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Unfortunately, the people who write this legislation do not understand local government and how things work locally. They think that the only way to achieve anything through a local authority is to send out ever greater amounts of detailed prescribed legislation, delegated legislation, regulations and guidance and to keep beating the local authority over the head. That is the way that it happens and local authorities, to their credit, survive.

Our experience of an e-petition facility is the No. 10 Downing Street website. The noble Baroness, Lady Warsi, said that it is a success and there is no doubt that some campaigns have been able to make successful use of it. But, as a means by which people can influence legislation and public policy, it is not very successful; in fact, it is completely useless in most cases. Most of the petitions receive not even a cursory consideration within the system of government and the corridors of power. For example, if petitions are put up on the site about matters that are the responsibility of particular departments, I see no indication that they are even referred to those departments for consideration; they are simply dealt with by No. 10 Downing Street.

To try to find out how government departments deal with all this—because if the legislation is going to insist that local authorities do this, it really ought to be a matter of, “Do as we do”, and not, as it appears at the moment, “Do as we say, not as we do”—my noble friend Lady Hamwee and I put down a series of Written Questions, which we are continuing to pursue. The information that we are getting is fascinating. It is fascinating because we are not getting any information. We are simply being told, in the case of most departments, that they do not deal with petitions as petitions; they just regard them as correspondence and deal with them as such. So far as I can tell, no government department, including the Department of Communities and Local Government, which is sponsoring this legislation, has a petition facility on its own website, and, on the information that we have been given so far, only two of them, one of which I think is Defra, have set up a link to the No. 10 e-petition facility from their own websites. So the position within Whitehall is not satisfactory if the Government are promoting this for local authorities.

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I am not going to go through the wodge of information that I have received in Written Answers in any detail, but I shall be compiling it all in due course. Two points come out of it. One is that the Bill will require local authorities to give special consideration to what at the moment are valid petitions and what in due course will be called Section 12 petitions—that is, petitions that fit within the Bill. None of that takes place in government departments at the moment. None of them is required to look at petitions in any particular way other than simply replying to them and giving an answer. One or two departments have said that they operate the “Whitehall standards”. I am not sure what they are. They probably just refer to correspondence. It would be interesting to know whether there are any specific Whitehall standards in relation to petitions. I do not think that there are.

Nothing in the Bill about how a local authority will have to receive a petition, acknowledge it, deal with it, consider it and refer it to a committee to be considered if that is what people want, and nothing of the rules about what constitutes a petition—how many people have to be on it, and so on—applies to government departments. If the Government are insisting on all these things being forced on local authorities in this detailed way, they ought at least to get their own house in order and apply similar standards to their own departments—particularly to the Minister’s own department, although the latest Answer that I have had from her suggests that people there are now thinking, “Well, if we’re going to say that Westminster, Lancashire, Pendle and Bradford have got to do this, then perhaps we’ve got to do it as well”. It will be interesting to see the result of this process. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment 30 withdrawn.

Clause 11: Petition schemes

Amendment 31

Moved by Baroness Andrews

31: Clause 11, page 7, line 9, leave out “valid petitions made to the authority” and insert “petitions which are made to the authority and to which section 12 applies”

Baroness Andrews: My Lords, this group of amendments is significant with regard to the debates we had in Committee about the nature of petitions. I do not want to reiterate the arguments that we had; I shall say simply that one of the reasons we brought this part of the Bill forward is that we know that only one in five councils makes publicly available details of how to submit a petition. Based on the evidence that I presented in Committee, we believe that information explaining how authorities deal with petitions is inadequate and unsystematic; that many people in many communities are disadvantaged by that; and that there is an appetite in the community to know more, to do more, to have an impact and to know that changes follow when people can be bothered to petition. So we have concluded that there is a role for central government to build

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on best practice, as many noble Lords reiterated in Committee, to embed it and to open up some new opportunities so that the community itself can drive public service improvement. That ambition starts by ensuring that citizens across England and Wales know how to petition their council and know that their petition will trigger action.

The chapter will provide minimal frameworks that will give flexibility to authorities, protections for local authorities so that they are not overburdened, and guarantees of action and clarity for local people. To achieve that, we need to put some things in place, such as a definition of what a “local petition” is so that councils are not legally obliged to respond to every piece of correspondence they receive or to petitions on issues they cannot influence; a duty to acknowledge petitions and publicise responses to petitions and the authority’s petition schemes so that people know that their petition will be dealt with; a duty to respond substantively to petitions, including an ability for petitions to trigger full council debates on issues that a large number of people support; and a way for people to appeal if they think their council has not given due consideration to their petition.

