Wednesday, 28 January 2009.
Local Democracy, Economic Development and Construction Bill [HL]
Committee (4th Day)
If there is a Division in the Chamber while we are sitting, this Committee will adjourn as soon as the Division Bells are rung and resume after 10 minutes.
Clause 11: Petition schemes
89: Clause 11, page 7, line 24, at end insert—
“( ) Nothing in this Chapter shall prevent a principal local authority from receiving, considering and taking any action on any petitions that are presented to it that are not valid petitions in accordance with its petition scheme.”
Just to give people a change, we can talk about petitions. The problem with irony is that it does not look very good in Hansard, because nobody can understand it.
Amendment 89 relates to petitions which are not valid or active under the Government’s scheme. The amendment states the position clearly. We had some discussion about this on Monday, and I think that the Government will say that nothing will prevent the local authority from doing as the amendment suggests. We have spoken about whether councils will nevertheless regard the Bill as the maximum rather than the minimum provision. We will continue with these discussions as we wrestle with this part of the Bill over the next few weeks.
I have had a specific request to raise the matter on behalf of the City of London Corporation. It is not a body I normally have a great deal to do with, but Mr Double, the Remembrancer of the corporation, has written to me. He says:
“It is part of the custom of London (what is now the City of London) that local communities, gathered in wardmotes, should be able to petition the Court of Common Council (the City’s administrative arm) to ensure that issues of local concern are addressed. By this method, individual voters can secure direct involvement with the decision making body. The Court of Common Council is required to respond to such petitions and usually does so by referring the issues raised to a committee for detailed consideration and a report.
It cannot be the intention of the Bill that such examples of effective local democracy should be displaced by the new provisions. Amendment 89 provides an opportunity for the Minister to confirm that existing arrangements”—
that is, in the City of London—
“are unaffected by the new provisions”.
I am very happy to ask that question on the corporation’s behalf.
Amendment 96 amends Clause 12(1)(e), which excepts a petition,
“made under and in accordance with any other enactment”.
The amendment is tabled partly to probe what that means. Taken together with Amendment 98B, which would insert a new subsection, my amendment is intended to clarify the position. It sets out a number of instances where it seems to us that the council will find difficulty in applying the Government’s scheme to specific circumstances that apply. Yet if a petition appears to be valid, it will have to be dealt with according to the statutory scheme. In order to probe this issue, I shall set out examples of some of the difficulties that a prescriptive, top-down, nationally imposed scheme may have.
One difficulty relates to petitions made under and in accordance with any other enactment. An obvious example is a petition for a mayor, but there may well be others.
The second is a petition in connection with a planning application that is under consideration by the authority. The noble Lord, Lord Smith of Leigh, pointed out on Monday that petitions about a planning application will have to be dealt with there and then as part of the planning process and regarded as a representation in relation to that application. It would be ridiculous to deal with such a petition in any other way; therefore, it would have to be outside the scheme as laid down. Yet that does not appear to be the case in the Bill.
The third is a petition made in connection with a licensing application. Exactly the same situation applies as to planning applications. If someone is applying for a licence to run a taxi or to amend the opening hours of a local pub, for example, the council makes a decision in a quasi-judicial capacity under the legislation applying to that kind of licensing. Yet the petition itself could hardly be said to be made under, and in accordance with, an enactment. The enactments allow people to make representations but not necessarily a petition.
The fourth is a petition made in connection with the annual budget-making process of the authority. This is the most important example each year of an instance where the council is making decisions according to a set timetable—it has to. There is no point in a petition going through a convoluted system under the Government’s requirements if it comes in the day before the council’s budget-making meeting; it clearly has to be reported to that meeting and considered at it as part of the budget-making process. That is so obvious, and it is what a normal council will do as a matter of course in a common-sense, pragmatic way, which is our argument throughout.
There may be matters generally in connection with an item due to be discussed at an early meeting of the council, a committee, a sub-committee, the executive, any other body or at a public meeting of a cabinet member who has delegated power to make decisions—sometimes those decisions are made in public by a cabinet member sitting as a chairman but making decisions as a one-man committee, which is a strange way to make decisions but an open and public way for one person to do so. Whatever decisions are made, if they are made quickly, the petition clearly has to circumvent all the other processes and simply be put to the meeting of whatever body is making the decision. It is so obvious, and it is what a sensible council will do. Yet the Government are trying to tie councils up in red tape, and people might well be able to come back and say, “My petition wasn’t dealt with correctly under the scheme, as you just considered it the day after the meeting and rejected it, without giving it the full consideration the scheme says it must have”.
Councils carry out all kinds of public consultation. More consultation takes place nowadays than ever before, by a factor of probably 10 or 20, perhaps more. A lot of people complain that there is too much consultation; they do not want to be consulted again and just want councils to get on with it. Nevertheless, consultation is built into all kinds of things the council does. The council sets out a consultation process. Sometimes it is a statutory or semi-statutory process, as under the local development framework. On this particular issue, the council just decided to carry out consultation and then set up the scheme. It is ludicrous for a petition on a matter regarding that consultation process to be considered in any way other than as part of that consultation process and for the council to have a petition scheme preventing that happening.
I am sure that noble Lords with experience in these matters can probably think of lots of other circumstances where the Government’s tightly organised scheme will not fit. Amendments 96 and 98B seek to set out some of the problems that the government scheme is likely to cause, to show the complexity of the issue and the need for flexibility.
Amendment 127 simply removes the Government’s rather feeble attempt to deal with this problem, compared with the much more positive and rigorous way of dealing with it as set out in these amendments. I beg to move.
I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Greaves, for having given me the opportunity of speaking to Amendment 89, as it enables me to apologise to the Minister for the contumacious manner with which I treated her on Monday, and to say that I am delighted to be able to speak on an amendment that is without controversy.
As the noble Lord, Lord Greaves, will know, the letter from the Remembrancer, the Parliamentary Agent to the City, was copied to me by virtue of my previous membership of the House of Commons on behalf of the City. I do not propose to rehearse what the noble Lord, Lord Greaves, said because I think he admirably made the case the City asked him to. I join him in hoping that the Minister can meet his and the City’s request.
Perhaps I may reinforce the reference to the City’s ancient practices, which were involved in the passage the noble Lord, Lord Greaves, communicated. They go back a long way. The Remembrancer is the only local government officer in the land who is allowed to go anywhere within the Palace of Westminster without let or hindrance. I have known the last four Remembrancers; they have all been men of the highest probity and sobriety, which is more than can be said for the first holder of that office. In 1571, when the office was created, the initial appointment was of a drunken poet.
Since I am citing the City of London as one of the cradles of our democracy, I shall reinforce it with a case in the Westminster part of the constituency. Charles James Fox, whom I greatly respect, was the Member of Parliament for the City for 26 years, while I was the Member for only 24, so he gets the bronze medal for being the third longest serving Member for the City since 1283. He had the experience of fighting Midhurst, where there were only seven voters, and Malmesbury, where there were only 13, until he arrived in Westminster, where there were 6,000 electors, which was what I will describe as a serious election. So liberal was the franchise in Westminster, and thus nurturing and fostering democracy in this land, that when the Great Reform Bill came in, the franchise was tighter than the Westminster one and therefore, as a result of the Bill’s passage, the electorate at Westminster fell.
I support my noble friend’s comments. I apologise for the absence of my noble friend Lady Warsi this afternoon. She is not at all well. Whereas I was planning to participate much more in the later stages of the Bill, I am now going to have to cope with doing so for most of this afternoon.
I support the noble Lord, Lord Greaves, particularly in what he said about flexibility. It is all very well there being government guidance, but, as he said, there are many different types of consultation and some petitions are different from others. For example, if the closure of a school is proposed, thousands of people with children in that school at that time will submit a petition. You obviously have to consider that but it is rather different from getting a petition about some issue that the public are suddenly very concerned about. I would like the Minister to acknowledge that the provision is fully flexible.
I thank the noble Lord, Lord Brooke. I certainly did not mind his intervention the other day, and his contribution today was extremely interesting and puts our deliberations into proper perspective. I say to the noble Lord, Lord Hanningfield, that he must not worry about the Bill, because it is excellent. I am sure that we shall all do our best by it.
I hope that I can reassure the City of London by saying that nothing in the Bill will stop the Remembrancer continuing his functions as he has done for at least 400 years—I confess that I would quite like to know who the drunken poet was; there is quite a long list to choose from.
We are trying to make sure that we have in statute a scheme that will make it easier for all our citizens to know that the council has a way of dealing with petitions which guarantees a response. A set of very reasonable, simple criteria will need to be fulfilled. However, if additional petitions, practices and routes exist, there is nothing to stop local authorities dealing with them as they wish. I cannot add anything to what I said on Monday, when we had a long debate. We want to ensure that everybody in a community—not just those who are active in it and are well used to organising and signing petitions—has a clear notion of how they might bring something to the attention of the council. I think that that response deals with Amendments 89 and 127. Amendment 127 would remove a helpful pointer on what a council might want to include in its scheme; for example, it may help people to understand something related to the functions of a different and connected authority.
Amendments 96 and 98B relate in broad terms to the Government’s commitment, set out in the community empowerment White Paper, that petitions on a few issues such as planning and licensing will be dealt with differently in order to reflect, as the noble Lord said, existing statutory processes. Our stated intention is to use the order-making power in Clause 14(4), which will exclude those matters from the scope of the duty to respond to petitions, as it is simply common sense to do so. We want to avoid setting up parallel routes for considering local people’s concerns in those areas; the processes that exist are extensive and well known. Petitions on those subjects do not need to go through that separate system.
The noble Lord, Lord Hanningfield, spoke about the need for flexibility, which raised some interesting questions, particularly around consultation. We should reflect on that in the context of using secondary legislation, which would allow us to seek the views of the sector before putting legislation before Parliament. The amendments of the noble Lord, Lord Greaves, capture the broad intention, although I suspect that the drafting would be more complex. I hope that he can withdraw them so that we can reflect on the issues in more detail. I would be happy to discuss them with him before Report.
Amendment 127 relates to Clause 18, and we will come to that in a later group. There are very serious flaws in Clause 18 at the moment, and I think we will want to discuss them in detail later but not now.
The Minister said that a few issues will be excluded by the powers in subsection (4), which I shall come to in a moment. However, I do not think that a few issues will be excluded if the provision is sensibly worded. I think that a large number of issues will have to be excluded, partly because very often petitions appear not in a vacuum but in relation to something that the council is already doing. I mentioned, for example, the budget-making process. If what the council does in its budget-making process is controversial, a lot of petitions will come in directly in relation to that and indeed to lots of other decisions that are on the agenda or are about to get on to the agenda of a meeting. Therefore, the issues that are already going through the council system are very important, and I do not think that there will be only a few.
I have already said that, unless the wording in Clause 14(4) is changed quite substantially, when people look at this legislation, they will think it is crackers. Subsection (4)(a) states that,
“the appropriate national authority—
that is, the Secretary of State in England—
“may by order specify matters falling within subsection (2)(a) which are not to be regarded as relating to a function of the authority”.
Subsection (2)(b) refers to “relevant matters”. However, for the Secretary of State to issue a document that says that planning applications are not to be regarded as relating to a function of the authority is madness. This is not real-world wording; it is crazy. It may mean that to lawyers, who will understand it, as perhaps will some of the rest of us, but you cannot tell a council to exclude planning applications because they do not relate to its function when they are one of the most important things that a council does.
I get the impression that this legislation has been written by people who are on a different planet but I think that the Minister will already have gathered that from what I have said. In the mean time, although there are important issues here that still have to be discussed and resolved, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment 89 withdrawn.
Amendment 90 not moved.
Clause 11 agreed.
Clause 12: Valid petitions
Amendment 91 not moved.
91A: Clause 12, page 7, line 28, after “addressed” insert “or presented”
I shall speak also to Amendments 126 and 128 and the Question whether Clause 18 should stand part. This group concerns a smallish number of miscellaneous issues which, nevertheless, need to be put on the record and probed.
Amendment 91A brings us back to our old friend, the definition of a valid petition. Clause 12(1)(a) says that, for a petition to be valid, it must be “addressed to the authority”. I simply want to add the words “or presented” so that it reads that a valid petition has to be “addressed or presented to the authority”. I am not sure what the Government will say “addressed” means but, in my view, it means an address written down; in other words, at the minimum, it should say “to East Sussex County Council” or “to Cornwall County Council”, or whichever authority the petition is being presented to, yet a large number of informal petitions that come in and have to be treated properly are not. I read out two yesterday and shall repeat them:
“We as residents of Mansfield Crescent want a one-way system”.
That is not addressed to anyone. The second reads:
“We the undersigned want to stop the speeding traffic on Chapel House Road”.
That is not addressed to anyone. I think that they were presented separately to different committees of Pendle Borough Council. They might have been presented to the town councils in Brierfield or Nelson, or they might have been presented directly to the authority which has powers to do these things—that is, the county council. However, they were not addressed to anybody, so they would not have been valid for that reason, according to the Government’s scheme, if the word “addressed” means what I think it means.
Amendment 126 relates to Clause 18. Some of the supplementary provisions in that clause are worthy of discussion. Under Clause 18(2)(a), the principal local authority’s petition scheme may include,
“provision relating to petitions which are not valid petitions”.
I do not understand the purpose of these eight pages if they can be ignored so that the petition scheme can apply to invalid petitions. If there is to be a detailed prescription of a valid petition, rather than telling local authorities that they may include petitions that do not fit the precise criteria laid down—for example, because every signature is not dated, which is one of the more ludicrous ideas—they ought to have a duty to consider them. Otherwise, there is a great risk that a lot of valid petitions—for example, for a one-way system in Mansfield Crescent or for traffic calming on Chapel House Road and hundreds of thousands of others all over the country—would be excluded because they do not fit. Therefore, I propose the insertion of “shall” instead of “may” in line 31.
Amendment 128 provides that a petition that clearly relates to a number of different authorities can be photocopied, either by the petitioners or by the council that first receives it, and that those photocopies should then be regarded as a true copy of the petition. The Newcastle scheme makes that provision so that people can hand in true copies of petitions rather than the original. On a matter such as winter gritting—to pick an issue at random—people might well want to present a petition to the town council, the district council and the county council, perhaps to the police and possibly even to the Lord Lieutenant, although I am not sure what he would do with it.
I shall speak to Clause 18 stand part. Clause 18(2)(c) relates to whether a petition handed to one authority can be dealt with and passed to another authority. This paragraph seems to allow it, but other clauses, which we will discuss later, appear not to. We need some clarity to avoid confusion.
I shall speak to Clause 18 stand part, but I support what the noble Lord, Lord Greaves, said on the other amendments in this group. Clause 18 adds confusion. It allows local authorities to have variations, and being a localist I agree with that, but it contradicts some of what we have been talking about. I hope that the Government will think again on this. The system needs to be fairly flexible. If the Government want to give guidance and include all these matters in the Bill, the system must be flexible.
As we have said, there are many different types of petitions. For example, some may be generated by people wanting to change the position of a level crossing, which may not necessarily coincide with the local authority’s point of view, but it is something on which it could take advice and operate. As the noble Lord, Lord Greaves said, some may be generated by what the council is doing at that moment. The whole issue needs rethinking, and that is why we have tabled the Question whether Clause 18 should stand part of the Bill.
