E-petitions: a collaborative system - Procedure Committee Contents

3  The shape of a new system

Platform for a joint system

16. The existing Government e-petition system works, and has proved popular with the public. It is also reasonably economical to run, and though some development work will be needed to establish it as a jointly-owned system, using the existing site as a basis will avoid the need to spend money on designing a whole new system. A joint system should be based on the existing Government e-petition site, redesigned and rebranded to show that it is owned by the House and the Government. To emphasise the Parliamentary oversight of the system, and in line with the House's historic role as the principal recipient of public petitions, it should use the URL epetitions.parliament.uk. There should also be a clear link from the Parliament website www.parliament.uk to the e-petition site, including from the pages which explain the existing paper petitioning system.

17. Changes will need to be made to the way the existing site works in accordance with the further recommendations we make below. The Government Digital Service, which runs the site (and will continue to do so, in collaboration with Parliamentary ICT (PICT) and its successor Digital Service), is also taking the opportunity to make other improvements to the site, both of a technical nature and relating to the way petitioners interact with the site. We have been shown a "mock-up" of how the site will look and are impressed with the work which has gone into it and the results which have been achieved. If the House assents to the establishment of the system which we recommend, we will continue to oversee its development on behalf of the House until the establishment of a Petitions Committee.

Petitions Committee

18. The House of Commons had a Petitions Committee from the early part of the nineteenth century until 1974. Its role was to sort out and classify petitions. It could report on whether petitions were in order under the rules of the House, but it had no power to look into the merits of petitions and it could not recommend remedies.[19] Considerations of petitions procedures since its abolition have tended to shy away from the re-establishment of a committee of the House to consider petitions.[20] More recently, though, there has been a degree of recognition that the challenges presented by e-petitioning require a committee-based response.

19. In its 2008 report on e-petitions, our predecessor Procedure Committee said:

    In this inquiry we have considered whether we should revisit the conclusion of our previous report that the House should not establish a Petitions Committee. The Hansard Society, who had recommended the establishment of such a committee in its memorandum to that inquiry, repeated their recommendation in their memorandum to this inquiry. The International Teledemocracy Centre at Napier University argued that

    a coordinating body is essential to support Members' involvement with petitions, including e-petitions, not just in terms of assisting Members, but to create an even and sustainable process that the public can have confidence in. We feel that some sort of Petitions Committee is the logical answer.

    We agree that the functions which they identify are important. We believe that those functions, at least initially, go together with the provision of political authority and accountability for the development and implementation of e-petitioning. We do not, however, agree that the establishment of a new committee would necessarily be the best solution.[21]

Instead, the Committee concluded that the Procedure Committee itself should assume the "coordinating" role envisaged.[22]

20. That conclusion was built on by the Wright Committee, which concluded in its report in 2009 that

    The House cannot be satisfied with its current procedures for petitions. Whether electronic or paper-based, they should be scrutinised by some organ of the House capable of deciding two things: does the matter merit investigation by the House in some way, and does it now or in due course merit debate? Experience suggests that if this is not a duty of a single identified committee then it will not be done at all.[23]

The Wright Committee was nonetheless "cautious about recommending a full-scale free-standing Petitions Committee at this time",[24] proposing that "the Procedure Committee's terms of reference be broadened, and its title changed to Procedure and Petitions Committee, so as to enable it to exercise scrutiny of the petitions process".[25]

21. The Political and Constitutional Reform Committee, reviewing progress with the Wright recommendations in a report published in July 2013, concluded that "there is still a case for the establishment of a petitions committee, as considered by the Wright Committee".[26] Meanwhile a report of the Hansard Society, building on discussion in a seminar convened by the Backbench Business Committee, had concluded that

    The House of Commons should create a Petitions Committee, supported by staff in a Petitions Office, to engage with petitioners, moderate the process and provide a single route for consideration of both paper and online petitions. The objective should be to provide greater interaction with petitioners and facilitate multiple possible outcomes for petitions. […] The Petitions Committee and its staff should respond ambitiously and flexibly to petitions, embracing the full range of parliamentary processes for consideration of them.[27]

22. In debate on the motion referring this matter to us, the then Leader of the House confessed himself "in favour of some form of petitions committee to act on behalf of the House, to develop engagement with the public on petitions, and in the longer term to liaise with Government on e-petitions and the system."[28] Giving evidence to us in connection with the inquiry, the current Leader said he thought there was a "strong case" for a petitions committee:

    I think it is important to have a committee in some form to highlight to the public that Parliament treats this seriously, to make sure that government departments respond properly and fully, and to be able to recommend debates when necessary.[29]

