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Gov justifies e-petitions as MPs mull upping debate threshold

100,000 online votes too small a barrier to cross

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The Coalition government's e-petitions website has been defended by the team working on the Cabinet Office's digital-by-default agenda, after politicos considered upping the 100,000-votes-to-get-it-debated-in-the-Commons threshold.

In a post on the government digital service blog, Peter Herlihy - delivery manager for the GovUK corporate platform [warning: this project calls taxpayers customers] - said that it has now been more than 100 days since the e-petitions site landed.

"The service continues to be incredibly popular - on average 18 people have signed an e-petition every minute since the service started," said Herlihy.

He pointed out that media outlets have given such online petitions significant coverage when they came close to 100,000 signatures.

As backbench Labour MP Natascha Engel, speaking in the House of Commons last week, put it: "Many e-petitions are being started by national newspapers and, as a result, are breaching the 100,000 signature threshold in under a week."

In August, a flurry of frankly embarrassing pro-death sentence petitions, which followed a campaign by blogger Guido Fawkes and the Daily Mail, led to the site having a little lie down.

The Backbench Business Committee is, Engel argued, increasingly burdened with discussing whether or not Parliament should debate e-petitions that cross the 100,000 votes barrier.

"The fact that e-petitions are being passed on to the Backbench Business Committee means we are becoming an e-petitions committee, rather than a Backbench Business Committee," she grumbled.

Engel asked the Leader of the House, George Young, whether he would "consider as a matter of urgency... allocating time specifically for e-petitions in Westminster Hall, to give us some breathing space until the Procedure Committee makes its recommendations in a report on how to deal with e-petitions in the long run?"

Young batted away the MP's request.

"I believe e-petitions have been a success in building a bridge between people and Parliament and in ensuring that the House’s diet reflects the interests of those outside," he said.

"I welcome what the honourable lady’s committee has been able to do so far in finding time to debate e-petitions and I recognise that the success of e-petitions has increased pressure on it.

"We are committed to a review of the Backbench Business Committee, and concurrently there is a review of the calendar of the House. That is the right context in which to visit the issue she rightly raises of the increased pressure on her Committee to find time for debates."

Deputy Leader of the Commons David Heath had previously claimed that the committee of backbenchers does have the "time available" to mull over which e-petitions were worthy of a parliamentary debate.

Herlihy, in his blog post, quoted the Leader of the House of Commons' office, which said that six petitions had so far broken the 100,000 signatures barrier.

He added that one about the London riots and another on the Hillsborough disaster had already been debated in the House. A further two on fuel duty and Babar Ahmad were scheduled, and a debate based on an anti-immigration petition that received more than 120,000 signatures is expected to be added to the Commons' calendar in early 2012.

The final one outstanding is a petition about financial education in schools, which is waiting on an MP to approach the backbenchers' business committee at some point this month.

Head of GDS invites protest vote

Herlihy also highlighted some intriguing figures about traffic to the e-petitions site.

Daily visitor numbers fluctuate dramatically between 2,000 and 350,000, he noted. And around half of all petitions submitted to the site are rejected for violating the service's Ts&Cs. These include "duplication, defamation and relating to things the government can’t act on".

All of which presumably means that this, this and this won't be debated in Parliament anytime soon even if such outlandish petitions gain more than 100,000 signatures.

The e-petitions boss continued to justify the site's existence by adding that the White House had since launched a similar service, dubbed "We the People".

The US site received 12,000 petitions and collected 1.2 million signatures in the first month of its life, said Herlihy.

"What does this tell us?" he pondered. "Well, what it does make clear is that there is a real appetite for online petitioning and that the widespread use of social media can make them a powerful tool for engaging with governments."

But perhaps he's asking the wrong question, given that backbenchers are struggling to take e-petitions seriously. ®

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