On Clause 18 stand part, when I wrote to the Minister on 15 January—I was surprised but pleased to receive written answers to all the points I had raised when I was simply warning of what I might mention at this stage—I, too, used the term “confusing” about Clause 18. I said that allowing for non-statutory provisions but spelling out in primary legislation what they “may in particular include” was certainly confusing to me. I do not understand where in the hierarchy of legislative requirement—going down from primary legislation, through secondary legislation, statutory guidance, non-statutory guidance and so on—this might lie.
I understand the response that what is dealt with here is in addition to the statutory provisions and requirements that are in the earlier clauses—that is implicit, but you have to think about that. It must be the case but, as my noble friend said, a fairly technical approach is required to reach that conclusion.
I was concerned, too, about the words “may in particular”. It is terminology to which we have become accustomed in legislation—it normally means “shall”, but perhaps that is another spectrum. The answer to this was that they are practical points which might come to light when a scheme gets under way—indeed they are—and which are worth highlighting to local authorities for possible inclusion. Perhaps they are but, if so, their place is in guidance and not on the face of the Bill.
Noble Lords have raised some pragmatic and sensible issues on which I hope I can reassure them. Certainly this is an area we could discuss further.
Clause 12 provides that valid petitions must be addressed to the authority that the petitioner requests to take action. Amendment 91A would change this so that valid petitions must be addressed or presented to the authority. I am reliably informed that the term “addressed” should not be taken literally as an address written on an envelope, as the noble Lord said, but rather in the sense of “aimed at”. As such, the act of presenting a petition to an authority clearly comes under the expression “addressed”; therefore the aim of the amendment is achieved.
This is a new doctrine. In the eight years I have been a Member of the House I have never heard that the words in legislation should not be taken literally. I am concerned that if the legislation appears before a court at some stage that is exactly what the court will do. Courts look at the words and take them to mean what they usually mean in the English language. If the noble Lord is saying “addressed” can mean someone shouting through a loud hailer outside the town hall, that is one use of the word; but for a written document, “addressed” means that the name of the addressee appears on it. I do not understand why the Government are resisting the amendment when it is a simple device for clearing up any possible confusion.
I agree with the noble Lord that the word is somewhat ambiguous. My speaking notes attempted to make that clear. However, a statement in Parliament by a Minister on the Bill would be taken into account by a court in seeking to work out what the word means. We have a precedent for that in the Pepper v Hart case. That means that it is important that the paragraph that I have just read out is clearly stated in Hansard.
Amendments 126 and 128 relate to Clause 18 and address the issue of the provisions which local authorities may make in their petition schemes in addition to those set out in this chapter—such as the process of dealing with petitions that are not valid, which are made to more than one authority and those made to one local authority but which clearly relate to the functions of another. Noble Lords have said clearly what their feelings are on this. Amendment 126 would change the status of these issues from suggestions to requirements for inclusion in petitions schemes.
The issues we have listed in Clause 18(2) are practical points which may well come to light when a scheme gets under way. They are therefore particularly worth highlighting to local authorities for possible inclusion in their petition scheme. I do not believe, however, that a scheme would grind to a halt if they were not included. Local authorities can take sensible decisions for themselves on how they approach these points and the range of others that will be important to them in their local context.
Inclusion of a list has a specific legal effect of identifying the nature of the discretion being exercised by the principal authorities. A similar effect might be obtained by placing the list within guidance but, as has already been said, that would be less certain, as guidance is simply suggestions on what can be taken up. Noble Lords clearly feel very strongly about this issue, and it would probably be worth discussing it further. I should be happy to meet before Report to look through this in a bit more detail.
The Government are arguing that local authorities should have flexibility and then say that having a list sets out the sorts of things that might be included. If they wish to achieve flexibility, they should not have the list at all because, by including one, they prescribe, limit and restrict what might be added. I am happy to talk about this outside Committee and take the issues further.
We have highlighted the issues that we think are particularly relevant as a guide, almost. However, there is a point worth discussing further before Report.
Amendment 128 provides that,
“a valid petition that is presented to one principal authority may be photocopied for the purpose of presenting the same petition concurrently to another principal authority”.
Clause 18(2)(c) already suggests that local authorities may wish to make provision in their petition scheme setting out how they will handle a petition which relates to the functions of another local authority. Whether they will wish to set out photocopying arrangements, I do not know, but it is certainly open to them to do so. In case there is any doubt about the matter, I reassure the noble Lord that there is nothing in this Bill that would make a petition invalid if it were a photocopied document submitted to more than one local authority. I hope that reassures the noble Lord and that he is prepared to withdraw his amendment.
I have a further point about Amendment 91A. The Minister was perfectly correct in saying that, if there is ambiguity in legislation nowadays, the House of Lords in its judicial capacity in Pepper and Hart said that a ministerial statement in the course of the debate, which can be read in Hansard, can be used to clarify that ambiguity. Surely, however, if there is an opportunity in the course of the debate to clear up the ambiguity by presenting in the Bill a better, clearer form of words, it would be better to do that than to leave it open to doubt so that, in years to come, somebody, somewhere, in some local authority—some solicitor at some expense—has to check Hansard for 28 January 2009. I do not know whether he would even find it in the index very easily. It is usually better to clarify an ambiguity, if there is one, before going any further with the legislation.
The issues raised create some ambiguity and it would be helpful to have the position clarified; therefore, between now and Report it may be worth having another look at the phrasing.
I am very grateful for that comment. I cannot believe that the Hansard of this Grand Committee will not become a bestseller and be read by everyone in the land. I read most of Monday’s proceedings in bed last night. It was a great help in getting to sleep, so I am afraid that I missed the last two pages. When I woke in the morning, I thought, “What’s this in the bed?”.
On the previous group, I was remiss in not thanking the noble Lord, Lord Brooke of Sutton Mandeville, who has temporarily left his place. I apologise to him for not having noticed that he was sitting behind me. He is a far greater expert than I am on the City of London. One of my noble friends has reminded me that one of his predecessors as a Member of Parliament for Westminster was John Stuart Mill, who I think in a recent poll of Liberal Democrats was voted as the greatest ever Liberal, so the noble Lord follows in a fine tradition.
I have also been remiss in not adding my commiserations to the noble Baroness, Lady Warsi, for not being able to be here today. We have been impressed by her interest and performance as the Conservative spokesman in this Grand Committee on the first Bill for which she has been responsible. I hope that someone can pass that on to her. We look forward very much to her being back next time—not that we do not want to see the noble Lord, Lord Hanningfield, as well.
In looking at this legislation, I have three principles regarding what we should try to persuade the Government to change. The first is to question whether the legislation is a good thing. We sometimes win on that but usually we do not because we are told that the House of Commons makes these decisions and it is not for us to say whether as a whole it is a good thing. Secondly, and importantly, is the practical question of whether it will work or whether it will cause problems. I hope that the Government will agree that much of our probing on this business of petitions is done on that practical basis. We do not want a scheme that will not work but will cause problems and make matters worse. Finally, even if we cannot get any changes at all to the meaning of the legislation, lawyers such as my noble friend Lady Hamwee and pedants like me think that it is important to at least establish what the words mean. Therefore, I am grateful that the Minister has agreed to look again at the ambiguity.
There is a difficulty with what the Minister said about local authorities being able to exclude certain things from the scheme because it would not work locally. He said that local authorities can take sensible decisions to exclude some issues. However, under this legislation, they cannot do that. Clause 14(4) says that the Secretary of State, not the local authority, will make that decision. Local authorities will be able to act only under decisions made by the Secretary of State. If the clause simply said that local authorities could exclude things that it was sensible to exclude in their area for good reasons—in other words, if it left it up to them and trusted them to do it—we would be very happy.
We are willing to meet the Ministers on all these matters at any time before Report to see whether we can improve the legislation. We clearly have a difference of view on the quality of the legislation as it stands, but if we can improve it we will be a little less unhappy than we would otherwise have been. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment 91A withdrawn.
92: Clause 12, page 7, line 30, at end insert “or to make representations to any other body in support of the matters referred to in the petition”
I shall also speak to Amendment 111. We are still on the question of valid petitions and the hoops that a petition has to jump through in order to be declared valid. Clause 12(1)(b) states that a valid petition,
“requests the authority to take or cease to take action described in the petition”.
That seems to fly in the face of the view expressed in the previous debate, that authorities can receive petitions that do not refer to their functions and on which they cannot take any sensible action, other than to pass them to another authority and express a view about them.
I have already referred to the petitioners of Mansfield Crescent, who want a one-way system, and those of Chapel House Road, who want traffic-calming measures. The only sensible way that Pendle councillors could deal with those petitions was to pass them to the county council, probably to the Lancashire local committee of the county council, in order for it to deal with them. If they wished to do so, they could add recommendations, but I am not sure what they would be because it is not my area. That is the sensible thing to do, and Clause 12(1)(b) seems to prevent it.
Therefore, Amendment 92 inserts,
“or to make representations to any other body in support of the matters referred to in the petition”.
That may include taking other measures to back that up. It may be that the district council wants to mount some kind of information campaign in favour of the matter petitioned about. Perhaps the town council wants the matter to go up to the district council. It seems sensible to put this provision into the Bill to make it clear that not only can councillors receive petitions about things that they are not directly involved with, but they can take a limited amount of action on them and refer them.
Amendment 111 inserts three paragraphs. The first states that,
“a principal local authority that receives a petition on a matter that does not relate to the function of the authority but relates to a matter which is the responsibility of one or more of its partner authorities may fulfil the requirements of this Chapter by referring the petition to that authority or those authorities”.
The second states that,
“where such a reference takes place, the partner authority or authorities shall deal with the petition according to the provisions of this Chapter as if they were the principal local authority”.
This is important because otherwise the body that receives a petition referred, for example, from a district council to the county council or from a district council to a primary care trust, may just shrug its shoulders and do nothing about it because it has not been addressed to it and therefore does not fall within the provisions of the Bill. The third paragraph defines “partner authority”.
These are important provisions in order for petitions to be taken seriously in an environment in which we have a lot of different authorities with different but interlocking and overlapping functions. Otherwise petitions will fall at the first hurdle by being given to the wrong authority.
I support the amendments. The noble Lord, Lord Greaves, has highlighted the problems in two-tier authorities and, as the leader of a county council, obviously I recognise them. One tries to work with one’s district colleagues to resolve them.
I am more concerned, however, with what could be called necessarily partner authorities, such as PCTs and so on. But there are also bodies over which local government should have some control; for example, Network Rail. We talked about anecdotal evidence; I have a problem in Frinton, a nice little town on the Essex coast. The town’s gates close it off from the rest of the world—Frinton used not to have a pub. The residents love the gates; however, for safety reasons, Network Rail wants to change them; therefore there has been a big petition. The county council is, of course, the highway authority; but Network Rail has a statutory power to change things and, as leader of the county council, I am getting the blame for it. I have received many e-mails and so on.
There needs to be clarity because, although we received the petition, it was Network Rail’s decision in the end. I am sorry to add to the complications but we need to think through how one can deal with these matters effectively.
This is a useful debate because the way in which the principal authority relates to its partners, the connected authorities defined in the Bill, and to bodies which are not strictly speaking its partners is complicated. The example of the petition given by the noble Lord, Lord Greaves, demonstrated exactly what the noble Lord, Lord Hanningfield, said about the complication of a two-tier authority. People do not know who is responsible for what, or to whom to direct their petition, and part of the purpose of the Bill is to make that clear and to publicise it.
On some of the broader issues about our approach, Clause 12(1)(b) certainly does not stop councils passing on petitions to partner authorities or to anyone else. That is part of their responsibility. I shall come back to that issue in a moment.
Clause 14 requires principal local authorities in England and Wales to take steps in regard to petitions relating to their functions. It also requires unitary and top-tier principal authorities in England to take steps in response to petitions relating to an improvement in the economic, social or environmental well-being to which any of the partner authorities can contribute. That is there for a purpose. It means that unitary and top-tier councils which co-ordinate the local area agreements—and therefore have the identified partners represented in this Bill, but in a slightly different form from the 2007 Act, which we discussed at some length—bring everyone involved appropriately into the net.
There are also performance indicators around the local area agreements which are shared and promoted by partners. This means that if, for example, a local person were to raise an issue such as GP opening hours or crime and present it to the local authority, they would then—because of the local area agreement and the way in which the connected authorities work in partnership—have the right to ensure that the local authority acted and that it presented and stated their case to partner authorities. That is basically what we are trying to achieve in this part of the Bill.
It is possible that people will contact directly the organisations responsible—they might go directly to the PCT in the case of GP opening hours—because that clearly will be quicker and easier. However, if they are not happy with the response they receive or they do not know about the PCT’s own arrangements, they can go to the local authority; they have that further option. It will then be up to the authority to decide how to respond, and it can do so in a wide number of ways.
I do not want overstate what the authority could do. It might hold a meeting with the public body concerned to enable its constituents to put across their views. It might simply ask a PCT for a response to the petition and send it on. It might respond to the petition organiser and say that it does not think that the action called for is necessary and that it does not intend to take the matter forward. It has an enormous amount of options, which we would not in any way wish to prescribe. I do not want to overstate the extent of the burden which might be placed on the councils by the new duty to take steps after receiving a petition relating to functions of partner authorities, because the obligation is to do what is appropriate. I stress that we are not trying to put councils under any duty to deal with matters over which they have no effective control, but it is important to make sure that they can act more than as a post box, that they can act as advocates and make that connection with a partner authority.
Amendment 92 would provide that valid petitions, those that trigger an acknowledgement, would include those requesting authorities to make representations to any other bodies in support of the matters referred to. It would require them to act as advocates. It is right that that is provided for, but the aim is better achieved by Clause 14 because it places a requirement on the unitary and top-tier authorities to respond to petitions on issues of economic, social or environmental well-being as well as those in relation to functions. Those types of principal authority are well placed to respond to that.
The noble Lord, Lord Hanningfield, made a telling point about Network Rail. If a private-sector company—or a public-sector company such as Network Rail—acted in a way that damaged a local community’s economic, social or environmental well-being, the appropriate authorities should be required to respond to petitions on those issues. Under Clause 14(2)(b), they are. They can take them up on behalf of their constituents even though we are not there talking about connected authorities. The problem with Amendment 92, however, is that it would extend that requirement to any body irrespective of whether it discharged functions over which the principal local authorities had any influence, or where they were. We might find, for example, a pressure group urging a local authority to act as an advocate to improve conditions in a sweatshop—there is no end to the possibilities that might come under the term “any other body”. It does nothing for the efficacy of petitions or for a local authority’s reputation to bring the local authority into effective engagement such as that, as I expect they would agree. I ask the noble Lord to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment 111 proposes almost the opposite approach. It provides that, instead of putting the case for their communities’ wider concerns, principal local authorities would simply forward petitions on wider issues to the relevant bodies—in fact, they would wash their hands of them. That is not in the spirit of what we are trying to achieve. A single point of contact is beneficial, particularly with two-tier authorities, but it does not achieve the wider objective of increasing the community’s involvement in the interaction between principal and partner authorities. It would also lead to some practical problems.
The Bill achieves a similar outcome but more effectively. Clause 20 gives the Secretary of State the power to make provision for the handling of petitions by any type of local authority on the list. The Secretary of State could therefore place a duty on those bodies to respond to petitions, but she would do so only if there seemed to be a real need for it or the need had been driven by the bodies. Moreover, she would do so only after consultation, devising a system that would take into account the governance structures of the relevant bodies. I believe that the Bill will ensure that people can petition on a wide range of local issues. It also ensures that provision for the handling of petitions by other local authorities can be made, if needed, in a way that takes into account the nature of those organisations.
