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…