ATC101022: Report on Study Tour to the United Kingdom  (House of Commons) & associated institutions on 16 – 22 October 2010

Private Members' Legislative Proposals and Special Petitions



1.               BACKGROUND

The Select Committee on Petitions and Members’ Legislative Proposals, having conducted a study tour to the United Kingdom  (House of Commons) and associated institutions on 16 – 22 October 2010, reports as follows:


1.1.             Delegation

1.1.1.          Members of Parliament 

The multi-party delegation was led by the Chairperson, Hon Mr A J Nyambi (ANC), other members comprised: Hon Mr D V Bloem (COPE), Hon Mr A GMatila (ANC), Hon Mr F Adams (ANC), and Hon Mr A Watson (DA).

1.1.2.          Support Staff

The committee was accompanied by Mr T Madima (Committee Secretary) and Ms S Sipamla (Committee Researcher).


1.2.             Terms of reference and purpose of the study tour

 The purpose of the visit was to learn from the House of Commons and the associated institutions on how to handle issues relating to petitions from the general public. The purpose of the study tour was to:

·       obtain first-hand experience in interacting with legislators dealing with petitions in the House of Commons;

·       understand the challenges faced and the methods used to resolve them; and

·       observe and study the parliamentary proceedings and the value added to the processing of petitions by the committee.



On 19 October 2010, the delegation was welcomed by Ms Sue Pamphlett, the Inward Visits Manager. She gave a brief background on the week’s programme and invited the Honourable Members to ask clarity seeking questions and interact with the delegated staff and commissioned representatives.


2.1.             Presentation on the composition, functioning and legislative processes of the House of Commons

Mr Mark Hutton, Clerk of the Overseas Office, House of Commons briefed the delegation on the composition and functioning of the House of Commons touching on the following points:

2.1.1.          Elections and Parliamentary Terms

The most resent election was held in May 2010 and it resulted in the first coalition government for the United Kingdom supported by the House of Common. The next election was reportedly planned for May 2015. There is a maximum of three sitting days in a week. Although the parliament functions in terms of a fixed term, constitutional changes were said to have been underway on several matters.





2.1.2.          The composition of the House of Commons

The United Kingdom has a bicameral legislature, meaning that they have two parliamentary legislative chambers. The United Kingdom therefore has the House of Commons and the House of Lords. Collectively there are 650 democratically elected Members of Parliament. Parliament has an average daily attendance of 300 – 400 members. The members are well-resourced, and they devote much of their time on expert issues. The Leader of the House is a government minister.

2.1.3.          The oversight responsibility of the House of Commons

The role of the House of Commons is to scrutinise legislation, oversee and investigate the Executive, while the House of Lords legislates in terms of standard procedures. In the House of Commons, members raise issues and responses are often rapid, depending on the nature of the business. Usually, questions are raised from the floor, and are predominately from the opposition. There is no requirement to give prior notification to answer supplementary questions. Diversity issues are priority in the United Kingdom.


2.1.4.          The role of the Speaker of the House of Commons

The Speaker has the right to control the reasonable number of questions raised in the House of Commons. The Speaker has controlling power over the procedure in the House of Commons and is therefore required to be impartial and divorced from party politics. Consequently, the Speaker gives up his party membership, once elected to this office. The current Speaker is reportedly running for re-election.



2.1.5.          The role of the Monarch

As a result of the principle of royal sovereignty, bills are validated through royal accent. However, the Queen acts on the advisement by the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom. The Queen also has the right to dissolve parliament. This royal right was last exercised in 1999. Most Members of Parliament declare their allegiance to one of the three main political parties. After a general election, the Leader of the party with most Members of Parliament is asked by the Queen to become Prime Minister who then forms a government to manage the country.


2.1.6.          Expert assistance

Sometimes, local agencies are used for certain commissioned tasks. There is also a large group of people who have no party affiliation and provide expert knowledge and assistance. These are the academics, former speakers and civil servants.


2.1.7.          Parliamentary support staff

Members of staff are impartial, and if they opt to become members of parliament, they resign from their positions.  The Clerk is the Chief Advisor and sits in the Chamber with the senior colleagues.


