Rebuilding the House - House of Commons Reform Committee Contents


    " [Political conversation was] when the next election would be—of the probable Prime Minister—of ins and outs—of Lord This and Duke of That—everything except the people for whose existence alone these politicians exist' (The Life and Work of Thomas Hardy, 1891)[49]

A Introduction

(xvi)  In this section we describe the general background to the matter of public initiation of proceedings which was referred to us, and connected matters, and conclude in favour of a shift towards a greater degree of public participation.

Debates and proceedings

224. We are directed to report on "enabling the public to initiate debates and proceedings in the House". "Proceedings in the House" covers a range of activities. Debate and ministerial response is one form of proceeding, and enjoys the highest profile. There are a number of other types of proceedings, including oral or written Questions and Answers; the introduction of legislation or of amendments to Bills; motions, including Early Day Motions; and select committee inquiries, comprising the taking or oral or written evidence, commissioning research and making a report to the House, as well as private consideration of issues.

Public participation and influence

225. Members of the public already participate in proceedings in the House as witnesses in select committee and public bill committee hearings. Furthermore, online forums are now frequently used by select committees to garner experience directly from the public on specific topics.[50]

226. The public already exercises a very substantial influence on what is discussed in the House; on the subjects on which Ministers are questioned; and on the inquiries pursued by select committees. It is indeed rare that proceedings in the House do not have their origins at some point in public concerns. Whether the vehicle for such concerns being raised is backbench questions and adjournment debates; Opposition day debates; Ministerial or backbench legislation; questions following Ministerial statements; or general debates, proceedings in the House—for all their admitted failings—cannot be fairly represented as having no connection to public concerns.

227. The overriding thrust of our Report is that Members of the House should be given substantially increased means of initiating proceedings, primarily through taking control of backbench business. That will automatically enhance public influence on the agenda, since it is from the public that Members receive their impetus.[51] The change should help create a sense that the public have some ownership of time in the House. Our proposals should ensure that what happens in the House is more reflective of public concerns; with more debates on topics which have a resonance with the public and fewer abstruse ones.

Outreach and engagement agenda

228. Much attention has been focused at Westminster in recent years on efforts by Parliament to "reach out" and reconnect to the public, and to make proceedings more readily accessible and more easily understood. Much has been done, and much remains to do, to attract more people to see and hear proceedings in person or through all available media. The June 2004 Modernisation Committee Report acted as a major stimulus in this area.[52] Ambitious targets have been set for inward visitors on Education Service visits; the website is being radically upgraded and new media being extensively used; a positive outreach effort now includes parliamentary staff based in the regions; and all public proceedings are webcast. The BBC Parliament channel is widely watched. All 18 year olds receive a positive and personalised invitation from the Speaker to register to vote.[53] Members themselves engage in relentless communication with their electorates, increasingly using the resources of interactive media to do so.

229. Hitherto less attention has been devoted to the mirror image of that process of outreach. One of the stated aims of the Government's July 2007 Governance of Britain Green Paper was to re-invigorate our democracy.[54] It paid particular attention to the possible role of petitions both at Westminster and in local government. In July 2008 the DCLG published a White Paper entitled Communities in Control: Real People, Real Power, which covered various aspects of the "community empowerment" agenda.[55] The prospect of facilitating public initiation of proceedings in the House is one part of that wider agenda of stimulating, facilitating and supporting greater public engagement with the democratic process at local and national level.


230. There are varying views about the prospects for greater public participation. Recent research from the Hansard Society conveyed in its submission to us warns that the level of public desire for direct involvement may be low and falling.[56] Dr Ruth Fox, Director of the Parliament and Government Programme at the Society, has warned in a recent article that

    There is a danger that if the scope and scale of what the public want is misread, any new mechanisms will in fact come to be dominated by damaging groundswells of impassioned faction or organised economic interest groups.[57]

    One of the strengths of representative democracy is precisely that it can give a voice to the less advantaged and the unengaged.

231. The phrase "the public" can mean different things to different people. Through political parties and pressure groups, the public already exerts much influence on the parliamentary agenda. Individuals can exert influence much less readily, but the representative system and the constituency basis of our politics are designed in part to facilitate that. Well-organised groups will, quite properly, use any new or improved opportunities offered for public initiation to press their own causes.[58]

232. But none of these doubts should rule out making further and better opportunities available for public participation and engagement. Many other parliamentary democracies provide such opportunities and surveys regularly find that people say that they feel disempowered and would like to have more say on decisions that affect them. We received submissions from several individual campaigners which conveyed the difficulties they found in getting their views and concerns heard.[59] If more or better opportunities are offered it may well be that more and better use will be made of them. The primary focus of the House's overall agenda for engagement with the public must now be shifted beyond the giving of information towards actively assisting the achievement of a greater degree of public participation.

