I’m not massively keen on the idea of e-petitions. Tony Blair introduced something along those lines during his later years at No. 10; Gordon quietly shelved them; Cameron has resurrected them. The idea is that if a petition gets more than 100,000 signatures it could be debated on the floor of the Commons.

I say ‘could be’. There’s very clearly an impression amongst people who sign the petitions that they ‘will’ be debated, but actually it just means that they will be referred to the backbench business committee for consideration amongst other issues. It will prove difficult for the committee to turn them down though, given the public expectation that has been created.

And this is a bit of a problem. The backbench business committee was only introduced a year ago, with a view to giving backbenchers more of a say over what was debated on the floor of the House, rather than the agenda being totally dominated by Government business with the occasional Opposition Day debate, I think 16 days a year, where Labour and sometimes the Nats get to table a motion for debate on something current and controversial. Backbenchers have welcomed this, and there have been some really good debates. The way it works is that backbenchers get to go along to the committee with their ideas and with their supporters in tow, and whoever makes the most persuasive case gets the first available slot, and so on. Sometimes they get told that it’s more suitable for a Westminster Hall debate and I’m sure there are polite ways of telling some people that, frankly, their idea is a bit rubbish.

The committee is chaired by Natascha Engel, who was elected to the post by a ballot of all MPs and by general agreement is doing a great job. She won the House Magazine’s award for backbencher of the year just before recess.

So what Cameron has actually done is hijack this new backbench business committee with his e-petition scheme, which will cut into the time allowed for backbenchers to bring their own topics to the floor of the House. The committee has a dilemma. Does it go for issues that backbenchers have brought forward of their own accord, or does it give preference to the e-petitions? In some cases I don’t think there will be much conflict. The second e-petition to gain 100,000 signatures is one calling for the Hillsborough documents to be released, which has been promoted heavily by Labour MPs from Merseyside, such as Steve Rotherham and Alison McGovern. And I suppose it won’t be too difficult to find willing MPs to take up some of the other issues currently garnering lots of signatures (hey, they’re popular ideas – there’s going to be an MP ready and willing to jump in and make 100,000 people happy!) But the fact is, it does take some power away from backbenchers, when they’ve only just been granted it, and I suspect more than a few will be rather unhappy that Cameron has gone down this path and foisted this new initiative on them without discussion. The Speaker – whose idea the backbench committee was, I believe – may also have something to say…

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  • Horsehair  On August 23, 2011 at 12:07 am

    Some errors:

    GB didn’t shelve the petitions scheme, he kept up until the election was called, including giving a range of responses to petitioners throughout his premiership (see this hilarious bit of work – http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cNy1w4DV5Hw).

    The idea of a Backbench Business Committee is hardly a new one, but if you want to give the right people the credit, it was the Committee on Reform of the House of Commons in the dying days of the last Parliament who came up with it.

    • kerrymccarthy  On August 23, 2011 at 12:41 am

      But it was Bercow who made it happen. The Wright committee report could have gathered dust.

      • Horsehair  On August 23, 2011 at 9:12 am

        It was Harriet Harman who started the process, and George Young who completed it, not the Speaker!

      • kerrymccarthy  On August 23, 2011 at 10:15 am

        Hmmm… pretty sure Bercow was important to process, he certainly gets credit among backbenchers for backing them, not just on this but on other issues like allowing urgent questions and generally not allowing executive to treat the Chamber as if it’s their sole fiefdom.

  • Quietzaple  On August 23, 2011 at 12:18 am

    Cameron – Il Duce – wants to cut the Commons and increase the number of Lords including such as the tax fiddler Lord Ashcroft.

    For all he cares all our national media may come to be run from abroad.

    I doubt such matters will receive an airing .

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