House of COMMONS
MINUTES OF EVIDENCE
Wednesday 30 January 2008
PROFESSOR JONATHAN DRORI CBE, MR PETER RIDDELL, DR LAURA MILLER, MS KATHY BUCKNER and MS ELLA TAYLOR-SMITH
USE OF THE TRANSCRIPT
Taken before the Procedure Committee
on Wednesday 30 January 2008
Mr Greg Knight, in the Chair
Mr Christopher Chope
Mr Roger Gale
Examination of Witnesses
Witnesses: Professor Jonathan Drori CBE, Director, Changing Media Limited; Mr Peter Riddell and Dr Laura Miller, Hansard Society; Ms Kathy Buckner, Director, and Ms Ella Taylor-Smith, International Teledemocracy Centre, Napier University, gave evidence.
Q116 Chairman: Can I thank you all for coming. We are being webcast, I should point out, as well as a record being taken of the minutes of evidence. As I am sure you are all aware, we have expressed an interest in looking at the proposal to introduce to the House of Commons an e-petitioning system and we have been encouraged to pursue a very thorough inquiry by the Prime Minister and the Leader of the House, who are rather sympathetic to this proposed innovation. We have already had, as you will know, a number of evidence sessions but we would be interested to hear your thoughts on some of the questions which we still are grappling with. If you feel you have nothing to add to what someone else has said before you, please feel free to say so. I will start by directing questions at you generally and maybe we could start from my left, Professor, if you could answer first, and then we will move across and let us see how we get on. The Government has actually said it thinks Parliament should be the natural recipient of national petitions and I wondered what you saw as the principal role of an e-petitioning system for the House of Commons were one to be introduced?
Professor Drori: Can I begin by saying that I do not feel myself to be an expert on e-petitions. I know something about the Internet and how to make services which the public will use and be engaged by. I feel that my comments about e-petitions are perhaps as valuable or invaluable as the next person. Having said that, I think one of the things which needs to be managed is the public expectation of what an e-petitioning system will do and what they expect will happen once they have submitted a petition, or contributed to one. I think the popularity we have seen with the Number 10 petitioning system makes me wonder whether the public think that if you want to get something done that is where you go, rather than coming through their MP. I do not know if that addresses your question.
Mr Riddell: I am here in my capacity as Chairman of the Hansard Society and on my left is Laura Miller, who is from our e-Democracy program. The Hansard Society is not a campaigning organisation. We base the view we have on research, on commissions, and in fact in answering your question we first discussed this on a commission we had a number of years ago chaired by your former colleague, Tony Newton, Lord Newton of Braintree, on scrutiny-I was vice-chairman of that commission and it was taken up in a subsequent commission on communication with Parliament, which reported just after the last election-and also in our other experience. Our view is that petitioning Parliament is central to strengthening representative democracy and the core belief of the Hansard Society is in relation to representative democracy and the new techniques available to it. Our view was that the Number 10 petition site missed the point. Indeed, going back to some of the evidence you had before, when I think one of your witnesses last time rather conflated Government and Parliament. We do not do that. We regard petitioning Parliament as a central, historic aspect of the role of an MP and there are various issues I know you have raised, and which you will no doubt want to come on to, about the MPs' role in relation to e-petitions as opposed to the current written petitions, but we regard it as crucial to the relationship between MPs and constituents, and indeed developing that role given new technology. The desirability of e-petitions is a recognition that that is the way people communicate now, but within the parliamentary context of strengthening communications between Parliament as an institution, MPs and their constituents, both in relation to obviously constituency grievances (the closure of hospitals, schools, and so on) and more general national issues. That is the context in which we see it. Therefore, the view we took was that Parliament must be central to petitions and in effect it was a pity that petitioning went to Government first. It was the view of the last Leader of the House, Jack Straw-and he said this publicly-that it would be much better actually starting with Parliament because Parliament is the forum where some of the redress can be made. That is the general approach we have. It is in relation to Parliament and Parliament's communication with constituents that it should be seen.
Dr Miller: I have nothing to add to that.
Ms Buckner: I would concur with what has been said already. I think it is very much about the engagement of the citizens with the e-democracy process and using technology to do that, but other than that I have nothing to add to what has been said.
Ms Taylor-Smith: I would say that the recipient of the petition should be the person who has the power to deal with it, and if that is Parliament then that is Parliament, for each particular issue, not rather that it should be the recipient because they have the perceived power. So Parliament should not necessarily be the recipient if it is a devolved issue.
Q117 Chairman: Thank you. In the course of our inquiries we have discovered that the Australian Senate accepts e-petitions in the way we accept written petitions, but that is it, there is no provision for online launching of a petition. What extra benefits do you think would be derived from having a purpose-built e-petitioning system where people could go online and launch their own petition, which ultimately is presented to Parliament? Shall we start from the other end?
Ms Taylor-Smith: I think there are two advantages. There is one that you control to some extent the petitions to make sure that they are appropriate in terms that, as I said, you can deal with them, that they are an issue you can deal with. If they are posted elsewhere, you have no control over that. Secondly, I think it is a very big gesture. It is a big open door for Parliament to say, "We are providing this thing for you."
Ms Buckner: It gives the citizen a sense of security, that this is a safe place to launch their petition, and that can be to the good, I think, in terms of people understanding about the process and their trust in the process as well. That said, in fact in Scotland they do actually allow petitioners to present signatures from a range of sources, so a petitioner could actually present signatures from the Scottish Parliament's e-petitioning site and from an external e-petitioning site, and also with written signatures as well. So a multi-mode type of presentation of signatures is not necessarily out of the question; it could work.
Dr Miller: I just wanted to add that the main benefit is of transparency, the fact that everything is hosted or displayed on one website. So even if it is an aggregated system of petitions from elsewhere, in fact it is all posted on one website, and there are links to parliamentary debates, discussions, and so forth, which we will come to later, I am sure, but I think that provides a vehicle by which Parliament could be scrutinised and can scrutinise itself.
Mr Riddell: The only point I want to add is that it is not just the difference in technology, which is a recognition of how your constituents and ourselves all now communicate compared with ten years ago, which obviously is very, very important, it is the other aspect of it which I think is absolutely crucial, the response to the petition. Your report in the last session, Chairman-and I know you recommended some changes and improvements there- recognises some of the deficiencies in the current system. I think as crucial as the mechanism going upwards is the response and e-petitions provide a mechanism. Firstly, because it is much easier to communicate back to the people who put a petition in and I know (subject to safeguards which have been raised about data protection, and so forth) it is much easier to give a response back. That is why it is in the broader context of the reassuring and building up confidence in the political process. I see it very much in that context of doing that, and e-petitions provide a much easier mechanism for the two-way process, subject to the safeguards which I know you have been inquiring about earlier.
Professor Drori: I think there are advantages and some of those advantages lead to their own disadvantages. On the one hand you have greater transparency, and certainly the technical media will enable more people to feel that this is something for them, particularly younger members of the population, I would have thought. By lowering the barriers to people contributing towards petitions you will get more people able and willing to have a say, and that is all good. With it, though, because it is so much easier, I expect there will be a higher take-up, more people will contribute to the petitions. Therefore, I would expect a somewhat greater number of trivial matters to come across the desk of those who are dealing with it, and possibly those of fleeting interest as well, which may creep in. I would also say that this technology makes for an expectation of immediacy and people will have expectations in hearing something back as well, getting a response. These technologies enable two-way communication and that is what people will expect.
Chairman: Thank you.
Q118 Mr Gale: The Hansard Society evidence paper which you so kindly provided us with says at paragraph 2: "e-Petitions provide one of the most direct and popular means by which the public can engage with the political processes. At present, they are not given the same weight as handwritten submissions, and there are no systems in place within Parliament to accept or process them." One of the concerns which has been expressed (and which some parliamentary colleagues certainly share) is that there is already a plethora of parliamentary graffiti and there is a serious danger that this will just add to it. Given that statement in your evidence, why should we suppose that an e-petition is going to deliver any greater engagement between Parliament and the public than the written petition, which itself already is very widely disregarded?