23. Our predecessors had already accepted the case for a committee of the House to assume a role in the oversight of the petition system, and others considering the matter since have reached a similar conclusion. The potential role of such a committee in ensuring that the House takes petitions seriously, and the many possible ways in which it could exercise that role, are clearly set out in the preceding paragraphs. To those arguments for the establishment of a committee may be added the nature of the system which the House has asked us to design. In our view, the creation of a system which is owned jointly by the House and the Government makes the establishment of a Petitions Committee essential. Such a committee will not only deal with petitions on behalf of the House, but it will also deal with the Government on behalf of the House, ensuring that the interests both of the House and of the public are protected and that the Government does not again foist upon the House and the public a system which fails to communicate clearly and accurately with petitioners or to manage their expectations of the process effectively, as has been the case with the existing system.[30]


24. We are persuaded that, in a jointly-owned system, there should be a House of Commons Petitions Committee charged with oversight of the e-petitioning system on behalf of the House, liaising with the Government. The Committee should also assume responsibility for oversight of the paper petitioning system in the House of Commons. The Committee should be able to consider petitions submitted by either means, and as appropriate, and at its discretion:

·  correspond with petitioners on their petition;

·  call petitioners for oral evidence;

·  refer a petition to the relevant select committee (without obligation on that committee to take any further action);

·  seek further information from the Government, orally or in writing, on the subject of a petition; and

·  put forward petitions for debate.[31]

25. The Petitions Committee will decide for itself which petitions merit further action, and what action is appropriate in each case. It may decide to use thresholds for signatures to trigger certain action, such as putting forward a petition for debate, at its discretion. We expect the Petitions Committee to take the well-established and reasonably well-understood existing threshold of 100,000 signatures for a petition to be considered for debate in the House as a starting-point; but there may be occasions when a debate is not appropriate—such as when a debate has already taken place in the House on the subject—and the Petitions Committee may decide that a petition which has not reached that 100,000 threshold is nonetheless worthy of a debate in the House. The Committee might also decide to use signature thresholds as an indicator of whether other potential action—such as corresponding with or taking oral evidence from the petitioners—would be appropriate in a particular case; but again it need not bind itself to do so. The advantage of the establishment of a committee is that it will be able to exercise its judgement on whether a petition is worthy of further action, based not only on the number of people who have signed it but on the content of the petition itself. As the then Clerk of the House told us,

    I think it is easy to get fazed by the 100,000, the 10,000, the 25,000 or whatever. If you have a threshold for further action—whether it is a debate or Government observations—of 100,000, it becomes a numbers game, not forgetting, of course, that it is much easier to rack up numbers for an e-petition than it is for people signing sheets of paper. Sheer numbers, I think, have their place, but if e-petitions are to be catered for, I think the other end of the scale needs to be catered for as well. If you have 200,000 people signing an e-petition condemning the annexation of Crimea, for example, in a sense that is a no-brainer—it may be quite an easy target to hit—but if you have Mrs Smith, one individual, who is having her life made a misery by some bizarre interpretation of a rule by officialdom, I see her as very much having equal rights in this.[32]


26. We consider that a committee charged with such responsibilities on behalf of the House should have a chair elected by the whole House and members elected by their parties, as with the majority of existing select committees. It will be important that such a committee both be and be seen to be independent and impartial in the exercise of its judgement. The appointment or choice of a chair or members based on the old system of patronage would not inspire the confidence in the petitioning system either inside or outside the House which will be crucial if the committee is to perform its task effectively.


27. Our conclusion about chairing and membership leaves open the question of whether there should be a new committee established as a Petitions Committee, or whether the task should be taken on by an existing committee, or a sub-committee of an existing committee. As the Leader of the House told us, "One thing we would have to do if a standalone petitions committee were created, is to bear in mind that we cannot inflate indefinitely the number of committees".[33] Whilst the staff resources necessary to support the responsibilities which we have set out for a petitions committee would be the same whether a stand-alone committee were established or the task given to an existing committee, if the number of committees continues to increase, it will be increasingly difficult to find the Member resources necessary for them to function effectively. If a new Committee is established, that Committee should replace an existing committee, so that its establishment does not lead to an increase in the overall number of select committees.

