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As regards the wider processthe plan-making process, which now involves the local development frameworksa huge amount of consultation takes place. The planning authority has to draw up a scheme of public involvement, although I have forgotten the exact terminology for it, which is set out in the Planning Act which we took through this House only recently. The representations are fed into the planning process and the council will have a detailed scheme as to how that works, which may involve petitions.
Putting those petitions into the Section 12 petition scheme, as it will inevitably be called, is ridiculous. It will not work, because petitions will also have to go into the formal planning process, anyway. If people demanded that they should go to an overview and scrutiny committee and then that there should be a debate at the full council meeting, in some cases that would begin to border on the unlawful. That is because the way in which the process has to be done is set out in the planning legislation, the planning regulations, and the councils adopted schemes that have to be approved by the Secretary of State and are formal documents.
Equally, it is important that licensing applications are dealt with in a proper manner. In taxi, alcohol or premises licensing, you are dealing with a quasi-judicial function where the council has by law to set up a separate committee. The members of that committee have to have training and they make the decisions. The rest of the council cannot do anything about it if it does not like itas I know to my costwhen they make wrong decisions. Any representations have to go into that process and if they do not, it is a waste of time anyway, because they will not have any impact on the decisions that are made about the issue of the petition. Planning and licensing applications that are dealt with in legislation ought to be excluded from this particular petition scheme. It is common sense that
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We are not trying to be awkward in any way in putting forward these amendments. We are very concerned that the Government have not thought the provision through properly and have got it wrong. I do not ask that these amendments be approved tonightwell, I do, but I do not expect them to be approvedbut I ask the Government to think very clearly about these matters.
My final point is less important in terms of the legal background to all these decisions. Let us imagine that a council is proposing to build a new leisure centre with three possible sites and it is carrying out a formal public consultation process. Petitions may well come in with regard to that. People may want it in one particular site, residents in one area may say they do not want it anywhere near them under any circumstances, thank you very much. Whatever the petition says, they may say they want it somewhere completely different. They may say they do not want it at all, or it is the wrong sort of leisure centre.
Petitions come in as part of consultation processes, so it would be wrong to have a system set down in the law of the land that says that petitions coming in have to be dealt with in some way outside that process, and that people have a right to have full council debate before the consultation process is properly concluded, for example. The council will come into it at the end of the process, when the recommendation to the council is made and the council will accept that recommendation, or it may refer it back. But it would be wrong to have people able to go to the full council half way through the process to pre-empt a carefully structured consultation that is taking place, and a carefully structured decision-making process. It would be disruptive and a recipe for people who understand how to work the system to try to pre-empt decisions in ways that would not be helpful to good decision-making.
I am totally in favour of democratic decision-making, and of people being involved in decision-making, but where major schemes like this have been put forwardor even small schemes such as what to do about a piece of land in somebodys back streetwhen a consultation process is taking place in a proper structured way, it would be completely wrong to allow petitions from people to bypass that and go through this new system. I beg to move.
Lord Patel of Bradford: My Lords, Amendments 47, 48 and 83 relate to the Governments public commitment to use the order-making power in Clause 19 to exclude planning and licensing applications from the scope of the duty to respond to petitions.
I begin by making it clear that the list of issues which are excluded from the duty to respond to petitions should be very limited. We know that building petitions into council decision-making processes will empower people. We therefore want to minimise the issues which are excluded from the duty to respond to petitions, to keep the scope of the duty as broad as possible.
There are some issues which it makes sense to exclude, such as licensing and planning applications. We intend to do this because we want to avoid setting up parallel routes for considering local peoples concerns. There are already extensive processes for public involvement in planning and licensing applications, as the noble Lord, Lord Greaves, has said, so we do not think that petitions on these subjects need to go through this separate system.
I have a technical reservation about Amendments 47 and 48. Although these amendments capture the broad aims of our intention, the drafting would need to be longer and more complex than they suggest. For instance, we want to ensure that, in addition to planning applications, planning enforcement and the decision not to enforce would be excluded. I refer noble Lords who would like to see what this extra detail would look like to SI 3261, the Overview and Scrutiny (Reference by Councillors) (Excluded Matters) (England) Order 2008. This order took the same approach for the Councillor Call for Action as we intend to take for petitions. It excludes planning and licensing matters from the scope of the Councillor Call for Action power and is over 30 lines long. Adding these provisions to the Bill would therefore make this chapter substantially longer.
Amendment 48 contains one additional exclusion: it provides that issues on which the authority is currently carrying out a formal public consultation should be excluded. This is an interesting idea and the rationale is the same as for excluding planning and licensing applications, namely that we do not want to duplicate public engagement processes which already exist. However, I think that further reflection is needed with local government on how such an exclusion might work in practice. For instance, I know that many community groups form petitions precisely to respond to consultations. I wonder if an electronic petition signed by 500 people differs in any real way from 500 separate e-mails sent responding to a consultation, with identical text provided on the website of a community group.
