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Lord Graham of Edmonton: My Lords, not for the first time the noble Lord, Lord Greaves, makes very good points in favour of something that he then moves should not stand part of the Bill. I realise that this is a peg on which he can introduce the argument. I understand that, but we are really dealing here with the nub of a great deal of local peoples disenchantment with the effectiveness or significance of a petition that may have generated a great deal of heat. Noble Lords know the situation. People with whom you discuss a subject will say, I went to a meeting. I supported something and signed a petition, but nothing happened to it. What they mean is that it went to the council, which decided not to take action on it. As politicians,
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Rightly, Clause 13 lays down not merely that it should be acknowledged but that action should be taken on it and that the petitioners, through the voice of the senior petitioner, should be told precisely what action is to be taken. If it falls short of what the petitioners wanted, they have access to their councils and through the press; they will continue their campaign. It is unreasonable to say to the Government and the Minister that in attempting to put together a package that deals with petitions, the answer is to strike out Clauses 13 and 14 and produce a new comprehensive clause that deals with the points. As far as I can see, the Government are on good ground in the proposals in the Bill. The noble Lord, Lord Greaves, with the best of intentions, is barking up the wrong tree.
Essentially, the acknowledgement in the subsection is the procedural step set out in Clause 13(7), which tells the petitioner what is the substantive step, as listed in the options in Clause 14. The complication, and why the clause is constructed as it is, is that the acknowledgement may in some instances also be a substantive step, because it may simply say, Yes, we are happy to do that, and it will just be done. So it will be responding to a recommended action. That is the simple answer in response to the specific question, but I am happy to write to the noble Lord to give him some further examples if that would help.
Lord Greaves: My Lords, I am grateful for that reply, to which I shall come in a minute. The noble Lord, Lord Graham, is quite right: people put forward petitions and proposals to councils and turn up to council meetings and say, They did not listen, when what they mean is, They listened but they did not agree with us. I think that he was actually agreeing with what I was saying, although he did not realise it.
It is very important that people understand two thingsthis is where the Minister and I completely agree. First, they should understand what will happen to their petitionhow it will be dealt with, how it will be discussed, who will decide on it and what processes the petitioners, or perhaps the organiser, can take part in to discuss and debate it with the people who will make the decision. That is perfectly normal procedure in councils that do it well. We do not disagree about that at all.
Secondly, there is what the council does about the petition and how it decides what to do about it, whether to fill in the potholes or tell people to go to get a bucket and shovel and do it themselves, or whatever. It is true that the first stagetelling people how a petition will be dealt withmay end the matter there. If people are petitioning about a pile of rubbish, the council's operational services, or whatever they are
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I am not sure that there is any point in the Minister writing to me to tell me how things will work. I think that I understand how things will work. I have spent a lot of time reading the Bill, listening to the Minister and reading her correspondence. We all understand how it will work. My complaint is that Clauses 13 and 14 do not set it out clearly. They are a muddle and ought to be rewritten so that they do set it out clearly. That is my point and I request that the Government look at them during the Bills remaining passage through Parliament. In the mean time, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
Lord Tope: My Lords, I am grateful to the Conservative Chief Whip for reminding me. I was so taken aback by the fact that the Opposition seem to have retired entirely from participating in this Bill, that I was a little confused.
Baroness Anelay of St Johns: My Lords, since we are named, the Conservatives have a very active interest in this Bill, as we showed at Grand Committee, when we were able to enter into negotiations. My noble friend Lady Warsi has made clear that those negotiations came to fruition. Unlike the noble Lords on the Liberal
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Lord Tope: My Lords, I am grateful for that explanation, if a little puzzled by it, as the amendments recently not moved have actually only just been tabled. I am not sure what has happened since the government amendmentswhich we have all generally welcomedwent down. The Conservatives tabled amendments and now they are sitting in silence for long periods during this Bill. I would normally welcome silence from the Conservatives. I hope that it is a habit that will catch on.
Now that I have been corrected, I am moving Amendment 63 and speaking to Amendment 65. As I assume that the Conservatives will not speak to Amendment 64, I will do it for them. Amendment 63 leaves out subsection (6) of Clause 14. The preceding subsection (5) concludes by saying that,
Subsection (6) was referred to by the Minister in Grand Committee as an indicative list. At the risk of sounding like a Minister, that is unnecessary. I would go further and say that it is potentially misleading, even dangerous.
