Debates on Government e-Petitions: Government Response to the Committee's Seventh Report of Session 2010-12 - Procedure Committee Contents


Government Response


INTRODUCTION

The Government believe that e-petitions have been a success in building a bridge between people and Parliament.

The Government's e-petitions website has connected with a remarkable number and range of people—for many of whom, this may have been their first experience of engaging with Parliament and central Government.

In the six months since the launch of the site, over 3.5 million signatures have been submitted to the more than 11,000 petitions on the site. The debate on the e-petition relating to the release of documents on the Hillsborough disaster was a powerful and poignant example of how effectively the House of Commons can respond to public concerns.

The Government therefore welcome the fact that the Procedure Committee identifies the popularity and public interest which the site has generated, and has made constructive recommendations about the operation of the site.

We have been clear at all stages of the e-petitions process, from publication of the Coalition Agreement in May 2010 onwards, that e-petitions reaching the threshold of 100,000 signatures would be eligible for, rather than automatically trigger, a debate. This fact is repeated on the front page of the e-petitions website, on the 'How e-Petitions Work' page and on the 'Frequently Asked Questions' page. We do not, therefore, agree with the claim in the report, that there has been 'a failure, on the part of the Government, to communicate clearly and accurately with petitioners and to manage their expectations of the process effectively" (Paragraph 5), although we accept that inaccurate reporting has led to some misconceptions about the process.

The Government place great importance on ensuring that the work of Parliament better resonates with members of the public and encourages them to engage more in parliamentary proceedings. We welcome the fact that the Procedure Committee acknowledges that e-petitions interacts with wider questions about public engagement and we welcome the Committee's view that this subject is worthy of more considered examination by the Committee in future.

The Government are committed to improving the e-petitions site and process wherever possible. The Government Digital Service developed the e-petitions site rapidly at minimal cost. Its delivery within 8 weeks by a group of SMEs exemplifies the new, agile approach to the delivery of public sector IT projects which the Government is taking. The Government Digital Service are currently developing the next iteration of the site which will deliver additional functionality and improved content in response to this report, as well as in response to feedback from Members, the public and officials who work with the site.

USE OF WESTMINSTER HALL

RECOMMENDATION

1.  We recommend that the Standing Orders should be changed to allow the Backbench Business Committee to schedule debates on Government e-petitions between 4.30 and 7.30pm on a Monday in Westminster Hall. The sitting would only take place if the Backbench Business Committee had set down the subjects of e-petitions for debate. The debate would take place on the motion "That this House has considered the e-petition from [petitioners] relating to [subject of petition]". We recommend that this change should be introduced on an experimental basis for one year and that its effectiveness should be reviewed at the end of that period. (Paragraph 21)

RESPONSE

The Government do not agree with the Procedure Committee's description of the effects of the advent of e-petitions on the work of the Backbench Business Committee. The claim that the popularity of e-petitions has "threatened to overwhelm" the Backbench Business Committee is overstated. The Procedure Committee observes that, since the establishment of the Backbench Business Committee, "demand for time has always outstripped supply". The Government believe that the situation in which demand for use of Backbench time on the floor of the House exceeds supply is both healthy and likely to be ever present.

The report contrasts the debating of e-petitions with 'the scrutiny of policy and legislation', and states that debates on e-petitions would 'reduce the ability of Members to hold the Government to account on behalf of their constituents' (Paragraph 13). The Government do not believe that e-petitions and the scrutiny of policy and legislation are mutually exclusive. Indeed, the report's assertion is contradicted by the continued need for a facilitating Member and in light of the range of e-petitions which have been debated since the launch of the site.

The Government considered that a case could be made for the use of time currently available in Westminster Hall on Tuesdays and Wednesdays for debates on e-petitions allocated by the Backbench Business Committee. Such debates represent one way in which Members can hold the Government to account on behalf of their constituents. However, the Government note that the Procedure Committee do not recommend this option.

There may be very legitimate reasons for not debating an e-petition, and we are pleased that the report notes, in paragraph 17, the importance of the Backbench Business Committee continuing to retain ownership of the scheduling of debates on all issues within their control, whether they are generated by e-petitions or otherwise, and for need for a Member to sponsor any such debate.

Members may choose to seek adjournment debates in either the main Chamber or Westminster Hall as an appropriate means to debate issues arising from e-petitions. Where an e-petition seeks a very specific action from a Minister, or involves an individual case, an adjournment debate may be more appropriate than a debate allocated by the Backbench Business Committee. This has been the case for the e-petition ""Give Kevin Williams his inquest under section 13 of the coroners Act" which was given a 90 minute adjournment debate in Westminster Hall.

The Government would nevertheless support a proposal to allow the backbench Business Committee to schedule debates on e-petitions between 4.30 pm and 7.30 pm on a Monday in Westminster Hall, when the House is sitting, provided that this was on a pilot basis, with the House being asked to come to a subsequent decision after a full evaluation of the pilot.

During the pilot period, it would be important for the Backbench Business Committee to continue to be able to decide that e-petitions that reached the threshold were not appropriate for debate, or were more suitable for a debate on the floor of the House, in some cases on a substantive motion.

The current rate of e-petitions reaching the eligibility threshold of 100,000 signatures equates to just over one per month, which would, based on the evidence of the Clerk Assistant, equate to an annual additional cost of around £32,200 per annum if each were debated in Westminster Hall. The Government believe that it is vital the issue of cost is considered as part of the review of any pilot and before any subsequent decision on proposals for the availability and use of time beyond the pilot period.

