UNCORRECTED TRANSCRIPT OF ORAL EVIDENCE To be published as HC 1706

HOUSE OF COMMONS

ORAL EVIDENCE

TAKEN BEFORE THE

PROCEDURE COMMITTEE

E-PETITIONS

WEDNESDAY 7 DECEMBER 2011

NATASCHA ENGEL and SIR GEORGE YOUNG

Evidence heard in Public

Questions 1 - 41

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Oral Evidence

Taken before the Procedure Committee

on Wednesday 7 December 2011

Members present:

Mr Greg Knight (Chair)

Karen Bradley

Nic Dakin

Mr James Gray

John Hemming

Mr David Nuttall

Jacob Rees-Mogg

Examination of Witnesses

Witnesses: Natascha Engel MP, Chair, Backbench Business Committee, and the right hon. Sir George Young MP, Leader of the House, gave evidence.

Q1 Chair: Thank you both for coming. I remind you at the outset that this is a public session. We have made no decisions yet, but it is quite possible that we may decide to do an urgent interim report to address some of the shortcomings and then later do a more reflective report on what other changes we think should be brought into play. I think what would help us is if we could start with you, Natascha, and if you could tell us what you see as the problems that your Committee is having with the e-petitioning system as it currently operates.

Natascha Engel: It is difficult to know where to start really, but I would welcome e-petitions as an initiative introduced by the Government. The really big problems that we have encountered were a direct consequence of not having consulted widely enough-or, indeed, at all-and certainly of not having debated the whole issue of e-petitions and not having made reference to the report that this Committee produced. There was the report in 2009, but there were also subsequent reports on petitioning. A lot of the problems that have arisen were perfectly foreseeable and had there been a debate, and perhaps even a vote, they would have been highlighted.

One really big problem we have, first of all, is about the Backbench Business Committee as a forum for deciding whether or not an e-petition should be debated. That is an issue primarily about time. We are very short on time and there is a very high demand on our time, especially time in the Chamber. That has not been compensated; we have been given no additional time just for e-petitions.

Q2 Chair: Just to clarify that, we are talking about your having problems with finding time for the e-petitions to be debated, not problems with the Committee having time to discuss the issue of e-petitions.

Natascha Engel: That is right. It is that we were given e-petitions after the establishment of the Backbench Business Committee, when it was allocated a certain amount of time per Session. That has not been expanded as a result of our being given, in addition to our usual work, the scheduling of e-petitions.

In itself, being given more time would not necessarily solve some of the other problems. There is a more philosophical problem around having set the threshold at 100,000 signatures, which is quite a random number. Now that the threshold has been set, I do not think it can be raised-it could perhaps be removed altogether-but it means that e-petitions are seen in terms of numbers signing rather than on the merit of the issue. That is one of the problems.

At the heart of it all is the fact that this is a piece of direct democracy that is being slotted into a very representative way of doing Parliament. That is something we really need to look at, so I welcome being able to give evidence to your review.

Q3 Chair: I understand your Committee has a practice of considering e-petitions for debate only if they are brought to you by a Member.

Natascha Engel: Yes.

Q4 Chair: Is there not a risk in the current arrangements, where one does not need a facilitating Member of the House as an e-petitioner, that a petition may hit 100,000 names and no one brings it to you?

Natascha Engel: Yes, absolutely. In fact, that is something that came out of your report. That is the point about representative democracy. We as Members represent a certain number of constituents, and we are cutting that link; we are linking directly the signing of an e-petition to Parliament. That in itself is not a bad thing; I just think we need to manage it better.

I would really hate the idea of cutting out the Member altogether, because that is not how we work. As the Backbench Business Committee, we are a forum for Back Benchers. We have carved out some independence for Back Benchers, and I do not want that independence to be undermined by our becoming a de facto e-petitions Committee. I would just like to see us manage the process much better, because if it becomes too monstrous we are in danger of throwing the baby out with the bathwater.

As an idea, people having a direct say about what we do here is a really good thing, but we need to do the public engagement bit better. At the moment the engagement is not engagement as I would understand it; it is very one-sided. As I have said before, I think this encourages quite passive-aggressive behaviour. When people sign an e-petition, they do not as a consequence learn more about how Parliament works and thereby become better at influencing Parliament. I think that is a shame and a missed opportunity.

Q5 Chair: Is there any other issue that you feel it is urgent that we should address?