B What happens now

(xvii)  This section briefly describes four existing ways in which the public can directly or indirectly influence the agenda: through individual members, through petitions, through inviting members to sign Early Day Motions, and through contacting select committees.


233. The simplest way in which people initiate proceedings is by bringing a particular issue to a Member's attention and asking them to pursue it. Such an initiative may come from individuals or organised groups focused on a particular cause.

234. In many cases a Member will deal with the matter by correspondence and forward an issue raised by a constituent to a Minister or other appropriate authority to respond. These activities are not strictly speaking "proceedings". But in practice they form a significant part of the constituency workload of Members and offer the public a parliamentary route to pursue issues. Where a Member feels that a ministerial response is inadequate, or where a larger problem is revealed by casework, this may lead to pursuit of the issue through questions, debates, amendments etc. Many issues quite evidently do not lend themselves to being debated or publicly questioned; but others do, as can be seen in the number of half-hour debates instigated by backbenchers on such subjects, and of written questions that have probably been generated by issues raised with a Member by the public. It is also not unusual that a select committee inquiry has its origins in a matter being raised with individual Members.


235. The only more or less direct means for those outside the House to initiate proceedings is through presentation of a petition, a practice of great antiquity.[60] In the earliest parliaments, dealing with petitions for justice was one of a parliament's core tasks. Gradually, as Parliament developed into a legislative and political rather than a judicial institution, petitions ceased to occupy centre-stage. Until the mid-19th century debate could be and frequently was raised on the subject of petitions, either because of the significance of the issue raised or later as a means of delaying other business. A Standing Order [now SO No 153] originally passed in 1842 limited a Member presenting a petition to a statement of the parties whence it came, the number of signatories and the material allegations, together with the "prayer"—the part of the petition which defines what the petitioners seek.

236. Subject to meeting relatively relaxed formal requirements, and to finding a Member willing to present it, any individual can petition the House. The issue does not—unlike a parliamentary question—have to engage ministerial or in any real sense parliamentary responsibility. The petition can either be presented in the Chamber by a Member just before the half-hour end of day adjournment or placed in the bag behind the Chair; the latter is now very infrequent. No debate is allowed, save for a petition complaining of "some present personal grievance requiring immediate remedy", now rarely invoked. The text of the petition is printed in Hansard. In due course all petitions get an answer from a Government department: not the House of Commons to which it was in fact presented. The answer is also printed in Hansard. Copies are sent to departmental select committees; to date none have been explicitly taken up, although the subjects have on occasions coincided with inquiries already under way, such as post office closures.

237. In the 2008-09 session, over 120 petitions were presented. Most addressed local concerns: none the less important for that. Around 10 per cent concerned national policy issues, including foreign affairs issues such as Sri Lanka and Gaza, taxation, immigration, social services and so on. Several raised issues which had hitherto received little attention in the House and might conceivably have repaid inquiry: for example, on the storage of embryos or the control of airguns.

Early Day Motions

238. One of the principal means by which public concerns are mediated through individual Members to become "proceedings" is through Early Day Motions [EDMs]. These are formal motions of no more than 250 words on any subject, drafted so that they are in theory capable of being debated in the House. They are tabled by a Member and printed in the House's daily business papers. Other Members can sign them to express their support. They are proceedings of the House in the technical sense that their contents are, for example, protected by privilege from suit for defamation. They are practically never debated or decided, with the rare exception when an Opposition party may choose to use time on one of their days to debate an existing EDM critical of the Government and signed by some Government backbenchers. Unlike petitions from the public, they do not receive any written "response" from Ministers. There have long been critics of the value of this sort of proceeding, which may offer a false prospectus to those outside as to the likelihood of any concrete outcome. EDMs were the subject of a recent inquiry by the Procedure Committee, which reported in May 2007.[61]

239. EDMs offer an opportunity for Members to test the volume of support a proposition can gather from among their colleagues: and to give that proposition a public airing. They can be a powerful tool for cross-party initiatives, and for government backbenchers to convey publicly to Ministers some pressing concern. Debate is by no means necessary for this to be effective.

240. Many EDMs have their origins in campaigning of various sorts outside the House. An organisation may invite a Member or group of Members to table an EDM and will then use signature of it as a focus for a campaign in a particular cause, for example by inviting supporters around the country to ask their local MP to sign. In turn, Members may sign existing EDMs because they have been asked by constituents to do so, as a sign of support for a particular cause. An added signature does not of itself trigger anything beyond reprinting the motion in the House's papers. But EDMs are one means, however imperfect, of reflecting a wide range of popular concerns in the formal papers of the House of Commons, in a way which exists in few other parliaments.