I am advised by the invisible people behind me that there is a slight inaccuracy in what I said a little while ago. A principal authority is only required to respond to a petition relating to economic, social or environmental well-being as defined in the Bill if any of its partner authorities could contribute. Under the flexibility allowed in Clause 19, they could of course respond in any way in any event, but they are only required to do so under the conditions I have described.
Notwithstanding the Minister’s comment about flexibility, I should like it clearly understood that local authorities can respond to anything they want. Including a provision about a “relevant matter” consolidates the confusion to which the noble Lord, Lord Hanningfield, referred. Economic, social and environmental well-being issues to which a partner authority could contribute suggests that there is more responsibility on the local authority, which is exactly what we are trying to avoid. We are not trying to avoid dialogue with local people but to get straight who carries the can and has the legal powers to do certain things. I am sure that there is a lot that the local authority can carry only a few inches forward. It will not be able to solve the problem.
I am slightly confused because I thought we had an amendment relating to the issue of a “relevant matter”.
Where is it?
It is Amendment 117.
That is right. I thought that we were discussing this a little prematurely, so I will say no more about it at the moment.
The Minister suggested that Amendment 92 was too wide ranging. She will be pleased to learn that I agree with her; I put it down to probe and provoke, and to get a discussion going. However, I am clear that the Bill is too narrow and that we should find a form of wording somewhere in between. Perhaps we might discuss that further with her, but it may well also refer to Amendment 117.
I think that what the Minister said about Clause 20 was wrong in this context. The clause is about the handling of petitions by other bodies and provides that the Secretary of State in England and the appropriate national authority in Wales—the Welsh Assembly—may by order,
“make provision for the handling of petitions by any body to which this section applies”.
I hear what the Minister says. When I was reading this, I understood it to mean that petitions would be presented to those bodies, but if it also encompasses petitions that are presented to the principal local authority and passed on to those bodies, that is an interesting and wider interpretation than I had previously thought. I think it is wider than how most people just coming to it will understand it. Again, perhaps we might discuss the exact wording to make absolutely clear what it includes. Although I feel that there is further discussion to be had on the basic issue, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment 92 withdrawn.
93: Clause 12, page 7, line 31, leave out “at least the specified number of”
We are still on the question of valid petitions. This group of amendments questions a number of the requirements of validity set out in the Bill. In speaking to the amendment, I shall speak also to the other amendments in the group. I am grateful to the Conservative spokespeople for adding their name to the lead amendment.
This all applies to restrictions on the question of validity as it applies to petitions. Amendments 93, 99 and 129 refer to the concept of a valid petition having to have at least a specified number on the petition before it can be regarded as valid. Amendment 100 refers to the provision that the petition must include a date on which each person has signed the petition, presumably next to their signature. Amendment 100 would remove that provision. Amendment 97 would remove the provision that,
“if the petition is in electronic form”,
it must be,
“made using the authority’s e-petition facility”,
which has been set up in Clause 10.
Those are three specific restrictions that we would not like to see in the Bill. On the first of them, the question of a number, the problem is that circumstances differ according to different petitions. In a large unitary county such as Northumberland or Cornwall or a large shire county such as Lancashire or North Yorkshire where people are petitioning about a general policy—for no increase in the council tax precept from those authorities in the coming year, perhaps, or for an increase of a certain amount to do a certain thing, although that is fairly rare nowadays—it is reasonable for the authority to take account of the number of people signing the petition. If, in the whole of Northumberland, only five people consisting of my noble friend Lady Maddock and her neighbours sign it, the authority is perfectly entitled to regard it with that degree of seriousness. If, on the other hand, 100,000 people sign it, the authority will regard it with a different degree of seriousness. But that is all down to common sense being applied by the authority, and the Government do not seem to be prepared to accept that authorities are capable of that.
In different circumstances, a petition signed by six people might be perfectly sensible. If the residents of the street in which I live, where there are about a dozen adults, send a petition to the local council with six signatures, and I have refused to sign it because I am a member of the local council and therefore it is coming to me, that is a majority—six out of 11. That petition therefore deserves to be treated with every possible seriousness by whichever body of the council is discussing it. The residents might want the street lighting to be improved, or something like that.
These are matters that must be left to local circumstances and local flexibility. When talking about numbers, the Minister said that it was okay and that all that the regulations would say was that the council must set minimum numbers for petitions and can set different minimum numbers for different purposes. We are back to the council employing people to work out those schemes and systems and having reams of detailed requirements. Then the barrack-room lawyers in the council, who may be council solicitors or councillors, will say that it does not fit and is not valid. That sort of silly argument goes on—and the more detailed prescription there is, the more that silly argument goes on. It is a fact of life. Whereas if people are left to take decisions in a sensible, common-sense, flexible way, without being tied down and hidebound by these Gulliver rules, they will get on a lot better. So we want to take out the numbers.
The noble Lord, Lord Smith of Leigh, said that in his view a petition signed by two people from different households was a letter, not a petition. That is fair enough. Letters have to be taken seriously as well, which is where the flexibility comes in. If some councils do not respond seriously to what residents say, that is fair enough. In informal conversation with the noble Baroness, Lady Andrews, the number “two” came up. I asked her, “What happens if there is a petition from a little settlement with only three or four houses?”. She said that two people might count as a petition, and I agree with her. That sort of flexibility needs to be in the provisions. Therefore, we do not need national rules, regulations, guidance and everything else; we just need to be allowed to get on with it.
The requirement that people should put on the document the date they sign it is ludicrous. Most informal petitions will be declared invalid because they will not have dates on them. It is as simple as that. Official petitions or petitions organised by political parties or pressure groups will have the date on because officials will know about the rules and regulations. However, such requirements will exclude the very people the Government say they want to bring into local democracy—people who are perhaps more excluded from the system and do not feel at home with bureaucracies, official systems, councils and so on. Such a requirement will exclude people and large numbers of petitions. People wanting to draw up a petition about something happening in their area do not run off to the council or anywhere else to find out what the rules are. They do not even look on the internet. They go out and collect signatures and then they hand it in. You cannot turn around afterwards and say to them, “Sorry, your petition is invalid because you have not obeyed all our bureaucratic, narrow instructions”.
Electronic petitioning is a very important matter. The Bill requires local authorities to set up an e-petition facility. We support that; we think it is a very good idea for them to have that on their websites. What we do not say is that that automatically excludes any other petitions gathered by any other people or any other organisations on their own websites. That seems to be totally restrictive. If the local Women’s Institute wants to gather a petition by electronic means, why should it not be allowed to do so? It can then present that petition to the council, either by printing it off and handing it in, which will get a press story, or by sending it by e-mail, which might get a press story, but will not get a nice picture—so they will probably print it off.
What are the Government going to do? What do they think that councils should do if people organise petitions in this way? Are they going to reject them just because they have been gathered by electronic means? It is a ridiculous bit of the Bill, and should be removed.
Amendment 103 is probing. It simply suggests that petitions should not be declared invalid because some of the people who have contributed to the petition and signed it have not obeyed the rules, or are not valid persons to sign it. Therefore, if a council receives a petition signed by 200 people and it turns out that 25 of them do not live, work or study in the council’s area, and if the council has wasted a lot of staff time and money working this out, it cannot reject the petition because there are still 175 who do. Equally, if the petition includes more information than is required, such as e-mail addresses, which nowadays it might well do, or telephone numbers, that does not make it invalid. I think I will get a sensible answer on that, but it is something that has to be probed.
Amendment 121 refers to the six-month rule the Government wish to introduce. It refers to Clause 14, a part of the Bill we have not yet reached, on how a valid petition can become an active petition. This is another piece of extraordinary voodoo or local bureaucracy, where a petition first has to become a valid petition and then has to become an active petition. Only civil servants can dream up this kind of thing. The amendment refers to that part of the Bill. Nevertheless, it is a restriction and states that if a petition of the same or similar nature has been submitted within the previous six months, it will not be an active petition.
It may well be that a council wants to act sensibly. If a council receives a petition, goes through its decision-making processes and makes a decision and then an identical petition is received three weeks later, the council will simply write back saying that it has just made that decision. On the other hand, there may well be circumstances in which a council wishes to reconsider a decision within six months when it receives a petition disagreeing with the decision. For example, a highways authority comes up with a programme of new puffin crossings, and a particular puffin crossing is not in the programme, so people petition and ask why the crossing that local councillors had promised is not in the scheme. That petition goes through the system and is rejected because there are no more resources for the crossing. Then, miraculously, three or four months later, for whatever reason, the council discovers that it has more resources to put into puffin crossings. It makes an announcement that it has the money for three more crossings and asks where they should be, and the same people then put in a similar petition asking for one of the extra three crossings. Are the Government saying that the council should reject that petition and say that it is not an active petition because it has already been discussed in the previous six months? That is nonsense.
The Government are proposing to lay down detailed, rigid rules when what is required is sensible local flexibility. This argument is made all the time by the noble Lord, Lord Hanningfield, and by the Liberal Democrats. The rule is unnecessary. If the Government want rules, it may be that the council should have the power to reject a petition, but for legislation to lay down that a petition is not an active petition in those circumstances is absolute nonsense.
I support the noble Lord, Lord Greaves. I thank him for the forensic analysis he has done of this part of the Bill. Without him going through this in tremendous detail, some of these matters would not have arisen. I am grateful to him.
This is getting a bit ridiculous. I do not like doing this anecdotal stuff, but I received a petition yesterday from about eight people on Canvey Island about a roundabout between two roads, and I will try to deal with it. I would not like to find any reason to rule it out of order. As a leader of a council, I would not like to find any reason to rule any petition out of order. I would want to try to help and deal with the problem, whether the petition was signed by four, 10 or 5,000 people. To a certain extent, some of the regulation here is contrary to the first part of the Bill, which tries to promote local democracy, its popularity and the way it works. If we were to rule all these petitions out for various reasons, it would be harmful. Any good authority would try to deal with problems that come in.
I was grateful that the Minister said she will have discussions, but they need to be not simply with the LGA but with practitioners in the field—officials, not necessarily elected people—who, in large authorities, have petitions about something or other coming in every day. Some of this could harm dealing with the public on a day-to-day basis because there is more regulation than necessary.
I shall be brief. It is now 40 years since I was a councillor in the London Borough of Camden, and I am not going to produce examples drawn from that local government experience long ago. However, by analogy, I shall make reference to the decisions I used to have to make as the Member of Parliament for the Cities of London and Westminster, where 14 times as many people work than in the average consistency. Therefore, every time a business constituent wrote to one of my average constituency colleagues in the House of Commons, 14 people wrote to me, thus causing something of an imbalance in the ordinary correspondence. But no taxation without representation: they were writing about matters which their companies were perfectly entitled to follow up.
On the common-sense issue, because the two Cities are where they are, there were also people who wrote to me after getting into difficulties with parking, having come from a long way away. It was perfectly clear, given that the two Cities cover quite a large area, that the individuals who wrote to me would not have the faintest prayer of knowing which local councillor was responsible for the parking attendants working for Westminster City Council or the Corporation of London. Because they were not an excessive number, I would take up matters on their behalf, and thereby hangs a moral tale.
One of the people who wrote to me in just that way was a photographer from Norwich who had contracts all over the country. Out of good sense, because he was used to being fined by the parking attendant ostensibly because his wheels were outside the white lines, he took a photograph of every parking space in which he parked his car so that he would have evidence to support a complaint about the fine which had been levied on him. As a consequence, the Corporation of London decided that all its parking attendants would carry cameras so that when they accused somebody of an offence they would have documentary evidence which would be conclusive if the man complained. So I wholly agree with my noble friend and the noble Lord, Lord Greaves, that common sense is a very valuable instrument to enable one to make these decisions.
I, too, completely agree. The example given by the noble Lord, Lord Brooke, proves why we need a definition of who should be eligible to submit petitions that includes the phrase “live, work or study” and why we need a clear and accessible petition scheme. He is right that we are talking about common sense. That is what I would say to the noble Lord, Lord Hanningfield, in relation to his last point, and I shall say it again. There is nothing to prevent a principal authority responding to a petition which either duplicates a recently received petition or raises a matter which is outside the terms of reference of a petition scheme or does not fulfil it. Councils can do that in addition to their formal petition scheme, and I am sure that they will go on doing that.
The noble Lord, Lord Greaves, has been rather rude about the Bill. I accept that he does not like the principle of it, but I have to take issue with his remark that this is something that civil servants have dreamt up. That is not fair to officials, who work hard and conscientiously; it is not fair to our parliamentary draftsmen, who work very hard to put matters into proper legal language and ensure that they are as clear as possible. Ministers are responsible for these policies; we do our best to improve the well-being of our communities, and that is what the Bill is about. It is about improving the accessibility of influence and enabling our communities—those who do not normally think of themselves as being influential or having any voice or power in the community—to exert more influence.
When the noble Lord talks about the rules and regulations we have constructed, particularly regarding thresholds, I think that we are living on a different planet. My argument on thresholds is that, with one exception, we have made no rules. The threshold limits will be set by local authorities according to their circumstances. They may well have a threshold for a policy issue which covers the whole community, such as council tax. But they may well specify that a small issue such as allotments which affects fewer people can have a different threshold. It is entirely up to local authorities. All we are providing for is that, if the council feels it has to call a full council meeting, it has to have a maximum ceiling of 5 per cent. If authorities choose to set a nominal threshold of one or two signatures, as Birmingham Council already does, it is up to them; they can do that.
In this legislation we are trying to protect councils from being legally required to spend time that they judge to be excessive in responding to petitions. We are trying to make sure that they do not feel that they have to respond to so many petitions that petitioners will end up with a superficial response. That would not serve any purpose. That is why we are leaving it up to authorities. It is not our aim to increase paperwork for councils.
There is a contradiction in the noble Lord’s argument: he wants more prescription but, at the same time, he accuses us of being too prescriptive. In this very important area, we are not. Overall, permitting local authorities to set appropriate thresholds would best deliver our principles of allowing local people to have their say and to receive a response, while building on best practice and protecting councils from unreasonable burdens.
Amendment 129 raises related issues. It seeks to remove the power for the appropriate national authority to make orders or issue guidance on the thresholds for valid petitions which trigger an acknowledgement, a full council debate and a hearing of a senior officer. This power is useful because it helps to minimise requirements on councils. We will abide by this principle in issuing any guidance, but I do not think that there should not be any guidance at all on these issues. Guidance is intended to clarify and assist. It can give local authorities a clear idea of what is expected, and we will work with local authorities to make sure that it is fit for purpose. As I have said, we intend to issue a model scheme and suggest thresholds in guidance, which councils can choose to adopt if they wish. This model scheme is a guidance, a starting point, and we will work closely with the sector.
As with other examples of guidance, councils will not be required by legal obligation to slavishly follow what is contained in it. I cannot for a moment think that councils such as Essex or Sutton would believe that they would be. From the drafting of the chapter it is clear that councils have considerable discretion to create and operate their own schemes within the framework set down. The principal authority will simply set out in its petition scheme how many signatures are needed to trigger a full council debate. We want that number not to be inappropriately high. We have suggested that we will set a maximum threshold in the White Paper Communities in control: real people, real power because we do not want to exclude appropriate and legitimate requests for such a debate. Apart from that, there are no plans to intervene unless there is evidence that councils are setting thresholds so high as to make their petition schemes nugatory. I hope the noble Lord is reassured that we do not intend to use guidance or orders to place additional requirements on councils.
