Parliament’s petition website is down because of a backbench committee. How is that right?

Josiah Mortimer, former Head of Communications

Posted on the 27th July 2017

Parliament’s petition site is down. If you go to the homepage today, you’ll see a notice at the top, saying this:

“We’re waiting for a new Petitions Committee. Petitions had to stop because of the recent general election. After a new Petitions Committee is set up by the House of Commons, petitions will start again.”

Elections to committees are organised by the Conservatives’ backbench group the ‘1922 Committee’. The group have decided to delay setting up any committees until Parliament is back from the summer recess. Yet with Westminster breaking on Thursday, that means September 5th at the earliest.

It seems odd that any group of MPs – whatever the party colour – can effectively block an important way of people engaging with Parliament and holding politicians to account.

The decision means no signing petitions, no starting them and no government responses (despite the government still running) for over two months – all the while the Prime Minister and her colleagues are making important decisions.

With no Parliamentary scrutiny committees up and running, citizens’ challenges to government are arguably even more important.

Given that the day-to-day running of the site is in the hands of the non-political Government Digital Service, the website should still be able to run regardless of whether Parliament is sitting or not.

In a statement, a Parliamentary spokesperson said:

“Almost all kinds of Parliamentary business cannot be carried over from one Parliament into the next – this applies not just to petitions but also to other kinds of business, such as parliamentary questions and early day motions.”

But petitions aren’t standard Parliamentary business – they are a way for non-politicians to engage with politics, outside of Parliament – it is part and parcel of a modern democracy. That shouldn’t stop just because MPs are on holiday.

Either way, it shouldn’t be down to MPs to decide if and how Parliament should operate and hold Ministers to account. With millions of signatures and several big policy wins – from delaying Donald Trump’s visit, to highlighting the need for electoral reform (over 100,000 signatures) and moving Brexit up the agenda – it is a powerful and much-needed method of political engagement in the 21st century. Without it, we lose an important tool in the democracy box.

A version of this article was first published at Left Foot Forward.

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