2.1.8.          Absence of a Written Constitution

Unlike South Africa, the United Kingdom does not have a written supreme Constitution. They have however enacted a Human Rights Act, No 42 of 1998 and adhere to traditional human rights conventions and practices as endorsed by the European Union.


2.1.9.          Observations on the legislative process and Private Members Bills


Ms Sarah Davies, Clerk of the Private Members’ Bills took the Members through the legislative and Private Members Bill process. The process takes place on Fridays. Currently Standing Order 14 specifies that annually 13 Fridays should be allocated to private members’ business. There are three types of Bills, namely Private Bills, Hybrid Bills and General Members Bills. The general laws are referred to as the backbenchers Members’ Bills. (Private members are colloquially referred to as backbenchers).  When presenting the Bills, the Clerk refers to the short and long title. The Member moves the Bill in the Chamber. There are normally 100 Bills during the course of the year.

Members also deliberate on what is called a 10-minute rule-Bill. The prime time is usually after statements. Procedurally, it is somewhat strange in that it is like asking someone for permission on something you are entitled to do. In terms of the ballot system, during the beginning of the session, there is usually a queue – for Members to be the first to put their Bills on a specific place in order for them to make a presentation. Sometimes they use a ruffle system (tickets). Members are increasingly using the Bills system. The ballot system is only for members who apply to be on the ballot. The rule is that if one wins the ballot, one presents. Standing Order 14 provides for 13 Fridays for Private Members’ Bills. Unless the House decides otherwise, these are the only Fridays on which the House sits. However, it is acceptable to delegate this opportunity. In terms of printing, as soon as they know who is at the top of the ballot, the printers do a lot of lobbying.

The Clerk receives more than 2 000 emails or letters about the source of the bill, and these letters are privately drafted. The Scottish Parliament, private people are paid to draft the bills. No bills can go through without a debate. A bill is drafted, tactical decision is taken and lobbying government becomes a challenge. The members also requested that their own staff (researchers and library staff) to draft advice, especially on short bills. The success rate is below 1% as there is not much time for this process.

The timeline for the Private Members Bills is 13 days, and government has four days to finalize provisioning and tabling. The image of an MP is important for exposure purposes. Media and local press sometimes become controversial.

The House of Commons has an ancient right to resolve personal grievances. Sometimes they receive 20 000 to 40 000 grievances in one session. Currently members of parliament are lobbying for the scrapping of the Whip functionary.


2.1.10.                Observations on the Petitions Process

Ms Anne-Marie Griffiths, Clerk of Public Petitions briefed the delegation as follows:

The Parliament of the United Kingdom receives an average of 100 to 200 petitions every year. Members of Parliament first present the petitions behind the scene and then on the floor in the House of Commons. They usually give notice a day before, and it appears on the Order Paper. The short statement of the petition is read. There are no speeches and no debates. They hand the petitions to the clerk who places them in a bag. This process of submitting a petition appears in Hansard as a standard Order of the House. The House itself takes action, and has few options. The petition is then referred to a particular Minister and the Select Committee. Whilst conducting an inquiry, government does not get any formal request for it to respond to a petition.

Any citizen can send any petition in terms of the basic rules (they can only do that through members of parliament). Citizens can still write to the Ministers and lobby them. There are no specific procedures for the petition-process in the United Kingdom, and this has tremendous implications. The petition process is not the best way of exercising power in the United Kingdom, because when petitions are not generated by Members, it simply means that when a member debates, it becomes his or her own debate. Sometimes, they even use a method of signatures, which can generate up to 100 000 signatories when creating awareness. It became very clear that Parliament of the United Kingdom does not give prominence to petitions, although the recent changes at local level demonstrate that they are obliged in terms of the law to ensure the processing of the petitions. It is believed that the Parliament of Scotland is believed to be quite advanced in the petition process.


