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Petitions and e-petitions

Volume 593: debated on Tuesday 24 February 2015

I beg to move,

That–

(1) this House approves the recommendations contained in the Third Report of the Procedure Committee, E-petitions: a collaborative system (HC 235), concerning the establishment of an e-petition system jointly owned by the House and the Government, and of a Petitions Committee with responsibility for overseeing both the e-petition and the existing paper petitioning system;

(2) the following new standing order accordingly be made, with effect from the start of the next Parliament—

“Petitions Committee

(1) There shall be a select committee, called the Petitions Committee, to consider public petitions presented to the House and e-petitions submitted through the House of Commons and Government e-petitions site.

(2) The committee shall consist of not more than eleven members.

(3) The committee shall have power to send for persons, papers and records, to adjourn from place to place, and to report from time to time.

(4) The committee shall have power to appoint a sub-committee, which shall have power to send for persons, papers and records, to adjourn from place to place, and to report to the committee from time to time.

(5) The committee shall have power to report from time to time the evidence taken before the sub-committee.

(6) The quorum of the sub-committee shall be three.

(7) The committee shall be responsible for determining whether a sitting should take place in Westminster Hall under paragraph (1)(a) of Standing Order No. 10 (Sittings in Westminster Hall) to consider one or more petitions or e-petitions, and shall report any such determination to the House.”; and

(3) the following amendments to standing orders be made, with effect from the start of the next Parliament—

Standing Order No. 10 (Sittings in Westminster Hall)

In paragraph (1)(a), leave out “Backbench Business Committee” and insert “Petitions Committee”.

In paragraph (1)(a), leave out “e-petition or e-petitions” and insert “one or more petitions or e-petitions”.

Standing Order No. 14 (Arrangement of public business)

Leave out paragraph (5).

Standing Order No. 122B (Election of select committee chairs)

Add the following new sub-paragraph to paragraph (1):

“() the Petitions Committee.”

Standing Order No. 152J (Backbench Business Committee)

In paragraph (8)(b), leave out “paragraphs (4) and (5) of Standing Order No. 10” and insert “paragraph (7) of Standing Order No. 10”.

Of the Procedure Committee’s three debates this afternoon, this is the big enchilada: the one that the House—or at least those in the Chamber—has been waiting for with bated breath.

On 8 May, the House agreed to establish a collaborative e-petitions system. In the intervening time, the Procedure Committee has worked hard to come up with a workable and robust set of proposals. In brief, we are proposing the following system. A petition will need to attract the support of six people before going live, and it will remain live for six months. Oversight of the joint e-petition system will be undertaken by a House of Commons Petitions Committee, which will have an elected Chair and elected Members. The Committee will be able to correspond with petitioners on their petition, and to call them for oral evidence. It will be able to refer a petition to the relevant Select Committee, and to seek further information, either written or oral, from the Government. May I say that oral evidence will be requested only in exceptional circumstances? The Committee will obviously be allowed to put forward petitions for debate. It will be supported by excellent House of Commons staff.

May I remind hon. Members, who may be drawing breath at the thought of the creation of another Committee, that the House had a Petitions Committee from the early 19th century up until 1974? It is not the Procedure Committee’s intention to create an additional Committee, but for the new Petitions Committee to replace an existing Committee. However, that is for the business managers to decide.

In his evidence to us, the then Leader of the House, my right hon. Friend the Member for South Cambridgeshire (Mr Lansley), said:

“I think it is important to have a committee in some form to highlight to the public that Parliament treats this seriously, to make sure that Government departments respond properly and fully, and to be able to recommend debates where necessary.”

The Petitions Committee will decide which petitions merit further action. It will take the existing threshold of 100,000 signatures as the established starting point for considering whether there should be a debate in the House. However—this “however” is very important—in this age of mass campaigning, the Committee will also be mindful of smaller petitions that although not benefiting from the support of well-funded and organised pressure groups are nevertheless deemed to be of great importance to a community and it will perhaps be mindful, in extreme cases, even of a petition from an individual.

The Petitions Committee will seek to improve engagement with petitioners. Often, those submitting and supporting a petition will not get the exact outcome they want, but they will hopefully feel that their concerns have been appreciated and heard through constructive engagement with the Committee, and through receiving responses from the Government and—on occasion—the relevant Select Committee. Moderation of the site will be carried out by e-petition staff.

