I call the meeting to order.
Good morning, and welcome to meeting 144 of the Standing Committee on Procedure and House Affairs.
Today, as we begin our study of parallel debating chambers, we are pleased to be joined by Sir David Natzler, the Clerk of the United Kingdom House of Commons, who is appearing by video conference from London, and who is retiring.
Congratulations on your retirement, sir.
Thank you, Mr. Natzler, for making yourself available. Please go ahead with your opening statement.
It's a great pleasure for me to be talking to you. I think I did talk to your committee some years ago on the subject of child care.
Today is indeed my last day as a Clerk. This is practically my last hour, and there is nowhere I would rather be.
You've had a paper from us about Westminster Hall. What I thought I would do is just make a few general points, and then I'm happy to answer any questions.
My first point is that 20 years ago when this started, a lot of people thought it was a pretty batty idea. How could the House sit in two places at once? Either everybody would go to Westminster Hall and the chamber would be empty, or nobody would bother to go to the parallel chamber in Westminster Hall. There's no possibility of having votes there, so what's the point of having parliamentary business when you can't come to any decisions that are at all controversial? They thought the thing would be a dead duck.
It wasn't an original British idea, as you probably know and as the memo sets out. It actually comes from our Australian cousins, who'd had a parallel chamber for some years, which we'd observed. It was a straight steal from them. Therefore, if you do take it on, please remember where the parliamentary copyright belongs: It is in Canberra, and you might like to ask my colleague in Canberra for his experiences over a longer period.
Over the last 20 years it has become an absolutely understood part of our parliamentary life here. As with you, we have a lot of members. We have more than you; we have 650. You're all members; many members have speeches and issues they want to raise, and they don't have enough opportunity to do it. Westminster Hall offers them that possibility through a series every week of around 12 debates of different lengths, but most importantly, all of them are answered by ministers.
In other words, it is not a graffiti wall. This is a series of policy issues that are answered by ministers. In the longer debates, the opposition has a slot, as does indeed the second-largest opposition party.
It has also proven a popular space for doing slightly new or different things. It has always been a little more relaxed than the main chamber, partly because it's smaller and partly because of the layout. It was a deliberate decision to lay it out not in the face-to-face style that I know you have and that we have in the main chamber, but in a couple of horseshoes so that there is less of the sense of party. I wouldn't overstate that, but there's less of a sense of party. It's also slightly better lit and less panelled and forbidding, particularly for new members, who often start by making a speech in Westminster Hall before they make a speech in the main chamber. The Speaker allows that, so their maiden speech is in the chamber, but they can, as it were, get used to the idea of speaking in front of colleagues in Westminster Hall.
It's also, on a very domestic note, a good breeding ground for our clerks. Our more junior clerks are in charge there, sitting next to the chair, and both the chairman and the clerks benefit from that.
It has, to my mind, no downsides. There's no real evidence that it sucks people out of the chamber. The two buildings are very near one another. It is true that the chamber retains a type of seniority in that people will have a debate in Westminster Hall sometimes for an hour or 90 minutes, and then a couple of weeks later you hear in the chamber, “Well, we've had a debate in Westminster Hall, but it's time we had a debate in the chamber”, as if that were somehow slightly higher status.
In terms of the debates raised by backbenchers, it has no more or no fewer practical consequences, but there is that inherent pecking order. I'm not sure that's a bad thing. As I say, it has massively increased opportunities for individual backbenchers or groups of backbenchers to have debates heard and answered in reasonable time.
I'll add one more thing. We have an e-petition system that you may know about. If more than 100,000 people sign a petition online, it's not guaranteed, but they're given a very strong steer that it is likely to be debated. Those are debated on Monday evenings. It's the only thing we do on Mondays between 4:30 and 7:30 in Westminster Hall.
It is very popular with the public. It's not that they come along, but they watch online in astonishing numbers. It is, of course, a subject they themselves have chosen, an often slightly unexpected one—slightly off centre, if you like. We tell the petitioners that this is when the debate is going to be and that they might want to watch or listen to it, and they do.