I have more sympathy with what the noble Lord said about the date. It would be open to councils to respond to petitions which are not dated, and I am sure that many of them would choose to do so. The point about the date is that it is useful for authorities to have a sense of how quickly signatures are collected. A petition which has generated a huge number of signatures in a fortnight is likely to suggest greater urgency than petitions which have accumulated signatures over a long period. The noble Lord referred the Committee to several petitions which did not contain dates and spoke about the lack of confidence of many people about how to make a petition. Again, I will add this to our discussion when we meet to talk about his concerns.
Clause 12 provides that a petition is validly signed if someone signs it and states their name, address and the date. Amendment 103 seeks to provide that valid petitions are not invalidated by some signatures not meeting these requirements or by their not being signed electronically. I do not think that there needs to be an express provision in the Bill for this. Certainly, principal authorities will have no lawful basis to refuse to respond to petitions signed by 5,000 people just because one or two signatures were not dated, and so on. I do not think that there is ambiguity in how the legislation is framed at this point but, to the extent that the noble Lord is afraid that there is, I hope that my clear statement on the issue will reassure him.
Clause 14(1)(c) provides that principal authorities do not need to take substantive steps in response to petitions which duplicate those dealt with in the previous six months. Amendment 121 would remove the exclusion of petitions on the same topic as one received within the last six months. This would mean that local authorities were required to respond to repetitive petitions. All we are trying to do here is to protect councils from unnecessary work; it also identifies for local campaigners that there are time limits, which will focus what they are trying to achieve. I can see that six months is an arbitrary figure and that different periods might be appropriate. A year would be too long to wait. I take the point that that would be unfair, if new information came to light. I think that six months is a happy medium. I am inclined not to accept that amendment.
Amendment 97 removes the requirement on authorities to respond to a petition in electronic form only, when made using the authority’s e-petition facility. Certainly, a petition signed by a number of people, scanned and e-mailed to the authority but not made using the e-petition facility is not a petition in electronic form for our purposes. That would count as a paper petition and would be considered in the same way, because it would not have gone through the other formulation.
I can see that, on the face of it, removing the requirement that, to be valid, petitions in electronic form can be made only through the authority’s e-petition facility would have some merit. The noble Lord spoke powerfully about that. It would require a response to electronic petitions created on sites such as Facebook and the WI, but there are some serious practical problems here. It would be quite difficult to work out whether a petition was validly signed. For the e-petition facility, the authority can establish what counts as a signature. Clause 12(4) provides for that, and I said the other day that there is a requirement for the e-petition scheme to include a UK postcode. With e-petitions outside a local authority’s control, there would be no way to know what conditions applied. Also, it would undermine part of what we are trying to do, which is to bring everything together in one place. It also renders prompt feedback difficult.
The amendment would also make it much more difficult to integrate petitions into other parts of the local authority’s website and its decision-making procedures. Lambeth recently announced an e-petition facility which allows a petition organiser to link a petition with an up-coming council, forging effective links between decisions and petitions in their areas. Integration is possible only when an e-petition facility is provided by the principal local authority and the petition is made through that facility. In any case, in response to questions raised by the noble Lords, Lord Hanningfield and Lord Greaves, local authorities do not have to reject these petitions; they can answer them as they choose to, as they do now. They have the discretion to accept them and respond to them. They will not be legally required to do so, but they will be able to respond to them as they wish.
In the spirit of the debate, we seek to encourage people to take advantage of new technologies if they have local concerns. I shall consider further whether current drafting would mean that petitions were rejected on technical grounds. I shall go on thinking about that.
I thought that I was going to seriously fall out with the Minister just then, but her last sentence was fairly emollient. So long as she continues to think—because she is a sensible, thinking Minister—we will consider that there is a possibility of light at the end of the tunnel and we will go on discussing the matter with her.
Everything that the Minister said in answer to these amendments was based on the notion that there will be a two-tier petition system in local authorities after this legislation is brought in. There will be valid petitions, some of which will become active petitions, and then there will be the rest, and inevitably that will cause problems. We discussed this briefly on Monday. It will result in a two-tier system and huge confusion. People will go around saying, “That’s a valid petition”, and inevitably people will then think that the others are not valid. We must put in place a system whereby each local authority can cope with petitions in a sensible, locally based and flexible way.
I think that I accept the Minister’s assurances on Amendment 103, which concerns extra information on the form. It was tabled for probing purposes to get those assurances, and I shall read what the Minister said in Hansard. That seems to be a fairly sensible way forward.
The only argument that the Minister seemed to come up with in favour of including a date was that it would help local authorities to know how quickly the petition had been collected. I do not know of a single petition that has ever come to an authority of which I have been a member where that information has been in doubt. There is an assumption that the people, particularly councillors, who deal with these matters have no idea what is going on in their area, and that when they get a petition from someone, they have no idea who the person is, where they are from, what their background is, what their agenda is or what activity has produced it—whether it is a group of local residents, an organised pressure group in the area or a political party. We know all these things. We do not need dates to know whether a petition has been signed during the past fortnight or whether it has taken six months. We know what is on local websites and in the local press stories covering these issues. We know that if a petition is in response to an event that occurred a week ago, it has been signed in the past week. When I say “we” in this context, I believe, and hope, that I am referring to local councillors throughout the land. They are not stupid, although the Government think that they are. The Minister indicates that she does not think that they are stupid but, in that case, why does she insist on treating them as though they were? This two-tier system is to be found throughout this issue, and that is what we are trying to get away from.
The Minister reprimanded me for being rude about the Bill and about civil servants. I accept the second reprimand but not the first. This part of the Bill is absolutely dreadful and I shall go on being as rude as I possibly can about it. I do so, as I think I said on Monday, partly because I want to rescue the Government from their own folly. When the Bill is enacted, they will be seen to be ridiculous, although the two Ministers here are certainly not ridiculous. I respect them both greatly and I do not want them to be seen as that, but the legislation that they are promoting is ridiculous.
I have a caveat relating to civil servants: I do not say that a huge amount of diligence has not gone into all this; in my view, there has been far too much. Those people could have been doing a useful job. However, this part of the legislation is clearly the result of a great deal of time and energy. I say that to local government officials all the time when they are doing the Government’s bidding. Civil servants do not just have a responsibility to do Ministers’ bidding; they also have a responsibility to give Ministers sensible advice. If I criticise civil servants in respect of this, it is because they are not going back to Ministers and saying, “What you’re asking us to do is a load of balderdash”, and I believe it is. I could say that it is baloney, but I had better not pursue that or I might get into trouble.
I accept that the Minister is responsible, which is why we are arguing with the Government. She said that the Government will not use the guidance to add further requirements. Speaking personally, I do not believe her—guidance always provides additional requirements. If it does not, what is its purpose? She said that she did not want councillors to respond to so many petitions that it would be a huge burden with which they could not cope, and that it was not the aim to increase the number of petitions. I thought that that was the whole purpose of the clause; it is certainly what we would like. We would like to see much more activity and agitation, with people taking an interest in what is going on and submitting petitions, among lots of other things that they can do to take part in local democracy. So I am sure that the Minister did not really mean that.
As for the numbers and thresholds, you can have big issues covering a whole area but with a small proportion of people on the petition, and then you have small local issues with only a few signing a petition but who make up a higher proportion of the people. How is the council going to set these thresholds? I accept that they will be set by local authorities, but just working out the thresholds and the regulations will be a burden on them.
I do not think that we shall get any further today. I look forward to further discussion about this—I think. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment 93 withdrawn.
Amendment 94 not moved.
95: Clause 12, page 7, line 33, leave out paragraph (d)
I shall speak also to Amendments 102 and 107 in the names of my noble friends Lady Warsi and Lord Hanningfield. We are puzzled by, and do not agree with, the fact that a petition must have nominated one person as its organiser through whom the local authority will communicate. On the face of it, this seems reasonable enough and I am sure that the Minister will reassure the Committee that this provision is solely intended to make things as easy as possible and minimise paperwork or confusion, but I am afraid that we see flaws in this plan.
With regard to having a designated organiser in order for a petition to be valid, it seems odd, to begin with, that the Government, having gone to such great and detailed lengths to set out every stage of a petition’s life and what the local authority must do at every stage, then effectively wash their hands of what happens to it. The local authority will dutifully go through all the steps required, then communicate back to the single petition organiser, who might lose the letter, miss the phone call, delete the e-mail, mix up the message, get the response wrong, tell some signatories but not others, or not inform any of his fellow signatories at all. The local authority will have followed all the steps the Government have set out but, through some failure or error on the part of the single petition organiser, no one else who signed the petition will be any the wiser.
The Minister said—and I hope that I am summarising her comments correctly—that the provisions on petitions are not here just for the sake of it but to improve the interaction between people and their local authority and get them to feel engaged and enfranchised. Yet I have suggested a scenario where the opposite could happen.
What I have suggested is a worst-case scenario. However, I have been trying to work out what benefits might accrue from the provision. I have reached the conclusion, I am afraid, that benefits will indeed accrue, but to the so-called “petition organiser”, who all of a sudden has an important role that is laid down in statute, no less. Someone more cynical might start to wonder whether if the kind of person who would dominate petitions—an activist, one might call such a person—might spy in this provision an opportunity to seek influence and power for himself or herself.
A “petition organiser” approved by statute would wield influence and sway over other signatories. Indeed, a very cynical person might suggest that the sort of activist who would most appreciate the creation of the role of petition organiser would be one who has failed to get elected, or who has failed to get re-elected in the past few local council elections.
I hope that the Minister will agree with me that petitions should be about helping to solve genuine grievances. We drafted Amendment 107 in that spirit. It would allow local authorities to respond to all the petitioners in the best way they see fit, be it by notice in the local paper, a library window, a group e-mail, or whatever. The important thing is that people who sign a petition may be sure that they are being taken seriously, and not manipulated in some way. We have included “valid signatories” in the amendment. That does not negate any criticisms we have made of the Government’s plans to distinguish valid petitions from non-valid ones. We are simply trying to show accommodation so that we can achieve a better piece of legislation. I hope that the Minister will take these provisions away and consider them carefully. I beg to move.
I remind Members of the Committee that mobile phones should be switched off so that they do not interfere with the recording.
I am very grateful to the noble Baroness, Lady Morris, for moving the amendment. I should like to speak to Amendments 95, 102, 108, 115 and 136. With one exception, they are about petition organisers. Once again, the Government are saying that unless there is a clearly defined petition organiser on the petition, it is not valid. This again is an undue restriction to put on primary legislation or, indeed in guidance. It can be left to councils’ common sense and ways of working. Some councils will want to codify that.
I referred on Monday to councils that had provided me with advice on what they do. City of Bradford Metropolitan District Council has a sensible two-page protocol for petitions handed in at the council office. It states quite clearly:
“When a member of the public hands in a petition at any Council office, the Receiving Department will issue an initial written receipt”.
“The contact details of the lead petitioner must be obtained at this stage”.
That is an entirely sensible thing for the council to make a rule about because the name and address of the petition organiser can be obtained when somebody is handing it in at a council office. That may not always be the case. For example, the East Sussex council constitution states:
“Where appropriate, the Chairman shall refer the petition to the Cabinet or relevant Cabinet member or, if appropriate, the relevant Scrutiny Committee, and, where he or she does this, 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, the relevant Cabinet member”,
and so on. Then it will go on to the person whom the council tells what it is doing about it. That is sensible practice. It means that petitions are dealt with sensibly and a common-sense decision is made about whom to communicate with. The Government say that the petition organiser has to be named, which is too prescriptive. It should be left to councils and they will be all right.
Amendment 115 is rather different, proposing that the details of a particular petition should be placed on a council website. It states:
“When an authority has accepted a petition as being valid, it shall publish on its website the text of the petition, the name of the petition organiser, the number of valid signatures, and information about the way that the petition will be considered by the authority and, where appropriate, the democratic arrangements that will apply in its consideration”.
The clear implication is that the decisions will then be put there as well.
That is an extremely sensible use of a website. Whether it should be set out in that detail in national legislation is a question on which the Minister might chide me, but it is a sensible thing for councils to do. As with the previous matters relating to websites that we have discussed, councils need jollying along to make much better use of their websites for public involvement and participation in their decision-making side.
The Minister chided me on Monday by saying that her officials had spent some time visiting Pendle council’s website to try to find out what it said about petitions and could not find anything. I have been a little more successful and have found what it says. It does not set down a general scheme, but the agendas of each meeting and the reports that go to them are put on it. The front page of the calling notice of the meeting states clearly that members of the public can turn up, speak to the committee and, if they wish, present petitions. The information is there, but, as I have said, Pendle, along with many other authorities, is not up to speed with the use of its website in these matters, and the Government should encourage them to be more so. However, they should not produce lots of detail on how to do it in national legislation.
I welcome the noble Baroness, Lady Morris, who is standing in for her two noble friends. The amendments address principally the issue of the petition organiser. Amendment 115 looks at publishing information on a website.
Clause 12 requires one of the valid signatories to a petition to be designated the “petition organiser” in order for a petition to be valid. As noble Lords have said, Amendment 95 would remove the requirement for someone to declare themselves the petition organiser for the petition to be valid. Amendment 102 is consequential, removing the definition of “petition organiser” from the clause.
Amendment 108 seeks to take a pragmatic approach to situations where a petition organiser has not been identified. It requires that, where no petition organiser has been identified on the petition, or made themselves known to the local authority, the authority consider the first valid name on the list to be the petition organiser. I accept that this is a clear and simple approach and would solve the problem of the local authority having a point of contact. I fear, however, that it could be considerably less attractive to someone who had been deemed petition organiser rather than having volunteered for the job. It could come as quite a shock to someone to discover that, having put their name to a petition, they had been thrust into the position of primary contact with the authority, with their name having been published on its website and having to take decisions on whether to request a review of its response. It might put someone off signing a petition in the future. That is not to say, of course, that petitions should be dismissed out of hand because a petition organiser has not been identified—I need to make that really clear. We would expect an authority presented with something that is manifestly a petition but which fails to identify an organiser to do the sensible thing and contact one of the signatories. In the two examples that the noble Lord, Lord Greaves, gave, we would expect Bradford and Sutton to do the sensible thing and pick up the phone and say, “We could do with an organiser on this one”, and seek one out. On that basis, I hope that the noble Lord will not press Amendment 108.
Amendments 107 and 125 take a different approach to communication in situations where a petition organiser has not been identified. Amendment 107 would require the local authority to send written acknowledgements to every valid signatory of the petition. Amendment 125 would require the same approach in relation to notification and the reasoning behind the authority’s response to the petition. Both amendments would allow the authority to take these steps in whatever way it considered appropriate. Nevertheless, a requirement to contact every valid signatory to a petition inevitably conflicts with the principle that we make this as easy as possible for local authorities. There would be nothing, of course, to prevent an authority deciding to communicate directly with every signatory of a petition if it considered that that was appropriate in the circumstances. However, it should not be required absolutely of them in every case.
I also make it absolutely clear that the Government’s intention is that “written acknowledgement” should include electronic communication whenever that is appropriate. For example, if there is an e-mail address, that is easily done; correspondence could be sent in that form. I hope that I have reassured noble Lords, and that they will agree not to press the amendments.