2.2.                         Presentation on United Kingdom E-Petition System

Ms Lynn Gardner, Clerk of the Procedure Committee of the House of Commons briefed the delegation on the E-Petitions System:


2.2.1.          Background

The delegation learnt that the United Kingdom primarily makes use of a paper-based petition system. It was reported that although it is an old system, it is a highly treasured one. There was a move to an electronic system of petitions, but it did not come to fruition as planned. Subsequently, some concerns were raised in the use of petitions. The system and process could be downloaded from the internet. Outside bodies predominately had constituted the committee. The system was open to mockery, especially as television personalities such as Jeremy Charles began to be more critical and also campaigned to be Prime Minister. Petitioning parliament became a serious matter, and any member of parliament could take up the matter and present from the floor. Government is expected to respond on the basis of whatever had been presented.


2.2.2.          Types of Petitions

a)       E- Petitions

b)       Normal: One person petitioning method

c)       100 000 participation (people commenting on the process of          legislating, in order to pass certain Bills).


2.2.3.          Challenges of E-Petitioning

The following challenges were identified:

·         It proved to be very expensive. In other words, there was          insufficient funding for the project.

·         It was a security risk in the sense that one could not guarantee the authenticity of the process, since anyone could just sign as a petitioner, or duplicate signatures.

·         There was lack of capacity to monitor and evaluate the process of petitioning.

·         There was an inadequate number of support staff to process petitions, since they could receive more than 50 000 petitions annually, and the reputation of parliament became more and more under scrutiny.

·         E-Petitioning was proven not to be a great idea, and did not have much success in the United Kingdom.


2.2.4.          Clarity seeking questions and comments

The delegation was under the impression that the e-petitioning was up and running, hence it was also one of the reasons why it planned a study tour. The delegation also felt that the e-petitioning in South Africa could help supplement the fingerprinting system, especially with departments like Home Affairs which demand high volumes of signatures and related matter. Although South Africa does not use a highly sophisticated system of petitions, it is highly likely that should the system be introduced in the country, it would benefit a lot of intellectuals and professionals. The delegation wanted to know if any citizen could submit a petition to Parliament.



2.2.5.    Response from the presenter to the clarity seeking questions and comments

At the time of the establishment of the petitions office, there was a lot of enthusiasm. However, the economy was down, and the process proved too much to sustain.  Along the way, personalities changed, and the Downing Street website was almost flooded. The Chief Whip did not support the idea. Furthermore, the new government did not support the new initiative and the House was not impressed with the introduction of the petition system, because the job was too cumbersome. It was seen as a waste of money, especially because the select committee was already overburdened.

It is usually best practice if the public is given a chance to be heard. Individuals and groups could have their views recorded in Parliament. In the past four years, i.e. (2006 to 2009), there has been a decline in the presentation of the petitions. Sometimes, members would be allowed two minutes on the floor to present petitions.

Only citizens of the United Kingdom are permitted to submit a petition through a member of parliament. Sometimes the petition system could be erratic and faulty or fictitious, especially if it does not say who sent it and there are no terms of reference on a particular matter. It was then that an authentic system of petitioning was devised, in order to avoid fake petitioning. United Kingdom reserves the right to protect the members who submit the petition. The bag behind the Speaker’s desk is used to deposit the petitions, which are then collected for processing.







2.3.                         Presentation on Information Services

Mr Oonagh Gay, Head of Parliament and Constitution Centre of the Department of Information at the House of Commons briefed the delegation on relevant information services.

It was explained that, as part of the international experience, there were plans in previous parliaments to mainstream the petition agenda. There has been a decline in the frequency of the use of petitions in the House of Commons over the past 20 years. This is also due to the fact that there has been little feedback from individuals on the use of petition processes. Hansard is available online, and research work is readily available as well.

The Parliament of Scotland has a successful e-petition process/system. To-date, it is the best model, which uses technology a lot. The Parliament of theUnited Kingdom is of the view that the e-petition system is less effective since it might cost up to 4 million pounds per annum to process/implement.

It was suggested that the petition system could work at local and regional levels. However, when a petition is referred to parliament, it is expected of Parliament and the Executive to respond, stating institutional positions. Members of Parliament feel that it is a good system of interacting with the constituencies.


