Fiona Mactaggart (Slough) (Lab): But does the Minister agree with the Daily Mail, which says that this amounts to an e-petition con? The Government said to the public, “If 100,000 of you sign one of these petitions, there’ll be a debate.” What discussion did the Government have with the Backbench Business Committee about how the time for those debates would be allocated?
Mr Heath: May I caution the hon. Lady, first against reading the Daily Mail , and secondly against agreeing with what it says? The Government have never said that when a petition reaches the threshold it will have an automatic right of debate. It will be considered with a view to seeing whether the matter raised has already been debated or is already going to be debated in a different context or whether the request has already been met by the Government. If there is then a need to debate something that the public have registered as an interest, the Backbench Business Committee will respond to that request. That seems to me an entirely proper way of doing things and it is a huge improvement on the old No. 10 petition site on which the petitions went precisely nowhere. (source)
Since the launch of the UK Government’s e-petition at the beginning of August 2011, two petitions have reached the magic 100,000-plus signature mark.
For those unfamiliar with the new e-petitions scheme, I wrote about it in detail at its launch, which you can read here. To summarise, persons in the UK can now petition the government electronically. This does not replace the traditional paper petition, however, those will continue to be accepted. Any petition, electronic or paper, which receives over 100,000 signatures will be referred to the House of Commons Backbench Business Committee. The Committee will review the petition and decide if the subject of the petition merits being debated in Parliament. However, there is no restriction on the number of signatures required for the Backbench Business Committee to consider scheduling a debate based on petition – the Committee is free to consider a debate on a petition that has any number of signatures, if they believe the issue raised by the petition is worthy of debate.
The first petition to reach 100,000 signatures was one proposing that anyone convicted of any wrongdoing following the riots last month lose any government benefits they might be receiving.
The second petition to gather more than 100,000 signatures requests full government disclosure and publication of all documents, discussions and reports relating to the 1989 Hillsborough disaster, as requested by information commissioner Christopher Graham. There have been reports in the media of a third petition calling for a referendum on EU membership with over 100,000 signatures, but this is misleading. There was a campaign launched in March 2011 to petition Parliament for a referendum on the EU. The total signatures on all of the various traditional paper petitions and e-petitions add up to more than 100,000, but there is no single e-petition on the matter with over 100,000 signatures, and this drive began before the government’s e-petition site was launched at the end of July 2011. There is no e-petition on the official e-petition site calling for such a referendum which has over 100,000 signatures.
Regarding the second one, the Government has responded already, stating:
The Government has confirmed its commitment to full transparency about the Hillsborough disaster through full public disclosure. All papers had previously been shared with the Hillsborough Independent Panel. The Government is happy for all the papers, including Cabinet papers, to be released as soon as the Panel so decides, in consultation with the families. We expect them to be shared with the Hillsborough families first and then to the wider public.
The petition requesting that convicted rioters lose their benefits has also received a response from the Government:
As you may be aware, the House of Commons debated the recent public disorder when Parliament was recalled on 11 August 2011 and there was an opportunity for MPs to address the substance of this e-petition. This does not preclude a decision by the Backbench Business Committee to schedule a further debate on this issue when the House of Commons returns from the summer recess.
In the meantime, we would like to update you on the Government’s current position on the substance of this e-petition.
Prisoners convicted of a criminal offence and detained in prison are not entitled to social security benefits. That means that anyone who is eligible for social security benefits and who is caught, convicted and imprisoned for any offence committed during the recent disorder that has disrupted London and other UK cities will be disqualified from receiving social security payments. The Department for Work and Pensions is also looking at whether further sanctions can be imposed on the benefit entitlements of individuals who receive non custodial sentences. In addition the Department is considering increasing the level of fines which can be deducted from benefit entitlement.
In relation to social housing, it is already a ground for eviction if a tenant or a member of their family is involved in anti-social behaviour or criminal activity in their local neighbourhood. Ministers have encouraged social landlords to use these powers, and a number of local authorities have pledged to do so. The Department for Communities and Local Government is consulting on proposals to allow such evictions to take place where the criminal activity takes place outside the vicinity of the local neighbourhood; more information is available to view here: http://www.communities.gov.uk/statements/newsroom/publicdisorder.
