While listening to the debate in the UK House of Commons on a backbench motion calling for a referendum on membership in the EU, I was struck by regularly repeated claims by MPs concerning the role that petitions, particularly e-petitions, played in instigating the debate.
Many MPs stated that the day’s debate came about thanks to the Government’s own e-petitions scheme, triggered by an e-petition gaining over 100,000 signatures. For example:
Nadine Dorries (Mid Bedfordshire) (Con): Will my hon. Friend also acknowledge that not only is he moving this motion, but more than 100,000 people have signed an e-petition to 10 Downing street calling for him to do just this?
Mark Pritchard (The Wrekin) (Con): I understand that I have only five minutes, so I will take only two interventions—if people want to intervene—if colleagues do not mind.
I would like to address first the process and principle of the motion and then present-day Europe, if colleagues will forgive the alliteration. The origins of today’s debate lie in the Government’s democratic outreach, through e-petitions. More than 100,000 people signed an e-petition calling for a debate in Parliament on this issue. The Backbench Business Committee then decided that to be the right debate to bring before Parliament and, as Members will know, that Committee is elected by the House. This debate has not been brought about by a small or large number of Conservative Back Benchers, therefore; it is a response to the will and the voice of the British people.
Kate Hoey (Vauxhall) (Lab): (…) Let us not forget, as many Members have said, that this issue has reached us today not only because of the 100,000 e-petition signatories, but because of the many organisations that have brought together different types of petition and written to people. It is not just about e-petitions.
Glyn Davies (Montgomeryshire) (Con): Thank you, Mr Deputy Speaker, for calling me to speak in this very important debate. It is, in fact, a historic debate because it is the first that has been triggered by the public through the petitions system. I believe that that system is a wonderful one; it is absolutely right to hold this debate today. I also think it right in principle that this House should debate issues of particular importance to the public, of which this is one.
Justin Tomlinson (North Swindon) (Con): Will my hon. Friend explain why this was the second most popular issue on the e-petitions list?
Kris Hopkins: As I said in response to the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon), if there is such support for the matter, we should campaign to ensure that it is part of our party’s next election manifesto.
You get the idea – these samples are from the online Hansard of the debate, which you can access here.
The problem is, these statements aren’t exactly accurate, and some are simply false.
Despite what many MPs claimed, there was no e-petition calling for a referendum on the EU on the official Government E-Petitions website which garnered over 100,000 signatures. There were many separate petitions, both traditional paper and electronic, which together surpassed 100,000 signatures, but these were collected independently of the official e-petitions scheme. In fact, a campaign to petition for a referendum on the EU began in March of this year, over four months before launch of the Government e-petitions scheme at the end of July of this year.
So if there was no single e-petition calling for an EU referendum on the Government e-petitions site that had over 100,000 signatures, how did the debate come about?
The Backbench Business Committee, which is responsible for scheduling debates on backbench business, issued a press release explaining how the EU referendum debate came about:
The subject for this debate was determined by the Backbench Business committee following a representation by Mr David Nuttall MP at a public meeting of the committee on 18 October 2011. A large number of backbench Members indicated their support for the debate. This issue has also been raised in public petitions.
This issue has also been raised by various organisations through both paper and online petitions. Between them they have collected more than 100,000 names.
In other words, the Committee decided to schedule the debate primarily because a backbench Member, Mr. Nuttall, requested one, and had the backing of “a large number of backbench Members”. That there were also petitions in support of such a debate was incidental to, not the driving force behind, the decision to schedule the debate. Mr. Nuttall may well have decided to make the representation to the Committee because of the number of petitions in support of a referendum on EU membership, but the Committee’s decision was based on his representation and support from other MPs for such a debate, not because of various petitions.
Queries to this blog have revealed that there is a fair bit of confusion about the whole e-petitions scheme amongst the general public in the UK. It is somewhat disheartening to see that some MPs also don’t really seem to grasp how it works. For example, in the first quote above, Nadine Dorries refers to “an e-petition to 10 Downing street”. Ms. Dorries is perhaps confused with the e-petitions scheme that had been set up in November 2006 by former Prime Minister Tony Blair on the 10 Downing St. website, which was shut down by the Coalition Government just after it took office last year.
MP Mark Pritchard stated: “The origins of today’s debate lie in the Government’s democratic outreach, through e-petitions. More than 100,000 people signed an e-petition calling for a debate in Parliament on this issue.” As mentioned above, this is completely false. The petitions, both paper and electronic, in favour of an EU referendum were in circulation before the launch of the new HM Government e-petition’s website. I am not disputing that these petitions got over 100,000 signatures, but they weren’t related to the “Government’s democratic outreach, through e-petitions”, nor are they the origins of the debate.
Mr Davies claims that the EU referendum debate was the “first that has been triggered by the public through the petitions system”. Again, this is false. A backbench debate was held only a week earlier (17 October 2011) on the issue of the release of the documents pertaining to the Hillsborough tragedy – which was the subject of an e-petition on the Government e-petition site which garnered over 100,000 signatures. That was the first debate triggered by the public through the petitions system, as it clearly states on the press release issued by the Backbench Business Committee.
As for Mr. Tomlinson’s comment that the EU petition is supposedly the “second most popular issue on the e-petition list”, that is simply false. The second most popular issue on the e-petitions list (assuming he is referring to the official Government e-petitions site and not some independent e-petitions site), is the e-petitions calling for full disclosure of the documents pertaining to the Hillsborough disaster mentioned above. The first e-petition mentioning a referendum on the EU is seventh on the list.
I can appreciate that debates triggered by e-petitions are a very new development for the UK House of Commons, and so it is not entirely surprising that some MPs seem rather confused about the process. I do hope some effort is made to clarify exactly how the e-petitions scheme works, so that in the future, MPs will not further add to the misinformation and misunderstanding already out there.