Select Committee on Procedure Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Quesitons 1-19)


17 JANUARY 2007

  QP1 Chairman: Welcome. We are, as you know, looking at the question of public petitions. At the moment we have not made any conclusions about what we may or may not recommend to the House in the future, but we do feel that this is an area where improvements could be made to our established practice and we are, therefore, most grateful to the three of you for agreeing to share with us your views, experiences and concerns of the public petition procedure which has been with us, I think, since the days of Richard II. Could I start perhaps from the Chair by asking each of you in turn if you could give to the Committee an idea of the use that you as a Member make of the petitioning system?

  Michael Jabez Foster: I think the petition procedure is a very useful one in engaging with one's electors. I suppose there are two ways in which it can arise. Either you have got an idea and you float it and someone comes up with a petition, or, indeed, it is really grass roots, somebody is really upset, and you may be the subject of the concern, it may be your party, or whatever. So, I think it arises in two ways; either way, it is a useful engagement with the public. It is probably the lowest level of engagement, and I think that that has to be recognised. Most people will sign a petition, so it is a bit meaningless in itself simply asking someone to sign. They will, in the main, unless they are opposed to the idea, and maybe even then they will. In fact, I have seen petitions where people have signed both sides of the argument, so I think it does devalue it a little bit. What I certainly found helpful is if they are big. They have to be big to be of any great relevance. Everybody can get a petition of nine to go to the Planning Committee and make a representation, to get 40,000; to complain about the local hospital, of course, is something different; and so I think that size does count when it comes to petitions, but I am sure you are going to explore it later. What I think some of us who use the petition process quite often find is that people are not always impressed by the outcomes in that they are not certain as to whether either any effect arose from the petition or, if it did, was it as a result of the petition or was it going to happen anyway. I think they are the sort of areas that I would be interested in perhaps coming back to, if you wish, later on.

  Mr Heath: I also occasionally use petitions. I do not think I have quite the fluency of either of my colleagues in that respect, but certainly occasionally we have petitions in my constituency and I am always very happy to present them to the House when that happens. It seems to me, first of all, that the right of petition is an important constitutional facet which enables direct engagement of the aggrieved citizen—aggrieved in whatever sense—with Parliament, and I think it has importance in that respect. In terms of the utility of petitions, I think that falls into three categories. The first is in terms of publicity. It is undoubtedly the case that it can engender particularly local publicity for a cause or a grievance. I think a lot of our colleagues in the House find that to their advantage and also to the mutual advantage of those who sign petitions, who presumably are wedded to the cause. The second is giving an opportunity for engagement, a sense of satisfaction that at least you have had your say as a citizen. Even if you have not changed the result, you have had the opportunity to put your point directly, as it were, although through one removed, to Parliament. I think that that is limited, very often, for exactly the point that Michael has said, because the third element is the remedy. If you expect a remedy from a petition, either in terms of change of legislation or a remedy of grievance, then I think you will very often be disappointed, partly because of the procedure that the House adopts, partly because of the attitude that the Executive inevitably adopt; and so in terms of publicity, a good thing; in terms of satisfaction, a moderately good thing; in terms of remedy, really a rather impotent procedure at the moment.

  Bob Spink: I am a great enthusiast of petitions; I think they are excellent instruments which are used in Parliament at the moment. They are not a sentimental throwback to a yesteryear, they have a real purpose, they can deliver the goods for people, and they do this on a number of fronts. First, I do agree with what my colleagues have said. Although Michael said the size is all important, I think if you get lots of small petitions, if 350 MPs petition the House over a period of time on a specific issue, the House starts to listen and change its policy and address its policy in that particular area; but size is not all important, and it would depend on the particular issue being petitioned. The closure of an hospital affects everybody in the community, so you would expect a big petition. On a very, very important petitioning of, say, a mobile telephone mast outside half a dozen houses, you could only expect half a dozen people to petition, but they would still have their constitutional right to petition and should use that and should be encouraged to use that. That constitutional right was established by Edward I in 1275 and further codified in the William and Mary Act of 1689, the Bill of Rights, and has been much used. Edward saw it as a way of engaging the public with Parliament, and that is the first time the public were engaged with Parliament, through petitioning. I think it is a very useful instrument. It tackles, and helps us to repair, this terrible malaise of the disconnect and disenchantment with politics and politicians that the public have because it engages them in politics, particularly if they get a response, and I think that is where the system falls down. Only half the departments respond at the moment in some years, and that is not good enough, even if the response is to take note because it is not something a department can respond on, and there are many petitions like that.

