I spent the weekend in Oxford at the Study of Parliament Group annual conference – my 36th year of consecutive attendance. One of the issues discussed was e-petitions. The point I have previously made came up, namely that the process is confusing. People sign e-petitions on a government website. If 100,000 or more sign a petitition, it is passed to the Backbench Business Committee in the House of Commons to decide if it wishes to schedule it for debate. Passing it to the Committee is no guarantee that it will be selected for debate. Conversely, not reaching 100,000 signatures does not mean a petition may not be taken up by an MP and selected for debate. A petition on BAE workers at Brough did not reach 100,000 signatures but it was championed by local MPs and did lead to a debate.
The e-petitions website is clearly a government website. Many people have difficulty distinguishing betyween Government and Parliament and this merely reinforces the confusion. Furthermore, it raises expectations that cannot be met, claiming that “e-petitions are an easy, personal way for you to influence government and Parliament in the UK”. They are no such thing.
What is to be done? I was reflecting on this in the light of the discussion at the weekend. It is imperative that Parliament has ownership of the process and I choose my words carefully. It should be a Parliament website, with people petitioning Parliament and not simply the House of Commons. Petitions should be considered by a joint committee on Petitions, which could decide to hold hearings of its own or refer a petition to another committee (or even be empowered to appoint sub-committees and co-opt members for particular inquiries). This would help reduce the burden on the Commons, which is already over-stretched.
Furthermore, I would move from the present practice of appointing the same number of members from each House. A joint committee has been appointed with the numbers from the two Houses not equal, so there is a precedent. Appointing slightly more MPs to the joint committee would have a political as well as a practical benefit. The political benefit is that the Commons would still be the dominant partner. The practical benefit is that demands on MPs’ time nowadays are horrendous, so there can sometimes be a problem of attendance at joint committees. Having more Members appointed would reduce the likelihood of becoming inquorate because some MPs have to leave for other meetings.
Thus, the process would be in the ownership of Parliament and there would be a more structured process for dealing with petitions, spreading the burden between the two Houses and being able to call upon, as appropriate, the experience and expertise available in the Lords. It would, to my mind, be a major improvement. The present situation is unsustainable.