I recently did a post on my own blog about the extent to which people confuse Parliament and Government and how this is compounded by the new e-petition system, under which people can submit petitions to a Government website and, if one attracts 100,000 or more signatures, it can be considered for debate in the House of Commons. However, the body for deciding whether it is debated is a committee of the House, the Backbench Business Committee, and it has not been provided with any extra time to allocate for such debate and, as far as I am aware, was not given the task by the House of deciding whether such petitions should be considered.
The Backbench Business Committee is understandably not pleased by how this has been organised and has now issued a statement, identifying its concerns with what has been done and how it intends to proceed:
“The Backbench Business Committee’s key concerns are:
- The Government is responsible for giving time to the Backbench Business Committee, and the time available to us is very limited – less than one day a fortnight. The Government has not provided any additional time to debate e-petitions and our existing limited supply is already oversubscribed
- The committee has no power to schedule debates unless some Members of Parliament come forward to tell us that they wish to take part in them. However the Government has not provided any way to link petitions to Members of Parliament who wish to sponsor them on the e-petitions site, or any advice to petitioners on what they might need to do. Unfortunately, this means that no Members of Parliament have yet come to ask us for a debate on an e-petition
- We want to work to make the new e-petitions a successful way for people to trigger debates in Parliament
The Backbench Business Committee will:
- publish advice on our website to help organisers of petitioners know how to take their case forward
- continue to press the Government to provide specific time for debates on e-petitions so that there is an effective way for the public to engage with Parliament
- hold individual and group meetings with campaign groups and organisers of e-petitions to discuss how best to get their issues on the agenda.”
The situation is not exactly satisfactory. I am a great believer in the use of e-petitions, but it needs to be crystal clear as to whether one is petitioning Government or the House of Commons. If one is petitioning the House of Commons, then it should be via a parliamentary – not a government – website and the House needs to have ownership of the process, including how petitions are then dealt with. I have previously advocated a Petitions Committee, though the task could be fulfilled by the Backbench Business Committee. The crucial point is that any system of petitioning has to be taken seriously by the House, which includes making the resources necessary available to ensure that issues are considered and people feel that petitioning has been worthwhile. If people feel it has been a waste of time, then the situation is arguably worse than if no e-petitioning systm had been introduced.