(Delivered in Parliament on 8 May 2017)
Petitions – A Critical Parliamentary Process
While I am prepared to support the Motion, I would like to place on record my concern about one of the proposed amendments. This relates to the change to Standing Order No 18 on Petitions. In gist, my concern is that the new power to be given to the House must be used with great care, and should never be seen to curtail the Public Petition process. Let me explain.
The proposal by the Standing Orders Committee is to amend SO 18 to provide an option for the House to decide that a Petition need not be referred to the Public Petitions Committee (PPC). This might be done if the Speaker is of the view that the subject matter of the Petition relates to a matter being already before the House by way of a Bill or Motion, in which case the Petition can be considered at the same time. The Committee’s Report states that this is to avoid a situation where the Bill or Motion has already disposed of the matter before the PPC considers the Petition, making the Petition moot.
Under the current Standing Orders, all Petitions initiated by the public must brought to this House through a Member, who is not a signatory to the Petition. In other words, the Member is not necessarily a person who shares the concerns of the Petitioners, but is merely a necessary conduit through which a Petition may be presented to Parliament. The Standing Orders provide that “every such Petition” must be referred to the PPC, except in very limited circumstances.
I am concerned that this new power, if used routinely, would result in Petitions not being given their due hearing or send a signal that Petitions are not important.
Some may ask what difference a reference to the PPC will make, since the contents of the Petition can be read by Members during a debate on a related Bill or Motion. The difference to me is very significant.
The PPC is a Standing Select Committee, whose procedures are governed by Standing Order 103. The PPC is empowered to call for witnesses, papers and records, and can independently report its opinion and observations to Parliament. Compared with the procedures of the whole House, the PPC would have more time to fully investigate the grievances of the Petitioners, and hear them out personally if needed, and call for relevant documents including government documents. The Public Petitions procedure is provided for by the Standing Orders, and is a vital link between Parliament and members of the public. There is a due process that should be granted to Petitioners. If the Petition is not referred to the PPC but considered by the whole House during a debate on a Motion or Bill, the burden would naturally shift to the Member presenting the Petition to fully convey the Petitioners’ concerns and grievances, which is probably expecting too much of the Member.
The recent debate on the Administration of Justice (Protection) Bill provides a window as to what could potentially be problematic in the future. A petition on the Bill was presented through Nominated MP Kok Heng Leun, but it was dealt with summarily during the debate on the Bill. In that case, the wording of the Bill was not made public until after it was presented in Parliament for first reading, so it could well be said that the Petitioners could not have initiated their Petition any earlier. In that debate, NMP Mr Kok indicated his consent to have the Petition heard together with the Bill, and his view that this was appropriate should be given due weight. However, the House should be mindful that in future cases, we should endeavour to ensure that all Petitions are granted their due process and hearing by the PPC. The House should bear in mind that it may be in the public interest instead, to do the opposite – to defer the Motion or Bill unless there is urgency, until the Petition has been considered by the PPC and its report sent to Parliament. Parliament might well benefit from a fuller understanding of the issue from the aggrieved or concerned persons before considering the Bill or Motion.
In summary, while the new power under Standing Order 18 is a useful power to have, my view is that it should be used most judiciously, bearing in mind the importance of the Public Petitions process.