|Previous Section||Back to Table of Contents||Lords Hansard Home Page|
The petitions regime, which this chapter introduces, does not impose any onerous burden on local authorities. If a council gets a petition it must acknowledge it and take appropriate action in respect of it. As a matter of ordinary public law, if a council received a petition and responded in a wholly unreasonable manner, it would even now be liable to challenge by judicial review or perhaps, although it is rather more difficult to see how, by the district auditor. The situation will not be all that different after the petitions provisions of the chapter are in place.
One difference will be that the profile of petitions will be raised. People will know where and how to submit petitions and, crucially, that they will be guaranteed a response. There is a theoretical chance, I admit, that raising the profile of petitions and increasing the number that councils receive could lead to an increase in legal action against councils. Our judgment is that it will not. If all councils have a clear procedure for dealing with petitions, this will serve to protect them from any accusation that they have acted in an unreasonable manner. All a council has to do to avoid legal action is to comply with its own procedures. That is no different from what it has to do in relation to every other function it discharges.
As noble Lords are aware, the Bill requires principal local authorities to have a petition scheme which secures at least the requirements set out in this chapter. An authoritys scheme can go wider than these provisions but Clause 11(6) provides that, whatever commitments are made in a scheme, the local authority is legally bound to comply with them. The problem with Amendment 37 is that it limits the requirements in the subsection to cover only the statutory parts of its schemethat is, only those which stem from this Bill. If we were to accept the amendment, local authorities could set a petition scheme which voluntarily goes wider than the requirements of the Bill, and then pick and choose whether to uphold the commitments they had made in their formal scheme when dealing with any petitions which fall under the voluntary part of the scheme. This would certainly create a two-tier scheme where it would not be clear to petitioners how their petition would be dealt with.
Amendment 37 would therefore increase the risk of legal challenge because it would invite argument that the council had committed to doing one thing in its petition scheme and then done something else entirely. The amendment would not oust any court jurisdiction to consider whether an authority had acted reasonably in its response to a petition; it would just mean that, instead of assessing whether the council had complied with its published procedures, a court would have to examine wider issues of reasonableness. We share the objective that citizens should have a clear understanding of how their local authority will deal with petitions. However, I fear that Amendment 37 would undermine that objective. Therefore, on that basis, I hope that the noble Lord will withdraw it.
The concern expressed by the noble Lord is that, once a principal local authority must have a petition scheme, for it to act in response to petitions which fall outside that scheme would be considered in some way to be unreasonable or a waste of resources. I do not believe that this concern is justified. I do not think that any aspect of the requirements of the Bill could be interpreted as imposing any sort of exclusive set of obligations for the handling of petitions. As such, I believe that there would be no grounds for criticising local authorities for continuing to exercise their public law powers in response to petitions which fall outside their petition scheme.
The provisions of this chapter are deliberately framed in a manner which makes it clear that authorities are given a very wide discretion on what to include in their scheme, and how to respond to petitions. The Bill does not set fixed limits on how a function is to be discharged by principal authorities. While local authorities must do at least what their petition scheme says they will, they will have the discretion to respond to any petition, even if it does not meet the requirements of the scheme which they have set out. Nothing in the Bill prevents local authorities responding to any petition they receive.
Lord Tope: My Lords, I am grateful to the Minister for her reply and for the comments she made on Amendment 37. I understand the point that she was making. Perhaps we should have made clearer our intention to include the agreement of the petitioners. I accept that the amendments drafting does not make clear our intention, which is to enable greater flexibility in agreement with the petitioners.
On Amendment 39, I am grateful to the Minister for confirming what we believe to be the case. Amendment 39 seeks to include in the Bill what the Minister has just said to avoid any possible doubt or misunderstanding. As I say, I am grateful to the Minister and we will consider her remarks further. In the mean time, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
Lord Greaves: My Lords, I think that this is my last big blast at the whole principle of these petition clauses. There will be one or two later amendments but they and the stand-part measures will cover the detail.
Amendment 40 seeks to leave out Clause 11, which sets up the petition schemes. All the succeeding clauses concern their details and procedures; Clause 11 is the principal clause. It seems to me that throughout our debates on these matters we have tried to put forward
17 Mar 2009 : Column 192
At present, petitions are dealt with sensibly and flexibly. We do not oppose the Governments general view that there ought to be a better system in many councils. Indeed, it is widely thought that Hazel Blears is the Minister really pushing petitions. She made a speech about this only last week. Salford is one of the councils whose method of dealing with petitions we are having difficulty finding out about. It does not appear to have a scheme or to deal with petitions very well. However, I believe that Hazel Blears should sort out her own council rather than imposing this measure on the rest of us. Detailed, top-down rules are not the way forward.
