Back at the end of May I wrote a blog that explained how Catherine McKinnell who is the Parliamentary Chair of the Petitions Committee, had written on 21st May to Jacob Rees-Mogg. The letter called for the Government to end the suspension of Petitions Committee debates to ensure “thorough, proper scrutiny” of Government policy. At present there is no publication on that part of the website which lists the response from Rees-Mogg, but a similar version is listed below. However understandably the number of petitions has continued to grow as can be seen in the image above which I posted initially on 31st May. The new numbers which are those published today indicate that there has been a 14% increase in the total number of petitions. However Catherine’s letter written on 21st May referred to 22 petitions that needed to be debated so there are clearly at least 31 items that need to be debated.
Since my last blog Parliament which had recessed on the same day as Catherine’s letter, reopened on 2nd June and in a range of ways it claims to be operating more normally, something that Jacob claims is vital to all of us. However last night another MP, Justin Madders who had also written to Rees-Mogg (on 26th May) about petitions published the letter he received on Sunday. His tweet was:
I’ve had a lot of enquiries from constituents about a number of important petitions where the threshold for debate has been passed but this reply from Jacob Rees Mogg suggests we can’t expect those debates to be held any time soon…..
And the letter is:
Thank you for your email of 26th May regarding arrangements to allow petitions to be debated.
At the outset, it is important to state that the government acknowledges the important part that petitions and debates on petitions play in, as you say, allowing people to scrutinise the government on their own terms. That is why, in the previous Parliament, the Government responded to 456 petitions and took part in 73 debates on individual petitions. However as you would no doubt agree, we are in extraordinary times. As I have set out to the House, the priority has been to reconvene physically in accordance with government guidelines so that Parliament can resume its vital work of scrutinising the government and passing legislation in a thorough and effective fashion.
As you will be aware, I am continuing to work closely with the Speaker, the House of Commons Commission, the Procedure Committee and the House Authorities to ensure that our return to a physical Parliament is safe and in line with Government guidelines. Part of this work includes keeping a close eye on the number of House staff which will be needed on the Estate at any one time in order to facilitate proceedings. This means that hard decisions have to be made about how to best use Parliaments resources and which business ought to be prioritised. It is clear to me that the government’s legislative agenda, which gained a democratic mandate at the 2019 General Election, must be a priority.
Nevertheless, I understand that a large backlog of petitions which have reached the signature threshold to be debated is now accumulating. I assure you that I will work with the Chief Whip to facilitate these debates as soon as resources, which are currently and inevitably constrained by social distancing regulations, allow.
I have written in similar terms to the Chair of the Petitions Committee.
With every good wish.
So for me the real issue is that while we can all agree that the Government has a very clear mandate, that the petitions also have a very clear mandate and indeed they could be argued to be more focused than any manifesto for any political party. Given as Rees-Mogg stated we are in extraordinary times, there needs to be new ways of doing things and indeed one cannot ignore the fact that many of the petitions are relating to much more urgent matters than appeared in the Conservative manifesto. It seems vital that Catherine and her Committee which does not include Justin are given the opportunity to reverse Rees-Moggs decision even if to do so means that they will need to focus on less than the 31+ petitions that have passed the 100,000 level. Of the 26 items listed on the current website there have been a total of over 5 million signatures and of them 19 relate to COVID-19 and so it would be tragic if the Government rejects over 60% of the petitions which represent over 85% of the signatures. Some of these would potentially give the Government new ways of operating. There is also a very sensible approach that would recognise that the petitions do far more than scrutinise the Government. They have the opportunity to propose ideas that could dramatically improve the conditions of our nation!