Monday, 26 January 2009.
Local Democracy, Economic Development and Construction Bill [HL]
Committee (3rd Day)
If there is a Division in the Chamber while we are sitting, the Committee will adjourn as soon as the Division Bells are rung and will resume after 10 minutes.
Clause 5 : Provision of information
Amendments 63 and 64 not moved.
65: Clause 5, page 5, line 9, at end insert—
“( ) On request from the principal local authority, the bodies mentioned in sections 2 and 3 have a duty to provide to that authority the information necessary to allow the authority to comply with the duties in those sections.
( ) Such information shall be provided within a period of three months from the date of the request.”
In moving Amendment 65, I shall also speak to my Amendment 66 and to Clause 6 stand part. My noble friend Lady Hamwee has two or three amendments in the group. I am sure that we are all delighted to see her back; the rest of our entourage certainly is. This group of amendments relates to the duties on connected authorities to promote greater understanding of local democracy and to provide information on the guidance that the Bill makes provision for the Secretary of State to provide to principal local authorities in connection with those duties.
Amendment 65 would place a duty on connected authorities to provide the necessary information. Clause 5(3) says that the Secretary of State may impose,
“by order … requirements relating to the provision of information”.
My amendment says that this should be a duty and that the Bill should state this. It also states that the duty should require the connected authorities to provide information within three months. Amendment 66, which is consequential on Amendment 65, would provide the Secretary of State with the power to impose other requirements as per the Bill.
Many of us doubt whether the system will work because it will involve so many different connected authorities relating to the principal local authority. However, if it is to work, it is vital that this information should be provided. If it is not provided, the system simply will not work and it will be a waste of everyone’s time. It therefore seems fairly obvious that the requirement on connected authorities to provide the information should be a duty and that the Bill should state that it is a duty.
My noble friend has tabled an amendment to Clause 6 on the guidance. Given the kind of heavy guidance that will be provided under this provision—from what Ministers have said in debates on previous amendments—the clause is not necessary. The detail set out in the Bill is already quite prescriptive and, given the general requirement and duty on the principal local authority to do what is set out in the Bill, and given the parallel duty on connected authorities to provide information to the principal local authority, they can simply be left to get on with it. One hesitates to fear how much national guidance, and how much detail, there will be. Such guidance is simply not necessary and Clause 6 ought to be removed. The Government should stop trying to micromanage everything from the centre. I beg to move.
Before I speak to my amendments in this group, I should like to thank noble Lords for their kind messages last week—sometimes direct and sometimes through Hansard. As this is the first time that I have spoken at this stage of the Bill, I should declare a number of interests. I am one of the co-presidents of London Councils. Are we co-presidents or joint presidents?
I am very happy to be joint with the noble Lords, Lord Graham of Edmonton and Lord Jenkin of Roding. I was a member of the London Borough of Richmond upon Thames for 20 years, a member of the Greater London Authority for eight years, although it felt like 20 years, and I am a member of the advisory board of the Centre for Public Scrutiny. Those various positions have all informed my approach to the Bill.
I do not disagree with my noble friend in his observations on these two clauses, particularly his comment about central government micromanaging with guidance. My amendments are milder but were tabled in the same spirit. Amendment 76 would take out Clause 6(4), which says:
“A principal local authority must … have regard to … guidance”.
I accept that the amendment is not particularly sensible, as I suppose that, if there is to be guidance, an authority either has to have regard to it or has to be bound by it; of the two, I would rather that it simply had to have regard to it. We all know that, in the real world, cash tends to follow—
Perhaps that is not the best phrase to use today. Funding from central government to local authorities tends to be related to, whether explicitly or unadmittedly, guidance and the direction that central government wants local government to follow. Amendment 76 was tabled in that light.
My Amendment 74 would provide that, as well as guidance to local authorities, guidance should be provided to the bodies that are mentioned in Clauses 2, 3 and 4 about how they should contribute to the local authorities’ discharging of their duties. That is perhaps a more convoluted way of saying what my noble friend says with Amendment 65. I read Hansard from last week and I have to say that I am as puzzled as other noble Lords from this side of the Committee clearly were about what the bodies referred to in Clauses 2, 3 and 4 might be required to do that they are not already doing. The noble Baroness, Lady Warsi, rightly made a good deal of that point. What more can local authorities do to promote understanding of those other bodies? However, if there is to be a duty, those bodies need to be brought into the jigsaw to give the information.
Amendment 75 would provide that, before giving guidance, the Secretary of State or Welsh Ministers should consult not only the principal local authorities but also the connected authorities. One hopes that that would not need saying, but let me say it now so that, if we do not get anything in the Bill, we will at least get something in Hansard, which would be reassuring.
I welcome back the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee. She will have noted in Hansard our good wishes and the many references to her but also the fact that we have progressed at a very gentle pace.
These amendments draw attention to a loophole in relation to the provision of information under Clause 5. The clause suspends the duty for local authorities to promote understanding and information if the necessary information has not been made available by the relevant authority that holds that information. If a secondary authority is stubborn or disorganised for any reason, or for any other reason fails to provide the requested information, the duty on the principal local authority simply does not apply. Yet we were told in no uncertain terms by the Minister in our first Committee session that it was vital to have a duty, that we needed a duty and that a less stringent requirement, such as “have regard to”, would not be sufficient. Anything less than a duty would, we were told, be destructive. If this is so, are we to presume that in circumstances where Clause 5 comes into effect there will be a similarly destructive effect on the operation of the Bill?
Do not get me wrong: I understand the need for Clause 5. However, I am not sure that it sits easily with the Government’s protestations that the duty on local authorities is essential. None the less, by drawing in the connected authorities and placing a duty on them to provide information to the principal authority—as the amendments of the noble Lord, Lord Greaves, would achieve—we may end up with a series of cross duties. Does the Minister regard that as an appropriate solution to the loophole in relation to the primary duty under Clause 5, or does she believe that it would begin to create an onerous burden on authorities, which she says she is keen to avoid?
I am minded to look more enthusiastically on the amendments tabled by the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, which would place the onus on national authorities to provide guidance. I realise that I risk sounding like a broken record, for which I must apologise, but I feel that I ought to point out that the difficulty of fulfilling duties becomes less of a problem if we do not impose new duties in the first place.
I agree that Clause 6 should not stand part of the Bill. Clause 6 gives carte blanche for the appropriate national authority to start meddling. We might ask at this point who the appropriate national authority is. Will it be the Secretary of State? If so, the Executive are reserving to themselves the right to heap instructions on local authorities to which they must have regard. I am not convinced that Clause 6, when considered on top of the duties in Clauses 1 to 4, sits easily with what the Minister told the Committee during our first session, when she denied that the imposition of a duty in this part would be onerous. Having reread her words in Hansard, I note that she was careful not to say explicitly that she would ensure that the duty would be as light a burden on local authorities as possible. However, she said that she did not consider the duty onerous and that the benefit of having it was that it was “not overly prescriptive”. The Committee is aware that I do not agree with that assessment.
The Government’s claims are further undermined by Clause 6, which provides an open door for the Secretary of State, or whatever national authority it may be, to be as prescriptive as he or she likes. Local authorities will have to have regard to all that guidance. We do not—indeed, cannot—know what sort of guidance will be issued in the future, yet we are being asked to accept that the existing duties, plus future guidance, will not be overly prescriptive, a burden on local authorities or onerous. These Benches have trouble accepting that claim.
I welcome back the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee. It is good to have her back posing challenging questions.
This group of amendments comprises two specific parts. The first seeks to impose a duty on connected authorities and the second focuses on the need to have regard to statutory guidance. In the former, the noble Lord, Lord Greaves, wants to ensure that all those on the list of connected authorities will provide the requested information to the principal authorities by placing a statutory duty on them to do so, with a time limit of three months from the request. An additional point is that if at a later stage the noble Lord brings back the substance of Amendment 51, which we considered last week, this would include any bodies added to the list of connected authorities by the principal local authority.
There is little, if any, evidence that, where principal authorities are currently engaged in such activities, they have encountered resistance from the relevant organisations in providing them with the information that they seek. In discussion with representatives of these organisations prior to the introduction of the Bill, there was a general readiness to provide such information. Of course we cannot assume that all the organisations asked by principal authorities under their duty to promote democracy to provide the necessary information will invariably provide it, but the Bill makes allowance for this by giving the appropriate national authority the order-making power to impose requirements relating to the provision of information to principal authorities. Given that we want to minimise the imposition of new duties unless it is necessary, the Bill’s approach is preferable to adding another duty when there is no evidence to support the need for it. The amendment to introduce the additional duty is, therefore, on present evidence, not necessary.
We would argue that Amendments 74 and 75, tabled by the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, and the noble Lord, Lord Tope, to issue guidance on how to comply with this duty and to consult on that guidance, are also not needed. We would not seek to issue guidance where no duty exists. However, if local authorities and connected authorities want to develop their own best practice advice to guide local authorities and connected authorities, that is up to them. We would be happy to support this and help in whatever way we can. I should add, in response to the question put by the noble Baroness, that we would consult all stakeholders when producing any guidance, which would certainly include the connected authorities.
The noble Lord, Lord Greaves, proposes in Amendment 66 that the appropriate national authority should be able to impose requirements other than those relating to the provision of the relevant information covered in the Bill. However, in the context of the duty to promote democracy, it is not clear what other requirements we would want the appropriate national authority to have order-making powers to impose. Accordingly, this amendment would not meet any identifiable need.
I move to the question of whether councils should have regard to statutory guidance. Under Clause 6(1), the appropriate national authority, which would be the Secretary of State in England and Welsh Ministers in Wales, may give guidance to principal local authorities in relation to the discharge of their duties under Chapter 1. The guidance must be published and would apply to all local authorities in England, including county and district councils, London borough councils and the City of London. Wales will produce its own statutory guidance. The clause allows flexibility to produce guidance, which may apply generally or to one or more particular principal local authorities, and which must be consulted on.
Amendment 76 would remove the requirement under Clause 6(4) for principal local authorities to have regard to any guidance issued under subsection (1). To “have regard to” guidance does not mean “slavishly adhere to” it, in that the body taking the decision must genuinely have regard to the guidance, and certainly cannot ignore it. It may depart from it, but only if it has good reasons for doing so. The decision to be made remains its decision, to be taken in view of all the relevant circumstances. Moreover, as the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, acknowledged, the form of words used does not actually make a huge difference to whether the clause contains express provision for the principal local authorities to have regard to the guidance. Because the Secretary of State has the power to issue guidance to principal local authorities as to how to fulfil their duties, they would in any event be acting unlawfully if they failed to have regard to it.
It is important that these amendments have provoked a debate on the principle behind the provision of guidance, specifically on the point that councils should be able to decide for themselves what actions should be taken to fulfil their duties relating to the promotion of democracy. In the Bill, we have sought to achieve a balance between enabling councils to be clear about what they are required to do and overloading legislation with detail that is too prescriptive. We want to be able to provide help to councils in their new role and to make it easy for them to understand what is expected and to get on with taking that work forward. Traditionally, this has been done through guidance from the Government—incidentally, such guidance is often asked for by councils themselves—which assists councils as they begin to set themselves up for a new role. There is nothing sinister in that and it is certainly not unique to this legislation.
Our debates so far have absolutely proved the case for statutory guidance in relation to the duty to promote democracy. There have been multiple occasions in these sittings when we have pledged to ensure that the aims of the legislation are made clear to councils via the guidance, in response to requests for clarity from Members of the Committee.
Statutory guidance will help to ensure consistency of approach in terms of the information being provided, but I state for the record that, in exercising the powers under Clause 6, we envisage that the guidance issued by the Secretary of State will strike the appropriate balance between, on one hand, ensuring that the response by local authorities to the proposed duty is robust and consistent across England and, on the other, providing for local flexibility to take account of local circumstances. We do not intend to tell local authorities exactly what they must do. We will not be saying that they must deliver a leaflet to every property every year, or that they must arrange meetings with particular community groups on a regular basis. We intend the guidance to clarify the responsibilities that the clauses place on the different players and to suggest—and I mean suggest—some useful ways in which that might be done.
Statutory guidance could also demonstrate links between these duties and other legislation, such as the code of recommended practice on local authority publicity, which we discussed last week, and the Electoral Administration Act 2006. Statutory guidance would under Clause 6(3) be subject to public consultation, which we will undertake with the relevant people and bodies before it is finalised. In fact, we are already talking to the LGA about how it can be involved in its production. I therefore urge the noble Lord to withdraw his amendment.
Statutory guidance could cover a number of areas. I could go into some detail about each of them, but for the sake of time I will just briefly highlight the headline issues and, unless requested to do so, will not put lots of meat on the bones. We will be looking at how duties relating to the promotion of democracy link to other legislation; guidance on what information should be made available and what is meant by promoting understanding; the councillors’ role and the support and advice available to them; and what information connected authorities should provide to local authorities and the areas on which they should be probing. We will also be covering councils’ relationship with the connected authorities, how the duty will operate in two-tier areas—a recurring issue—and how to ensure that information is accessible. That brings us to the amendments tabled by the noble Lord, Lord Low, last week, to ensure that underrepresented groups, especially disabled people, are accessed, to consider what information they should have, and to urge those points more pressingly.
We made several specific pledges last week on subjects where Members of the Committee felt that clarification was needed. Statutory guidance will ensure that principal local authorities understand their responsibilities in those areas in promoting democracy. It will also facilitate consistency in the type of information provided to local people.
It may help the Committee to know our plans for producing the guidance and the consultation that will be involved. Subject to parliamentary approval, the proposals will be subject to further development and discussion with partners—all partners. The legislation will require us to consult the principal local authorities to which guidance is given, but we will of course ensure that all relevant bodies are consulted: principally, local government representatives such as the LGA family, those representing the parish sector and representatives of the connected authorities and of the roles covered in Clauses 3 and 4. The views of other partners, such as the community sector and representatives of those with specific accessibility requirements, who were mentioned, will also be sought.
Subject to parliamentary approval, we will formally consult on the draft guidance after Royal Assent, with a view to publishing the final guidance in 2010. To encourage a strong and innovative response to the duty, we also plan to encourage and support the local government sector to produce and promote best practice advice. We anticipate that that would include examples of current and future good practice on promoting democracy, advice on how best to reach and involve underrepresented groups, how the duties to promote democratic understanding can be embedded in all local authority activities and how councils can work most effectively with partner organisations. This will work in harmony with statutory guidance to ensure that councils have a clear idea of how the legislation works, what the requirements are and what their future responsibilities will be. I am of course aware that noble Lords have concerns about statutory guidance, but I am sure that they would not wish to see councils being unclear about how best to meet these duties and where their responsibilities lie.
The Minister has explained carefully how he sees the balance between guidance for and prescription to local authorities. However, I reiterate what I have said before, which is from the experience of being a local councillor some years ago and much more recently: I hope that the Government can really listen and try to understand that, the more prescription there is about what councils can and cannot do, the less likely people are to be attracted to coming into local government.
It is quite onerous these days to be a councillor—there are more duties, more things to do and more coming from the Government to keep abreast of. People are not willing to give up their time if they cannot be local leaders and lead as they think things should be led in their community, when all the time they are being asked to do things that are being sent down from the top. I hear what the Minister has said, but this is a serious issue. One of the reasons why people are not coming forward is that it is becoming too onerous and they cannot use their own imagination. As my noble friend Lord Greaves said last week, that stifles innovation in local government.
On the positive side, I was pleased to hear that the Government are going to use the Local Government Association to try to spread best practice. That is what we need to do, along with encouraging innovation, rather than telling people what to do. I am still concerned about that aspect of the Bill.
I, too, noted the reference to best practice advice. I will try not to anticipate what my noble friend might say, but I reiterate that best practice advice will be much more helpful than guidance. When I read last week’s Hansard, it seemed to be proved not that guidance was needed with regard to the duty but that the duty was not needed and was wrongly conceived.