28. The alternatives to a stand-alone Petitions Committee suggested to us were for the task to be allocated either to the Backbench Business Committee, or to ourselves, the Procedure Committee.[34] Of those two alternatives, we consider that it would be better for the task to be given to us—as proposed in our predecessors' report on e-petitions in the last Parliament and as suggested by the Wright Committee—than to the Backbench Business Committee. The role as we envisage it goes much further than the allocation of debating time for petitions and, as the Chair of that committee told us, that does not fit at all well with the current role of the Backbench Business Committee.[35]

29. Our preference, however, is for a separate committee to be set up which can focus exclusively on the significant task of considering and responding to petitions. That is important not only from the point of view of the committee itself, which is likely to function most effectively if it has a single clear and identifiable role, but also from the point of view of the petitioning public. The Leader of the House told us that he tended to the view that

    […] there needs to be an identifiable committee for this purpose. From whatever group it is drawn or from whatever other committee or panel it is made up, people need to be able to see. We should be able to say on the relevant website there is a petitions committee there—a group of Members of Parliament across parties who are going to be able to look at this petition to make sure the Government responds, to refer it to a debate if necessary […][36]

We consider that the best way to achieve the visibility to the petitioning public of a committee with the role we envisage for it will be to establish a separate Petitions Committee.


30. The Leader of the House also drew attention to another concern about the establishment of a Petitions Committee. He told us

    […] I think we would have to make sure that it was not taking over the role of any other committees. There would have to be some demarcation to ensure it was not the committee inquiring into every subject that was raised in a petition […][37]

We agree: it will be important that the Petitions Committee focuses on its role of enabling petitioners' concerns to be heard by the House and ensuring that the Government responds appropriately, and does not usurp the investigative role of the departmental select committees. To that end, we have agreed with the Government a draft Memorandum of Understanding between the Government and the Petitions Committee which sets out how the system will work: it is reproduced in the Annex. That memorandum makes clear that the Government will seek to meet reasonable requests for information from the Committee in relation to petitions; but that the committee will only seek oral evidence from Ministers on petitions in exceptional circumstances, for example in the event of a failure to respond to requests for written information or to fulfil an undertaking made in response to a petition. It will be for the Petitions Committee to decide for itself how it wishes to fulfil its responsibilities, but if the House agrees with this report, it will be indicating that it would expect both the committee and the Government to act within the terms of the memorandum which has been agreed.

31. The committee's relationship with other select committees will also be important. We have recommended above that the Petitions Committee have the ability to refer a petition to the relevant select committee; but also that there will be no obligation on that other committee to take any action. It will be for that committee to decide what the appropriate response will be. As the Liaison Committee has commented, "Select committees already receive petitions presented to the House, and use them to inform current business; not infrequently the subject-matter of a petition will coincide with issues the committee is already investigating."[38] The Liaison Committee reported in respect of the proposal of the Wright Committee to give the Procedure Committee a similar role that it was "confident that the Procedure Committee could exercise appropriate discretion";[39] we trust that it will have equal confidence in a new Petitions Committee. We would expect the chair of the Petitions Committee to be a member of the Liaison Committee, which should assist in resolving any difficulties.


32. The Petitions Committee should be supported by a staff team with responsibility for:

·  moderating e-petitions, assisted as necessary by Government officials;

·  advising and supporting the Committee in its examination of petitions submitted;

·  advising petitioners on how to petition and assisting them with the process;

·  keeping petitioners and signatories who have opted in to receiving further information informed of the progress of their petition, and (subject to the volume of petitions received and the resources available) informing them of other Parliamentary developments or activity touching the subject of their petition, and making such information available on the e-petitions website.

We have more to say about the role of that staff team in moderating petitions, advising and assisting petitioners and providing information on Parliamentary developments and activity below.

Engagement with petitioners and potential petitioners

33. The case for better engagement with petitioners was made very clearly in a number of responses from Natascha Engel, Chair of the Backbench Business Committee, when she gave evidence to our inquiry on debates on Government e-petitions in 2011:

    […] we need to do the public engagement bit better. At the moment the engagement is not engagement as I would understand it; it is very one-sided. […] We should start by saying, "How can we better do that?" I think by engaging people at the point at which they want to table a petition would be a better way round. Have a unit, have somebody who takes people step by step through how to do it, what it is they are trying to achieve, whether this is the best way of doing it, and then the possible consequences of putting your signature on an e-petition. Possibly it is not to change the law; possibly it is. If it is to advance a campaign, then maybe putting an e-petition to a Select Committee, for example, might be a better way to do it. […][40]

    If we are engaging people, engagement to me is a two-way process. We have e-petitions and we have parliamentarians, and if we are having a dialogue about how things work and how best to achieve things, when constituents come and see us in surgeries, we do not automatically just take on and do exactly what they say. We take them through how the system works and then discuss with them the best way of pursuing or dealing with their issue. It is a dialogue […][41]

34. A report by the Hansard Society on e-petitions, which drew on the results of a seminar facilitated by our colleagues on the Backbench Business Committee, makes the same point:

    An e-petition is certainly a way to get an issue on to or higher up on the political agenda; it is a means to attract public and media attention to the issue and can serve a useful 'fire-alarm' function, providing citizens with an opportunity to air their views on a national platform. If all that is sought is a 'finger in the wind' exercise to determine the depth of public feeling on a range of issues then the system meets this test. But it is not, in its current form, a means to empower them through greater engagement in the political and specifically parliamentary process and it affords only limited opportunity for deliberation on the issues raised.


