Confusing Parliament and Government

It is not unusual for the public to confuse Parliament with Government.  Even the BBC do it.  I notice that on one programme, Heir Hunters, whenever there is a reference to the Government, or to the Treasury, it displays a picture of the Palace of Westminster.   However, the Government is now adding to the confusion.  The Government invites people to submit e-petitions to a Government website, but has announced that if a petition attracts 100,000 or more signatures it will be eligible for consideration for debate in the House of Commons.   This decision, though, will be made by the Backbench Business Committee of the House, which has nothing to do with Government.  

The process really should be one where people are petitioning Parliament, through a parliamentary website; otherwise, it should be Government providing time in Government time for debate.  The present process is a recipe for confusion – and for buck-passing when people complain their subject was not chosen for debate.

About Lord Norton

Professor of Government at Hull University, and Member of the House of Lords
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10 Responses to Confusing Parliament and Government

  1. Frank W. Summers III says:

    Lord Norton,

    You haven’t really lived until you can beat this story: Occasionaly I have been privileged to hear serious high ranking officials quote from the Declaration at length and repeatedly call it the Constitution and once even hold up an actual constitution while doing so. Until the Parliament Act is clearly called the Reform Bills or the Bill of Rights by a serious and determined minister I am afraid I lack the sympathy I should have toward my electronic host…

    • Lord Norton says:

      Frank W. Summers III: That is seriously worrying…

      • Frank W. Summers III says:

        Lord Norton,

        As a representative of the British Establishment it is both right and genuine that you should find confusion of the two documents worrying. However, it is not my favorite anecdote. I was once privileged to hear a scholar say how surely under its own constitution the Congress could not commit itself to or allow private persons to bring public vengeance to enemies on the grounds of some concept of piracy that devloped centuries before our Union. I could not help wondering what his school did with the time they could have spent reading Article 1 Section 8 which in part provides as Congress’s special powers that it act:
        “To define and punish Piracies and Felonies committed on the high Seas, and Offenses against the Law of Nations;

        To declare War, grant Letters of Marque and Reprisal, and make Rules concerning Captures on Land and Water;”

  2. ladytizzy says:

    “…if a petition attracts 100,000 or more signatures…”

    Maybe, maybe not. To the sound of rapid back pedalling Sir George Young helpfully explained,”…we’ve set 100,000 because we think that’s roughly the right target, but if lots and lots of petitions sail through that barrier then we may need to see if it should be higher. If none of them are able to reach that target then we may need to lower it.”

    He failed to further quantify ‘lots and lots’.

    • Frank W. Summers III says:

      Sounds like any lessons attributed to “the playing fields of Eton” in British history are safely forgotten…

      • ladytizzy says:

        I wonder if JK Rowling knew:

      • Frank W. Summers III says:

        Lady Tizzy,

        An excellent link at any rate. I will let you know however that experience has made me skeptical of skeptics. Some people are not quoted when alive because they are personally terrifying and not because pwople lie about what they said later. Wellington may well have been such a person.Nonetheless, I am better informed now…

    • Lord Norton says:

      ladytizzy: If you look at the petitions so far presented and the number of signatures, what strikes me as remarkable is how few people have signed. It may be that the barrier gets lowered.

  3. ladytizzy says:

    If I may offer an alternative view: given the history of e-petitions via the (now defunct) No.10 site (a resounding silence was the reply to some 1.8 million petitioners who did not agree with Mr Blair’s proposals to scrap road tax in favour of road pricing) I’m rather touched by the number of people who have bothered to create new, or sign up to existing, petitions.

    Amongst the top 10 I note that an MP and a lobbying group are in third place having combined to petition for cheaper fuel (for transport only) yet have only attracted c.67,000 signatures. Is this a reflection of the issue, the expectation of those who haven’t signed, or of an MP + lobby group’s failure to connect with the public?

    Further, does this not suggest that backbench MPs have to resort to a public forum to be heard by, um, other backbench MPs?

    If you’re collecting examples of confusion-created-by-those-who-should-know better:

  4. 21st century says:

    The BBC Radio 4 News has just talked about the “Commons Intelligence & Security Committee”, whereas, in fact, it is a statutory, Government committee composed of Members of BOTH Houses – and with a Government, not Parliament, website ( This is a very common mistake made all across the media, and illustrates your point about the harmful (at least to Parliament) confusion between ‘Government’ and ‘Parliament’.

    It is just one of many examples of the public being presented with ‘parliamentary’ bodies/activities which are in fact initiated and driven by Government. And this is supposed to be a body scrutinising government!

    The sooner Parliament takes full control of its own affairs and operations the better democracy the people, in whose name the Parliament operates, will enjoy.

    …. But then that requires Members of both Houses actually to be aware and care about this core democratic deficit. And there are very, very few of them sadly (yourself excepted, of course).

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