Mr Riddell: There is a variety of points on that, Mr Gale. Also, I noted a point you have been raising about the mechanism for how the petition is done, the role of the Members in facilitating it, which I think is an extremely important issue, if I may put that in parenthesis. I think the answer to that is partly the hurdles you have, in other words the degree to which you continue with the Member having responsibility. As you put it in some of the questioning, facilitating whether they agree with it or not, being the duty of the MP, which I think is an extremely important point. I think there is a distinction sometimes between the constituency petition and a national petition, whether you have a higher threshold for a national petition of signatures, or whatever. The answer to the second half of your point, the graffiti point, is that I think it is the filtering process. I take your point absolutely on graffiti. I think it is a very serious point. On the second part of your point, insofar as they are ignored, that is why I think the second part of it, which is the degree to which Parliament itself then considers petitions, refers them to committees, is where the Scottish parallels come in, where its Petitions Committee looks at some and refers some to sub-committees. I think that is where the answer lies on that. On the first part, it is the filtering mechanism.
Dr Miller: Yes, emphatically the filtering mechanism is a priority. I do not think there is anything in what I have written which would suggest that we would advocate a free-for-all petitioning system in which there are no barriers to entry. It would have to be structured and there would have to be processes in place which would make sure that the petitions were judged on their merit and then processed accordingly. In other words, if there is a good process for the facilitation of e-petitions within Parliament, it would actually increase both the interest of MPs and those of constituents and also the efficacy of Parliament. So I think it is a win-win situation in that respect. In terms of graffiti, I think having a Petitions Committee in place would allow for proper scrutiny to make sure that MPs' time was not wasted and that there was a proper measurement of response.
Q119 Mr Gale: I would like to bring in the others in a minute, but if I could just pick you up on the specific point you made, you said that it might excite the Member's interest. It is clearly going to excite the Member's interest more if the Member is responsible for it. I am not clear from what you have said whether you think that Member should continue to be involved in the process and management of the petition or not.
Dr Miller: Absolutely, I believe they should be, for example in terms of the facilitation of taking the petition either onto the Floor of the Commons or elsewhere. So whether it be in terms of facilitating a debate or raising issues or inquiries within select committees, and so on and so forth, there are all sorts of ways in which an MP can involved. Responding to petitions is another way in which MPs can be involved, so there is absolutely no question. Also, if there was a Petitions Committee, that is also another way in which MPs could be involved because they would be sitting on it from across the different parties.
Mr Riddell: I would strongly back that. You raised some very interesting dilemmas in the questioning I read in the first two sessions. That distinction you have between the person who stands up at 10.30 or 7.30, whatever, and then the ones at the back-you get into very dangerous mixed metaphors there!-I think that can be replicated in the electronic way. There is also the filtering process. The interesting question is whether you allow a kind of free petitioning. If you do have that, I think you have got to have a high hurdle on that. If you also look at some of the Number 10 petitions, some have immediately been knocked out. Perhaps you have a wonderful petition, "David Beckham ought to get his 100th cap against Switzerland next week." That would be filtered out immediately. I think your filtering process would deal with that process without overloading you. But yes, the Member should continue to be involved.
Q120 Mr Gale: I will come back to that in a moment, but I do not want to exclude everybody else. I do not know if any of our university friends have anything to say? Yes, Professor?
Professor Drori: I am not sure about the filtering process via MPs and I am not sure how the public see the involvement of their MP in the process. I think the public are probably aware of large bundles of papers being presented to Number 10 in news stories as petitions, and I think that is probably the popular view, but I also note how the Scottish system seems to operate perfectly well, as I understand it, without going through the Scottish MPs as filters. So I am not sure it is the only way. I may have misunderstood that.
Q121 Mr Gale: The Scottish Parliament, as I understand it, only gets 120 petitions a year and half of those are written, so we are talking about two very different volumes, are we not, between Downing Street on the one hand and the Scottish Parliament on the other?
Professor Drori: The volumes may be different, but I do not think that is an argument necessarily either way for having to have MPs as the gatekeepers. This is just my hunch. I do not know the research on this, but my hunch is that the public see their MP as someone who helps them with local issues, whereas if they have an opinion about whether we go to war or not, or something like that, I think they would expect to sign a petition straight to Number 10. That is how I would imagine the public would regard this.
Ms Buckner: I think there are differences, are there not, between local matters and national matters, and also about who does the filtering? I think there can be two levels of filtering as well, so we have got kind of two different steps in two directions. Some of the filtering, for example if you get petitions which are not really valid or should not really be presented, could be done not by the MPs but by the Petitions Committee or by clerks to the Petitions Committee. That sort of filtering could restrict some petitions going through which were not really valid. Then probably there are issues which should be directed to specific MPs because they are constituency issues, and those are the Members who should then be supporting those petitions and adopting those petitions. Then there are the national ones, and I think those are probably the more problematic ones, about where they go, things which perhaps deal with health issues, for example, which are not to do with a specific constituency, or things to do with war and those sorts of issues. So there are those sorts of larger issues and I do not really have an answer to that, but they are not necessarily constituency matters and so perhaps there should be a different home for those or some more thinking about where those sorts of petitions should go.
Q122 Mr Gale: A final point, Ms Buckner, and one or two of you may wish to answer this: local issues, the local Member of Parliament, fine. We would want, I suspect, to become involved in that anyway. The bigger picture is graffiti, unless it leads to something. There is an argument which says that the Downing Street petitions are so much Downing Street wallpaper, and nothing happens and they disappear into a black hole and eventually somebody may get a response saying, "Thank you very much. We have read your petition." That is it. The only people who are capable of making something happen actually are Members of Parliament. We started talking about engagement. If the public are led down the petition path and then nothing happens, far from improving the engagement issue, is that not going to make it worse and is it not, therefore, better to have somebody managing it with a view to taking it on board and trying to see it through to some sort of activity at a parliamentary level?
Professor Drori: I absolutely agree that it would be very unfortunate if the public was led to believe that something will happen and then nothing ever does. When it comes to how that process is managed, though, from people signing a petition or creating a petition for others to sign and then the matter being directed at those who might have a proper response, that can happen in a lot of different ways and I do not think the MP route is the only way to make that happen. So it may be that there is a committee which directs it at the right government department, for example, to give a response. It does not necessarily have to be filtered by MPs.
Q123 Chairman: You are quite right in saying that, but I think it is only right that I should point out that our thinking thus far has been very strongly that if we are to go ahead with this process there is a case for reinforcing the link between the member of the public and his or her constituency MP, rather than seeking to bypass it, which can lead to all sorts of friction and difficulties in other areas. For example, a city-wide campaign which did not involve any of the city's Members of Parliament could lead to the whole system being brought into disrepute with the MPs bringing forward their own petitions via their own supporters. We have not got a closed mind on this, but our initial thinking very strongly was that it is better to bind in the constituency Member as the first port of call and, as happens now, of course, a constituency Member can always decline to present a petition and then the member of the public is free to go elsewhere.
Mr Riddell: Can I take up a point on that, Chairman? I agree with you entirely. That is why the Hansard Society believes the strengthening of the MPs' links is the key to this. It is not the undermining, it is the strengthening. Equally, I strongly agree with Mr Gale's question, that the risk of disillusionment is absolutely crucial, and therefore I think the real thing is to get the response right. What has been wrong so far with the existing system is that you get a pro forma response, and what was totally wrong with the Number 10 site-and they did not realise it initially-was that people would just say, "So what?" You get 1.8 million on the roads one and then Number 10 woke up and said, "Oh, we've got to give another answer." I think with the filtering process-after all, the Commons does this all the time-when, for example, the Liaison Committee picks which select committee report should be debated, it has got to make a choice. Similarly, you are faced with a variety of criteria on the nature of the petition. Some may be about schools in Kent, say. Some of that actually should then go to the Department of whatever it is now, on families and schools, and there is a response back from them, and then it comes back via the MP to the petitioners, which can be done electronically so that more people can be reached extremely cheaply. On other matters it may be a subject for inquiry by a Commons committee and the filtering committee, some of its staff, would be the people who would decide the appropriate body to aim at, but the people would feel at least they were being taken seriously. I think that is the essence of it.
