Government Response |
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 peoplefor
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 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.
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)
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
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
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
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".
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
- 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
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.
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".
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.
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
The Government welcome this recommendation.
The Government intend to make a number of minor,
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,
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)
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