Select Committee on Procedure Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Quesitons 20-35)


17 JANUARY 2007

  QP20 Ms Clark: Apart from the subject matter of a petition, is there anything else relating to the rules that you think should be tightened up in any way?

  Michael Jabez Foster: The idea that it has to be witnessed, for example. The procedure is that another Member has to witness the Member's signature. Matters of that nature are very minimal, but perhaps unnecessary: the fact that one has to go to the Petition Office and then to the Table Office. There are no major issues, but I am sure we can sharpen up on those processes just to save wasting people's time more than anything else. The other thing is I wonder whether one could book the petition slot further ahead. That sometimes would ensure more public engagement, because I think that petitioning—I think Bob has made the point strongly several times—is about public engagement. People feel, and I hope with justification—that is the issue—and perceive that they have made a direct approach to Parliament about an issue that concerns them; so the more we can do to enhance that the better.

  Mr Heath: I shall be interested to see whether the Committee has any recommendations to make about the particular rights of the Corporation of the City of London and the Corporation of Dublin to present petitions at the Bar.

  QP21 Ms Barlow: You mentioned sending petitions to select committee chairmen. The petitions are actually sent to the select committees but they usually do very little with them. Do you think there should be more involvement and consideration by select committees of petitions, and, if so, how would you like to see that involvement achieved?

  Michael Jabez Foster: First of all, I can see that that was the very point that I was making. I think that select committees would be the ideal, not perhaps arbiters, but certainly, because of their expertise in an area of interest. I think that it would be a major improvement if select committees took them on board, and they could, of course, decide in each case. At the moment, as you say, they are being made aware of it, but I think there would be a presumption that they would give it proper consideration, and it must be for them to decide, I suspect, how much consideration—whether they wanted to pursue it to an inquiry and calling witnesses or, indeed, to make a recommendation to the Government—and I think it would be helpful if it were more than simply a melting pot.

  Bob Spink: A Member can always drop a note about his petition to a committee chairman if he feels there is an issue that is strong enough for a committee chairman to be involved, but committees are extremely busy, they are not sat around looking for work. As you very well know, there is not enough time to do the committee work that is demanded of committee members, so I would not want to increase that unnecessarily. You have got to leave it up to committee chairmen to filter what is important.

  Mr Heath: If we had a Petitions Committee it would act as that filter on the merits of the case and as to whether it was appropriate for a petition to be committed to a select committee or, indeed, any other method of disposal; so I think it would add to that cause.

  QP22 Ms Barlow: Petitions are also sent, of course, to government departments—as you have all mentioned several times where it is appropriate that it should go to a government department—and it is then up to them to make a response. If they do make a response, it is published in the Votes and Proceedings on Thursday, but it is not mandatory that they should have to make a response. This is the only feedback that a petitioner gets from presenting a petition to Parliament. Do you think a timed comprehensive response should be mandatory for government departments?

  Bob Spink: Yes, this is the key area that I would like to see addressed so that we can give reasonable feedback and secure that public engagement in the political process and structure. I think there should be time limits and I think that a department should always make a response even if the response is, in effect, a nil response, but that response should be arguably stated why. If it is a matter for planning, they can see they have passed this to the local council planning department for them to take notice of it, but there should be a response within a time limit so that a Member can then raise it as a point of order if a government department or the minister is delinquent in that.

  QP23 Chairman: You want the response to the Member, not to the petitioner?

  Bob Spink: The response to the Member, yes. It is then up to the Member to decide what he or she does with that. You will know from the statistics on stationery use that I do not abuse that at all. I am right in the middle of use of envelopes. I am not in the upper quartile; even though I am in the upper quartile for petitions, so I do not abuse that but occasionally I do want to write to petitioners to let them know what is happening, especially if there is good news, or even bad news.

  Mr Heath: In my experience, the response from departments is often absent, is usually inadequate and is almost always too late, and therefore anything that improved on that performance, I think, would be to our advantage. When the Chairman said that the response should be to the Member of Parliament, yes, if that is the system, then it should certainly go to the Member of Parliament, but I hope we will not lose it being published as part of the official record. It is also important to enable people to cross-reference it.

