British Government e-Petitions – 21st century democracy?

HM Government e-Petition Site

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Warning – this post is about the processes of democracy. If this kind of stuff causes mild catatonia in you – or worse – then you should get out of this post now while you still have the chance.

So I may well now be addressing the cyber-void but hopefully there are a few of you out there who share my dark interests and that will persevere with me.

Onwards then. You may be familiar with online petitioning and even if not assuming you know what a petition is I think you can quite easily imagine what their online version involves.

Perhaps the most well-known e-petitioners currently are Avaaz whose remit and reach is global. They don’t just petition though they also campaign, fund direct actions and organize many protests online and offline.

The subject of this post is the e-Petitions site, a British site only, being the initiative of the current UK Coalition government arising from its main Conservative partner’s election manifesto. And this manifesto promise at least was kept.

When this was first introduced the opposition Labour Party opposed it saying ‘some crazy ideas could be debated’! Resists urge to say that MP’s are quite capable already of their own crazy bill propositions and implemented legislation!

In fairness to the Labour Party a similar initiative by them when they were in power and Tony Blair was the PM resulted in 50,000 signatories asking for Jeremy Clarkson to become Prime Minister – the horror! – stick to Motoring journalism Jeremy, please!

And another condition of this site that should predicate against any malcontent madness was that if a petition received over one-hundred thousand signatures it would then be debated in the House of Commons. So one would hope that even if a crazy idea was petitioned for it would not find 100,000 crazy petitioners – but then refer back to previous paragraph!

Because such a petition could then become law you have to be a British Citizen therefore to participate – whether setting up a petition or as signatory to it.

This post is not going to reflect on petitioning as a form of representative democracy, or the use of technology in our voting. Nor is this post going to consider Referenda either let alone e-Referenda – issues of interest to me but far to complex and digressive for this post.

In this post I merely want to see what the state of play is on this site – what are the issues currently exercising we Britains?

HM Government e-Petition Site

Current most popular petitions

It is not simply a matter of creating a petition on the site and it immediately appears awaiting expectant 100,000+ autographs of we the British people. It first must be checked by the relevant Government department to ensure that it is of an issue that falls within government remit along with the usual horseplay of we the people not taking these things seriously and initiating facetious and or parodic petitions, or indeed more seriously libellous or discriminatory. And indeed ensuring that something is actually being petitioned for and not just someone sounding off without aim! The other check is that it is not a duplicate of an existing petition. Though having seen the petitions I have some credulity on this latter point – many just seem variations on an existing petition.

And before I move on it should quickly be noted that some e-petitions have already met this 100K threshold and have been debated in parliament such as one for the full disclosure of documents relating to the 1989 Hillsborough disaster and another for a reduction of duty on petrol and diesel for motorists.

I am not going to offer too many thoughts about each of the petitions themselves, whether I agree with each petition or not , as many of the issues that they raise are worthy of at least a posts worth of serious discussion in themselves.

The most signed petition currently I will though share some words over as I think by its popularity it so merits this.

HM Government e-Petition Site

Preamble of Rioters to lose Benefits Petition

Perhaps it is just the pedantry of someone who enjoys writing but the immediately striking thing about the current most popular petition is that it has spelled ‘lose’ as ‘loose’ – arghh  – and has over a quarter of a million signatures despite that! Clearly this petition relates to England’s Summer riots. I am also not sure though why it restricts the loss of benefits to London rioters – rioting having taken place among many other English cities such as Birmingham and Manchester and indeed many of our smaller towns too.

This is not a petition I would sign. Most of the crimes committed during the rioting are covered by existing laws – I am always concerned when political parties in a pique of populism, usually pandering to the press too, advocate for new heavy (handed) legislation. It creates a cycle where one in order to be seen as tough – or rather not soft – proposes ever more draconian solutions. I am waiting next for someone to propose that convicted rioters should be tied to a trebuchet and catapulted into outer space!

I am also concerned at retrospective legislation – a contract is a contract – this is what we hear when a fired head of a failed bank holds onto their generous pension despite calls for it to be reduced or withdrawn altogether – think Fred Goodwin – and so it should apply to those receiving benefits too.

