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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E-petitions with 10,000 signatures will now get a response

In a written ministerial statement, Leader of the House, the Rt. Hon. Andrew Lansley announced that any e-petition which received 10,000 or more signatures would receive a response from the Government:

Once an e-petition has passed 10 000 signatures, departments will provide a  response  that will appear on the website and  be e-mailed to all signatories who opted-in to receive updates on that petition.  Responses will include a statement of the Government’s policy on the issue, and details of any relevant Parliamentary processes that are ongoing.

All e-petitions currently open for signature on the site, which  have more than 10 000 signatures, will receive a response from departments; we expect most of these to be published before the House returns from the Conference recess. Responses to e-petitions that subsequently pass the 10 000 signature threshold will  be published on a rolling basis on the relevant page of http://epetitions.direct.gov.uk

Until now, there has been no formal obligation on government departments to respond directly to e-petitions (or paper petitions for that matter). Petitions which garnered 100,000 or more signatures were referred to the Backbench Business Committee for consideration for debate, but they represented a fraction of the e-petitions on the site.

In the House of Commons, during questions on House Business, the chair of the Backbench Business Committee, Natascha Engel, asked Mr. Lansley if he would work with the Committee to ensure that eventually, every single petition receives some sort of feedback. Lansley replied:

I intend to work with the hon. Lady and Members across the House, including my colleagues in the Government, to ensure that those who give their time and energy to bringing issues before the House feel that they are responded to properly and timeously.

To summarize then, any petition (digital or otherwise) which receives 100,000 signatures or more will be automatically referred to the Backbench Business Committee and eligible for consideration for debate, either in the House of Commons or in Westminster Hall. This does not mean that said petition is guaranteed a debate. The Committee itself cannot schedule such a debate unless the petition is brought forward by an MP as a topic for a Backbench Business debate. Even if this happens, the proposal must meet the criteria for debate, and there is still no guarantee that such a debate will occur. Similarly, an MP can propose having a debate on any petition – regardless of the number of signatures the petition may have received, if he or she believes the subject of the petition is an issue which merits a debate.

As well, any petition which receives 10,000 or more signatures is now guaranteed to receive a response from the relevant government department.

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E-petitions prove to be popular in their first year

A year after the launch of its e-petition site, the UK Government has released some interesting data which gives some idea of the popularity of e-petitions.

Over the past twelve months, 36,000 petitions have been launched, attracting 6.4 million signatures. This of course doesn’t meant that 6.4 million different people have signed them – some people have probably signed multiple petitions. According to the Government, that averages out to 12 people signing a petition every minute. The e-petitions website averages 46,500 visits a day, for a total of over 17 million visits over the course of its first year.

While those numbers are impressive, they are also a bit misleading. It seems that the popularity (or at least, the novelty) of e-petitions is wearing off. The site was at its most popular immediately after it launched, with the highest number of people visiting the site occurring last August. Indeed, a petition on the London riots reached the fabled 100,000 signature threshold within days. Since then, visitation to the site has varied, and visits reached a low in May of this year. Ten petitions surpassed the 100,000 signature mark, and six of these managed that in the site’s first 100 days.

Earlier this year, the Hansard Society released a briefing paper, What’s Next for E-Petitions, which identified four key problems with the Government’s e-petitions:

  1. Ownership and responsibility: The system is controlled by government but the onus to respond is largely placed on the House of Commons.
  2. There is no agreement about the purpose of e-petitions: Are they ‘an easy way to influence government policy’, a ‘fire alarm’ about issues of national concern, a ‘finger in the wind’ to determine the depth of public feeling on a range of issues? Or should they be used to empower the public through greater engagement in the political and parliamentary process, providing for deliberation on the issues of concern?
  3. Public and media expectations of the system are consequently confused: People expect an automatic debate once the signature threshold is passed and react negatively when this does not happen.
  4. There is minimal public engagement with Parliament or government: Beyond the possibility of a debate for those e-petitions that pass the 100,000 signature threshold, little or nothing currently happens with them. And if an e-petition does not achieve the signature threshold but still attracts considerable support (e.g. 99,999 signatures) there is no guarantee of any kind of response at all.