In the last few years, I think eight of the 10 most-watched debates in Parliament here have been in fact on e-petitions at Westminster Hall. The most watched was not the debate as to whether we should extend our bombing campaign of northern Iraq into Syria, as you might expect, but a debate, which sounds facetious, on whether we should exclude President Trump from visiting the United Kingdom. He wasn't at that time a president, but that was a very heavily signed petition. Something like, from my memory, 300,000 people watched it, and not just from the U.K., but from literally almost every corner of the world, including southern Sudan, so don't imagine that Westminster Hall, because it doesn't have the main party debates on second readings or report stages of controversial bills, is not of interest to the public.
That's probably enough.
Did you hear all of that?
Most of the debates are in a standard format. A member puts in for a half-hour debate, makes a 15-minute speech, and is then answered by a minister for 15 minutes. The minister is normally accompanied by a parliamentary private secretary—in other words, another member—an unpaid assistant, and/or a whip. However, the party representative from the opposition is not allowed to take part, and other members are not expected to take part. You only expect three members, and it would be unusual if there weren't, and there nearly always have been.
There were some misunderstandings early on with the government—they perhaps didn't take it with the full seriousness that they later realized they should—in that they were either supplying the wrong minister or mentioning that a whip could answer the debates. That was a very brief early misunderstanding, and they're now fully answered by sometimes senior ministers at Westminster Hall.
For the longer debates—and there are about three 90-minute debates and two 60-minute debates a week—other members can be expected to join in, and they do. In the application, the member is meant to show a belief that there are going to be people there, because it is a competitive process to get the slots. When that has happened, there have nearly always been more than enough people to have a decent number of speakers, if I can put it that way.
What we don't do is keep an exact count of who is there for any one debate. We have at times done that—about 10 years ago, I think—and it showed unexpectedly high participation. Members like going there. It's easy to drop in. It's easier, psychologically, to drop in to Westminster Hall than it is to the chamber. You're still meant to be there for the opening speech, but there's slightly less of the atmosphere of going to church, which we still have with the chamber.
I don't know if you have that in Newfoundland, but—
No. The Standing Orders originally conceived that non-controversial orders of the day—that's to say government business, predominantly bills—might be taken in Westminster Hall. In practice, in 20 years it has never happened, and I think it never will.
Two provisions make that inappropriate for anything that's at all controversial and that also requires a decision, which is different from being controversial, and there's a really important distinction.
One is that you can't have a vote. If the question is opposed at the end of the business, if somebody shouts “no” and other people shout “yes”, the chair can simply say, “We can't decide it.” In theory, we remit it to the chamber. In practice, because the business doesn't require any decision, it's just been a take-note debate, in effect, on the motion that this House has considered a particular matter. Only on one occasion has time ever been found to have a pro forma division in the main chamber. In sum, no controversial business is ever put there.
In terms of bills, you're right. Nearly all government bills are now programmed, which means that after second reading there is a motion put to the House, and generally agreed to, that says how long the public bill committee has to look at it—in other words, the date by which it must be reported—and it also usually provides one or, occasionally, two days for the report—that's the consideration stage—back on the chamber. Virtually all bills are programmed.
Guillotining was something slightly different, because it tended to cover how long you would have for second reading as well. We still have that for bills that are introduced in a great hurry and go through all stages in a day. We may be having two next week to do with Northern Ireland. They often come up in a hurry. That's the guillotine. It's a motion that you do before you've even got on to the bills. It's a really interesting point, but it has nothing to do with Westminster Hall.
I just stress that you can have controversial subjects there that can be debated, but they're not decided. You can have a debate on abortion, which is a really controversial subject; or on organ donation, but simply on the motion that this House has considered organ donation. You have a vigorous debate and speeches, but at the end of the day there's no decision expected.
As you say, there are two forms of publication—well, actually three.
There's the written record, the Hansard, as you say. Then there are the records of Westminster Hall. In this case, the decision has been taken to circulate and print them with the Hansards, the daily parts of the chamber.
Each day, you get your Hansard, and at the back is the full transcript of Westminster Hall, which you would not get of committees on bills or delegated legislation, so it is given that status. It is the sitting of the House. That wasn't uncontroversial and obviously costs a bit extra. However, it's a very interesting point and it shows that it is taken seriously.
Anyone flicking through the Hansard...and obviously, there are still old-fashioned types like me who actually read things on paper and don't necessarily go online. Online, you'd find it as easily as you would the main chamber, but it would obviously be under a separate heading.
The third one is the full audiovisual record, which is streamed and is accessible through parliamentlive.tv, for all proceedings of the House.
