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Monday, December 11, 2006

Petitioning the Assembly

The proposal by the Assembly's Standing Order Sub Committee to provide a direct route for members of the public and other organisations to directly petition us with their ideas and causes after the May elections is definitely the right way forward. It already works well in Scotland where, as the Western Mail points out, it has led directly to changes in the law.

My concern is that we are not proposing a committee here in Wales but that the Presiding Officer should receive the petition and direct it accordingly. No matter how inclusive and open the Presiding Officer is, he or she could not replicate the transparency and accountability of a formal committee meeting in public. This is particularly so when it comes to monitoring and tracking the petition's progress. I hope that the Standing Orders Sub Committee re-think this suggestion.
I agree.

A Public Petitions committee could, potentially, increase the involvement of the civic and civil society, however the proposed procedures are somewhat puzzling. Will the PO really have the time to scrutinise and consider these proposals fully? The details are rather sketchy, and woolly to say the least. Civil society is trying to get to grips with the proposed changes, and the lack of clarity and consultation on such powers worries us…
The article suggests that the Presiding Officer's only role in this process would be to "allocate a petition to a relevant existing committee." Am I right in assuming, therefore, that the consideration or scrutiny of the proposals would not be a matter for him/her? Surely, that consideration would be undertaken by the existing sub committee, who (unless I’m mistaken) would meet in public?
I'm not convinced the Scottish model has been an unalloyed success myself. The vast majority of petitions get cursory discussion at best and there are legitimate grounds for viewing the whole rigmarole as a waste of time.

I believe the thinking in Standing Orders Ctte is that with 60 Members trying to get to grips with the new proceedures for legislating via OiC's and Measures the number of permanent committees required in the SO's should be kept as low as possible. I don't think the SO as drafted prohibits the PO from setting up an ad hoc committee to consider petitions (or prevent him delegating consideration to another body - say the Panel of Chairs). The Assembly may wamnt to add in a new SO establishing a petitions committee sometime in the future, once the burden of legislation becomes clearer and the government has beebn able to lay out its proposed legislative programme. The Standing Orders Committee has its work cut out to agree a set of SO's that will be fit for purpose under the new Act. A petitions committee is an itriguing idea, but is not urgent in the same way as the proceedure for passage of Assembly Measures is.
There is no existing sub committee to deal with petitions and as I understand it they are not proposing to set one up. My concern is that without the existence of a petitions sub committee there is nobody to monitor progress on the petition and to drive it through the system. From what I saw of the article this is the role envisaged for the PO. If this is the case then at the very least we need an on-line means of tracking each petition so as to make the process open and transparent and to reduce the risk of the petition disappearing into the system.
The question you have to answer Peter is, what would the Petitions Commitee do? Would it hold hearings on every petition presented? To what purpose? What eligibility criteria would you have? Would you hold hearings on a petiotion that was racist or the principle concern of a local authority? What sort of time committment would it invcolve for such a small body of AMs? Are you even volunteering to sit on it yourself?

There's another article in the Western Mail today. Keep up the good work on exposing the elevated considerations of the, thankfully doomed to become defunct, House Committee.
I envisage it working very much as in Scotland. There a meeting can last as little as five minutes depending on the business before it. They do not hold meetings on petitions but direct them to the appropriate place and monitor progress. It would not be there business to judge the content of those petitions and nor should it be. I would be happy to serve on it if needed.
I ask again. What is the point?
The point is that it will directly engage with voters and enable them to have an input into the legislative process.
I'll expand slightly on that.

It will achieve neither of the results you claim.

Signing a petition is a minor expression of support for a cause or policy. It is not something that the signatory expects to reverberate down the corridors of power.

In the hierarchy it's minimal. I sign the petition, I go on the demo, I lobby my AM, I maybe take direct action. Petitions belong to the pre-democratic era when the common people had no other way of hoping to influence those who govered them. Today they are an anachronism. To pretend otherwise is gesture politics - which I guess explains the Lib Dem enthusiasm ...
Actually all four party are enthused about the idea. It is not a Welsh Liberal Democrat hobby horse. It works well in Scotland. We will just have to see how it works here.
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