Petitions have played an important role in our Parliament for the best part of a millennium. Petitions have two main uses, firstly for people to show they support a particular view on an issue, and secondly to let those in power know they feel strongly about an issue, they feel isn't being addressed.
That, at least is how most people to view them, but they are much more far reaching than that. Take for example the Petition of Right which was enacted in 1628. This wasn't a document in which the public lobbied parliament for something, this was parliament stating to the King, Charles I, what they believed they were entitled to. It was, in fact, a declaration that there was to be no taxation without representation, or to quote:
"(T)hat no tallage or aid shall be laid or levied by the King or his heirs in this realm, without the goodwill and assent of the Archbishops, Bishops, Earls, Barons, Knights, Burgesses, and other freemen of the commonalty of this realm: and by authority of Parliament"
Charles, of course, although assenting at first, because he wanted money, had his own solution, and dissolved Parliament the following year, and ruled on his own for twelve years.
However, petitions have a long and noble history, from the Barons forcing John to the table at Runnymede, William Wilberforce's petition signed by over 100,000 people, to those presented most evening in the House by MPs on behalf of constituents.
The petition therefore, has a place of pride in our society, as a way of getting issues aired. The last government made it a lot easier for ordinary members of the public to create petitions, and get them to the countries leaders, in 2006 with the creation of the Number Ten site. Those that gained over 500 signatures would then receive a response.
As long ago as 2007 David Cameron had said:
"I would like to see a system whereby, if enough people sign an online petition in favour of a particular motion, then a debate is held in Parliament, followed by a vote - so that the public know what their elected representatives actually think about the issues that matter to them,"
So he is consistent, and in February last year had first mentioned the 100,000 figure, and that those gaining a million, would give the petitioners the right to actually put forward legislation on it, which MPs had to vote on.
In that light, it did seem odd when the Coalition originally took office, they said they would not be carrying forward those on the site that had not received a response. However, by the middle of June they'd changed their mind, and reverted, at least partly to the original position, so managed two u-turns in the first month. Obviously they liked it so much, they thought they'd carry on turning, but that's another issue.
So when the new e-petitions site was launched today, the government are in fact just carrying on with the system the Labour government started, with a couple of tweaks. Indeed, if you look at the site, the list of petitions is just a continuation.
The publicity today surrounded Paul Staines, otherwise known as Guido Fawkes the right wing blogger, and his one (of many) to seek a return of the death penalty. He is confident that he'll gain the 100,000 signatures required to get it debated, though we'll have to see.
Sir George Young has said that the government will monitor the situation, and see if the number of signatories needs to be lowered or raised. The issue I have is not that it is easier for the public to make their concerns known, and although I would never support the return of the death penalty, it's a subject many feel strongly about. Mine is whether a government should guarantee the subject is debated, as this could lead to some very strange debates. Remember, it was only in 2001 that an online campaign was successful in getting Jedi put by a large number of people as a religion, thereby somewhat skewing the figures.
The big problem is that this is yet another ill-thought through idea by this government. They take an idea that already existed (I'm sure it would have been tweaked over time), and not only tried to claim it as their own, but turned it into a publicity stunt. The committee that will decide which ones get debated, so that already means many will feel disappointment as they believe the 100,000 will lead to automatic debate, will only meet for 35 days a year, and will easily get sidelined by other, more pressing matters.
As Natasha Engel said in today's Financial Times:
“This isn’t as well thought through as it could have been, and my concern is that the government is raising demand and expectations they may not be able to deliver on...there’s so much other business parked up for debate – the operations in Libya, huge defence issues..It’s in danger of becoming a bit gimmicky.”
The government is yet again making a rod for its own back by making such a big thing out of this. The likes of Staines will use it for their own agenda, but also the public will quickly become disenchanted with yet another government idea (this one or the last) which fails to do what it said it would.
A good idea, which has been in existence for five years to enable the public to make its concerns known, is in danger of being thrown into disrepute by spurious petitions. The government might think it has covered itself by creating the committee, but it won't be long before people start grumbling that their petition is being suppressed, and that debate is being avoided.
So, I am not going to criticise the government for trying, but once again they haven't really thought an idea through, because they went for the one that looked good on a press release.