  QP24 Chairman: At the moment it is published in the Votes and Proceedings. What you are implying is that you would like to see it in Hansard?

  Mr Heath: I think that would be appropriate. I think it should be the equivalent of a written ministerial statement.

  Bob Spink: When the petition is presented, if it is formally presented—as 80% of them are—then that appears in Hansard, so it is appropriate that the response should follow.

  QP25 Ms Barlow: Can I go back to something that you said Bob. For example, if it is a local planning issue, which is not directly the responsibility of a government department, it seemed to me that you were suggesting that a government department should kick-start a local council and draw its attention to that. Was that your idea and what do you think?

  Bob Spink: Yes, the Government cannot deal with it—there is a Planning Committee established for that—but it can pass it on. You might say, why does the petitioner not send it straight to the planning department? The petitioners often feel so concerned about a planning matter, for instance the LNG plant on Canvey Island was a planning matter dealt with by the local planning department, not by the Government, but they felt it was a really serious issue. They have the constitutional right to petition Parliament; we should not remove that. It is very easy, and not costly, for a department to pass on to another body a petition and say, "Would you address the issues raised in this and let us know what your response is in due course", and to then let Parliament know that it has done that. This gives publicity, it gets public engagement and I think it satisfies what is a long-standing constitutional right.

  Mr Heath: I agree.

  Michael Jabez Foster: I am not sure I do agree on this. I am just imagining the number of petitions on planning that every local authority in the land is presented with. If people thought that there was some additional process that you gave to Parliament as well, Parliament could receive thousands of petitions of that nature simply to attract the publicity of a referral. You can see the local newspaper. Every week it would be: "Parliament refers planning petition to the council", and maybe it would not be front page stuff every week after the first few, but I can see volume problems here if you had a process of referring those sorts of petitions in particular. At the moment I do not think there are that many petitions of that nature, but if there was a process whereby Parliament referred it to the council, then I think that would grow. I can imagine many of my constituents who would want to do that if they thought that was the process.

  Bob Spink: Could I comment on that, please. There is a phenomenon in the south east of England of flat-land development—knocking down one, two or three houses and putting up 20 or 30 flats—and that is causing great public concern and there are a number of petitions starting to come before this House about that matter which would fall into that category. I think that this House needs to keep in touch with what people are feeling out there on the streets in the constituencies, and, even if this Parliament does not deal with them directly, petitions and receiving petitions is one way of starting to flag that up, for instance, as I said, the flat-land development. I do not see it as necessarily a negative, and that procedure whereby Parliament passes it on to a local council is there now, it exists. I am not asking for something that has not existed for years and is not used all the time, and it is not being abused. If it was being abused, then maybe we would need to re-look at this.

  QP26 Sir Robert Smith: Bob, you mentioned that the select committees are snowed under anyway and set their agendas quite far ahead, and, therefore, a petition arriving out of the blue quite often does not have much hope of being focused on. How then do we make departments more responsive? You have talked about the fact that there should be a better response. Where is the feedback loop going to come from, because a department's response is partly dictated by what happens if they do not respond?

  Bob Spink: The feedback loop, raising our point of order with the Speaker that you have not had a response. The Speaker will not get involved in the quality of the response usually. Nevertheless, it is a matter of attitude and culture. Since the nineteenth century the value of petitions has fallen in Parliament, and I think that is part of the general malaise of public disengagement with politics and political structures. I think it is incumbent on us to try to find a way to stop that diminution in the importance of petitions, and there is real value if we can do that, as I said earlier, I believe. Finally, Robert, I did want to come back to you on your comment on individual letters. I always ask people to write individual letters—because what you said right at the beginning is absolutely right—in addition to a petition.

  QP27 Sir Robert Smith: Talking about individual letters, we have been looking at what happens in other Parliaments and legislatures and they have a greater number of petitions. In the Bundestag, when you actually ask them: "How many of your petitions are from one person with one signature about an issue that affects them?", more than half or more of the petitions to that Parliament are, in effect, what we would see as casework, and they do not have an ombudsman scheme. Do you see the role of the ombudsman as complementary to the petition system?