    The government claims that the website 'has connected with a remarkable number and range of people - for many of whom, this may have been their first experience of engaging with Parliament and Government.' But the way the system currently works means that the engagement that takes place is primarily with the website rather than with government and Parliament. Consequently petitioners do not learn anything about how Parliament works.[42]

35. The Hansard Society report makes the following recommendation:

    Given the volume of e-petitions submitted each week it is not reasonable to believe that staff at Westminster could replicate the dedicated, personal engagement with individual petitioners undertaken in the devolved legislatures at the beginning of each petitioning process. However, a dedicated team of staff in a new Petitions Office could certainly help to enhance the approach to moderation, improve the communication with petitioners, and signpost petitions that are not eligible for consideration by the House of Commons elsewhere (e.g. to the National Assembly for Wales, the Scottish Parliament, local government or another public body). At present, e-petitions whose subject matter is not the responsibility of a government department are simply rejected; officials do not provide any advice or information to the petitioners to help them direct their concerns to the relevant institution. A Petitions Office could offer such enhanced support.[43]

36. Catherine Bochel, a lecturer at the University of Lincoln who has been undertaking research into petitions systems in the UK for a number of years, including many interviews with petitioners, provided us with a little more detail about how that might work and the outcomes which might result:

    First, I think you need a clear statement of purpose on the website: "If you submit a petition to this system, you can get this, this and this". Then if people submit a petition and they get that or some of that, then they might feel that is okay. If they have the opportunity to speak to a clerk, to e-mail somebody to answer their questions, if there is information on the website that tells them about the process, then they are more likely to feel they are being treated with respect. […][44]

    When you submit a petition, it needs to be clear that it is not just about getting what you asked for at the end of the day. There are a whole series of other outcomes, all the sorts of things that have been mentioned here today. Getting your petition published on the website is an outcome in itself, because it is promoting it to a wider audience, raising its profile, and perhaps you will get some additional publicity for that, but that is an outcome in itself. All these other things that have been mentioned are outcomes. I have interviewed petitioners and said to them, "Did you get what you wanted?" and some of them will say to me, "No, I didn't get what I wanted or what I started out asking for, but I got other things and I am satisfied with that". It is important that, when they submit a petition, petitioners can see that it is not just about getting what you have asked for. There are other things you can achieve, too, and that is important.[45]

37. In the debate on the motion referring the matter to us, the then Leader of the House expressed the hope that a new system could provide "better service and support for petitioners".[46] Written evidence from Cristina Leston-Bandeira, a senior lecturer at the University of Hull, argued that

    One of the most important aspects to consider in setting up the new petitions system is the way it provides information to citizens. One of the key criteria for effective parliamentary petition systems is the clarity, usefulness and transparency of the information given to the petitioner. The new system should be supported by a website that explains clearly and in an engaging manner (use of videos, examples, smart web design, integration with social media, etc.) not only the process to submit the petition, but also the process the petition will undergo for its consideration. The site can be used to clarify what the institution of parliament can realistically do and how the issue being raised in the petition may be dealt with.[47]

38. Natascha Engel, giving evidence to us again on this inquiry, told us

    […] this is about how do individuals engage with Parliament so that every single time somebody signs either a paper petition or an e-petition, they should learn something about how this place works and learn about how better to influence what it is that we do.[48]

39. We consider that the Hansard Society's suggestion of a "dedicated team of staff in a new Petitions Office [enhancing] the approach to moderation, improv[ing] communication with petitioners, and signpost[ing] petitions that are not eligible for consideration by the House of Commons elsewhere" offers the most practical and attractive picture of how engagement with petitioners and prospective petitioners could be improved in this new system. Together with the rebranding and redesigning of the e-petition website, the establishment of a Petitions Committee with its own team of staff could vastly improve the information which is available to petitioners about what the House of Commons does and the many ways in which Members of Parliament use the opportunities the House offers them to respond to the public's concerns.

