E-petitions allow voters to raise issues which they believe politicians should consider. They are agenda setting, but, unlike a referendum or a plebiscite, they are not meant to decide policy. They represent a marriage of direct and representative democracy. The problem is that the terms of the marriage are unclear. What happens when a petition attracts substantial support—100,000 at present? The failure to resolve that question undermined the original Number 10 website set up in the late Blair years and threatens the new e-petitions website launched a couple of months ago which was meant to provide a more explicit link with Parliament.
The idea of strengthening public engagement is sensible, particularly in an age when Government and Parliament are widely seen as out-of-touch. However, some have expressed concern at populist campaigns funded by single interest groups and backed by tabloid papers—for example, on the restoration of capital punishment. That is a feeble and essentially anti-democratic argument. As Sir George Young, the Leader of the Commons, has argued: ‘If lots of people want Parliament to do something which it rejects, then it is up to MPs to explain the reasons to their constituents, What else is Parliament for? People have strong opinions, and it does not serve democracy well if we ignore them or pretend that their views do not exist’. Burkean detachment is no longer possible: voters have to be heard, not ignored between elections.
But how is the explanation to occur? The problem with the original Number 10 website was an inadequate response when petitions were submitted - merely a ministerial statement, invariably justifying existing policy. There was no opportunity for the petitioners to have the merits of their case debated, as happens in some cases in the Scottish Parliament.
The Conservatives in opposition came up with an improved plan: that if a petition attracted 100,000 signatures, it would be considered for debate or dealt with by the Government. That led to the understandable impression that this would happen automatically and quickly. Ministers have denied this interpretation, saying that, instead, when a petition reaches a threshold, ‘it will be considered with a view to seeing whether the matter raised has already been debated or is already going to be debated in a different context, or whether the request has already been met by Government’.
The new site has more than 6,500 petitions and well over 1.5 million signatures. The top two are calls for convicted London rioters to lose all benefits (245,000) and full disclosure of all government papers relating to the 1989 Hillsborough disaster (139,000). On Hillsborough, the Government has made all the papers from the Cabinet Office available to an independent panel and said there is no objection to them being made public. There is a number of petitions both pro and con capital punishment, though none are yet remotely near 100,000.
The missing link now is the parliamentary trigger. Natascha Engel, who chairs the Backbench Business Committee, has argued that the new system will only work if the Government provides it with more overall time for debates. At present, the Government decides which days are for backbench business, and the committee decides the topic. The total of 35 days a year is already over-subscribed. E-petitions compete with other demands from MPs, and a debate can only happen when taken up by an MP. Ms Engel’s committee has now secured time for debates on the two most popular petitions (on rioters’ benefits and Hillsborough) and these will be held when Parliament returns in mid-October from its party conference break.
However, the underlying problems remain. The connection between a petition reaching the 100,000 threshold and subsequent ministerial action or parliamentary debate needs to be more explicit; and either more Commons time needs to be made available to the Backbench Business Committee or specific days need to be allocated to e-petitions.
The will is there, but not yet the means. The risk, already apparent, is that voters will become disillusioned with the process as just another device to brush aside public concerns.