Politics expert talks e-petitions to Parliament

House of Commons Chamber. Copyright UK ParliamentAn academic expert on political participation has presented her views to Parliament on whether the Government’s new e-petition system can help to engage the public and rebuild people’s confidence in politicians.

Catherine Bochel of the University of Lincoln, UK, was invited to give evidence to the House of Commons Political and Constitutional Reform Committee inquiry into the impact of the Wright reforms. She was asked to give oral evidence to the committee due to her research into petitions systems. This work has included studies of the operation and merits of different petition systems, including online versions.

In 2009 the Wright Committee, which aimed to find ways of restoring the public’s faith in the workings and relevance of Parliament following the MPs’ expenses scandal, recommended an e-petitions system for the House of Commons. While that was not forthcoming, the Coalition Government did launch an e-petition system in the summer of 2011, following a promise in the Conservative manifesto.

The website allows anybody to create a petition and those which gather more than 100,000 signatures can be debated by MPs in the House of Commons. However, as Catherine Bochel pointed out in her evidence, there is no guarantee that a petition which reaches this threshold will be debated. This creates a risk that large numbers of people are left feeling disenchanted if their cause is not picked up in Parliament having reached the 100,000 figure.

Ms Bochel, Principal Lecturer in Policy Studies in Lincoln’s School of Social and Political Sciences, said: “The existence of the e-petitions system is a positive step. It has become a popular mechanism for people to communicate their views to Government. However, for the vast majority of people there is little or no real participation or empowerment. This is because whilst the system claims to enable petitioners to be able to influence Government and Parliament, this opportunity is only available to a small number of petitioners whose petitions pass the 100,000 threshold and which MPs then have to agree to debate. This creates a danger that people using the system may feel they are being ignored, which would not be a positive outcome for a system designed to improve political participation.”

A related problem is that many e-petitions achieve only relatively small numbers of signatures, but may concern important matters. The number of signatures should therefore not be seen as a measure of the importance of an issue, especially when special interest groups can generate large-scale online support for single issue campaigns, the committee heard.

Ms Bochel’s research into e-petitions has already influenced national debate about the pros and cons of the Coalition’s e-petition system. She was invited to take part in a Backbench Business Committee / Hansard Society discussion on the topic in 2012. The resultant report published by the Hansard Society, ‘What next for e-petitions?’ reflected many of the arguments raised in her research.

She was giving evidence on 14th March 2013 to the House of Commons Political and Constitutional Reform Committee inquiry ‘Revisiting Rebuilding the House: the impact of the Wright reforms’. Her evidence, which began around one hour and 19 minutes into the session, can be seen again at Parliament TV: http://www.parliamentlive.tv/Main/Player.aspx?meetingId=12851

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