And then we are saying that it is not enough that someone is fined but they should have their income removed too. It being implied that all those rioting were on benefits. But a proportion were in work too – should their salary also be confiscated? I feel this proposal and the petition itself are part of the culture that sees al those on benefits as being undeserving of those benefits and on the take. Among the more extreme sections of the right wing are those too that oppose the whole idea of the welfare state.

I don’t though want to make light of our fears over the riots. A riot in place is a terrifying and unsettling event – should you find yourself in the thick of it your very life and livelihood could be at stake – naturally the responses to it are visceral and intense. And a political response to it is inevitably going to reflect that. Acts of shoplifting and arson become more than just shoplifting and arson when not individual acts but part of a collective (un) civil action of a riot. But then it is our very own PM that said the riots were about crime, pure crime and nothing else. Comforting statement to make so as not to have to reflect on the social, economic and political context that such events took place in.

So clearly I am on the other side of the fence as it were where this petitioning request is concerned. What is noticeable though is the diversity of views expressed on these petitions.

HM Government e-Petition Site

Process

For example let us consider the emotive issue of Capital Punishment which is currently outlawed in the UK. It is not a party political issue – Conservatives and Labour oppose it, Conservatives and Labour support it. Any votes regarding it have always been left to the conscience and discretion of the MP with no party line prevailing upon them. And the majority of those MP’s have opposed its restoration.

And on this issue by so doing have not taken a populist stance, because most British people when polled support the restoration. On this issue I am in the minority. I am used to having minority political opinions though but that’s another story!

These opposing camps are reflected on the e-Petitions site too. However surprisingly to me the petition calling for the ban to remain has the most signatories at 32,000 as oppose to 24,000 for those seeking its restoration.

As part of this post I thought I should sign one of these petitions by way of seeing what process was involved. And so what better to join the 32,000 and sign the petition for the ban on capital punishment to remain.

Each of the listed petitions are in fact hyper-links to further details about each petition. This particular petition not surprisingly had been assigned to the Ministry of Justice. In addition to those further details about the petition the person responsible for it is also listed – in this case a Martin Shapland. No further details are provided about him and I wonder if there should be by way of transparency and accountability?

The site also allows us to share and thus further promote the petition with three social media sites – Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn. As an aside I had one of my Facebook friends share a petition with me which was a little awkward as though I agreed with its propositions I thought it was a bit vague and did not want to get into a political spar in the public space of Facebook. I treat Facebook like a family dinner table – I will not discuss politics, religion, money and sex – I will however discuss all four of these things anywhere else and most certainly on this blog! – but I digress!

HM Government e-Petition Site - Signatory form

Signatory form

When you click that you will sign the petition you are asked for certain information such as whether you are a British citizen, your name and postal address. Additionally your Email address where you also have the option to be updated about the progress of the petition. I can understand why a postal address is needed to discourage multiple entrants from a single individual and other fraudulent misuses. Incidentally it also has a Capture Spam option – so in addition to soliciting us for Viagra and anti-virus software Spam Bots may now have an interest in campaigning for a political issue – spam bots are growing up! The final process is to wait for a confirmation Email where a link needs to be clicked on by way of confirmation. Done!

This though brings me to one of my, if not reservations about this site, then concerns, namely that has any one can set up a petition there will then be thousands of such petitions in circulation – as indeed there are and all well and good – but what causes one petition to hit a popular nerve and another to sink without trace is not necessarily the merits of the issue being petitioned but how well that issue is publicized. And the most organized in this field are already established groups and special interests with links to Parliament and the mainstream media. Additionally the popular press can easily trawl these petitions for ones that strike a chord with its interests – quite a reasonable thing for them to do don’t get me wrong – but we are still then left with a situation where it is those with most media influence calling the shots as to our political agendas.