The Minister mentioned that local authorities might produce guidance to connected authorities and Clause 3 and 4 bodies in helping them to work through how to fulfil the duty. He also said that local authorities can decide for themselves how to fulfil the duty. I have difficulty with that, given the oddness of the duty, but if anything comes out of this it will be a focus on best practice and on local authorities working together to produce guidance—call it that or call it something else—for those various bodies.
Sitting suspended for a Division in the House.
I have one final point. The noble Lord referred to the topics that might be covered in guidance. Like other noble Lords, I have had the benefit of seeing the policy document that lists the issues that might be covered. For me—and I suspect for others—what will be interesting is not the headings but the content, because that is what is puzzling us.
I thank the Minister for his response. I have a small point. He wondered why Amendment 66 had been tabled and thought that I was trying to extend the powers of the Secretary of State. That is not so; it is there simply because it would restrict the scope of the requirements that the Secretary of State might impose through the order. My intention was to put two requirements—that information had to be provided and that it had to be done within three months—in the Bill, with the rest of the requirements that could be imposed as the Bill stands still in there. That is a detail.
The Minister referred to those local authorities that already carry out the requirements of this chapter—in other words, those that promote understanding of local democracy as set out in this chapter. I would be very interested indeed to know which local authorities the Government believe are already doing this, because I do not know of any that are already doing this in the way that is set out in the Bill. Obviously, many local authorities provide a lot of information, but I do not know of any that provide information on the scale and in the way that is set out here.
I would be interested if the Minister would write and give us a list of authorities that the Government think are already doing this, through best practice perhaps, and we could look at what they are doing and perhaps understand a bit more about the regime that might apply to the whole country. Would that be possible?
The noble Lord raises an important point. We were referring to the principal local authorities that are liaising fairly regularly with their connected authorities and promoting the information that they are providing. Certainly, we will look at some specific examples and, if possible, write to the noble Lord on that point.
While I am speaking, it is important to acknowledge the point made by the noble Baroness, Lady Maddock, about guidance suffocating innovation. I take that point on board, because it is important. Any form of bureaucracy, or what is seen to be prescription, does stifle innovation. We certainly do not wish to do that. I know that there is a fine balance between prescription and trying to offer some clarification. We have used the phrase “light-touch guidance”, and we are genuinely trying to achieve that. We want a real balance in offering clarification that would be helpful and that would be light touch and not stifle innovation in the process.
I am grateful for the Minister’s assurance that he will try to do that. We will be interested to see which authorities he comes up with, because we do not think that many would fit into this. We shall be fascinated to see the list and, if there are some authorities doing this, we will be interested to talk to their members to see exactly what they are doing and how they are doing it.
On the list of connected authorities, the Minister suggested that there would be no real problem in their providing information. Not all the authorities in the list of connected authorities that we considered last week appear to be the best at providing information when it is asked for by anyone, whether it is the local authority or anyone else. Some of those bodies do not seem very good at providing information. That is why these proposals were tabled, but we shall see.
On the question of prescription, we have already made it clear that we would prefer this part of the Bill to be much shorter. The problem, once again, is that once you start to prescribe, it is difficult to stop. When the Government want to prescribe they say, “It is necessary and vital and it will not work without it”, and where they do not want to prescribe they say, “We do not want to overburden people with lots of detail”. The argument never seems to get past the question of why the particular detail has to be in or cannot be in. We will come on to that later when we talk about petitions.
Guidance to local authorities is far too often regarded on all sides as being instructions. I thought that the Minister made a fairly sinister statement when he said that the aims of legislation will be made clear in the guidance. That is what we are used to, but it is still sinister and it is still top-down prescription, because the councils are told, “This is the aim of the legislation, so you’ve got to do it”. Then he said, “We do not intend to tell local authorities what they must do”. The two do not tally at all.
When the Minister read out what would be in the guidance, I thought, “This is dreadful. It sounds as if the document is going to be the size of a telephone directory, full of information about what people have to do and how they have to do it”. I started to wonder how many civil servants it will take to carry out the process of putting the information together and producing the guidance.
When the local authorities receive the document, how many extra staff will they need in order to do all this? This kind of thing requires staff resources; it can be quite staff-intensive, particularly when you are negotiating with a wide range of other bodies. I thought, “If the main body doing this in Lancashire will be Lancashire County Council, that will mean another couple of staff—at least one, and probably two—to be employed by the county council to do this work”. Is that the priority in this detail?
From the headings in the guidance that the Minister read out, the Government are proposing top-down detailed micromanagement where, as my noble friend rightly forecast, I would much prefer best practice advice. However, there will be both, which means that the Local Government Association is going to have to employ someone to produce the best practice advice, on top of the civil servants employed by the Government to produce the detailed micromanagement that is going to go out. The more you send out, the more people will have to be employed by local authorities to understand it and carry it out. That is the way it works. A mini-bureaucracy—perhaps not so mini—is being set up here to do something that starts off by promoting the local understanding of democracy but ends up potentially being a big new bureaucracy across the country. I hope that the Government will think again about some of this, but for now I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment 65 withdrawn
Amendments 66 and 67 not moved.
68: Clause 5, page 5, line 19, leave out subsection (5) and insert—
“( ) In a county in which there is both a county council and district councils—
(a) the county council has a duty to collect the information required by sections 2 and 3 from the authorities and bodies described in those sections; and (b) a district council may collect such information on behalf of the county council or otherwise.”
I shall also speak to the other amendments in the group, Amendments 69, 70 and 71. They probe the relationship between district councils and county councils in two-tier areas. Amendment 68 would amend Clause 5, which, as it stands, particularly in subsections (5) and (6), sets out quite a complex relationship—it took quite a long time to read and reread it to understand what it was saying. I think that I am right in saying that in a two-tier area the county council will have the duty to collect information and a requirement initially to provide that information, and that the district councils’ responsibility will basically be to provide to members of the public the information that has been collected and passed on to them by the county council. I am glad that the Minister is nodding, not because I agree with the clause—I do not—but because it means that at least I have understood it, which is always a first step.
Amendment 68 would turn the process around a little bit, or would at least make it rather more flexible. It would not alter the basic responsibility that lies with the county council but says that the district council may undertake some of the task of collecting information from connected authorities, doing so either because it has been agreed between the district and the county that the district is the sensible authority to collect that information, perhaps because it is more local and has more local connections in relation to the information that has a local dimension, or because the districts feel that the information that they have been provided with by the county council is inadequate in so far as it relates to organisations, authorities or the system that exists within their area—for example, in relation to their LSP—and wish to collect it themselves and improve and enhance the information that they have received from the county council.
Of course there are county local strategic partnerships and health service organisations such as PCTs and hospital trusts that cover substantial parts of the county where it is sensible for the county council to carry out the collection of the information, but surely it is also sensible, where an LSP is closely involved with the district council on a daily basis, that the district council should be the body to collect the information. Equally, let us look at bodies that are clearly connected to a local authority and offer opportunities for members of the public to get involved in local democratic structures, but which operate at the town or even more local level. For example, in our meeting last week, I read out a list of organisations in Colne, where I live, all of which have a close connection with the district council and some also with the county council. If this is to be a sensible list of connected authorities, one that gives people information on how they can get involved, these bodies will have to be included on it. If they are not, the main opportunities at the local level will not be on the list.
People might be told how they can get involved with, say, the Homes and Communities Agency—we are all waiting with fascinated anticipation to see how that will work—or they may be told how to get involved with the local primary care trust if they are lucky enough to become a member of it, but they will not be able to find out how to get involved with the kind of local organisation where someone can simply turn up and become a part of it in the space of a week. That is my point. In many areas it is the district council that knows about these organisations far better than the county council. If the county has the duty, it will not be carried out as well. Amendment 68 provides only that the district council “may” do this; if it does not want to use resources on it, it does not have to. However, it is given a more positive involvement in the process than that currently provided in the Bill.
I turn to a curiosity that I do not quite understand. Subsection (6)(a) states that the county council has to pass on to the district council any relevant information,
“at least once a year”.
However, paragraph (b) states that, when it has done that, any changes have to be notified straightaway. That seems odd; indeed, these two paragraphs do not seem to be in line with each other. Once the initial scheme has been set up, which will not tally with “once a year” but with when the information is first handed over, the county council ought to be under a duty to pass on further information within a reasonable period of having gathered it, otherwise what the district hands out or publishes on its website will not be up to date; you could have a situation where the county’s information says one thing and the district’s another.
Amendment 70 probes the meaning of the words,
“in relation to which the district council also has a duty under that section”.
I do not understand what that means. Will the district council have a duty in relation to organisations that affect its area but not organisations that affect a different area and are not countywide? In other words, are we talking about information that affects everybody in the county or the region plus information relevant to the district? Is it geographical or is it to do with functions? Are we saying that district councils are responsible for passing over some information related to district council functions but not that related to county council functions? The phrase,
“in relation to which the district council also has a duty under that section”,
needs to be made clearer if people are to understand what it means.
Finally, Amendment 71 is consequential on my Amendment 68 and means simply that the duty on the county council to pass information to the district would also apply to the district to pass information to the county if the district were collecting information either on behalf of the county or otherwise.
The Minister may say that what I propose would make things more complicated. I do not think that it would; I think that it would make the whole information-collecting system much more efficient and more likely to include organisations and bodies that people feel they have a genuine affinity with and which they feel give them a genuine chance of getting involved, rather than the rather dim and distant prospect of becoming a member of the Homes and Communities Agency or even the primary care trust. I beg to move.
I am pleased to be able to say to the noble Lord, Lord Greaves, that I have more sympathy with this amendment than I did with his amendments in the previous group. If the duties in Part 1 are to become law, the Government should recognise the importance of district councils and the key role that they play in promoting democracy. However, I also understand why we would not like to see any unnecessary duplication. The noble Lord’s amendment could allow duplication, however inadvertently. Nevertheless, I welcome the opportunity that he has created to allow the Committee to look at the role of district councils. I am interested to hear more from the Government on how they have considered the role of district councils and how they envisage the interaction of district councils and county councils in this part, and indeed in later parts, of the Bill.
The amendments explore how districts fit into the arrangements for the provision of information about connected authorities and the roles covered in Clauses 3 and 4. The noble Lord, Lord Greaves, makes an important point about district and town-level bodies. That is why districts have a responsibility to promote understanding of their democratic arrangements, which could well mean the local neighbourhood bodies to which he referred and the need for people to understand them. I have said in previous debates that districts, which are often closer and more in touch with the needs of local people, are a vital part of local government and have a vital role to play in relation to this duty and, indeed, to petitions in the next chapter.
It may help if I briefly outline for the record how the duty works in relation to districts and counties, so that we have some clarity. The duty applies to districts as well as to counties, which means that if citizens go to districts for the information it should be available. Counties will be required to explain how district councils work and what their councillors do, and vice versa—districts will have to explain about counties. To avoid duplication, the duty ensures that, in two-tier areas, the county will take on the burden of collecting the information from the connected authorities and will be required to pass this on to the districts. Should the county not pass the information on to the district, the district will not be deemed to have failed in its duty in subsections (5) and (6)(c). There is, of course, nothing to prevent the districts from obtaining and passing on information themselves if they want to. We have deliberately structured the provisions to enable district councils to play a full part in promoting understanding of democracy without overburdening their resources and leading to numerous duplicated requests for information from connected authorities.
Amendments 68 to 71 seek to do a number of things. I will address each one in turn. The first half of Amendment 68 seeks to make it explicit in the legislation that the duty is on the county to collect the relevant information. As I have said, we believe this to be the effect of the clause. However, I listened carefully to what the noble Lord has said. We take his point seriously. We will consider this further and come back to it on Report.
The second half of the amendment specifies that districts may collect the information either for themselves or on behalf of the county. As always, the noble Lord recognises the very active role that many districts play in two-tier areas and how some may want to be proactive in taking on that role. We recognise the role of districts and agree that they should not be prevented from playing their full part in the duties relating to the promotion of democracy if they wish to. For that reason, nothing in the legislation as drafted would prevent districts from taking on that role if they so desire. Therefore, the provision is unnecessary. We would prefer to address the issue in guidance.
In the same vein, Amendment 71 states that, where a district takes on that role, the same conditions should apply to it as to a county when it collects information. Those conditions are that the information must be passed to the other tier at least once a year—although I am about to refer to another amendment that would remove that time limit—and that any changes of which the collecting body is notified should be passed to the other tier. As we have intentionally provided for the counties to disseminate information to the districts to avoid unnecessary burdens on either district councils or connected authorities, to put any duty on the district to pass on the information could open the door to unnecessary duplication and waste of public money. We therefore do not agree with that amendment, or with Amendment 68.
The third amendment, Amendment 69, as I just mentioned, would remove the requirement that information be passed from counties to districts at least once a year. We understand the intention, but I suggest that a requirement of providing information at least once a year unless updated information is provided is far from excessive and ensures that the information being promoted is regularly updated. The emphasis is on at least once a year; if there is a new function that affects connected authorities or a new initiative, that information should be passed on, and we expect that to be done immediately or as soon as possible.
Lastly, Amendment 70 would remove some of the text that clarifies that counties must pass to districts information received for the purposes of Clauses 2, 3 or 4 in relation to which the district council also has a duty. The amendment would remove the latter part of the clause. That would appear to have the effect of requiring counties to pass to districts all the information that they collect, rather than only information relevant to that district.
We understand the noble Lord’s intentions: he may feel that it is more appropriate for districts to determine what information is relevant to provide to their citizens, because they are closer to local communities. However, we think it necessary to be clear that the duty is about promoting understanding of the matters that are relevant to the people in the area. We do not want to burden districts by expecting them to trawl through information that might not be relevant to their area at all, to find which bits are relevant. Again, there is nothing to prevent districts from requesting information that they feel that the county has not passed on that is of import or relevance to them. The duty is therefore framed in that way and the money is being allocated to counties and districts on that basis. Counties have more resources and infrastructure to be able to plough through that information and ensure that districts have the information that they need.
I hope that my clarifications have helped and that the noble Lord will feel able to withdraw the amendment.
I fear that the Minister’s comments have again prompted me to intervene. I think that he said that district councils are a vital part of local democracy, yet the Government’s previous legislation means that, in the whole of the north-eastern region, after 31 March there will be no district councils. I have long held the view that the Government do not have a very coherent approach to local government and local democracy, and that statement proves it.
I am again grateful to the Minister for giving me a detailed response, but I am not sure that he answered my basic question: what are matters relevant to the district? Are they matters relevant to someone living in the district, either because they are wider matters that cover the whole area or because they specifically refer to the district? Is it essentially a geographical matter, or is it a matter that is thought to be relevant to a district because of the functions that a district council carries out, as opposed to the functions that everyone else carries out?
In other words, if a member of the public is going to the district for this information, will they get the same information as far as it affects them and is relevant to them as if they went to the county? At the county, they could also access all the information for the rest of the county. For example, someone living in Skipton is not going to be interested in information that is relevant to Scarborough. They will be interested in information that is relevant to the whole of North Yorkshire and perhaps beyond, but the districts would be Craven and Ryedale, and there clearly would be a subset of the total information in the county. Is it a subset based on where you live, so that you can go to the headquarters of Craven District Council in Skipton and get all the information that you are likely to need because you live in that district? Is that the case?
Yes, which is why we then go on to the belief that the council that is probably most efficient and effective in collecting information about bodies connected to itself is the district council. This is the argument that we were discussing earlier.
The Minister said that there is nothing to prevent the district from obtaining and passing on information. Although this is one of the things that the Minister says he prefers to have in the guidance, because he does not want to encumber the legislation with detailed prescription—again it is not clear where or why the boundary lies, but that is always the case here—presumably it would be sensible in any particular county for the county to get together with the districts and decide who is going to do what and what support they will give each other. Are the Government setting their face against that?
