Web petitions offer a voice, but who's listening?

The public wants its say. Since 10 Downing Street set up its e-petitions website, as discussed here a week ago, the blogosphere has become frenetic.

More than 500 petitions have been accepted on the site, attracting hundreds of thousands of visits. But is this any more than a cyber-version of a radio phone-in, or a Commons early day motion, which is then usually ignored?

The site is a big advance on the traditional means of submitting a paper petition to 10 Downing Street. An e-petition is much easier both to start and to sign, hence the burst of activity. The site is in an experimental phase and the Downing Street team and its partner mySociety, a charitable project run by Tom Steinberg, are looking at improvements.

Explicitly party political petitions are ruled out on a government site, but there is no sign of censorship. Most petitions want changes in government policy and some have urged Tony Blair’s resignation. There has, for instance, been no attempt to stop a call for the Prime Minister to stand on his head and juggle ice cream (more than 850 signatures last night).

The key issue is whether anybody is listening. This is not just about whether our famously technologically inept Prime Minister spends his evenings reading the petitions, which I strongly doubt.

The site says that once a petition has closed, after a period of up to 12 months, depending on the petitioner, it is passed to Downing Street officials or the relevant department for a response. Everyone signing a petition on the site will receive an email detailing the response.

But a response is not the same as action. That is the problem with the whole exercise. By definition, petitions are expressions of opinion by those who feel strongly about a subject. As one blogger has pointed out, there is no chance to say whether you disagree, apart from creating a rival petition.

The e-petitions site is an extension of public consultation, not of democracy. Merely because several thousand people sign a petition does not mean that the Government should change its mind on, say, ID cards or replacing Trident. In a representative democracy, committed petitioners are bound to be frustrated.

There may be more scope for petitions on smaller rather than bigger issues, such as the fourth most popular petition, a call by the sporting lobby for a change in the law to permit target pistol shooters to prepare properly for competitions.

Parliament should also change its procedures. At present, petitions are presented by MPs at the end of the day in a largely meaningless ritual. The issue is now being re-examined by the Commons Procedure Committee. Various Hansard Society inquiries and the Power Report have urged the creation of a Petitions Committee like the one in the Scottish Parliament. All petitions there are considered, and filtered, by the committee.

This can lead to a short debate or the taking of evidence by a subject/select committee. In Scotland, action has involved the remedying of complaints and legislative changes.

Such changes may persuade voters that their views are being considered by their representatives. The Downing Street site is a welcome opening up of the public debate. But to succeed, Mr Blair and his team have to demonstrate that they are listening.

Popular movements

Total signatures so far

9,038 Repeal the Hunting Act 2004 on banning hunting with dogs

2,880 Scrap the proposed ID cards

1,985 Champion the nuclear non-proliferation treaty, by not replacing the Trident nuclear weapons system

1,812 Change the law to permit our target pistol shooters to prepare properly for international and Olympic competitions

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