. Indeed, there is a statistically significant relationship between committee referral and the number of days a petition is open. On average, we can expect that referring a petition on to another committee will add five to six months on to the period of time the petition is considered open by the PPC.

Figure 4.1

4.4 Petition Outcomes

9. This section summarises a wide array of possible outcomes. Using the information available on the PPC’s web site, all petitions closed prior to June of 2006 were evaluated and assigned to categories based on the final outcome of the petition.

10. Here we should note that this section does not attempt to determine whether a petition was ‘successful’ or not. As will be discussed in chapters five and seven, assessing petition ‘success’ is a difficult and highly subjective process. Interviews with petitioners indicated that some petitioners saw value in simply having the opportunity to raise issues in the Parliament and having the issue considered in a public forum. Other petitioners would only count their petition a ‘success’ if it directly led to a change in policy or law. The following chapter assesses petitioner survey responses and interviews and deals with the more subjective aspect of petition outcomes. This section presents a more objective analysis of petition outcomes and supports the findings from the previous sections in this chapter.

11. Ten categories were devised based on the outcomes of the petitions coded.63 The first possibility is that the PPC initially considers a petition and closes it without further consideration. In this instance it may be that the PPC determines that the petition does not have broad support in the public, falls outwith the Parliament’s competence, requests action that the PPC does not believe the Parliament can provide, or that the PPC believes the petition does not warrant further consideration for other reasons. A second possibility is that the PPC decides to forward the petition to another committee and closes the petition straightaway.

12. The PPC may also seek information from the Scottish Executive, another committee, a public body or quango, a trade union, or even the European Union. After considering the response(s) it receives (for example, the Executive indicates that it has already addressed a particular issue), the PPC may close the petition. Additionally, the PPC may close a petition based on current parliamentary activity.

13. Another category includes those petitions that are closed based on the petitioner’s response (e.g., they are satisfied with the results of the PPC’s enquiry) or, in a few cases, petitioner non-response. The final category includes petitions withdrawn by the petitioner.

14. Table 4.3 provides the frequency of occurrences for each outcome for the first and second sessions of the Parliament. Again, we find a clear indication that the PPC has asserted itself to a much greater degree in the second session than it did in the first. While in the first session the PPC only closed 10% of petitions after its initial consideration, in the second session of the Parliament the PPC closed 26% of petitions after its initial consideration. Further, the PPC seems to show slightly less deference to the other committees: in the first session 26% of petitions were closed based on the responses of other committees, while that figure is only 11% in the second session.

Table 4.3: Petition Outcomes by Session
  Session 1 Session 2 Total
Closed after initial PPC consideration 62 52 112
  10% 1 26% 1 14% 1
Referred to other committee and closed 50 17 67
  8% 8% 8%
Closed on basis of Executive response 195 62 257
  32% 30% 32%
Closed on basis of other Committee response 141 22 163
  23% 11% 20%
Closed on basis of other Public Body response 85 20 105
  14% 10% 13%
Closed on Basis of European Union response 1 2 3
  .2% 1% 0%
Closed due to parliamentary activity 57 12 69
  9% 6% 9%
Closed due to petitioner response or non-response 10 9 19
  2% 4% 2%
Petition withdrawn 9 5 14
  2% 3% 2%
1 Percentages are computed for columns. Percentages may not add to 100% due to rounding.

4.5 Conclusions

15. The decline in the average number of days petitions remain open, the clear shift in the manner and extent petitions are referred to other committees and, finally, the distinct change in petition outcomes from the first session’s PPC to the second session’s PPC highlights one of the clearest findings of this report: the PPC’s conveners and clerks have a substantial degree of discretion, independence and influence over the Parliament’s petitions system.

