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Gov reduces e-petitions to public spleen-venting exercise

Just a way of gauging public's mood

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MPs don't have time to debate the public's e-petitions, a senior minister said yesterday in Parliament, adding nonetheless that it was a nice way for people to express what they was interested in.

The e-petitions website hasn't quite delivered the utopian future of internet-democracy some might have hoped – out of the five petitions that have passed the threshold 100,000 signatures that they need to be debated by lawmakers, three will be debated and two will not.

Responding to Labour MP Gavin Shuker, who suggested that the nation expected politicians to stand by their vow to debate petitions that hit the signature target, deputy leader of the House of Commons David Heath said:

That was never our intention for the petition site. It is a mechanism for allowing members of the public to express an interest in a matter, and it is for the Backbench Business Committee, which has the time available, to consider that.

Of the three petitions that the aforementioned committee approved, the release of documents relating to the Hillsborough disaster was debated and two more are scheduled: FairFuelUK petition to reduce the price of petrol and a call to include financial education in schools.

The most popular e-petition, to withdraw benefits from anyone convicted of involvement in London's riots, has not been debated by MPs. And a petition to review the case of terrorist suspect Babar Ahmed, held without charge for seven years and facing extradition to the US, has not been scheduled for Commons debate either.

Heath put the decision to ignore these two topics down to a lack of time, adding that MPs had debates they wanted to schedule too.

The exchange highlighted once again the disconnect between how the public and MPs see the e-petitions site. In a interview with the BBC, Natascha Engel, chairwoman of the debate scheduling committee, said:

The public perception is that once an e-petition reaches 100,000 signatures it will be debated - and there are a lot of people out there who think not only will it be debated but it will be made into law, because the public has spoken. ®

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