Chairman: Thank you.
Q124 John Hemming: There is a sort of issue when you design computer systems as to what extent you specify in minute detail at the start what it is supposed to be and to what extent you "sup it and see" and adjust things as you go along. Obviously, both ways are feasible. Where would you be inclined to go in terms of an e-petition system?
Professor Drori: I feel slightly more confident of the ground here! I think you need to lay down some ground rules of what the system is meant to do, and effectively in broad terms what success will look like for you. You then need to ensure that all the key kind of stakeholders in Parliament, someone representing the audience research that you will need, are consulted. Then let one editorial lead group, the parliamentary internet group, or whoever it is, just get on with designing it. I would recommend doing a pilot, and I think this is something which has been recommended by others here as well. You need something for a pilot which is circumscribed, so that it is either a topic or a region, something where you can test what the public response will be not only to your design but also the scalability of the technical systems, and so on, to make sure it all works. What you really do not do in the internet world is specify every last nut and bolt at the outset. You need to specify the broad functionality pretty well, but not the design and the individual design features, the things that you will discover as you go along what it is the public wants. So the set-up you need is one which is pretty agile-and I do not think Parliament is set up for this-where you develop something, you tell the public it is a beta version, it is a pilot, so they are under no illusion, so that it is kind of eighty per cent right of what you want. You learn from what they are telling you and you quickly make the changes that you need in order to make it better and better as you go along. This is how the Web operates and it is not really how the IT industry has traditionally operated.
Q125 Chairman: Are you suggesting a geographical pilot, perhaps covering one county?
Professor Drori: You could do that. I do not think I am in a position right now to be able to say just how you circumscribe the pilot. It needs to be something which has some sort of definite boundary around it, either a geographical or topic boundary, or something, so that you do not have to do everything all at once and you are limiting the number of people who are going to take part. Inevitably, you will develop something and you try it first with friends and family, volunteers, and then you want something a bit bigger which you test with a potential audience of thousands rather than millions, to see whether the procedures work, that the system as a whole hangs together, that it does not fall apart, that people understand what they are meant to be doing with it, and then you scale it up. So I would say it might be a particular geographical region, that might be quite nice. You find an MP who is onside and try it in one constituency over one particular issue and publicise it, maybe using a local radio station to publicise the event.
Q126 Chairman: But it would have more value, would it not, if it was across the whole of the UK but maybe narrowed by topic, because then you would get a better indication of demand?
Professor Drori: Yes, except you may also find that it is harder to manage for various technical reasons or just in terms of getting the number of users and publicising it. That may be difficult. So I do not think this is the right place to make that decision, actually. I think one should lay down the ground rules of what it is you are trying to test and then allow people, on the basis of audience research and the kind of actual practical design, to work out what is the best way of piloting that.
Q127 Rosemary McKenna: Can we not use the Number 10 pilot? That is already there. Can that not be the basis upon which a system would be built to petition Parliament?
Professor Drori: Yes, there is no reason why not.
Q128 Rosemary McKenna: That requires the necessity for doing the pilot that you are suggesting?
Professor Drori: It depends what it is you want to test, because if the Number 10 system did everything we all wanted we would just use that and that would be it, and we would not be having the debate. Something needs to change.
Q129 Rosemary McKenna: No, that is not accurate because Number 10 is Government. Parliament is Parliament and we want people to be able to petition Parliament.
Professor Drori: Right. So this is one of the things that you are piloting is what I am saying.
Q130 Rosemary McKenna: Yes, but you are talking about the structure. What I am suggesting is that we already know that that structure worked.
Professor Drori: If it does everything you want it to do.
Ms Buckner: I think it is not just the technical system that you are piloting, it is the whole process about how the petitions are handled, how the filtering works, what happens to them when they come in and they are gathering the signatures, and then what happens after. So it is that whole process that really you will be looking at.
Q131 Rosemary McKenna: But that is something that this Committee would look at rather than the people doing the-
Ms Buckner: In terms of the evaluation, I think after your pilot you would want to have an evaluation which is not just looked at by the Committee but which does go out to the users and finds out what their views and feelings are as well.
Ms Taylor-Smith: Could I add to this as well? I think the most important thing about specifying the system is the process, what happens to the petition before and after it is submitted, not just the signing on the site, and that is something which needs to be very public. One of the gentlemen was talking about leading people down a path as though the process was not clear to everybody. It must be absolutely clear on the website, possibly using a diagram, exactly what stages the petition will go through before and after it appears on the website. In terms of that, Rosemary McKenna's idea is not unreasonable at all, because if a petition had been accepted on the Number 10 site which was really more suitable for parliamentary remit, you could use that part of the system for the gathering of signatures and add an extension which used the rest of the process, because that is really what the Number 10 site is missing. Then you would test out how you dealt with the petition. I do not think you are really going to be able to use the pilot to test, what did you call it, the demand for a petition, because it is not going to be realistic. Like the Number 10 site, it started like that and then it kind of levelled out. You have seen the graph for the number of petitions submitted over the year, and maybe next year it will drop down a bit. They are flavour of the month. So earlier you will get a bulge and that will go down. I do not think you can test the volume with a pilot, but what you can test is the robustness of your processes. Equally, that is not something you want to be messing about with too late on. If you change what will happen to a petition, then you really are going to upset the petitioners.
Dr Miller: I just want to concur with what Ella and Kathy have been saying. I think it is a mistake to assume that when you are introducing e-petitions you are just introducing a technical instrument that you can evaluate and pilot in that way. You have to look at it in a process-orientated way, which means evaluating the outcomes for Parliament, for MPs and for the public, and each of those factors has to be considered. Therefore, ways of evaluating it, ways of assessing the impact cannot necessarily be quantified but can certainly be observed. That is, I think, probably the central thing about the pilot. In terms of the actual website itself and whether or not it can be developed at different stages in different ways, of course it has to be iterative, so there have to be different versions being brought out which respond to the different kinds of outcomes, so that it is shown to progress and therefore is more transparent and is more fair.
Q132 Chairman: Before I come back to John Hemming, can I ask Professor Drori, have you seen our last evidence session, and if you have, do you agree with the comment of Tom Loosemore when he said that he felt PICT would be a major part of the problem of introducing e-petitions?
Professor Drori: Yes, I have seen it. I think there is a problem with the PICT in that it has a dual role, as I understand it, both as an advisor on the best technical methods and also as a deliverer of those things. I think it puts those in PICT in a very difficult position and in the use of the parliamentary Internet project, to which I am a consultant, I see that problem borne out. So I think that generally things work best when there is a clear relationship between a commissioner who commissions on behalf of users and a supplier, and I think that is fudged in the way that Parliament operates its information technology. I would also say that there is a need to manage day to day ICT (by that I mean the sort of office systems and all the technology that runs your desktops in Parliament, and so on) rather separately from the way Web development is run, which is a much more agile, iterative process, to come back to your question, with much shorter timescales. So I think there is a need for PICT to agree technical guidelines on behalf of Parliament, in other words anything that we plug into our systems, "These are the broad technical guidelines. This is how it should operate and interface with our systems," and then to enable the commissioners to go to the best possible source of that technology and those systems, which may be internal or may be external.
Chairman: Thank you.
Q133 John Hemming: I am not too sure about the technical guidelines. PICT will not allow port 110 in the firewall, which means you cannot get external email into Parliament, which is why I do not use the parliamentary network because all my email systems are completely independent. The question is really about outcomes and what outcomes you think could be achieved. What evidence is there that e-petitioning produces better outcomes for the people generally?
