Yesterday the ‘Drop the Bill’ e-petition received its 100,000th signature. Much will be made of this fact by opponents of the Health and Social Care Bill, who undoubtedly have the wind in their sails after winning the backing of the health unions, some of the medical royal colleges and – apparently – even some Conservative members of the Cabinet. But does – and should – the milestone really matter?
Launched back in August, e-petitions were intended to support a move towards democratic involvement in the decision making process. As I wrote at the time, early e-petitions focused largely on more minority issues, while, at the time at least, little time had been allowed to debate the Health and Social Care Bill. The latter point has certainly changed: this is not a Bill lacking in quantity of scrutiny.
So, will reaching the number of signatures necessary to trigger a debate in the House of Commons make a difference to the growing opposition to the Bill? While the focus of opposition has largely being from professionals and unions – where the Government has the stock response of ‘vested interest’ – the e-petition is (in theory if not in practice) a move by the public. While it was initiated by a GP, it has met with public and celebrity support – achieving the great accolade of being retweeted by Stephen Fry to his nearly 4 million followers, as well as gaining the support of the likes of Rio Ferdinand.
However, it is important to note that, despite being seen by millions of twitter followers, it has taken a number of months for the e-petition to get anywhere near the required number of signatures. Compare this with e-petitions on benefits for rioters and the Hillsborough disaster, both of which gained 100,000 signatories within weeks. The editor of the HSJ tweeted a useful reminder yesterday afternoon that also helps to put the numbers in context – the NHS serves a population of 51 million, of which approximately 82% are online. Perhaps the 100,000 figure isn’t such a clear show of support from the public after all.
Beyond that, the meaning of reaching the 100,000 milestone is limited. The Backbench Business Committee will now consider it for debate during backbench time. Given the number of hours that have now being spent discussing the Health and Social Care Bill, its current profile at prime minister’s questions, recent and upcoming opposition day debates on aspects of the reforms (the next being on the risk register about which my colleague Mike Birtwistle blogged yesterday) and the fact that there is still plenty of time allocated for the Bill to be debated in both the Commons and the Lords, the Committee may not be entirely unjustified in deciding that another debate is not necessary. Any MP who wants to – whether they be frontbench or backbench – will have had their opportunity to speak on the issue.
Of course, the Committee may feel that the profile of NHS reform justifies another debate. Even if that is the case, what will it change given the volume of noise that already exists on the issue? Is there really a killer argument (on either side) that has yet to be made?
Both David Cameron and Nick Clegg have restated their support for the Bill and its architect, and backtracking from this position becomes more politically difficult with every day that passes. Every Member of Parliament is now on the record for their position on the Bill and all have had ample opportunity to express their views.
The noise is damaging to the Government but, if the Drop the Bill campaign is to be a success, then activity will have to go beyond the e-petition, creating a swell of support across the country that cannot be ignored. At this stage, proceeding with a controversial Bill may be deemed less politically toxic than a u-turn.
The Health and Social Care Bill, while contentious, is also highly technical, making it very difficult to point to direct consequences to the public in a way which mobilises those beyond the committed. The poll tax this is not. Unless the Drop the Bill campaign is able to reach beyond its core constituency, it is unlikely to prevent the legislation from passing. Today may seem like a symbolic win, but the campaign is running out of time.