Last Thursday along with around 105,000 other people I received an email from the petitions team in the UK Government and Parliament relating to a petition that I had signed some months ago. The petition was a request for the Russia report which was written by the Intelligence and Security Committee a year ago, to be published. The report was handed to the Government last October and the authors (ISC) called for it published straight away. However the Government delayed responding to it until just before the General Election and then claimed that the report needed a new ISC to be formed after the General Election before it could be published. The irony of course was that the ISC had written it so their approval seems to have been rather unnecessary. Given that there was a need for the new ISC to approve its publication, there were serious risks that if Chris Grayling had been the Chair as the Prime Minister claimed, that he would have prevented it from being published. The Government then delayed the formation of the ISC until mid July, but thankfully the ISC got a different Chairperson and the Russia report was published within a few days. However this delay prevented voters from reflecting on it before the General Election and MPs from taking it into account when they could have extended the deadline of our EU departure. Yet it is clear from the report that there were serious interferences by the Russian Government into our last few General Elections and also into the EU Referendum. This would have been known by the Government last October!
The value of petitions as a way of communicating with people and organisations can sometimes be very effective and on other occasions it can be uncertain. Inevitably they do not inspire some people, even if the theme that is being campaigned for, matters a great deal to them. In the same way certain politicians react very differently to different forms of communication. Many respond much more to hand written letters rather than pre-printed ones or even emails, even if the printed cards are sent to them by a substantial number of constituents whose name and details are included. Equally some politicians ignore almost all forms of communication unless they come in during an election period or are sent from someone they know personally. As MPs are very aware, although they are our representatives, they are not our delegates and so therefore those that choose to ignore letters, emails or the petitions can claim that they are entitled to do so because once they have been elected, they don’t need to act as delegates. Nevertheless a significant number of people here in Sussex sign a number of the UK Government and Parliament Petitions each year and occasionally MPs do pay attention to them. Arguably these petitions are a mechanism that enables people outside of the political bubbles to express their views on matters which could help Parliament to be more representative to the nation they help manage. Some of the issues may be matters that MPs are unaware of or don’t necessarily agree with, but which large numbers of people who make up our population clearly do. Unlike most other forms of communication these petitions have to go through a series of tests before they get made public and then the numbers of the signatures need to be very significant before the Government initially and then Parliament eventually need to pay attention to them.
The email I received on Thursday explained that the Petitions Committee would normally debate petitions with more than 100,000 signatures. However these debates take place in the Westminster Hall and sittings in that building were suspended in March and it has not yet been re-opened. This means that the Petitions Committee has been unable to schedule usual debates. They explained that because the issues covered by this petition have been met, they did not intend to try to schedule a future debate. However the petitions team went on to explain that “We have published the following petition (No. 332293), which you might like to sign: Order an official probe into potential Russian interference in the EU referendum” Clearly for a Parliamentary agency like this team to promote another petition is very unusual based on all of my other correspondence from them, even though there are some very clear links between these two petitions. However it seems very responsible for them to make us aware of it. The need for probes to take place into potential interference into the Government is something that many of us will agree with. One could argue that such probes will defend the Government if it is free of corruption, just as much as putting any organisational incompetence under a very strong spotlight!