That seems to be a step forward. As far as the point in subsection (6) is concerned, I do not think that it is clear. Clause 5(6)(a) uses the words,
“at least once a year”,
while Clause 5(6)(b) uses the words “at any time”. There seems to be a difference between those. The clause should say that, once an initial scheme is drawn up, the information should be passed to the district straightaway—there is no point waiting a year. If the system is going to be that if at any time the county council is notified of any changes it must inform the district council accordingly, that is what should happen. The wording,
“at least once a year”,
should not be there. Perhaps the Government will look at that.
I do not claim to be the most intelligent person in the world, but I am not the thickest either, and a lot of people, like me, will take a long time to find out what that all means. I ask quite sincerely that, because it took me so long to work out what subsections (5) and (6) mean, those subsections should be rewritten in plain English to make clear what is going to happen, in a way that anyone reading it will understand. It may be too much to ask for that in legislation, but I am an idealist, after all. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment 68 withdrawn.
Amendments 69 to 71 not moved.
Clause 5 agreed.
72: After Clause 5, insert the following new Clause—
A principal local authority must within a year of the implementation of the provisions in this Chapter conduct an impact assessment of the costs and benefits accrued under those provisions.”
I shall speak also to Amendment 135. This group of amendments is designed simply to ensure that principal local authorities assess the true impact of the provisions on petitions and on the duty to promote democracy. Early on, the Minister indicated that the Bill was, among other things, a response to the economic situation that the country currently faces. Could she confirm whether this is part of the much-advertised job creation scheme referred to by the Prime Minister?
We on these Benches are not content to rely on the Government’s predictions about the costs and benefits of these provisions. Their own impact assessment is just that—a prediction based on a series of assumptions. It is logical that we should assess how the provisions of the Bill work in reality. Will the Minister explain a little more about the assessments that the Government have made? How much do they think these new duties will cost local authorities? How have those assessments been made?
We know that each year the Government introduce countless new obligations on local authorities but rarely provide appropriate sums of money to compensate them for these extra undertakings. Will the Minister confirm how long the Government intend to provide funding to local authorities for the additional duties within the Bill? How, in this economic climate, can local authorities expect to find this money? Will it be redirected from other areas? There is a real danger that the money identified in the Government’s impact assessment will be wrapped up in the overall settlement package for local authorities, meaning that in real terms local government once again loses out.
Local authorities have a duty to ensure that value for money is achieved across the board. It should be no different in this area. Without understanding the true costs and benefits, it is difficult to see how local authorities can make an accurate value-for-money valuation. The Bill has the potential to introduce significant new costs for local authorities. The proposed new clauses in these amendments would ensure that real cost was identified and that the Government’s own assessment was interrogated by empirical evidence. I beg to move.
The short impact assessment, which is part of the Explanatory Notes, tells us that the duties in Chapter 1 of Part 1 will have an annual net cost of £22.3 million, which is an assumption or a prediction, as the noble Baroness has just said. I would be interested to know how that can be a net cost. What is the gross cost? What would be taken off to arrive at a net figure? Indeed, is that possible?
The Government rightly point to what they call the “non-monetised” benefits. It is hard to know where these are on the credit and debit side, or how much they should be. Do the Government propose to seek to collate information to see whether their assumptions have been correct? I would not want to see extra staff engaged by the local authorities on this exercise.
I have one small point on the amendment itself, which is not intended to be opposition to the arguments that the noble Baroness has made. I doubt whether it would be possible to conduct an impact assessment within a year. I think that one would have to wait until after the end of a full financial year. That is a small point, however, in the middle of the wider issue.
The noble Baroness, Lady Andrews, will recall that at an earlier stage of these proceedings I alluded to her forecasts about the state of the economy when we were dealing with the Housing and Regeneration Bill, which I fear have not turned out to be exactly as she predicted. I have not yet looked up the precise text; since the Committee last met, I have been to two funerals in different parts of the country, and you cannot get everything done. But my recollection—this is a recollection only, as I have not looked up the text—is that the Minister was extremely optimistic about the number of houses that were going to be built, and saw no reason for my pessimism. Again, my view seems to have been justified by events. I am not suggesting for a moment that I would be so unchivalrous as to take down what the Minister says on this subject and use it subsequently in evidence against her but, on the basis of the cases that I have identified, I shall listen very closely to what she says.
In declaring my interest as leader of a local authority, I reassure the Committee that if somebody asked me for more staff to implement the Bill’s provisions, they would be laughed at. Frankly, it would not happen. I do not know what kind of local government world the noble Lord, Lord Greaves, occupies, but we are not like that anymore. We are concerned about keeping down council tax, working out what we are going to do with regard to the next Comprehensive Spending Review and making sure that we protect our front-line services. Duties on local authorities come and go. Clearly, there will be a duty to set up this measure and get it going but, once that has happened, it will fall back and the task will become fairly routine. Life in local authorities is no longer as the noble Lord describes; we have to deal with real-world situations. I did not hear the noble Baroness, Lady Warsi, say how she intends to measure benefits. What would she regard as the benefit of giving people information that enables them to be better citizens? It sounds simple in practice but I am not sure how she would measure it.
I can respond very briefly to the noble Lord, Lord Smith of Leigh, as I agree with him that most local authorities will not employ extra staff to implement the measure. However, if they are going to implement it, they will have to have staff to do so, which means that those staff will not be doing whatever else they might have been doing. Are they already surplus to requirements, in which case why are they there? If they are not, other jobs will not be done. I am not sure that I have the great confidence that he has with regard to Lancashire County Council. However, that might arise from my prejudices in relation to the body of which I was a member for 25 years. However, if people think that our district council will employ extra staff to implement the measure, they have another think coming.
I start by replying to the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Brooke, as he has raised it twice in Committee. He had the gift of prescience which eluded practically every economist in the western world, eluded every Government and certainly eluded me and my department in the early part of last year. I wish that we were not in this situation and that I had been wrong. However, like everyone else, I used the information at my disposal at the time. It would be extremely nice if we did not have to face up to, battle with and accommodate a serious situation for our economy and our society.
However, I leave that aside and address the important issues raised by the noble Baroness, Lady Warsi, about the costs and benefits of the duties relating to the promotion of democracy and the requirements in relation to petitions. We think that this measure is sufficiently important; if we did not, we would not be bringing forward the Bill with its new duties. It is important for us to fund those duties, because they will constitute new burdens on local authorities, and for us to do that to the best of our ability.
I shall explain why we have arrived at our assessments. I take the point that both my noble friend Lord Smith and the noble Lord, Lord Greaves, made, which was that we are in a different landscape with different challenges facing local authorities. Nevertheless, this is a Bill for the long term. It is about changing a closed culture and trying to ensure that in the next 10 to 20 years local government and local democracy are more fit for purpose, more representative of the people whom they serve and more responsive to the needs of the whole community. Just as in 1902 we created county councils and introduced new, radical structures, local government is evolving.
I got the date wrong, by the sound of it, but I remember that there was significant development in local government in 1902. My point is that local government must go on evolving. It has had many different challenges in recent years, and we must try to identify them and respond to them. I know that the parties opposite understand that, too.
Amendment 72 would insert a new clause after Clause 5 that required each of the 410 local authorities in England and Wales to carry out impact assessments of the costs and benefits of the provisions set out in the duties. Amendment 135 would insert a new clause after Clause 20 that would require every local authority in England and Wales to carry out an impact assessment of the costs and benefits of the petitions duty. Noble Lords are concerned about the new burdens that will fall on local authorities, and I appreciate these concerns. However, we have fully costed those new burdens, as we are required to do, and they are being fully funded. I will come in due course to how that will happen.
Obviously I agree that all government policy must be backed up by sound evidence and revisited at intervals to measure the success of the policy. We are serious about monitoring, but the amendments would place another, significant burden on each council to carry out this work. That would require additional and dedicated staff resources and incur substantial costs. We must be satisfied that the benefits of such specific requirements would be sufficiently great to justify them. I do not believe that they would be for several reasons, but primarily because we will, as a matter of course, review the impact of these duties after implementation. We will seek feedback from a range of stakeholders, including local authorities, on how the provisions have worked in practice.
As I have said, in the long term we expect the composition of the councils, PCTs and connected authorities to look different and to have a more representative culture, with a wider range of people interested and involved in active and civic roles. It will take time; it certainly cannot be accomplished in a year. The amendments go very much against what noble Lords regularly profess—that requirements on councils should be light-touch. They would certainly not meet that requirement. Nor do they fit with our Better Regulation agenda not to impose new administrative requirements on local authorities.
The amendments are obviously designed, as the noble Lord and the noble Baroness, Lady Warsi, said, to probe how we have arrived at the costs and how we will measure success. On the costs, one of the main aims of the policies is to make it clearer to the public how principal local authorities deal with petitions, for example. We will monitor councils’ websites and their success in responding to petitions, and we will monitor quantitative data through the citizenship survey and the place survey. On the duty to promote democracy, we are discussing with the Audit Commission how the comprehensive performance assessment can be accommodated within that general framework. We are having serious discussions about how we can measure success.
In the regulatory impact assessment, we costed this at £22.3 million a year. That costing was worked out, as noble Lords would expect, with the Local Government Association and local authorities; the figure was not plucked out of the air. The assumption was that it works out at about £86,000 for each county and unitary authority, which provides the equivalent of two employees and a publication budget, and £45,000 for each district authority. That is going into the rate support grant. This is how much we think it will cost to fulfil this duty. I will come on to net and gross costs in a moment, but I may have to write to the noble Baroness as I do not have the information to hand.
How will local authorities achieve that? It will be up to them, but we have committed to meeting the costs, and we certainly will meet the costs that arise in relation to that duty. It is new money. The cost benefits will be found in the achievement of what we are trying to do in the Bill overall, which is to challenge local authorities—it is a challenge—to do their business differently and to provide the sorts of services in the future that may be more transparent and responsive to the diversity of needs and ambitions in the community.
I am not sure that I have answered all the questions; if I have not done so, I shall certainly provide additional information in writing. On the net cost, we have to put our hands up here and say that the wording is rather loose. I say to the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee—it is very nice to see her back, although her questions are inevitably forensic—that there is no gross cost. The question that she usefully raised can be answered in that sense. I apologise for that. We will make sure that, whatever form it has to take, we will get it right.
I apologise that I was not here at the beginning; I hope that the noble Baroness will accept an intervention from me. A lot of local authorities have the grant floor in relation to the revenue support grant. When money is put in for new legislation or improvements, we do not get it; we get only a certain amount of grant, and that is it. Although the noble Lord, Lord Smith, said that this will not cost anything, it will cost something, and something will have to go because of it. Therefore, whatever the noble Baroness says about extra money going in, authorities like mine get none of it. I hope that the Government will remember that when new legislation, however small, is loaded on to us, we have to fund it from what we have, and that is it.
I know the pain that the redistribution formula causes. Essex is a relatively wealthy local authority, but there are much poorer local authorities with poorer resources where this will be a welcome addition to what they have to do by way of a duty. We are committed to measuring the success of all the new policies in this legislation. We said in the RIA that we would be reviewing the impact within three years of the implementation date and I am sure that noble Lords will watch that carefully.
I thank the Minister for her reply. There is some detail that I might have to come back to, so I shall read Hansard and we may well return to this. My initial position was that the duty discussed so far was not required, and I shall be arguing that in relation to petitions. We on these Benches have no desire to place extra burdens on local authorities, but if we are going to go down the route of placing duties and having requirements on local authorities, surely we must see what difference those duties and requirements are making. The question raised by the noble Lord, Lord Smith, was right: what benefit are we going to be looking at? The benefit would be to see the purpose of the Bill achieved—to get more local communities involved, to provide further information and for the composition of these bodies and local authorities to look different. There has to be some assessment of whether that benefit has been achieved. I argue that it should be achieved within a short time, because, despite the assurances given by the noble Baroness about new money becoming available, I question how long the money will be available for. At this stage, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment 72 withdrawn.
Amendment 73 not moved.
Clause 6 : Guidance
Amendments 74 to 76 not moved.
Clause 6 agreed.
Clause 7 agreed.
Amendment 76A not moved.
Clause 8 agreed.
Clause 9 : Interpretation
Amendments 76B and 77 not moved.
Clause 9 agreed.
Clause 10 : Electronic petitions
78: Clause 10, page 6, line 33, at end insert—
“( ) A refusal under subsection (2) may only be made on the grounds that—
(a) the petition would not be a valid petition, or(b) the wording is offensive or contravenes an enactment, or calls for anything that is unlawful.”
We are on to Chapter 2. Clause 10 is the first clause about petitions, which may detain us for an hour or two. There are a number of general points that I want to make about petitions to avoid having to make them all individually on every amendment, but I will wait until the next group, which is very substantive, to make them. Clause 10 is specifically about electronic petitions, so it seems sensible to talk about them at this point.
I congratulate the Government on putting forward in Clause 10 a concise proposal, which effectively takes up only four lines, for a system that is a model of what the rest of Part 1 of the Bill could do. There is very little detail and little top-down prescription. The Bill simply says:
“A principal local authority must provide a facility for making petitions in electronic form to the authority”,
and that it,
“must give reasons for not granting a request to use the facility provided by it under this section”.
That is it. The rest of the clause just defines which local authorities it applies to and what a “petition facility” means. That is what the rest of the Bill ought to be like—certainly Part 1. It could even be put forward as guidance for the Government on how to do these things. Still, local authorities are able to do what is in Clause 10 already so it is arguable that even these four lines are not necessary.
The Minister will chide me for trying to put another five lines into the Bill, but Amendment 78 probes on what basis petitions made by means of the e-petition facility should not be accepted. I suggest, first, that the petition would not be a valid petition as defined in the rest of this part and, secondly, that the wording was offensive, was against the law or called for something that would be against the law. There are a number of instances throughout the petition parts of the Bill where we can debate reasons for refusing to accept a petition, but this is a good summary of what they should be.
Amendment 79 is another probing amendment. It states:
“Nothing in this section prevents a principal local authority from … allowing the use of its internet facilities for petitions other than those made under”,
their e-petition scheme, or from,
“using its internet facilities for the purposes of consultation with local people”.
It seems to be common sense that that would be the case and that writing this down should not be necessary, but one of the fears about this legislation is that authorities that are not really interested and do not want to do this—that is, the authorities that the Government tell us this legislation is aimed at, rather than those that are doing good things already, but we will come on to that—will treat the Government’s schemes as not the minimum necessary but the maximum and will not do anything else. They will use them as an excuse not to accept other things.
This amendment would provide that, if the council wanted to use its internet facilities for petitions that would not qualify as valid petitions under its petition scheme, it would not be restricted from being able to do so. Indeed, in all the copious guidance the size of a telephone directory that they are going to give authorities, the Government will tell them that these provisions should not be used as a means to restrict what happens and to prevent other things from happening, or merely to do what has to be done as a minimum. That is a fairly important subtext that runs through many of the amendments to this part of the Bill.
The final amendment in the group, Amendment 101, simply probes the question of methods of authentication of signatures on a petition, particularly why they need to be different from those used on ordinary petitions. People sign an ordinary petition and there is a signature, which is not the case for an e-petition. The amendment seeks to confirm that the Government do not intend authentication to be particularly restrictive or onerous, or to require great technical ability. People should simply be able to give their name and address and leave it at that. I beg to move.
I should like to use my noble friend’s objection to Clause 10 standing part of the Bill to ask a couple of questions, but I should say that, like my noble friend, I feel that the provisions covering petitions could be set out in a very few lines; indeed, the amendments in my name in the next grouping are my suggested design to achieve that end. I have already indicated to the Minister a number of questions on this chapter and I am grateful for her long letter in answer to those. However, it might be useful to put some of her responses on the record. In asking these questions again, I do not in any way dismiss the Minister’s letter.