Dr Miller: The Hansard Society has done quite a lot of research into political engagement, obviously, because that is a huge area of interest to us, and there is a huge disconnect at the moment and the potential for engagement, if implemented in the right way, is massive. Evidence from our research has suggested that the more people are communicated with by Parliament and by Government (so that is either by Members of Parliament or by government departments engaging them in consultations, and so forth) the more they feel confident. It is not necessarily that the two measures rise completely together in tandem, but there is definitely a raised level of efficacy and trust and further engagement. What you lose is the mediation, and by that I am obviously talking about the messages which are put out by the media which say, "This is what Parliament is doing," "This is what Parliament thinks," and so on and so forth. You cut that out by engaging directly, and again the benefit of that is evidence from our research, and I can provide further information about that to the Committee if necessary.
Mr Riddell: Just one very small addition to what Laura has said. After all, the point of e-petitions is that it just makes it easier. We have now got the technology to make it much easier to do. There are two different issues there, but the difference in technology just makes all this easier. It is not just the Hansard Society, there is other evidence too of the ability to respond to people's protests, the feeling that they are not being either patronised, or in a more general sense that it is a distant group doing things away from them. I think it is absolutely central to it and the technology just makes it easier. The "e" bit just makes it easier. The fundamental political point is that sense of communication.
Q134 Mr Chope: I want to talk about numbers, but before I do that can I clarify whether people think e-petitioning in Parliament would be a replacement for Number 10, which is certainly the vision I have got, that people will be petitioning their democratically elected Members of Parliament, asking them to hold the Government to account, instead of petitioning the Government direct. Is that the view of the Hansard Society?
Mr Riddell: Because there is only one in existence at present it is slightly difficult to answer the question. We have only got Tesco, we have not got Waitrose! I am sorry, I do not mean to demean by that comparison. Certainly our view has been that it was unfortunate that no round has occurred, and that fundamental petitioning should be about Parliament because you are our representatives and that is the traditional method of airing grievances. Obviously we cannot market test this because it is entirely a notional question to most people at present, but that ultimately it would replace it, yes. Of course, some of the responses would come from Government by definition because the Government would say you could respond, although then they would come back through Parliament. As I say, it is almost impossible to answer, Mr Chope, at present because we have only got one mechanism on it, but I think the problem shown with that mechanism means that if you get a system up and running, no doubt in a gradualist way, it is very difficult to see what argument there is for retaining a Number 10 site.
Professor Drori: A previous speaker said, I think quite rightly, that petitions should go to the people best able to deal with them, and I think there is great confusion on the part of the public about where petitions should go. Someone mentioned earlier that even witnesses here mix up the role of Parliament with Government, and so on, so what hope for the general public? It just occurred to me as you were speaking that I think there would be great confusion in having a petitioning system both for Number 10 and Parliament. I think that would lead to a lot of confusion. I was just wondering about a system which might also encompass local government. According to the nature of your petition, an online system could direct your petition to local government within your area or it could direct it towards Parliament, depending upon which was actually the appropriate thing, because people are signing petitions locally all the time about things which should not really come here and they do not know which way to go. You could short-circuit this by giving people advice at that point.
Q135 Chairman: Except we would have to persuade every local authority to adopt such a scheme!
Professor Drori: Rather than having to do that right off, you might say, "If your petition is about this, this or this," and almost take people through a little kind of flowchart of decisions, "If it's about this, you might find writing to your local authority more effective, and here's a way of doing that."
Q136 Chairman: That is one way of doing it. One of the reasons why we were keen to keep the link with the constituency Member was because we felt in cases where it was exclusively a local government issue the Member of Parliament is then going to try and wean his constituent petitioner towards his local authority, so we thought that would act as a statistical filter.
Professor Drori: Yes, I can see that.
Ms Taylor-Smith: On the Number 10 issue I wanted to come in, because I think I am coming from both sides of the argument. On the one hand while the Number 10 site is up and running in a way it is helping you with your pilot because it is doing a bit of the filtering for you, it is keeping your volume down, but as soon as you set up your system you are going to have to explain the exact difference between the two systems and it is going to be very difficult for you to do that without undermining the Number 10 system.
Professor Drori: You would need something on the Number 10 system to direct people towards Parliament for the things which are properly dealt with here.
Chairman: Okay. Thank you.
Q137 Mr Chope: I was looking at it the other way round, that basically the Number 10 system has been undermining Parliament. That is why I was so keen to get this inquiry going forward, so that our system could replace the one they have got at Number 10.
Mr Riddell: I think part of the answer was in the Chairman's introduction. The Prime Minister and the Leader of the House, and indeed the former Leader of the House, the current Lord Chancellor, are both in favour of the parliamentary system. They almost have the power in their own hands to do what you want, Chairman.
Q138 Mr Chope: Yes. Now, numbers. To what extent do you think the number of signatures on a petition is an indicator of public support for that particular issue, because some people have suggested that we should ignore the numbers and we should just go for the substance, and a committee could assess the substance? Others are saying, "Well, the petitions which have got the largest number of signatures should be automatically the subject of debate," or perhaps could be selected from a number of petitions with a large number of signatures. You could have an automatic debate. Where do you stand in that particular argument?
Ms Buckner: I think it is very difficult just picking on numbers really because if, for example, the media takes up a story which is in a petition and promotes it widely, as it has been known to do in the past, then of course that petition is much more likely to get a large number of signatures than another one which might have an equally worthy cause or be an equally worthy issue. So the numbers game is a bit difficult to agree to, but then if you are looking at what is in the topic itself, that equally then becomes rather subjective. So I am not sure that I can see an easy answer here. Numbers might give you an indication of whether there is a concern generally, but whether the one which reaches the top is really more worthy than one which is halfway down I think is really debatable.
Q139 Chairman: Our initial thinking, if it helps you, is that you would need a system, some form of arbiter, because you could well have a petition with the most signatures suggesting that a particular footballer receives a knighthood, or that a particular actor be honoured in some way because of an entertainment or sporting event, and I am not sure that is a petition which here we would view as the one most worthy of debate.
Mr Riddell: On that, in practice it has got to be a mixture of the two, because numbers have something in them but it should not be arbitrary. That is absolutely the crucial thing. I noticed that in fact David Cameron hinted at a trigger, when he was replying to, I think, the democracy task force of the Conservative Party. I am very sceptical about triggers because, as we saw with the road pricing, it becomes self-generating. The technology makes it easier to generate and I think you should operate against that. Nonetheless, numbers should have some weight, but I agree, to come back to the point, that is why you need a Petitions Committee or something like that to act as arbiter and to be accepted. It may be rough and ready some of the time, but these are sensible people who are acting impartially.
Professor Drori: I agree. I think it needs to be both on numbers and substance, and I think some kind of group of people who are seen to take those decisions would be a good, transparent way of doing it. We need to know who they are and also what criteria they are going to use. As long as those are transparent, I think it will be an improvement and I think people would be pretty happy with it. This is the sort of thing which human beings do rather well, rather than technology. It is just a finger in the wind, saying, "This feels about right." I think people would go with that as long as the way those people are appointed and who they are, and the criteria they use, are open and transparent.
Q140 Chairman: I think that is a fair point and I think Peter Riddell put his finger on it. You could have a Petitions Committee of elected Members. The membership is known. They could publish the criteria and if necessary they could sit in public when they are making the decision.
Mr Riddell: Absolutely, yes.
Q141 Mr Gale: I think this is an incredibly dangerous area. The Napier University paper says in terms, "We recommend that petitions are considered on their merits rather than according to the number of signatures." In the event of a British athlete winning a gold medal at Beijing and 250,000 people, having watched this spectacular event, saying on the petition, "We believe that the athlete should get an OBE," who decides whether that warrants more attention than 25,000 people saying, "The Government ought to be putting more money into the eradication of MRSA"? Is it a committee, the Petitions Committee, which is going to decide that?
Professor Drori: Is there not a dead easy answer to that, Mr Gale? After all, the power to award the OBE does not lie with this House, it now lies with an impartial committee, so it is a terribly easy task. The clerk of the committee just emails it on to the Cabinet Office on his committee and says, "Here you are," and you can get round that actually quite easily!
