Has the use of E-Petitions enhanced democracy in the UK?

Petitions are not actively encouraged by Parliament and the Government.

Petitions have a long history in Britain. For over a thousand years they have been a tool for citizens to try to address their grievances to the monarch or to the government. In 1689 the right to petition the King was even enshrined in the Bill of Rights:

The History of Petitions

Right to petition.

That it is the Right of the Subjects to petition the King and all Commitments and Prosecutions for such Petitioning are Illegall.

The Bill of Rights (1689)

There have been a number of famous examples of petitions in British history:

The Chartists – Between 1839 and 1848 the Chartists used petitions to try to encourage the government to implement the six main aims of their charter. These were:

* Suffrage for all men age 21 and over (not to be confused with Universal Suffrage).
* Equal-sized electoral districts.
* Voting by secret ballot.
* An end to the need for a property qualification for Parliament.
* Pay for Members of Parliament.
* Annual election of Parliament.

The Chartists used petitions alongside mass rallies to push their message.

There were three great petitions presented to Parliament – in 1839, 1842 and 1848. The petition of 1848 had 1,957,496 signatures. However, considering Queen Victoria had signed it, some were forgeries!

Suffrage Petitions – In the 50 years before women received the vote in the UK over 17,000 petitions calling for women to gain the vote were received by the House of Commons. One in 1896 was signed by 257,000 women and was one of the largest petitions of the 19th century. These petitions ensured that the issue of Women’s suffrage was never off the political agenda and they had a significant cumulative effect.

However, by the 21st century the number of petitions reaching government had dropped significantly and in November 2005 an E-Petitions site was set up on the Downing Street Website by the government of Tony Blair. The site was immensely popular and in just 6 months saw 2,860 petitions and one – which called for tolls on roads not to be introduced – was signed by 1.8 million people. Notably, perhaps as an indirect result of the strength of feeling shown in this petition, the plan that was dubbed the ‘road tax’ was subsequently abandoned by the government. However, the impact of this particular petition was the exception rather than the rule. Under Blair’s system, the petitions on the government website often had little impact.

Upon forming the Coalition the government pledged to reinvorgate the petitions process.

However, this changed following the 2010 General Election. A pledge to formalise the rights of petitioners was part of the Conservative General Election Manifesto and was consequently included in the Coalition Agreement:

” We will ensure that any petition that secures
100,000 signatures will be eligible for formal
debate in Parliament. The petition with the
most signatures will enable members of the
public to table a bill eligible to be voted on in
Parliament.”

Consequently, a new petitions website that addressed petitions to the government and to Parliament was set up. In addition, there were clear standards on what should happen to petitions that reach a certain threshold:

  • 10,000 – If a petition reaches 10,000 signatures it will receive a response from the government.
  • 100,000 – If a petition reaches 100,000 signatures it will be considered by the Petitions Committee for debate in Parliament.

Petition Rules

There are certain rules that a petition has to meet in order to become live on the E-Petitions website. A petition will be rejected if, for example:

  • It relates to something that is not within the responsibility of Parliament or the UK Government.
  • It calls for an action related to a particular person e.g. calling for a Minister to be sacked.
  • It refers to an issue in which there are active legal proceedings.
  • It contains party political views.

If a petition meets the rules set put it needs to collect five signatures before it goes live on the E-Petitions website. It can then be signed by anyone who wishes to sign it and can also be shared electronically. With the growth of social media, this allows petitions to grow very quickly. Petitions remain live for six months as long as Parliament does not dissolve for a General Election before the six-month period us up.

Role of the Petitions Committee

Catherine McKinnell is chair of the Petitions Committee

The Petitions Committee is a cross-party Committee that considers petitions for debates in Parliament. It is currently chaired by Catherine McKinnell, a Labour MP. They discuss Petitions put forward and consider, of those that reach 100,000 signatures, which should be put forward for debate. These debates usually take place from 16.30 in Westminster Hall (rather than the House of Commons chamber).

Number of Petitions

Since its inception in 2010, there have been thousands of petitions created. As of 12th July 2021, the numbers are as follows:

2019-Present

Number of Petitions: 31,151

Government Responses: 489 (18 awaiting Government Response)

Debated in Parliament: 87

Awaiting Debate in Parliament: 24

2017-2019

Number of Petitions: 28,102

Government Responses: 460

Debated in Parliament: 4

2015-2017

Number of Petitions: 31,731

Government Responses: 487

Debated in Parliament: 66

2010-2015

Number of Petitions: 60,949

Government Responses: 209

Debated in Parliament: Not Recorded

Debates in Parliament

E-Petition Debates take place in Westminster Hall. Attendance at such debates varies, with some being very well attended and others having only a few MPs attending. An example is a debate that took place on banning Grouse Shooting on 22nd June 2016:

Prominent Petitions

The biggest two petitions by signatures numbers in each Parliament are:

2010-2015

Lower Smear Test to 16 – 327,877 signatures

Impact of Petition: Smear Tests are still only ordinarily available to women aged 25 and above and this petition not have the intended impact of the petitioners.