40. There is much that Petitions Committee staff could do to enhance the information available to petitioners and prospective signatories to petitions once a petition has been submitted. In Figures 1 and 2 we reproduce examples we have been shown of the kind of work which might be done. In these examples links are provided to relevant Parliamentary material in emails informing a petitioner that his petition has reached 10,000 signatures and has therefore received a response from the Government, and that it has been debated after reaching 100,000 signatures; such links could equally be provided in the email inviting a signatory to confirm their support for a petition, or with the text of a petition on the site. It will in due course be for the Petitions Committee itself, in the light of the resources available to it, to decide how far this work goes; but the potential is there, we believe, for the establishment of a new system overseen by a Petitions Committee to improve significantly the House's engagement with petitioners and prospective petitioners.


41. The submission of an e-petition will not require the intervention of a Member of Parliament in the way that the paper petitioning system does. The essence of the system which has already been set up, and on which our proposed system is therefore based, is one of direct access to the institution to which the petition is directed, and we do not think it would be appropriate to retreat from that. Nor, given our recommendation of the establishment of a Petitions Committee, do we think it is necessary to do so in order to ensure the ownership of the system by Members of Parliament.

42. Nonetheless we consider that there would be considerable merit in the Petitions Committee establishing a system of informing Members about some or all of the petitions submitted by their constituents. Members might be told, for example, about petitions originating from or attracting a certain number of signatories from their constituency, or relating to a specific issue in the constituency, or petitions in either of those categories on which the Committee had decided to take further action. We were told that it should also be possible to make available aggregate information about the signatories to a petition (for example in the form of postcode "heat maps"), which is likely to be of interest not only to Members but also to the general public.[49]

43. We also consider that the e-petition site should offer creators and signatories of e-petitions a means of notifying their Member of Parliament that they had signed a petition. There are a number of ways in which that might be done. For example, a link could be provided on the site once a visitor had signed a petition saying Contact your MP to let them know you have signed this petition, which would automatically open an email to the petitioner's constituency MP, based on the postcode they have entered as part of the signing process. Or a system could be established whereby petition signatories would be able to opt in to their email address being made available to their constituency MP, with lists of those who had done so, broken down by petition signed, being provided to MPs who request them on, say, a weekly basis. If the House approves the system we propose in this report, we will pursue the provision of these options in the redesigned e-petition site.

Moderation of e-petitions

44. The current e-petition system is moderated by officials of Government departments. Prospective petitioners must indicate when they submit an e-petition which department they think is responsible for the subject matter of the petition. The text of the petition is then forwarded to officials in that department, who consider whether it complies with the terms and conditions. If it does, it is published and opened for signature. If it does not, the prospective petitioner is informed of the reason or reasons why it has been rejected. The full text of rejected petitions is published on the site, unless the content is illegal or offensive.[50]

45. We recommend that moderation of the jointly-owned system—that is, examination of e-petitions submitted to ensure that they comply with the terms and conditions of the site—should be carried out by Petitions Committee staff, advised as necessary by officials of Government departments. This will represent a significant transfer of responsibility—and therefore cost—from the Government to the House; but we consider it necessary to ensure that the House retains control of the petitions which are presented to it, not least because of the considerations of Parliamentary privilege which we discuss below. It is also appropriate that moderation of petitions should be carried out by the same team which is responsible for advising and supporting petitioners in the way we discuss above.

46. We would expect the Petitions Committee to monitor the way in which moderation was being conducted by Petitions Committee staff and ensure that it was being done appropriately. The Committee would, for example, have full access to the text of all rejected e-petitions.


47. It was suggested to us that we might consider setting a threshold for the number of supporters of an e-petition before it will be published and opened for signature.[51] Around one in five of the e-petitions which have been submitted through the current site have attracted fewer than three signatures, and as many as 42% fewer than six.

48. Since the purpose of an e-petition is to express a collective, rather than an individual, view on a particular matter, we agree that it would be appropriate to require a prospective petitioner to demonstrate a degree of support for his or her petition before it will be published and opened for signature on the site. Requiring an e-petition to attract a certain number of supporters before it is published has the additional advantage of reducing the burden of moderation, since it is only necessary to examine an e-petition for compliance with the terms and conditions if it is going to be published. That will leave more resources available to engage with those bringing forward well-supported petitions, and to ensure that as much information as possible is made available on the e-petitions website about what Parliament is doing in relation to the concerns raised. We recommend that an e-petition be required to attract at least five signatures in addition to its creator before it will be submitted for moderation (and thereafter publication). This can be done relatively simply through the site by allowing the petition creator to enter a number of e-mail addresses of those he or she thinks support the petition; those people will then be automatically e-mailed through the system and invited to confirm—by clicking a link in the e-mail, exactly as if they had gone to the site to sign a published e-petition—that they support it. Only when at least five people have done so will the text of the e-petition be forwarded for moderation.


