There is an idea that the presentation of a petition is an empty form – that it is ordered to lie upon the Table, and never heard of again. […] I believe that at this moment the right of petition […] is a more important and efficient right than has ever been enjoyed by the people of England in this respect.”
Benjamin Disraeli delivered this impassioned speech to Parliament in 1842, after Robert Peel had secured some curtailments in the “inherent right of every commoner” to “prepare and present petitions […]and the House of Commons to receive the same”, which had been enshrined in a resolution of 1669. Peel was thought to be attacking a proud and lively British political tradition – the mode of political action championed by the abolitionists, the Chartists and the levellers. Petitions could still be brought from 1842, but they would not be debated – the policy detail was to be dealt with by a new Petitions Committee, a distant descendant of the Committee for Motions of Griefs and Petitions established in 1571. This committee lived out its days uncontroversially enough, and died a quiet death in 1974. Two weeks ago, with the launch of a new e-petitions website, the committee, reformed and reimagined, was reborn.
Citizens have still been petitioning in recent Parliaments – but the system has often been in disarray, and has struggled to keep up with the pace of technological change. Paper petitions have increasingly been superseded by e-petitions, but until recently, these were dealt with not by Parliament (nor even a Parliamentary committee), but by Government – which ran a dedicated website from 2005, only referring petitions to Parliament after they had been looked at by the relevant department. The Government created this system unilaterally, with no consultation and no involvement from Parliament: for an initiative that was supposed to enhance political participation and engagement, this is a sorry history. The takeover of these responsibilities by the Commons is therefore a commendable improvement in three ways.
First, the old system was seriously lacking in transparency. Engagement with petitioners was sporadic and unpredictable, and the Chair of the Backbench Business Committee lamented that “engagement is at present very one-sided”. By contrast, the new system empowers the Petitions Committee to enter into a dialogue with petitioners; encourages it to involve MPs in causes affecting or led by their constituents; and offers clear guidelines for what petitioners can expect from both Government and the House.
Second, the old system was unaccountable. There is, inevitably, significant discretion involved in dealing with petitions – plenty are inappropriate, silly, or misunderstand the current legislation. Whilst ultimate responsibility lies now, as before, with the Backbench Business Committee in Parliament, it is obviously appropriate that whatever discretion must be exercised in the first instance is exercised by a cross-party group (like the Petitions Committee), and not a Government official.
Finally, and most importantly, the old system was simply ineffective. As noted in an expert report from the Hansard Society, petition business still required sponsorship by an MP to be heard in the Chamber (where actual votes can take place), rather than Westminster Hall (where they can’t). The first petition to surpass the benchmark 100,000 signatures, therefore, never made it to debate. The new system should allow petitions to bypass this old procedural labyrinth.
Still, problems remain. The list of reasons the Petitions Committee may throw out an e-petition runs to 17 bullet points – some of which are worryingly capacious. “We’ll reject your petition if it’s party political,” say the guidelines. But it’s tough to think of a political issue which is not, in some sense, party political. The petitions that are most inconvenient for Government, and thus most important to have heard, probably will be party political. In this respect, it is at least cheering that the first petition to surpass the 100k benchmark, which was demanding a debate of no confidence in Health Minister Jeremy Hunt, was not rejected out of hand on these grounds.
It is worth acknowledging that the Committee has declined to commit to addressing e-petitions originating elsewhere, on independent sites like Change.org and 38Degrees. “Externally hosted e-petitions can still be raised in Parliament through other methods, such as MPs pressing for debates on them,” the Committee told the Daily Mirror last week. But this only takes us back to the problems with the old system. For its part, the American official e-petitions platform, We The People, is integrating change.org into its system, such that e-signatures on that site can count towards the official total, and this should be considered here too.
With such a prominent focus on parliamentary e-petitions, we must also be careful not to let the new system encourage us to fetishise legislative e-petitions above all other campaigns. “One of the attractions of open platforms like Change.org,” says Tom Bage, the site’s UK spokesperson, “is that you can petition anyone – whether they are a decision-maker in the Government or Parliament, at a business, an institution or a local council. Campaigns often need to target decision-makers both inside and outside of Westminster, and the openness of our system allows them to do just that.” Many such petitions have had impressive successes, helping to prevent the religious execution of a Christian woman in Sudan, keeping rent down at a Hoxton housing estate, or getting Malala Yousafzai nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize. Indeed, most petitions that have been brought in British history did not make the grand legislative demands of the abolitionists or the chartists, but rather championed local causes and brought grievances against private interests.
It is rare that the creation of yet another Parliamentary committee is worth celebrating – often, these bury decision-making in a meeting room somewhere in Portcullis House, rather than placing it in the hands of the electorate. The revival of the Petitions Committee is an overdue exception, and the launch of the new site is an exciting new way for people to engage with Parliament – and one that Disraeli, the progenitor of the current Government’s One Nation rhetoric, would surely endorse. We should remember, though, that not all expressions of popular participation end in ‘.parliament.uk’, and not all political battles are fought inside the Palace of Westminster.