Is parliament giving enough time to debate e-petitions?

 

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The Government is beginning to think it has created* a monster.

First the Backbench Business Committee began scheduling Commons debates on unwelcome issues like circus animals, and High Speed 2. Then the Speaker made it clear the Government would not automatically be able to put down official amendments to backbench motions. Then came e-petitions - and ministers had to face controversial debates on Hillsborough, and EU referendum and, most recently, fuel duty.

Amazing to relate, but Commons business used to be a cosy carve-up between the main parties. Suddenly parliamentarians have a bit of traction over what they discuss and, now, so does the public. And the results are becoming rather uncomfortable for the Government. I don't just mean this Government but any Government, steeped in the traditional Westminster way of doing business would find the raising of issues, which could once have been buried in an unmarked procedural grave a bit of an ordeal. But re-connecting Parliament to the people was never going to be painless - and it remains essential.

Which brings me to the suggestion that maybe it is too easy for an e-petition to gain the hundred thousand signatures needed to qualify it for debate in the Commons. Lots of petitions are reaching that threshold, and some parliamentarians are suggesting it should be raised. I can see arguments either way, but one argument which ought not to be over-used is the catch-all excuse used by governments throughout the ages - "lack of parliamentary time." I'm writing this post on the day youth unemployment passed a million. But the issue won't come up at the normal Wednesday Prime Minister's Question Time, because the Commons isn't sitting this Wednesday. MPs are on a brief half term.

I'm quite willing to accept that many MPs will be back in their constituencies, holding meetings, knocking on doors, conducting surgeries and so forth. And even politicians deserve the occasional holiday. But if there isn't enough sitting time for the Commons to debate e-petitions which have roused thousands of people to sign them, and select committee reports, and, come to that, the myriad of Government amendments to bills which routinely pop into existence at Report Stage, and which seldom get any real scrutiny from MPs, maybe they should not knock off for the Summer in Mid July for a break that lasts until mid September?

Just a thought.

* Actually this Government did not create the Backbench Business Committee, and I wish ministers would stop claiming credit for it. The system was voted into existence at the fag end of the last Parliament as part of the response to the expenses scandal, following the recommendations of the Wright Committee. In extremis, the Commons accepted the need to change.

 
Mark D'Arcy, Parliamentary correspondent Article written by Mark D'Arcy Mark D'Arcy Parliamentary correspondent

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  • rate this
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    Comment number 5.

    As point of fact, the petition that (allegedly) got over a 100,000 signatures on the EU referendum wasn't an e-petition. The largest e-petition on the subject was the Daily Express one and got about 30,000 signatures.

  • rate this
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    Comment number 4.

    Mark - really good article and some great challenging points.

    The e-petition idea was always a terrible knee-jerk reaction to the lack of trust in politicians. It's a playground for vested interest and the worst form of single-issue politics. A lazy solution to a much more serious problem - to get more respect for our elected chambers.

  • rate this
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    Comment number 3.

    If the threshold is raised to 2 million there would have to be transparent statistical data, including comphrehive parlimentary data, as to why the figure should be raised and reasons from ecah party represented in the Commons and the Lords

  • rate this
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    Comment number 2.

    The Govt's own e-petitions system is skewing the Backbench Business Cttee ‘reform’ because MPs accept Govt control of Commons reform. The expenses scandal created a golden opportunity for real reform, but it was wasted. We need a ‘parliamentary spring’, an insurgency by MPs, led by the Speaker, taking control of the House on behalf of, and fully involving, the public they represent.

  • rate this
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    Comment number 1.

    If the threshold was raised to 2 million I think some uncomfortable issues will still not go away!

 

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