Please note that this piece was originally published on the Constitution Unit blog, and is available here.
The 2015 parliament has seen the establishment of a new Petitions Committee and e-petitions system. Cristina Leston-Bandeira discusses the committee’s initial activity, arguing that it has achieved much in the space of six months and has the potential to pave the way towards a new kind of public engagement with parliament.
One of the novelties of the 2015 parliament has been the establishment of a Petitions Committee, which has the potential to pave the way for a new style of public engagement for parliament.
Following the approval of a motion to create a new Petitions Committee last February, and still with no elected chair, the new Petitions Committee’s team set out to establish the foundations of what would become the UK government and parliament collaborative e-petitions system, integrating also the traditional paper public petitions presented through MPs. On 18 June the committee’s chair, Helen Jones, was elected and a month later, on 20 July, the new collaborative e-petitions site went live. At the same time the old Downing Street e-petitions site closed down. Nine e-petitions were submitted on that first day, collecting between them 60,580 signatures on that single day. Less than two months later the committee led its first debate on a petition that had achieved over 100,000 signatures, on contracts and conditions in the NHS.
Since the site went live a deluge of e-petitions have been submitted. As of 7 December, 3,759 petitions had been submitted, of which 1,683 were rejected (a number of reasons can lead to a petition being rejected – a list is provided here), leaving 2,076 open petitions. Out of these, six have resulted in a debate in parliament led by the Petitions Committee, with one more scheduled for 11 January 2016, and 60 have received a response from government, with 24 still waiting for a government response. If there was any doubt as to how popular this tool would be, it has quickly dissipated. It is still too early to evaluate how well the system is being received – for now we can, however, observe how the committee has been dealing with petitions submitted.
Dealing with a high volume of demand at the same time as setting up as a new committee, with a very different purpose and focus from existing committees, was a considerable challenge. But in only a few months the Petitions Committee has already made a mark, pushing forward digital engagement methods and providing an initial framework for the new petitions system.
The committee is still finding its way on what its working methods should be, having issued as its first inquiry a consultation on exactly this. Lessons can be learned from similar systems in other parliaments, namely in Germany and Scotland. In my view the most pressing change needed, in terms of working method, is an enhancement of the quality of the information submitted for each petition. Better clarification of what a petition includes, its justification and context, will help the committee to deal with petitions in a more effective manner, as well as making the system more useful for petitioners. The high rate of rejected petitions is one indication that improvements could be made in this area.
One of the main traits of the committee so far has been daring to experiment with different methods of engagement. Parliament often waits and evaluates before trying new ideas – it is typically a risk-averse institution. This has not been the case with the Petitions Committee.
This is illustrated by the six debates it has led since September. When a petition achieves 100,000 signatures, it is considered by the Petitions Committee for a debate. In an attempt to make these debates more inclusive of the wider public, the committee has experimented with a number of methods to engage the public prior to and during the debate. For instance, through partnership with external organisations, such as NetMums which held an online debate on the petition on term-time leave from school for holidays prior to the debate in parliament, which was itself preceded by a small discussion on the topic with the group’s representatives; or through social media crowdsourcing of comments and questions, such as for the debate on the legalisation of cannabis. As the UK petitions system only enables the collection of signatures to support petitions, without comments or associated online forums, contrary to petition systems in other parliaments, the facilitation of a debate linked to a petition through partners and/or social media enables the collation of the public’s thoughts on a specific issue. This can, however, cause problems in itself such as the difficulty of collating all views expressed during a social media debate, as a quick read of the #cannabisdebate suggests. It also raises the issue of whether these public discussions take place in parallel to parliament’s, without being properly integrated into the actual consideration of the petition by MPs.
The UK e-petitions system has the peculiarity of being a collaborative system – meaning that it is co-owned and shared between government and parliament. From a purely academic research point of view this is an interesting format. It may contribute to feeding the pervasive confusion between parliament and government amongst the public. On the other hand, it does mean that the committee has a specific remit to work directly with the government. See, for instance, this correspondence between the committee’s chair and the Leader of the House, about the enforcement of quicker responses from the government to petitions that achieve 10,000 signatures (the threshold for a government response). Or indeed how the committee has written to external organisations to clarify points made by the government in their response, such as this correspondence with the Director of the Institute for Fiscal Studies. From a comparative point of view, it will be interesting to evaluate whether the UK collaborative system leads to a closer relationship between government and parliament, and as a consequence a more effective consideration of petitions, or whether it’s irrelevant.
The UK petitions system therefore features two key thresholds linked to specific actions: 100,000 signatures to be considered for a debate and 10,000 for a response from government. Not all other systems impose thresholds in order to avoid privileging those petitions that are popular as opposed to issues that really matter to signatories. There is of course a practical difficulty which is the ability to consider all petitions submitted and a threshold is a natural way of sifting these; but a more flexible approach that focuses on the merit of the issues being raised, rather than only on their popularity, may make the system more responsive. The committee demonstrated the benefit of having this flexibility when it launched its first inquiry into funding for brain tumour research. This is a petition well below the 100,000 signatures threshold to qualify for a debate, but which the committee chose to consider in parliament (at the time it had 14,000 signatures). This has been done through an inquiry, which has included evidence sessions on the topic. The first oral evidence session for this inquiry included the petitioners, which could be considered as a way of hearing petitioners in parliament, a feature of some other systems.
The Petitions Committee has also been exploring ways of linking petitions to other parliamentary business. This avoids a duplication of work in parliament and it enhances a petition’s likelihood of having more of an impact. The recent debate on the e-petition on sugar tax , held on the day of the launch of the Health Committee’s report on child obesity, is a good example of this type of action.
The effectiveness of petitions is a topic of much discussion. Petitions are not voted upon and do not lead directly to new legislation. They can merely raise awareness of an issue and, at the most, make political actors define their views on specific issues and perhaps lead them onto a different platform where they may have a more direct output. But in the main, petitions are about raising awareness of specific causes. This is not always clear in the information given on the e-petitions site (managed by government). Better integration between this site and the committee’s will go a long way to clarifying what petitions can and can’t achieve, and therefore help to manage expectations.
The committee is starting to do more in disseminating its role and potential by experimenting with different means of communication – key if the system is to be used beyond the usual, politically engaged, few. See for instance the new ‘petition of the month’ feature or this video highlighting the different organisations and personalities involved in the e-petition on sugar tax and its associated debate in parliament. A lot more can still be done such as going out of Westminster and taking the petitions system to communities outside of parliament.
There is still a lot to do and only with time will we be able to evaluate the petitions system’s effectiveness, but in only six months the Petitions Committee has already achieved plenty. The new petitions system and its committee have the potential to pave the way towards a new style of engagement with parliament. Engagement that is bottom-up, rather than top-down. And engagement that focuses on issues rather than party political agendas. In short, the Petitions Committee is worth following over the months and years to come.