THE GOVERNMENT'S WEBSITE

RECOMMENDATION

2.  We recommend that the Government should remove the sentence "e-petitions is an easy way for you to influence government policy in the UK" from its e-petitions website and replace it with a statement that more accurately reflects reality. We propose: "e-petitions are an easy way for you to make sure your concerns are heard by Government and Parliament". (Paragraph 25)

RESPONSE

The Government do not agree that the phrase "easy way for you to influence government policy in the UK" is inaccurate. Since the launch of the site, e-petitions have influenced a range of Government action, including:

  • Since the e-petition "Cheaper Petrol and Diesel, by Robert Halfon MP and FairFuelUK" was debated, the Chancellor of the Exchequer has announced the Government's decision to scrap the January 2012 increase in fuel duty;
  • In the case of the e-petition "Full disclosure of all government documents relating to 1989 Hillsborough disaster", the Government has confirmed that it will arrange for all papers to be released once the Hillsborough Independent Panel has decided to do so, in consultation with the families; and
  • In the case of the e-petition "Give Kevin Williams his inquest under section 13 of the coroners Act", the Attorney General has agreed that he will look at the applications made to his predecessor, to determine whether in his view, the evidence available supports an application to the court for a new inquest.

In the case of the second and third examples, these actions arose even before the e-petition was debated in the House of Commons, and clearly demonstrates the influence which they have had.

Officials in Government departments have also indicated that they regularly monitor e-petitions, including those which do not reach the 100 000 signature threshold, to examine public feeling on issues. In some departments, officials have used popular e-petitions as a prompt to commission briefing for Ministers, and where petitions quickly increase in signatures, as a prompt for looking in details at specific policies. This is especially true in the case of e-petitions covering issues which have not received widespread parliamentary or media coverage.

Given the lack of automaticity to e-petitions being debated in the House, the Government do not believe that the proposed new wording provides any greater clarity than the existing statement. We propose a change of the text to "an easy, personal way to influence Government and Parliament"; however, the Government are not wedded to the existing wording on the site, and would welcome further discussion with the Procedure Committee and the Backbench Business Committee on finding an appropriate wording which accurately reflects the influence which e-petitions can have.

RECOMMENDATION

3.  We recommend that the Government should modify the sentence "You can create an e-petition about anything that the government is responsible for and if it gets at least 100,000 signatures, it will be eligible for debate in the House of Commons", which currently appears on the website, by leaving out "it will be eligible for debate in the House of Commons" and instead inserting "the Government will ask the Backbench Business Committee of the House of Commons to consider scheduling a debate on it in the House". (Paragraph 27)

RESPONSE

The Government do not believe that the wording suggested in this recommendation is an accurate reflection of the e-petitions process, and itself risks inflating the expectations of e-petitioners.

The Government will continue to pass e-petitions to the Backbench Business Committee when they reach the threshold of 100,000 signatures, although the Government will remain neutral as to whether a debate on any e-petition should be scheduled. The proposed rewording may give an inflated impression of the role of the Government in scheduling such debates.

As stated in response to Recommendation 2, the Government are not wedded to the existing wording on the site, and would welcome further discussion with the Procedure Committee and the Backbench Business Committee on finding an appropriate wording which accurately reflects the interaction between the Government and the Backbench Business Committee.

RECOMMENDATION

4.  We recommend that the Government e-petitions site should provide more prominent links to the Backbench Business Committee's website and to the guidance that Committee has prepared for e-petitions. (Paragraph 29).

RESPONSE

The Government welcome this recommendation.

The Government intend to make a number of minor, technical improvements to the site early this year, when it will also be convenient to update the wording on the site in a number of areas, including the 'How e-Petitions Work' and the 'Frequently Asked Questions' pages. We intend to add the following text:

"The House of Commons Backbench Business Committee receives notification from the Leader of the House once an e-petition has 100,000 signatures. The Backbench Business Committee meets weekly when the House of Commons is sitting to hear representations from MPs for debates in backbench time. The Committee can consider any subject for debate, including those raised in e-petitions or national campaigns but an MP must make the case for their consideration. More information about the Committee is available on its website http://www.parliament.uk/bbcom"

The Government would also be happy to provide a link on the front page of the site to the Backbench Business Committee pages on the Parliamentary website, and will work with the Committee to agree the best format for this. The Government would welcome the Backbench Business Committee providing reciprocal links and giving greater prominence to its own guidance on e-petitions,

MP INVOLVEMENT

RECOMMENDATION

5.  The Government already sends an e-mail to petitioners when a petition reaches the 100,000 signature mark. We recommend that this e-mail should advise petitioners to seek a Facilitating Member for their petition and provide links to the Backbench Business Committee's website and guidance. We also recommend that the Backbench Business Committee should alert Members when the Leader of the House refers to it a petition that has passed the threshold, by publishing notifications on its website and on the Order Paper. (Paragraph 33)

RESPONSE

The Government welcome this recommendation, and has already implemented it in the case of the most recent e-petition to reach the 100,000 signature threshold. We would welcome the inclusion of information about specific e-petitions appearing on the Committee's website and on the Order Paper, in addition to the current process of the notification being place in the Library of the House.

In some cases, the sending of an e-mail to petitioners takes place a number of days after the petition has reached the threshold, to allow for the Government to provide a response on the substantive policy issues raised. Where this is the case, we propose to send an initial e-mail to petitioners informing them solely of the process, with a second e-mail including a policy response (and details of any scheduled debate, if appropriate) at a later date.

We would normally expect that the Member which petitioners would approach, in the first instance, would be their constituency Member of Parliament. Given the volume of petitions and signatures on the site, we do not believe that is desirable to create an automated process for petitioners to contact Members to seek their support.



 
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