Page last updated at 16:02 GMT, Thursday, 3 November 2011
Parliament 'needs more time for e-petitions'

Esther Webber
BBC Democracy Live

Natascha Engel
Ms Engel believes the government has "abdicated all responsibility" for e-petitions to her committee

An MP responsible for scheduling e-petition debates has called for a major rethink of the way popular petitions reach the House of Commons.

Natascha Engel, Labour chair of the backbench business committee, highlighted tension between the "lumbering" nature of parliamentary procedure and the "incredibly swift" take-up of e-petitions.

In an interview with BBC Democracy Live, she praised e-petitions, saying: "It's a way of encouraging people to engage, but I worry about raising expectations.

"The public perception is that once an e-petition reaches 100,000 signatures it will be debated - and there are a lot of people out there who think not only will it be debated but it will be made into law, because the public has spoken."

Ms Engel explained that e-petitions do not automatically make it into the chamber; they must be supported by an MP who has already explored other avenues for bringing the issue to the government's attention.

Even where an online petition has reached the threshold of 100,000 signatures and has the support of an MP, its chances of making an appearance on the floor of the House are still limited.

'Reluctant'

A petition on fuel prices brought forward by Robert Halfon, the Conservative member for Harlow, was under consideration for several weeks before the committee decided that it would get an airing.

One problem is the amount of time available for backbench debates.

"There's a real problem of us (the backbench business committee) not having control over the time that's allocated to us," Ms Engel explained. "We have no say over where the 35 days a year allocated us fall, and only 27 are in the main chamber and therefore votable."

And she suggested there may be another reason why it is difficult to make space for this type of debate.

"The idea behind the backbench business committee was to rebuild trust with people and take powers away from executive," she said. "But the more controversial our debates become, the more reluctant the government is to give us time.

"The introduction of e-petitions has really become the straw that's broken the camel's back. It's definitely an improvement but government has abdicated all responsibility for it to the backbench business committee."

"In the long term," she continued, "we need a better system of dealing with e-petitions."

The power to embarrass

She pointed to the Scottish system, where there is a committee that deals exclusively with e-petitions.

"E-petitions have wide implications for the way we do democracy in this country. They are a form of direct democracy whereas Parliament is an extreme form of representative democracy - and we need to find a way of squaring the circle."

She conceded that it was necessary to strike a balance, saying she would not want the UK to go too far in the direction of Switzerland or California where taxation and spending policies are frequently decided by plebiscite.

She also drew attention to the importance of issues brought to the fore by her committee that do not depend on e-petitions, describing the debate on the EU referendum - which stemmed from a traditional paper petition - as an example of the type of "running sore" that "government does not want a vote on".

A debate on compensation for haemophiliacs given contaminated blood in the 1970s and 1980s took place after sustained pressure from campaign groups, constituents and MPs.

Backbench debates are not legally binding and therefore open to accusations of pointlessness. But during the debate on contaminated blood, the Department of Health was forced to admit its statistics on compensation were wrong.

"The power to embarrass is a real power," Ms Engel said.

It seems as e-petitions gain traction, the government could face increasing calls to make more room in the calendar for public embarrassment.




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