UNCORRECTED TRANSCRIPT OF ORAL EVIDENCE To be published as HC 136-ii

House of COMMONS

MINUTES OF EVIDENCE

TAKEN BEFORE

PROCEDURE COMMITTEE

 

 

E-PETITIONS

 

 

Wednesday 16 January 2008

MR TOM STEINBERG and MR TOM LOOSEMORE

Evidence heard in Public Questions 44 - 115

 

 

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Oral Evidence

Taken before the Procedure Committee

on Wednesday 16 January 2008

Members present

Mr Greg Knight, in the Chair

Mr Christopher Chope

Mr Roger Gale

John Hemming

Rosemary McKenna

Mrs Linda Riordan

Sir Robert Smith

 

________________

 

Examination of Witnesses

 

Witnesses: Mr Tom Steinberg, mySociety, and Mr Tom Loosemore, Digital Media Adviser, gave evidence.

Q44 Chairman: Gentlemen, welcome, and thank you for coming and giving up your valuable time to assist us with our inquiry. The House of Commons has indicated that, in principle, it is in favour of us pursuing this inquiry, with a view to making a recommendation in due course. We have also information from two senior government ministers that they are rather in favour of this process being pursued, so we are conducting a thorough inquiry which may well lead to a change in the procedures of the House of Commons in due course. Therefore, in the course of our inquiry, we feel that it is right and proper that we take evidence from people with expertise and knowledge and views of the petitioning process. Could I ask you in turn the same question-and perhaps Mr Loosemore you may wish to answer this first and then Mr Steinberg; do you personally support the introduction of an e-petition system for the House of Commons and, if so, perhaps you could briefly give the reasons why you support such a process being introduced?

Mr Loosemore: Yes I do support the adoption of an e-petitioning system, with an important caveat, and that is that it is a) the right petitioning system from the point of view of your constituents and b) that said e-petitioning system is brought in in parallel with changes to the procedure of the House in terms of petitioning to ensure that the very different nature of petitioning via the Internet is accommodated successfully, both from the perspective of the constituent and from the House, in terms of actually being perceived to have a meaningful impact. I think that just launching an e-petitioning system in a vacuum would not be a wise course of action.

Q45 Chairman: Okay, thank you.

Mr Steinberg: I concur. I do think it is a good idea, but I also have three initial caveats. Before those caveats, I also have an interest, namely as the people who built the Number 10 site, we as an organisation, as a charity that does contract work, would be interested in this, so I must declare that interest up-front. The first of my three caveats is that having read the transcripts of your discussions, the dilemma appears to be primarily over how petitions can come in and be looked after. A thing that I think Number 10 was quite astute about is they realised that one of the things that is profoundly different about petitions online is the ability to begin two-way communication. Traditionally, a petition comes into an institution and it just disappears. Number 10 has mailed back to 900 different petitions, to many millions of people at this point, with responses on the topics in hand. That is an as radical, arguably not more radical, change to the nature of our democracy than actually just being able to petition via a new medium is. It is the beginnings of a two-way process based on petitions but moving on from a traditional one-way petition into some more two-way dialogue. Thus the first caveat is that I support it so long as it has an aspect where petitions come in, responses come back, and on-going dialogues are set up and in some way looked after. I would not support it if it was an equivalent of that bag on the back of the Speaker's Chair, things drop in and then disappear.

Q46 Chairman: Can I just ask you to expand on that. One of the feedbacks that we have picked up from the Scottish Parliament is that they say if they were starting this process again, they would have gone for an incremental approach rather than the "big bang", to allow elected Members as well as officers to cope with the change and the volume of responses. They very strongly are of the view that if change is to be brought about this should be done incrementally. In the light of your last comment, if the House decided that it wished to at some point reach a two-way process with this new procedure but did not feel able to do so at the outset, what would your view be of that?

Mr Steinberg: I would consider that caution and using iterative processes are the right approach to have, but that that would perhaps be caution too far to not even commit to any form of response at all to any petition at first. When we launched the petitions website for Number 10, the site iterated very rapidly over many weeks and months after it was launched. There were 14 changes made to the site on request from members of the public in the first 24 hours alone. That is the right way of doing these things. I endorse the view that it should be iterative. The technology should be iterative and actually your processes should be iterative as well. However, I would not say that you should set your ambitions too low in the very first instance.

Q47 Chairman: Okay, thank you. And do you think Parliament is the natural recipient of national petitions rather than, say, the Number 10 website?

Mr Steinberg: I believe that all parts of government are the natural recipients of petitions. I think it will be a very good thing that they come in here as well, but I defend the fact that Parliament has a petitions site and would defend it if other departments did on the following rationale: if you are a big lobbyist, you know where you need to go in government; you know which minister, you know which special adviser, and I do not know why the public should have to play to slightly more theoretical rules of the game and be told you shall only ever talk to your Member, never, ever go direct, as the more powerful, rich people will, straight over your heads to the people who count. So I believe putting citizens on the same level playing field as the lobbyists and the big interests is okay. I do also believe that Parliament should definitely be petitionable and that MPs should definitely get involved.

Q48 Chairman: In its first year I think the Number 10 website had 29,000 petitions. Would you expect the House of Commons system to have pretty much the same hit rate, or higher, or perhaps lower?

Mr Loosemore: It entirely depends on the devil of the detail of how you develop the system.

Q49 Chairman: You mean how attractive it is?

Mr Loosemore: Not just how attractive it is but how cleverly and how well you manage the barriers you place in front of people before they submit a petition. I have nothing but admiration for the user experience of the Number 10 petition system. It is exemplary in web media terms. If the Houses of Parliament system is even only 30% less easy to use, less easy to go through the process, you would lose well over half of your potential applicants, so the devil really is in the detail. In theory I would expect a similar number.

Q50 Chairman: Do you agree with that?

Mr Steinberg: My expectation would be slightly lower but higher than you have at the moment. The slightly lower would be for two reasons. Firstly, I think that people who are politically marginally engaged have a better understanding that there is a person who is in charge of the Government and their name is Gordon Brown than they have an understanding that there is a thing called Parliament with Members and committees, so it will have greater name recognition amongst the more marginally politically engaged. A point that I have not raised yet but is very serious now-and I was going to-is that unless there are substantial changes within the way that PICT delivers projects, I do not believe that it will be anywhere near as successful because I do not believe it will be delivered as well.

Mr Loosemore: I would agree with that.

Q51 Rosemary McKenna: You have raised an issue that I have had some concerns over for some time. Could you expand on how you think PICT could deliver services better?

Mr Steinberg: I suppose the short version would be some fresh blood and a new broom. We are as a group a community of people, some of whom are paid and some of whom are volunteers, and many of these people have given up their time or accepted extremely inferior wages to build sites such as theyworkforyou or writetothem because they believe that the way technology is being used to access Parliament and to access councillors and so on is nowhere near as good as it should be, and so it is a common belief throughout our community that things are not that good. Other than holding a competency review, as happened in central government departments recently, ensuring that there are relatively direct managers with quite a lot of responsibility and quite a lot of leeway to make projects and then change those plans and revise them, all without coming and getting sign-off from higher levels, would be a huge improvement. One of the reasons the Number 10 site is good is because it is a pretty simple management structure. I would much rather seek accountability where one quite responsible person came and sat in front of you and you said, "Show us what has happened in the last six months; tell us what the users have thought?" and then you ask them hard questions and hold them accountable. That would be a big, big step forward for this project.