It is also our intention for the e-petition system to contain a facility that allows our constituents to alert us when they have signed a petition—after all, we all greatly enjoy and love hearing from our constituents. That facility would be provided through the provision of an e-mail address, and a strong suggestion that when our constituents provide us with an e-mail address they also provide us with their home address so that we can verify that they are our constituents.

The threshold of six signatures has been identified because it requires the lead petitioner to seek support for his or her position, but ensures that in seeking that support the demands on the individual are not too onerous. Within the current system, around one in five e-petitions that have been submitted have attracted fewer than three signatures, and 42% have attracted fewer than six. This is a petition system; it should not be for individual representations as those are best made to the relevant Member of Parliament. To emphasise the parliamentary oversight of the system, and in line with the House’s historic role as the principal recipient of public petitions, we have recommended that the site’s URL be e-petitions.parliament.uk, with a clear link from the Parliament website to the e-petition site.

On the important matter of privilege, a petition should not be privileged simply by virtue of having been approved by staff of the Petitions Committee. The House publishes much material on its website that is not a proceeding in Parliament and is therefore not privileged. The point at which an e-petition becomes a proceeding in Parliament will be when it is considered by the Petitions Committee. Only when the Committee has considered the petition and considered it fit for presentation to the House will it constitute a proceeding in Parliament. Notwithstanding the issue of privilege, it is possible that a petition published on an e-petition site, and endorsed and established by the House, could attract the more limited protection of the Parliamentary Papers Act 1840. Therefore, the Petitions Committee staff drawn from the House will need to exercise their usual great care in the moderation of petitions, to ensure that no potentially actionable material is published in an e-petition without the explicit authority of the Petitions Committee.

A petition will be open for signature for six months. After that, the title of each e-petition will be recorded in a list in the Votes and Proceedings of the House, together with the number of signatures it has attracted. Should a Member wish to pursue it, the paper petition system will enable the formal presentation of the subject of an e-petition on the Floor of the House.

In bringing forward debates we recommend that the Petitions Committee assume responsibility from the Backbench Business Committee for determining debates on e-petitions in Westminster Hall. Importantly, the Chair of the Backbench Business Committee, the hon. Member for North East Derbyshire (Natascha Engel), is supportive of that change. If the Petitions Committee decided that a petition warranted debate in the main Chamber, it could approach the Backbench Business Committee and ask for that time to be provided. However, the Backbench Business Committee is under no obligation to grant that time—there will be no land grab.

For paper petitions, we have concluded that the rules and procedures should remain as they are, with one exception, which is to provide the Petitions Committee with the power to consider paper petitions and take appropriate action, alongside petitions coming through the electronic system. I believe that change will strengthen the paper petition process.

Let me return to the vexed issue of cost. The cost of the new system we are proposing is set out at the back of our report, but we estimate the one-off start-up cost at £188,000, with an annual running cost of around £115,000. Those costs will be shared between the House and the Government. There could also be an additional cost of £39,000 to enable data from the site to be made available through data.parliament.uk. That cost will be borne by the House, if approved by the Finance and Services Committee.

In addition to the cost of setting up and maintaining an electronic petition system, we estimate that the staffing cost will be about £200,000 per year, equating to a team of four full-time equivalent people—Officers of the House. The cost of those House staff will be borne entirely by the House. Finally, the running cost of the Petitions Committee, depending on its practices, is expected to be around £50,000 per annum. If anybody is doing a running total, I believe that those numbers add up to about £395,000—if they do not, any hon. Lady or Gentleman who discovers that my maths is wrong can approach me later. For further details of costs, I refer colleagues to the recently published memorandum from the accounting officer that is available in the Vote Office.

To conclude my rather lengthy remarks, I thank my excellent Committee Clerks. They are heroic in every way—patient, intelligent, insightful and rather brilliant, and I thank them for the huge amount of effort that they have put into this report. I also thank the Government digital service and the former Leader of the House, who is sitting next to me, for his efforts in bringing this Committee to life. A joint Petitions Committee overseen by a Committee of the House is one of the most amazing things that has happened in this place for some time, and he is to be congratulated on his foresight in allowing it to become possible. I also thank the current Leader of the House for the support he has given our Committee in bringing forward these proposals.

I rise briefly to commend the comments of the Chair of the Procedure Committee—while he is thanking everybody else perhaps we might thank him for his stewardship of that Committee. I also apologise for joining the debate slightly late as I was in a Statutory Instrument Committee.

