Why MPs are unhappy with current e-petition system

"The People have spoken; but no-one in parliament was listening" - one blogosphere verdict on the Backbench Business Committee's decision not to schedule a debate on the e-petition calling for convicted rioters to be deprived of social security benefits.

This was the first petition on the Government website to attract 100,000 signatures and thus be forwarded for consideration for a backbench debate by the Leader of the house, Sir George Young. But on Tuesday the Committee ruled that it had no power to schedule debates unless they are proposed by MPs and no MP had come to its meeting to press for the subject to be discussed.

It now seems unlikely the benefits proposal will be discussed until later in October, if it is debated at all.

The next petition to reach the magic 100,000 signature threshold, on revealing the Government's files on the Hillsborough disaster, has been overtaken by events. But Tory backbencher Robert Halfon's petition urging a cut in fuel prices is accumulating signatures and may soon make it to the wicket. What then?

It's not a matter of disdaining e-petitions - MPs remain very wary of dissing the electorate. But the committee finds itself in real difficulty. First the whole idea was implemented by the Government, without any debate in Parliament - and no process is in place for considering how they should be handled.

Its members are rather miffed at suddenly being required either to find debating time for a whole new set of subjects, or being the parliamentary organ that has to say "No" to the petitioners.

The creation of the Backbench committee has proved to be a bit of a triumph for parliamentary reformers - already it has allowed a series of parliamentary votes which would almost certainly never have occurred under the pre-2010 arrangements.

But the demands on the modest chunk of Commons debating time they control are huge - and the chairwoman, Natascha Engel, argues that since the Government came up with the e-petition system they should provide the debating time, rather than eating into the time available to backbenchers.

A further issue is the rather techie, but important point that, by immemorial parliamentary tradition, MPs are always the middlemen between their constituents and parliament. Creating a new direct channel of influence via the internet may be a good idea, but the implications ought, she argues, to be thrashed out in advance.

Ms Engel tells me on tonight's Today in Parliament on BBC Radio 4 that she hopes the failure to set up a system does not mean e-petitions are a mere gimmick. Amidst all the angst there is a danger that a new way to connect Parliament to the people could be lost.

The committee's toying with the idea of suggesting a dedicated petitions committee, along the lines of the highly successful Public Petitions Committee operated by the Scottish Parliament - which was explicitly created to counter the possibility of an insular "Holyrood Village" emerging.

A Westminster version would have the job of receiving petitions and considering how best to handle them. Should they simply schedule a debate, or would some issues need a different approach? Would an idea like withdrawing benefits for rioters, which has complicated ramifications, need to be thought through by the Work and Pensions Select Committee, before being debated, for example? Would a call for MPs to redress some great wrong require investigatory hearings?

But all those questions pale next to the central request that the Government provide the time to debate the petitions. After all, it solicited them via the DirectGov website.

The Leader of the House, Sir George Young, hinted at Commons Business Questions that he would try to provide the Backbench Business Committee with a bit of "headroom" to allow petitions to be debated - and added that an MP may well decide to argue for a debate on the rioters benefits petition in Ms Engel's "salon" next week.

But given the huge legislative programme Sir George has to ringmaster, finding extra time for anything else will not be easy.

Of course one solution might be for the House not to knock off for the summer in mid July - and perhaps not take a three week Easter break next year. But given the level of grumbling from MPs about having to return for this September fortnight before heading off to their respective party conferences, I doubt he'd be cheered out of the chamber by MPs if he suggested that... Perhaps the Backbench Committee should schedule a debateā€¦.