  Mr Heath: As far as I am concerned, yes. I think the fact that we do have an operational ombudsman does enable most personal grievances, as opposed to community grievances, to be dealt with with a degree of expertise and expedition, which means that the petition process is far less important in those cases. We still have a provision for a personal grievance to be raised, Standing Order 134. I hope we will not lose that, because that is a very long-stop provision. Although it has not been used for a great many years, I think it is useful to have within our Standing Orders. Nevertheless, if there was a huge gap in our present arrangements, then I think it would be used more often. In fact, the ombudsman is filling a lot of that gap by dealing with a very large number of personal grievance cases.

  Michael Jabez Foster: Again, I think the ombudsman's role and the petition's role are quite distinct, and although some may be common issues, generally speaking, sometimes people who have a personal grievance move on to a petition for a resolution if they have not managed to resolve it for their own personal benefit, so I do see they are two distinct things. I was surprised at what you told us about the German system, and I quite understand it. If there is no ombudsman, then clearly petitions would be over-used.

  Bob Spink: On your point, Sir Robert, I agree with David. Can I make it clear as well that I have never in my time as a Member of Parliament been presented with a frivolous or an inappropriate petition. If I was I would think very carefully about what I did with it and how I presented it and I would try and negotiate with whoever was presenting it a better way of doing what they were trying to do.

  QP28 Sir Robert Smith: To get the scale of the resources and the response that a petition committee might be faced with here, obviously the German system has, I think, about 80 staff supporting their committee, because they are dealing, in effect, with what MPs are likely to be dealing with casework in this country. So, in our system, with the ombudsman scheme there, I wonder whether there would be less of a burden on a petition committee if there was such a vehicle?

  Mr Heath: I think we have the experience of Scotland, do we not? Scotland is more likely to be, for obvious reasons, a similar experience to our own. As I said earlier, I think there is an issue about scaling up the Scottish experience, with a low population to the United Kingdom population, and thinking if it was a direct ratio. Then you would have a very busy committee and a very significant number of staff engaged. I think the Committee has been to see the Scottish Parliament and the three or four staff that they have employed on their Petitions Committee. If pro rata that would indicate a staff of about 40 in the United Kingdom, I do not think that would actually be the case because I think you would not get that direct pro rata relationship, but I think it is a proper consideration for this Committee, if it wishes to go down that road, as to what sort of resource would be applied.

  QP29 Chairman: We were told when we visited the Scottish Parliament that they had three officials who serve the committee.

  Mr Heath: Yes.

  QP30 Mrs Riordan: Following on from Sir Robert's questions and taking on board some of the comments you have made, do you think this House should have a system for passing on some petitions to the Parliamentary Ombudsman in some circumstances?

  Michael Jabez Foster: I am not sure. In my experience of petitions, I am trying to remember how many of them would really relate to the terms of reference of the Parliamentary Ombudsman, which is about maladministration of government departments. In fact, most petitions, certainly all that I presented and probably most that I can think of, relate to policy issues and perverse decisions on the part of a government department or a refusal to make a decision, but they do not tend to be maladministration, and, for that reason, I do not think that there are very many circumstances in which there would be an overlap, but maybe Bob has got examples because, from what I understand, he has presented many more.

  Bob Spink: Actually I do not have any examples. I do not think there is an overlap. I think the ombudsman is very effective, and I want to make petitions more effective. I see no overlap.

  Mr Heath: I think it only comes into play if you have a direct petition. If it comes via a Member of Parliament, the Member of Parliament will direct the constituent to the view that the ombudsman is a better way of getting the satisfaction that they are looking for.

  QP31 Rosemary McKenna: Just a comment before going to the question. We discovered that in Scotland there are very mixed views about the petition system. We all expected them to be very much in favour of it, but there were views expressed which were of concern about frivolous petitions and about the general way that individuals could present them, that they did not have to have the sponsorship of a Member, that they did not have to be presented. That is just a comment. I have to say, for me—I was involved in the creation of the Scottish Parliament—that was something of a surprise. However, they have done something, I think, very, very useful, and that is successfully introduced e-petitioning. Bob, you said that you had found a way to deal with e-petitioning and still be able to present it. We would all like to hear that. They have set up an e-petitioning system. It is hosted on the Scottish Parliament site and it is looked after and it stays on the site for four to six weeks depending on the people. Do you think that we could allow a system like that? What would happen at the end of the process when the petition had been signed by everyone?