Ms Taylor-Smith: That brings up another issue, which is that the outcome of the petition is not necessarily a parliamentary debate. That should certainly not be the end result. So the idea that a number of signatures would necessarily trigger a debate loses a lot of things. It may be that the debate is something which is better with two sites, so if you have two medium sized petitions, one for and one against, that would employ a debate more than a petition which most people agreed with, which would not really require one. Equally, you may have a lot of petitions which together cover the same theme, particularly if you tried to localise petitions. You might have the same issues coming up. I think in the previous session they used the example of post office closures. If you had a lot of little petitions about local post office closures, maybe it would make sense to cover it in a debate on a national issue, but your automatic trigger on per petition signatures would not make that happen.
Q142 Mr Gale: I am sorry, I want to press this further, because we had exactly this with topical debates on the Floor of the House of Commons, where some Members of Parliament had put forward subjects for what they regarded as topical debates only to discover that that has been hijacked by the Government's business managers and something either highly convenient for the Government of the day or highly un-topical is suddenly appearing on the Order Paper for debate. What you are suggesting-and I understand exactly where you are coming from-is eminently desirable in theory, but in practice a Procedure Committee would then become yet another item of party political domination and choice, surely?
Dr Miller: No, surely not, because of the Crossbench, and also because it is being evaluated. This is the importance of evaluation. Because it is being evaluated and because it is being piloted it means that all the criteria by which decisions are made are under scrutiny and therefore up for consideration, yet again. So it is not a static thing. It is not suddenly an instrument which the Petitions Committee has and it can just use it how it wishes to and it is subject to political domination. Maybe that sounds optimistic.
Mr Riddell: Could I take up Mr Gale's point? The point on topical debates is that I think perhaps there is a flaw in the plan adopted-and this perhaps goes into the wider issue, not particularly relevant here-whether it should be a business committee on which backbenchers are represented, and so on and so forth. Therefore, the control on topical debate should not lie with the Leader of the House, it should lie with the House itself on a type of committee such as this one, which is entirely a backbench committee. That is a separate issue, but on this specific issue I think very much it should not be a committee either with a minister chairing, it should be seen, like this Committee, as a backbench committee, which would reduce the risks-I do not say eliminate-of what you are talking about, Mr Gale. I think if you have a differently structured committee you avoid some of those problems.
Chairman: In your question, Roger, you actually said "Procedure Committee". For the record, will you clarify you meant Petitions Committee?
Mr Gale: That depends upon whether there is a separate committee.
Rosemary McKenna: That is right. Exactly.
Chairman: Okay, but you mean a committee designated to look at it?
Mr Gale: A committee designated to do the job specifically, yes.
Chairman: Thank you.
Q143 Rosemary McKenna: I would like to explore that because I think that is not an unacceptable suggestion, that the Procedure Committee could be the actual committee which would be, after all the official work is done by officers of the House-not necessarily the final arbiter. Would it be even more helpful if it went from the Procedure Committee to the Liaison Committee, for the Liaison Committee to do what it does with the select committee reports, recommend the ones which would go for debate?
Mr Riddell: My experience from working on the Scrutiny Commission, which was chaired by Tony Newton, a wise man, although no one would agree, who forever said, "Don't overload. Don't overload. You lot are busy people. Don't ask too much," is that by definition, by consisting of chairmen of select committees, this is the right mechanism, but I just think that whatever "the precise procedure" means (to use "procedure" in a technical way), it means that a cross-party filter on which the Front Benches are not involved is the right mechanism on that, whether it is the Liaison Committee or not. Generally its functions now I am sceptical about, given the nature of it all, but some body like that would be the right filter. On the debates, point, I regard debates as far less important than achieving a proper response. Debate is at the end of a process. As you all well know, you have debates on select committee reports, which I generally from observation regard as a pretty unsatisfactory process. It is who speaks in debates, the Members of the select committee, the minister, the office inspector, and that is it. I think much more important is the scrutiny by committee and the nature of the response, and the response may well be to say, "We're already looking at it." I think one of the points raised is that quite often people will have a petition on something and you will be able to point out that the select committee has already been looking at it. So the answer may be an information answer as opposed to anything else. I think the idea of debates on the Floor of the House, which would be quite limited in number, I regard as a secondary part of the process in relation to giving a considered response.
Chairman: Thank you. Does anyone want to respond to that?
Q144 Mr Chope: The Napier University has suggested that an e-petitioning site should include information about parliamentary activity on the subject matter of petitions. How would that be provided and how would this dream of an interactive e-petitioning system actually turn into a reality?
Ms Taylor-Smith: I think really exactly what Peter has just said. For example, if you had agreed which committees would deal with a petition and decide who to pass it on to, and what happened in these committees would be recorded, presumably on the parliamentary sites, or indeed webcasts, and that would all be linked to the petitions site.
Q145 Mr Chope: Yes, and people would be able to see the actual outcome and the end, whether anybody listened or not?
Ms Taylor-Smith: They would be able to trace it as it went along.
Dr Miller: I think it is important to see that it could be done in exactly the way Ella has described with these kind of links to the processes it had been through, what happened, the reports that are published, and so on and so forth, but also that the way it can be presented on the website is so simple and so clear, so people understand. Without having to click on a series of links in order to get through the process, they understand just on the first view exactly what has happened and why.
Q146 Mr Chope: So you would expect the petitioners to keep going back to the website rather than being prompted as to developments in relation to the petition which they had signed?
Ms Taylor-Smith: Both.
Dr Miller: I think it can happen both ways, because I would imagine if you are an interested petitioner you might as a matter of course-I know that I have done this on issues I have been concerned about-check to see what is happening. But I think if you are a busy person then of course there could be automated responses coming from the system itself.
Mr Riddell: To give an example on this, I think that given the improvements which are already occurring on Parliament's website-which are very considerable, to make it more accessible and friendly, and I think a lot is happening there in the House, largely unappreciated-in quite a lot of the cases the petitioners would find out that actually Parliament is looking at something, in most cases. If you look at the range of activities any week the select committees are involved in, and actually what you have been doing-and this is where the communications point comes in crucially-it is not necessarily changing the role, but actually your constituents in response to the petition would say, "Well, actually it is being looked at," and that, I think, is crucial and that would come in the initial response. I know there are issues on how much an email should be subsequently used. I think there are very important issues there, very important ones, as Rosemary McKenna raised in an earlier session, but in relation to the initial response it would say, "Well, X or Y committee is already looking at that and there was a debate on that last week," and so on and so forth. That would go to all the petitioners on a particular issue.
Ms Taylor-Smith: Equally, though, there would be a resource for whoever was looking after the system so that if in the second year somebody was trying to bring a petition on the same subject they could point them in the direction of the account of what had happened to the previous one. An MP might use it as well and say, "Look, this is what we did for our constituents last year."
Professor Drori: I cannot help thinking that the benefit to the member of the public needs to be in some proportion to the effort they put in, and if you make it so easy that you email everyone in the country and just say, "Click here and you have got a petition," you will get that kind of graffiti problem. It occurs to me that in order to start a petition you might ask people online what their subject area is and then offer them what else Parliament has been doing in that area before they then go on to set up the e-petition. That could be automated in the way, for example, if you look at the BBC News website down the right-hand side there are links to other organisations and other things to do with this topic. Those are automatically generated mostly. So you could automate a lot of this. People would then see what else, as Peter Riddell has said, Parliament has been doing and is doing and they may be either dissuaded from putting in their e-petition because they can see that Parliament is already debating it or they may sharpen it so that it is just a bit more relevant, and actually this can become a useful part of the democratic process, so that people are really only putting in petitions about something where there is a need and Parliament has missed it.
Chairman: Thank you.
Q147 Rosemary McKenna: First of all, can I ask about the Scottish Parliament process. We visited them and saw their manual process. Bearing in mind the difference in size of the country, the population is a crucial issue here. On their Youth Forum, previous witnesses have said not to go near the forum because of experience in, for example, the BBC site. How important a part of the process is that in the Scottish Parliament?
Ms Buckner: In terms of what is done by the PCC, the committee?
Q148 Rosemary McKenna: No, in terms of the forums that are used, the forums which the Scottish Parliament uses and e-sites.
