Thursday, 30 December 2010

Petitions to the people

Plans set out in the Conservative manifesto at the last election to allow popular online petitions to be debated in parliament are to be put into action by the coalition government.

Under the proposals, which have yet to be approved by the House of Commons procedural committee and the Speaker John Bercow, petitions that attract more than 100,000 signatures could be debated in parliament and may even be used to form private members bills. If the plans go ahead the current e-petitions link on the Downing Street website will be moved to the Directgov site where contributions can be more closely monitored.

Labour MP Paul Flynn, a member of the commons public administration committee attacked the government’s proposals, saying on the BBC Radio 4’s Today programme that the idea seemed attractive ‘to those who haven’t seen how useless this has been when tried in other parts of the world.’

There was, he said, a risk the new petitions system would be ‘dominated by the obsessed and the fanatical’ and that it would result in ‘crazy ideas’ being put forward and parliament’s time being wasted.

He has a point, even though advocates to the scheme will point to the 1.8million people who signed an e-petition against road pricing and managed to change government policy; although it should be pointed out that the policy in question was something of a mess and the government of the day was glad to be rid of it, there is a real risk that this could become a ‘crank’s charter.’ After all a petition calling for Jeremy Clarkson to be made PM attracted 70,000 signatures, just 30,000 more and the mother of all parliaments would have had to take the proposal seriously, or at least be ridiculed over the possibility that it might.

You can see the attraction the idea must have exerted on Cameron and co when the sat down to write the party’s manifesto as a stocking filler not to be taken seriously after the election, that it has been resurrected now is surprising. Maybe it’s a sop to the Liberal Democrats, although the mess they’ve got themselves into over tuition fees mean they need to Tories as much if not more now than the Tories need them; maybe its just something that has been thrown up by the government’s enthusiasm for a ‘big society’ that grown more nebulous by the hour.

The one thing it isn’t is a useful way of empowering the voting public. At best petitions are a clumsy tool, capable of telling government what the public doesn’t like, but totally ineffective when it comes to suggesting solutions or practical alternatives. To devolve real power to the people, through councils and community groups, is to loosen the grip of central government on the purse strings.

Do you thing that’s going to happen any time soon? Me neither; perhaps we should get up a petition.


Simon Hughes, deputy leader of the Liberal Democrat Party and all round good egg has been appointed ‘advocate for access to education’ by the coalition government. His remit will be to encourage people from low income families to enter further and higher education and to travel the country explaining the government’s policies on tuition fees.

Speaking to he said ‘I will work with every person of good will to ensure that from 2011 we have the best system of advice and guidance in place, designed to ensure that disadvantaged young people increasingly gain access to further and higher education.’

I don’t doubt that curate like Mr Hughes believed every word he said; where the doubt doesn’t so much creep in a bash the door down and storm the building, is over the rational behind the appointment. A cynic would say he has been given this job to salve the troubled conscience of a Lib Dem party that has sold its principles for a mess of pottage, and most of the voting public would agree.


The government, in what passes for its infinite wisdom, plans to use cash machines and official forms to prompt us to donate money to charity. Unsurprisingly this has come from the big society’s big bag of duff ideas.

People in this country are, for the most part, generous to a fault, but they like to decide when and to whom they donate their hard earned money. The moment that process becomes associated with the wagging finger of government then their finger will invariably move to the part of the touch screen saying NO!

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