Lord Shutt of Greetland (Deputy Chief Whip, House of Lords; Liberal Democrat)
My Lords, I thank the noble Lords who have spoken on this matter. Clause 46 of the Bill repeals the duty on principal local authorities in England and Wales to have a petitions scheme and the associated provisions. Amendment 15 would omit this clause, therefore reinstating the duty, and Amendment 49 would then amend the original legislation, which the noble Lord, Lord Greaves referred to when he mentioned the eight pages. Incidentally, I have a note that there would be still four or five pages left of that, including the requirement to call officers to account. So a lot of it would still be there.
While the intention behind the amendments to ensure that Councils treat the receipt of petitions sensibly and appropriately is laudable, I am not persuaded that reinstating this prescriptive and burdensome duty, albeit in a revised form, is either necessary or desirable. The revised duty proposed would remove Section 11 of the Local Democracy, Economic Development and Construction Act 2009, which provides for principal local authorities to have petition schemes, but it is clear that they would continue to need such schemes, given that Amendment 49 includes several references to petition schemes. Even with this change, the revised duty would mean a significant new burden on local authorities. The effect of subsection (6) of the proposed new section is that the statutory petitions schemes would have to go into far more detail than is currently required about how particular categories of petition will be treated.
In addition, the extension of the statutory duty to all categories of petition-including mayoral petitions and council tax petitions-which the amendment creates, will create further additional burdens, as a scheme would then need to provide for different processes for different types of petition. To reinstate the current overly prescriptive duty not with a clean sheet but with a confused mishmash of some retained elements, with some changes and some provisions dropped, is not at all helpful. We trust local authorities to make the best choices for their local areas and to respond to residents' concerns in a locally appropriate way. However, how that looks should be a matter for local discretion, not central prescription.
We simply do not believe that we need to reinstate this duty in order to force local authorities to have a petitions scheme, any more than we believe that we need to tell local authorities how to respond to petitions from their own residents.
The noble Lord, Lord True, asked whether the Government still support the concept of petitions. Let me make it clear that they absolutely support and encourage the use of petitions but at a local and not at a national level. It seems to me that people want to put up a petition in a post office or whatever. They do not want to have to scratch about wondering what the proper way to organise a petition is for that council. They want to get on with the petition, get the names together and get on with it. That is how it is in democracy and how it is in local areas. In the circumstances, I trust that this amendment will not be pursued.