Natascha Engel: The most urgent thing is the management of the expectations of people who sign e-petitions. That is very urgent. At the moment, the website says, "e-petitions is an easy way for you to influence government policy in the UK." I think that is deeply misleading. It creates a perception, right or wrong, that there is a direct line between signing an e-petition and changing the law, and there is not. We need to be clear about what you can achieve by putting your signature on an e-petition. We are not doing that at the moment, and that is the most urgent thing, I think.

Q6 Mr Gray: Sir George, leading on from that sentence on the petitions site, which says it is an easy way of influencing Government, do you see e-petitions as being petitions to Parliament or to Government?

Sir George Young: In the way that we have structured it, there is initially a petition to the Government. Once it gets through the threshold, it is then passed over to Parliament.

Q7 Mr Gray: We will come back to that in a moment. It is a petition to Government?

Sir George Young: Initially. It was a coalition Government commitment to establish a website.

Q8 Mr Gray: If that is the case-as it must be, because a substantial amount of Government resource is being used to look at these things-why should it be that you rely on a Back Bencher to adopt it and then on the Backbench Business Committee to find time to debate it? Surely, if it is a Government petition, it should be a Government matter to have it debated.

Sir George Young: The problem with the previous No. 10 website was that it just ended at No. 10; it didn’t go anywhere. We saw that as a major deficiency, and we wanted a link with Parliament. That is what we have created. When it goes over the threshold, it goes to Natascha; I welcome what the Chairman of the Backbench Business Committee said at the beginning about welcoming e-petitions. It can only be debated if it is then picked up by a Member of Parliament. I think the difference between that and the scheme you were looking at was that the MP came in right at the beginning. You could not have a petition without the facilitation of a Member of Parliament. With this business model, the MP comes in at the end. If you want a debate, you have to engage the attention of an MP.

I see real difficulties if you go back to the earlier model. At the moment, anybody can put a petition on the website. You go to Directgov and put on your petition. If you have the MP filter right at the beginning, that direct access to the petition website disappears. You have to find your MP. The MP may be a Minister. He may not answer your e-mail, and-

Q9 Mr Gray: Sorry to interrupt, but we will come back to that in a moment. It is a separate issue. The question actually was: if it is a Government petition, why should short Backbench Business Committee time be used for a Government initiative? After all, the Government announced it. It is a Government matter, and the Government crest appears on it. Surely it should be a Government matter rather than a Backbench Business Committee matter, in terms of timing.

Sir George Young: The short answer is that from the outset, we agreed with the view set out in the Backbench Business Committee’s first report that they should consider these petitions in the same way as other requests. They would come out of that 35-day allocation.

Q10 Mr Gray: It was their report, so they can change their view if they want to, presumably.

Sir George Young: If I can put this in context, six petitions have gone through the threshold. Four have already been debated, one is scheduled for debate next week and I hope the final one will be debated before too long. In the last month, since 7 November, not one petition has gone through the 100,000 threshold. During that time, the Backbench Business Committee has had quite a lot of allocation of time. Of course I understand where Natascha, the Chair of the Backbench Business Committee, is coming from. If you stand back and look at it, I am not sure that one petition a month going through the threshold is wholly unmanageable, given the amount of time available to the Backbench Business Committee.

Q11 Mr Gray: That is true, but the six that have reached the threshold-we will talk about the threshold separately-are six out of 22,000, as I understand it, that have been received by the Government since the initiative was launched in the summer. Let’s imagine that the petitioners become more expert. It may well happen that more achieve the threshold, especially if we decide to recommend changing the threshold. The question is not so much about that.

Also, you are quite right in saying that at the moment, the Government’s business is stuck in the House of Lords, and therefore we have tons of time for the Backbench Business Committee, but let’s imagine a time when the main Chamber is busy. Surely the purpose of the Backbench Business Committee is to give Back Benchers the opportunity to raise matters of key concern to them. If we are clogging up their time with a Government initiative on petitions, it is back to front, isn’t it?

Sir George Young: No. I think the Backbench Business Committee will look at EDMs, they will look at the bids that MPs make on Tuesdays and they will look at petitions in the round and then come to a judgment as to what is the priority for debate. The argument I am putting forward, against that background, is that the extra burden on the in-tray is manageable. As I said, only six have gone through in six months, and only one is approaching the threshold at the moment, which is on CPI/RPI. At the moment, although I understand the concern, I do not think the situation is quite as alarming as may have been feared.

