The Role of Petitions to Parliament

In the latest blog from our Legislatures in Uncertain Times conference, Cristina Leston-Bandeira discusses the history and purpose of petitioning parliament.

The role of petitions to parliament is inexorably linked to the role of parliament – as petitions are nothing else but yet another path to affect decision-making. Recent academic interest for petitioning has framed it as an advocacy democracy tool, which enables the reinforcement of participatory elements in our democracy, inherently portraying petitioning as a tool specific to our modern democracies and as a form to address declining levels of trust in political institutions. But the right to petition has a long history and has played a variety of roles over the centuries.

Reflecting each specific history, some countries do not have provision for an actual right to petition, though they may instead have a strong tradition of ombudsman (for example, Scandinavian countries) or of citizens’ led legislative initiatives (for example, Latin America). In specific cases such as France and the US, the right to petition is closely associated with their 18th century revolutionary Constitutions. In Germany there is a very strong tradition of petitioning, across all levels of governance, with the right to petition being recognised in Art 17. of the Basic Law (Constitution). In the UK and Portugal, there is also a long tradition of petitioning that goes as far as at least medieval times.

Many identify Magna Carta (1215) as the establishment of the right to petition, though petitioning long pre-dates it, as demonstrated in Connolly’s analysis of petitioning in ancient cultures, such as in the Roman Empire (2009). Connolly explains that in such early cultures as in fifth century BC Persia, the power to accept or refuse petitions played already then an important role: “[a]nswering petitions helped ancient rulers appear caring and responsive. It also provided an effective and simple way for them to reinforce their authority and power” (Connolly, 2009, p.63). Although today’s petitions to parliament are framed by very different formats and processes, in many ways part of their role remains very similar: showing responsiveness to the public and legitimising parliament’s power.

Petitions to Parliament in England have in fact over the centuries developed hand in hand with changes in Parliament’s role; the history of petitioning is, in many ways, the history of parliament, particularly as it embodied a strengthening of the institution’s authority in mediating grievances raised by the public. Before Parliament became the prime forum for citizens to present petitions, these were presented directly to the Monarch. As parliament’s powers in relation to the King strengthened, so did Parliament’s ability to redress specific petitions. By the 15th century most petitions were directed to Parliament and acquired an important role in the development of its powers. Dodd goes as far as to say that the role of petitioning was in late medieval times a key reason why Parliament was sustained during that time:

“For what consistently made parliament an indispensable part of the political and administrative structure of the late medieval English kingdom was the conviction that it provided a crucial outlet for the satisfaction and resolution of private interests and conflict. Perhaps this, more than any other factor, explains why parliament endured in the late medieval period” (Dodd 2007, p.325).

Thus, petitioning performed already then roles of safety-valve, helping to address conflict, as well as of grievance resolution.

As petitions became an increasingly important part of parliamentary activity, they slowly became an institutionalised feature with associated processes and the creation of ad-hoc committees. By the 17th century, petitions to Parliament had adopted quite different characteristics to the ones from the medieval parliaments. Whilst the early petitions related mainly to personal grievances, whereby the Monarch’s subjects sought the redress of what they saw as individual situations of injustice, by the 17th century the issues covered became far more general; petitions were starting to be used to create political pressure and to raise issues of public interest.

The focus and contents of petitions started therefore to change also, becoming more about applying political pressure then about redressing specific grievances; from this point of view, like many of today’s petitions, petitioners were under little illusion that their petition would be addressed; the purpose of presenting a petition being instead to make a political point. Likewise, whereas the early petitions related mainly to legal-judicial matters, by the 17th century, and as the Courts became better equipped to address issues of legality, petitions to parliament became more focused on policy rather than legal-judicial matters. Petitions therefore also acquired a role of policy-setting.

But petitions also performed important political participation roles. At a time of restricted access to the Monarch (rulers), petitions provided a channel through which to contact the ultimate authority in power. For a very long time, petitions were the tool that integrated those disenfranchised into the political system. Up to the universal suffrage, the vast majority of the population was formally excluded from the process of participating into the political system. Whilst not having the right to vote or the power to advise the Monarch directly, citizens could however present petitions. This explains why petitioning has been considered as the most important channel to enfranchise those disenfranchised from the right to vote. The importance of petitions during a time of considerable disenfranchisement explains in great part its decline in the 20th century, as the universal franchise expanded; as citizens could vote, the need to lobby parliament became less relevant, until the internet would bring with it new opportunities in terms of dissemination and reach.

Besides political participation, the history of petitioning also shows that it performs an important role of mobilisation. This is particularly clear in the very large petitions of the 19th century, such as the Chartists petitions which gathered millions of signatures (1839, 1842 and 1848). Petitioning was built around canvassing and signatures were often collected following a public meeting, through which the people were mobilised to support the Chartist cause. As petitions were often collective, they also performed an important role of sustaining the development of a collective identity sustained by the sharing of a specific experience. In short, petitions provided a focus for people to unite for a cause.

Parliamentary petitions have therefore performed a wide range of roles over the centuries, most of which are still visible in today’s petitions systems. These are summarised in the Table below according to four areas – linkage, campaigning, scrutiny, policy:

Table: Roles performed by petitions systems

Areas Roles
Linkage Legitimacy of the political system and specifically of parliament, by recognising its authority to deal with issues raised by the public;

Safety-valve/conflict-resolution, by finding an outlet to express dissatisfaction;

Grievance resolution, by providing a path through which specific situations of injustice can be identified and addressed;

Fire-alarm, by providing an outlet for citizens to raise bottom-up issues;

Education, by initiating citizens into the functions of political institutions, potentially leading to a better understanding of the role of parliament;

Campaigning Mobilisation, by providing a focus for citizens to unite around a specific cause;

Dissemination, by providing a means to disseminate a specific campaign;

Strengthening of a group’s identity, by providing the means to sustain a sense of shared identity between members of a group;

Scrutiny Fire-alarm, by identifying issues of concern which would otherwise not be known to parliament;

Evidence gathering, by enabling the collection of information on specific issues of public interest;

Questioning, by providing an outlet through which government ministers can be asked for a response on a specific issue;

Policy Policy review, by identifying black holes in policy or policy not being applied in practice;

Policy improvement, by identifying ways to address poor policy and enabling the discussion of different alternatives;

Policy influence, by supporting the building of pressure on specific policy change;

Policy change, by eventually leading to change in policy.

Whilst we differentiate four areas within which petitions play important roles, these roles are not performed separately according to linear developments. Different types of petitions may perform different roles, just as each specific petition may perform a number of roles. Likewise, specific roles such as “fire-alarm” may contribute towards both linkage between institution and public and to the scrutiny of the Executive.

Whilst the format and processes of parliamentary petitions have changed and their relevance has varied considerably, their role has resisted the passing of time. The advent of the internet has revived the popularity of petitions, and possibly reinforced their public engagement potential, but these are by no means a new phenomenon and their role remains as multifaceted as they have been over the centuries. What has mainly changed is the extent to which they are integrated into our representative systems or a side-show. The more integrated – whilst keeping its participatory tool characteristics – the more likely they are to fulfil their roles.


Cristina Leston-Bandeira is Professor of Politics at the University of Leeds. She tweets @estrangeirada.

A longer version of this blog can be found as part of a paper Cristina prepared for the Wroxton Workshop of Parliamentary Scholars and Parliamentarians, which gives more details of the academic literature at the basis of these reflections.



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