The myth of e-petitions.

The government’s current system of e-petitions has been the subject of a number of high profile campaigns since its introduction in 2010.

For anyone unfamiliar with the concept, it is quite straightforward.

A member of the public can create a topic on which they wish to petition the government. It can relate to almost any matter, and is directed to the relevant government office. Once a petition is set up, other members of the public can add their support.

On reaching 100,000 signatures, a petition is passed to the government’s Backbench Business Committee, who will then determine whether the issue should be referred to Parliament for debate.

It is the last part of that process which many people fail to understand, and instead believe that reaching the threshold for consideration is itself a guarantee that a debate will take place.

Writing in the Guardian this morning, Dr Kailash Chand, chairman of Tameside and Glossop NHS and the man who created an e-petition calling on the government to drop its Health and Social Care bill, criticised the government for not debating the petition in the Commons having seen it attract over 165,000 signatures.

The problem is that Chand, like others before him, has failed to understand that there is no absolute guarantee that a petition will be debated – and nor should there be. Any such move would undoubtedly open the floodgates to an avalanche of petitions on subjects that should never reach Parliament in the first place, and would give the nation’s public the kind of power which it is simply not intended to hold.

Chand is entirely right to continue fighting for the government to scrap its reform of the NHS. An overwhelming majority of professional bodies have positioned themselves in complete opposition to the plans, also calling for them to be dropped. Even within the coalition government itself there are MPs who are opposed to the Bill, or at the very least are campaigning for significant amendments to be made.

It’s hardly surprising then to see a large number of the public joining critics elsewhere in petitioning the government to abort the controversial Bill, though in light of an arrogant stance taken by David Cameron and Andrew Lansley to ignore the advice of medical professionals who overwhelmingly oppose the Bill, it’s unlikely that the government would be any more willing to back down based on a public petition – particularly when the 165,000 names represent only 0.4% of the electorate.

There have been benefits of the e-petition system, most notably in the case of a request for the government to issue a full disclosure of documents relating to the Hillsborough disaster.

But the sooner that the system is properly understood, and that people realise it isn’t a tool guaranteeing that they can spark a Parliamentary debate, the better.

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