I asked why the Greater London Authority was not included in this provision. It would not be necessary to differentiate between the functions and method of operation of the GLA and those of other principal local authorities—because the GLA is not a local authority—if there were simply an outline framework scheme for petitions. I understand that the Secretary of State could add the GLA to the scheme but does not plan to do so. The Minister asked whether I wanted to see the GLA included and my response is that I do not particularly want it to be; rather, I want to tease out the differences. The London Assembly, which is the overview and scrutiny arm of the GLA, recognised very quickly after its formation in 2000 that petitions would be presented to the authority but that members of the public would not know to whom they should be addressed. The Assembly, of which my noble friend Lord Tope and I were members, adopted a procedure whereby the Assembly was asked to agree whether it would accept a petition—there is a public function here that fits in with the Government’s approach. In almost every case, the subject matter of the petition was not something that the Assembly could deal with, so it would simply agree to pass it on. That is important.
My second question was why it is impossible simply to include electronic petitions in the other provisions for petitions. I understand that the council needs as a first step to consider whether to host the petition. Why is that? I assume that it may be something to do with it being unlawful or inappropriate, which is what my noble friend seeks to address in Amendment 78.
Will my noble friend clarify the position of trade unions and their representatives and their ability to have input and make representations using these provisions? In general, my friends in the trade union movement are concerned—although that may not be the right word. Trade union members are members of the general public; they have a point of view and a vested interest in ensuring that local democracy participation works well and they think that they can make a good contribution. For instance, Unison, which represents hundreds of thousands of workers in the local government sphere, would be interested to know whether my noble friend and the department envisage a proper, secure place for trade unions, recognising that they are mature and responsible and have a part to play. It may not be a big deal. My noble friend may be able to say that that is possible under the normal procedures, but it would be helpful if she could assure the Committee that it is in the Government’s mind that the trade unions affected have a part to play and will be consulted.
I am overwhelmed by the welcome that the noble Lord, Lord Greaves, has given the clause in both its purpose and its drafting. I am delighted, because it is good to get on to Part 2.
I will reserve my explanation of the principles behind the provision and our problems with what perhaps I may call the short version. I shall save all that up for the next amendment and respond just on why e-petitions are important, why they are in the Bill in the way they are and how, in response to the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, they lock in within the general petition scheme. I shall also talk about the differences between e-petitions and paper petitions and why the Bill addresses them slightly differently.
I shall pick up the GLA point first. Clause 20 provides a power to use secondary legislation to extend provision on petitions to the GLA. We do not think that the duty to respond should be extended to the GLA, as we might need to devise different provisions. We had that debate in the noble Baroness’s absence. As she pointed out, the GLA does not have an O&S committee as such, because the Assembly performs those functions. Different provisions might also be necessary to reflect the different role of the mayor. We have no plans to exercise the power, but I am interested in her proposal and would like to discuss it further with her between now and Report to see whether we can arrive at an accommodation.
Clause 10 provides that the principal local authority must make available a facility for submitting e-petitions. Subsection (2) sets out that the authority must give a reason if it decides to reject an e-petition submitted through its facility and subsection (3) defines the types of authority covered by “principal local authorities”.
E-petitions are a recent but invaluable armoury in the backpack of the citizen. We only need to look at the No. 10 e-petitions site and local authorities such as Bristol and Kingston upon Thames to see how effective they can be. It is right that this legislation should make provision for such petitions, but the way they work is slightly different and so the Bill is drafted to reflect that.
The process begins when the petition organiser puts a proposition to the local authority. He or she does not have a petition that is signed by hundreds of names; he or she simply has a topic or a title that he or she wants to gather support for. They put the proposition that they would like a petition hosted on the council’s website and submit the details of the petition to the local authority online, calling for what they want to see, along with the petitioner’s contact details. The local authority can then review the e-petition before it publishes it or makes it available online to be signed.
This extra preliminary step in the process is the essential difference between an e-petition and a paper petition. A paper petition will normally come to the attention of the local authority—often in a rather scruffy form—only at the end of the process, when collection of signatures is complete. It is this difference that Clause 10 attempts to address. The principal local authority, having seen the subject matter of the petition, can, as provided in subsection (2), decide not to grant the request to host the e-petition. It must, however, give reasons for this refusal. The reason might be administrative—for example, if the petition is the same as one already available for signature, or if it is not clear what the petition is calling for. That opens up opportunities for dialogue, to ensure that the petition is as effective as possible. Bristol is a good example of how that works.
There may be other situations where the local authority will not be able to put the petition online, because the content would go against the authority’s responsibilities elsewhere—for example, not to publish certain types of information. Again, the provisions in Clause 10 require that the principal local authority should give an explanation, which will in turn give the petitioner the opportunity to revise and resubmit the petition.
In all other respects, an e-petition is dealt with in the same way and has the same status as a paper petition, which is why it is locked into the petition scheme. I hope that that addresses part of the question asked by the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee. It is assessed by the same rules as when a paper petition is made to the principal authority. Whether it is valid depends on whether it fulfils the simple criteria in Clause 12. Whether it is active depends on whether it fulfils the criteria in Clause 14 about, for example, relevance or vexatiousness.
I understand the concern in the amendment that this may be a way for local authorities to avoid responding to petitions. The amendment provides that local authorities could refuse a request to use the facility only if the e-petition would not be valid or if the wording was offensive, contravened an enactment or called for anything that was unlawful. As with everything that I will say about petitions, we are not in the business of making things more difficult. We are in the business of making things more effective in these clauses.
A principal local authority’s e-petitions facility will be part of its petition scheme, and authorities will be subject to a legally binding duty to host petitions unless there is a good reason for not hosting them. They can set out in their petition schemes the criteria for acceptable e-petitions and, if they are too restrictive, the appropriate national authority has powers in Clause 19 to rectify the matter.
The obligation to give reasons for refusing to host a particular petition is a powerful tool that will mean that legitimate requests are treated properly. Councils have to act reasonably—that is the central assumption—and they will not give ridiculous or bizarre reasons in writing for refusing to host a particular petition.
The provision ensures that a petitioner will receive prompt feedback if the proposition is not publishable, which introduces an iterative and useful process as far as the petitioner is concerned. However, the guidance that we will publish will also help local authorities to deal with the obviously provocative and will explain what we mean by “reasonable”. Again, we are using the guidance as a helpful tool for local authorities—simple suggestions about the sorts of things that they might watch out for. Guidance is not about excluding things about which people can petition, but some of the issues that are raised in petitions are the sorts of things that neither noble Lords opposite nor I would want, such as issues that might raise community tensions.
I would be very happy to discuss with the noble Lord before Report the nature of the guidance and how it will work so that we can be clear about it. As I say, the local authorities will be under a legally binding duty to host petitions unless there is a good reason for not hosting them. The guidance will further clarify that.
Amendment 79 states:
“Nothing in this section prevents a principal local authority from … allowing the use of its internet facilities for petitions other than those made under”,
this petitions duty, or from,
“using its internet facilities for the purposes of consultation with local people”.
Again, I have great sympathy with the noble Lord’s amendment and I assure him that the spirit of the petitions requirement in Clause 10 is to ensure that local people can create, sign and submit petitions to their principal local authority electronically. We want people to be able to use e-petitions to raise all the concerns that they currently raise on paper with their principal local authority. This includes petitions that might be submitted in relation to the regulations under Section 34 of the Local Government Act 2000, which call for a change in governance, such as having a mayoral referendum. We are currently consulting on this. Nothing in the clause, therefore, prevents a principal local authority from using its e-petitions facility for petitions other than those covered by the chapter. Nor does anything prevent it from using its internet facilities to consult local people. We want to encourage that.
Amendment 101 deals with the conditions in Clause 12 that need to be met for a petition to be valid. We will come to that a little later. Clause 12(1)(c) provides that valid petitions must be signed. Again, the amendment is probing. It would remove the provision that, for electronic petitions, the principal authority can determine what counts as a signature. There might, for example, be an electronic box to indicate that the authority wants the petitioner to sign it, or the petitioner might be required to give an e-mail address. This might not be the most vital provision in the Bill, but it adds legal clarity. Given that, in electronic petitions, people will not be able to sign their name in the usual way, we need to be clear that something can count as an electronic signature. It will be up to individual authorities, in setting up their e-petition facility, to work out what this is. Clause 12(4) is therefore useful.
Having explored some of the amendments’ implications, I do not think that the noble Lord is quite right to say that this will be a minimum requirement that a local authority will use as an excuse either not to take a petition seriously or to do the minimum. This will be an extremely important facility for the future, because this is how most young people in particular communicate. People are becoming increasingly familiar with the use of e-petitions. Local authorities know that they cannot be cavalier about them or dismiss them. There is nothing in the Bill to stop them dealing with petitions that do not fulfil the criteria in other ways. In fact, they will have an opportunity to do so, as Clause 19 makes clear.
I know that I am the Minister and am optimistic, but I do think that we have provided a very important new facility for people. On the basis of the No. 10 website and the local authorities that are already doing this, I think that it will be very well used and very helpful.
I am grateful to the Minister for that detailed reply. The only point that I want to come back on is the question of authentication. It is easy enough to provide authentication when you are working from your own e-mail address on your own computer. However, what happens if other members of the same household or friends use the same e-mail address in order to add their names to a petition? That is a problem. Similarly, what happens for those who do not have their own e-mail address and have to use the computer facilities available in cybercafés and places like that? Identification is not as easy as it seems. In my view it is simple: the petition is published and, if someone does not want their name on it, they make a complaint and it is removed. It is the knowledge that your name is on a petition and you do not want it to be there that is likely to get around. As long as the list of names is public knowledge, the petition will not be abused too much.
This is an important point and we should certainly look at how local authorities running petition schemes are dealing with issues of abuse. The No. 10 Downing Street website requires a postcode to be submitted, which is something else that could be done.
I must apologise to my noble friend for not replying to his question about trade unions. The answer is yes, because if the petition organiser knows that those signing the petition live, work or study in the local authority area—and they most likely will—they could well include trade unionists acting on behalf of their union within the scope of the issue being raised. Nothing here would disqualify trade unionists.
Amendment 78 withdrawn.
Amendments 79 and 79A not moved.
Clause 10 agreed.
79B: After Clause 10, insert the following new Clause—
“Duty to receive and deal with petitions
(1) A principal local authority in England (“the authority”) has a duty to receive and deal with petitions it receives from members of the public.
(2) The authority may refuse to accept a petition that it considers to be unlawful, vexatious or abusive.
(3) The authority must receive and acknowledge each petition it receives and consider its contents according to its own democratic and decision-making procedures including any procedures that allow the petitioners to make representations in person or in writing.
(4) The procedures in subsection (3) must include a provision that allows a petition to be presented to a meeting of the Council, or (if it operates executive arrangements) to its executive, or to any committee of the authority.
(5) The authority shall make a decision in relation to the contents of each petition it receives (whether to take any action or not to take any action) and must inform the petitioners of its decision and state the reasons for making it.
(6) The authority shall place on its website—
(a) the wording of each petition it receives and the number of names on it, and(b) the decision it makes on that petition. (7) The authority shall keep a register of all petitions it receives and the decision it makes on each one.
(9) In this section “petition” means a request in writing that the authority takes a particular action or expresses a particular view, which is signed by more than one identifiable person from more than one household.”
This is a good opportunity to have a substantive debate about quite a few things relating to petitions. I note that my noble friend Lady Hamwee has two amendments in this group. In moving Amendment 79B, I think that the implication is that, if the amendment were accepted, Clauses 12 to 22 inclusive would be left out of the Bill. At one stage, I was trying to group all the debates together but for various reasons—there may be some points in different clauses that need to be raised—they have been grouped separately.
If the Government want quite dramatically to increase the ability of people to organise and present petitions to their local authorities, or if they want to ensure that it happens in those areas where it is not done at the moment, where it is not possible and where it is not dealt with sensibly if it happens, they have three choices. The first choice, which I, and I think Liberal Democrats generally, would prefer, is that the Government should not legislate but encourage what they might call best practice generally. I cannot remember a single occasion when the national Government have gone to local councils, either individually or as a whole, and said, “Petitions are a good thing. You should have systems for dealing with them sensibly when you get them. You ought perhaps to encourage people to present them to you, and when they do so, you should look at them properly and deal with them properly. Perhaps you should also have systems under your own council’s standing orders, constitutions and conventions to enable this to happen”. The Government have never done that. Yet they are saying that, in order to ensure that all authorities do it, they must legislate and do so in a detailed, top-down way that will produce a lot of uniformity.
Authorities do not need to do that. If there was a joint initiative between the Government, the Local Government Association and other interested bodies, we would get to the point at which pretty well all local authorities in the country operated a sensible system for receiving and dealing with petitions. If that were to happen, there would be one real difference compared with what will happen after this Bill passes, if it passes in its present form: there would be a huge amount of variety of practice in different places. That would be a good thing, because local people could work out what was best in their area and on their council and because a variety of practice is the only way to work out what is best practice. Unless you have such a variety, you know what the uniform, centrally imposed practice is, but you never know what the best practice is and what is not so good, which means that authorities are much less able to learn from one another.
Variety would be our choice but, if the Government say no, local authorities really must have a duty placed on them. If you cannot trust local authorities to do something quite as simple as dealing sensibly with petitions from the public, it is a poor do—very disappointing and wrong. It is possible to have a genuinely light-touch approach that sets out the duty, lays down a few principles and then trusts councils to get on with it. If, having done that, and after two or three or four or five years’ experience, there are still problems, you can legislate as a backstop in the future. You have done it the right way around; you have trusted people and you have allowed them to do their own thing. If we are talking about local democracy, for heaven’s sake, surely that is how it should happen as a matter of principle.
There is, as I said, another possible approach—the Government’s approach—which is detailed, top-down, prescriptive legislation: eight pages, with 3,000 words of primary legislation on how to present a petition to your local council and how the council should deal with it. In addition, we will get reams of guidance, compulsion and uniformity. I have to say that the Government are making themselves look ridiculous.
The Government will say that all this has been worked out in co-operation with local government, but the councillors and council officers to whom I have spoken over the past few weeks have no idea that this legislation is coming. If the Local Government Association says that it agrees with this, which it does not, it has not been dealing with its members properly. But of course it does not say that, and I shall come on to that point shortly.
The other problem with the Government’s approach is that once this incredibly detailed legislation is in place, it will be difficult to go back if the problems that we are forecasting arise. Once a heavy-handed, centralised, detailed, namby-pamby system of micromanagement is in place, it is difficult to unpick it. If there has to be legislation—and we accept the Government’s right to bring forward legislation as far as this place is concerned—we ought to exercise our right to scrutinise and revise it in order to bring it down to genuine framework legislation. My noble friend Lady Hamwee and I both have proposals for that and I am sure that, if the Government were willing to meet us on this, we could come up with a much more acceptable scheme than what is being proposed.
I have been trying to think of how to describe what the Government are doing. This Bill is what might be called Gulliver legislation. As Gulliver lay on the beach after he was shipwrecked, he was caught unawares, tied up with a huge amount of red tape and held down. If he did not do exactly what he was told, the Lilliputians would fire off arrows at him. This legislation is a Gulliver approach and I am tempted to say that it is coming from a Lilliputian Government. I shall now go back to dissecting the legislation instead of making what I think are amusing political points, even if the Minister does not. However, when I refer to Gulliver legislation in the future, she will know what I am talking about.
