Brian Lamb: E-petitions are fashionable - but they are a shallow form of campaigning

The chair of NCVO's campaign effectiveness board is not impressed by the government's attempt to engage with people

Brian Lamb
Brian Lamb

The government's reintroduction of e-petitions, with the added prospect of a parliamentary debate if 100,000 signatures are secured on a particular issue, has certainly struck a chord.

The Number 10 website crashed as it struggled to cope with the overwhelming response, which suggests a surge of interest in this form of engagement with parliament.

It is difficult to argue against anything that encourages citizen engagement. It could become a boon for campaigners as new channels of influence open up. But a quick trawl of the first 100 or so petitions throws up the usual fringe interests that would not get an airing outside of the internet. Does anyone think it's a matter of national concern that road cones are put out regardless of roadworks, or that parliament be moved to Stoke-on-Trent? If so, sign up now.

More seriously, do you want to see the death penalty restored and, if so, do you want to vote on frying, gassing or injection as the method of carrying out justice? And there is also the rush to support or oppose more controls on immigration.

There are other issues that might resonate more with the voluntary sector's sensibilities, such as campaigns to oppose cuts to disability benefits, keep open public libraries and end the ban on gay blood donors, to name a few examples.

But few issues poll anywhere near as well as the demand for cheaper petrol. It's an issue that might well have a lot of support, but do MPs really need a petition to tell them that it would be popular at the moment for things to be cheaper?

It's difficult to escape the conclusion that many e-petitions are an irrelevance. Of the hundreds so far posted, few beyond the really big issues are garnering more than a handful of votes.

If you really want to get a debate in parliament, there is an easier way. Westminster Hall debates can be proposed by MPs and are conducted in a less partisan manner than those on government or opposition days.

E-petitions provide a shallow form of engagement that can actually be harmful. Consider the huge response to the petition urging the denial of benefits to anyone convicted of crimes during last month's riots, which has already attracted more than 100,000 signatures and will therefore be referred for consideration. It is an easy click of outrage and a platform for the digital obsessive. Worse still, it is a mechanism that creates the illusion of involvement and influence without delivering real change. There are more innovative ways of addressing public anger and pursuing constructive debate, such as the forums set up to debate the riots and the creation of support groups for those affected.

As an engagement mechanism, the e-petition also merely reflects the growing gap between the public and parliament, rather than doing anything to bridge it. Delivering instant plebiscites is not the answer to public engagement.

It can also be a waste of campaigners' time unless they can demonstrate overwhelming support for their case, and it can be damaging if it reveals that they have none. Road pricing was stopped by the previous government partly because of 1.8 million signatures against it - but was this the best outcome for the environment?

Contact Brian Lamb at Brian.publicaffairs@gmail.com

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