Secondly, the detail of the rules and of the legislation is ridiculous. I have said this before and I say it again because I have spoken to a lot of councillors and a few council officials from around the country. I have asked every one of them that I have talked to at conferences and other places, and in e-mail discussion forums, Do you know that this is being landed on you? Do you know it is happening? Have you been consulted about it? What do you think of it?. First, they do not have the slightest idea it is happening; secondly, when I tell them what is in it, they are horrified; and thirdly, they say, Why dont you do something about it?, to which I say, I have been trying but we really need to persuade the Government that a change of approach is necessary. The detail and extent of the scheme is not the approach. In Committee, I tried to get the Government to accept a more framework-based approach, with a page of legislation at the most, and then trust councils to get on with it.
The third problem is that it is too bureaucratic and too legalistic, with the result that it will cost money and resources. There is no doubt that it will be expensive to run. It is not clear where councils are supposed to get those extra resources from to deal with the schemes in this legalistic and bureaucratic way.
The fourth danger is that it will restrict people and it will impose a straitjacket on informal and spontaneous activity. Some of the amendments brought forward by the Government have dealt with that. Nevertheless, a great deal of the devil is in the detail and the detail will be in the guidance to be put forward by the Government. We should ask ourselves what will be in that guidance. We do not know. The guidance may reverse some of the improvements to the Bill. I am sure that the Minister does not want that to happen.
There are three ways to do this. The first is to do it through what I call gullible legislation, which pins people down and does not let them move unless they do exactly what you want. The second way is through best practice, advice and encouragement, which we would prefer. We believe it could be done perfectly adequately without legislation, if only the Government were prepared to let go and trust local authorities. The third way is through genuine framework legislation, which still leaves a great deal of leeway for local authorities to be trusted. Regrettably, the Government have rejected that. If the Government were talking about framework legislation, we would not be totally opposed to going further than petitions and making a legal right of residents to attend meetings to put a point of view when councils are making decisions. Many Liberal Democrat councils now do that, as do others. That would enable people to talk to the decision-makers when they make decisions. Every month of my life, I take part in meetings like that and they are very successful. If the Government were serious about it, they would roll the whole thing up in a community empowerment provision in the draft Community Empowerment Bill, but they will not do that at the moment.
The noble Baroness set out four principles in Grand Committee, reported in Hansard at col. GC 39 on 26 January 2009. The first is that people should be able to have their say about the services for which they pay. We agree with that; we have no problem with that; and we have no problem with the important role that petitions can play in that.
Secondly, they have a responsibility to listen and give feedback on petitions. We have no problem with that; sensible councils do that already. If the Government want to put it in legislation as a general duty, we do not have a great problem with that, although we would prefer a voluntary approach.
Thirdly, there must be a clear process for dealing with petitions and responding to them but there must also be flexibility and autonomy. We believe that the words of the Minister in Committee do not tally with what is written in the Bill.
Fourthly, we should all build on best practice. I return to the basic principle that if you want to build on best practice, you have to know what best practice is. You will never know what it is unless there is
17 Mar 2009 : Column 194
My final point is that it is very important that a petition system is not a sham; that petitions are seen to be dealt with seriously; and that, even if they do not get what they want out of it, people see that it has been discussed and dealt with properly. There is nothing between us on that. We do not believe that the way to do it is through eight pages and 3,000 words of prescriptive legislation. We believe that there should be a much more flexible and voluntary approach.
At this stage, we will not agree on this, but I put the case again in the hope that someone may listen. This Bill has a long way to go. Once it has gone through your Lordships House, it has to go to the Commons, and by that time people in local government around the country may realise what is in it and what is happening and pressure may be put on the Government to cause them to change their mind. I hope so. For the moment, we can only argue the case. I beg to move.
Baroness Warsi: My Lords, I see the noble Lord, Lord Greaves, has tabled leave out amendments to each of the clauses which deal with petitions. My noble friend Lord Hanningfield and I, in Grand Committee, added our names to all the equivalent stand-part Questions. We argued then, and I have much sympathy with the noble Lord when he says today, that these clauses are not necessary. We argued this point at great, one might even say exhaustive, length in Committee. I am not sure that I have much more to add by way of fresh argument. Our position remains that there is too much detail. Telling local authorities how to deal with petitions is a bit like teaching your grandmother to suck eggs.
