Select Committee on Procedure First Report


4  Options for a scheme

43. We consider below three possible options for an e-petitioning system. There are other models in existence, for example at the European Parliament or in the Bundestag, but it seems to us that the purpose and objectives of their petitioning systems are very different from those which obtain in the House of Commons.

First option

44. In paragraph 13 we described how the Australian Senate accepts e-petitions. This may be described as a minimal option in that it simply allows Members to present petitions for which the signatories had been collected online, for example on a campaign organisation's website, or on a Member's website. In Australia, it has not, we understand, led to a significant increase in the number of petitions.

45. This option has received some support during our inquiry,[48] but it was considered inadequate by our witnesses, principally because it would not deliver the benefits identified earlier. Peter Riddell, for example, drew attention to the importance, as he saw it, of providing a response to petitioners: 'as crucial as the mechanism going upwards is the response and e-petitions provide a mechanism.'[49] Tom Loosemore, asked if such a system would be an acceptable option, was more forthright—

    To be honest, no. … if you see this as a window at the start of a potential relationship then that may have some value, but for me it is as much about people expressing their concerns and frustrations and being seen publicly by the whole country, via the Internet, as having expressed their concerns. It is a public statement in a way that you can do with the Internet but you cannot if you stick it in the bag at the back of the Speaker's Chair even via an MP. So there is something around the Internet to do with natural transparency; if you search for someone's name on the Internet, sometimes it will come up and list them as having had a petition. That is important to them.[50]

46. Jonathan Drori, on the other hand, saw these claimed advantages as balanced by the possible avoidance of some characteristics of a more ambitious system—

    On the one hand you have greater transparency, and certainly the technical media will enable more people to feel that this is something for them, particularly younger members of the population, I would have thought. By lowering the barriers to people contributing towards petitions you will get more people able and willing to have a say, and that is all good. With it, though, because it is so much easier, I expect there will be a higher take-up, more people will contribute to the petitions. Therefore, I would expect a somewhat greater number of trivial matters to come across the desk of those who are dealing with it, and possibly those of fleeting interest as well, which may creep in. I would also say that this technology makes for an expectation of immediacy and people will have expectations in hearing something back as well, getting a response. These technologies enable two-way communication and that is what people will expect.[51]

47. It would be fairly straightforward to implement a simple scheme for the House of Commons along the lines described above. Some authentication, either individually, or by way of a statement by the presenting Member might be considered necessary, but it is worth noting that there are no checks currently made of the authentication of signatures on petitions. In the Australian Senate there has been no change to Standing Orders, but the Senator who is to present the e-petition must sign a certificate as to the authenticity of the print out of the electronic signatures.

48. There is an argument that such a scheme would meet the House's current needs in that it would remove a barrier to those who wish to organise a petition to the House on the internet. On the evidence from Australia it would probably not lead to a huge increase in the number of petitions presented.

49. It would not, however, provide any of the benefits in terms of engagement with the public that a parliament-hosted system could. Indeed as a signal of parliamentary intent it could send a very negative message in respect of the House's genuine commitment to improving its engagement with the public. Additionally there may be a risk to the House, if it is perceived as endorsing a system under which it has no control over the form and content of e-petitions which are set up on other websites but advertised as petitions to Parliament. We should also note that any such scheme would not satisfy the Government's intention that it should be as easy to e-petition the House of Commons as No. 10 Downing Street.[52]

THE FIRST OPTION


  • A print out of an e-petition created elsewhere could be presented to the House if a Member certifies that the signatures are valid

  • The e-petition would be printed in Hansard and sent to a select committee

  • The Government would be expected to respond within two months

Second option

50. The second option would be to introduce something more similar to the procedure in the Scottish Parliament. Under its rules e-petitions have to be submitted in hard copy for initial approval. The petitioners need to show that they have pursued other avenues for redress before their petition can be accepted. The petition is then posted on the parliamentary website for the addition of electronic signatures for a certain period, after which it is considered by the Petitions Committee. Petitions to the Scottish Parliament are not presented to it by Members.

51. A significant objection to this approach is that the introduction of a requirement to have pursued other avenues could be seen as creating a new and substantial barrier to public engagement with the system. No similar rule currently applies to petitions to the House of Commons. In many cases it may be very difficult to identify what those other avenues should be (what should someone petitioning against climate change, or the conflict in Iraq, or Japanese whaling be expected to have done before their petition could be accepted?) The more limited responsibilities of the Scottish Parliament may make the rule easier to enforce. Furthermore the relatively low number of e-petitions received by the Scottish Parliament suggests that their system of e-petitioning has not significantly broadened the range or numbers of people who engage with the Parliament.

52. We do not believe that the Scottish Parliament's requirement that a petitioner should be able to demonstrate that he or she has pursued other available avenues before submitting a petition would be practicable or appropriate in the House of Commons. And, except as a means of deterring potential petitioners, we are not persuaded of the merits of requiring e-petitions to be submitted by post.

THE SECOND OPTION


  • The text of a prospective e-petition could be submitted in hard copy

  • The petitioner would need to demonstrate that he or she had explored other avenues for redress

  • If that requirement was met and the petition was in order it could proceed as under our preferred option

Third option

53. Our third option is for a fully web-based system which would allow the public to create and submit e-petitions on a parliamentary website, subject only to the requirement that they complied with the rules of the House. This system would be similar to the No. 10 site in that it would be wholly web-based. As well as the submission and signing of petitions, all correspondence about their admissibility and communications in respect of their progress or of associated parliamentary activity would be via the internet. To be suitable for the House of Commons, however, it would differ from the No. 10 system in some important respects, for example by maintaining the role of the Member as the means of a petition's formal presentation to the House.

54. Such a system would have the potential to deliver the full range of benefits identified in Chapter 3, but, on the other hand, it might also give rise to more of the problems set out in Chapter 2 than either of the other options.


48   See, for example, Ev 50 Back

49   Q 117 Back

50   Q 78 Back

51   Ibid Back

52   Cm 7170, paragraph 161. Back


 
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