E-Petitions

8th May 2014

Mr Graham Allen (Nottingham North) (Lab):Let me start by touching on a couple of democratic principles that underlie some of the issues before us. The first is about whether we are a representative democracy or whether, because we are held so much in contempt by the public, we want to become a direct democracy. That is why e-petitions could either be advantageous to us or play into the hands of those who want to see a Parliament even more diminished, especially those in newsrooms and media offices up and down the land who have the ability to get up 100,000 signatures and put pressure on Government and Parliament. Under motion 3 as it stands, that pressure could be transferred from Government to Parliament. Parliament is a handy whipping boy for so many of these issues, including expenses. Governments of all parties have shown a great facility in ditching Parliament—leaving Parliament holding the baby for issues that have been the responsibility of Government.

One issue is about explaining what we are. Earlier, we had a mini debate about privilege. It was all about these poor people out there who do not really understand these arcane bits of judicial archaeology, and the fact that there is something wrong with the public. One Member said that we need to lead them and be stronger in explaining these things, but we have tried that for many decades. We have all discovered that even when we try to explain the concept of reimbursements using the word “expenses”, it does not always work. Explaining how Parliament and Government are different from each other is one of our main duties, because people lump us together. Indeed, this business in front of us today is an example of the Government trying to get that conflation of two institutions. Even though we will not change minds today on the Government Front Bench, it is important that we keep those Front-Bench Members honest and point out that we know what they are trying to do, even if there is not much we can do about it other than heckle the steamroller.

That choice over whether we go to a serious representative democracy and continue to try to rebuild Parliament or whether we abstain from that and hand over to a plebiscitary democracy is one that all Members need to consider.

Mr Harper: I think the hon. Gentleman is being a little cynical about those on the Front Bench. The problem with what he is trying to do, which is to have two petition systems—one to Government and one to Parliament—ignores the fact that Government are accountable to Parliament. They are only the Government because they have a majority in Parliament. Having two separate systems would be worse than having this House and the Government working together collaboratively. With respect, what he is suggesting is not helpful; it is the opposite.

Mr Allen: Obviously, I do not spend all my time in the Chamber, but during the 26 years that I have been here, I have missed that occasion when Government were accountable to Parliament. What we have here is the mythology of parliamentary sovereignty—the hon.

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Gentleman knows that and we have discussed it in front of my Committee—in which Government can use and abuse Parliament on a daily basis. They can set the agenda of Parliament on a daily basis. It is a little disingenuous to pretend that it is Parliament holding Government to account. If we conflate two systems, we will make things harder. Rather than Parliament being able to say, “The Government have not responded to a legitimate petition”, we will have to share the blame for the problem. If we do not have a petitioning system of our own, we will not have direct redress, through which we can say to the Government, “We have discussed this, as many people have requested of us, and we have a view. What are you now going to do?” Parliament legislates and, in theory, holds Government to account, but it is the institution of Government who execute and put Acts into the parliamentary sausage machine. Putting the two together continues the deception that Parliament can effectively hold the Government to account. What we need to do is build our accountability function, not give it away to Government.

Mr Harper: The problem is that, if we have a petitioning system directly to Government, we then suggest to Government that they respond directly to the people who have petitioned them, completely bypassing this House. I would prefer Government to interact with the public through Parliament, keeping Members of Parliament in that conversation rather than excluding them.

Mr Allen: We have an e-petitioning system at the moment which is to the Government and to which the Government have to respond. What we are discussing is giving Parliament its own e-petitioning capability, so that it can engage as a partner in a debate with Government. That has to be healthier than one organisation or the other imposing its will, as happens continually in our proceedings, with Government dominating Parliament. This is a minor demonstration of the mythology and fallacy of parliamentary sovereignty, and therefore it is useful to bring it to the attention of the House.

Mark Durkan: Is the hon. Gentleman’s point not even more marked when one considers that the current e-petition system is widely talked about as the Downing street e-petition system for securing a debate in Parliament? When it is talked about in those terms it is as though debate in this House is absolutely controlled by Downing street, and that is bad for the reputation of this House.

Mr Allen: It is bad for the reputation of the House, but it is the truth. It is useful to call a spade a spade and to call a Downing street petition a Downing street or Government petition. Let us keep it like that and people will see the response they get from Government and will, through the processes of the House and its individual Members, be able to do something through the House of Commons itself. We cannot change the law for people, but we can bring issues to the attention of the Government. We need that capability to keep the Government honest and to hold them to account when many people see that as the way forward.

