Monday, 14 July 2014
As Chair of the Petitions Committee I have spoken in previous weeks about the role of the committee and members generally in presenting petitions to the House of Representatives. Today I thought it might be useful to look beyond this House and to consider the treatment of petitions in other parliaments. As today is Bastille Day, it seems fitting that I begin with arrangements in the French National Assembly. The rules of procedure there encourage a degree of formality. Petitions must be addressed to the President of the Assembly and may be presented by any member. However, a petition that is brought 'by a gathering on the public highway' must not be received by the President or presented by a member.
The rules of procedure provide a formal process for petitions which are brought to the Assembly in the accepted way. The President of the Assembly refers these to the house committee that is appropriate to consider them. That committee appoints a rapporteur who makes recommendations to the committee, which then decides how to deal with the petition. It may decide to take no further action, or to refer it to another committee, or to a minister, or submit it to the house. The petitioner is informed of the initial committee's decision and informed again by the second committee, or the minister, of their decisions. If a committee decides to submit a petition to the house, a report is produced of the text of the petition and distributed. Members of the National Assembly receive a bulletin from time to time, summarising petitions and the decisions made about them. Members may then ask the President to submit petitions referred to in the bulletin to the house; if this request is agreed to, the report on the petition may be set down on the agenda of the house.
If we turn to the United Kingdom House of Commons, we see a process that in some ways is more familiar. The resolutions and standing orders of the House of Commons have requirements about the language and form of petitions and, like our standing orders, require a petition to contain the reasons the petitioner is petitioning the House and a request or prayer of the House to take action. Naturally, that action must be within the power of the House.
The presentation of petitions is quite different from our processes. Petitions must be presented by a member and this may be done anytime the House is sitting by a member dropping the petition in a green bag behind the Speaker's chair. Or a member may present the petition formally in the House and make a short statement about it. After the petition has been read, the member gives it to the clerk at the table, who reads the title. Or, if the member does not wish to make a statement about a petition, the clerk may read out the terms of the petition. The member then drops the petition in the green bag behind the Speaker's chair. The Journal Office of the House of Commons assists members to ensure that petitions they are asked to present are in order.
Once presented, the Votes and Proceedings for the day of presentation include a record of the petition's presentation and a copy is sent to the relevant government department. The House of Commons resolved in 2007 that all petitions should receive a response from the relevant minister. These observations from ministers are printed in Hansard and a copy of the petition is sent to the presenting member. Copies of petitions and ministers' observations are also sent to relevant House select committees, which then put the petition onto their formal agenda.
The German Bundestag has its own petitions committee, but its role appears to be significantly different from that of our committee. It receives about 15,000 submissions a year and about one-third of these are requests for legislation. The committee has an unusually large mandate. It deals with all petitions relating to the Bundestag's legislative functions and with complaints about federal authorities. In this respect, it takes on a kind of ombudsman's role. The committee has a significant mediating role between complaints by individuals about authorities and a role in scrutinising legislation that is the subject of complaints. It may press for amendments to legislation and recommend action by the Bundestag. The committee cannot review court judgements, but it may seek to influence federal authorities involved in current court action.
Although it has an investigatory role and powers that are unusual from our perspective, in one respect the German committee is very similar to our Petitions Committee. Its function gives it a monitoring role on issues that concern citizens and motivate them to call for intervention by their parliament.
The point of this short journey around national parliaments is to remind us that the tradition of petitioning parliament is not confined to Westminster style parliaments, nor has it been consigned to history by the rise of social media. In all cases, parliaments are being asked directly by citizens to intercede on their behalf with executive government. As institutions of broader systems of government, parliaments have made their arrangements for petitioners to raise concerns publicly and for those concerns to be conveyed in a way that provides petitioners with some certainty that they will be heard, even though they may not get the result they seek.