A petition is inherently about the power of individuals—I think that the noble Baroness, Lady Morris, made that point. It is about organising as a group to call for action. Putting in place measures to ensure that they are taken seriously means that the role of a petition organiser is important. It is not unreasonable to ask that people consider this as part of the way they organise themselves in submitting a petition, and identify someone to take on that role. We hear what the noble Baroness, Lady Morris, said about people abusing that situation; that is something for us to think about. However, as with the clause promoting democracy, it is the council’s responsibility to talk to people about their responsibilities as well and say how they can organise petitions properly and capacity-build people who might be anxious about that situation.
There is one further amendment that touches on the issue of petition organisers. Amendment 115 would place a new requirement on local authorities to publish on their website details of valid petitions, including the name of the organiser and the way in which they will consider them. Clause 14 already requires that local authorities notify petition organisers of their response to petitions, and that they publish this notification on their website. The amendment would require local authorities to publish details of petitions at an earlier stage, and to do so for all valid petitions received, whether or not they related to matters about which the authority had any control, were vexatious or abusive, or were the same as other petitions received in the previous six months.
I see merit in the noble Lord’s suggestions, but I wonder whether this is an issue, as he also suggested, that might be best addressed in guidance rather than in the Bill. It is right that we leave that discretion to authorities. One can imagine circumstances, for example, in which publishing details of abusive petitions, including the name of the organiser, could inflame community tensions, especially at a local level. However, the noble Lord makes a very important point. I welcome his views and would be happy to discuss this with him further before Report. In the mean time, I ask him not to press his amendment.
I wonder whether I could pick up on phrase that the noble Lord has just used and suggest that the Government might try to find a way not to use it. I refer to “organising a petition properly”. If the Government want people to be involved in what their local authorities are doing or not doing, which is what we all want, is not the best way to leave it to local authorities to treat what comes to them in a normal, human, straightforward, practical fashion? If I were to go to a local authority with a petition and be told that it was not organised properly, my faith in the local authority would be reduced, not increased.
I take that point on board. There is a sense of helping people and guiding them in a direction that will let them have their innovation and lay down what they want to do, but not to do it “properly” in the sense that I used that word.
A number of people in this Committee from across the parties, including one or two from the Labour Back Benches and the massed ranks of the Liberal Democrats, with strong support from the Conservatives, have spoken from personal experience and knowledge of how these things work. We have been saying, “This is how it works in the real world. This is what happens. Don’t do things that upset it”. In response to amendments tabled with this intention, we get the response that the Government do not agree for this or that technical reason. The only silver lining to the cloud is that we are promised lots of discussions, so we will have those discussions.
I am perfectly capable of being politically awkward to this Government or anyone else, as noble Lords know, and I shall be politically awkward about this petition scheme if my worst fears come about at the end of it because it is complete nonsense and will be a good thing to bash the Government with. However, that is not what we, across the parties, are trying to do now. We are trying to get the Government to do sensible things about it. We all believe passionately in grassroots involvement and grassroots democracy, whether it is comfortable for us or not. I hope the Government accept that.
I have one or two specific points. The Minister said that people will be in dreadful shock if they are singled out because they are the first name on the petition. The first name on the petition is usually the person who has collected the names. In Newcastle, it is in the council’s constitution that that person is regarded as the organiser. I do not know how many petitions a year Newcastle City Council gets, but it must be well into three figures, and I am not aware that there are lots of people in Newcastle hospitals suffering from dreadful shock because the council has arbitrarily appointed them as the organiser of a petition. Let us have sensible arguments but not people thinking up arguments just to defend the original wording. A lot of councils, if they do not know who the organiser is, already contact, and deal with, the first person on the petition. That is what my council and lots of councils do; it is common sense.
It should not be put in the legislation that such a petition is not valid. I accept that it might not be dismissed out of hand, but we are back to validity again. It is a question of stopping petitions being valid. Either “valid petitions” means something and creates an important distinction in the Bill—and it must, because there are lots of barriers a petition must go through to become valid—or it does not. If it does not, do away with it, but if it is important to the Government, do not put up artificial barriers.
We would rather have no guidance. We like minimal legislation without guidance and prefer to rely on the local government community to spread best practice. That is our bottom line.
The Minister said that to publish the name of the organiser could inflame community tensions. I said on Monday, giving an example in Colne, that there are some circumstances where people might not wish a petition to be made public. A council has to deal with that sensitively. However, the idea that, in general, the name of a petition organiser can inflame community tensions—presumably because their name has connotations for a particular community; for example, the Muslim community—is complete nonsense. I do not accept that argument one little bit.
I apologise to the Committee for my phone. I had it on “silent”, but it is clear that I had a persistent caller. I hope that it did not distract the Committee as much as it distracted me.
I thank the Minister for his welcome. Although I am standing in for my noble friends Lady Warsi and Lord Hanningfield, I feel that I am rapidly becoming an expert on petitions. I shall not sign one lightly again.
Although the Minister said in response to our Amendment 107 that designating a single organiser is designed to make things easier, we have our concerns. I am glad that the Minister recognised that there may be a problem with designating such a person, and I am sure that my noble friends will look forward to entering discussions with him before Report.
I beg leave to withdraw Amendment 95.
Amendment 95 withdrawn.
Amendments 96 and 97 not moved.
Amendment 98 had been withdrawn from the Marshalled List.
Amendments 98A to 103 not moved.
Debate on whether Clause 12 should stand part of the Bill.
I agree with my noble friend Lord Greaves that the Bill is very prescriptive and it means that we are getting into a muddle. I am glad that the Minister has said that we will discuss some of the matters that noble Lords who have worked on local councils over the years think will create problems.
I would like a couple of things to be put on the record. The Minister mentioned last week the ability of young people to sign petitions. She said in passing that young people could do it, but it would be nice to have it on the record, because I have been approached by the Children’s Rights Alliance about it. Will the Minister assure us that the regulations allow young people to organise and sign petitions, and that, if it must be done in the prescriptive way set out in the Bill, they, too, will be dealt with properly?
The other issue raised by the Children’s Rights Alliance has been touched on in our discussion; that is, what happens if, for example, social services decide to take away your child, and you do not like it and raise a petition about it. Such issues would bring information about children into the public domain, so I trust that it would not be a valid petition in the normal sense. Will that be written down? It may be in guidance. The Government need to think about it if they have not already done so, because people are concerned. I am sure that the Children’s Rights Alliance has written to the Government on this issue as much as it has to us.
The third thing I wish to mention—and I was not quite sure where to bring it up in this whole issue of petitions—was the situation that we have in Northumberland. We have no district councils any more. Berwick-upon-Tweed’s district council has another two months to go; that means that if someone wants to take a petition physically to the full council, they have to go 50 miles. Of course, we will have area committees; we have had them for years. I just hope that nothing prescribed in the Bill will prevent local people presenting their petitions to any devolved committees that the council may have. I am not very clever at legal things, and I have not been able to discover whether provisions in the Bill might rule things out. Will the Government reassure me that, if local people have a petition and go to their local area committee, that is quite acceptable? Common sense tells me that it is but, because the Bill is so prescriptive, I should like to make sure that a problem with that has not somehow crept in. Not that my friends on Northumberland council, as it is at the moment, would dare to refuse a petition.
I ask those questions in the spirit of helpfulness.
We have already spent goodness knows how many hours on this chapter, yet I see to my horror that we are barely a quarter of the way through it. One hopes that the remaining three-quarters will move a little quicker.
The debate that we have had on the many amendments has made it crystal clear why both at Second Reading and at the start of the debate on this chapter, people with experience of petitions in local government from all three parties, joined by the Local Government Association, urged the Government as strongly as we could not to go down this path. If they must make it a duty, that is fine, but they should not try to be prescriptive. I have been wondering why the Government want to go down this path, since, once you start down it, it becomes a bit like that snowball going down the hill—you have to add more and more to it. Many of our amendments have done just that to illustrate the point.
A lot of what was thought about in drafting this Bill has, inevitably, been based on national rather than local experience, for understandable reasons. It tends to be the case that what I will call national petitions are to some extent organised, usually by some body with experience—often an organisation but it may be an individual. They are a lot more structured. Petitions at local level, however, are exactly the opposite; most of them are spontaneous; they are created by a resident feeling concern about a relatively small issue, who wants to go out and do something about it. That is exactly what all of us here, the Government included, want to encourage. The more we try to be prescriptive about it, the more we try to explain that even if it is not valid it is not actually invalid and we can do what we want with it, the more complex it becomes, the more of a barrier we create and the more uncertain petitioners become in dealing with it.
I think that all local authorities, or certainly the vast majority, are very experienced in dealing with petitions. We have been debating who is the petition organiser. Many of these spontaneous petitions do not come with someone designated as petition organiser. If it is not clear who the petition is from or who the organiser is, it is normal practice to write to the first signatory of the petition. What else can you do, if you do not know to whom else to apply? Those people do not automatically feel thrust into the limelight, in the Minister’s words; if they do not want to be thought of as the organiser, believe me they say so very quickly—and they may well point you to the person who is actually initiating the collection of signatures. Many local authorities—I should like to think, most—give petitioners the right to address the committee or full council when considering the petition. I would hope that all authorities that do that, such as my own, leave it to the petitioners to decide for themselves who is going to address the committee or council. The person who goes from door to door collecting the signatures may well not feel articulate or confident enough to speak to a committee in public, which can be quite intimidating, and would prefer to have one of the other signatories do it on their behalf. That is perfectly normal, and indeed usual, practice. Ninety-nine times out of 100, this all works very well. The more we try to prescribe it, whether in legislation or even in guidance, the more difficult it becomes and the more barriers are put in the way of those who, probably for the first time and possibly for the last time in their lives, are getting together a small local petition about a local matter on which they have some concern. Therefore, we will continue to pursue this issue.
Like my colleagues, I look forward to discussing with the Minister how we go forward, but I do not think that we will move from our position that by far the best way is to accept that the Government wish to make it a duty but we should leave it to the local authorities to do it in the best way that they can. Most of them will have provision for doing just that.
We, too, oppose Clause 12 standing part of the Bill. I simply add a request for the Government to take the Committee’s comments away and to reflect on whether this clause really improves matters.
As this is the first time that the noble Lord, Lord Tope, has spoken, it is my very pleasant duty to congratulate him on his new family acquisition. I am talking about his grandson, who I understand was born at 10 pm last night. It is very nice, and I am sure that he will be an admirable grandfather.
I have thought, and will continue to think, about our debate on Clause 12. I think that we all want the same things. We all want to ensure that it is not simply the usual suspects and the usual activists who harass or challenge the local authority, chase after things that should happen when they do not, or put forward good ideas. We want this to be something that the community as a whole, in much greater numbers and with greater diversity, feels that it can and should do. Therefore, we think that we have to make petition schemes more visible and more accessible.
Because some areas are much better at dealing with this issue than others and because we want to ensure that there is no local disadvantage, we believe that the matter is serious enough to invite a duty. We have followed the logic of that by creating in the Bill what I genuinely believe to be reasonable and minimal requirements. If there is a duty, how does it work; that is, who organises it, how do the local authorities respond and so on? The logic of the clauses follows from that.
We are genuinely trying to achieve a balance between a framework which is enabling and one which denies the possibility of local authorities either maintaining excellent practice or taking on undue burdens—impossible and unreasonable burdens. We have tried very hard to do that. I have said that we will look at the definitions. We will look at the things that we are requiring of people and we will do that in conjunction with the other parties as far as is appropriate before Report. I have not made any promises, because we think that we have tried hard and that we have the balance right. However, we are certainly in the business of listening and talking, and I want that to be done in as frank and reasonable a manner as possible, as is always the case.
The noble Baroness, Lady Maddock, raised three questions. She asked whether young people can sign petitions. The answer is yes: the more the merrier. We want young people to be fully involved in the life of the community and to have as much influence as possible in shaping the places where they live. She asked whether petitions would involve, say, children in care or children who are, in any sense, under the supervision of the children’s services. I think it is up to the local authority to decide what is appropriate, and certainly what is appropriate will be governed by confidentiality on a whole range of issues. So, yes, we would leave local authorities to decide, under Clause 14(1)(b), whether a petition is inappropriate to be dealt with. It is entirely for the petition scheme and those who frame the petition to decide whether people can go to their area committee to present it. We would certainly not make any prescription about that. We just want the process to be as simple and as accessible as possible.
The main point of my question is whether there is anything hidden legally in here. I thought it was obvious that that is what they should do but I wanted to check.
Absolutely nothing is hidden.
It is because I do not understand this.
I hope that putting that on the record will reassure the people of Berwick.
Clause 12 agreed.
Clause 13: Requirement to acknowledge valid petitions
104: Clause 13, page 8, line 11, leave out “secure the following results” and insert “include the following provisions”
I shall speak also to Amendments 109, 110, 112 to 114, 118 and 124. The Conservatives have Amendment 106 in this group and I look forward to the discussion about that.
This is an important group of amendments because it seeks to do what I am not sure I should do, and that is to put into the Bill what the Government want in it but in a more sensible way than they have set out here. I have described it as the “more sensible scheme part 1”. I might have described it as the “less silly scheme” as, ideally, we do not want any of this in the Bill. However, if the Government are adamant that they want a great deal of prescription and many of these detailed rules for local authorities in the Bill, then more sensible provisions should be set out in a way which is easier for people to understand and carry out.
Clauses 13 and 14 are in a dreadful muddle and this group of amendments seeks to sort it out, together with Amendment 123, which is the second part of sorting out this part of the Bill. I had it in mind to put Amendment 123 into this group but I forgot. However, it is important that the provisions in the eight amendments to which I am speaking are taken together. Individually, some of them would not make sense but taken together they seek to substantially rewrite this part of the Bill. It is important that they are understood with Amendment 123, which we will discuss in a later group, as being the second part of what I consider to be a more sensible scheme.
If I understand it correctly, the Bill sets out a four-stage process for dealing with a petition. First, once the petition is presented or sent in, the authority has to decide whether it is valid. If it is valid, it goes into the scheme; if it is not valid the authority does something else with it, whatever that may be; it may ignore it or deal with it in some other way. Secondly, there is a requirement to acknowledge a valid petition. The heading to Clause 13 is:
“Requirement to acknowledge valid petitions”,
although the clause is about more than simple acknowledgement.
Thirdly, once a petition is acknowledged as valid, the authority has to decide whether it should become an active petition, and there are further tests to apply to it. They are set out in the first part of Clause 14, which is entitled “Requirement to take steps”, which is, again, not a terribly useful clause heading. I tried to amend these clause headings, but I discovered from the Public Bill Office that that is not allowed. For reasons I do not understand, it is not possible to amend clause headings. What you do if you substantially amend the clauses so that the headings are meaningless, I do not know. I suppose there is a sensible way of dealing with that. However, we are dealing with the clause as it is. Fourthly, the authority has to decide what action to take on the petition.
Clause 14 is a muddle because it includes two things. It mixes the procedure within the authority that a petition has to go through and the decision on what to do with that petition. Clause 13(1)(b) is the beginning of the muddle. It reads,
“the acknowledgement must give such information about what the authority has done or proposes to do in response to the petition as the authority considers appropriate”.
That is all-encompassing. What the authority proposes to do about the petition may mean which committee it will go to to be discussed, by what other means it will be decided within the authority or what action the authority is going to take on it. If there is a petition to complain that all the gritting bins were not filled up during the recent bad weather, the authority can sort that out by filling them up, making sure that they are on the schedule for filling up in future and writing back to say that it has done it. There are two different things here that are mixed up and ought to be separate.
