E-petitions: a collaborative system - Procedure Committee Contents

2  A "collaborative" system?

10. Proposing the motion debated in the House on 8 May 2014, the then Leader of the House said "I want Parliament to share in the ownership of a modern e-petitions system that allows people to petition their Parliament, engage their elected representatives and, where appropriate, get a response from their Government […] This is […] a paving motion, which will allow the House to agree on the principle that a new system should be jointly owned and run by the Government and the House of Commons."[10]

11. Notwithstanding the unanimous agreement of the House to the motion, we acknowledge that there is concern about the notion of a system "jointly owned and run by the Government and the House of Commons". Graham Allen, Chair of the Political and Constitutional Affairs Committee, tabled an amendment to the motion proposing that "the House of Commons should have its own e-petitions website, administered and controlled by this House and separate from that of the Government".[11] The Political and Constitutional Affairs Committee itself argued in a report published in July 2013 that "There is too much confusion between the roles of Government and Parliament […] We believe that there must be a clear separation between petitions intended to prompt action by Government and petitions aimed at Parliament."[12] Mr Allen expanded on his concerns in oral evidence to us, saying

    […] from my point of view, Parliament should have its own separate independent petitioning system. There is hundreds of years of precedent for this. We, as Members of Parliament, in our little puny way, raise our own petitions and put them to the Floor of the House and we all stand on our hind legs […] before the Adjournment debate and can make a petition and can put something to the House when we decide—not that it has been sent our way by Government, but when we decide—and that is really in a sense the other half of what I would want to say, would be about Parliament itself taking its role seriously and having Members of Parliament acting as independent, elected people rather than what we have at the moment if we accept this proposal, which will be a surrogate and a fall guy for a lot of stuff that is sent the way of the Executive, and which, frankly, we are powerless to change and will just damage our reputation.[13]

12. Nonetheless there are important arguments in favour of the establishment of a joint system. Even the Political and Constitutional Affairs Committee noted "the expectation of most petitioners […] that their petition to Parliament, if it is supported by large numbers of people, will result in action by the Government, or at least that it will receive a response from Government".[14] In the 8 May debate the then Leader of the House, responding to Mr Allen's amendment, commented "I cannot imagine what the public would make of our establishing two competing and overlapping e-petition systems."[15] The merits from a petitioner's point of view of a single system were also recognised by the panel of petitioning experts from whom we took evidence:

    Q50 Chair: You are of the view that the e-petition system should reside in one place? There should not be a No. 10 prime ministerial system and a House of Commons system? What we need is a single system that is easy to access and easily navigable?

    Catherine Bochel: I think it would be much better to have a single system in one place. It would be much less confusing for people.

    Professor Margetts: Yes, a single system.

    Dr Fox: I agree. I agree with that.

13. It is reasonable for the House to ask why it should concern itself with petitions directed not to the House, but to Government. The first rule of a public petition submitted through the existing paper petition system is that it should address the House directly; amongst the House's other rules for paper petitions is that they must make a clear request to the House which is within the House's power to grant.[16] Petitions submitted to a collaborative system allowing the public "to petition the House of Commons and press for action from Government" (our emphasis) will not necessarily meet those two fundamental rules.

14. The answer to that objection was provided by the Leader of the House in oral evidence to us:

    I think that most people when they sign a petition on a particular issue are not distinguishing between Government and Parliament. They are looking for Parliament to discuss it and Government to do something about it, and the two are connected. In our system, they are connected since the Government sits in Parliament. We do not have a separation of executive and legislature, so the voters who think that are right partially. They should not have to raise two petitions, one to go to Ministers and one to go to Parliament. We ought to be capable of devising a system […] which puts pressure on a Government to respond, to say what they are going to do about a particular issue, but also draws attention to the issue in Parliament.[17]

15. Whilst we regret the failure to establish the House of Commons e-petition system which our predecessors recommended in 2008, given where we are now—and in particular the link between the existing Government e-petition site and debates in the House, which is now well-established in the minds of the public—we do not consider that it would be sensible to set up a separate House system. Rather, we believe that a better way for the House now to achieve the objective our predecessors set out of "reinforc[ing] [its] historic role as the proper and principal recipient of public petitions"[18] will be for ownership of a joint system to be shared between the Government and a re-established Petitions Committee, on behalf of the House. We have more to say about the establishment and role of a Petitions Committee below.

10   HC Deb, 8 May 2014, col 312. Back

11   House of Commons Order Paper OP No. 158, 8 May 2014, p 8. Back

12   Political and Constitutional Reform Committee, Third Report of Session 2013-14, Revisiting Rebuilding the House: the impact of the Wright reforms, HC 82, paras 130, 132. Back

13   Q52 Back

14   Revisiting Rebuilding the House: the impact of the Wright reforms, para 131. Back

15   HC Deb, 8 May 2014, col 313. Back

16   House of Commons, 'Public petitions to the House of Commons', accessed 28 November 2014. Back

17   Q96 Back

18   e-Petitions, para 34. Back

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Prepared 4 December 2014