The subject of much fanfare last month, the popularity of the Government e-petitions website was bolstered yet further as members of the public – outraged by the London riots – called for the benefit payments of those involved to be cut. The website, which was designed to support an increased sense of democratic involvement in decision making, sets out that “e-petitions is an easy way for you to influence government policy in the UK.” Any e-petition gaining over 100,000 signatures, it says, will be eligible for debate in the House of Commons.
And yet, the first two e-petitions to reach this magic number (one on rioters’ benefits and the other on release of documents relating to the Hillsborough disaster) have not yet been selected for debate. Is this a sign that the attempts at fostering increased democratic involvement are failing, or merely a reflection of a broader problem – the limited amount of time available for debate in Parliament?
Perhaps, it is simply a case of teething problems in the system. The BBC has reported that the Backbench Business Committee, which allocates a small amount of parliamentary time to backbenchers, is currently coming up with a formal procedure for deciding when popular e-petitions should be discussed. As a procedure is developed will we see in the future a flurry of more marginal issues receiving parliamentary time? If debates are to be held based on e-petitions, then relatively minority issues may rise rapidly up the agenda. There are many topics that, though hugely important to a few, will not even register on the radar of the majority of the public.
Sir George Young, Leader of the House of Commons, made it clear on the launch of the e-petitions site that the threshold for consideration for debate will be kept under review. With only 35 days of the parliamentary calendar controlled by the Backbench Business Committee, and with MPs vying for time themselves, there will be a need to prioritise. After all, 100,000 people represent only around 0.15% of the population. MPs, at least in theory, represent everyone, and must consider wider policy debates.
E-petitions are of course not the first opportunity for more marginal issues to dominate parliamentary time. In fact, the same is particularly evident at today’s report stage of the Health and Social Care Bill. With only two days to debate over 300 clauses, 90 minutes will be dedicated to amendments on the provision of pre-abortion counselling – an issue which, though highly controversial and emotive, has very little relevance to the actual text of the Bill itself.
This is by no means an argument that such issues should not be debated – but the extent to which they are considered at the expense of the time devoted to considering key policy reforms must be balanced.