I agree with most of the concerns the Hansard Society has identified. One of the main problems with the e-petitions system as it currently exists is that these are petitions to Government, whereas traditionally, one petitions Parliament. Because they are petitions to a Government department, there is no easy way to link them to an MP, who would normally be the person to bring the matter before Parliament. Yet, as the Hansard Society points out, the onus is on the House of Commons to respond to the petitions.

Points two and three are also spot on. I have in fact previously blogged many times about the degree of confusion which exists over how the e-petitions scheme works and the expectations that a debate is guaranteed to happen if a petition surpasses the 100,000 signature threshold. This is in large part due to very sloppy reporting in the media when the scheme was launched, and unfortunately, has not improved.

I quibble a bit with regards to point 4. First of all, just as attaining 100,000 signatures will not necessarily guarantee that an e-petition will be debated, it is entirely possible for a petition which has received fewer than 100,000 signatures to be debated if an MP presents such a request to the Backbench Business Committee. The BBBCom has made this very clear on their website. As for the issue of responses, it is true that there is no guarantee of a response, but some petitions do indeed receive responses, even though they have fallen short of the mystical 100,000 signature mark. The main problem is that there doesn’t seem to be any coherent or consistent policy across government departments which would oblige them to respond to all petitions – regardless of the number of signatures received.

I do fully agree with the key recommendations put forward by the Hansard Society, however:

  • Ownership of and responsibility for the e-petitions system should rest with the House of Commons and not the executive.
  • The House of Commons should create a Petitions Committee, supported by staff in a Petitions Office, to engage with petitioners, moderate the process and provide a single route for consideration of both paper and online petitions.
  • Members of the Petitions Committee should be elected and have the power to refer petitions to a relevant Select Committee, to commission their own inquiries into specific petitions, to question ministers on the issues and to invite petitioners and others to give evidence at public hearings.

I believe that adopting those recommendations would improve the process significantly.

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Why there won’t be a debate on the Drop the Health Bill e-petition

On 28 February 2012, the UK House of Commons Backbench Business Committee declined an application to hold a debate on an e-petition calling on Parliament to drop the Government’s bill to reform the National Health Service (NHS). The e-petition had received over 100,000 signatures, and the request for a debate was brought to the Committee by Labour MP Jonathan Reynolds and Green Party MP Caroline Lucas.

The reasons why the debate was refused centred primarily on two important considerations: the bill had received, and would continue to receive, debate in Parliament, and the request for a debate on dropping the bill would be better suited to an Opposition day debate rather than a Backbench business debate.

As explained on the Backbench Business Committee website, the Committee selects topics for debate based in large part on the following criteria:

  • topicality and timing
  • why holding a debate is important
  • the number of MPs who are likely to take part
  • whether a debate has already been held or is likely to be arranged through other routes

One of the key questions raised at the Committee meeting was whether the issue of NHS reform would be debated if the Backbench Business Committee didn’t give it any time. The obvious answer was yes. The bill had already received debate in the House of Commons, having passed through first reading, second reading, committee stage and third reading, and was currently before the House of Lords. It would then be returned to the Commons so that it could consider the amendments proposed by the Lords. It is a general policy of the Backbench Business Committee that if a bill is currently being debated by the House, or going through Parliament, the Committee will not schedule debates on that bill.

The second major issue for the Committee was that among the many supporting MPs who’d signed the application for the debate on dropping the NHS bill, there were no MPs from the largest party in the Commons, the Conservative Party. There were a few signatures from Liberal Democrat MPs, but the support for the debate was largely from the ranks of the opposition. It is important to the Committee that matters brought forward as backbench business debates have cross-party support. Because of this, the Committee felt the debate would be better as an Opposition day debate. Opposition days are days allocated in the House of Commons in each session for the discussion of subjects chosen by the Opposition. Seventeen days are at the disposal of the leader of the largest opposition party to decide which topics are debated. Three days are also allocated to the other smaller opposition parties.