Ms Buckner: I think there are several ways in which these are useful. They are useful for their citizens to talk to each other about the issue, so there is citizen to citizen engagement about an issue where the topic is discussed and of course the representatives can look at the discussion as well. In terms of what goes to the committee, a summary of the forum goes to the Petitions Committee for the representatives to look at, which gives a brief indication of the number of responses for and against and the threads of the inquiry, and so on, and what has been said in the debate. I have spoken to the clerk to the Petitions Committee, and I hope I am right in saying this, but I think his view is that in reality in the Petitions Committee the representatives do not actually take that much account of what is said in the forums, but it is there for them to look at if it is an issue which their constituents are bringing up or if it is an issue for their concern.
Q149 Rosemary McKenna: But in terms of the size of the population of Scotland and the ability of the number of people to actually do that, the suggestion was from previous witnesses that we should not get involved in that in a UK situation.
Ms Buckner: I would certainly think at the beginning it is not something you would want to start with. I think you would certainly want to see the size of the response to the petitioning to start with, to see how many petitions were going to be happening, because it does increase the workload to do any analysis of those forums. Certainly some analysis can be automated, but not all of it. You do have to have some human intervention to do some analysis, so there is certainly an overhead. Another way of looking at the forums, though, is that the forums should actually be a way in which the petitioners develop the wording of their petitions. So by having the forum it really becomes a resource for the petitioner to look at what is being said. In fact, I think there is one case where a petitioner did actually withdraw a petition because of what was said in a forum, so it can influence the petitioners themselves and maybe if petitions are used it might be worth thinking about it in that way rather than the forum and the analysis of the forum going anywhere else.
Dr Miller: I would just like to comment on the question itself, which I think is a very important one. I think our position at the Hansard Society would be that there should be forums, not necessarily at the beginning, but I would not necessarily defer from doing them at the beginning. I think it is important in the sense that if e-petitions are not just to be a gimmick or a kind of one-off, quick-fire form of engagement, then apart from the kinds of outcomes we have been describing earlier there needs to be some kind of deliberative element. We have done quite a lot of research into this, obviously outside of Parliament-in fact within Parliament as well, but outside of Parliament we have done research into the use of forums by government departments for any consultations. Within Parliament we have done research into the use of forums to influence select committee inquiries into particular issues, and in both one of the most striking findings is that the volume of correspondence is not that high. So this is something to bear in mind, that you have a lot more people visiting, far fewer actually engaging in discussion, and you can have a very effective moderation system which enables the discussions to be structured and guided and people being, if you like, directed towards the appropriate materials which will help to inform their discussion. It does not necessarily ensure that everybody is really happy and that you do not have people who are expressing anger at the forums, but it certainly provides you with an effective tool of ongoing engagement, which I think should not be overlooked.
Q150 Rosemary McKenna: I agree with that. One of the reasons why I hope we do provide it is that actually it will be a more accurate reflection of people's views, because the easiest thing in the world-every MP knows this-is to stand outside the supermarket on a Saturday afternoon and get people to sign a petition. They do not know what they are signing, but they just do not want to say no, because either they are in a hurry or they are going off shopping. But this would be a far more effective way of finding out, and it is how people communicate today. You all seem to be agreed that the public would want a response from the petition. What form would that take? Apart from what is done with the petition, how would that be communicated back? Would it be done on the site?
Professor Drori: I think human beings get very frustrated if we do not get responses to what we do, in almost every walk of life, so the first thing one would want is confirmation that your contribution has gone into the system, that it has got it and that it has not just gone in to the ether and been lost. That might be a web page coming up saying, "Thank you for your contribution," or it might be an email back to you, and both would be fine. Then you want to know what is going to happen to your contribution after you have made it and what the status is of that petition, where it is in the system and also how to find out where it is going if you have not heard for a bit. Is there a number that you can key in or something, a place you can go to which says, "This is where this is at right now"?
Q151 Chairman: Rather like tracking an order on Amazon!
Professor Drori: Exactly like that, yes, and I think that is what people have come to expect, partly because of the retail industry actually. Over and above all that, just good practice in terms that you have made a contribution, now what is happening to it and what is the result? I think people are likely to want to find other people of like mind. I think there will be some people who will want to be able to find other people who have signed the petition or agree with them. Whether that is Parliament's job to do that or whether third parties will do that-they might set up a forum for debate and then enable people to submit petitions through their services, if you like. They may allow people to get in touch with each other and that, I think, would probably be quite a popular thing.
Q152 John Hemming: Obviously technology allows something which is not generally possible with a paper petition, which is to actually against the same structure and form of words record opposition rather than support. Do you think there is any merit to that?
Professor Drori: In principle I do, yes. I think it is all part of giving the public more of the same.
Ms Taylor-Smith: I think that is the role the forum plays.
Q153 John Hemming: The point about a forum, though, is that you do not have numbers on the forum. You have a debate about the merits of a case, and that can happen anywhere. The difference is that you can actually record numbers for and against on a petition.
Mr Riddell: You can, of course, have a counter-petition too.
Q154 John Hemming: Yes, it is just that the difference with a counter-petition is that it is not clearly the antithesis of the thesis, it is something else recorded.
Mr Riddell: Could I just add one additional point on response, where I entirely agree with what was said? I think one should not overload the people petitioning. I agree entirely you have an acknowledgement, then you can look at the site to see (using the Amazon parallel) where it is coming, and exactly taking forward the Amazon parallel you then get the email when it has been sent. The parallel point is that what you get is telling you what the response is, but I think you also need to be reassured that your email address is not going to be abused, I think that is very, very important indeed, neither specifically nor generally, that you always have a box to tick "No, I do not want to receive other mail on this." I think that is very important indeed.
Ms Buckner: Can I just go back to this point about for or against petitions which you were mentioning? I think that is something that some petitioners would be quite interested to know, how much feeling there is against what they are saying. Technically, it would certainly be possible to allow the petitioners to decide whether they wished for signatures against their petition to be allowed, and that could be an optional switch which could be easily built into the system.
Ms Taylor-Smith: I also think people's reasoning for either supporting or not supporting a petition is often very, very important, and it is very difficult if you do not always want to be lumped in with a bunch of people who agree on an issue, because you may have very different reasons for ending up there and this "Yes/No" is quite a blunt thing.
Q155 Mr Gale: We have to a considerable extent dealt with the involvement of MPs in petitions and I get the impression that apart from Professor Drori the feeling is broadly speaking that Members should be involved. I want to come back very briefly to the Napier University paper, chapter 2 of that. In Scotland petitioners are encouraged to contact MSPs prior to submitting a petition, and I think we agree with that, but the other bit of that says: "Bristol City Council and the Royal Borough of Kingston-upon-Thames both use systems where petitions are initiated by councillors prompted by their constituents' concerns." I think this is a very crucial area because somewhere along the line we have got to decide between us whether these petitions are going to be reactive or proactive. At the moment Members of Parliament tend to receive requests from constituents saying, "I want to petition about the closure of my local post office. Can you help me to do it?" The answer to that is, yes. We either know the words, or if we do not know the words we go to the Clerk's Office and they help us to draft the sentiment in parliamentary language. We give that to the constituents and they go off and raise their petition. It then comes back to us, it is cleared by the clerks and presented. By and large, that is reactive in parliamentary terms. If we are saying that we are going to use this as a political tool, "I've got a problem here. I'm going to see if I can get 100,000 signatures," suddenly it is a whole different ball game and I can see again the process being taken over by Members of Parliament rather than by the people whom I thought we were interested in, the public that we were trying to engage. That came out of the Napier paper, but it is not particularly a Napier issue. Does any of you have a particular view on it?
Dr Miller: I would just like to say that I kind of agree with the caution you have expressed about proactive petitioning. There are examples of e-petitioning around the world, so it is not just in Kingston or other examples that you cited but where MPs have to be, the people who actually sign the petition in the first place, whom you need to petition in that way. Evidence highlights that it does tend to polarise, if you like, so it tends to lead to a continued political polarisation, and I think that is to be avoided, so MPs as facilitators, yes; MPs as originators, no.
