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Dear Petitions Committee

Dear Petitions Committee
(petitionscommittee@parliament.uk)

I am a great supporter of the petitions process set up by the Westminster Parliament – at least I am in principle, but in practice my enthusiasm is waning a little.

I’d like to suggest some changes to the system that, I believe, would improve its ability to command the confidence of the public (ie the voters).

First, a few words of introduction. I have started three petitions myself, all on the subject of driven grouse shooting – all passed the 10,000 signature barrier and one reached 123,077 signatures and was debated in Westminster Hall. I have also promoted petitions by others through my blog and social media. My main interest is in wildlife and environment so I have paid attention to issues which are under the remit of Defra but I often look at, and sometimes sign, petitions on other issues too. And I am aware of the petitions systems for the Scottish Parliament and Welsh Assembly. I start from a position of being interested in petitions because I am interested in democracy, so I am basically on the side of the work of your committee.

The recent response by Defra to Les Wallace’s petition ‘An independent study to find if driven grouse shooting is of economic benefit.‘ is appalling. I don’t agree with the gist of what Defra is saying but that isn’t my point: the ‘response’ doesn’t respond to the issues raised by the petition, instead it slides around the subject making inaccurate and irrelevant points none of which adds up to a proper answer. You can read my analysis of the response here on my blog.

Such a response brings the system into disrepute since those who signed the petition and caused it to pass the 10,000 signature barrier now feel as though they have received a rude and dismissive brush off from Government.

Defra is a repeat-offender in this regard. Under successive ministers (Richard Benyon, Rory Stewart and Therese Coffey) their responses have been dismissive to the point of insulting, and inaccurate to the point of mendacious. My impression, looking at the responses from other government departments, is that Defra is one of the worst offenders and I suggest that means that your committee should be worried that Defra is not being respectful to Parliament in this process.

For other examples of hopeless, inaccurate or irrelevant Defra responses see these previous analyses: Defra’s third draft on grouse shooting: wholly inadequate; The Defra response a few comments; Everyone’s talking about wildlife crime except Defra and see links in that blog to other responses.

Here is a short list of propositions for you to consider, please:

  1. When a government department responds to a petition give the proposer of the petition the right to reply on the petitions website. The response would be optional, and should be limited to the number of words used by the government department. This would allow the proposer to point out factual and/or logical errors in the government response. At the moment Government can publish any old nonsense, it seems, with no comeback.
  2. Attach the name of the minister responsible to every response. This might sharpen responses up a bit.
  3. Enable like and dislike buttons on the minister’s response and on the proposer’s response to the response (akin to Facebook). The number of these and their balance would tell both Parliament and Government what people thought of the Government response and how many people were the least bit bothered about an issue.
  4. The Petitions Committee should vet government responses before they are posted on the website simply to ensure that they are responding to the questions properly. I assume this doesn’t happen at the moment? If it does then the vetting process needs more resources. This is a Parliamentary process and Parliament should ensure that, frankly, Government isn’t just taking the piss!
  5. At the bottom of the email that you send out to supporters of any petition you state ‘The Petitions Committee will take a look at this petition and its response. They can press the government for action and gather evidence.’. Can you please tell me what that means in practice? Has the Committee ever told a government department that its response was hopeless and that they should re-do it?
  6. Please carry out a review of Defra’s responses to petitions with a view to improving the impact that petitions make on government. The least we should expect as voters is that Parliament ensures that Government responses actually respond to the issues raised.
  7. The Petitions Committee should produce an annual report on the petitions hosted and the government responses to them – and that report should comment on the technical quality of the responses.
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