Select committees

241. The public can also express concerns and views through making submissions to select committees, either by sending a letter or memorandum, or participating in a web forum where one is being run on a particular inquiry. Several members of the public indeed submitted evidence to this inquiry. Members of the public have on occasions been invited thereafter to appear in person to give oral evidence to a committee, if they have a particular insight or relevant experience which will assist the Committee in reaching its conclusions. And select committees frequently undertake informal visits around the United Kingdom where opportunities may be provided for public input in meetings or conversations.[62] It is rare that a committee undertakes an inquiry directly and solely because of public representations to it, but the choice of matters inquired into frequently reflect what its members have been told by the public in person or in correspondence.

C Reform agenda

(xviii)  This section lists a number of proposed reforms and innovations, including a suggested way forward on e-petitions, changes in current practices and an interim expanded role for the Procedure Committee as a Petitions Committee; the introduction of Motions for House debate; opening up the process of legislation; and serious consideration of agenda initiative and similar tools of direct democracy.


242. Critics may with reason suggest that, while the House may be becoming more effective in reaching out to the communities it serves, it is insufficiently responsive to pressures from outside to debate or consider some issues of concern to the population. These often do not seem to be reflected in what is visible of parliamentary proceedings. If the Government and the Opposition do not want an issue debated, it will not be, save as a result of the exertions of individual members; and the options open to individual Members are limited. It may be thought that debate on issues such as assisted suicide or organ donation or same-sex partnerships was largely absent from the parliamentary agenda at a time they were being actively canvassed outside the House. In foreign affairs, a country or region of concern can easily fall off the political agenda.

243. The range of issues in Early Day Motions already on a notional parliamentary agenda, and indeed on the Number Ten petitions website, demonstrate that there will always be controversies not echoed in Parliamentary debate even if the House sat in permanent session. But we acknowledge that the range of subjects that are debated and inquired into by the House and its committees could usefully be broadened yet further. Enhanced possibilities for direct or indirect public initiation of proceedings could possibly ensure that matters of great public concern did not seem to be ignored.

244. It is not only because of a sense that there are matters deserving of debate which are missing from the parliamentary agenda that enhanced public participation is sought: it is also seen by some as a desirable end in itself. Reconnection—or indeed connection—of the public with Parliament is essential if our democracy is to thrive, whatever effect opportunities for participation have on the agenda of the House.

245. We set out below several proposed changes to the existing mechanisms used: and examine one area where there is a prospect for more radical innovation.


246. As a result of the recent examination by the Procedure Committee, a number of improvements have been made recently to the procedures and practices on petitions.[63] In particular Government replies are now given to all petitions, and these replies are overall better and swifter. The petitions system is still not widely used by the public. It can easily be talked down. But it should be noted that for all its failings it does offer an unconstrained right for any Member to present a specific public grievance on the floor of the House, albeit near the end of a parliamentary day, and an opportunity for a petitioner to get at least some formal written response from Government.

Petitions: e-petitions

247. The Procedure Committee made detailed proposals for an e-petitions system in April 2008.[64] In essence, this would involve the House hosting a site where over a limited period of time public petitions could be signed up to electronically by anybody interested, so long as "facilitated" by a Member. These petitions would form a sort of public EDM system. At the end of the period the petition would be presented to the House and would become thereby part of the proceedings of the House. Signatories would be able to opt into receiving an e-mail on progress of the petition and up to two e-mails from their constituency Member. All petitions would receive a reply from the Government.

Number Ten petitions website

248. The proposed system drew on some aspects of the Number Ten petitions website introduced in November 2006. That site has attracted criticism, but it would be facile to dismiss the subject matter of Number 10 petitions simply because of some well-publicised foolish petitions. The most heavily signed petition so far on that site has been a petition of 1.8 million people to scrap the vehicle tracking and road pricing policy.


249. The scheme proposed by the Procedure Committee would not automatically provide for further proceedings on any specific petition but would offer some time for debate on selected petitions. In its May 2007 report the Committee had recommended a half-hour slot for members to initiate a debate on a specific petition at the end of Thursday sittings in Westminster Hall.[65] In its April 2008 Report, the Committee recommended three 90 minute slots a year in Westminster Hall to debate one or more e-petitions selected by the Procedure Committee "in a manner similar to the way the Liaison Committee chooses the select committee reports to be debated in Westminster Hall".[66]