There are areas over which we diverge in principle as well as process, but I listened closely to concerns that there was too much detail in the Bill about what qualifies as a petition to which a principal local authority must respond. In Committee, noble Lords also made the important point that petitions that genuinely represent the concerns of the community should not be rejected for technical reasons, and I completely agree. Our amendments therefore make it clear that we expect councils to take petitions from local people seriously and to ensure that they are not rejected on technical grounds. They give greater flexibility and improve the Bill. More importantly, they will improve the petition process. I am grateful to noble Lords for supporting those improvements. I am particularly glad to have the support of noble Lords on the Benches opposite.

We had a major debate in Committee about the notion of “validity”. I was persuaded by the arguments that were put principally by the noble Lord, Lord Greaves. Amendments 31, 41, 44, 54, 60, 68, 70, 78, 79, 80 and 94 therefore remove the label “valid”. Noble Lords were concerned that that label might suggest that there was a class of petitions that fell into the category of “invalid”, and we do not want to give any such impression; we never intended that there should be. The change clarifies that authorities will be legally obliged by this chapter to respond to certain petitions defined in Clauses 12 and 14. Any other petitions, however, such as petitions not signed by local people or those that relate to issues that the authority cannot influence, will not in any way be invalid. The difference will be that while local authorities can choose to respond to such petitions, they will not be legally obliged to respond to them. The change makes it clear that local authorities should consider how they will respond to all kinds of petitions, whether or not they are required by the law to do so.

We are also clear that citizens must be able to know what to expect. Local authorities will set out clearly and publicly their commitment to dealing with petitions

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in their petition scheme. Again, if local authorities want to go beyond what is strictly required in the criteria of the petition scheme in the Bill, Clause 18(1) provides that petition schemes can include elements beyond the requirement of the Bill. That means that an authority could specify in its scheme that it will respond to all petitions on all subjects, no matter if the petition is signed by a local person or about a local issue.

The scheme is a major step forward for local people. Whether they live in England or Wales, they will be guaranteed that their council will have a way of responding to petitions and, under Clause 11, they can find that on the council’s website. Clause 11(6) provides that whatever the scheme says the council will do, it will be legally obliged to follow through. If the scheme says that the council will acknowledge petitions within two weeks, people will know when to expect the acknowledgement. There will no longer be any mystery about what happens when you submit a petition, whether that is for more allotments or better flood defences, or about when people will hear the council’s decision on the matter.

7.30 pm

There were also concerns about other details in the clause. The role of the petition organiser is very important. They will receive the acknowledgement and response from the authority; they will have the right to ask the Overview and Scrutiny Committee to review the adequacy of the response. It is vital that there is one person with whom the authority can deal to avoid the need, self-evidently, to contact all signatories individually.

We listened to concerns that petitions should not be rejected simply because they do not nominate a petition organiser. So Amendments 45, 52 and 93, taken together, provide that, if the petition does not identify an organiser, the petition will not be rejected. Instead, the authority will be required to contact signatories of the petition to agree with one signatory that they will act as the petition organiser. That is sensible: it avoids the local authority being able to give in to any temptation to reject a petition on technical grounds.

We also debated in Committee the merits of the requirements in Clause 12 that petitions must be addressed to the authority. Members of the Committee were concerned that “address” is an ambiguous term, and our intention was simply that the petition would need to be presented to the authority in order for the authority to consider it and take action. This is a little obvious, as it would not be reasonable to expect an authority to respond to a petition it has not received—we are getting into the realms of the surreal here. We therefore concluded that there is no need for an explicit provision on this subject. Amendment 42 removes the requirement that petitions must be addressed or presented to the authority. That will make the legislation clearer, and remove a potential obstacle.

Amendment 49 removes the requirement that petitioners must add the date along with their signature. Amendment 51 is consequential to that, and we were convinced by the arguments of the noble Lord, Lord Greaves, on this point. Indeed, he has tabled Amendment 50, which has exactly the same effect as

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my Amendment 49. I am very pleased that we agree on this major issue. I prefer to stick with my drafting: I think it neatly achieves the same effect. We want these proposals to make it as easy as possible for citizens to express their views. Adding a date beside a signature may be a small request, but we agree that the loss of response from the council is a high price to pay for petition organisers who simply forget to add a date column to their form.

