Matthew Maxwell Scott was Conservative PPC for Carshalton & Wallington in 2015. He is a former chairman of the Conservative Group on Wandsworth Council and a professional speechwriter.
We discover the power of petitions at a young age. Our first attempts are usually letters to Father Christmas. These teach us that even the most extravagant demands are more likely to be successful if they are swaddled in piety.
As adults, we need collective ways to communicate with the authorities. Elections are rare so if want to vent our spleens or correct injustice, petitions are a useful part of our armoury. As members of a liberal, pluralist society which treasures freedom of expression, we should welcome them even if we choose not to sign them.
They build on a tradition stretching back hundreds of years, last peaking in the early nineteenth century. Driven by the Chartist movement, it became normal for parliament to receive up to 30,000 petitions in a single session. The most famous one presented by the Chartists themselves in 1839 was signed by 1.3 million working people, or around one in ten of the UK population. This extraordinary achievement cut little ice with Parliament, which decided not to hear the petitioners. Riots ensued. Unperturbed, MPs decided in 1842 that petitions were taking up far too much of their precious time and amended the Standing Orders of the House of Commons. As a result, debates became fewer and the number of petitions fell away.
Things changed in 2011 when the coalition launched the ‘e-petitions’ website. In its first full year it attracted 36,000 petitions and 6.4 million signatures. The government must respond when more than 10,000 people sign a petition, while any attracting more than 100,000 will be considered for full parliamentary debate.
The most popular one of recent times calls on the government to ‘Block Donald J Trump from UK entry.’ Launched without obvious irony after the Republican presidential hopeful voiced his bizarre plans to prevent Muslims entering America, it now has almost 570,000 signatures and has been granted a debate. Thanks to the internet, its record level of support only took days to achieve, however illiberal its cause.
The epetitions website is no free-for-all. Overseen by a recently created committee of MPs, you have to ask for something the Government or the House of Commons has actual power over, although it is not unknown for the sentiment of the petition to be debated rather than the explicit content. You cannot duplicate any similar active petition (although there seem to be several different versions calling for the abolition of the website itself). The anti-Trump one is an outlier, although a popular rival suggests we stop immigration ‘until ISIS is defeated’ while another demands we accept more refugees. At the time of writing, anti-immigration is ahead by a nose. But of the 2,200 or so other live petitions, most have fewer than a hundred signatures.
In an admirably transparent move, rejected petitions are listed too. They make for interesting reading. Some are about television programmes, one thundering that ‘The nation demands Stephen Fry makes one more series of QI.’ Another calls for standardised packet colours for crisp flavours. Two say that the price of a Freddo chocolate bar should be reduced to ten pence. Many ask for government ministers to be sacked, with one official rejection stressing that it is not within parliament’s remit to have the Prime Minister sectioned.
A problem is that incensed individuals with time to spare can create and sign dozens of petitions. Servicing their indignation is not without cost to the public purse. There is also a danger that legitimate but relatively trivial petitions devalue their own currency. The Chartists called for equal-sized constituencies, the secret ballot and universal male suffrage. Their successors call for councils to have the right to cull seagulls and for homework to be banned.
Many of us sign petitions targeting our local authority. The meetings I attended as a councillor in Wandsworth received regular requests for the installation or the removal of traffic-calming measures. Individual Members of Parliament use local petitions for various ends. My Liberal Democrat MP in Carshalton and Wallington has had one going about our hospital for so many years that he has been forced to issue statements about whether he is actually planning on handing it in at all. Having already broken three previous deadlines he set himself, I have reported him to the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) as he could be falling foul of data protection laws.
I have form here. When contesting the seat at the last election I launched the “Save the ‘Save St Helier Hospital Petition’ Petition”. The local paper badged this “a leap into the surreal” but it made a serious point. Gathering signatures to achieve a shared goal is one thing. Using the process to exploit people’s personal details is quite another. So smell a rat if the petition looks like posturing, or if it becomes the story rather than whatever it is calling for. Enquire when and how anything will be submitted before signing. The ICO recommends it should be clear how long any petition will run, noting that online appeals to Parliament are all limited to six months. You can withdraw your support at any time before the petition is handed in.
But let us not allow occasional abuses of trust deter us. Open democracy is inevitably a little messy. The government’s online petition service is great but also a magnet for the vengeful and the eccentric. No matter. Let us channel our inner Chartist. Sign up, get people signed up, but prepare yourself for counter-attacks. One epetition calling for Donald Trump to address parliament has 65 signatures already. It sounds like something of public interest to me.