Parliamentary e-petitions: reflecting on our discussions

Last month, the CDE hosted a discussion event on the topic of Parliamentary e-petitions. Attendees (including some petitioners) were given the opportunity to discuss prominent petitions – such as those relating to the EU Referendum, and the prospect of a state visit by Donald Trump – and to discuss the process of submitting a petition. The event was organised by Prof. Cristina Leston-Bandeira – Co-Director of the CDE – who has written extensively on petitions in the past (see two recent articles from the LSE Blog and the UCL Constitution Unit blog).

Our latest CDE blog post shares some of the discussion points raised during the event, and the valuable observations made by attendees.

 

The E-Petitions Site

Through the E-Petitions Website you can view open petitions, local petitions, and start a petition of your own. If a petition reaches 10,000 signatures it will receive a response from the Government; those that reach over 100,000 will be considered for debate in Parliament. Many of the event’s participants discussed the E-Petitions Website and noted how user-friendly it was.

The House of Commons Petitions Committee is responsible for looking at e-petitions and putting them forward for debate. It also runs its own inquiries. If a petition receives less than 100,000 signatures, this does not mean it can’t be acted upon. For example, the Petitions Committee decided to run an inquiry into Brain Tumour Research after consulting an e-petition that called for more Government funding in this area. At the time the petition had gained just under 14,000 signatures.

Building Momentum

Spreading the word about a petition, and encouraging people to sign, can be a slow process, especially when first building momentum. We discussed social media – Facebook and Twitter – as a means of publicising petitions, spreading awareness, and gaining signatures. Facebook was described as the more useful medium, given its higher membership (2 billion+ users) and greater overall audience penetration.

Celebrity endorsements were seen to be important to the profile of a petition. This speaks to the importance of targeting effectively in order to build (and sustain) momentum, maximise exposure, and encourage a dialogue around the respective topic.

 

Accepting and rejecting petitions

The E-Petitions website features a ‘Standards for Petitions’ section, which clearly states the grounds upon which a petition can be rejected. These include petitions that

  • Call for the same action as a petition that’s already open
  • Do not ask for clear action from the UK Government or the House of Commons
  • Are about something the UK Government or House of Commons is not responsible for

One of the most important and time-consuming aspects of the petition process is the basic wording of the petition. Many petitions deal with controversial and highly sensitive subjects. Moreover, care needs to be given in order to avoid duplication and to ensure the petition is as precise as possible.

In the past many petitions have been rejected on the basis of duplication. However, sometimes two petitions that have a significant number of signatures can be debated together in Parliament at the same time, since they both deal with an important (and evidently pertinent) topic.

 

The experience of petitioning

The experience of e-petitioning was discussed at length; the attendees spoke about potential media involvement in petitions that dealt with high-profile topics, and the adverse publicity this may sometimes cause.

However, petitioning was also discussed as a fascinating and empowering democratic experience; for example, the notion of being the ‘driving force’ behind an important national conversation. Subsequent debates in Parliament often showcase the level of interest from MPs, and their enthusiasm in discussing matters raised directly from the citizenry.

It was acknowledged by the attendees that the e-petitions system was an important means for invigorating the petitions process in general, which is a long-standing form of political engagement. We at the CDE are grateful to all the participants in this discussion, and look forward to another such event in the near future.

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