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You might not have noticed but late last year 10 Downing Street’s e-Petitions system was quietly turned off. And just as the holiday period got into full swing came an announcement that would allow ‘popular online petitions to be debated within Parliament within a year’. To achieve this, the government is to consult with a range of people, including the House’s Procedure Committee. That would be the same Procedure Committee whose own recommendations for Parliamentary e-Petitioning fell at the first hurdle, their proposal being over-complicated and gold plated, requiring enough budget to fund a small provincial town.
The suggestion is that the proposed e-Petitions site will be incorporated into DirectGov, which is rapidly becoming the digital one-stop-shop for all citizen-government interactions.
Some criticise the value of petitions in general and e-Petitions in particular, indeed I’ve been highly sceptical of the Downing Street venture – but not because of petitioning per se, rather because it lacked an underlying process that guaranteed an authentic and considered response or which led to the possibility of an action occurring as a result of the petition.
I’m also sceptical of applying a naïve quantitative assessment (which unfortunately seems to form an inherent part of the government’s proposal) As the National Assembly for Wales has proven, setting a low threshold and assessing a petition on its quality, not simply quantity is a much more successful way to go. There’s a further problem with the proposed 100,000 threshold required to trigger a Parliamentary debate (the Procedure Committee recommended that this be a Westminster Hall debate); the German Bundestag e-Petitions process allows petitioners with over 50,000 signatures to present to their Petitions Committee, yet very few ever reach this threshold. The German experience suggests that the only petitions to make the threshold will be broad and highly populist (the infamous ‘Jeremy Clarkson for PM’ Number 10 petition comes to mind) or relate to the internet! Back at Downing Street, only eight e-petitions passed the 100,000 threshold in three years. This is not exactly enhancing for democracy and a point well made by some MPs as they resist e-Petitions.
But let’s be clear; e-Petitions are effective so long as the process is well designed. They work successfully in Scotland and Wales. The Australian Federal Parliament is about to internalise e-Petitions (having accepted external e-Petitions for a number of years) and petitioning Parliament is a long held citizens’ right. It makes absolute sense to update the procedure to bring it into line with the way modern society thinks, works and communicates. Remember too, as our Audit of Political Engagement consistently tells us, signing a petition is the democratic activity people are most likely to do other than vote. Petitions matter as a potential on-ramp to democratic re-engagement.
Perhaps the biggest challenge with the current proposal is one of roles and responsibilities. Government is not able to compel Parliament to adopt e-Petitions (or anything else for that matter). Parliament must decide to do this for itself. Given that the current Speaker is on record as wanting to enhance the power of the backbenches, one must look a little askance at a press release from Government telling the world what it intends to have Parliament do.
Despite this challenge, I’m pleased to see that the government is being proactive and picking up where Parliament has lost momentum. What I’d like to see is a light-weight system drawing on the useful recommendations of the Procedure Committee around process that avoids the unnecessary over complication and gold-plating that stymied earlier efforts.