Have e-petitions increased engagement? Understanding the role that the 2015 UK Parliamentary e-petitions system plays in UK democracy today

Lead Research Organisation: University of Leeds
Department Name: Sociology & Social Policy

Abstract

There is an assumption that e-petitions increase political participation and lead to a greater number of individuals raising issues with Parliament because e-petitions are online and therefore have a low barrier to entry. This research project aims to provide evidence to investigate this assumption, and explore the extent to which the e-petitions system has equalised access to policy and decision-making. Furthermore, it aims to identify who is engaging with the e-petition system by exploring their profiles in detail and clarifying their expectations and motivations when engaging with the process. Lastly, it aims to identify what types of petitions succeed in influencing policy. As such, my research questions are: RQ1. Has the 2015 UK Parliament's e petitions system succeeded in reaching UK citizens who are disengaged with the political process, or is it only being used by individuals or interest groups who are already engaged and influential in Parliament? RQ2. What types of people are likely to (a) create, (b) sign, and (c) share UK Parliamentary e-petitions? RQ3. Can we identify and classify which e-petitions are most likely to influence policy in Westminster? Importance of researching the current UK parliamentary e-petitions system The nature of democratic engagement in the UK has changed. Turnout in general elections has been rising since its drop off in 2001, but has yet to return to 70%, which was the norm before 2000. Younger generations appear to be less likely to vote, but more likely to engage in direct democracy and activism, as demonstrated by the growth in protests and the 'Corbyn effect' in the Labour party, which has seen a huge swell in membership of 16-26 year olds. The 14th Hansard Society's Audit of Political Engagement estimates that 23% of the British public have created or signed an e-petition in the last year, making this the most popular act of political engagement after voting (Hansard Society, 2017, p42). Yet despite this huge engagement, there has been limited research in parliamentary e-petitions. It is important to understand (1) the motivations of signatories in order to understand democratic engagement in the UK today; and (2) the impact that e-petitions can have in bringing about change, legislative or otherwise. Previous and current UK parliamentary e-petition systems Parliamentary e-petitions are a formal written request appealing to parliament or government with respect to a particular cause. The current system was introduced in 2015, a collaborative Parliament-Government system (Leston-Banderia, 2016) which enables the public to submit e-petitions and suggest policy directly to Parliament or Government, rather than via their MP. Previously piloted UK e-petitions systems were heavily criticised (Hansard Society, 2012), as (1) popular petitions did not affect the agenda of government, (2) the public were being led to believe that they could impact policy, and (3) there were no resources in place or time set aside in Parliament to discuss issues raised by e-petitions. A cornerstone of the new e-petitions system is the Parliamentary Petitions Committee, which takes the lead on moderating and processing petitions: a committee member introduces successful petitions in parliamentary debates and the committee takes evidence on petition subjects of interest. The Committee was introduced to improve engagement with petitioners, so that they felt that their concerns had been heard, even if they did not achieve the exact outcome they hoped (Walker, HC Dec, 24 Feb 2015, c.250WH). Another key feature of the system is that parliamentary time is set aside every week to debate topics raised by e-petitions, and the relevant minister attends the debate and provides a government response. These debates have increased reading of the online Hansard by 300% and Parliamentary TV viewing by 900% (Petitions Committee, 2016). The final key feature of the system is that it directly engages with the public.

Publications

10 25 50

Studentship Projects

Project Reference Relationship Related To Start End Student Name
ES/P000746/1 30/09/2017 29/09/2027
2112862 Studentship ES/P000746/1 30/09/2018 29/09/2020 Bansri Valmika Buddhev