E-Petitions: Revitalising Public Engagement?

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In a society hungry for interaction with government, discussion of our internet petitions in the House of Commons must surely be met with enthusiasm.

In many peoples’ eyes, this paves the way towards a symbiotic, two-way relationship we can share with those in positions of power. As the leader of the Commons, Sir George Young, substantiates, “it does not serve democracy well if we ignore [peoples’ opinions] or pretend their views do not exist”. So this attention that will, from today, be paid to our petitions is another step forwards.

But is it? What does this really mean for us?

Coined by some experts a PR stunt, it is a move which initially makes us feel as if our voice matters. But alarm bells may go off when we realise that Government will veto “irrelevant” issues and choose the topics they feel are fit to discuss.

On top of this, the Daily Mail admitted:

“E-Petitions will allow the Commons to be hijacked by special-interest campaigns and will mean spending […] time debating proposals which have little […] chance of becoming law.”

So although Young thinks that debating popular e-petitions will “revitalise public engagement”, perhaps we should wonder how this will actually benefit government and society, and whether it will just waste time and create more bureaucracy.

In addition, we cannot be sure whether this will stir up more frustration amongst the public towards the Government for discussing highly sensitive and divisive issues. Young admitted that “there have been some who have been concerned by some of the subjects that could end up being debated – for example, the restoration of capital punishment”, because some are fearful that the Government may take support for controversial topics seriously.

The split in the perceived importance of certain issues in e-petitions is clearly apparent. It is impossible to discriminate even in an article, because of bias and subjectivity, about what issues are “irrelevant” and what are “relevant”.

So how is the House of Commons, a hotbed itself of contrasting viewpoints, going to objectively differentiate between issues to discuss?

The cross-party Commons Backbench Business Committee , who have been given this role, will have to decide what is more important “from setting up an English parliament to ensuring Formula One remains free to air”, Young told The Guardian.

Of course, it is worth it to see the House of Commons actively engaging with e-petitions.

But what do we do when, or if, issues such as capital punishment are aired in the House of Commons? Controversial issues will most certainly surface. We will just have to be as impartial listening to, as the Committee is supposedly at choosing, topics to discuss. Let us hope that this move helps Government listen more to our views, but we might be justified when we see this move as something which does not serve ‘democracy’ well either.

 

Visit: http://epetitions.direct.gov.uk

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