Q52 Sir Robert Smith: To get into the detail there, is it necessarily PICT that is the problem or the fact that it is an institution and therefore where decisions lie and where systems are decided? Is it PICT as a technology delivery unit rather than necessarily a system?

Mr Loosemore: I have had some direct experience of procuring Internet services and advising clerks to the House and their staff on how to procure Internet systems recently, and I am afraid to say that PICT is a major part of the problem in the way that it manages itself. I would also agree that the level of accountability, the clarity of ownership and the responsibility given to the individual within Number 10, who was able to commission Tom and mySociety, were huge factors in its success and the ease with which that was able to iterate and become successful with the Number 10 e-petition.

Q53 Sir Robert Smith: In a sense, if you are running Number 10, as you said, there is one man in charge of the Government and in charge of his office, but Parliament is answerable to the whole of Parliament. Does that not by definition create a more complex system to try and deliver the thing?

Mr Loosemore: I will draw on my experience from the BBC where I was part of a central Internet team trying to cater for a federation, which is a polite way of describing the BBC. The successful way you deliver projects in the BBC is you spend a certain amount of time up-front discussing with a range of stakeholders what success looks like and then you get absolute cast iron guarantees from that group of people that they are going to leave the delivery person alone to deliver and come back and be accountable. It is the constant coming up and down the chain that causes the friction.

Q54 Sir Robert Smith: One of the aspirations is that Parliament connects more with the public. I think you have half-touched on this in a way with the earlier answer, but is a system of e-petitioning likely to deliver a greater engagement between Parliament and the public?

Mr Loosemore: Yes. I think if you look at it in terms of what are the barriers people perceive in front of them when engaging with the democratic process and with Parliament, it is a big step to write a letter to your MP, it is terrifying if you do not know how to spell (which a lot of people do not) it is terrifying if you do not know how to phrase the letter, so anything that allows people a low but meaningful barrier (maybe not as meaningful as a letter or a visit to your MP) I think is a good thing. It gives the opportunity to start an engagement. I would agree with Tom about the Internet as a two-way medium. It is a conversation medium; it is not a broadcast medium or a post office. The opportunity to start a meaningful dialogue with people is very powerful. To be honest, I have been disappointed with how government ministers with the Number 10 system have failed to take that as a genuine opportunity to improve government. The nature of their responses to petitions has been rather too party political, to be honest, and rather less about good governance and engagement.

Q55 Sir Robert Smith: It is getting back to that responding part, if it is an engagement, if it is two way.

Mr Steinberg: I certainly think so. Even if you do not respond, you will probably find, at least in sheer numbers of people coming in, that it will go up, which has a certain value in its own right. The analogy I would like to use here is about Kennedy and Nixon in the famous television debate; the one who got the TV era of politics and the one who did not. Once you have built these two-way channels and once you have built a bit of capacity to modify them and change them and improve them at will, rather than waiting years until they are right, when you have that capacity, then the question about how much interaction there is depends on how good the politicians are. What Tom may be alluding to is that if you look at the biggest 50 petitions on the Number 10 site, they have more than 5,000 people upwards on each one. This is historically a totally unprecedented number of people that ministers, if they so wished to, could respond to, could write to and engage in some way. They could ask, "If you disagree with this policy, tell us more," and they can challenge those people and they could say, "You have signed this but do you know these facts? What do you think after we have shown you these facts?" I think we need a new generation who look at this opportunity and just think this is incredible, it is such a huge chance to talk to so many people so cheaply and we had better get good at doing that if we are going to get better policy.

Q56 Sir Robert Smith: The Number 10 site has two replies and that is it.

Mr Steinberg: To make this clear, Number 10 is limited to writing back to any petition twice. That was the deal they struck with us. We did not want them to have the ability where you sign one petition once and you get mail for ever. That did not seem like a very good idea. However, even with those two mailings, you can write back to people and say, "Now would you like to engage in this other thing? Would you like to sign up?" MySociety does this systemically. People use one of our sites for one reason and we offer them something else that is deeper. A classic example, they come to us to write a mail to send to their councillor or their MP and we say at the end, "Would you like to sign up to get mail from your MP in the future when that MP thinks that you might like to hear from them?" Many tens of thousands of people do that. It is exactly that analogy. You come for a very low engagement and either the Government or Parliament or individual Members take that as an opportunity to engage in something slightly more.

Q57 Rosemary McKenna: Can we move on to the outcomes of petitions. Many people are quite cynical about petitions and believe that they achieve absolutely nothing and there is no point in signing them. On the other side of the coin, they will sign anything because it is outside Tesco or Asda, they are just nice people that are asking you to do it. I think e-petitioning would perhaps change that, but what outcomes could people reasonably expect from e-petitioning?

Mr Steinberg: I have one very specific request here which is I think what they could reasonably expect is that a handful of the very largest petitions (as long as they are not specious) have some debate time. That debate time is not because one Member has said, "I am going to take this forward and use my adjournment debate," but because there would be some form of policy-and I am afraid I do not know your internal mechanisms of working-which said something like the largest four petitions that are not clearly specious will get half an hour or one hour of debate time over the course of the whole year. It is not a lot of time but it would be a real measurable thing, that you could point all those many people who had signed up and say, "Look, we may not have changed the law exactly as you wanted but we took it seriously and you can go to Parliament, or you can go to theyworkforyou, and watch us talking about the things that you wanted us to." I think would be something that is in your power to offer and would have a real meaning to the public.

Q58 Rosemary McKenna: We have already mentioned this, you would expect it to be an interactive service, like the Number 10 website where they did get a response with the Government's view? That may be a wee bit more difficult to do to give a response on Parliament's view because we do not know what Parliament's view would be on the issue.

Mr Loosemore: I think you have got some opportunities there to be more creative in how you respond. In some ways it is more fertile as an area. If you get a petition to Parliament, the pressure for Number 10 is to work out what the line is and stick to it, come what may. That is the nature of the institution there. Here it is much more questioning. You could have responses that say, "Okay, Parliament has debated these issues before. Here are reference to these debates. We have forthcoming debates on these issues here. Here are some other procedures of government that give opportunities to show Parliament working. It is taking the opportunity for it to be a window for people to open a crack into the democratic process. It is a beginning; it is not necessarily the end. I would just say one thing about the benefits as well. Given the scale of disengagement generally with the political process, giving people an opportunity to not only have their say but to be seen to have their say is a valuable valve in and of itself. I will give you an example that I felt very passionately about. There was a very contentious petition about a mosque near the Olympics site, people resenting that development. Whatever your personal politics, I felt that was very popular, it was hundreds of thousands of people and it was a big deal. It is valuable that that kind of valve is there for people to have their say about things and to be seen to have their say about things, even if it goes no further.

Q59 Chairman: That reply would tend to indicate that you would support a response being made from someone other than a government minister, who will always be giving the Government line. One of the considerations that we are looking at is that although one would expect there to be a Government response, if the petitioner had his petition drawn to the attention of his own Member of Parliament and his own Member of Parliament is then also in addition to the Government response invited to give his response, would that meet the point you are making?

Mr Loosemore: I think in part it would, yes. It at least highlights the fact that you have an elected representative and it gives your representative an opportunity to represent you. I would just caution, one of the things I have learnt in the last ten years or so of helping people engage with MPs in particular is just how busy MPs are and, relative to other countries, just how ill-resourced MPs are in dealing with that kind of interaction.