So I think that we should reflect further on this idea and seek views from the sector. I have a similar worry about Amendment 83, which provides a narrow order-making power so that planning and licensing matters may be excluded from the scope of the topics which trigger a response. It is worth noting here that the Delegated Powers and Regulatory Reform Committee did not find the order-making powers in the Bill inappropriate. It is our intention to use the order-making power to exclude these issues, and I believe that issues should be excluded only if there is a genuine reason to do so, so that we do not dilute the benefits of these proposals. However, my concern with such a narrow order-making power is that it would not enable us to respond to any new ideas, such as the one that the noble Lord, Lord Greaves, has put forward, which might be suggested by local authorities themselves in response to consultation.
These issues need to be thought through in detail, and using secondary legislation will allow us to do that. The Government intend to consult on which issues should be excluded from the duty to respond to petitions after the Bill receives Royal Assent. We intend
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Lord Greaves: My Lords, I think that that is a two and a half cheers answer. I am not suggesting in any way that our wording is ideal, so I thank the Minister very much for that answer. His answers are improving as the night goes on. I am not familiar with the overview and scrutiny order to which he referred me but I shall no doubt become familiar with it in the coming days and have a good look at it. I thank him for that. I particularly thank him for the very clear commitment he has given on licensing and planningthat the Governments intentions are exactly as we have put forward. I think that that was the first time the Government have stated that quite so clearly. That provides at least some justification for our having this discussion.
On the other issuegeneral formal consultationsI accept and understand that getting a precise formulation for this is more difficult because it is not referring to existing statutes. It may well be that the scheme will be drawn up so that rather than being excluded, such petitions will be included in the consultations already taking place. Redirecting is a more positive word than exclusion. However, that is just some thinking off the top of my head which occurred to me while I was listening to the Ministers very welcome comments. On that basis, I have some pleasure in begging leave to withdraw the amendment.
(a) a signature counts if (and only if) the petition gives the signatorys name and address (which may be an address where the signatory lives, works or studies);
Clause 12 will no doubt now need a new heading, because it is headed Valid petitions. We will discover by what process headings of clauses get changed. I attempted to amend this heading in Grand Committee, when I tried to get rid of valid, but the Public Bill Office told me that I cannot table an amendment to change a clause heading. However, the process by which the change is made will now occur. How it will happen I am not quite sure. It is probably a bit like how the Conservatives used to choose their leader in the old days. It will emerge.
There is only one remaining issue with which I am not happy: the requirement, which was the old paragraph (c), that a petition under Clause 12 has to be signed by at least the specified number of people who live, work or study in the authoritys area. There is a parallel provision somewhere about the number of people who have to sign a petition to have it debated. It seems to us that this provision is still unnecessary and will lead to a lot of problems locally. The worst thing that could happen is that an authority could set the bar too high, so that lots of perfectly reasonable petitions would not qualify to be dealt with in this way.
We talked in Grand Committee, so we do not want to do it again, about the circumstances in which people in a particular street or local area might want to sign a petition, and about the size of a village, or whatever it may be, in relation to the size of a city. Just because an authority is big, such as a large city or a large county, does not mean that it does not have small communities, which might want to put forward a petition in which quite low numbers might be appropriate20, 25 or 30whereas the authority might say, We are a big county, or a big city, and we will set the bar at 1,000, or whatever. It seems to us that this matter should be left to local common sense and not be dealt with through an attempt to lay down arbitrary numbers.
In Grand Committee, the answer from Ministers was that authorities will be able to set different levels and numbers for different purposes. It is not easy to see how to do this in any sensible way that will not get the barrack-room lawyers really going. The context of the petition is important, as is its purpose. It may be that a petition covers a whole county, but only covers a relatively small number of people who have a particular interest in something. Rock climbers, for example, may be interested in a few crags in the county and petition the county planning department over something in relation to them. It may be people sailing on mill lodges or reservoirs. It may be anything. It may be people who are a special interest group, who are only a few and so widespread that they cannot be related to the communities in which they live.
I have been trying to think of how this could be done since Grand Committee. It is going to be very difficult and I ask the Government to look at this again. We have time left in this House and we have the whole of the House of Commons procedures when the Bill goes there, so they have a chance to do so. They have not got it right yet, so I hope that they will look at it again. I beg to move.