First, the problem is that, if the Government make all these detailed rules and regulations, inevitably there will be difficulties because they will not cover everything. The more details you include, the more detailed the legislation has to get as you discover anomalies where things are not covered and where those that are have been dealt with wrongly. As a matter of principle, there ought to be as few rules as possible. Secondly, the fact that these are top-down rules causes problems. They do not allow for local circumstances, they certainly do not address local wishes, and they may be dangerous in relation to schemes that are already in place.
Thirdly, the schemes will cost more in money and resources to implement because not just those people already working in councils will need to do all this; the Government themselves will have to take people on for it. The whole Bill is a wonderful job creation scheme. It may be part of what the Government are after, because there is a recession and people are losing their jobs. More jobs can be created for civil servants to administer these detailed schemes, for writing, consulting and revising the regulations, and then for monitoring everyone’s websites to make sure that they are doing it right. That is what we were told would happen when we considered the previous group of amendments. Are we really going to employ civil servants to supervise and control democratically elected local authorities? It is crazy.
The real danger is that, because the Bill imposes a straitjacket on authorities, informal and spontaneous activity will be restricted. Indeed, councils may have to dismantle their current systems, even if they are working effectively, in order to conform with the detail of these proposed schemes.
I have a little information about some petition schemes and some of the ways in which councils deal with petitions at the moment. The noble Baroness said that the aim of a lot of the Bill is to challenge local authorities to do their business differently. Some of us are worried that this will force some local authorities that are at the moment carrying out good practice to do things differently when they do not want to. The system that we end up with may well be worse than what we have now. That is the inevitable consequence, when we have people out there doing good things, of imposing a detailed, uniform, centralised system on them.
I have some information from Oldham, where my colleague Councillor Howard Sykes commented: “The system is still as we changed it to when we last ran the council from 2000 to 2003, when I wrote it”—I thought that that was quite amusing—“nothing fancy, but common sense, and it means petitioners cannot be ignored and can get their five minutes in court with elected members and officers, which of course is what people really want”.
On Luton Borough Council, I am told that, if a petition contains a planning application, it is dealt with as an objection representation on the application and the development control committee has to decide it. That is a sensible, common-sense way to deal with a petition, which no doubt pretty well every authority will adopt, rather than going through the Government’s convoluted scheme—by the time that is finished, a planning application may well already be decided. If the petition relates to a townwide issue, it goes first to the relevant scrutiny committee, which can refer it elsewhere if it thinks it appropriate. If it is a local issue, it goes first to the relevant area committee, which can refer it wherever it thinks appropriate. Those are sensible, common-sense local schemes.
On St Albans District Council, I am told that petitions are guided to the meeting most likely to be dealing with the issue. Petitioners can speak to them and then they are dealt with. I have similar information from Guildford. Surrey County Council is rather more restrictive: you need 100 or more signatures in what is a fairly big county. Petitions can be presented to the executive or for scrutiny in other committees, but not the full council. That council is perhaps a bit more restrictive than I would want, but it has worked out its own rules, which work for that council. That is what local democracy is all about.
In Mid-Bedfordshire, petitions are either presented to the full council by the member or are received by committee services. Either way, they are referred to the appropriate committee, where they are processed for formal recommendation to the executive. The organiser and/or the member are of course informed of progress and the result. In East Sussex, the chairman, where appropriate, will refer a petition to the cabinet, relevant cabinet member or relevant scrutiny committee and, where he or she does that, the person signing the covering letter accompanying the petition or, if there is no such letter, the first signatory or another person nominated by them, shall be invited to address the cabinet, relevant cabinet member or committee.
So it goes on. I have a protocol for dealing with petitions from Bradford, which now calls itself the City of Bradford Metropolitan District Council. It is two pages long. It is short; it is sensible; it is flexible. It looks to me ideal as a way to deal with petitions handed in, but it will not in all details fit into the Government’s scheme. In Newcastle-upon-Tyne, this is dealt with in the constitution and in the standing orders. The council has managed to define a petition, which the Government have not. It states that,
“a ‘petition’ means a written document requesting that the Council take the action referred to in the petition and signed primarily by persons resident or working in the city”.
That is a sensible, working, common-sense definition that would not fit within the Government’s scheme. There are others.
The one council for which we could not find a petition scheme was Salford, but we are still looking.
No, there is not one; we cannot find it. I am following that up with some—I will not say colleagues, because they are members of other parties—members of Salford Council whom I know and I will report back. There is some concern that this whole business is to sort out Salford, but I cannot believe that that is the case.
The Local Government Association particularly supports amendments to delete Clauses 12, 13, 14 and 15, to remove the prescriptive elements of the legislation relating to petitions and to allow local authorities to decide individually what petition schemes would best suit their local people. We are saying exactly that, and we will be saying so right through the petition clauses: set the general duty, either by inviting councils to do it or by putting it in legislation, and then let them get on with doing it in a way that suits them. I quote from the LGA briefing:
“The LGA believes the Government could be much lighter in its approach by just setting out the … duties and then leaving it to local authorities to decide what works best for their communities and residents. If the government is transferring power and influence to local authorities and citizens then councils should have the ability to take up issues on behalf of their residents with other public service providers”.
We have also been trying to track down the infamous survey that the Minister keeps referring to, in which only 30 per cent of councils are alleged to deal with petitions properly. My information from the LGA is that the survey was in September 2007 and was in response to the question whether a council had an automatic response to petitions. One-third of councils responded that they had an automatic response. That is not to say that other councils did not respond to petitions, however; it is simply that they did not have a formal response mechanism laid out. In practice, I think that the great majority of councils have something in either their constitution or their standing orders, or they have a convention or working arrangements that are well understood locally, by which petitions are dealt with. There are very few councils that do not take petitions and deal with them seriously. For the Government to base this whole legislation on that survey is entirely wrong.
My amendment, therefore, would sweep away this huge, ridiculous, detailed, prescriptive, top-down stuff and replace it with a simple half-page clause. I am not suggesting that it is perfectly honed, but it covers the main points. A principal local authority would have a duty to receive and deal with petitions. It could refuse to accept them if they were unlawful, vexatious or abusive. It would have to acknowledge every petition that it received and it would have to consider the contents according to its own democratic decision-making procedures, not a system laid down by the Government. It would have to include a provision that would allow a petition to be presented to a meeting of the council, to its executive or to any committee of the authority. The authority would have to make a decision in relation to the contents of each petition that it received—that might mean taking action or not taking action, and clearly “action” could be referring to some other body that was more responsible, with or without a recommendation—and it would have to inform the petitioners of its decision and state the reasons. It would have to put that all on its website so that everyone could see what the petition said, who signed it and what decision was made. It would have to keep a register of all the petitions that it received. Moreover, I have actually defined “petition”, which is one thing that the Government have not done; they define petition schemes, valid petitions and active petitions, but they do not define a petition, which is interesting.
Something like that is all that is needed. Let local authorities get on with it. I am tempted to say, “Let a thousand flowers bloom”, but I will be accused of being off-message if I do. Give local people on the ground a chance to do it and you will find that they will do it differently but, by and large, properly; in many cases they will do it a great deal better than by grumpily having to implement a highly bureaucratic scheme dictated by eight pages of legislation and reams of guidance imposed from above. At the very least, why will the Government not give that a try? If I am completely wrong and it does not work, we can come back and impose this detailed legislation. It will work, though, because in the main local authorities are sensible bodies composed of sensible councillors and officers. In imposing this as it stands, the Government are making themselves look quite ridiculous.
I have two motives in moving this amendment. The first is to have a sensible system and, in particular, to remove the danger of abolishing everything that is going on out there at the moment. The second is to save the Government from their own folly. I beg to move.
I speak to Amendments 80 and 83 standing in my name and that of my noble friend Lady Hamwee, which have been referred to.
Our two amendments constitute alternatives to achieve exactly the same objective that my noble friend Lord Greaves mentioned. For once, all of us sitting on these Benches agree with everything that he said. That is not necessarily always the case, as he well knows. I say that not just to amuse the Committee; I have a serious intent. My three noble friends and I have spent virtually our entire adult lives petitioning local authorities, encouraging and helping others to petition local authorities and responding to petitions received by our local authorities. Whether we like it or not, we have considerable experience of local authority petitions. All of us believe that the Government are mad to go down this course. If I remember rightly, all the speakers in the Second Reading debate who referred to this part of the Bill cautioned against it; certainly those with experience did so. I hope that the Government will listen to that. Although we do not think that it is necessary, we accept that the Government feel the need to impose a duty on local authorities in regard to petitions. However, like my noble friend Lord Greaves, I ask the Government please to leave that as a framework. To go further would lead us into more and more difficulty.
My noble friend Lord Greaves referred to the Minister’s comment at Second Reading, which I consider a startling and astonishing statement. I brought the relevant copy of Hansard with me to quote it exactly. She said that,
“the LGA found that fewer than a third of local authorities guaranteed a response to petitions”.
That just did not sound right to me. I asked myself what was meant by “guarantee”. As my noble friend has said, the actual question produced the answer that fewer than a third provided an automatic response. I do not know how people interpret “automatic response”; I tend to think of an auto reply to an e-mail as an automatic response. To me it is incomprehensible that local authorities would, as a rule, receive petitions, simply ignore them and not respond to them in any way.
Reference has been made to Salford, which I believe is now a city. I do not know why there should be particular interest in Salford, but my noble friend Lady Hamwee, out of interest, looked up its constitution on its website and found that the only reference to “petition” was to a statutory petition for a directly elected mayor. That may well be the case for Salford, but to legislate for the rest of local government on the basis of what one local authority does is surely a mistake.
Later in her Second Reading speech introducing the Bill, the Minister said:
“We have worked closely with the LGA in developing our proposals; we intend to continue this to ensure that any guidance on petitions is informed by the sector’s view”.—[Official Report, 17/12/08; col. 852.]
We did not have then, but have now, the briefing from the Local Government Association to which my noble friend referred. Indeed, he read out much of it. It states in bold type:
“The LGA believes the Government could be much lighter in its approach by just setting out the ... duties and then leaving it to local authorities to decide what works best for their communities and residents”.
That could not be clearer and more specific. If the Minister meant what she said in her Second Reading speech—I am sure that she did—about being informed by the sector’s view, she could not have it much more clearly, and I am sure that that will be reflected in her response.
The amendments are intended to accept the duty but remove the prescription. They may not be perfect—
I do not mean to offend my noble friend Lady Hamwee, whose drafting is of course always perfect. However, over the years I have heard the Government say that they need to take an amendment away and think about it. They then come back with a new amendment that differs by just one word. The objective of my noble friends Lord Greaves and Lady Hamwee is very clear. I urge the Government as strongly as I possibly can, in their interests, even more importantly in the interests of local government and most of all in the interests of local democracy, not to try to prescribe all this.
In my lengthy experience, very few petitions meet all or even most of the requirements laid down in the Bill. For instance, one requirement is that a petition is valid only if the petitioner gives their name, address and the date on which they signed it. I have asked my noble friends how often they recall seeing the date added to a signature on a petition. It happens, but only very rarely. Indeed, my noble friend has some petitions with him. How many of those petitioners have noted the date on which they signed their names? Hardly any. That is the danger of prescribing too much. No local authority will declare a petition invalid because someone has forgotten to note the date when they signed it—at least I hope not.
I have said often that we legislate to prevent the worst abuse. If there are those who want to avoid it, they can use almost any excuse. If we put a general duty on them, that is inescapable. Authorities will interpret the duty differently, as they do now. We will continue to have good local authorities, reasonable local authorities and a very few bad ones. No amount of legislation is going to change that; it is a simple fact of life. The point has been made quite forcefully both in this short debate and by the Local Government Association, which we have cited extensively. It is a view borne out by years of experience; indeed, I would suggest rather more experience on this side of the Committee than on the other, with one or two exceptions, and than among the Minister’s advisers. I end by saying that I am sure that the Minister will consider what we have said very carefully.
The new clause proposed by the noble Lord, Lord Greaves, catapults us straight into the heart of the part of the Bill that deals with petitions. It is a useful contribution, and the contrast between this proposal and the finicky detail set out in the Government’s dozen or so clauses is quite striking.
I was interested to hear about the absence of any scheme in Salford, and I am sure that the noble Baroness will bring this to the attention of the Secretary of State. I hope that this Bill will not turn into a case of nimbyism on the part of Mrs Blears: petitions everywhere else but not in my back yard. If accepted, the new clause would replace all the other petition clauses and allow the Government to point to it and say to the audience that the Bill is intended to impress that they have thought about local democracy and have come up with a sympathetic response.
I assume that the Government have gone to such lengths to set out every last detail in the Bill to give the impression of doing something. The fact that they are prepared to go to such ridiculous lengths to prescribe when and how a local authority can and cannot accept a petition, when a petition can be deemed valid or not and what steps must be taken, suggests that they are more concerned about projecting an air of industry and activity than they are about the workable effects of their legislation.
The noble Lord, Lord Greaves, has managed to set out all that is necessary while allowing for common sense to stay where it belongs—with local authorities. The noble Lord, Lord Tope, achieves much the same result in a different way. Amendment 83 simply deletes the unnecessary elements in Clause 11, thus allowing local authorities to set up a petition scheme of their own design. Members on this side of the Committee believe that politics is best delivered when it is close to the people that it serves. For local democracy to flourish, powers held by Whitehall must be devolved downwards and the hands of local government strengthened. Unfortunately, the Government lay out in the Bill schemes that do the complete opposite. The overly prescriptive nature of Clauses 11 to 24 not only ties the hands of local authorities but puts forward such a centralised, bureaucratic approach to responding to petitions that this side fears that it will have the opposite effect.
The Government say that in the Bill they want to keep statutory guidance to a minimum and that they are introducing the Bill to devolve more influence, power and control over local services to citizens, communities and councils. They claim that communities have the ingenuity and common sense to have a real say in how local services are run. In the light of the prescriptive nature of the Bill, those are empty words, and so are the Government’s claims that they are the party of devolution. This side cannot understand why we are going down this road. We understand and support the move towards localism, but localism will be effective only when local solutions apply to local communities. Bureaucrats sitting in Whitehall determining ideal schemes will never be able to deliver the stronger and more involved communities that apparently we all seek.
This side of the Committee believes that, yes, it is right that local authorities respond to the local petitions that they receive, and it is right that they are responsive to local communities’ wishes. Local councils up and down the country are already delivering on this, because plainly it is in their interests to do so. Each local authority should be given the freedom to respond to petitions in ways that are relevant to them. Local authorities know their communities best, understand them and have democratic accountability. The example of the new clause succinctly highlights the many flaws of the Government’s approach.
I particularly support my noble friends in talking about how many councils actually respond to petitions. Not only have I been a councillor, but I worked as a regional organiser for the national party and for the national Association of Liberal Democrat Councillors. In that time, I assure the noble Baroness that I very rarely came across a local authority that did not deal with a petition. The lifeblood of campaigning locally in the way in which Liberal Democrats have done over the years relies on petitions and the effect that they have.
Before I was first elected to Southampton City Council, one of the things that may have contributed to my success was presenting a petition to the local council for a pedestrian-crossing in a dangerous place. That was local democracy at work. It went to a local committee—we all had committees in those days—with responsibility for that policy. I remember the shocked audience at the dismissive way with which one of the local councillors dealt with it. That is how democracy works, and it has been working like that for many years; I am going back to 1982 or 1983. We all have experience of that, as my noble friend said. I ask the Government to listen carefully to what we are saying. It is happening out there; we do not need all this.
With some regret, I confess that I have sympathy with the noble Lords opposite in their demands, but not with their attacks on my neighbouring authority, Salford. I dissociate myself from those remarks. Like everyone else, Salford has a way of dealing with petitions that is its own. It is right, and I share the Government’s desire, to have a duty for local authorities to respond to petitions, but we need an appropriate and minimum amount of guidance for them to do that.