  QP2 Chairman: In your personal experience, have the departments, even if it has been later rather than sooner, always responded?

  Bob Spink: No, they have not, and that has been a problem for me, and I hope we will get down how we can improve the petitioning procedure: because we may well set down a procedure that forces departments to make some form of response that is appropriate and, if they do not respond, then a Member would have the right to raise it on a point of order with the Speaker, as one does with a written question, and that would give us more power in enforcing responses from departments; but they are an extremely good instrument; I use them often. When people come to me with an issue that affects a wider community, I often say, "This is not just you, it is other people. Why do you not do a petition? Here is a fax sheet from the House of Commons Library on how to do it. If you want me to present it in Parliament, I would be happy to do so", and the petition then becomes a legal document and part of our history.

  QP3 Sir Robert Smith: Michael made the point about nine signatures to a Planning Committee not counting for very much, whereas lots of signatures—. As Bob is saying, if people raise an issue, why not do a petition? My perception, from dim and distant memory of planning, is that the petition sat there as one submission, no matter how many signatures were on it, but letters that showed that someone had actually got a particular personal view counted a lot more. I just wonder, from what you have both said, whether it is important to remind people that actually putting an argument together can quite often be a very powerful way of getting your case across rather than the petitioning process.

  Michael Jabez Foster: I do not disagree with Bob when he says that lots of small petitions on the same issue add up to the same effect. We can take, for example, the health supplements issues where, night after night, Members stood and presented three or four hundred petitions, or even more, from their constituents, did have an effect on the Minister. The Minister, certainly, before any formal response, was making statements about what she was going to do. So I think that maybe petitions have much greater effect than the formal response that you get, but, on the specific point that you raise, I think you are right, as MPs, I suspect, if we get heaps of individual letters about an issue, all separately considered, that is much more important. It is much more relevant than simply either a petition or, indeed, what is often now used, a standard letter from somebody who is really interested in rights for everybody else, so I think that that has a lesser value. I think the point I was making about planning committees was that it is the hurdle over which people get in many local authorities to have the opportunity of making personal representations. So, in that sense, I think nine, but I obviously do agree with you. I think lots of letters are important, but many people have not the facility or the ability to put together those sorts of arguments.

  QP4 Chairman: You touched on one of the weaknesses of our system, which is the lack of duty on a minister to respond. Could you share with the Committee your views on what are the strengths and weaknesses of our present system? Michael, you said you felt in most cases the outcome was rather disappointing, but Bob gave a more upbeat picture, so perhaps this question is directed at Bob. Could he give us an example of where he feels a petition has achieved something as a consequence of it being presented?

  Bob Spink: Petitions serve a number of purposes. An MP who does not use petitions is missing an opportunity to engage people in his constituency and to contact them. He can then, within certain limitations, write to those people and can make them aware that he is listening to them. Often people know that they are not going to get everything that they ask for, but they just want to be listened to, and the MP can let them know that he is there to listen to them, to pass their message on to the Government, so they become part of the process rather than just outside kicking the process, as it were. Petitions can be valuable. I presented a petition in the House last year calling for the funding gap in children's hospices to be repaired. I presented that petition in the House and to 10 Downing Street and, within a month, the Prime Minister had allocated £27 million for children's hospices to repair the funding gap caused by that fall-off in the National Lottery money, and he did so in the teeth of opposition from his Secretary of State for Health, and I think the petition of 250,000 signatures—Michael, it makes your point for you—organised by The Sun newspaper was instrumental in focusing the Prime Minister's attention on that. I know of many petitions which have had a positive result and I know many that have not, but people at least deserve to be listened to, and the petition is a process by which they can be listened to.

