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How e-petitions could harm the Commons

By Paul Goodman
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Screen shot 2011-08-04 at 05.42.44 Sir George Young takes to the pages of the Daily Mail - I wonder when that last happened - to hail the prospect of a debate on capital punishment.  He writes:

"People are beginning to wake up to the fact that this is a new era for the House of Commons. Two years ago, battered by scandal and with public confidence at an historic low, many wrote off Parliament as irrelevant.

Over the last 12 months, it has not only been more responsive to the public, it has been fighting for the public interest, for instance by leading the debate on the phone hacking revelations.

There’s no room for complacency: Parliament needs to keep on connecting with the outside world. But if politicians want to regain the trust of the public, then they need to trust the public. Giving people more power is the right place to start."

His article is timed to match the launch of the Commons e-petition scheme today, which ensures that any motion gaining more than 100,000 signatures may be debated.

Constitutional purists will argue that we live either in a plebiscitary democracy, in which voters make binary choices by referendum, or a representative democracy, in which MPs make more ones after debate.

This is simplistic.  It's right for the people to make big constitutional decisions.  And there's no good reason why petitions shouldn't trigger debates.  But there is a catch.

Namely, what happens if - or rather, when - MPs tell Guido Fawkes's petitioners, who want a debate on capital punishment, or the Daily Express's, who want one on an EU referendum, to get lost?

And this, of course, is precisely what could happen if either reach 100,000 signatories, assuming the motion's debated in the first place.

The Commons could thus find itself viewed as even more remote from voters than it was before the scheme was launched - especially, of course, if it denies debate on the motion in question.

All would depend, in my view, on the number of signatories.  (I'm assuming that the overwhelming bulk of those who sign a petition backing a debate on capital punishment, for example, want it restored.)

A hundred thousand signatories is not, in my view, a significant percentage of a nation of roughly 50 million adults.  However, five million (say) would be: others will cite their own figure.

The election of Select Committee members and Chairmen has tilted authority back to the Commons after a decades-long power grab by the Executive.

We'll soon find out whether the e-petition gambit helps to do so too.  My guess is that petitions won't be signed by millions of people - in which case the move will do no harm, and probably some good.

A lot of people will call, say, for an EU referendum.  But not enough for the demand to be overwhelming.  Important matters are likely to be debated that wouldn't be otherwise.  A plus for the Commons, surely.

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