Stop the Badger Cull – 304,255 signatures

Impact of Petition: The intended Badger Cull introduced by the Coalition Government went ahead with two trial areas established. By the end of 2013 924 badgers were culled in Gloucestershire and 955 were culled in Somerset. As such, the petition cannot be said to have had the intended impact of the petitioners.

2015-2017

Call on rules to be set for the EU Referendum requiring a threshold of 60% for winning side – 4,150,262 signatures

Impact of Petition: Despite the huge number of signatories, the government’s position on Brexit did not change and the petition was unsuccessful.

Prevent Donald Trump from making a State Visit to the United Kingdom – 1,863,708 signatures

Although Trump’s visit was officially a ceremonial rather than State Visit, he did meet the Queen.

Impact of Petition: Donald Trump did indeed make a visit to the United Kingdom in 2018. However, the visit was downgraded from a state visit to a ‘working visit’. As such, the petition might be considered to be partially successful.

2017-2019

Revoke Article 50 and remain in the EU – 6,103,056 signatures

Impact of Petition: Despite the huge number of signatories, the government’s position on Brexit did not change and the petition was unsuccessful.

Do not prorogue Parliament – 1,725,630 signatures

Impact of Petition: In the end, the September 2019 prorogation of Parliament was found to be unlawful by the Supreme Court and was reversed. Whilst this was not a direct result of the petition, those that legally challenged the prorogation did so knowing there was a groundswell of public opinion against it.

2019-Present

End child food povertyno child should be going hungry – 1,113,880 signatures

Impact of Petition: This petition occurred as the debate over Free School Meals was being led by Marcus Rashford. In response to this public debate, the Government expanded its provision of Free School Meals throughout the Winter of 2020. As such, this petition can be seen to have had an impact on government policy.

Include self-employed in statutory sick pay during coronavirus – 699,658 signatures

Impact of Petition: Despite reaching 699,658 signatures, the Petitions Committee decided that this issue had already been addressed in Parliament and therefore should not be debated again. The government did not extend statutory sick pay to the self-employed during the pandemic.

How significant are E-Petitions in the UK?

Whilst it appears that E-Petitions have a limited direct impact on policy, this does not mean they are unimportant. Often petitions that are well-supported help to create wider social and political debate and thus have a significant indirect impact. There are some clear examples of this that stand out:

Donald Trump’s State Visit: There was a national debate over whether Donald Trump should receive a state visit to the UK. As a result of the petition, a debate was held in Parliament over the issue and was one of the most well attended petition debates there has ever been.

Most controversially, the then Speaker John Bercow gave his view on whether Trump should be allowed to address Parliament during his visit:

The government was left in a very tricky position. With Britain reliant on the US for future trade and defense cooperation, they could not risk upsetting the notoriously flakey US President. So, slowly, the state visit got gently downgraded to that of a working visit – which had less pomp and ceremony attached to it. In this case, the significant expression of views against a state visit saw the government carefully change its plans and, therefore, it can be seen that the petition had a significant impact.

The position the Lib Dems took on Brexit in the 2019 election may be somewhat attributable to this petition.

Revoke Article 50 and Remain in the EU – This petition is the biggest in British history. The government was never going to enact its demands. However, the clear strength of opinion about Brexit may have been enough to impact the policy positions of major parties. For example, in 2017 the Liberal Democrats ran on a manifesto promise to hold a new EU referendum. However, in 2019, they ran on a pledge to revoke Article 50 and remain in the EU without a referendum. This policy change may have been influenced by the strength of feeling shown in the petition.

Secondly, in April 2019 a new centrist political party called Change UK was launched. This party launched a Charter to Remain in which they argued that Britain should remain in the EU. It committed them to a ‘People’s Vote’ on any deal with the option of remaining in the EU on the ballot paper. The belief of this new party that there was a centre-ground on Brexit that needed representing may have been fueled by the strength of this petition.

These two examples show that even if government policy is not directly changed by the strength of feeling shown in a petition, they can have significant indirect influence. As such, E-Petitions are more significant than they might originally appear to be.

Has the use of E-Petitions enhanced democracy in the UK?

E-Petitions have undoubtedly enhanced democracy in the UK. Firstly, they allow political expression on key issues to be given by the electorate. In the process of signing and sharing petitions, debate is started around both important and sometimes niche issues. The way that child food poverty quickly became a mainstream issue in 2020 is a good example of this. Secondly, they ensure that government has to be aware of the pulse of the nation. If a petition reaches 10,000 signatures the government is required to give a formal response. If a petition reaches 100,000 signatures it is likely that it will be debated in Parliament and again the government will be required to justify it’s position. This helps to keep the government honest and ensure they cannot hide away from issues that matter to the electorate until the next election.

E-Petitions have not seen a huge creep of direct democracy into the UK system. They have not revolutionsed the way that government is carried out in the UK. However, they have had a positive contribution to political dialogue and discussion and are now undoubtedly here to stay as a way in which the electorate can share their political opinions between elections.

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