  QP5 Chairman: Michael and David, do you want to add or subtract anything from that—I am particularly thinking in terms of what you see as maybe a strength in our system—or are there any other weaknesses that you see in it apart from the one we have touched on, which is the lack of ministerial responses in cases?

  Mr Heath: Bob mentioned a constitutional right to petition, but actually that is mediated at the moment by the Member of Parliament, and I understand, and I may be incorrect in this, that there is a precedent suggesting that the Member of Parliament can refuse to present a petition. Rarely does that, in my experience, happen. People have the opportunity of presenting it either formally or informally, and it really seems a very small duty to perform to present informally a petition on behalf of your constituents. Nevertheless, I think some means of direct access to the petition might be appropriate. If we believe that there should be a constitutional right to petition, then, although the Member of Parliament acts as the filter for that which is clearly out of order, or, frankly, practically mad, in the same way that the Member of Parliament does for the ombudsman case, nevertheless, I think there is an argument that there should be some avenue by which you can avoid a recalcitrant Member refusing to pass it on. In terms of the wider feelings for the system, I am very attracted, I have to say—and I believe the Committee have been looking at this—to the process in the Scottish Parliament and their attitude to the right to petition and the Standing Committee which they have set up for that purpose, which, as I understand it—and this is purely from the contact with Scottish colleagues and others—seems to be deliberately setting out to engage with the public and actually encouraging them to use it as a process of contact with Parliament. I do not think we have anything other than the endeavours of individual Members of Parliament that relates to the UK Parliament in that way, so something along those lines. The last point I would make—I am sure, again, you will be coming back to this—is to revisit the recommendation of the Power Commission in terms of a citizen's initiative, and that is also tied up with the power of petition. It is something the Government appear to be nibbling at in terms of local government, but I have seen nothing in real terms for a national equivalent and it would be interesting to see what the Committee's view might be on that.

  Michael Jabez Foster: All I would add is that I think the business of an obligation on the part of an MP to offer a petition is a difficult one. I presented a petition of several odd thousand names anti-National Front a few years ago. If the BNP asked me to present a petition on their behalf, I should find it difficult to do. They maybe ought to have an opportunity to put that in some way, but not through me, thank you. I think there is an issue there about access to Parliament beyond the Member. The other issue raised—the suggestion that I did not think they were effective—I think they may be effective, but I do not know how you measure the effectiveness in all ways. I am sure in Bob's case it was because of his petition that the Prime Minister took the view he did, but, of course, the secret of politics always is to do something you know is going to happen anyway and campaign for it vigorously. I am sure that is not the case in Bob's case, but there is always that issue. The other thing about size: I think that if there is to be a procedure whereby there has got to be a proper consideration, the right to recall, I think I used to discuss when I was a young socialist: there had to be so many members of the nation who signed the petition to recall the government. In a sense, I think that there may be a case, if enough people sign a petition, that there is a higher level of response required than if a few sign. That is an issue you may want to explore as well.

  QP6 Mr Chope: I was interested to hear that your petition, Bob, actually went both to Parliament and to Number 10?

  Bob Spink: Yes.

  QP7 Mr Chope: Why were you not content with just presenting it to Parliament, and then allowing the consequence to flow through from that? Surely by presenting it also to Number 10 you were undermining the Parliamentary process?