On the other hand I don’t want to go all Noam Chomsky on you here and spiel on about the Manufacturing of Consent – and reader I could! – but it is a sobering reminder that some issues are not as popular with the public as they are with our ruling politicians and certain sections of the press. And yet because of the press-coverage we ourselves start thinking that a particular issue – let us say leave the Euro-zone! – must be on the minds and in the hearts of most British people when in many cases they are not – just a buzzing sound in our ears from all their incessant jaw-jaw! A point of view endlessly repeated does not become true because of that – alas it can become the conventional wisdom. Okay so I have gone a bit Chomsky on you!

And yes there is a petition currently popular about leaving the Euro-zone too!

Nonetheless I do not decry this initiative of the Government. In spite of my reservations I really do welcome it and will be trawling it myself too see if there are any petitions that resonate with me for me to then get behind. I may even start a petition myself – though I am betting I am not as original as I like to think I am and that anything I might want to start a petition about is already being petitioned about!

House of Lords Reform – I agree with Nick

House of Lords

Parliamentary copyright images are reproduced with the permission of Parliament

Currently there is a Lords Reform Bill going through the Houses of Parliament on the behest of Lord Steel of Aikwood, the former leader of the Liberal Democrats.

I have some queasy concerns about bills of a constitutional nature being progressed through the Houses of Parliament – as such bills by their nature will very likely be proposing changes that will effect – often negatively – the status of those existing institutions and members deciding them. Turkeys being very foolish to vote for Christmas syndrome. On the other hand I am not sure what the alternatives might be – certainly not I would think a third house to oversee the current two houses!

Both houses are comprised of members of differing and opposing political parties but few things it seems unite its two biggest protagonists, Conservative and Labour, than proposed changes to the existing parliamentary status quo.

The current Bill I am referring to is a modest one in terms of its ambition – proposing as it does changes to the Membership of the Lords – how Peers are appointed and retired.

Nick Clegg

Nick Clegg

Another Draft Bill proposed by the current leader of the Liberal Democrats Nick Clegg – and does it need to be said Deputy Prime Minister of the Liberal Democrat-Conservative Coalition Government – is far more ambitious in the changes it envisions.

But when considering changes to the House of Lords a more pertinent and fundamental question needs to be asked. Namely do we even need a second house, should the House of Lords be abolished? This really would be Turkeys voting for Christmas and explains why it is able to preserve its anachronistic set up and remit against the changing democratic times.

So could we get by with a Unicameral Legislature? Or is a Bicameral model to be preferred, better to check and sometimes restrain Government?

Only if we think the bicameral model is to be preferred should we consider proposals to reform the House of Lords.

And if we do believe we should have a second house we don’t have to re-invent the wheel as many democratic bicameral parliaments exist we could use as a template such as Sweden and New Zealand and indeed the most famous of all across the Atlantic in Washington DC, the American Houses of Congress.

So then do we need a second house? Certainly there is no point of a house that just rubber stamps the legislation of the government of the day or conversely trenchantly opposes and creates legislative gridlock. In both cases making a mockery of democracy.

Occupy Together poster

Occupy Together poster

Is it just another level of governance that could be removed saving the country money in these cash-strapped times? The Conservatives in particular are ideologically wedded to smaller government – is it a bit odd then that they are the main defendants of this second house?

The ultimate check on a government is the electorate. If a Government passes legislation that is unpopular then it is very likely to be voted out at the next election.

Parliament too provides a check – though perhaps more so if there was no Whips in operation – but that is a post for another day!

There is also an issue of how much power resides with a National Government – how much should be devolved downward and how much upwards – and this post is certainly not going to get distracted on the subject of Europe! Often it feels political parties are most interested in transferring powers to those legislatures that most mirror their own political preferences whether they are supranational or local.

But again the subject of where various legislative powers are best seated is a subject for another post.

Likewise the nature of how our Commons is elected. I do think that if we had a system of Proportional Representation such as STV this would better reflect the peoples and not current vested interests, encouraging multiple parties and viewpoints and be less vulnerable to special interest influence. And that in itself may mean that there would then be no need for a second revising house.

AV - ERS Leaflet

Electoral Reform Society – AV Leaflet

However we had that of course proposed via the Alternative Vote referendum which was defeated and it is not likely to re-appear on the constitutional agenda for many more parliamentary terms to come, alas.