As ministers say, that's a very good question.
It is still partisan. These are debates sometimes on matters of party controversy, but sometimes not. However, if they are on matters of party controversy, the language will be as strong, the debate will be as vigorous, and the opposition will be as strongly expressed from one side to another as in the main chamber.
There is a slight difference of atmosphere, but one must remember that the end of each day is a half-hour adjournment debate in the chamber, which the whip sits in on but plays no part in. That's really between a member and a minister. That is the format in Westminster Hall, and those have never been partisan.
People have introduced elements of partisanship when members, or indeed the minister in replying, tend to get a rather frosty response, but there is a feeling that here is where you try to put party aside. It obviously depends a bit on the subject. Sometimes you can't, when the subject has been raised in a partisan spirit. Because other members are not present and supporting and encouraging, as it were, it is more like a private match of singles and not one of your ice hockey games where everyone is shouting. The nature of the debate makes it less partisan.
I think people have observed over the years in Westminster Hall a slight relaxation of tone. It's hard to put a finger on it. It's partly because of sitting in the horseshoe. Sometimes, if there are more than five or six, some people will have to sit not definitely on one side or another, whichever party they're from, and might be a little more co-operative in debate. I do urge you to think of the layout of the chamber. I think it makes a huge difference in how people behave, and I am not alone in this. Obviously every behavioural psychologist will tell you it makes a difference. I think it has in Westminster Hall.
I have here the five subjects that are being debated on Tuesday in Westminster Hall.
On the future of Catholic sixth form colleges, there's an hour and a half, meaning quite a lot of people want to join in there. Religious education is highly controversial in some ways, but it will not necessarily be massively one party against another. I suspect there will be people from both parties making similar views, probably in support of their Catholic sixth form colleges.
U.K. relations with Kosovo will be debated for half an hour. That is not a partisan issue.
Investment in regional transport infrastructure will predominantly be people from the opposition complaining that the north of England doesn't get enough, but there will also be one or two from the government side complaining they don't get enough either.
There will be a half an hour on the effect on the solar industry of the replacement of the feed-in tariff. That is something that is critical of the government, because they replaced the feed-in tariff. That again will be non-partisan, in the sense that a Conservative member is raising it, but there may well be Labour members asking to have permission, which they will get, to intervene. The minister will then make a very vigorous defence.
Finally, there will be half an hour regarding the effect of leaving the EU without a deal on public sector catering. I don't understand that. That is probably quite a factious affair.
Some hon. members: Oh, oh!
Sir David Natzler: I do understand. It's about the public procurement directive in public sector catering, including the House of Commons. We have to comply with that, so we aren't allowed a “buy British” policy. However, once we leave the EU, we would possibly be allowed a “buy British” policy, or indeed, if we get “Canada-plus” plans, a “buy Canada” policy.
Well, I'm not, and neither is my family. All good things come to an end.
I have three questions. I'll outline them, and you can answer them as you feel would be best.
The first one, in no particular order, is about the slots. You said there were x number of speaking spots, or slots. Who fills those?
One of the controversies that we continue to have is the expanding power of whips' offices over individual members. Questions and everything else are preordained by the whip and the Speaker, who in some cases are acting like a traffic cop rather than using their discretion as to who gets to speak. I would be interested in your comments on that.
Two, what changes to your standing orders, as you can recall, did you have to make to bring about the chamber and to find its place in the organization of things?
Lastly, you made reference to the agenda today. I think you said there were five things. How does the agenda get set?
I'll take one and three together—the agenda-setting and the slots.
The whips in the government have absolutely no power in this at all, so it is in the hands—equivalent to the Standing Order—of the chairman of ways and means, who is the Deputy Speaker. That is not notional, and he exercises the same sort of paternal control that the Speaker exercises over the chamber.
That doesn't mean he's there much of the time. The chairman of ways and means doesn't normally preside in Westminster Hall; other chairs do, from the panel of chairs who do public bill committees, and so on. It is, rather, his baby and not the Speaker's baby; that was the idea 20 years ago.
The actual decision as to how many slots there are is a tricky one, oddly enough. It changes occasionally, but it is decided, ultimately, by the chairman of ways and means; it isn't in the Standing Order.
Currently we have 13 hours. Some longer slots are an hour and a half, and there are some shorter slots, and each day is a mixture of the two. The chairman can vary that, and as the years go by, occasionally they do. We're experimenting now with 60-minute slots, that being the compromise, as you will grasp, between a 30-minute slot and a 90-minute slot.