Government response etc

250. In July 2008 the Leader of the House welcomed the Procedure Committee's Report in a written ministerial statement and anticipated a debate in autumn 2008. But no such debate was scheduled. In December 2008 the Committee received a letter from the then Deputy Leader asking it to consider a lower-cost option. In May 2009 the Committee again set out its views and asked the Government to think again.[67] On 8 July 2009 in a letter in response to the Committee's latest report the Deputy Leader of the House, expressed the hope that "the new Committee [ ie the Reform of the House of Commons Committee] will be able to draw on the Procedure Committee's findings in considering the role that a simpler, cheaper form of on-line communication might take, whether in the form of an e-Petitions system or something slightly different".[68]

251. There are evidently differences of opinion in the House, and between Ministers and the Procedure Committee, on the best way forward on e-petitions. There is a consensus that some sort of electronic petitioning system would be valuable. Ministers suggest that the Procedure Committee's proposal is unduly complex and costly, in comparison with the costs attributed to the Number Ten site. The Procedure Committee has doubts as to the allegedly much lower costs of the Number Ten site. But in any event parliamentary costs are under pressure like all other costs in the public sector, and it would be foolhardy to embark on a scheme without a clear idea of the balance of cost and the benefit it might bring in terms of public engagement.

252. But what is curious is that in all the to-ing and fro-ing the House has not been given the opportunity to pronounce upon the Procedure Committee's scheme one way or the other. It should of course be for the House and not for the Government to decide if it wishes to spend public money on the scale recommended. This is another example of where Ministerial control of the agenda denies a Committee set up by the House the opportunity to bring its proposals before the House. Under the reformed system we propose it would be for the Backbench Business Committee to ensure that such a proposal was at least debated in the House.

253. The estimated level of expenditure on the Procedure Committee scheme arises in some measure from the proposed link between all those who sign a petition and their constituency Member. This would require a complex and relatively staff-intensive system for matching up the postcode of each signatory with the appropriate Member. This and other aspects of the scheme would benefit from further detailed discussion and analysis. The Finance and Services Committee and ultimately the House of Commons Commission would have to find the resources for the scheme. The House would no doubt be assisted by their views and those of the House's Management Board in advance of reaching a view.

254. We recommend urgent discussions among all those involved in the e-petitions scheme, with a view to bringing to the House in the early part of 2010 a costed scheme which enjoys the support of the Member bodies engaged: that is, the Finance and Services and Procedure Committees, and the House of Commons Commission.

A Petitions Committee?

255. A number of recent commentators have called for the establishment of a Petitions Committee, along the lines of those in operation in several other European countries, and more recently in Scotland.[69] Typically, such a committee meets regularly to examine all petitions received and decide what if any follow-up action to take. Such actions may include referral to another committee, typically a specialist subject committee; offering the petitioner[s] the opportunity to present a case in person; investigating the allegations itself and reaching conclusions; and ultimately seeking a change of some sort in policy or practice.

Experience in other legislatures

256. The Procedure Committee looked in depth in its 2006-07 inquiry at the systems in operation in Germany and Scotland of Petitions Committees, and visited Berlin and Edinburgh for that purpose. It concluded that there was not a case for establishing a Petitions Committee along the lines of that in operation in Berlin and Edinburgh. Instead, it proposed a more active consideration by departmental select committees of the petitions which had been forwarded to them as a result of an earlier Procedure Committee recommendation of 2004.[70] The Scottish Parliament instigated a review of the operation of its Petitions Committee in 2006, which presented a rather mixed verdict.[71] In 2008 the House of Representatives in Australia set up a Petitions Committee to investigate and report on petitions and forward selected ones for ministerial response.

Role of a committee

257. Opinions vary on the possible merits of establishing a select committee to scrutinise or investigate selected petitions. The parliaments which have a thriving petitions committee do not necessarily have the same strong Westminster tradition of Members pursuing constituency casework, and some of their workload would seem more properly to fall to individual members here. Furthermore, cases pursued may be matters which in the UK would be within the responsibility of elected local authorities; it would be plainly undesirable for the House to encourage the view that those dissatisfied with a local authority decision or policy could "appeal" to the House. Local democracy and accountability need strengthening, not weakening.

Formal referral to other committees

258. Referral by one select committee to another does not sit easily in the Westminster system of relative committee autonomy. A departmental select committee at Westminster is not likely to relish having its agenda set for it by a fellow committee, regarding itself as best placed to judge whether or not to follow up on a petition. There has been no perceptible outcome of the current system by which petitions are forwarded to departmental select committees.

Petitions: hard copy

259. The benefit of an electronic system is in the ease with which support can be gathered from around the country and indeed the world, and the accessibility to all concerned of the text. But petitions in their current format still have a role to play. Many people are happy to sign petitions in hard copy. And many people are not connected to the web, so an exclusively web-based system would be inaccessible to many. Democratic Audit warned of the danger of unintentionally excluding people by reliance on electronic means.[72] If proceedings can flow from an e-petitions scheme, they should also be able to flow from a "non-electronic" petition. It is important that the focus on an e-petitions scheme does not displace concern with "standard" petitions, which are of equal validity.

