Legislation passed last year requires Councils, as of 15th June, to have a system for allowing petitions to require debates at council meetings and to call officers to scrutiny committees. Later this year, councils will have to have an on line facility for petitions which will allow anyone to set up a petition on the council website on any issue as long as it is relevant to the work of the council.
Arguably I have made the strongest noises in favour of these plans in Gateshead. We had an advisory group meeting about them a couple of weeks ago and yesterday we had the Corporate Vitality Scruting Committee look at the issue as well. Both times I spoke strongly in support of the plans, as I did today (Tuesday) when they came before the council's cabinet.
It was an odd situation today in which I, as a member of the opposition, was speaking more strongly for a report proposed by Labour run Gateshead Council than the Labour members of the Cabinet (which is all Labour). Some Cabinet members expressed some doubts about the consequences, mainly in relation to "vexatious" petitions. I did point out that vexatious petitions can be produced anyway without having to be online. I illustrated this with a petition sent to me a few years ago. It was signed by 10 people and called for me to resign from the council to have a by-election (bizarrely we were only 2 weeks away from polling day!!!!!) The lead petitioner was the Labour candidate, another signatory was his wife and the other 8were well known Labour members who had signed the Labour nomination papers. Two weeks later I was re-elected with one of the biggest majorities in Gateshead!
Vexatious on-line petitions should not be a reason for not going ahead with the scheme, and anyway, as one Labour member who had doubts about the value of the exercise pointed out, we are legally required as a council to allow them.
One concern I raised was the time limit on debates in council sparked by a petition (such a petition would need 2000 signatures). 15 minutes is to be allocated to any such debate. This is the first time in our council constitution we are to have a time limit on a debate. We have limits on the length of speeches. That's fair enough, but in a 15 minute debate there won't be much time for members to speak if the Leader of the Council and Leader of the Opposition have both spoken.
The Leader, Cllr Mick Henry, agreed that the system can be reviewed after it's up and running. A suck it and see situation. Hopefully, this will be an experiment that will work well though we as the politicians will need to ensure residents know about it and are encouraged to use it.