  Bob Spink: I think not. I was using all facilities available to me to draw national attention, and it did receive national attention. It was covered in The Sun newspaper and was on TV, and so I was helping to create a swell of public opinion that, in fact, did change the Prime Minister's mind. It was not going to happen anyway. The Prime Minister took a very courageous and very right decision and did what was right, and I congratulate him for that. Could I comment on one other thing, Chairman? About three months ago I was asked to present a petition because another Member had refused to present it on behalf of his constituents. It was a petition drawing attention to bad behaviour on London transport because of certain changes that had taken place in giving cheap or free tickets to young people. I presented that. It was an electronic petition of 6,000 names. I presented it in Parliament by way of the device of a front sheet, and there was no acrimony between me and the other Member of Parliament, although I will not name them. So, petitioners have got options, and I think that you cannot remove from a Member of Parliament the right that they have to decline to present if for any reason they wish to decline to present.

  QP8 Rosemary McKenna: I think you have answered the first question I was going to ask. Does it matter whether it is the constituency Member who presents it or another Member on his or her behalf?

  Mr Heath: I think it does actually matter. I am going to disagree slightly with Bob there because I think the constituency link with the Member of Parliament is important. What I was suggesting is that when a Member of Parliament did not feel it appropriate to present a petition, either informally or formally, there ought to be at least some way that those constituents have an avenue to present that petition to Parliament, but what would worry me was if all our constituents just hawked around their petitions until they found some gullible Member, or perhaps some Member who took a contrary view in order to raise it, or, worse, just looked for someone of a similar political persuasion to the petitioners in order to do so. I think that would be entirely inappropriate.

  QP9 Rosemary McKenna: I can see that. It is interesting, because the role of the Member in this place is very important in terms of petitioning. In the Scottish Parliament, the German Bundestag and in the EU Parliament, a citizen, can present a petition. That requires a Petitions Committee to sift and do a lot of things. Do you think that would be a good thing for this Parliament to consider or would you see problems in terms of exactly the point you were making about opposition, different political persuasions?

  Mr Heath: Having looked at the Scottish Parliamentary system—and I am conscious I am speaking to Scots MPs—it does seem to me that there are a lot of advantages in the way the Scottish Parliament has chosen to arrange it. I think that there is virtually a guarantee that a petition will be properly considered by Members of Parliament, who will then dispose of it on its merits either by moving it, as I understand it, to a select committee or directly to the Executive for consideration and can, indeed, bring it to the floor of the Chamber for discussion. I think that is a much better disposal of a petition than we have currently in our situation. What I said earlier about the relationship between the Member of Parliament and the petitioner clearly was in the context of our present system. If we move to a select committee system, it would be a different way of doing it. I think the danger, first of all, again, is raising levels of anticipation of remedy. I know that there has been some concern about that in Scotland, and there have been a couple of cases where legislation or policy has changed directly as a result of the Petitions Committee. I think the other serious issue which this Committee will have to look at, if it wishes to go down that route, is the problems of scale: the fact that when you scale up from a population of five million to a population of 10 times that, are we going to see a major industry dealing with petitions and a large department and a select committee in permanent session in order to deal with it? I think that is a real problem, and I cannot offer you a solution to that, were you minded to take that route.

  Michael Jabez Foster: I do not have a lot to add. I do not think it matters so much what procedure is pursued, but I do think it would be helpful if there was a more structured responding than the way that happens now. As I say, it is unclear as to whether or not any outcomes are the result of petitions or not. Simplistically, I would think that, again, it does not matter on numbers—I do not think you can clutter Parliament with hundreds and hundreds of small petitions—but if there was a limit, if there was a sort of hurdle in terms of numbers, I think it would be possible for select committees, without a separate Petitions Committee, to directly have assigned to them the opportunity of looking at petitions on particular subjects in which they had an interest and to make a recommendation to government on such petitions. I think that would be a very simple way of dealing with it, again, if one had a relatively high level of numbers before one were burdened with that.

