On 19 March, the Unit held an event: ‘Challenges for Parliament: Looking Back, Looking Forward’, at which Sir David Natzler – who retired as Clerk of the House of Commons in February – spoke to Professor Meg Russell about his 40-year career in parliament. The discussion was both entertaining and informative; Dave Busfield-Birch summarises the key points.
Sir David first started working in the House of Commons in 1975, at what he called an ‘exciting time’, just two years after the UK had joined what was then known as the European Communities. His first assignment was as clerk to the European Legislation Committee, which was facing the novel challenge of sifting through the legislation passed by an unelected Council of Ministers sitting in the capital city of another country, and recommending which measures should be debated.
Parliament was unsurprisingly a very different place in the early years of Sir David’s Commons career. Talking of the key differences, he first spoke of how ‘expectations’ had changed significantly since then. For example, there were no limits on how long a Member could speak in those days. Whereas the Speaker (or one of the Deputy Speakers) can now impose relatively short time limits for MPs wishing to speak, that was not the case in 1975. Sir David considered this ‘almost one of the biggest changes’ of the past two or three centuries; that speaking for a long time can no longer be used to ‘destroy business’.
One of the other key differences between then and now is that the House of Commons lacked fiscal independence when he first started working there. It was instead reliant on the government for finance, thereby limiting its ability to take crucial decisions such as whether or not to recruit more staff. The Treasury hence had control of the Commons until the establishment of the House of Commons Commission in 1978, at which point the Commons became fiscally independent.Continue reading →
Over 40,000 e-petitions have been submitted to parliament since the current system was introduced in 2015. Cristina Leston Bandeira and Viktoria Spaiser have conducted research into how the public views the consequent parliamentary discussion of issues raised in these petitions by analysing comments made by those watching the live parliamentary coverage. Their findings lead them to conclude that parliamentary debates should be adapted to be more inclusive of the original petitions’ aims.
Parliament introduced an e-petitions system in 2015 with the aim of enhancing its relationship with the public. The system has seen extraordinary levels of usage, with over 40,000 e-petitions submitted and plenty of other evidence of very considerable engagement from the public, such as petitions debates regularly being the most read debates on Hansard. The extraordinary usage is only one element of this new system, however. At the Centre for Democratic Engagement, we have been investigating it, focusing in particular on the more subtle expressions of engagement, beyond usage numbers. We have interviewed petitioners, developed participant observation, and analysed petitions data, parliamentary documentation and social media activity associated with e-petitions.
Some of this research has now started to come out, namely our latest article in Policy & Internet, where we use natural language processing, machine learning and social network analysis of Twitter data to explore what it shows about the extent of people’s engagement, the contents of Twitter e-petition conversations, who is taking part and how they interact. In this blog post we focus on how the public react to the format of the e-petitions parliamentary debates, through their comments on Twitter whilst they watch these debates. Our findings provide interesting insights into how people perceive the e-petition procedures in terms of fairness and responsiveness, suggesting that petition parliamentary debates could be more inclusive of the original petitions’ aims. Continue reading →
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.
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.
The 2015 parliament has seen the establishment of a new Petitions Committee and e-petitions system. Cristina Leston-Bandeira discusses the committee’s initial activity, arguing that it has achieved much in the space of six months and has the potential to pave the way towards a new kind of public engagement with parliament.
One of the novelties of the 2015 parliament has been the establishment of a Petitions Committee, which has the potential to pave the way for a new style of public engagement for parliament.
Following the approval of a motion to create a new Petitions Committee last February, and still with no elected chair, the new Petitions Committee’s team set out to establish the foundations of what would become the UK government and parliament collaborative e-petitions system, integrating also the traditional paper public petitions presented through MPs. On 18 June the committee’s chair, Helen Jones, was elected and a month later, on 20 July, the new collaborative e-petitions site went live. At the same time the old Downing Street e-petitions site closed down. Nine e-petitions were submitted on that first day, collecting between them 60,580 signatures on that single day. Less than two months later the committee led its first debate on a petition that had achieved over 100,000 signatures, on contracts and conditions in the NHS.