THE BLOG

If You Want to Change the Government's Mind, Petitions Are Not the Answer

08/10/2015 11:12 BST | Updated 07/10/2016 10:12 BST

Since the Budget in July - where the Chancellor proposed to restrict mortgage interest relief for individual residential landlords to the basic rate of income - we've had a number of members call or email in to ask why the NLA hasn't actively promoted the online petition against the proposals.

The simple answer we've given to members is we believe the process is a waste of time, and that while we would never discourage landlords from signing it, we are not making it the main focus of our lobbying efforts.

Granted not everyone will agree with us - but we thought it would be useful to explain why the NLA tends not to promote petitions, and what we suggest landlords or tenants affected can do to make their voices heard.

What the proposals will mean for landlords and tenants

I wont dwell too long on this, other than to say that the changes will significantly increase costs in the private rented sector (PRS) for landlords and, if the costs can't be absorbed, ultimately it's tenants' pockets that will be hit.

How the petitions process works

So, back to petitions. If a petition gets 20,000 signatures the Government responds to it. In practice this just means that they repeat the same thinking and justification for the scheme that they outlined when they announced it, which is exactly what the Government has done in this case.

If a petition gets over 100,000 signatures then it is considered for a debate of MPs. That sounds impressive to some; however the reality is very different.

Even if it is granted a debate (and remember it needs only be considered) it won't take place on the floor of the House of Commons but instead in the Grand Committee Room. This sounds posh but, as you can see, it is effectively a side room which consists of table and cushioned chairs; very different from the grandeur of the Commons and Lords opposing benches. It will also only take place when 'parliamentary time allows' meaning that it could be months down the line, by which point the chance to affect change may well have passed.

Why the scepticism for the process?

Attendance at debates is often abysmal, and most MPs that attend will have been put up by their whips to speak on the petition's behalf; or more accurately to go through the motions, speak around the general subject and then ask MPs to consider the petition and note its contents. However, relatively few petitions ever reach debate stage.

An example of one which did was entitled 'To debate a vote of no confidence in Health Secretary the Right Hon Jeremy Hunt'. At the start of the debate however, MPs had to stress that the Petitions Committee does not have the power to initiate a vote of no confidence. Furthermore, the Secretary of State did not answer for the Government, but instead the Under-Secretary of State for Health, Ben Gummer responded to questions. As you can see, it was really packed to the rafters.

Other lobbing groups share our scepticism

The online petition site was a good innovation, but petitions are rarely an accurate gauge of public feeling on any issue and should not be used as such.

For example, the combined number of teachers and nurses in the UK stands at approximately 800,000, yet just 12,000 or 1.5% (at time of writing) have signed a petition entitled "Remove the 1% public sector pay cap. Teachers, nurses etc. deserve a pay rise too'. This shows that the trade unions lobbying for change for these professions share the same scepticism for the process that we do, and that ultimately they're not taking it seriously as a means of effectively changing government policy.

Government is already debating the proposals

Finally, and more importantly in this case, the Budget proposals are already being debated by MPs, so why do we need a petition? The Budget is a piece of legislation which, like any other, needs to be debated and follow the proper passage of a Bill.

It's in Parliament that the NLA is focusing its effort, working hard to meet with and brief MPs in order to gain support for possible amendments to the Bill.

Join us and lobby your MP more effectively

Not all MPs are aware just how much this will impact on landlords and their tenants, so we need to get as many on board to voice their opinions in Parliament in order to influence change on the Finance Bill.

And here's where we ask for landlords' and tenants's support. If you'll be affected by this change then we need you to contact your MP. To help we have introduced NLA Lobby, which will allow you to send a pre-written email to your local MP voicing your opposition to the proposals. All you need to do is input just a few bits of information in order to find out who your local MP is. It's simple and takes a matter of minutes.

So sign a petition, by all means. But if you'll be adversely affected by the proposals or you're concerned about being able to survive them once they come into full effect in 2020, then your best option is to get lobbying your local MP before it's too late.