Historically we have a bicameral legislature due to wanting to represent different social interests – such as the Commons and Lords! Still centuries later not an antiquated concept with this them-and-us set up still entrenched. Recently established is the Occupy Movement and We Are The 99% – but the 1% have long been with us.

If we are all in this together then there should be but one House? The main class now is the middle class – if hanging on – and do either of our current chambers represent them, let alone the working and non-working class?

The Labour Party used to be their voice but with New Labour and sole ambition to be Tory Lite, no longer.

The USA itself used to have its Houses divided on a social basis – the Senate was unelected and for the Wealthy only, as considered wiser (!), but quickly moved passed this idea to be voted by the people too. Though I am not sure how well represented the American people are nowadays – we have OWS because the American people have to choose between the Extreme Ultra Conservatism of the Republicans and the mere Ultra Conservatism of the Democrats? Both represent the elite, neither the mainstream?

I do though think there is a need for a second house, just not to represent different social interests. Rather to provide checks and balances to the government of the day.

The draft proposals for an elected House of Lords have this as a preference but will accept a 90% elected compromise. My preference is certainly for 100% elected – though I sadly understand the Realpolitik need for a 90% elected compromise too – but election by appointment in a time when Crony Capitalism is so widely described, decried, even derided, if not despised and yet still seeking to justify and promote appointments as an alternative to elective democracy seems almost perverse. The only appointments that should matter are those by the voter themselves?

House of Lords Reform Draft Bill

House of Lords Reform Draft Bill

Another aspect of these proposals is that elections are of fixed terms but longer than those of the Commons (which are currently unfixed but due to become fixed at five years) rather like the US Congress with a 3:1 ratio – only the Senate is voted on every two years and the Representative’s every six years – whereas proposed here are five years for the Commons and fifteen years for the Lords.

This I feel too is pandering to the centuries old ‘for life’ nature of the current system of patronage. On the other hand perhaps a longer term will attract a different type of politician – perhaps more independent of political parties, less concerned with preferment and advancement. It would certainly provide a brake to the Commons where we see not just with the parliamentary landslides of Thatcher and Blair but even with this present coalition and its wafer-thin majority that a Minority Government is still able to streamroll legislation through Parliament often with no indication of it in their manifesto and with no proportionality to the number of the electorate who actually voted for the party – this democratic deficit must be curtailed.

The proposals of longer terms do I think provide a better ground for a more thoughtful and revising second chamber. Allowing if you like the Commons to be responsive (or faddish) to the political times and the Lords to be less concerned of political fashions and more concerned with ensuring a more enduring legislation.

I agree also with its proposal it should be voted for by a system of Proportional Representation – the Commons still providing a local or constituency link with the First-Past-The-Post voting system, and the Lords  representing the national political makeup of the British people via a Proportional Representation voting system.

There are other proposals in this bill too relating to the size of the House of Lords and aspects of the Appointments process.

And unfashionable as it may be I do indeed agree with Nick!

West Lothian Question – and the answer is…

The West Lothian Question had been better named the West Lothian Conundrum? So long as its question remain unanswered, even unaddressed. The West Lothian question still waiting for a Westminster answer.

Tam Dalyell

Tam Dalyell

The House of Lords can process a bill through parliament at snails pace – for but one example the current Lords Reform Bill. All bills get three readings and between the second and third readings there is Committee Stage and a Report Stage. And then this same process gets repeated again in the other house! Then there is a Consideration of Amendments before Royal Ascent. And you might think the amount of time on legislation is less about ensuring it is thorough and well-thought out and more about seeing it never makes the light of day.

The aforementioned Lords Reform Bill received its second reading in the Lords on December 3 last year. And what date was set for the Committee Stage? October 21 this year – really! Even Franz Kafka would raise an incredulous eye-brow to that!

And it is hardly like Turkeys voting for Christmas – the changes to appointments of Lords envisioned in it are nothing to the more wholesale changes proposed earlier this year by our Much Unloved Deputy Prime Minister.

Franz Kafka

Kafkaesque trial…

And this stifled progress is as nothing compared with that made by the West Lothian Question.