Mr Riddell: But is there not a human point there too? In practice, if you break the mechanism it is going to be replaced by definition. There is no way you can get away from that, because once you create the opportunity it is going to happen. But equally, to come back to your filtering mechanism, if you know that 100,000 people have organised on a particular subject the filtering committee will have a degree of scepticism-your parliamentary graffiti point, Mr Gale. Journalists also get the equivalent of the parliamentary graffiti, and we know and therefore add a discount to that, so I think the scepticism of the Petitions Committee will come in there too.
Mr Gale: Thank you.
Q156 Chairman: Do you have any view one way or the other as to whether, if the House embraced an e-petitioning system, Members of Parliament who wished to be associated with the petition could have their names published online, perhaps in bold type at the top, although they are not petitioner originators?
Dr Miller: Maybe not necessarily in bold at the top of the petition, but certainly if there is an MP who is supporting, facilitating the petition-usually it will be the constituency MP-then I think that obviously has to be clear. If there are other MPs-for example it could be that there is an issue which is affecting a city and there might be three or four MPs or more in that city, and it might be that certain MPs are actively engaging with citizens about this particular issue-then maybe that can be highlighted and then MPs who want to be highlighted in that way can be added. But I think it is probably dangerous to make the petition seen to be linked to too many MPs. It should just be the person who is actually facilitating.
Q157 Chairman: The reason I raised it is because I can envisage a situation where there is a Labour MP, a Conservative MP and a Lib Dem MP all representing the same city and there is an issue over, let us say, the closure of a hospital in that city. If one MP gets in first, if we did not have this provision then you will have three petitions or an attempt to table three petitions on the same subject.
Mr Riddell: Could I come back on that? I am almost thinking of the kind of EDM, when you have half a dozen and then the others. You could always have a box for MPs, something which does not denigrate the fact that this is the people, the voters doing it, but something which meets your point absolutely, and I think you can do that. There are practical ways in which you can do it. You can have a box or something like that.
Professor Drori: I think that is absolutely right and part of the open democratic process really to see which MPs support which petitions. Could I just correct what may have been a misunderstanding? If I said that MPs should not be involved, that is not what I meant. I said that I thought it is not the only way of doing it. I am certainly not suggesting that MPs should not be involved in this.
Chairman: Thank you for that.
Q158 John Hemming: I think the only thing I would go into is the question of what do you think is necessary to make sure that the system is transparent, to ensure that people have confidence that what they are trying to petition for has been considered and, if rejected, properly considered?
Mr Riddell: The seriousness of the response, that it is a considered response.
Q159 John Hemming: I am talking here more so about if you put in something which is deemed to be out of order.
Mr Riddell: There I think there are lessons from the Number 10 site, where they have criteria for rejection. Obviously, they will be totally different criteria than the ones that apply in Parliament because of the nature of the process, but, you know, personally offensive, gratuitous, and also ones which are outside Parliament's remit-you can imagine things which are totally irrelevant to Parliament, and so on and so forth-and there would be published criteria and there would be reference to those published criteria.
Dr Miller: Could I just add to that that I think the transparency needs to be built in. In other words, the system de facto, how it either automates or how the Petitions Committee, the Procedure Committee, whoever is dealing with it, responds to petitioners, and so on and so forth. All these things can be built in at the very first level. So it means, as Peter said, that things like terms and conditions are apparent. If somebody has contravened the terms and conditions of the parliamentary website or the e-petition site, it is very clear and they are notified. I noticed in the evidence from Tom Steinberg last week that there was also mention of ways in which you could deal with this so that if, say, the substance of the petition was okay but there was some libel contained within it, that could be taken out. There are various things you can do. I think this is the lesson from all the Hansard Society commissions and from other evidence is that so long as you are communicating and so long as there is evidence on the website that people can have access to which highlights how decisions are being made and why, then you go a long way towards transparency.
Professor Drori: I think this is an area it is important to pilot and it may be that the Number 10 system would be a good starting point, what happens in the process, who takes decisions, on what criteria, who appoints the people who make the decisions and by what process, that all needs to be transparent.
Ms Taylor-Smith: In order to write these criteria and make them workable in the process you really have to be honest about it. It is no good sort of having this idealised list of processing criteria and then equally having another one. For example, you may in practice have some sort of volume limit. That would need to be listed at the start.
Chairman: Thank you.
Q160 Mr Chope: The e-consultation which this Committee has been doing provides some evidence that security of personal information is a major concern for potential users. Would it be possible to offer a recognisable "secure" site similar to the sort used for online purchasing?
Professor Drori: Yes.
Q161 Mr Chope: Would that be very expensive or complicated?
Professor Drori: I do not think it is a particularly hard thing to do. There is a lot of organisations that offer secure services. It is a matter of deciding on the level of security you need and what information is going to be collected, about whom, and where it is going to be stored, and so on. Those kinds of decisions need to be taken, but technically it is not a problem. There is quite a lot of recent examples of information about people being lost by people carrying CDs across the country, and so on, and posting them. Generally, these are cases where information has been lost because of contravention of guidelines, and so on, so in the end if Parliament or Government has data about people it will probably leak out and it will probably be leaking out because of human beings doing what human beings do, which is make mistakes. The website itself can be made pretty secure.
Q162 Mr Chope: So you would be in favour of doing that, having that as part of the system?
Professor Drori: Having something that is secure, yes. I think that legally you are likely to be bound to because of the Data Protection Act.
Mr Chope: Yes. Thank you.
Q163 Chairman: If we were to recommend a system whereby a Government minister could have up to two replies, rather like the Number 10 system, and that also the constituency MP could respond, do you think there would be any negative effect if the constituency MP was then allowed to correspond with the petitioner on other issues?
Mr Riddell: Yes.
Dr Miller: Absolutely.
Mr Riddell: I think it should be very specific. It follows on from Mr Chope's question. It is the other side of security. I think it is very, very important that it is not used for other purposes.
Dr Miller: Yes.
Mr Riddell: That really is important, however legitimate those purposes are. We are all aware of these issues, so I think it is very important it should not be.
Q164 Chairman: So it is about the point of the data being held centrally and the MP being asked to give his response, which would then be sent out by officials here probably?
Dr Miller: Yes.
Mr Riddell: Absolutely.
Q165 Chairman: Do you have any view on whether it is better to have an opt in or an opt out, "Tick here if you do not wish to hear from your MP"?
Professor Drori: The default condition should be that you do not get spammed.
Q166 Chairman: Right, so "Tick here if you do want to hear from your MP on this issue" is the way you would prefer to see this point handled?
Professor Drori: Yes.
Chairman: Thank you.
Q167 John Hemming: How much do you think it will cost, and what other resource implications are there?
Ms Buckner: The costs are not just the system itself.
Q168 John Hemming: That is why I said money cost. If you did what I think is the sensible approach, which is to go out to tender to a supplier, an undefined supplier, what would you expect to pay for the hardware and the system build, and things like that, ideally what would you pay for the running costs, and what other resource costs within Parliament would you think there are?
Dr Miller: As the Hansard Society, we never do build, so I could not advise you about what you would expect. I would advise, though, that you would not necessarily assume that-you know, you do pay for what you get, but also expensive is not necessarily better. You have to find a way of knowing what you are willing to, I suppose, let go of in terms of healthy system development, but I think the other costs are paramount to consider. So the costs would be in terms of process, hugely, so whether it be about changing certain processes you have in Parliament, whether it be about ways of ensuring that ministers, and so on and so forth, are in contact with the people who are petitioning, all these kinds of things, so therefore the communication with the petitioners is massive. As a cost, I would not say it is necessarily a huge cost, but it is a matter of priority in terms of budgeting for the cost. The other thing is that there is a Government standard for piloting, which you are probably all aware of, about making sure there is an evaluation built in. This goes back to the question about transparency also, but the more that it is audited and checked, the more pleased people are going to be with the result, so as long as the process is fair then there will be more public support. So I think that has to be built into the cost also. It is not just about the system, in other words, but it is about all the things which tie into the use.