Another problem with the request was that Reynolds and Lucas were asking for a full day debate. The Backbench Business Committee had very little time left for scheduling debates before the spring break and the Queen’s Speech, and it felt that awarding a large block of time to a matter which was before the House and which had already been debated, and would be debated again, would simply mean that other issues important to backbenchers would not be brought forward for debate. The Committee felt that the request for a debate based on this particular e-petition was in essence a request for another second reading debate.

The main purpose of the Backbench Business Committee is to schedule debates on matters of importance to backbench MPs which wouldn’t otherwise be brought forward for debate. A debate on this particular e-petition simply did not meet the Committee’s criteria.

You can watch the Committee meeting where the request was discussed here.

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How to petition Canadian legislatures

A fair number of people regularly end up on this blog looking for information about petitioning Parliament. Here is an overview of the proper way to petition the House of Commons, as well as the provincial and territorial legislatures.

Number of Signatures

Before looking at the various petition requirements,  I want to address one issue that regularly turns up on the keyword search statistics on this blog. Many people are looking for information about “how many signatures are required for a petition” in Canada. In general, there is no minimum number of signatures needed to validate a petition. A petition could be submitted with only one signature on it. The Parliament of Canada does require that a petition have at least 25 signatures for it to be certified, meaning that it can be presented in the House. However, there isn’t a jurisdiction anywhere in Canada that gives some petitions special treatment based on the number of signatures they receive.

In some other jurisdictions, if a petition reaches a certain threshold of signatures, it might be treated differently than a petition which receives fewer signatures. For example, in the United Kingdom, a petition which receives 10,000 or more signatures will receive a response from the applicable Ministry. A petition which receives over 100,000 signatures will be forwarded to the Backbench Business Committee for possible consideration as a topic for a debate either in the House or in Westminster Hall (note, however, that it is not guaranteed to be debated, and any MP can propose a debate on any petition, no matter how many signatures it has received).

Nothing like this exists anywhere in Canada. All petitions are treated the same, regardless of now many signatures they receive, as long as they meet the requirements to be certified and presented to the House.

The House of Commons

The Canadian House of Commons has a rather extensive Practical Guide to petitions. E-petitions are not accepted. Citizens wishing to petition parliament must ensure that their petitions meets the criteria outlined in the guide, and then find an MP willing to present their petition in the House. The guide is very specific, for example:

  • The text of a petition must be handwritten, typed, printed or photocopied on sheets of paper of usual size, i.e. measuring 21.5 cm x 28 cm (8 1/2 x 11 inches) or 21.5 cm x 35.5 cm (8 1/2 x 14 inches). A petition submitted on paper of irregular size, or on any other material, is not acceptable.
  • The text of a petition must not be altered either by erasing or crossing out words or by adding words or commentary. Any alteration will make the petition unacceptable.
  • A petition must be free of any other matter attached or appended to or written or printed on the petition, whether in the form of additional documents, maps, pictures, logos, news articles, explanatory or supporting statements, or requests for support. A petition printed on the reverse of a document (for example a newsletter or a Member’s Householder or Ten Percenter) is not acceptable.
  • If a petition is composed of more than one sheet of signatures and addresses, the subject-matter of the petition must be indicated on every sheet.
  • The petition must receive at least 25 signatures in order to be certified for presentation to the House. The signatures of any MPs will not count towards the 25  required signatures.
  • Signatures must not be photocopied.

Newfoundland and Labrador House of Assembly

Petitions to the Newfoundland and Labrador House of Assembly must also be of the traditional paper variety, as explained on the Assembly’s website. The Assembly also provides a useful template for anyone wishing to petition the Assembly.