In this work the modern world intercepts with our traditions, and the Chair of the Procedure Committee has spelt out clearly why the proposals in the report are the right way to take the issue forward in a way that recognises public interest. There has been a lot of public enthusiasm for e-petitions, as I saw during my involvement with a petition that was created by a constituent and aimed to push the issue of pancreatic cancer up the agenda. E-petitions are a good tool for interacting with the public in an engaging way, but they must be managed properly in how they intercept with this place. The Chair of the Procedure Committee is to be congratulated on setting out a sensible way forward that I hope the House will take advantage of.

I apologise to the House and to my hon. Friend the Member for Broxbourne (Mr Walker) for missing the start of his remarks. You have been so admirably brisk this afternoon, Madam Deputy Speaker, that I was caught elsewhere in the Palace when the debate began—[Interruption.] It did not happen like that in my day, but the present Leader of the House is so efficient.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Broxbourne. Some time ago when I was Leader of the House, the House resolved to ask the Procedure Committee to consider this matter. I take no issue with the way it has been brought forward as there has been an excellent examination of it. The Committee has made very good recommendations that will enable us to do something for the next Parliament and beyond that will be regarded as important: enable people to interact directly and collectively with their Parliament on issues that matter to them. There is a very rich history of petitioning Parliament. If the hon. Member for North East Somerset (Jacob Rees-Mogg) were here, he would be able to explain it to us in great detail. Petitioning is at the heart of Parliament, along with voting Supply. It is one of the central missions of a Parliament and in recent years it has fallen into disuse.

I give credit to my predecessor, my right hon. Friend the Member for North West Hampshire (Sir George Young). At the start of this Parliament, the e-petition system was developed so that people had a mechanism to petition what they thought of as their Parliament. In reality, they were petitioning the Government. It was only by virtue of the Government’s reference on to the Backbench Business Committee that there was an expectation—no more than that; nothing was written formally into Standing Orders—that petitions that attracted substantial support would get formal responses from Government, which is something I introduced or, that those with more than 100,000 signatures, would be eligible for debate in this House. The way in which the Backbench Business Committee has consistently and positively responded to that has enabled people to believe that they were petitioning their Parliament, but they were not. We have debated before in this Chamber the distinctions between Government and Parliament. Those distinctions are important. It was clearly the public’s belief that they were petitioning both Government and Parliament. They were not really distinguishing between the two. They wanted the people who had Executive power to listen to them and respond. They wanted their representatives to take their issue and to hold the Government to account, or to have the opportunity to express their view. The proposals will enable that to happen in the next Parliament. I think it will rapidly become a very meaningful part of our new reformed relationship between the public and Parliament.

The Deputy Leader of the House and I visited the Welsh Assembly and the Scottish Parliament. We saw, in the Public Petitions Committee of the Scottish Parliament in particular, a lot of good practice, which we were very keen to bring back here. I know that the Procedure Committee has looked at that experience too. Of course, the scale is immensely different. In the order of magnitude, there is a greater scale of petitioning to this Parliament than to the Scottish Parliament.

In truth, as my hon. Friend the Member for Broxbourne made clear, very large numbers of petitions do not attract substantial support and do not raise broader issues of public policy or accountability. It will be for a Petitions Committee to examine the flow of petitions and isolate those that are important enough to be debated. What I think will become a significant part of our practice here will be the opportunity to bring petitioners before the Select Committee on Petitions to present their case. People will literally have their day in the court of Parliament. They will be able not just to present but explain their petition. As my hon. Friend made clear, through the mechanism of enabling them to tell their Member of Parliament that they have signed a petition, they will be able to update their MP on the progress of that petition. There will an opportunity for MPs, if they wish, to join in that process of examining the merits of a petition and examining how Parliament and Government are responding. I think that that will be a dramatic improvement in accountability.

We have seen during this Parliament some positive indications that the public believe that this Parliament, in the past four-and-a-half years, is more likely to debate issues of relevance. Other measures have contributed—the use of urgent questions and so on—but the petition system has been a part of that. We are seen here to be responding on issues of importance and relevance in a timely way for members of the public. This will add to that. I think the public will recognise that and use it—whether they use it will be the deciding factor.

I pay tribute to the Government Digital Service and to my former colleagues in the Leader’s Office, who have managed this system. They have demonstrated how this can be done effectively, efficiently and economically. The new system will, to a large extent, rest on that and we should certainly give them credit for that. The Government and Parliament working together is a powerful illustration of how we can bring our activities together to benefit the public.