Ms Buckner: I think there will be some other costs which will be perhaps more hidden as well, like education of Members about how they are going to use the system, which will be much harder to put a real figure on, but it will be a cost. Then there will be the other costs, which probably will be staffing of people who are moderating the petitions and seeing whether they are valid petitions or not, which you will also have to take into account. But as regards the system, without knowing what it is going to be specified as you cannot estimate at this stage.
Professor Drori: I agree with what you have said. I think that education of the public is another thing you need to think about costing into this, so I would see it as a sort of total project. Technologically, from what I have heard today, there is nothing very unusual here, there is nothing that is not routine for some company somewhere, in all the parts of this, and I think in this country there are plenty of organisations that could bid to do this work. So that is a good sign. I would say the technology part of it is not tens of thousands and it is not millions, it is somewhere between the two, so I would not be surprised if it was hundreds of thousands. It is that sort of level. I would also add the important caveat that there are relatively small decisions you might make which could make a big difference to the cost. For example, the level of data security or the sort of ruggedness of the system. Do you want it to be working 99 per cent of the time or 99.999 per cent of the time? That makes a big difference to the cost, those sorts of things. I think actually, from what I know from your parliamentary web team, they would probably be able to sort out a lot of those things and be able to come back to you with a much closer quote based on the way you direct them. I think, from what I know of them, they would be able to give you a tighter estimate.
Q169 Mr Chope: If you have a secure, centralised system, then it means that MPs will not know the names and addresses-they may know the names but they will not know the addresses of the petitioners. That may not matter in a national petition, but in a local petition it might be absolutely fundamental to the relevance of that petition, for example over a school closure, over a post office closure, over a road development, and in that situation the idea of having a local petition would be rather negated unless there was some system for enabling the Member to know who had been petitioning. So we have been thinking about the idea of saying, "This is a local petition. It must be limited to people from particular postcodes." Have you got any other ideas as to how we could overcome that problem?
Ms Taylor-Smith: I think you could look at things, rather than looking at limiting something to certain postcodes. We talked about this earlier. There is a real danger with somebody deciding for you whether a petition is too local for you. For example, many of us work in one constituency and live in another, so rather than restrict the signing of a petition to a constituency or a postcode, perhaps some sort of map could be made available which had an indication of the volume of signatures from each postcode.
Q170 Mr Chope: That could be done quite easily, could it, on the technical side?
Ms Taylor-Smith: Yes.
Mr Riddell: The postcode seems the balance between anonymity and information, the most effective one.
Professor Drori: When we are talking about whether you opt in or opt out of email, and so on, I think we are all agreed that it was best to have a default condition where you opt out of receiving email from your MP. I just wonder whether keeping your address secret from your MP is actually a different thing, is it not? It is one thing having someone just know who you are and there is another one about just getting email that you do not want for evermore and being told to cast my vote in a particular way, which I would not want. So one might allow the public, perhaps with a note of why they might want to allow it, particularly on local issues: "It would help your MP to know your address. Is that all right?" But you have to opt in then to receiving mail or anything else from your MP, so they would not be allowed to send you anything, they just would have the information.
Dr Miller: I am hesitant about this. I think it is a good idea generally to use postcodes as a way of adjudicating where people are coming from, and so forth, but obviously people can abuse that system in any case, so you have not got anything foolproof there. There is another question-and I am not saying this because I am saying anything definitive, but there is another question about whether or not you do definitely want to limit it to postcodes. For example, I cannot think of a concrete thing where something is happening in Cornwall and I, living in London, care about it, but there might be cases where that is happening, that a particular area of the country is affected by a particular issue.
Professor Drori: If you have a parent living there.
Dr Miller: Yes, you have a parent living there or you just care about the issue. Although it is a local concern, it is a concern of national interest, so would you want to limit it? I think use postcodes, yes, but not necessarily limit petitions to the postcodes. Then the MP can see, because of the backend data, there is a map which can be brought out which shows how many people signed from a particular constituency. You can see whether it was 80 per cent from their constituency, 20 per cent from other constituencies around the country, and therefore what the weight of local opinion is, but you cannot even extrapolate from that particularly to say, "Therefore, 80 per cent of my constituency feels this way." I do not know how necessary it is to limit. I just think use them, but do not limit them.
Chairman: Okay. I hope to finish in five minutes.
Q171 Rosemary McKenna: Just quickly, we all go onto sites and they crash and we get terribly frustrated and annoyed. Do you think it would undermine public confidence when the site fails or crashes?
Professor Drori: Yes.
Dr Miller: Yes.
Q172 Rosemary McKenna: Is that a danger?
Dr Miller: That is why I said you get what you pay for. You definitely do not want to have a bargain basement system which is not reliable because it could be dealing with huge amounts of traffic, and the things people could do to that system if they wanted to. I think you would need to make sure that you had a system which gave you some guarantees on that.
Q173 Rosemary McKenna: It would have to be very robust, would it not?
Dr Miller: Yes.
Q174 Rosemary McKenna: So what level of delay would you find acceptable, if people are waiting to get onto the site? I personally think that people would not accept any delay, they would want it to happen the minute they decide they want to sign the petition, or get involved. They find out what it is about and they would want it instantly.
Professor Drori: There are many possible delays and I think if you were specifying such a system to a supplier you would need to unpick these. What kind of delay is acceptable if you type in the web address before the page comes up? What kind of delay is acceptable if you submit a petition before you get an email back saying, "We've got it"? All those things. There are generally standards of good practice in usability which are generally accepted for these things, how many seconds, how many milliseconds, and so on. Again, I would say those are well understood by your web team.
Chairman: Thank you.
Q175 Mr Gale: Very briefly, unless you are a fully paid up Luddite this is one of those things it is very difficult to oppose because everybody wants greater access, do they not, except me? Does anybody know of anywhere where it has actually achieved anything, other than perhaps a useful safety valve for allowing the public to let off steam? Has e-petitioning led anywhere to a change in law?
Professor Drori: Switzerland, I believe. Actually, I am not sure about e-petitioning, but certainly if you get a certain number of petitions, signatures, that forces a referendum, I believe, in Switzerland.
Dr Miller: Yes. I think it is perhaps an achievement that it changes a law, because I think that that law would probably change anyway under public pressure through different mechanisms over a longer period. So perhaps what you could say is that where MPs or parliaments come under pressure to revise decisions, or Government itself has come under pressure to revise decisions, then petitions can only have speeded up that process. But if that is not anything you are trying to achieve, law change that you are trying to achieve, engagement, there are lots of other things and petitions are one step in that direction.
Mr Riddell: I would make two points. I think one has got to take the "e" and the petition and treat them slightly separately. The "e" bit is modern technology and the opportunities we now have. The petitions part I think reflects much more a political question of disenchantment with representative institutions, and Hansard is absolutely devoted to strengthening representative institutions and Parliament representing democracy. So I think one has go to take the two factors, the political change and political culture, which is pressure, and the "e" bit, which makes it much more easy to communicate. I think those are the two answers. We operate in a political culture where Parliament is under more pressure and more scepticism. The "e" bit gives you a much better opportunity to communicate. That is my answer to that so far. I think you can point in Scotland to some positive results. One should not overdo it, but from the reports I have read and the people I have talked to in Edinburgh it indicates, without being starry-eyed and all of that, that there are positive results from it and properly handled, as your inquiry is doing, it can be done without either resulting in parliamentary graffiti or exaggerating what will happen initially.
Professor Drori: I think I would turn your question the other way round and say that according to Parliament's own papers the right to petition the Crown and Parliament to air grievances is a fundamental constitutional principle. Why not just limit it to writing it in blood with a quill? If you have got a medium which can attract more people, why not use it?
Chairman: Thank you, Professor, Doctor, ladies and gentlemen. Is there any issue which you would like to make by way of a comment or statement which you feel we have not covered before we close the session? Then can I thank you all for giving up your valuable time. I know how busy you must be. We have found this session very helpful to us. It has been informative and interesting, and I think you have helped us to make a more enlightened decision when we finally reach our conclusions. Thank you for coming.