Q12 Mr Gray: What do you think about an alternative on the question of timing? We are interested in timing, rather than anything else. There is a vacant slot in Westminster Hall on Monday afternoons, so would there not be an argument in favour of saying, "These are Government petitions, the Government want time for debate and the Government want to engage with the public using this mechanism. Let us, therefore, find extra parliamentary time, which is the three-hour or four-hour slot on Monday afternoon in Westminster Hall"? That would give you a sort of automaticity. If you do well with the petitions, and you reckon there will be, let us say, 20 or 30 a year, there will be a slot available and there will be a debate with not a substantive motion but a take note-type motion. You will end up with the public saying, "Well, actually, that is quite good. We have got 20 or 30 debates a year." It would no longer be a decision made by the Backbench Business Committee, who are not really qualified to make that decision; it becomes an automatic thing that the Government are offering.

Sir George Young: That is a very helpful contribution, and to some extent the answer lies with your Committee, in that you are separately looking at the calendar. I suppose you will be looking at whether we open up Westminster Hall in the way you have suggested. I see that question being answered in a different environment.

Q13 Mr Gray: On behalf of the Government, would you be content with that solution and the ministerial time that it would involve?

Sir George Young: At this stage, I want to reserve my position a little bit. I need to talk to colleagues because, as you say, it is an additional burden on Ministers’ time, and there may also be an issue of costs to the House. If the proposition is that this is one way to find more time for the Backbench Business Committee, that is an option. There are other options; one could look at some of the Tuesday and Wednesday afternoon debates that already take place in Westminster Hall, but which are not in my gift-I make that absolutely clear.

Q14 Mr Gray: Sorry, I am being very aggressive. As your former special adviser, it is my chance to get my own back-Sir George used to make me go to buy The Guardian.

Sir George Young: I mistreated you so badly that there is a thirst for revenge.

Q15 Mr Gray: Sorry for the interruption. This was an initiative that the Government came up with in mid-summer: "Here is a brilliant idea, we want to engage more with the public. Let’s have e-petitions, and if you get 100,000, you can have a debate." If you then turn round and say, "Okay, fine. We’re actually going to eat into time that already exists." Whether that is Backbench Business Committee time or Tuesday and Wednesday afternoon time in Westminster Hall, you are diminishing something else that Parliament was previously doing in favour of this new initiative. Surely, being a new initiative, the Government have to find extra time and extra resources to do it.

Sir George Young: I think the premise, if I may say so, is misjudged. This Committee has been looking at petitions and e-petitions for some time, so the accusation that the Government have conjured up a new demand on the House’s time that it was not aware of before-I do not think that is the case. What we have done is make progress with an idea that was hatched in this Committee and never came to fruition.

Mr Gray: But the new scheme bears no relationship whatsoever to the report. This Committee produced a report that says you would have two or three afternoons a year, if I remember correctly.

Q16 Chair: Yes. I wonder whether Natascha wants to comment on this exchange. Do you want to come in?

Natascha Engel: I am really grateful. With everything I am saying, and everything that George is saying, we are very familiar with each other’s views on this. My one big problem is that introducing e-petitions may have been in the coalition agreement, and I think it is a very good idea, but the Health Bill and the Welfare Reform Bill were also in the coalition agreement and are still being debated and voted on. This was introduced without any consultation, debate or vote. That is the problem. I hope what does not happen as a result of this is that we, as a small group of Members, decide between ourselves what we think should happen. This is very good for informing the House, but it must be debated so that people can look themselves at how they think the system would work better, otherwise we potentially make things worse.

It is absolutely right that only six petitions have reached the threshold, but if we look at the immigration petition, that took less than a week to gain 100,000 signatures, because it was done on the back of a newspaper campaign. When you look at it from that perspective, the threshold could become a problem. It could swamp my Committee. It could do that. It has not so far.

My problem is not so much about the timing; it is about the fact that we are engaging people in completely the wrong way, and we are not managing their expectations. Actually, although I hate to disagree with you, the Babar Ahmad petition was very interesting, because the public demanded a debate in the Chamber-this is the round-robin e-mail that we got 100,000 copies of-because, according to them, Westminster Hall was second rate. That perception is a really dangerous one.