49. We have considered the terms and conditions of the current e-petition site and are broadly content with them. We have no desire to make the collaborative system any more restrictive than is necessary. The terms and conditions of the site which we consider appropriate to a jointly-owned system are published in the Annex to this report.

50. We recommend only one significant change to the existing terms and conditions which is not a straightforward consequence of the transition to a jointly-owned system. That is that petitioners should be required to include a clear statement of the action which they want the Government, or the House, to take as a result of their petition. This change was recommended to us by those running the existing system and appears to be an obvious way of focussing a petition and ensuring that the Government and/or the House respond appropriately. As we note above, there is already an equivalent requirement for public petitions to the House submitted through the existing paper petition system.[52]

Parliamentary privilege

51. Notwithstanding our desire not to restrict access to it, in a Parliamentary system there is an additional consideration which means that particular care will need to be taken in the moderation of prospective petitions. That is the potential scope of Parliamentary privilege applying to such petitions. The House will wish to satisfy itself that procedures are in place to ensure that no material is published which would be inappropriately protected from court action as result of the application of Parliamentary privilege.

52. Our assessment of how Parliamentary privilege would apply to the system we propose is as follows. This is a summary of how the system would work:

·  A petitioner submits a petition to the site.

·  The petitioner provides at least four additional e-mail addresses of people who support the petition.

·  At least five of those people confirm that they support the petition.

·  The petition is forwarded to Petitions Committee staff for moderation.

·  Petitions Committee staff will consider the petition and assess whether it meets the terms and conditions set out on the site.

·  If the petition meets the terms and conditions, it will be opened for signature, and will remain open for a period of six months.

·  If the petition does not meet the terms and conditions, an e-mail will be sent to the petition creator informing them of the fact.

·  Petitions which meet the terms and conditions will be considered by the Petitions Committee.

·  Following closure of the petition for signature, the petition will be presented formally to the House.

53. A petition should not be privileged simply by virtue of having been approved by Petitions Committee staff. An analogy may be drawn with the role of the Clerk of Public Petitions in respect of the existing paper petition system. She may approve the wording of a proposed petition to the House, which is then prepared and circulated by the petitioner to collect signatures before being presented to the House. There is no implication that the petition is privileged whilst it is being circulated for signatures to be collected.

54. Neither should the fact that the House is publishing the petition, and providing the means by which signatures may be collected, mean that an e-petition would be privileged at this stage. The House publishes much material on its website (and indeed elsewhere) which is not a proceeding in Parliament and which is not therefore privileged.

55. The point at which an e-petition became a proceeding in Parliament would be the point at which it is considered by the Petitions Committee itself. The Petitions Committee should be given the explicit task, in its Standing Order, of considering whether an e-petition is fit for presentation to the House. Presentation to the House would not take place until later in the process, at the end of the six-month signature period on the e-petition site.[53] Once the Petitions Committee had considered the petition and determined that it considered it fit for presentation to the House, it should constitute a proceeding in Parliament.

56. It is possible though that a petition published on an e-petition site endorsed and established by the House—as we hope this one will be—would attract the more limited protection of the Parliamentary Papers Act 1840. Petitions Committee staff will need to exercise care in the moderation of petitions to ensure that no potentially actionable material is published in an e-petition without the explicit authority of the Petitions Committee itself. Two things are worth bearing in mind here:

·  House staff have long experience in assessing material provided by members of the public to ensure anything potentially actionable is not published under the House's auspices. This experience includes not only evidence to select committees—where in difficult cases the committee itself will be invited to consider whether a submission should be accepted or not—but also web fora and the like, where the material concerned is not necessarily ever expected to constitute a formal submission to a committee.

·  The terms and conditions have been couched in such a way as to ensure that any potentially actionable material should be immediately ruled out.

57. Cases in which a petition was accepted by Petitions Committee staff and published for signature, but later rejected by the Committee itself, might be expected to be rare. Nonetheless it could happen. In all cases there would in the process be the opportunity for elected Members to exercise the right which the House has asserted for itself "to judge and determine, touching the nature and matter of […] petitions, how far they are fit and unfit to be received".[54] That might include, for example, where there were active proceedings in the courts on the matters on which a petition touched.

