Review of the Scottish Parliament's Public Petition system

As the number of public petitions lodged at the Scottish Parliament since its inception passes the 1,000 mark, an independent review of the petition system is published this week.

Funded by Economic and Social Research Council, Dr Chris Carman of Glasgow University's Politics Department was asked to carry out a research study into the success of the petition system. The public petitions process was created to ensure that the Scottish Parliament was open, accessible and transparent to the public and to allow individuals to take their grievances and ideas directly to the parliament.

Dr Carman analysed all petitions submitted to the parliament since its inception, spoke to members of the Scottish Parliament, parliamentary staff as well as individual petitioners.

Among his key findings, Dr Carman found that 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.

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.

Dr Chris Carman said: "This research shows that the system is working well with most petitioners seeing a great deal of value in being able to raise issues and voice concerns. However, there may be ways that the public petitions system to the Scottish Parliament could be enhanced and improved and I make a number of recommendations for the PPC to consider in the future."

The report makes the following recommendations:

ᄋ '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.

ᄋ 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.

ᄋ 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.

ᄋ 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.

ᄋ 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.

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

The Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) ヨ the UK's leading research funding and training agency addressing economic and social concerns - aims to provide high quality research on issues of importance to business, the public sector and government.

Martin Shannon (m.shannon@admin.gla.ac.uk)


Assessment of the Scottish Parliament?s Public Petitions System, 1999-2006

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 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 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.

Further information: Dr Christopher J Carman, Politics Lecturer 0141 330 2002

First published: 5 November 2006