Baroness Andrews: My Lords, I do not think that I can add anything to what I said in Grand Committee on this important clause and on this element of it. In subsection (2), which states that petition schemes must specify the number of signatures of people who live, work and study in a local authoritys area, we intended to free local authorities to decide for themselves what the threshold number of signatures should be. The noble Lord would surely approve of that in principle. When we consulted about this, there was no consensus on what the threshold should be, so this clause allows local flexibility. Some issues are of concern to the whole borough, whereas others are of concern to people in just one street or people from a particular ethnic group or with particular interests. Some authorities already respond to all petitions that they receive. Because we want to minimise bureaucracy, the Government urge those authorities to continue to do so. Other authorities may believe that a higher threshold for the number of signatures is more appropriatefor example, because the population in their area is very high.
As I said before, principal authorities can set different thresholds for different topics, proportionate to how many people are affected by different issues. The threshold chosen will be in an authoritys scheme, which must be publicised under Clause 11(4). That will ensure that local people know what the threshold is for their area. We do not think that the requirement on authorities is burdensome. It will be open to authorities to take account of the number of signatures that a petition has attracted in deciding on the proportionate response to it. We expect that authorities will set a very low thresholdperhaps less than 10 signaturesfor petitions that are guaranteed a response.
We want to ensure that responding to petitions is not a simple tick-box exercise. That is why we propose that authorities should have to set local thresholds at which petitions will trigger a debate of the full council, which is of course a slightly different issue. A threshold is needed there to ensure that issues of significant concern to the community are debated without overloading the council. These thresholds would be 5 per cent of the local population at most.
I appreciate that the noble Lord is struggling with the concept of some of the process, but Clause 12 is so important to the whole architecture and purpose of what we are trying to do that I hope that he will not press his attempt to remove it entirely.
The Minister talked about a threshold. I do not understand how you determine different thresholds for different issues in the same council or even within the same department. An authority might have a threshold for street lighting but there might be a petition from people in one street who want a new street light. In looking at that petition, the authority will have to take into account how many people live in that street. A petition for better lighting on the main road or the local motorway is a different matter altogether and many more people may be required to make up the threshold. If only 10 people come forward, the authority will say that it is less important. Potholes are a topical subject following the winter weather that we have had. There might be five huge potholes in a dead-end street. A petition about that signed by all the residents in that street might have 20 names on it, but people in the rest of the county are not going to sign it.
The point that I am trying to make is that the issues on which people petition are so varied that it is not just the subject of a petition that might be liable to different thresholds but the contextthat is, the number of people who can legitimately sign it. I do not think that the concept of thresholds is at all sensible. Thresholds are rigid and councils will have enormous difficulty with them. Those who do not want petitions will set high thresholds, whereas those who are quite happy to deal with petitions will set low ones, which will be meaningless. In a big county or big city, a threshold of 10 for a petition of any kind is meaningless. It indicates that the council will accept everything. Therefore, I believe that the Government have to think again about this. They have time and I hope that they will do so. I have done my bit to try to persuade them to do so, and I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
Lord Greaves: My Lords, Amendment 59 picks up any remaining issues in Clause 13. It is, effectively, a stand-part debate on Clause 13. A requirement to acknowledge valid petitionsthose in Clause 12is another heading that will have to be changed. I clearly do not want to remove this clause as a whole. The particular issue that I want to raise at this last attempt is in Clause 13(1)(b), which refers to,
In Grand Committee, I tried to rewrite Clauses 13 and 14, in a fairly ambitious way, to get them to make more sense. There are two different issues here. One is the procedural issue of how a petition is dealt with, and one is the substantive issue of what is being dealt with. Take, for example, a petition about potholes. The procedural issue concerns how the petition is received by the council; whether it is accepted under Clause 12; how it is acknowledged; what information people are given about how it will be dealt with; and how it is dealt with. Is it dealt with by an officer or a councillor? Does it go to a particular committee for discussion? Does it go to a joint committee of two authorities for discussion, as it perhaps would on my patch? What happens? That is the procedural side, which people need to know about.
On the other hand, there is what the council will do about the issue that is referred to in the petition. I call this the substantive issue. Clauses 13 and 14 would be a great deal better if these two responsibilities of the council were dealt with separately in this way. That did not meet with the agreement of the Government when I moved the amendments in Grand Committee. They have done nothing about that. We are left with quite a messy series of detailed rules and regulations, which are difficult to understand, set out in nearly two pages of primary legislation.
I ask the Government to look at these clauses again and try to rewrite them so that they make sense to anybody who picks them up and reads themor gets a report from their council, setting them outif and when this legislation is passed. We all understand how it will work now, but it took us quite a long time to sit down, understand it and work it out. I ask the Government to look at separating the procedural responses to petitions from how the substantive matter in the petition is dealt with. They are two separate things, but they are muddled here. I beg to move.
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