UK Politics

E-petitions risk 'exacerbating' disaffection, warns think tank

London riots
Image caption The most popular e-petition called for rioters to lose state support

Online government petitions could damage faith in politics if they are not reformed, a Westminster think tank has warned.

The Hansard Society says e-petitions are too closely controlled by the government of the day and that MPs from all parties should have more of a say.

A petition that attracts 100,000 signatures on any subject should in theory be debated in the Commons.

But campaigners say the system is "falling short" of expectations.

Ruth Fox of the Hansard Society said a new petitions committee should be established to "respond to petitioners' concerns and properly engage them in the parliamentary process".

As MPs respond to the concerns of those who sign the petitions, they should be the ones who run the system, she added.

The government said it welcomed Hansard's "contribution to the debate".

A spokesman said: "The e-petitions system was set up by the coalition last summer to make it easier for the public to make representations."

'Misunderstandings'

Online petitions at Westminster began under the previous government, partly in response to the MPs' expenses scandal.

As leader of the opposition David Cameron promised to replace it with a system where "the petition with the most signatures will enable members of the public to table a bill eligible to be voted on in Parliament".

But the Hansard Society says: "The e-petitions system that has been created falls some way short of these assertions, particularly in relation to the public initiation of legislation."

It was the then Conservative opposition's pledges to boost the petition system that have led to "widespread criticism from petitioners and the media," a report published by the group says.

"It is these assertions, reiterated over several years prior to the general election, that have helped to fuel the public and media misunderstandings and misconceptions about what would happen to e-petitions once they secured 100,000 signatures.

"It is not, and never has been, automatic that an e-petition will be debated in the House of Commons: yet this is the widely-held public impression," the report says.

The reports adds: "A number of problems have emerged that threaten to undermine its effectiveness and which, if not addressed, risk reputational damage to the House of Commons in particular, and an exacerbation of public disillusionment with the political system in the long-term."

The Hansard Society calls for:

  • Responsibility for e-petitions to be transferred from the government to the House of Commons
  • The establishment of a 'petitions committee' with the power to summon ministers to improve interaction with petitioners
  • Improvements to the website and a ban on MPs registering e-petitions

The most popular petition on the government's e-petition website calls for anyone convicted of involvement in last summer's London riots to lose all benefits. More than 250,000 people signed the petition.

MPs did debate riots last October but the specific call for rioters to lose financial support was not discussed. A spokeswoman for Philip Davies, a member of the committee charged with deciding whether an issue receives parliamentary time, said the petition was not debated and is not likely to be.

According to the Hansard Society: "The way the system currently works means that the engagement that takes place is primarily with the website rather than with government and Parliament."

Currently almost 98% of e-petitions fall short of the 100,000 signatures needed to have a chance of being debated, the campaigners said.

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