I ask my noble friend to think about whether measuring how local authorities respond and seeing whether that response is adequate could become part of the comprehensive area assessment. Someone will be making sure that there will be a system, which will be different in each authority, but it could be tested independently and we would not rely on local authorities to do it. I share the desire of the noble Lord, Lord Greaves, to be clear about what we mean by petitions, although I hasten to add that I do not believe that his subsection (9) would help; if two neighbours complain in writing, that is a letter. Local authorities should respond to letters, but it is not a petition if it involves only two households.
We need to understand petitions, because there is a variety of reasons why people petition. They may want a new level-crossing, as the noble Baroness, Lady Maddock, suggested, which can be dealt with in a particular way, but it may be about a planning application or the closure of a facility, which is time-limited. Unless the authority deals with that within the appropriate timescale, the planning application has already been dealt with or the facility closes. We need to understand that; timeliness could be important.
I was interested to read Amendment 79B. Perhaps the noble Lord, Lord Greaves, will tell us where proposed new subsection (8) is, or is it too secret for us to know?
There might be a secret subsection that we do not know about.
I ask the Minister to think about the fact that the response to petitions is not bureaucratic but political. It is about how local councillors actually respond, because there will often be two views about what is wanted. Local councillors have to weigh up the strength of opinion expressed in a petition against the needs of a wider area. This is political, and we need to ensure that people feel that the political response considers individual views. That will be important. We do not want to tie anyone down in too much bureaucracy.
This has been a very good debate and I agree with an awful lot of what has been said. My speaking note is rather long as I have to address the underlying principles. I shall also address the issues that have been raised.
We agree that the aim is what works best for each community, to give some real content to the notion of localism as people deal with petitions. I agree that local authorities are full of sensible people trying to do sensible and sometimes very difficult things, and I certainly agree that we are doing nothing new; petitioning has been around for a very long time. I accept the combined weight of experience in the parties opposite, and would not dream of comparing my own experience in local government. However, four years in this job have certainly taught me the about incredible diversity of local communities, the contemporary challenges that face local government and the great need to get the balance right between diversity and enabling local government to do what it has to do in order to meet those challenges without suffocating them.
I am surprised by the weight of feeling against these clauses. To put it simply, all we are trying to do is make the petition system more visible, more credible and more effective. Those who learn over the years how to use petitions have no difficulty making the system work, but I genuinely believe that we have not invented a problem here; there are huge differences in the way in which local authorities convey information and respond effectively. We are not trying to do anything malign; we are trying to find a balance between ensuring rights, fairness of access and action for local people and providing protections for local government by not overburdening them. I am delighted that the Committee agrees that a duty will make for a more level playing field. There is a sense that a duty is not a bad thing in itself. Once you accept that, you have to look at how to contain the duty and make it effective. I will come to the noble Lord’s amendment in a moment.
I understand what noble Lords are saying, and I am listening. The most important point is that there is nothing in the Bill to prevent a council from dealing additionally with petitions that fall outside the criteria that we have established. We make it clear that the sort of petitions that the noble Lord raised can still be dealt with. With the new duty we are creating clarity of process and a requirement to respond, but we are not circumscribing local authorities if they want to do things differently and go further.
We have tried to establish four principles. First, people should be able to have their say about the services they pay for, be they meals on wheels, tree protection or whatever. Much of the time they do not have much of a say, and many resent it that they do not have more. I heard what Members said about the YouGov survey but we at CLG did our own research. Last April we looked at all English local authority websites and found that only one in five councils makes available the detail of how to submit a petition. The Committee may say, “Well, everyone knows how to submit a petition”—but in fact they do not. Activists know how to organise a petition, but how many activists are there? That is one of the things we are trying to address in the Bill.
Secondly, local authorities have a responsibility to listen and to give feedback on petitions. I take what Members have said about their own experiences with councils, but again we can use different evidence to support different theses. I will go through a few statistics, although in order to curtail the debate I promise not to use them again. Part of the alienation from local government and the general malaise and cynicism that we all deplore is that people do not think their councils listen. Opinion polling by YouGov last July found that while nine in 10 respondents agreed that their councils should take into account views and petitions, only two in 10 thought that they did. Only one-third of those who had been involved in petitioning the council were satisfied with the council’s process for submitting a petition. Some 84 per cent of those surveyed said they were more likely to sign a petition if a response were guaranteed and they knew about it, and over half said a guaranteed response would make them more likely to organise a petition themselves. The noble Lord may shake his head, but this is solid research. We need to think about the general culture in which local politicians are operating.
Requiring councils to have in place a clear process for dealing with petitions and responding to them will help bring them all up to the standard of the best. The clauses are drafted on that basis, and they are pretty minimal. Clause 11 requires principal local authorities to make, publicise and comply with a scheme for handling paper and electronic petitions. By “making a scheme” we mean that principal authorities will be required to have agreed procedures for dealing with petitions, and that the scheme will be publicly available so that members of the public know how to submit a petition and what they can expect in response. Clause 12 has some simple requirements for a valid petition; Clause 13 for acknowledgment; Clauses 14, 15 and 16 for appropriate action, depending on how the local authorities set their thresholds; and Clause 17 for an appeal process. That illustrates the third principle, which is generally to make this as easy as possible for local authorities. There is nothing in it for the Government to overcomplicate things and thus overburden local authorities; we have to deal with them all the time. Our aim is to balance the need so that everyone can expect a minimum standard of service, but with a great deal of flexibility for local authorities to respond to the particular circumstances in their areas.
We have built all necessary protections into the Bill. For example, if councils are to be legally required to respond, we need to ensure that they consider only issues of genuine concern, not from people from outside the area or in another country. As I said, we do not want to make it any harder for people to petition their council. They can do so on anything they like—even about putting a man on the moon. All we are doing is creating a legal duty to respond to petitions and setting up some simple criteria to make it more effective.
With reference to Clauses 12 and 14, for example, councils are not legally required to respond to petitions that do not meet the thresholds they have set, but they can if they choose to do so. They can respond to petitions that may be totally irrelevant; they are free to do so and they are not required to respond. There are safeguards. Clause 14 provides that principal authorities do not need to take steps in regard to vexatious, abusive or inappropriate petitions. Clause 14(1)(c) protects councils from becoming bogged down in replying to petitions that raise the same issue over and over again.
We are not creating a scheme to curtail what local authorities presently do. The notion of a valid petition is not about creating the notion of an invalid petition. It is just about making a necessary distinction between petitions and other bits of correspondence. We just had a splendid example from my noble friend, who pointed out that what the noble Lord, Lord Greaves, talked about was probably a letter. It might have been a housing benefit claim form. This definition also makes a necessary distinction between these petitions and other petitions that exist for statutory purposes. It sets out some very basic rules that allow local authorities to respond. We are not putting a straitjacket around local authorities; we are simply trying to create some clarity. The chapter has been drafted to provide what we think is essential to enable access and consistency. I take the point about the LGA; of course it wanted this to be light touch, and we will do our best to work with it. We do not think that the chapter is unnecessarily detailed. It is about trying to find the right balance.
The clause gives councils a lot of flexibility and autonomy to respond within the framework of what they think is appropriate and how they acknowledge and respond. Principal authorities will decide for themselves how many signatures are needed to trigger a response in the first place and then to trigger the different sorts of responses as set out in Clause 14. One factor could be how large the local population is, or how major the issue is and how many people it affects. They can set thresholds for different aspects of policy. No one is going to stop that. A council with a high numerical threshold may wish to set a higher threshold than a rural district council. They will be able to decide how quickly they acknowledge petitions, how they respond, how they publicise their scheme, how they deal with petitions that are not valid and what system they use for their e-petitions.
The fourth principle of building on best practice is held very seriously by the Committee. Many authorities have effective systems for dealing with petitions, and we want to learn from them. Others do not. I took the point when the noble Lord rehearsed a whole range of different petitions. In our search of local authorities, we looked at Pendle. We found that there was a petition scheme last April. When we searched in January 2009, we were unable to locate any information on how petitions were dealt with by the local authority. We can all quote examples, which is the problem with selective analysis. Guidance will help to identify good practice and support local authorities, and there could be some value in a model scheme, for example, to use as a basis. In any such guidance, we want to work closely with the LGA.
On thresholds, there are a very few issues on which we feel there is a need for central Government to set some standards so that we can ensure that these proposals are local in nature. The community empowerment White Paper made clear that we intend to exercise the power in Clause 19 to set a maximum threshold for triggering a full council debate. That is a serious undertaking. We believe that this threshold should not be more than 5 per cent of local residents. That is an accessible, achievable proposition. This is a high threshold which, for instance, in Bristol would amount to approximately 21,000 signatures. That is an important distinction. For the rest, councils can set thresholds for all other points of action and can set the same or different thresholds for different policies, depending on the nature of the response.
How do we deal with the proposition that the noble Lord, Lord Greaves, put to us? It has the enormous virtue of being short. I am deeply envious of its brevity. Unfortunately, it leaves out any reference to e-petitions or to the definition of a principal local authority, any reference to the Welsh Assembly and any definition of members of the public, which means that the London borough of Richmond would be breaking the law if it did not reply to a petition signed by the residents of Richmond, Virginia. We might use the term “work, live or study” to define the constituency that we mean. Nor is there any reference to whom petitions should be sent or to how quickly petitioners could expect a response, there is no guarantee of a response—indeed, no conditions whatever are attached—and there are no protections for local authorities. This illustrates our problem and what we have tried to address in this part of the Bill.
I do not want to go on. I will think seriously about what noble Lords have said. Initially, we had hoped to have only one or two clauses on petitions, but we have to do this properly if we are going to have it in legislation. Sadly, Amendment 79B fails on those points. We are not taking an over-regulatory approach; we are taking a necessary and balanced approach.
Amendment 80 would insert a provision that authorities may revise their schemes at any time. I agree, but this is in effect achieved in Clause 11(5) and (6), which clarify what procedural arrangements should apply if any amendment to the scheme is made. That is helpful to authorities and to people who intend to submit petitions. The amendment would simplify things, but at the expense of clarity.
Amendment 83 would remove all the provisions on petition schemes: namely, that they should be approved by the full council and published on the website and so on, that they can be revised and that the authorities must comply with them. The noble Lord explained that this is about simplification, but I refer him to my previous argument.
I hope that we will be able to agree about the clauses. We certainly want local authorities across the country to make their petition schemes more accessible, more credible, more usable and more used. I think that we have got the balance right, and I do not think that the argument is served by exaggeration. The detail that we have is necessary. We could have put in a lot more detail. We chose not to because we wanted to go for the minimum, for obvious reasons.
The Minister talked about responses to petitions and in particular about a YouGov poll that said that people have become rather cynical because councils do not respond. However, I return to a theme that I started earlier; sometimes councils’ ability to respond is hindered by what is laid down nationally.
I used the illustration of a pedestrian crossing. When I presented a petition in 1982 or 1983, local councils had a lot more discretion. We eventually got a crossing, despite the fact that we got it from a district council and we had to get some money from the county council. There was, however, some devolution. These days, my experience is that if you petition for a crossing in a particular place, local people will think that it is absolutely the right place to have it—indeed, sometimes there will even have been a death there—but that the crossing will not meet the national criteria and therefore the council cannot provide it.
I am sure that my noble friends could think of other examples of people being hindered by national criteria that are set down. That certainly results in people becoming very cynical about the ability of their local authority. As I said earlier, when you come up against that time and again as a local councillor, you think, “Why am I giving up my time and not being with my family when this is what happens?”.
I echo my noble friend. Many petitions typically relate to planning applications, and it is not always possible to comply with the petitioners’ requests. I accept that probably many local authorities are more deficient than they should be in actually telling petitioners what has happened. If they are present and hear the proceedings, they will know, but I accept that most people who simply sign a petition never hear any more about it.
I do not recall her exact words, but the Minister said that the Government do not want to overburden local authorities. I hope that we have not given the impression that our concern is solely about the burden on local authorities, because that is absolutely not the case. Our concern is very much for petitioners, and we share the objective of the Minister to make petition schemes as readily accessible as possible.
Most of the petitions that local authorities receive do not come from professional or experienced campaigners but from local residents who are particularly concerned about an issue. They get a piece of paper and go around to their friends and neighbours, or at the most stand in the high street, and collect signatures. The simpler the system that is in place to allow that to happen, the better. Something laid down in legislation that prescribes a scheme, even in fairly minimal detail, will make people worry about whether they are getting it right. Over the years, I have been asked time and again, “Have we got the wording right?”. Unlike a petition to Parliament, there is no formal wording for a petition. Of course, I can offer advice about how to address the mayor and burgesses, but frankly that does not matter two hoots to the validity of a petition. The more that is set down, the more of a barrier it starts to become.
I accept that the key lies in striking the right balance. There has to be some sort of regulation, if that is the right word, and we believe that it is best left to local authorities to determine such regulation in accordance with the duty being placed on them, in concert with local circumstances and practice and, indeed, with political wishes. That is why people are elected and why we are held to account. Again, some will do it better than others. Many of us have spent years campaigning for councils to do this better.
The Minister referred to the research done by her department, and I would be interested to hear more about it. I suspect that quite a lot is actually research into websites, which should be descriptive and of good quality; however, I suspect that many are not. I am now going to look at my own council’s website because, to be frank, I have no idea what it says about how to petition. I should know, but I do not. It may not be particularly adequate, because the entire site could be better than it is. But, again, there is a difference between looking at a website, which I accept is all that can be done on the scale we are talking about, and knowing fully the actual practices in place.
Finally, rather than prescribing in legislation and in the guidance that is to follow, we would support the dissemination of more good practice through the LGA. There is a world of difference between learning from good practice and adapting good procedures to meet local wishes and circumstances, and trying to follow guidance laid down from the centre, however “loose” that guidance may be. I am grateful to the Minister for undertaking to think about this further. We shall certainly debate it again as the Bill moves forward. I hope that she will listen to the advice, which is based on experience, that is now coming from all sides of the Committee. We have a shared objective here, but we have very different views on the best way to achieve it.
I underline what my noble friend Lord Tope has just said. There is nothing between us in the wish to see more visible and effective petitioning of local authorities and many other bodies. The argument lies in the means, not the ends. Again, I thank the noble Baroness for her frank response and for setting out the areas where there is broad agreement and those where there is not.
If we are going to reach agreement before the Bill is sent to the Commons, a lot more debate and discussion, both in Committee and outside, will be needed to see whether we can reach a compromise. This is an important issue. The problem that some of us have is that, although the Minister said earlier that the Government are not in the business of making things more difficult, we believe from our experience that quite a lot of the material in these eight pages in the Bill will indeed make things more difficult.
I certainly was not criticising Salford, merely making the ironic point that we could not find the petition scheme. I am making inquiries with contacts there, though, and if I discover that Salford deals with these things wonderfully, I shall come back and report that that is the case.
The suggestion made by the noble Lord, Lord Smith of Leigh, that the comprehensive area assessment might be a means of monitoring and assessing the effectiveness of petitioning in different councils should be thought about a lot more. We will think about that.
The noble Baroness said that she wanted, in her words, what works best for each community. It is our submission that the amount of prescriptive detail in the Bill will prevent that happening. It will also mean that many councils that have perfectly adequate schemes and practices will have to dismantle those, and that will be wrong—it will do damage before it starts to do good again.
They will not have to dismantle their schemes. We are putting a duty on councils to create a legal scheme in the way that is laid out in the Bill. They will have to have that petition scheme, with its requirement to respond, but they can go on using the schemes that presently exist if they so choose.
I was going to come on to that point next. We are going to discuss the difference between valid petitions—and whether they should be called “valid” petitions at all—and other petitions in one or two later amendments, so I do not want to go into too much detail now. However, having two separate schemes side by side, the statutory government scheme and the locally determined scheme, is completely bonkers. That would cause massive confusion and, in some areas, chaos. The council would have to have a monitoring officer to determine whether a petition was under one scheme or the other. Or would the petitioners get the choice about which scheme their petition qualified for? The Minister is a sensible person; I ask her to think about the chaos and the nonsense that that would cause.
