Congratulations. That was a hard-fought campaign.
With respect to the committee's review of the e-petitions system of the House of Commons, members will recall that we first met on this subject on November 7. At the time, we asked the Clerk to provide us with a list of issues to consider, which members received on April 10.
You have two documents: one is on those potential options from the House, and the other is suggested recommendations from Project Naval Distinction. To assist us, it's great to have Charles Robert, Clerk of the House; and André Gagnon, Deputy Clerk, Procedure. I know you are very busy. Thank you for being here.
The provisional Standing Orders governing e-petitions that came into effect at the beginning of this Parliament remain provisional until such time as the report from this committee is concurred in by the House. Hopefully, we can do that report today
Monsieur Robert, it would be great to have some comments from you to open our discussion.
Thank you, Mr. Chair, for the invitation to again address the committee in its review of the House of Commons e-petition system. As you can see, and as you mentioned, I am accompanied by André Gagnon, the Deputy Clerk of Procedure. He and I, mostly he, are prepared to answer questions following the presentation.
At my last appearance, members raised a number of issues about e-petitions, as well as paper petitions, and the ways to enhance processes for both. The committee asked me to highlight aspects of current systems that could be considered as part of its review.
We have compiled a list of these in the document that has been shared with the committee. They are based on concerns raised by members and by the public over the past two years. Please note that these are not meant to be an exhaustive list of options. Members may wish to raise other issues or proposals, which the administration of course would be responsive to. For example, there may be a desire to have the rules for electronic and paper petitions more closely mirror each other.
However, for the purposes of today's presentation, I wish to focus on four areas where enhancements were identified in the case of e-petitions, and two areas identified for paper petitions.
The first issue with e-petitions has to do with the timeline for signatures. Standing Order 36(2.2) provides that each e-petition is open for signature for 120 days. This can impede the use of an e-petition to raise time-sensitive matters quickly.
To address this, the committee could agree to shorten the deadline to 60 or 90 days or to provide greater flexibility to petitioners in selecting a deadline. For example, they could be asked to choose from several options with the possibility of extending the chosen deadline if needed. Alternatively, petitioners could be given the option of closing the e-petition to signatures once the threshold has been reached. In all cases I have mentioned, Standing Order 36 would need to be modified.
The second issue has to do with the number of signatures required. Again, Standing Order 36 states that an e-petition must have 500 signatures to be certified; for paper petitions, it is 25 signatures. To date, approximately 70% of published e-petitions meet this 500-signature requirement.
The committee may wish to maintain the 500-signature minimum or consider adjusting the threshold to allow the certification of more petitions. Some lower number could be selected all the way down to 25 that would match the minimum for paper petitions. Any adjustment would require a change to Standing Order 36.
The third issue has to do with the requirement that an e-petition be supported by five individuals. This stipulation was instituted as a filter to limit frivolous or offensive petitions. The obligation to have five supporters has led to some other problems. These include mistakes in the email addresses, or one of the potential supporters not responding in a timely way.
In cases where a petition includes the names of only five potential supporters out of a possible 10, some e-petitions have been unable to proceed further when one individual did not respond, or was later found to be ineligible. Should the supporter requirement be retained, there are certainly technical improvements that could be made to the system to provide users greater flexibility and to avoid some of the issues described.
However, in light of the additional burden this places on petitioners, as well as the role that members themselves play in the process, the committee could decide that the requirement for support from five individuals is an unnecessary step, and instead allow e-petitions to be submitted directly to members. This would not require a change to the Standing Orders.
The last issue dealing with e-petitions is the use of the term “sponsor” in relation to members. It was suggested that the term may be misleading and could be perceived as support for the petition. The role of members in the process could be made clearer by changing the term “sponsor” to something more neutral, like “presenter”. This new term would reflect the fact that members are simply agreeing to allow the petition to proceed and are willing to present it to the House if, and when, it is certified.
In the report that led to the creation of the e-petitions system, the committee expressed a desire that both paper and electronic petitions, along with the government's responses, be available electronically. Given the volume of paper petitions, this was not possible in the initial phase of the project. We believe that paper and electronic petitions, as well as the government's responses, could be available electronically in the near future.
It is important to stress that in order to implement this next phase, the House administration would continue to work in close collaboration with the Privy Council Office, which is responsible for coordinating the government's response to petitions.
Preliminary discussions with PCO have revealed a number of issues. First, given the resources and effort that would be needed to support two different formats of petitions, allowing responses to be tabled only in an electronic format would allow for a more efficient process. The responses would be available to members more quickly and shared more easily. It would also have a positive environmental impact, considering the paper generated by the hundreds of responses presented each year.
This change in practice would also be a useful pilot project toward greater use of electronic tabling and dissemination of sessional papers, including answers to written questions. In light of this, if members wish to move in this direction, further negotiations would be required with the Privy Council Office to develop a system that would allow for the secure electronic tabling of fully accessible documents.
Last, in terms of paper petitions, there continue to be some rules and practices that some regard as unduly restrictive. For example, there are rules about images and logos, address formats, and the size of paper used. If the committee wishes to allow for more paper petitions to be certified and presented to the House, it could agree to simplify some of these rules.
