Rise of the e-petition


A group of MPs are plotting an attempt to seize back dominance of the petitioning system in Britain - and hope the internet will prove the means to achieve their goal.

At the heart of the issue is a struggle for parliament's ongoing relevance. At present it is Downing Street which has the bragging rights when it comes to petitions; it's no coincidence today's protest by hauliers, angry at the government's 2p fuel duty hike, will be delivering their petition to the prime minister rather than parliament. MPs would much rather they head to the Commons - and steps are in motion to do something about it.

A struggling tradition

Petitions were originally set up under Richard II's reign and, for hundreds of years were used by constituents to hassle parliament on specific issues. The arrangement was a happy one; it was the "inherent right of every commoner" to pester those in power.

That all changed in the first half of the 19th century, when the number of petitions rose 25-fold in the run-up to the Reform Act. MPs were naturally dismayed by the increase in their workload and opted to hive the extra labour off to a specific committee. It survived until 1974, when all petitions were instead printed and not considered by MPs. To many, petitions appeared to be in something of a terminal decline.

Numbers fell to the level seen before the great explosion of the 19th century - about 200 a year - reflecting the relative decline in their importance.

Nowadays MPs view petitions with something approaching scorn. They are a "useful backbench tool of minimal effect", liaison committee chairman Greg Knight said at a Hansard Society event in Westminster last week. A 2003 survey saw only three per cent of MPs saying they thought petitions were an effective procedure. One-fifth of petitions do not even receive a reply from the government.

By contrast the number of petitions presented to Downing Street increased rapidly over the last 50 years.

Political activism helped, as the 2006 petition on road tax showed. Campaigners delivered the signatures of one million motorists to the prime minister, provoking what looked like a real difference to government policy.

The biggest and most recent innovation, however, has been the Downing Street e-petitions website. This received 5.5 million signatures and some 29,000 petitions in its first year of operation. Good for politics overall, no doubt? But where was the Commons?

Time for change

"There is an idea that the presentation of a petition is an empty form - that it is
ordered to lie upon the Table, and never heard of again," Benjamin Disraeli told the Commons in 1843.

"I believe that at this moment the right of petition. is a more important and efficient right than has ever been enjoyed by the people of England in this respect."

That call to arms is finally being echoed, 165 years later. The Hansard Society's eDemocracy programme director, Andy Williamson, spoke passionately about their importance in Westminster last week. He talked of "closing the gap between citizens and parliament" and described e-petitions as "the start of the transformation of parliament into the digital age". Tentative efforts from the Welsh Assembly and Scottish parliament, as with many devolution-related issues, are leading the way. According to its Audit of Political Engagement, people are more likely to sign a petition than engage in any other political act.

MPs are now ready to step up their own efforts on e-petitioning. Mr Knight's committee published its report last month.

MPs will be the "facilitator" for e-petitions presented by their constituents, the report recommends. The e-petitions will be presented to the Commons and the government will respond to every submission within three months. MPs could even indicate their own support for a petition in a different box. The Commons would debate petitions three times a year in Westminster Hall.

"We have recognised a demand for new and more effective means of communication between the public and members of parliament and for the House to be able to be more responsive to the concerns and interests of the public," it concludes.

"E-petitioning will not on its own be the answer to that demand, but it could make an important contribution."

Question-marks remain

More cynical readers might point out that the language of that conclusion is far from convincing. They would probably be right. Mr Knight bemoaned how "getting a report out of a select committee is the art of the possible" and admitted he had to work hard to win over some who were completely opposed to the concept of e-petitions. Even now, success is far from guaranteed.

The arguments against the proposed rollout are many. MPs could be swamped by the extra workload heaped upon them, making e-petitions unworkable. They could have to become editors, struggling with the "trivial or mischievous" time-wasters which blight the Downing Street website. Confidence in parliament might even be eroded. And the whole affair could prove damaging in terms of costs.

Such problems are yet to be resolved and it is clear much more investigation is needed into the issue, as emerged at last week's event in Westminster. Mr Williamson, who described the Downing Street website as "at best, a placebo", believes the parliamentary equivalent would not attract nearly as much volume as Mr Knight hopes. The Downing Street site "allows people to have a rant. and goes nowhere", he says. Only the more serious contenders would bother.

This perspective may prove to be the correct one, even if it does undermine one of e-petitioning's basic goals - increasing participation in an under-used area of political involvement. MPs do not seem bothered by this, however. E-petitioning, they say, is "something of a gamble" but, ultimately, is a "gamble worth taking".

Alex Stevenson


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