E-petitions get 6.4 million signatures in a year

By Kayte Rath
Political reporter, BBC News

Man shouting into two megaphones
Image caption,
The government said e-petitions could be a "megaphone" for the public.

Millions of people have put their names to online petitions in an attempt to influence the government.

New government figures, released just over a year since the e-petition website was launched, show 12 people every minute are signing up.

In its first year, a total of 36,000 petitions were submitted, attracting 6.4 million signatures.

If a petition secures more than 100,000 signatures it can be considered by MPs for a debate in Parliament.

The website was set up by the coalition as a way to "build bridges between people and Parliament" and increase public engagement following the expenses scandal.

At its launch in August 2011, Leader of the House of Commons Sir George Young said it could provide a "megaphone" through which the public could make their views heard.

Parliamentary debates

One year on, and the site has been visited 17 million times, with an average of 46,500 visits a day.

A large number of petitions have been submitted, although nearly half - 47% - were rejected for failing to meet the government's criteria.

So far, 10 petitions have reached the 100,000 signature threshold and of those, eight have been debated in Parliament, with a further one scheduled for debate when MPs return from their summer break in September.

Only one - which called for the government's NHS reforms to be dropped - was not accepted by MPs because, at the time, they were already debating the issue in Parliament as part of their scrutiny of government legislation.

But it still had its day in the spotlight.

Labour went on to use one of their regular days of debate as the opposition to discuss the issues raised in the petition, which also - perhaps helpfully - fitted with their own wish to see the Health and Social Care Bill dropped.

Topics debated have ranged from last summer's riots, disclosure of documents relating to the Hillsborough disaster and making financial education compulsory in schools.

The next parliamentary debate triggered by an e-petition is scheduled for 6 September when Labour MP Frank Field and Conservative Nicholas Soames will lead a debate on immigration.

It follows an e-petition, signed by 142,000 and created by immigration think tank Migration Watch, which calls on the government to keep the UK's population "well below 70 million".

A spokesman for Sir George said: "Debates relating to e-petitions, such as that on the release of papers relating to the Hillsborough disaster, saw some of the highest viewing figures for television coverage of Parliament and have seen the government change or clarify its position.

"The site has allowed people to raise issues that would have otherwise not been considered in Parliament and gain public support for their campaigns."

The highest number of people visiting the site was last August, just as the system was launched; a petition on the London riots reached the 100,000 threshold within a matter of days.

Since then the site has struggled to reach the same peak and demand has varied, with visits reaching a low in May this year.

Of the 10 petitions to pass 100,000 signatures, six of these were in the site's first 100 days.

'Two-way process'

And the system has not been without its critics. The Hansard Society, which published a report on e-petitions, has warned the system is too closely controlled by the government of the day and responsibility for it should rest with MPs.

Dr Ruth Fox, Director of Research at the Westminster think tank, says the large numbers using the website show there is clearly an appetite for e-petitions.

But, she argues, public engagement is "a two-way process" and the way in which the system is set up, with communication in the hands of government officials, means it is difficult for the Commons to engage with petitioners.

"A parliamentary debate airs an issue but provides only limited opportunity for deliberation on the issues raised," she says. "Real public engagement needs more than that."

"The petitions system should empower citizens through greater engagement in the parliamentary process."

"There should be an ability to look at a whole range of issues raised by e-petitions, not just those reaching 100,000 signatures.

"And MPs should be able to look at more than just having a debate. There could be, for example, the option of referring a matter to a select committee for an inquiry or approaching a minister directly for a response."

'Constant review'

Dr Fox would like to see the site taken over by Parliament with a special Petitions Committee established to look at how e-petitions work and which ones should get parliamentary attention.

This would lead to more direct contact between MPs and petitioners, she says.

The government says it keeps the site under "constant review" and is committed to continuing to "evolve" it.

If the site were to be transferred to the House of Commons, the government would need to ensure the system was "affordable, accessible and continued to have a trigger for debate," a spokesman for the Commons leader said.

MPs on the Commons Procedure Committee have carried out a review of how e-petitions work and a trial is expected to start in the autumn giving more time for petitions to be debated by MPs outside the main Commons chamber.

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