In May 2014, the UK House of Commons adopted a motion supporting the establishment, at the start of the next Parliament, of a collaborative e-petitions system, which enables members of the public to petition the House of Commons and press for action from Government. The motion called on the Procedure Committee to work with the Government and other interested parties on the development of detailed proposals.
On 26 November 2014, the Procedure Committee released its report outlining an e-petitions system for the House of Commons. The Committee proposed that joint system be based on the existing Government e-petition site:
redesigned and rebranded to show that it is owned by the House and the Government. To emphasise the Parliamentary oversight of the system, and in line with the House’s historic role as the principal recipient of public petitions, it should use the URL epetitions.parliament.uk. There should also be a clear link from the Parliament website www.parliament.uk to the e-petition site, including from the pages which explain the existing paper petitioning system.
The site will continue to be run by the Government Digital Service, in collaboration with Parliamentary ICT (PICT) and its successor Digital Service).
Among the more interesting recommendations in the report are the following. First, the Procedure Committee recommended the creation of a dedicated Petitions Committee to oversee both paper and e-petitions. This is a revival of sorts; the House of Commons had a Petitions committee from the early 19th century up until 1974. The old Petitions committee was responsible for sorting and classifying petitions, and ensuring that they were in order; it did not have any power to recommend any course of action with regards to any of the petitions.
The new Petitions Committee, if the House agrees to create one, would oversee all petitions, liaise with the Government, and have the authority to consider petitions and take action they thought was warranted. Examples of this could include corresponding with the petitioners; calling them in to give oral evidence to the committee; referring a petition to the relevant select committee for consideration; seeking out further action from the Government; putting forward a petition for debate. The Chair of the committee would be elected by the whole House and its members elected by their respective caucuses, as is the case for most of the select committees.
The second interesting proposal concerns ideas for Member involvement. While e-petitions will not require the intervention of a Member of Parliament in the way that a paper petition does, the Committee thinks there would be considerable merit in establishing some sort of system of informing Members of Parliament about some or all of the petitions submitted to the House by their constituents:
Members might be told, for example, about petitions originating from or attracting a certain number of signatories from their constituency, or relating to a specific issue in the constituency, or petitions in either of those categories on which the Committee had decided to take further action. We were told that it should also be possible to make available aggregate information about the signatories to a petition (for example in the form of postcode “heat maps”), which is likely to be of interest not only to Members but also to the general public.
Also, creators and signatories of e-petitions should have available to them a means of notifying their Member of Parliament that they had signed a petition:
There are a number of ways in which that might be done. For example, a link could be provided on the site once a visitor had signed a petition saying Contact your MP to let them know you have signed this petition, which would automatically open an email to the petitioner’s constituency MP, based on the postcode they have entered as part of the signing process. Or a system could be established whereby petition signatories would be able to opt in to their email address being made available to their constituency MP, with lists of those who had done so, broken down by petition signed, being provided to MPs who request them on, say, a weekly basis.
Third, the Committee proposes establishing a threshold for petitions to be published on the site. Interestingly, we learn from the Government e-petitions site that around one in five of the e-petitions submitted attract fewer than three signatures, and as many as 42% fewer than six. Because of those figures, the Committee is recommending that an e-petition have at least five signatures (in addition to the petition creator’s) before the petition will be published. They suggest requiring the petitioner to provide at least five email addresses of persons he or she believes will support the petition. Those people will then be automatically emailed through the system and invited to confirm—by clicking a link in the email, that they support it. Only when at least five people have done so will the text of the e-petition be forwarded for moderation and publication.
Lastly, the report proposes changes to the current system in place for the Government e-petitions, where an e-petition which gets 100,000 signatures might end up being debated in the House or in Westminster Hall. Currently, it is the Backbench Business Committee which has oversight of this, but it has always been somewhat problematic. The Procedure Committee is proposing that it assume responsibility for debates on petitions:
the Petitions Committee, on the other hand, should consider it central to its responsibility to decide whether a petition—whether an e-petition or a petition presented through the traditional paper route—should be debated by the House. The Petitions Committee should not, however, be able to cut across the existing responsibility of the Backbench Business Committee to decide that a petition should be debated other than in the dedicated slot for petition debates in Westminster Hall. If the Petitions Committee decides that a petition deserves a debate on the floor of the House, it would take that request to the Backbench Business Committee, which could (but would not be obliged to) allocate backbench time for it. If BBCom were unable to prioritise a debate on the petition over the matters brought before it by other Members, it would be for the Petitions Committee to decide whether to have the matter debated in Westminster Hall, or whether to return to BBCom with a renewed request at a time which it judged more propitious.
I expect that the House will debate this report early in the new year if the goal is to have a House of Commons e-petitions in place at the start of the next parliament. I will keep readers apprised of any future developments.