The important thing is that it's not the whips who decide any of this, nor, interestingly, is it the House itself; it is actually the Deputy Speaker.
The subject matter is largely decided by a ballot. You put in a new ballot for a particular slot. You can put in for 30, 60 or 90 minutes, and take your chance on what comes out.
Now, I don't think it's a secret that in addition to being a ballot, there are some informal aspects—what one might call speaker's choices. In other words, some subjects that come out of the ballot are perhaps not entirely through the process of sortition. I don't know how it's done, but the subjects somehow turn up. I think members are able to make a particularly strong case for a subject.
There is also, I think, an informal party balance kept through the week, so that if there are more tickets going into the ballot than there are places, there's a reasonable balance among the various parties as to which member of which party gets which slot. That has nothing to do with the whips. It would simply mean that on a given day, it isn't coincidence that on the Tuesday I spoke of.... Well, we actually have one Conservative and four Labour members, but I don't know who put in or who wanted those particular days. I notice the balance is different the next day. There are three Conservative, one Labour and one SNP member on Wednesday of next week. We don't generally have all the same party, as far as I can see. I've never asked.
The standing order is very simple. In Standing Order No. 10, we just said there shall be...well, you can read it. It wasn't difficult to set it up by Standing Orders, because all the Standing Orders, except those specifically excluded, apply in Westminster Hall. There are a few excluded, which probably are not of interest to you, and I'm sure that Charles Robert will be able to construct one for you. It was partly about the powers of the Chair being potentially slightly different.
The procedures are the same and the conventions are the same. They are about having to turn up at the beginning and come back at the end, how you speak, where you speak from—you speak from your place. If you see what I mean, it wasn't as though we were setting up a completely new style of debating chamber. The powers of the Chair to.... We have time limits now in Westminster Hall, which there weren't originally. There were time limits that were introduced in the chamber, and then after a few years the chairman of ways and means himself said he thought we should have time limits in Westminster Hall. There was a little difficulty in introducing them, for electronic reasons.
Otherwise it broadly reflects the chamber. There's very little difference.
I'm curious about a whole lot of things. I'll see what I can get through in the time I have.
As you're probably aware, the House of Commons in Canada is undergoing renovations. I understand that Westminster itself is going to be under renovations soon.
I'm curious about the physical structure of the two chambers in relation to each other, where they are geographically, how big Westminster Hall is in terms of the number of seats, physically, and what your plan is, if you close the main chamber for renovations, for a main chamber and secondary chamber.
That's my first question.
I have a very little brain. I won't remember them otherwise.
That is an issue. Currently, what we call Westminster Hall is actually the Grand Committee Room. It is a late 19th century construct, like a sort of pimple on the northwestern corner of Westminster Hall, which is our great medieval hall. It is extremely easily reached from the chamber nowadays, even for those with disabilities. It used to be a major problem. People had to go up some stairs. We finally got our lifts in, which was really important. It was a block that we couldn't overcome.
I suspect that it takes a member about three minutes to get from the chamber to Westminster Hall. When there's a vote in the main chamber, as I explained, the sittings are suspended so that the members can go to vote in and around the main chamber.
I've never heard of any difficulty with members getting away from Westminster Hall when the sitting is suspended and getting to the chamber. It holds about 70 people. I think that's right. There are technically 70 seats, from memory.
It has actually had almost that many people, amazingly. There can be this big debate in Westminster Hall, and you get dozens of members. There's very little public gallery space. There's only room for about 25, and they are seated as in a select committee room, like your room, at the back. There are just three or four rows of chairs that are very near the members, which is slightly unusual for us, but it is the same in our committee rooms. We have the full audiovisual set-up, which was quite an expensive ask.
Indeed, we are moving out, as you are, and redoing the main palace. We haven't published our plans for how we're going to provide for Westminster Hall sittings. However, you can be assured that we will have a very large committee room very near the main chamber, which will indeed be designed to ensure that we can have Westminster Hall sittings.
When we go back into the main building—which I know you are planning to do as well—the more interesting issue will be whether we will resume using the Grand Committee Room for Westminster Hall sittings. Some members are saying, “Why don't we use the lovely new chamber, the big one, the temporary one that we'll just have left? We could always go and sit there.”
