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Monday, 1 December 2008
Page: 11965

Mrs IRWIN (8:31 PM) —Last Wednesday evening the Standing Committee on Petitions had the great pleasure of meeting with its counterpart from the Scottish parliament, the Public Petitions Committee, by videoconference. Scotland is a world leader in the use of technology to improve contact between the public and its elected representatives. It was on a visit to Scotland that the former Procedure Committee was enthused to reform the way in which we handle petitions. Having now had a system in place for a number of years, the Public Petitions Committee is reviewing its system and was interested in sharing ideas with us on a range of issues around petitioning, including electronic petitioning, which as I have advised the House on previous occasions is the subject of an inquiry by our own Petitions Committee at present.

The Scottish review is looking at ways to improve awareness of, and access to, the public petitions process and identifying ways in which ICT can assist in processing petitions. It will also investigate existing ways in which petitions are scrutinised and ways in which that scrutiny can be improved. The committee expects to report in May 2009.

I would like to place on record our appreciation that the convenor of the committee, Mr Frank McAveety, committee member Mr Robin Harper and the committee secretary, Mr Fergus Cochrane, braved a very chilly Edinburgh morning to participate in the video conference. I would also like to thank the members of the Petitions Committee here for attending and making a sitting day later than it should have been. My thanks also to petitions secretariat staff Joanne Towner and Julia Morris, two outstanding women whom we are happy to have assisting us with our inquiry, especially every Wednesday when parliament is sitting and we get together. I would also like to thank the wonderful staff in Broadcasting and Hansard for assisting us in holding the video conference—it went without a hitch and was a great experience.

We were particularly interested in hearing about electronic petitioning in the Scottish parliament, now a well-established feature of their petitioning system. Their site has become incredibly popular, and in fact so popular that it has caused problems in terms of maintaining the system and ensuring it does not become overloaded. They are now looking, as part of their current inquiry, at other ways of involving the public, moving beyond electronic petitioning to other forms of social networking, using technology to try and reach those groups that are disengaged from the political process.

We were also pleased to have the opportunity to discuss with the Public Petitions Committee representatives the way in which they deal with petitions and the sort of action they take—up to and including conducting inquiries on particular petitions and then having them debated in the chamber. They are more advanced in the various mechanisms they use to respond to petitions, but it gave us all an insight into the potential role our committee might play in future.

I hope that contact with the Scottish committee will become a regular occurrence and that we can continue to share ideas about how to make petitioning a vital part of our democracy.