We discussed lists in Grand Committee. An indicative list always carries a danger as regards what is and is not on it and why. Should any petitioners actually read this Bill when it is enacted, the list will be potentially misleading and dangerous by suggesting to them that if they produce a petition, it might be successful, which would be good news, and that it might be considered at a meeting of the authority, which they would probably expect. The provision goes on to say that the authority could hold an inquiry, or a public meeting, or commission research and so on, which raises all sorts of expectations of what an authority might do. That is completely unnecessary. A local authority can decide to do any, or all, or even none of those things in response, provided that it takes steps in response to the petition as required by subsection (5). If we are to have anything, I prefer Amendment 64 in the name of the Conservatives, which simply says:
That virtually repeats subsection (5) but at least it is a better catch-all than the indicative list in subsection (6). As I have said, that may give rise to all sorts of expectations from anyone who chooses to look it up and, most importantly, is absolutely unnecessary.
In Amendment 65, we accept that if we are to have this indicative list in subsection (6), surely it must be appropriate to include the fact that a local authority is quite likely to be operating executive arrangements and that the petition is more likely to be referred to the appropriate cabinet member or council leader than to a public inquiry or public meeting. Yet the indicative list does not refer to that at all. Perhaps that is another illustration of the danger of lists, particularly indicative
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Baroness Andrews: My Lords, I absolutely appreciate that the noble Lord is trying to be helpful by tabling Amendment 63. We debated this in Committee, and I am afraid that we disagree about what is to be achieved by this indicative list. I cannot add a huge amount to what I said before. We are doing things in the Bill to make it clear to local people what is served by petitioning their councils for improved services or whatever.
We included Clause 14(6) to illustrate some of the thingsthis is not an exhaustive list, by any meansthat the authority could do in response to the petition. It certainly does not limit the authority to doing anything. Our thinking was that if legislation for the first time requires local authorities to take action in response to active petitions, it would surely be positively helpful for the legislation to set out a range of actions that might be appropriate, quite simply so that people can see what the intentions of the legislation are in the Bill. The list simply has the legal effect of identifying the nature of the discretion that is being exercised by principal authorities, but it also serves to make it clear to local authorities that the steps that they take in response to petitions should be substantive. That will also be clear to the courts in the event of a legal challenge.
The noble Lord did not move Amendment 64, although he spoke to it, so I will say simply that it would make it less clear what kind of step it is appropriate to take in response to a petition, and it would give rise to far too many ambiguities. Let me give noble Lords an example of something that might seem appropriate but would not add a great deal to what exists already. That brings me to the issues that Amendment 65 raises.
Amendment 65 would add to the list in Clause 14(6) that the petition could be referred to the appropriate cabinet member or the council leader. It is an interesting suggestion, and I appreciate the rationale behind it. I know that noble Lords were concerned in Committee that the list should reflect the kind of sensible steps that authorities might want to take when they receive petitions. In fact, the amendment covers exactly the kind of things that local authorities will do when they receive a petition. The cabinet member and the council leader are both well placed to act on the petition. They have the power to make the request in the petition a reality, to launch a public consultation or an inquiry, or to hold a public meeting. That illustrates the key difference between the items listed in Clause 14(6) and Amendment 65. The items in Clause 14(6) are all public actions which citizens can see have been taken in response to their petition.
I really do understand the intentions behind Amendment 65, but I have a real fear that if this were added to Clause 14(6) it would give the impression that a council would have fulfilled its duties if it referred a petition to a cabinet member, notwithstanding
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One suggestion in Clause 14 is for a similar internal process, and it is there for a good reason. It enables petitions that address the provision of health services in the councils area to be properly directed to the overview and scrutiny committee, which has powers to scrutinise such matters. What we want to ensure, and what Clause 14(6) sets out, is the range of actions that might help resolve the issues raised by the petition. Petitioners could be invited to attend a public meeting or a cabinet member might want to commission some research to get a better understanding of the issue raised. Essentially, it is about a substantive response. As I have said, referring a petition to a cabinet member or council leader would be a necessary step, but would not be sufficient. It would indeed mean legislating to preserve the status quo.
