On 29th July Sir George Young (leader of the House of Commons) appeared on Radio 4’s Today programme promoting a new approach to Parliamentary Business in order to help reconnect the public to the democratic process. This was to be based on responses to the Governments e-petition website reaching a 100,000 on a given subject. All of the proposed subjects are checked for being suitable for the Commons and then passed to the Backbench Business Committee to see if they are willing to allocate some of their limited time to the topic. I wrote about this following Sir George Young’s broadcast.
So here we are a whole 12 weeks later and at a good point to reflect on how far and well Parliament has travelled
There are over 100 petitions on the website that have been ruled to be suitable for discussion. Of these only three to date have passed the threshold set by Sir George. They are to debate punishment for rioters, disclosure of Hillsborough documents and the cost of petrol. A debate on the riots took place on 13th October and on the Hillsborough documents on 17th October which was touched on here. So far so good. There is no indication that the Petrol discussion will take place or when. However these petitions are not a guarantee of a debate and of course the Backbench Business Committee has the freedom to call its own debates.
Currently seventh on the list at 36,364 is Britain wants referendum to leave EU which as the link shows has the backing of a daily newspaper whose circulation is some 626,000. Most newspapers claim their readership is 2-3 times of the actual circulation but the best the paper has managed to achieve is get one in 17 of those who buy the paper to register on the website. This is apparently a topic that according to one poll would motivate 48% of the public (some 15M people) to vote to leave the EU. It is so important that the Backbench Committee have decided to allocate it some time even though it falls well below the threshold and to date four other subjects exceed this in terms of public interest as measured by the e-petitions. One wonders if this is simply a matter that satisfies the Euro-sceptics in Parliament and a modest number of the public, despite the polling data.
Much of the discourse in our newspapers and broadcast media by those supportive of a referendum is based on the argument that after 37 years, most current voters have never had a say on Europe. What seems to have been missed by many of these advocates for the debate is that as a nation we have never been invited to have our say on the UKs involvement in NATO, the UN or a whole host of other partnerships that these Euro Sceptics seemed much more sanguine about.
Having decided to debate this next week we now know that the day of the debate has been changed from the day planned for back bench business (Thursday) to Monday to enable the Foreign Secretary and Prime Minister to attend (widely understood to be so the PM can stare down his MPs). The debate rather than being treated as a free vote based debate is to be whipped, yet the outcome is not something that can formally direct the Government. Whilst I personally would rather that the debate was not taking place, and would certainly be concerned if the end result was withdrawal from the EU, nevertheless having told the public a debate could be held it is far from sensible for the two largest parties to then try to force the hands of their own MPs. This is exactly why the democratic deficit is felt by many people in the country.
When I wrote in July I pointed out that this e-petition approach would fail if sufficient time and support was not offered to the Backbench committee chaired by Natascha Engel. It is clear from this exchange (http://www.theyworkforyou.com/debates/?id=2011-10-20a.1059.0&s=speaker%3A11534#g1063.0) that Sir George’s commitment to this is proving to be far from robust. I hope that Sir George can find a way of ensuring that Natascha and her committee get the resources that they need to continue to listen to the public and their real priorities.