November 16, 2011
Last summer, everyone welcomed the government’s introduction of e-petitions as a way of improving public engagement. But the way in which the current system works means there is a serious danger of greater distrust and disappointment.
The government announced that any e-petition that reaches 100,000 signatures would be passed to the backbench business committee, which would decide whether or not it would schedule a debate. This system was introduced without any consultation with people or parliament, which meant that some perfectly foreseeable consequences were not dealt with in advance.
For a start, the backbench business committee is given a certain amount of time every year (35 days in each parliamentary session) to schedule and have debates – but the committee itself has absolutely no control over when those days will be. They are given to us on an ad hoc basis by the government, and there have been weeks on end when no time has been available. In contrast, public expectation is that, once an e-petition reaches 100,000 signatures, something will happen immediately – a debate, a vote, a change in the law. This public perception will be hard to change.
Another problem is time. The backbench business committee has not been allocated extra days to compensate for the additional demand on time created by e-petitions. The recent Migration Watch e-petition, which was promoted by the Daily Mail, reached 100,000 signatures within a week. This could translate into a claim on every single backbench day, leaving little or no time for debates that are generated by backbenchers – and designed to hold the government to account better.