Monday, 8 February 2016

Assembly petitions reforms outlined

As attentions turn to the Fifth Assembly, a Petitions Committee review
has recommended a number of improvements to the petitions system.
(Pic : National Assembly of Wales)

(Told you so.)

The National Assembly's e-petitions system, launched in 2007, has become one of the main ways the public and organisations influence decisions made on our behalf.

Last year, the Llywydd asked the Petitions Committee to review the system as thoughts turn to the Fifth Assembly. Having conducted "stakeholder events" and a public survey, they reported back last week (pdf).

The Committee made 17 recommendations; in summary :

  • Allowing the Assembly to collect signatures for petitions relating to non-devolved matters – but only petitions relating to the devolved powers of the Assembly will be referred to the Committee for consideration.
  • Petitions should collect at least 50 signatures before being considered by the Committee (currently they need 10).
  • Only people resident, or organisations based, in Wales should be allowed to submit a petition; but there should be no residency requirement for signatures.
  • Responsibility for deciding admissibility of petitions ("whether they're allowed or not") should pass from the Llywydd/Presiding Officer to the Committee.
  • The incoming Petitions Committee should consider : a system for prioritising petitions, closing petitions as soon as it's clear they can't be resolved, triggering an automatic Assembly plenary debate if a petition receives (it's suggested) as many as 10,000 signatures.
  • The Petitions Committee slot in the Assembly calender should be flexible enough to allow meetings to be held outside the Senedd and make it easier to schedule oral evidence from Welsh Government ministers.
  • Standing Orders should be modified to allow the Petitions Committee to transfer responsibility for a petition to another Assembly committee.
  • Petitions from third parties (i.e. paper petitions and sites like 38 Degrees) should continue to be accepted as long as they're admissible.
  • No time limits should be placed on how long a petition can gather signatures.
  • Petitions outcomes should be published.

There are two broad themes to the report's contents and consultation responses.

Admissibility Issues

At the moment, petitions that are beyond the scope of the Assembly's powers, or relate to decisions taken by local authorities, aren't accepted. However, there's nothing stopping the Assembly considering petitions on any topic as it was a "decision" by Assembly authorities, not a specific exemption in law or whatever.

Including petitions on non-devolved matters would put the Committee under pressure, so as a compromise they suggest collecting signatures on non-devolved matters – which would allow AMs to refer to them – but they wouldn't be formally considered by the Committee.

A majority of respondents believed the current 10 signature threshold for consideration was too low, but there were concerns that a higher threshold – some even suggested up to 2,000 signatures – would mean important, but not particularly popular, topics would be overlooked. In order to discourage "joke" petitions, the Committee recommended raising the threshold to 50 signatures.

Another issue surrounded who can submit and sign petitions. A majority of respondents believed only Welsh residents should be able to submit and sign petitions; some also suggested a minimum age – the most popular being 16 years old.

People were more divided on whether political parties, AM support staff (AMSS) and politicians should be able to submit petitions, though more people (49%) thought they shouldn't be allowed compared to those who believe they should (43%).

Some 65% of respondents believed petitioners should seek resolution of an issue with the respective authority before submitting a petition. Meanwhile, in sit-down sessions "stakeholders" said there needs to be some a formal process to deal with petitions that could be considered an abuse of process – like multiple petition submissions on the same subject.

As mentioned, responsibility for deciding whether a petition is admissible lies with the Presiding Officer, though this has been largely delegated to the Clerk to the Petitions Committee; in practice the Presiding Officer only has to deal with appeals when petitions are rejected and that hasn't happened to date.

330 petitions have been deemed inadmissible during the Fourth Assembly, and if it were down to the Committee to decide admissibility on each and every petition it would take 6 hours. They support having the power to decide, but would themselves delegate responsibility to the Clerk.

Dealing with Petitions

One of the headline recommendations of the review is to set a threshold
for the number of signatures in order to trigger an automatic Assembly debate.
(Pic : Wales Online)

The Petitions Committee only meets once a fortnight for around two hours, so there are clear time constraints. Suggestions on how to improve things include a system to prioritise petitions, closing petitions as soon as an issue is resolved, and including a signature threshold to trigger an Assembly plenary debate – 10,000 signatures was suggested.

They didn't decide how they could prioritise petitions, but criteria could include : number of signatures, how urgent the issue is and whether a petition raises an issue that hasn't previously been raised.

There were calls for the Committee to be given more "clout" when it comes to drawing responses from Welsh Ministers, along with calls for petitioners to be given a right to appeal closure. Both were dismissed, as the Committee believe they have powers already – as any other committee – while it wasn't clear how an appeals system would work.

There were further calls to hold meetings "outside the M4 corridor" – and the Committee have done that sparingly this term. The Committee like the idea because they believe oral evidence leads to greater understanding of the issues involved, but the main problem is scheduling of meetings, which is rigid and inflexible.

It was suggested the Committee be able to transfer responsibility for a petition – and any subsequent actions - to a subject committee where appropriate. This would require a change in Standing Orders, even if the Committee would only use such a power "sparingly".

Another big suggestion is the ability to transfer petitions relating to maladministration or service failure to the relevant Ombudsman or Commissioner. There's currently no protocol allowing for such a thing.

Imperfect, but valuable

The petitions system is far from perfect but it's made an impact this term. However, could a race to get
signatures in order to trigger debates lead to important issues being sidelined for the sake of populism?
(Pic : South Wales Argus)

The recommendations are common sense and practical. There's little to argue with and, apart from the proposal to transfer petitions to other committees, I'd be surprised if the recommendations weren't adopted in full after the election.

While it's a fact the petitions system is one of the great innovations since devolution, it's not perfect. The Petitions Committee itself seems to be the poor relation of the Assembly committees despite discussing matters that are probably of more immediate interest to the public.

Although I wasn't happy with the way they dealt with Jac o' the North's Local Democracy petition (Local Democracy petition given short shrift by AMs), I accept it's their decision to make and there's not much you can do about it. My concern, and one I suspect many people will share, is an impression that "some petitions are more equal than others" - particularly those where committee members, or their parties, have a personal, political or professional interest.

There seems to be no formal set of standards for what petitions warrant oral evidence, which ones warrant a report/inquiry and which ones should be closed straight away. Just because a petition gets a lot of signatures it doesn't mean it's a urgent priority. Conversely, the public defibrillator petition – which ended up one of the better committee inquiries of the term (Kickstarting Welsh Hearts) – only got 78 signatures. It probably wouldn't have got much further than a single meeting under any new prioritisation critera, so AMs and Assembly staff will need to be careful when drafting those criteria.

The idea that petitions that get over a certain number of signatures should trigger an Assembly debate is a good one as it'll hopefully lead to more topical debates, as well as give the Petitions Committee a shot in the arm in terms of prestige. As very few petitions get over 1,500 signatures I would set the bar at 4,000-5,000; 10,000 seems too high.

My worry there is we'll end up with the petitions system becoming a social media-driven popularity contest, where important, but less popular, petitions will be overlooked for those that "shout the loudest" but don't deal with anything particularly relevant.


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