5 INVOLVING THE PUBLIC: NEXT
" [Political conversation was] when the
next election would beof the probable Prime Ministerof
ins and outsof Lord This and Duke of Thateverything
except the people for whose existence alone these politicians
exist' (The Life and Work of Thomas Hardy, 1891)
|(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.
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 Housefor all their
admitted failingscannot 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. 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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
One of the strengths of representative democracy
is precisely that it can give a voice to the less advantaged and
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
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.
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.
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 notunlike
a parliamentary questionhave 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.
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.
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.
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
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. Reconnectionor
indeed connectionof 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.
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.
247. The Procedure Committee made detailed proposals
for an e-petitions system in April 2008.
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.
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".
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.
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".
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
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.
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.
The Scottish Parliament instigated a review of the operation of
its Petitions Committee in 2006, which presented a rather mixed
verdict. 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,
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
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.
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.
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.
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
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
Response from House
265. A number of petitions nowand 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.
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
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 signatoriesweighted
as desired to encourage cross-party initiativesor 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 debateas
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.
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
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.
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
D Going further
277. The dominating characteristic of the current
systemand some would argue a sign of a mature representative
democracyis 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.
Unlock Democracy made a submission to us on this subject.
Michael Meacher MP proposed a form of agenda initiative.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.
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".
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.
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.
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".
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".
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.
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.
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,
for recent forums: also Ev10 [ Lord Norton of Louth] Back
See eg Ev 6 [ Dr Brian Iddon MP] Back
Modernisation Committee, First Report of Session 2003-04, Connecting
Parliament with the Public, HC 368 Back
For latest published account of outreach activities, see House
of Lords Information Committee, HL 138-II, pp 117-119 Back
Governance of Britain, paras
157-159. See also Ev 25 [Professor Bogdanor] Back
Cm 7427 Back
Ev31 para 24 Back
Parliamentary Affairs 2009 62(4), p 674 Back
See eg Ev2 [Hugh Bayley MP], Ev3 [ William Cash MP] Back
See eg Ev 16-22 [ David Watts] Back
See memo from Clerk of the House, First Report of Procedure Committee
of Session 2006-07, HC 513, Ev 15-20 Back
Procedure Committee, First Report of Session 2006-07, Public
Petitions and Early Day Motions, HC 513 Back
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
Procedure Committee, First Report of Session 2006-07, Public
Petitions and Early Day Motions, HC 513 Back
Procedure Committee, First Report of Session 2007-08, e-Petitions,
HC 136 Back
HC 513, para 48 Back
HC 136, paras 113-4 Back
Procedure Committee, Second Report of Session 2008-09, e.Petitions:
Call for Government Action, HC493 Back
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
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
Procedure Committee, HC 513, paras 18-27, 39-41 Back
SP Paper 654, Scottish Parliament Petitions Committee, October
Ev33 para 7 Back
SP Paper 654 Back
Procedure Committee, HC 513, Ev17, para 17 Back
Speech by Rt Hon William Hague MP, 5 October 2009, Conservative
Party Conference Back
Ev 10 [Lord Norton of Louth]; Ev 16 [Better Government Initiative] Back
Ev 25-27 Back
Ev 34, paras 20-26 Back
see Initiative and Referendum Institute website,www.iandrinstitute.org Back
Cmnd 7294, page 17 Back
Ev35, para 24 Back
Ev13, para 2 Back