Petitions: Case for change

260. The House cannot be satisfied with its current procedures for petitions. Whether electronic or paper-based, they should be scrutinised by some organ of the House capable of deciding two things: does the matter merit investigation by the House in some way, and does it now or in due course merit debate? Experience suggests that if this is not a duty of a single identified committee then it will not be done at all.

Petitions Committee: Conclusion

261. Scrutinising petitions and investigating and reporting on some requires the commitment of resources. Dr Carman, who reviewed the Scottish system, noted that

    Considering petitions is a time-consuming enterprise involving numerous discussions between parliamentary staff and petitioners, significant research efforts, time and resources devoted to contacting and following up on enquiries to Ministers and other public bodies, legal enquiries, records management and interactions with other committees… If the system becomes over-burdened, it cannot meet the needs and desires of petitioners.[73]

Lord Norton of Louth warned that

    There needs to be sufficient resources available to the Committee to process and assess petitions. Inadequate resources, be it in terms of staff or time, can fundamentally undermine the utility of the process.[74]

Even a cursory look at the subjects raised on the Number Ten website, as well as the petitions presented to the House in the current session, demonstrates the scale of Member and staff commitment required. We are cautious about recommending a full-scale free-standing Petitions Committee at this time.

Procedure Committee role

262. The Procedure Committee envisaged that it would eventually play the main role in determining which petitions might be the subject of a debate. We do not envisage that the Procedure Committee would be held out to potential petitioners as a court of appeal on any matter on which they wished to petition the House, but it does offer an existing means of exercising some quality control over the current system, which is effectively an interim one until an acceptable e-petitions scheme is introduced. It might also function as a scrutiny committee. Its inward-facing procedural role would combine with an outward-facing role in relation to petitions.

263. The Committee could at its regular meetings look at the petitions received and decide if any merited special treatment or raised immediate issues requiring further inquiry or a special reference to a departmental select committee. We do not envisage that more than a handful in any session would require such treatment. The Committee would then await a Government response. If that was unduly delayed then the Committee would have the errant department chased up. Having read the response, and any material supplied to the Member and/or petitioner by the House authorities, the Committee would decide if the issue merited debate. It would in sum operate in a scrutiny and not investigative mode. Such a task could in time be a potentially significant burden on Members and could involve at least modest additional staff cost: but in advance of an e-petitions system we do not believe it would be unduly onerous. The best thing is to try it and see. We recommend that the Procedure Committee's terms of reference be broadened, and its title changed to Procedure and Petitions Committee, so as to enable it to exercise scrutiny of the petitions process, on an experimental basis from January 2010 until the end of the Parliament; and that it make a report of its experience before the end of the Parliament so that this can be available to a new Parliament.

Proceedings on Petitions: Debates

264. If there is in place a reformed and refreshed petitions system, it must be right for it to be reflected in the business of the House. It is of course already open to a Member to seek an adjournment debate on the subject matter of a petition. The Procedure Committee envisaged three 90 minute slots in Westminster Hall each session. To give greater flexibility the time could be taken in 30 minute slots. The Committee proposed that it should take the role played by the Liaison Committee in relation to debates on select committee reports. We envisage the member who presented the petition taking the lead in applying to the Procedure Committee for a debate. The Procedure Committee would make its views known to the Backbench Business Committee. It would then be up to the Backbench Business Committee to allocate time in Westminster Hall, or to recommend to the House a short debate on the floor. We recommend a trial in 2009-10 in advance of e-petitions of debates on petitions, subject to the presentation of petitions of sufficient significance.

Response from House

265. A number of petitions now—and the same is likely to be true in a reformed system— raise issues which have been the subject of some recent debate or other proceedings in the House. The "responses" from departments are often helpful in setting out the issue as seen from Whitehall, but understandably make little or no reference to the House's own proceedings. Petitioners may well like to know what has been said or done not just by Ministers but more widely in a parliamentary context. We recommend that the House authorities ensure that petitioners are informed of recent relevant House proceedings.

Proceedings in House

266. No notice is required when Members intend to present a petition in the House at the end of the day's business. All that a Member has to do is have the petition checked for orderliness by the Journal Office and then inform the Table Office of the desired date of presentation.[75] This relatively casual procedure has the disadvantage that no notice appears on the Order Paper. Hardly anybody knows that a petition is to be presented. It would give petitions a slightly enhanced status if notice was required and when given if it appeared on the House's Order Paper at the appropriate place.

