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, 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.'
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.
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.
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
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
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
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
Q 117 Back
Q 78 Back
Cm 7170, paragraph 161. Back