The fundamental question is about the separation of powers. We ought to have that, as it would be quite useful and would develop a more pluralistic view of our

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politics. People might not share that view and might think that we can somehow collaborate beyond merely using the platform and technology that are already there—I am perfectly happy to use that platform and technology to save the House money, as we all want that, and I am prepared to compromise on that alone—but an e-petition site for Parliament should be run by Parliament, not the agency we are meant to be keeping under control and holding to account. It is a contradiction in terms that the very people we should be holding to account will be running our system. I hope that the Procedure Committee will be very clear about that as it considers the issue. We all want to be pally and we all want to have little chats with the Leader of the House, but at the end of the day we either have our own e-petitioning system or we have not. If we have not, let us concede that and admit it clearly.

Natascha Engel (North East Derbyshire) (Lab): My only issue with my hon. Friend’s amendment is that I support the idea that a proposal should be developed by the Procedure Committee and cannot understand for the life of me why he does not submit what he has written in his amendment, much of which I agree with, to that inquiry, rather than tabling it for debate on the Floor of the House today. On that point, does he intend to press it to a vote?

Mr Allen: I can guarantee to my hon. Friend that I will make representations and, if I am allowed, I will give evidence to the Procedure Committee on the views held by many people in the House about the independence of the House’s institutions and agencies. I do not see Parliament as a sub-office of Government, a Government Department or an offshoot of Government. It is an independent institution that is legitimately and directly elected by the public, as are we all. The current Government and all Governments of the past cannot claim to be that.

The proposal in motion 3 smacks a little of a tidy-up job. The Government have said, “It is a little inconvenient to get all this stuff coming to No. 10 Downing street. We have to deal with it, so why don’t we push it over to the House of Commons and run the system for them? Then they can take the blame if we fail.” My hon. Friend the Member for North East Derbyshire (Natascha Engel) knows more than anybody in this House that if a petition reaches the barrier of 100,000 signatures there is an expectation, which has been deliberately inflated by Government, that it has somehow earned and deserves a debate. It is a difficult to pin down where that idea came from, but it was put out there and that is the assumption. That is why in every newsroom—in The Sun, the Daily Mail and elsewhere—the idea is to reach that barrier of 100,000 signatures on a petition to put pressure on my hon. Friend to grant a debate. There are other ways in which that pressure can be seen and relieved rather than by perverting and twisting the honourable institution that is the petitioning of this House.

Mr Charles Walker: The hon. Gentleman makes a good point. Petitions cannot be a panacea for the public. Like the hon. Gentleman, I have often received a communication from one individual that has spurred me into action, so powerful has it been. That has led to my approaching Government and colleagues in the House to ask for action to be taken.

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Mr Allen: I agree, and I shall come on to the point about how we direct people to a better way of doing what they want to do. It is risky to give people the idea that by submitting a petition to the House of Commons they are making their demands, only for them not to be met. The Leader of the House said that would be a great advantage, as it would make people think that the process represents progress and is more inclusive, and it would encourage people to use the House of Commons. On the contrary, if we allow the idea to be out there that if a petition reaches 100,000 signatures it somehow deserves a debate, which those horrible people in the House of Commons are preventing, it will lift people only to drop them back down again. My hon. Friend the Member for North East Derbyshire has some experience of that, but it will be as nothing compared with the expectation that could be built up if we operate the Government’s petitions process rather than having our own based on open and honest rules that do not try to deceive people into thinking that if they write in they will get a debate.

Natascha Engel: Perhaps my intervention was not clear. Does my hon. Friend agree, given the content of his amendment, that how the petitioning system works should more appropriately be a matter for the Procedure Committee in considering such proposals? Will he press his amendment to a vote or will he withdraw it?

Mr Allen: My hon. Friend is a very powerful person in the House, but she does not yet have the ability to respond to a debate and to accept or not accept the proposals in my amendment. I shall listen carefully to the Deputy Leader of the House’s response. When he accepts most—not all—of the points in the amendment, as he no doubt will, I am sure we will be able to reach an accommodation. Somebody has to stand up and say that the House of Commons is a separate institution. The Government cannot just walk in here and set up a petition system on our behalf when we are perfectly capable of doing it ourselves. As the hon. Member for Broxbourne (Mr Walker) says, we have some excellent and expert people, who do not need to understand the software and the hardware to be in control of a petitioning system. We need to ensure that all those things are in place before we say that it sounds like a great idea to get together and run one petitioning system on behalf of two separate, distinct and independent bodies that are elements of our democracy.

Let me move on to the particulars of my amendment. First, on the subject of Parliament’s having its own site, let me repeat that I am happy for the technology to be shared if it means we can save a little money and can get on with what we are meant to do in Parliament. I would rather that than continuing this move towards Parliament as a theme park, where the sittings of the House get in the way of tourist trips and movies being filmed—the Chamber could have been hired out this afternoon to some Hollywood film company. If we can make a little bit of money by sharing the Government’s platform and technology and can have less of the theme park stuff, we should all be happy about that and could have a little more self-respect about being a legislature.