In a similar vein, Amendment 61 removes the provision that petitions on the same subject as another petition received in the previous six months do not qualify as active. We are convinced here by the argument that it would be easy enough for authorities to respond to such a petition, but if no new information were available, they could simply say no. But it may be that, in that period of time, the situation has changed and it would be useful for the authority to reconsider the issue. The Government believe that removing this exclusion will not place significant burdens on authorities. We are persuaded of that; it will ensure that petitions are dealt with transparently. So I hope that will be welcomed by noble Lords.

During our debate in Grand Committee, Liberal Democrat Peers urged that e-petitions should be dealt with in exactly the same way as paper petitions. We are entirely in agreement here: we do not want people to be disadvantaged just because they signed an e-petition or visa versa. I should make it clear that the drafting of this chapter, where electronic petitions are provided for in a separate clause, does not mean that electronic petitions will be dealt with differently from paper petitions. It is a matter of drafting. I can reassure noble Lords that both electronic petitions and paper petitions will be part of a local authority’s single petition scheme.

There is, however, one inherent difference, which we discussed. Principal local authorities will become aware of electronic petitions at an early stage, when someone first decides they want to set up an e-petition and asks the council to host a petition on its e-petition facility. At that point, by definition, there will not be any signatures. In contrast, authorities will first become aware of paper petitions when they are completed; the signatures will be there when the petitions are presented to the authorities. So, for instance, at the point the authority receives a request to host an e-petition, it cannot tell the organiser how it intends to deal with that petition. Given that it does not yet have any signatures, the authority will not be able to tell, for example, what the strength of local feeling is on the issue. The Bill’s drafting is intended to recognise this single difference, but that is where the differences should end.

Amendment 58, therefore, remedies an inconsistency in the Bill’s treatment of electronic and paper petitions by providing that electronic petitions should be acknowledged once they are completed, and that means that they will both be treated exactly the same. I believe that this package of amendments will help to ensure that these provisions put the needs and convenience of local people first. These provisions should be there to support communities so that they can express genuine

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concerns. They must avoid the potential for petitions to be rejected on technical grounds; they must build on good practice.

In Grand Committee, noble Lords worked hard to identify what could be done to streamline the process and to create a better system. I am very grateful for that work and am also grateful for the positive support of noble Lords opposite. I commend our amendments to the House.

Baroness Warsi: My Lords, I thank the Minister for tabling these amendments. My noble friend Lord Hanningfield and I have added our names to a number of them. Following a meeting with the noble Baroness between Grand Committee and today, she impressed on us that the Government had been looking again at the whole issue of petitions. I think that all of us who have followed the progress of this Bill knew that the Government would have to give ground and accept that they had not initially thought through properly the provisions contained in this Bill.

We were particularly exercised by the Government’s peculiar notion of a government-approved valid petition. In Grand Committee, my noble friend Lord Hanningfield gave an example of a petition which may not have been valid but none the less should have been dealt with. He raised the obvious point that, if local authorities start throwing out petitions as not valid, that will alienate people, not help them to engage in the democratic process.

We were also against the concept of a petition organiser. Indeed, my noble friend Lady Morris moved amendments and argued eloquently that, by designating a petition organiser, the Government risked creating self-appointed busy-bodies who would hamper, not help, the engagement of local people with genuine grievances with their properly elected representatives.

The Government clearly were listening. These amendments as tabled may not have been exactly the amendments that we would have put down on Report, but the Minister has made a real attempt to deal with some of the sillier aspects of this Bill. The Opposition are relieved to support that. I would not like this to be seen, however, as carte blanche support for the Government: it is not. There are many problems remaining with the Bill and, although these amendments go some way towards dealing with some of our concerns, I reiterate our belief that some of these clauses are simply unnecessary.

The Government have a little luxury of time; because of the parliamentary Recess, there is a longer than usual pause between the stages of this Bill. I urge the Government to use this time constructively. I have signalled my support for these amendments as far as they go; I do not wish to repeat everything said in Grand Committee. The Opposition made ourselves abundantly clear then about what we thought of this Bill. Those thoughts are recorded in Hansardfor the Minister to refer to, and the Government could yet make a better Bill. I hope they will choose to do so.

