E-Petitions – Do they make Britain more democratic?

This week the Government launched their new petition website, e-petitions, but is this really an effective way of making Britain more democratic or is it just another way of lobby groups and activists to force their agendas on an unwilling public?

The idea of the e-petitions site is  to make parliament more accountable to the public. It also allows the public the potential to force MPs to debate a particular issue if the petition gains 100,000 signatures, although this figure may be reviewed if deemed inappropriate.(1)

The site was launched on Thursday to an astonishing demand, which meant the website crashed. The large amount of traffic was in part due to a capital punishment debate that e-petitions has triggered. In fact more than forty of the first two hundred(2) of the first petitions were regarding capital punishment. This is mainly as a result of an internet campaign by the libertarian blogger Paul Staines who writes the Guido Fawkes blog. He cites yougov opinion polls(3), which say the 60% of those polled support the death penalty for the murder of police officers and children. He says, “Politicians are complaining that there’s a disconnect and that the public aren’t engaged with them – maybe if they represented the views and the will of the voters, there wouldn’t be such a big disconnect.”(4)

I question whether capital punishment is the will of the majority of  people in the UK, as a petition to retain the ban on capital punishment is currently, (as of 12:24, 5th August), the most popular petition with 9781 signatories; while the petition to restore capital punishment is the third most popular with 6114 signatories.(5) This also ultimately proves a lobbying group cannot hi-jack the system without wide-ranging support, as opposition petitions may find more support. However, this does illustrate that this e-petition system is working, as it has provoked political debate in an issue that has been largely forgotten by MPs.

The e-petitions site doesn’t solely have petitions about capital punishment. In fact there is a refreshingly large range of petitions on subjects as diverse as calling for the scrapping of the HS2 rail link, legalizing cannabis and even banning lorries from overtaking on motorways. Most interestingly, the second most supported petition is relating to Formula one coverage. Sports coverage is a popular theme throughout the e-petitions site, with a number of petitions calling for coverage of particular events to be broadcast on terrestrial television, as opposed to subscription services such as Sky or Virgin Media. This is an issue to many sports fans who feel as though they are being blackmailed into paying almost £50 a month to watch their favourite sports at home. Maybe this e-petition will force MPs into tackling Sky Sports monopoly on certain sports, particularly football.

Opponents of e-petitions say the site will mean MPs will waste time debating issues that do not stand a chance of passing into law. They also say there will be a number of petitions, which are ridiculous. An example of this was a petition for Jeremy Clarkson to become Prime Minister, which gained 50,000 signatories, which featured on the petition website Tony Blair set up while in office. Admittedly, there are a few absurd petitions on the current site including the brilliantly ironic, “Don’t listen to idiots signing e-petitions.” These will ultimately disappear as moderators reject petitions on the same issue as others, those that contain offensive or defamatory statements or if the content is a joke.(6)

Sir George Young, who is in charge of overseeing e-petitions for the government, says, “What else is Parliament for? People have strong opinions and it does not serve democracy well if we ignore them or pretend their views do not exist.”(7) This opinion is supported by The Deputy Leader of the House, David Heath, “The e-petitions website is the latest example of how the coalition is continuing to take forward its programme for government and underscores our commitment to reform of the parliamentary process, and will help to reinforce the aim of greater engagement by people in the politics of this country.”(1)

I tend to agree with the government’s view and I welcome the coalition’s efforts to try to prevent people from becoming disenfranchised with politics. MPs for too long have ignored the will of the people, whether it is the Iraq war or an EU referendum, but only time will tell if this small change makes a difference to our stubborn and out-dated political system.

If you wish to sign or submit a petition to the government please visit:http://epetitions.direct.gov.uk