Q60 Rosemary McKenna: In the Scottish Parliament e-petitioning system they use forums. Do people find that valuable and would they feel they were being more engaged?

Mr Loosemore: I have some fairly extreme, in some senses, views in that I would go nowhere near forums. I would go nowhere near forums on the Parliament website. That is based on running the BBC's Forum (which has four million messages a month) for a couple of years. At the end of that where you have institutions, and the BBC is one and Parliament is even more so, which people, for whatever reason, feel is "other from them", is the establishment, you are unlikely to attract a reasoned debate in that forum. You are more likely to attract the extremes battling it out rather than the middle ground. As a means of expression you do not insist that people come to every single debate on every single issue wherever in the country it happens. The debate on the Internet happens all over the Internet. You do not need another place to have the debate.

Q61 Chairman: Mr Steinberg, do you concur or disagree?

Mr Steinberg: I concur that a straight off-the-shelf piece of forum software that you can plug in will not deliver much in this case and could deliver real problems. If you had written to the 1.8 million people who signed the road tax petition and given them all the link to go to the same forum, there would have been a terrible, terrible mess. I do believe that there is hope for good-quality, structured deliberation of a grown-up, interesting, educational kind using the Internet that involves a mixture of citizens, experts and representatives. I do not believe that anyone has ever paid for it to be built. I spend quite a lot of time around the non-Parliament parts of Whitehall saying to the departments you could have a go at this and that in terms of projects. One of the most common themes I have been saying is to please spend some money on having a go at this, because if you can have a substantial debate with good evidence and a lot of people then you can have a public debate of the sort that we always ask for but which has never been held before and has never, ever been paid for.

Q62 Rosemary McKenna: One of the issues of course for the Scottish Parliament is that the population of Scotland is infinitesimally smaller than the rest of the UK, so it may be easier for them to be able to manage than it would be for us.

Mr Steinberg: I believe that if the Scottish petition system was higher quality they probably also would not be able to manage as well. The Number 10 petition website got the same number of petitions in its first seven days as the Scottish system had in its first seven years. Scotland may be smaller than the rest of Britain but it is not 365 times smaller, so if you are aiming that your site is really popular then you ought to be aiming to a point where discussion using standard off-the-shelf packages, of which there are many, will not work.

Q63 Mr Gale: Can I take you back almost to your opening remark Mr Loosemore. You said that we need to recognise the difference between the e-petition and the existing system. There is a fundamental difference between Downing Street, which is not elected in our sense, and the individual Member of Parliament who is. Petitions at the moment are presented by Members of Parliament and I think the expectation is that that would continue to be the case and that therefore Members of Parliament might well be, as we are now, engaged in the management of the process in the sense that we would need to make sure that the words were in order and guide the lead petitioner, for want of a better phrase, through the process. If we were to go down that road, which is a hybrid, half electronic and half one-to-one, how do you think the public would respond to that contact with a Member of Parliament?

Mr Loosemore: If I am honest, I am in two minds about it. There are strong arguments both ways. There is a strong argument that says Parliament is about elected representatives and your representative is your voice in Parliament and ergo them acting as a guide is a valid way forward to strengthen that sense of connection with your representative. On the other side, it is an extra barrier, both in terms of the process and, more importantly I think, in people's understanding of how you do e-petitioning. If you are doing a major nationwide petition, to have that go through a local MP just because it is the first person who you sought to present the petition may not fit with people's model of how they think they should interact with Parliament. My gut reaction would be the name of the game here is to make the barriers as low as possible to broaden the engagement as wide as possible. If you can find a way to avoid the extra twist on the road of going via an elected MP, my marginal preference would be to do so. However I not think it is a clear-cut decision. I would say one thing, I was very sceptical about doing Downing Street before doing Parliament and I am very glad to see that you have responded. To my mind, the most important place to have petitions is Parliament, not Number 10.

Mr Steinberg: I was thinking about the history of why it might be that MPs were tied to petitions anyway, and it occurred to me that it must have been simply because a way of physically getting the petition from the constituency would have been to give it to the only person paid to make that journey all the time. Given that context, the question is why do we have endorsements-especially since so many petitions that are going to be made to you are not going to be local-and there seem to me to be one of two real reasons. One is a constitutional view that the citizen has no view in government or Parliament unless it is represented by Members, and the second is to save money on the vetting. Number 10 has to have a civil servant who spends part of their time making sure things are decent and legal. If you have to put your names on these things first, then you can do that instead and the taxpayer will benefit to the tune of 50 a day. I would argue, though, that when you think about how the website would ultimately work, you can have an endorsement from the politician whose constituent is making the original petition without holding up the process. What I mean by that is that a petition could go into the system, it could be vetted properly by a civil servant to make sure it is decent and legal, and then it could go online, and whilst it is online any MP, including the constituent's own MP, could put their name to it or not. That to me would seem to have a very similar role to the current one given that, as I have noticed in your previous transcripts, none of you appeared to think that the role of the MP should be to vet things and say, "I do not agree with this, I am not going to drop it off." Most of you seemed to think that it was your role to go and drop it off. In that case, if it is your role, why should it not just be the Internet's role and why should you not just endorse it if you think it is a good thing and not endorse it if you do not?

Q64 Mr Gale: So you see this being presented electronically and not actually being presented in any proper form on the floor of the House?

Mr Steinberg: When it is finished being signed?

Q65 Mr Gale: Yes.

Mr Steinberg: I would like to see debates on the floor of the House and I would like to see an excellent quality public record of what was signed made available on the Internet and other media to anyone interested, but the actual process of standing up, reading it out, putting it in a bag, I do not think that is a massively good use of parliamentary time.

Q66 Mr Gale: The point being that at the moment we act as facilitators. It is not a Member of Parliament's job to say, "I do not like that so you cannot do that." It is a Member of Parliament's job to say, "If you are going to do that, you need to get it into a form of words that is acceptable to Parliament, otherwise it will not be acceptable." The Member of Parliament then has a right to say, "I do not agree with this so I am not going to formally present it but I am going to stick it in the bag", which has exactly the same effect, it is printed on the Order Paper and it has a response. What you seem to be suggesting is that actually exactly the same thing is going to have to be done by somebody other than the Member of Parliament.

Mr Steinberg: I know that you have been discussing this in relation to the New Zealand Parliament. If you choose that there should be no clerk or civil service tie-in then, yes, almost certainly someone is going to have to vet these things because, apart from anything else, you will have legal liability if you publish slanderous, libellous things on the parliamentary website-I imagine that might in some ways get you in trouble, if not legally then just reputationally, so someone is going to have to check these things in the way that Number 10 does. Given that someone has to do that, the question really can be is it you, with your other very busy jobs, or is it an official with a checklist, which is what happens at Number 10. If it is an official with a checklist you can still actually have a revision process, which does happen in Number 10. Often they will reject a thing and say "Look, your petition is basically fine, but the way you have worded this thing under 'more details' it could be construed as libellous; if you change it from is to maybe then that becomes a piece of political commentary rather than a piece of libel." They will send it back and the person will resubmit it, they will say fine and it goes up. That can actually be done by non-elected people in a reasonably good way and therefore save you all time.