  Bob Spink: I feel that establishing a specific Petitions Select Committee might give a problem. The petitions are many and varied; they can be very small or they can be massive petitions. I think that it is really the issue that the petition is about that gives it validity, not necessarily the size of the petition. Fixing a size will be very difficult. It would have to be fixed on the proportion of the population that was affected, or something. You may have a small village with only a few people in it who feel sincerely about a most important issue, like, for example the LNG plant for Canvey Island which affects only a few people but has the potential of affecting the whole nation in the future, so you would have to be very careful about how you did that. At any time an MP can send a copy of a petition to a committee chairman and ask them if they are interested in looking at it and taking up the issues. We have that ability, and select committee chairmen can do that if they wish. We used to have, of course, a Petitions Committee, but that Committee just sorted the petitions, it did not actually make any judgment about the issues raised by the petition. I think the main problem is not getting petitions presented, the problem is getting departments to respond appropriately to petitions, which may be to not make comment on them but to have a reasoned argument for doing that, and to enable Members to communicate back to the petitioners that they have been listened to and that this is or is not going to take place. I think that is what people really want, and I think that is a trick that Parliament is missing at the moment.

  QP10 Rosemary McKenna: Basically, rather than a whole new system, improve the current system?

  Bob Spink: Exactly.

  QP11 Rosemary McKenna: Particularly the response end!

  Bob Spink: Yes, and to free up the system to enable ways for electronic petitions to be brought forward. I have presented several electronic petitions on the floor of the House by way of a device that I have developed myself, as it were, and so far I have got away with it.

  QP12 Chairman: If our Parliament was to allow direct petitioning without the need for a Member, whether or not we had a Petitions Committee, do you have any concerns that this may, in marginal seats, result in candidates opposing the sitting Member by deliberately organising petitions, giving the impression locally that they were involved in some Parliamentary activity and, therefore, that they ought to be the next Member?

  Mr Heath: Yes, that is clearly a concern. Whether it is a concern that outweighs the access that they would provide, the engagement it would provide for the public, I think is a matter of judgment.

  Michael Jabez Foster: I do not think it is so much a concern, it is a certainty. I think that it would simply be another part of hustings, and I think one has to be very careful before one opens it up to that extent. I think that what has been said already today, of which I was unaware. I know a Member can present the petition, but I think that may be subject always, I suspect, to the constituency Member having the opportunity to present the petition perhaps, and if he or she refuses, then, of course, that may be the option.

  QP13 Chairman: It is also the case under our system that the Member presenting the petition does not thereby necessarily have to agree with it. You can present a petition without agreeing with the content of it?

  Michael Jabez Foster: Yes.

  QP14 Chairman: To clarify, Michael, are you saying that, in your view, you would not want to see direct petitioning?

  Michael Jabez Foster: I would not want to see direct petitioning. What I do think could be helpful would be the procedure I suggested earlier, large petitions. I do understand Bob's point about small petitions also being important, but I think there has to be some limit. The scale does matter in terms of what you do. I think that if select committees were to take on the role of considering petitions, then, of course, they would have the opportunity to call witnesses, which could include petitioners, or anybody else for that matter, and that would go beyond the parliamentarians.

  QP15 Chairman: On this point, David, are you saying you take the other view or that your jury is out?

  Mr Heath: As I said earlier, Chairman, I am attracted to the Scottish Parliament model simply because I think it does provide a dimension which our present system does not and a greater level of engagement. I have my concerns about whether it can be easily translated into the scale of the UK Parliament, but I think there is a wider context to this that individual concerns, whether they be reflected by Members of Parliament from the back benches or members of the electorate, members of our community, are translated into Parliamentary activity. I know this Committee has looked before at the subject of Early Day Motions, for instance, and whether an Early Day Motion that is actually signed by more than half the Members of the House can reasonably be ignored by the Government—which it can be, and has been recently—in terms of debate, whether that is a realistic way of organising our business. I feel the same about petitions. I think, if there is an issue which is of concern to a significant part of our community which is not being given Parliamentary time or consideration, or a matter of huge importance to a smaller part of the community, and I take absolutely Bob's point—I can think of many communities in my constituency which would amount to very few people in terms of population but who might have a significant grievance that they would like to put—then I think there should be some mechanism for taking that beyond a simple statement and, with all due respect to Bob, a photo call at Number 10. That is one way of doing it, but what I want is the opportunity to debate that in the House or in a committee of the House and the opportunity to get a proper answer from ministers, either in a written form or in the form of a direct answer in the Chamber, and that is the missing element at the moment.