However, as I indicated earlier, the Government have been forced to concede various points on this issue. They have listened to us up to a point, and if they refuse to listen to us after that point, then perhaps they will simply have to learn by their mistakes.
I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Greaves, that we do not need these clauses in the Bill. The record will show very clearly that that is our position, just as it will show for ever more that the Government insisted on their course of action. I think that my comments can be applied to all the leave out clause amendments in this chapter of the Bill. I do not think I will make our case stronger simply by going over the arguments.
In the mean time, I urge the Minister to think about what we have said. I hope that she will be able to come back at Third Reading, which will fall after the Easter Recess, and tell us that she has been able to make a better Bill.
Baroness Andrews: My Lords, on the arguments put forward by the noble Lord, Lord Greaves, I do not think that there is anything I can do to persuade him otherwise. I do not think there is any point in reiterating any of the detail or the argument that we went through in Committee, as the noble Baroness said, quite
17 Mar 2009 : Column 195
Clauses have not been drafted in isolation. We have, for example, learnt from Medway council, whose petition scheme offers petitioners a right of review very similar to the one in Clause 17best practice from which we have learnt. In the past year, petitioners have been so satisfied with the responses they have received that only four out of 89 have used that right.
We believe there is a need for a legal framework to ensure that local petitions are taken seriously. We want to balance that with the need to keep burdens on councils to a minimum, particularly in these very difficult times, when it is very important that people know how the money that they contribute through their taxes is spent and how their concerns are taken into account by local decision-makers. We need to balance that with enough flexibility so that the best councils can continue to build on best practice and continue to innovate. We believe that we have achieved that in the Bill, particularly with the amendments we have made. The provisions in the Bill are so flexible that they do not remove anything that already exists. They provide guarantees that people will receive answers when they petition their principal local authority, but they do not restrict which petitions authorities can respond to, as we discussed in Grand Committee. The proposals do not create a two-tier system, they do not increase the complexity of arrangements for citizens and we are alive to the need to minimise burdens on councils now more than ever.
If councils are to be legally required to respond to petitions, we need to make sure that the requirement extends only to issues of genuine concern to their communities and that petitions are not exploited mischievously. Clause 14 provides that principal authorities do not need to take steps with regard to vexatious, abusive or otherwise inappropriate petitions. This gives councils the ability to ensure, for instance, that their e-petition system is not abused by those who want to stir up community tensions or a hate campaign against a local family or council officer. Clause 16 also protects councils from being bogged down in replying to petitions on issues which they are unable to influence.
However, by setting out a requirement for authorities to have a petition scheme, Clause 11 puts in place the foundation stone to ensure that our proposals on petitions meet the four key principles to which the noble Lord referred. I hope that he will think about the changes that I have made, that we have tried very hard to do some of the things that he wanted, and that the principle, as set out in the Bill, is something that he could live with.
Lord Greaves: My Lords, if this legislation is passed, I shall certainly live with it and I shall assist whatever local authorities I have influence with to cope with it in a sensible way, because that is what local authorities dothey spend half their lives trying to cope with government legislation in a sensible way. That task is sometimes easy and sometimes hard, and our job is to try to make it as easy as possible. However, having set out the principles and the genuine differences between us on how to achieve a common end, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
Lord Greaves: My Lords, with the leave of the House I am moving the amendment in the name of my noble friend Lady Hamwee. Also in the group are Amendment 48 in my name, which is an overlapping amendment, and Amendment 83, which is similar.
One of the things that we tried to do in Grand Committee was to establish in which areas the scheme proposed by the Government would get in the way of things that the council was doing already, either through other legislation which involves legal consultation and processes and the ability of members of the public to make representations as part of those processes, or simply by carrying out consultation processes on its policies in whatever areas they might be.
The amount of public consultation that takes place nowadays is fairly large; it is certainly enormous compared with the situation 30 or 40 years ago. Quite often in
17 Mar 2009 : Column 197
However, in planning and licensing applications a formal, legal consultation process is set down involving deadlines, procedures as to what has to happen to representations, the relevant council committees and the various ways that the applications can be dealt with. That is in legislation. For example, there is a deadline by which councils are supposed to deal with planning applicationseight weeks, or 13 weeks for major applications. Councils will have their own systems for advertising applications, notifying neighbours and asking for representations, which may well involve petitions. They often do; if people get worked up about a scheme, they get their neighbours to sign a petition or they go to the town centre and sign one. A lot of petitions are submitted as part of the normal planning application process.
|Next Section||Back to Table of Contents||Lords Hansard Home Page|