Background: The UK House of Commons Political and Constitutional Reform Committee (PCRC) released its Third Report of Session 2013-14, Revisiting Rebuilding the House: the impact of the Wright reforms. The Wright reforms are those recommendations put forward by the Select Committee on Reform of the House of Commons (aka the Wright Committee, after its chair, Dr Tony Wright). In the spring of 2010, the House of Commons voted to approve and give effect to many of those recommendations, which took effect at the start of the new Parliament following the May 2010 general election.
I am providing a brief overview across a number of posts of the report’s main findings. This is the final installment, looking at Section 5 – Involving the public. Previous installments include the section on Select Committees, the section on the Backbench Business Committee, and Managing the rest of the House’s time.
The final section of Revisiting Rebuilding the House looks at involving the public. In many ways, this section was the most interesting for me because of all of the parliaments I study, I think the UK Parliament does the best job in terms of public outreach.
It is important to remember that a major impetus behind the original Wright report was the need to rebuild public trust in the House of Commons following the expenses scandal. That report recommended that, in terms of public engagement, the House needed to shift from giving information to actively assisting public participation. Wright advocated opening up the legislative process to the public, and the UK House of Commons has taken steps in that direction with its pilot project of public reading stages for draft bills.
Select committees have been particularly innovative in finding ways to involve the public. Many of their high profile inquiries and subsequent reports have garnered significant media attention and increased the public’s perception of Parliament holding Government to account. Many of the debates scheduled by the Backbench Business Committee have encouraged public engagement. Some committees have solicited input from the public via social media. Others have established online communities, such as the Education committee’s pairing with the website Student Room.
Many witnesses felt that more could be done, of course. Some witnesses, were particularly critical of the UK Parliament website, with one calling it “old-fashioned” and another saying it was very hard to use. (p. 37) I have to admit that these comments surprised me. Of the half dozen or so parliamentary websites I visit and use regularly, the UK Parliament website is by far my favourite. I find it very easy to navigate (unlike, for example, the Canadian Parliament website, which is atrocious). This isn’t to say that the UK Parliament couldn’t be improved, but I certainly wouldn’t call it difficult to navigate.
Another witness indicated that more could be done with social media, in particular in the case of select committees:
it is not simply a case of publishing a press release link. For social media to work and to be effective, there as to be engagement, so it has to be resourced. There has to be somebody who can reply to the tweets or to the Facebook page. If you are going to engage with people it does have to be a dialogue. (p. 37)
The UK Parliament does make very good use of social media. Most of the select committees (if not all) now have Twitter accounts, and there are a number of accounts associated with various parts of Parliament (the House of Commons, Archives, outreach, education, etc), but most of them are unidirectional. What I mean by that is, while people will reply to tweets posted by those accounts, the engagement is one-way. Very rarely will anyone reply to tweets posted to those accounts. This is true of the UK Parliament’s Facebook page. Many people comment on the posts made, but there is rarely any reply. This isn’t the case for all of them, of course, but there does seem to be a real reluctance to fully engage on social media.
The matter of petitions was also looked at by the PCRC. The Wright Report had recommended that the Procedure Committee have responsibility for scrutiny of the petitions process for an experimental period, but this was not done. It warned that too great an emphasis on e-petitions would distract from standard (paper) petitions. Regular readers of this blog know that I have covered the UK government’s e-petitions scheme quite extensively, so I won’t repeat myself here. The PCRC heard that while the e-petitions scheme has proved popular with the public, some witnesses felt it actually increased public disillusionment with the House. Natascha Engel, the chair of the Backbench Business committee testified that e-petitions raised expectations among people that they’d be able to actually change a law, which isn’t the case at all. Unlock Democracy stated that e-petitions were inadequate in giving citizens a greater voice in parliamentary proceedings and don’t actually promote engagement with parliament. (p. 39) It was also noted that the majority of e-petitions (97.7%) received fewer than 1000 signatures, and thus received no response or action at all. This was perhaps the main area of concern – many important issues would never get 100,000 signatures, or even 10,000.
Another important concern surrounding the e-petitions scheme was that it confused the roles of Government and Parliament. Historically, petitions were made to parliament, but under the government’s system, the petitions are submitted to Government, then passed on to the Backbench Business Committee if they reach the 100,000 signature threshold. Some witnesses suggested that there was a role for a select committee to examine petitions. This led the PCRC to recommend:
132. We believe that there must be a clear separation between petitions intended to prompt action by Government and petitions aimed at Parliament. The Parliamentary petitions system must in future belong unequivocally to Parliament. This means that all e-petitions for consideration by Parliament must be hosted on the Parliamentary website. We also believe that numbers thresholds should not be used to determine whether a petition should be debated.
133. There is still a case for the establishment of a petitions committee, as considered by the Wright Committee. We note with interest the Leader’s recent comments about the issue. A nuanced approach to petitions on the Scottish model, with, for example, routing of certain petitions to local government and other bodies, could also help to increase public satisfaction with petitions, though it would require considerable extra resources.
134. We recommend that the House should be invited to agree to a Resolution on public petitions which would outline the principal features of a new system, and which would invite the Clerk of the House to work up a detailed and costed proposition which could then be put to the House for its endorsement. (p. 42)