The answer is that the whole idea is that it should be smaller. The Grand Committee Room is a very pleasantly sized room, nearly Gothic, but well lit. If there are four or five people, you don't feel that you're in a completely empty room.
Okay. I will try to be brief.
The purpose of the Backbench Business Committee, which was recommended in 2009 by the House of Commons reform committee, was to ensure that on days when the government didn't need the floor for its agenda, rather than filling it with boring debates in which junior ministers would make long statements and nobody wanted to debate them, the backbenchers would have a decision as to what they debated, and to some extent put that to the House for decision, because these are potentially decisive resolutions.
The idea was to set up a committee of backbenchers, chaired by a member chosen by the House as a whole from the opposition, to act as a jury, if you like. Members come and pitch to that committee and say they would like to have a three-hour debate if possible on X. They now sit in public to hear these applications. They then meet in private to decide which ones to give, and for approximately how long and on which days.
They are nominated theoretically by the House and in practice by parties. It was originally a whole-House selection, but that rather fell away after some difficulties early on, which are behind us now.
It's a real success. It means Thursdays are now by and large not voting days. Today is, obviously. For Thursday we've had the business still going on, thank goodness, on two backbench topics. One is about Welsh affairs, because tomorrow is St. David's Day, and we always have a Welsh affairs debate near St. David's Day. The other one is on the U.K.'s progress towards net-zero carbon emissions.
I'm watching my own annunciator on this as well. I notice how many members are speaking on that. They will turn up and speak about that. It's backbenchers who have chosen it. Ministers respond, and the opposition joins in, and so you have debates that are purposeful. Sometimes they are controversial and can lead to votes, and they are resolutions of the House. They are perfectly the same, in theory, as any other decision of the House. Just because it came on a backbench day doesn't make it less valid.
It has gone well. This was a recommendation from the House of Commons reform committee, to which I was the clerk.
As it's in my last hour, I can be candid. Most members favoured this idea. They thought it was a really good idea. It would give the chairs of the committees more standing in the House.
There had been a habit of the members being appointed to select committees to include one senior member from the party who, it was understood, would take the chair of that committee, and then the committees were expected to just elect them.
It didn't always work. Sometimes they chose some other member as their chair, which was fine too, as it was a good sign of independence. However, the government would then also try to leave the person off. There was a row in 2001-2002, when the government party tried to have two senior chairs not appointed to the committee at all.
Follwing that failed coup, the Wright committee said, “Why doesn't the House choose chairs? We will divide up the parties in advance; the parties meet in a small room and decide who gets which committee, on a arm-wrestling basis, which has always worked perfectly well so far. They then come forward to report that X committee is Conservative, X is Liberal Democrat, X is Labour, and then only members of that party can stand for election, with the electoral college—the House as a whole—voting by an alternative vote system.” Members absolutely love it.
Well, you are members; members enjoy voting. They don't seem to mind competing against one another within parties, so for some chairs, we would have four or five candidates. You would think the caucus might say, “No, this is our Labour candidate for X committee”, but it doesn't seem to work like that. They quite happily compete, without visible hard feelings, and then they have to canvass, of course, the other parties to get them to vote for them in a secret ballot.
The only voice on the Wright committee that said this would never work because, first, there wouldn't be any elections and it would all be sorted out by the caucuses and we would look ridiculous, was me, and I was completely wrong. It has been a really great success.
I hope that's helpful.
There isn't for the House of Commons as a whole.
Of course, in the Standing Orders, if they give due notice and there are members from both the two largest parties on the committee voting that way, they can express a lack of confidence in the chair. You can look in detail at the way we set it up in the Standing Orders. In other words, to prevent a party coup, you can say, “We're not happy with the chair.”
Sure, we have had difficulties. It was my fear, to be honest, that these would be chairs parachuted in, and my experience with select committees was that they like choosing their own chair and feeling comfortable with them because they had chosen them and they could at any time unchoose them just by a vote, with notice. However, by and large, this has not happened, and chairs and committees have rubbed along together. Possibly the chairs are a little more powerful than they used to be, but members know they have that in reserve.
Evidently, we've had chairs resigning or wanting to step down. I'm not sure if we've had chairs dying. We do have changes of chairs, and then you have a by-election.
