Possibly the Scottish Parliament’s biggest success story, to date, is its Public Petitions Committee (PPC).
During my time as an MSP I served on the PPC, and that experience has led me to believe North Ayrshire Council and the general public would benefit from a local government version.
The Parliament’s PPC allows individuals, community groups, businesses and just about anyone else to petition elected representatives. Some petitioners are invited to present their case directly to the committee, but the constraints of time mean that option is not available to everyone. However, all petitions are considered by the committee, with a public record kept of MSPs comments and suggestions as to the way forward.
The main reason the PPC is so successful is that it attempts to resolve or at least get answers to issues raised by petitioners. Often Scottish Government Ministers are summoned to the Committee and questioned over their actions or policy initiatives. Even where the issue raised falls outwith the remit of the Scottish Parliament - such as Defence, Taxation or Foreign Affairs – the Committee would still write to relevant UK Government Ministers, requesting answers to specific questions.
There are exemptions that exclude certain issues from being acceptable as a petition’s subject, such as Planning decisions, which can be appealed and pursued through other means, but generally most areas of concern to the public can be raised. It is also the case that an individual can petition the PPC, without having to seek additional signatures.
The success of the Scottish Parliament’s Public Petitions Committee has led to legislatures from around the world coming to Edinburgh to study how it works, before basically copying it and implementing their own: in my time on the Committee we had groups from the Bundestag (German Parliament) and the House of Commons in London, to name just two.
Some petitions related to local issues, such as attempting to keep open a school or a community centre, while others raised matters of national interest. I remember an ex-soldier petitioning the Committee to investigate ‘Gulf War Syndrome’, the Free Church of Scotland attempting to have Sunday observed as a day of rest, and a bereaved family calling for tougher action to be taken against drunk-drivers.
Without doubt, though, the most memorable petition during my time on the Committee was the one presented by victims of institutional childhood abuse. Now adults, the petitioners recounted their nightmare experiences as children, when the people supposed to care for them had, instead, subjected them to abuse. They had spent their childhoods in the care of the state – in homes run by local authorities, charities or churches – and, rightly, they wanted an apology from the state for the abuse they suffered.
The Parliament’s Public Petitions Committee initially wrote to the Government Minister with responsibility for children, and also to every organisation that had run homes while the petitioners had been in care. When the PPC met to again consider the petition, and the responses received to our initial letters, MSPs decided the petitioners deserved more. For the first time, the Public Petitions Committee asked for, and received, debating time in a plenary session of parliament.
The subsequent debate was one of the most moving ever heard in the Scottish Parliament. There were no party-political speeches: every MSP who spoke, including me, was motivated simply by attempting to raise the issue of institutional childhood abuse, and how, historically, the state had failed some our most vulnerable children.
The petitioners, many of whom were in the public gallery during the parliamentary debate, wanted their stories to be heard: they wanted lessons to be learned, so that today’s children did not have to suffer as they had. The petitioners also wanted an apology from the state, and, to his credit, the then First Minister, Jack McConnell, put on record that public apology.
Without the Public Petitions Committee, those who were abused all those years ago would not have had the a parliamentary platform to raise their concerns: MSPs would not have heard, first hand, the nature and extent of abuse in homes run by the state; and it is unlikely sufficient pressure would have been brought to bear on the then Scottish Government to offer a public apology for historic institutional childhood abuse.
A local government version of the PPC could be of similar benefit to the people of North Ayrshire. For example, in addition to being able to petition councillors on issues such as fly-tipping and keeping open local community centres, a Council Petitions Committee might have been asked to seek answers from officials over how the local authority became a speculator in international finance by investing £15m of our money in two Icelandic banks. A local PPC might also have received a petition regarding the millions-of-pounds being spent by the Council on hiring private consultants to give advice to highly-paid officers. There might even have been a petition demanding to know how Labour councillor Alan Munro apparently made five separate diary mix-ups, which resulted in him claiming mileage for five Council meetings he didn’t actually attend.
After the Council Election on May 3rd, a new batch of councillors (and some old faces) will have the opportunity to do things better than previous administrations. A major step in the right direction - in terms of openness, accountability and public access to councillors and the workings of the local authority – would be the creation of a North Ayrshire Council Public Petitions Committee.