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David Porter » Articles at Suite 101 » Parliamentary e-Petitions: Another Gimmick Or Democratic Reform?

Parliamentary e-Petitions: Another Gimmick Or Democratic Reform?

In touch with the web’s people power, Parliament is now offering voters a chance to petition their requests for laws directly online.

A Petition to Parliament is a ‘prayer’ for or against action a policy. The ancient right stems possibly from Saxon times, allowing petition to the Monarch for redress of grievance. Since the Middle Ages, this has effectively meant a petition to Parliament, although the Queen today still gets requests from citizens.

For hundreds of years, petitions have been presented to Parliament by Members placing them in The Petition Bag hanging behind the Speaker’s Chair in the Commons chamber. She/he can introduce with a short speech, or simply insert it. The bag is emptied periodically, and the demands are reported in the House proceedings and forwarded to appropriate departments.

Historic Petitions

As always with the Houses of Parliament, history, tradition and precedent combine to create rules. Parliament’s website explains that they can be sent through the post free, if unsealed. Parliament receives over 1000 a year, and until recently they had to be handwritten and begin with: ‘To the honourable, the Commons of the United Kingdom in Parliament assembled’.

The Ambulance Dispute Petition of December 1989 contained four and a half million signatures, which is thought to be the highest. They were estimated, page by page checked for names and addresses and absence of indecorous writing. Prior to 1974 clerks were paid to count names, the biggest of which was the Chartists of the 1840s with almost two million signatures, many fictitious.

A single person can submit a petition. Larger petitions are often debated, and sometimes the government of the day takes notice of public feeling. The practice enables MPs to say to their constituents: “Yes, I presented your petition to the House….’ even if he/she doesn’t particularly support it. The practice gave rise to the expression ‘it’s in the bag’.

Technology Drives Change

For some years electronic communication with Downing Street and offices of state have been developing. In August 2011, the e-petition site went live: ‘e-petition is an easy way for you to influence government policy in the UK. 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’.

The site experienced technical problems at once, because of heavy usage. However, instructions are simple: search existing petitions; create a new petition; it will be checked by a government department (who can reject repetitious, defamatory, offensive, jokey or nonsense content); the public can sign it for up to a year; and anything over 100,000 names make it eligible for Commons debate.

Sir George Young, Leader of the House, said: ‘This is part of the strategy of making the Commons more relevant’. It follows years of decline in voting turnout and election interest, particularly among the young. It’s telling that one petition published online just three days after launch demands; ‘make this website more user-friendly’.

An early lead in topics was return of the death penalty, with more than 40 of the first 200 attracting over 5000 signatures calling for the return of capital punishment. This was quickly followed by more voters signing one demanding the retention of the ban on judicial execution for any crime.

Other early suggestions included keeping all Formula One motor racing free to air; leaving the European Union; legalising cannabis, the right to self-defence in one’s own home and lowering the voting age. There were several on MPs’ hours, expenses and salaries. One wanted court proceedings televised, another to raise the cost of alcohol and one to feed prisoners bread and water like in the ‘good old days’.

Overcoming Obstacles

It may be that the signature threshold of 100,000 for debate will have to be raised, or lowered in the case of specific local issues. For example, two campaigns in popular, on-the-ground democracy run by the Eastern Daily Press recently were described by reporter Adam Gretton (6 Aug 2011), as: ‘testament to the influence of people power’.

Yet the petition to save RAF Marham in Norfolk secured 37,000 signatures and one to dual the rest of the A11 in Norfolk got 16,000. Both were far short of the 100,000. Monitoring will be necessary and has been promised, though ideas that become awkward can get kicked into the long grass.

Parliament will have to give more of its limited time to debate topics petitioned by the public, crossed the threshold and secured worthiness from officials and MPs. The cross-party business committee charged with deciding the worthiness of subjects for debate may grow partisan, weary or both.

Subjects could receive popular votes that are in direct contrast to the policies of the government of the day. Governments could be expected to enact legislation they are actually against. Or they could just overlook petitions and be accused of ignoring voters’ wishes.

But that’s a fine line politicians have grown used to walking over the centuries. For now, it’s a new idea that should be given a good run, although previous attempts introduced by the last Labour government got 1.8 million to oppose road pricing, 70,000 demanded Gordon Brown resign and 50,000 wanted TV presenter Jeremy Clarkson to become Prime Minister.

Seriously, though, if more people take an interest, then the stronger British democracy will become.

First published on Suite 101, 7 August 2011

Image: Will ePetitions Increase Democracy? – Matthew Bowden

 

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2 Responses to "Parliamentary e-Petitions: Another Gimmick Or Democratic Reform?"

  1. […] October 2011, the Commons Backbench Business Committee in response to public expression of concern about Europe, scheduled a debate on a referendum on continuing British membership. This […]

  2. […] that we’re moving into an era of popular public opinion through social media, television voting, epetitions and referenda, there are many aspects of this gigantic opinion poll not yet resolved. They […]

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