By Cristina Leston-Bandeira
Remember the week of the cash-for-access scandal? It was the same week as the infamous interview with Green Party leader Natalie Bennett and the Labour party’s announcement of its policy on university fees. No doubt you remember these. This was also the week when the House of Commons passed a motion to set up a Petitions Committee. Remember that? No, didn’t think so. It is no surprise that in the midst of it all, little notice was given to a motion creating a new Committee. This may seem a small decision of little consequence for wider party politics, however it does signal an important moment in the UK parliament. As was said in the debate: “if we, as Parliament, got this right, it would be the most significant reform since the setting up of Select Committees in 1979”.
Petitions have of course been around for centuries, there is nothing new in this, and indeed the House has had a Petitions Committee in the not so distant past. But it has been a quiet affair, known for its opacity and as an inconsequential event. More recently, Downing Street has of course imposed upon parliament an e-petition system which has given the public the opportunity to submit petitions directly rather than through an MP. This has also given more visibility to petitions submitted to parliament. It has, however, also created new problems, as highlighted in the Hansard Society’s report on e-petitions. In some ways it has made it too easy to submit a petition: to submit a petition, you just need a title, some text justifying it and access to the Internet. Type, click, type, click, and there it is, a petition done. And within this the illusion that something may happen, topped up by the apparent promise that if your petition reaches 100,000 signatures, you will be entitled to a debate in parliament. It fails to explain that in fact there is no guarantee and that it simply means being eligible for a potential debate.
Still, from the 37 petitions that achieved the 100,000 signatures threshold, 32 of these have had a debate in parliament. Some have raised considerable attention in the media and had more tangible consequences – see for instance the debate on the Hillsborough disaster. The Downing Street e-petitions site has illustrated the popularity of electronic petitions, with plenty of other platforms out there fulfilling the same purpose, but with no integration into the parliamentary process. The popularity has been such that it has in fact brought added challenges to the Backbench Business Committee – the committee currently deciding ultimately whether to ascribe time (a debate) for specific petitions, amongst all of the other requests for debates from Backbench MPs. There has been therefore a rising popularity of petitions, but without an adequate process integrating it into the parliamentary process
It was in this context that the Procedure Committee launched its enquiry into e-petitions, after the Leader of the House announced they would be supporting the development of a collaborative e-petitions system last May. The enquiry’s report recommended the creation of a Petitions Committee. It was this report that was finally discussed and approved on the 24 of February 2015.
Many other parliaments have had well established petitions system supported by a committee, so there is nothing extraordinary in this. What is perhaps more extraordinary is the lack of opposition this has had within parliament. The motion was well received by MPs who had nothing but compliments to the Procedure Committee for bringing such welcomed proposals. In the words of the opposition, “We fully support the proposals – they are an excellent way forward – and we hope that they will be implemented to great acclaim in the next Parliament”. Go just a few years back, this would have been unthinkable; create yet a new committee? Integrate the discussion of public petitions into the parliamentary process? The lack of opposition is, in many ways, a sign of change in the way we perceive parliamentary institutions and their role in society. Increasingly there is an acceptance that solely relying on the representative mandate, determined every five years, is simply not enough to maintain a relationship of trust and authority.
The new proposal acknowledges therefore that the public can submit an e-petition directly to parliament, whilst keeping the ability to keep MPs informed about any issues that are constituency related. More importantly, it acknowledges that the Petitions Committee will have to be staffed so to ensure proper engagement with petitioners. It also recognises that the merit of petitions can’t be measured simply by the volume of signatures, with an acknowledgement that some matters may deserve discussion, even if not subscribed by a large volume of people. The proposal also suggests that the Committee should invite petitions to give oral evidence where considered useful.
Of course a lot will depend on the actual detail of how these proposals are implemented in the new parliament. A badly put together Petitions Committee could create very significant added difficulties to Parliament – over-petitioned, no ability to respond, or simply lack of engagement. It could, however, also work very well, if duly resourced. As the Leader of the House said, the creation of the Petitions Committee could “be the catalyst for a fundamental change in the relationship between Parliament and the petitioner”. Regardless of how this is implemented, the creation of the Petitions Committee and associated process to consider petitions represents a formal integration of the citizen’s voice into the parliamentary process. This could lead to an enhancement of the relationship parliament-citizens, it could also result in many added problems. It will all come down to the detail of how it is applied. But the debate on the 24 of February, and its lack of opposition, demonstrates that having or not having this type of citizen tools is not an option anymore. They are here to stay.
Cristina Leston-Bandeira is Professor of Parliament at the University of Hull and Co-Convenor of the PSA Parliaments and Legislatures Specialist Group. She tweets @estrangeirada.
Image: UK Parliament CC BY-NC-ND