2.3.1.          Clarity seeking questions and comments

The delegation recommends the E-Petition as the best model, especially because technology is the way to go. It was suggested in previous Parliaments that E-Petition could be utilized. The delegation also wanted to know how effectively and safely the process of petitioning could be utilized and whether theUK has used the system in any other areas. It was commented that the 2009 election in South Africa was successfully done through technology, where both the ruling party and the opposition parties were engaged. The delegation concluded that the United Kingdom challenge is that they do not have a Population Register, and it is amazing how such system is sustainable. The delegation also wanted to know if Hansard was still being outsourced.


2.3.2.          Response from the presenter to the clarity seeking questions and comments

The United Kingdom has used technology throughout the election period. The members of parliament wanted Westminster to engage individually on the use of e-petitions and e-tabling, as the number of questions has doubled. The members of parliament and senior parliamentary staff view it as a lot of administrative function, unable to cope with at a given time. Constituencies have to be engaged through the outreach programme, and more and more people became aware of the petition system. However, e-petitioning does not reflect the people’s opinions.

There has been mass vibrancy and engagement in the area of electoral administration. For verification purposes, political party members are registered at the electoral register and 200 local authorities are the custodians. A number of different computer programmes are used.

There is also a time delay mechanism to check the validity and any error that might arise. Urban areas are usually in an advantageous position because of computer literacy and other modern usage of processes.

Although the United Kingdom has no written supreme constitution, they share a lot of policy issues with the Netherlands.

As to the Population Register comment it was clarified that the government of the United Kingdom does not see any constitutional crisis at all, since issues like passports and ID cards can be verified. For instance, when a child is 16 years of age, he or she is sent a certain number by the department.




2.4.                         Presentation on the Hansard Society United Kingdom E-Petition System

Dr Ruth Fox, Director of Parliament and Government Programme briefed the delegation on the work of the Hansard Society. The delegation was informed that the Hansard Society is an independent, non-partisan political research and education charity. They work in areas of parliamentary democracy and encourage greater public involvement in politics.

A number of private firms are used to report parliamentary proceedings. However, after the spending scandal, Parliament has now reconsidered its spending pattern on who to use and when, in order to minimize the cost. Hansard Society is a non-partisan body. Hansard body only shares a name historically, but serves as a watchdog of parliament. It looks at issue of legislative processes and procedure.

The House of Lords is regarded as political friends who defend parliament. There is something regarded as digital democracy in which young people are engaged. Children from 10 years of age are engaged in this. Political literacy is taught, and a lot of educational programmes are put online. There is a website called Lords of the Blog, which is used to keep the citizens up to date on the work of the House of Lords.

Currently, the procedural clerk is looking at better means of re-introducing e-petitions, so that the views form members of the public could be facilitated online, and responses could be sought. The decision lies with the House since the matter first has to be referred to specific select committee.

Since there are new members of parliament, many of them do not understand the procedure followed, and that delays the process of re-establishing a formal and efficient process of petitioning parliament. Members are often not trusted, and it is often difficult to have face to face interactions with larger groups.

Although there are democracy offices, people still feel a feedback mechanism could be the best route, particularly when they are informed on the issues around how government operate.

The following specific challenges were identified:

·         There is no good citizen education.

·         Political education is not part of the curriculum.

·         The history of education is not always transparent.

·         Almost 3,5 million people are not on the population register.

·         There are no legacy reports.

·         Funding of Hansard society is a crisis.



The delegation, having deliberated and exchanged views with its counterparts, considers the issue of E-Petition as the best route to follow for South Africa, since it would help in a number of areas in speeding up service delivery.

The committee would further explore the possibility of follow-up visits in countries which will be chosen during appropriate times, hoping that during such time South Africa would have implemented its latest system of petition-process. Since South Africa has five Democracy offices countrywide, it would be wise to explore a possibility of utilizing these offices in the process of petitions effectively.

Centres such schools, post offices and other public institutions could be used for implementing e-signage and credential manager system as a way of introducing petitions. Computer companies could be approached, in order to get their support technologically.

The possibility of inviting some international experts to present to the committee on how to establish an efficient e-petition system in South Africa would therefore have to be considered in future.


Report to be considered.





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