Q67 Chairman: I totally accept that point but what we feel-and I ask you to comment on it-is that the vast majority of MPs are not looking for less work to do, are not trying to get out of doing work, and indeed they are actually looking to be more involved in the communities they represent, so I suspect that most MPs would want to have the opportunity of being associated as a facilitator with a petition that originates from someone who is in their constituency. I think that is the point; we need to decide what role we give the constituency MP because any system which froze out the constituency Member is unlikely to find favour with the House.

Mr Loosemore: That is heartening to hear, that MPs are looking for more engagement with their constituents, but I would just offer some thoughts on what the most appropriate means of adding value as a constituency MP are. I would argue that with the Internet it is not in the management of a relatively mechanical process at the start of the petitions process in terms of is your petition fit for engaging with Parliament, is it liable to libellous or damage reputations? In many ways, having to train 640-odd MPs to do that is not necessarily the most efficient way to do that; the most value for me is at the end of a petition where people are seeking to understand what happens now, what is the next stage, is the answer no from the Government, is that the end of the story or is it just the start. I would totally endorse involvement of MPs; I just question where it is most appropriate.

Q68 Chairman: Do you want to add anything?

Mr Steinberg: Yes. If we go back to the Kennedy/Nixon analogy for a moment, if I was a Member and I was saying how can I get the most out of this system so that it can help me communicate with my constituents most effectively, I would be pretty unconcerned about the way by which petitions got into the system and I would be extremely exercised by what could happen once they had signed up, how I could talk to them, how we would discuss things, how things would go next, how I could tell them about how I was lobbying the Government. That is the part that I think deserves the effort. Anyone can build any version of a system that can cope with MPs facilitating or endorsing or not; that is a relatively small design decision and whoever builds it will go with your decision, that will not be a massive issue, the massive issue is what happens at the other end.

Q69 Mr Gale: Two further comments, one in the light of what you have just said and the other on something you said earlier. You said a moment ago one might lend his name to it; of course, Members of Parliament do not sign petitions, they receive them, we do not sign them. Secondly, you referred earlier to the possibility of this being national rather than local and that may well be the case. Members of Parliament are, for very good reason, concerned when other Members start meddling in their own constituency business and there needs to be, I think, if we are going to go down this road, some sense of proper ownership of it. It is all very well saying I want to know which Members of Parliament are lobbying on this and which Members of Parliament are lobbying on that, but this is not an Early Day Motion exercise as I understand it, this is a Parliamentary petition and if it is a Parliamentary petition then a Member of Parliament or, in a city, maybe a group of Members of Parliament, do need to have ownership of it. The other thing that springs out of what you say is something that everybody is fighting very shy of touching on: it is easy to say, and I am sure Downing Street does, all we need to do is set up this unit to do this, but these things do cost money. This Parliament is very good at saying yes, we will refurbish the press gallery at a cost of a mere 7.5 million of taxpayers' money, but the system that we have at the moment-and I appreciate it is designed for personal contact rather than electronic contact-is actually very cost efficient, it costs virtually zilch. If you are going to set up a bureaucracy, which is effectively what you are talking about, as the alternative, if we were to go down the German response route we could be talking about megabucks.

Mr Loosemore: "You don't get owt for nowt" is certainly true; if you want engagement with people who are disengaged then I suggest the efficacy of the current position is not good value for money, given that there is very little value as perceived by most people in the general population from it compared to the potential. The second point is that the Internet is cheap; if you can automate processes it is orders of magnitude cheaper than doing things by hand or on paper. Tom will tell you of the vast expense which Number 10 spends on engaging with millions and millions of people, but I can tell you now if you design it carefully and, crucially, if you accept the need to iterate your processes to blend in and gain those efficiency savings, it is not necessarily very expensive compared to how things are done by hand, and from my personal experience with procurement of things in Parliament-I helped procure the Internet streaming of live coverage of the Commons-the process of procurement, I estimate, cost more than the value of the contract. Whose problem is that? That is not the Internet's problem; that is how you seek to manage the process.

Mr Steinberg: I would say that Number 10's expenditure on the petitions system that it has is probably the cheapest form of communication between citizens and government that has ever happened in this country, in that we worked out some time last year, before many more people had signed, that it was down to less than a penny per person who had signed at that point, and that includes the response going back out. Even the response to just one petition was estimated by the BBC at 500,000 if it had been done by post, when in fact the entire project so far is well under 100,000. From your perspective I suggest there would be three cost hubs: one is building and running the technology, the second is administering it and the third is the cost in parliamentary time that it generates if it generates debates. The technology ought not to be expensive and if the Germans have spent a lot they have made a mistake. The aspect of vetting, how much it costs to vet, as I said, that actually depends on whether or not you choose to take it on your shoulders. It will have virtually no cost difference from the development of technology for you to do the vetting or for a civil servant to do the vetting, but if it is a civil servant it is probably less than one fulltime post. The cost in parliamentary time of course is a question mark, what is the cost of four hours worth of debates in a parliamentary year, but I do not think that this should be an expensive process and even if it was I would encourage you to spend money on it.

Q70 John Hemming: Just on those questions, with your expertise in the area, what do you think the capital cost, the build cost, would be and what do you think the running cost including band width would be, ignoring parliamentary time?

Mr Loosemore: The only variable in both of those is how willing you are to alter your processes. If you were willing to alter your processes so you meshed with the reality of an internet-centric population I would suggest spending of the order of 200,000 on the build and I would suggest a similar amount for running costs. The cost of band width is virtually nothing, it is all about the bureaucracy, the people managing the process inside. That is cheap, but that is the order that I would go for.

Q71 John Hemming: You were saying it is not going to be that expensive and I just thought it would be interesting to know what your estimates are.

Mr Loosemore: It is not millions.

Q72 Mr Gale: I want to set the record straight, as this is a matter of record, when I mentioned the Germans that was not in terms of the cost, that was in terms of the volume of petitions they are dealing with and therefore because volume often equals people we have a value cost. I would not suggest for one moment that the Bundestag were either right or wrong, I genuinely do not know. The figures that you mention are a lot lower than the ones that we have been quoted by other people.

Mr Loosemore: I have not thought that through carefully, but given how much Number 10 has spent on engaging with millions of people I think you should be careful about spending orders of magnitude more. The costs will really be not the technology but how much you are willing to invest in changing your processes and procedures and whether you seek to distribute the effort of filtering or whether you would seek to put it into one central place.

Q73 Chairman: Do you think we could ever get a system where virtual help and guidance alone would be sufficient?

Mr Steinberg: Sorry, virtual help and guidance for what?

Q74 Chairman: For helping someone to launch an e-petition?

Mr Steinberg: That is the situation that Number 10 is essentially already in in that people are still able to go to the gate of Number 10 and leave a paper petition, that still exists, but the online system does not have a support line, it does not have a phone line, it just runs and people come to it and they use it in enormous numbers.

Chairman: Do you want to ask about lobbying, Roger?

Mr Gale: Not at this stage.

Q75 Chairman: Let us say, for whatever reason, someone seeks to launch an e-petition and whether it is their use of florid language or whether they are being libellous would you support a system where, after two attempts or three attempts, for the same e-petition there is a blocking mechanism?