Thank you, Mr. Chair, for this opportunity to speak to you about this subject, and André and I would now be prepared to respond to any questions you may have.
I'm not really very good at this: I'm challenged by a fountain pen.
Converting a paper petition into an electronic format would be a challenging process, especially because there are so many paper petitions that are presented. You saw the stats in the paper. Normally, it's 1,500 per session. This is a large volume to deal with.
The proposal that we are suggesting is that the responses be available uniquely in electronic format. That would make a lot of the information more accessible.
The problem there is that the response of the government to a petition belongs to the Privy Council Office, not to us, so the burden falls on them to make, if they are willing, the responses to paper petitions electronically available.
I am understanding the question a bit differently. I'm a bit lost in what you're actually asking for.
If the government gives a response to a paper petition as a paper document, the only thing that's noted in the Journals, or possibly the Debates, is the fact that this was actually done. It becomes a sessional paper. In the old days, sessional papers were printed as companion volumes to the Journals, but that was at the end of the session. Unless you actually knew when a response or a sessional paper was deposited in the House, there was no easy way for you to find it or make a request for it. When it was a paper version then, you had actually had to wait until it was published. We used to publish volumes and volumes of sessional papers as part of the journals process.
If you're talking about who finds out when a response to a petition has been tabled in the House, you actually have to do a search. Then you find out that it's been done, but you don't necessarily have access to the response. You have to make a request to have access to the response.
If it's done electronically, all you have to do is to go to the petitions section on the House of Commons website and access it. The process of searching is a lot easier. The information that you want will be found, as opposed to there simply being an indication that something that you're looking for has been done, without actually providing you the information that you want. That's why going through the electronic format will provide tremendous advantages to those who are petitioners and want to know how the government is reacting to this.
Mr. Nater, that is a good question. It was one of the main issues in the last Parliament, when the question of e-petitions came up.
The reason is that a lot of information is gathered when you sign a petition, in the sense that there can be a lot of people signing that petition electronically. No one from outside the organization has access to the information that is gathered for the e-petition system. As a member of Parliament, you would have access to basic information from the petitioner, because if you are being asked to sponsor or present a petition, you may want to contact that person to see what that person wants to do, what their motivations are, and all of those things. That is normal, and the individual will agree that this information can be provided to the member of Parliament.
As for the rest of the information, we might identify that 74 individuals came from Nova Scotia, or from different provinces or territories, but that's the only information that is made public. As for internal matters, we have a set of procedural clerks and individuals who work directly on the petitions, but as you can imagine, they are professionals who respect all of the information protocol that we have established.
We keep that information until the electronic petition has been answered and the government response tabled in the House, because we need to send a response back to those who have petitioned Parliament. Shortly afterwards, and in a regular manner, the information is completely eliminated.
Why don't we leave it. I see that you all approve.
The clerk will present that and put it into the recommendation to the researcher, for a maximum and a minimum.
We also have these seven recommendations from Project Naval Distinction.
Does everyone have this document?
It's an organization called Project Naval Distinction. The clerk sent you all a copy of those recommendations.
The first one was—the problem they're raising is that if the member doesn't present it, then it could be a problem for the petitioners. A member could be obstructionist or disorganized, then just not present it. They're suggesting that there should be a timeline and if the member doesn't present it by that time, then it should be opened up for another member to choose to present it.
Go ahead, Mr. Graham.
All of the titles that are given to petitions are done by professionals, who identify the content but also make sure that the way this content is identified is also identified in a similar fashion in the Debates of the House, in the committee proceedings. Also, when the responses to petitions are tabled, they are using that title.
For research purposes, or for individuals who are interested in the subject matter, it is much easier to find that information. Also, as you can imagine, the idea is to make sure that the titles that are used are not highly partisan in the way they are presented. What we're talking about here is a public petition, and clearly you want to stay away from highly partisan words or controversial words.
I did two things in preparation for this intervention.
One was that I considered the situation we face in my own experience, with my family's business, in designing a website and trying to steer people in certain directions. You have people going to our website and trying to find out about women's summer blouses. They have a colour range, age range, and size range that they're interested in, and it's an inherently difficult task to not either flood them with every blouse, or alternatively make it too narrow. If it's too narrow it leaves out.... It is not an easy task. I'll just observe that first.
We aren't the only ones who struggle with this; everybody who is marketing online has this problem. I wouldn't want to give the Clerk's staff the challenge of figuring out something that people who have lots of money and a strong financial incentive haven't yet been able to figure out. That's one thought.
The second thing I did was that I went to my own petitions. There are two that I've sponsored, E-48 and E-1457, and I looked up the key words. I think I'm right that these are the key words that would trigger my finding one of these two petitions. There are six key words. One of these was on having a referendum prior to any change in the electoral system, and the second one was on a national day of solidarity for victims of anti-religious bigotry and violence.
It looks to me that what you have as the key words are, number one, “electoral reform”; number two, “M-153”, which is a reference to a motion, and that is referenced in any petition; number three is “national day of solidarity for victims of anti-religious bigotry and violence”, which is effectively the header of that motion; number four is “referenda”; number five is “religious discrimination”; and number six is “victims”.
In each case, it's these key words, and then it says “results one”. I assume that means that if I type in any of these things, I'd be led only to this particular petition.
Is that correct?