Petitions to Parliament – waste of time or golden opportunity?

The Government has just launched its brand new e-petitions system. You can find it here. The first petitions will be going live next Thursday.

Haven’t we been here before? Well, it is true that Labour surprised us all by setting up the Number 10 online petitions website some years ago, and that this attracted thousands of petitions.

But after the initial enthusiasm there was inevitable disappointment, because, in the vast majority of cases, the only response received by petitioners was a statement from a civil servant. It is true that, in some cases, petitions channelled strong public concern about an issue, such as road pricing, and did lead to political action. But these cases were very rare.

Sadly, it is impossible to trawl through the Number 10 petitions site now as all attempts to find it redirect you to the new site.

The Number 10 petitions scheme, set up by the excellent MySociety team, achieved what I suspect the developers had expected all along. It exposed the fact that the many thousands of petitions presented in cardboard boxes over the years at the door of Number 10, as well as all the online signatures, had minimal impact on policy-making.

So I was pleased that the Coalition backed the plan to set up a proper system for petitions to Parliament itself. It has a further proviso, that if a petition attracts over 100,000 signatures then it ‘will be eligible for debate in the House of Commons’. The Backbench Business Committee will decide whether a petition will be debated in the House. Petitions will have to be filtered at some point, otherwise we would have endless debates on hanging, flogging and banning immigration; a backbench committee is probably the best body to do this and certainly preferable to the Government, or worse still, civil servants.

It is important to remind ourselves that a petition is not a referendum. Instead a petition is a way of expressing support or opposition to a proposed policy, or a way of drawing attention to a new issue. It can be a trigger for political action, but it should never be taken as a definitive statement of the views of the public at large.

Also, petitions often oversimplify, and do not take into account all the factors that can affect a policy decision, such as financial constraints or consequential impact.

But a petition can, very valuably, be used to kick off a public debate about a previously unrecognised concern. Further research can then follow, together with a full assessment of the impact of any actions, before any firm proposals can be put together.
So – it’s a case of watch this space.

Mary Reid is Chair of Kingston Borough Liberal Democrats, and blogs at www.maryreid.org.uk

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25 Comments

  • The really dangerous thing about this initiative (and proof of the law of unintended consequences) is that the Express Group publications [I cannot bring myself to call them NEWSpapers] are now hell bent on using this petition opportunity to call for a referendum on continued membership of the EU. They may well get half a million signatures & then what happens? As a strong pro-European for over 50yrs I do sometimes wish we did pull out. Europe would be so much better off without the Brits endless moaning & undermining. It would shut up both the Express & Mr. Farage. It would force our politicians to take the blame for their own ineptitude and much else. However if one lets the head rule the emotions, and one applies that word which is the height of obscenity i.e. ‘thought’ , then of course to quit the EU would be serious blow to Britain. Trouble is that on recent past performance I have little faith that the great British electorate would engage its brain over the matter and would swallow the delusion that if we were not in the EU we would enter a sunlight upland of perfection of life so far undreamed of.

  • Well, potential for perfectly good ones to be left by the wayside still, but as we do have to trim out the stupid petitions that would endlessly get shoved in front of Parliament I suppose that’s an inherent danger.

    An improvement.

  • @coldcomfort

    I appreciate that concern but I think that if politicians thought the votes gained by campaigning to leave the EU were worth more than the consequences of leaving it then they would have made this happen already. In practice I think this would lead to simply wasting parliament’s time on that issue, no doubt it would get into the Commons (or at least stopped at the backbench committee stage) but I think even with a hypothetical Conservative majority that it wouldn’t pass. There’s a reason why the only territory to voluntarily leave the EU once in (excluding colonial possessions of France) is Greenland, a territory which only generates 20% of its own GDP, most of the rest being given by Denmark and – ironically – the EU. I think that cold hard economics would quash the euroscepticism of the Hagues and Osbornes of this world in an “in or out” vote.

