SOME people claim Parliamentary petitions don’t work. Are they correct? Or is the right to petition one of the last democratic routes left to us?
With two other resolute and expert petitioners, Anthony Webber and Axel McFarlane, I have come to conclusion that petitions are important, but that we need to press for their reform to make them more effective.
The sad fact is that critics of petitions are correct in their claim that the government do not have to take any action on petition requests, that debates on them are often poorly attended and take place in a side chamber, and worse, that there can be a decision not to have a debate at all.
However their benefits and possibility they create for public debate (and indeed for highlighting government over-reach) means they should be taken very seriously indeed. These are some of the plus points:
Written statements: The government is required to provide a written response to all petitions that reach 10,000 signatures. These statements can give people information to enable action, provide openings to Freedom of Information (FoI) requests, or potentially may provide evidence that can be used for future legal claims. For example the response to the petition seeking to ‘Launch a Public Inquiry into the approval process for Covid-19 vaccines’ provided much more clarity on the approval of Covid bivalent boosters than I achieved from FoIs to MHRA.
Debates: All debates are videoed and a full transcript is made available online. Any inaccurate claims made by ministers can be used to challenge ministers in Parliament or by the media.
Access to MPs: Petitions give a reason to engage with MPs on particular issues and often a letter/email to a MP with a petition link can achieve results. MPs will often discuss the issue with a petitioner and supporters both before and after a Parliamentary petitions debate.
Public Awareness: Petitions can go viral giving the creator support far beyond their normal social network. I have a relatively small social media networkbut ‘Do not Reform the Human Rights Act‘ allowed me to reach 231k people, including many outside my normal network. It gave me the opportunity to positively engage with some people with very different political views, who have proactively shared both the original petition and several subsequent petitions. The petition ‘Open a Public Inquiry into Covid-19 Vaccine Safety’ (Axel McFarlane), which achieved 107,123 signatures, enabled Andrew Bridgen to debate vaccine safety with other MPs and opened the door for more speeches and disclosures on the issue.
Influence on change: While there is not a direct link between petitions and change in legislation, it is highly probable that petitions such as ‘Prohibit employers from requiring staff to be vaccinated against Covid-19’ and ‘Do not roll out Covid-19 vaccine passports’, (by two other individuals) which were debated, did help to end Covid-19 vaccine passports and mandates, and ‘Referendum in the United Kingdom to abolish the Coronavirus Act’ (by Anthony Webber) did help to put an end to most of the provisions of Coronavirus Act (the reason given for the decision not to debate it).
However all is not right with Parliamentary petitions. First, there is no requirement for the government to make any change to legislation in response to a petition, however well supported. Debates ‘are to be considered’ by the Petitions Committee at 100k signatures, and the consideration can take a long time. Interestingly the 100k petitions waiting longest for a debate are ‘Make it a criminal offence for MPs to mislead the public’ (more than 700 days) and ‘Make lying in the House of Commons a criminal offence’. The petition ‘Do not sign any WHO Pandemic Treaty unless it is agreed via a public referendum’, with more than a quarter of a million signatures, has been waiting for 290 days.
Debates are not compulsory in that it is up to the Petitions Committee whether to schedule a debate.
Character limits make articulating complex issues very challenging. The government limits the title of petitions to 80 characters and the description to 880 characters. This prevented me from quoting the relevant section of Ofcom guidelines in full that I wanted to include in the ‘Public Inquiry into Ofcom broadcast standards during the coronavirus pandemic’ petition.
These limits often result in petitions requests being vague: I have had more than ten petitions rejected ‘because it is not clear what I am asking the government to do’ but I could have made a really clear request with one or two more sentences in each case.
It is very difficult to get petitions approved: the approvals process often results in severe dilution of the initial request. Despite the fact that the government can influence any public body through legislation, petitions may be created only for areas under Government direct responsibility, which makes tackling arms-length agencies such as MHRA or Ofcom very difficult. This condition resulted in the strong ‘Require Ofcom to withdraw “Broadcast standards during the coronavirus pandemic”’ wording being diluted to the weak ‘Public Inquiry into Ofcom’s guidance on broadcast standards during the pandemic’ after two rejections and final moderation. Even naming public bodies appears to be an issue. ‘Open a Public Inquiry into MHRA approval of Covid vaccines’ was renamed ‘Launch a Public Inquiry into the approval process for Covid-19 vaccines’.
You may not accuse the government or anyone of breaking the law. So in the petition ‘Call an immediate general election due to authoritarian Coronavirus measures’ I was not allowed to state that the ‘The Government have implemented the draconian Coronavirus Act which breaches our human rights’. It was moderated to a much weaker ‘The Government have implemented the draconian Coronavirus Act which restricts our personal freedoms’.
So what needs to change? I propose the UK moves to something closer to the Swiss Direct Democracy Model. In Switzerland a petition that receives over 100k signatures results in a binding referendum.
I have created a petition to suggest this change: ‘Reform e-petitions – votes at 500k, no word limits, immediate publication’. In addition I propose that petitions should be published immediately as the creator intends, without moderation (excluding offensive material).
How can we achieve these changes?
1. Sign my petition to get the process changed.
2. Write to your MP to request their support for change. Proforma text can be seen here.
3. Don’t be put off signing petitions due to lack of action, the government makes the process difficult to put people off of signing. Keep signing petitions, share them as widely as you can, and push for media coverage.