Based on search word activity on this blog, there seems to be some confusion over what makes a petition “successful”. A petition does not have to get 100,000 signature to get a response from the Government department to which the petition is addressed. All e-petitions will be referred to the appropriate Government department for response once the period for signature gathering is closed. The only potential plus of garnering 100,000 or more signatures is that the petition will also be referred to the Backbench Business Committee for consideration for debate. It is important to note, however, that debate is not guaranteed to occur, and even if it does, it may be in Westminster Hall rather than the main chamber of the House of Commons. As well, a debate on an issue raised in a petition does not mean that there will be a vote after the debate that will change the law affected. will be eligible to be debated in the House of Commons, though this is not guaranteed to happen. Most importantly of all, while much will be made of the 100,000 signature mark, there is no restriction on the number of signatures required for the Backbench Business Committee to consider scheduling a debate based on petition. In other words, garnering 100,000 signatures will not guarantee a debate, and garnering fewer than 100,000 does not exclude the possibility of a debate. Petitioners must not view the possibility of having their petition debated in Parliament as the only measure of “success”, for even if the petition does end up being debated by MPs, in all likelihood, the matter will not in any way be binding on the Government.
The impression some have that any petition which garners more than 100,000 signatures will be debated in the House of Commons is probably in part attributable to some rather shoddy journalism. For example, in this piece from the Daily Mail, Harry Phibbs writes: “Those attracting over 100,000 signatures will be put forward to be debated in the House of Commons.” Further down he writes:
Even more people, 218,995, have signed up to a demand that rioters should lose welfare benefits. It calls for “all financial benefits” to be removed which I doubt the Government will deliver – they are in coalition with the Lib Dems after all and have not been able to scrap the Human Rights Act which could be an obstacle. But even before the proposal is debated in the Commons there is direct evidence that it has had an impact on policy.
Phibbs makes it sound as if it is guaranteed that any petition gaining 100,000+ signatures will be debated in the House of Commons. This is not the case. They will simply be referred to the Backbench Business Committee for consideration. The Committee will then decide if the subject matter warrants debate, or it may simply decide to refer it to the appropriate government department for the usual response.
This is the key issue. How likely any petition will end up being debated is questionable. The Backbench Business Committee has already voiced its displeasure at having the petitions referred to it, and is asking for extra debating days to be given to her committee to allocate, because it is not exactly short of subjects MPs want to talk about. The Committee chair, Natascha Engel warns that the e-petitions scheme runs the risk of creating false public expectations:
But although she welcomed the move for greater public engagement, Engel described the number of signatures as an “arbitrary” government figure. “We can’t give priority just because something has 100,000 signatures on a petition,” she said.
And she was concerned the government risked “raising expectations” when parliamentarians were seeking to rebuild public trust that was still “very, very fraught” after the MPs expenses scandal.
Concern was even raised about the possibility of MPs not showing up to debates.
Engel said her stance would have been different if e-petitions was intended as something MPs could draw on to secure debates. And she said: “If they gave us some time I wouldn’t have a problem”.
Consequently, it is important that people understand two things: an e-petition does not need to gain 100,000+ signatures to get a response from the appropriate Government department or to be considered for debate. All petitions will be referred to the department responsible once the time period for collection of signatures has closed, and the Backbench Business Committee is free to consider any petition for debate, regardless of the number of signatures attached to that petition. Therefore all petitions will be “successful” petitions. Second, garnering 100,000+ signatures will not guarantee that an e-petition will be debated in Parliament. It will simply guarantee that the e-petition will be referred to the Backbench Business Committee for consideration. The Committee will then decide if the e-petition merits debate.
If the e-petition addresses a matter which the House of Commons has already debated in the current session, it is highly questionable that it would be referred for debate. By convention, Parliament will not revisit a matter that it has already debated.
(Note to Canadian readers: the Canadian Parliament does not currently accept e-petitions, and the Quebec National Assembly is the only provincial/territorial assembly that does accept e-petitions.)