Legislative Assembly of Prince Edward Island

The only information regarding petitions on the website of the Legislative Assembly of PEI is in the Rules of the Assembly (Standing Orders), specifically Rule 78. The information provided is mostly for the benefit of the MLAs who will be presenting the petitions to the Assembly. There is no guidance regarding the form or content of petitions for citizens wishing to submit a petition, other than 78(3) which specifies that no petition which “prays for any expenditure, grant or charge” will be accepted.

Nova Scotia Legislative Assembly

The Nova Scotia Legislative Assembly provides very clear, concise information on how to petition the Assembly on its website:

The request must ask the House of Assembly or government to do something that is within its constitutional powers.  They can be either written or printed (not electronic) and signed by as few as one person. If there are three or more signatures, however, they must be on the first page with the prayer.  The prayer should appear at the top of every page of a petition.  There is no standard format. All petitions must bear original signatures.  Photocopies of petitions or print-outs of Internet petitions are not acceptable.  Similarly, boxes or bundles of printed e-mails are not accepted.  The MLA presenting the petition is responsible for ensuring that its content is appropriate. He or she must also endorse the petition being presented to show which MLA tabled it, even if he or she does not agree with it.

Legislative Assembly of New Brunswick

The Legislative Assembly of New Brunswick also provides clear instructions on how to petition the Assembly on its website, including a template petitioners can use to ensure their petition has proper form.

Quebec National Assembly

The Quebec National Assembly was the first legislature in Canada to accept both paper and electronic petitions. Parliamentary reforms introduced in 2009 introduced e-petitions, which must be initiated and signed via the National Assembly’s internet site.

The above link provides detailed information on initiating both traditional paper and electronic petitions.

Of note, the parliamentary reforms which brought in e-petitions also initiated a change to the Standing Orders which now require the government to respond to any petition. Previously, there was no obligation on the part of Government to provide any sort of response to petitions tabled in the National Assembly.

Legislative Assembly of Ontario

The Legislative Assembly of Ontario does not accept e-petitions. It does provide detailed information on how to petition the Assembly on the Assembly’s website, including information on what happens after the petition is presented in the House. There is also a template provided to ensure petitions have the correct form.

Legislative Assembly of Manitoba

The Legislative Assembly of Manitoba provides citizens with detailed information on the petition process on its website in the form of three PDFs: General Guidelines, Model Petition and a Sample Petition.

Legislative Assembly of Saskatchewan

The Legislative Assembly of Saskatchewan has a very detailed PDF guide to petitions. Where, exactly, this guide is located on its website is unclear. The only way I was able to find the document was by searching for “petitions” in the site seach box. There doesn’t seem to be a very obvious direct link to the guide in any of the navigation menus.

Legislative Assembly of Alberta

The Legislative Assembly of Alberta provides a 4-page PDF guide to petitions; however, it is not immediately obvious how to find it on the Assembly website. For the record, it’s listed in the Quick Access drop down menu on the Assembly’s homepage.

British Columbia Legislative Assembly

The only information concerning petitioning the British Columbia Legislative Assembly was found in the Standing Orders, which would make it rather difficult for most people to find the information they need. Standing Order 73(1) reads:

73. (1) A petition substantially in the form prescribed by Appendix A may be presented by a Member for the redress of an alleged public grievance.

(2) The petition must contain a clear, concise, accurate and temperate statement of the facts for which the intervention of the House is requested and the signature of all the petitioners.

(3) No petition can be received which requests any expenditure, grant or charge on the public revenue, whether payable out of the consolidated revenue fund or out of moneys to be provided by the House.

(4) A petition, on being presented and meeting the requirements of this Standing Order, is deemed to have been received, and copies shall be made available to a Member on request. Tabling of the petition shall be recorded in the Votes and Proceedings.

(5) Members presenting petitions shall be answerable that they do not contain impertinent or improper matter.

Appendix A referred to above outlines the form a petition must take:

APPENDIX A – FORM OF PETITION

(For Private Bill or Other Purposes)

To the Honourable the Legislative Assembly of the Province of British Columbia, in Legislature Assembled:

The petition of the undersigned, __________ , of the __________, states that: [here state the object of the petition, briefly setting forth the reasons therefor].