For those of you who do not know what this question is let alone its answer, it is the situation where in effect Members of Parliament from constituencies in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland can vote on legislation effecting the constituencies of England but which same legislation has no effect in their own constituencies due to the devolved local powers of these three nations.

The West Lothian Question (and I think the question merits a capitalized Q!) is not a widely known question – much more constitutionally obscure than it ought to be and I am only aware of it myself, as aside from being a bit of a political nerd, am also a West Lothian constituent.

Nevertheless it is not just because of the powers devolved under the last Labour led British Parliaments to the Scottish Holyrood Parliament and Welsh & Northern Irish Assemblies that this question has arisen. It actually first became an issue following the Local Government (Scotland) Act 1973 – remember it?! – which had the effect of devolving some British powers to local Scottish government.

It is so called because it was raised by a West Lothian Labour Member – and the Ulster Unionist Member responding to his speech by saying ‘We have finally grasped what the Honourable Member for West Lothian is getting at. Let us call it the West Lothian Question’. And this Ulster Unionist Member was? Enoch Powell!

The issue was raised back in 1977, back when God Save The Queen by the Sex Pistols was kept off the number one spot in the year of the present Queen’s Jubilee, by the then West Lothian Member Tam Dalyell – there is not even a West Lothian political constituency any more! – having deceased in 1983 to be replaced by Livingston and Linlithgow respectively. And Tam Dalyell himself in this period became Father of the House before retiring from Parliament in 2005. Well 28 years was just too short a time to expect an answer.

Ken Clarke

Ken Clarke

Finally though a commission has been agreed to examine the West Lothian Question. And it was agreed in September of this year – again like a previous post I cannot resist to say ‘I am not making this up’!

Some of this protracted delay might be because some of the solutions would be very significant indeed such as the establishment of an English Parliament and perhaps an over-reaching British Federal Structure.

Or conversely abolishing all the devolved bodies altogether – and the latter is definitely not going to happen!

Last I heard Kenneth Clarke had set up a Democracy Taskforce (!) charged by the Prime Minister in well not exactly solving the West Lothian Question but producing a report on it. The report was completed and proposed a compromise technical solution where Scots, Welsh and Northern Irish MP’s would be involved in the first and second readings of laws pertaining to England but not the third and final reading.

I am not sure whether I think this is a reasonable solution or just another semi-pragmatic fudge.

Perhaps the West Lothian Question will be Question Resolved by the end of this current parliament? Perhaps!

China and UK £1.4 Billion Trade Deal – Just Don’t Mention Chinese Democracy

Today the British government signed a trade deal with China worth it is said £1.4bn to British businesses.

The two respective leaders David Cameron and Wen Jiabao made the expected speeches about their country benefiting from the others prosperity and ever closer relationships, if mercantile ones.

Human Rights was raised and the Chinese Premier did his usual dance ‘that things were getting better’ without giving any examples to support this. The UK Prime Minister stated that human rights were not ‘off limits’ though again it was not clear what if any issues were raised between them.

The Chinese premier said ‘On human rights, China and the UK should respect each other, respect the facts, treat each other as equals, engage in more co-operation than finger-pointing.’ Treat each other as equals – the gall!

The elephant in the room of course is that the Chinese Premier is an unelected leader. I don’t believe you can have human rights without democracy which is not to say that democracy itself guarantees a human rights paradise. But it does provide a foundation and framework, rights of appeal and transparent processes.

To expect respect for human rights from a tyrant is absurd – wherever you may rate them on the scale of malign dictator to benign autocrat.

If China was a small and impoverished nation with the same democratic framework one can but imagine the vitriol and campaigning against it. But because of its size and ever-increasing economic power our democratic leaders couch their opposition to China’s human rights violations and lack of democracy in the most asinine diplomatic language as clearly for them money matters most.

If any Country did speak out too vocally against China they would be cut off from its huge growing teat – so all is silence. Our own Prime Minister to his credit did write last year that economic development must be underscored by democratic development – but rhetoric is never enough.

Which of our Global democracies will speak out against China? Not the UK, not Europe, not the USA, no-one?