267. Under current procedures, a Member who has presented and read out the prayer of a petition, goes behind the Speaker's Chair and places it in the bag kept there for that purpose. That gives an unfortunate and misleading impression of neglect, given that the petition is in fact subsequently printed in the House's record and replied to [see para 246 above]. We consider that it would be more dignified if, as is the case with Bills presented to the House by backbench Members, the front sheet of the petition was taken to the Table, and an appropriate announcement read by the Clerk.

Regional grand committees

268. We would also welcome using the sittings in the regions of Regional Grand Committees as a means of greater public participation. One small way of taking this forward would be to enable Members to present petitions to an appropriate Regional Grand Committee at the start of the sitting, where the subject-matter was of regional or local significance.

Early Day Motions and Motions for House debate

269. EDMs are an indirect form of public initiation of proceedings. It is sometimes suggested that an opportunity for debate and decision on selected EDMs on the floor of the House would both nourish public engagement with the EDM process, and might act as a control on the subject matter, weeding out the fatuous or trivial. An EDM could be automatically identified for debate either as a result of the number of signatories—weighted as desired to encourage cross-party initiatives—or by a process of selection by, for example, the Backbench Business Committee, based on criteria other than the merely mathematical.

270. We share the general view that there would be benefit in having a regular slot for a debate on a motion tabled and supported by a number of backbenchers, and capable of being decided in the House. Until 1994 backbenchers balloted for the opportunity to have such a motion debated on a Friday. A ballot is used for prioritising Private Members' legislation, and to allocate slots for backbench adjournment debates and is thus well understood by the House. But it is not widely used outside the House and is inevitably arbitrary in its effects.

271. We consider that it would be wiser to leave the existing system of EDMs to fulfil its present functions, and create alongside it a bespoke system of producing Motions on subjects which a number of backbenchers genuinely felt required debate—as opposed to, for example, unexceptionable motions praising an organisation, or purely politically partisan motions. Members could be constrained to signing one "Motion for House Debate" over a given period of, say, a month. At the end of that period, the number of signatories could be weighted by party grouping to create an order of priority, and a selected motion from among the most heavily supported could be given a guaranteed debate slot in the House or Westminster Hall by the Backbench Business Committee.

272. It would be open to the public to seek such debates through Members and to lobby individual Members to sign such an application. Members would have to choose from a number of options. The responsibility would rest with backbench Members, accountable to their constituents. There would no doubt be some "game-playing". The system would have to allow for Members to switch their signatures in the event of a more "attractive" Motion being tabled later in the period. We recommend that a scheme to this effect be worked up by the House authorities for piloting in the new Parliament.

Legislative Process

273. The legislative process is already significantly influenced at all stages by public opinion, organised through interest and pressure groups. From the identification of an issue as requiring legislation, through the process of consultation in drawing it up, to debate and scrutiny in both Houses, organisations are engaged in pressing home their particular concerns. Backbenchers themselves have limited opportunities to influence legislation, including the possibility of service on a public bill committee and the opportunity to move or support amendments at report stage. Concerns from the public in general and from organisations in particular are often reflected in Private Members' legislation.

274. An individual citizen, however, has few opportunities for involvement in the legislative process, beyond taking opportunities to influence individual Members. There may be an opportunity to submit evidence if the bill is undergoing pre-legislative scrutiny by a select committee. And there is a largely theoretical possibility of submitting written evidence if and when evidence is heard on a Bill at the outset of public bill committee proceedings. To date there have been very few individual submissions

275. The process of Second Reading of a bill followed by public bill committee followed by report stage is in technical terms fairly transparent, in that the relevant papers are findable on the website and the process is foreseeable. But in the same way that many consultations carried out by Government departments are conducted via a departmental website and genuine public engagement is not positively facilitated, nowhere are the public positively invited to comment in any detail on the provisions of Bills, or to propose amendments which might at least be worthy of debate. Nor are the legislative language and formats employed designed to be user-friendly in the wider world: they read as what they are, draft legal texts.

276. Proposals have recently been made for the introduction of an explicit opportunity for public comment on the details of legislation, immediately after Second Reading: a "public reading" stage.[76] In the past there have been similar proposals for every Government Bill to be the subject of a web forum. A procedure could also be envisaged for a mandatory period of pre-legislative scrutiny, either of a draft text or of a concepts paper setting out the thinking and objectives of the forthcoming legislation.[77] The latter would be more susceptible to public engagement. The publication of a draft legislative programme goes only some way along that path. Subject to the caveats we have expressed above about the appetite for such intense engagement, and to ensuring that the result is not to diminish the already short time in which elected Members have to examine a Bill in detail, some such opening up of the current system would be welcome. Opening up the process of legislation and giving a real opportunity to the public to influence the content of draft laws should be a priority for consideration in the next Parliament. That is an issue for the House and not for Government.