Our objective today, as Mr. Bagnell indicated, is to go through the different follow-ups to the 75th report, which was adopted last fall.
Today we will be discussing five very specific points, and we will conclude with a presentation of the Web drafts, which will be accessible at the start of the next Parliament.
The first item has to do with the number of days that petitions remain open on the website. Mr. Bagnell has referred to some items that have already been put in place. This one has already been put in place. It started on January 28, I think.
The fact that petitioners may ask that the petition stay open for 30, 60, 90 or 120 days makes things even more flexible for the different petitioners.
The first petition submitted by a member of Parliament was that of , who was a member of this committee at the time. That petition was authorized on January 28 and
essentially was closed for signatures yesterday, and it met the 500-signature threshold.
The second item had to do with sponsors. Members of this committee had indicated that having sponsors associated with a member of Parliament and associated with a petition could, in some instances, be understood differently by different people. This change has been made as well, so members are now authorizing the publication of a petition on the website.
The third item has to do with the format of paper petitions.
For those of you who remember, the origin of this recommendation by the committee was a point of order raised by in the House. The objective of the recommendation is to have various types of petitions accepted, certified and tabled in the House. Obviously, this will increase the number of petitions submitted by members, and their representation of citizens’ interests. This process has begun.
The fourth point we wish to draw to your attention is dissolution. When the committee, during the 41st Parliament, adopted the changes to allow electronic petitions, it asked that anything on the electronic petitions website at the time of the dissolution be considered to have lapsed. There are cases where ongoing petitions amass a large number of signatures.
Once dissolution arrives, the website is closed, and all of that is essentially moved. If you compare that to paper petitions, for instance, you see that paper petitions continue throughout the year, but clearly if we have a paper petition that has been certified by Journals Branch and provided to a member of Parliament and the member of Parliament doesn't table it in the House before dissolution, that member of Parliament or another member of Parliament can have it recertified for the next Parliament. Essentially, the signatures that were on that petition are not lost.
The committee could consider the idea of having, let's say, any e-petitions that had met the 500-signature threshold at the time of dissolution certified afterwards. This would not be possible now, but they could be certified afterwards for the next Parliament. That could be a possibility, or any e-petitions that were certified but never tabled before dissolution could also be recertified for the other Parliament. This is a possibility that the committee could consider.
For instance, if today you had someone put a petition on the website asking that the petition be open for 120 days, essentially that would mean this petition would never be tabled in the House, because 120 days would bring us past the June 21 deadline. Let's say we only sit until that time and don't sit any later. That petition could not be tabled in the House, even though that petition could have met the 500-signature threshold. This is something that we wanted to bring to your attention.
The matter of the paper petitions that have been placed online is the topic of a large part of the 75th report we are presenting today, to provide information on what has been done.
We have worked very closely with the Privy Council Office to establish a way that all those paper petitions could be dealt with as efficiently as possible, and that's what we want to present to you today. This collaboration has worked very well, and we're very happy to say that this system will be in place at the beginning of the 43rd Parliament.
In a very practical way, this is how we propose it would work. As usual, any member of Parliament having a paper petition would send it to the Journals Branch to have it certified. The clerk of petitions in the Journals Branch would get the text of that petition translated right away. Rarely are petitions bilingual, so that text would be immediately translated and verification would take place to see if it's certified. Once it was certified, the clerk of petitions would download a certificate on the MP portal for petitions. That means the individual, the member, could immediately table the certificate in the House, exactly the same way we do for e-petitions.
Once the certificate is tabled in the House regarding a paper petition, the text of that paper petition would appear on the website, exactly as we do for e-petitions, and PCO would be informed so that a response could be worked on immediately, respecting again the 45 days afterwards that the government would have to respond to it, to table a response in the House, and that response to the paper petition would appear on the website as well. The response would be put with it at that time.
That would meet the request put forward by the committee, but in a much more efficient manner than having the paper petition circulating from the office of the member to the office of the clerk of petitions, back to the office of the member, then tabled in the House and then sent to the PCO, which was the case previously. Now what would happen is that only the certificate would be sent to the PCO, and only the certificate would be sent to members. Journals Branch would keep the paper copy of the petition until it's tabled in the House, as with e-petitions. On a regular basis, those petitions would be destroyed so that the private personal information found on those petitions would remain unaccessible to all.
That covers most of it.