My second point, which was also touched on by the hon. Member for Broxbourne, concerns Members of this House and their role in the process. It should not be

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possible, willy-nilly, for a newsroom campaign to get a debate going in the House of Commons. “What are we going to do next week with our House of Commons, lads? Let’s get a few ideas, a few headlines, a cut-out in the newspaper and a debate next week—but on what?” As with the paper petition, the process should take place through a Member of Parliament: I have to stand up at the end of business and make a little speech to get a paper petition in the bag behind the Speaker’s Chair. I own that petition. That is the way to reinforce a representative democracy, rather than have stuff coming in, willy-nilly, from people who cannot sleep, have seen something on late-night TV at 3 am and have got up a petition to try and get a debate in the House of Commons.

I urge members of the public: use your Member of Parliament. Convince your representative. Get them to put the subject that concerns you before the House. To me, it is just as valid if one person contacts their Member of Parliament—I am thinking of the elderly lady who I met at the weekend who is trying to find an extra 40 quid so that she is not turfed out of her house because of the bedroom tax—as if somebody down in Wapping decides that we should have a debate on the increase in fuel duty, for example.

Mr Lansley: The hon. Gentleman’s argument seems in part to rest on the proposition that the petitions that have reached 100,000 signatures have somehow been generated in the newsroom of a newspaper. I have the list of 29 petitions that reached 100,000. I do not know of any, from what we know of them, that started in the newsroom of a newspaper. Which of those 29 does he think started in that way?

Mr Allen: I have not gone through the list. I am happy to go through it and write to the right hon. Gentleman if he does not have the researchers to enable him to do that job for himself. I am saying that if we introduce a system without the safeguards that I am proposing—a quasi-Government system based in the House of Commons—it will be very easy to generate petitions and put pressure on Parliament, and to put pressure on the Backbench Business Committee, and so on, to take time that would otherwise be used for purposes for which in the past we have all used our judgment.

My judgment, returning to the lady who has to find £40 out of a very low income to remain in the house where she was born 60 years ago, is that I want to get that subject raised on the Floor of the House because I think it is very important, but some other colleagues—I alluded to the all-party parliamentary groups—for one reason or another, or as a result of one influence or another, may want a specific debate. Let us all start equally. Let us hold sacrosanct the view that the House is a place where anyone may petition, anyone may convince their Member of Parliament and anyone, ultimately, time allowing, may get a debate. We should not compromise on that.

Mr Charles Walker: I thank the hon. Gentleman for giving way a second time; I will not detain him again. We must be careful to avoid promoting the idea that it is only through petitions that the House will debate matters of interest to our constituents. Whether I agree with the substance of the debates or not, we have had debates on

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badger culling, the spare room subsidy, Europe, immigration, and so on. Those subjects and many more have been debated on the Floor of the House. It may well be that our constituents do not like the outcome of those debates, or the decisions taken at the end of them, but actually very many debates of interest to our constituents happen anyway because we are in touch with our constituents, despite what the media would try and have them believe.

Mr Allen: Indeed many of those debates, and many of the 29 listed by the Leader of the House, did not arise from a petition. They arose because Members of Parliament were very interested in the subject matter, and there is a device of tagging documents to a debate, as we have done today. We have tagged three or four reports to this debate. Is there a single Member in the Chamber who knows what those reports are? They are on the Table.

Ms Angela Eagle: They are here in my hand.

Mr Allen: There are some very eminent Members, of course, who know absolutely everything, and that is why I always bow to their view. But similarly, in many of those 29 debates, although a petition was tagged to the subject, the petition was never even referred to in the debate. Those were the debates, actually, that Members got going, and petitions were tagged to them. If we get to a position where that is reversed—where, if there is an inference that if you can get to 100,000 signatures, there is an expectation, not that Government should find time, but that the agent of Government, the sub-office, Parliament, will have to look after those things—I can tell Members what happens next. It is that your time, as Back Benchers, starts to get squeezed out.

If there is a petitions committee, imagine being the Chair of that petitions committee. Will you just pass the petitions through? Or will you ask, “Would my hon. Friend on the Backbench Business Committee give us a little bit of time? This is so important; I have had more than 100,000 signatures and my petitions committee thinks it is really important”? Is it likely that members of the petitions committee will go to the Government? Will they pop up at business questions and will the Leader of the House say, “Absolutely; very important. I will find you a couple of hours next week”? No, they will not. They will go to our Backbench Business Committee.

I remind new Members that the Backbench Business Committee did not pop out of thin air. It was fought through against the wishes of the Labour party, fought through, it seems now, against some of the wishes of the governing parties. The Committee is a very precious thing and its time is very precious. It is not to be bandied about and traded to a petitions committee in order, really, to salve the conscience of the Government, who, if they are interested in specific issues, should be using the vast majority of the House’s time, which they own and control, to hold debates on them. We do not need to be manipulated into using valuable Backbench Business Committee time for Government debates.