Making e-petitions truly parliamentary

44101I 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.

About Lord Norton

Professor of Government at Hull University, and Member of the House of Lords
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6 Responses to Making e-petitions truly parliamentary

  1. franksummers3ba says:

    Lord Norton,
    So few people in the so-called English speaking world ever seem to be consciously inquorate. If there were a quorum for those using the term in most venues most of the venues so constituted would be always inquorate — at least at first.

  2. As someone who has long been arguing (fruitlessly) against the way the unilaterally-established Government e-petitions scheme has been harmful to the UK Parliament, because, as you say, it blurs the constitutionally vital distinction between the two institutions, and because it is yet another example of Government ‘control’ of the workings of Parliament, let me say: “Well said!”

    This present Government seems to have no more desire to release Parliament – esp the Commons – from its clutches than have previous ones. Just look at the newly-published Coalition Update and Audit documents’ sections on ‘political reform’ to see how it has been and plans to continue, to ‘modernising’ Parliament, no doubt for its own benefit and convenience.

    Will the people – whose parliament it really is, and should be – ever realise this and try to inject some spine into our docile and irresponsible (in the true constitutional sense) elected representatives in the Commons, and thereby start a process of genuine, democratic reform of Parliament?

    Probably not.

    Happy New (same old) Year!

    • maudie33 says:

      @ Barry W:

      The very last change government wants to see or hear suggested is the idea of loss of their absolute undemocratic control of ‘our’ people or ‘our’ Parliament. Which is why they push for us to be out of Europe. This tactic is in order to remove our citizens from any form of Human Rights under that Act and of the Social Chapter that requires government put into action what we are supposed to be funding through our taxes for our care throughout our lives. Make no mistake, what is wanted by this government is revenue they can use and abuse with no concern for the paying public welfare or wishes on any level.

      This notion that our enforced payment, taxation, into a governing fund for social security and any other security we are donating toward, belongs to those in power without a strong mandate, which was created by dishonest representation in manifestos prior to a general election, is an outright fraud and they must not get away with it.

      Calling for this to change is not only imperative but must be demanded in no uncertain terms.

  3. ladytizzy says:

    The move from the old No.10 petition site to the current set up has at least given some satisfaction to sections of the public. Another push in the direction you suggest is appealing, especially if the boundaries review bears fruit and reduces the number of MPs (I am an optimist).

    However, I am not clear why unverified signatures to an e-petition are acceptable but not when they are given as part of a group submission responding to a call for evidence.

  4. Gar says:

    “Many people have difficulty distinguishing betyween Government and Parliament and this merely reinforces the confusion. Furthermore, it raises expectations that cannot be met,”

    I should say nearly everybody has that problem of distinction, and it certainly raises hopes that cannot be met in the same way that referend-ums dash them!

  5. Dr Fox would like to see the site taken over by Parliament with a special Petitions Committee established to look at how e-petitions work and which ones should get parliamentary attention.

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