  Bob Spink: I am not attracted by that actually, Rosemary. I think there are better ways to deal with it. I think that there are dangers in Parliament becoming involved itself in setting up systems whereby people can do e-petitions, and I am not sure about the abuse of e-petitions and whether people could actually compile petitions that were not genuine, and how you could check those petitions also gives me concerns. For instance, The Sun newspaper does e-petitions, and when I presented the 250,000 e-petition for The Sun newspaper, the device I used was simply to do a petition front sheet in the normal style that one does and get one of the petition organisers to sign that, and within that petition—you will see them, they are on the order paper—I make reference to the fact that this is a simple petition backed by or fronting an e-petition of 250,000 signatures. Therefore, there is great and widespread concern on a particular issue, as witnessed by these e-petitions, but without getting involved in providing a completely new system. So there is a way for Members, I hope, without not cheating too much, to be creative and to make sure that the voice of the public is heard in this House, which is the end objective, of course.

  Michael Jabez Foster: I think that that is the way we are moving on. Luddite folk like I acknowledge that people will want to express a view rather than simply signing a piece of paper. However, I suspect that in most communities, as in mine, people will want the option, and so I am not entirely certain about exclusive e-petitions being the way forward. A very Luddite procedure we used on my hospital petition of 40,000 names, about 30,000 are signatures and the rest are a print-out of the e-mail list of people that sign on the web page of the hospital. I think that those sorts of combinations, giving people every access to express their views, is what counts and I would not want to see an exclusive e-mail or procedure. I think signatures still have their place.

  Bob Spink: Could I say as well, Rosemary, there is value in people confronting people face to face and discussing, and that interaction, I think, is important within a community.

  QP32 Ms Clark: You will be aware that 10 Downing Street has set up its own online service for the public to send petitions to the Prime Minister. If e-petitioning was to be introduced in the House of Commons, do you think a Member should be required to sponsor a petition or do you think it should be a less restrictive way that petitions arrive in this place?

  Bob Spink: I think all petitions should come through Members, and I have seen no problem with that at all over the years.

  Mr Heath: I think the same rules ought to apply to an e-petition as to a paper petition. So, if we have the current system of petitions coming through an elected Member, then that is what should apply. If we have a direct access system via a petitions committee, then it should be open to everyone. I think Number 10 may be bitterly regretting their e-petition system at the moment but, never mind, they are stuck with it now.

  Michael Jabez Foster: I think the link with the Member is absolutely key, because it is not just a matter of presenting a view to Parliament, which, of course, is very important, but the ability of a Member also, I think, to understand what his or her constituents are trying to explain. I am not sure if this is true or untrue, but I get the impression that e-mails do not have the same value as letters. That may be because of my age, but I certainly do not feel that way. When I see an e-mail, they all look the same anyway. When I get a letter, they are personal, I read them, and I think almost the same with petitions. When someone is prepared to write their name, as opposed to tapping something out, there is more effort involved in it. As Bob said, there has to be a link with the individual: you spoke to them, there was real connection, rather than simply an anonymous view in front of a machine. As I say, that will no doubt express my Luddite views on all sorts of things, but I do think that it is important that we do not go down a wholly technological means of producing a view from people with e-petitions.

  Mr Heath: I do not think Michael's view on this could quite stand. The idea of an e-mail is at face value a letter. I am of a similar generation to him and I have the same age issue that I cannot take in information from the screen, I have to print it out first and then read it and then I understand it, but there are a lot of people who do not have that impediment and who are perfectly able to use electronic media, and I do not think they should be excluded from any sort of political discourse. I think we have also got to be very careful not to say all this electronic stuff is open to abuse: so, frankly, are signatures. The number of petitions around the place with Mickey Mouse as one of their principal signatories is substantial, I would suggest.

  Michael Jabez Foster: We have been honoured that Queen Victoria has signed my last one!

