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LEADER OF THE HOUSE

Volume 521: debated on Thursday 20 January 2011

The Leader of the House was asked—

Petitions

3. What recent progress he has made on the Government’s plans to link petitions to debates in the House. (34730)

5. What recent progress he has made on the Government’s plans to link petitions to debates in the House. (34732)

6. What recent progress he has made on the Government’s plans to link petitions to debates in the House. (34733)

As the Leader of the House has said, the Government will move the online petition system to the Directgov portal soon—certainly before the summer. Officials are now working on an effective verification system to ensure that petitions become a useful tool for engaging with the Government, in contrast to the gimmicky approach of the previous Government’s No. 10 petition site. My briefing notes say that, at this point, I should use the pseudo-word “clicktivism”, a neologism as ugly as it is unintelligible. I have no intention of associating myself with it.

I thank my hon. Friend for that answer. He is, I know, aware that the rail line between Manchester and Clitheroe is in desperate need of improvement. If the requisite number of signatures were collected by a “clicktivism” or anything else, could it be debated in this House and, if so, what impact does he think it would have on Government policy?

That is exactly the sort of issue that might well commend itself for a debate via the petition system. I commend my hon. Friend for his vigorous campaigning on the issue. Rather than wait for that to happen, he might like to pursue the option of having an Adjournment debate in order to debate the matter further.

Can the Minister say what a “direct portal” is? As I understand it, petitions were made to No. 10, so I hope he is going to confirm that petitions will now go to the House of Commons and that the House of Commons will debate petitions to it, not to No. 10.

Well, the petitions will be to the House of Commons, but the Government’s site will be used simply because it is there. The “Directgov” site is the common site for connexions via the internet to Government. I believe that the address is www.direct.gov.uk, so the hon. Gentleman might like to look at it and see whether it is a sensible portal to use—if he accepts the word “portal” at all.

The Committee itself made it clear in its first special report that in determining what business should be taken, it would consider

“public petitions recently submitted to the House and petitions published on the Downing Street website—until such time as a system for electronic petitions to the House is implemented”.

We very much welcome the Committee’s continued interest in e-petitions as a source of debate, and we will work with it and with the Procedure Committee in making sure that we have a proper procedure for linking petitions to Parliament.

I am very surprised that the Deputy Leader of the House has not followed the Scottish Parliament system for public petitions, given that that has been widely praised both by his predecessor and by hon. Members on both sides of the House. Will he briefly outline why there is such a divergence between the 10-year-plus Scottish Parliament system and this system?

I do not think that there is a huge divergence. We looked at the Scottish system and at whether it was applicable. The Procedure Committee, as the hon. Gentleman knows, has also looked at the issue. We have the Directgov site in place, and we are keen for people to be able to put petitions before the House at the earliest opportunity—and this provides the earliest opportunity. As I said, I hope we can get it up and running before the summer. If the Procedure Committee has further views on how the system could be changed in the future, we would certainly be open to its suggestions.

Pre-Adjournment Debate

4. What assessment he has made of the effectiveness of the format of the pre-Adjournment debate held on 21 December 2010. (34731)

May I say how much I welcome the decision of the Backbench Business Committee to retain the pre-recess Adjournment debate, which is a venerable institution, as indeed are the contributions of the hon. Member for Southend West (Mr Amess) to it, as they always provide a tour d’horizon of his constituency? We are always very pleased to know what is going on in Southend West.

I congratulate the Backbench Business Committee and its excellent Chairman on their innovative work and I am delighted that all those who wanted to speak in that Adjournment debate were called, but does the Minister have any feel for whether the new arrangements have achieved the objectives on ministerial responses?

I think that ministerial responses—I set aside my own efforts—were better than usual, simply because they were informed by a pre-knowledge of the topics that Members intended to raise.

Forty-five Members participated in the debate on 21 December 2010, compared with 23 in 2009 and 25 in 2008, and I believe that according to most measures that must be considered a success.

Not only did 45 Members speak, but every Member who wanted to speak was able to do so. The fact that six Ministers responded from the Dispatch Box made the occasion very popular with Back Benchers, and also ensured that they were much more able to hold the Government to account. The debate was in its usual slot, but does the Deputy Leader of the House welcome the fact that the Backbench Business Committee has done some innovating of its own?

I think it is terrific that the Backbench Business Committee is prepared to consider new ways of doing things in order to establish whether we can improve the procedures of the House, and I can only congratulate it on doing so. I am particularly grateful to the hon. Lady for ensuring that I had sufficient time in which to address, at least briefly, the points raised in the debate.

I know—my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House will announce it later—that the hon. Lady’s Committee has decided that there is scope for a debate on parliamentary reform, and I think that that too is extremely useful. We will work closely with the Committee in trying to do things better in future, and I hope that the hon. Lady will continue her good work.

There is no reason why the end-of-term Adjournment debate need take place only at the end of term. It could take place on other occasions in the parliamentary timetable as well. Would the Deputy Leader of the House welcome that?

I always welcome opportunities for Back Benchers to have their say on matters that concern them and their constituents, and I am always happy to make myself available to respond to such debates. I am sure that my ministerial colleagues would say the same.