On cost, one of the recommendations of the Wright Committee, as yet unrealised, is a critical examination of the number of Select Committees. We are resolving here to have one more Select Committee. I make no bones about that: I think it is the right thing. However, Members in the next Parliament should be prepared to examine critically—it will not be me—the structure of Select Committees and whether there are more than we need to do the job they are required to do effectively. There should be no part of Government activity that is without a Select Committee scrutinising and holding them to account. To some extent, however, we have some overlap. It will be important for the House to take an active decision at the start of the next Parliament on how many Select Committees there should be and on their future structure.

Having made that more contentious point, I would like to return to the consensus and say a final thank you to the Procedure Committee and to my hon. Friend the Member for Broxbourne for the efficient and effective way in which they have taken the request from this Chamber and turned into it a practical way forward for the next Parliament.

I am conscious that we have an important debate on mental health to follow, so I do not seek to delay the House unduly.

I begin by praising the right hon. Member for South Cambridgeshire (Mr Lansley). I think it was the hon. Member for North East Somerset (Jacob Rees-Mogg) who suggested to him that if we, as Parliament, got this right, it would be the most significant reform since the setting up of Select Committees in 1979 and that he would have left his mark in a positive way at the end of this Parliament. The Committee’s report will set us on that right track.

If I may pick up on the final point made by the right hon. Member for South Cambridgeshire, I do not think it is contentious to highlight the issue of cost. That is something we have talked about already this afternoon. The Opposition are clear that this is not an additional Select Committee, as the Chairman himself stated. It has to be a replacement for one of the Select Committees. It is clearly not for us today to determine what the next Parliament does, but there are one or two Select Committees that are not Government scrutiny committees which could be looked at. On cost, which the Chairman highlighted so boldly, it is worth pointing out that a lot of those costs are already being met by the Government. The taxpayer pays for both and this would move the costs from the Cabinet Office to Parliament. When the Leader of the House responds, I hope he will confirm that the Government will seek to assist in mitigating those costs to Parliament as the new system is implemented.

The Procedure Committee rightly raised concerns about the misuse of e-petitions by campaigning organisations. We are absolutely clear, as has already been said, that genuine petitioning of Parliament is a constitutional right that goes back to the 17th century. This is not designed to be a mechanism to allow well-funded vested interest groups to seek to engineer debates. That is why it is absolutely appropriate that when an e-petition reaches the 100,000 threshold it still has to be considered by a Select Committee before it is granted time. We also think that the proposals for granting privilege are sensible. This is not, and should not be, a back-door mechanism for ingenious Members to try to attach privilege, having failed with other mechanisms to circumvent the courts.

I wish to make a few critiques of the current system, many of which, to be fair, the right hon. Member for South Cambridgeshire has already highlighted. A couple of Sessions ago, the Procedure Committee published a report stating that the greatest challenge facing the electorate was the confusing nature of the e-petitions system. When the e-petitions website was established in 2010, it gave the erroneous impression that members of the public were influencing Parliament, but as he acknowledged, they were not; the e-petitions were influencing Government to ask Parliament to do something. It is absolutely right, therefore, that this be a joint system. I know that my hon. Friend the Member for Nottingham North (Mr Allen), the Chairman of the Political and Constitutional Reform Committee, has a different perspective—he would prefer separate systems—but we are clear that there should be a single system, not just for cost reasons but in order to provide members of the public with the opportunity to have greater influence over our democratic process. Such a system should make it clearer who is being petitioned—that, as the right hon. Member for South Cambridgeshire said, it is Parliament that is being petitioned, not the Executive branch.

I wish now to be positive about the success of the past four or five years. In that time, we have had some fantastic debates. One of the best was the Hillsborough debate one Monday afternoon, during which we heard powerful speeches from both sides of the House. That began with an e-petition—one of the earliest e-petitions. For that reason, and provided we enter into this in the correct spirit, I would like to see more of these powerful, public-led debates influencing our democracy. As my hon. Friend the shadow Leader of the House has said several times, we are clear that Parliament must do more to reconnect with our constituents, who ultimately are our bosses, and e-petitions are a useful tool for doing that.

There has been talk about the system in the Scottish Parliament, which, like the Government, the Procedure Committee visited. However, the right hon. Member for South Cambridgeshire is right to caution against taking a straight read across, given the scale of the system there. Members of Parliament must remain constituents’ key advocates—the e-petitions system should not replace that; it would not be possible to replicate the system in Scotland with 10 times the number of constituencies. Furthermore, the Scottish Parliament does not have the full range of issues to cover that the Westminster Parliament does, and therefore it is right that the Clerks service is there to support it.