My amendments set out a procedure that divides up the sensible ways in which the petition will be dealt with. Amendment 104 and subsequent amendments are the first part of trying to sort this out. They deal with stage one and what to do when you get a petition, how to acknowledge it and how to deal with it. They do not deal with the decision made about it, unless there is an instant decision. I have tabled eight amendments that take this part of the Bill apart in detail and put it back together again, which is probably not the most understandable way to deal with this. I have come to the view that I would have done far better to have deleted it all and written down exactly what I want. However, I believe that what I am putting forward is more sensible and logical than what is provided in the Bill.
Amendment 104 removes “secure the following results” in Clause 13 and replaces it with “include the following provisions” because Clause 13 does not deal with the results of the petition, but with the procedure for dealing with it. Amendment 109 is about the first stage response to the petition as it is set out in Clause 13(1). It includes the possibility that action can be taken immediately to deal with what the petition is asking for. If the petition asks for a simple thing where the council is not doing what it should be doing and what its council policy says it does do, the petition can be dealt with there and then, and it does not have to proceed any further to become an active petition. Amendment 109 states that action can be taken and that is enough to end the process.
Amendment 110 deals with what happens if action is not taken. It suggests that the acknowledgement should provide that information and must give information about the way that the petition will be considered by the authority and, where appropriate, the democratic arrangements in which the petitioners may participate. That is not terribly different from what the Government are setting out in the Bill, but, in my view, it is a much simpler and more straightforward way of doing so.
Amendment 112 is consequential. Amendment 113 concerns whether an e-petition should be acknowledged, which is a separate issue. It is a probing amendment to ask the Government why an e-petition should not be acknowledged. Amendment 114 seeks to establish that acknowledgements may be made by electronic means.
Amendment 118 seeks to add a new paragraph to Clause 14(1) if action has not already been taken under Clause 13(1)(b). It simply says that the transition from a valid petition to an active petition—a slightly extraordinary and bureaucratic concept—does not have to take place if action has already been taken at the first stage. If it has, you have to move on.
Amendment 124 would leave out paragraph (a) of Clause 14(6) as a consequence of Amendment 109. Stage 2 of what happens with a petition is set out in Amendment 123, which we shall deal with later.
I hope that I have managed to explain what I am trying to do, as it is quite complicated. Clauses 13 and 14, to as far as about the top of page 9 of the Bill, set out what happens when a petition is sent in, how it will be dealt with by the authority and what the authority will do prior to deciding what to do about the petition. It is extremely complex and muddled. In these amendments, I have tried to set out a simpler, clearer scheme which would remove some of the muddle and allow the action on a petition to stop if the requirements of the petition could be satisfied straight away. If not, it would provide a means by which the petition could be passed to the authority in a sensible way. The scheme that I am proposing is considerably shorter than the one that the Government have put forward in the legislation. I beg to move.
We have one amendment in this group—Amendment 106—and it is very simple. I think that we have already raised the issue of a petition organiser monopolising a petition. Rather than revolving around one person, a petition should involve a group of people who want a grievance or problem to be resolved. Rather than a letter of acknowledgement, we would prefer to see a simpler form of communication acknowledging the petition. Therefore, we are opposed to the possibility of one person promoting something rather than it being a genuine petition.
I am very grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Greaves, for trying to clarify these clauses. I am afraid that he will get a disappointing reply but I shall explain as briefly as I can why the language of the clause is as it is.
Amendments 113, 114 and 106 address the issue of sending an electronic acknowledgement to both paper and electronic petitions. I want to be absolutely clear that the Government’s intention is that written acknowledgement under Clause 13(1)(a) should include electronic communication wherever that is appropriate—for example, when there is an e-mail. I take the point raised by the noble Lord, Lord Hanningfield, on the amendment but I do not have an immediate answer. I shall read Hansard tomorrow in the context of what he said in the previous debate.
Amendment 113 seeks to remove the provision that electronic petitions do not need to be acknowledged. This means that they would have to be acknowledged and that, of course, would be an extra and unnecessary requirement. Petitioners will know whether their petition has been received because it will either be rejected or placed on the facility. That is why we do not include a requirement to acknowledge an e-petition. A further problem is that at the point it is placed on the facility, the local authority will not know how many signatures it will attract and how strongly the community feels about the issue, and, therefore, it will be unable to say what it proposes to do.
On Amendments 109 and 110, I understand the noble Lord’s frustration with the legislation in front of him. We often face this problem when we are considering legislation. I have not served on a Bill where we have not had to wrestle with the internal logic of language, which is as it is because it has to convey precise legal meaning. That is the problem with parliamentary draftsmanship. In many respects, this Bill is clearly written, but sometimes one has to pin the corners down.
Amendments 109 and 110 together seek to replace the requirements to provide information which the authority considers relevant about how a petition will be treated with a more detailed description of what information must be given. Amendments 104, 112 and 124 are consequential. Many of the suggestions the noble Lord has put forward in regard to the kind of information that he thinks the authorities should provide and the way that they should do so seem sensible. However, I would argue that Clause 14(9) is as it is for a reason. It already makes provision for the acknowledgement to include confirmation that the authority will give effect to the request in the petition. The language of the Bill is rightly somewhat more legalistic—necessarily so—but it leads to the same result. If the council decides that it is prepared to accede to the request contained in a petition, it can do just that and send a single letter confirming the fact.
The need for the language in the Bill, which may seem complicated, is that we have to cater for a situation where an authority does not immediately concede that what is called for in a petition should be granted; that may be done only after one or more other steps are taken. For example, more information may need to be collected or more views sought before the authority will agree to go along with the request. In that case, we have to cater for a two-stage process—acknowledgement of the petition followed by giving effect. In such a case we need to cater for how the petition organiser should be notified of the outcome and how the outcome should be published. That is catered for in Clause 14(7).
One further small difference between the provision in Clause 13(1)(a) and Amendment 109 relates to the requirement for an authority to specify in its scheme when a petitioner can expect to receive the acknowledgement. The amendment would remove that requirement. It is not a heavy burden for an authority to have to give some indication of when it will aim to let people know that it has received and is considering, or has decided to comply with, a request in a petition. It would be regrettable if that element were removed.
I appreciate the noble Lord’s hard work in trying to untangle what he sees as an over-complex, legalistic provision, but it is like that because it is legally necessary to be like that in order to do what we want it to do.
I hear what the Minister says, and I thank her for that reply. I showed all this lot to two local government officers, one a lawyer and one a person who deals with petition schemes, but their replies were not parliamentary so I cannot repeat exactly what they said. The lawyer, in particular, said that it was some of the worst drafting he has ever seen. I pass that on. Certainly, when reading it, it took me a very long time to understand exactly how it would work. I say again, I do not expect to agree with everything the Government do, but I do expect this Chamber to attempt to ensure that legislation is clear and understandable, even if we do not agree with it.
I do not think that this legislation is either understandable or clear. In particular, I do not think that Clause 13(1)(b) states what the Government intend it to—if I understand their scheme correctly. The noble Baroness has not at any stage explained why there is this process, distinction and classification whereby a petition becomes valid after it has passed certain hurdles and then becomes an active petition after it has passed further hurdles. This is a recipe to put burdens on local authorities in dealing with the scheme locally, if they want to deal with it in that way. I should be happy to see the words “valid” and “active” disappear and for the legislation simply to say what happens to petitions at various stages along the process.
I do not think that I am putting more detail and more prescription in the Bill; I am taking some out. I am really keeping the same amount that the Government want to see, but putting it in a more understandable and a clearer form. It might become clear if I do what I should have done originally and put all my proposals together as one and show how my version of the legislation would sit as a whole rather than as individual amendments. I understand the need for legalistic language and for legally tight language, which is why we were arguing previously that stuff in the Bill should not be ambiguous. I do not accept the need for incomprehensible language. There is a difference.
The problem of excluding petitions from this provision, unless I have missed something, is that the acknowledgement is not simply to say, “Yes, we have got it, thanks”, but to tell people how it is going to be dealt with. Clearly, if an e-petition is accepted on the council’s e-petition facility, the petition exists. At some stage, it will close and be dealt with. Therefore, it does not need an acknowledgement to say, “Yes, we have got it” because it has been there for some time. The question is at what stage the council decides to do something about it—put it through the processes and the system—and at what stage it tells the petition’s organiser or signatories what it is doing. That is the question and the purpose of tabling the amendment. Perhaps the noble Baroness would think further about that matter.
Moreover, who decides when an e-petition closes? Presumably it is the petitioners who say, for example, “Right, we have 200 signatures, and we now want the council to deal with this”. Presumably, that process takes place once the petition stops being an active e-petition on the council’s e-petition facility. I am not sure how that works on the Downing Street website, but for a council there needs to be a clear decision at some stage to put it into the council’s system. I assume that the petitioners make that decision. Perhaps the noble Baroness will confirm that. That decision then needs acknowledging by the council, does it not?
This is an extremely important group of amendments. I am grateful to the Conservatives for putting forward their amendment, as I think it makes a valid point and sounds eminently supportable.
Somehow or other, Clauses 13 and 14 have to make more sense than they do at present when the Bill leaves this House. I hope that these amendments have made some slight contribution to getting the Government to think about that problem. If they would like to discuss the matter with us further, we will do so. We certainly want to see something better than what is in the Bill coming back for discussion on Report. For the moment, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment 104 withdrawn.
Amendments 105 to 115 not moved.
Clause 13 agreed.
Clause 14: Requirement to take steps
Amendment 116 not moved.
117: Clause 14, page 8, line 25, leave out paragraph (a)
I shall also speak to Amendment 122, which is grouped with this one. This group refers to relevant matters in relation to partner authorities that we began to half debate earlier. It is about the process that I mentioned in the last group by which a valid petition, which has been handed in, has gone through the hoops, been determined as valid and has been acknowledged, becomes an active petition. The definitions of a valid petition and an active petition can be found in Clause 22, but an active petition simply has the meaning given by Clause 14(1) and the valid petition has the meaning given by Clause 12(1), so those definitions do not take us much further. The petition has to go through a series of tests to establish that it is valid and another series to establish that it is active. So “active” simply means another layer of assessment and sifting, with more chances for a council to reject or restrict a petition.
It is not at all clear to me why there is a two-stage process between deciding that a petition is valid and deciding that it is active. To make it simple for councils to undertake this and, more importantly, to make it simpler for petitioners to understand the process, surely it should be a one-stage process. Surely, all the reasons why petitions might be rejected as invalid and all the things you have to do to ensure that a petition is valid should be set out in the same section and in the same rules locally.
To determine whether the petition is active, you have to refer to Clause 14(1)(a), which says:
“For the purposes of this Chapter, an “active petition”, in relation to a principal local authority, is a valid petition made to the authority where … the petition relates to a relevant matter”.
That will have them dancing in the streets. Amendment 117 deletes that paragraph. Meanwhile, Amendment 122 deletes subsections (2) to (4) of Clause 14, which determine what is a relevant matter. Those three subsections do nothing but restrict and confuse the issue of what a petition should deal with, or not.
What is relevant? The first test is,
“a matter which relates to a function of the authority”.
I have no problem with that; if a petition is something to do with what the council does, presumably the council deals with it. But the second qualification for what is relevant is more difficult. Clause 14(2)(b) refers to,
“a matter which … does not relate to a function of the authority, but … relates to an improvement in the economic, social or environmental well-being of the authority’s area to which any of its partner authorities could contribute.”
When an authority assesses whether a petition is active and should continue to be dealt with under the petition scheme, it has to think about whether it relates to an improvement. It might relate not to an improvement but to opposition to things that people think make matters worse. It may relate to something that some people think is an improvement, such as a new road, and others think is a disaster and want to oppose in a petition. The question of what is an improvement will be wide open to argument.
The requirement to take steps will be in relation to petitions which relate to the functions of partner or connected authorities. It is in relation also to the,
“economic, social or environmental well-being of the authority’s area”.
We can argue for hours about what is economic, social and environmental well-being. Why does the Bill have to include these words? Why does it not just say, “anything that the other authorities are responsible for”?
If a petition relates, for example, to a primary care trust, why do you have to start working out whether it relates to an improvement in the economic, social or environmental well-being of an authority’s area? It may be that the local hospital trust has just closed an accident and emergency facility and there is a substantial reduction in the economic and social well-being of people in the area as a result—or there is thought to be. When the authority closed the A&E at Burnley, it argued that the facilities at Blackburn were better and that it would therefore be better for everybody to go 10 or 15 miles to Blackburn, forgetting that they might find an hour-long ambulance queue at Blackburn because the local hospital was not coping. These are arguable matters. Putting in the Bill that the relevant matter has to relate to an improvement to which any of an authority’s partner authorities could contribute is gibberish. If the Bill wants to refer to the functions of partner authorities, it should simply state that the relevant matter is not a function of the principal local authority but relates to a function of a partner authority. It should be absolutely neutral.
The wording is not clear. The Bill, so far as I can understand it, appears to try to tie it in with the local area agreement, because it relates to the things that the local area agreement is about. However, trying to tie in the wording in this way is restrictive, confusing and will lead to a huge muddle, because some councils with very legalistic staff will have a monitoring officer who rules that it does not apply, and there will be a big row about it.
The final insult is that the provision does not refer at all to petitions to district councils. It is clear that, as the local area agreement is put together by the county council in a two-tier area—we argued about this at great length during the passage of the Local Government and Public Involvement in Health Act—the provision applies in this way. If the county council receives a petition about a district council function relating to the economic, social or environmental well-being of the authority’s area, it can refer it to the district council, but if it goes to the district council and refers to a county council function, the county council cannot do anything about it under the Bill because it is not a “valid”, “active” petition. If it goes to the district council and refers to the PCT or any other partner authority as defined, the district council would not be able to do anything about it under the legislation. The Government might say, “Well, they’ll send it anyway”, but that is not the point. The point is that the Bill defines “valid” and “active” petitions in great detail, giving them a very special status, but then states, “Well, if petitions go to a county council, it can refer them to partners; if they go to a district council, it cannot”. That surely is wrong. I know that I am a bit sensitive about district councils and the respect and authority given to them in legislation, but this provision is wrong and has to be changed. I beg to move.
The noble Lord, Lord Greaves, has almost answered some of his questions by analysing this clause. Clause 14(1) provides that authorities must take steps in relation to petitions on relevant matters. These are matters that relate to the authority’s functions. I see that the noble Lord has no problem with that aspect of the clause. In England, for unitary and top-tier principal authorities, relevant matters also relate to any of the range of issues set out in local area agreements. The wording relating to environmental and social well-being is taken directly from Section 105 of the Local Government and Public Involvement in Health Act with respect to local area agreements. This could include issues as varied as smoking cessation, knife crime rates or the percentage of people on jobseeker’s allowance. As mentioned in previous debates, district councils in two-tier areas and councils in Wales do not enter into local area agreements, and these provisions are therefore not relevant to them, as they have limited ability to influence wider issues.
Will the Minister read out that sentence again so that I can understand it? I am not sure it was right.
District councils in two-tier areas do not co-ordinate local area agreements.
The word “co-ordinate” is okay. I did not hear it originally.
They have limited ability to influence wider issues. There are some arguments around the edges of what counts as relevant, but I should make it clear that people can petition on issues that are not relevant, and principal authorities can, of course, respond to those petitions if they wish—we have said that many times—but according to this chapter, they would not have a legal obligation to do so.