Mr Steinberg: That is what we have delivered and it is a good idea. There is one caveat there: because we were trying to encourage Number 10 to show really exemplary best practice in terms of privacy and transparency of the process, when you have your petition rejected on the Number 10 site, if it is completely rejected because you have failed to submit it again or you submitted it and it still mentions an ongoing criminal case or something they are not allowed to publish, it appears on the site itself, censored only in so far as it does not show the bit that causes the problem, so if most of the petition is okay but the title is libellous, then it will show everything except the title; it bends over backwards to show why things were rejected and what was rejected, and that is an attempt to build a trust mechanism so that people do not claim that things are being snuffed out because they are politically inconvenient.

Mr Loosemore: In addition there was an audit process with Number 10-I audited it so I know-whereby I went through a representative sample of the rejected petitions-and many petitions are rejected by the way, mostly for reasons of repetition. I audited 1000 petitions that had been rejected to see were they rejected with validity against the rules that are set out on the site, and I was encouraged that there were very few that were being rejected wrongly. It is those processes I think you need to encourage transparency.

Q76 Chairman: Last year, Mr Steinberg, you submitted a paper on this subject and you were quite robust in your defence of a rejections page being a must.[1] Is that still your view?

Mr Steinberg: That is what I just described, yes. I think that is a really good piece of practice.

Q77 Chairman: Even if there is editing for legal reasons.

Mr Steinberg: Yes, you can just show the bits that are legitimate and not show the ones that are not.

Q78 Mr Chope: I want to ask about what happens in Australia, which is that they have effectively the means of petitioning, e-petitions can be presented by members of the Australian Parliament, but there is not an e-petitioning system as such, but it means that people can get their point of view across to their Member of Parliament which can then be incorporated in the representations to the Government in the form of a petition. That is a much simpler and cheaper way of people being able to communicate in terms of petitions; do you see that as a satisfactory alternative to the much more elaborate system which we are talking about?

Mr Loosemore: To be honest, no. It is the point I made a little while ago; 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.

Q79 Mr Chope: But we are trying to get the public to engage more with Parliament, not with the Government, and certainly some of Mr Steinberg's answers have indicated that he is equating almost Parliament and the Government together. At the moment you have said that the responses from the Number 10 site have been far too political-somebody said the nature of the responses is far too political for the Number 10 site.

Mr Loosemore: That was me; for my liking.

Q80 Mr Chope: Why are they political? Basically because it is the Government, one view from the Government and the Opposition and other points of view do not get a look in. What we are talking about is a much more refined system where you have got 650-odd Members of Parliament, each with their own particular take on a matter, and each of them eager to be able to engage with their constituents on that particular issue, so you might end up that although you have one petition on one subject, you might have 650 different responses. That is why this system, a full-blown e-petitioning system which involves giving Members of Parliament the opportunity to engage personally with people who have petitioned, as well as perhaps ensuring that the Government whose representations have been asked for by a Member of Parliament in the form of a petition, that they can all have their input into the responses. That gets into all sorts of data protection issues and things that we are coming on to discuss in a minute, but in the Australian Parliament they have got a system where at least you can use e-mail as a means of petitioning your Member of Parliament and thereby the Australian Parliament without all the other complications that are involved.

Mr Loosemore: E-mail is a valid mechanism for communicating with your representative, but it is fundamentally a private communication, it is not a public statement of your view as a constituent on an issue. I would agree that the mechanics of the way Parliament works and represents people is predicated on a geographically constrained world with its geographic constituencies and big national issues that are not constrained by your constituents' borders present a challenge to the way Parliament is constructed. My view is that you are better off finding a locus for people's frustrations and opinions, a single locus, rather than dissipating them through 650-odd MPs, purely from the mechanics of numbers but also people feeling that they have had their voice heard in public in a matter of scale. If they are one of those four or five most voluminous e-petitions every year and they get represented in Parliament; that is a big deal for them. It is quite hard to get that mechanic working if you also use e-mail to contact an MP.

Q81 Mr Chope: If you have got the person who signed the petition and that is passed on by the Member of Parliament to the Government and the Government responds in a way that an MP does not like, he thinks the Government has got the wrong end of the stick, the Member of Parliament then wants to communicate directly to the petitioner and say the Government's response is this but, frankly, it is wrong in the following material respects. How are we going to be able to ensure that that happens under this system?

Mr Steinberg: This is a really good question and this is exactly why I would say that if I was in this kind of new generation of MP trying to work out how the system could work for me I would want to know about the writing back part. There are several different ways you can do this: one, when somebody signs up you could actually just say "Would you like to opt-in to getting a reply, not just from the Government but also from your own constituency MP on this issue, yes/no?" You could design a system where they had no opt-in, where you simply said "If you are going to sign this petition you consent to getting a reply from your constituency MP as well as from the Government." However, because there are so many possible people who might want to write back I would encourage the following way of handling this problem. Mail people who signed a petition with a mail that says "There are three new responses that have come in from this petition, one is from the Government, one is from your constituent and one is from one of the political parties, go to this page and read the different ones." Apart from anything else that would help educate the public that there are different views on issues, that issues have different sides, will help engage people on an issue, and it will help all of you see the benefit in terms of being able to communicate with constituents on a lot of different issues. You can design the system so that it will not irritate citizens, so that they will really see the value and you will get to talk to far, far larger numbers of them than you ever could using a system like the one in Australia.

Q82 Chairman: I suppose one way of handling that would be to require a postcode in each case.

Mr Steinberg: Yes.

Q83 Chairman: And then at some point to notify a Member of Parliament that a constituent or constituents of his had signed the petition and did he want to respond by e-mail.

Mr Steinberg: That is exactly right.

Mr Loosemore: You could even go further and say only send an e-mail to an MP if five people in their constituency had signed the petition to manage the volume.

Chairman: Although if you are an MP with a majority of five you may decide you want to answer each one. Christopher, anything else?

Q84 Mr Chope: You were saying earlier that you thought the number of signatures could be significant in terms of triggering a debate and so you see the number of signatures on a petition as being worth emphasising, notwithstanding the scope that there is for people to fiddle the numbers and get large block transfers of signatures.

Mr Loosemore: It is far easier to fake a physical signature than it is to fake a system like for Number 10; you would need an awful lot of personal e-mail addresses to fake the Number 10 system. I would worry less about block voting and fakery issues. There is a sense of scale and momentum that is important to people when they choose whether or not to invest their time in expressing their opinion, so I would be very, very much in favour of illustrating which petitions have got scale and which have not. The duplication issue is an important one to manage such that if you do get a widespread number of petitions on similar identifications you pick on one and point people at that, which is the way Number 10 does it.

Q85 Mr Gale: I can understand if you think I am terribly negative about this, but we are trying to get to grips with where the pitfalls might be. Members of Parliament are knee-deep in parliamentary graffiti as it is and one of the things that is a waste of time really is what has become known as the postcard lobby-I happen to be opposed to fox hunting but the anti-hunt lobby did it in a big way, SPUC (Society for the Protection of the Unborn Child) do it incessantly-and we get fistfuls of postcards. SPUC have a membership, which in their case is largely a church-based membership, and it is very easy for them to punt out an instruction, for want of a better word, to their membership. Every Member of Parliament in this place, of whatever political party, gets reams of stuff where an address is filled in, the name is filled in, and sometimes you can even tell that the person who is signing it has not actually even read the thing, it is just, oh yes, that is one of those, sign it and send it in. Somehow we have to try, if we are going to make this work in the way Mr Steinberg would like to see it work, which would enable us to genuinely interact and respond, to find a way of filtering in shorthand the union block vote.

