The UK parliament’s collaborative e-petitions site celebrates its first birthday today. Over the last year over 18,000 petitions have been submitted, a level not seen since the 19th century. In this post Cristina Leston-Bandeira discusses how this has been achieved, pointing to the success of the new Petitions Committee and in particular the way that it has engaged with other parliamentary activities. The next challenge may be to consider how to maximise the number of petitions that can realistically lead to some sort of outcome.
The UK parliament’s new collaborative e-petitions site went live one year ago. Nine petitions were submitted and 60,580 signatures were added on that single first day, 20 July 2015. Twelve months on, a total of 18,767* petitions have been submitted and millions of people have signed at least one petition. This is a stark contrast with the story of decline the UK parliament’s petitions system had known since the 19 century. From a highly used tool in past centuries, namely from the 17th century to the beginning of 19th, a time when thousands of petitions were presented annually with the back-up of millions of signatures, the number of petitions submitted fell to about 35 yearly in 1970s, rising slightly in the 1980s and 1990s, but never to their previous glory. Move forward to the 21st century, and, in one year, we are back to early 19th century levels of support for petitions – not a mean feat. But are petitions achieving anything?
The key to answer this question lies in the new Petitions Committee, in place since June last year. Equipped with a small support team but oozing with enthusiasm and ideas, the committee has achieved much over the past year. The system established that petitions with a threshold of 100,000 signatures should be considered for a debate and those with 10,000 signatures should receive a response from government. The Petitions Committee has hosted 20 debates in Westminster Hall on petitions with over 100,000 signatures, and the government has responded to 257 petitions (with only 17 still waiting for a government response at the time of writing). In short, a very small proportion of the petitions submitted have led to a specific action. But this is a very simplistic summary of the work developed by the committee to support the dissemination and effectiveness of petitions, where three key elements have made a clear difference: cross-fertilisation with other ongoing parliamentary work, openness in working methods and a strong focus on public engagement.
Firstly, the committee has attempted to cross-reference petitions to other ongoing activity taking place within parliament. This includes ‘tagging’ petitions to ongoing parliamentary activity such as debates (therefore in reality the number of debates related to petitions is higher than the ones hosted by the committee), but also co-ordinating work with other committees. Contacting the signatories of the petition asking for transgender people to be allowed to self-define their legal gender to make them aware of the Women and Equalities Committee’s inquiry on transgender equality is but one example. This enabled the Women and Equalities Committee to reach a community that may otherwise not have become involved with a parliamentary inquiry, with the original petitioner submitting oral evidence, and the actual petition and respective response from the government critically informing the final report. The Petitions Committee has also worked closely with the Health Committee on a number of issues, as illustrated by the hosting of the debate on the sugar tax petition on the same day as the Health Committee launched its report on child obesity; and, more recently, by co-hosting evidence sessions to investigate the subject of the meningitis B vaccine, following an e-petition on the subject.
This cross-fertilisation and coordination of work with other committees is a good example of how petitions can eventually lead to change in policy. The change in the government’s stance on the sugar tax is seen as such an example. It is difficult to establish direct cause and consequence between a petition and an output. This often happens instead through a drip-drip series of activities that build up pressure on an issue; from that perspective, the e-petition on sugar tax (with the celebrity endorsement of Jamie Oliver) is a good example of potential impact of petitions. More recently, we can find another example in the government’s acceptance to rethink funding levels for brain tumour research, following an e-petition that originally raised this issue and which led to the Petitions Committee’s first inquiry.
This cross-referencing of petitions to ongoing parliamentary business is an example of how creative the committee has been in raising the profile of petitions. Rather than sticking to the two actions identified in its original terms of reference (debate and government response), the committee has developed an open approach, which has led to considerable innovation. One example was the decision to launch its first inquiry on the e-petition asking for more funding for brain tumour research. This petition reached the 10,000 signatures threshold and, accordingly, received a short answer from government which reinstated its position that funding levels were appropriate. At only about 14,000 signatures at the time, the e-petition fell short of the threshold to be considered for a debate. However, the committee felt the petition merited more consideration and decided to launch an inquiry on the issue. This helped to raise the petition’s profile considerably, eventually in fact reaching the 100,000 signatures threshold and leading to a debate in parliament. The committee’s openness in working methods was clearly patent also in this inquiry’s report, which is peppered with the public’s view on the issue, including photos and other very personal testimonies from those affected; not your standard select committee report. This is illustrative of the committee’s strong focus on public engagement.
The committee has experimented with various methods and tools to enhance engagement with the public – both in raising awareness of petitions as campaigning tools and in disseminating ongoing petitions. Discussions on Twitter under a common hashtag to involve people with a petition’s debate in parliament are just one example. More back to basics but perhaps more effective, the committee has used e-mail to keep signatories informed of developments relating to the petitions they have signed. This means not just petitioners but all signatories receiving an email directly onto their account from the Petitions Committee for every new action associated with the petition(s) they’ve signed. In practical terms this means the nearly one million people who signed the petition on Meningitis B were informed of the government’s response to the petition, its subsequent debate and inquiry (with links to the actual documents and videos), as decisions on these were made. Just as the more than four million people who signed the petition on a second EU referendum heard why the government would not hold a second referendum.
The committee has also utilised a number of methods to better understand the issues raised by petitions. This includes face-to-face discussions with members of the public prior to a petition debate being held (such as the one on term-time leave from school) but also the use of web forums such as the latest on high heels and work dress code; sometimes using external discussion forums such as for the petition on women’s state pensions which had three concomitant online forums in different platforms: Money Saving Expert, Mumsnet and Gransnet.
This has combined with the pro-active use of other engagement tools to disseminate petitions under discussion, decisions taken, or simply raise awareness of petitions, including its Twitter account, the petition of the month feature, plenty of infographics and short promotional videos; as well as face-to-face sessions explaining how petitions work.
However, we finish on the issue of numbers. All of the above is impressive and shows the Petitions Committee has much to celebrate, but it relates to a small portion of petitions submitted. A staggering 18,767 petitions have been submitted over this past year. Out of these 12,685 have been rejected. This still leaves over 6,000 petitions accepted, from which only a small proportion is ever considered by the committee. This raises a number of issues, namely one of capacity considering the committee’s small team (four staff), but also the issue of identifying genuine matters that merit a petition. Currently the system has very low admissibility criteria which leads to a very wide range of types of petitions being submitted – from which only a small proportion is likely to be an issue to be usefully raised through a petition. Research shows that petitions are most likely to lead to outcomes when they deal with bottom-up, specific and non-party political issues. Analysis of some of the petitions’ recent activity has shown some clear differences in types of petitions submitted.
The Petitions Committee has achieved much in its first year; its next challenge may be to consider how to maximise the number of petitions submitted that can realistically lead to some sort of outcome, to the detriment of those petitions that amount to little. Otherwise there is a danger of devaluing the very act of petitioning.
* All figures correct on 19 July 2016.
About the author
Cristina Leston-Bandeira is Professor of Politics at the University of Leeds and a Constitution Unit Fellow. She tweets @estrangeirada.