Q17 Mr Gray: Let me suggest to you one thing that might take care of that, namely that if you were to have a Westminster Hall take note-type debate on the issue, it would of course be perfectly possible for a Member of Parliament to tag it and bring it forward in Backbench Business time in the main Chamber if it was an important thing that had to be debated. You could still have 20 or 30 regular debates on regular matters in Westminster Hall, but that would not prevent you doing-

Natascha Engel: That was always the intention. The section from my report-our provisional approach-that George read out was actually all about that. It said that we will look at everything that a Back Bencher brings us. That was the point. It did not include that we would look at e-petitions quite independently of Back-Bench Members. That has never been the case.

Q18 Jacob Rees-Mogg: Sir George, I want to ask a bit more about the time question. The Backbench Business Committee has a day a fortnight, so 17 days in a sitting year, and you think there will be 12 petitions in a year-one a month-that will need to be debated, which actually only leaves five clear days for the Backbench Business Committee. I just wonder whether that really is enough time for the Backbench Business Committee to do the rest of what it is trying to do and whether the Government might perhaps be tempted to sacrifice-jointly with the Opposition-an odd day or a general debate to give to petitions.

Sir George Young: The amount of time that goes to the Opposition is, I think, set out in Standing Orders, and we have no plans to raid the Opposition’s time. We have scheduled a debate on immigration, I think next Monday, which is one of the issues that has gone through the threshold.

More generally, I need to make the point that there is no automaticity between going through the threshold and getting a debate. We could not have been clearer in the coalition agreement and on the website. It does not guarantee you a debate; it makes you eligible for a debate. That has always been the case. There may be circumstances when it goes through the threshold but it has already been debated or comes up as part of the consideration of a Bill or is sub judice, and therefore it does not score.

The point that I was making was that if you stand back and look at what has happened so far, my view is that it does not present the Backbench Business Committee with an unmanageable demand on their time. If you look at some of the debates, I think they have chosen the same subject twice. I think Babar Ahmad has been debated twice. So I am not sure that, as of now, we are making unrealistic demands.

The suggestion that the Government should give up more time runs straight into the problem that people always want more time on Report, and they often want more time for Second Reading. If the Procedure Committee is taking the view that we sit for roughly the right amount of time per year, if you then take more time from the Government, it makes less time for the Government’s legislative programme where there are expectations about time available.

Q19 Chair: You wouldn’t have that if you set up a Monday afternoon Westminster Hall slot.

Sir George Young: Yes.

Q20 Mr Nuttall: Sir George, if I could take our discussions back to the question of the threshold, where did the figure of 100,000 come from? Why was that figure decided upon by the Government?

Sir George Young: It was an inspired and informed guess, which I think has not turned out to be wildly out of line with what was realistic.

Q21 Mr Nuttall: So you would be happy to leave it at that. You think it is an appropriate level.

Sir George Young: We have no plans to change the threshold. As I said, against the background of what has happened so far, I am not sure that it needs changing, so we have no plans to change it.

Natascha Engel: I have a problem with the threshold altogether, because it becomes a numbers game, rather than us looking at petitions in terms of the merits of the issue that is raised.

Q22 Chair: It shouldn’t be, should it? It should be quite easy to explain to the public that, once it gets to 100,000, it then goes to your Committee for consideration. I think you are right that that point has not been made. The other day I heard someone say, "If we get 100,000 names on an e-petition, we can change the law." That is the tabloid view of the rules.

Natascha Engel: There are certain petitions that have a lot more, but that is very rare, because it is only about reaching the 100,000 target. I understand why; the motivation behind it was good. The Government wanted something to happen at a certain point, so that it was not like the No. 10 website, where in theory millions and millions and millions of signatures could be gathered and nothing happened. I understand the motivation, but if we take a big step back and look at what we are trying to achieve by introducing the e-petition system, I think what we want is better public engagement. I do not think what we want is to give the public access to a votable motion on the Floor of the House. I do not think that was ever the idea behind an e-petition. I think it was about making Parliament better able to hear what people outside are saying.

If we look at it from that perspective, we should start by saying, "How can we better do that?" I think by engaging people at the point at which they want to table a petition would be a better way round. Have a unit, have somebody who takes people step by step through how to do it, what it is they are trying to achieve, whether this is the best way of doing it, and then the possible consequences of putting your signature on an e-petition. Possibly it is not to change the law; possibly it is. If it is to advance a campaign, then maybe putting an e-petition to a Select Committee, for example, might be a better way to do it. I would just remove the threshold all together.

