– by Christina Hinds
My colleagues and I recently attended a series of sessions with the Parliament Outreach Team to learn more about the ways that Edinburgh’s Third Sector organisations and community groups can engage better with Parliament. These sessions were very useful, and highlighted several routes into engagement with parliament and how best to use them, including public petitions, committees, and cross-party groups.
Public petitions can be a useful way to get attention for your cause, particularly where you believe it to be beyond citywide concern and would like to evidence that. This is a proactive way to create greater interest and drive the conversation on a particular issue, rather than waiting for an issue to be raised and responding to it. Individuals or organisations considering starting a petition should always get in touch with the petitions committee clerks – they can offer tips and advice on drafting your petition to make sure you maximise its effectiveness. http://www.parliament.scot/gettinginvolved/petitions/CreateAPetition.aspx
Committees are small groups of MSPs from various parties who look at specific issues, do research, and make recommendations, and hold the Scottish Government to account. The topics they look at will come from the MSPs themselves through a call for input at the start of the session, or through clerks throughout the parliamentary session. This is one reason contacting your MSPs and building relationships is important for organisations.
One way you can do this it to invite the MSPs for your area to your events, write to them about the way policy is affecting your service – and not only your area MSPs, but MSPS who sit on relevant committees.
Keep an eye on what is on the committees’ agenda through the website and/or its twitter account and submit evidence on topics that relate to your area of work when a call goes out. If you do submit evidence, make contact with the committee clerk for advice and support to make sure it hits the mark. If you’re then invited to give evidence to the committee in person, it’s worth swotting up on the members and the committee dynamics as much as you can. Find out who else is coming to give evidence from the committee clerk and speak to them if possible (and appropriate – probably not if they’re offering an opposing view!). Keep in touch with clerks who can give you a steer on all of these things as well as offering advice on preparing the evidence you will present and the kinds of questions you might be asked.
Even if there isn’t an issue currently on the agenda, it is worth making contact with the clerks of any relevant committees to let them know what your organisation’s area of work and expertise is, and that you are happy to be contacted when they’re doing research or asking for evidence. No organisation is too small or specialised to have a valuable contribution. If, for example, you run a mental health service for women in Pilton, you will have unique insights into things such as; the particular challenges that women face when dealing with mental ill health and accessing services, and how this is affected by national policy and the way that health inequalities affect service users. http://www.parliament.scot/parliamentarybusiness/committees.aspx
Cross-Party Groups are made up of MSPs, organisations, and members of the public. Participating in any that are relevant to your area of work is another good way of building relationships with MSPs, getting your issues on their radar, and potentially getting them onto committee agendas. http://www.parliament.scot/msps/cross-party-groups.aspx
Remember that in engaging with the parliament, via any method, you’re playing the long game. This is not a route to creating change overnight – affecting policy change can take years.
The main takeaway for me from these sessions was that the MSPs don’t want to keep hearing continuously from ‘the usual suspects’ – often larger organisations, many of whom have a parliamentary liaison officer. You don’t have to be a parliamentary expert to engage in any of the above, the clerks have the expertise about parliament and you have the knowledge about your specific area of work. They want to hear from the smaller, local organisations and their service users and have established the Outreach Team to achieve this. Keep up-to-date on the work of the team and get in touch with them if you have an issue you want to address, and would like their advice or support in pursuing it: https://www.parliament.uk/get-involved/attend-an-event/
And how does EVOC fit in to all of this? Attending our forums is a great start to identifying areas of wider concern, sharing knowledge, and discussing how the forum members can address it. Being part of a larger collaboration of services can help to increase everyone’s capacity- several of the forums have different people representing them at various meetings and feeding back at forum meetings, and this can include Cross-Party Groups. The forum might decide as a group to create a petition or to submit evidence that everyone can contribute to, instead of each member having to do it individually. If the forum or EVOC members have other suggestions for ways EVOC can offer support for parliamentary engagement, then we want to hear about it.
See our forum page for more information on how to join or contribute to a forum.