Lord Greaves: My Lords, other than referring to two things the noble Baroness said in moving these amendments, I am not going to make any general comments about the petition sections of this Bill. I

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will reserve those for Amendment 40, which is the important stand part debate. I will respond to the Government’s amendments, and I am not going to press Amendment 50, which was put down by mistake. I had not actually noticed that the Government had taken the date out. That was my fault.

The Minister congratulated those of us who took part in all those Grand Committee sessions. She said noble Lords “worked hard”. I thought the Government simply thought we were hard work. Either way, I take it as a compliment and thank her for that. She also repeated what she has said throughout this Bill, that only one in five councils make information available about how to provide petitions, and we just disagree about the facts there. What she means is that when her officials looked on council websites, they could only find that information on one in five websites. That is different from whether information is made available or not. In the case of my own council, information is made widely available on the announcement notices for meetings, which are stuck up everywhere. It is also on the website if you look for it.

The real problem here is one I have raised previously in that a lot of council websites are a bit old-fashioned, and some are pretty awful. I am not suggesting that the Government bring in a detailed Bill to help councils put their websites together, although that would be their approach under this. I am suggesting that the Government, together with the Local Government Association, should spread best practice. Some councils have very good websites, but that does not include my own, I am afraid.

The problem is that there is an old-fashioned approach to some websites; they provide a limited amount of information which is set out in traditional council-ese that those of us who are used to agenda papers will understand. A lot of websites are very good at telling you how to get somebody to do a special refuse collection from your backyard if you are throwing furniture out, how to get the rat-catcher out or promoting events in the local park, but not so good at promoting local democratic involvement or making it easier for people to find out what is happening at the next area committee meeting. I am glad to have the nodding support of the noble Lord, Lord Norton of Louth, who is in his place now.

I will go through some of the amendments very quickly. A lot of them are to take out the word “valid”. I am extremely grateful for this as I waged a campaign against “valid”. I fear that they will now be called Section 12 petitions, at least within local authorities, unless people think of a better term. Perhaps they will be called parliamentary petitions, although that would give the wrong impression, like when we used to have parliamentary trains. The Government have seen sense on this; this simple amendment does a lot to change the difficulties that many of us foresaw of this scheme discouraging or even preventing a lot of the petition work which takes place already and restricting people’s rights.

The removal of the requirement that the petition should be addressed to the council in some formal way is common sense. On the stuff about organisers, I agree entirely with what the noble Baroness, Lady

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Warsi, said. We were arguing together about that. On the date, the Government have made a common-sense change. Making it absolutely clear that e-petitions and paper petitions will be treated the same by the procedures of the council is sensible. The six-month rule will stop councils saying that they have had one petition and the next five that come from different parts of the area on the same subject will be rejected simply because they have already had one, or that they will reject one after four months if circumstances change. That is absolute common sense.

I can only thank the Minister and her Bill team, who listened to our arguments and agreed that at least on some things we were talking sense. I regret that they did not move on some other matters, but at least within the confines of this large, bureaucratic and structurally wrong scheme and its restrictions, these are very sensible amendments. We will look back at those Grand Committee sittings and think at least we did something to make these provisions work a bit better.

Amendment 31 agreed.

Amendments 32 to 36 not moved.

7.45 pm

Amendment 37

Moved by Lord Tope

37: Clause 11, page 7, line 22, after “with” insert “the statutory provisions of”

Lord Tope: My Lords, I shall speak to Amendment 39 as well. The Minister has been clear throughout in recognising that petitions come in a wide variety of forms. More often than not, they are not set out in the way originally envisaged in the Bill. We have just debated a clutch of amendments which in effect recognised that. The purpose of Amendment 37 is that a local authority must in its petition scheme comply with the statutory requirements—that goes without saying—but that it will not necessarily be in trouble if it does not comply with some of the voluntary aspects of the scheme. There is always the danger that some vexatious people may apply for judicial review or refer to the district auditor or any number of other places. The amendment makes it clear that that is the case.

On Amendment 39, the Minister has told us on several occasions that local authorities may act as they wish within the statutory provisions on petitions. The amendment gives effect to those words and makes it clear that local authorities are free, if they wish, to depart from the voluntary aspects of their petition schemes to enable them to be more flexible and, more often than not, more obliging in dealing with the petition; and to enable them not to be unnecessarily restricted by their petition scheme. I beg to move.

Baroness Andrews: My Lords, we debated this a little in Grand Committee and I am happy to try to reassure noble Lords that their concerns are misplaced. In fact, I suggest that Amendment 37 might have the opposite effect to the one intended.

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