Standing Order No. 48

58. Standing Order No. 48 (Recommendation from Crown required on application relating to public money) provides that "This House will receive no petition for any sum relating to public service […] unless recommended from the Crown." This rule derives from the principle that no charge on public funds or on the people can be incurred except on the initiative of the Crown.[55]

59. On a strict construction, this standing order might appear to rule out the presentation to the House of any e-petition which would involve higher public spending on public services. In practice, as Erskine May records, "petitions seeking a change of policy, or asking for legislation, which might incidentally involve public expenditure […] are usually acceptable".[56] In considering how this standing order should be applied to e-petitions, it will also be important to consider the nature and context of the system. The rule expressed in SO No. 48 is aimed at petitions addressed specifically to the House and requesting action directly from it. Clearly a petition to the House requesting a specific grant of public money would, if not recommended by the Crown, breach the principle relating to the incursion of charges on public funds mentioned above. The e-petition site, on the other hand, as we noted earlier in this report, is intended to allow the public "to petition the House of Commons and press for action from Government".[57] An e-petition asking the Government (but not the House) to increase expenditure on some aspect of public service would not breach that principle and we see no reason why the House should not receive it.

Duration on the site

60. Currently, an e-petition remains open for signature on the site for twelve months from the date of its creation. We recommend that the period for which a petition should be open for signature on the new site should be six months. Professor Margetts showed us figures demonstrating that, with very few exceptions, an e-petition which is going to attract a significant number of signatures will do so within a matter of days, if not hours.[58] Reducing the period for which an e-petition remains open is therefore unlikely to have a significant effect on its ability to gather support, and will help to ensure that the site remains focussed on matters of current concern to the public.

Presentation to the House

61. When an e-petition reaches the end of its time open for signature on the site, we consider that it would be appropriate for it to be presented to the House, and entered on the formal record of its proceedings. For this to occur it will not be necessary for an e-petition to be presented on the floor of the House in the same way as a public petition brought through the paper petitioning system; nor for the full text of the petition to be republished, since arrangements will be made for an archive to be kept of the electronic version of all published e-petitions. Instead, we recommend that, once it is closed for signature, the title of each e-petition be recorded in a list in the Votes and Proceedings (or elsewhere in the formal record of House proceedings), together with the number of signatures it has attracted.

62. Should a Member wish to pursue it, the paper petition system will enable the formal presentation of the subject of an e-petition on the floor of the House. Although, as we note above, an e-petition may not meet the rules for paper petitions, in practice—as our predecessor committee noted in a report on public petitions in 2004—the same goes for many public petitions received by Members.[59] It is usually a relatively straightforward task for the petition to be redrafted so that it conforms to the rules for paper petitions. Whilst this petition is not the one which has attracted signatures on the e-petition site, it is unlikely that the chair would object to a Member drawing attention, when presenting such a petition, to the number of signatures attracted by an e-petition in similar terms. In practice this is what happens in the case of a substantial proportion of the paper petitions presented to the House.

Debates on petitions

63. At present, the Backbench Business Committee is responsible for determining whether, and if so where, an e-petition referred to it by the Leader of the House once it has attained 100,000 signatures is debated by the House. BBCom decides whether a debate should take place in Westminster Hall on a Monday afternoon, or whether some of the time allocated for backbench business on the floor of the House or on Thursdays in Westminster Hall should be used for debate on the subject raised by the e-petition.

64. We recommend that the Petitions Committee should assume responsibility from BBCom for determining debates on petitions in Westminster Hall. The Chair of BBCom has explained to us how that responsibility never really sat well with her committee:[60] the Petitions Committee, on the other hand, should consider it central to its responsibility to decide whether a petition—whether an e-petition or a petition presented through the traditional paper route—should be debated by the House. The Petitions Committee should not, however, be able to cut across the existing responsibility of the Backbench Business Committee to decide that a petition should be debated other than in the dedicated slot for petition debates in Westminster Hall. If the Petitions Committee decides that a petition deserves a debate on the floor of the House, it would take that request to the Backbench Business Committee, which could (but would not be obliged to) allocate backbench time for it. If BBCom were unable to prioritise a debate on the petition over the matters brought before it by other Members, it would be for the Petitions Committee to decide whether to have the matter debated in Westminster Hall, or whether to return to BBCom with a renewed request at a time which it judged more propitious.

65. The Petitions Committee could also recommend that a petition be "tagged" to a debate taking place on the floor of the House or in Westminster Hall (subject to the agreement of the Member in charge of that debate).

66. As we have noted above, it would be for the Petitions Committee to judge the extent to which the number of signatures should affect its decision about whether a petition should be debated.[61] We would expect the number of signatures to be a very significant factor in the Committee's decision, but not necessarily determinative in cases where other factors—such as a debate on the subject having already taken place, or the salience of the subject matter—weigh heavier in the Committee's judgement.