  QP33 Ms Clark: At the moment when petitions come in usually the MP's first involvement is when they are presented with the petition at the end, once the signatures have already been selected, but the way that the Scottish Parliament does it is that someone can register a petition on the website and then any individual can come in and sign it. To go back to my question about whether an MP should be required to sponsor the petition, do you think that really at a very early stage the MP needs to associate themselves with that? What do you think the practicalities are of that form of system for the House of Commons?

  Mr Heath: I think the reality is that many MPs are secretly the promoters. An awful lot of them are used as a mechanism for garnering support for the position that the Member of Parliament wishes to raise in the House.

  Bob Spink: I agree that often Members of Parliament promote the petition in the first place— I do that often—but not to promote myself. You will see from my letters usage that that is not the case, but I believe that if a constituent writes to me with something that affects the wider community, then I have every right to write back to them and say, "This is very important. I agree with you totally. Why do you not do a petition? Here is the form telling you how do it. Get your community involved. Get out and do something about it yourself." That is not a bad thing—I think that is a very good thing—and I think public engagement in politics is missing in society now.

  Michael Jabez Foster: Can I say this final point. The connection with the MP really is important for another reason. I believe that if you start having non-involved MP petitions, there is a real risk that even the commercial market will move in. If you can organise a national petition simply by e-mail, or whatever, and it can be considered by Parliament, that is what some people will do. I am not blaming McDonalds, but it is that sort of company that will want to do those sorts of things, and pharmaceuticals.

  Mr Heath: Pharmaceuticals are using this technique very widely at the moment whenever NICE does not agree with them.

  QP34 Mr Chope: Is that not exactly what is already happening? Parliament has been upstaged by a Number 10 e-mail petition operation, and that operation is demonstrating that a lot of people see it being relevant to sign an e-petition direct to the Prime Minister, thereby by-passing the democratic institution of Parliament. If that is the reality, does not Parliament have to try and reassert its authority by setting up a similar facility and perhaps putting pressure on Number 10 to use Parliament rather than having this direct link? Bob has talked about the concerns about public disengagement with Parliament and the political process. Can he reassure us that, as a result of his active use of petitions, there is less disillusionment and disengagement in his own constituency? Finally, what do all three Members think are going to be the consequences for public engagement with the political process when the Government turns down the representations made by so many tens of thousands of people against road pricing?

  Bob Spink: As you address this to me directly, the only measure that I have got on public engagement in politics in my constituency is that I got the second biggest swing for any sitting Tory at the last election. My majority increased by over 8,000 votes—just the increase in my majority—and, therefore, something is happening in Castle Point. As far as the process of petitioners is concerned, the way to tackle this problem is to improve the value of petitions through this House, improve the process, and that means essentially getting departments to respond and increasing the perceived value of petitions that come through this House. That is the way to tackle that, not to set up a direct e-petitioning system, in my view.

  Mr Heath: I think it is the evidence that the petitioner has that something has happened as a result of the petition, even if it is only proper consideration, that is the key issue. I think I am agreeing with Bob here. The reason people go to the Prime Minister rather than Parliament is because there is a natural wish on the part of the petitioner to want to go to whoever is at the top. We all know the people who go to their local councillor, then they go to the local MP and then they go to the minister and then they go to the Prime Minister, then they go to the Queen, then they go to the supreme-being. This group will always take their grievance one stage higher. But if we can demonstrate that the petition process has an effectiveness in Parliament, in that it means that their grievance will be properly debated and considered at any level, then we will have done our job properly.

  Michael Jabez Foster: I think that is why we always copy to the Prime Minister—and that is Bob and I—any petitions that we present.

  QP35 Chairman: Are there any issues not covered by our questions which you would wish to place on record?

  Mr Heath: Could I just refer again to the Power Commission. The Committee might like to look at the proposals on the Citizen's Initiative.

  Chairman: We have also had the benefit of a memorandum by the Clerk of the House on the subject of public petitions. I am going to ask the clerk of this Committee to send a copy to you and if when you get it this triggers any further views, please do not hesitate to write to us. I would like to thank you very much on behalf of the Committee for your time and for the benefit of your collective wisdom which will ensure that, whatever conclusions we reach, at least we will be better informed. Thank you.

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