Amendment 117 deletes the requirement in Clause 14 that petitions to which principal local authorities must respond should be relevant matters. The definition of relevant matters is removed by Amendment 122. The experience of parish polls being held on the Lisbon treaty has shown that if legislation is not drafted carefully, there can be legal obligations on bodies to carry out engagement exercises about issues over which they have no influence. We certainly expect councils to treat misdirected but legitimate petitions sensibly, but we want to ensure that principal authorities can dispense with petitions on issues they cannot influence without any burden on the authority concerned. Does the noble Lord, Lord Greaves, wish to increase the burden on district councils? They can do what they want with petitions; the question is whether we should impose a duty to do so.
Principal authorities can influence their own functions. Upper-tier and unitary authorities in England are also in a position to influence improvements in local economic, social or environmental well-being to which their partners can contribute. The limitation on the types of petition that require a substantive response by principal authorities is hardly unreasonable. Nothing that relates to anything over which a principal authority has any influence is excluded. I therefore urge the noble Lord to withdraw his amendment.
That was one of the weakest replies I have heard for a long time. I do not blame the Minister, for whom I have a great deal of respect, but I do not think he tackled the basic issue. The Government are setting out a formal scheme, the petition scheme, which each authority will have, based on this legislation, that will deal with petitions that will become valid petitions and then active petitions.
When they become active petitions, the authority will have to do something about them. However, as the Minister said, doing something about them might well be as little as taking a view on them and passing them on to the appropriate partner authority. That would be perfect reasonable. It might be that the authority would look at the petition and reject it. It would have to go to a committee, but that is fine.
I do not know whether Ministers and the people who write this legislation have spent much time investigating what district councils do. I speak from my experience in Lancashire and across Lancashire. District councils within Lancashire County Council spend a lot of time discussing things for which they are not primarily responsible and which are not their basic functions. However, they do it because they are the local councils. It is the council that covers the Rossendale Valley, the towns of Pendle, Burnley and its satellite towns, the great rural area of the Ribble Valley or Hyndburn. The same applies in west Lancashire. In trying to get things done, these people do not restrict themselves specifically to the things for which they have functions, although clearly those things have to take priority, because if a council does not carry out its functions properly, it is in trouble.
It is absolute nonsense to say that a town such as Burnley—a town with a proud history that used to be a county borough and an area with strong districts—does not interest itself in the environmental, economic or social improvement of the area. The noble Lord knows Burnley quite well from his contacts there, and he knows perfectly well that Burnley Borough Council gets involved in a number of projects—some of which he is involved in—over and beyond its direct legal responsibilities of providing services such as planning, refuse collection, environmental health and so on. Therefore, excluding district councils is not how things are done in the real world.
When the noble Lord says that districts cannot influence this kind of thing but that the county can, that is absolute nonsense. There are partnerships. What are partnerships about? What is the Lancashire partnership, which includes district representation, about? What are the local strategic partnerships about? There is one in Pendle, one in Burnley, one in Hyndburn and one in Rossendale. The people involved in them spend their entire time trying to improve the economic, social and environmental conditions. That is what they are set up for. The partnership includes the district, the county, the health service, the FE colleges, local businesses and all sorts of other people. Therefore, saying that districts cannot influence these matters shows a lack of understanding of the real world on the part of whoever has produced the Minister’s reply.
The Government keep saying that there is no problem relating to all the petitions that will be restricted and will not be allowed to be valid petitions—and then restricted if they are valid and not allowed to be active petitions—because the council will be able to deal with them anyway or refer them to the appropriate authority. I ask again: what is the purpose of setting up this highly structured, highly detailed system for valid petitions and active petitions if you can just deal with those that are excluded from it in the way that you would have done anyway? The whole thing seems absolutely crazy.
The scheme is restrictive because it forces the principal local authority to set up a petition scheme for dealing with valid petitions and active petitions. That is what this legislation does. This part of the Bill means that, if a petition that does not refer to the functions of the authority does not qualify as relating to an improvement in the economic, social and environmental conditions of the area and is not in a top-tier authority in a top-tier area—in other words, if it is in a district—it cannot go into the system. The legislation sets up this great scheme and then says that the petitions that do not qualify cannot go into the system. I think that this issue should be thought through again.
With regard to the idea that districts do not take part in local area agreements, I accept and understand that the county council is responsible for co-ordinating the LAA. We all know that. But the idea that districts have no part in it and are not in some areas the lead players in some aspects of it does not belong to the real world. In places such as Lancashire which have strong districts, the LSPs that really matter are at local district level. Some of the other bodies that really matter—the new multi-area agreement and the housing market renewal programme in east Lancashire, which is far and away the biggest bringer-in of funds in the housing area—are at multi-district level. They are not even at a county council level. So this needs thinking about again.
Amendment 117 withdrawn.
Amendment 118 not moved.
119: Clause 14, page 8, line 26, after “vexatious” insert “or”
I shall also speak to Amendment 120. This is fairly straightforward and we can deal with it a bit quicker, I hope. It is about the wording that the Government want to use in this legislation about petitions that are a bit naughty or nasty and therefore will not be accepted.
As the clause stands, a petition can be rejected as active—I am not sure why it happens at the active not the valid stage, but that is the argument that I was having 10 minutes ago—if it is,
“vexatious, abusive or otherwise inappropriate”.
This is partly to probe what is meant by “otherwise inappropriate”, which seems vague and ambiguous wording. I am inserting as an alternative the words,
“calls for anything that is unlawful”.
We had this debate on the e-petitions on Monday—or a similar debate—but there is a need for standard wording and understanding in the Bill over the reasons why petitions can be rejected. The Government may simply say that they can be rejected and leave it to the common sense of councils, but I do not imagine that that argument will get very far. I beg to move.
I hope that I can clearly outline why the words that we have used have been used. Clause 14 requires principal local authorities to take one or more steps in response to valid petitions which meet the criteria set out in subsections (1) and (2) and are therefore active petitions. Subsection (1)(b) provides that there is no duty to take any substantive step in relation to petitions which are vexatious, abusive or otherwise inappropriate to be dealt with.
Amendment 120 removes the exclusion for petitions which are “otherwise inappropriate” and replaces it with an exclusion for petitions which call for an action which is unlawful. This would give principal authorities less discretion over which petitions they were entitled to refuse to respond to. It is possible to think of numerous situations where what a petition calls for is not unlawful, but is nevertheless damaging to community relations or inappropriate for other reasons. For instance, consider the example of a petition calling for the council to purchase all its stationery from a local company which was in financial difficulties, signed by all the employees of that company. This petition would not be requesting anything unlawful, but authorities should not be obliged to take active steps in response to such petitions, which aim to publicise an organisation and promote its commercial interests.
I genuinely do not think that local authorities will abuse this provision and decline on spurious grounds to respond to petitions which are really innocuous. I therefore believe that the drafting in Clause 14(1)(b) is preferable to that of Amendment 120, as it gives principal authorities an appropriate level of discretion over which petitions they respond to. On this basis, I ask the noble Lord to withdraw the amendment.
I am not clear why the Government think that whether a petition is legal or calls for anything unlawful should not be covered. The Bill refers to petitions which are vexatious and abusive, which is less clear, and the Government should consider again the lawfulness issue.
I was interested in the noble Lord’s example. If I understood him correctly, he said that if a local company that employed 100 people was in danger of closing down, the employees of that company might petition the local council to intervene and do something about it. I do not understand why such a petition should not be considered. It may be that the council would say, “There is nothing much we can do”, but my experience of both county councils and district councils is that if there is a local company in difficulty and there is anything the council can do short of intervening in a commercial way, it will do it. For example, if the problems are not necessarily financial directly but are to do with access to the company—it cannot get pantechnicons in and is therefore having to relocate to some foreign place such as Preston or Birmingham—the council might well step in and provide a grant or work out ways in which access to the company can be improved. So I am not sure that the noble Lord’s example was a very good one. Again, it comes from a lack of knowledge and understanding of what local authorities do nowadays—how they get involved in their local economy, how they talk to local companies and how, within reason, they try to assist those local companies to thrive and survive in their areas.
This is not a major point and we probably will not come back to it, but nevertheless it requires a little thought. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment 119 withdrawn.
Amendments 120 to 122 not moved.
123: Clause 14, page 9, line 7, leave out from “that” to end of line 44 and insert “an active petition is dealt with as follows—
“(a) if the petition is presented to a meeting of the authority, the meeting may resolve—(i) to deal with the matter there and then, (ii) to refer the matter either to a committee of the authority or in the case of an authority operating executive arrangements to the executive, with an instruction to deal with the matter as it feels appropriate or refer it back with a recommendation to the council, or(iii) to refer the matter to a partner authority pursuant to section 13(1)(c);(b) if the petition is presented to a committee of the authority or in the case of an authority operating executive arrangements to the executive, that body shall either determine the arrangements for dealing with the petition by the authority or refer it to a partner authority pursuant to section 13(1)(c);(c) if the petition is presented in any other manner it shall be referred by the chairman of the authority to an appropriate committee of the authority (which in the case of an authority operating executive arrangements may be the executive) which may deal with the petition, determine other arrangements for dealing with it by the authority or refer it to a partner authority pursuant to section 13(1)(c);(d) where an authority operates executive arrangements and the matters referred to in the petition are functions of the authority, the petition organiser may require the authority to make arrangements for the petition to be considered by an overview and security committee of the authority.”
This is what I call the “more sensible scheme—part 2”. The amendment seeks to remove everything from subsection (5) to the end of the clause. One reason for removing the wording is that it is muddled—it includes a number of aspects which ought not to be muddled in the way they are—but the main reason for doing it is to introduce the second part of what I was trying to do in the group that started with Amendment 104, and that is to help the Government to put their petition scheme into a reasonable format which people can understand and which sets out clearly what should happen.
To put the contents of subsection (6) in primary legislation is quite extraordinary. It states:
“A principal local authority’s petition scheme must secure that the steps which may be taken by the authority pursuant to subsection (5) include the following”.
A few meetings ago we had a debate about the word “include” that the noble Lord, Borrie, did not like. The steps include,
“giving effect to the request in the petition”,
but if my proposals are accepted the matter would have been dealt with way before it got to the stage of an active petition. If you are going to do it, you just do it; you do not go through the bureaucratic process of making an active petition.
However, steps such as,
“considering the petition at a meeting of the authority … in the case of a principal local authority operating executive arrangements, referring the petition to an overview and scrutiny committee of the authority”,
“in the case of a principal local authority not operating executive arrangements, referring the petition to a committee of the authority with power … to review or scrutinise decisions made”,
are procedural matters within the authority. That is all right but they do not include what most councils will do, which is to refer it to a committee which has got the power to do something about it. Therefore, in a principal local authority—for example, a district council—that does not operate executive arrangements, a petition about housing will not go to a scrutiny committee, it will go straight to the housing committee. In a council operating area committee arrangements the petition will go to the area committee. If it is within the purview of the area committee to do something about it, it will. If the council has an executive, and the matter clearly needs an executive decision, it will go to the executive. That is the real world. That is how it works. That is the sensible thing to do; not to divert the petition via an overview and scrutiny committee, with all the time that will take to put the thing on agendas, hold meetings and then refer it probably back to the council. The council will then refer it to a body, a committee or the executive that can do something about it.
The Government have not set out in Clause 14(6) the most obvious and usual way that a council will deal with a petition. I can only say that that is because they do not understand how councils deal with petitions. By and large, petitions go to committees, executives, other bodies of the council, executive members, cabinet members or whoever has the authority to do something about them.
Clause 14(6) says that the scheme must include certain things. Then it includes a number of things that will happen in some cases as a result of consideration of the petition by the appropriate committee of the council or public body, such as,
“holding an inquiry…holding a public meeting”—
there is a radical idea—
“giving a written response to the petition organiser”.
These are consequences of the decision-making process. They are all mixed up and muddled together in a totally unsatisfactory way. Therefore, what I suggest in my Amendment 123 is a logical step-by-step process by which a petition is dealt with. Once it has been decided that a petition is active, under the Government’s scheme, it goes to the appropriate body in the authority that makes a decision on what to do about it.
That decision might include commissioning research. To put commissioning research into a petition scheme is quite extraordinary. Why commissioning research? Is this another consultant’s charter? There are far too many consultants in local government. Of course, if a major issue is raised and the council does not have information about it and nobody knows what is going on, you might commission research, but it is not something you put in a petition scheme. What you put into a petition scheme is which bodies on the council shall deal with the petition and who they then tell what they are doing about it, and particularly how they will involve the petitioners and other members of the public in that decision.
The scheme I have put forward is clear, sensible and in the real world. The Government’s scheme is a muddle, some things in it are odd, and I am not sure it is entirely in the real world. Of course, overview and scrutiny committees can be involved if people think the process should happen that way. My amendment says if the petition organiser wishes the petition to go to the overview and scrutiny committee, then that is his right. I am not removing that provision; I am saying that it is not automatic.
It is a bizarre idea that petitions should automatically go to overview and scrutiny committees, rather than to committees, which can do something about the petition much more quickly. The idea that a petition organiser should be able to require an overview and scrutiny committee to deal with it is on a par with what the Government call the Community Call for Action, which is coming into practice fairly soon, and allows members of the public and councillors automatically to refer something to scrutiny. It is on a par with that; it is the same sort of thing. That is okay. However, it really should be voluntary from the point of view of the people organising a petition. Otherwise, people would be putting forward good petitions that just get tied up in overview and scrutiny and never go anywhere else.
I ask the Government to look at this very seriously and not just to react against it because I put it forward and they did not. Clause 14 is a muddle. I am not suggesting that my drafting is perfect—I am not a parliamentary draftsman—but I am suggesting that a clearly set out and understandable scheme ought to be put in here, rather than the Government’s current muddle.
I support what the noble Lord, Lord Greaves, said. When I read the Bill, I thought that the Government were trying to kick these petitions into touch because overview and scrutiny committees do not take decisions. They scrutinise the executive and what is going on, and sometimes they can take six months to produce a report. They normally set up a working group and things such as that. The Government set up the legislation under which we operate. My authority, which is a large authority, has an executive that takes all the decisions. The council deals only with the budget, and perhaps the waste plan, and everything else is decided, by the Government’s orders, by the executive. If decisions are to be taken about these petitions or about something to be done, as we heard earlier, the cabinet or the portfolio holder does it. That is the only way to get things done. Referral to the overview and scrutiny committee is a way of kicking most petitions into touch. If we wanted to get rid of one for a while, we would refer it to that committee. The noble Lord, Lord Greaves, is right on this. I do not understand why the Government put that in.
I have tabled many amendments to legislation in this House, and many times I have been told that detail is not put in legislation but in regulations or guidance issued later. The detail in the Bill about petitions is ridiculous and I ask the Government to think again. They cannot really mean to prescribe all that detail—that is a job for officials—rather than give a clear duty and clear guidelines. I ask them to please think again.
I shall first address the issue of prescription. Clause 14(6) states that the,
“petition scheme must secure that the steps which may be taken by the authority”,
and it then gives an indicative list of potential actions. It illustrates to the local community the range of things that the local authority can do in order to respond. The noble Lords, Lord Greaves and Lord Hanningfield, focused on the fact that “giving effect” usually means a cabinet member taking an action, and that is what is encompassed in paragraph (a). The processes outlined in the noble Lord’s amendment are about giving effect. We have not gone into the detail, as the noble Lord has done in his amendment. The actions listed in the amendment are about the internal processes that the councillors would go though. I respect and understand that, but they are all contained in the notion of giving effect.
