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Thursday, 30 December 2010

Westminster should follow Scottish petitions model

In the news this week has been a curious story about the Downing Street online petitions system and how parliament should respond to it.

That change is necessary is patently obvious. The e-petition system was established by the Labour government, but few if any of the petitions had any impact - largely because there existed no framework through which they could be considered by parliament. It is marginally preferable to the previous system which allowed only for MPs to present petitions to number 10, thus allowing countless media savvy elected representatives the opportunity to publicly identify themselves with any populist cause, furthering their profiles in the process.

There is little purpose in a petitions system which makes no provision for eventual consideration of issues raised. It is also hardly progressive that the current system is so narrowly centred around the Prime Minister. The government, recognising this, have proposed introducing a new online system whereby the most popular petitions - probably those with more than 10,000 signatures - will be guaranteed political debate.

I have strong concerns about this. Labour are not too far off the mark in claiming this would result in "crazy ideas" being discussed. The proposals, as they stand, are a positive step in the right direction but would represent a triumph for populism rather than a genuine opportunity for people to connect with politics and influence debate. I have no doubt that petitions in support of foxhunting, "Sarah's law" or of withdrawal from the EU - or, for that matter, calling on David Cameron to resign - would attract more signatures than those supporting prison reform, advocating progressive changes to mental health provision or those concerned with constitutional change. A recent petition calling for Jeremy Clarkson to become Prime Minister attracted 50,000 signatures: it is possible that people may well be tempted to vote for the more "crazy" petitions simply for the novelty of seeing such ideas being debated. This would hardly enhance our democratic model.

Labour Newport West MP Paul Flynn has dismissed the plans as a "foolish gimmick". This assessment is grossly unfair. For all the deficiencies of the government's petitions proposal - which has the usual "back of an envelope" hallmarks - here at least is an attempt to make a potentially useful idea fit-for-purpose. It is absolutely right that petitions should have a more integral role in the democratic process. Any endeavour to actively engage the public within the legislative process is overdue and welcome. Rather than represent a "gimmick" or a waste of time, a well-considered and practical e-petitions system would help bring a dimension of UK politics into line with the interactive era and help stimulate both debate and public interest.

I have two concerns. The first is that of a guaranteed consideration of only the most popular petitions rather than those with most merit. This is an irresponsible way to build an accountable petitioning system and could open the system up to the most cynical of manipulations. In focusing on the most popular, some of the more useful ideas and less publicised issues that urgently require parliamentary attention could be overlooked. This isn't democracy. The legislative process would be hijacked by those who are most adept at advertising their particular petition or cause.

The second concern is a presumption that petitions in some way represent a purer expression of the public will than representative democracy. We should not be providing further ammunition to the anti-politics brigade. A strong, cohesive and democratic e-petitions system would provide an additional layer of accountability rather than undermine the existing system of accountable government.

Fortunately, there is a tried, tested and working model of an e-petitions system which is both democratic and efficient by nature. It is the one used here by the Scottish Parliament. All petitions, irrespective of the number of signatures, are considered on their respective merits by a parliamentary committee. Petitioners are invited to provide additional evidence in support of their arguments and occasionally may be called to address the committee to put their case. The committee then investigates the matters at stake, taking advice from various agencies and sometimes referring the issue to either the Scottish government or the full parliament.

Most petitions are not debated in full parliament - because they generally don't need to be. Some may be dismissed immediately, often because they relate to non-devolved issues. A few are discussed by parliament. But, in over 60 per cent of cases, the committee is able to address the issues itself or refer them to an organisation that can.

The advantage of the Scottish system is that the merits of the petitioner's arguments that are considered over the relative popularity of the petition itself. "Crazy" petitions are usually discarded reasonably early in the process while the more sensible and well-considered can go on to influence legislation. The key thing to recommend the Scottish system is not, however, the democratic nature of the consideration process. It is this: it allows not only the public to engage with the political system but affords politicians the opportunity to engage with, and listen to, the concerns of the public. Even rejected petitions often have a strong influence on political thinking, especially if they are able to capture the public mood.

If David Cameron has a real interest in creating a workable and accountable e-petitions system rather than simply throwing a sop to populism he should look no further than the example set in Holyrood. Not for the first time, our own devolved parliament has led the way in shaping a fit-for-purpose, modern system of accountability that should be replicated on a wider level.

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