Your petitioners respectfully request that the Honourable House [take such action as may be deemed appropriate.]

Dated __________ day of __________, 20 __.

(Signatures)

Yukon Legislative Assembly

The Yukon Legislative Assembly provides a 2-page PDF info sheet on petitions on the Assembly’s website.

Legislative Assembly of the Northwest Territories

After testing an ePetitions pilot project in 2010-11, the Legislative Assembly of the Northwest Territories now has an online petitions option available on its website, becoming only the second legislature in the country to accept ePetitions. Complete details are available here, and detailed petition guidance is provided here. Traditional paper petitions are also still accepted.

Nunavut Legislative Assembly

There doesn’t appear to be any information at all concerning petitions on the Nunavut Assembly website. Entering “petitions” in the site search box yielded no results. However, one can find some information about petitions in the Assembly’s Standing Orders, similar to PEI and the NWT.

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How the Backbench Business Committee works

I have written a number of posts about the UK House of Commons Backbench Business Committee, trying to explain to readers what the committee is, what it does, and its role in relation to petition-driven debates.

The Committee’s website now includes a very useful “How the Backbench Business Committee Works” page, complete with a video featuring Committee Chair Natascha Engel explaining what the Committee does, and how the e-petitions work.

She makes it quite clear that a petition does not need 100,000 signatures to be considered for debate, it simply needs an MP to sponsor it and apply for a debate on the subject matter raised by the petition.

You can also download a list of the topics chosen for debate thus far (not all driven by a petition), the application form MPs must use to request a debate, and an explanation of some of the criteria the Committee uses to decide which matters will get debated. Of note is the last point listed: “whether a debate has already been held or is likely to be arranged through other routes”. This is important in relation to the e-petition calling on the government to withdraw the NHS Reform bill. Because this bill has already received extensive debate in the House of Commons (including committee review and third reading) and is now being considered by the Lords, it is doubtful that this petition will be considered for a Backbench Business debate. By convention, Parliament will not revisit a matter that it has already debated.

I urge anyone interested in the workings of the Backbench Business Committee and e-petitions to have a look at this page, and watch the video. It should answer most of your questions.

 

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Update on e-petitions

The UK House of Commons Procedure Committee recently released its report on the Government’s e-petitions scheme.

It is well known that there is significant confusion regarding how many signatures an e-petition requires in order for it to be debated in the House of Commons. Indeed, this blog regularly gets hits from people searching for information on how many signatures does an e-petition need in order to be debated. What I have tried to make clear in previous posts is that no e-petition is guaranteed a debate in the House of Commons, but that an e-petition which garners over 100,000 signatures will be referred to the Backbench Business Committee for consideration for debate.

The Committee’s report has further clarified the matter (italics added):

26. We are also concerned that the statement [on the e-petitions website] that a petition with over 100,000 signatures is “eligible for debate in the House of Commons” is unclear and not well-understood by the public. The subject of an e-petition (so long as it does not fall foul of any of the House’s own rules) is eligible for debate no matter how many signatures an e-petition has. Members may choose to apply for adjournment debates or for debates in backbench time without the support of an e-petition signed by over 100,000 petitioners. Passing the 100,000 threshold is significant only because it triggers a letter from the Leader of the House to the Backbench Business Committee.

27. We recommend that the Government should modify the sentence “You can create an e-petition about anything that the government is responsible for and if it gets at least 100,000 signatures, it will be eligible for debate in the House of Commons”, which currently appears on its website, by leaving out “it will be eligible for debate in the House of Commons” and instead inserting “the Government will ask the Backbench Business Committee of the House of Commons to consider scheduling a debate on it in the House”.

In other words, any e-petition, even if it has only a handful of signatures, could be brought forward for possible debate by an MP if that MP believes the issue at the heart of the petition should be debated by the House. Reaching the 100,000 signature mark only ensures that the Government will ask the Backbench Business Committee to consider scheduling a debate on that e-petition (but will not guarantee that this debate will occur).