Mr Loosemore: Those kinds of responses you value-quite rightly you could argue-far less than you would an individually typed letter or a written letter, but try and encourage people to use petitions instead. It is not to say that they are not valuable as part of the democratic process, they just signify a lesser investment that someone has made in engaging with the democratic process. I might be sent something I completely disagree with just because it has landed on my doormat or come in an e-mail, it is just a question of the value you place on it. I would agree that the value of someone signing a petition is less important than someone who has invested the time to craft a letter to you, but it is not valueless and in aggregate if you get thousands, tens of thousands, millions, there is a meaningful thing being said to you in aggregate.

Mr Steinberg: I was talking with friends in Congress last summer who have e-mail problems that make those of MPs look tiny, all getting huge volumes of mail, huge amounts of it generated by campaign groups where the same e-mail is sent to 50,000 different people at the click of a button. We came to realise that a phase two thing that you can do if you have a good working petition system, if you built it right in the first place, is that you can update your e-mail system. Leaving aside the debates about PICT-the Parliamentary e-mail system is separately in need of an overhaul-if you have children they have probably got 20 or 30 times the space to store the e-mails that you do, and that is something that needs doing because they are not even paying for it. If you get a good e-mail system, that can integrate really nicely. That is jargon; what I really mean is this user case: someone sends 10,000 mails that are exactly the same from 10,000 real constituents, and they can get into your inbox, they can be caught on the way into your inbox and all the people who have written them can get a reply that says we think this is just the same as 9,000 other people, click this button and we will turn this into a petition. Then you will get the same engagement, you will not get the mail and you will get the mail you can cope with, and the constituents may be more content because they will be more aware that they are part of a big thing whereas when you send a postcard you are not. That is very much phase two, I do not want to confuse anyone saying that is in the core specification, but a good petition system can, in the long run, dramatically decrease and deflect a lot of this kind of cut and paste mail you get.

John Hemming: I do not entirely agree with Roger about the fact that parliamentary graffiti is a complete waste of time; there are various levels of it and it does at least give you some indication. The challenge is one of to what extent is somebody standing at the door, forcing people to sign things as they go out, collecting all the things centrally and sending them off as opposed to what would happen with the authentication of the e-mail address where you get a return e-mail and you authenticate that, which is the strength actually of an e-petition system because you know that somebody in the privacy of their home, on their mobile or whatever it may be has had to go through a process to sign the petition, which is very good. On this issue of e-mail and the PICT space, I am lucky to be one of the few MPs who have a broadband account on Parliament so I do not use PICT so I do not have the stupid limitations of how much e-mail I can store, which is quite useful, so there is a way round that. It is slightly expensive but not very expensive. Some people support the World Wildlife Fund or whatever it may be but I do think that this mechanism where people have to do something themselves, they cannot just have it all done centrally, is better. You get the e-mails through your organisation that they write for you-everyone has had the police ones I am sure, have they not-will you sign these EDMs about the two per cent increase-there are all these different things, but I think there is a role for that, I do not think that is a complete waste of time, it does give you some indication of support but I do think the e-petition process is better because you are requiring somebody to do something for themselves and you cannot just have a situation where everyone leaving a building is required to sign something or, as the unions often do, just write their union members' names on something and send it in without the union members being involved.

Mr Gale: My understanding is that Mr Steinberg is saying is that that is exactly what has happened in America where an organisation does block vote but collects-

Q86 John Hemming: They collect the e-mails and send from them. You can actually track that in the RFC822 headers anyway-you can if you know what you are doing and you look at that sort of side of it, but that actually is sending the e-mail out, purporting to be that person, when actually it is the central organisation doing it. We have not had that.

Mr Loosemore: The mechanism which is in place for Number 10 which is in place for all the mySociety projects and is easily best practice provides you with more than adequate defence against even the existing behaviours in print of people gathering support where actually people have not thought about it and actively opted in to signing that petition, but validating via e-mail is a very effective means of doing it for now-it may change in the future because people are clever. I would say I am disappointed to hear that you get copy and paste messages via mySociety services because mySociety and myself in previous guises put a lot of effort into catching it before it is sent to you, saying to people please do not copy and paste identical messages; we have caught you doing it, write your own message. For me the actual thought-through correspondence with an MP is sacrosanct and we need to find other mechanisms via the Internet and e-petitions are important.

Q87 Rosemary McKenna: One of the issues that people are concerned about is the data protection of the information that people would have to put on. What would you think are the basic requirements for any petitioning system and what are the pitfalls that would attract your criticism?

Mr Steinberg: The basic requirements are that people's personal information about their address, their e-mail address and so on, is protected very firmly, cannot be got at, cannot be looked at, cannot be lost in the post on CDs and that it is destroyed when it is no longer necessary. Petitions are a little bit unusual in data protection terms because they are explicitly public, they are like the opposite of medical records, you are doing it so everybody knows, but there are parts of your petition such as your street address or your postcode that do not have to be included and, not only should they be protected extremely carefully, but they should be destroyed. When it comes to mailing people back I consider it very important that whoever is given the right to mail back, whether that is the Government, whether that is a party, whether that is a Member, they should not be given the e-mail addresses or the personal addresses of the users, instead they should be given an ability to type a message and press go and know that that will go to all the people. That is what Number 10 have, they not only are not the legal owners of the information, mySociety is, but they do not have actual access to millions of e-mail addresses.

Q88 Chairman: You think we should resist pressure if we get pressure from individual Members to have this information, a constituency MP should be able to respond but he is responding without having the data basically.

Mr Steinberg: You should bow to or listen to their pressures to have the right to respond and the ability to discuss things too; as I said before, that is really important. If they just want the e-mail addresses or the postal addresses, then no. There is another user I failed to mention.

Chairman: I am sorry, there is a division on the floor of the House of Commons; I will therefore suspend the Committee until four o'clock.

The Committee suspended from 3.47 pm to 3.58 pm for a division in the House.

Q89 Chairman: I interrupted you in mid-flow, do you wish to continue?

Mr Steinberg: Yes, if I could make one change to the Number 10 site it would be to allow the people who have made petitions to write back to the people who then sign them. The reason I think this has value is there may be at any one time in Britain 20,000 people who care about a certain issue. The chance that they know each other, the chance that they are even part of an organisation that labels them is very, very small, but when they come together on a petition they are together in a unique one-off way and it seems a real shame that that cannot currently be used to crystallise essentially new social movements-the group of people who are effectively the campaign group for a new issue that did not exist yesterday. The last couple of hundred years of British political life has shown that we are better off when these groups are strong and vibrant and lively and part of the political discourse, and I would like to think that Parliament, as well as facilitating alliances and groups and politics within this building might also enable the same formation and campaigning of groups out there, and that can be done at the very minimal level of adding the petition creator to the list of people who may have access to write to the people who sign it.

Q90 Rosemary McKenna: Not with their details but by the click of a button.

Mr Steinberg: Yes, again not being handed all their private information, merely the one-off chance.

Q91 Rosemary McKenna: I presume to see if you wish to be involved in forming a group, come back.

Mr Loosemore: Click this link.

Q92 Chairman: Does that not have huge political implications? Would it not encourage every selected candidate for a party other than the party that holds a seat to take an electronic petition in the knowledge that they could then, particularly if it were a local issue, have a free mailshot back to people living within that constituency on an issue where they could then attack the sitting MP?

