The devil is in the e-petition detail

16 Sep 2012

The number of petitions received in parliament over the last three decades has increased twenty fold. But all is not what it seems. E-Petitions, the new craze that is supposed to allow the public to voice their opinion in the public domain and in parliament, are failures. They are a gimmick that has let down too many people and will continue to, until somebody is wise enough to say ‘enough is enough’. Although, that somebody would not be me.

 

E-petitions are a gimmick. A Blairite invention created as a propaganda ploy. They encourage, but at the same time mislead the public. They encourage the public to voice their concerns but in effect tell the government things they already know. The government, or governing party, isn’t blind to the effects it has. George Osborne does not question why he was booed at the Olympics, David Cameron does not wonder why BBC News always want to discuss the shrinking economy and Ed Miliband is never left questioning the reason why he was forced to give an interview about the leadership of his party. The fact is that as the government cogs turn; they know much more than what we give them credit for. E-petitions are a failure of public confidence. Instead of having trust in the fact that our government knows what needs changing, what reforms need implementing and what bills need passing- we have to take a step back and put things in our own hands. It isn’t necessary. We must let MP’s do their job and recognise that the government knows what’s wrong and what needs addressing. 

E-petitions are undemocratic. Quite simply, any bill an MP, government or parliament dislikes can be destroyed under an act of 1661. The Act Against Tumultuous Petitioning removes the democratic aspect from any petition. The Act ensures that any petition not worthy of parliament’s time but could also, on the other hand, be used to attack the government or change legislation, could disappear, vanish and never be seen or used again. Some people argue that an Act from 1661 is unlikely to be pulled out, dusted off from the parliamentary archives. Why not? Parliament is all about creating lasting and effective laws. When the Lords fail, the Commons pulls out the 1911 Parliament Act. If an act of parliament from 1911 can be pulled out, why not an act of parliament from 1661?

Petitions are becoming a political tool, a weapon in the attack armoury. Most recently, petitions have been used as a chance to waste time in parliament. During the Alton Bill for example, petition after petition was mentioned to delay and inevitably bin the bill. Never the less, the bill passed.

Surely they give a snapshot of what constituents from around the country want, who by no other means would put their voices together? However, for the E-petitions of Buckinghamshire I suspect the Daily Telegraph plays an important role in what E-petitions originate from Buckinghamshire, for the E Petitions of Newcastle, The Sun- or maybe the local media. Whatever the source, it is the newspapers and the media, the social networks and the trickle of sceptical messages that push for E-petitions to be made; not the desires of local people.

Despite my argumentative tone however, I don’t think E-Petitions should be sent to the gallows. E-Petitions are a principle way of involving yourself in a democratic process; a process that no one, including myself, should take for granted.  They raise the important questions- whatever their origin and encourage the government to take a look at itself, even if they do already know the answers. Resentment, anger and disillusionment are all too common in politics and we should ensure that there are safeguards and checks all the way to the petition bag on speaker’s chair. Looking to the future, we should also make sure that when a petition gets to the bag on speaker’s chair it has enough public weight behind it to be noticed and when it is presented, parliament ultimately listens. Providing one of a very few ways in which parliament actually listens to the public.

By James Wand

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