  QP16 Chairman: Before we move on, Bob, on this point about perhaps destroying the link with the Member, do you want to say anything?

  Bob Spink: Yes. First of all, I do not think that direct petitioning is a runner for us. I do not think there is a need for it, I think it would be extremely dangerous, as you have explained, and I agree with my colleagues, and particularly Michael, on that. When I was asked to present a petition because a Member had refused, it was a petition that affected all of London, 30 or 40 constituencies. I would always apply normal parliamentary courtesies and discuss it with a Member. If it was controversial or in any way compromised that Member, I would not become involved in that. The other Member was perfectly happy for me to present that petition; they just did not do petitions. I found that a bit sad, but it was not a controversial matter. I just make that quite clear. I think that you would need to have the normal Parliamentary courtesies apply where you discuss things with other Members before raising them in Parliament.

  QP17 Ms Clark: Currently petitions are presented to the House just before the end of the day on Mondays and Thursdays and before public business on Fridays. Do you consider that to be the right timescale in terms of the presentation of formal petitions?

  Bob Spink: Perhaps I will kick that one off as the one who does it mostly. Yes, I think it is perfectly fair. I think it does not intrude on the House's other business or take time away from anyone. The one point I would like to make there is that the convention has normally been—and it is set out in the House of Commons Library Note on Petitions—that in presenting a petition you can speak for normally not longer than two minutes. The Deputy Speakers sometimes jump on you when you are on your third or fourth sentence after only 30 or 40 seconds, and I think that that is an area that needs to be clarified perhaps, but, apart from that, I think the procedure for presenting it is absolutely right.

  Mr Heath: I think the timing of presentation of petitions is there for a very good purpose: to prevent abuse of process by preventing people deliberately obstructing government business, and I think that is a perfectly proper procedure. I have no problems with it.

  Michael Jabez Foster: I cannot see a problem, especially now that we have early finishes. I think it was a problem when it was always 10.30, because sometimes people want to come along and watch the presentation of their petition, and to expect people, especially from out of London, to be around at 10.30 at night is a difficulty, but Members can choose the day that they seek to present the petition, and it can be an early one, and, therefore, I think that is sufficient.

  QP18 Chairman: There are those of us in this room who remember petitions being presented at dawn in the days before regular timetables.

  Mr Heath: I did one at about three o'clock in the morning in my time.

  QP19 Ms Clark: At the moment the rules in relation to what a petition can cover seem to be quite generous. Do you think they are too generous? Do you think there should be any restrictions or more strict rules in terms of what petitions can be about?

  Bob Spink: No, I think the rules are right. I do not think you should restrict petitions at all. I think they are a constitutional right established time immemorial and I think we dabble with that at our peril. I think we want to increase public engagement with politics. I think any MP worth his salt will look carefully at his petition and will try to guide petitioners to make sure that they are rational and reasonable and to avoid bad petitions, but in presenting a petition a Member can make comments anyway and disassociate or associate himself with it.

  Michael Jabez Foster: I agree.

  Mr Heath: I think within the present system there is not a great deal of need for change. If we were to move to a Petitions Committee, which would allow for a closer examination of the merits of petitions, I think that there are areas which are not within the powers of this House, including those things which are probably the province of local authorities and which actually ought not to be given further consideration by the House and possibly should be immediately committed to the appropriate authority for the task. I am particularly thinking about issues of planning. I think it would be quite wrong for the House to consider matters of local planning when there is a local planning authority.

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