Mr Steinberg: You can of course change your terms and conditions of use to affect who is allowed to use your petition site and what for, but sometimes we are concerned. We allow, for example, MPs to use our tools to effectively communicate with the public in a way that we do not allow people who are not elected, and that sometimes seems a little unfair on those people who are not. I imagine you would have to tweak your terms and conditions so that the use was grown up and so that most of these things really were, just like many of the people who set up petitions on the Number 10 site and get loads of signatures, they are just people who strike a chord with the country, they are not part of campaign groups, they are not political experts, they are just someone who happens to have realised and expressed something that many other people think. I would very much like that as a feature and I put it down I suppose as a challenge.

Mr Loosemore: I would just state that with something as revolutionary as the Internet in terms of what it does to support, you will always be able to find edge cases that seem appalling to the point of seeking to maybe not do something. The way to deal with them is as they come along and make sure your processes are iterative, and I would stress again that possibly the right way to approach that kind of edge case is not to come back up to the Committee to work out how it should happen or if it happened in one instance, but it is to give someone responsibility to do their best to manage that process and every six months have them come back and say we have hit this issue, someone is in an edge case doing something that does not feel right, here is our proposed response, yes or no.

Q93 Chairman: Before our break you both said that you prefer a system where the constituency MP is given an opportunity to respond and he does so blind, i.e. without the data, and the House authorities would send the e-mail for him and he would not see to whom it was going. Are you saying you would not even want an opt-in box on that issue and if so why? For example, what would be wrong with having a tick-box on the web page when you signed the e-petition to say "Would you like your MP to have your e-mail details so that he/she can contact you on other issues"?

Mr Steinberg: I actually do not see anything very wrong with that as long as it is very definitely an opt-in. However, if like me you spend half your life making sure you have not ticked those boxes-

Q94 Rosemary McKenna: No junk mail.

Mr Steinberg: Yes. In the discussions on the technical design of the Number 10 site there was that opt-in/opt-out question and we thought that the right response was you cannot opt out, you will never get more than two mails, so there is quite a lot of conversation but it ends, and in most cases Number 10 only sends one mail, but it is possible, these things are all possible and as Tom says they should be approached in an iterative way, and if it does not work after three weeks it should change.

Mr Loosemore: I would just stress one warning about people's e-mail addresses in particular. Any perception that constituents may have that this is a means of anybody-be they an MP or otherwise-collecting a list of e-mail addresses is a risk. Even if you have the most honourable intent, in perception terms that is a risk, they will think "Oh, it is my MP collecting a list of e-mails so they can spam me"; it is a response you want to avoid.

Q95 Sir Robert Smith: On this suggestion where the petitioner could use the system too to contact, it would have to have quite a strong health warning that in no way did Parliament endorse it, that the person was responding then to that on their own terms and involvement.

Mr Steinberg: There needs to be a health warning anyway because when the Government responds that is not Parliament responding.

Q96 Sir Robert Smith: We are used a lot to postcard campaigns as a data-mining exercise for lobby groups. The postcards comes to ask you to sign an EDM and that way the lobby group collects data from people interested in the subject. Similarly, presumably, the site then might become quite a data-mining site, not just for MPs and not just for candidates but also for commercial organisations-if we put a petition up on this site we are going to get a hit of people who we can then contact. Maybe that is not a bad thing.

Mr Loosemore: Fundamentally, if people care about an issue they care about an issue. If you do not have an issue that resonates then you will not do it. My personal view on the case of letting the petitioner e-mail back is that it is a loss if you do not facilitate that. From personal experience in a couple of campaigns that I have cared about and signed a petition I would have loved to have contact, but it is one I would want to watch closely during the iterative development to see what are the edge cases.

Q97 Mr Chope: I am concerned about the idea that MPs will be responding to a petition without knowing the address of the people to whom they are responding because, for example, you might have rival petitions, one calling for the closure of a school and another petition for the retention of that school, and those petitions are going to be impossible for an MP to deal with unless he knows whether the people who signed the petition against the closure of the school are people who are within its catchment area and are not directly affected, or whether they are people from another school who have an ulterior motive. Do you think there is any way in which you could distinguish between the petitions that are about area specific issues and national issues? For example, a petition about Iraq or the Iraq War, it would not really be so significant for an MP to know exactly the location of the people who signed the petition, but that would be a national petition whereas the other example I gave was of a local petition.

Mr Steinberg: I would say you should capture the postcode of everybody who signs up precisely because it can tell you who they are a constituent of and whether they are all in one area or not. I believe that you can answer that question about the catchment area and questions like it without revealing their private data because if you provide a nice system the system ought to be able to tell you 16% of these people were inside the catchment area of the school and 70% were not, and that could be provided to you without you actually having to know. Remember, of course, that people's names on petitions are public so you are not actually responding completely blind and if you know any of the people there you will have an impression just from their names.

Q98 Mr Chope: The system will have to enable the Member of Parliament to be able to find out that sort of detailed information.

Mr Steinberg: Yes, and I actually think that is entirely reasonable. Another example is it would not at all be difficult to add a feature to the system that would say show me whether the people writing this petition came from the richest fifth or the poorest fifth of areas in the UK; that is not hard to do.

Q99 Mr Chope: Do you think you could restrict the petitions themselves to particular postcodes, so that unless you are within the postcode of the post office that is being closed you cannot sign the petition, otherwise it is pretty pointless?

Mr Steinberg: It is technically possible; whether it would ever be worth that extra effort because I do not know how many people who live in Scotland are actually going to sign a petition about the post office in Devon, but these things are all possible up front.

Mr Loosemore: I would just caution that you should be doing everything you can in my view to minimise the barriers and if there are consequences that you feel rogue, deal with them afterwards. The hardest problem of all to solve here is engagement with the democratic process and making the most of the opportunity the Internet gives to lower barriers should always be front of mind in my view. Restricting things to location is a barrier.

Q100 Rosemary McKenna: Talking about the Number 10 site do you think that the expectations of both the members of the public who use the site and Number 10 have delivered?

Mr Steinberg: I do not know. There are 4.3 million different people whom we believe have used the petition site so far and I do not know what most of them think about it. We are actually talking with Number 10 at the moment about getting an evaluation done, but even then with so many users it is impossible to know what they all thought. I believe Number 10 were pretty happy with it; as I said, it was historic in terms of the reach, the proportion of population that used it, the cost per person involved, the ability to write back, all these things are without precedent. I suspect that some of the users will be dissatisfied that the Government did not do what they petitioned for.

Q101 Rosemary McKenna: Actually that is the next part of my question; was the policy changed in any way?

Mr Loosemore: You will know that better than we will, to be honest. It is hard to argue that the road pricing policy would be similar without 1.8 million people having expressed an opinion about it. Scale is important in that as well, the fact that it was millions is important.

Q102 Rosemary McKenna: How were the reputational risks managed?

Mr Steinberg: Are you asking about Number 10's reputational risks?

Q103 Rosemary McKenna: Yes.

Mr Steinberg: I cannot really tell you; I dealt almost exclusively with civil servants so I do not know about that side.

Mr Loosemore: I would say that for Number 10 to launch a site that was expressly an experiment was a relatively brave thing to do.

Q104 Rosemary McKenna: And recognised as that probably by the users.

Mr Loosemore: Possibly not. I do not think they would want to necessarily give credit to the Government if they can avoid it.

