Petitions: Invigorating Democracy

The House of Commons Petitions Committee has just announced that MPs will debate on 20 February 2017 the prospective state visit to the UK by Donald Trump.

The Committee made its decision after two petitions on the topic of President Trump’s visit rocketed past the 100,000 signature threshold that makes an e-petition eligible to be considered for debate. One of the two petitions was signed by a staggering 1.6 million people after a weekend of controversy for the Trump Administration and the May Government following Trump’s Executive Order banning entry to the United States for citizens of 7 Muslim-majority countries. A rival petition, calling for the visit to go ahead, surged to 137,000 signatures in just one day following the widespread media attention garnered by the first petition.

This is certainly not the first time that a petition has so visibly reflected public feeling, and influenced public discourse, on the great political questions of the day. Trump was the subject of another popular petition during divisive U.S. Presidential Election that called for him to banned from entering the UK following his comments on banning Muslims from entering the U.S. (we really have come full circle, haven’t we?). In the days surrounding the EU Referendum, the Petitions website recieved 9,000 petitions – nine times the amount recieved in an ordinary month – calling for everything from invoking Article 50 immediately and designating 23 June ‘Independence Day‘ to not invoking Article 50 at all and holding a second referendum. The latter, many will remember, recieved a record 4.1 million signatures and temporarily crashed the Petitions website.

These instances demosntrate the unique ability of the joint House of Commons and Government e-petitions system to allow ordinary voices to be heard by the elected respresentatives in Westminster – and be heard loudly. Yet, the value of the e-petitions system lies not just in its ability to amplify the voices of the discontented but also in the fact that you are not just petitioning – you are petitioning Parliament and pressing the government for action. Certainly, a petition on 38 Degrees or Change.org can raise awareness, snare headlines and muster a response. But only a petition to Parliament has the direct ability to trigger debate in the country’s legislature. A petition to Parliament, not 38 Degrees, obliges government response.

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Moreover, Parliament’s e-petition system is presided over by a fully fledged select committee – the Petitions Committee – with the power to decide which petitions get debated. The Committee has made a point of scheduling debates for petitions that have not reached the 100,000 signature threshold that makes a petition eligible to be considered for debate. A recent example is a petition calling for a ban of all non-recyclable packaging in the UK. Worthy petitions on issues unlikely to receive attention from the Government and the widespread support ultra-political petitions, such as that calling for a second EU referendum, can nonetheless raise awareness and have an impact.

The Petitions Committee also has the power to hold inquiries into the topics raised by petitions, and this is where the Commons-Government system really stands head and shoulders above the rest. Not only does the Committee have the resources to gather extensive evidence, bring new voices into Parliament and shine light on topics not usually addressed by Parliament, it can also issue recommendations for government policy and the government must respond. Several successful inquiries have been held by the Committee to date. Its first inquiry looked into brain tumour research funding and concluded that funding was inadequate and not given sufficient priority by the Government. The Government conceded this point, and established a working group to address the issue. Other inquiries have similarly caused a stir. Most recently, for example, was the joint inquiry with the Women and Equalities Committee into high heels and workplace dress codes that concluded the existing law on discriminatory dress codes was not fully effective. The point is that, backed by a Committee that can probe Government to at least respond to issues of concern, the joint Commons-Government e-petition system allows the petitioning public unprecedented power to press Government for action, raise awareness and influence debate. It restates Parliament as the primary mediator between society and governance.

At a time when turnout for elections and trust in our public institutions is low and disengagement and disaffection with politics is at a record high, the e-petition system is a vital innovation in our democracy. In one sense, it is an example of a growing move towards forms of advocacy democracy, which allows maximum citizen participation in political processes whilst keeping the final say in the hands of elected representatives. Certainly the Commons-Government e-petition system offers only a diluted form of advocacy democracy, not guaranteeing a direct effect on policy or legislation. As we witness rising populism, and the political uncertainties that accompanies this, the e-petition system is a wise compromise between the need to encourage greater participation in politics, allowing citizens to influence public discourse and policy, and the need to protect democracy from the flights of political whimsy. By having a system that enables citizens to express their views and demand action from the government directly, and have those expressions addressed in some way, whilst situating it within the staid institutions of representative democracy, the e-petition system is a valuable and sensible vehicle for political participation. In another sense, it is the reconfiguration of an ancient method of political participation for the modern age.

How petitions systems can be said to add value to democracy is still up for debate. It is a question I am tackling now in my dissertation. But that petitions systems do add value to democracies is certain. It is prudent to remember that the Petitions Committee, and the e-petitions system over which it presides, has only been active for just over a year and its achievements are already impressive. As more petitions gain more support and the system rises in popularity, there sits a valuable opportunity to reinvigorate the political system – both in terms of trust and participation – in the modern day.

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Visit the Petitions Committee website to learn more about their work. You can also read about the Petitions Committee’s successful first year here. Take action by starting your own petition at petition.parliament.uk.