Government Politics Procedure

E-petitions prove to be popular in their first year

A year after the launch of its e-petition site, the UK Government has released some interesting data which gives some idea of the popularity of e-petitions.

Over the past twelve months, 36,000 petitions have been launched, attracting 6.4 million signatures. This of course doesn’t meant that 6.4 million different people have signed them – some people have probably signed multiple petitions. According to the Government, that averages out to 12 people signing a petition every minute. The e-petitions website averages 46,500 visits a day, for a total of over 17 million visits over the course of its first year.

While those numbers are impressive, they are also a bit misleading. It seems that the popularity (or at least, the novelty) of e-petitions is wearing off. The site was at its most popular immediately after it launched, with the highest number of people visiting the site occurring last August. Indeed, a petition on the London riots reached the fabled 100,000 signature threshold within days. Since then, visitation to the site has varied, and visits reached a low in May of this year. Ten petitions surpassed the 100,000 signature mark, and six of these managed that in the site’s first 100 days.

Earlier this year, the Hansard Society released a briefing paper, What’s Next for E-Petitions, which identified four key problems with the Government’s e-petitions:

  1. Ownership and responsibility: The system is controlled by government but the onus to respond is largely placed on the House of Commons.
  2. There is no agreement about the purpose of e-petitions: Are they ‘an easy way to influence government policy’, a ‘fire alarm’ about issues of national concern, a ‘finger in the wind’ to determine the depth of public feeling on a range of issues? Or should they be used to empower the public through greater engagement in the political and parliamentary process, providing for deliberation on the issues of concern?
  3. Public and media expectations of the system are consequently confused: People expect an automatic debate once the signature threshold is passed and react negatively when this does not happen.
  4. There is minimal public engagement with Parliament or government: Beyond the possibility of a debate for those e-petitions that pass the 100,000 signature threshold, little or nothing currently happens with them. And if an e-petition does not achieve the signature threshold but still attracts considerable support (e.g. 99,999 signatures) there is no guarantee of any kind of response at all.

I agree with most of the concerns the Hansard Society has identified. One of the main problems with the e-petitions system as it currently exists is that these are petitions to Government, whereas traditionally, one petitions Parliament. Because they are petitions to a Government department, there is no easy way to link them to an MP, who would normally be the person to bring the matter before Parliament. Yet, as the Hansard Society points out, the onus is on the House of Commons to respond to the petitions.

Points two and three are also spot on. I have in fact previously blogged many times about the degree of confusion which exists over how the e-petitions scheme works and the expectations that a debate is guaranteed to happen if a petition surpasses the 100,000 signature threshold. This is in large part due to very sloppy reporting in the media when the scheme was launched, and unfortunately, has not improved.

I quibble a bit with regards to point 4. First of all, just as attaining 100,000 signatures will not necessarily guarantee that an e-petition will be debated, it is entirely possible for a petition which has received fewer than 100,000 signatures to be debated if an MP presents such a request to the Backbench Business Committee. The BBBCom has made this very clear on their website. As for the issue of responses, it is true that there is no guarantee of a response, but some petitions do indeed receive responses, even though they have fallen short of the mystical 100,000 signature mark. The main problem is that there doesn’t seem to be any coherent or consistent policy across government departments which would oblige them to respond to all petitions – regardless of the number of signatures received.

I do fully agree with the key recommendations put forward by the Hansard Society, however:

  • Ownership of and responsibility for the e-petitions system should rest with the House of Commons and not the executive.
  • The House of Commons should create a Petitions Committee, supported by staff in a Petitions Office, to engage with petitioners, moderate the process and provide a single route for consideration of both paper and online petitions.
  • Members of the Petitions Committee should be elected and have the power to refer petitions to a relevant Select Committee, to commission their own inquiries into specific petitions, to question ministers on the issues and to invite petitioners and others to give evidence at public hearings.

I believe that adopting those recommendations would improve the process significantly.

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