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E-petitions get parliamentary link

09/05/14

A shake-up of 'e-petitions' has been approved by MPs, despite a warning that it will allow powerful media groups to hijack the process.

From May next year, members of the public will be able to call for a debate on a chosen subject by appealing to the House of Commons as well as to the government.

Ministers and senior MPs believe the change will allow Parliament to "share in the ownership of a modern e-petition system", following its introduction in 2011.

Andrew Lansley, the commons Leader, revealed that 10 million people had signed one or more of the 27,500 e-petitions submitted since then.

Of those, 145 reached 10,000 signatures, leading to a formal response from the government, and 29 reached 100,000 signatures - making them eligible for debate. All but four of those 29 had been debated by MPs, after being given the go-ahead by the commons backbench committee, which currently acts as a gatekeeper, striking out petitions deemed unsuitable.

Lansley said: "I want to build upon the successful features of the current system, Petitions can be and are debated in Parliament, but the system by which they are submitted is not one approved or in any way owned by Parliament - that is what I want to change."

But the switch was sharply criticised by Labour MP Graham Allen, who said e-petitions made to Parliament should be considered for debate, regardless of the number of signatures. Otherwise, there was a risk that Britain would become a direct democracy - rather than a representative democracy - exposed to whipped-up media campaigns.

Allen said: "Those in newsrooms and media offices up and down the land have the ability to get up 100,000 signatures and put pressure on government and Parliament.

"Parliament is a very handy whipping boy for so many of these issues - whether it's expenses or other issues. Governments of all parties have shown a great facility in ditching Parliament, leaving Parliament holding the baby, for issues that actually have been government's responsibility."

But Lansley said he was not aware that any of the 29 e-petitions which attracted more than 100,000 signatures were started in a newspaper newsroom. The proposal for a collaborative e-petition system - but with "detailed proposals" still to be decided - was approved unopposed.

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