Backbench Business

THE HOUSE MAGAZINE

18 October 2012

Natascha Engel calls for urgent reform to the system of Parliamentary e-petitions

E-petitions should be an excellent way to engage the public with democracy, helping people to learn more about Parliament and how to influence it better.

It’s a missed opportunity when the current e-petitions system often serves to leave people feeling disappointed and frustrated. Many thousands of people will have signed an e-petition, perhaps on fuel duty or on the NHS. But the success (or failure) of e-petitions cannot be a numbers game. For e-petitions to work, people need to be given a better sense of how the political system works and of how their issue can be dealt with.

In our system, unless a petition reaches an arbitrary number of signatures, nothing happens. Hundreds of thousands of people sign a petition and never hear anything back.

Expectations play a part too. People who sign an e-petition that reaches 100,000 signatures expect rather more than they receive now. They want it to trigger a debate, a vote and a change in the law. This will almost never happen, so disappointment and frustration is built into our system.

Another flaw in the current system is that the process starts with Government but ends with Parliament. An e-petition is started and signed through the www.direct. gov.uk website, is allocated to a government department, but is only then given to the Backbench Business Committee to deal with once 100,000 signatures have been reached.

These issues could be resolved by taking e-petitions into Parliament, as we do with paper petitions, thus providing a better way to engage people with democracy.

A system administered by Parliament itself was recommended by the Procedure Committee and followed up by the Hansard Society recently.

There is a model in Scotland for petitions that works. Before you even launch your petition, someone from the Scottish Parliament talks through what the outcomes could be and indicates if the issue is better dealt with by, for example, a local authority or your MSP tabling a question.

In Scotland, there is no threshold on petitions. So while an e-petition receiving a lot of signatures may indicate strength and breadth of feeling, an important issue with only limited support could still be considered. It also means that Parliament would be aware of urgent deadlines.

In Scotland a dedicated Petitions Committee decides how to progress a petition. This could result in a referral to a Select Committee, a letter to a Minister, or a debate in Parliament. The Committee can even invite the petitioner into Parliament to make their case to the Petitions Committee.

By ensuring the petitioner will always be put in touch with their local MP, a link is fostered between the originator of petition and their MP. While the Member will be free to disagree with subject of the e-petition, it is important that a petitioner’s MP is aware the e-petition has been started.

We need to change the e-petitions system urgently to ensure that anyone who uses it feels that it was fair, robust and transparent. Most importantly, we want anyone who signs a petition to learn something about how Parliament works and how to influence it better. It’s a great opportunity but we are in serious danger of missing it.

Hundreds of thousands of people sign a petition and never hear anything back

Natascha Engel is a Labour MP and Chair of the Backbench Business Committee

She will be talking about how to engage with Parliament at “Parliament Talks Constitution” at King’s College London on Monday 19 November (7-9pm). The event is organised by Parliament’s Outreach Service and is part of a programme of activities taking place during Parliament Week 2012 (19-25 November). See www.parliament. uk/talks-constitution for details

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