The House of Commons and government collaborative e-petitions site re-opened on 11 September, following an extended break during the general election and the early months of the new parliament. In this post Cristina Leston-Bandeira reflects on the experience of the e-petitions system during the 2015–17 parliament, the first following its establishment. She identifies four types of role performed by petitions to parliaments and provides evidence that the UK system has performed important roles in all of these areas.
Closed since early May, the House of Commons and government collaborative e-petitions site re-opened on 11 September, as its committee was finally re-established. By the end of its first day, 11 petitions had been added to the site, collecting over 11,000 signatures. As the Petitions Committee re-starts its work, it is worth reflecting on its experience during its first parliament and its potential role.
The system was launched in 2015 and saw extraordinary volumes of usage in the 2015-17 parliament, with 31,731 e-petitions submitted in less than two years and 14 million unique e-mail addresses used to sign petitions. This corresponds to an average of 1,480 e-petitions submitted per month, which is considerably higher than equivalent petitions system in other legislatures; for instance, the monthly average number of petitions submitted in 2015 to the German Bundestag was 1,186 (despite Germany having a larger population).
There is no doubt that the new e-petitions system has caught people’s imagination and has been heavily used since it was introduced. But has it achieved much, other than a lot of activity and noise? Out of those submitted, 10,950 were accepted and 471 got a government response, having reached the required threshold of 10,000 signatures. Besides this, 39 parliamentary debates were held on e-petitions that reached 100,000 signatures (with some debates encompassing more than one petition). Assessing the contribution of petitions is not always straightforward though, for a variety of reasons explored in a previous blog post such as the difficulty in identifying causal relationships between petitions and outputs. In order to evaluate a petitions system, it is more helpful to think in terms of the roles it performs.
In a paper presented at the Parliamentary Scholars and Parliamentarians Workshop at Wroxton College this July I develop a historical and comparative overview of other petitions systems, to identify the roles fulfilled by petitions to parliaments. Table 1 summarises these.
Table 1: Roles performed by petitions systems
The roles fulfilled by parliamentary petitions fit therefore into four areas: linkage between parliament and people, campaigning for issues, scrutiny of government activity and policy-making. The extent to which a petitions system is able to perform these roles is closely associated with the processes in place to consider petitions, but also the extent to which these are integrated with formal political processes.
Although we need far more detailed research on this, there is evidence that over the 2015-17 parliament, the e-petitions system has performed important roles in all four of those areas. It performed the role of linkage by, for example, providing an outlet for public dissatisfaction, for instance in the case of the petitions on the EU referendum or on Trump’s state visit; but also by taking parliament to a public who otherwise would not have engaged with the Institution. Although we need more systematic research about this, my interviews with petitioners showed that some of the most popular petitions were submitted by people who had had no contact with politics before (including non-voters). Philip Cowley’s analysis of signatures also indicates that some petitions chimed with a public beyond Brighton Pavilion and Bristol West (the two constituencies that typically have the highest concentration of petition signatories).
Parliamentary e-petitions also performed critical roles of campaigning, such as for instance the WASPI (Women Against State Pension Inequality) campaign, which kickstarted its development around an e-petition. This performed an important role in mobilising those affected by these pension changes, marking the starting point of what has become a much larger campaign. The role of scrutiny was also visible through petitions that raised issues bottom up, which would not necessarily have been visible to decision-makers; see for instance the petition on high heels and workplace dress codes, which led to a joint inquiry with the Women and Equalities Committee, revealing the extent to which this was an issue affecting particularly those in temporary and precarious contracts; this was also a good example of a petition performing the role of policy review. A key issue encompassed in this petition was the difficulties this type of employee faces in presenting formal complaints about their employers, due to employment tribunal fees; something that resonated later in in a Supreme Court decision declaring employment tribunal fees unlawful.
Closely linked to scrutiny, the e-petitions system also played a role in the area of policy-making – though it is often difficult to identify exactly what caused a change in policy and change in policy often takes time and results from a multiplicity of actions. The government’s decision to stop charging employment tribunal fees may become an example of a petition eventually leading to a change of policy. Two other examples the committee often quotes are the government’s u-turn on the so-called sugar tax and the government’s acceptance that brain tumour research requires more funding. But policy constitutes only a small part of the wide range of roles performed by the petitions system.
In short, even without a more comprehensive and detailed analysis of all 31,731 petitions submitted during the 2015–17 parliament, it is clear the new e-petitions system has been performing a number of important roles. Still, we should not lose sight of the fact that the vast majority of e-petitions achieve no visibility, as over 90% of those accepted never reach the threshold of 10,000 signatures, let alone 100,000; also about 65% of e-petitions submitted are rejected – all for perfectly justified and transparent reasons, but it does represent a high volume that has to be dealt with. Albeit a very successful system, this could be further enhanced by a tightening of the form whereby petitions are submitted, but also by a better integration with routine parliamentary business and other services.
As I write, 11 days after the site re-opened, 356 petitions were live on the site and three debates had already been scheduled for October. E-petitions are here to stay and it will be particularly interesting to watch what happens within the context of a hung parliament. Will petitions become far more political? Will they play a role in influencing MPs in their vote? Will the Petitions Committee behave differently in their decisions now that the government has no majority? Plenty to watch out for.
About the author
Cristina Leston-Bandeira is Professor of Politics at the University of Leeds and a Constitution Unit Fellow. She tweets @estrangeirada.