Q105 Rosemary McKenna: If you were doing it all over again is there anything you would do differently to make it more user friendly and what would you do differently?

Mr Steinberg: It is actually what I would do additionally; it is all the things that could be done from now on. I told you before that I believed that with some investment you could try and have actual deliberation online and get better ideas for policy and so on and engage lots of people. I would commission some such systems and then I would use the fact that there are so many enormous petitions on that site already to nail people and say here, 10,000 of you, here is your chance to go and talk about this. Personally I would probably be quite keen on the ability for the person who made the petition to send again a maximum of two messages saying you cannot campaign here but send a mail and the mail says "If you are interested in being part of a campaign around this go somewhere else." I believe that even if it does come with costs it can have such enormous benefit for the vigour and health of our civil society and the engagement of marginally engaged and totally disengaged political people that it is worth any possible costs incurred.

Q106 Rosemary McKenna: Going back to one of the previous questions, should it be a big bang approach, do it all at the beginning or gradually introduce all these features?

Mr Steinberg: My approach would be to design a very simple first version and launch it quietly and then respond to the users. Your users will tell you many, many things if you let them about how the site would be better. Number 10 was very concerned that if they deleted duplicates people would accuse them of censorship. We then got enormous amounts of mail, please get rid of the duplicates, it is really annoying. When it comes to all the things that could go wrong-I am going to cite someone else here. Jimmy Wells is the founder of Wikipedia, the gigantic online collaboratively authored encyclopaedia, and he has this great rule of thumb. He says design things on the assumption that people are good and when they are not good change the system to handle how they are not good, but do not design things from the perspective that everyone is essentially an anarchist and wants to smash everything, or you would in that case start by building a prison and then loosen things up slowly. Do it the other way round and ensure that you have staff and processes so that if someone does abuse it you can fix it in five minutes, not five months.

Mr Loosemore: I would add one note of caution to that otherwise admirable approach of start simple and move on, and that is I would not advise starting simple to mean not having to adapt any of your internal processes, I would start simple but radical.

Q107 Chairman: At the outset you indicated that it would meet most reasonable people's expectations if three or four petitions a year triggered a debate. When we started this process, looking at our petitioning system generally, we were horrified to discover that even with our well-established written system up to a third did not receive any ministerial response at all, and that is something which the Government has accepted is totally unacceptable, and departments are now under an instruction to respond to petitions. However, when we move into the area of e-petitions if the House, at least initially, felt it was not prepared to guarantee debating time until the system had bedded in, surely it would meet some of the aspirations of people out there if they were guaranteed of getting a ministerial response and a response from their own Member of Parliament even if the petition itself was not subject to the debate. Would you agree with that?

Mr Steinberg: People would use the site, yes, if you built it and launched it like that, I believe more people would use it and the more marginally engaged would use it if they had the nice clear message that if it is enough then there will be a debate. I would look forward to the first petition coming in that said "Please hold debates if enough people sign petitions."

Q108 Chairman: Also would you accept that we might have to look for additional criteria other than pure numbers because we may be faced with a petition with the highest numbers wishing the British Olympic teams all the best at the next Olympic Games, but I am not sure that is something that we would have a debate on.

Mr Steinberg: The criteria by which the major petitions get picked for debate could have a degree of flexibility around the edge, but it has to be pretty transparent what those criteria are otherwise large numbers of people will cry "foul" very quickly. I had exactly the same thought, you may well have one or two that it is not interesting to discuss for half an hour.

Mr Loosemore: I would agree that as an incentive to broaden engagement offering up time on the floor of the House is far more compelling than getting a dry note back from your minister. There is also something important about how little understood the mechanics of Parliament versus the Government are by most people, and taking the opportunity to impress upon people that Parliament is not the Government and that they are engaging with Parliament which holds the Government to account I would find most important. I would see that incentivising people to use the service is a huge opportunity to tell them that this not Government, this is Parliament.

Q109 Mr Chope: Just on that last point, do you think it would be important as a condition of setting up a Parliamentary e-petitioning system we did away with the Number 10 e-petitioning system?

Mr Loosemore: Personally I would prefer that, I think Tom feels very differently.

Mr Steinberg: I would actually like there to be a petitions.gov.uk in which Parliament was one of the things that could be petitioned.

Q110 Rosemary McKenna: They are not government.

Mr Steinberg: All right, petitions.org, I do not know. The CLG is currently consulting on petitioning local government or on making a mandate so that local government will have itself to respond to petitions. I would like to think that citizens could get to a stage where they had one nice simple service rather than having to learn all these different brands, different places to go, and then the one service would explain the nature of the different bits of government when people went to use it, just as when people go to our website writetothem we explain yes, you can write to your councillor, yes, you can write to your MP, but here is what they do, here is the one you should pick.

Q111 Rosemary McKenna: What are the options for hosting an e-petitioning system and are there risks attached to external hosting?

Mr Loosemore: You are already externally hosted so I would advise strongly that you do not let anyone throw chaff in front of you about where the physical location of the boxes that do the serving are, all that matters are that the processes and systems are protected, not their physical location.

Q112 Rosemary McKenna: Do not worry about it.

Mr Loosemore: Do worry about the security of them but where they are physically located is irrelevant.

Q113 Sir Robert Smith: The current written one, where nothing happens to it, in a sense a lot of people say no one really checks the signatures, checks whether they exist. Do you think if you are going to have an interactive system there needs to be an element of whether it will be self-checking to some point that they are actually generally responders that have signed the petition?

Mr Loosemore: As I said earlier today a validated e-mail address is about the right level of protection, it is a good level of protection to ensure that it is an individual and they are not pretending to be 20 different people. It is quite hard to get 20 different e-mail addresses and validate each of them.

Q114 Chairman: Presumably the way to deal with that is once they have signed the petition they get an e-mail straightaway confirming you have signed this petition, so if someone has used a friend's e-mail address that person is then alerted.

Mr Loosemore: Exactly, and that is exactly how all of the mySociety sites including Number 10 works. "We believe you have signed a petition, if you have click here if not let us know." Going forward, the Internet is full of cunning people despite Jimmy Wells' best endeavours and keeping one step ahead of the worst case is certainly something to keep in mind, but you have got their postcode and their physical address which you can validate against and at least keep, at the household level if you so wish, so there are mechanisms to put in.

Q115 John Hemming: Can I clarify one of the points? If you use a friend's e-mail address an e-mail goes to the friend who has to click on it to say, yes, that is me, before it actually gets signed, so it is not that they just find out that somebody is trying to sign something in their name, they have to take a further step to authorise that it is in fact them that wants to sign this petition. If they do not it raises the problem for the lobby group signing everybody else and then having to click on something, but at least they do have to authorise it, which is the point that it is easier to forge a written signature because you write a random written signature down whereas okay, you can set up a G-mail account, a hotmail account and all sorts of different things like that, but that takes more time than writing a fraudulent signature down.

Mr Loosemore: I would say that it is not a system you currently have on your department website where people contact you by writing letters. You can abuse that-or some people do-and I think that is strange.

Chairman: Gentlemen, on behalf of the Procedure Committee can I thank you not only for your time but for sharing with us your judgment, based on your considerable expertise in this area. We have found this most valuable, thank you. I declare the meeting closed.

 



[1] First Report of Session 2006-07, Public Petitions and Early Day Motions, , HC 513, Ev p 20