There is the Scottish system. You looked at the Scottish Public Petitions Committee, which also makes it very important that e-petitions and paper petitions are gradually growing apart, when what we want to do is bring them back together again and look at the principle of petitioning and what people are trying to achieve. I think we have a lot to learn from the Scottish system, because they do engage people right at the beginning.

Q23 Chair: But if you remove the threshold that would give your Committee a lot more work, wouldn’t it?

Natascha Engel: Perhaps it would not be my Committee that looks at it. In Scotland, they have a Public Petitions Committee that specifically looks at petitions and how the Scottish Parliament engages with the public. We have a vast outreach education service in Parliament. That might be an area we could explore a little bit better.

Sir George Young: I have just thought of a better answer to Mr Rees-Mogg’s question about the 35 days. Many of the petitions get a half-day debate, so actually it is 12 into 70 rather than into 35. In Scotland, they have had only 400 petitions in 12 years; it is a totally different system.

Natascha Engel: It is because they do not have a threshold.

Q24 Mr Gray: No, no, that is not true. They told us last week that they have had thousands; they are dealt with by Clerks. Perhaps there were 400 debated in 12 years, but they get tens of thousands a year. The Clerks dish them out and send them off to different places.

Sir George Young: My information is that they have had 400 petitions since 2000.

Mr Gray: I might be wrong.

Q25 Chair: Four hundred debated, is that the figure?

Sir George Young: Four hundred valid.

Q26 Karen Bradley: My point links directly to that. One thing we learned from Scotland is that a petition will come forward and it may be, because it is a very local issue, that a better way to engage with that petitioner is to take them to their local MP and have some form of Adjournment debate as we would call it here, or a Select Committee or something like that. Valid petitions are ones that make a very national point, and they relate only to matters that are dealt with in the devolved Assembly, rather than national matters that are beyond the control of that Parliament. Do you have any thoughts on how we might take some of those principles into our petition system?

Q27 Chair: Can I add that we were told the Scottish Parliament has a rule that you can only petition Parliament when you have exhausted all other avenues of complaint?

Sir George Young: Again, it would put a barrier between the person and the e-petition website if they had to tick a lot of boxes that they had tried everything else first. What we have been trying to do is build a bridge between this place and the public and try and make sure that our agenda here relates to their concerns. There are some issues; it has to be a matter that the Government and Parliament can do something about, so there are all sorts of rules that would knock things out. The logic would be for local authorities to have a petitioning system, so that if it really were a local issue and the local authority were the one with the answer, rather than a devolved Assembly or this place, it should end up in the town hall rather than here.

Q28 Karen Bradley: I am not sure I agree with you, Sir George, about putting up a barrier, because what I thought we wanted to achieve from e-petitions was to engage the public in the way this place works. Actually, the way this place works is that your local MP is your representative on an issue of very local concern. They may be a constituent trying to get a particular drug, or it may be another matter concerning a constituency. If that is the case, and that is what the petition is about, is it not better at that point to engage with the relevant local Member of Parliament rather than trying to go through a big petitioning system?

Sir George Young: If you are trying to influence Government policy-I disagree with what Natascha said at the beginning-I think the way it is currently constructed has been very effective. If you look at the Hillsborough debate, that forced the Home Secretary to clarify our position on documents we had, or you can look at the debate on fuel, and then the autumn statement. The way we have structured it allows people to express their views on matters that are challenges for the Government, and I think that is working quite well. I am slightly bothered about putting barriers in front of this form of direct democracy we have generated, and making it more difficult for people to add their name to a petition because they have to go through a process before they can do that. I just have doubts about that.

Q29 Chair: Natascha, do you want to comment?

Natascha Engel: I do. I think we have created a bridge between Parliament and public by introducing e-petitions, but what we have also done by passing e-petitions to the Backbench Business Committee is to give the public direct access to votable motions on the Floor of the House. That is very significant and it is a very different way of doing Parliament from the way we do it at the moment. I am not even saying whether I am for or against that; I am just saying that it is a very dramatic change to our way of doing things, without it ever having gone through Parliament. It has never been debated or voted on. It was just introduced on the back of having been written in the coalition agreement. That could be a dangerous avenue to go down-potentially. It may be what we want and if so, let’s debate it and vote on it, but I think perhaps it is not necessarily what we want.

