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E-Petitions...to be, or not to be?

Today the House of Commons will be debating the release of all files relating to the 1989 Hillsborough Disaster, something that has been a long time coming. This debate is the first that has been triggered by the e-petition system, which allows anyone to create a petition that may be debated when it attracts 100,000 'signatures'. Being the first debate, it's outcome will either make or break the e-petition's future.

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I'm still very unsure about how sensible this e-petitions system is. Some would say that, in principle, the ability of the citizen to trigger parliamentary debate sounds like a wonderful development in modern democracy. In principle, it is very hard to argue against. Yet i feel that, in practice, it could be the exact opposite, may actually a huge step backwards, and has the potential to be quite dangerous.

The advantages of such a development are obvious, so i am going to focus on why i think it could be dangerous, and result in a step backwards for democracy.

Lets start with the obvious; parliamentary debate time. The time available for debates has always been limited. MPs are trying to spend more time in their constituency's, yet the busy debate timetable means they have to spend more time in Westminster than they really ought to. The Backbench Business Committee has this in mind when planning debates, and therefore must try to cram in as much debate as possible in the shortest possible time. This clearly effects the quality of debates, yet it is very important that MPs aren't tied to the Chamber when they should be at their constituency offices.

However, the time issue is, in my opinion, just a distraction from the more important danger of inappropriate suggestions. I have no doubt that if a topic was obviously inappropriate The Backbench Business Committee would refuse to timetable a debate on it, but there is a grey area.

Looking at the list of petitions sheds some light on this grey area. Some of the 'open' petitions are outside parliaments reach*. Some of the issues are minor irritations and parliament should not be forced to debate them. Some have already been debated to death. Some are short sighted or based on a total lack of understanding. And some are attempting to fix a problem that either does not exist, or effects so few people that a debate in the Chamber could not be justified. Some are just plain offensive**. And lastly, some topics can be dealt with by a department and there is no need for them to be debated in the Chamber. Although i consider a lot of the topics to be inappropriate for whatever reason, i do expect there to be one or two 'gold nuggets' that make the whole system worth while. Hillsborough may be one such gold nugget.

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An issue that i have found quite intangible and difficult to explain is the citizen priorities verses individual priorities. Government and Parliament have to maintain a balance between government, bigger picture, priorities and, individual***, citizen priorities. On the one hand it may be more important for the chambers to debate, for example, a fiscal issue which may be complicated and not of much 'interest' to the wider public. On the other hand, the government exists to represent its citizens, and individual citizen priorities should play a big part in the business of the chambers. Yet often only our elected representatives can see the true bigger picture, and the topics that citizens want debated are insignificant compared to National and International policy that the security of our economy and security depends on. This issue relies on an element of trust in Parliament, something that the public struggle to muster due to the behaviour of people like Dr Fox, and those who abused their expenses.

My point is that it may be dangerous for the chamber to be expected to debate individual citizen issues at the expense of bigger picture issues. Lets look at some statistics. The current UK population is approximately 62 million. For an issue to be discussed under the e-petitions scheme it must have 100,000 signatures. So for an issue to be discussed it will have less than 0.2% public support.

Some questions it raises in my mind; Is that enough to trigger debate? Should it be higher? Should other factors and criteria be considered? or to be truly democratic should it be purely based on figures, regardless of the topic? I have tried to answer these myself, but i come up with conflicting arguments. Parliament should debate all important issues, even if they only effect a small number of people...yet i feel like 100,000 isn't enough to really demonstrate the public's wishes.

What concerns me the most is the 'refused petitions' list. On the first page 17 out of 20 refused petitions are on the topic of capital punishment. Let me be clear about my views; Capital Punishment is wrong, prohibited, and calls for its return should not be acted upon. Those who support its return are ignorant of the reasons for its abolition. Were it not against the principle of parliamentary sovereignty i would like to see the Murder (Abolition of death penalty) Act 1965, and other death penalty abolition legislation, bind all future governments. This is a good argument for the introduction of a written Constitution.

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Thankfully sanity has prevailed and the "Petition to retain the ban on Capital Punishment" has had 30,139 signatures to the 21,935 signatures of the "Restore Capital Punishment" petition. This restores my faith in humanity :-)

So to conclude; These e-petitions can be dangerous if not moderated properly, and measured against a set of criteria that protects parliament from unethical, immoral, ill-informed and offensive petitions, regardless of how many signatures a petition may have.



Do you agree? 
Do you disagree? 
I would love to hear your views. 
Drop me a comment.



*In law, under the principle of Parliamentary Supremacy, nothing is out of reach of Parliament...However, there are many things that are politically out of reach of parliament, and that is what i am referring to here.
**This link refers to a petition entitled "No State Funeral for Thatcher". Whatever my views on Thatcher i find such a petition offensive.
***When i talk about the 'individual' i am referring to individual in the group, community sense.