E-petitions: a collaborative system - Procedure Committee Contents

1  Introduction

Earlier reports

1. Our predecessors in the last Parliament considered the potential for a House of Commons e-petition system in some depth, and produced two reports.[1] They recommended that the House establish a system hosted on the Parliamentary website and run entirely by the House, overseen by the Procedure Committee itself. The system would have retained many of the features of the existing paper petition system, translated to allow the collection of signatures electronically (and to provide a means of doing so).

2. Although they were initially accepted by the Government, our predecessors' recommendations later fell foul of a change of heart on its part, mainly because of the cost, and were never put to the House. Despite a further report from our predecessor Committee which took issue with the Government's view and urged it to move forward with the next stage of implementation of the scheme as originally proposed,[2] the Government continued to maintain that the system was too expensive. It proposed instead that the matter be considered by the Committee on Reform of the House of Commons (the "Wright Committee"), in the hope that "the new Committee will be able to draw on the Procedure Committee's findings in considering the role that a simpler, cheaper form of on-line communication might take, whether in the form of an e-Petitions system or something slightly different".[3]

3. The Wright Committee briefly discussed the pros and cons of the system our predecessors had recommended, but avoided making a decision itself about whether the scheme should be implemented. Instead it recommended "urgent discussions among all those involved in the e-petitions scheme, with a view to bringing to the House in the early part of 2010 a costed scheme which enjoys the support of the Member bodies engaged: that is, the Finance and Services and Procedure Committees, and the House of Commons Commission."[4] Those discussions were not successful, and the 2005-2010 Parliament ended with no Parliamentary e-petition system in place.

4. Meanwhile the Government had continued to run an e-petition system of its own. At the end of the 2005-2010 Parliament, the then No. 10 e-petition site was shut down, awaiting a decision from the new Government about how it wished to proceed. The Coalition Agreement negotiated between the Conservative and Liberal Democrat parties following the 2010 election contained an undertaking that the Government would "ensure that any petition that secures 100,000 signatures will be eligible for formal debate in Parliament".[5] The Government relaunched its e-petitions website—now run by the office of the Leader of the House, rather than No. 10—on 29 July 2011. The Leader of the House announced in a press release that he would send to the Backbench Business Committee any petition signed by 100,000 people, and would ask that Committee to consider finding time for a debate on it.[6]

5. We considered the consequences of this announcement—which was subject to no debate in the House and on which neither the House nor the Backbench Business Committee was consulted—in our Seventh Report of 2010-12.[7] As a result a new, occasional, sitting was established in Westminster Hall on Monday afternoons for the consideration of e-petitions referred to the Backbench Business Committee by the Leader of the House. If a Member picks up the e-petition and approaches the Backbench Business Committee to request a debate, that committee has been free either to determine that it should be debated on a Monday afternoon in Westminster Hall, or to allocate a time for debate on it at another time in Westminster Hall or in the Chamber.

6. In our Seventh Report we remarked upon the uneasy relationship between the House and the Government e-petition system which had arisen as a consequence of the Government's decision to refer petitions for debate in this way. In particular, the Chair of the Backbench Business Committee expressed her concerns about the consequences, not only for the work of her Committee, but also—and perhaps more importantly—for petitioners themselves. We summarised those concerns as follows:

    We very much welcome the potential of the Government's e-petitions website to enhance public engagement in parliamentary proceedings. We do, however, agree with the Chair of the Backbench Business Committee that that engagement is at present "very one-sided" and, like her, regret that "when people sign an e-petition, they do not as a consequence learn more about how Parliament works".[8]

Proposal for a "collaborative" system

7. Recognising the dissatisfaction with the way the system was operating, the Government eventually brought forward for debate, in May 2014, the following motion:

    That this House supports the establishment, at the start of the next Parliament, of a collaborative e-petitions system, which enables members of the public to petition the House of Commons and press for action from Government; and calls on the Procedure Committee to work with the Government and other interested parties on the development of detailed proposals.

The motion was agreed to without division.[9]

Our inquiry

8. In the light of the House's agreement to that motion, and acknowledging that the system which has already been set up by the Government has a clear—if unsatisfactory in its current form—link to the House, we have not, as we might have done, simply returned to the system recommended by our predecessors in the last Parliament and pressed for its introduction in place of the current system. Instead, we have taken a pragmatic approach, working from where we are now and attempting to develop a system which does not start again from the beginning but rather moulds the existing process into something which better meets the needs of petitioners and of the House.

9. We took evidence from the then Clerk of the House and Clerk of Public Petitions; from a panel of experts on petitioning comprised of Professor Helen Margetts, Director of the Oxford Internet Institute, Catherine Bochel, Principal Lecturer in Policy Studies at the University of Lincoln, and Dr Ruth Fox, Director of the Hansard Society; from Natascha Engel, Chair of the Backbench Business Committee, and Graham Allen, Chair of the Political and Constitutional Reform Committee; and from the Leader of the House, Rt Hon William Hague. We also received a small amount of written evidence, which we have published. We have worked closely with officials from the Office of the Leader of the House and the Government Digital Service on the development of these proposals. We are grateful both to those who gave evidence to us and to those who have worked with us more informally on the scheme, including all those in the House Service who have helped—and continue to help—to work on the details of what we propose.

1   Procedure Committee, Second Report of 2006-07, Public Petitions and Early Day Motions, HC 513, and First Report of Session 2007-08, e-Petitions, HC 136. Back

2   Procedure Committee, Second Report of 2008-09, e-Petitions: Call for Government Action, HC 493. Back

3   Procedure Committee, First Special Report of Session 2008-09, e-Petitions: Call for Government Action: Government Response to the Committee's Second Report of Session 2008-09, HC 952. Back

4   Committee on Reform of the House of Commons, First Report of Session 2008-09, Rebuilding the House, HC 1117, para 254. Back

5   HM Government, The Coalition: our programme for government, p 26. Back

6   "Public petitions website could lead way to Commons debates", Leader of the House of Commons News Release LHoc/11/ 02, 29 July 2011. Back

7   Procedure Committee, Seventh Report of Session 2010-12, Debates on Government e-Petitions, HC 1706. Back

8   Debates on Government e-Petitions, para 22. Back

9   Votes and Proceedings, 8 May 2014, p 1285. Back

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Prepared 4 December 2014