E-petitions, dialogue and the art of compromise
Author: Peter Facey
Published on Nov 17, 2011
News that the government is considering reviewing its e-petitions system should be welcomed; it is one of the worst thought out petitioning systems ever devised. There is however a real risk that in a misguided effort to avoid more embarrassing debates in parliament, David Cameron may end up throwing the baby out with the bathwater.
The threshold itself is a red herring. The fact that so many petitions have reached the 100,000 point at which they are guaranteed a debate should be welcomed not resented. It is one of the few things the designers of the system can justifiably feel proud of. Generating 100,000 is clearly eminently possible, but not quite as easy as many people thought. For one thing, the public aren't quite as easy to manipulate as some have feared, as the Guido Fawkes blog and its death penalty petition has learned to its cost.
To a lesser extent, it has also been successful at giving backbench MPs a greater voice and prominence than would be the case, although this is in part due to reforms which have been developing anyway over the past couple of years in light of the Wright Committee’s proposals. Indeed, the Backbench Committee has shown a degree in flexibility in how it deals with petitions in order to reflect backbench concerns by, for example, holding a debate on EU membership even though no single EU petition had received 100,000 signatures in support.
Unfortunately, that is pretty much the only successful aspect of the system. Backbench Committee member Natasha Engel has outlined the problems it has caused in terms of creating unrealistic public expectations. The government's insistence on a centralised, Whitehall-knows-best e-petition system means that people without access to the Internet are automatically excluded. But the most fundamental problem with the system is how the petitions themselves are handled.
In theory, debating petitions are backbench business. In practice, as the government learned to its cost over the EU membership petition, it can have implications which the government cannot afford to ignore. Even when the debates aren’t whipped, petitions have rarely resulted in the MPs themselves being swayed by public opinion; they simply vote according to their existing views. In the case of the petition for rioters to lose their benefits, MPs chose to ignore the petition itself in the subsequent debate entirely. This isn’t public engagement; it is megaphone diplomacy - frequently between what is increasingly viewed of as “them” versus “us”.
Only a government stuffed quite so much to the gills with alumni from the Oxford and Cambridge debating unions as this one could devise a petitioning system which is so flagrantly zero sum. By adopting such a take it or leave it approach, all too often it boils to either the government winning or the petitioners. Either way, the resounding loser is politics itself.
It doesn't have to be like this. Public engagement should, in the first instance, be about creating a dialogue. You don't need to go very far to see how a petitioning system might work better in practice; you merely need to visit Holyrood which has accepted petitions via a petitions committee since its inception.
Instead of a series of unedifying whipped votes, the Scottish Parliament's petitions committee selects petitions for debate, deliberates on them, receives evidence and makes recommendations on how each petition should be handled. There is no minimum threshold, meaning that a serious issue affecting only a handful of people has the potential to change things regardless of the number of signatures it receives. The final recommendations frequently do not match the petitioners' exact demands but they are a usually genuine attempt to address their concerns. The result is frequently a compromise, something which the coalition is all too familiar with, and the potential to meet even the most trenchant of petitioner halfway.
Westminster could learn a lot from this and other models which have been successfully applied at a local government level. It is inevitably a slower process and both parliament and the government have a job to do in managing expectations after the initial hype. But if public engagement is to be sincere then what matters is its quality not the quantity.