Government responses to e-petitions: will this change anything?
Author: Zoe Stavri
Published on Sep 14, 2012
In his new role as Commons Leader, Andrew Lansley has announced that the government will be more responsive to e-petitions, saying if an e-petition gets more than 10 000 signatures, the government will publish a response. The responses will state the government’s position and policy on the issue and explain any pertinent parliamentary processes.
It is unclear as to whether this move refers to all petitions, or just to those submitted through the government’s e-petitions website, where currently petitions with over 100 000 signatures will be considered for debate by the Backbench Committee. The proposals have not been publicly published. If it is limited to the latter, this excludes a lot of popular petitions. Surely, any popular petition - whether it is submitted through the government website, or collected by standing in the rain on a street corner, or by any number of the other e-petition websites - should be entitled to the same treatment by the government. And what about all the people who don’t have internet access?
However, it’s unlikely this move will change much. It fails to address any of the concerns laid out by our director Peter Facey last year. Peter criticised the way the government handle these petitions as “megaphone diplomacy”: the issues raised within petitions are ignored in debates entirely. It is not a dialogue, but a “take it or leave it” approach.
The debates - if they hit the threshold - can be as little as a dismissal of the content of the petition. A government response will be no better. What is the point of this policy if there is no potential of changing minds through public pressure? At present, the e-petitions service is effectively little more than a way of making people feel as though they have more control over influencing parliamentary debate, without actually changing anything.
As a collective statement of opinion, petitions ought to have more clout than they do. Unfortunately, the government’s service is ineffectual at achieving these goals and risks increasing cynicism if it doesn’t lead to meaningful dialogue and engagement.