A lot of people say, “Oh, anyone will sign a petition; petitions are no use”. I am a great believer in petitions. They are not worthless, as some people think. I do not believe in government and decision-making by petition, however, and when the Minister says that quite a high proportion of people do not believe that their petition was dealt with properly, they mean that it did not get the result they wanted. We get this all the time: people who present petitions, or come to meetings and present their cases, and do not get what they want are dissatisfied. They say, “The system’s rubbish”, but what they mean is that it has not delivered what they want. That is inevitable.
If you have a democratic system and petitioning is part and parcel of it, there are going to be a lot of people who sign petitions who then, for whatever reason, do not get what they want out of it. It may be that their authority is useless and it should be doing this work, carrying out this project or stopping this scheme, and it is not doing so. However, it may be that there is just a difference of opinion or a question of priorities, or it may be that what people want is not actually possible, whether for legal, administrative or financial reasons.
When I first got on the former Colne borough council before reorganisation back in 1971—the noble Baroness, Lady Warsi, will be horrified by this—I read the council’s standing orders, which I do not think anybody had done for a long time, and discovered that there was a right to present petitions at the full council meeting. Nobody had done it in historic memory, but I made sure that a few people came along and did it. It was thought to be revolutionary at the time. When I was working for the organisation that my noble friend Lady Maddock talked about, which was then the Association of Liberal Councillors, we encouraged people all over the country to look at what their constitutions said—we discovered that a lot of them contained the right to present petitions—and persuaded them to present petitions under that right. The rest is history, I suppose.
I accept that the noble Baroness could not find the proper petition system on Pendle’s website. In other places I spend a great deal of time complaining about Pendle Council’s website, which is adequate but not wonderful. It was probably state-of-the-art about eight years ago. That is the case with a lot of councils. With regard to the Government basing any research on what they find on council websites, they may find that faults arise not from councils and their systems but from their websites, as I think my noble friend Lord Tope said. That is a very valid argument.
We think that a lot of the details are wrong and have sought to address them in later amendments. My amendment does not seek to leave out e-petitions. We are not trying to get rid of Clause 10. I said that we were in favour of it when we discussed it. Therefore, my amendment does not seek to leave those petitions out.
The Minister said that we have to do this properly. I do not agree with that at all. We argue that each council has to do it properly. That is very different and goes back to my original point that if each council does it properly, there will be more diversity and variety than is allowed for under the Government’s system. We agree with the concept of best practice but it is for the LGA and other organisations, political parties and everybody else, to share their experience on that.
The noble Baroness mentioned Pendle. I have one or two petitions with me. I shall not read them all out and I shall certainly not read out the names. These are recent petitions to Pendle Council. I asked the officer who deals with petitions to give me a few examples. We had one recently from the market traders in the market hall in Nelson. It had no addresses and many of the relevant people do not live in Pendle. It concerned their market rents. That was a perfectly reasonable thing on which to petition. People know who those traders are because they have market stalls, but it would not have been a valid petition under the Government’s scheme. A petition to stop speeding traffic on Chapelhouse Road in Nelson was presented to Pendle Council. It would not have been a valid petition because the Highways Authority is the county council. Therefore, Pendle Council sent it to the Highways Authority with a recommendation. At the previous Colne and district area committee we had a petition from a group of old people near the town centre who presented it on condition that their names and addresses were kept secret because they were frightened of the reaction of certain people associated with the town centre. I do not want to say any more than that. That would not have been a valid petition under the scheme we are discussing, but we dealt with it sensibly, as we do.
I have a petition which just says:
“We as residents of Mansfield Crescent want a one-way system”.
It is a perfectly good petition but has no date. I have another petition with a date organised by a local school. People were asked to fill in everything from e-mails to dates and to sign it. The petition asked for a pedestrian crossing. But again it was not a valid petition to Pendle Council because it was a highways matter that had to be referred to the highways committee.
Here is a typical petition, which is actually a letter. It starts: “Dear Sir/Madam”. It is signed by someone but, as an afterthought, they had gone round to get everyone else in the street to sign it. That happens quite a lot. It would never meet the Government’s criteria for a valid petition. Then it turns into a survey, because it asks everyone who signed it whether they were for or against. A whole series of such petitions are perfectly reasonable, perfectly valid.
Here is a petition that is all nicely laid out and printed. It states:
“We call on Lancashire County Council to sort out the shambles of winter gritting and salt our roads and pavements properly”.
That did not have the date on, but if the proposed system had existed it would have done, because it was organised by a political party that knew the system and put in a valid petition. It was the Liberal Democrats, actually, but it might not have been. We will do that, and the Labour and Conservative parties will get them right. It is the ordinary people submitting informal petitions who will not begin to meet the Government's criteria here and will be excluded from the system. That is the real problem: it is exclusive.
I hope that we can come to agreement, but it will take a lot of work and we may need to include more in the Bill than either my noble friend's amendment or mine to reach a sensible compromise. If the Government want us to agree, they must move some way towards us. Having said that, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment 79B withdrawn.
Clause 11 : Petition schemes
Amendment 80 not moved.
81: Clause 11, page 7, line 9, leave out “valid”
This is a long group—I shall speak also to Amendments 82, 85, 86, 91, 105, 116 and 137—but they are all about the same thing. Many of them simply delete the word “valid” and insert the word “statutory”; then there are some consequential amendments—Amendments 82, 85 and 86.
I have a great dilemma in moving the amendments on petitions from here onwards, as, I think do my noble friends, because we are accepting the Government's proposed scheme as it stands, although we would like to do away with it and replace it with something much shorter. Our fallback position is that if we are to end up with the complex, tightly regulated scheme that the Government propose, it must work. Many of our other amendments are proposed because we do not think that the present scheme will work in all sorts of details. That is partly because some of the details will not work and partly because, once you start including a lot of detail, you have to put some more in, otherwise you do not cater for circumstances that are likely to arise, and people therefore lose out.
The amendments from now on, including this one, are detailed amendments to the Government's scheme. I had a long tussle with my conscience as to whether I should be helping the Government to improve their scheme when I think that it should just be swept away but, in the nature of things, I ended up trying to make the Government's scheme better for them.
The amendment is all about the word “valid”, which seems to us to be a very grave mistake. No matter how you dress it up and no matter how much you say to people that we can have systems to deal with petitions that do not classify as valid, inevitably people will think that they are not valid or invalid. Those councils who are reluctant to deal with petitions in an open-handed and generous way will have the excuse they want. They can say, “It is not valid. The Government have laid down the rules. Therefore, we will not take it seriously”. Most of the informal, spontaneous petitions that I have here from my area are typical of petitions. They are grassroots petitions. The petition gets written out and sent or handed in before people begin to discover the rules. Putting all the rules on all the websites in the world will make no difference to that.
The word “valid” is a bad word. I am not sure that “statutory” is a tremendous word; it is not a word that most people use as part of their daily lives. If the Government have a better word, I would be delighted to hear it, but “valid” is a bad word because it implies that everything else is invalid. The Government can do nothing within their scheme to prevent that. I beg to move.
I shall explain again why we have gone down the route of defining petitions as “valid”. It is part of my general argument that since we are creating a duty to respond, as we think our evidence suggests we should, we are obliged to offer a definition in the Bill that will make clear what a petition is. We have debated whether a letter is a petition, and so on; there are many different signed communications. We struggled with a term and came up with “valid” because we thought that was the best.
We need to distinguish these particular petitions from the existing petitions that serve specific statutory purposes. Given the logic of the argument I set out at some length with regard to the previous amendment, we need to set out some minimum legal requirements to ensure that there is a known process for responding. The basics are that they are petitions that are addressed to the authority, which call for action, which identify a person who is the petition organiser to whom responses can be sent, and which are signed by the minimum number of petitioners as agreed by the local authority. We will come on to talk about thresholds and so on, but that is a basic legal framework.
I reiterate that we do not want to disqualify people who, maybe on a technicality or through ignorance, do not fulfil these criteria; it may take a little time before the petition scheme becomes known. As I have said, there is nothing to stop the council, if it wants, responding in other ways to other petitions, such as those that the noble Lord, Lord Greaves, read out—it can do so if it wishes. It has been suggested in the debate, however, that there should be no need for a person to be identified as the petition organiser and that the first signatory to a petition should himself or herself be deemed to be the organiser. I see a lot of sense in local authorities adopting that approach if it is unclear in any case who the organiser is, but the point we need to cover in legislation is that in order to be effective and fulfil expectations there needs to be an individual with whom the local authority can deal, someone who receives the acknowledgement and who decides whether the council has dealt with the petition sufficiently or whether they want to appeal to the overview and scrutiny committee about the manner in which it has been treated.
Clause 12(1) provides that the petition must be signed by a number of people who live, work or study in the area, and that the local authority will choose that number. Clause 13 requires principal local authorities to acknowledge valid paper petitions in writing and to say what they intend to do. I make it clear that, as confirmed by Clause 11(7), there is no prohibition on local authorities responding to petitions that do not meet the criteria for technical reasons. No local authority would want to rule out on technical grounds something that was intended to be a petition—it would surely end up being resubmitted—but the concept of the “valid” petition is concerned with the identification of the source of things that need to be treated as a petition, not with ruling out things that are intended to be petitions but which fall short. The problem with the term “statutory” is that it gets confused immediately with statutory petitions.
I turn to electronic petitions. We have discussed how these must be made using e-petition facilities. That clarifies that principal councils are not required to respond to petitions hosted on websites that are hosted by local newspapers, for example, or by other organisations. That is an important control against inappropriate or abusive e-petitions, but they do not need to be categorised as “valid” as it will generally be pretty apparent, when a person requests the hosting of a petition, whether it is intended to be a petition and fulfils the key criteria. However, if by some mischance an individual sought to post something on an e-petition page that was not really a petition, all the authority would have to do would be to explain that and an alternative approach could be found.
As I said, in Amendments 81, 91, 105, 116 and 137 the noble Lord advocates the use of the term “statutory”, but that confuses the issue. Statutory provisions have different eligibility criteria, for example.
I am not persuaded that Amendments 82, 85 and 86 bring additional clarity. It is already sufficiently clear that the schemes referred to in Clause 11 are schemes for dealing with petitions made under this chapter. Amendment 85 would replace the general duty on authorities to comply with their petitions scheme with the duty to comply only when they receive a petition. The language is there for a purpose. It is already clear that a principal local authority’s duty to comply with its petition scheme encompasses the situation when it receives a petition, because the scheme itself is,
“for the handling of valid petitions”.
Principal authorities have certain duties that anticipate receiving a petition—for example, the duty to publicise how to make a petition in the first place. Amendment 85 would remove that duty, which is not a sensible outcome.
Amendment 86 would delete “its petition” from subsection (6), and replace it with “the”. This amendment would be a linguistic consequence of the other amendments, and I hope, my not having accepted the earlier amendments, that the noble Lord will understand that the amendment is not necessary in the context of my argument.
I listened with interest to the Minister taking apart Amendments 82, 85 and 86; they are there only because I am removing the word “valid”, and they are therefore attempting to rewrite the rest of the text to make sense in a context in which there is no reference to valid petitions.
I was sorry that the Minister did not tackle the basic issue behind the amendments in any way whatever. The word “valid” is totally confusing. If you have a system in which an officer in the authority has to rule on whether a petition is valid, that will create a two-tier system. In some authorities, it will result in the invalid petitions—as they will be described—being cast aside as being of no value and not having to be dealt with. That is the inevitable consequence of using the word “valid”. If one lot of petitions is valid, the other is not valid. That is what the English language means.
I am not thrilled to be pushing the word “statutory”; it is just the best that I could think of. I ask the Government, if they want to carry on with this madcap scheme, to think of a word other than “valid”. If they persist with “valid”, they will cause immense damage in authorities, and only one of the petitions that I have been holding up today would be valid—the one coming from a political party. It is a serious point. That is the only issue behind the amendments; “valid” is not a good word to use. The Government should please find another word and put it in the legislation. This is not the time to do it. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment 81 withdrawn.
Amendments 82 and 83 not moved.
84: Clause 11, page 7, line 18, at end insert “or use or are affected by any of its services and facilities”
We are now well into the petition schemes. Clause 11 states:
“A principal local authority must make a scheme for the handling of valid petitions made to the authority”.
Clause 11(4) says that the principal local authority must publish the scheme,
“on its website, and … in such other manner as the authority considers appropriate for bringing the scheme to the attention of persons who live, work or study in its area”.
This is the debate that we had two sittings ago in relation to the duty to promote understanding of democracy; whether it should simply be to persons who live, work or study in its area.
In the context of the scheme and the system that would operate under this, the amendment is not particularly important, because if the authority brings the scheme to the attention of persons who live, work or study in its area, inevitably it will come to the attention of anyone else who is interested. Nevertheless, there is a principle that this should apply to more people than those who “live, work or study” in an area. My Amendment 84 would add,
“or use or are affected by any of its services and facilities”.
An example of this is the petition from market traders in the market hall in Nelson. Some of them do not live in Pendle, and it is arguable that they work there. However, they are self-employed. Whether some of them work is a different matter. That is an example of being prescriptive.
In a previous debate, the Minister said that she did not want a petition to a local authority from people passing through an airport to have to be dealt with. I would argue that it depends who owns the airport. I am not quite sure whether Heathrow is in Hounslow or Hillingdon.
Yes, perhaps. However, if the airport is council-owned, there is no reason, just because you happened to be passing through, why you should not sign a petition about the appalling facilities to the people who run the airport, who might be the local authority. The local authority should therefore be under a duty to consider that petition properly, even if the people making it do not actually live there.
Amendment 94 refers ahead, but it also deals with the question of valid petitions. Clause 12, on valid petitions, says that the petition must be,
“signed by at least the specified number of persons”—
I will not deal with that for the moment—
“who live, work or study in the authority’s area”.
The amendment would delete the words,
“who live, work or study in the authority’s area”.
Again, we must be careful not to put burdens on to authorities. Who will check whether all the people who sign a petition live, work or study in the authority’s area? They may go to the local college. They may not put their home address on the petition, but they may put the college address on it. Why should they not put their home address on it, if it relates to the college and its local authority? It may be a request for a pedestrian crossing outside the college, or for a better bus service. We do not want people to have to make detailed checks on these things. In any case, it is wrong.
If people are using a council’s swimming pool, why should they not be able to sign a valid petition to the council that owns and runs it, whether or not they live in the authority’s area? The Minister said that she did not want petitions from everyone who uses Westminster pavements. However, if people are walking on the pavement outside this building and it is full of dog muck, which usually it is not—the pavements of Westminster are extremely well kept and well cleaned compared with some other places that I know—but if it was, why should not people sign a petition complaining about it, whether they come from Westminster, Sutton in London, Sutton in Yorkshire or Malawi? What difference does it make? If there is a problem, there is a problem, and the purpose of petitioning is to raise the problem with the authority that is responsible.
If the petition is about school provision and it is a cross-border problem, it might be made and signed by the parents of children who go to that school. The children might be able to sign the petition because they qualify as students, but the parents would not. Why should they not be able to sign a petition about the future of a school that is under threat of closure, amalgamation or a change in status?
We have been discussing the marine Bill in the House, and when we finally get to it, probably by around Boxing Day, we will consider coastal access. Indeed, I do not know whether we will be finished with this Bill by then. If people are not happy with the provision offered by an access authority, whether at the coast or to moorland under access rights under CROW, why should not walkers, ramblers and climbers be able to petition the responsible access authority even if they do not actually live in the area? Why should a petition be declared invalid when users are petitioning the appropriate authority? Again, that is an example of the Government being overly prescriptive and restrictive. All this ought to be left to common sense. If a petition has been signed by people with no direct connection to the particular area or issue, the authority can deal with it sensibly on that basis. Why should it not be able to do that? Why are the Government being so restrictive and undermining systems that work perfectly well in many places? I beg to move.
