‘For the first time ever, members of the public can electronically petition the House of Commons,’ trumpeted press releases from both Government and Parliament this morning. But haven’t we been here before?
The UK Government and Parliament jointly launched a new website this morning, which lets British citizens create and sign petitions to them.
That must be different from the old Number 10 Petitions website, right?
So what has changed?
The difference is that, this time, the petitions have their own, dedicated select committee – the Petitions Committee – that will investigate them, liaise with petitioners and quiz the Government. Before, they were dealt with by the Backbench Business Committee.
So, presumably this new Committee has new powers?
No, not as far as I understand it. And no Government time will be set aside for the petitions, they still have to go through the Backbench Business Committee anyway (which appears to be parent to this new committee).
This is new wine in old bottles, then?
From the outside, it does seem like that. But, from Parliament, I get the sense that they really believe this will breathe new life into citizen engagement; that it demonstrates a renewed vigour in that direction.
I quizzed both the House of Commons Press Office and Alex Stevenson, the press officer to the Leader of the House (I hope I wasn’t his only enquirer, the Government got his phone number wrong in its press release). The Parliament Press Office told me this is ‘a step forward’; Alex, after looking into it further and very kindly ringing me back, said it is ‘an evolution not a revolution’.
So ‘the first time ever’ was a fib?
Well, I don’t think so. There is certainly nothing obviously new in our petitioning power as members of the public, but I get the sense that politicians really do see this change as shifting responsibility for petitions from the Government to Parliament.
It’s just symbolic, then?
It may be nothing more than a symbol that public petitions are being taken more seriously at Westminster; but, let’s be honest, that’s no bad thing.