E-petition misconceptions persist

From the BBC, we learn that 99.9% of e-petitions on the UK Government’s e-petitions website fail to reach the magic 1000,000 signatures target needed to have the petition referred to the Backbench Business Committee, according to a research team from Oxford University:

Nearly all e-petitions are doomed to become “digital dust”, they write.

“After 24 hours, a petition’s fate is virtually set,” the team concludes.

While the article itself is interesting as it explains the research’s team methodology, I did spot a few errors.

I have written a number of posts trying to clarify certain misconceptions surrounding how the UK e-petitions scheme works. The biggest misconception that persists to this day is that if a petition reaches 100,000 signatures, it will automatically be debated in the House of Commons. This is not the case. The only thing that happens if a petition reaches 100,000 signatures is that the government notifies the Backbench Business Committee that this has occurred. The article rightly states:

In a forthcoming book, a research team from Oxford University will show that 99.9% of e-petitions fail to reach the 100,000 signatures needed to trigger the prospect of a Commons debate.

This is a good choice of words – triggering the prospect of a debate is exactly what happens.

A bit further on, however, we read:

If an e-petition gets 100,000 signatures, a parliamentary committee will consider whether it merits a Commons debate.

The committee is not obliged to provide debating time, but nearly all of the petitions which have so far reached this threshold have either been woven into a previously arranged Commons debate or been the subject of their own debate.

This is false. If any petition – paper or digital – reaches 100,000 signatures, the Backbench Business Committee is formally informed of this. However, the Committee will only consider a possible debate on the petition if an MP or group of MPs apply to have it debated. If no MP decides to sponsor the petition for debate, the Committee has no authority to do so unilaterally. And even if the petition is sponsored by an MP who then applies to the Backbench Business Committee for a debate on the petition, it still has to meet the criteria set out for backbench business debates. As the article notes, most petitions which surpassed 100,000 signatures have been debated, but not all.

Also, the article fails to mention that any petition, regardless of the number of signatures it may have received, could be sponsored for debate by an MP. To the best of my knowledge, while this has not yet occurred, there is absolutely nothing stopping a backbench MP from applying to the Backbench Business Committee for a debate on any petition, even one that has received only a handful of signatures, if they believe the subject matter of that petition is worthy of being debated.

Because of this reality, which the article, and one presumes, the researchers, completely ignore, it rather undermines the premise that most e-petitions “fail” and become “digital dust” because they don’t receive 100,000 signatures. They “fail” because no MP sponsors them as a possible topic for a backbench business debate. What is needed is a better way for those behind an e-petition to connect with an MP who might be willing to bring the matter before the Backbench Business Committee.

I am also uncomfortable with saying that a petition has “failed”. Prior to the launch of e-petitions, traditional petitions presented in the House of Commons were tabled, and that was the end of it. While some jurisdictions require that the appropriate government ministry respond to every petition presented, regardless of how many people have signed the petition, this was never a requirement in the UK. Yet no one ever said these petitions had “failed”. It is only with the introduction of this rather arbitrary 100,000 signature target and the possibility of a debate that we now consider most petitions as having failed. Shouldn’t the true measure of a petition’s success or failure be whether it results in actual government action?

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