D Going further


277. The dominating characteristic of the current system—and some would argue a sign of a mature representative democracy—is that initiation of proceedings is dependent on the mediation and intervention of an elected Member. This may be seen as a "gatekeeper" or triage function, since Members are seen as best placed to judge whether, and if so when and how, an issue needs to be ventilated in debate or is better handled in other ways. It is by the same token only also through Members that the public can have a grievance against a public body explored by the Parliamentary Ombudsman, whose reports of unsatisfactory outcomes can be and are taken up by the Public Administration Committee in evidence and reports.

278. In 2004 an independent inquiry chaired by Baroness Kennedy of The Shaws was set up to consider how political involvement and engagement in Britain could be increased. It reported in 2006 in a report entitled Power to the People. It made a number of recommendations on public involvement and the introduction of rights of initiation. In its wake several campaigns have been launched to press the case for greater citizen initiative rights. A paper from the distinguished constitutional expert Professor Vernon Bogdanor urged us to consider some system of popular initiative.[78] Unlock Democracy made a submission to us on this subject.[79] Michael Meacher MP proposed a form of agenda initiative.[80]In April 2008 Douglas Carswell MP introduced a Bill to permit members of the public to initiate legislation, the Citizens' Initiative (Legislation) Bill. This would have led to the introduction of six bills with the most public signatures. In other countries there are a range of tools of direct democracy, many of which can be used to trigger referendums of one sort or another.

279. We examine briefly the initiative model which we judge most likely to command parliamentary support, as one which does not weaken Parliament by by-passing it but might reinforce its authority as the central place for national debate. It was particularly drawn to our attention by Unlock Democracy.

Agenda initiative

280. "Agenda initiative" is the generic term used by proponents of direct democracy for procedures designed to allow for public initiation of proceedings in a parliament or similar body, but which falls short of being able to bring on a national or local vote or a binding or non-binding referendum. In the USA they are known as "indirect initiatives".[81] Typically, such a process sets a numerical threshold of support for an initiative to begin, provides some control on the topic, and then allows a period in which proponents can gather support in a specified way. If a threshold figure is reached, expressed as a number of supporters or a percentage, then the parliamentary body must consider and/or act on the proposal.

281. Agenda initiatives are relatively common in modern constitutions, notably in South America and in the democracies of central and eastern Europe, such as Poland, where there have been more than 20 such initiatives. They also operate at sub-national level, in particular in the USA and Scandinavian countries.

282. Among the parliamentary democracies of Western Europe the process has been most frequently used in Austria, where there have been over 30 such initiatives since 1964. It is apparent that they are used there by opposition parties as well as organisations to gather and demonstrate support for policies. In the past such initiatives have led in Austria to reforms of state broadcasting governance, the 40 hour week and school re-organisation.

Local authorities

283. Agenda initiatives and similar "petition-based" practices will soon be in operation in England and Wales at local authority level. Chapter 2 of the Local Democracy, Economic Development and Construction Act obliges local authorities to provide an e-petition facility, and to make a scheme for the handling of petitions. The scheme has to allow for a number of possible outcomes, including holding an inquiry or a public meeting or commissioning research. Section 15 of the Act introduces a category of locally-signed petition, entitled "petition requiring debate". It is envisaged that such a petition signed by, typically, 5 per cent of a local authority population would oblige the authority to consider the petition at one of its meetings.

European Union

284. New Article 8B.4 of the Treaty on European Union inserted by the Treaty of Lisbon would allow for an agenda initiative whereby "not less [sic] than one 1 million citizens who are nationals of a significant number of Member States may take the initiative of inviting the European Commission, within the framework of its powers, to submit any appropriate proposal on matters where citizens consider that a legal act of the Union is required for the purpose of implementing the Treaties".[82] The detailed regulations to clarify how this is to work in practice have not yet appeared. This is not a close parallel; the procedure would affect a non-parliamentary body and merely "invites" it to submit a proposal; but it plainly reflects the enthusiasm some feel for agenda initiatives.

A Direct Line to Westminster?

285. Serious consideration should be given to following the route taken in the Local Democracy, Economic Development and Construction Act with respect to local authorities. The equivalent threshold would require several million signatures, which seems oppressive. On the other hand, some threshold is required. Numbers alone, especially in an electronic age, easily mobilised by organised groups, should not be enough to guarantee attention. That is why "deliberative democracy" is thought by many to offer more promising possibilities. Unlock Democracy advised that such an initiative should be "difficult but possible".[83] That seems right.

