Jeremy Clarkson for Prime Minister? The problems with e-petitions

Calls for the popular BBC presenter to take office may be an echo of the old e-petitions system, but with the death penalty and guilty looters now on the agenda, the latest version still has problems.

The government launched its new e-petitions website amidst fears that the death penalty would be re-introduced.

A week and four days of rioting later, an e-petition calling for guilty looters and arsonists reached the 100,000 e-signatures threshold.

Both petitions point to problems with the government’s website. But for the sake of a better and more responsive democracy, it is important that we address and overcome these problems and make the site work.

E-petitions replaces the Number 10 website which was taken down just before the last election. It was that site which brought you “Jeremy Clarkson for Prime Minister” as one of the most popular petitions.

And that was one of the problems. There were few filters on the site. Now, each petition is allocated to a government department which hopefully means that there will be some kind of feedback to those people who have signed a petition. That’s important.

The government, though, wanted a threshold over which something should be triggered. They decided that once an e-petition had reached 100,000 signatures it would be sent to the Backbench Business Committee to decide whether it should be debated.

I understand why they set a threshold but I think it was unnecessary and has already resulted in unforeseen consequences.

Firstly, if the government creates a demand in the way that it has, it should satisfy it rather than handing over the consequences to someone else to deal with.

Secondly, if expectations are raised and then not met, then Parliament’s fragile attempts at reconnecting with people will be dashed. People will once again shout out “Look! The Emperor’s got no clothes on!”

Most people expect that by signing a popular e-petition, that if it reaches the threshold, they will be able to change the law.

They will not.

The best that will happen is that something may be debated in Parliament. It is possible that an issue attracts such debate and such a lot of adverse publicity (like the government’s failed attempt at selling off the forests) that they are embarrassed into a change of heart.

And the Backbench Business Committee has been responsible for a few of these turnarounds.
It was set up just over a year ago in response to a demand by backbenchers to hold government to account better.

The government now allocates a certain amount of time to the Backbench Business Committee (35 days a session which usually equates to a Parliamentary year) in which we, backbenchers, decide what should be debated.

During the miners’ strike in the 1980s, the near-civil war in the streets was never debated in Parliament. Both government and opposition at the time had a vested interest in not raising the matter.

In theory, this would now be impossible. The Backbench Business Committee would schedule it, like it found time to debate prisoners’ voting rights, contaminated blood, Afghanistan and wild animals in circuses. None of these debates and votes would have happened without the Backbench Business Committee.

But there is a world of difference between embarrassing the government and making it change the law. Our debates only raise issues and discuss them. It is still, rightly, down to government to decide if a law should be changed.

And that brings me onto the role of a backbencher. We are by definition not part of the government or the opposition frontbench. We tend (not always but usually) to be more responsive to our constituents and less bound by the collective responsibility of executives.

But it is still an indirect sort of democracy which some people find too unresponsive, especially in so-called safe-seat constituencies.

E-petitions are an attempt to bring people more directly into the decision-making of Parliament. That is a leap beyond having voices and opinions heard.

Web-based petitions are very responsive to events. We saw that with the riots and the speed with which 100,000 signatures were gathered. But like the dangerous Dogs Act, swiftness of response can sometimes just lead to bad law.

The fact is that councils already do have the powers to evict tenants for anti-social behaviour. But to evict someone whose son has been caught looting is another matter. And what about all those looters who own their own homes?

The petition was a reflection of the anger and frustration that people felt after the riots. But we didn’t need an arbitrary threshold of 100,000 signatures to tell us that law-abiding people were furious.

To force Parliament to debate and even ask us to legislate on the back of a hasty petition drafted in anger is not the right way to go.

MPs will respond to e-petitions with a lot of signatures on. It’s in their interests to do so.

And while we have a representative democracy, there is nothing to prevent Jeremy Clarkson putting his name forward at the next General Election and once elected running for Prime Minister.

Natascha Engel is a Labour MP and chair of the House of Commons Backbench Business Committee

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