We return here to the issue of defining the term “local people”, which we debated on the first day in Committee when considering the duty of local councils to promote understanding of democracy. We had an interesting debate, but I am afraid that the Government’s reasoning did not convince us of the need to set out prescriptive definitions on the face of the Bill. However, as I suspect that the duty in Chapter 1 is more or less meaningless, the confusion does not matter as much as it does here.
The business of petitions goes to the heart of local democracy. Quite why the Government think it is up to them to decide who can start a petition and submit it to a local authority is mystifying. In the debate last week, the noble Lord, Lord Greaves, cited the example of someone who uses a local authority’s swimming pool but lives outside the authority boundary. Such a scenario is easy to envisage. A person might pay to use a swimming pool twice a week or even every day but would not be considered a valid signatory to a petition, say, against the closure of that pool. Indeed, under the Government’s scheme, the local authority need not even consider how to bring its petition scheme to the attention of such a person. That is just one example and I am sure that there are plenty of others—more than Members of the Committee and officials could dream up. However, I am sure that the noble Lord, Lord Greaves, will bring them to our attention as the Bill proceeds.
Every area of this country is different. Each locality has its own quirks and needs, so it is entirely appropriate that local authorities should apply their own criteria and use common sense to decide who they will allow to petition them. We do not need to get bogged down in arguments about who would fall under the definition of,
“persons who live, work or study”
in a given local authority area. We can simply take the common-sense approach and leave these matters in the hands of local authorities themselves.
This has been an interesting and useful debate, although it has made me quite nostalgic for Chapter 1. Amendment 94 would delete the reference to the types of people who can sign valid petitions, while Amendment 84 would widen the existing definitions so that people who use a local authority’s services and facilities could also sign a valid petition.
I shall set out the rationale, but briefly, because I do not want to make a meal of this. This is another provision that balances our first two principles—that people should be able to have a say and receive a response, with our third—to minimise burdens on local authorities. The definition also guards against the risk of local issues being hijacked by people who do not have a real stake in the area. It is an important protection when it comes to electronic petitions, which anyone in the world could sign. It would not be reasonable for councils in England and Wales to have to spend their time conducting research or holding full council debates on issues that were of concern to people living in another country. We need some way of identifying local people, to whose petitions councils should pay attention.
In Clause 1 we discussed the term we have devised—those who “live, work or study”. During our exhaustive consultations some people thought that only council taxpayers should be eligible, which would have meant that only one person per household could be registered. Others suggested the electoral register, but 8 to 9 per cent of people are not on the electoral roll, with a disproportionate number from disadvantaged backgrounds. Young people are often not on the register and they need to be represented.
Using the term “live, work and study” seems to be a good solution. It is a common-sense term that is normally known and, more importantly, is one with which local authorities are very familiar. For example, anyone who lives, works or studies in Bury St Edmunds can nominate an individual for Bury Metropolitan Borough Council’s employee achievement award. The Green Guardian awards are open to anyone who lives, works or studies in the boroughs of Sutton, Croydon, Kingston, Merton, Richmond and Hounslow. Individuals who live, work or study within the authority boundary can join libraries in Warwickshire, the city of Nottingham, Rochdale and Dorset. I could go on but I will not. I am just saying that this is a term that is familiar to local authorities.
We have taken the definition from the experience of councils themselves, as noble Lords opposite are always telling us to do. The definition of a “local person” could have been left to principal authorities to decide—that was an option we considered—but there are many ways in which a local person can be defined and we wanted to avoid a situation where, for example, some local authorities responded only to people on the electoral register. We needed a definition that was wide enough to bring as many people within councils’ catchment as possible without overburdening them. The noble Lord, Lord Greaves, pointed out that some market traders were signing petitions, but they would not be able to if we did not have “live, work and study” in the definition.
I have now remembered why that was a good instance to raise. Some of the market traders who signed the petition own the businesses but do not actually work there. They employ other people to man the stalls for them. That is the point I was trying to make.
I shall draw a veil over this; let us press on.
We want to have a balance of access and burden. With regard to Amendment 84, we considered the alternative formulation of referring to people who use local services or facilities. We were attracted to it, as it should capture pretty much everyone affected by the local council’s decisions and in practice it overlaps with “live, work and study”, but the extra terms in the amendment capture other people too and we rejected it on the basis of the burden on local authorities. The noble Lord has given us lots of examples of people wandering the streets of Westminster, and if the local authority wants to respond to people from abroad who bang in a petition then it can do so, just as it can take petitions on the space effort from Hounslow. It is up to the authority.
We are trying not to overburden councils, and to get a balance. We do not want to tie them up in knots where they have to respond to petitions that have nothing to do with the concerns of local people but are submitted by those with no real investment in the community. Consider, in contrast, the drafting of Clause 12(1)(c), under which the signatory can always give an address where they live, work or study. Many councils will choose not to verify them because that could be more burdensome than simply responding, but if they want to, they can follow them up through the address which must be supplied on the petition. Clause 11(7) makes clear that it will be open for the council to respond to petitions signed by people who do not live, work or study within the authority area, and that any authority may choose to verify whether they meet the criteria.
I hope that I have explained how we have tried to find the right balance in a definition that is familiar to local authorities.
In our part of the world we always say, “people who live, work, study or play”, but then we live in a very beautiful part of the world where there are lots of things to do for play.
I have to be careful what I say, but I do not think that what the Minister is saying is sensible. That is not the real world. The real world is that you receive a petition. You do not go through it to find out how many people on it live in California or Melbourne. You get a petition about a problem and you deal with it. That is the real world if you take petitions seriously. I have signed petitions in France. I signed a petition against building a railway tunnel through the middle of the Pyrenees. I thought that it would be quite amusing to sign it with my title, which I normally do not do on such things, and they were absolutely thrilled. They thought that it was wonderful that they had a Lord signing their petition. I do not imagine that whoever they presented it to said, “It is not valid because we do not want a British Lord signing the petition; he is not allowed to”. The Government seem to be obsessed with foreigners and people living in another country.
The point of a petition is to raise a particular problem or opportunity. That is what we should concentrate on, not who signed it. If half the people who sign a petition about the state of the pavements outside this building are local and half live in another country, it does not matter. A problem is being raised that must be sorted out. At the very least, the council should discuss it. That is not a burden; the burden, if I may say so, is the incredibly prescriptive and detailed regulation that the Government are imposing on local authorities. That is what they will find is the burden: having to cope with this ludicrous and ridiculous legislation. Coping with a petition about the state of pavements that happens to be signed by a lot of people who do not live in Westminster is not a burden at all; the council will deal with it in the normal way.
Our debate is increasingly in fantasy land. If the Bill is passed and councils spend time drawing up these formal petition schemes, I wonder what proportion of petitions they will end up dealing with—how many valid petitions there will be under the scheme. I am starting to think that it might be very low, 5 per cent or 10 per cent, and the world will carry on as normal. But that would not be a satisfactory outcome. If the legislation is to work properly, it ought to encompass the great majority of petitions that councils receive, but that will not be not the case. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment 84 withdrawn.
Amendments 85 and 86 not moved.
87: Clause 11, page 7, line 23, leave out “Subject to that,”
I have a feeling that Amendment 87 is another amendment which the noble Baroness, Lady Andrews, may be moved to call destructive. In so far as it is designed to criticise the Government’s efforts to create a prescriptive, one-size-fits-all approach that tells every local authority up and down the country how to deal with each and every petition they receive, she would be right to describe it as such. However, I see the amendment as an effort to protect local authorities from that interference. It would render the rest of Clause 11 somewhat superfluous. The clause and, indeed, the rest of this part, is unnecessary as primary legislation.
Local authorities deal with petitions regularly. I have no doubt that practices for dealing with them differ from authority to authority. Equally, I have no doubt that many local authorities have hit upon a method of dealing with petitions that works to the satisfaction of both the authority and the petitioners.
However, this established practice may differ in some detail from the scheme which the Government have created or propose to create. I do not see why the prescriptions of this Bill should trump the established working practices of local councils, whose daily job involves receiving, acknowledging, responding to and acting on petitions. I am sure that the Government feel that they have considered the case for this piece of legislation very carefully and have come up with the best method for dealing with petitions, but I am less sure of the merits of telling local councils that in this area central government knows best.
It is not difficult to think of a case where a petition does not meet the exact standards laid down in the Bill. Earlier debates, and no doubt those that are still to come, have come about because, whether the Government care to admit it or not, Members of the Committee have grave concerns about what will constitute a valid petition and wish to address this very point. However, although I am sure we will haggle to and fro about what constitutes a valid petition, it remains the case that I do not think it appropriate, or desirable, to prescribe when a local authority must turn a petition away.
I find it difficult to imagine why the Government are so determined to have these provisions on the statute book. I hope that the Minister will not bristle if I suggest that it is because they cannot help themselves when they see an opportunity to interfere and exercise control. The only other plausible reason I can think of is that the Government wish to set a standard of best practice to show local authorities the way. Yet I think, and I do not believe that I am alone in thinking this, that these clauses in effect place a straitjacket on the discretion of local authorities.
If the Government really wanted to show local authorities how they should best handle petitions, they should take these provisions out of primary legislation, and if they insist on keeping them at all, place them in guidelines. If, even then, the Government feel that one or two local authorities are failing to handle their petitions in a suitable fashion, a more suitable remedy would be to offer targeted guidance instead of pointing to a central government prescription. Bodies such as Localis, the New Local Government Network, the LGA and no doubt others who have a close interest in seeing local authorities adhere to best practice could contribute to the voluntary raising of standards. The Government could do worse than work in partnership with others to reach the same goals that they say they seek without having to impose yet more legislation.
This amendment boils down to a simple point: allowing local authorities to exercise their own judgment and common sense on how best to handle petitions. I beg to move.
My noble friend Lord Tope and I have added our names to this amendment, which is part of the package. I agree very much with what the noble Baroness has just said. Amendments 88 and 90 in this group also stand in our names. Amendment 88 seeks to remove the reference to “duties” in Clause 11(7). I do not need to spell out our objection to there being a duty to comply with a petition scheme. I assume that is what Clause 11(7) means because it has been amply—some noble Lords might think more than amply—aired this afternoon.
One might regard Amendment 90 as technical, but I think it is more than that. It states:
“Failure … to comply with a petition scheme shall not give rise to a cause of action”.
A number of people to whom I have explained this part of the Bill on petitions have said that there will be claims about failures to deal with the process. They maintain that there will be lots of rows and lots of claims. That would be a great pity because what is important is the substance of a petition, not the procedure that is followed or the form of it. I fear that the Bill could provide a lot of material to those who wish to challenge a local authority by way of judicial review, either because it constitutes a political opponent or simply because they do not like politicians or the response to a petition.
Clause 12—I thought of this point after I drafted the amendments, so it may not be extensive enough—deals with what is valid, and requiring a specified number of valid signatures would give rise to a lot of scope for challenge if the dates of signatures are not there. There might be a temptation on the part of the local authority or the organiser of a petition to tidy it up a bit and stick some dates in before handing it in. That would, frankly, not be a good thing, but one can see that an organiser might do it.
I am sure that noble Lords who have had experience of local government will be familiar with the procedure open to residents, council tax payers or anyone, I suppose, to take matters to the district auditor in a complaint that a local authority is spending time on a petition that it should not spend time on and that this is a misuse of council funds. I do not think that these are as wild examples as one might think. This comes from sad experiences in real life, if you like.
In the analysis of what was a valid petition, I asked the Minister before today whether it is necessary to identify a petition organiser. If it is not clear who the organiser is, most authorities will treat the first signatory as the organiser and deal with that person. That is just common sense. The response was that there needs to be a person who receives the response and who can appeal to the overview and scrutiny committee. That goes again to the validity of the petition.
The Minister agreed that the process will continue much as it does now and, if there is no one who identifies himself as the organiser, they expect local authorities to act sensibly. My noble friend Lord Greaves has used that word countless times today, and it appears in the Minister’s letters. In those circumstances, the first one or two names on the petition will probably be used. Could that not lead to a complaint to the district auditor that the local authority had dealt with a petition without a designated lead signatory?
Yes, we will make that available.
I will be brief. Amendment 87 proposes a change to Clause 11(7), which provides that nothing in the Bill affects the existing powers or duties of a principal local authority in relation to any petition presented to it.
Clause 11(7) will not have any major impact. It is simply a helpful clarifying measure to remove any room for doubt about the impact of this Bill on the existing powers and duties of local authorities in relation to petitions. Nothing in this Bill would affect those powers.
I am advised that the amendment, which proposes removing the words, “Subject to that”, from the beginning of the subsection, would have no substantive legal effect when considered with Amendment 88.
Amendment 88 would remove the references to duties. There would be no point imposing a duty on councils to respond to a petition while providing that the chapter imposes no duties. That would be a real problem. It is possible that in certain situations an authority would be under some form of legal duty to respond to a petition in the sense that it would be irrational to ignore it. It is not surprising that we would want to avoid undermining through the Bill any existing provisions that relate to local authorities’ approach to petitions. It is therefore wise to maintain an explicit reference to duties in this part of the Bill. I therefore ask the noble Lord to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment 90 concerns the remedies available in law in the event that a local authority fails to comply with the provisions of its petition scheme. It was not entirely clear before the debate whether the intention of the amendment was to deal with public or private law. The noble Baroness has helpfully clarified the position. It is open to anyone to seek judicial review of a local authority’s conduct if it fails to comply with its petition scheme. The noble Baroness has made it clear that she is concerned to avoid a charter for litigation, with petitioners seeking damages in the event that the local authority did not concede to their calls for action. This is an important point, but I hope that I can reassure her that it is addressed by the existing provisions.
Damages for a breach of statutory duty are available only where the statute imposing the duty specifically provides for them to be paid or where an obligation is necessarily implied. This is not the case with the existing provisions, which require local authorities to carry out certain procedures in relation to petitions but in no way imply that local authorities must concede to the calls for action made by a petition. This is properly a matter for local authority members to decide.
I fear that including a provision of the kind proposed by this amendment would have unintended and unfortunate consequences. No such formulation is in place in other local authority legislation, and as such its inclusion here could throw into question the ability to claim damages in relation to a range of existing local authority responsibilities.
The noble Baroness made a couple of other points about district auditors. If she will allow us, we will read very carefully in Hansard what she said and respond to her in a letter.
My point about a judicial review was not about a claim in relation to a breach of statutory duty; it was about a judicial review, which is always about procedure. It is very often the resort of those who are dissatisfied with a decision but who find it difficult to seek a means of challenging the decision itself and therefore challenge the procedure that has led to the decision, arguing that the proper procedures have not been followed. That is my concern: that an awful lot of time, and therefore money and energy, could be expended if this legislation’s prescriptions about procedure gave those who were disaffected the material to apply for a judicial review.
I believe that someone could go to judicial review now, too, whatever their situation. I have a note on the question whether an elector could go to the district auditor if the council dealt with a petition that is not valid. The simple answer is no. Councils are acting quite properly if they respond to a petition of any sort. They do this now, and the legal position will not change when they have a duty to respond to the petition in question.
I thank the Minister for his detailed response. I want the opportunity to reread those comments. I still have concerns about the prescriptive nature of the clause, which says very clearly:
“A principal local authority must make a scheme for the handling of valid petitions … In this Chapter ‘petition scheme’ means a scheme under this section”.
I will read in Hansard what the Minister has said, and I am sure that we will return to this on Report. At this stage, however, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment 87 withdrawn.
Amendment 88 not moved.
Committee adjourned at 7.40 pm.