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Some interesting links: rebel MPs, e-petitions, hung parliaments, and political disengagement

1. Rebels of the Chamber

Isabel Hardman has a fascinating piece looking at some of the most rebellious backbench MPs in the UK House of Commons:

Once an MP starts down the route of the serial rebel, it seems easier for the whips to leave them be. Islington North MP Jeremy Corbyn, is one such example. “A whip called me once, saying: ‘I just wanted to confirm that you will definitely be voting against us tonight’,” he says. “I replied, yes, your intelligence is right.”

2. Procedure Committee releases its report on e-Petitions

In an earlier post, I reported on a hearing of the UK House of Commons Procedure Committee into the Government’s e-petitions scheme. The Committee recently released its report. Among their recommendations:

  • Extra sittings: The committee’s report recommends that an extra sitting in Westminster Hall, between 4.30 and 7.30 pm on a Monday, should be created for debates on e-petitions. The sitting would take place only if the Backbench Business Committee had scheduled a debate on an e-petition. The committee proposes that this change should be introduced as an experiment and reviewed after a year.
  • Government website:The committee’s report also recommends changes to the Government’s e-petitions website so that the information provided to petitioners is clearer, fuller and more accurate.

 3. The Hung Commonwealth Parliament: the First Year

The 2010 Australian general election, held on 21 August, resulted in a hung Parliament, with both the Australian Labor Party and the Liberal/Nationals Coalition emerging with 72 seats each in the House of Representatives. The remaining seats were held by one Western Australia Nationals member (Tony Crook); one Australian Greens member (Adam Bandt); and four non-aligned independent members (Bob Katter, Rob Oakeshott, Andrew Wilkie, and Tony Windsor). This was Australia’s first hung parliament in 70 years. The Parliamentary Library of the Australian Parliament has produced a detailed overview of the this parliament’s first year and the various standing order changes that have been implemented to better deal with the situation.

4. The Real Outsiders

Samara Canada’s latest report looks at the politically disengaged in Canada:

First, whether they were engaged or disengaged, our participants universally condemned politics. Contrary to the notion that the disengaged are apathetic, we found that those less likely to participate were neither disinterested in nor uninformed about the system. Instead we found that their disdain for politics was driven by an intuitive understanding of how the political system functions and their previous interactions with it.

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Procedure Committee looks at e-petitions

The UK House of Commons Procedure Committee heard from Leader of the House of Commons, the Rt. Hon. Sir George Young, and from MP Natascha Engel, chair of the Backbench Business Committee (BBC) on the matter of e-petitions. You can watch the meeting here, but I will summarise below some of the key issues raised.

Ms. Engel noted several times that the big problem with the e-petitions scheme was that it was conceived and implemented by the Government without consultation or debate in Parliament. Had there been consultation and debate, many of the problems which have arisen, and which she believes were entirely foreseeable, could have been avoided.

The biggest problem for the BBC is that of time. The e-petitions program was launched after the creation of the Backbench Business Committee, and thus after it had already been allocated a set number of days for debate during the course of the session. The BBC has no shortage of matters MPs wish to discuss, and thus it now must take away time from that to allow for debates on e-petitions which reach the 100,000 signature threshold.

Ms. Engel also noted that the 100,000 signature threshold appeared to be completely random, and that now, it would be difficult to change it (in the sense of increasing it to make it more difficult for e-petitions for qualify for referral to the BBC). She also noted that because this threshold exists, the focus is on numbers only rather than on the merit of the subject of the e-petition. This is a valid concern – some very important topics may never garner 100,000 signatures, but would certainly be worthy of debate in the House, while other more “frivolous” yet popular ideas could easily garner the required number of signatures. Consequently, the best petitions might not be the ones that ever get debated.

