This 2012 briefing paper set out recommendations for reform of the-then e-petitions system. Many of its proposals, such as the creation of a Petitions Committee, were adopted by the House of Commons and form the basis of the current e-petitions system.
The paper – by Dr Ruth Fox, then-Director of the Hansard Society’s Parliament and Government programme – examined how the e-petitions system existing at the time had developed and how it worked in practice. The paper saw the introduction of the system as having been a step in the right direction, with the government deserving credit for setting it up quickly and cost-effectively.
Key problems with the system
However, the paper found the system to be falling short of public and media expectations. It identified four main problems with the system as it was then operating:
1. Unclear ownership and responsibility. The system was controlled by government but the onus to respond was largely placed on the House of Commons.
2. No agreement about the purpose of e-petitions. Were e-petitions ‘an easy way to influence government policy’, a ‘fire alarm’ about issues of national concern, a ‘finger in the wind’ to determine the depth of public feeling on a range of issues? Or should they be used to empower the public through greater engagement in the political and parliamentary process, providing for deliberation on the issues of concern?
3. Confused expectations of the system, among both the public and the media. People expected an automatic debate once the signature threshold was passed, and reacted negatively when this did not happen.
4. Minimal public engagement with Parliament or government. Little or nothing happened with e-petitions, beyond the possibility of a parliamentary debate for those passing the 100,000-signature threshold. If an e-petition did not achieve the signature threshold but still attracted considerable support (e.g. 99,999 signatures), there was no guarantee of any kind of response at all.
The paper also compared the Westminster e-petitions system with those in place in Scotland and Wales. It concluded that, while there were valuable lessons to be learned from the devolved legislatures, the volume of e-petitions received at Westminster required a custom-made model, to manage petitioner expectations and the public engagement process.
The paper’s recommendations were that:
- Ownership of, and responsibility for, the e-petitions system should rest with the House of Commons, not government.
- The House of Commons should create a Petitions Committee, supported by staff in a Petitions Office, to deal with public petitions in the future – to engage with petitioners, moderate the process and provide a single route for consideration of both paper and online petitions.
- Members of the Petitions Committee should be elected, and have the power to: refer petitions to a relevant Select Committee; commission their own inquiries into specific petitions; question ministers on the issues; and invite petitioners and others to give evidence at public hearings.
The reformed e-petitions system, which has been in operation since 2015 and which implements key elements of our proposals, is widely regarded as more effective than its predecessor. Our subsequent research (such as in our annual Audit of Political Engagement), as well as work by others, show that e-petitions are one of the most widely-used and high-profile forms of public engagement with Parliament, although there continue to be challenges facing the system.
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