The other thing is that I do not think it is a barrier. If we are engaging people, engagement to me is a two-way process. We have e-petitions and we have parliamentarians, and if we are having a dialogue about how things work and how best to achieve things, when constituents come and see us in surgeries, we do not automatically just take on and do exactly what they say. We take them through how the system works and then discuss with them the best way of pursuing or dealing with their issue. It is a dialogue, but this is not a dialogue. Where I would really disagree with George about it being an effective way of engaging the public is that the Government introduce it and then pass it over to the Backbench Business Committee. They introduce it and then pass the problem-the consequences of what they have introduced-to Parliament. That is the really serious issue. George does not get 100,000 angry e-petitioners sending e-mails asking why it was Westminster Hall and not the Chamber.

The reality is that because we are Members of Parliament and politicians, we are very, very sensitive to what the public think about us, especially at the moment. We are very sensitive to it. We on the Backbench Business Committee prioritise any representations that come to us that have an e-petition attached, because the e-petition is attached. We are not necessarily looking at the merits of a debate; we are looking to see whether it has an e-petition attached, so I think that what you say is not quite right. The Government have introduced it and we are having to deal with it. Either the Government deal with the whole thing-they introduce it and find the time to debate the issues-or they give it all over to Parliament and we decide what to do with it. I do not think that this halfway house, as you said, James, is right. I do not think it can work.

Q30 John Hemming: On the threshold, there are of course people affected by Government decisions who are adults but who do not have a vote, such as the citizens of Jersey. I declare an interest inasmuch as, as a result of a bit of a kerfuffle, I had to table an e-petition that was to be tabled by the residents of Jersey, otherwise it would not have gone through. Do both of you think that there is merit in considering a lower threshold for a place like Jersey where with only 100,000 citizens, to get 100,000 people to sign the e-petition would be quite difficult?

Natascha Engel: Get rid of thresholds, and that would not be a problem at all.

Q31 Mr Gray: On the question of who looks after it-whether it is Government or Parliament; all the debate we had a moment ago-is there not an interesting solution in the coalition agreement, where the Government undertake to create a House business committee? May I ask Sir George when the Government intend to bring forward the House business committee, and whether that committee would not be a very good place to discuss e-petitions?

Sir George Young: Mr Gray, you are quite right. There is a commitment in the coalition agreement to bring forward, in the third year of the Parliament, a House business committee. That is a commitment that we propose to honour, and I have begun to think about how we might do it.

Listening to what the Chairman said at the beginning, I understood him to say that he was thinking of bringing forward a report quite soon, which would obviously have to deal with the situation now-with the Backbench Business Committee and the Leader of the House. When we come to formulate the new regime, we can see where e-petitions fit in. At the moment, I am not enamoured of the idea of the Government being wholly in control of this. We would be subject to all sorts of accusations that we did not find time for awkward e-petitions. I think it is absolutely right that the Backbench Business Committee should decide which of the e-petitions-

Q32 Mr Gray: Certainly you are in control of it, both because you knocked back most of the 22,000 you have had so far-for perfectly good reasons-and because you are not running any extra time. The disappointed petitioners might well ask why they are not being given a debate, and the answer is that the Backbench Business Committee is terribly busy doing other Back-Bench business, or indeed Select Committee reports; we do not, therefore, have time to do it, so sorry, Mr Petitioner, but we have no time.

Sir George Young: We are back to a point that I made earlier, namely that I do not think that the pressures that have been put on the Backbench Business Committee so far are intolerable. I think it has managed to find the headroom to have these debates. I just make the point again that there is no automaticity in this. We do not say that if you get 100,000 signatures you are guaranteed a debate. We have bent over backwards to say that it is eligible for a debate. There is no automaticity and there should not be.

Mr Gray: No, but there is that question of public expectation. At the moment, the wording of the sentence that we talked about a moment ago gives petitioners the impression that they can do this thing and it will be an "easy way"-the words actually used on the website-to influence Government actions. I think public expectations have been raised very high.

Q33 Chair: Can I ask you both what feedback is given to petitioners either from the website, therefore on behalf of the Government, or from the Backbench Business Committee? If a petition reaches 100,000 signatures, does that automatically generate an e-mail or a communication to the lead petitioner to inform them of that? If the Backbench Business Committee decides to allocate a debate, do you inform the petitioner or do you just inform the MPs who come to your Committee? I am interested to know, if it is all about engaging the public, what interaction there is with the petitioners at each stage of the process.

