Have you ever felt so strongly about something that you wanted to shout it from the rooftops? I’m not talking about the argument you had with your husband/wife when he/she forgot to put the rubbish bins out again or the 100th time you asked your son/daughter to not leave their shoes/bag/coat wherever they drop them the moment they come in from school; no, I’m talking about the big stuff, the kind of thing that affects everyone; the loss of personal liberty, the reduction in public services or pension rights; badger culling, etc..
If you feel something is wrong on a national scale then perhaps you should think about asking your MP to raise the matter at government level.
There used to be just two methods of getting your message across; you could lobby your MP or send a ‘paper’ petition to the House of Commons; but now there is a third way – the e-petition.
The e-petition was launched in August 2011 and is run by the rather unimaginatively named Government Digital Service (GDS), a team within the Cabinet whose task it is to transform the government’s digital services in an attempt to keep up with the ever changing world of electronic media.
The paper based system of petitioning still exists but the e-petition was heralded as “an easy, personal way for you to influence government and Parliament in the UK”.
So if you wanted your grievance to be aired during Parliamentary time, this was the way to do it or so we were led to believe.
The e-petition process was set up to streamline the system but also sift out the rubbish as there are strict rules you have to follow to get past the first, second and third post.
The first hurdle to get over: are you repeating a topic that has been raised in the past? If so, then yours will be rejected.
You must then choose the correct government department and if you don’t, that will delay matters as the clerks decide where it should go.
Then there is the content of the petition, it cannot hold confidential, libellous, false, defamatory or offensive statements and jokes or nonsense are also out (does the civil service have a sense of humour?).
The petition must also be a ‘request for action’ in other words you want the MP to try and bring about a change in the law.
If your e-petition is rejected for any of the above reasons, you will get an email explaining why.
So let’s suppose your e-petition has met all the necessary criteria, what happens next?
Well that was the easy part, what you now have to do is obtain 100,000 e-signatures to allow the petition to reach the next stage, and each of those people have to supply a name, postal address and email address.
Your e-petition is ‘open’ for 12 months during which time you need to collect the necessary number of signatures. This is where many of the newspaper campaigns are successful due to their readership numbers.
But let’s assume you manage to gather the required number of signatures; after all that hard work you would think the next step would be your e-petition being heard in the House of Commons. In fact many people presume that this is the case.
Not so; there is no guarantee it will be heard. All petitions, whether conventional paper ones or electronic, are put into a green bag that hangs behind the Speaker’s Chair and it is only if the minister in question is granted enough time that the petition is put before the House.
To give you some idea of the success rate of e-petitions, in the 12 months to August 2012 the GDS that is headed up by Peter Herlihy recorded:
- 36,000 e-petitions submitted
- 47% were rejected
- 1,600 valid e-petitions were ‘opened’
- 17 million unique site visits
- 38% of visitors signed an e-petition
- 6,400,000 signatures were collected
- 10 e-petitions attained the required 100,000 signatures
So it doesn’t take a genius to work out the system does not seem to add much value to our democratic right to petition our MPs and in fact Labour MP Natascha Engel warned the government in November 2011 that the public would become disillusioned with the new e-political process. Engel said:
“The popular expectation is that when it reaches the magic 100,000 threshold not only does it trigger a debate, but a debate on the floor of the house, a vote and then a change in the law. I don’t think it is possible to change that perception.”
The other disturbing fact is that the data can be reused to analyse the geographic distribution of sentiment on contentious public issues.
So it looks like the Big Brother family is growing albeit surreptitiously.