By Tim Montgomerie
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81 is not David Cameron's favourite number and there'll be a few raised eyebrows that 81 backbench Tories have signed up to Robert Halfon MP's motion which calls for the Government to bring more relief to motorists who are paying such high fuel prices. The motion is worded in a very mild way and this has helped it to attract normally very on message Conservatives such as Andrew Griffiths, Paul Uppal and Nadhim Zahawi. More than 100 MPs have signed in total, from all parties.
Interestingly the motion that the Commons will debate is not the motion that nearly 110,000 people signed. For example the original petition's plea to "scrap the planned 4p fuel duty increases" is replaced with the much softer "call on the Government to consider the effect that increased taxes on fuel will have on the economy". The ePetition's desire to "set up a Commission to look at market competitiveness, and radical ways of cutting fuel taxes in the longer term" has completely vanished. I understand, however, that this change in wording has been agreed by FairFuelUK in order to maximise support.
By Tim Montgomerie
Follow Tim on Twitter
See Monday update below.
It's at or near the top of the list of voters' concerns but the backbench business committee has decided that it cannot find time to debate a petition calling for lower petrol prices. "Unfortunately," said committee chairman Natascha Engel, "not enough time is given to us to schedule debates on all subjects proposed to us." She said a slot might become available next month.
The Sun and motoring groups are unimpressed. Top Gear's Quentin Willson, who is a spokesman for FairFuelUK, told the newspaper: "We've demonstrated the level of public anxiety over fuel prices, amassed the necessary number of signatures, yet are being royally mucked about. This isn't how democracy is supposed to work."
The Sun Says column thunders:
"More than 100,000 people have signed a petition on the Government's website calling for a cut in petrol prices. This is the magic number supposed to guarantee a Commons debate. But campaigners have been told MPs are "too busy" to talk about an issue that is of vital importance to families across the UK. Before the election Mr Cameron boasted that his e-petitions would put voters in the driving seat. Has his vision of people power run out of fuel already?"
Petition 347 was initiated by Tory MP Robert Halfon and has been signed by more than 105,000 people. You can read the full text here. The Harlow MP commented: "The people have spoken, so it is right that this is debated in the House of Commons."
It seems that the rules governing the backbench committee are, at best, unclear. Last week's EU referendum debate was triggered by a newspaper petition, for example, rather than one of the Government's epetitions. Apparently Ms Engel's committee is at liberty to choose petitions that don't get 100,000 signatures and to refuse a debate for those that do. If voters are to have confidence in this epetitions system a little more clarity is in order.
> At the FairfuelUK website you can read their full response: Parliament is not listening to you.
Monday Update (Matthew): Natascha Engel, the Chair of the Backbench Business Committee, appeared on the BBC's Daily Politics show this afternoon. She touched on the issue of the fair fuel petition, saying there is a "very, very high chance" of it getting debated in the House:
"What I will say that is tomorrow we meet at one o’clock and tomorrow there is the e-petition on fair fuel, but there are also lots of other debates that have been brought to us. It all depends on what it is that comes before us. I would hate to say as the Chair, that I decide what gets debated. Having said that, this is such an important issue. I represent a rural constituency. As this is one of my number one postbag issues, I would say that it has a very, very high chance of being debated. ... The fair fuel campaign came to us in the form of Robert Halfon MP, to ask for time to debate the fair fuel e-petition but they wanted to have a vote. To have a vote we have to have a debate in the chamber, we can’t have a debate in Westminster Hall. We were not allocated any time in the chamber and that was why we could not allocate a debate. We as backbenchers don’t have the time or the power to say, "we want a debate in the chamber". We have to wait for the Government to allocate us that time."
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