Natascha Engel: That is a very good question. The website is run by Directgov, which is a Government website. We have no control over what is on that website. We have asked repeatedly to take down "easy way for you to influence government policy in the UK," and we would like to have a link to the Backbench Business Committee on the website. If the public petitioning system were within Parliament, I think we would do it differently and a bit better. My understanding was that the filter that e-petitioners go through allocates e-petitions to different Departments and those Departments correspond directly with e-petitioners, but after some investigating I do not think that happens. Certainly, we have no link to them. I get a letter from Sir George every time the 100,000 signature threshold is breached to say that it has been breached and would I please consider something for debate. That is all I have. We have no contact with the e-petitioners until they are unhappy and then they e-mail us directly, of course.

Sir George Young: The answer is that once they reach 100,000 they get an initial response from the Government Department concerned.

Natascha Engel: Are you sure about that?

Sir George Young: Yes. An e-mail to petitioners, including an initial Government response, once they hit the threshold. Mr Gray and Natascha just now both mentioned another model which is that either the Government run the whole thing or Parliament runs the whole thing. I would be very happy to engage in a discussion about moving over to Parliament running the whole thing. Now, obviously, having given commitments in a coalition agreement that certain undertakings would be honoured, we would want to see those safeguarded. We would want to make sure the House had the resources to do it properly, but having listened to the question and the suggestion both from Mr Gray and from the Chair of the Backbench Business Committee, I would be very happy to engage in discussions or negotiations along those lines, which would remove some of the problems, although not all of them, that we have been kicking around over the past hour.

Q34 Karen Bradley: I have a very quick question about the mechanics of checking signatures. When we looked at the website it said that you could table or sign a petition if you were either a UK resident or a British citizen living overseas. It did not seem to be the same definition as for a voter in a general election. The Committee was concerned as to how the Government might check that those signatures were authentic. Could you give us some information about that?

Sir George Young: I may have to write to you on that because I do not have exact information. I expect we are more rigorous than a paper petition, where not a lot of checking takes place. But I would be very happy to write to you, Chairman, with details on the question that Ms Bradley has just asked.

Q35 Chair: Could you write to us sooner rather than later?

Sir George Young: Yes.

Q36 Chair: That would be very helpful.

Natascha Engel: If you are going to do an urgent report-

Q37 Chair: I think some of the issues raised today, as Sir George has rightly identified, go to the very root of how and who you e-petition. I think we would probably want to leave those to a medium-term report, whereas we will seek to urgently address some of the concerns you have raised not only with us today but previously. Without wishing to fetter my colleagues, who have yet to make this decision, I think we are likely to come forward with an urgent fix, if you like, in the short term and a more reflective report in the medium term.

Natascha Engel: Is your idea that we would have a debate in the Commons on your immediate report or would that be something more for the medium term?

Q38 Chair: I would have thought that for the report to be implemented, it would need some parliamentary acknowledgment.

Sir George Young: You can come to the Backbench Business Committee to ask for time.

Natascha Engel: We would give it gladly.

Q39 Chair: To that extent we would be in your hands. We have no executive power. We only have the power to recommend. So I would expect the House to be fully involved in any changes that we recommend.

Natascha Engel: Excellent.

Q40 Chair: Subject to you giving time. Is there anything either of you wish to add?

Sir George Young: I would just like to say that we try to work quite closely with the Chair of the Backbench Business Committee and I understand all the tensions. But I think the two of us are both determined to make the system work and we are sure your report will help us achieve that objective.

Q41 Chair: We hope so and thank you for coming. You have said that you would write to us Sir George, and if we have any further questions we will similarly contact you.

Natascha Engel: The point that James Gray made about a House business committee is important. A House business committee will look at everybody who has a claim on any kind of time. At the moment the gift of time is all in the Government’s possession. They allocate time to the Backbench Business Committee. Increasingly with the Liaison Committee, the Backbench Business Committee, and now with e-petitions, there are more and more demands on a limited amount of time. Until we have a House business committee, which looks at time as a whole, we are going to stumble over these problems again and again.

Chair: Thank you. That ends our public session of this Committee.

Prepared 9th December 2011