16. Whilst many will attempt to paint this finding with some sort of normative gloss (it is either ‘good’ for the petitions system or it is ‘bad’), there should first be a clear recognition of the tradeoffs taking place. It certainly seems to be the case that in the second session, the PPC has asserted a much greater degree of control over the petitions process, taking influence and input away from the other committee conveners. This, of course, raises the potential problem of ‘gate-keeping’, or, as the PPC refers to it, filtering (as discussed elsewhere in this report). On the other hand, it is also the case that the other committees already see themselves as heavily burdened with their legislative and oversight responsibilities.64 In a sense, the Parliament, if only by default, is trading efficiency gains at the cost of allowing the PPC greater discretion and independence. Further, the greater use of discretion and the assertion of committee independence on a formal level may belie the shift to a heavier reliance on informal discussions between committee conveners, members and staff in determining petition outcomes.issue, see PPC Meeting 18 2004, 24 November 2004, cols 1252-1255.


44 The Consultative Steering Group report states, ‘a set number of signatures to a petition requiring action by the Parliament might act against individuals or organisations based in more remote areas. For example, it could be much easier to collect 10,000 signatures in Glasgow than in a remote Highland village. Further, a rule requiring action but only where the petition has a minimum number of signatures would only make sense in practice if there were procedures for verifying the authenticity of purported signatures and any such procedure might prove unduly time consuming and difficult to operate. We recommend that the action taken by the Parliament on a particular petition should be dependent on a wide assessment of the strength and depth of support it enjoys, and not only on the number of signatures the petition has.’ (Report of the Consultative Steering Group on the Scottish Parliament. Scottish Office: Edinburgh, 1999, page14.)

45 ibid.

46 As noted in the previous chapter, at least one petition (PE319) was found to have approximately 42,000 fraudulent signatures attached to it.

47 MSP assured anonymity, interview conducted January 2006.

48 The two outliers are well beyond three standard deviations from the mean.

49 Large, anomalous outliers may dramatically skew a mean; however, a median, as another form of ‘average,’ is not influenced by outliers. The median is simply taken as the middle value if all the numbers in a series are listed in numerical order.

50 This section of the report uses the PPC’s data and coding system. However, as is noted in Annex A to this report, these data should be viewed as merely indicative and not authoritative. While the research team attempted to correct errors in the coding of petitioner categories and fill in missing data values, given the time and resources available we could not eliminate all errors in the database.

51 In an October 2004 paper to the Conveners’ Group, the PPC stated, ‘In effectively sifting petitions the aim is to reduce frivolous petitions or petitions where there is clear evidence that the issue has been recently considered by the Parliament, Scottish Executive or other public body such as local authorities’.

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

53 Annex B displays the number of petitioners residing in all constituencies and regions in Scotland as well as the number of petitions submitted from each constituency and region.

54 Using OLS regression, the number of petitioners in each constituency was regressed on six constituency level predictor variables: the mean constituent age; unemployment rate; percent of housing rented by the local council; constituency population; the winner’s electoral majority in the 2003 election; and whether the constituency MSP was a member of the Executive in 2003. Variables reported as significant are significant at the .02 level or better. The variance explained (R2 adjusted) for the equation is .34. Note that this analysis was conducted both including and excluding the two ‘outliers’ of Edinburgh Central and Glasgow Kelvin with no significant differences found between the equations. The analysis reported here excludes the two outliers. Statistical analyses are available from the author.

56 This issue is further addressed in chapter five.

57 Report of the Consultative Steering Group on the Scottish Parliament.  Scottish Office: Edinburgh, 1999.

58 Formally, the Standing Orders state: 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.

59 Scottish Parliament, Public Petitions Committee, 18th Meeting 2004, Session 2, 24 November 2004, col. 1253.

60 Interviewed November 2005.

61 See, for example, the Scottish Civic Forum’s Audit of Democratic Participation, 2002, available on-line at

62 See PE082, PE142, PE184, PE205, PE246, PE291, PE380, PE399, PE406, PE411, PE490, PE494, PE517, PE521, PE541, PE650, PE763, PE770, PE890.

63 ‘Outcome’ here is determined by what is reported on the PPC’s web site. It should be noted that some of these outcomes may be disputed by several petitioners. For example, in one case a petitioner reported that though their petition was closed due to ‘petitioner non-response’, he/she contented that he/she had not received any correspondence from the PPC and therefore had not realised his/her petition was being considered.

64 PPC members are extremely conscious of this issue, see PPC Meeting 18 2004, 24 November 2004, cols 1252-1255.

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