To illustrate all of that, Jeremy is going to do a short presentation with mock-ups, and we'll be more than happy to answer all of your questions.
You have paper copies of those mock-ups in front of you, and they're on the screens as well. I want to take you briefly through what the new site will look like at the launch of the 43rd Parliament.
The look and feel of the petitions website is very much like what we have currently for electronic petitions. The difference is that we've rebaptized it so that it's just called “petitions” rather than “e-petitions”, since we'll be having both paper and electronic petitions. You'll see very obvious buttons that stand out, quick-access buttons that allow you to get to the more popular sections of the website, notably the one in purple that brings you to all e-petitions that are open for signature, since we expect that's what the vast majority of people will be coming to the website to do, to sign an e-petition. That will take them there relatively quickly.
Next, there is a section that allows you to do a search in any of the petitions. There is more information on this site than on the actual petitions site. Also, the information is presented in a more user-friendly way so as to better respect access standards for websites, for instance for visually impaired persons.
We added a button to the right to identify the Parliament concerned. We will archive the petitions of the 42nd Parliament, which is the current one. You will thus have access to them, as well as to those of the 43rd Parliament. At this time, since the site only contains petitions from the current Parliament, there is no information near the button on the right, but it will be possible eventually to do a search in the petitions of a given Parliament.
There are also icons that will allow you to quickly find paper or electronic petitions. In the list, the small icon that looks like a computer screen indicates an electronic petition, and the icon that looks like a sheet of paper is for paper petitions.
Next, if you go to the detailed page for each petition, again it has a layout very similar to what we have currently. There are some small changes to improve a bit of the look and feel of it and make it more accessible. Most notably, we've added a few other elements as well. We've added what language the petition was originally submitted in. As André mentioned, it's very rare for us to receive petitions in both official languages. Usually they're in one or the other language. We'll indicate what the source language is, giving people an idea of whether the text is a translation or the original language.
We've also integrated the text of the government response to the petition directly on that page. Currently there's a PDF version of the response that you can click on, and it opens a new version. This is not great from an accessibility perspective. The text of responses is usually relatively short, a few paragraphs, so it's possible to integrate that text directly in the page of the petition. As we mentioned in the fall, the last time we appeared before the committee, we have an agreement with the Privy Council Office whereby the responses to petitions are going to be transmitted to us electronically, so we'll be doing away with the reams of paper that represents.
As soon as a response is presented in the House by the parliamentary secretary, the Privy Council Office can transmit that text to us electronically. We can quickly upload it to the website, and there's an alert that is sent to the office of the member who presented that petition to let the member know that the government response is available. Rather than having to wait for a paper response to be sent to your office by messenger, which takes a day or two, you'll get an email alert that the response has been uploaded to the website and is available. That's something you can very easily share with people who may have been involved in organizing that paper petition through your own contacts. That's an improvement. The information will be available much more rapidly than is currently the case.
There's also an interesting feature at the bottom of the page. I'm sure you realize that there are often situations of the same paper petition being presented by multiple members or by the same member multiple times. We'll keep a running total of identical petitions at the bottom of the page.
In this example, it concerns health services. This is all fictitious data, but we've created examples of other members who may have presented that same petition, the date when they presented it, and a running total of the number of signatures collected. There were 148 signatures in this example, but also others that had been collected, for a grand total of 568, as you can see at the bottom of the page. It's a way of keeping track of the number of identical petitions that are presented, and also of the total number of signatures collected for them.
The next slide shows what the petitions website will look like on a mobile device. Since it was designed for the current site, it easily adapts to mobile devices, so that people will be able to consult it from various locations.
The next slide shows the government response section, which has now been integrated into the research section. This makes it possible to do a search in all petitions to which the government provided a reply. Here as well, we improved the display, and we provide more information on the status of the petition.
I also want to draw your attention to the small green button that is at the top of the page, right next to the menu. It is the “MP” button.
or “Member of Parliament” in English. That is the button that will allow members to access the MP portal, where they can find information about both paper and electronic petitions.
As André was mentioning, the process we envisage is that when we receive a paper petition in the Journals Branch and it's certified, we will send an electronic certificate that will become available in the member's portal. Rather than the entire petition being returned to your office through internal mail, which takes a day or two, it's uploaded electronically. You'll get an alert automatically to let you know there's a certified petition that's available. You just have to go to this MP portal. You or your delegated staff can then print the certificate and present that petition in the House. It will have the text of the petition and the number of signatories in the same way we do for electronic petitions, on a single sheet of paper.
