Examination of Witnesses (Quesitons 20-35)
FOSTER MP, MR
MP AND BOB
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 petitioningI
think Bob has made the point strongly several timesis about
public engagement. People feel, and I hope with justificationthat
is the issueand 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 considerationwhether they wanted to
pursue it to an inquiry and calling witnesses or, indeed, to make
a recommendation to the Governmentand 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
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 departmentsas you have all mentioned
several times where it is appropriate that it should go to a government
departmentand 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
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
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
Bob Spink: When the petition is
presented, if it is formally presentedas 80% of them arethen
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 itthere is a Planning Committee established
for thatbut 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 developmentknocking down one, two or three
houses and putting up 20 or 30 flatsand 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 lettersbecause
what you said right at the beginning is absolutely rightin
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
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
QP29 Chairman: We were told when we visited
the Scottish Parliament that they had three officials who serve
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
meI was involved in the creation of the Scottish Parliamentthat
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 petitionyou will see them, they are on
the order paperI 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
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 oftenbut 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 thingI think that
is a very good thingand 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,
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 votesjust the increase in my majorityand,
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
Michael Jabez Foster: I think
that is why we always copy to the Prime Ministerand that
is Bob and Iany 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.