Ms. Engel also had serious concerns with the expectations of those who sign e-petitions. Part of the problem is that the website itself states:

e-petitions is an easy way for you to influence government policy in the UK.

As Ms. Engel pointed out to the Committee, this is very misleading. There is no direct link between signing an e-petition and changing a law (or influencing government policy), and Parliament needs to better explain to people what can be achieved by signing an e-petition. There was also some discussion of the fact that there is widespread belief that any petition which receives 100,000 signatures automatically gets debated in the House, which, as I have written about many times, is simply not the case.

Sir George Young was asked directly if the e-petitions were petitions to the Government or to Parliament. After some non-answers, he finally stated that they were initially petitions to Government, but once they reached the 100,000 threshold, they became petitions to Parliament. He was then asked if these were petitions to Government, why rely on the Backbench Business Committee to deal with them? Why didn’t the Government find time to schedule debates on e-petitions? Sir George didn’t really answer this question. He simply countered that to date, a very limited number of petitions had resulted in debates, and that there was little danger of e-petitions overwhelming the BBC.

Another member of the Procedure Committee pointed out that Westminster Hall was currently not in use on Monday afternoons, so why not reserve that time for e-petition debates? Sir George simply tossed that one back to the Procedure Committee, stating that it was within its purview to make such a recommendation in its report.

Ms. Engel pointed out that since the main problem with the e-petitions scheme was that it had been brought in without any consultation or debate, it would be wrong for another small group (the Procedure Committee) to further decide matters concerning e-petitions. It really was a matter that needed to be debated by the House as a whole. And she countered Sir George’s claim that while there had been only a handful of petitions which reached the 100,000 signature mark, this situation could very easily change and e-petitions could indeed end up swamping the Backbench Business Committee. She also noted that debates on e-petitions which have been held in Westminster Hall (rather than in the main Chamber proper) were considered “second rate” by many members of the public and that the BBC was flooded with angry emails over the fact that the debate had not taken place in the main Chamber.

Sir George was asked where the 100,000 number had come from, and he replied it was an “inspired and informed guess”, and that the Government had no plans to change it. Ms. Engel, however, noted again that there was a problem with the threshold because, as stated earlier, it all became a numbers game rather than a focus on the merits of the petition. She added that she appreciated that the Government had good intentions, that they wanted to avoid a situation like the Number 10 e-petitions set up by Prime Minister Tony Blair, wherein petitions could receive thousands of signatures but nothing happened, but that it was important to ask what was trying to be achieved with the e-petitions scheme. She believes that the aim is to provide better public engagement, but not public access to voteable motions on the floor of the House. She also praised the Scottish e-petitions system, where they have a focus on explaining the principle of petitioning, and a full-time Public Petitions Committee.

Ms. Engel also noted that while the e-petitions scheme has created a bridge between the public and Parliament, by referring the petitions directly to the BBC, it bypasses the MP completely, which is a very different way of doing business than is normally the case in Parliament. Citizens are normally expected to go through their MP when they have grievances. For example, MPs have their local constituency surgeries where they meet with their constituents, listen to their problems, explain how the system works, how to proceed, the best ways to deal with the problems they face, etc., in other words, there is a dialogue. The e-petition by-passes the MP and there is no dialogue.

She explained that all MPs are quite sensitive to what the public thinks of them, and the members of the BBC are quite aware that voters don’t like it when an e-petition debate occurs in Westminster Hall rather than the main chamber. As well, the committee is increasingly looking not at the merit of a matter brought forward to the committee for consideration for debate, but whether it has an e-petition attached to it. She suggested several times that the 100,000 signature threshold should be done away with and not have any threshold in place. That would allow e-petitions to be considered on their merit rather than relying solely on a numbers game.

There were a few other interesting points discussed, particularly the possible role the future House Business Committee might play in terms of scheduling debate time for e-petitions, as well as the question of what feedback was given to e-petitioners by the Government. The Procedure Committee is looking to release an urgent report in the very near future to address some of the more critical problems raised concerning e-petitions. I will keep you posted.

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