Paper petitions

67. The traditional system of petitioning the House—by means of paper petitions—is of very long standing, and has evolved through time and a number of examinations by our predecessor Procedure Committees and others. We have considered carefully the implications of the introduction of a means of petitioning the House electronically for the paper petitioning system, especially given that the rules for e-petitions are to be to some degree less stringent than those for paper petitions.

68. We have concluded that the rules and procedures for paper petitions should remain as they are. The e-petition system which we recommend here is designed to build on the existing Government system: it will enable people to petition the House electronically, but its chief merit will be in enabling the House to hear and respond to petitions pressing for action from the Government. The paper petition system, on the other hand, is designed specifically for petitions addressed to the House of Commons. As such it is a route directly to the floor of the House, via a particular Member of Parliament—usually the lead petitioner's constituency MP—and retains that important link with an individual Member which we have concluded is not appropriate for the "collaborative" jointly-owned House and Government e-petition system which the House has asked us to design. We think those features of the paper petitioning system are valuable and worth retaining notwithstanding the introduction of a new way of petitioning the House.

69. The only change which we recommend is the ability of the Petitions Committee to consider paper petitions, and take action on them as it considers appropriate, alongside petitions coming through the e-petition system. As a continued incentive to the presentation of paper petitions, we recommend that the Government should retain its practice of responding to every paper petition presented to the House (as opposed to the 10,000 signature threshold for a Government response to an e-petition). Since every paper petition will be subject to consideration by the Petitions Committee, however, we recommend that the requirement that all paper petitions should be referred to the relevant select committee, and formally placed on their agenda, should be removed. The Liaison Committee has commented that "it does not appear that many committees take specific action in response to petitions" as a result of this requirement.[62] As we note above, it will be open to the Petitions Committee to draw the attention of a select committee to any petition it considers appropriate: we hope that such improved targeting of the referral of petitions to select committees might encourage those committees to take them up.

70. We expect the Petitions Committee to maintain oversight of the paper petitioning system as well as the e-petition system, and to recommend any changes to the paper petitioning system which might appear to it to be necessary in the light of experience of running alongside a new e-petition system.

19   Public Petitions and Early Day Motions, Ev 16. Back

20   See, for example, Public Petitions and Early Day Motions, para 27. Back

21   e-Petitions, para 147. Back

22   e-Petitions, para 148. Back

23   Rebuilding the House, para 260. Back

24   Rebuilding the House, para 261. Back

25   Rebuilding the House, para 263. Back

26   Revisiting Rebuilding the House: the impact of the Wright reforms, para 133. Back

27   Hansard Society, What next for e-petitions? (2012), pp 19, 20.  Back

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

29   Q97 Back

30   Debates on Government e-Petitions, para 5. Back

31   See para 63ff. below. Back

32   Q10 Back

33   Q98 Back

34   Q98 Back

35   Q72 Back

36   Q99 Back

37   Q97 Back

38   Liaison Committee, First Report of Session 2009-10, Rebuilding the House: Select Committee Issues, HC 272, para 38. Back

39   Rebuilding the House: Select Committee Issues, para 38.  Back

40   Debates on Government e-Petitions, Q22. Back

41   Debates on Government e-Petitions, Q29. Back

42   What next for e-petitions?, p 9. Back

43   What next for e-petitions?, p 20. Back

44   Q26 Back

45   Q43 Back

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

47   Written evidence from Cristina Leston-Bandeira, p 2. Back

48   Q56 Back

49   See Q36 and slide "Petition Signatures by Postcode district" in written evidence from Professor Helen Margetts. Back

50   HM Government, E-petitions: 'Terms and conditions', accessed 28 November 2014. Back

51   Q21 (and see written evidence from Professor Helen Margetts), Qq31-33; Letter from the Leader of the House, E-petitions: Outline ProposalsBack

52   Para 13. Back

53   See para 61. Back

54   Quoted in Erskine May's Treatise on The Law, Privileges, Proceedings and Usage of Parliament, 24th ed. (2011) (hereafter "May"), p.483. Back

55   May, p. 716 Back

56   May, p. 486 Back

57   Para 13. Back

58   Q21: see slide "Most petitions fail" in written evidence from Professor Helen Margetts. Back

59   Procedure Committee, Fifth Report of Session 2003-04, Public petitions, HC 1248, para 7. Back

60   Q77 Back

61   Para 25 Back

62   Liaison Committee, Second Report of Session 2009-10, The Work of Committees in Session 2008-09, para 127. Back

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