Once the petition is presented in the House, that certificate will disappear from this section of the portal, so it's not possible to re-present the same petition over and over again.
Once it's presented, the certificate disappears and will instead be added to another new section, for the information of members, which gives you all the petitions that you have presented and information about them, including the latest update and where they are in the process. Has a response been received, and on what date? What date was the petition presented? You have that information there. You can also click on any of those petitions to get more detailed information about them.
That concludes what we want to show you. We're happy to answer any questions you might have for us.
You have to understand the different categories of sessional papers.
You have those special and easy reports, let's say, from the Energy Council of Canada or whatever, which are tabled by the minister. There are responses to petitions, responses to questions on the Order Paper. There are responses to different categories of reports, committee reports, pursuant to Standing Order 109. Those different items are all considered sessional papers, and there are also orders for returns that are massive. This is clearly a start to the process of considering whether we could eventually envisage all of the information tabled by the government in the House of Commons, all documents tabled by the government, to be made accessible in an electronic format.
What we're doing here today is the first stage. As you can imagine, the documents tabled in the House—I think it's around 3,000 every year—amount to a lot of documents. As well, as we understand it—and people from Treasury Board and the Privy Council would be in a better position to answer that—sometimes, for instance, the format is not the same from one department to another, or perhaps there are tables in the documents that make it more difficult for people who have accessibility issues.
Those issues are not small. They're really not small. To get to that point could be a good long-term objective, but clearly what we've done today is just the first step. This committee, I think, has looked at that. The Library of Parliament has looked at part of that, asking for some sessional papers to be scanned, which is a completely different issue and certainly less accessible for people from the outside.
This is a first step, to answer your question.
Thank you both for being here. I congratulate you on these very thoughtful improvements. I particularly like the idea of keeping a running count of the number of signatures that have been accumulated so far.
There's a process that goes on at Parliament Hill that I think is ultimately frustrating. If I get a petition with several thousand signatures, I divide it up into the minimum number of pages possible and distribute it as widely as possible. Anybody who sits through the petitions period in the House knows that the same petition will be mentioned over and over again, presumably for the purpose of creating the illusion that there's a greater level of support for this concern than for the other competing concerns that are being expressed in other petitions.
In a type of tragedy of the Commons, similar to what happens when fishing grounds get overfished, we see people wasting a bunch of the House of Commons' time reiterating the same item over and over again. This change helps to perhaps get around that by showing how much actual support there is for each topic, so congratulations on that.
By the way, I'm as guilty as anybody else of participating in that type of thing in the House of Commons.
I want to ask some questions regarding a couple of technical areas.
If a petition is submitted in one official language, it's then translated. Does the originator of the petition get the opportunity to see the translation prior to it going up, or is it simply assumed that it is...?
I'm going to go slightly off topic to build on what Scott was asking about.
One of the things that's always driven me nuts as a bilingual person is that Hansard is available in either English or French, and there's no untranslated Hansard available anywhere online. It would be really helpful if there were English, French and floor as online options. I put that to you as a “please do this one of these years”. I'd very much appreciate it.
In the same vein, when you're looking at an MP's profile page on the parliamentary website, motions are virtually impossible to track. They're not run through LEGISinfo, which they should be. Most of our private members' motions, which fall under private members' business, should be under LEGISinfo. If you could fix that too, I'd appreciate it.
Those are my comments. I don't know if you have comments on that.
Yes, I can. There are two changes.
One is to insert into the mandate the word “non-partisan” to make it clear that public accounts is a different creature because of its oversight responsibilities.
Then the second one is to ensure that we don't repeat the absolute democratic nightmare that we went though—I won't say when—when a new government came in and wiped out all of the work that was being done by the public accounts committee.
There's a lot of tracking that goes on. There are commitments that are made from departments when they come, and some of those have timelines that can take up to a couple of years to be fulfilled. We have a system now that allows us to track every utterance, every promise and every commitment made, and we were halfway through developing some draft reports when all of that was just wiped out, based on the argument from the new members that they didn't know anything about it, so they weren't going to deal with it.
We want to bring in some changes so that no government can ever do that again when it comes to the oversight capacity of public accounts to hold the government of the day to account.
Those are the two major items.