The idea of the indicative list is to flag up to citizens and the local community that other things can happen, including commissioning research. We hope that there will be many instances where the local authority can immediately carry out the action and give effect to the request in the petition in some of the ways that the noble Lord refers to in his amendment. However, there are more complex issues. For example, if a petition puts the case for additional youth facilities, there may be a need to find out exactly how many young people are using the existing facilities and what their local ambitions and needs are in relation to the facilities that they might have. That can come under the heading of commissioning research from young people.
Does the Minister honestly think that if an item about youth facilities goes on the agenda as a petition and the council is taking it seriously it would not refer it to the next meeting for a report on the situation, to get exactly the information that the Minister is talking about? That is how councils work. It may be that if that information is available it will be presented to the meeting—if there is a decent chairman who says that it should—at the same time as the petition. They are the committees that make the decisions, and they are not included in this at all.
No, because we did not actually want to write that detail into the Bill, for the many good reasons the noble Lord has given us on many instances. However, the instance that he gives is a very good one—and, yes, I would expect it to be referred to the youth committee. But in my home town of Lewes there was a campaign for a very long time for somewhere special for young people to go. Nobody knew how many young people had that particular ambition or what they actually wanted. No committee in the world could simply invent something without asking young people what they wanted. That is what we mean by commissioning research. I cannot really see the objection to that or see how we are at odds on that matter.
The other things on that list are there simply to indicate the range of actions that the local authority may take in support of the work of councils in their respective responsibilities. I take the point about overview and scrutiny; it is only one example on that list. I take the point about detail; we are continually wrestling with the balance in what we think is important detail in an area of policy that we have not addressed in legislation before. There are disagreements in this Committee about whether we should try to do this, but having embarked on it we thought that it was important to give an indication of the sort of scope that the local authority should offer by way of illustration.
Sometimes it will be immediately clear that the elected members of the local authority and its committees can act and carry out the action, and inform the organiser immediately about that. I respect what the noble Lord has said and what he is trying to do in the amendment, but we have come at it slightly differently. What he has tried to do in this amendment is encompassed by the notion of giving effect. We could certainly put the kind of process that he outlined in guidance to make it clear, but his amendment imposes an administrate arrangement while our clause does not. It says that steps may be taken to secure the result that is of the greatest benefit to local people. On that basis, I cannot accept his amendment.
The Minister accused me of wanting to put more detail in the Bill. I have just counted up and my proposals take up 28 lines while hers take up 35, so I think that it is not more detail although it may be different detail. The problem with what is in the Bill is that it is partly process stage 1 and it is not inclusive. It does not include what most councils will do most of the time.
I am sorry to go on, but giving effect, as I said to the noble Lord, encompasses the processes that he spoke of. Giving effect is what local councils do in their daily business, whether they are cabinet members or members of committees. That is what we aim to do by putting it in the Bill, to encompass exactly what he wants to see in his amendment.
I have to say that I disagree. When subsection (6) in particular reaches the light of day, it will result in belly laughter throughout local government and will not do the Government’s reputation any good at all. I admire the Minister for her attempts to defend this part of the Bill, but the Government should look at themselves and consider the whole thing again.
The Minister said that these are areas that we have not previously put in legislation. Do we have to legislate to tell councils that they can hold a public meeting, as the Bill does? All the councils with which I have been involved have held public meetings of various kinds fairly frequently. My own council holds an astonishing number of public meetings. Depending on how you define a public meeting, never a week goes by without two or three of them. Residents can turn up and take part in single-issue or community meetings—they are not ordinary council meetings. In my experience, most public meetings do not arise from petitions; most of them are from deputations. Deputations go to committees of the council—in particular, to area committees—and they raise an issue. That area committee will then say, “Let’s have a public meeting”. Alternatively, they are regular public meetings connected with ongoing investment projects. The idea that we need in legislation to tell councils that they can hold a public meeting, and to do so in legislation referring specifically to petitions rather than to anything else that the council may do or receive representations on, is fatuous. The Government will make themselves look ridiculous, and I am trying to stop them doing so.
The Minister then said that the scope of the steps to be taken is by way of illustration, but it ought not to be in primary legislation. It is ridiculous that the Government are saying in primary legislation that:
“A … local authority’s petition scheme must secure that the steps which may be taken by the authority … include the following”.
Perhaps they can put in lots of other things as well if they have time to waste doing it. If the Government really want to prescribe how a council deals with petitions, they should set out the process. Much of what is in the Bill is halfway outcomes. Since we have just had Burns Night, I am tempted to quote Burns, although I am not sure that it is a good idea with a Yorkshire accent. He wrote:
“O wad some Power the giftie gie us
To see oursels as ithers see us”.
The poem ends by saying that you will not engage in “foolish notion”. This is foolish notion. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment at this stage, but it will have to come back.
Amendment 123 withdrawn.
Amendments 124 and 125 not moved.
Clause 14 agreed.
Clause 15 agreed.
Debate on whether Clause 16 should stand part of the Bill.
The clause raises a contentious point and we on these Benches strongly oppose it. It provides that a petition can require an officer to be called to account; in other words, it moves a constitutional issue in a way that fails to recognise the role of democratically elected councillors, who are the representatives of their community. It fails to recognise that responsibility for everything that a council does lies with the elected members in the final analysis. I am really using shorthand. I am very aware of the time and I am also aware that the Government are prepared to discuss this with us between now and Report in order to deal with the concerns.
Of course, overview and scrutiny committees will themselves require officers to come before them, but that is a matter for the members. If members of the public said, “We need to have X hung out to dry”, in a method akin to a kangaroo court or a witch hunt, perhaps against a junior officer, that would be entirely wrong. It is for the members to summons the officers.
I asked CIPFA whether it had any comments on a later part of the Bill concerning auditing. Rather to my surprise, I received a copy of its response to the improving local accountability consultation, which concludes that,
“the current framework provides effective reassurance to the general public”—
it refers to the duties of the chief finance office and may well refer to the monitoring officer—
“and would be concerned about any public right to petition to hold officers to account cutting across the existing statutory arrangements and may prejudice the actions of the Responsible Finance Office or Auditor in respect of public expenditure”.
I had not expected support to come from that area—certainly not when what I thought that I was asking about was auditing local authority companies—but CIPFA is absolutely right.
As I understand its briefing, the Local Government Association is also opposed to this measure. It made suggestions about enabling authorities to require the appearance of chief officers and others from, essentially, partner authorities. However, I think that that was in the spirit of, “If you’re going to do this, you should do that as well”. I did not table those amendments because I did not agree with the underlying principle.
This is a very contentious clause. I think that, again, it has failed, as has the whole of Part 1 of the Bill, to understand what representative democracy is about. We oppose Clause 16.
I tried, inadvertently and wrongly, to raise the issue that I now want to raise briefly. It is on the same point and I raise it in a benign, rather than a malignant, manner. Before we get to Clause 16, Clause 14(5) states:
“A principal local authority’s petition scheme must secure that, where an active petition is made to the authority, the authority must take one or more steps in response to the petition”.
Clause 16(2) says that,
“the petition requests that an officer of the authority (whether identified by name or description) be called to account at a public meeting of the authority”.
That is one sanction. Then, at the top of page 11 of the Bill, Clause 16(7)(a) says that,
“the exercise by an overview and scrutiny committee of the authority of its power under subsection (13)(a) of section 21 of the Local Government Act … to require the relevant person to attend before it to answer questions”.
My question, which is shared with the trade union UNISON, is: can the Minister inform us of the kind of criteria that would guide a council in deciding whether to use a public meeting or a scrutiny committee, or both, in dealing with a petition of this kind? The noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, quite rightly and fairly, raised this issue. I have in mind the Baby P petition. I recall, many years ago, attending very angry public meetings but they related to issues. Phrases such as “witch hunt” or “hanging out to dry” can be bandied about and may very well apply if someone is invited to a meeting. I am anxious only to ensure that the Minister and the Government are satisfied that, if a petition includes a demand that a person be brought to a public meeting, they know what they are doing.
I strongly support my noble friend in this matter. I have been a councillor for many years. There have been times, particularly recently, when things that the officers have done have been acutely embarrassing for us and which we would not have allowed to happen. Nevertheless, I strongly believe that we are a representative democracy. In all sincerity, I really think that, when we are talking about localism and devolving power, Ministers and civil servants need to think carefully about how we operate a representative democracy. It is getting out of hand—and this provision in particular is out of hand. If we took it to an extreme, perhaps the civil servants sitting behind the Minister today could be questioned by the people outside about what we are doing here today. That is what the clause really means. If you did it nationally, somebody could petition the noble Baroness, Lady Andrews, to bring forward her civil servants to be questioned. I am sure that none of us would want that to happen, because we believe that this is a representative democracy despite the fact that, as I explain to people outside this Chamber, one of the most frustrating things about this job is that you come forward with your ideas and you know jolly well that the people sitting behind or somewhere near the Minister will send her notes telling her why she has to say no to what you want to do. It would be very nice to be able to question them, but we cannot do that. However, I say in all seriousness that the Government really need to think about what a representative democracy is.
I support the proposal from the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee. Officers are appointed to serve the whole council; they are not there to second-guess the political will of either the administration or anybody else. This is very dangerous territory. I have been in positions when officers have said the wrong things. I can remember that once one of our officers was actually in our council chamber trying to hang one of the other officers in effigy, so when we had a council meeting there was a scarecrow hanging from the roof who was supposed to be one of our officers. He had said things that he should not have done about the waste programme. I endorse what has been said: it is the members who take the decisions, obviously with officer guidance—but it is exactly the same as in Parliament. We are getting into very dangerous territory here.
I am very well aware from the debate that this is something that noble Lords opposite want us to think about. As I have said, we are happy to talk about this before Report. However, I should like very briefly to set out what we are trying to achieve. I take the point entirely, and I want to reassure noble Lords that this is not, as they suggest, any attempt to subvert the notion of representative democracy. It is not an attempt to place officers in the front line of debates which would be more properly matters for councillors, and it is not an invitation for public bullying or harassment. It is not a replacement of proper disciplinary procedures by a kangaroo court; there are protections built in.
I understand the arguments that the noble Lord made about potentially blurring the lines of accountability. It is absolutely essential that everybody understands that elected members are accountable, just as we are. It is not my civil servants who are accountable; we stand up and it is up to us to defend ourselves. Ultimately, it is citizens’ votes that do that accounting. The provisions in Clause 16 do not undermine that fundamental principle. What we are trying to do is to provide local people with an additional opportunity to participate in the scrutiny of decision-making. The definition of “public meeting” to which my noble friend referred is always the same: public meeting means overview and scrutiny committee in that context. There are not two types of public meeting, but I can explain that to him in a letter which he can then hand on to his colleagues.
My second point is that, essentially, all these provisions build on existing practice. All principal local authorities have set up overview and scrutiny committees of elected members whose purpose is to hold authority decision makers to account. Clause 16 confers the same public hearing function on overview and scrutiny committees whether or not the council is operating executive arrangements. Subsections (6) to (9) of the clause are complex but they are as they are because they have to cover non-executive as well as executive arrangements.
As we know, overview and scrutiny committees meet in public. Rightly and properly, they already have the power to require officers to attend meetings and provide evidence. We built our evidence, for example, around discussions we had with the Society of Local Authority Chief Executives and Senior Managers, SOLACE, which replied to our consultation paper on improving local accountability. It noted that senior officers regularly attend public meetings to explain council decisions and answer questions. I shall give a few examples. Tewkesbury Borough Council’s scrutiny committee reviews best value performance indicators and quarterly requires managers to attend meetings; West Devon Borough Council requires lead officers to turn up alongside committee chairs if progress on performance indicators is unsatisfactory; and so on.
We are building on established practice and taking it further. Citizens will be able to call in their petitions for overview and scrutiny committees to look at issues which are important to them and to ask for evidence from key officers to inform their examination of those issues.
The Minister has just hit the nail on the head: overview and scrutiny committees do not overview and scrutinise officers as individuals; they carry out overview and scrutiny of the functions of the authority. The individual officers are called to give evidence, quite rightly, because of their positions in the authority. The authority will perhaps scrutinise benefit payments, but it does not decide as a policy to scrutinise the officer who is in charge of benefit payments. If the proposal was that the petition should be able to call for scrutiny of a particular area, that would be an entirely different matter.
If I had been allowed to continue my argument I think the noble Lord would have been satisfied on that point.
We have built in strict controls around the provision. We clearly do not want this to create an excuse for a kangaroo court or witch hunt, or harassment or bullying, and the best people to decide how these provisions should work in the context of the petition scheme will be the local authorities. That is why, for example, the petition scheme has to specify how many signatures will be needed before an officer can be required to attend a public meeting. It will be for the officers to determine which officers are liable to be called to account in this way.
I have not finished my argument.
But what the noble Baroness is saying is not true.
It is not true what I am saying? I am telling the noble Lord what is in the Bill.
It states that,
“the petition requests that an officer of the authority (whether identified by name or description)”.
Yes, but that still does not mean that he is not there strictly because of the job he does and the responsibility he holds for the area of policy. We expect that it will usually be the chief executive and a senior officer responsible for the area of policy. It will be for the local authority to decide how that is managed.
Clause 16 requires, as a minimum, that the head of paid service and the most senior officers responsible for the delivery of services come. It is up to the overview and scrutiny committee to decide which of the officials would be most appropriate in relation to the service that is the subject of the petition.
I shall say a little more about how the scrutiny will be carried out. It is extremely important that it is appropriate and fair. Officers must not be exposed to inappropriate public scrutiny, harassment or bullying. Therefore, Clause 16 provides that the grounds for attendance at a meeting of the overview and scrutiny committee must relate to the officer’s job and cannot relate to his personal circumstances or character. Guidance under the Local Government Act 2000 is already in place to cover the way in which overview and scrutiny committees should conduct themselves when questioning an officer of the authority, the appropriate seniority of witnesses to ensure that junior officers are not put under undue pressure and so on. Some local authorities have charters; for example, City of York Council has developed a charter for scrutiny witnesses.
The only innovation introduced by this provision is the ability for local people to have a little more scope to invite overview and scrutiny committees to invite their officers to come and discuss their responsibilities within the scope of the jobs that are delivering the services with which people are concerned. The overview and scrutiny committee has the discretion to say that that would not be appropriate.
Amendment 130 removes the power for the appropriate national authority to make an order or provide guidance in relation to specifying the officers who would be called to give evidence. I reassure noble Lords that any order or guidance in relation to this will be focused squarely on supporting authorities to respond effectively. We do not intend to use it to create red tape. We want to keep that to a minimum. Throughout this process, we will be working very closely with the Local Government Association, but I am very happy to talk to noble Lords. I understand their concerns, so we will talk to each other before Report.
I shall add one further thing because I think it is worth putting on the record. It is the danger of confusing democratic accountability with undermining the ability of local government officers to act as independent advisers to the elected council by leaving them open to the pressure of public opinion and lobbying. That is an extension of the point that is worth making.
I appreciate that it is not the intention of the Government to allow the extreme scenario that I painted with very broad brushstrokes, but it could be the effect of this clause. I do not say this lightly, but the Government have this completely wrong. When we are in Grand Committee, we do not vote, but we will continue to oppose the whole of this clause. It is not susceptible to amendment to make it an appropriate provision.
Clause 16 agreed.
I think this may be a convenient moment for the Committee to adjourn until Tuesday at 3.30 pm.
Committee adjourned at 7.49 pm.