We fully support the proposals—they are an excellent way forward—and we hope that they will be implemented to great acclaim in the next Parliament.

Before I call the Leader of the House, I should tell the House that I am aware that there is a problem with the annunciators. It can be confusing for Members if the information upon which we rely is wrong, and it has been consistently wrong, one way or another, all afternoon. Those who put these things right know about it, and work is being undertaken and it should be better soon.

Indeed, the annunciator froze altogether during our consideration of the Pension Schemes Bill earlier, which I hope was not a comment on the complexity of the discussion.

I rise to support the motion in my name and that of the Chair of the Procedure Committee, my hon. Friend the Member for Broxbourne (Mr Walker), and I join in the congratulations to him on his OBE today. I also join in the warm welcome, from all around the House, for the report and the changes. As my right hon. Friend the Member for South Cambridgeshire (Mr Lansley), my predecessor, said, the right to petition Parliament is an historic right. There was a time in the late 18th and early 19th centuries when the Table of the House groaned beneath the weight of the hundreds of thousands of signatures on petitions against the slave trade and slavery and so on, which were part of changing the political culture and the sense of what was politically possible. Given, therefore, that new technology enables millions of people to get in touch with us directly on a wide range of issues, it is right that we make these arrangements.

I also join in paying tribute not only to the Procedure Committee, which has done outstanding work on this subject, but to my right hon. Friend the Member for South Cambridgeshire for strongly supporting this system when he was Leader of the House and for making it simple and straightforward for me to continue with that support. The system that has been running in this Parliament, which the Government established after 2010, can be considered very successful. I think that more than 10 million individuals have signed one or more of 32,000 e-petitions, more than 150 of which have reached 10,000 signatures and received a formal response from the Government. To date, 37 e-petitions have reached 100,000 signatures, making them eligible to be considered for debate, and 31 of those have so far been debated, either in the Chamber or Westminster Hall, with one more planned for debate next month. It is a straightforward means by which people can submit a petition, raise an issue and press for action. As the hon. Member for Dunfermline and West Fife (Thomas Docherty) just said, we have seen important debates as a result—Hillsborough is a good example, but also on the badger cull, Sophie’s choice, female genital mutilation and so on. These were important debates in which there was no shortage of Members wishing to take part and which provided among the most constructive and memorable debates this Parliament.

Last May, the House agreed unanimously to a motion supporting the establishment of a collaborative e-petitions system, and since that debate, the Procedure Committee has been working hard to bring to the House proposals for such a system. The motion is the result of that work, and I am grateful for how the Committee has engaged with officials in my office and from the Government Digital Service in reaching its conclusions. The fact that the current Government system has worked so well is reflected in the Committee’s recommendation that the joint system be based on the existing Government e-petition site, redesigned and rebranded to show that it is jointly owned by the House and the Government. I support that approach. The use of a platform already developed will save time and minimise the costs of the new system.

The Procedure Committee recommends some useful changes to the process of e-petitioning, as my hon. Friend the Member for Broxbourne set out. I need not go through them in detail, but the changes requiring an additional five signatures to that of the creator of a petition before moderation and standardising the duration of petitions to six months are sensible changes. The most significant recommendation in this, the big enchilada, as he described it—not the words I was going to use to describe this important reform—is the creation of a Petitions Committee. It will be a major change and should be the catalyst for a fundamental change in the relationship between Parliament and the petitioner. The greater range of available outcomes and the use of House staff to moderate e-petitions should all improve the engagement of this House with petitioners. All those things will be a very important step forward.

There will be a cost to the House in agreeing the motion—those costs were set out by my hon. Friend—but there is agreement, certainly among the Front Benches, that the establishment of a new Committee will require us to consider a corresponding reduction elsewhere. However, that will be a decision for the new Parliament, which is now not far away. In response to the question about the Government’s mitigating the costs, it has been agreed that we will share the costs. That will certainly mitigate the cost to the House, and my hon. Friend set out the precise numbers involved.

If the House approves the motion, the necessary changes to Standing Orders will be implemented at the start of the next Parliament. The current Government e-petition site will close when Parliament is dissolved on 30 March. The aim will be to establish the new site as soon as possible after the election of the Chair and members of the new Petitions Committee at the start of the next Parliament, allowing time for the memorandum of understanding and terms and conditions for the site, as appended to the Procedure Committee report, to be agreed between the Petitions Committee, on behalf of the House, and the Government.

I urge all Members to support the motion.

Question put and agreed to.