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What is the point of e-petitions?

By Ross Hawkins
Political correspondent, BBC News

image captionIs this how the cabinet would look if e-petitioners had their way?

E-petitions stand every chance of proving popular, and maybe even too popular for their own good.

Any petitioner securing more than 100,000 signatures will expect a debate in the House of Commons.

These will take place in time allocated for backbench debates, of which just six days remain before April.

The leader of the House of Commons, Sir George Young, says extra time may be allowed. It is understood an additional six days could be provided.

But the slots are much sought after by MPs with their own subjects for debate, who even if granted more days might not be willing to hand them all over to the concerns of petitioners.

If successful petitions outnumber spaces in the parliamentary schedule, frustration could result.

Already the Daily Express says 65,000 people have expressed support for a referendum on EU membership.

They would all have to sign up on the e-petitions website for their opinions to count, but it indicates the target figure might be easily obtainable for some causes.

'Bit tougher'

Earlier this year the Sun won 100,000 supporters for its own petition to freeze fuel tax.

In 2007 almost 1.8 million registered their objection to road-pricing on the now defunct Downing Street petitions site. A demand to make the TV presenter Jeremy Clarkson Prime Minister got almost half way to that target.

One of the campaigners for a death penalty debate - Paul Staines, who blogs as Guido Fawkes - is an unlikely advocate for a higher bar.

He said: "I'm very confident that I'll get 100,000 signatures in a matter of weeks if not months and I think that they should perhaps make it a little bit tougher if they are going to take this seriously."

Just hours after the publications of the first petitions, Sir George Young gave a clear hint that this could happen.

He said: "We do want to monitor it to see if we've got the threshold either too high or too low.

"This is a new initiative and we've set a 100,000 because we think that's roughly the right target but if lots and lots of petitions sail through that barrier then we may need to see if it should be higher. If none of them are able to reach that target then we may need to lower it."

Getting a debate is one thing, though. Changing the law is quite another.

The debates that will follow petitions will allow the House to express an opinion, not force the government to act.

However, some argue that helping the public engage with politics does not need to lead to legislation.

John McTernan, a political adviser in Downing Street under Tony Blair when the Number 10 petitions website was established, said the former prime minister had been relaxed about opposition to road-pricing on his own site.

He said: "When people said to Tony Blair there were 1.8 million people against road charging. He said there were always 1.8 million people against road charging, now we have their e-mail addresses."

'Let it burn'

In the end Mr Blair sent the signatories a long e-mail explaining his thinking on the subject, although road-pricing never came to pass.

There is nothing new in petitioning Parliament.

It first became widespread in the reign of Henry IV and MPs have long been able to deposit petitions in a large green bag at the back of the Speaker's chair in the Commons.

Attitudes have changed over time.

In 1640 a Commons committee which considered a petition found it, in the words of the official record of the time, "of no better Consequence than to be burnt".

Come 1661 such was the disruption caused by mass petitions Parliament had to pass an act against tumultuous petitioning.

E-petitions - already available in Scotland and Wales - changed the system again, not only allowing modern campaigners to collect signatures much more easily than their forebears, but also to display a running total of support for each campaign.

The debates generated in Parliament and beyond by petitions on the new website may not prove as tumultuous as their 17th Century predecessors, but they may well make it much more difficult for popular petitioners to be ignored.

More on this story

  • E-petitions urge MPs to debate return of death penalty