286. If our principal recommendations are implemented Members will have greater access to the agenda on behalf of their constituents. But the House should remain open to the possibilities afforded by mechanisms such as the agenda initiative and similar proposals to involve people more directly in the parliamentary process. We recommend that the House commission an investigation of the practicalities of applying at a national level the procedures applied to local authorities for "petitions requiring debate", drawing on local and international experience, including the appropriate thresholds to be applied.

E Conclusion

287. It is for Members collectively and individually to represent all their constituents, and to ensure that their concerns are properly represented in the House of Commons. The recommendations made in this report should make the proceedings of the House more responsive to public concerns, by giving backbench Members a greater say over the House's agenda. Our aim is to strengthen a representative democracy, not supplant it. As the memorandum from Democratic Audit put it

    …proposals that will enable the public to initiate debates and proceedings in the House, and to participate in them, will deepen the quality of democracy in the United Kingdom. But that deepening can only take place if Parliament has first regained a real measure of self-government and with it, the ability to respond to the public.[84]

288. The House of Commons is nothing if its proceedings fail to reflect the concerns and aspirations of the people. In this part of our report we have looked at ways of enhancing some existing processes and procedures. We make a number of proposals for extending the antiquated petitions procedures we have. And we suggest that the House remains open-minded on the prospect for agenda initiatives, whereby people can get a matter onto the agenda of the House for debate, and investigate the practicalities of such a procedure.

289. It is sometimes suggested that there is an opposition between representative democracy and more direct forms of political activity. This is not our view. Representative democracy is indispensable , but it can be nourished by the exploration of other democratic possibilities; the opportunities for doing so are now greater than ever before and should be seized. Democracy is about culture and not merely structures; but this needs to be cultivated by practice. The challenge for the House is to understand this and to respond to it.

49   The Life and Work of Thomas Hardy, ed. M Millgate, 1984 Back

50   See for recent forums: also Ev10 [ Lord Norton of Louth] Back

51   See eg Ev 6 [ Dr Brian Iddon MP]  Back

52   Modernisation Committee, First Report of Session 2003-04, Connecting Parliament with the Public, HC 368 Back

53   For latest published account of outreach activities, see House of Lords Information Committee, HL 138-II, pp 117-119 Back

54   Governance of Britain, paras 157-159. See also Ev 25 [Professor Bogdanor] Back

55   Cm 7427 Back

56   Ev31 para 24 Back

57   Parliamentary Affairs 2009 62(4), p 674 Back

58   See eg Ev2 [Hugh Bayley MP], Ev3 [ William Cash MP] Back

59   See eg Ev 16-22 [ David Watts] Back

60   See memo from Clerk of the House, First Report of Procedure Committee of Session 2006-07, HC 513, Ev 15-20 Back

61   Procedure Committee, First Report of Session 2006-07, Public Petitions and Early Day Motions, HC 513 Back

62   Liaison Committee, First Report of Session 2008-09, The Work of Committees in 2007-08, Annex 4, pp 61-65, listing 86 such visits made in 2007-08. Back

63   Procedure Committee, First Report of Session 2006-07, Public Petitions and Early Day Motions, HC 513 Back

64   Procedure Committee, First Report of Session 2007-08, e-Petitions, HC 136 Back

65   HC 513, para 48 Back

66   HC 136, paras 113-4 Back

67   Procedure Committee, Second Report of Session 2008-09, e.Petitions: Call for Government Action, HC493 Back

68   Procedure Committee, First Special Report of Session 2008-09, e-Petitions: Call for Government Action: Government Response to the Committee's Second Report of Session 2008-09, HC 952 Back

69   Ev21, para 27 [ The Hansard Society]; Ev33 , paras 7-19 [Unlock Democracy]; Ev7 [Michael Meacher MP]; Ev12 [Lord Norton of Louth]; Ev15 [ Democratic Audit] Back

70   Procedure Committee, HC 513, paras 18-27, 39-41 Back

71   SP Paper 654, Scottish Parliament Petitions Committee, October 2006 Back

72   Ev33 para 7 Back

73   SP Paper 654  Back

74   Ev12 Back

75   Procedure Committee, HC 513, Ev17, para 17 Back

76   Speech by Rt Hon William Hague MP, 5 October 2009, Conservative Party Conference Back

77   Ev 10 [Lord Norton of Louth]; Ev 16 [Better Government Initiative] Back

78   Ev 25-27 Back

79   Ev 34, paras 20-26 Back

80   Ev7 Back

81   see Initiative and Referendum Institute website, Back

82   Cmnd 7294, page 17 Back

83   Ev35, para 24 Back

84   Ev13, para 2 Back

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