Lord Greaves: My Lords, I have one substantive point to make, but in fact this entire clause ought to be removed. The suggestion that petitions with a higher threshold would have a status that enabled the petition organiser to require a debate in full council is not appropriate. Different councils debate things and do things in different ways. For example, in some councils, the appropriate place to discuss a petition is the area committee and taking the petition to the full council would not be appropriate if it is about something that occurs in a specific area, therefore the procedure under this legislation would probably be contrary to the councils standing orders.
The question of how petitions are dealt with and which body should debate them should be subject to local flexibility depending on the interests of the petitioners and the particular structures and institutions of a
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Once again the Government are trying to put all councils into the same straitjacket. They have been doing it for over 10 years and it is not something we approve of, but in this instance it is not a sensible proposal. Most councils have a procedure whereby members of the council can put down motions to full council. In some it may require just one councillor, but in others it may need two, three or four councillors. However, by and large, the procedure by which a matter can be debated in full council is by one councillor proposing it. That is the normal, democratic procedure and a councillor representing an area and its residents can do that. It would not be appropriate to have some kind of system which bypasses the normal council structures. I beg to move.
Baroness Andrews: My Lords, I am afraid that, again, this is something on which the noble Lord and I disagree in principle. This is an important provision which gives members of the public real influence over the issues which their elected representatives discuss. I bow to the noble Lords experience but, because Clause 15 requires the principal local authorities to specify a threshold number of signatures which would give an automatic right for the matter raised in the petition to be debated by the full council, this will mean that members of the public will be able to put an item on to the agenda of local decision makers. Members of the public will be able to observe the debates and will know that all ward councillors can have their say on the petition. It is a genuine benefit.
We believe that the threshold should be high enough to ensure that full council meetings are not overwhelmed and that they have time to consider issues such as the authoritys budget, but the threshold should be achievable. The national authority has the power to issue guidance as to the appropriate threshold figure, to specify by order a threshold figure that will apply to all principal authorities, or to direct a principal authority to amend its petition scheme, including the threshold specified in it, but in order to ensure that debates are held when a substantial number of people sign a petition we believe that the threshold should not be higher than 5 per cent of the population living within the local authority area. That is what we will put in our order-making power but it is very much the upper limit.
I return to my main argument that it is an important way forward for local communities to know that if sufficient people are concerned about an issue they will be heard and the matter will be debated by the full council. Of course, in practice, a council puts items on its agenda for full debate under different influences and for different reasons, and this additional right will be welcomed by local communities.
Lord Greaves: My Lords, I believe this has been thought up by people who do not understand how councils work. I am sorry to say that but I really do believe it. It undermines representative democracy and the role of councillors as the people who take issues forward on behalf of their resident constituents.
The Minister said that people have a right to be heard. I could not agree more. I would not object if the Government came back with a statutory right for people who have an interest in an issue to be heard by the body that makes the decision, the council committee. I have been on councils that have been doing that for many years. People should have the right to be heard at the point of decision making, but a full council is not an appropriate place to have that debate. It may or may not allow the petitioners to speak and put forward their views but, because there are so many people there, the whole process is so formal that, usually and often, it is not the appropriate place to end the process.
Many councils already include a right in their standing orders for petitions to be received. If the right contained in this legislation is retained, people may regard this threshold as the point at which that right is triggered and existing rights may be removed. At the moment, that is the first part of the process when a petition comes in. People give notice that they want to present it to the council; they stand up and perhaps say a few wordsor not, depending on the standing ordersthen hand it in. It then goes through the process of being properly debated by the appropriate people in the council, which is when people have the opportunity to see the decision being taken in a democratic way. Full council as the end process is no good; by that time, decisions will have been made, whips will be on and the decision will be known before the meeting starts. If you take a petition to a council meeting at the start of the process, the whole thing is much more open and it can go to places where people will not have closed minds. The Government have got it the wrong way round. I am not against people presenting petitions to full councils or any other body, but the Government are being too rigid and prescriptive, and are likely to exclude people who can present petitions at the moment.
It is clear to me that consideration of these matters has not finished. I will be astonished if further amendments are not put to the Bill before it gets through Parliament, particularly in the House of Commons. I put forward these thoughts in a hopeful and constructive way. We are not trying to block this at allwe are on the same side as the Government in what we want to seebut we are worried about the way it is being done. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
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