    To be honest, I’m just hoping that at some point some politicians have the guts to actually put forward the pro-European side of the debate rather than the relentless (usually factually incorrect) anti-European agenda put out by the majority of the press. There’s no inherent reason why the UK should not be about as powerful in the EU as France or Germany are (individually of course!) aside from the fact that our reputation in Brussels is shot for our governments constantly throwing their toys out of the pram and not understanding compromise.

  • “hell bent on using this petition opportunity to call for a referendum on continued membership of the EU.”

    I can’t imagine any mainstream party putting forward such a policy……

  • Populist rubbish.

  • “or worse still, civil servants”

    Nice language there. As a civil servant who is helping the Lib-Dems get their scraps of policy into action, I’d much prefer it if Liberals weren’t talking like Tories ALL the time.

  • No Jedibeeftrix I am not against true democracy – absolutely the reverse. In your later post you say “–the model of governance is perceived to be less representative and less accountable!”. And where, pray, does that perception come from? One could easily argue that the governance of the EU is significantly [pre-coalition] more democratic than our own. The developed world is in turmoil because real power lies with international finance – not ‘governance’ of any kind. What I AM against is another media group seeking to subvert democracy by using its position to remorselessly pump out propaganda based on elastic interpretations of the truth. Have we learned nothing from the recent Murdoch Empire? As for John Roffey why doesn’t he propose that we become a fully integrated state of the USA? We could call it the United States of Atlantica & not even have to change the initials. The US then gets the ‘King William’ it craves with palaces in London, Florida & California – Disneyland would do, & Tony Blair could run for President.

  • coldcomfort 31st Jul '11 - 5:08pm

    Jedibeeftrix, my comment is not absurd at all and your observation simply typifies the blindness that overcomes the EU debate. The British people elect their representatives to the European Parliament. Commissioners are proposed by the elected representatives of the various National Governments. The appointment of Commissioners is ratified by the elected representatives of the various National Governments – it would be impractical, ineffective & hideously expensive to have the Commissioners elected by popular vote. There has to be an extraordinary level of agreement for anything to emerge as a ‘directive’ . OK some some directives we Brits think are stupid but if you belong to a golf club you don’t get to select which of the club rules you chose to obey. By contrast [until May last year] we Brits have for decades elected a dictator every five years or such shorter period as the incumbent dictator chooses. Under Thatcher, Major, Blair/Brown & their predecessors there was no democratic way that oppositions could frustrate the will of the Prime Minister. Brown wasn’t even elected as Prime Minister by his own Party let alone the rest of us. And the EU is undemocratic?

  • coldcomfort 1st Aug '11 - 10:06am

    Jedibeeftrix – We can agree that my arguments ( which I notice you do not contest) are unlikely to be a vote winner. And why is that? It is because scurrilous campaigns such as that being run by the daily Express based on great economy with the truth have a clear run. And you call that ‘democracy’ and accuse me of having an illiberal attitude to democracy. George Orwell liveth.

  • There is a better website than the governments epetiton website go and see Digital Democracy. You to start campaign that is local, national or for the UK.

    You can gain support online and it has many social network tools to help promote you campaign. It also is linked to local MPs and helps them to engage with their local constituents.

    This is a much better system. This gets your MPs to disuss and support your campaigns and they can ensure directly that it is brought up in the House of Commons.

    Take a look today digialdemocracy.org.uk

  • coldcomfort 2nd Aug '11 - 2:06pm

    jedibeeftrix, if you really believe that political governance is so exclusively a visceral & emotional exercise as typified by the Tea Party & campaigns like that in the Daily Express then God help us all. You don’t actually contest my argument, nor have you proposed any alternative mechanism for ‘political governance’ of the EU, nor for that matter the UK, which might change the voter perceptions. The legitimacy deficit of which you speak is because the so called debate is based on half truths & downright lies promulgated by total vested interests. I accept that emotional & irrational and selective evidence issues will be important but so should be some recognition of facts. I shudder at the introduction of visceral into your position. That is the forerunner to violence, terrorism and persecution of dissent. and as I said if you truly believe that to create a situation where the argument becomes visceral is a vital element of the democratic process then again whichever God or none you believe in please help us all.

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